Category Archives: My Story

Theatrical dags

STAR PERFORMERS Tom Roberts’ ‘Shearing the Rams’ c.1890 from the National Gallery of Victoria.

A young Playwright’s first theatre.

SOME of my earliest memories of growing up at ‘Paxton’ (the property my parents owned near Delungra in New South Wales), are of the shearing shed, and not just during shearing season.

Back then, ‘Paxton’ was not a particularly iconic or beautiful homestead, but my parents had made it habitable after years of standing derelict, and turned it into a viable farm.

The home itself was once two buildings – the main house faced the east, and, built onto tree stumps at the west stood what was probably the old kitchen, once separated. This was common practice from times when the risk of the house burning to the ground was great if the kitchen went up in flames.

“There is something overwhelmingly romantic about a shearing shed.”

A falling-down chook run and an overgrown tennis court stood at each end of the home yard, and up the gravel road was the shearing shed – a cluster of corrugated iron buildings with sheep yards on one side and a rather large door.

This shed was a source of delight and surprise for me and my brother, probably starting when we found our Christmas presents behind that door, long before Santa Claus had a chance to deliver them that year. It was far enough from the house that our frequent secret trips to ride our new bikes were not discovered for some time!

Most of the year, the shearing shed was empty. Not being completely weatherproof, the elements had worked away at the wooden rails of the yards, which were over a child’s head height and enclosed tall weeds more than they did sheep.

But once a year, the building would fill with life, when the Shearers arrived. They introduced new words into my world, the most evocative being ‘Smoko‘, meaning a break, a few minutes to swill down a hot tea and smoke a cigarette, usually sometime in the mid morning. The other was a ‘Spell’ – a short sleep in the shade of a tree after lunch.

My brother and I carried an esky and thermos up to the shearing shed every day the Shearers were in residence. I have no idea where they lived – they probably camped in the shelter of the shed itself.

MAKING AN ENTRANCE Inside the shearing shed at “Paxton”, Delungra.

These were worn men, angular with years of bending into their task, hands burnished from holding their shears, and senses dulled from maintaining the loud engine which drove the complicated overhead shearing system – dangerous rubber belts and fast wheels which whizzed the clippers into action.

We were too young to do more than sweep up sheep crap and help with cleaning the shorn fleece, in the raucous masculine atmosphere which departed as quickly as it had arrived, leaving the shed empty and full of potential.

There is something overwhelmingly romantic about a shearing shed for me, even now I cannot pass one by without getting a look inside. They are scattered across the Tablelands, often surprising you around a rural corner, usually well cared-for if the farm is still functioning. For me, however, the more dilapidated they are the better.

In the drafty darkness of an empty shed, the smell of decomposing sheep crap brings my childhood stampeding back to me. The odour is always tempered by lanolin, the oil from the fleece which builds up on all timbers where sheep have been herded and shorn, preserving wood better than any varnish ever could. The skeletal frame of a shearing shed endures for decades under this resin, whereas the outer shell rots away until it’s like driftwood, lending the place a graveyard quality.

But the most romantic element of a shearing shed is the journey of the wool. Corralled in the waiting yards, sheep are dragged through a timber gate onto the shearing floor, where they are clipped from head to toe, then shoved down a chute to the lower ground level outside to recover from the shock. Those chutes, slippery and steep, were our first fun park.

Each precious fleece, akin to a great fluffy jacket, is thrown over a large wooden table, allowing burrs and sheep crap (called ‘Dags‘) to be picked out, then thrown into the top of an enormous timber cupboard with great doors. There it waits until being pressed into bales and labelled by spraying across a tin stencil to create a mark identifying the wool’s source.

ROGUES & VAGABONDS Australian Shearers operating a wool press. From the Powerhouse Museum Collection.

Those great doors held a kind of theatrical power, perfect for making dramatic entrances. In fact, for me, the perfect theatre would be a converted shearing shed, with the same hand-made quality as the original Globe Theatre in London, where many of Shakespeare’s plays first saw the light of day.

