jessie cole


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Making Sense of the Darkness

Writing fiction is the most mysterious process. It is easy to believe when you read a story in a book – the finished product – that the writer has constructed everything in a kind of conscious clever way. (If the book is working!). But it has never been like that for me.

I wrote Darkness on the Edge of Town four years ago, and when I read it now I am staggered by how it seems to run so smoothly – as though it was plotted and conceived – as though I had planned all those things I wanted to say. In fact, the process was nothing like that.

I had written a manuscript before Darkness on the Edge, a piece of fictionalised autobiography reflecting on what had been a particularly traumatic adolescence. During that time I had come to use writing to digest the parts of my experience that were difficult or unmanageable. It had become a tool for me, a way I’d developed to communicate with myself. In a sense, it had become a habit. I didn’t think of myself as a writer, and I didn’t think of the writing as a product. I saw it largely as some kind of outward, graspable expression of my inner self, as though I could hand over that first MS to a stranger and say – ‘This is where I’ve been. This is who I am.’

After I’d written that autobiographical story I was very peaceful. I had spoken the unspeakable and – metaphorically, at least – breached that gap between myself and the outside world. I wondered about publication, and made a few attempts to share my writing beyond my family, but deep down I felt the work was completed, even without a wider audience. It was out of me, and that was enough. I was free and light; unencumbered by the past. My story was on the page and not hanging heavily about my neck. I don’t think I believed I had another story in me.

But life isn’t like that, is it? A couple of years later I experienced a constellation of events that left me reeling. A short relationship with a man that was so dazzlingly confusing I was floored, and at the same time, a close friend’s baby slowly died. The two events combined seemed to break something open inside me, revealing a world of potential suffering I had stealthily kept out of view. While my friend nursed her dying baby with a warrior courage, I crumbled, as though the very ground I was standing on was suddenly giving way. And in that time Darkness on the Edge of Town was born.

The story came to me in one powerful strike. It hit me like a whack on the back of the head, the voices so strong and clear all I had to do was find the time to write them down. I didn’t think at all about what I was saying – about the deeper thematic meaning of the text – I was simply compelled by the characters and the situation they found themselves in. Four years on I can look at my work and see that I was grappling with the transience of life. That I was wondering about power relations and love, about kindness and abuse – and about how these things entwine. That I was trying to understand what responsibility we have for each other as fellow human beings, and perhaps especially what responsibility we have for those who are most fragile amongst us. But at the time I had very little awareness of these things, they sat somewhere in the periphery of my vision, always just out of reach.

On the shelves!!

Trying to make sense of how Darkness could come to light in such an intuitive way still leaves me a little confounded. And on top of that it is now a book! Something that others can read. Something that you might read. And I would like to be able to sit here and say – ‘yes, well, I had been thinking about things deeply and decided to construct a tale in which to share my thoughts …’ but this simply was not so. In truth, I was blindsided by a story that sprung with unexpected force from some invisible place inside me and now I’m sharing it with you.

And I hope – if you read it – you enjoy it. I hope that you will see that even though sometimes the terrain of Darkness on the Edge of Town is tough, at its heart there is a tenderness. There is love and there is kindness. There is the intimacy that is created when one person holds out their hand to another.

And sometimes, this is enough.

The Wake

In the dark years, engulfed in a black mania, Lily’s father murdered her cat. Lily and Joe left their two pets behind when they fled the house with their mother, and their father ranted and raved, once ringing them up, wild with fury.

‘You take everything and leave me with the fucking cats!’

He made a mound of all the things they’d left behind. Discarded exercise books, old ragged t-shirts, their mother’s basket of furry knitting wool, and a dusty pile of New Internationalist magazines that he had always despised. He stamped across the orchard to find the kerosene. Tipping the pungent liquid haphazardly on the pile, he leant down and struck a match. Exploding in his face, the fire burned him all the way up his outstretched arm and along his livid, mottled cheeks. For weeks afterward the peeling skin hung from him like a grotesque parody of the living dead, and Lily and Joe were frightened by even a furtive glance at his face.

When Lily’s mother, Alice, didn’t return to pick up their cats, old and finicky creatures, her father taped them inside a cardboard box and took them down to the waterhole. Lily’s father thought to drown them like kittens, but the box would not sink, and the cats frantically clawed their way out. Enraged beyond control, all his plans rebounding, he waded out and drowned her cat by hand. Joe’s cat escaped, skinny and shocked, and swum away to the rock to hide in the lantana. Her father did not have the heart to hunt out the escaped cat amongst the spiky undergrowth. He felt a sickness begin to swell inside him, crawled up the bank and retched, and then stumbled up the forest steps to ring his children, to tell them what he’d done.

Lily stood on the other end of the phone-line, stunned and quiet, and then hung up. The next day, her father dropped Joe’s cat at their yellow house by the sea, and it raced inside and sat, with wild eyes, upon the kitchen table, licking its paws with a kind of quiet madness. Her father didn’t come inside; he stood on the doorstop and yelled to Lily. He pointed at the livid scratches on the length of his forearm where the now-dead cat had fought him from beneath the water, and his burnt skin peeled and flapped in the breeze.

