On Home Author Frank Moorhouse on how technology is bridging the gap between home and society.
Living alone while staying connected is a choice for this prolific Australian writer, who often draws material from his own life and social interactions.
While my friends were all busy renovating their homes and creating imaginative gardens, I was doing my own upgrade: researching and buying an excellent replacement backpack for bushwalking. I quipped, with snooty, spiritual superiority, that the planet was my garden and the backpack my true home.
Over the years I have spent about four years of my life, almost always alone, trekking off-track-map-and-compass in wildernesses here and around the world. And I have lived – for more than three months at a time – in about 40 houses, rooms, flats, colleges, farms and barracks. For the past 14 years, I have lived alone in a Kings Cross flat, the longest I have ever lived in any one place, including the home where I grew up.
One-in-four Australian households is a single-person dwelling. That’s a lot of people living alone. This trend increased sharply from the 1970s, but seems to have levelled off. The move to living alone has been interpreted in different ways, often as the abandonment of stale marriages after the children are raised. But for some, living alone is not always their preferred choice.
I have had enriching intimate domestic relationships which I value highly, but as I grew older I moved to the idea of an intimate relationship in the shape of ‘living nearby and seeing each other often (or now and then)’.
My flat is five floors up (no lift – it’s my gym) and 46m2, involving a large room half-partitioned by a waist-high, wood bench on which pot plants sit. The first half of the room is for reading, listening to music, TV/DVD watching and for social drinks; the second half is a kitchen/dining/larder space. At the reading end is a sleeping alcove and wardrobes closed off with sliding doors. And a small bathroom.
The flat’s french-shuttered windows give as much light and sun as I need, or they can be closed to shut out the light – and the world. I have two lorikeets who visit me for breakfast at the kitchen window – Coppélia and Esselle – yes, I can tell the difference. I live a fairly social life and do not suffer loneliness – I occasionally see friends, new and old, who live in the neighbourhood, in the street or supermarket.
The internet and the mobile phone, emails, text messaging and social media have presented us with a much more convenient, nicely woven, social world of new and different shapes. I find that emails and texts (I don’t use Instagram or Facebook) encourage more frequent moments of connection, and they can be answered immediately if urgent or later at length. They also allow the sharing of illustrations, articles and photographs.
I get much from the ‘telephone cocktail hour’, when a friend and I will connect over the phone and talk for a substantial time while having a drink at the end of the day. This also permits me to have cocktails with a friend not living in my city. With an American friend, because of the time distance, we call it ‘martinis talking to cornflakes’.
‘I get much from the “telephone cocktail hour”, when a friend and I will connect over the phone while having a drink.’
Statistics show it’s not unusual for the older-age cohort (over 40 years old) to check or use their mobile telephone more than 30 times a day. These internet fragments of connection and intimacy have, for me, replaced the daily domestic face-to-face exchanges of living together in one shared space, and are a better-managed use of our social time – freer of domestic friction and banality.
I enjoy the aesthetics of both my living space and my study/office; they each have their own pleasing arrangements of furniture and objects: ornaments, original paintings and prints, and mementos. In both spaces I have arranged feathers in vases (these mostly come from bush treks, although some more recent ones are city finds), and there are many stones collected from my world treks. They’re arranged in aesthetically intuitive formations – I am not quite sure what the underlying aesthetic of my arrangements is, but I know with absolute certainty which stone belongs where. On my work desk I have feathers, stones, shells and nuts found throughout my life. I suspect they are all part of the witchcraft of my writing.
I have three libraries. One is stored in a friend’s barn and accessible, another is in my study/office, which is located in the same building as my flat and contains my reference material. The third is a pleasure library in my flat, made up primarily of a remarkable collection of Australian short-story anthologies (about 450), some dating back to the early days of publishing in Australia. This is a very alive library. I find I sometimes reach out and randomly read a volume, or pull a book to see, for example, what writers were writing about in, say, 1928.
Books do furnish a life (to borrow from English writer Anthony Powell’s novel, Books Do Furnish a Room) and I have a bookcase dedicated to those I have written. I find the books I have penned can at some low times jolly up vanity, but also contain within them the danger of self-doubt and regret and ghosts.
Frank Moorhouse AM is a prizewinning novelist best known for his Edith Trilogy tracing the career of Australian Edith Campbell Berry, who worked for the League of Nations in the 1920s. He has written six non-fiction books, including Martini: a Memoir. His latest book,The Drover’s Wife ($34.99, Penguin), is a collection of essays examining why Henry Lawson’s original short story has continued to inspire writers and artists.