Occasionally, I give people advice about not taking on too much at once. I then carry on wholeheartedly ignoring that advice to the utmost possible degree. What’s that? A manuscript assessment? I’ll have it done in a fortnight. A screenplay about rebellious teenagers in a boarding house? I’ll knock that out on my weekends. I don’t have weekends, you say? Quite right. Never mind. I’ve slept at least twice this week.
On the other hand, there’s something very reassuring about knowing how far you can push yourself without hitting the wall. Each insane overexertion gives you a fresh boost of confidence going on to the next project. I know that I can survive for several months on a sleep cycle of twelve hours on, two hours off, because I’ve done it. I know that I can hike forty-k days with a bung knee in fifty degree heat, because I’ve done that. I know I can climb some seriously big fuck-off mountains, because I’ve done that too. I know that I can produce, not just acceptable copy, but work that I’m genuinely proud of, on a two-hour train ride on the way to the airport after less than an hour’s shitty couch sleep, with the very definite deadline presented by having to board a plane.
Of course none of these are things that a bunch of other people can’t also do, but it’s nice to know that you’re someone who can.
So I wasn’t too worried by my Friday at TINA. (For those who don’t know, that’s This is Not Art, an umbrella festival that includes the National Young Writers Festival, which I was involved in. An umbrella festival, for reference, means an overarching organisation comprising several sub-festivals, not a festival devoted to umbrellas. That is a different thing. Fiesta de las Paraguas? Puede ser.) When The Book Show asked me to join a panel that same Friday morning, I accepted blithely.
It meant an early start (by my standards) after a typically TINA late night. Then a fairly involved discussion about poetry and the nature of anthologies with Geoffrey Lehmann and Johanna Featherstone on air. For many years, when my name has come up, people have thought it was Geoffrey Lehmann under discussion. I doubt the reverse happens to him, because a lot more people know who he is. The confusion is perhaps fair, though, because we’ve never been seen in the same room. And this radio link-up, with me remotely in Newcastle and him in Sydney, wouldn’t have answered any of those questions. Just a cunning ruse? The radio thing was all fine and relaxed until about halfway through, when it abruptly occurred to me that there could be a couple of hundred thousand people listening to this. I managed to keep my freakout sub-audible, and make it through to the end.
From there I went straight to a panel on getting published, where I learned I was facilitating it since the original host had been kidnapped by a budget airline. So, an hour and a half of wrangling discussion and questions. Facilitating is quite a tricky art, making sure the discussion stays on topic, everyone gets drawn into the conversation, themes don’t start repeating themselves, and so on. It’s potentially much easier when you’re pre-armed with information such as… your panellists’ names, for instance.
Then on to Would You Rather, where wits like Lawrence Leung and Chaser alumnus Dom Knight copped hypotheticals from the audience which we had to dissect. Would you rather lose the most inconvenient finger on your dominant hand, or always wear a cape? Be able to do backflips for the rest of your life, or be pen-pals with Nelson Mandela for the rest of his? Be able to talk to the animals but the animals hate you, or be able to control all the bees, but the bees are really lazy? [Post-hoc editorial: I went for the backflips based on the suspicion that the Mandela letter exchange might not be particularly long-running. Given that a day later, Twitter exploded with rumours of his demise, I’m feeling both responsible and vindicated.] Trying to keep pace with professional comedians is hard work, then as that panel finished, I had to run straight to the next venue to be only slightly late for an intense political discussion panel called Ideology and the Decibel Factor. Yes – discussion of media roles, how progressive and conservative commentary have variously adapted, who is using what techniques, and of course lots of diversions into heavy political debate. The abrupt gear shift was a tough one. By the time we were done, I was flaccid and drained as a used franger in a blackberry bush.
And this is one of those moments when the wall presents itself, so close you can trace your fingers over the gaps where the mortar has crumbled from between the bricks. There was a brief gap before supposedly hosting the Going Down Swinging launch, time enough to eat a sandwich and feel all energy bleed away like I was a leaking catheter bag of hope and potential. Didn’t know if my performers were there. Didn’t know what I was supposed to be reading. At the alleged start time there were about fifteen people in the large upstairs room at Customs House, its size only emphasising their sparse number. This was going to be a washout. I went and hid in the small conference room across the landing, drinking a beer and watching weird patterns form on the ceiling and the walls. Sleep deprivation making itself known.
For a moment, I idly toyed with throwing professionalism to the wind, running away to a distant bar or my own bed. Apparently, though, just thinking about it was all I need. The slump was abruptly ridden out. I trawled through my memory, found a couple of pieces to read. Back in the launch room, the crowd had swelled to a more reasonable size. And as I did the first piece, they started to respond. It suddenly all felt a bit more possible. The second piece felt like I was standing outside myself watching, giving critique on emphasis and timing. And as it went, more trickles of people started coming in. And more, loitering round the edges, behind pillars. We shifted them all into the centre, and Zoe Norton Lodge read, hysterically, her usual black humour and twisted wit channelled through the eyes of an angry three-year-old version of herself. More people did the creeping-in routine. Suddenly we had quorum. Lawrence Leung was out of the room when he was called, and arrived back at a run to the sound of dozens of people chanting his name. He presented a slideshow on why exactly Colin Firth and/or Mr Darcy was generally a bit shit and overrated. “Would you like to come and fish in my trout stream?” says Darcy by way of pick-up line. Later Lawrence telephones random women, speaking to them by way of pre-recorded snippets from Firth films. “I like you,” says the disembodied Firth to a confused young lady. “Who is this?” demands a gruff male voice, taking the phone. “I like you,” says Firth again.
Laura Jean Mackay professed her reluctance to follow the Leung show, then proceeded to silence the crowd with a story drawn from watching ex-pats while she lived in Cambodia: the haggling, the resentment, the inescapable sense of being out of place. It is always a joy to watch a laughing crowd be drawn down into a state of entrancement. The Tongue finished it off, calm and in control as he stepped out of his element, reciting his raps acapella for a listening book crowd instead of a drinking music one. Such an engaging performer, and a strong writer: “I never met a gangster who raps / Just rappers who act like gangsters who don’t know how to act.” They cheered for an encore – since when does that happen with poetry? He was out of puff. I did an impromptu one, unrehearsed… “The harbour will hold like the arms of your father…” and the Newcastle harbour lay right outside our window, and the eyes of the crowd held firmly on the patch of floorboards we called a stage, and it was only as the cheers went up that I noticed the room was full, people perched wherever they could find a spot, and that they’d loved every bit of what they’d seen.
There was that feeling again: the particular kind of joy that comes from putting together a good show, from seeing people leave with eyes and smiles shining, carrying a charge of energy and inspiration that they didn’t have coming in. I was buzzed up with the same charge, and the wall had long since receded from view.