A few days later her father sent her a letter in the post.

Dear Lily,                       

Society and Culture Question 1.

(multiple choice)


Supposing you lived at Gulargambong, 300kms from the nearest vet at Dubbo, and your special 12-year-old cat was ill i.e. started vomiting nearly every night, and losing hair, and shitting in the corners of the house, what would you do.

(Circle one answer)

  1. Put up with it.
  2. Drive 20kms and let it go feral.
  3. Hit it on the head with an axe.
  4. Get your neighbour’s wild dog to tear it apart.
  5. Drown it in dam. (Remember, this question’s worth 5%.)
  6. Drive 300kms to vet for treatment or euthanasia (remember, a 12-year-old cat = 90-year-old human).
  7. Put poison in its food.
  8. Spray it with deadly poison.
  9. Nurse it until it dies (slowly). (Assumption is you have no gun.)
  10. Give it extra special care by taking it to bed and letting it vomit in your bed instead of lounges.
  11. Give it to a friendly neighbour, or your children who love cats, and would love to nurse a dying cat.

Question 2. (10 marks)

  1. Do the Chinese eat cats and tortoises, and if so, is there a difference between this practice and Australians eating lambs, calves, rabbits, crabs, lobsters, fish or kangaroos?
  2. Have you ever seen a baby lamb?
  3. Why were the Japanese so small in size for so long?

Dad xx   (Good luck in your exam).

         Lily read it and then put it in a box at the back of her wardrobe, hoping to forget it, while Joe’s crazy-eyed cat went on endlessly licking its paws. This cat lived for seven more years, five more than her father. Rickety and strange, Lily glimpsed something frightening and familiar in its wild, maddened gaze.

Before her father’s death Lily hadn’t been home for a year. Turning into that shadowy driveway on the day before her father’s wake was like travelling through the back roads of memories so ingrained as to be almost mythic, and nothing, nothing had changed. Every lazy tree folding against the car, every white pebble squashed deep within the dirt, remained the same. Even the grey Wonga pigeons that wobbled unhurried along the roadside, continued unmarked and untouched.

Lily and Joe and their mother had come early to clean up the house before the gathering. When they arrived, Lily shielded her darkened eyes against the blinding brightness of the sun. Walking about the garden, she slid uneasy fingers against the prickly walls, gently caressing the palm fronds and Birdsnest ferns that poked onto the walkway. The stillness was strangely comforting, as though a peace that had been missing through the dark years had settled about the place.

‘It’s so bright.’


‘It was him then, it was him all the time.’


‘He was the darkness. It was him.’

It struck Lily that this was so. Her father who had battled the garden for years, who had battled the enormous trees and her mother’s heart to bring in the light, had been battling a darkness that came from within. This darkness, that had gripped its fingers about him, had blackened the whole house, leaving it smudgy and cold and filled with shadows. And they had battled it too, never really believing its source, never really trusting that a man’s heart could colour their whole world. And now he was dead. A quiet fell upon Lily, Alice and Joe, and they wandered about, aimless and unsure. Where to begin in a dead man’s home?

         Their home.

Lily’s throat knotted with the emptiness of it, the word – dead – sitting like shiny droplets of mercury on her tongue. And later when the house filled with people come to help, the talk turned to practicalities.

‘What music are you going to play?’

‘I don’t know. Haven’t thought.’

‘I know a good song. You want to hear it?’



‘If you want to put it on.’

‘Okay, I’ll put it on. It’s great. It really reminds me of your Dad.’

The soppy tones of the unfamiliar song pierced the hushed peace of the house until Lily felt that the glass in the long sliding doors might crack. But still she said nothing.

At the wake Lily was dry-eyed and fierce. Anger shimmered within her, and she bit her lips, unable to speak. Cleaned and freshened, the house filled with people and they spilled from the doors into the gardens. The day was bright and beautiful, hot and green. Almost everyone she had ever known was there. Her cousin who she’d not seen in years, teachers from the school she no longer attended, her father’s colleagues and cronies and lovers and friends.

The familiarity of every face stung her, and Lily felt herself curl inwards, away from their sliding glances. She was on show, the grieving daughter, the grieving family.

‘It’s so awful. I’m so sorry.’


‘Lil… I don’t know what to say.’

Mostly they didn’t speak. They looked at Lily, and when she caught their eyes they looked away, guiltily, mournfully, and she felt herself the cause of sorrow. All these faces from the past. The presence of so many only seemed to emphasise his palpable absence – and theirs – the lonely darkness that had surrounded him for the six years before now. It was all she could do to restrain herself from standing on a chair and yelling.

         Where have you all been?

And when they did speak it was worse. In their absence Lily had grown, she was eighteen and not a child, and they grappled hopelessly with words that would sound right.

‘You’ve changed so much. Last time I saw you, Lil, you were this high.’

A man spoke, his hand hovering unsteadily in the air beside his hip, his smile spread tightly across his teeth.

‘Yeah, I’m at uni now.’

