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.

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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.

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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Sea of Poppies

Sea of Poppies (Ibis Trilogy, #1)Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Sea of Poppies offers vast imaginings in stunning, historically inspired detail, forming a lacework of converging stories.

Written in a voice that lends a wonderful perspective to the early days of Empire, the book gently exposes us to some of the rationales behind the manipulation of whole cultures in the name of  the grand colonial mission.

This book is  riddled with micro texture and macro insight.

View all my reviews

Recently I added some books I have read over the last couple of years to the 'Goodreads' web site.

I'm going to try to integrate my interest in 'Goodreads' by using that format to review books, and we can then see if  it sits comfortably within this little 'phlog'..

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Dale's wonderful Scamp build

 John Welsford has certainly captured something in his diminutive Scamp. The first ones built gained a lot of exposure on the Wooden Boat Forum- particularly in response to Howard Rice's well documented exploits in one. Soon there were kits and group building programmes, and the one pictured here is Dale Simonson's excellent project to illustrate some of Scamp's appeal.

The boat has proven to be rather sporty but very sea-worthy, pugnacious in attitude and quite unusual as a design package. The off-centre board leaves the cockpit floor bigger than seems possible. The simple cuddy provides storage and shelter without becoming a cramped internal space. The pram shape allowed John to create his waterline and stability combination in a very short hull. It is small enough to build in a modest space, but has that quality about it that suggests something big and salty.

But what interests me in particular, is that some boat designs have a way of capturing the imagination, both as a thing to make and as a thing to use. If you look at Dale's Flickr pics you will see that despite being a kit, there is no shortage of challenges in the sub-structures and is still a big commitment of time and skill (we won't mention money), but some of us still seem to be compelled to shut ourselves away for months or years to create this thing. Very healthy, I think, if you can get away with it...

Anyway, since I am not in a position to build another boat at the moment, I thought I'd wax lyrical about Dale's one, which is coming along so beautifully.

Monday, May 27, 2013

my first negative post

Before you read this post from some years ago, I just want to say that it is negative and I'm a bit sad and confused that it is being looked at every week by quite a few people. The negativity doesn't sit well with me and I'm often tempted to take the post down, but the contributions in the comments by some supportive folk make me resist the urge. There are plenty of more positive things on this blog, so maybe don't spend too much time with this one.

Where do I start?
One of the reasons that I no longer want to run a business is that sometimes I feel used.

This lovely little viola is over 100 years old. A couple of years ago a muso and teacher from a very 'hands-on' musical family complained to me that her son needed a small viola, and what with fees and life and everything there was nothing around that could expand him musically in the alto clef. There was actually a longer story than that, but you get the drift. I had this viola, but it needed to be restored and set up for the first time probably since the First World War, judging by the strings and fittings on it. Now these people weren't poor, but they were local contributors and participators and I respected them, even held them in some esteem, and I wanted to be helpful in supporting the musical education of their son. So I did the works on the viola to make it useable and said they could borrow it for a couple of months while they worked out their finances, and the direction they wanted to go. I asked for no payment and just handed it over.

This was not unusual. At any given time over the last 20 years there has always been at least one instrument out there 'on loan' or being paid off over years without interest because I felt good being able to contribute. This has no doubt been the most rewarding part of the business for me. But there is this weird thing called 'the politics of charity' that is all too willing to come back to you for a bite. I won't expand on this because it is complex.

Most of the time a 'loan' gives someone a bit of support without any real cost to me, but the net result all round is positive. But sometimes I've been made to feel that life for others is so complicated that my ownership of the item is a nasty burden for the borrower and returning the goods is a challenge that the borrower is way too busy or weighed down by life to contemplate.

A couple of years after this loan was made, I rang the mother to touch base and see what her plans were, explaining that I was retiring and was running out of opportunities to sell the instrument. It turns out that the boy hadn't been playing the viola for some time, but they hadn't gotten around to returning it. That's OK. That's life, we get busy raising kids, no problem there...but could you please return it? Arrangements are made, apologies are given, the date passes by, nothing happens, a couple of months pass by and I have to be the nasty person who rings up to enquire. Note now I'm the policeman, the rule enforcer, the nasty greedy man who wants his stuff back. More apologies and a final return of the instrument.

