The Choir of Gravediggers by Mel Hall



Any novel under 70,000 words tends to get called a novella, which I think is a misnomer. The true novella – say, 15,000 to 40,000 words – is a rare beast; publishers won’t tend to touch it, despite the fact it has the reading time roughly equivalent to watching a film. Kudos, then, to Ginninderra Press, an independent Adelaide-based publisher, who have published a true novella in The Choir of Gravediggers, 48 pages long, by my friend, the Western Australian Mel Hall.

The Choir of Gravediggers has a frame narrative – a kind of biographical quest – as the narrator looks through the documents and photos that remain of her flamboyant father, Charles Truelove, who ran the St Kilda Cemetery and a choir at the turn of the twentieth century before being plagued by scandals and disappearing. Choir has a zany, engaging narrative voice, by turns poetic, inquisitive, elegiac. Mel’s historical research is worn lightly, making the narrative sparkle with authentic detail as she evokes historical Melbourne. Choir compresses a big story into a small book. This reader would always rather a book which leaves too soon than one which stays too long, though it might be that this is one narrative suited to a 300 page novel. (As a defender of the novella form, I do hate to say this!) An afterword reveals the strong historical basis for the work – Charles Truelove was a historical figure; indeed, he was Mel’s great-great grandfather.


Leonard Cohen: A Memoir


I loved Leonard Cohen most when he had fallen into neglect. The time at the turn of the century when he was still out of fashion. The men behind the counters of vinyl shops in Perth met his name with derision. “What would you want to listen to that for?” demanded the owner at the underground one in Fremantle who always checked what you were looking for as you came in. “Music to slit your wrists to!”   For a time, I played Cohen’s albums obsessively. The artists who mean the most to me always make me feel we share a special understanding. Of course, any sense of reciprocity in that is an illusion.

One of his verses gave me comfort in a break-up, even if the sentiments were aspirational rather than true.

I don’t mean to suggest
That I loved you the best
I can’t keep track of each fallen robin
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
That’s all, I don’t think of you that often

I ordered his novel The Favourite Game, then only in print in Canada, and thought it a brilliant novel. I’ve been meaning to re-read, but I hesitate, because it’s no longer the right season to be reading it.

I wrote my second (failed) novel in thrall to him, calling my main character “Leo” in tribute. For a time, it was titled “The Revolution’s Pride” from a line in “Diamonds in the Mine.” His song “Famous Blue Raincoat” shaped the plot and the feel of that novel. It was the song I listened to more than any, and it seemed so perfectly sad and beautiful.

Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair
She said that you gave it to her
That night that you planned to go clear
Did you ever go clear?

When I married a musician, she told me he didn’t sing in tune. I couldn’t really tell, but I wasn’t surprised. His songs were poetry, and they were a mood, and perhaps even a mode.

I never thought I’d see him play, but I did. It was at the Sandalford Winery on 7 February 2009. Just before I was due to leave – I was going alone – a parcel arrived. The courier must have been working overtime. It was my publisher, returning the manuscript of that failed second novel. It was, actually, the moment its failure became apparent after working with them on it for five years of back and forth. I felt like I’d been punched in the guts and I was miserable as I listened to Leonard Cohen on the grassy bank in the heat.

He was in fashion again – which I’m glad of, for his sake – and all the baby boomers of Perth were there to hear him. They were all big fans, they all knew the words to “Hallelujah.” I’d always imagined that I’d see Cohen in a dingy bar strumming his guitar solo, an intimate performance to a gathering of hardcore fans. This concert was the opposite of that, a huge line-up of musicians and dancers on stage transforming his sound.

Stuck in a traffic jam trying to leave in the hot dark, the radio had rolling coverage of massive bushfires in Victoria. I couldn’t believe the things they were saying there in the dark, whole towns burnt, so many people dead. It felt the world was coming to an end. Cohen’s contemporary, John Updike, had just died too. Updike and Cohen were always on this list in my head of heroes whose demise I await with dread. But Cohen lived on and I lived on and incredibly he even gave us three more albums. It’s only now that day has finally come and he joins that long list of celebrities who didn’t survive 2016. Perhaps it will always be remarked that the news of his death came as the world reeled from Trump’s election win. “Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.” But it was. In public terms, he died as well as a man could. Thank you Leonard Cohen for all you gave us.

The incredible shrinking novel which became a short story


Post #7 in my Australian Short Story Festival series

In my writing career, I have had the triumph of a short story which became a novel – a familiar enough transformation – but also the tragedy of a full length novel which only ever saw publication as a short story. There’s nothing tragic about short stories, of course, but generally a writer doesn’t like to spend twelve years on one. Continue reading

Donna Mazza’s “The Exhibit”


Post #6 in my Australian Short Story Festival series

I found Donna Mazza’s “The Exhibit” a terrifying story to read. It starts with a pregnant narrator, Stacey, in a troubled relationship – ripe drama for a short story – but before long we realise the full picture: as part of a de-extinction project, her baby has been spliced with neanderthal DNA. The ordinariness of Stacey’s concerns about things like an unfriendly radiographer makes the scenario feel so much more real. It happens as it would in real life: the person at the centre of it not being told the full picture, not in control, at the mercy of radiographers and doctors, and quite remote from the scientists driving it. I’ve recently been through the anxiety and hope of my wife’s pregnancy and this story conveyed much of that experience but amplified it so well. It’s great literary science fiction, inhabiting the same dark territory as the Black Mirror television series.

“The Exhibit” appeared in Westerly 60.1 last year, but you can read it online here. Donna’s the author of the TAG Hungerford Award winning novel The Albanian. I’ll be appearing alongside her on the Australian Short Story Festival panel, Voices From the West on Saturday.

Stand for the national anthem, or we’ll call the police


The ABC understands one of the boys was questioned two years ago by New South Wales Police and the Australian Federal Police over an incident at his school.

It is understood that incident involved him refusing to stand for the national anthem at the morning assembly of his school — East Hills Boys High School – in June 2014 when the boy was 14.

When questioned why he would not stand for the national anthem, the boy said “he only stands for God”, “does not respect this country” and “this country sends troops to Afghanistan to kill our men and rape our women”.

The news of sixteen-year-olds plotting terrorism is frightening. But just as frightening, buried in today’s story of the arrests, is the report that police were called to a school two years ago because one of the suspects would not stand for the national anthem. I cannot imagine a better way to radicalise a fourteen-year-old. It’s disturbing that he doesn’t respect Australia, the country he lives in, although it’s unsurprising that he’s upset about Australia’s involvement in disastrous wars overseas. It’s disruptive when people won’t stand for the national anthem. And this boy has gone on to plan violence. But however we regard it, refusing to stand for the national anthem itself must never be a police matter. When it becomes one, we are living in a dystopia. In the “war on terror” we are losing the very freedom we are meant to be fighting for.