‘Are you enjoying it?’

‘It’s okay. Well, it has been. So far.’

Finally Lily retreated to her parent’s bedroom, cool and soothing, searching for a tiny fragment of time alone, a moment to think of him and calm her fury. But she was not alone. On her parent’s big solid bed lay another quiet mourner, her father’s colleague. Tears trickled slowly from her eyes.

‘What’s wrong?’ Lily asked, and the sentence lay absurdly between them, stretching out and taking shape.

‘I just miss him, that’s all.’

Lily stood a while, torn between leaving, or lying down too and surrendering to tears. ‘Do you want me to get you a glass of water?’she whispered at last.

‘No. No, I’m alright.’

Standing a little longer, Lily watched the woman cry, and then turned and walked from the room into the green, dazzling world outside. There was no space where she could go, and Lily felt all eyes upon her until she could bear it no more and hung her head, watching her feet as she walked.

Later, when sufficient alcohol had been consumed, another of her father’s friends insisted on taking Lily into the garden.

‘It all looks so familiar, Lil. Like I’ve never been away.’

It was dark, and she cringed with trepidation at the secrets he might try and tell her now that he was drunk, and he had her alone.

‘Your dad… Fuck. He wrote me so many crazy letters.’

Lily hung back, waiting, dreading the new information that she did not doubt he intended to impart. So many secrets she had heard in the last few days, so many whispered horrors.

‘He swallowed nails, you know, once. He wrote me. And shattered glass.’

He pulled her along, and Lily stumbled a little on the uneven ground.

‘Come on. I want to show you something.’

Lily followed him, unwillingly, until finally he stopped.

‘Look. Look out there. What do you see?’

She looked, peering into the darkness. He pointed toward a densely bushed embankment in the expanse of the night, and finally Lily saw what he wanted her to. There, in the distance, were two luminescent spots.

‘Mmm… Some type of glowing mushroom?’

Perplexed by the urgency of the excursion, Lily held herself stiffly against the onslaught of more furtive uttering. She was wary, but the man was silent, staring at the two spots. He tugged again on her arm.

‘No, look. Look. It’s him.’


‘It’s his eyes. He’s here. He’s watching us.’

Glancing longingly towards the house, Lily thought of her bed and sleep. She began to walk inside, leaving the man swaying uncertainly in the dark.

Lily and Joe buried their father’s ashes in the garden, overlooking the orchid and the black bamboo. They tramped through the trees, their faces like masks. The ground was damp and the red soil stained the hem of Lily’s blue silk dress. Kneeling, she felt the fine fabric give way at the shoulders, the dress falling apart at the seams. Fraying and muddy, Lily banged the heavy dirt into the hole that they had dug, covering the fine grey ash with vehemence.

            Stay there. Just stay there.

But everyday her father seemed to seep out, creeping about below and infecting Lily’s thoughts. The dirt did not contain him, and he spread with the roots of the trees until there was no place left that her father was not.



Lilli's picture of roots

The Wake was first published in Kill Your Darlings, Issue 8, January 2012.




jessie.x.cole (at) gmail (dot) com

Varuna Second Book Fellowship


Jessie has been awarded a Varuna Second Book Fellowship for the new novel she is working on. Two weeks in the Blue Mountains at Varuna, The Writers’ House, commencing in 2012.

For information on Varuna, check out their website:

Harvesting camphor – a green solution?

Clear felling of camphor laurel to create ‘renewable energy’ in the local sugar mills leaves Jessie Cole pondering the realities of wood-burning as green power.

Burringbar is my hometown. Turning off the Tweed Valley Way into the main street always does something to my heart. Lifts it in some way. I know I’m lucky to have such a connection to place, to walk a winding road through the greenest hills and think – this is home. It is a luxury of grand proportions. But lately walking through my valley has become something completely different.

Huge double barrelled trucks zoom past at high-speed leaving the overpowering scent of camphor dust in their wake. Giant machines move up the hillsides clamping the camphors at their bases and felling them left, right, and centre. The trees are wood-chipped in the paddocks where they once stood and then carted off to burn. The sound of heavy machinery echoes through the hills, punctuated with the slow cracking of falling trees. The picturesque hillsides have become a site of carnage. I’ve been here thirty years, almost all my life, and never have I seen such devastation.

The harvesting of camphors to burn in the nearby Broadwater and Condong sugar mills is a ‘green initiative’ partly funded by the NSW and Federal governments. The proposal was simply to turn cane waste from the sugar industry into energy, clearly a win-win scenario, eliminating the polluting cane field fires, and topping-up the electricity grid with renewable energy. ‘The reality is,’ says local educator and environmentalist Alison Polistchuck ‘there was never enough cane waste to burn, and camphors are now being clear-felled to fill the gap.’

Foreseeing the reliance on woodchips the NSW Greens Leader, Ian Cohen, rejected the initial proposal in 2003 claiming it was ‘not a green plan at all.’ Though green groups raised questions about the energy required to cut, chop, and transport the wood, the loss of mature trees as a carbon sink, the erosion and silting up of the local creeks, the possible threat to endangered plants and animals, and the basic pollution of wood-burning, these problems were disregarded, and the plan was sold to the public as renewable energy.