Thousands of pin-sized holes in the corrugated iron roofing sheets make a sky of stars overhead, especially on a brilliant sunny day. An audience could be herded onto the shearing floor, waiting for the actors to emerge from behind those great doors.

Perhaps it was the spirit of Shearer’s industriousness and camaraderie that inspired my love of shearing sheds? And probably their faces, full of weathered character, adept at entertaining youngsters.

In shearing sheds, as with theatres, roles are defined, achievements praised, young people trained-up. Vocabulary is important, for the sake of tradition as much as safety. Star performers are made every year. Sometimes they fall, overtaken by younger talent.

The existence of Shearers is tenuous at best, much like the lives of those who ‘tread the boards’. Both career choices rely on good economies and fair bosses, and entire careers can be judged on one day’s performance. There’s plenty of touring, you must go where the work is, and the pay is not great.

The end result of both these labours is something that enhances life without taking it. Such roles should be treasured forever, but they languish in danger of their existence.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

The Grim Reaper in the lunch room

PRINTING IMPRESSED A romantic vision of my first day job at a printing firm.

A Writer’s first day job.

IN my last year of school, I was gently encouraged into some kind of employment. Having illustrated a local history book, I had a contact in the manager of a local printing firm.

After writing to him reminding him of my illustrations, he called and offered me a job.

My mental picture of working on a printing floor was rather romantic. Perhaps there would be intelligent people, poring over inks, print quality and words; contact with working writers and artists; and great pieces of literature on the brink of being born?

I worked out how to get to and from work on the local bus, arrived at the agreed time, and entered the workforce with an enthusiastic handshake and an introduction to my first task.

Remember those notebooks we used when people actually wrote things by hand, the kind with the red gum strip holding all the pages together? Whoever knew that they were gummed in one stack and had to be separated by hand?

Well I did, by the end of that first day, after separating a stack taller than me (I was then and still am 6’2”), into note pads of the same thickness.

Being at the back of the print floor, as I worked I had a view of the rest of the staff. Apart from the boss, who spent most of his time on the phone or working as his own receptionist at the front counter, there was a kind lady typesetting in a small glassed-in office, sitting at an enormous blue metal machine, out of the side of which a continuous flow of type would emerge.

There were two printing presses near me, operated by polite men, one of whom dressed in a neat, ink-stained lab coat, and the other who reminded me of Rod Stewart, had he ever embarked on a career in offset printing. Then there was the man whom I was to spend the most time with and learn the most from – the layout artist. We’ll call him Terry.

“His unbeatable aura of great skill in his work was quickly tarnished by the reality of his narrow-minded bigotry.”

At that time, Terry would have been in his fifties. A great teacher, he took me under his wing and showed me everything he knew, from setting type, to creating photographic or illustrative bromides to be set onto each aluminium plate, which he’d create in lightening speed for every job.

A business card he could dash off in about five minutes. A booklet in about an hour.

It was Terry who called time on morning tea and lunch, with a kindly manner which set the tone of the whole establishment. He spied that I’d committed myself to gummed notebook duties without fuss, and each time the boss would put me on an old collating machine, or packaging duties, Terry would ensure I’d get to learn something new before I’d collated or packed my brain into oblivion.

For a young writer-illustrator, this workplace was an immediate introduction to the nitty-gritty of publishing. I got to do a decent amount of creative work – dusting off little images for business cards and corporate documents. I got to edit a small magazine because there was no-one else to do it, in fact the boss landed the job on the basis of having someone around who had innate editing skills.

My five dollars an hour was money that I saw increasing in my bank account weekly, as I’d take my cheque up to the bank every friday afternoon before heading home.

For a day or two I fanstasised that this was a career choice for me – that somewhere, someplace, a writer-artist-editor could stick around a printing floor doing odd jobs and creating bits and pieces, for money. It was a vain hope. I always have plenty of those hanging around.

