I am leaning against a pillar in a hall somewhere in the bowels of the Frankfurt Book Fair. It is a gigantic and hungry beast. I’ve spent the better part of three days here, and I’m ready to leave.

Before coming, I’d read horror stories about unpublished authors trying their luck here – that it’s a dispiriting experience and no-one wants to talk to you.

Well, that’s fairly true in some ways and not in others.

It all really depends on what you want and how you go about it. Me? I wanted to get to know the Australian (and general international) publishing landscape and make some contacts. I didn’t expect to get an agent or publishing deal.

Some publishers were very reluctant to spend any time talking to me at all. Understandable – this is a trade fair, where they have to flog their horses and hurl business cards at potential rights acquirers and distributors until they just can’t take any it any more and run, screaming and smeared in wode, from the hall.

I sympathised. After all, I did too.


Thank god for the free drinks that take place from 5-7pm at various stalls, usually hosted by a particular country’s publishing association. The Australian Publishers Association one was excellent. VB was the beer of choice (they had Fosters last year, someone muttered darkly to me). The white wine was perfectly drinkable. Attendance at these events is compulsory, you see: most useful contacts are made under cover of alcohol. I drank with the Irish publishers – their drinks the following evening had Guinness on tap – and chatted to a literary agent, who cautioned me against breaking into the Agents’ Pavilion. Last bloke who did that got screamed at.

The simple fact of the matter is that as an author at the fair, you don’t really offer publishers anything. They rely on literary agents, or finding popular self-published books, or just good old-fashioned nepotism. Who are you to a) assume your book is any good and b) think that it’ll be a good fit for their publishing house?

That second option is actually the one thing you can do simply and effectively at the fair. A quick search of the stalls will show you immediately which ones are appropriate for your erotic novel about an anaesthetist’s steamy relationship with a vet – I know, I know, just think of the possibilities – and which are not.

The big ones, the ones that glow with fame and smell like money, the Harper Collins and Penguin and Hachette and Macmillan – those you can just forget. There are rarely commissioning editors around anyway. No point pitching your book eagerly to the head of sales, or international rights. (Although don’t rule it out – a couple passed me business cards of appropriate people to contact). It’s the middle-sized and smaller publishing houses where you can talk to real people who sometimes want to talk to you, and will give you their time and explain how the whole mad circus really works. Occasionally you even meet real authors, who are inevitably supportive and lovely and just as confused as everybody else.

It’s worth remembering one simple rule, my literary agent drinking friend told me. No-one knows fucking anything.


It’s also worth bearing in mind that you can’t get published until you have an agent and it’s very hard to get an agent if you’re unpublished. Get your head around that one.

Kindness seems to be a very underrated quality at such an event. I imagine it’s easy to adopt a cynical and world-weary contempt when you reach the point that the paper dreams you’re spruiking are just commodities, no more special or exotic than jeans or spare car parts. In the middle of the horse-trading is not a pleasant place for an author to be. But it’s a real eye opener.

A common theme from all publishers was the importance of energy and (retch) self-marketing, of authors thrusting themselves into the world. Part of me – wait, hang on a minute, no, all of me – recoils from this idea wholeheartedly and wants to sit in a dark room, writing and occasionally rocking back and forth. My only contact with the outside world will be a hole in the wall, through which discreet messages will tell me about my success or failure in far flung reaches of the world. ‘Your sales are through the roof in Mongolia,’ an assistant will whisper, and I will nod sombrely to myself and pass another perfectly written manuscript through to her, pausing only to murmur ‘Prioritise the Swedish and Bangladeshi translations,’ and she will know what to do. She will know.

I think a lot of authors like this idea of author-as-hermit (-crab). Then there are the other hundred thousand of them, those who leak hot air from every orifice, and  tweet and book their faces. It can be very tricky to tell them apart. Unfortunately I don’t want to be one of the second and I’m too handsome to be one of the first.


Midday wind

It’s midday
in the city

Winds that
remind you
you’re a very vulnerable little organism
you should have kept all that wonderful
body hair
which nature,
seeing that you don’t use it
and took it for granted
has stripped

A woman in the supermarket
tells me
my broccoli is too expensive
so I put it

I park myself
in a vacant spot
Eagle eyes search
for inspectors
A tattooed couple
A wasted man with cane
and a monocle
A goth with a wooden pipe
All are candidates
Actors and conmen
Crafty buggers
they conduct sting operations
with military

Shaft of lights slash grey clouds
We’re in transition
The dog shit
will freeze

Man with no teeth
outside a kiosk
has turned into a statue
bent double
his gaze stays on the table
it’s safe down there
his arse knows this bench
his spine curved from the wind
his hair is now in autumn
his beer is on a loop

Leaves titter
Sun’s changed from oil to watercolour

No more dilly-
in the streets
hibernation’s calling
us from a to b
skip c to get to d
before it closes in
before the world slams its shutters
before the bars close
before the eyes shut
before the trees are naked
before the wind gets mad.