On a global level this kind of ‘green power’ is called ‘biomass burning’ – chipping up trees and burning them in power plants to create electricity. This practice was deemed carbon neutral at Kyoto back in 1997, even though burning trees for energy emits 150% of the CO2 that burning coal does, and it takes 30-90 years of new growth to re-capture the CO2 that is released instantly from burning trees for energy. The word loophole springs to mind.

Camphor laurels have always been a vexed issue on the North Coast. A declared noxious weed, they are the cane toad of the flora world, colonising spaces where the Big Scrub used to be. The ecological benefit of regenerating camphor trees to native forest is largely unchallenged, but there are bigger questions at hand here. Are camphor laurel trees better than bare pasture in green terms? What is the value of a tree, any tree? And perhaps most pertinently – is burning woodchips ever a green power solution?

In an interesting turn of events, the co-generation plants were placed into receivership early this month. The Executive of NSW Sugar Chris Connors has blamed the financial crisis on the fall in value of Renewable Energy Certificates due to a flooding of the market. But a closer look at NSW Government audit documents reveals a complex mix of factors leading up to the economic problems. Lower than forecast amounts of cane waste and limited availability of alternative fuel sources were both cited. No questions have been raised about the basic unsustainability of harvesting trees to burn for fuel, and it is unclear whether this recent financial crisis will mean an end to the clearing, or an increase as the sugar mill scrambles to stay afloat.

Camphor laurels are a noxious weed and there is a legal objective to control the species. But the irony is – unlike natives these trees thrive in open country so clear-felling them does little to stop their spread. For the practise to be ecologically viable there would need to be staged removal of trees and replanting with native species to protect habitat, prevent erosion and weed infestation, as well as to minimise the loss in carbon stores. Even if wood-burning for electricity was a green power solution, no effort has been made to manage the camphors in a sustainable manner. Walking down the road in my hometown I am left wondering what strolling through my valley will be like when all the bulldozers are finally gone.

This article was first published in The Echo in March 2011


Darkness on the Edge of Town

Jessie Cole’s first novel Darkness on the Edge of Town was published by 4th Estate in July 2012.

‘My dad, he collects broken things … Where other people see junk he sees potential … My dad collects broken people too.’

Vincent is nearly forty years old, with little to show for his life except his precious sixteen-year-old daughter, Gemma: sensitive, insightful and wise beyond her years.

When a stranger crashes her car outside Vincent and Gemma’s bush home, their lives take a drastic turn. In an effort  to help the stranded woman, father and daughter are drawn into a world of unexpected and life-changing consequences.

Darkness on the Edge of Town is a haunting tale that beguiles the reader with its deceptively simple prose, its gripping and unrelenting tensions, and its disturbing yet tender observations.

To read a short extract from Jessie Cole’s debut novel Darkness on the Edge of Town click here.

To hear Jessie read, click here.

To purchase Darkness on the Edge of Town: Readings, Fishpond, Booktopia, QBD, Bookworld

To buy in ebook format: Amazon, Kobo, Sony Reader Store, Booktopia, itunes, Google Play

For International Shipping: Fishpond, Booktopia

Darkness on the Edge of Town is also published by Actes Sud in France under the title Borderline


Actes Sud French Edition: Borderline


“One of the stand-out debuts of 2012.”

Katharine England, The Adelaide Advertiser

“Jessie Cole’s spellbinding first novel is the kind of book that you can describe with words such as ‘beautiful’, ‘touching’ and ‘tender’ as easily as you can with words like ‘uncomfortable’, ‘painful’ and ‘disturbing’ … I read it in nearly one sitting, and I found that hitting the last page was like popping out of a dream; I wondered what might happen to the characters beyond the bounds of the story. I can’t wait to see where this talented new voice takes us next.” 4 and 1/2 stars.

Meredith Lewin, Good Reading Magazine

“Jessie Cole’s debut novel Darkness on the Edge of Town is on another level of storytelling altogether … It’s exquisite writing. Graceful, revealing, pitch perfect. Cole is an author who pays sharp attention to the world around her. And she deserves to have the world pay her some attention in return.” To read this review click here.

Ed Wright, The Australian

“A sad and tender tale of the extraordinary events which make up the everyday lives of ordinary people, Darkness on the Edge of Town elegantly expresses the simplicity of emotions that we often find so hard to handle. Unflinching in her capacity to scrape at the raw nerves of our desperation for love, Jessie Cole has written a distinctly Australian story about hope, desire, sexuality, violence and our failure to communicate.”

Rob Minshull, ABC Radio Brisbane

“Jessie Cole writes with the most deceptively simple language. She pulls you into the story and along its threads until bam! She hits you right between the eyes. This is great storytelling. It’s tense, mean, compassionate and very real … The characters are so real it’s as if Cole sat in the pub and copied down everything everyone said. Every minute of reading this book was a joy.”

