On Unplugging (At Least Sometimes)

Brisbane’s last walk-in video store is about to close. I can’t say I realised one was still open, but it’s not a bad time to pause and note the transience of an industry that started from nothing only 40 years ago, became a staple of suburban life, seemed irreplaceable as recently as the turn of the century and then skidded abruptly into the ditch of obsolescence.

It’ll be put down to streaming, but it’s more than that. It’s life. Yes, we stream, and we stream plenty (I’m sounding like someone with out-of-control rhinitis, but bear with me), but there’s more going on. We’re also spending time on YouTube and other infinite sources of online content, but there’s more to it than that too. It’s the arrival of a world of apps in our pockets, all on one convenient device. When the machines rise to take over, they will come in the shape of phones in our pockets, not red-eyed terminators with carnage on their minds (or cyber equivalent of minds).

I think my brain is different now because of my phone. And there’s some evidence to say I could be right.

Yes, I still watch drama on screen, the way I once did with videos and DVDs, though now it’s typically Netflix. Lots of us do. But how are we watching? Is it the way we did a decade ago? For may of us it’s not. Because our phones are always there. Apps ping to get our attention, and we respond. Something in the show we’re watching arouses our curiosity, and do we ponder it? Do we discuss it? No, we instagoogle, because we want to know now, and we can.

Are we thinking less? Have we stopped trying to remember things?

Our phones have become ‘memory partners’ and we devote less effort to remembering. We navigate around town by phone and, next time we go to the same place, we navigate there by phone again. We don’t work it out, and we don’t learn how to get there. We’ve never studied to be London cabbies, but we all have or own version of The Knowledge in our heads – tracks through our own cities, learned in pre-digital times. But phone navigation makes us less likely to learn more.

The average American checks their smartphone 80 times a day. If the average period of use each time was three minutes, that’d be four hours a day. See how quickly your day just got eaten? But we don’t realise it. People underestimate phone use by 50%.

But what if you’re growing up now, and this is the world you’ve arrived in? I’m a writer for several reasons, but a big one, surely, is that I was often allowed to be bored while I was young. I had time for my mind to wander, and hours to fill, and I developed the capacity to create stories. I was not merely a passive recipient of someone else’s stories on screen, or a game fiend, or a social media addict. I developed a partial case of each of those things after I picked up the fundamentals of storytelling. After I’d spent years in my own head. After I’d read a lot of books (on paper, with no beeping anywhere nearby).

A couple of years ago, I read a Nielsen survey that stuck with me. It looked at Australian reading habits, and its headline message was not to worry, we were reading more than ever. But dig only slightly deeper and it was clear that the pattern of reading had changed.

Of course we’re reading more. I’m totally into your Facebook posts, checking my curated newsfeed more than twenty times a day, googling every second thought that crosses my mind. (‘Burrito’? What’s the etymology of that? Could it really be ‘little burro’, ie, ‘little mule’?? Yes, yes it is!! Thank you Wikipedia. Another fabulous factoid absorbed. A burrito apparently looks like a mini version of a mule’s saddle bag.)

But back to Nielsen. When they looked at book reading, the figures were different. As I recall it, their survey five years earlier showed 55% of Australians reading at least one book per quarter, and the new survey showed this was down to under 51%. All things considered, they thought this wasn’t bad. Let’s put that another way. If we see their question as drawing a line between readers and non-readers (or lapsed readers), a million Australians shifted from the reading category to non-reading in just five years. And surely it’s only accelerating. An that was seen as not bad. Yay for books, holding on. Almost.

As an author, that’s a nightmare. I’m the video guy standing at my counter, wondering if I should shelve that Veep box-set my last customer brought in two days ago, or just save the effort and bin it. But, ultimately, it’s not about me.

Books mean something. Books do something to your brain. And this is not a point about the vessel the book comes in. There will be no segue to olde book smell here. Books can work across platforms, if you block out other inputs. It’s about the story that takes you deep, connects, makes you see and think. Watching even great TV drama (and there’s plenty of that at the moment), particularly watching it while farting around on your phone, doesn’t work your brain the same way. Reading is a more active process at a neurological level. And there’s evidence that deep reading of character-based fiction makes us better humans. Well, it makes us more empathic, because it puts us, however briefly, into the lives of others, and I’ll take that as betterment.

