Category Archives: books


My photo of Kirsty’s guinea pig mashed up with Seraphine Louis’ L’Arbre de vie. Oil on canvas (114×145 cm), 1928. Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie de
Senlis, France. © Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie de Senlis; Christian Schryve, Compiègne; © ADAGP. Retrieved from on 9/3/13.

Séraphine de Senlis reminds me of Des, the blind synesthesic guinea pig. They are of a feather. Neither has feathers, of course. Séraphine wears an old crocheted shawl and Des has infinitely soft fur. Séraphine was a real person; Des is only imaginary. Both have a life on the Internet. So, who are these creatures?

Séraphine de Senlis was an early 20th century French painter, an uneducated, working class orphan who grew up in a convent. She had a passion for painting as strong as a Labrador’s passion for water or a Kelpie’s passion for rounding up sheep. According to the beautiful movie about her life that I saw on SBS TV last night, she made pigments out of animal blood, roadside weeds and stolen church wax. She worked all night, ardently, on her paintings. During the day she was a cleaner, mopping the floors of bourgeois families; the sort of person who is of invisible service. Her talent was discovered by a German art collector and suddenly she was someone of note. It all ended in tears at a madhouse. For me the most moving scenes were the stealing of the animal blood (from a big pot in a butcher’s shop), the decanting of church wax from lit candles, the grabbing at weeds. All this work and experimentation was carried out alone, on the floor of her tiny apartment. As she neared the end of a painting she’d start singing. It was a humble life, full of art and ecstasy.

I started watching this movie accidentally. I was washing up, making a lot of noise. I was half-glancing at the screen, noticing that it was a French movie, beautiful cinematography. I started standing behind the sofa to watch it, tea-towel in hand. Then I moved around to sit in the sofa properly, and committed. The blessed relief in watching a movie about a woman who was neither young nor beautiful, holding centre stage, scene after scene. And not in a patronising, comic, overdetermined, Educating Rita sort of way. This was a movie prepared to look at this woman from inside. That in itself was wondrous. And then to see she was an artist, grinding her pigments with a mortar and pestle, dabbing paint on her board with her fingers, lying down to sleep with her paintings … even better. It suddenly made the last film I loved – Ang Lee’s Life of Pi – plummet down the floors like a broken lift.

Séraphine also made me think of Félicité, the servant who loved a parrot in Flaubert’s A Simple Heart. Again, the outward image of a “nobody”; the rich interior life.

And so we come to Des, the blind synesthesic guinea pig. Who is he? Just a guinea pig in a hutch in someone’s back yard. The hutch is moved from place to place in the back yard. He munches through grass like any other guinea pig. Nobody even realises that he is blind; his blindness doesn’t stop him performing any of his normal pet guinea pig functions. Like Séraphine and Félicité, he has a rich, ecstatic inner life. As a synesthete, he hears colours and feels sounds. He has deep wisdom about the world beyond the hutch but no particular need or desire to move beyond it. He is happy to be picked up and cuddled – an explosion of colour, sound and sensation – and happy to munch on grass. He can taste music in the grass. (No, not that sort of grass. This is buffalo grass, mixed with couch and clover and the odd dandelion.)

I got to know Des by tweeting about him. I’d been playing the competitive Twitter word of the day game on Artwiculate for some time, when he quietly appeared in one of my tweets. This has happened to other Artwiculate players: a character arises spontaneously out of their tweets and demands to be included, here and there, in other tweets down the line. The Des tweets were automatically indexed by the Artwiculate site so from time to time I could go back and look at them, like opening a book on a shelf. Then disaster struck, in the form of a resentful hacker (someone who wasn’t winning as often as he thought he should). Mortally wounded, Artwiculate was put into an induced coma. When it came out of this coma, its archive – and the voting system itself – had been removed. All gone. It was as if Des had never existed. It’s true that I could search back on my own Twitter timeline but this wasn’t quite the same as being indexed by Artwiculate. (Only a veteran Artwiculate player can understand the emotional importance of being indexed.) This would not bother Des in the slightest, but it was bothering me. I tried to be philosophical about it (as did other Artwiculate players, many of whom realised they were grieving out all proportion) and remind myself that Twitter is just a branch on a tree with birds on it. These birds might fly at any time. The whole branch might come down in the next storm. It’s a babbling (sometimes shrieking) brook into which you can’t dip your toe twice; it’s a shaft of light moving across a room. This desire to archive, to pin things down, violates the very nature of Twitter and even of Artwiculate itself.


