Monday, 29 February 2016


I’ve been thinking about travel.

Usually these days I travel more for work than for pleasure but I have two trips coming up in the next few months and one of them has a holiday component which I am very much looking forward to.

I like holidays which put me close to nature. My favourite place is by an ocean or the sea, but I’ve been known to seek out lakes and forests too. Blame it on living in suburbia and working in the city. There are days when you tire of the harshness of glass and prefer to see the sun reflect off water.

The quiet of a retreat from the usual is also usually conducive to creativity (although creativity can often be scuppered if the quiet is also conducive to afternoon naps...). I recently heard someone mention the idea that creativity is ‘the fifth element’ and a Japanese concept called ‘ku’ or ‘sora’ which also translates into the concept of ‘void’. Sometimes you need the emptiness so that it can fill up with ideas. Sometimes you just need to be away.

The art in this post is a dreamscape. Or not quite a dreamscape as I was awake when I imagined it. I was staring at my bedroom ceiling (thanks, my friend Insomnia) lulling myself with thoughts of the kind of place where I would really like to be and this was the result. The verse came later and the title looks pretentious but there really was no other title that I wanted.

I hope that this beach exists somewhere on my travels. 


I long for a deserted beach
Where I can build a fire
Then watch the waves through blazing spires
For hour after hour.

A hinter chill upon my back
The burning heat before.
The sudden sting of salted air
That rushes up the shore.

A clutch of sand falls through my hand -
An hourglass of bone,
A sift of time and nacre shards,
A history in stone.

Increasing stars depict the past
As day makes way for night,
While curling flames from flotsam fuel
Provide the present light.

The elements, five elements,
Allow this scene to be:
The sand, the air, the sea, the fire - 
The fifth resides in me.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Against bonsai parents

I've been polishing this piece of writing for about six years. It explains why I parent the way I do (yes, I have children - I don't talk about them much online though). People have asked what my 'secret' is. It's the classic 'less is more' approach. It's also a reaction to the way I was brought up and it may come as no surprise that the writing was actually done as an exercise for a counsellor who wanted to 'see something of my feelings written down'. He also said that he hoped that I would publish it one day so here it is.

Besides, New Year's Eve seems like the right time to publish a more personal post.

How to grow a bonsai tree:

Sow the seed in a pot that is too small.  As the seed begins to grow, keep the pot small – by giving the roots no opportunity to extend, you ensure the tree will stay tiny. Wire and clamp both trunk and branches – this guarantees that the tree grows the way you want it to grow. Plan the most attractive composition for the branches then train them in this direction using the wires. Pruning is essential; clip and snip to prevent the tree from becoming unwieldy or, heaven forbid, large. With enough time and effort (and you will need to put in a lot of time and effort as bonsai trees need constant tending) you will have a miniature tree that will be a testament to your patience and industry. People will be amazed at your mastery over nature and you will feel a huge sense of accomplishment and pride.

How to grow a tree:

Sow the seed in the ground. Watch over the seedling while it is still tiny – you may need to protect the tender young shoots. In the early stages, you may need to prop it up, but after a while the trunk will be strong enough that it can grow without support. Water regularly in the beginning. After a while, when the roots have grown deep and wide, it will source its own sustenance from the earth.  Prune as little as you can, if at all. The tree will find its own form and this is beautiful in itself without any shaping from you. As time goes by, you will find that you need to tend the tree less and less. Step back. Watch it grow and grow. Years later, you will find that the tiny tree that you watered and kept safe has become something majestic and wonderful.  People will be amazed at its size and form and beauty, and you will feel a huge sense of accomplishment and pride.

How to grow a child:  as you would grow a tree – watch over them while they are still tiny and vulnerable; prop them up in the early stages; sustain them until they can sustain themselves. Don’t be tempted to show your mastery over nature by stunting them, by keeping them small. Don’t clip at them and snip at them just because you think they should be or look a certain way. Don’t grow a child as you would a bonsai. Don’t take a living being and make them lesser than they can be.

Some parents are bonsai parents. Bonsai parents have an idea of what they want their children to be and they take every step they can to realise this. They end up with ‘show children’ who demonstrate what time and effort and money can achieve. That these children might not be happy never occurs to them. Appearance is everything, after all.

Here’s the thing though: every bonsai has, at its heart, the ghost of a natural tree than never was.When you’ve been constrained, shaped, prevented from going in a direction that felt natural to you - simply because someone else felt it would be better for you to go a particular way, that they would prefer you to be different to your own inclination - your inner tree yearns to burst out and stretch its roots and branches.