So, what now? I suggest a revolution in which we all drop large rocks on our phones and live like the olden days? No way. I love this century. I love my social media, my ready access to anything, my factoids. But a little balance maybe. Some screen time over a screen life.

So, here’s my plan:
– unplug often when I don’t need to be plugged in (read a book and put the phone in another room, watch awesome Netflix drama and put the phone in another room)
– wear a watch (checking the time on your phone is a slippery slope with an app orgy at the bottom of it, and we all know it)
– think before I google
– don’t live on my phone newsfeed unless I’m running a country* and really need to know all that stuff.
– add one more app to my phone to monitor my use and check my progress (Quality Time, since it’s Android – I think the Apple equivalent is Moment)

Yesterday afternoon I went on ABC Brisbane Afternoons to talk all this through with Katherine Feeney (who admitted to a multi-screening habit herself – like me she’s all over wikipedia during The Crown). I think I agreed to go back on some time to report on my progress. So, let’s see if I can get my brain back.

And how’s yours doing, by the way? Are you managing the balancing act better than I am?

*I will never be running a country, so therefore I should not live on my phone newsfeed.

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20 Things I Wish Teenagers Knew

For the Celebrate Reading conference in Fremantle late last year, I was asked to prepare something on the topic of ‘What I Wished Teenagers Knew’. This list sort of wrote itself:

1. Try to eat food made of ingredients rather than numbers

2. Many successful people are not in the habit of making their beds

3. Be a friend to your bowel and the many organisms that live in it, and they will all be friends to you

4. Don’t panic

5. If there is such a thing as godliness, cleanliness is probably not next to it

6. Listen more than you talk

7. Don’t be too concerned about hair – as time goes by, your body will give you more where you don’t want it and less where you do

8. Monotasking is under-rated. Sometimes it’s best to concentrate on one thing and do it really well

9. Any time you’re tempted to fall for the wisdom of crowds, remember that concept started out as just one person’s idea, and remember that sometimes the crowd is a mob

10. It’s okay to kill plants. It’s fun if they live, and you get herbs and vegetables but if, year after year, every plant dies on your watch, it’s okay to accept that you’re not a plant person

11. Choose evidence over anecdote, opinion and random statements, with the exception of these random statements

12. Be nice to old people, because I am one now and you will be one eventually

13. Flossing is a real thing and dental health or lack thereof has implications

14. I have friends in their 40s who still say quin-oh-ah, and it’s okay if you do that too

15. Tattoos are no way as reversible as you think

16. Your body is okay as it is. It is a vehicle you get around in and it is well worth looking after, but it is not the best bit of you

17. There is no justification for throw cushions on beds

18. Porn is not a reliable indicator of activities that people actually want to do

19. Read because it makes more you more empathic, more knowledgeable, more intelligent, more attractive and less gullible

20. Read my books because I have a seven-year-old to feed, clothe and put through cello lessons

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Letter to the Nobel Prize Committee

Dear Nobel Prize Committee,

First, let me be clear that I’m not here to enter into the debate as to whether or not this year’s (current) recipient should have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Enough frantic typing has gone on about that one already. Besides, we know you make interesting choices sometimes, and we still think you’re great and that scoring a Nobel would be ace. Yes, there was that prospective Peace Prize for Barack Obama when he’d just scored the big job (I gather that was a bit like granting a new CEO options that only vest years hence if certain performance hurdles are met). And there was the Literature Prize for Churchill, best known word-wise for cracking oratory that didn’t really fit with the Peace Prize, zingers Dorothy Parker would have been proud to call her own and a five-volume bio about his ancestor that, had it been submitted by another author, might well have been edited back to a single fat hardback.

But enough of that. I have heard that this year’s recipient briefly put a line on his website about the award, and then removed it, and that he hasn’t returned your calls.

So, it’s time for me to come out and say something many writers (or at least several) have thought, but none has yet dared to put into words: if your preferred candidate isn’t really interested in being this year’s Nobel Laureate for Literature, it’s okay to pick me now. I WILL TAKE YOUR CALL. I WILL COME TO STOCKHOLM.

