It's a wintry day, but the sharp Perth light pushes its way
through the clouds onto my donated desk, a yellowed pine dining
table. The antique table and chairs in the corner are roped off,
presumably too fragile or precious to sit at, but not sacred:
powerboards, papers and stationery obscure the white lace tablecloth.
At my back a brick fireplace is surrounded by copper-panel grapevines
and burnished jarrah. In one corner a cheap fan heater oscillates
I'm almost at the end of four weeks' residency at the Fellowship of Australian Writers WA (FAWWA). I've been living and working at their
writers centre in the Allen Park Heritage Precinct, hidden behind the
trees at the beachward end of Wood Street in the upper-middle-class
Perth suburb of Swanbourne.
The Fellowship have two houses here: Tom Collins House and Mattie
Furphy House. Their denizens call them Tom's and Mattie's. I'm living
and working in Mattie's, which was built between 1908 and the 1920s
by Joseph Furphy, aka novelist Tom Collins, for the copper-panel
artist Mattie Furphy (nee McCausland), the wife of Joseph's son
Samuel. The Furphys built the house in Clement Street, five minutes'
leafy walk away, but in 2005 the Fellowship rescued it from the
McMansion-developers, moved it here and spent seven years restoring
it. In March 2012 they launched it as the Mattie Furphy Centre for
There are quarters for the resident writer, a kitchen and two work
rooms. I'm sitting in the smaller work room, once the family dining
room. It's is big enough for a small workshop or conference, but I've
appropriated it as my office. I call it the sunshine room. Outside
the cream-painted windows and French doors there are jarrahs and
marris, green plastic tree-guards, walking paths, a pile of planks, a
stack of bricks, and Tom's in its white-weatherboard red-roof
mediocrity, leaves piling up in its gutter. There's one car: a
battered wagon belonging to FAWWA's caretaker, the poet Peter Bibby,
who's away at the moment.
I'm hankering to finish a particular poem, but that can't be done
quickly, so I've delegated it to my subconscious for the time being
while I reflect on my stay here.
Everyone I meet says, 'How's the residency? How's the writing
going? I'll bet you're getting lots written. Not having any
distractions must be nice.'
Well, yes and no.
Yes, I've done lots of writing. I've written every day, worked on
many different poems, made a zine and started this blog. I brought in
Seventh Continent Productions to film a performance video. Because I
have to write a report I started keeping a logbook to track my work,
and that's been so encouraging that I'm going to keep it up after I
leave. Being my own manager, I can't stay away from email for longer
than a few days, but I've kept away from the rest of the Internet as
much as I can. I've done a lot of reading and thinking. My writing
journal and logbook are electronic, which makes it easy to tag and
search, and the last four weeks are full of Poems, Opportunities,
Things Learned, Ideas and Insights. I get to be only a writer except
when my kids call me -- it's opulent luxury!
But it's not true that there are no distractions. I'm living in a
writers centre! People come and go, especially on Tuesdays and
Thursdays when the office in Tom's is open and busy with volunteers.
On Tuesdays lunch is served for the volunteers: good bread and
homemade soup set out on placemats for ten or more seated around the
sagging main table among the antique furniture in the front room at
Tom's. When it's time for soup someone wanders over and taps on my
And guess what happens? I get talking! People can be very
distracting. On the other hand, they give me ideas, energy and
drive, especially when they're the ones who did so much tedious
grant-writing and -- how can I put this nicely? -- networking, in
order to get my funding.
People also come in for workshops and mentoring sessions. Some are
mine, as required by my contract, and some are run by others. While
I've been here there have been several meetings and workshops
complete with teamaking and noise (and some useful contacts for me).
Most events are held in Mattie's front room, a big, beautiful,
timber-scented room with a mirrored fireplace. If it were mine I'd
bring in overstuffed leather couches, funny little tables, brass
candlesticks and portraits of dead poets -- but that's not going to
happen, because its size and acoustics make it perfect for classes
and meetings as well as intimate performance events like readings,
house concerts or book launches (and yes, you can hire it). So it's
furnished with stackable chairs and plastic trestle tables.
But most of the time I've been alone with the walls. And the floors. And the chairs. And the cushions. Are you getting the idea? The biggest distraction is the house
itself. I meant to tell you all about my writing and activities and
my ideas for the writers centre, but -- rather like the Fellowship
itself -- I seem be kind of stuck on the house.
From outside Mattie's house looks empty, unused. The wide front
verandah contains two ratty doormats and a picnic table. That's all.
It could use some seating, perhaps some potted plants, and a big
friendly sign on the front. But I suspect that would require
formfilling, phone calls and long difficult meetings with the local
authorities. Welcoming signs are definitely not the civic style
around here. The whole suburb is as smoothly groomed as the dogs and
owners who walk, jog and personal-train on the oval outside my
bedroom window. From the street there's no evidence that a writers
centre lurks behind the vegetation. A small sign near the house says
'Beware of Venomous Snakes': if I added 'and Poets' it'd be the
only graf for miles.
People say there's a ghost here, but I haven't seen it. I think
the house itself is the ghost, caught between two worlds, the past
and the future, unsure of how to move on.
Here's an idea for you, ghost. I can Creatively Imagine this house
as a drop-in centre for writers, open all weekend every weekend, with
a roster of experienced writers in attendance, with formal and
informal talks, discussions, readings and workshops, with quiet
writing times, with ambient music, with a lending library (gold coin
donation?), with a book and zine sales table in one corner, and in
the entrance a large, prominent box with a slot in the top, into
which the community who love coming here contribute according to
their not inconsiderable means to keep the centre going.
Making something like that a reality wouldn't take much funding,
just time, enthusiasm, organisation and community connection. But
it's just one idea.
The writer-in-residence coming in after me is another career writer and
educator, Horst Kornberger. It's Friday morning, so he's here now,
teaching his year-long course 'The Writers Passage'. He has at least
fifteen enthusiastic students. I can tell when he takes a break by
the eruption of noise around the tea urn. I ask him what he thinks of
the house. 'This place was conceived, built and used by artists', he
says, 'and should continue to be used by artists. It has a potent
spirit of place, a powerful creative effect.'
This being Perth, the sun has come out. It's shining on the jamjar
vase of foliage and flowers I've stolen from nearby houses with more
garden than they need. In a minute I'll go into the gloriously modern
kitchen and make a snack. Then maybe I'll walk down and look at the
sea. After that, I suspect I'll get my poem finished.