The Old Man and the Boy

Man By the Lake

On a beautiful clear day
Two people sat on a park bench
An old man and a young boy
Watching the world pass by

What is it like to be a child?
The man asked the boy
It’s been so long I cannot remember
What it felt like to be so young

Being young is not so bad,
The boy replied to the man
It can be hard and frustrating
But I know I have much to learn

And what is it like growing old?
The boy asked the man
Does it scare you to know
You are running out of time?

Growing old can be difficult,
The man answered the boy
But not so hard as living with regret
And knowing you have wasted your life

And how do you feel about adulthood?
The man asked the boy
Do you know what you want to be
When you grow up?

I never want to grow up,
The boy replied to the man
Just because I will get older doesn’t mean
I can’t stay young at heart

And how do you feel about love?
The boy asked the man
Have you ever fallen in love
And did it last?

Love can break your heart,
The man said to the boy
I loved once and swore I never would again
And now I am alone

Whatever you do, don’t be like me,
The man told the boy
There are few things worse in life
Than living with unfulfilled dreams

I promise, I won’t be like you,
The boy said to the man
I will make something of my life
And even if I fail, at least I shall have tried

The old man nodded and they sat in silence
As people walked by around them
Oblivious to their conversation
Lost in their own lives


I wrote this poem over a couple of nights this week. For a fairly short poem it was quite challenging to write, more than I thought it would be.

I felt the overall structure of the poem was important and I spent a long time refining each stanza. I specifically wanted to try to tell the story in a minimal way so as not to distract from the conversation and finding that flow was probably the most difficult part of the poem. I like how it came out in the end.

Something I often think about is if I could somehow give advice to my younger self, what would I say? That’s what initially inspired the poem and the boy and the old man are meant to the same person, years apart.

They are not meant to be me, however, so much as a reflection of society in general and the way we are often forced to conform from a young age and the path that sets us on for the rest of our lives.

I’m not sure what I would say in that situation but I suspect it would be a variation on some of what the old man says. I would probably tell myself to not be afraid to take chances as you’ll never know where they might take you.

The photo is one I took a couple of years ago in Sydney’s Centennial Park. I think it suits the poem well. I like to think this is the man the boy eventually grows into, on his way to becoming the old man one day in the future.


Photo: Man By the Lake © CJ Levinson 2014
Poem licenced under Creative Commons

Books of the 00s

It’s hard to believe it’s almost the end of another decade, isn’t it? The 00s have gone by so quickly and so much has happened in the last ten years. From tsunamis to bushfires; Afghanistan to Iraq; 9/11 to Katrina; the millennium to the GFC. I was still in high school in 1999. It feels like a lifetime ago.

As we’re coming to the end of the year I thought it’d be interesting to look back on the 00s as a whole. Particularly the fiction that has defined the decade.

For me the success of Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code and Twilight will be the enduring memory of this decade. In an age of iPods and YouTube, to see so many people reading again – on buses and trains, in parks and on beaches – has been remarkable. The publishing industry hasn’t seen their success before and it’s already changing the way books are being published and marketed.

Overall I think it’s been a good decade for literature. As you’d expect much of the tone of the decade’s writing has been influenced by 9/11 and there’s been some excellent fiction published, particularly by new and emerging authors. The quality of international fiction has also been excellent. My only disappointment has been with the overall quality of Australian fiction and the bleak direction of mainstream SF, which is becoming dark and depressing.

One of my favourite blogs, The Millions, recently published a list of the best fiction of the 00s. It’s a good list and I thought I’d do my own to mark the end of the decade. This is a list of my favourite books of the 00s, the novels which have had the most impact on me and my writing.

Let me know which you’ve read. Do you have a favourite book of the 00s?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson

The Road (2006)
Cormac McCarthy

Few novels have affected me as much as reading The Road. It’s a devastating novel, stark and confronting, and is so intense that at times it’s difficult to read. But it’s also a beautiful, poignant novel, about a father and son struggling to survive, characters that come to life even though you don’t know their names. McCarthy’s prose is restrained and hauntingly beautiful. A magnificent novel; one of the best I’ve ever read.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005)
Stieg Larsson

Larsson’s novel is a remarkable début. It’s an unorthodox thriller that centres on the 36 year disappearance of Harriet Vanger, the grand-niece of former industrialist Henrik Vanger, but soon becomes a story about the family itself and their secrets and corruption. Larsson’s characters are unforgettable and Lisbeth is one of the most memorable female protagonists in years. Larsson died before he became known outside Sweden, leaving this and two sequels as his legacy.

American Gods (2001)
Neil Gaiman
Gaiman is one of my favourite writers and American Gods is an unusual mix of fantasy, reality, myth and Americana that somehow all works. Gaiman’s prose is vivid, bringing to life a twisted version of our world where the gods of old and new religions are preparing for war, and its subtext on the changing nature of religion and the place of technology in modern society is fascinating. It’s also darkly funny and scary.