Meredith Jaffe, The Hoopla

“Cole is one of a number of younger female writers drawing our attention to lives lived on the margins … She focuses the writer’s eye on an Australia both familiar and hidden, creating stories that make some readers feel uncomfortable. But these are stories essential to our understanding of the Australian landscape and those who inhabit it, where tenderness and violence accompany each other in an eerie pact of necessity. While there is a necessary debate occurring in Australia around the value of literary prizes and who they go to, Jessie Cole has rewarded us instead with a novel that leaves us with much to think about.” To view this review click here.

Tony Birch, Overland Blog

“Cole’s writing is evocative in its simplicity, the characters’ dialogue – sometimes grimy – as honest and real as Australia can be … A gripping and heartbreaking read.”

Fiona Hardy, Readings

“An engaging and thoughtful novel.”

Eloise Keating, Bookseller & Publisher

“A gripping debut novel by NSW writer Cole about the reverberating effects of domestic violence, love, loss and the kindness of strangers, Darkness on the Edge of Town proves difficult to put down as it hurtles towards it confronting conclusion.” 4 stars.

Who Weekly

Songs of the sea

When our distant ancestors felled the first tree to make the first sea-worthy boat they couldn’t possibly know they were marking the beginning of what would become global travel. For tens of thousands of years the only way to breach the shoreline was by boat, and the only voyages undertaken were sailing across the sea. Think Vikings. Think Traders. Pirates. Explorers. Christopher Columbus, and our very own Captain James Cook.

Sea-shanties were the musical soundtrack to these voyages, and surely must be the earliest examples of the travel-song. Often call and response, rhythmically they matched the activity speed of the men hauling on lines. Work songs, they served to synchronize the movements of the sailors as they toiled. They also often provided an outlet for sailors to express their opinions in a way that would not cause punishment. Many of them were obscene: full of stories of drunkenness, whores, and the clap, but many were very beautiful. The best sea-shanties were those imbibed with a sense of what it was to be rolling on the sea. The adventure, discovery, romance, loneliness, hardship, and homesickness.

Gore Verbinski, Director of Pirates of the Caribbean, summed up the powerful nature of the sea-shanty when he said – “The ocean: it’s all about the vast blue that engulfs two-thirds of the planet. The human being cast against that abyss creates an interesting perspective. I think the sailors of that time were flirting with death, and these were their tunes. They resonate with people on some internal level that is not immediately obvious because it’s not in our memory, it’s in our blood. It operates on a cellular level. It’s what makes us feel so alone.”

Rogue_GallerySea-shanties aren’t sung anymore on ships. Modern day rigging just doesn’t need a lot of people working in the same rhythm for long periods of time. Like a lot of folk songs they had become almost obsolete, lost in the realms of obscure archives and sea-shanty enthusiasts, until music producer Hal Willner was asked to create a modern-day compilation. He spent several years researching and collecting songs, and then assembled a ragtag group of notable musicians to record them. The result was ‘The Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys’, an album performed by an eclectic array of artists, including Sting, Nick Cave, Bryan Ferry, Bono, Lou Reed, Antony, Rufus Wainwright, Teddy Thompson, Eliza Carthy, and Jarvis Cocker.

Many of the songs on the Rogue’s Gallery contain elements traditionally attributed to other types of music, and with the often anarchic lyrics they are sometimes even borderline punk. Nick Cave bellows wildly about the ‘fire down below,’ a mixed up reference to both hell and the clap, while Teddy Thompson sings of rolling all night and rolling all day to spend his money on Sally Brown. Whoever this ‘bright mulatto’ Sally Brown was, she certainly went down in history, turning up in a whole array of different sea-songs. Not bad for a woman of the night!

Place also plays a big part in the songs of the sea. Baby Gramps growls, (in a voice reminiscent of Tuvan throat singing), about the ‘Cape Cod Girls’ – ‘they don’t use no combs … comb their hair with the cod-fish bone, on their way to Australia.’ While the Barbary Coast has a whole song dedicated to it: ‘Look down along the coast of High Barbary…’

Arguably the most lyrically entertaining of the Rogue’s Gallery songs is entitled ‘Baltimore Whores,’ and involves a drawn out competition between four whores. ‘There were four whores from Baltimore, drinking the blood-red wine … and all their conversation was – yours is smaller than mine.’ As the song progresses, the descriptions become more and more inventive, moving from –“You’re a liar said the first whore, mine’s as big as the air. The birds fly in, the birds fly out, and never touch a hair’ to ‘You’re a liar said the last whore, mine’s the biggest of all. The fleet sailed in on the first of June, and didn’t come back till Fall.’ It is not very often that you hear women arguing about the largeness of such private areas!

Bono’s powerful rendition of ‘A Dying Sailor to his Shipmates’ brings us back to the adventurer’s elemental dance with death – ‘Oh, wrap me in my country’s flag, and lay me in the cold blue sea. Let the roaring of the waves, my solemn requiem be …I’m bound above, my course is run. I near the port, my voyage is done …’

Listening to this modern take on sea songs brings up many questions, the most interesting for the traveller being – has anything much really changed in the voyaging game? These songs speak of revelry, sex, discovery, transformation, loss, longing, and the journey into the unknown. All things familiar to the intrepid traveller. Italian writer Cesare Pavese claimed that “travelling forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all the familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off-balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” Sounds somewhat like a sea voyage!

