Two days ago, an article in The Australian – ‘BackTrack project saving kids from lockup’ – featured the work of Bernie Shakeshaft, founder and manager of BackTrack Youth Works in Armidale. The article, which raised important points about keeping kids out of jail and working on alternative solutions to incarceration, mentioned how Bernie and the team at BackTrack commonly ask young people who join the program about their hopes and dreams in life. ‘It takes them a while to answer,’ noted Bernie, ‘because they’re not used to hearing that [question].’

The story of BackTrack and the emergence of Bernie’s hugely successful programs in Armidale and further afield are documented in my memoir Wild Boys: A Parent’s Story of Tough Love (UQP), and Bernie’s comment about ‘hopes and dreams’ reminded me of a chapter in Wild Boys called ‘The Scent of an Idiot’, some of which I’ll share below:

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Wild-BoysExcerpt from Wild Boys: A Parent’s Story of Tough Love (pp. 11-12)

One day, as Bernie and I sat together on the concrete ledge outside the shed, I’d asked him what the boys were like when he first met them. He shook his head and grimaced: ‘They were the wildest bunch of hoorangs you’re likely to come across!’

I laughed at his pained expression. He found his tobacco and rolled a cigarette, his habitual way of settling in for a chat.

‘There were some damaged kids in that group,’ said Bernie, his voice low. ‘It was almost too late to start with them. Hard-core kids, on the edge of going inside for violent bashings, already identified as hopeless troublemakers, a lot of them living away from home. For sixteen years they’d heard the only thing that matters is getting a school certificate, only to be told: “It’s all bullshit. You guys aren’t going to get there.”’ Bernie gave a scornful huff. ‘The schools hadn’t worked on the strengths and dreams of those kids.’

He paused for a moment to light his smoke. ‘It was like getting a bag full of wild cats and letting them out in one room where they couldn’t escape. The schools kept saying I had to stick with the rules … that the boys weren’t allowed to smoke or swear.’ Bernie whistled through his teeth. ‘For Christ’s sakes, you send me twenty of your wildest boys – all full-on swearers and smokers and blasphemers – and tell me to enforce the school rules? It was wild!’ He grinned, his face alive with the memory. ‘We had knives pulled in the welding shed, and just as soon as you’d be finished with the knife incident, the boss-man from the college would be yelling, “What the hell is that kid doing up on top of that three-storey building!” The boys would show up black and blue, on the piss and smoking bongs. Not all of them ended up here at the shed – some did well, some not so well. One of them died, another’s in jail.’

‘It’s hard to believe the boys were like that.’ I thought of Thommo with his quiet dignity. ‘Was Thommo that wild?’

Bernie rolled his eyes and groaned. ‘He was the craziest! He and his mates were riding bikes into poles and dropping garbage bins on each other’s heads from the highest roof at school. Whatever someone did that was dangerous, Thommo did something double-dangerous. Thommo wouldn’t just jump off the third storey of the building – he’d want to jump through three sheets of glass as well. Taking it to extremes. Crazy self-mutilation stuff.’

We sat quietly for a moment.

‘I did a lot of that as a kid myself,’ said Bernie. ‘Hardly a bone in my body I haven’t broken – from having no fear or need for self-preservation. Dealing with those kids rang a lot of bells for me because, all those years ago, I would’ve been one of those wild cats let out of the bag.’

 

Holy heck … what a busy time it’s been! In April, I attended my formal graduation ceremony at the University of New England, where I was one of only ten PhD graduates who got to wear a flowing red gown and black beret. We certainly stood out in the crowd, and it all felt very exciting and Harry Potterish. Although I officially became Dr Pastor in January this year, the ceremony really helped to bring about a sense of resolution to all those years of hard work, and I’m so glad that three of my four children and a few friends were there to see me graduate.

