The Museum of Loss and Renewal

In September 2022 I had the privilege of spending a month in residence at The Museum of Loss and Renewal in the village of Collemacchia, Italy. The Museum of Loss and Renewal is a cultural project run by Edwin Janssen and Tracy MacKenna, artists and curators who have established a residency program to enable artists and writers to take the time to “generate thoughts, feelings and ideas” in Collemacchia. The village is in Molise in southern Italy, and is part of a mountainous region of great natural beauty which is not much known and visited, including by Italians.

What attracted me to the residency initially was its name: my own recent work, especially Melbourne Circle and my other ventures into psychogeography, has engaged with loss and renewal as key themes. Also, there was the appeal of returning to Italy, where I had lived as a young man more than 30 years ago. When I arrived at the place and began to explore, I discovered that it was an ideal place for investigating these themes in slightly different ways.

The village is very small in terms of population: only a few dozen people, and a large number of feral cats, populate it for much of the year, although more people return during the summer.

It all looks undeniably romantic and picturesque to the outsider, but this is an agricultural area which has lost much of its population over the past hundred years or so. Around the village you often come across empty houses with ‘for sale’ signs, some of which look abandoned, with crumbling walls and holes in the roofs. The hills around here used to be extensively cultivated, as you can tell from the dry stone walls which divide the hills into terraces on which people grew grapes and figs, walnuts and apples, and kept a few livestock. But now most of those small farms have gone – though a few survive – the walls are overgrown and crumbling, and you can freely pluck ripe figs from the trees, and apples and grapes, because no one is harvesting them. The area is rewilding, as part of a process known as ‘old field succession’. Nature reclaims the land, as people abandon the farms and flock to the cities – a trend happening in many parts of the world. I’ve always been an urban guy, but I found it intriguing and moving to be in this formerly agricultural area, and observe its transition back to wildness.

There are other traces of the past around these hills. Not far up the hill from the village is an old well, said to be Roman. Twenty minutes walk away, along a winding path that leads you on a circuitous route through trees and rocks and brambles, you find a medieval ossuary where the bodies of victims of the Naples Plague were disposed of, then walled up: peering down through a hole in the roof, I saw bones below. Less macabre are the little stone huts, known as ‘capanne’ which you come across here and there as you wander, built over past centuries as shelters for people out on the hills in foul weather. And everywhere you come across shrines, with plaster saints or Jesus himself gazing out from holes in the walls among the trees or beside the road.

On one occasion Edwin took me and fellow residents on a walk though the hills to an empty house which is an absolute gift to anyone with a taste for hauntology. Abandoned some time in the late 20th century, we think, it is engulfed with foliage, trees are growing through its walls, while birds and bats flit through the holes. Inside walls are painted powder blue, but the ceiling is a pale ocean with continents of dark green mould, and much of the plaster has crashed to the floor around the wreck of a washing machine. Light falls through a curtain of leaves around an empty doorway. And in the bedroom is the putrid corpse of a bed in a state of advanced decomposition. Wandering though the abandoned house – abandoned by its owners, anyway, though still very much occupied by other lifeforms – encouraged reflections on the transience of human activities: one day all our cities will be like this, but nature will continue. It that sense, the house is an embodiment both of loss and of renewal. A little bat on the ceiling glared at us, perhaps aware that his species has been around for millions of years longer than ours and expects to be here long after we’ve wiped ourselves out.

Being in such a layered and complex setting – and in four weeks I hardly had time to scratch the surface of it – was stimulating for my writing, and I did get some work done, supported by the always encouraging presence of Edwin Janssen. Hopefully some of the essays and fiction I worked on will see the light of day at some stage. I’m sure I will retain Collemacchia as part of my mental landscape and I am glad and grateful that I had the opportunity to visit. Any artist or writer with an interest in the kind of themes I’ve referred to would benefit from a residency at The Museum of Loss and Renewal, and I hope to return myself one day before too long.

Giving a reading in the library at The Museum of Loss and Renewal.

What is good book design?

Last Wednesday 24 March I had the pleasure of joining a panel discussing book design as part of Geelong Design Week. The panel, chaired by Pooja Desai, consisted of book designer Vaughan Mossop (founder of the innovative micropublisher Somekind Press), designer, writer and typographer Stephen Banham (founder of Letterbox), and me.

(l-r) Pooja Desai, me, Stephen Banham, Vaughan Mossop.
Stephen Banham and I

I have known Stephen for years and we have collaborated on many projects in various ways. The two of us were in Geelong to talk mainly about Death of a Typographer, my mystery novel about typography. Stephen’s involvement in this book was much greater than is usually permitted by the relationship between designer and author. For a start, the novel originated in conversations about type between Stephen and me stretching back over almost 20 years. From those discussions of glyphs, swashes, ligatures and type crime the idea for a mystery novel emerged, which I subsequently developed into Death of a Typographer.