Perhaps at the heart of all travel is the seeking of a new story. A new adventure, a new start. Sea shanties tell stories of long forgotten loves, famous battles, pirates, a longing for home (or the freedom from it), and the inescapable drive for adventure. An old roving sailor once said to me – ‘There are only three kinds of people: the living, the dead, and those who go to sea.’ But I think the American novelist Catherynne M. Valente says it best in her book The Orphan’s Tales: “It is not the sea that calls us back. What calls is stronger and more inexorable than any current. I long for the sea, yes, my skin is always dry, and I am always thirsty, and I miss the crash and swell of the black waves, but more, I long for the leaving. I am restless, I am ready, and the leaving whispers to me at night. It says that I will breathe easier when I am at the start of a story, rather than at the end.”

First published in get lost magazine, September 2010.


Born in the USA

Alongside the American flag, fast food, fundamentalist Christianity, and giant-sized SUVs, Bruce Springsteen is a name synonymous with the USA. If we each searched our memories we’d probably all have a vision somewhere of the man himself – bandana-clad, belting out the chorus to ‘Born in the USA’ while punching in the air, big drums pounding in the background. For a long time now Springsteen has been held up as the USA’s patriotic man of the hour. But what does The Boss really have to say about his homeland?


The album Born in the USA came out in 1984. Widely read as a piece of nationalistic sloganeering, it made Bruce as big as Coca-Cola, but closer inspection of the lyrics reveals a much more complex picture. The title track begins “Born down in a dead man’s town, the first kick I took was when I hit the ground. You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much, and spend your whole life just a-covering up.” Cut to the bombastic chorus – “I was…born in the USA…” Though the rocked up delivery might be somewhat misleading, the overall tone of the song is borderline desolate. A Vietnam veteran returning to a country that has very little place for him. The last verse ends with “I’m ten years down the road. Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.” Bruce himself describes the song as about a “spiritual crisis, in which man is left lost…It’s like he has nothing left to tie him into society anymore. He’s isolated from the government. Isolated from his family…to the point where nothing makes sense.” It’s a far cry from the patriotic anthem that many of us remember.

So, if Bruce Springsteen’s USA is not a macho gun-slinging, flag-waving, republican heartland, what is it? It turns out that this is rather a large question. Much of Bruce’s earlier work centred on his native New Jersey, but with a recording career that includes 16 albums in 37 years, he has covered a lot of ground. Springsteen specialises in stepping inside a character to tell a story. Empathy is his signal gift, and he describes the process of song writing as – “that old job of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, while you’ve got a foot in your own shoe. And that’s how it works. I’m grounding this song in something I’ve experienced myself, that I believe I can write about.” Listening to Bruce’s albums is like travelling across the USA from the inside, and it is a surprisingly poignant journey.

Born to Run

Early in his career Springsteen seemed obsessed with cars, the road, and the need to escape. ‘Born to Run’, released in 1975, speaks of wholesale disenchantment – “In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream. At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines.” Turnpikes, highways, and freeways all feature strongly in Bruce’s USA. The automotive imagery is potent – “Just wrap your legs ‘round these velvet rims, and strap your arms across my engines”. The song pleads with the audience to get out while they’re young. Destination unknown, it is the freedom of leaving that matters.

The River

This song seems to encapsulate Springsteen’s vision of working class America. The narrator has married young, he is ‘working construction’ but jobs are scarce. All the things that seemed important have vanished right into the air. He is drawn again and again to the river where he remembers what it was like to be young, free, and bright with hope. Filled with an aching need to live up to the future’s promise, but tinged with the knowledge of dreams already lost, he asks the question – “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”


An acoustic album, Nebraska is Springsteen’s starkest ever recording. He inhabits the voices of some of America’s most marginalised: petty criminals, disillusioned gunmen, and the rural poor. “Down here it’s just winners and losers, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.” Originally supposed to be just a demo, it was first recorded straight onto a tape-cassette. Bruce later admitted he carried the tape around in his pocket for a couple of weeks before realising that it was going to be the album. Bleak in tone, Nebraska could be seen as a road trip through the more isolated parts of the US. Nebraska, Wyoming, Michigan County, New Jersey, and Atlantic City all get a mention.