Red matches and campari, with a dash of Leonard Cohen, and the second cup of coffee of today. The kind of hangover that comes with a personalized nametag and high heels. Why am I so frustrated by the apostrophe in “Australian’s spend $60 a week on lottery tickets”? I can forgive grocers and newsagents, but not online insurance companies. Email sent.

Coffee today is furry and thick, a bit like my head.  Can someone please turn the sun down it’s a little bright, ah, that’s better.

I’m fascinated by my new jar of fig jam. There are large green foetus-like objects floating in it.

My new favourite word is Schokokuchen. Don’t expect translation, I want some effort on your part. You can eat it.

Bananas and two pears and an unknown melon. Do you like pickles or do you call them gherkins? I also like die Knoblauchknolle, the garlic bulb.

Have you googled today? One day a few months ago, they replaced the google icon with a game of Pacman that you can actually play, causing me untold delight. Ten minutes of my life well spent, rather than saved.

It sounds rude to ask if you’ve googled today. The kind of thing one shouldn’t inquire about in polite company; a sex act or antisocial drug habit. But have you?

One word for drinking before going out is vorglüen – literally, priming an engine. It’s one of those funny verbs that split in two as soon as you use them. The German language is littered with the remains of split infinitives, the empty husks of Latin cases, and the graves of thousands of ancient exceptions to all the rules.

The falling snow makes slush and dirty puddles
While icy winds lash feet and legs and eyes
Its temperature my feeble mind befuddles
In windswept lanes with ever darkening skies.
One day it’s T-shirts, suddenly it’s coats
And gloves and jackets needed in the morning
Such energy the Man Up There devotes
To switching seasons quickly without warning!
Eight months of winter deep will freeze your mind
Until the sun brings birds, and spring, and thaw
Cast off black thoughts and put those months behind
This city now is golden evermore.
Yet summer’s heaven cannot stop my heart
From secretly awaiting Winter’s start.

Deutschland, Deutschland...

So many German flags it looks like the streets are painted red, yellow and black. Horns and vuvuzuelas going berserk. The biggest screen in Europe, at the Fanmeile (above), shows the Germany matches live to an audience of over five hundred thousand people. Every car and motorbike has the national colours trailing like banners in the wind. Facepaint. Big screens. Raucous street parties. Imagine if they actually win it?

Most of the people I talk to fall into one of two groups. There are those who embrace it and love it, genuinely excited for the young and talented group of footballers who have been the leading light of this World Cup. Then there are those who are deeply suspicious of the overt nationalism on every street corner. With a history like Germany’s there is an obvious gingerness towards displays of national fervour; for every person who drapes a flag from their balcony, there is someone who is annoyed at the proclamations of pride sweeping the country.

The embrace of guilt-free nationalist glee is a relatively new development. I’m told it really started to become accepted in 2006, where as hosts of the tournament, Germans were able to embrace the merchandising madness of supporting their team through the full regalia of shirts, giant floppy hands, and flags. Displays of nationalist sentiment have grown more and more accepted. Do those who voice concern do so simply out of revulsion towards this kind of jingoistic patriotism, or is it flavoured by remembrance of where this has led in the past?

The shackles of the last seventy years are still clear to see when talking to people in their forties and fifties. In one of my classes, a political discussion about how the Israelis stormed the aid ships last month suddenly turned into a heated debate about responsibility for what happened during the Holocaust under Hitler and whether the next generation should carry the sins of their predecessors. One student argued fiercely that what had happened wasn’t his cross to bear any more. The others were embarrassed by his comments, almost ashamed on my behalf. I had to stop the discussion.

On the other hand Berlin is so multicultural that a lot of people simply don’t care for the deutsche Mannschaft. At many of the Turkish-owned spätkauf – including my personal favourite where the 60 cent beers come with free sunflower seeds and big smiles – they laugh heartily at all the hoo-ha and support Argentina or Brazil or Spain. The African immigrants feel little allegiance to their adopted national team. And in bars all over the city there are raucous Italian, or Mexican, or Ghanain gatherings. Ghana, incidentally, seemed to be the popular underdog of choice – at least until they were painfully dumped out by Uruguay. Truth be told the predominance of German colours feels slightly at odds with the usual vibe of the city, and its I-don’t-give-a-fuck-I’m-a-Berliner attitude – although I’m sure the Kreuzberg punks and anarchists are doing their bit by burning the odd flag here or there.

Still it’s hard not to admire the German team. Humble characters led by Loveable Lahm, no egomaniac superstars, fabulous attacking football, and all this in a team with an average age of less than twenty-five and with five players who had less than ten caps going into the tournament. What’s not to like?

If only the man across the street would stop blowing his vuvuzuela every time they score.

