Walking West

Sunday, June 10, 2001

[The finale to Pause. Rewind.]

Over the past six months, I've gone back to basics. Circumstances have forced me to figure out who I am. The trouble is—has always been—that I am and could be a range of things. That's not the worst sort of person to be—better than being someone who isn't much of anything—but it can mean being confronted with difficult decisions.

Sometimes the world makes those decisions for you. And that isn't always a bad thing. If we hadn't been kicked out of our house last year there's every chance we would still be in Canberra today. At the very time we had originally been planning to look for work in San Francisco—the end of 2000 and early 2001—we would have watched the tech wreck unfold and probably figured we had better stay put. And I would have stayed a bureaucrat by default.

The longer you stay on a particular path the harder it is to get off it. It wasn't a bad job, but it wasn't the one I had aimed for. I enjoyed being part of the policy-making process and having some small influence on what governments did, but other aspects of the work just weren't me. One necessary part of bureaucratic work is the collective ownership of policy. Every report, submission or press release goes out over the name of the organisation, its senior officers, or a committee. But I have enough of a writer's ego to want to be recognised as the author of my own words, whatever the context.

Certain places offer certain paths. Canberra is a government town: it has no other reason for being, and everything else there is a side road to the main highway of the public service. So I have no regrets that the world diverted us onto the San Francisco route. It's a shame that the bridge went down, but at least we went for the drive.

So here we were in 2001, in a city that offers many opportunities, still wondering about a wider world that offers more. Although we were feeling sick and tired of the upheaval and were ready to stay here and make the most of it, the motivation for looking for work overseas still remained: we're still young enough to do it. We don't have a mortgage yet. All of our belongings are safely in storage. We could go away for three years, five years, ten, and Melbourne and Australia will still be here, waiting for us, for the rest of our lives.

I did wonder at times what it would be like to shrug off that impulse. What if we moved to somewhere where real estate is cheap—like Tasmania—and just got by, so that I could focus on writing? After all, it's hard to make time to be creative when you're working five days a week.

I've had a taste of that sort of arrangement these past few months and at similar times in the past. When you're in a relationship, such an arrangement requires a lot of sacrifice and understanding on the part of the one paying the bills. In my case, it means understanding that I write by thinking, thinking, thinking, and then writing: there can be long periods when it looks like I'm not doing anything. For the writer's part, it's hard not to feel like a slacker in those periods, and to avoid dwelling on what the hell you're doing with your life. It can be a lonely life, and it's a hand-to-mouth existence.

If neither of those jobs came through last week, this was one of the possible paths open to us. A modest life. Which isn't a bad life: in fact, in our day-to-day lives it's the one Jane and I lead; that's how we've saved the money to travel the world for the past five years. But if we committed to it completely, to the exclusion of all else, it could prove impossible to go back to what we had before. We could forget about seeing more of the world. We would have to take our pleasures from our immediate surroundings, looking for the fine details, the small changes, the secrets that only reveal themselves when you stay in one place for a long time.

Or, we could try for work overseas, and try to find work that speaks to our basic needs and interests. We could at least try, and then let the world decide.

So we did. And last Friday, I got a job offer from the UK.


A few days short of my eighteenth birthday I was in the back-seat of a small Nissan on a British motorway heading north. My brother was in the seat beside me, and we were squabbling over something, as usual. Our childhood was one long series of meaningless fights and bickerings. Our parents called us Heckle and Jeckle.

Somehow, our squabbling seemed to intensify during travel, especially as we approached each new place we were planning to stay for the night. Just as dusk was approaching and Dad was focussing on the streets of an alien city, with Mum gamely navigating from the passenger seat, Grahame and I would turn up the heat.

This particular evening we were squabbling over a paper bag. I have no idea why. I imagine it contained something of passing interest to our bored teenage minds. I had it; he wanted it. Squawk. Squawk.

Dad finally got sick of it and blew his top at us—a rare occurrence, but understandable in the circumstances. 'If you two don't stop arguing about that bloody bag I'm going to stop the car and bang your heads together!'

