violin making workshop

Monday, May 4, 2015

I was so lucky as a kid. Some thoughts on friendships lost...

Is it coincidence that I've just found a group of primary school friends from the early 1960's- all of whom I haven't seen or heard from in the intervening decades, at the very time that we have a house and shed almost entirely packed up to move to the other side of the state?

It has caused me to allow some introspection on my relationship with friends, and I think what I'm learning is that even as a small boy I formed attachments based upon specific areas of curiosity. I'm looking at a picture of my grade five group from 1963.

There is Graeme, with whom I had such creative fun writing outrageous plays,  and making language into a recreational tool. I think we loved ideas, but we didn't know that then. We also shared an interest in certain types of cars. Then there is Jeffrey, whom I sat next to in class and visited on weekends. We drew incessantly- but each for an entirely different purpose. I loved to represent things, especially if the drawings could show things working. He loved to draw things to understand how they were put together. We filled pad after pad of drawings, always sharing output. He seemed to groove on my mechanical interests and I lapped up his obsession with human biology. No surprise I ended up in art school and he ended up a brain surgeon. Can't help feeling his creativity did a lot more good than mine ever could. There is another whole story in that friendship which showed me aspects of the post-war world that I never could have seen without someone like him...

Then there were Graham and Wayne who I liked to play cricket with. G was a very good batsman, W was a good bowler as I recall...I was never brilliant with a ball, maybe because of my other interests.

There was Jon who used to be a great mate to make tree houses with, and we made exploding volcanoes in sandpits, and billy carts with so many extra specifications that they rolled over with the weight of them, as well as more mundane ones that simply went very fast. With Geoffrey the following couple of years it was Meccano- we became mini engineers.

Neville and I used to scour the area for miles collecting scrap hession, copper, lead or anything we could sell to the person who would now be called a recycler. We also built things. Made model planes. Flew them in parks far and wide, and sometimes high!

Then there was Lee, and we shared an interest in the mysteries of oil paint, colour and form. Oh and David; we worked out how to make roller-skate wheels into skateboards (he had the wheels and I could shape a plank)...and go very fast down hills before they were even called skateboards.

There were others, but you get my drift. For every interest, there was a friend to experiment with and to see what we could find out.

 I was so lucky, and yet I look back and none of these pairings overlapped, each was an entity in itself, a one-on-one exploration of something, and each of those somethings are things that still interest me in one way or another. Then we all went to different secondary schools and became focussed on Important Things on a proper curriculum. But when I finished tertiary study, I think I went back to just being curious, but without the pairings....with a wonderful family instead.

Creative pairings became very difficult as the depth I sought in things became more insistent. It is no accident that the people who made the re-discovery of my early years of schooling possible were female. I hate to generalise, but I'm married to one of those and I've learnt that they often seem to have a capacity for connection to a group that I have always lacked.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A cruisey piece in the key of D


I felt a bit hollow, talking about my struggles to begin learning an instrument at a late age, and being too timid to share anything that I've done. Most of the things that I spend time learning are to give me the skills to learn the next thing, and there never seems to be much to show for it, but I am aware that the fingers are working more independently, and my brain has altered somewhat....and while I still have no illusions about playing in a way that is as good as the playing that I like to listen to, there is progress and I am really enjoying my daily sessions.

This live link above is one of the few pieces that I made a recording of, and it is unrehearsed, based on a piece by Brian Sherrill, the backing track is by him and my lead  is improvised over that. I did it over six months ago, but since then I have slipped back to learning skills rather than playing pieces. I share it very hesitantly, not putting it forward to be admired but rather just as evidence that learning new stuff late in life is worth doing- keeping the old brain from being too comfortable with what it already knows, and stepping out every day into the world of scary, un-doable things simply because it is a blast to be challenged and found a bit lacking

It is played on my Gibson 335 and recorded through my computer amplifier set up and an 'i-rig' link between computer and guitar. I find the sounds more limiting than my trusty fender Blues Junior amplifier, but it is great to be able to work at a desk with headphones.

The piece at the top is a slideshow, while the lower link is for anyone wanting to listen on Soundcloud

Monday, April 13, 2015

Metung, East Gippsland

Above, Lake King. Below, Bancroft Bay

Below, from the jetty at what will become our local Pub....