The Ghost of Tom Joad

Largely concerned with the plight of Mexican’s trying to cross the border into the US, it covers entirely new territory for Bruce. California, Texas, Ohio, San Diego, Sinaloa, Galveston Bay. Highway patrolmen and Mexicans; border crossing, drug running, and fruit picking. The complexity of illegal immigration is explored from many different angles. The drive to escape still haunts the album, but this time around Bruce’s not so sure it’s where salvation lies – “The highway is alive tonight, but nobody’s kidding nobody about where it goes …”

The Rising

A response to the 9/11 attacks in the US, The Rising deals with grief and loss, but also with the resurrection of hope. Reportedly, Springsteen got the inspiration for the album a few days after the 9/11 attacks when a stranger in a car stopped next to him, wound down his window, and said – “We need you now.” The title track beseeches the audience to “come on up for the rising”, and was later used in several Democratic political campaigns. It was also the first song performed at Barack Obama’s Inaugural Celebration. Springsteen himself remarked on the distance the song had travelled – “If someone had told me in 2001 that ‘you’re going to sing the song at the inaugural concert for the first African-American president’, I’d have said, ‘Huh?’ But eight years go by, and that’s where you find yourself. You’re in there, you’re swimming in the current of history, and your music is doing the same thing.”

Travelling through Bruce’s America is travelling the back roads of a nation whose forefront as the world’s economic superpower is only just now on shaky ground. The song’s settings – dead-end small towns, blue-collar workers, discharged soldiers, unwanted immigrants, and vast stretches of highway – highlight a place reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s America. It is the underbelly of the American dream that Bruce Springsteen lovingly lays bare.

First published in get lost magazine, December 2010.

Tuva or bust!

It is possible that there is no music quite as strange as Tuvan throat-singing. Described somewhat unflatteringly as ‘a bullfrog swallowing a whistle’, essentially it is a singing style in which two or more pitches sound simultaneously over a fundamental pitch, producing a mesmerizing, even entrancing sound. Journalist Anne Underwood asks you to “Imagine a human bagpipe—a person who could sing a sustained low note while humming an eerie, whistle like melody. For good measure, toss in a thrumming rhythm similar to that of a jaw harp, but produced vocally— all by the same person, at the same time.”

Tuvan throat-singing was unknown in the west until relatively recently, and the tale of its discovery involves the rarest of travel stories – an unrealised journey. There is something inherently wondrous about a long yearned for journey finally coming to fruition. That moment of standing on top of the mountain and knowing it has taken five, ten, fifteen, forty years to get there. Travelling is awash with such tales. Everyone has dreamed at some point of an exotic location, of seeing it with their own eyes, and many have gotten there. But what about those who haven’t? Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winning physicist and all round eccentric, spent a decade in the 1980s trying to get to Tuva, only to succumb to cancer just before the visas finally arrived.

The mysterious republic of Tuva hides between two mountain ranges on the edge of Siberia. Specifically, it is a 170 000 square kilometre region between modern Mongolia and the former USSR. Legend has it when the Russians were negotiating the border treaty with the Chinese in the 18th century, both sides used ‘the mountain range’ as the border in this region, neither side realizing there were two ranges, with the fertile land of Tannu Tuva nestled in between. Once an independent nation, Tuva was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944 and remained closed to foreigners until the crumbling of Russian communism in the early 1990s. It is a country of great variety with almost every type of landscape: luxuriant meadows, green forests, boundless steppes, medicinal springs, beautiful lakes, rushing mountain rivers fed in spring by melting snows, dusty semi-desert and snowy chains of mountains.

Richard Feynman was a curious character. One of the most famous scientists in the world, he was also known as a prankster, juggler, safe-cracker, amateur painter, and bongo player. He pursued a variety of seemingly unrelated interests like deciphering Mayan hieroglyphs, and lock picking, and had a perpetual desire to discover new things. He believed that the journey of discovery held just as much promise as the destination. “I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong … in order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar,” he once said.

tuvan stamp

Feynman’s fascination with Tuva began as a child collecting stamps. In a brief period of independence in the 1920s Tuva produced an array of beautiful stamps depicting life on the land, and for many years these stamps were the only images to come out of Tuva, tantalizing proof that the country was indeed real. When Feynman discovered the name of the capital he proclaimed – “Any place that’s got a Capital named K-Y-Z-Y-L has just got to be interesting!”

And so the journey began. It took him and his friends several years searching through libraries to track down one book about travelling in Tuva, an obscure German title published in 1931. There was simply nothing else. This was in the days before ‘to google’ had become a verb, when accessing information about a far-off destination involved more ingenuity than just tapping some keys. Closed to foreigners for nearly half a century, Tuva had become a kind of obscure imagined wonderland. It took a whole decade of searching for the place to gradually become real. This journey of discovery was the subject of a 1991 book entitled ‘Tuva or Bust!’

By far the most amazing thing Feynman unearthed was the incredible phenomena of Tuvan throat singing. Throat singing exists in other pockets of the world, but it is in Tuvan isolation where it flourished. The open landscape of Tuva allows for the sounds to carry a great distance. Often, singers will travel far into the countryside looking for the right river, or will go up to the steppes of the mountains to create the proper environment for throat-singing. Many Tuvans believe in animism, a religious idea that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in other animals, plants, rocks, and natural phenomena. Tuvans identify the spirituality of objects in nature, not just in their shape or location, but in their sound as well. The singing served several functions. Shamans used music to call upon spirits, conjure ancestors, discover birthplaces and connect with natural surroundings. Shepherds also used music to herd animals and imitate the galloping of horses. They sang certain songs while riding and played other music while working or relaxing. In this way, the largely nomadic people of earlier Tuva created sounds not to be analysed in Western terms; it was designed for specific ways of being. In this way, the largely nomadic people of Tuva created a music that was not easily analysed in western terms. Included with some editions of ‘Tuva or Bust!’ was a small plastic turntable record of this singing, previously unheard in the West.

