Monday, August 22, 2005

Oh! But you haven't changed a bit!

When I was seventeen I saw Les Miserables and was introduced to one of my favourite theories on life – the concept that there are only a limited number of narratives in life, and everyone in the past, present and future can only live by one of these finite number of arcs.

A little time ago I was so appalled with a book I had been reading that as a calming exercise I mapped out the frustratingly small selection of romantic arcs literature allows female protagonists to follow and tried to create a believable subversion of each. Now I find myself writing about my daily life along a similarly limited and well-known track. As a returning traveller writing about the familiar as the unfamiliar, I am beginning to realise I need to subvert this well worn path just to remain interested in writing anything at all.

At the moment the restraints on my writing are rigid and profoundly limiting. All my descriptve devices and observational habits were formed when I was in a completely different country with nothing but 15 years of being a Britophile to inform me. I saw everything for the first time, I was able to call up knowledge to understand what I was seeing and the enjoyment in and discovery of my subject matter was constant and inspiring. My tone developed over the two years and I worked on a distinct voice, an attitude of enthusiasm for even the smallest happening as long as it inspired me to write.

At the moment I am struggling with both subject matter and narrative tone. The tone is the most obvious defect in my current pieces sitting in draft form on my computer, and simultaneously the easiest and the hardest to fix. I am still missing London, I am still mentally planning the activities that I will do when I get back next week *cough* year, I am still not pleased to be home for such a long time. This inevitably turns me into a vicious writer, my venom and condescension oozing out as soon as I start writing and inevitably the first two paragraphs are fine for publication, but beyond that I get a little hysterical and the results deserve only to be shut away forever, too strong even for to be put on here.

The solution is simply to work towards that magic moment when I accept that absolutely everything has a price, and the price is commensurate to the pleasure you experience. I get a family and a town that holds more friends than I know how to handle at the cost of having to put my real life aspirations on hold. I got a wider horizon of travel and experience at the cost of restlessness and a sense of what I am missing when I am home. I will be much happier when I am able to focus on the pleasure and not the price.

The subject matter is a more difficult matter to overcome, mainly because my strongest inspiration, the visible presence of English history and literature, is understandably rather lacking in Perth. In London I had plenty of other subjects to write about - people, life in a foreign city and culture, travel and events - but the current problem is that at the moment these topics are slender pickings. The people, the places, the culture and the activities are so familiar to me that they are practically invisible, and when I do squint hard enough and see them from a different angle, my observations sound forced and trite to my ears.

Perhaps I am simply far better as a travel writer, perhaps I can only report the different and unusual, perhaps I am not destined to easily spot the story in the everyday that means I can stay in Perth and still write.

My final curse is that I only ever write under extreme emotional pressure, and when travelling my emotions are usually pure and singular. I tended to get a strong and uncomplicated feeling for a new experience because it was clean for me, associated with nothing in my past bar acquired knowledge, mine to integrate into my life story as I first saw it.

On the other hand, when I see something familiar in Perth with my new eyes, I can usually only describe my new feelings in relation to my acquired 24 years of association. With my current writing style this is obviously difficult to communicate in a meaningful manner to those who did not grow up in Perth. It makes for a wordy, heavy, torpid piece of writing, bogged down with back story and qualifications. When I do manage to get a light and fluffy piece out of a day, it ends up sounding condescending and then it’s back to square one.

And so, dear reader, the struggle continues. I set mental challenges each morning so I can start truly seeing what I am currently finding too familiar to notice. Now that I have found a job I can start doing things that I would never usually have done in Perth so they will be interesting enough to write about. Perhaps each time someone sees me and says 'Why, you are still exactly the same!' I will not feel like another person has unconsciously ripped all the lessons I have learnt in the last two years away from me. It is this place that is exactly the same, not me. I gotta get off this damn 'same old story' treadmill!

Originally posted on Exiled Britophile, a blog I updated for about twelve months when I returned home from London. Due to it's frank discussion of how horrid I found Perth, these pieces had only been read by my London readers until 2011.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Muffled

There are two layers to my return to Perth and, like my feelings about leaving London, both are so powerful that my life seems to be lived in stark black and white, yet strangely muffled, as if they are cancelling each other out. The culture of Perth leaves me cool and bored at the moment, the mentality of blending in at all costs has already rendered the strangers on the street faceless grey extras, nowhere near the endlessly fascinating tapestry that Londoners were for me. The weather may be beautiful, but the physical man-made environment is unadventurous and too familiar to intrigue me and the natural wonders of the outback and bush are only mine when I have money and a car.