Monday, April 6, 2015

Sharing Pics; A million hits

It has been amazing to see the on-going use of the pics I have uploaded to Flickr. When I began building boats it was quite a recent thing- to share images- and I was fortunate enough to spend many hours gleaning ideas, inspiration and techniques from generous people all over the world.

So during my builds it seemed like a sensible thing to annotate some pictures and share them. The albums have remained mostly unchanged since then, but this week it gave me an unreasonable amount of pleasure to see the total views of these albums go beyond one million hits.

The two most popular albums are of two very different boats, The Waller 540, a speedy, modern sloop, and the Navigator, a traditional looking planing hull with wooden spars. It is quite interesting that often if there has been a lot of interest in one boat on a given day, the following day someone else will be looking at the other boat.

Over the years now I have had some great contact from a selection of these builders, and have had some further input into their project. Occasionally they send pictures of their efforts and I have really enjoyed that, and the thought that by collaborating within a network of interested people, sharing skills freely and with no financial reward we are fostering creativity and personal growth internationally.

In this time of internet everything, one million hits is nothing to get excited about, but for me, given how particular this interest is, and how unusual it is in the modern world for people to build small wooden boats, it remains evidence that in a greedy, sometimes corrupt and sometimes angry dangerous world there is some goodness, freely shared.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Some details of Beachcomber

We'll include some more details about Beachcomber here, bearing in mind that she is still a long way from us and we only had one photo session so far. The upper pic shows white beech decking, Merbau combing and belaying pins, oregon mast (of incredibly fine grain).

Sitting at the helm is a delight. The restorer, Fred Herbert made wonderful use of his skills as well as those of some of the most talented local lakes shipwrights in detailing the project. The timber has not had its annual attention this year and is beginning to look a bit tired. I will try to protect it without removing too much of the patina.

 The boat was locally built somewhere between 1860 and 1870 to be the supply boat for an isolated station (big farm) on Whale Head. The maker was probably English and believed to be named Tierney. The design of the boat owes absolutely nothing to local traditions as it pre-dates the typical Gippsland fishing boats designed for the Lakes and other 'Couta Boat' styles which generally were developed later for deeper water elsewhere in Victoria. Fred has some wonderful details of her history, even photos of the boat in the 1940's, when it had already been called Beachcomber for seventy-odd years.

The counter stern has the effect of emphasising the curve of the sheer line. She is very sweet from all angles.

She does have a 10hp Yanmar diesel on board, supported by twin batteries. The centre plate is of boilerplate iron encapsulated in epoxy. The hull timbers are the original New Zealand Kauri boards, except for the sheerstrake which was new Kauri in 1992. She was re-ribbed in local Eucalyptus hardwood at the same time. Doryman, I confess that although there is a hand powered bilge pump, there is also an auto electric one that discharges into the CB well.

She draws about two and a half feet and is twenty-four feet on deck. The blocks are all hand made and all fittings are either copper, galvanised or bronze including the standing rigging (galvanised and possibly in need of replacement) The running rigging is all natural fibre too, and I'm not sure that I'll be able to maintain this level of purity! The gaff jaws have only ever been lubricated with real tallow. In addition to the penny placed under the mast, there are silver coins of the realm on every wooden block, but don't tell the Queen.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

introducing 'Beachcomber'

I would like to introduce Beachcomber to both my remaining readers. At this point she is about half ours (although she is so old we regard ourselves as custodians rather than owners), as we tidy up the details of registration and insurance.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Moves Afoot....

 After a wonderful camping trip on 'Chrissy Shand' (the Waller 540) by one of our sons and a friend, the boat looked so lovely all washed and sparkly, just like new. They 'saw in' the New Year on her in Corio Bay near the Royal Geelong Yacht Club, cruising at will under the fireworks till the very wee hours of the morning. The boat was home to them for nearly a week and came back cleaner than she had been for a while.

But I have to report that this boat will be on it's way north tomorrow to a new owner near Noosa, Queensland. Paul has bought her after years of sailing all sorts of boats, and I'm very pleased that she will be with an owner who knows her story and has seen her building progress online. The reason I have sold her is related to our own imminent move.

