Monthly Archives: July 2014

I’ve been on a bit of a mystery-crime-drama kick this year: Twin Peaks, True Detective, and now Top of the Lake, a six-part miniseries created and written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee. Top of the Lake is yet another example of how TV is maturing; in many ways television is now a more effective medium for storytelling than film. As with True Detective, I was a little disappointed with how Top of the Lake ended. However, overall I found this series beautiful – in a bewitching sort of way.

Top of the Lake is set amidst New Zealand’s stunning South Island scenery, in a small town called Lake Top. The series begins with a haunting sequence in which 12-year-old girl Tui (Jacqueline Joe) walks into a freezing lake. Later, she is discovered to be pregnant, and then she just disappears. Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss of AMC’s Mad Men) is back in town from Sydney to visit her dying mother, and she becomes drawn to Tui’s case.

Jane Campion – perhaps best known for her 1993 film The Piano, for which she won the Palme d’Or at Cannes twenty years ago – has lately set her creative sights on TV. “Television is the new frontier,” she says in this interview with The Telegraph. Campion recalls seeing an episode of HBO’s Deadwood, and being excited by it. “There’s a revolution going on,” she felt. For Top of the Lake (a co-production of the Sundance Channel in the US, UKTV in Australia and New Zealand, and BBC Two) Campion was given free rein, no constraints; a freedom seldom offered in film. Campion used this opportunity to tackle some sensitive topics, including underage pregnancy, incest, and suicide. Perhaps most importantly, however, Campion uses Top of the Lake to explore rape culture, and she pulls no punches (or broken bottles, for that matter).

I liked a lot of things about Top of the Lake. From the very beginning, the atmosphere of this series is noticeably different; New Zealand’s landscape is beautiful, but there is a chill to it, a stillness that is somehow both ghostly and glaringly real. The music – by Mark Bradshaw – adds wonderfully to this ethereal feeling. Top of the Lake takes its time (another advantage of being a six hour miniseries instead of a two hour film), but never feels boring. I also appreciated the fact that this series is so female driven (in a much more real and important way than a series like Girls is), and that it confronts the issue of rape so openly.

Perhaps the best thing about Top of the Lake, however, is its performances. Elisabeth Moss leaves Peggy Olsen completely behind as she takes on the role of slowly unravelling detective Robin Griffin (her accent is almost perfect), and David Wenham is similarly impressive as Detective Al Parker. The best performance, however, comes from Peter Mullan. His portrayal of Matt Mitchum – the local drug lord – is terrifying, complex, and very sad.

I (emphatically) did not like GJ (played by Holly Hunter). I understood that she was supposed to come across as something more than an annoying quasi-enlightened new-age guru: lines like “That one wants to help Africa” and “Just get me away from these crazy bitches” did endear me to her at times. However, she was still overall just a new-age guru with a couple of good lines.

The last episode of Top of the Lake didn’t feel quite right to me. In many ways it was more satisfying than True Detective – most of the threads did tie together at the end of Top of the Lake. However, there were some subplots that I felt were not adequately explored or concluded (the American woman looking for a seven-minute fuck, among others). Mostly, though, the end (unlike the rest of the series) came too quickly, and felt a little unbelievable.

Top of the Lake tries a bit too hard – at the end, especially – to be something serious; to be something dramatic and meaningful. Perhaps GJ does have a point when she says “die to … your idea of yourself. What’s left?” Maybe Top of the Lake needs to die to its idea of being clever or smart, and just be what it is: a visually stunning, powerful, mysterious piece of television.

Top of the Lake first aired in 2013. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation was initially set to co-produce the series, but pulled out when Elisabeth Moss was chosen for the lead role over an actor from Australia or New Zealand.

Top of the Lake – watch the trailer


I haven’t always been afraid of flying. On my first international flight – to Greece, at 16 years old – I slept. I walked up and down the aisles as the plane cruised at 30,000 feet. I looked out the windows in wonder at continents far below.