UNEXPECTED COLLEAGUE The Grim Reaper made an appearance in the lunch room of my first workplace (Image unknown, but in the pubic domain).
UNEXPECTED COLLEAGUE The Grim Reaper made an appearance in the lunch room of my first workplace.

What burst my bubble was not the limited creative prospects that I laid-out for myself, but the workplace reality of coming face-to-face with other peoples’ opinions.

I was from a very sheltered community (independent schools tend to create those) nothing about which really prepared me for some of the stuff that came out in the lunch room.

The most sudden example was the ‘AIDS is happening because God Hates Gays’ booklet, complete with the Grim Reaper on the cover, which Terry slid across the table to me, in front of everyone, saying: “You should read this.”

I was cornered, managing to not open it, but also not wanting to signal any kind of negative response. It was a nasty little polemic, but the paper quality was good – Terry had taught me how to gauge such things.

Later, while collating the latest golf club members’ booklet, Terry made a general observation to me that it was women who were better at such mundane tasks as collating and notepad separating, before pointedly not asking me into his company that afternoon to learn more about plate-making.

It took me a while to understand these blatant messages, because I was just so naive.

When University Orientation Week hit my diary, I decided to leave the job that had, for a short time, given me pleasure.

The boss and his wife were very kind in giving me a lovely set of graphic design pens as a send off. Mum noticed that I’d resigned a good week before Uni started, but I was incapable of explaining why.

None of my adult colleagues had enough spine to tell Terry to keep his opinions to himself, especially in front of an impressionable teenager. They were keeping the peace, I suppose. I did the only thing I knew how to do, which was to leave.

That’s the thing about day jobs – they’re easy to let go of when there is very little of your ego invested.

It might seem fitting of me to say that Terry taught me some kind of important lesson, but his unbeatable aura of great skill in his work was quickly tarnished by the reality of his narrow-minded bigotry. He taught me that not all words are beautiful.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Every boy’s fantasy

FANTASY JUVENILIA 'Rogan Crag', from 'Shelhal, The Seahart' (pen and ink) by Michael Burge.
FANTASY JUVENILIA ‘Rogan Crag’, from ‘Shelhal, The Seahart’ (pen and ink) by Michael Burge.

A Writer’s first lesson on charisma.

LIKE many of the awkward, nerdy boys at my high school (and there seemed to be a larger-than-usual number of us), I was drawn very quickly to the fantasy genre.

I willingly signed-up for Dungeons & Dragons on Thursday afternoons, where the Doctor Who lookalikes with their endless Tom Baker-style knitted scarves held court over the game boards, role-playing with their little cast figurines and throwing intriguing multi-faceted dice. D&D had a kind of gambling quality to it, and the older boys playing it sported an attractive, intelligent confidence.

The hierarchical structure of the group meant I never actually got a turn at the board, in fact I think I ditched D&D quite soon in favour of a singing group that went to entertain the residents of a local nursing home, but not before learning an important life lesson.

“Something about alternate worlds and universes made the real world more palatable.”

It was Dungeons & Dragons that introduced me to the concept of ‘charisma’. Being one of the traits that your D&D character (like an avatar) was required to exhibit, in addition to strength and skill and such things, charisma could see you charm your way past a three-headed guard dog or a pack of orcs in a tower.

I think D&D’s creator’s might have been gently reminding us all that to attain charisma meant ‘getting a life’ in addition to playing their game of fantasy. I resolutely resisted this prod until many years after leaving school.

Instead, I devoured fantasy fiction – Tolkien, of course; Stephen Donaldson; Ursula Le Guin; Anne McCaffrey; and semi-fantasy works like Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series.

Something about alternate worlds and universes made the real world more palatable. While unravelling the finer points of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, I was distracted from the shame of receiving two black eyes while in the outfield during the one cricket match, when the ball hit a clump of grass and angled straight into my eye socket … one on each side. Secret knowledge of imaginary places anesthetised such low points of my adolescence.

By the age of 14 I started writing my own fantasy fiction, and unlike most of my early writing, some of these stories have survived.

