Of Crows and Coffee

A crow followed me today

As I write this, sitting in my favourite local coffee shop, I can see it, scrabbling around in the small tree on the other side of the road. There’s a murder in the Japanese maple behind the house, but it doesn’t seem to be part of that. This one’s watching me. Its eye is blue, like someone punched a hole through a painting to the sky beyond.

A few mornings of the week, I leave early with S. She hops on the bus, and I walk the few miles through some parklands to this cafe to work. I’m not a big fan of where we live. For years I lived on the Southside, with its rich bounty of old shops, leafy streets, rolling hills and much less traffic. We moved through necessity, but I’ve never really settled here. To me, the Northside just feels like residential plots build around trunk roads.

But there are some gems here. I’ve been walking the area, checking out the little coffee shops that are blooming all over Brisbane like Japanese knotweed. Most are just opportunistic ventures. There’s a distinct trend of finding an old parade of shops (that would have been a thrumming little suburban strip in the 60s-70s) then popping a coffee shop into an old disused shop that was once a bakery, or a clothes mender, or a small accountants. Most of these look exactly like a coffee shop put into little disused shop that was once a bakery, or a clothes mender, or a small accountants. A few ‘vintage’ knick-knacks, a chalkboard, some nice cakes, and coffee. Most are souless, and don’t last more than six months (a lease on the shop, perhaps), but some are run with love, and it shows.

I have an internal chart of the best coffees I’ve ever had. Top of the list is Monmouth Street in London. The coffee I have had there deserves its own blog post, and it’s the only place where I’ve ever gotten into an arguement with a barista over coffee (he was right, the Mandehling was best black). A very close second is Vilinos in Hobart. The best double ristretto on milk I’ve ever had. The requirements for my internal chart can’t really be written out. It’s not just about the actual coffee (I have many places I love that serve a pretty average brew). It’s about the soul of the place and the people.

Well, where I’m sitting is in the top 10. I’m not yet on casual speaking terms with the people here, despite coming here since the new year (I have a really severe ‘frowny thinking wanker face’, so I’m pretty unnapproachable when I’m working. Some would say always), but their coffee is sublime, and they have a choice of roasts too.
I’d like to run one someday, though I doubt the cafe I have in my mind would ever completely be realised (short of us finding a staggering amount of money and time under a couch cushion. It’s something I’ve talked about for over a decade, and something I think perhaps will eventually happen, just not this year, or next. Them’s the Study Years.

But back to the crow. It accompanied me for at least a mile, from midway through the parklands to the coffee shop, flying from tree to tree, often seeming to wait for me to catch up. A Crow Spirit following me to coffee. I like the idea of that.

Of Boots and Blackberries

While I’m away on tour I generally get up at dawn, stealth a quick coffee then slip out the hotel door. It’s a habit born of restless legs and a somewhat frustrating ability not to be able to sleep late in a strange bed. Today, I’m in George Town. Here with Sarah to perform at the lovely little Tamar Valley Festival right up at the top of the little island of Tasmania off southern Australia. I love Tasmania, it’s like coming home. Even more so at the moment as the difference in temperature between here and Brisbane is over 25 degrees and a swimming pool of humidity less. It reminds me a lot of England.

It’s five am and blowing a gale outside. The sun is shining but it’s only about 7 degrees. I don’t have a coat, only a fleece and a long sleeved shirt (we left Brisbane at 38 degrees, 95% humidity and expected the same temperatures -sans humidity- here so we packed quite light). A friend once told me I have nails for blood because I rarely feel the cold. The heat is another thing altogether.


There’s an oddly ceremonial feel about pulling on an old pair of walking boots.

They don’t so much fit as encase; they’re more foot casts than boots. Laces seem almost an afterthought. My boots can all tell stories. I walk them to death then very reluctantly buy a new pair. There’s a lovely synchronicity about the newish Scarpas I’m wearing. The pair they replaced (a mere 10 year old pair of Caterpillars that somehow far exceeded my expectations) are actually resting in Launceston, 30 miles from here, having suddenly arrested during my last trip to the Tamar. They’re planted out in a friend’s garden with herbs, slowly returning to the earth. Very fitting. These new ones were broken in on Cradle Mountain, as much of a baptism of mud, water and rock as they could have. I have urban boots and mountain boots. My mountain boots (a pair of full-leather Scarpas) are over twenty five years old. The idea of being buried standing at some wilderness spot, anchored by them is very appealing.

