Looking back on the first half of 2018, a turbulent year in world politics – and in my field of Korean Studies in particular – I see how much my reading habits remain an anchor. Having quit Facebook in March, and radically reduced my time on Twitter, I have gained an extra hour for evening reading (probably more). Here are ten of the highlights of my year so far…

At the launch of Tessa Lunney’s April In Paris, 1921 with my dear friends Dr Olivia Murphy, Dr Hannah Ianniello & Dr Tessa Lunney.

Tarjei Vesaas, The Ice Palace (translated from Nynorsk by Elizabeth Rokkan)

Tarjei Vesaas is a literary icon in Norway, yet I had not encountered his writing until this year (on the recommendation of the infallible Kate Menday … thanks Kate!). The Ice Palace tells of Siss and Unn, schoolgirls living in an isolated rural community in Norway. Vesaas explores the mystery that unfolds when Unn vanishes, perhaps into the ice palace now rising from the landscape like a vision from a fairytale. A beguiling novel, The Ice Palace captures the intensity of late childhood friendships. Equally palpable is its vision of the stark Norwegian land and the secrets it conceals. A slender masterpiece.

Han Kang, Human Acts (translated from Korean by Deborah Smith)

Han Kang’s Human Acts recreates the events leading up to, immediately following, and still unfolding in the shadow of the Gwangju Massacre, one of the defining events in modern Korean history. Whilst the world – rightly – focuses on the DPRK, this is an important novel, likely introducing many non-Korean readers for the first time to the recent history of the Republic of Korea in the south, and the price paid for its own liberation from tyranny. I admired Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (also deftly translated by the prodigious Deborah Smith), yet it did not resonate with me like Human Acts. There were moments in Human Acts that made me dizzy, so powerfully did they conjure up the sorrow and the anguish of 1980Human Acts will take its place alongside Darkness at Noon and other great works of literature that stand both as important historical monuments and monumental works of art.

Gerald Murnane, The Plains

In recent months, there has been a resurgence of interest in Gerald Murnane, one of Australia’s most distinctive authors, and one of our most independent thinkers. Murnane does not use the Internet, has never left the country, doesn’t like Peter Carey… and hates the sea. My own new novel is set, in part, in the Australian centre, so I wanted first to read The Plains, one of the most remarkable books yet written about what Murnane terms “Inner Australia.” Is this a place or is it a state of mind? Murnane’s novel hovers between sci-fi, poetry, history, geography, semiotics and theology. Dreamlike, it is somehow both immediate and elusive, and I found myself reading aloud – something I will rarely do alone– hoping to slow my thoughts and better taste Murnane’s unique language. He would indeed be a worthy candidate for the Nobel Prize, as some have suggested. In classic Australian style, the conferral of global prestige might belatedly rouse Murnane’s homeland to see the master in their midst. The Plains is a brilliant novel.

Francis Spufford, Golden Hill

Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill does not need much introduction. The picaresque tale of Mr Smith, a mysterious young man who arrives in the New York of 1746, this debut novel has received plaudits and praise from all corners of the reading world. I have been a Spufford devotee for over a decade. I adored his memoir of childhood reading, The Child That Books Built, and loved Unapologetic, Spufford’s exploration of his Christianity. Given my interest in Communist history, it’s a wonder that I’m yet to read Red Plenty, but will get around to it eventually. Golden Hill is crack for literature and history lovers. Brimming with wit and intellect, Spufford stands tall astride the warring blocs of “literature” and “fiction” and says, no thanks. A reminder that there need be no compromise between story and craft, Golden Hill is tremendously rich in every way.

Megan Jacobson, The Build-Up Season

The Build-Up Season takes readers into the world of Iliad Piper, growing up in the Northern Territory of Australia. Jacobson maps the landscapes of young hearts as deftly as she maps the water, land and sky of a part of Australia so often hidden from (and by) our country’s coastal art scene. Murnane would approve. There is darkness here, but also humour. Jacobson locates moments of redemption in unlikely places. At once soap operatic, intimate, and as epic as the northern sky, this is fiery and lyrical writing about family, friendship, adolescence, and home. Megan Jacobson is one of the best writers in Australia today. 

Jack Heath, Hangman

Jack Heath’s Hangman is, by the author’s own admission, not for everyone. But then again, no great work of art ever is, and I have an instinctive mistrust of anyone (artist or otherwise) who wants to please us all. Heath is one of Australia’s most beloved and best-selling authors for young readers, yet here is his debut novel for adult readers … and his id is off the leash. Hangman is a pulpy and perverse delight. Timothy Blake – it is not really spoiling to explain – is a cannibal in the employ of the FBI. Blake helps solve unsolvable crimes, and the FBI … feeds him bodies. Pre-empting the obvious – as if Thomas Harris had any monopoly on cannibalism to begin with! – Heath makes Blake young, rough, streetwise, and precisely the sort of person Dr. Lecter would avoid in the street. This is a gobsmackingly (or lip-smackingly) violent tale, but it is also bizarre, hilarious, and a stealthily astute commentary on post-financial crisis America. Give me more.

