Reflections on writing: only you can tell your story

I am always inspired when I hear writers talking about their craft. What always emerges is that there’s no hard and fast rule or approach. Like any creative pursuit, it’s highly individual and subjective. Although there is a plethora of information on writing – from blogs to podcasts, how-to manuals and modules, a formulaic approach will only take you so far. Working out why you want to write, what you want to say and why is an important part of the process.

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How authors approach their writing differs according to their motivation. It could be therapeutic –personal journaling, for example, has become very popular as a way of expressing, releasing, even purging thoughts and emotions – and, more generally, making sense of the world. Some authors have been penning stories from a young age, it’s in their blood and part of who they are, while others are more strategic and have a business-like approach to writing a blockbuster.

Whatever the frequency or medium, one unifying theme I have observed is the importance of finding – and trusting – your own voice, being authentic, tapping into your heart and soul and mining your storehouse of emotions, experiences and memories. Included in Neil Gaiman’s top tips on writing is this one: “As quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell – because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you, but you are the only you.”

Looking back, I realise that the first book I wrote in 2002-2004 was clearly a thinly disguised autobiography. Titled Unknown Territory, it wasn’t bad for a first effort – had it been published it would have slotted into the Chick Lit section of a bookshop. A few years later I picked it up again and decided to be more honest and write more directly about my personal journey. I framed it as an A-Z – a kind of ‘my life on a plate’. Some of it was good, some of it was a bit forced by dint of having to come up with content for each letter of the alphabet, and I glossed over the darker and more difficult episodes in my life as I was so hell bent on making it funny. I did get interest and some very positive feedback from publishers but the consensus was that I needed to plunge the depths and ditch the A-Z format.

Neil Gaiman talks about letting go of the inner critic and the perfectionist: “If you are making mistakes then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world.”   I would say that writing my A-Z changed my perception of my world and enabled me to re-frame some of my past in a way that made it more palatable even though I didn’t fully allow myself to write out some of the rage and more raw emotions.  I am glad it didn’t get published but now acknowledge that it was valid as an exercise in catharsis.

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Earlier this year I heard author Kate Grenville speak at Clunes Booktown. When talking about One Life: My Mother’s Story, she said: “Being truthful about the past is a pre-requisite for walking into the future.” That struck a chord with me and I wondered if I will ever have the urge to write a full-blown memoir, one that is uncompromisingly honest and free of the fear of being judged – or even worse, of upsetting some of my nearest and dearest.  Other advice Kate gave was to never start at the beginning of a story but where it gets interesting. Contrast that more intuitive approach to the planned writer who plots out the story and characters before writing.

Jane Harper, whose murder mystery The Dry has become a bestseller enrolled in a novel-writing course and in 12 weeks produced a 40,000-word draft. She takes a no-nonsense, roll up your sleeves approach to writing: “Writing is a skill that can be taught and learnt.” How refreshing to encounter a writer unencumbered by angst, anguish and sleepless nights. “I approach it logically,” she says, “and just take it step by step.”  Although Harper trained as a journalist and so, arguably, had a head start, writing a novel requires a different skill set. What comes across in the article I read is that Harper is efficient and organised and applied to herself to writing a novel as she would to any other task.  For her, the hard graft and discipline paid off, but for some too much effort kills off the creative spirit.

Also speaking at Clunes Booktown was Hannah Kent author of bestselling novel Burial Rites. She values the importance of routine but also – and I found this very heartening – allocates herself sick leave and annual leave. “You can show up too much.”

Once again, it’s about carving out our own niche and tapping into our own rhythm and association of thoughts and ideas. By all means take inspiration from other writers, but never fall into the trap of trying to imitate them either in style or writing practice. I like Neil Gaiman’s advice to be kinder to yourself: “Write more. And remember that everyone who writes anything good, wrote a lot of bad stuff first.”

Speed dating is all too speedy

In a rash moment of FOMO (fear of missing out) I recently booked onto a speed-dating evening. My rationale was that it had to be better than internet dating – see: https://wp.me/p3IScw-id  –  in that at least you can see the person and get a feeling for them and whether there’s any connection or chemistry, or can you?

