It was a cool night outside, but inside the foyer of The Street Theatre, there was warmth, excitement, a long queue waiting to buy a book: Nigel Featherstone’s Bodies of Men, and an even longer queue at the signing table. And that was all before the launch officially began.
Well over a hundred people were there, from the theatre, music, art and literary worlds. That in itself speaks to the breadth of Nigel’s commitments and creativity: he has crafted words to grace all of those artforms. And the love for him, the appreciation for his talent, was palpable.
It was a great honour to be invited to say a few words on the night. Here they are, my attempt to evoke a little of the man and his latest creation.
Hello, everyone it’s such a pleasure to be here and to be asked to speak about this wonderful novel.
Nigel told me he was worried that there might not be many people here tonight. And I told him, that was silly, of course Canberrans would come — after all, it’s almost winter, the nights are cold, and he’d put the word ‘booze’ on the invitation. Right? I think the queue for drinks was only a little shorter than the queue for books!
No, not really. I told Nigel that lots of people would come because so many in Canberra love him. And that’s obvious tonight.
I think there’s not a person here who hasn’t been touched in some way by Nigel’s love of story and his work for literature. From lobbying for improved support for the arts, to organising the Hardcopy program that continues to nurture good writing, to founding the online journal, Verity La, to his support and encouragement of individual writers, like me. And of course, his writing: a novel, short stories, novellas, a remarkable libretto, poetry, and now, a new novel.
Here it is, Bodies of Men, the book. Such a small object, so neat and tidy. It’s a miracle really, given all that went into its creation. I know a little of that, because Nigel and I journeyed together as we each wrote a novel. We met for lunch from time to time. And oh, if the walls of Sweet Bones café could speak, they’d bear witness to it all: the worry and self doubt, the creativity and commitment to the story that refuses to be silenced by self doubt, the endless hours of research and writing, even more hours editing and pruning and editing again. I’ve been astonished at Nigel’s willingness to go back to the coalface, again and again, writing draft after draft. I’m full of admiration for his love for this story. His sensitivity and his commitment to finding its true heart.
Then, when it’s all done, you’re unaware of all that; the result is this: a story where the words flow, a story that feels just right, almost as if it wrote itself.
When I opened Bodies of Men, and began to read, so much that is rich and true and tender poured from the words.
The sentences are light and clear, the words a window through which we see. With patience, the scenes gather to show us such disparate worlds — Sydney, the bush and the city and, years later, the streets and courtyards of Alexandria, the heat and expanse of desert and army tents, the welcoming sea, a garden, olives, mint tea, Yiddish poetry. Before I knew it, I was immersed. And, at the right time, there are sentences and images that ring out like a struck bell, glimmers of light and truth that made me stop, read them again
This is a novel set in wartime, but it is so much more than a war novel. The war, the threat of death, the horror of the need to kill, the demands and rigours of army structures are a dark presence, hovering always, demanding courage and discipline. But instead of accounts of battles and heroism, the war is shown up close, in the encounters of individual people: the personal cost of killing another human and the cost of not killing.
Among all this, surprisingly, we are drawn into the gradual emergence of a relationship between two men, James and William, so different and yet so right together. Their relationship is painted with remarkable insight: tentative and vulnerable but also incredibly strong. It is a love that grows with its own kind of bravery and tenacity, and — what I particularly loved — a sense of adventure. It is beautiful, even thrilling, to watch the way the tenderness between them has a particular power that draws them back to one another time and again. It gives them a courage that the army, and society in general, cannot understand.
And, briefly, I just want to say how much I admire Nigel’s portrayal of the women; they are honest, wise and strong, surviving and caring, doing what needs to be done. As with his other writing, Nigel writes about women with great respect.
Finally, I especially love the space the novel opens up. It asks for slow reading. The short scenes, sometimes deceptively simple, evoke place and character, but they also create a kind of airiness, an openness that invites ideas, questions and thoughts. It takes the reader seriously, asks us to honour the story with our own thoughts.
And the ending does that impossible thing: it is inevitable but unpredictable. I’m still thinking about what might come next for William and James.
So, thank you Nigel for taking on the motto you gave to Verity La: be brave. You have given us beauty, tenderness and courage, all in this small object. Fly, little book.