kim westwood – articles

a month in the Old Melbourne Gaol

In Canberra where I live, I often see a skinny guy hunkered on the pavement in the city centre, writing in his notebook with single-pointed intensity. Carefully avoided by the passing shop and café goers, he’s as benign a fixture as could be; but if this were a hundred years ago, he’d be thrown in gaol for his madness.

I was there myself recently, indulging the same compulsion. A writer-in-residence at the Old Melbourne Gaol, I’d hurry in with my laptop and bag of notebooks and pens, and climb the gantry steps to my little cell—perfect in its austerity—then during the hours until close, try and scrawl my intensity onto the page.

I won’t mince truths about writing in a public place. Far less circumspect than the shoppers of Canberra, the daily tourists were a general passing nuisance: rattling the slide bolt and peering through the gaoler’s peephole at who might be hiding behind the PRIVATE sign—none realising that despite thick walls and a truly heavy door, some acoustic quirk allows us inmates to hear every word they say.

The time I liked the most was close of day, when my place of work revealed its hidden former self. Being a cold and wintery May, night came early. The school groups left and the tourists drifted off to warmer destinations, and the gaol descended into quietude, semidarkness. As rain pattered on the corrugated roof, the past got slowly exhaled like a drug from every nook, the building’s deeper memories returning with the shadows. I’d leave my cell then and walk the gantries, my hand trailing across cold, paint-wadded stone. Still connected to my own internal universe, I belonged more to the ghosts than the living.

That daily dislocation made re-entering the outside world quite hard. The antidote was to head to my favourite pub for a convivial drink among the very much alive, and the idle distraction of counting Ned Kelly beards on the hipsters of Fitzroy, where the bristle of the gaol’s most famous hanged man has been abundantly reconstituted as a fashion statement.

As to the reason I was there at all (my third novel), I believe in hard graft—which is lucky, because the muse is capricious. Every day I expected my creativity to surge, a fitting response to the unique environment; instead I battled with ideas that remained as closed as fists, words that refused to spill into sentences. I tried brainstorming my way through the unexpected hard patch, composing lists in clean new notebooks, plot points on fresh A3 sheets … to no avail.

My time in residence over, I carried my manuscript and my disappointment back to Canberra. There, ensconced in the familiar comforts of home, the prose began to flow—brought on not by the act of being in that powerful environment every day for a month, but the act of finally being released from it.

Some experiences are best never to repeat. The novel now done, the Old Melbourne Gaol still looms, a most visceral presence in my memory. My only regret is that none of the original occupants of cell five showed up to say hi.

(With thanks to artsACT, Writers Victoria and the National Trust for my stay)