Tessa Lunney, April In Paris, 1921

Tessa Lunney’s debut novel arrives with a remarkable pedigree. Dr Lunney has a PhD in Creative Arts and has won the Griffith University Josephine Ulrick Prize for Literature for this exquisite piece of writing, as well as appearing in all the great and good literary journals of Australia. Tessa is also one of my dearest friends in the world, so it was with great anticipation that I read her debut novel, both in draft and final form. Happily, April In Paris, 1921 is an irresistible delight, introducing readers to Australian war nurse and spy, Katherine King Button, or Kiki to her friends. Exulting in place and time, Lunney navigates the narrows between Francophilic fantasy and realism with elan, whilst the novel’s historical and psychological undercurrents offer a compelling counterpoint to the boozy sensuality of ’20s Paris. Like one of Kiki’s cocktails, this is to be read in thirsty gulps. I would call this a guilty pleasure, but, as Kiki might ask, why should pleasure always be thought guilty?

John le Carré, Legacy of Spies

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

John le Carré’s Legacy of Spies takes us back into the world of George Smiley, Peter Guillam and the Circus, indeed back into the events of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the novel that launched le Carré into the stratosphere of great contemporary novelists. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy were already looking back at the passing of a generation of spies (avatars for different aspects of the soul of Britain and her Cold War friends and foes alike). Legacy of Spies looks back again, this time from the even further vantage point of post-Brexit Britain, spiritually adrift and still at war, both within and without. In my early twenties, I thought le Carré’s worldview was too cynical. Now in my mid thirties, I know I was wrong.

Le Carré, much like Smiley himself, remains a voice of conscience in dark times, yet not a pious one. Both lament the West’s great failures, its sins of commission and omission, yet there remain lingering hints of Old World romance and a dream of hope for renewal. Legacy of Spies plunged me obsessively back into le Carré Land, so I revisited The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, along with the brilliant television adaptation of the Smiley novels starring Sir Alec Guinness. In infantilising times in Western politics and culture, le Carré offers a clarion call for a revival of that most unfashionable of concepts, the grown up.

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Recently I passed my ten year anniversary on Facebook and five year anniversary on Twitter. Both sent notes to celebrate the milestone. At first, it felt a little strange to receive such affirmations from the algorithms of addiction. But soon a darker mood besieged me, one deepened in the wake of this week’s revelations about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. The New York Times’ report earlier this year about Twitter bots and friend buying had not helped, nor Amnesty International’s report about online trolling and misogyny. No one needed tell me it was bad and getting worse. I only had to look to see.

So was my decade online worth it? On balance, yes. I have enjoyed taking part in this extraordinary experiment (even if my descendents will look back and think it strange). I have made friends for life, often springing from Twitter to Facebook to the pub, and spent many hours online with those I could already count on in the world of flesh and things. There is, in principle, no dichotomy between the real world (good) and virtual (bad). The real world is often nightmarish, the virtual may be a haven. I have learned a lot, and read countless words that might otherwise have passed me by.

That said, I have decided to extract myself from social media. As much as possible, at least. For the electronic horse has bolted. The scale and scope of the Facebook breach is vast, yet only the tip of a darker data iceberg. Social media has become – or always was? – an open wound, and our lives are bleeding out. Enough analogies perhaps, yet there is an offline bodycount as well, and it will grow. Online interventions and psy-ops in the USA, Kenya, Myanmar, Nigeria and elsewhere, are raising fears for the future of our species, let alone the fate of our democracies.

I have sympathy with all who hope the online world may be reformed, and pray that they succeed. Somehow. For now, it seems to me to be broken irrevocably. But who knows? Something new and better may yet rise from the digital cinders.

Or perhaps the worst is yet to come…

We think we have nothing to fear here in Australia, but times change, and suddenly. I’m a writer of speculative fiction, after all, so let me ask you this… what would Nazi Germany have made of all this data? Or the USSR? All those public ‘likes’, as well as all that hidden data. A stroll to the synagogue or kosher supermarket with your mobile phone in tow might be enough to condemn you to death or exile. ‘Liking’ the page of an otherwise harmless group or author might condemn you and your family to slavery. In many times and places, even now, the sins of one become the sins of families. Australia is a liberal democracy still, of course, but we cannot fathom what our land will look like fifty years from now, let alone a hundred. Our great-great-grandchildren may yet rue the things we’ve shared about their families when, one day, things change. As change they will. My new novel explores an Australia in which this has come to pass.