 While the white boat was away I treated 'Annie' (the Navigator) to a tart up, including all spars with lots of lovely varnish, and she looks well enough for a move too.

We have decided to relocate from the Surf Coast to a little village on the Gippsland Lakes, and our house there has a mooring at the bottom of the garden which we hope will allow us to be more regular and more relaxed boat users, and I hope to report next week that we will have an exciting new member of the family of the wooden, floatable type.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

on trying to make music

Well, I said that I'd try to say something useful about the idea of learning guitar later in life, and I've struggled to put this together. I know that at 59, when I started out, I tried to find some wisdom on the web from people who had been through all this and there was precious little to be found.

 Actually, I was more enlightened by research work into neuroplasticity in general than by stories of the struggles of old fingers on shiny strings.

So let's accept the premise that the ageing brain can be taught to develop new skills, and that this has a number of benefits in keeping the mind from becoming as grey and foggy as is normal with modern living in the material world. I'm rather hoping to delay the onset of apathy, soft, flabby ineffectiveness and self-obsession. I haven't quite given up the idea that I might actually contribute in some way, but having given it my best shot so far, I'm prepared to put some energy into the sheer beauty of music, while also becoming challenged by a new set of problems.

 And talking of problems, one of mine is that I get bored very easily if I make things that no longer challenge me- I need to struggle a bit to feel really whole. Yeah, well you can scoff, but this just happens to be my  neurosis and I'm sticking with it. I say this because my first advice to anyone wishing to enrich their life would be to make something that is a bit difficult. So making music is making something, it just (unusually for me) does't involve shaping wood.

The guitar is a complex piece of kit, and the trick for a late starter is to know which things you don't need to know in order to play the way you'd like to. I stumbled over that one because I love so many types of music, and I wanted more than anything simply to develop some MUSICALITY- and that was always going to involve a bit of theory.

It took a couple of years to realise that I needed a foundational amount of skill and theory in quite a few areas, but I was probably going to enjoy lead rather than rhythm (because I mainly play alone), blues rather than jazz (because that bar is just too high at the moment), or rock, or classical, or pop; preferring slow rather than fast, and mainly electric because I love 'bent' sounds with variable texture. It has therefore taken me a couple of years to work out that what is right for me at the moment is 'slow blues'...with the ultimate aim of becoming more involved in some of the complexities of jazz (and more subtle textures) as it becomes possible, to extend the musicality thing if the brain will allow it.

Here's the thing.

Non musical people think that when you have 'learnt to play' an instrument, you can just go ahead and play it. Like learning it is that thing you do in nine lessons before you actually just go out and DO it.

I have a brilliant friend who is a world-class organist. He told me about a particular Bach piece that he played at a cathedral after a service, when most people were leaving (...but anyone who knew him never left their seats because he is the kind of organist who gets standing ovations after performances like this). Anyway he blitzed them, and afterwards a man came up to him and complimented him on the piece. He thanked the man, saying that he had practised the piece for three weeks to get it right. The man then said; "Oh, I thought you knew how to play the organ"...

That's not how it works.

Nor is the story of the guy who tells you that he has been playing the guitar for four years and he still can't finish the first song. He just hasn't found a structure that enables progress, or maybe he hasn't thought it was worth the effort to work harder.

It takes an unwholesomely big commitment and a lot of endless repetition to gain any competence. You cannot buy those hours of just turning up and working. There is no way to avoid the time it takes to become loose, relaxed and confident- and even then, at my age there is no guarantee you'll make a sound that anyone wants to listen to. So for me, the goal has to be the acquisition of knowledge and the mastery of the hands, not the entertainment of people.

And the thing I like about the blues is that I'm not just learning someone else's song. I'm learning to speak a language that I can make into my song.

Friday, December 6, 2013


I've always been uncomfortable with the idea of human 'stars'- the heroes that we worship as compliant populations looking up to winners and high achievers. It always seemed hollow to me to worship an ideal personified in a media-prepared persona, when every one of us can be a hero simply  by being decent and generous, and doing something more than simply acting out of self-interest. Partly, if I'm honest, this view is probably born out of feelings of inadequacy in the face of some issues, and my total impotence in making any meaningful difference in my own life of work, but I guess I'm not alone in that.