Though I might have to hire a suit. But leave that with me. Not your problem. (Appreciating the ultra-low-maintenance, yet massively enthusiastic, vibe being put out by the new potential candidate yet? Sure you are.) I do have one suit that fits, but it’s a business-type pin-stripe from the 90s that my dad gave me, and I think for your dinner the code is black tie. Or white. Either way: easy. I also have my grandfather’s tailcoat, made by Austin Reed of Regent Street in 1937, which survived numerous Med Balls (and other balls) in the 80s, but I don’t exactly fit it now as I’ve porked up a little since then or, as I like to call it, ‘broadened across the shoulders’.

Okay, so some might think you’d rank thousands of writers around the world (including many in Australia) ahead of me. This needs to be addressed. I’m probably flattering myself by saying only thousands.

But let me present my credentials:
– 26 books (yes, this writer does books – no room for debate there)
– extreme willingness to accept award, make a big deal of it, turn up at the dinner, talk up you Nobel folk pretty much forever (totally setting aside that whole ‘funded by explosives’ thing) and permanently bold the line mentioning the award on my CV
– have been compared with a total of one (1) other Nobel Prize winner for literature, that being VS Naipaul (yes, a surprise to both me and Sir Vidia, but one of us was happy to take it)
– author of one novella recently called ‘the most perfect novella in the history of the format’. Yes, I’m the one who kicked Boccaccio’s arse. And all those other arses. We’ve had 653 years of novellas, you know.
– only writer included in the Age’s 2012 list of 10 greatest living Australians (along with Shane Warne and Warwick Capper)
– 12th in a national poll for Australia’s favourite novelist in 2013.

Okay, so that was the year I whored myself most shamelessly for votes the length and breadth of this here interwebbage, and therefore my highest position achieved to date. And, yes, coming 12th could be seen to imply that there were 11 ahead of me, though several are sadly no longer with us – and therefore DQd – and who, among the others, has taken the bold step of expressing willingness?

I’m confident I’m the highest-ranked author in that poll to have contacted you and offered myself as a solution to your awkward situation. Semi-confident.

Anyway, you know where I am.


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What Counts As Beautiful Now? – Wisdom Tree #5 NoHo

I’ve had my own (limited) experiences of Hollywood and, fortunately, haven’t been required to be other than my shabby self to do it. The writer gets a lot of visual latitude.

Some days, everyone you meet there tells you they’ll make your book into a movie, while desperately scrambling to find someone else’s money to do it with. ‘I’m definitely going to make this movie. I haven’t read your book yet, but I read the entry in your publisher’s catalogue and I’m definitely going to make this movie.’ Someone actually said that to me. As a good thing.

But the actor side of it is far more interesting. What it does to you. How it makes you contort yourself. How it puts mirrors in front of you all the time, and then tells you what you see. How it tells you you’re perfect, but in this instance not quite good enough, but here’s a course/coach/photoshoot/operation that might just get you there. Families spend months, even years, chasing the dream for one of their children, when most have no prospect of it turning real. But there are success stories, against the odds, and these end up chanted with religious fervour.

A lot of us at some time or another have seen reports, even entire documentaries, looking at the child-actor ‘industry’ in Hollywood. It’s not easy to tell who’s driving it, and it often looks as if everyone has a hand on the wheel – the studios and moviemakers, casting agents, portfolio photographers, accommodation providers, coaches of all kinds, parents and the kids themselves. Some movies need child actors. It’s impossible to imagine a world in which every character is over 18 and played by someone over 18 (or not over 18, but played by someone over 18 anyway). Some parts of this industry around child actors seem supportive, some enablers of fantasies, some simply there to make a buck from people whose prospects are low and irrelevant to the buck-maker.

It’s an industry based on our need to have young characters in some stories, and our need to have those young characters played by children. Coming at it in a rush from the other end are the many, many children who want to be in the movies. Who would do anything to be in the movies. But at the same time, the movie industry is like almost no other in its capacity to hold extreme and arbitrary ideas about beauty, enforce them rigidly and judge people ruthlessly by their appearance. While simultaneously smiling, lying to them constantly and forever inflating their hopes. Everything you do is fabulous, but no one ever gives you a job.

I wanted to put an Australian family there, right in the heart of that scene. I thought I’d send them to the Oakwood Toluca Hills, since its child-actor program has produced a line of stars over years, and has been covered by TV and documentaries. Also, it seems not remotely sleazy. Sleazy would have been too easy. I wanted a place that seemed decent, and had simply identified a gap in the market that it was setting out to fill.