Unrealised journeys hold a certain kind of romance, akin to unrequited love, or perhaps less tragically, the fish that got away. They are not the usual fare of travel writing, but what Feynman discovered about this mysterious place in all his thwarted efforts to get there was a journey in itself. It is difficult to envisage just how little was known about Tuva before the 1990s, and how revelatory discoveries of Tuvan culture must have seemed to Feynmen and his fellow journeymen. Today, Tuvan throat singing has its own wikipedia entry, and typing “Tuvan throat singing” into youtube brings up hundreds of videos. The Tuvan throat singing ensemble Alash regularly tours the US, and has their own myspace and facebook pages. A documentary, ‘Genghis Blues,’ about a blind US bluesman’s trip to Tuva to take part in the annual throat singing contest, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1999, and Kongar-ool Ondar, perhaps Tuva’s most well-known throat singer has even performed on The Late Show with David Letterman. But when Richard Feynman first posed the question – “Whatever happened to Tannu Tuva?” there was little evidence that such a place even existed.

Though it is now possible to travel to Tuva, it is still a place few travellers ever reach. And no doubt Tuva’s relative inaccessibility, (it still has no railway!), will guarantee the survival of what started out as music, not for audiences, but for the sake of communion with nature.

First published in get lost magazine, June 2010.

Back Inn Time

In the 1970s my parents were serious about backpacking, so serious that despite having four kids under ten, they were still ready to take on South East Asia. I was two, my brother six months old. This was before easy access to disposable nappies. Think about it. In the photos my mother stares calmly at the camera, long hippie hair, a cranky baby on each hip, the slums of Malaysia at her back, but she is smiling.


At six and eight my brother and I were considered big enough to carry our own backpacks. Japan was the next destination. My father had taken the two older girls the year before, and now it was our turn. Mum’s campaign against passive smoking had finally won out, and Dad spent half the plane trip puffing unhappily on his cigarette down the back of the plane. The plan on arrival was to get straight out of Tokyo, and into the mountains. My parents were on the hunt for traditional Japanese Inns. My father’s first priority was to wake up in Arashyama, a sleepy scenic town with a multitude of temples on the outskirts of Kyoto. Spurred on by his romantic sensibilities, we began the six-hour train and bus trip across country.

Theoretically my brother and I could carry our packs, but once we entered the crowded subway the weight on our backs made us topple down the steep stairs at an alarming speed. “Grab them, they’re going to go over,” my mother screeched, frantically grasping for the loops on our packs. We were out of control, bouncing down the stairs in leaps and bounds. At the bottom our knees gave way, and my brother and I crumpled down together on the concrete. We sat wide-eyed and waiting for rescue, our oversized bags pinning us to the ground. From then on negotiating the subway became a team effort. Like puppies on leashes, my parents grabbed our bags at the top of the stairs. “Got them? Holding tight?” They’d double check, and then we’d all bounce down together.

When we finally reached the Inn in Arashyama, exhausted and hungry, we were ushered through the immaculate Japanese garden by an elderly couple not much bigger than eight year old me. In the doorway began a bewildering array of bows. My brother and I did our best to keep up. Kids were clearly rare on the traditional inn circuit; the couple were excited to see us. They had soft creased faces and big smiles, but no English. Our room was simple. Tatami matting on the floor, rice paper doors, futons in the cupboards rolled out later for sleeping. The old woman signalled that we should kneel on the floor, and her husband brought in a small table, and a gas cooker. We watched as the woman carefully prepared our dinner, talking softly to us in Japanese. My brother, big-eyed and still slightly babyish, was the main attraction. While she cooked the old woman reached out a hand to softly pinch his cheek and touch his shiny blonde hair. He stayed still and quiet, as though hoping to camouflage himself against the tatami. When dinner was ready the woman broke an egg over the meat and stirred it about with her chopsticks. Sukiyaki. Motioning to my brother to open his mouth, she popped a slimy morsel between his lips like he was a baby bird.

Eikando temple - Kyoto

For the next hour, my brother did not refuse to open his mouth once. My parents and I were given our own small bowls, but the old woman continued to feed my brother with her chopsticks, patting his head and shyly laughing behind her hand. When all the food was gone she and her husband packed up the gas cooker and table, and backed out of the rice paper doors, bowing as they went. We all turned to look at my brother, my parents visibly proud of his magnificent effort to do as the Romans do. It was a moment to savour. He was a six-year-old traveller partaking of the exotic flavours of the big wide world, saying yes to every new experience that came his way. A true adventurer. I saw the admiration in my parent’s faces, and just for that second I wished it was me. I wished I’d been the baby bird. My brother looked back at us one by one, solemn-faced and wise-seeming, and then without warning he vomited all over the tatami.

First published in get lost magazine, September 2009

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