All of it is completely derivative, such as the (thankfully lost) Tale of Ninior and Galdain, the result of reading Tolkien’s The Silmarillion in one sitting after Scouts on friday night. Filled with un-explored romance, my hero and heroine were ill-fated lovers traversing my imaginary land, constantly missing one another whilst lost in barren dragon-scoured hills, or exiled beside cold lakes in faraway mountains.

Great ways to avoid writing a love scene! I would have been incapable of executing one at that age, but I won the school’s junior writing award with that story. Actually, I think mine was the only entry.

FAST-TRACK TO FANTASY Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 Album.

The writing of this piece also coincided with my first hearing of When Doves Cry on the radio. The borrowed electric typewriter I was using had a kind of current humming through it which resonated with Prince’s beats.

Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart had been the soundtrack to many Choose Your Own Adventure reads the year before, and Chris de Burgh’s Don’t Pay the Ferryman seemed specially design to keep all nerds reading our mythology books. There was a kind of fantasy role-playing ‘cool’ in the charts during the early 1980s. It didn’t last long, but it happened. I was there.

The next year I embarked on a whole novel, tapped-out on a brand new Brother typewriter I’d received for Christmas.

Titled Shelhal, The Seahart, this innocent piece of juvenilia survives. After many years stuffed into a file of my childhood art, I recently re-read it. Taking into account all the obvious influences (Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea being the strongest, but even J.K. Rowling has been accused of drawing on that), like an archaeological find, my first real novel reveals its secrets slowly.

The story of Peri, the son of a King drawn into a great adventure, Shelhal is replete with ancient oracles fulfilled, spells to release tools of discovery and the kind of alternate language consistency that would have made Tolkien proud.

I consciously set the book under the sea, since no-one had done that yet. I created whole races of sea creatures – mermaid clans and dolphin tribes – in a classic power struggle between the realms of the Sea and the Land, ruled by supernatural deities who thwart or aid Peri on his journey.

Peri’s quest is to recover a lost treasure – the Shelhal – a great shell known as the ‘Heart of the Sea’, in order to restore balance and continuity to the line of Kings he is descended from. He encounters characters along the way whose positions in life are as tenuous as his.

The most telling of these is the moody Landevaw, unwilling earthly puppet of Rogan (the supernatural ‘Wisdom Keeper’ of the Earth). Peri himself serves the same purpose for Nerrinal (the ‘Wisdom Teller’ of the Sea).

By the time Peri and Landevaw come face to face, Peri has managed to discover all the tools he needs to recover The Shelhal, and Landevaw has supplanted (by magic) the rightful King. Peri falls into the trap and is about to surrender his birthright, when all of a sudden … but that would be giving the story away.

From an adult’s perspective, the psychological journey I was on is so very clear that it’s really kind of cute. Suffice to say that Landevaw resonates powerfully with where I was really at as a 14-year-old – tortured, conflicted, without much power to determine my own fate (or much charisma), and bearing a great secret that, if revealed, would see my whole dynasty come crashing down on top of me.

I won the senior literature award that year, and again, I think mine was the only entry. But heck, I’d written a 45,000 word novel with psychological depth, and illustrated it to boot. Not bad at age 15.

Whether it was my idea or someone else’s, mum asked a good friend of hers, Australian writer Kit Denton, to sketch out for me how to format the manuscript to send to a publisher. He suggested a small Sydney outfit called John Ferguson. My cousin was recruited to type the work up in the correct way, and it was bundled off sometime in 1987.

In 1988 I received a rejection letter – my first of many. I was 18 by then, and my novel felt silly and probably held too many of the kind of truths I was trying, like Landevaw, to conceal. The letter was very encouraging, but I filed it, with the manuscript, deep in my bedroom and tried to forget about it.

The reality of university was looming ahead of me. Life outside my bedroom was becoming all too real, and there were other words to employ my Brother typewriter on.

Feature image from 2013 comedy Zero Charisma.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.