This morning, as I was thinking about Séraphine, Félicité and Des, it occurred to me to Google him. Perhaps it’s really true, this thing we tell high school students – if you put something on the Internet, it never goes away. I entered “Des, the blind synesthesic guinea pig” and there he was. A whole page! A page of references that were just about Des, the Des of Artwiculate. Des de Artwiculate. Seraphine de Senlis. Félicité du perroquet. Here’s the screen grab:

Des on Google search

I haven’t done anything today

I haven’t enjoyed it. My procrastination is harrowing. However, I have done the following things:

I’ve broken in to Kirsty’s place to let out Elsie Tiger (cat), having accidentally locked her in last night.
I’ve spoken to guinea pigs.
I’ve eaten breakfast at Kirsty’s house – oats, nuts, an apple, cinnamon, soy milk – in the company of Elsie Tiger.
I’ve lain down on the carpet in the living room of Kirsty’s house. Elsie was also lying down and instead of getting up to walk over to me, she looked into my eyes and dragged her body over to me because it just seemed somehow important that we should remain spread out on the carpet. I should not expect more of a day than that.
I’ve had a look at the flowers on Taro’s grave. Big strong feisty zinnias. I looked at the pinkish purple one with a ring of star-like tiny yellow sunflowers and thought, “This is a flower from central casting”.
I’ve spoken to my black Labrador.
I’ve put a load of towels through the wash.
I’ve washed my hair.
I’ve chopped up rocket, basil, celery, parsley and chives out of my own garden and eaten them with tinned chickpeas and last night’s leftover veggies, for lunch.
I’ve mooched on the internet. A lot. The Twitter word of the day is “futilitarian”. Mum has finally worked out how to make a comment on Facebook. She’s moved beyond the simple “like” click to a full-blooded two-sentence comment. She began this comment with the word “Facebook”. That’s funny.
I’ve stumbled randomly around on the Internet, reading about how a boy named Abraham committed suicide with his webcam on, viewed by fellow users of the Internet including another boy from India who began making frantic calls to the police in the US with his Dad’s phone. He was not taken seriously. On YouTube I played The Hollies’ He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother and was blown out by the words, supernaturally powerful words sent out into the world in a pop song in 1970.
I’ve made a card for Mum’s 73rd birthday, which is tomorrow. I stuck a picture of a dog over a blank card with a cutesy picture of kittens.
I’ve glanced at the latest CNN notice to appear stealthily on my iPhone: the United States has decided not to jump off the Fiscal Cliff.
I’ve read some of Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild. I went into a swoon over a paragraph with this sentence in it: “Without conscious device we constantly reach into the vast word-hoards in the depths of the wild unconscious.”

I’ve given in to the urge to nap. The phones (landline then mobile; mobile then landline) went off twice and I kept my eyes shut and said, “Napping”.

Books I read as a child

This list is a work-in-progress. I’ll add to it as I think of things.

Black and Blue Magic

Flowers for Algernon (short story) – has stayed with me all these years.

Comics: Donald Duck, Caspar the ghost, Dennis the menace. I read Archie & Jughead comics but I didn’t love them.

Up a Road Slowly, Irene Hunt

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe

Five Little Peppers and How They Grew

The Runaways Diary

Deenie – Judy Bloome


The Owl ServiceAlan Garner

Happy Venture Readers

Mad as Rabbits – Elizabeth Lane

Our Uncle Charlie – Elizabeth Lane

Strange Stories, Amazing Facts – Readers Digest

Readers Digest magazine through the 1970s

Wonderful world of animals (with a dolphin on the front)

World of Children

Loose Change – Sara Davidson

Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime stories (arrgh)

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

The glorious ray of light


I’m waiting impatiently, I’m going to explode – Tiny Tim was apparently going to explode, but that was with sexual tension – I’m going to explode because I want to START. I want to start whatever this Penguin/Varuna Scholarship project is. I think I’ll hear more about it next week, after the Adelaide Writers’ Festival. This interview with Markus Zusak reminds me of the ray of light. That I write anyway, regardless, no matter what.

In praise of idleness

Happy New Year!* So far so good for me, as I continue to spend some hours sitting under the awning reading books, glancing up from time to time to watch the tomatoes grow. One book I’ve been looking at is Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness, written a few years before the Second World War. He outlines an idea that used to be popular but is now well out of fashion: that technology would liberate us all from long working hours. Everyone would be expected to put in, say, four hours a day and the rest of the time would be spent in leisure. Bertrand’s ideas about leisure didn’t include computer games (they hadn’t been invented yet) but did encompass some of the higher-order pursuits of human existence: reading, music, art and conversation.

As we know, things didn’t work out the way he was hoping. That’s because his ideas were based on a flawed premise: that once our basic needs were met, we’d ease off on our frantic work habits. The fact is that our “needs” keep shifting to encompass more and more stuff. Stuff like the Wii, a computer game that gets you on your feet, burning calories, as you hit a virtual tennis ball. Why the virtual tennis ball? Why not an actual tennis ball? Meanwhile, Mum and Dad are working overtime to make sure the kids have a Wii (and everything else) and when they finally get a bit of leisure, they feel that reading, art or even conversation are way too hard and all they can cope with is another cop show on telly. All of which adds to the sum total of carbon emissions, but there’s no time to think too deeply about that, because there’s so much to do!

We’re still on the treadmill, but there is a continuing disquiet. This was clear in the movie Avatar, in which the idea of development at all costs received a big hiding. In fact, it had its ass whupped, to use the language of the bad guys in the movie.

Thanks to Judy Walker for filling in for me in the weeks before Christmas. If you feel inspired to help make the world a more sustainable place in 2010, BCCAN would love more members!

Tracy Sorensen is the publicity officer for Bathurst Community Climate Action Network. Visit

* This is the text of the BCCAN column written for Bathurst’s Western Advocate to be published on Thursday, January 7 2010.