And I decided, not for the first time with these novellas, to have a narrator one step away from the spotlight. Cassidy is from Australia and determined to make it as an actor in Hollywood, but her brother Charlie is telling you the story. He’s eleven – a perceptive eleven, but still naive enough not to pass judgement on everything he’s telling you. That seemed like an interesting perspective, way more interesting than saying something adult and knowing and direct.

So, Charlie’s there with his wannabe-star sister, who is making all the right moves with the utmost seriousness, and with their worn-down mother. He’s shifted his life to LA, but it’s still his life – there’s school to do back in Australia, though now by Distance Ed, dislocated from his old schoolfriends. He witnesses Cassidy’s travails and resilience, without necessarily putting a name to either, and he makes some kind of LA life for himself, dumpster diving within the Oakwood complex for cans and bottles he can redeem for cash, hiking when the chance comes in the hills behind the apartment blocks. It’s an LA made up of small, odd details, and I loved the chance to see the place from his POV (Charlie’s heard enough to know that’s film talk for ‘point of view’) rather than mine, or anyone else’s desperate for a break. So we get bits of music, the Wisdom Tree trail in the patch of wild country behind the Oakwood, the birds in the trees, as well as his reporting on Cassidy.

Then Cassidy gets a call-back while Charlie’s at an art gallery in North Hollywood (the NoHo of the title) doing a school assignment, and the change of plan that follows shakes his world of small safe details and perhaps pulls a few things into sharper focus.

This family in this place seemed like a great combination to finish the series, looking at family and what we value and the fascinating skewed world in which we can find ourselves.

And then, once it was done, along came the irony of me providing work for a child actor, as the reader of the audio version of this novella. And there’s a process to make that happen. Of course there’s a process. And there should be. So the recording studio, the intended actor’s mum, Child Employment Services and I all went through the piece word for word, searching for, as one email said, ‘adult themes and curse words’. We found ‘boobs’, ‘bullshit’ and several mentions of peeing, but that was as extreme as it got, and Flynn Curry got to step up to the microphone and do a great job.

And with that, the series is done. Thanks to all of you who have come along for the ride.

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The Stories Families Tell (Or Don’t) – Wisdom Tree #4 Juneau

I grew up thinking we were the first people in our family to come to Australia, but I was wrong. At least two of my ancestors had made it here before us. While there are no other records of him having spent time in Australia, one of the few remaining photos of one of my great great great grandfathers was taken in Ballarat in the late 1870s, and his name appears in the Ballarat directory of the time as a carter.

The more intriguing story, though, is of the family member who didn’t come back. Who, according to the family story, came here in 1910 and disappeared. That was Robert Earls, a younger brother of my great grandfather. My father’s cousin, Chris, the Earls family genealogist, set out to track him down. He took this mission on just in time to talk to Robert’s much younger sister Anne about her brother. She told him she believed Robert had worked as teacher in Australia, and taught in a tent. (The Earlses were all trained teachers then – Robert, Anne, at least one more of their brothers and one more of their sisters, and both their parents, who met when teaching at the same school in the 1860s.)

Chris checked records of teachers in Australia and found nothing. He checked all kinds of records and found nothing. For decades, he drew blank after blank. Then, in 2001, New South Wales put its pre-1930 death records online. Chris searched, and found a Robert Earls in 1926. Despite NSW having plenty of Earlses to which we aren’t related (I’ve met a few of them at book signings – descendants of the Earlses of Clare or Galway), Chris requested a copy of the death certificate, just in case.

From information on it about the parents of the deceased, it was clear this was our Robert, found after decades. Dead at the age of 50 in Kenmore Mental Hospital, Mulwaree Shire.

My father got involved, and worked out Mulwaree meant Goulburn. Contact was made with NSW Health in Goulburn. After all this time, it seemed too much to hope that any records might still exist. NSW Health replied, telling Chris there were records, but they could only be made available to the next of kin and had to be picked up in person. Not easy for Chris, who lives in the US and wasn’t next of kin. But Chris knew his family tree and figured that Robert’s next of kin would be his first-born sibling, his big brother, John. And the first child of the first child of John was … my Dad, whose work was soon to take him to Canberra, an hour away from Goulburn.