I have so much time these days. Weekdays start with a leisurely rise and stretch, surveying my kingdom before deciding what to do that day. Should I pop down to the markets? Do some writing? A little German revision, perhaps? Not since my heady student days have I had such time to contemplate the deep and ineffable nature of the universe, and my own navel.

On certain very adventurous days I make Grand Plans. These may include epic campaigns to open a bank account with Deutsche Bank, visiting a real-estate agent, or writing all my newly acquired German nouns in pictorial form on the back of tiny pieces of paper which I shuffle around my desk and organise excitedly into categories. (‘Masculines to the left! Feminines to the right! And Neuters, stay out of my way!’). Yesterday I may or may not have made little models of coloured clay people (coloured clay that is, the people themselves were of mixed race) so I could practise various verb conjugations and greetings.

The saving grace of these little episodes is that they are Improving Me As A Person. I can take comfort in the fact that these are not useless activities – shut up, you in the back! – they are rounding me out, improving my language ability, my General Urban Infrastructure, my soft skills. I’m still not sure what hard skills are but I don’t think I have any. And the crowning achievement of my developments is this: I am cooking.

Potted History of My Cooking Skills

1995: I learn to cook two-minute noodles.

1997: I learn to add things to the two-minute noodles, such as onions, beef strips, and seasoning.

1998: I perfect the art of bacon and eggs. This is to remain my staple dish throughout the next ten years.

2001: The Toast Era. I am living with a guy called Hugh in Penrith. Every day after classes, we share a secret glance. Then we buy a loaf of bread and go home. We spend the next half hour making toast with butter and vegemite, comparing notes on how to spread the vegemite, and challenging each other on the precise layering of butter. We invariably finish the loaf that day. This continues for four months.

2004: I decide that it is time to expand my horizons and ask my mother to teach me how to cook spaghetti bolognese. With the added bonus that I can make large amounts and store them in the freezer, bacon and eggs is temporarily displaced as my cuisine of choice.

2007-2009: The Vietnam Period. Owing to the ubiquitous, wonderful and cheap street food, in the whole time living in Hanoi, I cook three times. Bacon and eggs once and spaghetti bolognese twice.

Now, I am sitting in my living room with the smell of roasting aubergine and capsicum wafting in the air. I have just added halloumi to the mix. Two years ago I couldn’t even spell halloumi (truth be told I still can’t), now I am debating whether to add cherry tomatoes or sundried tomatoes. Ruccola will be artfully arranged on the side, with a little beetroot salad. Yesterday I bought couscous and home-made gnocci. Last week I had mushrooms and eggplant. I have decided I need more implements, like a lemon zester and rolling pin, maybe a spork as well. I am starting to understand the phrase ‘food porn’ and quietly downloading episodes of Jamie Oliver‘s shows and The Iron Chef.

This is all thanks to the miracle of unemployment, which sadly will end tomorrow. (Or at least slow down; nobody in Berlin has a full time job). In a couple of months it’ll be cheese on toast and TV dinners. But once in a while, I will look back on this golden age of culinary delights, and dream of what could have been.

Bugger, the halloumi’s burning.

May Day!

A friend of mine is flying into Berlin tomorrow, on the first of May. Great timing. Coming from Australia, a country where political radicalism means wearing red underpants, the depth of political feeling here – and the domestic disruption and violence which is expected tomorrow – is an intriguing curiosity.

Less so for the locals. For Berliners, the planned Neo-Nazi rally and its corresponding ANTIFA (radical anti-fascist) counter demonstration mean a day of nerves, burning cars, and closed supermarkets. Prenzlauerberg will be the site of this particular flashpoint, although pockets of violence are expected throughout the city.

Berlin is the flagbearer for left-wing activism in Germany. Although the initial assassination attempt against Rudi Dutschke took place in 1968, creating a martyr for a generation of activists, it was 1987 when the current tradition of rioting really took hold, after police tear-gassed a street party. There have been large-scale demonstrations ever since.

But how political is it really? Among many Berlin residents (and no doubt the genuinely committed small band of activists) there is disgruntlement over how the event has become an excuse for your average fun-loving punter to pick up a rock and hurl it at the police, or torch a car. Let’s face it, there are so few instances of this kind of socially accepted transgressive behaviour, small wonder that everybody wants to ride the rollercoaster.

One of the biggest issues is not the locals but the Riot Tourists. A quick google search will bring you the latest and greatest in locations, handy hints and tips, and of course a Best-Of Guide. Want to know where your best local riots are? Where you can find iron bars, members of the opposite political persuasion, and filthy capitalist establishments? Thanks to the information age, it’s all at your fingertips.

So what will I be doing tomorrow? Well, you wouldn’t catch me dead out on the streets by myself. No, I think I’ll take the ‘Revolutionary Berlin Anti Capitalist Tour‘. At five euros, it’s a steal that any self-respecting anti-capitalist shouldn’t miss.