Social media’s defenders continue to maintain that apps and platforms are only as pernicious as their users. The mirror shows the self, they say. If only it were true, then that would be the worst of it. For if these be mirrors, they are mirrors in an ever shifting labyrinth … and the Minotaur is coming. The medium may not be all the message, true, but it remains a significant, oft impossible to quantify component of that message. The algorithms that dictate the form and function of these platforms remain unknown to us, impossible to understand, except for a Gnostic few. Unsurprisingly, many of that same elite are now swearing off the very forces that they have unleashed on us, the lay.

For the rest of we poor homo sapiens, the reality, increasingly, is a sense of data dysphoria at the level of the personal, coupled with growing anxiety about a digital dystopia at the corporate and state level. If an academic named Spectre can siphon off 50 million profiles through a single app, then state and non-state malefactors, cybercriminals, snoops and thieves can too, are, and have been for years. As Steve Bannon shrugged, “Facebook data is for sale all over the world.”

I’m not leaving social media because I don’t “like” my friends, but because I love them.

__________

By way of postscript, some friends have asked me whether, as a writer, I will miss out on opportunities to promote my work now. It’s likely, but I also think online promotion has its limits. At all my signings for Empire of the Waves, I’m not sure anyone was there because they saw an event advertised on Twitter or on Facebook. And I did ask. Mostly it was because I was there. Perhaps that changes when one’s level of fame rises, but I have spoken to a number of far more established writer friends about their use of social media, and most privately expressed scepticism about its value. This is not to say that writers should not engage with each other or with readers on social media, nor that I have not treasured doing so. In fact, social media works best for writers when sales are not the primary purpose of engagement. Indeed, it remains a good place to encourage and support friends and colleagues and to share ideas with strangers (who often do become great friends, despite all the trolls that lurk around each corner).

As with everything that we decide in this fallen world, human choices are about weighing vice and virtue. My sense now is that social media’s great and many virtues may be enjoyed in other ways, without the ever mounting list of vices. Meanwhile, I will continue to update my website and be available by every other means available, both physical and electronic (and there are many).

At the best of times, writing can feel like sending messages to sea in bottles. It’s not clear if anyone will find them, let alone uncork them. Yet the tides can be surprising. Last year, I posted a two part celebration on the life and work of Edward Lear on my website, thinking no one would ever see it. And yet, a few months later, the ABC contacted me to conduct a radio interview about the bearded bard. Like life itself, the work goes on. And words, like bottles, wash up where they will.

Finally, because I can’t resist an opportunity to compose a little doggerel, I went and butchered John Donne’s A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning as the final act of my time on social media. Enjoy!

A Valediction: Forbidding Posting

As Virtual Men pass mildly away,

   And whisper to their phones to go,

Whilst some of their sad friends do say

   The app goes now, and some say, No:

So let us melt, and make no noise,

   No tear-gifs, nor sigh-emojis move;

‘Twere profanation of our joys

   To tell the Internet our love…

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When I was in primary school, there was no day so dreaded as wet-weather day. It troubled me perhaps less than some, as I spent much of the break time in the playground or school library debating or creating fantasy worlds and games with friends. We were obsessed with Douglas Adams, Dungeons and Dragons, Fighting Fantasy, Warhammer, Monty Python, Monkey, Star Trek, Doctor Who and X-Men.

Your author with dear friend, Lachlan, at Book Week ’93. We’re still great friends.

In early 1990s Australia, the triumph of the nerd was a long way off, a future that we did not even dream could be somewhere just on the horizon. In the meantime, chlorine-scented teachers wearing winter shorts looked down upon our borderline Satanic interests with suspicion, as watching the watchers from afar were sleeper cells of fellow travellers, like Mrs Harris the librarian and Carlos the Cleaner (with his magic tricks). I would swap Terrance Dicks novels with one Year 5 teacher like spies in Zagreb Station.

For the most part, though, the energy that coursed through the buzzing bodies of my peers was channeled into balls: handballs, footballs, tip footballs, basketballs. Shaq and Michael Jordan were trading card and TV gods, while the best among us hovered high above the asphalt on cloudlike Reebok Pumps. Sometimes – when the teachers looked away – martial arts offered a release for our enthusiasm. This was the height of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat mania in Sydney schools. The playgrounds of ’93 reverberated with cries of, “Hadouken!” and “Get over here!At the same time, the Terminator films were prized on VHS – searing our brains with James Cameron’s nightmare vision – so there were T-1000s sprinting around the playground too, ordering huddled Year Three boys to “call to John.”