Beyond all that complicated stuff there were a couple of people who I believe made a real difference in ways that mattered to me, and now they are all dead. Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King were my only real heroes, but I struggle not to include John Lennon in that group for a bunch of more complicated, less humanitarian and more cultural reasons.

All were incomplete people by some measures, and all had their limitations, but all of them were able to take their abilities and press into the world a view that brought a measure of dignity to us all. All but Lennon came from the 'wrong' side of the colonial world view.

My most treasured memory of school is my year twelve Social Studies and Australian History teacher from the late 1960's, Vince D'Cruz, a man of colour who grew up in South Africa. He introduced to us (a bunch of privileged white kids), a view of the world in which humanity knew no colour, and in which a post-colonial world seemed possible and desirable. He helped us understand that our Western view of the world was not the only way to move forward, and he told us a few home truths about living as an outsider in a world that held so tightly to the narrow view that we were used to.

In a sense, he remains a real hero to me because I knew him, and I felt the benefit of his perspective and his teaching. But he also introduced our cohort to the personalities that I now regard as the transformative ones of the last century, and I have felt more whole all my adult life because of his fine teaching. So I was blessed early with a love for Gandhi's passive resistance to oppression, to King's inspirational big-picture dream of fellowship amongst peoples, and later, Mandela's supreme capacity to move beyond retribution and punishment in facing his people's oppression.

None of the attributes that I value in these people have anything to do with the acquisition of wealth or power.

I wonder who can stand up to fill this latest void? Big shoes indeed.


I have been somewhat puzzled by the number of hits this post has been getting over the last month -it is about 6000- and at least 100 hits per day. (now, in Sept, the total is more than 12,000) I would be very glad to hear from anyone who can explain the sudden interest in it. I am, of course, imagining a very determined child with a compulsive desire to keep hitting the page load button.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The narrow road to the deep north

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was a wonderful read, reaching me on so many levels. The author allows the unfolding of a readable narrative while also touching upon so many ideas, issues and struggles that defy the conventional Western understandings of meaning, time and reality.

It is a war story in one sense, but someone looking just for that will be frustrated with the civilian contexts, and these are the keys to understanding survival and the  emotional aftermath of a huge experience. The history here is at the level of the personal, but it is complex and nuanced, avoiding stereotyping at every turn.

It is a love story in a sense too, but someone looking for liberation through romance will also be disappointed because the hero is flawed and is incapable of being all that is expected of him, and his struggle is poignantly and agonisingly revealed within the events that became his destiny and his emotional  disassembly.

Underpinning all of this is a brilliant expression of how such a profoundly subtle and sensitive culture could be capable of such brutality, and on the other hand  how it was possible that brutality became a prison for the for the captors and captives alike. Guilt is put under an intense spotlight and found to be much more complex and fluid than a population could possibly have coped with until now that this generation has begun to digest and comprehend the psychological damage done to their parents, grandparents and uncles.

The prose is pared back, spare and shockingly moving at times. There are whole paragraphs that seemed to me to explode off the page as multilayered thoughts, blindingly simple but also alive with references to the great ideas of the past, linking art, philosophy and folk lore.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

blackwood harp

It was a pleasure, once again, to  make a small contribution to the Colac Otway Wood Design Exhibition at Colac Performing Arts Centre recently. The family that own the harp featured in this blog some time ago kindly allowed me to borrow it back for the display. It was great to see it again, still in very good order after more than a year of daily playing.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Smoky Cape Lighthouse, New South Wales

A seascape is never just a seascape. I love edges in nature, they are particularly productive places but also often the best places to see an interplay of light, atmosphere and surface.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

confessions of a quiet blogger

 OK I feel guilty.
This blog earned the attention of some regular readers because it chronicled the making of some interesting stuff. Some of these readers, I know, check in from time to time hoping that I have some project- preferably related to boat building or sailing-something anyway to give them a creative fix because they are stuck in an office somewhere or because maybe one day I'll make that thing that they always wanted to make, but can only dream about  because of present, pressing circumstances.