Also, in May and July, Christopher Purcell and I organised two ‘Red Rug Sessions’ at Black Dot Music Store in Armidale. Black Dot owner, Tony Elder, regularly hosts informal concerts by local and visiting musicians in his store, and the ‘Red Rug’ sessions are well attended by the local community. Tony sets up comfy chairs and lounges around a shaggy red rug, dims the lights, and people sit back and listen to the music. There’s even a lucky door prize where the winner receives a jar of Tony’s delicious homemade chilli sauce. Chris and I thought the intimate atmosphere of Black Dot would be the perfect venue to premiere songs from our current collaboration: Lullaby & Lament – A Song Cycle. This project, for which I’ve written the lyrics and Chris has composed the music, features songs that relate the joys and sorrows of human life. At the first Red Rug concert, we ‘tested the water’ with four songs from the cycle along with a number of other songs that we’d written separately. The Lullaby & Lament songs were particularly well received … this collaboration rocks!

RED RUG SESSION 25 May 2016

For the second concert, Chris accompanied mezzo-soprano Ruth Strutt (Opera Australia) who sang twelve songs from the cycle to a record-breaking crowd at Black Dot. Hearing the songs performed by a singer of Ruth’s caliber was such a treat … and I feel very fortunate to have Ruth on board with this project. I also thought it was a positive sign when someone pressed $35 into my hand after the concert and said: ‘Put this towards the cost of a recording.’ Sure! Then, at the end of the night, a friend gave me the lucky door prize (which he had just won) … Tony’s ApricHot Chilli Sauce! All in all, the Red Rug sessions were a wonderful experience, and Chris and I hope to do another one towards the end of the year. But first, over the next few months, Chris will be finishing the instrumentation for the song cycle, and then we’re hoping to receive some funding to record Lullaby & Lament with Ruth Strutt when she’s next in town. Exciting times, folks … exciting times!

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LANTERN PARADE 2016

Yes, that’s me and my youngest son and a few of his school friends carrying the snake lantern in the annual Uralla Lantern Parade. Rob Stanley, a local photographer, took the photo. I love the strength of the image. We look like we’re walking into a new future, and that’s how I feel after moving to Uralla – a little town just south of Armidale on the New England highway. I’ve finally settled in after a pretty challenging move (over the past few months, I’ve learned that change may be a wonderful thing, but it’s also friggin’ scary for a while!).

In the first month, when it was all feeling like a big mistake, my son and I wrote a list of all the things we liked about Uralla – just so we (mainly me) had some positive things to focus on. Two of the things that made it onto the list were ‘horses’ and ‘the sky’. Uralla has a lot of horses, and there are two that live in a paddock behind my back fence. I feed them apples every day, and even after three months, I still marvel at the velvety softness of their noses. The sky also astounds me on a daily basis, and I can’t remember a time where I’ve ever paid so much attention to the changing nature of the clouds through the day or the clarity of the stars at night. So beautiful … I feel blessed to live in a town that enables me to enjoy such simple pleasures.

As for writing, I’ve finished all the lyrics for the ‘song-cycle’ project that I’ve been working on with a local composer, and I’m now planning my next literary adventure. In the meantime, I’m reading about Sunday Reed and Joy Hester and the creative circle at Heide, and also learning about the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood – particularly William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Oh, may there always be groups of artists who inspire each other!

Some welcome news … the wonderful team from Booranga Writers’ Centre in Wagga Wagga have invited me to be a writer-in-residence for two weeks in September later this year. I’m really looking forward to spending some dedicated writing time in such a beautiful rural location … apparently the writer’s flat overlooks the Charles Sturt University’s winery, grapevines and olive grove, so it’ll be almost like going to Italy! I’m also really keen to meet the local writing community, give a workshop and some readings, and explore the region. Thank you Booranga!

 

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Here’s a poem from my 2013 visit to Bundanon … 

 

Yesterday, while brushing my teeth, I heard a noise outside.

From the bathroom window I watched a crow

desperately trying to get into the Dorothy Porter studio;

tapping its beak on the glass, hurling its body against the door.

Later, wanting to know what all the fuss was about,

I walked across to the studio.

