DWRF: Catherine Chidgey, with Emma Neale

Each time the Writers & Readers Festival comes to town, the Dunedin autumn becomes clear, still and nuanced. Catherine Chidgey sat on stage this Sunday afternoon and embodied the qualities of the season.

cv_the_wish_child_nzThe festival audience was treated to an articulate conversation between Chidgey and Emma Neale, herself a poised speaker and talented writer. The word and thought chemistry between the two speakers was significant, and it enabled a depth of response from Chidgey on such topics as the tug of Germany, the novelist’s craft and the thirteen-year gestation of her new novel, The Wish Child.

Neale began with an autobiography of Chidgey the writer, and a description of her particular talents. This was an excellent way to bring the audience into the circle of conversation. Chidgey then read a long passage from The Wish Child; this drew the listeners in closer still, and provided context for the ongoing discussion (as well as convincing anyone sensible that this was a book to buy and read in its entirety).

The scene that was read was laden with sensual, often visceral detail ‘…the glittering callipers above his skull…’ ‘…the bees huddled in their hives… and the geese hung by their necks…’ and foreshadowing ‘German boys should be brave… should know that some things had to die’; this combination of delicate detail and exaggerated description is deliberate on the part of Chidgey, and a feature of her best writing. There are echoes of Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum here. The effect is a sense of constant unease for the reader, a feeling that death lives inside ripe matter. This style of writing, of perceiving is entirely appropriate to the subject of the novel: Nazi Germany and its aftermath, a time when bizarre, exaggerated things happened and became part of daily life.

berlin-1816944_960_720.jpgDuring the course of a very swift hour, with fingers fluttering in a Lynchian sort of way, Chidgey laid out the processes involved in writing The Wish Child: her connection to Germany based on time spent there as a shy high school student from Lower Hutt, then on a scholarship in Berlin not long after the fall of the wall, being affected by the visible history in a city still divided. She spoke of the balance to be found between writing and researching, so that the latter doesn’t dominate unduly yet is given the opportunity to shape the narrative. She spoke of the scope of this novel being larger than any she had written previously, of how life events intervene, of how writing Facebook posts about cats had distracted her at times… cue knowing laughter from the audience. Now she works two jobs and has a toddler, so 6am has become the time to write, which has not been a bad thing, ‘as the internal censor does not yet seem to be on!’

When Emma Neale closed the session with the question, ‘And what next?’ Chidgey was able to allude to two projects in progress, which was reassuring; from a selfish point of view, it is good to think that after The Wish Child there will be more from the still, clear, nuanced mind of a fine, fine writer.

Attended and reviewed by Aaron Blaker on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Ed’s note: Catherine Chidgey’s The Wish Child (VUP) and Emma Neale’s Billy Bird (are both up for the Acorn Foundation Literary Award at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards on Tuesday evening. You can see Chidgey at various events during the Auckland Writers Festival. You can similarly, see Neale at the Auckland Writers Festival next week.

The Wish Child
by Catherine Chidgey
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560622

Billy Bird
by Emma Neale
Published by Vintage NZ
ISBN 9780143770053

DWRF 2017: Flying Nun at The Cook

It was the best of pubs, it was the worst of pubs.

In his memoir In Love With these Times: My Life With Flying Nun Records, Roger Shepherd says of the Cook: ‘It was a terrible dive. Some remember it fondly, but mostly what I remember is the incredibly sticky bar top.’

cap cook.jpg
Image copyright Fairfax NZ, by Hamish McNeilly 

Back at the refurbished Cook, more than three decades after the period being described, Shepherd last night sat down with music writer and aficionado Grant Smithies to chew the fat about his memories of founding and maintaining independent record label Flying Nun. It was a low fi affair: Shepherd and Smithies sat on black chairs under a naked bulb toward the back of the stage; the audience hung back, hands in pockets or clutching a beer like it was a gig, awaiting The Verlaines perhaps or maybe The Clean. It had been like that getting in too: a line down the street waiting for the doors to open, Graeme Downes prowling around with a cigarette, fans breathing steam and exchanging opinions disguised as facts. There was one major difference, clear in the light thrown by the beer fridges: the audience members were all of a certain age and they were all well dressed. The audience of 1987 was literally here again in 2017, nodding, sometimes guffawing, listening quietly as Shepherd and Smithies reminisced.