Or maybe my hopeless restlessness rang a chord in them somehow, or maybe the TV is just too boring.

But since I retired I've tried to give myself some time and space just to recover from a twenty year business trip, and my creative energy is pretty much taken by my very late attempts to learn a bit of guitar. I always said that one of the attractions of this is that being really, totally rubbish at something at my time of life is very healthy for the ego. If you work hard in life you generally find a bit of respect somewhere from something that you've done, and it is easy just to keep doing the thing that creates the respect. That's normal.

But learning something really hard is a wonderful way of reinventing the ageing brain; creating a few feral synapses and putting a life's work in perspective.

I haven't written about these things because I feel like a fraud. You check into the Middlething and you expect the writer to say something that makes some kind of sense. No-one wants to hear about some old guy struggling with music theory and fingers that have their own theories about how a chord ought to be shaped.

It has been a couple of years now, and I have to report that I'll need quite a few more to do anything worthwhile. I'm taking lessons and working quite hard at things but there is no escaping the fact that this is a whole new discipline- a new language and it needs a new vocabulary of the mind and hands.

I love what my hands have done for me. But I'm asking them to do a totally new bunch of things now, and they aren't always grateful.  I look at them, and I think of all the cast-iron, rock-solid excuses I've had since I was a kid, as to why I couldn't or shouldn't learn an instrument, and they no longer wash.

It is a really beautiful thing to aspire to and leaving it so late is an inconvenience, but I know I'll feel more relaxed about my life if I continue to reject the excuses and just knuckle down.

I feel positively embarrassed that I didn't do this fifty years ago. I love music so much, and I've spent so much time with musical people, but I only ever understood it from the craftsman's point of view, not the musicians.

 I'm mature enough now to accept that the attempt will be enough, if I persist. I don't harbour any illusions about becoming competent or performing or getting respect from this. But I will  increase my musicality, I will understand the nature of music better, and I do love the process of training my brain in a new way.

 The nature of learning is wonderful in itself to ponder. The processes that I need to go through in order to learn a piece are mind-boggling when I consider how much I could do with a piece of wood or a word processor in the same amount of time. And it is quite interesting that I feel that way, because I am becoming more than slightly aware of the limits of time and the finite nature of possibility as I age.

Monday, September 2, 2013

not sailing Lake Colac

For years I had hoped to sail Lake Colac. It is the biggest body of water inland from home, and inland sailing has its own special feeling.

We have had lunches overlooking this lake since the 1970's, but it wasn't until I started to build a sailing boat that the lake began to dry up.

Over years of drought it finally became a paddock, a field, a grassy plain. The local sailing club take their boats to a smaller, more distant volcanic lake for their races.

In the time since it disappeared I've even built a second boat, and over the last year or two the lake has started to fill again, but I still lie in wait for solid Spring rains to bring the edge of the water up to the level of the launching ramps and jetties.

Once again, it looks tantalising, but there is no room yet for a centre-board.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Hemingway's life with Hadley. The pitfalls of being larger-than-life

The Paris WifeThe Paris Wife by Paula McLain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Hemingway/Stein /Fitzgerald generation of American expatriate writers seems to be ready for reexamination by a new generation of readers as we approach 90 odd years of lapsed time since they brought expansive New World eyes to the turmoil of the European inter-war period.

This is a difficult book to evaluate as it occupies that subtle margin that jostles between historical fact and fictional interpretation. The Hemingway story is well documented in other books by the characters themselves, but the author is attempting to add texture to the relationships concerned by giving Hemingway a form as observed by his first wife, the one who supported him through the early years of his career, before he became a living symbol for the larger-than-life American.

The prose is very approachable and the story unfolds gently through a sympathetic but honest narrative.

The big issues that beset H and his ilk loom in the background of an everyday love story that is ultimately brought down by an ego that could not resist pushing at every edge, and testing every parameter of safety, to experience that which lies behind and beyond. These issues of mortality and meaning are the ones most likely to be revisited by the current generation of readers and thinkers as they begin again to question  materialism as it spins out to the emptiness of post-modernist gestures, cliches and pastiches.

View all my reviews