Magic for Beginners (2005)
Kelly Link
Short fiction has continued a sad decline in the 00s but Kelly Link is a master of the form. Magic for Beginners collects nice stories which mix fantasy with everyday life, the mundane with the majestic. Her stories are unpredictable and dreamlike, none more so than The Faery Handbag, where an entire town takes refuge inside a forgotten handbag. Her prose is evocative yet simple and her stories haunt you long after you’ve finished them.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003)
Mark Haddon

Haddon’s début is an unusual novel. On the surface it’s an unorthodox mystery about Christopher, a teenager who finds the body of his neighbour’s poodle and decides to try and find the killer, but it’s really a careful examination of autism. Haddon’s depiction of Christopher is remarkable; Haddon gives us subtle insights into Christopher’s world, making him sympathetic & likeable, but without ever feeling exploitative. It’s original, funny and compelling.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)
Michael Chabon
There’s something unsettling about Chabon’s novel. Its style is a throwback to the detective stories of Chandler and Hammett, set in a world where a community of Jewish refugees settled in Alaska after World War II and the State of Israel collapsed. Chabon uses the novel to turn the conflict with Israel and Palestine on its head, asking what it means to be Jewish in the modern world. It’s a brilliant novel; Chabon’s alternate history seems eerily plausible.

Cloud Atlas (2004)
David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is less of a novel than a series of connected themes. It’s told across six stories that span centuries and different genres but each story is incomplete; the second half of each story is revealed in later chapters and it’s not until the end that you realise how they all come together. Each chapter is a mirror image of another and following the plot is almost like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. It’s unusual and beautifully crafted.

Life of Pi (2001)
Yann Martel

Martel’s novel is something of a surreal fable. Pi, a sixteen year old boy from India, the son of a zookeeper, becomes shipwrecked on a voyage to Canada. Finding himself stranded on a lifeboat with a 450-pound tiger, Pi has to use all of his knowledge and imagination to survive. Martel writes effortlessly and despite the unlikely premise, it’s really a clever allegory for the meaning of faith and storytelling in the modern world. An engaging and charming novel.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004)
Susanna Clarke

Clarke’s début is one of those unusual works in fantasy that is both superbly written and entirely original. Set in an alternate version of 19th century England where magic has all but left the country except for two magicians, its style feels like a pastiche of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, gothic and darkly beautiful. At its heart it’s as much a story about friendship, obsession and Englishness as magic. It’s a wonderful novel that took Clarke ten years to write.

Orpheus Lost (2007)
Janette Turner Hospital

Orpheus Lost is a sad love story inspired by the Orpheus myth. When a series of terrorist attacks strike Boston, Leela is interrogated and told that her lover Mishka may be a terrorist, leading her to try and find the truth and rescue him from the secret prisons and torture chambers of the modern underworld. Hospital focuses on the nature of terrorism and paranoia in the post-9/11 world, but the story is as much about the redemptive power of music; her descriptions of Mishka playing the violin and oud are breathtaking.

Spin (2005)
Robert Charles Wilson

Wilson is one of my favourite SF writers and at its heart Spin is about isolation: when a mysterious event causes a shield to appear around the Earth, humanity is cut off from the universe and reacts with a mixture of fear, panic and awe. Wilson’s prose lingers in your mind and Spin also acts as an allegory for 9/11, an event that changed the world in a moment, but never loses focus of its characters. It’s a remarkable novel; for me the best SF novel of the decade.

Restless (2006)
William Boyd

Restless is a brilliant, subtle novel. On the surface it’s a thriller about Eva Delectorskaya, a half-Russian emigrant who is recruited into the British SIS after her brother’s murder, but it’s really an examination of paranoia and how a lie can take over your life. Boyd writes vividly and his story is as much about nationality and the relationship between Eva (Sally) and her daughter, as Ruth slowly begins to learn the truth about her mother for the first time.

The Corrections (2001)
Jonathan Franzen

Franzen is a master of character portraits and The Corrections is a fascinating study of a seemingly ordinary family. The novel follows the Lamberts as they gather for one last Christmas together, but soon their carefully orchestrated lives begin to unravel around them. It’s a very American novel and a sharp commentary on greed, capitalism and the nature of parenting and family. It’s also eerie how its themes foreshadowed the post-9/11 world. Magnificent.

Never Let Me Go (2005)
Kazuo Ishiguro

At its heart Never Let Me Go is about the preciousness of life. The story is told by Kathy, a carer who looks back on her early life at Hailsham, a boarding school in Britain. The children of Hailsham are special; clones created to provide donor organs for transplants. As Kathy matures into a woman, she slowly begins to accept her sad fate. Ishiguro’s prose is beautifully subtle and Never Let Me Go is a sad, haunting novel that stays with you long after you’ve finished it.

Veniss Underground (2003)
Jeff VanderMeer

Veniss Underground is an unusual hybrid of SF and fantasy. Told in three parts, the main story focuses on Shadrach, who descends into the underground levels of Veniss in search of his love Nicola, travelling through a bizarre cyborg hell. The novel echoes Orpheus and Dante but VanderMeer uses his version of hell to highlight the dangers of human reliance on technology and the pursuit of perfection. It’s an excellent novel, filled with bizarre, dreamlike imagery.