That shut us up. For a moment. We sat there, po-faced. Then Grahame pointed to the offending item and said, sotto voce:

'The Bag of Death.'

And I totally lost it. I couldn't stop laughing.

Dad didn't bang our heads together. He kept driving, into a city of gothic buildings and cobbled streets, with centuries of history gathered around a castle on a hill. He drove into the capital of one of the most beautiful parts of Britain. He drove into Edinburgh.

And in July, Jane and I are moving there. From the first of August I will be Research Fellow in Information and Communications Technology Policy and Strategy in the Scottish Centre for Research in On-Line Learning and Assessment at the University of Edinburgh.


Smith Street, Collingwood 9/6/01


Making your way in life is all about creating possibilities. While you can't necessarily make things happen, if you don't create the space for them you can be sure that they won't. After trying to make room for something else, I've managed to get (with the invaluable help and support of Jane, who even found the ad) the kind of job—in the kind of place—I would have dreamed of in the past, before the San Francisco gold rush fever took hold.

My first reaction was relief. Second was some sadness, because it means leaving behind a city I've grown to love, and family and friends throughout Melbourne and Australia—though I have both in the UK, too. There's also apprehension: although the signs for this move are looking good, we won't feel completely relaxed until Jane finds a job there too. But right now we're excited.

And increasingly busy.


When the Kaycee saga erupted I was annoyed, because it was obvious that it would fuel a wave of weblog closures that had already been set in motion by the onset of the northern summer. As more of us stopped to think about exactly what it is we're doing here, some would inevitably call it quits or take a break. Which was going to cast entirely the wrong light on what I figured was probably coming soon: the end of Walking West 3.

If I got a job—either the Melbourne one or the Edinburgh one—I knew that I'd be giving up this weblog for a while until I'd settled into my new workplace. And so it has turned out. This is where I stop walking. I have to: this computer goes into a box on Wednesday and won't emerge until three months later on the other side of the world, and I don't want to rely on an increasingly erratic Blogger.

But as you will have guessed, there's more to it than that.

After stopping and starting weblogs every two months for the past year, I'm reluctant to say 'never again', and I won't. There's a chance there will be a Walking West 4 (and if you guess the URL, you win a jellybean). But there's also a chance that there won't be.

Once upon a time I wrote about the opportunity costs of writing weblogs. In my case, I said, they have been low: this has been an in-between time when I've found it hard to write anything except short weblog snippets. I've been out of work, so haven't had to write work-related stuff, and my Madagascar book has been in gestation, not at the stage where it's screaming for attention in the middle of the night.

Both things have now changed. Jane and I are leaving Melbourne in mid-July. In the meantime, we have plenty to do, starting on Thursday when I drive the few belongings we brought down here last November back up to Canberra to add to what we're shipping over to the UK. That includes one chirpy little iMac. There won't be much action at Speedysnail until it arrives at the other end in September.

Which doesn't mean that I won't be writing. There's a Mad, Mad baby on its way, and I'm going into labour. If I can write as much in the next few weeks as I have these past few I'll be well on the way to finishing it.

Beyond that, it's hard to say. I'll always do certain things for the love of it: write stories, draw cartoons, create webthings. And I'll continue to be a part of a wider community of people trying to do creative things with the web, because that community and that goal are important to me. One way to do that will be to keep developing my Big Idea, which I'll also try and do, even if life keeps getting in the way.

But I have an opportunity now to write different things: academic works to secure my academic future. They will be about this medium, its role in education, and the influence governments have on both, which is something I care about. And I'm hoping that this will be a good way for me to give something meaningful to the web world—something that goes beyond a personal site. I'm going to give it my carefully considered thought, expressed the best way I can.

Which is what I've tried to do here, come to think of it.


Time to roll the credits. Thanks go to the usual suspects, family and friends, and to those I've thanked here in the past. And thanks, especially, to those who have kindly given their hospitality (even when there was rent involved) to Jane and me over the past year of walking:

Grahame and Sou
Sean, Vivian and Kylie
Lewis and Ayumi
Rohan and Melissa
Rod and Bev
Jim and Peta
Chris and Anna


Leaving is a strange, strange feeling.


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