So when the rain came and drove everyone indoors – God help us! – all together, the sporty kids, the Dungeon Masters, good kids, bad kids and polymimetic machine men from the future, the teachers had to find something to unite the playground clans.

In Keating’s Australia, there was only ever one thing for it: Round the Twist. The Australian Children’s Television Foundation’s adaptation of Paul Jennings’ beloved tales had become the glue that held our school together whenever it was teetering towards a clammy and diluvial decay. Once the teachers tried screening The Five Doctors, a feature length 20th anniversary special of my favourite Time Lord. I was one of a junta satisfied, explaining points of Dalek history to anybody kind enough to listen. That experiment was not repeated.

Henceforth, rainy days were Twist and Gribble days. The lighthouse of Port Niranda was our beacon of warmth and heart and humour in the damp of ’93. Not since Peter Viska’s Far Out, Brussel Sprout and Unreal, Banana Peel! was there a temptation so universally delighting to so many of my classmates. On page or screen, Jennings tapped into the heart of a primary school unconscious, entertaining students and teachers alike. In his company did the wolf lay with the lamb, young lion with the fatling, Raiden, Ryu, Blanka, Shaq and Michael Jordan alongside Marvin the Paranoid Android and the Knights of Ni. On a rainy Sydney day, only Jennings could unite the playground clans.

“Have you ever… ever felt like this?” asked Tamsin West as she sang the familiar theme. I’m not sure we had. In fact, I think we sometimes wanted it to rain so that we could watch Round the Twist together as a community of children who – despite our differences – all loved those tales. I don’t think this made Jennings a better writer than the authors I preferred reading in my own time, nor do I think it made him in any way a worse one to command such wide appeal. Rather, I think it made – and makes – Paul Jennings special, perhaps even blessed, to be able to write, prophet like, in a way that resonated with a generation, when I was ten in ’93, and many millions more readers since.

Channeling 1993 at Izakaya Yebisu in February 2018.

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The second half of 2017 brought more highlights in this writer’s life. On the 12th of September, I attended the uniquely wonderful CBCA Lunch With The Stars at the ICMS in Manly (as often commented, a more serendipitously Hogwartsian locale in Sydney could not be found). Organised by the Northern Sydney Sub-Branch of the CBCA and the extraordinary Belinda Murrell (author of unrivalled generosity and talent), this was a wonderful opportunity for young readers, teacher-librarians, authors and illustrators to meet over a meal in magnificent surrounds to discuss our favourite books.

At my table, I had the pleasure of joining the students of the Mosman Church of England Preparatory School and their Curriculum Co-ordinator, Donna Gibbs. Engaging with this group of fine young minds was a delight! They were particularly intrigued when my friend Dr Leonid Petrov appeared to inform us of the poltergeist haunted room located somewhere just above our heads!

It was wonderful to catch-up with author and illustrator friends old and new, and I thoroughly enjoyed the heartwarming and thoughtful keynote address from Australian genius Gus Gordon. There is always so much to learn from each other. Thanks to the good people of the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge, the event was beamed live to thousands of students who could not make it on the day.

Without hestitation, I would rate the CBCA Lunch With The Stars up there with The Somerset Celebration of Literature as one of the best author events in Australia. Let’s be honest, it’s not every day that working authors and illustrators, let alone children’s authors and illustrators, get to feel like stars of any sort! But this was better than Oscars night (not that I’ve been to Oscars night … but I have my suspicions). Heck, you’re not going to get to chat over Nespresso to Susanne Gervay, Tim Harris, Yvette Poshoglian, Deb Abela, Jules Faber, Kate Forsyth, Jacquie Harvey, Oliver Phommavanh, and so many other great Australian authors at Oscar Night.

Soon enough, maybe. Hollywood, we’re coming.

Santa Sabina College in Strathfield is a school with an incredible Head of English in Rachel Duke, and I have been thrilled to be invited back there several times since the publication of Empire of the Waves, both to talk about my creative writing, but also about North Korea. In late November, I had the honour of appearing at Santa Sabina’s inaugural literary festival.

Entitled One Book, One Pen, the festival organisers drew upon the words of young Pakistani Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai. In a stirring rebuke of the Taliban who had shot her for challenging their ban on women’s education, Malala declared to the the UN General Assembly:

… let us wage a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism, let us pick up our books and our pens, they are the most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.