Then it really was a gig. Verlaines front man Downes was suddenly behind the microphone in his trademark suit and scarf and pointy shoes, untamed hair, a thin legged poet with a mighty voice. Then that was over too, curtailed by a broken guitar string, also a trademark ‘If I had a dollar for every string…’ Downes muttered, and lay his instrument down to join Shepherd, Smithies, Robert Scott, Francisca Griffin and Roy Colbert at the back of the stage for another casual conversation.

roger_shepherd_H_0217.771aacee3b08a3f7e168fb9d9f399eeeRoger Shepherd, photo from article with Steve Bell on themusic.com.au.

Aside from former owner of iconic Dunedin secondhand store Records Records, Roy Colbert (once named in the Otago Daily Times as the seventeenth most influential citizen in Dunedin), the speakers were all musicians in bands championed by Flying Nun through the eighties. They offered a range of anecdotes about this golden age of New Zealand music. Francisca Griffin, formerly known as Kathy Bull, lamented how every interviewer always wanted to know what it was like to be in her all female band Look Blue Go Purple; Shepherd dismissed the easy label ‘Dunedin sound’ that had been given to Flying Nun bands – ‘They all sounded completely different!’.

Bob Scott, bassist for The Clean and The Bats amongst other bands, remembered the casual violence outside and after gigs, involving the bodgees vs the scarfies or in one case police officers seemingly practising their baton techniques in preparation for the Springbok tour protestors; Downes spoke of the competition between bands, how someone or other was always raising the bar; Colbert recalled a shipment of The Clean album sleeves arriving devoid of actual records, ‘the kind of thing that happened sometimes with Flying Nun’.

As discussion again gave way to performance, as Griffin, Scott and Downes played solo sets, the festival audience settled into pub crowd mode, yakking and making their own connections. Snippets could be overheard: ‘Didn’t you used to flat next door to us in Cumberland Street?’ ‘You were the manager of Radio One for a time weren’t you?’ ‘Did you see them at The Oriental in ‘86?’

in love with these timesAnd as the crowd dispersed, propelled down the stairs, out into the starry night, it seemed that the value of the night lay in the rekindling of these conversations, in the warmth of a remembered and shared time. For this, there is good reason to thank Roger Shepherd and the flock of Flying Nun bands, good reason to thank the Readers and Writers Festival for bringing them back together, good reason to be in love with these times.

Attended and reviewed by Aaron Blaker on behalf of Booksellers NZ

In Love With these Times: My Life With Flying Nun Records
by Roger Shepherd
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781775540892

Book Review: Sport 44: New Zealand New Writing 2016, edited by Fergus Barrowman

cv_sport_44Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

Sport
is an annual publication that anthologises fiction, essays and poetry in one volume. The criteria for selection, with this volume as evidence, is a certain high standard of technical ability allied with a capacity for formal experimentation that doesn’t draw attention away from the progression of ideas and images.

Sport 44 is populated with the work of writers ranging from high-profile (Manhire, Knox and Stead) to well-known in the field of literature (Wallace, Dukes and Tiso) to well-regarded in a variety of cultural contexts (Bollinger, Wilkins and O’Brien). Regardless of the names of the writers, the writing has one key element in common: quality. And the book itself has an aesthetic appeal, with its textured paper and austere cover design. It may not stretch things too far to suggest that just as Sport the publication provides a space for new writing, the physical object provides a series of spacious pages in which words, sentences and stanzas can float or declare themselves without fear of overcrowding. Has it always been thus, or has the digital era, with its emphasis on filling spaces with data or colour, highlighted through counterpoint this wondrous effect of black ink on white paper?

Regardless of the answer to that question, the focus here is quite clearly the words and their cargo of ideas and symbol, emerging from the empty space. In Sport 44, there is valuable freight on every page, but there are several pieces that may especially catch the eye of the reader.

Tusiata Avia’s poem I cannot write a poem about Gaza, in which the poet tells herself why she can’t write such a poem, is in her words ‘like a missile plotted on a computer screen’… that will… ‘enter the top of my head and implode me.’ By the time she comes to the end of her list of reasons (she will be called anti-Semitic, it’s too complicated for a non-PhD to talk about, she will upset her Israeli friends in Tel Aviv, her fury and grief will explode but this pales beside the fury and grief of her Palestinian friends), the hopelessness and seeming insolubility has entered the top of the reader’s head also.