So we got it all. Every detail of the mostly sad story, of a man with an illness before we knew how to treat it properly, but who met with compassion at least some of the time. And there was more than that. The family knew. My great grandfather had sent a letter, and money. Robert hadn’t disappeared. It was just that his story in the family had ended in 1910. Different times.

It got me thinking about families and the way they work. About the stories and the missing bits. And it got me thinking about the people in the 1890 Earls family photo that I’ve had hanging in the hall for years. It’s got all the grimness you’d expect of a photo from that time. People so far from cracking a smile it looks as if they’d break their faces if they tried.

I wondered if there was something there for me to write about – a lost family story from the past, that I could ‘nest’ in a story from the present. I had some details that set me up to invent a story of someone going off the rails a century or so ago, but could it give me even more if I put it into a story set in the present? If I put another story to work on it? About that same family now, and how they operate, at a disconnect of a couple of generations?

I decided the ancestor had crossed the world for a gold rush and gone unaccounted for. At the time I was planning to go to Alaska, and that seemed a great place for it. I started prepping Skagway, since I liked the name. I thought it’d be a great title. Then I discovered the cruise wasn’t going there and the story became Juneau instead. Either way, it was Alaska. It was remote, a frontier, dangerous when the ancestor in the story – the ancestor in the family photo from 1890 – went there in 1893. There were fortunes to be made, fortunes and lives to be lost.

So, he has gone there, sent one letter home, and disappeared. That’s where we’ll start. A missing ancestor, a trail picked up 120 years later.

Much of my time in Juneau was spent on a glacier, hiking and climbing. Best birthday present of my life. If you ever get the chance to do it, do it. The word ‘awesome’ is widely over-used to mean ‘acceptable’, but there were moments of awe up on that glacier, and lots of of them. The cruise became a travel article, but at the same time I was working on my lost-ancestor story.

Before and after my glacier time, I walked the streets of Juneau, taking it all in. I went to the cemetery, to the old Russian church. I wanted to feel the streets now, and sense what I could of the 1890s.

I would give my story a narrator my age, with a father close to 80. It’s the two of them in Juneau for the day. No glacier extravaganza. It’s the two of them, and the person the father has commissioned online to do ancestor research. I needed to know about the father and son, to know how to shape the story of the present around the story of the past. Their relationship’s not easy. Why is it not easy? Detail … detail … What is the ancestor story, and how does it unfold within the story of the present? More detail …

That’s the fun of it, finding those threads and making something of them, taking a story away from an old photo on a wall and a family story, and making something new that feels just as true.

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Giant Story, Medium-Sized – Wisdom Tree #3 Vancouver

A few years ago, I got into the habit of telling stories about giants to the four-year-old son of friends. I told him one and he liked it and asked for more. So I got online and found a few. Then my own son arrived and I got to use them a second time. Some of them were ancient stories – fables from all over the place, cautionary tales, adventures – but the second time around I made a few up myself.

Then I thought, what about writing a giant story? A story about a really, really tall human and – here’s the brave bit – not for kids. What about someone who’s father brings a giant home when the central character is young enough and small enough for the visitor to seem enormous, like a storybook figure?

Why would someone’s father bring a giant home? (So much of writing is about finding the questions and facing them, and occasionally they’re questions you could never expect. Questions weird enough that you sit there thinking, ‘Really? That’s the question I have to answer now? Why would someone’s father bring a giant home?’)

Because it’s the 70s, he’s made a packet in the Poseidon nickel boom and he’s been looking out for his next fabulous money spinner. And, in a bar in Brisbane, he meets a Texan who sells him the Australasian rights to American football. Part of the package is a crazily tall young quarterback with a wrecked shoulder, and the quarterback and the father travel the country trying to sign up franchisees for the individual teams.

I liked that idea, a wide-eyed young narrator living this weird life because of his father’s lucky break, being the only kid at school with a giant – an actual giant – at home.

The story of that time came pretty easily – the giant who lives under the house and who benchpresses old concrete laundry sinks but who tells the narrator giant stories and who wants to be a writer. The giant who gets bronzed for a photoshoot, who is good for one huge pass but who then needs his shoulder put back in. Plenty of ideas came along for that part of the story, but I wanted to do more.

