Elizabeth’s on King

Newtown is a pretty cool place.

If you live in Sydney and aren’t a soulless automaton, you probably already know this. If you don’t, it’s the place Coldplay filmed the video for “A Sky Full of Stars”. Go watch that, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of Newtown.

It’s an inner-city suburb full of liberal, artsy types, a healthy balance of laminate-table eateries and organic artisan bakeries, countless live music venues and competing buskers and a sprinkling of adult stores to keep things interesting. You can get vegan gelato next door to a greasy kebab place. Every light post is plastered with posters calling for the overthrow of the government, the socialist revolution. Hipsters abound. It’s a great place.

Last Sunday, Sydney had its first proper spring day, so we went into Newtown to celebrate. After seeing ‘What We Do In The Shadows’ – very good, very funny highly recommended – and having lunch at my favourite pie place, we headed to Elizabeth’s.

Elizabeth’s is my favourite bookshop. There’s a few of them around, but the Newtown store on King Street is my preferred stop for all my paperback needs. From the front it’s mostly unremarkable. It stocks your usual on-trend biographies, glossy crime fiction and old classics with new covers. There are usually bargain bins full of two dollar thrillers and old hard-boiled paperbacks rolled out onto their patch of footpath, with colourful children’s book displays in the windows and posters touting new releases. What does make it stand out is their prominent display entitled ‘Blind Date With a Book’

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A single book, wrapped in brown paper with nothing but a few key words to guide your choice. You don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve taken it home and unwrapped your lovely little gift to yourself (and if you’ve already read it, you can take it back). I think it’s about encouraging people to look beyond the title/author/cover of the book, but it’s also just a really cool way of selling books. And getting people into your store.

Which leads us to the back of Elizabeth’s, where shiny covers and crisp spines give way to a treasure trove of tattered, battered, dusty, pre-loved titles. The second-hand section is where the real beauty lies. Carefully sorted by genre, there are shelves upon shelves of well-worn classics and obscure special interest tomes, of sci-fi franchise novels and questionable erotica. There are plays and lit crit and anthologies and essays and old, leather-bound books with tissue-thin, yellowed pages and copies of Northanger Abbey still bearing the cursive annotation of its last owner.
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I adore second hand bookstores. I rarely buy anything, because I’m on a budget and don’t need any more books when I already have so many waiting to be read, so I avoid going into them and falling into the trap. But when I allow myself that pleasure, it is one of my favourite ways to pass the time. Many of my books came from second hand stores with broken spines and dog-eared pages, and while some might object, I almost enjoy this more than the crisp corners and faded glue smell of brand new books.

I think second hand books, apart from being recycled, which is always good, are a call back to the oral storytelling traditions of days long gone, when stories were passed from one to the next and ever carrier left their mark on the words. I’m a strong believer in stories belonging to their audience, being shaped by their readers and shaping them in return. A second hand book isn’t just a story on pages – it bears snippets of the stories of its owners gone by. I hardly dare say it, lest I start turning into a rabid Newtown hipster myself – they have character.

Also, second hand book stores like Elizabeth’s are really really fun.

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I didn’t buy anything this trip – budget, lack of shelf space, too many books – but I’ve enjoyed some great finds in the past. My copy of The Princess Bride came from here, as did my Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (half way through the former, working on the latter). Maybe once I’ve finished those I’ll let myself buy a few more.

Most cities have a Newtown. You probably know where yours is. On your next sunny weekend, I can strongly recommend eating pie and bookshop browsing. Two thumbs up, would go again.

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Let’s Put Things In Perspective

In the interest of transparency, I’ll begin by saying I am a U2 fan. I’ve talked about it here. I own their entire catalogue, so you can bet I was excited to have them drop another album, with no warning, last week. I’ve been playing ‘Songs of Innocence’ for days, and I’m loving it. It is, in my humble opinion, a fantastic album, perhaps their best since Achtung Baby. It’s been a great week to be a U2 fan.

If you’re not a U2 fan, having their new album drop, with no warning, for free, into your iTunes was probably an unexpected, and not entirely welcome, surprise. There are a few ways you could handle the free album. You could ignore it, delete it and move on with your day. You could say ‘hey, free music’ and give it a listen. You might hate it. See step one. You might like it. Fantastic. Reactions have been varied. I get that.

What I don’t get – what I simply cannot fathom – is the stupendously bitter backlash against what is nothing more than a free gift from Apple (not U2. Apple).

People have been raging about about ‘lack of consent’, invasions of privacy, about ‘facism’ (????), about the fact that they simply don’t like U2. The reactions have been, frankly, ridiculously disproportionate. If you are seriously getting this angry about getting some free music, I’m a little concerned for your blood pressure.

We did agree to this – we all did – when we created our iTunes accounts. Nothing about this was illegal, so let’s put that argument aside. I know no of us ever read the terms and conditions, but Apple is not stupid enough to have done this if they were not completely within their rights.

On a side note, if I see one more person comparing some free music to rape – “Apple raped my iTunes”, “I feel like I’ve been raped” – I will roll off the planet and fly into the sun. Rape is never, ever a punchline. You’re not funny. All you’re doing is displaying a spectacular lack of empathy for the suffering of real people.

“But I don’t want it!!” Ok. Delete it. Apple’s even made a handy, one-click tool for those who couldn’t figure out how to. Off you go.