Travelling has since become a huge part of my life. New Zealand, Borneo, Hong Kong. I became an expat in my early twenties, about six years ago. I taught English in South Korea, and I now live and work in Cambodia. For many of those years I was a calm flyer. I slept, I read. I even wrote on planes, late into the night, my tray-table pulled out, my little overhead light glowing.

I was about twenty-six when my feelings about flying started to change. It was on a completely uneventful flight from Phnom Penh to Shanghai. I was excited before leaving the apartment, and then slightly nervous at the airport. Midflight my fear was a niggling, back-of-the-mind worm. Not panic, but certainly stressful. I told my boyfriend that I was afraid. He said he thought it would be interesting to die in a plane crash (something about the chemicals your brain would release as the plane fell). Needless to say, that wasn’t helpful.

I’ve wondered a lot about why this fear has developed. It could be getting older, and becoming more aware of my mortality. It could be happiness – being in a stable relationship, more at ease with myself and my work, more to lose. It could be genetic – my Mum is also scared of flying, and my Dad is prone to claustrophobia (though he worked most of his life for the airlines, and even flew light aircraft himself). It could be thinking too much. It could be a desire for control – a reluctance to trust other people with my life.

It’s probably a combination of all of these things. Whatever the cause, the effect is that now flying is no longer exciting, or wonderful. It is something to avoid, something that fills me with dread. The joy of a holiday, or of going home to see my family, is eclipsed by having to get on a plane.

Now when I fly it goes like this: The night before I barely sleep. The morning of the flight I take a Valium, just to get me to the airport. Waiting to board I take another. While in-flight, another. My bowels clench up, my teeth grit, I’m a ball of anxiety and flight (ha ha) or fight hormones. My body is so tense that the Valium doesn’t take effect until I’m calm again, off the plane, safe on the other side (where I’m finally reduced to a nauseous, drowsy mess).

Midflight is the worst for me. I’m suspicious of the seeming tranquility, the mundane nature of food service and films. I’m waiting for us to crash at any moment; for someone to jump up with a weapon, or for a system to malfunction. I watch sitcom after sitcom, trying to pass the flight in thirty minute increments, trying to distract myself with quick scene changes and canned laughter and nothing too serious.

Right now I’m getting ready to fly home to Australia in early August. It’s the first overseas trip I’ve had to take since flight 370 went missing, and my fear of flying is now worse than it’s ever been. In the weeks following 370 I couldn’t imagine myself even going to an airport, let alone getting on a plane. I had dreams about preparing to board and then going to the ticket counter and handing back my boarding pass.

At this point I realised that my fear was getting out of control and if I wanted to keep travelling and living overseas I would have to do something about it. So I started Googling. I was surprised (and strangely relieved) to discover so many websites dedicated to helping people with their fear of flying. The most useful (for me) has been Captain Keith Godfrey’s website,

Captain Keith is a retired commercial pilot (he spent 27 years with British Airways) who now helps people with their fear of flying. He runs courses and has published a book (also titled Flying without Fear), but everything on his website is free. And there is a lot on his website.

Just reading the information on the site helped me begin to feel calmer. Below are some of the things I have found the most useful:

– Turbulence is uncomfortable, but not dangerous. It is not harder to fly a plane during turbulence.

– What’s abnormal, unusual, or unexpected to you is normal to the pilots and crew; there is nothing you can think of that hasn’t been thought of already.

– Flying is safe because of the laws of physics and gravity.

– An aircraft will glide if the engines stop. It will not fall out of the sky.

– Being struck by lightning will not hurt the plane.

– If your plane is late it doesn’t mean something’s wrong.

– Planes don’t care if they are flying in moving air or not, just like boats don’t care if water is moving or still.

– Bad weather has less influence on a plane than on road traffic.

My fear of flying makes me superstitious. Even as I write this I worry that it will contribute to my demise in a plane crash. I imagine people visiting this blog afterwards and saying “She knew; she had an inkling”. I do know – logically, rationally – that writing this or not has no bearing on whether my plane will fall from the sky. But this is the nature of phobias (or intense fears): they are not usually rational, so it is difficult to speak to them rationally. They refuse to be reasoned with.