The main street is deserted. I can hear the distant rumble of a car somewhere but it’s the wind that snatches me. It’s not cold enough to be a slap in the face, more like a stiff shove from a chilled oven mitt, and straight away I’m leaning into it, zipping the fleece up over my neck and my hands are quickly nested in my pockets.

Low Head is my aim this morning, a lighthouse further up the estuary, along a river track greened by gorse, blackberry and button grass. The sun is coming up slowly, and I’m sharing the path with Silver Gulls, necks turtled into their bodies the same way mine is in my fleece. They stomp away from me like grumpy old men, occasionally lifting into flight that more often than not sees them carried backwards on the wind. The larger Pacific Gulls are more stoic, standing in conferring groups on the little islands exposed by the tide. The river has been coaxed by a stiff brush into stippled life. The Tamar is wide here, estuarine, taking a long exhaling breath after the rushing adventures of Cataract Gorge upstream in Launceston

Fingers guiltily stained with blackberry juice, I leave the path for the shoreline and as usual my eyes follow by moving from the sky to the stones under my feet. Cuttlebones litter the shore like pale spear blades, featherweight, they’re blown east by the wind like jellyfish. I’m searching for a talisman stone, something to pick up and hold as I walk. It’s an old habit I have trouble explaining. It’s not so much souveniring as having some sort of connection to where I am, something to carry, to warm in my hand as I explore. Stooped and searching, I find a bird’s egg quite by chance. Breathtakingly camouflaged against the muted myriad of stone browns and quartz. I nearly pick it up as my stone, so perfect is the pattern and position, but I leave it be. There’s no sign of the owner, but I’m sure I’m being watched from the gorse, so I move along.


When I break free of the shelter of the tall gorse, the sun on my back is earnest, almost apologetically eager. The wind is still insistent, but at least now there is warmth. My rambling along the shoreline away from the track has proven to be my undoing, and after a series of leaps and some tracking inland through the scrub, I realise I’ve reached the point where I can go no further without getting either wet or suddenly learning flight. But I’ve found a small inlet, almost a bay, isolated from the prescribed path. The resignation of having to backtrack a fair way is almost immediately offset by the thought of a swim. I’ve not long finished reading Roger Deakin’s wonderful book, Waterlog, where the noble narrator would shed his clothes at some remote location and wild swim with the enthusiasm of a fox cub. Alas I have neither the courage nor the fortitude for such actions, but for a short while it’s a very appealing thought.


Doubling back, I chance across some more blackberries within a sunsplashed tangle. It’s really too early in the summer for them, but a few have ripened to little glassy raven-bead clusters (with just enough youth in them to make my mouth tingle). I remember blackberrying expeditions back in Kent, England, during the long dog days of the August school holidays. Daring ourselves to go deeper into the living (and often seemingly sentient) thorn to try and find the most perfect berry. I have memories, no doubt magnified by time and age, of finding blackberries the size of golf balls that would explode like ink bombs. These are tiny, but no less appealing, and I wrap them carefully in a handkerchief to take back to Sarah. I didn’t make it to Low Head. As usual, my wanderings have eaten away the early morning, and with the sun very much risen but the wind no less insistent, I head back to the hotel and the promise of another coffee.

Return of the Wayward Fellow

I’ve not been writing that much lately.

Well, that’s not true, I’ve not been writing that much down. I’ve been concerned but not too worried. I’ve always figured that as long as I have several books backlogged up in my head, I’m still there (and at the moment I have six I can think of). But of course it’s all about getting the words down. In reality that’s all it’s about. Last year I finished a story for a new anthology by my editor and dear friend Jack Dann (more info about that as I get it), and this year, well, this year I’m going to attempt two novels.

Possibly three. But I realise how daft that might be.

I’m taking a bit of a step back from the music (as my wonderful partner Sarah is about to take big step forwards) and I’ve been given a substantial gift of time to work. I might go into more detail about that in another blog post.

I’m working on a two-book story with the over-arching title of Lovekin & Fable. It’s unlike anything I’ve written before, and will involve a lot of world-building, inventing, darkness, eccentricity, horror, wonder, noir and coffee.

I started the bones of this novel quite a few years ago, and it has nagged at me ever since. I think if I don’t get it down now I’ll go mad.

And I’m going to try blogging about my journey. I’m pretty active on social media, but this is different. This will be the most personal I’ve gotten with my work. Until now, I’ve been superstitious with it, hiding it away in a dank cave, brewing, until it’s done, and woe betide anyone that tried to break the spell. I’m not going to be posting paragraphs or word counts, but rather writing about the journey of writing. Habits, stumbles, tiny victories, mental collapse…

I’m still playing music, in fact it’s shaping up to be a very important year, but I’m doing this too.