So the pubs and the clubs issued their siren call of alcohol and dancing, sexy bodies and frantic posing and on Saturday night I went out to Subiaco, the upper end of the nightspots in Perth. There was a long line for the club, a strict dress code of ‘fabulous or forget it’, tall AFL footballers swaggering straight in as VIPs and plenty of youthful attitude. It was my reintroduction to the gorgeous girls and guys of Perth, in their fastidiously fashionable clothes that are supposed to make them look individual, and instead make them indistinguishable from their competitors. A tiny room of identikit beauties lounging with drinks, being admired, desired and waiting to be seduced.

That day I had been in town shopping with my 15-year-old cousin for her first grownup dress for a formal dinner dance. Her mother had bought her a dress but it was not the same as all the dresses the other girls were wearing, so we were on a mission to find one the same as the rest. How well I remember that painful, youthful need to fit in, to keep the boat steady, to be accepted. We went from shop to shop, draping her towering but sturdily athletic frame in clinging blue fabric, making her shake out her long blonde hair and posing her in high heels. She was dressed the same as all her classmates, in the clothes of a woman, but her big blue eyes were far too innocent to pull off the plunging neckline and the miniscule skirt.

I saw those very dresses later that night on women ten years her senior and they carried them off admirably, their stunning figures, poker straight hair and free moving energy lending the skimpy fabric all the aplomb of small-town trophy wives. I stood in the middle of interchangeable beauties, shod in vertiginous heels and dressed either in disappearing dresses or skin tight jeans and floaty silk tops, and they were so homogenous I could not summon the concentration to distinguish them as individuals from the blur of tanned skin and rich colours.

Even the much anticipated boys bored me within a few seconds, their bland good looks, schoolboy-rebel upturned collars and their lazy eyeing up of each other’s pink shirts making me feel like I had just been given the choice of vanilla, vanilla or vanilla for dessert.

The almost forgotten incurable socialite and compulsive shopper that was Claire pre-London shifted slightly in her hibernation and muttered sleepily about going shopping for new clothes. The mirrored walls reflected me standing in the middle of the heaving dance floor, short and wide, dressed in black from head to toe, without a hint of heel, looking like a horrified crow amidst a party of peacocks. I had momentarily capitulated in less than an hour to the forces that rule Perth – blend in, look good or become invisible.

I’ll tell you what amused me:

#1 I had forgotten my passport for ID and everyone shook their heads and told me I wouldn’t get in with the zero tolerance policy. Dressing like a grandma has its uses it appears – twice all my mates got asked for their ID, twice I just strode straight through and I don’t think the bouncer even registered me.

#2 I was so bored with the endless cookie-cutter perfect beauties on display that I was almost blind to people I knew. My best friend from high school spotted me in three minutes and flew across the club to say hi, but I barely recognised the polished creature descending on me - all immovable hair, glossy eyebrows and elegant hugs.

#3 The only guy who tried to pick me up was English, a rugby player on scholarship from Southampton.

But goddamnit I was dancing with people that I adored and I was so bloody happy I could have cried. And this is the flip side of the coin, the glorious amount of time I get to spend with people I missed for two years, slowly feeling our way over the landscape of two years apart, filling in the gaps that the emails left, slotting back into comfortable bantering with the slight edge of having to have some of the anecdotes explained all over again to me with all the inevitable laughs of retelling.

The elder of my two brothers was there, enjoying being the only boy with four women, and it was only afterwards when he mentioned it that I realised that it was the first time he had ever been out with a group of older women, especially with this group of women who do not see him out socially and who only remembered him as a Claire’s little brother. Before I left Perth I would never had thought to go out with both my friends and my siblings as one group, but after mixing all people of all ages in London, I just hadn’t had a second thought about it.

In fact, my moment of fashion consciousness on the dance floor ended when I realised that the only other non-fashion slaves in the joint were my little coterie, including my little bro in Dad’s 70’s trousers, black shirt and his smooth ballroom dancing moves. If your little brother isn’t scared of the social police, why should you be? The other girls I was out with hadn’t voluntarily talked to each other since school six years ago, and it worked surprisingly well. Once again it was only because I never assumed they would mix because of deep seated social hierarchies from school that I never mixed them before that night, but we enjoyed ourselves by gossiping madly, trotting out our new dance moves, making fun of bad / drunk dancers and having to have my brother protect us from amorous jailbait.

It’s only been a week, and the dislocation will last for a while as I establish myself, but the time between talking to friends is flat and stifling, muffling somewhat my enjoyment in the return home. Maybe I should just shop the pain away …

Originally posted on Exiled Britophile, a blog I updated for about twelve months when I returned home from London. Due to it's frank discussion of how horrid I found Perth, these pieces had only been read by my London readers until 2011.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Hot Flushes

It was fifteen minutes to landing in Perth, eleven minutes, nine minutes and still we were flying over bush, only the fact that you could see more than one road in a glance at the landscape indicating that there was a city coming up. At eight minutes to touchdown Perth arrived in my view, and it was as big as a postage stamp. I was alarmed at how VERY small it was. Certainly I had known it would be small, but the reality emphasised how large Perth had seemed to be when I left, and how my sense of size had adjusted to a London measure.