Nothing but an empty room.

But as I stood inside the white-walled, wooden-floored space,

I began vocalising to the sound of aahh,

and, because of rich acoustics,

my voice was unexpectedly beautiful –

as sweet as bird-song.

No wonder the crow wanted to break in.

 

Australian crow

I’m in the middle of moving … housesitting various places and living out of a suitcase while waiting for a bathroom to be completed in a lovely light-filled cottage in Uralla, a village fifteen minutes away from Armidale. Being caught in limbo land like this is a little challenging, but I’m trying to remember that change is a wonderful thing and that opportunities are flowing with change. It’s true. Lots of opportunities are arriving into my life – creative projects, work ideas, travel plans – and I’m also meeting some wonderful new people. About a year ago, when I was stuck in the editing wilderness of Wild Boys, I wrote a song called ‘Caravan Dreaming’ – about longing to escape in an old caravan I bought for my son’s 19th birthday. In a way, that dream has come about – all I’m missing is the caravan. I’m certainly living the gypsy life, and being temporarily homeless is teaching me some important lessons.

Speaking of songs, I’ve now completed the lyrics for fourteen songs for a ‘cradle to grave’ song-cycle collaboration that I’m doing with a local Armidale composer. Only two more songs to finish and I’ll be done with the writing. My collaborator has also been hard at work and has so far set eight of the songs. I’m really enjoying working on this project – it’s very exciting to hear my words set to beautiful music. Actually, it’s mind-blowing … and I just love it! The other day, I heard six new songs that my collaborator had set over the Christmas break, and it was one of the top experiences of my life. More! More! I’m already planning the next project … collaborating is addictive!

Meanwhile, sales for Wild Boys are going well. Over the last few months, I’ve been promoting the book through a series of guest talks at local clubs in the New England region – such as Rotary and Zonta. People from all walks of life seem interested in the book – parents, educators, school counselors, social workers and truancy officers – and that’s a wonderful thing, too. Finally, below is a photo from a performance of ‘homespun songs’ that I did with Chris Purcell and some other friends at a Buddhist gompa on a friend’s property late last year … such a special place to sing.

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Vajra Ling Gompa, December 2015

Well, it’s been a while … but all I’m going to say about my long absence is that publishing a memoir is a huge emotional experience. It’s only the last few weeks where I’ve felt like I’ve finally stepped off the rollercoaster, and I’m glad to have my feet back on the ground. In the midst of it all, I still managed to enjoy my time at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival in early September – it was lovely to see my friend Edwina again, and to meet some of the other guest writers and volunteers at the festival. Along with catching up with the team from UQP, I especially enjoyed meeting Susan Johnson at the festival launch. She’s one of my literary heroes, and, many years ago, I was inspired by her courageous memoir, A Better Woman. At the launch that night, the two of us discovered we have a shared interest in the life and writing of Charmian Clift, and it was good to chat about Clift’s time on the Greek island of Hydra, where I would like to visit one day.

Wild Boys has been chugging along nicely since it was launched into the world four months ago. In recent months, the book has attracted some very positive media attention … it was great to see it reviewed in the October Issue of Country Life magazine – ‘A deeply involving true confession’ – and in the November Issue of Child magazine. The Big Book Club has listed Wild Boys as one of their ‘Recommended Reads’ for November, saying it is ‘compelling reading for parents and for those working with young people’. And, back in August, Provoke magazine reviewed Wild Boys in their ‘Book News’ section and commented: ‘The perfect parenting book, minus the preaching.’ I’ve also received some lovely emails from readers, and I’m really glad that people are connecting so deeply with this story. The other big news is that Bernie Shakeshaft and the team at BackTrack Youth Works have been named Youth Service of the Year at the NSW Youth Work Awards – a wonderful achievement!

Otherwise, I’ve been getting back into a bit of socialising – meeting new people, having parties, singing harmonies with friends, writing lyrics for a ‘song cycle’ collaboration with a local composer, and feeling more at peace. I’m also reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, which has helped me to remember the richness of a creative life and why it’s important to bring forth the treasures that are hidden inside us all.