I realise that overcoming this fear is going to take time, and won’t be as simple as memorising facts. I will need to use this information to change my way of thinking; to change my associations with flying to reasonable rather than fearful ones. It’s a kind of mindfulness, a practice almost like meditation. It’s work – changing your brain. When I think of flying my first thoughts are of fear and crashes and flight 370. I need to counter this with thoughts of safety, and the normalcy of noises, and how many planes are in the air all the time. I need to remember that even if the plane does crash worrying about it beforehand will not change anything (apart from making me uncomfortable for longer). My thoughts do not affect how an aircraft behaves; my thoughts only affect me (and, of course, the people around me).

On my next flight I will be a little calmer. A new way of thinking about flying (plus magazines, a tablet loaded up with Orange is the New Black, Valium, and sleeping pills) should do the trick. Hopefully one day I will get to a point where I won’t need any of these crutches. A point where I’ll be able to sleep and walk up and down the aisles. Where I’ll be able to sit and write, and look out the window without fear and with wonder, like I did when I was sixteen.

My boyfriend ‘wooed’ me (is that term still used outside of a Jane Austen narrative?) with a Tom Robbins novel. I think it was Another Roadside Attraction, which – incidentally – is rumoured to be the favourite book of the Hell’s Angels. If Robbins is able – with a first novel, nonetheless – to simultaneously kindle a romance and capture the hearts and minds of the world’s most notorious motorcycle club he must be doing something right. Robbins’s books are funny, bizarre, smart, and full of rich language. There is something Vonnegut-esque about a Tom Robbins novel; society is at once parodied and commiserated with, and characters feel a step removed from reality. Robbins is a master of sentence structure, and as an aspiring author I find his writing process almost as interesting as his novels themselves.

Tom Robbins was 39 before he wrote his first novel (he has since written 8, plus a novella, a collection of essays, and a memoir); a fact that I – just a few months shy of my thirtieth birthday – find very heartening. Robbins notes that he always wanted to be a writer, but that there were moments in his early twenties when he almost gave up. He found his voice at a Doors concert in 1967 – “It jimmied the lock on my language box and smashed the last of my literary inhibitions” – and from then on knew exactly how he wanted his writing to sound. Robbins was at his most prolific in the 1970s and late 1980s.

Read any Tom Robbins novel and the first thing you notice is the richness of the language. Every sentence seems to burst with literary life, every metaphor is perfect. This is no accident – Robbins writes slowly and carefully, aiming to produce two pages of work a day. Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates took him over three years to write and almost a year to edit. “I probably spend as much time on one sentence as John Grisham spends on five chapters,” Robbins says in this interview with January Magazine. Robbins writes longhand, and doesn’t plot much in advance – two methods I have found useful in my own writing. Robbins also notes that much of his work comes from the ‘mind of wonder’, or a different state of consciousness. This idea of accessing the subconscious when it comes to creativity is something I also find particularly useful (Ray Bradbury would probably agree).

How to summarise Villa Incognito? Three American soldiers MIA in Laos after the Vietnam War; a badger-like creature from Japanese folklore; a woman with an irresistible attraction to clowns. Robbins’s eighth novel, Villa Incognito combines poetry, humour, drama, and sexuality. The sprawling narratives are glued together with bouts of beautiful musing on the nature of the soul, and a dash of biting social critique.

Right away, I appreciated how beautifully written this novel is. I revelled in sentences like: “The moon bloomed like a radiation sore”, “Dreams from an age when the stars were like resin drops and could sometimes be licked by deer”, “The afternoon passed more slowly than a walnut-sized kidney stone”, and “…said the case officer, in a voice that could have wormed a kitten”.

After having spent over three years in Southeast Asia, it was also refreshing to read Robbins’s descriptions. Of Bangkok he writes:

It’s a silk buzz saw, a lacquered jackhammer, a steel-belted seduction, a digital prayer…Hot and heavy, the very air seemed to sprout fat red fingers, baker’s fingers that kneaded pedestrians as if they were lumps of dough.