The evening was held in a local wine bar and there were 12 women and 11 men– one man cancelled at the last moment–  and thank Goodness. 11 seven-minute small-talk chats with an uninspiring selection of men was quite plenty. By man six, I already had a bad case of the Groundhogs. I tried jumping in with interesting conversation starters and did share a love of dogs with one man and dreams about retirement travel with another, but they were just not my kind of men, physically or otherwise. When I got to the tenth man and he asked how I was enjoying the evening, I confessed I was looking forward to going home. By that point, I couldn’t fake interest any longer.

The experience reminded me of a literary speed-dating event I attended about five years ago.  Intrigued by the book angle and reassured by having a handy prop if the conversation dried up, I went along clutching one of my all-time favourites, Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd.  Placed opposite each other at long tables, we had the opportunity to get to know ten members of the opposite sex in fifty minutes. And that’s the thing about speed dating; it’s fast and furious as clocks – both biological and real – keep time.

I warmed to guy number three; he had read Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus (a quirky love story) and told me he did Tai Chi. “The trouble with speed-dating is the speed,” I confessed a little wearily. “Ah,” he said slipping out a green piece of paper from between the covers of his paperback and sliding it across the table. It was a flyer for slow -dating. “Much less hectic and adrenal than the current caper,” he said explaining that it attracted mind, body, spirit types. I imagined a roomful of vegans with shaved heads sitting in the lotus position.

Would I have been better off supping an alcoholic beverage with the Dave Allen lookalike with the florid face and cream woollen scarf? He had brought Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and not wanting to let him down, I pretended to have read it. He insisted that I listen to an original reading by Faulkner himself on YouTube, peppered every sentence with the F-word and dropped in mention of his ex-wife. The next man told me had recently retired and was suffering retirement angst. He also referred to an ex-wife. Another guy had overly flared nostrils. I was sure I had read somewhere that wide nostrils should ring alarm bells, but couldn’t remember why.

In the interval I stuffed down the nasty sugar and salt-laden potato chips and drank the cheap, acidic wine. And then the bell rang, and we were under starters orders and off again. The next man shared my English heritage, oohed and aahed about Thomas Hardy and Dorset and generally made all the right noises. He was neat, tidy and polite but could have been controlling under his polished veneer.

By the time the final bell rang I felt wrung out, my head was thumping, and I could hardly remember who was who and what was what.  When it came to filling in the ‘match’ forms, I wrote down Dorset man and ticked the platonic rather than the romantic tick box.  But, clearly, I didn’t tick his boxes – platonic or otherwise – as I never heard from him.

I still had the green slip of paper given to me by Tai Chi man.  There had been something a little strange about him, a certain tentativeness and lack of ease, but then again, he was more likely to be on my wavelength than an investment banker.  A few days later I emailed him on the pretext that I was interested in writing a feature for a magazine about the slow-dating evenings. Perhaps he could organise a free ticket?

He replied that he was not keen on having a journalist snooping about.  It wouldn’t be fair on the guests and would undermine the integrity of the whole thing. I wrote back saying I was not the snooping kind and suggested instead meeting for coffee during the week.  After a bit of toing and froing, it became clear that weekdays weren’t going to work so I suggested meeting for breakfast one weekend.  He replied enthusiastically suggesting a venue my side of town and then asked point blank: “Would it be easier if I stayed over the night before?”

Amazed at his audacity – meeting for breakfast is a very normal thing to do in Melbourne – I didn’t reply and deleted the email. He wrote again asking if he had been too forward and claimed he had only been joking. Well, if he had only been joking, why hadn’t he added an exclamation mark, some elliptical dots or even a smiley face emoticon? You have to be careful with emails, I said.  Without any indication of nuance or humour, it’s not clear what you’re trying to communicate. I hit a nerve and he penned a sarcastic reply. Maybe I could deliver a workshop on how to write emails and communicate better. He could provide the venue if I could find the clients.