 

 

Boys, Bernie, Annabelle and Helena[1]

On the 25th August, Wild Boys was officially launched at the BackTrack Shed by Professor Annabelle Duncan, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of New England. The launch was an exciting day for me … the public acknowledgement of years and years of hard work was very affirming, and what follows is the gist of the speech I gave that day.

Many years ago, when an early chapter of Wild Boys was published in Griffith REVIEW, Bernie Shakeshaft said to me: ‘How lucky are we that you came down to the shed.’ At the time, my response to him was: ‘How lucky am I that I came down to the shed’, and even though writing Wild Boys has involved a significant amount of personal sacrifice and hardship, I can still say: ‘How lucky am I? I got to be part of something – a whole other world – that not many women experience, and I learned a lot about life in the process.

One of the unexpected outcomes of writing Wild Boys is my ongoing affection for the BackTrack boys – both past and present. I’ve come a long way since my first day at the shed – when I rocked up, full of nerves, to find Bernie driving out the gate, saying: ‘I’ll be back soon… just go inside and meet the boys. They’ll show you around.’ It’s fair to say I was completely out of my comfort zone that day, but I soon realised that there was nothing to fear.

Like many things in life, we fear what we don’t know, and fear and prejudice usually arise from ignorance – from not understanding and not being able to feel empathy towards a group of people who are different to you. Part of the reason why I wrote Wild Boys was to provide an insight into the ‘wild boys’ in our community – to shine a light on what it is to be a teenage boy who, for various reasons, struggles at school and can become known as a ‘loser’ early in life, simply because he doesn’t fit the system. That’s a pretty harsh judgement for a society to make upon a young person, so I wanted to write something that would influence the way people think and feel about wild boys, something that might encourage them to care more and judge less.

Recently, I helped set up the school program at the shed, and I got to know some of the boys who are currently at the shed. One day, we had to go somewhere for lunch on the spur of the moment, so I said to the boys, ‘Let’s go to my house and have a BBQ there.’ When we reached my house, the boys jumped out of the troopie and dashed off to the backyard – where they started making a BBQ and cutting up onions and chopping wood and fixing the back fence and cutting back all the overgrown bushes in my garden.

I remember some people were surprised to hear I’d invited the boys back to my house that day, but I didn’t see any problem – because once again, there was nothing to worry about. Those boys were so generous with their help, and open and friendly – just as they’ve always been with me. I’m not at the shed much these days, but one of the joys of my life is when I’m downtown and I hear someone call out: ‘Hey, Helena!’ and I turn around and it’s one of the BackTrack boys. For some reason, that simple exchange always makes me feel like the world is becoming a better place.

The story of the seven original BackTrack boys who feature in this book is very moving. Yes, there’s a lot of swearing, and a few times where the boys lose their way. But when they were given help to get back on track, those boys made the choice to accept that help and move ahead in life – to rise above the trajectory that was set out for them and to emerge as winners, to become known as the ‘Magnificent Seven’ – and that was a wonderful thing to witness. At the back of Wild Boys is a section where those seven boys share the lessons they learnt from their time at the shed. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to read this section without becoming very emotional because the responses are so deep – so beautiful – and this is from a group of boys who, for the most part, struggled at school and were often in trouble with the police.

That’s why the BackTrack shed is so special – it gives young people who don’t fit the system a place to shine, where they too can emerge as winners in life. It’s like one of the boys says at the end of the book: ‘Everyone needs to find a place … and from there you can grow. The shed gave us that place.’

So, how lucky am I that I got to see all that happen – and to write about it so that others can also experience the beauty of what goes on down here and understand how positive change comes about in a community. Along with documenting the early days of BackTrack, Wild Boys also describes how Bernie helped me through a pretty challenging time in my life. I never expected to write about myself in this book, but, really, once I started coming along to the shed, there was no way that I was going to come out the other side of this experience without my life being transformed in some way because that’s what happens here – people’s lives are transformed.