Working in education. I have seen whole systems dedicated to the production of ‘bonsai children’ – governments and parents who all want that managed perfection that is only achieved by constant interference and control, by pedagogical and familial snipping and clipping. If you cultivate thousands of bonsai trees, you will end up with a bonsai tree display. It might be pretty at first but, after a while, one bonsai looks pretty much like another. If, however, you grow thousands of trees, you will end up with a forest. No one can argue about the many benefits and the far, far greater beauty of a forest.

So many children feel the chafing of the wire and the effects of the clamping. I know this from my own experience. A child’s initial acceptance of their bonsai-state makes their parents even more incredulous when they rebel and express dissatisfaction about their constraints. How could you not want to be a bonsai?  Bonsai is beautiful. It is so clever. You must be mad to think otherwise. To want otherwise.

Did you know that the bonsai process can be reversed? If planted in the ground and left unpruned, the tiny bonsai tree will act like a cutting and begin to grow again in a natural way. This is a truth I have found out for myself in recent years as I have tried to get back something of my own natural state. But a natural tree has no place in a bonsai collection. It is ungainly and conspicuous. It stands out. It doesn't look like the others.

I don’t fit in. I spoil the clever effect, the pretty arrangement. I’m like a weed. Bonsai growers loathe weeds, and so do bonsai parents.When you distance yourself from a pruning, clipping, clamping family, you start to stretch and grow. It hurts, of course, at the beginning. When you have been constrained and wired in a particular direction, you will feel the cramps as you extend. When you have been used to a certain type of nurturing, it’s a shock when it is no longer part of your daily life.

Then I look at my own children – I have no idea what they will do, how they will be, how they will look when they are grown. That’s amazing, exciting – I am going to enjoy finding out exactly who they are. I don’t want them to be me and I don’t want them to be a certain way. They are reaching out and stretching tall and finding their own shape and space. They are glorious and interesting. They are different.  People see their individuality and comment on it.

I look at myself. After years of being confined and cramped,   
I am  finally taking back my true form.I push my roots deeper and wider, drawing sustenance and anchoring myself. 

I unfurl, further and higher – there is so much which is finally within my reach, now that I am not small. Now that I have left that bonsai life behind.People are amazed by the changes, the very good changes, in me.

And I feel a huge sense of accomplishment and pride.

Monday, 28 December 2015

This night belongs to...

The only thing in life that should make you feel small is the sight of the night sky. Nothing realises that sense of insignificance quite so keenly as when you stare up into the not-quite-blackness and thing how far away the stars are and then consider that what you can see is actually quite close (in both time and space) compared to what lies beyond.

It reminds me of when I was a kid and I used to write “This book belongs to…” plus my name and address in my books. To my address I would add 

Planet Earth
The Solar System
The Milky Way
The Universe

It seemed very clever (to me and to every other kid who wrote the same thing). A child’s way of making sense of the vastness of everything.

I still feel this way though. I felt it a couple of weeks ago when I was outside to view the Geminid meteor shower. It was a cold night for early summer, or rather, a cold morning – the shower began around 2am. Barefoot on the deserted street outside my house, I got a chair and sat down. I was wearing pyjamas and a poncho. I felt as though I was in a pop-up book that had just been opened. An odd lone figure in an unusual streetscape. 

I didn’t know quite what to expect but then the first bright streak of a meteor loped across the sky. Then another. Then another. All in all, I saw 12  - not a shower exactly, more a scatter. 12 wishes for me. 12 lines in the resulting poem.

The resulting art that I have put at the beginning of this post. Because I am not an astrophotographer, it is an imagining of what a shower would look like if you could see it from the city, if there were not so much light pollution.

It was a magical experience - one worth the effort. 

This night belongs to 

Western Australia
Planet Earth
The Solar System
The Milky Way
The Universe


Alone and cold and pondering
This lazy gold procession.
As warp and weft of arcing light
Create the canvas of the night –
A tinselled swathe of lazuli,
A dazzling impression.

Awake, aware, and witnessing
Each startling incision.
Fragments of burning long-ago
Scoring the blue intaglio,
Etch their own glowing eulogy,
A fiery inscription.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Spaceship Perth

The junction of Hay and William Streets.

My favourite constellation is Orion. You might think that’s because it is such a distinctive stellar arrangement and that is indeed part of the reason. However, I like mainly it because when I moved from England to Australia, Orion was one constant in the new and strangely-patterned sky. Of course, he was an upside-down hunter when seen from the southern hemisphere, but he was the same – the belt, the tunic, the shield. When you’ve been unsettled by the substitution of the Southern Cross for Ursa Major, these things are important on a personal, if not cosmological, level.