Breton Dukes, who has seen the light and moved to Dunedin, contributes an excerpt from a novel he is working on — Long White Cloud. This short piece, with its customary Dukes wit, astute characterisation, and analysis of the uneasy relationships that sometimes define New Zealand society, is a prompt to hunt down the novel once it is published. Dukes is a real talent, as is Craig Gamble, who also has a novel in progress; this excerpt, taken from The Society of the Air, is a shimmering molecule of fluid language.

The essay section provides many excellent examples of how nonfiction writing can make effective use of the devices and principles often associated with fiction writing, such as disrupted chronology, reincorporation, metaphor and subjective revelation. The truth of the subject matter is made doubly resonant, and at the very, very least we learn something we might not have otherwise known. Nick Bollinger’s piece The Union Hall casts light on the genesis of his career-forming obsession with music and musicians; in the piece While you’re about it contemplate werewolves, the speculative and inclusive genius of Sara and Elizabeth Knox is revealed in a transcribed Skype conversation; and Emma Gilkison, in An Uncovered Heart, charts the repercussions of a diagnosis of ectopia cordis, a condition whereby the foetal heart grows outside the body. In her tender and painful essay, the writer probes the literal and figurative enigma of the human heart.

In unison, the writers of Sport 44 aim at the head and heart. It is the best kind of writing, it is the best kind of book.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Sport 44: New Zealand New Writing 2016
Edited by Fergus Barrowman with Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young
Published by Fergus Barrowman
ISBN 9770133789004-44

Essays about Death: Diana Athill’s Alive Alive Oh! & Oliver Sacks’ Gratitude

 

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

Recently I made a trip to Tauranga to spend some time with my grandfather, who was born in 1917. Nearing ninety-nine, nonetheless capable in body and mind, he moved about his apartment making cups of tea, talking about the war and the reality of the approaching end of his life. I returned to Dunedin but the theme continued; waiting quietly in the mailbox were two books, both slim, both hardcover, both dealing with memory and death.

cv_alive_alive_ohAlso born in 1917, Diana Athill has in recent years made an art form of the memoir. In 2009, Athill won the Costa Biography Award for Somewhere Toward the End. This gives you some idea of the quality of her writing and subject matter. Alive, Alive Oh! is her seventh such book, but the reader needn’t worry that she might be running out of material. Ninety-eight years of life gives a writer plenty to render, and Athill’s prose is as sharp as her memory and perception; too, she has lived a remarkable life, as an editor alongside Andre Deutsch and as a woman during a century in a society which tried its best to prescribe a woman’s life.

This memoir describes, with humour, clarity and honesty, Athill’s unconventional relationships, the history behind her childlessness and “lack of wifeliness”, and her abhorrence of “romanticism and possessiveness, which can be dangerous, and in conjunction with sexuality even lethal”. It also focuses on the joy and richness to be found in life, even and especially as the end of one’s own time draws near. The book’s final chapter is a poem, entitled ‘What Is’, and it seems to sum up the tenor and quality of Athill’s perspective on life. It concludes with the lines, “Look! / Why want anything more marvellous / than what is.” Dead right.

cv_gratitudeA similar vein of lucid, often joyful reflection runs through the four essays written by Oliver Sacks, which together constitute Gratitude. Described by the New York Times as “the poet laureate of medicine,” Sacks is likely to be well-known to readers for his many books detailing the conditions and predicaments of the patients he encountered in his work as a neurologist, such books as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Awakenings, which was subsequently made into a film.

Like Athill, Sacks had something of an expectation-defying life and career. He came from a Jewish family, but at a young age distanced himself from a religion that would not tolerate his sexual orientation; he experimented prodigiously with hallucinogenic drugs, which he credits with paving the way to insights about the brain and mind that may otherwise have remained obscured from him; and with his capacity for compassionate enquiry, he is said to have captured the medical and human drama of illness more honestly and eloquently than perhaps any other writer.