I used to rely on Bernie’s help quite a lot, but he’s a good mentor – a good teacher – because I hardly ever need to ring him now. I still run into troubles, of course, but mostly, instead of ringing Bernie for help, I go back and think of the lessons I’ve learnt in the past – and how I can apply that knowledge to the current situation I’m struggling with. Many unique ‘Bernie-lessons’ are in the book – and I’m sure others will find them just as useful as I did.

Like I said, I don’t get down to the shed enough these days – I’m like the dog that runs along the outside of the pack – but I think I will always carry the experiences I’ve had at this shed close to my heart, especially some of those times with the BackTrack boys.

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In less than two weeks, I’ll be appearing in three separate events at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival, and I’m really excited about this wonderful opportunity to promote Wild Boys. On Saturday 5 September, as part of ‘BWF in the ‘burbs!’, I’ll be speaking at the Mitchelton Library, and the following day, I’ll be discussing Wild Boys on the Queensland Terrace of the State Library with my dear friend Edwina Shaw (check out Edwina’s blog for her review of Wild Boys). Straight after that session, I’ll be giving a 3-hour Masterclass in memoir writing – ‘Close to Home’ – where I can share all the tricks I’ve learned from working with some of Australia’s best editors over the years. So, it’ll be a hectic weekend, but lots of fun – especially catching up with Edwina again.

Meanwhile … it’s full steam ahead here in Armidale. The official launch of Wild Boys is being held at the BackTrack Shed next Tuesday. Professor Annabelle Duncan, Vice-Chancellor of the University of New England (UNE), will launch the book in the BackTrack classroom – and this event will bring together two very different parts of my life in Armidale. Wild Boys developed as a parallel project while I was completing my PhD in Creative Research Practice at UNE, and the university has always been very supportive of my writing (click here to see UNE’s recent media release about Wild Boys). I think the launch will provide a sense of completion for this writing project … in a way, it’s almost like I’m ‘graduating’ from BackTrack.

Over the last month, while I’ve been dealing with a range of complex post-publication emotions, I’ve been putting in lots of applications for writing opportunities in 2016. Hopefully, some of them of them will come through for me – and I’ll be able to see a bit more of the world next year. Finally, in today’s Sun Herald, Karen Hardy has written a fantastic feature about Wild Boys.

 

 

Finally … a moment to catch my breath. The last few weeks have involved an avalanche of radio interviews – most of them live to air, which certainly had my adrenalin flowing. A few days ago, I had my final interview – with Steve Austin on ABC Radio Brisbane. I’ve really enjoyed the interviews, and I’ve talked to some wonderful radio presenters from around Australia and New Zealand. Thanks to Radio National (Life Matters and Nightlife), ABC Radio New England, ABC Regional WA Drive, ABC Brisbane Mornings, 2GB Sydney, Talk Network Queensland, 2AD Armidale, 2RE Taree, Radio New Zealand, Geelong 94.7FM and Radio Adelaide. The Armidale Express, the Northern Daily Leader and that’s life magazine also featured articles about Wild Boys, and Varuna Writers’ House did an alumni interview. An article will soon be appearing in The Sun Herald. It’s very affirming to see Wild Boys attract so much interest – obviously, people are still looking for answers on how to parent teenagers and understand the nature of wild boys (see Wild Boys for available podcasts).

Also, over the last month, Armidale has become a winter wonderland and my fire has been burning – literally and metaphorically – night and day. Amongst the hubbub of promoting the book, I’ve begun a new collaboration with a local composer – I’m writing lyrics for a song cycle he wants to do, and it’s very exciting to embark on a new project, especially one that isn’t a solo journey and won’t take years and years to complete. Collaborations are fun … and the creative possibilities of life suddenly seem endless again.

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PS: My PhD results came back a few weeks ago – only a handful of minor corrections to do and soon that journey is over!