So I thought, bring it to now. Close to now. Years pass without contact, but then my narrator and the giant are back in contact again. The giant’s a professor at a US liberal arts college and known for his microfiction. The narrator’s a writer too. Maybe those childhood stories were an influence. But something’s not right. It’s not a straightforward joyous reunion. Something else is going on. For some reason, the narrator needs the giant.

So I got to thinking: when, where, what is the reason? It’s happening in America, so I thought of my own experience as a writer in America. My big break there as a novelist, and the bizarre timing that made it go wrong. And I thought, I’m dropping him in that. I’m giving him my awesome meeting in the Flat-Iron Building in New York and the deal that came from it, and I’m giving him what happened next when it went wrong.

And I’m dropping that – moments from some of the more unsettling weeks of my life – into part two of my giant story.

How has the narrator changed? How has the giant changed? How has the world changed? It was a great chance to explore all of that. And to look at stories, and how they work their way into us, and what they can mean when the certainties of the world turn out to be way less certain than we’d hoped.

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Thirsty? Not This Century. What’s With Our Unquenchable Thirst For Bottled Water?

The soft-drink manufacturers got wise early, though I thought they were crazy. Water? How is that your next big thing? Have you not noticed taps pretty much everywhere? Plain water? In bottles? It’ll never sell. Not in countries with safe tap water. We have water already.

And now there’s an island of plastic bottles bigger than Texas wandering around the mid-Pacific. Okay, there isn’t. Not quite. No island. But there’s an awesome amount of plastic swirling around out there, and among all the billions of tiny pieces there are water bottles, and way too many of them. Whatever the shape or soup-like state of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, I could not have been more wrong about the potential market for bottled water. I would have guessed it would have been not much larger than the market for bottled air. (Bottled air, did you say? Why, yes, there’s a market for that too. Bottled Canadian and British countryside air is now selling well in Chinese cities …)

Look at the maths. At Brisbane residential prices, a cent buys you four litres of water. Entry level bottled water (own brand 24-pack supermarket water, for instance) comes in at a mere 188 times that. Buy the story of snow-capped peaks and pristine streams and it’s not hard to spend 2000 times what you’d pay for water from a tap.

When I was young (cue squeaky rocking chair), water was only consumed when combined with cordial, that perfect mix of sugar, artificial colouring and artificial flavouring. And when you outgrew cordial, if you drank water, it came from a tap. And if there wasn’t a tap, well, you waited until there was one. During which time you might get a little bit thirsty. In the developed world in the 21st century, mild transient thirst is practically a human rights violation.

There must always be water! On any table set up for a press conference or writers’ festival session: water. At any meeting: water. On any five-minute plane flight: water. Every child is pursued by a water bearer. Everyone who is momentarily between mouthfuls of water must have water available, just in case. A car is now a transport vehicle for humans and their water. I know ours is. At least I re-use the bottles.

It’s not that I’m against hydration, but it is all right – even survivable – to be more that five minutes away from your next fluid. Supermodel Wisdom tells us all our luminescence is owed to drinking eight glasses of water a day. Supermodel Wisdom also tells us there’s something sexy about transparent skin and once you get past your anger to your mother, you will begin to excel at volleyball. Being a supermodel in no way precludes genius, but the eight glasses thing is not typically advanced by supermodels with relevant science quals. So, where does it come from?

In 1945, the US Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council analysed the American diet and determined that that was a typical and functional amount taken in by Americans each day, in liquid form and also in food. Somehow that got skim-read, all the water in food got forgotten about and this morphed into a mandated eight glasses of water a day.

Now, don’t go thinking I don’t drink water. That I’m a wizened desiccated husk peeing kidney stones, bitter that I didn’t invest in water futures long ago. I do drink water, but I don’t count it as I go because life’s way too short and I don’t panic if my mouth is momentarily dry.

How about we ease up a little? How about we get over the idea that every human in countries with totally safe tap water has to carry water everywhere?

Alternatively, can I interest you in a litre or two of my eau de Brisbane? Water fallen on the semi-wild slopes of the nearby hinterland, filtered through nature’s own gravel (and, um, other things), and piped lovingly to my humble rustic cottage in the inner suburbs for bottling …

I’ll even draw you a picture of a frosty peak with a stream running from it, if you’d like a label.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared on Huffington Post Australia.)

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