One Book, One Pen thus put the idea of women’s voices and women’s education at the centre of Santa Sabina’s inaugural literary festival. In Empire of the Waves, young Anni Tidechild is the last custodian of an all-but-forgotten library on the floating city of Pel Narine at a time of rising violence and obscurantism. As the endless Pirate Wars rage across the surface of Salila, the tyrant Filip Able consolidates his power at the price of his people’s ignorance. Anni knows that the answers to the terror that envelops her may be found in books, yet she cannot find those answers alone…

Indeed, I wrote Empire of the Waves as a novel for our times, the endless Pirate Wars an allegory for our endless War On Terror, a war so often empowering to demagogues and terrorists (Wavelords and pirates, in my case) at the expense of the civilian lives caught in between. In times such as these, children often emerge as the conscience of nations, and yet their voices are all too often forgotten and marginalised. Malala Yousafzai stands tall as a startling exception. And yet, even now, even in her own country, there are those who would silence her.

Joining me at the festival were three other amazing authors and teachers. Eileen Chong workshopped Mothersong: Writing Women’s Stories, J.C. Burke spoke to the students about “tough” storytelling, how to bring difficult stories to life, and Tony Britten delivered a workshop entitled, Creating Female Characters in YA Fiction: Beyond the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Love Triangle. I didn’t dare ask Tony if he thought my Anni Tidechild passed the Britten Test … but I like to think she would!

It truly was an extroardinary day, with a brimming schedule, and rooms full of inspiring and engaging young minds. Congratulations to Rachel Duke and the teachers and students of Santa Sabina College, Strathfield!

With no word on when Empire of the Waves will continue, the rest of 2017 was spent in writing mode, and I was in almost total lock-down for three months drafting a brand new novel. Entitled Occupation Zone, this freshly hewn novel is a dystopian YA sci-fi thriller set in a divided Australia some twenty years in our future. The young female protagonist of Occupation Zone is fifteen-year-old Mirren Tran, and she too must face a world in darkness.

The world right now does feel dark at times – and is – but, as Malala said to the UN General Assembly, “we realise the importance of light when we see darkness. We realise the importance of our voice when we are silenced.” May 2018 be the year in which we see light, and hear forgotten voices raised above the silence.

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As the rector of my church drew attention to the words of Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies exhorting us to vote NO in the Same-Sex Marriage postal plebiscite, one of my friends turned to me and said: “I grew up in Apartheid South Africa, where the church that now denies same-sex marriage believed that interracial love and marriage were also sins, and could point to Scripture to proclaim it. God help us, we’re making the same mistake again.” By chance, I had in my own Bible reading lately encountered the following in the Old Testament from Nehemiah Chapter 13:

…in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: “You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves. Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?

One can see how easily Apartheid leaders might have turned such words to their designs, likewise to the will of white nationalists in Australia or the USA, or Nazis for that matter. And yet, as far as I’m aware, in today’s Australia there are no church leaders calling for inter-racial couples to be separated, still less threatening to beat them, rip out their beards, or forbid them from learning a new language.

Words such as these in Nehemiah engender different responses from believers. The prophet’s words may inspire some to xenophobia, or affirm them in a pre-existing loathing. Others might stick their head into the sand and try to ignore the ancient prophet altogether, preferring to focus on Christ’s teachings about love in the New Testament. For others again, such words might encourage them to come to terms with the historical and cultural specificity of much of the Bible’s contents, particularly in the Old Testament. This is something that the church once did well, but has now forgotten or suppressed, at least in certain corners of the earth.

Nehemiah lived and taught at a time when Israel faced extermination. His beleaguered people were an ethnic and linguistic minority, swallowed by the Achaemenid Empire of Persia. The nation’s future, Nehemiah believed, required a guerrilla credo: band together now or die. He yearned to save his people’s language and traditions with the fervour others still seek to protect endangered systems of beliefs and language. If Apartheid South Africa saw itself in this ancient tale of genocide, then they were looking in the wrong direction. For they, in fact, were the destroyers of minorities, the scourge of languages and cultures. Ancient prohibitions in Leviticus were likewise intended to protect a nation on the run in even older times. Those laws are not, and never were, meant for us today. Not in the way that some would want us to believe.

To reckon with such words in Scripture is to expand or deepen in belief, or to lose one’s faith entirely. One of the books my father – an Anglican chaplain – left me when he died was from Professor Emeritus of Classical and Modern Hebrew Literature at Harvard University, James Kugel. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now is a wonderfully compelling introduction for those wishing to take on such a challenge with an open mind. Stay or leave? In most cases, it is up to church leaders to decide which it will be. Not everyone will, or could – even if they wanted to – wade through thousands of pages of Biblical scholarship. Nor should they need to.