This was not a massive security breach or some international cyber crime. This is Apple buying an album from a successful band and giving it as a gift to their users. One you can embrace or ignore. And while I agree aspects of it could have been better handled – many people had no idea what was happening when the album appeared in iTunes – the response has been disproportionate. While I generally dislike the term, this is a #firstworldproblem if ever I saw one.

I for one am excited for what this could mean for music and musicians. I’m excited at the idea of a service that could introduce me to new music, for free, without me having to look for it. That could drop music into my collection just because I might like it. That could help me discover new artists and new albums I would otherwise have ignored, or never even have known about, that could challenges me to try new things. They could theoretically do the same for books and apps, even movies and TV. Imagine a world where entertainment gets dropped into your pocket – for free – just for you to sample and explore and enjoy. I don’t get how people could not be excited by that.

Ten years ago, when the music industry begged us to stop downloading music for free, we laughed at them. Now, they offer us music for free and it’s the Worst Thing Ever? “This isn’t the music I didn’t want to pay for!”

Most importantly, the anger that’s been directed at Apple and U2 this week could actually have been productive if redirected to something that actually matters. Get angry about the Ebola pandemic, about the atrocities occurring in Syria, about the murders of innocent people at the hands of IS extremists. Get angry about the drought in California or the looming famine in Sudan or the fact that Mike Brown’s murderer is still walking free. Get angry about AIDS or marriage equality, climate change, the plight of asylum seekers, corrupt cops and politicians. Get angry about unjust wars, about domestic violence, about food shortages and endangered species and our over-reliance on non-renewable energy sources.

If the biggest, baddest thing you have to get angry over is some free music you don’t particularly enjoy, you probably need to re-evaluate your priorities.

Enjoy some free music. Then go and get angry about something real.

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PS. Given that tens of millions of people, give or take, have downloaded the album, and that 17 albums from their back catalogue reappeared in the Top 100 charts, that they’re coming of the back of the most successful concert tour of all time – and that they’re very rich and very famous – I don’t think U2 care. Apple certainly don’t. We can all stop yelling at clouds now.

Weekend Writeaway

Last weekend I went on an adventure.

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(Image from bwf.org.au)

That may be overstating it, but it was a small kind of adventure to me. I left work, hopped a train to the airport and jetted off to Queensland for the weekend for the Brisbane Writers Festival. My godmother, who lives up there, had all but begged me to come and visit. I have a job now, a regular pay check to make fun things like whirlwind trips north possible. I didn’t have any reason not to go, so I went. And I had a fantastic time.

On Saturday, I was lucky enough to sit in on the ‘Women and Prizes’ panel, where incredible female authors such as Karen Joy Fowler and Sophie Cunningham and Claire Wright discussed the lack of mainstream recognition of the achievements of female writers.

Afterwards I attended ‘So You Want To Write A Book’, where, as the name suggests, a group of aspiring authors had the opportunity to learn from the advice and experience of authors from different genres and backgrounds

My final panel for Saturday was ‘The Bond of Women’, which sounded promising and began well, but, I felt, lost its way towards the end, straying off topic and losing its focus. While entertaining, with moments of quick wit and worthwhile wisdom, it was the least memorable session of my weekend. However, considering the overall quality of my weekend, being the least memorable is still a worthwhile achievement.

Sunday morning I attended Lauren Beukes’ discussion of her new novel “Broken Monsters”. While I think the title is a little on the nose, the insight into her research was fascinating. She travelled deep into the urban wilds of Detroit, learned from the locals and went to extraordinary lengths to ensure authenticity in her book. It was wonderful to learn about her process.

The highlight of my weekend was ‘The Fictional Woman’, where Tara Moss, Caroline Overington and Anne Manne discussed the challenges women face, the labels that are pinned on them and the fictions that are widely believe about women and womanhood. It was a privilege to hear such wonderful women discussing issues that are becoming more and more relevant to my life, issues such as sexual and domestic violence, the debilitating impact of everyday sexism and the unique obstacle put before women in the workforce. When I was younger, such ideas seemed abstract and exaggerated – they couldn’t possibly affect me, not in Australia – but as I’ve reached adulthood, I’ve realised how widespread and harmful these ‘fiction’ are. To hear these problems discussed frankly – and without the predictable injection of ‘not all men’ or ‘stop playing the gender card’ – was delightfully refreshing and just a little vindicating.

I finished up my festival trip with ‘The Laws of Magic’. As I’m currently working on an urban fantasy project, it was very interesting – and very helpful – to see how other authors approach writing about magic, the rules and restrictions they place on it and how it interacts with their world.

On a personal note, I managed to squeeze in drinks with my cousin. We’ve been growing closer over the past few years, and we try to catch up when we’re in the same city. I always worry that it will be awkward, that we’ll have nothing to say, but my worries never eventuate. I was the baby of a big family, but I’m enjoying closer bonds with my many cousins now that I’m older, and I’m really glad I was able to spend that time with her.

And, of course, I shared some lovely meals and late night pots of tea with my godmother, who is an incredible woman. I’ve always looked up to her, and to have her welcome me so warmly and devote so much of her already limited time to me – without the buffer of my parents – was wonderful. And I got a good deal of my own writing done. I came away from my weekend, short as it was, feel refreshed and inspired and very very loved.

I’ve discovered that I’m quite the fan of the weekend getaway. Which is good, because I’m off to Canberra in a couple of weeks for another little adventure. I’ll let you know how that one goes.