The entire city of Darwin was destroyed by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Day, 1974. The full force of the storm lasted for six hours, from midnight until dawn. I was wedged with my brother under an upended mattress in the bathroom of his house as the whole structure collapsed over us. Both of those poems present the experience as one of facing execution for six hours in complete darkness, with no means of escape, or of survival other than by chance. There was a stoical acceptance of inevitable death in that situation, but also hope: ‘Each breath it lets us have could be the last.’ Hope because breath still followed breath. Afterwards, there was not only relief and elation, which I describe in other lines, the Buster Keaton part, in the first poem, ‘Darwin Cyclone’, but also the feeling of being given a new life. I think I became less wayward and more focused, more in touch with an inner self and with nature, and also more independent in my thinking and more determined to do something more meaningful with my life. I had been working in Darwin as a journalist in what was then a pretty wild place, almost like a frontier town in the Old West, a sub-tropical heavy-drinking macho culture with Aboriginals as the marginalised outsiders. When the city was evacuated, the whole population became refugees. I left with nothing but the clothes I was wearing, so in that physical sense also I was making a new start. The Salvation Army
gave us clothing, shoes and toothbrushes, and a place to bed down each night as we headed south in a wrecked car. It took three days to drive 800 miles to Alice Springs before the car gave up the ghost. Just over a month later I was back in England, in Newcastle, having decided to take up an English degree there that autumn as a mature student: I would spend the next three years reading and writing about books.
KN: Though this might seem an odd question, but I know that the presence and motif of the sheep is a recurring one in your life; you’ve themed a novel The Sheep Who Changed the World (2005) on a rogue and clever ram, for example. Does the sheep as an ‘other’ or attendant animal fortify you through its characteristics? How and when did this creature first accompany you?