Millions of Australians have now walked away from church, and with good reasons. A failure to respond to sexual violence and abuse in the church is one. Many of us have seen firsthand the damage wrought by such abuse on human lives, and, as a nation, all of us have heard it in the testimony brought before the Royal Commission. Abuse all too often inflicted on the vulnerable by the very institutions that dare name Same-Sex Marriage, of all things, as a threat to the moral fabric of our nation. No. What has shred, and daily shreds, the fabric of our nation are crimes committed in the name of those sworn to serve and to protect Australia’s most vulnerable. In churches, and church schools and clubs across the land, the Royal Commission has uncovered generations of true sexual disorder and abuse, the institutionalized evisceration of human hearts. Yet even now, when advocates for SSM point out that LGBTIQ+ attraction is natural, the more radical Christian anti-SSM activists have the audacity to sneer that incest and rape are “natural” too.

The scientific realisation that same sex attraction is natural was important for the advance of LGBTIQ+ rights, but the argument proved insufficient to shift the minds of hardened skeptics. (One wishes that today’s fundamentalists might be as skeptical of scripture and church leadership as they are skeptical of science. Inquiring minds well served theologians and church leaders of the past. They well served St Paul and Jesus Christ.) Taken alone, though, these critics have a point. Nature makes a poor moral arbiter. It is not enough to identify a thing as natural to declare it beautiful or good. And yet, the analogy of same-sex attraction, still less same-sex marriage, to the soul-annihilating crimes of incest, rape, and pedophilia is a moral and intellectual absurdity. It is, moreover, in light of the findings of the Royal Commission, an abomination.

As St Paul taught the church in Corinth, in some of the most beautiful words ever written of love:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

It is gut-wrenchingly tragic that it needs repeating in Twenty-First Century Australia that pedophilia, incest, and rape bear no resemblance to any sort of love, same sex or otherwise.

The numbers of Australians who have left the church are now vertiginous. Unfortunately, like many in a darkened hole, church leaders keep on digging. Like failing tyrants they imagine that stricter rule might turn the tide again. And yet, almost miraculously, despite the exodus of Christians from Australian pews, many have remained. I attend a congregation where many, possibly most, Christians are likely to vote YES in the SSM postal vote. Others will search their conscience and vote, NO. Their reasons may vary, and I will try to remember Martin Luther King, Jr’s reminder that loving someone and disliking their point of view need not be mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that the trend towards inclusive Christian attitudes towards SSM is growing, with a recent Galaxy Poll suggesting some 54% of Australian Christians support marriage equality.

Which leads us to a stark conclusion. Either the leaders of our churches have lost their congregations. Or, more likely, the churches of Australia have lost their leaders. Too many clergy remain mired in theological obscurantism and sexual solipsism. Is there anything more tragic then a priest’s lament that his marriage is diminished each time a gay man weds? Meanwhile, millions of Australians across all demographics and religions have come to know their LGBTIQ+ sons and daughters, families, neighbours, and friends, as equals in all respects … except the law. This transformation has come too late for generations lost to fear and hatred, and yet it has come, and grows now every day. The revelation that the Anglican Diocese of Sydney has donated $1 million to the “no campaign” will do irreparable damage to an already tarnished reputation and, in my opinion, consigns the diocese to a very dark place in church history.

As St Paul wrote to Corinth, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” In the face of violence and exclusion, we have seen first-hand the love and truth and perseverance of our LGBTIQ+ brothers and sisters. They have persevered in love, as generations before them preserved, not only to be seen, but to be recognized as equals before the law. Not to be tolerated, but to be loved and be defended. As Paul taught the church in Galatia, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” If Paul had lived to know the LGBTIQ+ community, as we know it today, I have faith that they too would be included in his words. For others who remain uncertain how to vote, recall that the conversion of Saul of Tarsus from persecutor of Christians to the author of such words of Christian love reveals a man unafraid to change his mind. Afraid perhaps, but brave enough to dare. LGBTIQ+ Australians love their partners, their children, their families, and communities as well as the rest of us. Perhaps better. For such families have had to fight for every inch of recognition of that love. I am proud to attend a church that seeks to redress the failures of the church’s past, and “welcomes all people regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, or religion.”

As our Rector, the Reverend Andrew Sempell, drew attention to the words of Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies exhorting us to vote NO in the Same-Sex Marriage postal plebiscite, he also drew attention to the words of Professor Gary Bouma, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Monash University, and Associate Priest at St. John’s Anglican Church, East Malvern, Victoria. As Professor Bouma wrote for ABC Religion and Ethics, “my heart aches for those who are told their committed relationships are not worthy of marriage, that their loving is inferior, and that their being is evil. My compassion for those excluded moves me to vote ‘yes.’” Alongside many other Anglicans in Sydney and around the country, I too am voting YES without hesitation.