The then-strange skies are now my usual skies (I have only made 2 trips back to England in the last 26 years) but I was thinking recently about how accustomed we are to our own particular celestial "landscapes" and, even if we don’t pay them too much heed, how even a slight change can be perceptible heighten the sense of strange.

The following series of pictures is based on changing familiar skies – to an extreme. If Perth were in different type of solar system, or flipped into another part of the galaxy, what would/could our skies look like? What starscapes would there be for the streetscapes that we know so well? (They'd look a bit like the covers of 1970s sci-fi novels it seems... :) )

I started out calling the series #perthcelestial and then, in a small homage to Buckminster Fuller, decide to change this to #spaceshipPerth because I can’t resist a pun, however weak. 

The old Melbourne Hotel

The QV1 building

An office in West Perth

The heart of the city

Wesley Church

Central Flats, West Perth

Monday, 19 October 2015

Grey day.

Yesterday was a rainy day and I was having moody thoughts. There was a poem and it is always a tad worrying when the gloomy verse happens so easily. Ideas coalesce into words and words naturally form into rhyme and cheeriness be damned.

I didn't take any photos or do any painting of the rain, so the picture above must suffice. It's the darkest, rainiest one I have at the moment (from my recent visit to Brisbane where I spent my last day hiding from a thunderstorm).

As an antidote to my cloudy mood, I later drank wine and watched comedy shows on DVD so it's all good.

I can't think of a title for this one. Unless it's '-less'.

Stare-out-of-the-window aimless.
Palm-prints on the cooling panes,
As the warmth of a golden afternoon
Gives way to sudden rains.

Where-on-earth-did-the-time-go listless
And I-should-do-this-but-I-can't,
As I wonder if more doors close behind me now
Than will ever open in front.

If-I-had-my-time-again hopeless
Meets a where-to-next refrain
While my I-have-no-idea-at-all sighs
Are lost in the noise of the rain.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Only just.

I was eavesdropping. A poem happened.

Only Just.

"It was just a kiss."

The world is a smaller, sadder place
When a kiss is qualified as
Only 'just'.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Beautiful ghosts

I had a kaleidoscope when I was a child. I think most people did. Mine was as basic as they came: cardboard tube, a couple of mirrors wedged in the base, and a handful of cheap plastic beads thrown in. I loved it though. A gentle tilt and the beads would shift and form a subtly different pattern. A more vigorous shake, and the composition would change entirely. Simple materials that produced an infinity of pretty glowing patterns, the first kaleidoscopes were made in the early 19th century and they are still made today.

Being a language nerd, I find the etymology of kaleidoscope as appealing as the instrument itself. As with ‘periscope’, ‘telescope’, and ‘microscope’, it is based on the Greek ‘skopos’  -  a watcher or observer. However the other two components in the word are what give it charm: ‘kalos’ = ‘beautiful’ and “eidos” = shape or form. A kaleidoscope is ‘an observer of beautiful patterns’ though personally I think of it as the “Look at the pretty things!” toy. And if you think that last translation is overthinking things, I can go one better. That middle component, ‘eidos’, is where we get our word ‘idea’ from. Even better, it is also connected to concept of the ‘ghost’ (or eidolon).

An observer of lovely ideas. A watcher of beautiful ghosts.

I told you I was overthinking.

On a more philosophical level, I find the kaleidoscope a great metaphor for life. It’s pop philosophy, but I like it. People are all kaleidoscopes. The plastic beads are knowledge, experience, and emotions. Everyday life will give you a gentle tilt or a vigorous shake and the pattern of each day will always be slightly different to the pattern of the days before it. Sometimes it’s the better parts of your life that are in view – those are the good days. Sometimes, the mirrors show a replicating pattern of the darker things and the day is filled with endless beautiful ghosts. However, even on the bad days a little ‘plastic bead’ of happy can mix with the gloomier array, just as on some of the best days, a dark ‘bead’ can give a sense of the bitter-sweet. The marvellous is mixed with the mundane, and we continue to add ‘beads’ to the mix.

Right now, my quotidian is rather more


I’m pretty sure that my life needs a vigorous shaking to bring a more pleasing arrangement into view. I’ve organised a few days’ personal leave next week to seek if I can shake away the ghosts (I say away, not off, for if you have such forms in your personal kaleidoscope, they are never really gone – just out of sight for a time).

As they say, “there’s always light at the end of the tunnel”,  or perhaps they meant to say “there are always beads at the end of the tube”?