What do I find? The case is covered in pet hair and dust inside and out, the bow has been left fully tensioned and therefore warped, the instrument is OK, although two strings are worn out. Net result? That loan has obviously cost me the opportunity to sell the viola. The real cost is not just the sale, the bow and the strings, but after 20 years of trying, I finally feel like giving up.

 It was not even worth their while to clean the case. How is it possible for me to feel dirty when I tried to be helpful?

Sunday, May 26, 2013

20 minutes south of home; autumn high tide, low crowd

Grey and a bit bracing is just the way we like it. Walk in a straight line without tripping over people. Birds are grateful for the company (so are shop assistants). Dog walkers, couples, joggers and wet-suited optimists spaced like pieces on a board.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

getting somewhere...

I've always loved the feeling of the cumulative nature of some work- what I call good work. It's easy to be motivated for a long haul if you can convince yourself that there will be a cumulative effect from the effort- and that each time you do something, the next thing will become easier and will be further along that imaginary line that represents where you want to be.

Of course this is partly an illusion, a construct, to help us feel that getting out of bed really does have some meaning, because rationally, we all have to admit that where we are getting is at some point in the future, the same place (or lack of place) and the getting out of bed is just as meaningful as the other bits.

A more constructive way of looking at this is that good work is simply an expression of a set of unrealised challenges, which, when undertaken, is capable of enriching our experience of self and others because the process is a learning one, and we are the better for it. It's even possible that others will benefit too, if only because we are easier to get along with when we have felt creative.

This is why I love tools, and making things to use, including tools. I sense in these things  (on some primitive level), that by immersing ourselves in making things and in the means of production, we become  minor expressions of the most pleasant and helpful forces that are at work in an evolving universe. But I'm quite aware that many people don't have the opportunities to feel that way, and are too busy just trying to earn enough to get by.

The other forces, the predominant ones, are the ones that are reducing us into market units; passive gullible consumers of goods created to fulfil created needs, designed to generate business. These are the hollow things, that promise wealth and well-being, but somehow don't seem to be making us any calmer or self-reliant, if only because someone, somewhere will be prepared to make them cheaper than we can.

Anyway, the new workshop has become useable, and it is a happy place to be.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

the hubris of assumptions; reservations about our attitudes on ANZAC day

This is the building that I loved most in my travels (so far),  Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It has meant different things to those under the leadership of several empires, inspired by both Christ and Mohamed, but all who stand in it feel the insubstantiality of their humanity and the ephemeral nature of their existence, because it conjures within us the scale of the spheres, and the forces beyond us.

This self-conscious manipulation of us, the common folk by the rulers and regulators, encourages an assumption that, because we have become so grand, we are right. And yet empires fade and paradigms change, and ordinary people want the same things they always did; food, shelter and safety for the children.

April 25th here is Anzac day, a day of remembrance for the soldiers from Australia and New Zealand who joined various struggles. I fear that it may become another media festival of self-congratulation and jingoism. Platitudes and simple explanations do nothing to underpin the service and loss of so many people in the past century.

These days of remembrance used to be rather sombre, quiet affairs. Most returned servicemen said very little about their experiences, except perhaps to each other as they marked another year in the absence of their friends, but in the guilty presence of the remainder who dealt as well as possible with the realities of having been the agents for all the things they had been brought up to abhor. Some families, such as mine, had nothing to do with the remembrance days, despite the family lives that were lost.

Ironically, because so little was said, generations of us grew up not really knowing much about the grisly realities faced by our forebears. Of course, a thirst for the truth followed, and history is the richer for the curiosity that poured from that.

But media and politics combined  have a bad habit of taking deeply held feelings and turning them into myths and national identities, and these breed simplistic self-congratulatory explanations that do no service at all to the dead. Along comes hubris, and the assumptions that our way is always the right way. I've seen this now in the last days of the British Empire, the Japanese Empire, the German Third Reich, The United Soviet Republic, and we are beginning to see it in the US of A. I won't live long enough to see the end of the next world power, but someone will. And along the way, millions of people will probably suffer all over again for exactly the same reasons that they always have- that exceptionalist belief  and that certitude.