For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of man’s mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.

Frederick W. Faber

My journey overland from West Bengal to Rajasthan has been intense, exhausting, beguiling, terrifying, wonderful. As the train rolls into Jaipur I am, if truth be told, running low. Not quite recovered from my fever in Allahabad, I surrender to the primal need for bourgeois balm and consolation, and check into a more than usually luxurious guesthouse for three days of hot water, culinary excess, and the decadence of evening silence.

After deep sleep on a cloud of pillows I wake to explore the pink city and capital of Rajasthan.

For most of the day I simply wander, lost in the bazaars of the Old City, and stop only to eat or drink or chat or stare at some new wonder.

In the heat of afternoon, I cool the soul with mango, pineapple, and strawberry ice cream at a sweet shop inside the famous LMB Hotel and watch the world pass by. 

Next morning I set out for a day trip to the Amber Fort, one of the most popular tourist sites in all India, and justly so.

The fort hovers, like a mirage of sand and fire over Lake Maota. I reach the entrance on foot, passing others who arrive like Rajput princes or sunburned memsahibs by weary pachyderm.

Climbing high over the honey-red ramparts of the fort, it is easy to see why Rajasthan has became the death-by-selfie epicentre of India.

Jaipur is a city of wonders, many of which may be attributed to the will and wisdom of Jai Singh II, the warrior-astronomer who built much of this grand metropolis. My favourite is the exquisite Jantar Mantar, a set of swollen astronomical contraptions that delight the intellect and imagination in equal part.

In the age of Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, one wonders where the warrior-astronomers have gone…

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After departing Bundi on a rickshaw ride through sheets of wafer-bodied midges, I board a clanking train for Udaipur, a city famed as one of the most beautiful in Rajasthan. But before I reach my destination, I have a stopover in Chittorgarh. Built on a mighty plateau, the Chittor fort rises over the metropolis, largely (unlike Udaipur) untouched by Western tourism.

Leaving bags at the station, I join a tuktuk driver for a guided tour, before returning for the connecting train to Udaipur.

All I wanted was a sweet distraction for an hour or two.
Had no intention to do the things we´ve done…”

After an unexplained (and likely inexplicable) delay, the loco sidles into Udaipur late into the night. Eventually I’m sprawled out on my bed in a guesthouse on the shores of Lake Pichola, the windows curiously barred shut. Arriving in such places at such hours is often like an unexpected one-night stand: one does not know who or what one will wake beside, until one does. In fact, more than a few travellers had warned that Udaipur was not so special after all, a trap for tours and honeymooners.

Yet as the sun rose over Lake Pichola, I could see why Udaipur was indeed the stuff of legend. Glittering lake watched over by a soaring Rajput palace, it was a place of light.

That said, much of Udaipur – around the lake, at least – had long congealed into a concentrated tourist hub. The extent to which this sullied one’s ability to enjoy a stay in Udaipur depends on how willingly one surrenders to the city’s charms: the palace and the lake. And I surrendered willingly.

I wandered in a fantasy that had displaced the world for just a moment, except for that dream of India projected from the palace and Pichola’s liquid splendour.

Even the city’s own self-referential effort to destroy its charms with endless tat, and guesthouses that played Octopussy on endless loop – what Gitmo of the mind is this? – could not take that away from me.

The dream lingered as sunset cast the city red, then mauve, then shrouded her in black, until finally I withdrew again, content that I had seen the Udaipur of dreams.

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Postojna is a place – like me – distinguished, above all, by what lies beneath. This is Slovenia’s karst territory. Scratch the surface and one enters the speleological Shangri-la that is Postojna’s remarkable network of caves. The journey begins with an underground train ride, passing treasures ancient and glittering, but too vast to steal. God’s crystal set, the stalactites and stalagmites form a kaleidoscopic constellation of shapes and colours, illuminated by lamps and candles. Millennia old, yet very much alive, the cave is growing still, coalescing and dispersing with each new drop of water.

It is like a train ride through the Milky Way.

Ride concluded, I was deep underground, and joined the crowd of fellow travellers for a two kilometre walk through the cave system, via cathedrals of stone and light. Here, we pay our respects to Proteus anguinus, the dominant lifeform in this twilight world. Although closer to earth’s fiery core than I had ever been, the atmosphere was cool and celestial. There may have been dragons in the Postojna caves, but their fire had long gone out…

After several relaxing days in Piran, Slovenia’s justly popular port town, I headed to Ljubljana, her capital. You know you’re in a great place when official tourist brochures say something like, “there’s nothing really famous here, but come anyway”. Whoever said you had to be famous to be worth knowing?