Oliver Sacks died in August 2015 at the age of eighty-two. During the last few months of his life, he wrote this set of essays in which he explored his feelings about completing a life and about coming to terms with his own death. In his short essays (one could read them all over a pot of English Breakfast) he approaches these themes with a combination of directness and allusion. He writes of the elements of the periodic table, samples of which he had among his possessions, adding to them as his years advanced – gold for 79, mercury for 80, thallium for 81, and as a souvenir of his 82nd and final birthday, lead. By aligning his life and thoughts with these elements, which he describes as “emblems of eternity,” Sacks manages to reconcile himself. And in his final essay, ‘Sabbath,’ completed and published a few weeks before his death, Sacks returns to the paradigm of his boyhood, and while doing so finds the parallels — “the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

The book ends, a life not long after. So there is a sensation for the reader of loss, but one leavened with a sense that the writer (and the human being inside the writer) lived long and well. In the face of death, which could be described as the central crisis of human life, Oliver Sacks wrote that his predominant feeling was one of gratitude, for having loved and having been loved, for having been “a sentient being, a thinking animal on this beautiful planet.” The same attitude is described by Diana Athill. It is a mature approach to life, to death, and though such sanguinity is easier read than done, readers might lay down these two slim volumes and reflect on their own lives and inevitable deaths.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter
by Diana Athill
Published by Granta
ISBN 9781783782543

Gratitude
by Oliver Sacks
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781509822805

Book Review: Eye in the Sky: A Drone Above New Zealand, by Grant Sheehan

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_eye_in_the_skyDrones. They’ve got a bad name. Drones invade our privacy. Drones bomb by remote control. Drones are bees without personality. Drones are boring. And drones are becoming ubiquitous.

Grant Sheehan has a different angle on the situation. Sheehan has put an eye in the sky and used it for artistic purposes, finding out how New Zealand looks from ten feet above ground level, from 400 feet above, from anywhere in between. The visual question this book asks is: Does photography from a flying quad-copter camera, or unmanned aerial vehicle (AKA drone), reveal anything new? In a country that has inspired a thousand books of panoramic photography, does elevation add to the viewing experience?

Elevation, Sheehan writes, transforms the image by making visible what was not visible at ground level; it enhances the context of the subject in its environment; and particularly at the beginning or end of a day, it adds long shadows that strengthens composition and highlights texture. The aesthetic proof can be found in the photos. The most interesting are those that reveal shapes, patterns and shadows that perhaps you wouldn’t make out otherwise. The cover photo of the Australian Memorial at Pukeahu National War Memorial in Wellington is the foremost example. Viewed from the vertical angle at 25.30 metres (Sheehan gives distance as well as latitude and longitude coordinates for each photo), the memorial becomes something else altogether, a piece of abstract art.

Some things work better than others. A list of the most compelling images might give some idea of successful subject material: the temporary fields of remembrance installation at Wellington’s Botanic Garden; kayakers on Porirua harbour; the Ratana church at Raetihi; Inferno Crater at Waimangu Volcanic Valley; Ruapekapeka Pa earthworks; and all decaying shipwrecks.

kayakers_porirua

Kayakers on Porirua Harbour,  copyright Grant Sheehan

For me though, despite the beauty and revelation of many of the images, it is Sheehan’s discussion of ‘Drone Etiquette’ and ‘Future Drone’ that captures the attention. With users of drones (and other small unmanned craft) now requiring flight plans to be lodged with CAA and the permission of private and public landholders, rules have tightened up to the extent that model aircraft fliers have been hit hard — Sheehan suggests that common sense should prevail here. He also points out that people’s fear about the use of the drones for spying should be tempered by the realisation that modern digital cameras, CCTV and location-tracking smart phones are still a much bigger threat to our individual privacy.

As for the future of drones, Sheehan gives examples of two near-future applications: Amazon book-delivery drone, and household mail/small courier package delivery. Right now, the capacity for ‘object avoidance’ is being developed, as are protected GPS systems that can’t be hijacked or redirected, resistance to electronic or magnetic interference, and the ability to deal with random occurrences, recover and carry on with the mission. Sheehan speculates that “the enthusiasm for working drones will be driven by the huge cost savings to delivery companies, to agriculture users… and policing and traffic management.” In the near future, Sheehan believes, we will see automated drones everywhere — “they will become a familiar sight in the streets and suburbs of our cities.”