I was painfully astounded by the fact that the city became farmland on three visible horizons. I winced as I realised I could see both Midland (the end of the Perth Metro Area) and Rottnest Island (kilometres off the coast) in the width of the plane window while I was flying low enough to see cars on the street.

A hot, flushed feeling of reluctant isolation swept through me again, as it had regularly throughout the flight.

I had been perfectly fine in the 11 hours to Kuala Lumpur, watching movies, reading my book, not sleeping a wink. Perth was still far away, I was still safely distant from imminent arrival.

Then I boarded for the last five hour flight and I started getting cramps from the horror of two years passing and yet I was back where I started with only dreams that I had touched and then been forced to relinquish to keep me company. Once these cramps and shaking were over however the excitement would scoop me out until I was a motionless membrane, vibrating and waiting for the heat, the sun and the salt water to fill me up once more.

I was a roiling mass of dread and love, endlessly revolving like serpents fighting, endlessly showing one colour over the other, endlessly dizzing and sickening in its intensity.

After the rush of greeting those at the airport, after slipping effortlessly back into the banter of the family, after holding court for hours on end to family in the house and on the phone, I got into bed and by default thought that tomorrow I must tell Laura and Ozy and everyone what it was like to get home … and it took me a rather difficult moment of crashing mental gear-changes to relinquish the friends of the last two years to the ‘I’ll have to email them about this’ category instead of the ‘I’ll have to mention it when I see them’ category.

By the same token, the diary is filling up rapidly with dates to meet and greet and I am looking forward to being enveloped by my much missed and rather excited family. As the first traveller of the grandchildren I have been requested for family meals at each family home, the uncles and aunts sounding determined to wring every little drop of overseas wonderfulness from me, whether I like it or not!

This morning I got up at six thirty (damn body clock) and because the day was that special crisp sunlight of a flawlessly clear Perth winter day (read an English summer day that was only chilly enough for a thin jumper), I got my walking shoes on and went for quick squiz at the changes in Perth. Three hours later I had covered an area barely the size of the Square Mile and my parents nearly crashed the car when I told them later that day how far I had gone. ‘It’s quite small really!’ I assured them, smugly relishing their disbelief that I could cover that distance and still call the city small.

It was one of the best walks in recent memory – each corner was achingly familiar, but strangely devoid of sadness as the memories stayed hovering in the back of my mind, comforting in their familiarity, but reassuringly not swamping me with nostalgia. Perth has been important to me, but it resonates comfortably like much loved pyjamas, present, but not powerful.

I enjoyed seeing everything again, but I enjoyed even more the feeling of relaxation that accompanied my effortless navigation of places to get the best views, my walk along my favourite beach, the winding through the back alleys to the wharf for fish and chips. This really is going to be a rather enjoyable holiday!

Originally posted on Exiled Britophile, a blog I updated for about twelve months when I returned home from London. Due to it's frank discussion of how horrid I found Perth, these pieces had only been read by my London readers until 2011.

You'll never never know if you never never go ...

On Thursday Jacinta and I had lunch in her backyard in Wimbledon to enjoy my last sunny and warm day on England’s shores. We sat in the sun, trying to say everything we needed to, not saying enough. As we sat back, I glanced at the sky and remarked that it was the closest to Perth-blue that I had ever seen it. I couldn't have been more wrong if I had tried.

On Saturday I had a window seat on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Perth and as we left the Malaysian landmass we flew out of cloud cover and out over the Indian Ocean. We flew into a sapphire, blue sea and blue sky shimmering around us, my eyes, used to more subdued colours, draining all the blood from the rest of me in an effort to drink it all in.

We followed the Western Australian coast, so vast and sprawling and monochrome in its subdued khaki that although you knew that you were travelling at a good speed, the ground seemed not to move. I watched hundreds of kilometres of beach inch past below me and I was shaking from my need to be on a shore, I needed to be where the white of the sand and the breakers met the green of the shallow water and the deep blue of the ocean.

As we neared Perth small settlements appeared like tiny red flowers at the top of the thin grey stems that were the long roads that lead into them. As we approached the city the roads stopped being vast and lonely gridlines with rarely more that a few intersections in sight to heady numbers of two and even three roads running parallel into the bush.

Today I went for a long morning walk into the city and up to Kings Park, the air so refreshing, the sun so strong, the sky so blue I could feel the atmosphere around me wink cheekily each time I took a smiling step. I stood at the highest point in the park and watched the sunlight stream in solid fingers through the high rises to spotlight the river, while the ranges in the distance thawed from black to green in the sunrise.

I started my summer holiday with a gorgeous and crisp winter day, and with Perth delivering so spectacularly in winter, I really can't wait for the summer.