Once the novel was accepted for publication, there was clearly only one person who could give the book the perfect design. Stephen came up with a striking, witty cover, evoking the classic Penguin books of the 1960s.

Stephen’s involvement in the design extended to the internal pages, particularly the chapter divider pages. Each chapter – there are 26 – is introduced by a page with the chapter title in a different font. The font chosen represents the content of the chapter in some way – a chapter set in London uses the font Underground Book; one set in a French bar uses the mid-century French font Peignot; the horrific chapter in which the arch-villain appears uses the ghastly Graveblade. The examples below are Gothic Outline Title D (22) Austin Light (21) and Compstyle. (For font nerds, all the fonts are listed in the appendix.)

The discussion turned to the question: what is good book design? Obviously, from the point of view of most publishers, a good design is one that will persuade customers to buy the book. That can lead to a certain homogeneity, as the covers of new books aspiring to commercial success imitate the the proven formula of those that are already bestsellers. It sometimes seems as if every new Australian crime novel has a cover based on Jane Harper’s bestseller The Dry, for example, with its big brooding skies and scary farm buildings .

There is a reasonable basis for this approach – if you are a fan of The Dry, then you will probably be drawn to covers that suggest another book is similar. From this perspective, designs that are original and bold are a commercial risk. But from an author’s point of view, I want the design of my books to reflect their contents in ways that go beyond marketing appeal.

Of course, authors rarely get much, if any, say over the design of their books. In my case, I was fortunate that my publisher agreed to my choice of designer, and that Stephen agreed to take on the job (for which there was little financial remuneration, book design being one of the lowest paid forms of graphic design).

In the case of Stephen’s design for Death of a Typographer, the cover suggested the nature of the book without a literal representation of its contents. In doing so, it stepped away from current book design cliches, and Stephen deservedly received the Designers’ Choice Book of the Year Award at the 2020 ABDA Awards.

You can view a video of the conversation here.

Talking psychogeography on Life Matters

I had a lovely conversation with Hilary Harper on Radio National’s ‘Life Matters’ program about walking the streets of Melbourne with my late wife, Lynne.

On our two-year walk around and through the suburbs of Melbourne, Lynne and I described a kind of wobbly circle, beginning in Williamstown, passing through 50 or so suburbs on foot and ending up in Port Melbourne – from where we took a ferry back to our starting point.

On the way we discovered ghost signs, fascinating old buildings and remarkable stories and characters from Melbourne’s past – including the strange tale of the monkey jockeys of Sunshine Road.

Not long after the journey finished, Lynne died of cancer. My book Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss is the story of our journey and a memoir of our life together in Melbourne.

Listen to the audio of the interview here.

You can buy the book Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss (published by Australian Scholarly Publishing) here, here, here or ask at your local bookshop.

Melbourne Circle book published in December

My new book Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss was launched on 3 December 2020.

You can buy the book here, here, here or ask at your local bookshop.

The cover art, by the Melbourne artist Jim Pavlidis, captures exactly what I am trying to express in the book: the sense of magic and mystery that exists in ordinary suburban streetscapes, and the way we carry our own histories with us as we walk.

The book is based on a series of walks my wife Lynne and I took in 2014-2016, which together formed a big circle around Melbourne. During our journey on foot, which passed through some 50 suburbs, we encountered ghost signs, derelict buildings and lost places, and uncovered countless forgotten stories from the past. I wrote a blog about these walks, titled Melbourne Circle.

In 2018, I experienced another kind of loss when Lynne died of cancer. Writing the book about our walks became a way not just of exploring the history of Melbourne but of coping with my grief by telling our story. The book is a personal memoir as much as it is travelogue or social history. In addition to some sections which originated as blog posts, the book reflects on how our lives unfolded in the Melbourne suburbs, and how we built meanings together through our relationships with these places.

As the title suggests, the themes are loss, memory, connection to place, and regeneration. The implicit argument of the book is that connection with place is a key to the meanings of our lives.

Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss is published by Arcadia, an imprint of Australian Scholarly Publishing.

Ned Kelly Awards shortlist

The shortlists for the 2020 Ned Kelly Awards have been announced and I’m absolutely stoked that my font-based mystery, Death of a Typographer is on the shortlist for best Australian crime novel of the year. The judges described it as a ‘quirky and original story which is funny and very Melbourne’. Thank you very much!

The Australian Crime Writers Association does a great job of promoting Aussie crime writing through the Ned Kelly Awards every year. The last time I was involved in the Neddies was in 2009, when my first novel Ghostlines won the award for best debut crime novel.