In his book that captures for the sake of beauty the geology and architecture of New Zealand, it is the verbalised vision of the future of drones, and by association the future of humans, that makes the most impact.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Eye in the Sky: A Drone Above New Zealand
Photography and Introduction by Grant Sheehan
Published by Phantom House
ISBN 9780994128508

Book Review: Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-fiction 2016, edited by Susanna Andrew & Jolisa Gracewood

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tell_you_what_2015In his foreword to Tell You What, John Campbell is keen to engage the reader in a discussion about what might constitute ‘New Zealand culture’ these days. He starts out by quoting Allen Curnow: ‘Not I, some child, born in a marvelous year,/ Will learn the trick of standing upright here.’ Campbell goes on to list the ways and individuals in which identity and culture have developed and found expression in the years since Curnow wrote those lines in 1943: the Springbok tour, Bastion Point, frigates in Mururoa, Whina Cooper’s hikoi, Bill Manhire’s poetry, Janet Frame, Flying Nun, Marilyn Waring…

What Campbell is referring to is a two-faceted shift in the way that New Zealanders represent themselves. The first is that many of the people of Aotearoa do now stand conspicuously upright, in many locations, for many reasons — in anger, in celebration, in dissent, in assertion of the need for something better. And linked to this, making it all visible, is the emergent confidence, talent and stridency of our storytellers. There are multitudinous voices, pluralistic points-of-view! And to the great good fortune of the reading public, particularly for those of us who still prefer to read paper books, the second annual instalment of Tell You What has arrived just in time to stave off the despair at contemporary reportage that might, to paraphrase Campbell, have readers climbing into the oven beside the turkey.

So what is going on in New Zealand, for New Zealanders, for New Zealand writers? Judging by this collection, heaps. There are twenty-four pieces, if you count the foreword (which you should, because Campbell is a marvellous writer). There are personal and political accounts from Christchurch, China, Huntly, Frankfurt and the front lines of journalism. There is a lot of humour, which has me thinking that we might be quite a funny people, sometimes. It would be curious to see how much of the humour (Steve Braunias’ satire, Megan Dunn’s surrealism) would translate culturally. If Jermaine and Bret can be known worldwide just by their first names, perhaps the New Zealand sense of humour does cross cultures.

Within the uniformly excellent ranks (there are no weak links in the volume) there are a half dozen prices of writing that particularly resonated with me, either through the subject matter or the style of writing, and usually both combined. Charles Anderson’s account of the sinking of Easy Rider off Bluff combines journalism with a poetic sensitivity. It is a sad, sad story, made all the more harrowing and haunting through being nonfiction.

Braunias writes of his failure to respond adequately when a faulty heater almost sends his house, his daughter and his whole life up in flames. Braunias, like David Sedaris, has the ability to paint failure and weakness in a funny and sad light. His self-absorption rarely crosses over into self-indulgence.

Dunn’s ‘The Ballad of Western Barbie’ begins with an epigram: ‘Two things happen in Huntly: something and nothing. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which.’ Her narration of life in Huntly, as perceived when young and then as a well-traveled adult, is enlivened by conversations with her Western Barbie. It sounds odd from a distance, but it works.

Ross Nepia Himona has thought and written an unhyped analysis of the complexities and contradictions inherent in New Zealand’s ANZAC commemorations. In a piece taken from his blog ‘Lecretia’s Choice’, Matt Vickers offers us a head-and-heart dispatch from the front line. And Sylvan Thomson’s portrait is a funny and tender insider’s tale of how it is to make the physical, social and psychological transition from young woman to young man.

As mentioned earlier, the quality of the collection is even. The overall effect for the reader is a sort of mental and emotional relief, a confirmation that something human and intelligent is consistently being expressed and deciphered in New Zealand. In an era of persistent media and political distortion of life big and small, writing like this offers counterpoint and advice: Don’t simplify complex matters, and don’t complexify simple matters.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2016
Edited by Susanna Andrew & Jolisa Gracewood
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408442

The Art of Free Travel: A Frugal Family Adventure, by Patrick Jones and Meg Ulman

cv_the_art_of_free_travelAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I walked through the south of Spain. Partly inspired by the English writer Laurie Lee and his account of the period he spent in the 1930’s walking through Spain, I spent a month or two walking along agricultural roads or on the gravelled shoulders of highways. Once I had overcome my fear of wild dogs and malevolent people (the former I learned to avoid, the latter never materialised- Spanish society has a soft spot for pilgrims), I experienced a certain blissful freedom: in the words of Lee, I grew fat with time. With this in mind, you could understand how The Art of Free Travel, the book as well as the ethos at its core, would in my case be a seed dropped on fertile ground.