I hope one day Anzac Day can again become a quiet day to reflect, remember, mourn and pay respect, without flag-waving and nation-building.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Annie gets her run

After years of regular visiting, we found ourselves for the first time at Port Fairy with a boat and with perfect sailing weather for a morning. The Port itself has a good collection of permanently berthed boats, and they are arranged artfully along the edges of the Moyne River. Access to the great Sothern Ocean and the little protected harbour is through a meandering channel. It is a very attractive stretch of coast, but it can blow very rough when it gets excited.

The waiting bays at the ramp were full of empty trailers apparently because Tuna were running and every fisherman in the Southern Hemisphere was out for the kill. Above, a local couta boat is taking a more leisurely approach to the tuna drama and was observed merely trailing a few lines for an hour or two.

One of the famous rock formations along the Great Ocean Road, these cliffs stoically resist the thrust of Earth's largest mass of water, keeping the the sea from pushing our dry continent upwards into Asia.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

evolving space

How do you go about making space for your head? My efforts so far leave me wondering how the heck I ever built a whole house. The big structure is a cinch, but the details go on for ever. My friend Dale recently surmised that this space is an adaption of the one I work from in town at present. He was so right.

I took the 'sitting bench' which houses my most fine hand tools, and measured the gap between it and the 'standing bench' upon which I lay out problems and hold them in vises while I knock the negatives out of them. This gap became the central parameter for designing the room, perhaps as you would consider designing a kitchen. The new space opens onto my machine shop, which isn't insulated or lined, but is big. It also opens onto another little space which may become a storage area, or maybe sharpening centre for tool maintenance.

The gap between the two benches also allows room for a couple of guitars and even amps, so that I can make noise without using woodworking machines. I'm having such fun learning guitar, but it is something I need to do without inflicting myself on my better half....well at least until I can say something musical.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

making things

I'm always banging on about making things, but this Easter, the making all happened in the kitchen. We love to have our adult children and their partners and off-spring stay with us over festive holidays, and particularly sharing food with them around our table. This (and the sink) is generally agreed to be the place where conversation is most rich and richly shared.

Julia has a phenomenal capacity to cater for these meals, and over the long week-end she created a series of sensational meals from piles of simple, real ingredients, and I had the pleasure of sitting at the other end of the table, meal after meal and watching as the food performed its magic. Everyone pitched in in their own way, but this was very much an orchestration of her design and labour.

I include this pic of her berry muffins, not because they were my favourite, but because they sat there steaming in such glorious colour, I couldn't resist. This is the magic of everyday creativity- the sort that stimulates the senses, the conversations and the sense of belonging that for me represents the  intense pleasure of gathered family.

It doesn't have to be wood to be good....

Saturday, March 23, 2013

lost for words

This blog has been quiet for some time, and I thought it was time to try to find some words.

Words simply fell off the keyboard for me for a few years, maybe because I had an unreasonable belief in the value of the things I was into. But I soon ran out of words and my interior world became more and more fixed to the brain cells that produced it.

January in the countryside here was hot and dry, but something in the weather and the location of our house conspired to fix in my mind the idea of winding up my violin making business, and seeing what it would be like to retire.

My little business in Geelong has given me about twenty wonderful years being paid to muck about with hand tools, and I have enjoyed a satisfying relationship with many fine clients. One particular joy has been in trying to develop a sensitivity to the chemistry that can link a young person to an instrument in such a way as to transform their playing and their motivation. Asking the right questions and sensing what type of instrument will appeal- for all the human and irrational reasons that make music such a rich and beautiful thing- and seeing the magic that happens when a young person falls in love with a hollow bit of wood is a very different experience from selling a mere consumerist object.

One of the things I will miss (and which I have probably become unconsciously dependent upon) is the regular affirmation that clients give me about my little old workshop and my collection of hand tools. It does feel good...

The picture above is of a new annexe that I am building for my tools to live in, and we will see if I can make a new life for them here where there are no clients.