Of evenings in Laos:

… the air sagged under the weight of the sweetness it carried: jasmine, lemongrass, sandalwood, frangipani…

And of the rainy season:

… monsoon clouds were piled like fat black boxing gloves.

My one criticism of this novel is that while there are so many wonderful storylines and images, they don’t all feel completely resolved at the end. This is a problem I face in my own writing, and it is – I think – an inevitable consequence of writing from the subconscious, with little planning.

Reading Robbins, however, is much more about the journey than the destination. If you appreciate words and how they sound together, then you will appreciate Tom Robbins, and Villa Incognito.

The grandson of two Baptist preachers, Tom Robbins was born in North Carolina in the early 1930s. He turns 82 this year. His latest book is a memoir titled Tibetan Peach Pie. Villa Incognito was first published in 2003.

Phnom Penh, July 2014.

I often forget where I am. Everyday life takes over – I teach, I send emails, I go shopping, I cook, I (try) to write. I am busy (I make myself busy). I don’t have time (I don’t make time) to slow down and remember where I am and who I’m with and what’s going on with the rest of the world.

Then – a few weeks ago – the wet season began in Cambodia. Rain: a forced change in perspective, an unavoidable shift in schedule. At the mercy of the elements, and all that. Suddenly a normal, busy Tuesday afternoon became something necessarily – unavoidably – different.

Cambodia has a tropical monsoon climate that can be roughly divided into four seasons. November to February is the coolest and driest time of year, while from March to May the country is hot and dry. June sees the beginning of the monsoon rains; until August the weather is rainy and humid. From September to early November the rains continue but the temperature is cooler. Wet season rains are fortunately fairly predictable, generally falling in the afternoons or evenings for just a few hours. The wettest months are usually September and October.

On the afternoon of the first real downpour of the season I am reading in a cool, quiet cafe around the corner from my apartment. I leave just as the first drops begin to fall, and ride my bike as far as the travel agent a block up the street. I step inside, and the rain comes.

It doesn’t let up for at least an hour. I sit and read and stare out the window. I almost make it through an entire Alice Munro story. The rain is monumental; it literally pours from the sky. It is so loud, and somehow lonely. Street 63 rapidly becomes a river. Each time an SUV drives by waves swell up onto the pavement and under the glass doors of the travel agent. A while later the manager will pull down the metal shutters against the water. This is the closest I’ve ever come to being flooded.

It gets dark. Across the road young men from the tailor toss each other playfully into the water. A woman with two children on a motorbike is stuck against floating debris. She stalls. The boys from the tailor pull her out. A giant branch floats by, like a crocodile.

When the rain stops I wade (with my bike) through the aftermath; dirty water comes up to my knees and laps at the hem of my dress. Stuff (there is no more accurate a word for it) gets caught against my shins. I don’t want to know what it is. Bags of rubbish float and sink and split and vomit their contents into the water. I brace myself against the waves caused by cars.

Home with my feet scrubbed it feels like having been through something. The rainstorm is a pleasant adventure, a welcome shift in pace, for a foreigner living in a second floor apartment. I feel slightly guilty for enjoying this deluge and the change it brings, because of what it means for so many others. In 2011, 250 people were killed by flooding in Cambodia, and thousands of homes were destroyed. Heavy rain also damages crops, and increases the spread of diseases such as cholera and dengue fever. Facts like these are hard to remember as I sit here – safe and dry – at my computer.

The rainy season reminds me at once that I’m in Cambodia – and that I’m not really here. It reminds me that I live in a version of this country that only really exists for those who are reasonably wealthy; barely half of the population[i]. My Cambodia is one of air conditioning, ‘cafe culture’, and a guilty joy at the sight of a flooded street. I love living here – but sometimes it is a little too easy to forget where I am.



[i] Micro financing group Kiva notes that 49.5% of Cambodia’s population lives on $2 a day or less (data from Kiva, the World Bank, and CIA World Factbook).