The city is wonderful. Although small, Ljubljana packs a charm-punch equal to any I have visited. Ljubljana is like Budapest’s elegant cafe strip, without the inconvenience of being attached to Budapest. You could (probably) even walk across the main street blindfolded and not be hit by a car. Indeed, Ljubjana is a pedestrian city (in the literal sense) and the fastest wheels in town are bicycles, or the prams pushed leisurely along the Ljubljanica, the river that gently gossips her way through the city.

Despite the elegant old buildings that dominate the centre, Ljubljana feels young. An enormous student population gives the city a Bohemian air, filling cafes with their smoke and chatter, as people queue for gelato, and a local jazz band plays a free concert by the Triple Bridge.

Slobodan Milosevic’s guns never clapped in the skies above Ljubljana, and it shows. The city is pristine. Ljubljana may not be home to the Louvre or the Acropolis, but, given the right company, some jazz, and three flavours of ice cream, there can scarcely be a finer place to pass one’s days in idle strolling. Ljubljana does not mean “the Beloved” for nothing.

My final destination in Slovenia was Lake Bled, a fairy tale lake overlooked by a fairy tale castle in a fairy tale corner of the Julian Alps. Bled was one of those places where everything felt right, particularly at my enthusiastically run guesthouse. Some guesthouses have chemistry (other than that cooking in people’s shoes and pants), and some do not. In Bled, everyone (for once) got along in ways more than amorous, and many late nights were spent at the labour of beer and cards.

The family-run guesthouse was spearheaded by D____. He was a terrible driver, a worse comedian, and the single most drunk person I have met.

“What would you like for breakfast, young man?”

“The eggs, please.”

“And how many beers?”

The old maniac misheard everything as “beers” … presumably as wish fulfillment on his behalf. Happy days were spent walking the wide circle of the lake, exploring Vintner Gorge, and drinking / eating Damien’s delicious beer.

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On the 23rd of July, I had the pleasure of discussing the life and work of Edward Lear with Lish Fejer on ABC Radio Canberra.

Listen to the full interview here

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Pushkar is coming with me.

Well, Jim and Em and Fi are coming with me, or I’m leaving Pushkar with them. It proves to be one of those great travelling days, where conversation between friends new and old drifts from banal to confessional to transcendental, and – thanks to Fi’s forward thinking playlist – we are able to depart (if just this once) the standard taxi fare of throbbing Hindi dance music.

Our driver becomes lost in Bundi, and – as we later discover, much later – had sped past the exit to our guesthouse mere moments after arrival in the city. Following a bewildering detour through the uninviting new town we are back where we began, and arrive at our destination, an old haveli on Lake Nawal Sagar.

The haveli is, perhaps, crumbling to that special point where charm teeters on the precipice of peril. Someone heavier than I, for instance, would surely tip the toilet in my bathroom, and rip it from the tiles. Another hazard of the old haveli, as Jim soon finds, is a ravening house dog who would deter less determined guests, as well as all those lurking thieves and bandits. 

Bundi is a late arrival on the tourist trail through Rajasthan. Most of the guesthouses are clustered between the Garh Palace and Nawal Sagar, leaving little room for growth. Bundi feels like a Rajasthani city with a handful of tourists, rather than a tourist city with a handful of Rajasthanis. And, unlike the City Palace of Udaipur, the palace of the Raja in Bundi feels abandoned, even haunted. Above, in the Taragarh Fort, one encounters only monkeys… and the odd local with an axe.

Sometimes it is good to let time run its course. It leaves one with an acute sense of history’s passing to encounter a seat of power and wealth now crumbling, echoing with the flutter of birds and screech of bats, rather than the fluttering of tills and screech of touts.

Soon Emilie and Fi depart, returning to Pushkar, whilst Jim and I remain for another day to explore the further reaches of the city, most poignantly for me the Sukh Niwas Mahal, where Kipling wrote much of Kim. We also make a trip to explore the royal stepwells known as baori. Like so much in Rajasthan, the baori rise like something out of Game of Thrones.

It will be sad to leave this oddball city, an appealingly unpolished gem. The only thing I won’t miss are the kamikaze midges, so fragile that they die on impact. Even a short stroll around Bundi polka-dots one’s face and clothes with their puce cadavers.

Sadder still is to part from Jim, but we say goodbye over one of the best meals I have enjoyed in Rajasthan, home-cooked by the proprietor of a nearby guesthouse, as we sit beneath the floodlit palace, a radiant ghost from Bundi’s past.

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