I kind of have to.

In the Deep Green

This is the stunning photograph that is hanging over my desk providing inspiration for the current story. It’s assembled from a great many individual shots by an absolute genius, photographer Alan Lesheim, and it was taken in the stunning Florentine Valley, in Tasmania. It’s a whopper of a print, and the detail is just boggling (and yes, the Angel is really there, not dropped in).  The artist is Allana Beltran, who can often be found performing at the Salamanca markets in Hobart. There is a story behind this as Allana made an amazing and brave stand against the logging of the Weld Valley. There is some incredibly haunting imagery, and this, along with being in the Florentine Valley over the past couple of years, has inspired the new story.

Wednesday Night Rambles

(This is a republish of a blog from a month or so ago, which I think was accidentally deleted by the WordPress mobile app. I’ve lost a couple that way. Investigating…)

Wow, where did that chunk of time go? I’ve actually been terribly busy with a few other creative endeavors. So far this year, the band has taken me to three states in Australia, and overseas to Russia. I won’t bore you with details, as they’re all here in the band blogs. It’s been terribly fun, but also slightly frustrating as at the moment I really want get some writing done.

I’ve never really been able to just peck away at a manuscript. I’ve always needed blocks of time so I can submerge myself in what I’m writing. This is great, but it’s not always practical, neither is writing at night, which used to be my staple, but has now become increasing difficult considering that’s when the band works. It’s taken me a long time to get my head around just snatching a paragraph here and there, but I think I’m getting the hang of it, slowly.

Thing is, because I took a side-step from writing these past few years, i’ve got a whole bunch of potential stories knocking around in my head, each vying for its own little slice of my attention with cries of ‘pick me, you love apocalypse tales!’ (there are two different calls like that from two different stories), ‘pick me, I’m a quirky village fantasy that will remind you of home…’ and even ‘psst. Hey! Remember me? The follow up from The Wild Reel? You promised!’

But what I’m working on at the moment is a little bit different. I’m not sure that there’ll even be any fantasy in it (though it’s early days, and the possibility is very much there). I’m going to change the header of this page in the next day or so to show the piece of art that is currently hanging over my desk, inspiring me.


A very dear friend of mine with not much time left looked me in the eyes yesterday as said ‘You know, I think this is Fate.’ She was referring to the turn of events that led to me standing there rather than her dying. I think she’s probably right, after all, if a person in her condition, one of the brightest fires of humanity I’ve ever known reduced to nothing more than the spark can say that, then it might just be true.

I’m suppossed to be at the Woodford Festival for the next week or so, but instead I’m in Tasmania to be with my friend. The Fate she was referring to is that my current story is set in Tasmania, and that I’d been trying to get down there again this year. It’s another inspiration flash story, a lot like Swim the Moon (in the way the ideas and story were initially formed), and that flash happened last time I was here, as we were driving out to a peaceful protest against logging in the Florentine Valley. I told her about it then, and it was the first thing she asked me about when I arrived.

I’ve no idea how long I’ll be down here for. It could be weeks, but somehow I don’t think so. I’ve promised Helen I’ll start the story here, in her beautiful house, and I’ve already spoken to Alan (who took the amazing photo in the blog banner) and we’re heading out back to the Florentine for a bit of off-track rainforest exploring during the quiet times.

I dont think I’ll be in the right headspace to get much writing done, but I made a promise to Helen, and I’ve started, and that’s the important thing.

Currently listening to: Another Empty Galaxy by Deepspace

Stormy Tuesdays

Cracker of a storm today. In true Brisbane style with moments of the rain stopping, the sun was out and the streets were steaming. One thing that struck me was the noise of the birds. I was up in the gardens surrounding the University at St Lucia and the parrots, ducks, crows miners and all the other were going insane. It was as if they were all telling each other they were still alive. With the beautiful pre-sunset light, it was just magic.

I’ve been making a lot of notes for this new novel, and I think I’m about ready to start. It’s been occupying a large chunk of my mind (the vacuous bit not consumed with all the upcoming music projects, gadgets or my next meal). Of course, now that I’m ready to start, I have to go away for ten days up to the Woodford festival. Still, I have Evernote on my iPhone, and I might even take my Mac up as this year we’re not performing as Súnas, only as session players. The idea of sitting somewhere shady writing is very appealing!

Those are the intentions anyway. The reality when I’m surrounded my musician friends, fiery tunes and Guinness may be somewhat different.