The full shortlist in this category is:

  • Nick Gadd, Death of a Typographer (Australian Scholarly Publishing)
  • Pip Drysdale, The Strangers We Know (Simon & Schuster Australia)
  • Dervla McTiernan, The Scholar (Harlequin Enterprises Australia)
  • Christian White, The Wife and the Widow (Affirm Press)
  • Dave Warner, Rivers of Salt (Fremantle Press)
  • David Whish-Wilson, True West (Fremantle Press)

I think the announcement of the winner might be some time in October.

Here are the shortlists in the other categories.

If you would like to buy Death of a Typographer, and/or Ghostlines, please click here.

Here’s a cool little video of the shortlists:

Australian Book Design Awards – cover of the year!

I was absolutely thrilled when Stephen Banham won the Designers’ Choice Cover of the Year award at the 2020 Australian Book Design Awards for his brilliant, witty design for Death of a Typographer.

The Cover of the Year Award was shared between two books: Death of a Typographer and The Glad Shout, designed by Jenny Grigg.

The moment I saw Stephen’s design for the first time in a Carlton cafe back in mid-2019, I knew he had nailed exactly the vibe I was looking for. The design is clever, original, and striking, showing a stylish blood-stained punctuation mark.

Stephen was really the only person who could have designed this novel. Not only is he a typographer, graphic designer and font expert, he is also a good friend, and my conversations with Stephen inspired the novel in the first place. It was from Stephen that I first learned that there is such a thing as font crime, what kerning means, and the difference between a glyph, a ligature and a swash.

Stephen also designed the internal pages of the book, creating a special divider page at the start of each chapter in a different font, with the selected typeface reflecting the content of the chapter. Among the fonts he selected (all listed at the back, for the enthusiast) are Peignot (for a chapter set in a French bar), Underground (set in London), and the hideous Graveblade (in which the arch-villain finally appears).

Stephen has also recently designed a new cover for my first novel, Ghostlines, which first appeared in 2008, and has just been republished in a new edition.

Both novels are available from your local bookshop or from Australian Scholarly Publishing.

Stephen’s design studio is Letterbox.

Ghost signs on Channel 9

This clip recently appeared on the Channel 9 news in Melbourne. It features me talking to reporter Tony Jones about some of the little-known stories behind old Melbourne signage.

Some of these signs are described in more detail on my blog Melbourne Circle, and in the forthcoming book Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss.

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Some of the ghost signs that appear in this clip:

Penfolds wine/Monkey Brand Soap/Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills – Abbotsford St North Melbourne

Maison Marney Brandy – Canning St North Melbourne

Cinzano – Buckley St, Footscray

Alex Barfoot shoe repairs – Little Collins St, Melbourne

L. W. Holmes paperhanger – Glenferrie Rd, Malvern

Capstan cigarettes/Temple Bar – Stephen St, Yarraville

Family chemist/Palcolor – Ballarat St, Yarraville

J. King … self raising – Cecil/Bank St, South Melbourne

Wines and Spirits – Epsom Road, Kensington

Robur tea / Bushells tea – Park St, Carlton North

Greys – Arden St, North Melbourne

Atco Jeep etc – Macaulay Rd, North Melbourne

Melbourne Circle: the book

Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss was published in December 2020. It is an account of a journey on foot around Melbourne in the years 2014-16 which I made with my late wife, Lynne. On the way we observed ghost signs, derelict buildings and lost places, and we uncovered countless forgotten stories and characters from the past.

In 2018, I experienced another kind of loss when Lynne died of cancer. Writing the book about our walks became a way not just of exploring the history of Melbourne but of coping with my grief by telling our story. Melbourne Circle is a personal memoir as much as it is travelogue and social history. In addition to weird and wonderful stories of how past Melburnians lived (monkey jockeys, anyone?) the book reflects on how our lives unfolded in the Melbourne suburbs, and how we built meanings together through our relationships with these places.

As the title suggests, the themes of the book are loss, memory, connection to place, and regeneration. All of this adds up to what I understand as ‘psychogeography’, meaning a recognition of our connection with place as a key to the meanings of our lives.

You can buy the book here, here, here or ask at your local bookshop.

Here is the audio of my interview about the book with Hilary Harper on Radio National.

You can check out my original blog, Melbourne Circle, here.

A chat with 30 Books

Stella Glorie of the Aussie book blog Thirty Books recently interviewed me about my novel Death of a Typographer. We had a lovely chat about typography, Dutch design, men writing women characters and avocados. Stella also asked me for some recommendations of Australian books I’ve recently enjoyed – I mentioned Nick Earls’ Wisdom Tree novellas, Vanessa Berry’s Mirror Sydney and Stephen Banham’s Characters: Cultural Stories Revealed Through Typography. Here’s the video. Make sure you check out Stella’s other videos too and follow her blog, Thirty Books.