In November 2013′ 2013, Patrick Jones, Meg Ulman, their toddler, Woody, eleven/twelve year old Zephyr and Zero the Jack Russell (hereafter collectively known as ‘The Artist as Family’ or TAAF) left New South Wales on touring bicycles. They returned in January 2015, having covered 9000 kilometres of Australian territory, mainly along the east coast, inland at times. Daylesford to Cape York return, for the most part on homicidally busy highways. Jones rode a tandem with Zephyr behind and Zero out front; Ulman had Woody in a bike-seat out back (total combined weight: >300kg). They primarily ‘stealth-camped’ ie. pitched their tents in non-official sites, beside rivers, the sea, in reserves and parks, near the main road when desperate. With limited cargo space, carried food was kept to a minimum. Foraging for ‘bush-tucker’ (walked- or biked-for wild food) was integral and successful; the book closes with a 256 item list of the free foods and medicines located and used along the way. The art of free travel and a frugal family adventure? In actual fact, yes.

travel_by-bikeAt this point, you could be forgiven for exclaiming “Why would you do this, with (to!) a toddler and a pre-teen?! It’s hard at the very least, outright dangerous at worst. Have ye no sanity, no sense of responsibility?!” And you would not be alone. The authors asked themselves these questions, waking sweating in the night in the weeks before they set out: “We were sure we were going to kill our kids on these totally unsuitable roads for bicycles. It was madness. Jesus! I could never forgive myself if they were killed. We spent our last nights in our emptied-out house… feeling a mix of dreadful foreboding and restless excitement.” Readers will recognise this train of thought; I experience it every time my family goes on a road trip, even in the relative security of a car.

Describing how his family became car-free in the first place, Patrick Jones writes:

“I was too often cooped up in a metal bubble on four wheels, technologically brilliant but ecologically stupid. I resented flashing past environments rich in intricate life that could only be experienced and better understood by going slow. I didn’t want conditioned air, I didn’t want radio heads, I didn’t want speed and glass and oil wars.”

Meg Ulman’s explanation of their developing desire to shed routine and have a family adventure provides further insight:

“…Camping, the lack of boundary between inside and outside, how brave it feels to sleep under the stars in summer and crawl into the womb of a tent when it’s cold. I love how intrepid I always feel with my head-torch on… no floors to sweep, no cleaning toothpaste spray from the bathroom mirror, no wiping dried milk from the stovetop… we felt suffocated by routine and more than ready to untie ourselves.”

Readers will be familiar too with these longings and aversions. New Zealanders tend to respond according to circumstance and personality: a camping trip to Golden Bay, a week on the Central Otago Rail Trail, perhaps a trip to Bali… but what propels the Artist as Family out the door and onto their bicycles for over a year? Big ideas and Big ideals, accompanied by saddlebags full of capability, fueled by serious willpower. The activism that lies at the heart of The Art of Free Travel will likely have readers shifting in our seats as we consider the choices we make, our willingness often to submit to comfortable numbness, and our complicity in cultural, economic and environmental unjustness. The action of living your ideals, and steering in the opposite direction to the norm, is guaranteed to cause friction, both within a group and in external encounters.

AaFnewbanner2015This is exactly what occurs, as TAAF rubs up against not only landowners and taxpayers, the law, traffic on the Bruce Highway, dehydration and aggressive fauna (there is something truly Homeric about the guaranteed appearance of wild dogs in this sort of journey), but also against its own constituent parts. There are arguments, negotiations, complex dynamics, tears and realised fears. The trip is not a lark; Jones and Ulman don’t beat around the bush. They both write excellently, from the heart and head, about the pain and joy of the ongoing adventure but also about issues important to them: raising children, the abuse of indigenous rights, and the degradation of Australia’s environment. The details of emotion, place, character and dialogue are finely observed; the whole epic shebang is shaped into a coherent whole, with credit also due to the editors at at NewSouth.

Breathing fresh air, eating fresh food and having a lot of good fun can be done to a greater or lesser extent in a variety of ways, but it’s hard to imagine a more comprehensive way than that chosen as a way of life by TAAF. And coming back to that fraction too much friction that was a companion to the family adventure: perhaps, as is sometimes the case, this friction contributed to the creation of the pearl that was the adventure, which became the pearl that is The Art of Free Travel.

*The artwork and writing of Patrick Jones, Meg Ulman and TAAF, as well as details of their current book-promoting bicycle-tour, can be found at permapoesis.blogspot.com and theartistasfamily.blogspot.com

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

The Art of Free Travel: A Frugal Family Adventure
by Patrick Jones and Meg Ulman
NewSouth Publishing
ISBN 9781742234434