In an effort to walk the talk, I sent off a final reply: “Don’t worry about it. It’s just that it’s strange for someone promoting slow-dating to be so quick to suggest a sleepover! 🙂 🙂

 

Amsterdam Part 2: All’s well that ends well

I stayed in Amsterdam either side of the International Fundraising Congress in mid-October. And the two experiences couldn’t have been more different. I booked the first weekend’s Airbnb in the Jordaan well in advance but, at the suggestion of a friend, I left booking the last couple of nights until I got there. Little did he or I know that Amsterdam often reaches full occupancy (well, in the sought-after areas anyway), and that ADE (Amsterdam Dance Event– a massive five-day electronic dance festival) coincided with my last weekend.

Either I had to pay an extortionate price to stay in the centre amid the canals and tall gabled houses, or I had to look further afield.  Time was not on my side and the price band I put into my internet search yielded few results. But the aptly named Ozo Hotel in South East Amsterdam sounded a reasonably good bet. The reviews spoke of friendly staff, comfy beds and proximity to the Metro. Still not cheap, but doable and available, I booked without doing any further research.

After the conference the shuttle buses dropped us at Amsterdam Central Station. Still sporting some disco glitter on my eyes and cheeks from the closing night gala, I grabbed the first available taxi, hefty luggage in tow (one of my goals for 2018 is to, once and for all, master the art of travelling light), and gave the address of the Ozo. The Turkish taxi driver told me – with glee, I now realise – that it was way out of Amsterdam; he held up Google Maps to prove it, and said he doubted it was near the Metro. Heart-sinking, glitter fading, energy flagging and metre ticking over – we arrived at the Ozo about twenty-five minutes later. The bill was a hefty 70 Euros. In truth, I don’t remember seeing a metre or getting a receipt – later I found out I had been well and truly fleeced. Never mind, I didn’t make the same mistake again, and, on my last day, took a short taxi ride to a train station where I got a five Euro train to the airport. Thankfully the hefty luggage had wheels!

Although the Ozo was bland, IKEA-ish and situated in a business park, it had everything I needed (including a restaurant that, while soulless, served up one of the best meals of my trip: gloriously fresh cod baked with spinach and potatoes)  and the Metro was, as advertised, in walking distance even if the graffiti-adorned urban landscape lacked canal-side charm.

In fifteen minutes I was back at the Central Station and heading off in sheeting rain and battling past ADE and other tourists (the relative peace at the Ozo began to appeal) to Anne Frank’s House in the Prinsengracht.  It is one of the more touristy  attractions, and you have to put up with shuffling along in a long line. But as you climb more and more stairs to reach the secret annex (Achterhuis) above the offices and warehouse of the spice and gelling companies Otto Frank worked for, Opekta and Pectacon, you sense just how constricted and trapped they were with eight people confined to a few rooms and the threat of discovery ever present.  When they were raided after two years in hiding, everything was cleared and seized bar a few personal effects – including Anne Frank’s diary – which survived. Looking at the photos of how they arranged their living space converting bedroom to living and dining room and back again each day, I was amazed at how orderly, respectable and even cosy they managed to make it. I asked a volunteer guide if it is known who informed on the two families and was surprised to learn that an ex-FBI agent has been trying to solve the case for the last three years.

The bookcase covering the door to the Annex where the Franks were hiding

By contrast, Rembrandt’s House (also in the heart of Amsterdam) with its attractive red and green shutters is a fully restored 17th century house that allows you to go behind the scenes and see where Rembrandt worked and taught other artists. Along with an extensive display of his etchings and sketches, there are hands-on demonstrations of how Rembrandt mixed pigments with linseed oil to make his paints.He bought the house in 1639 but didn’t manage to pay off the 13000 Gilder mortgage. The house was reconstructed from the inventory that was drawn up when he went bankrupt in 1656 and had to move out. As well as his box bed, I was fascinated by the collection of objects which he used as models for his paintings such as Venetian glassware, marble busts, seashells, dried animals and exotic weapons. Considered one of the great artists of all time, Rembrandt was, apparently, a moody man, and enjoyed a scandalous love life involving  extra-marital affairs with his nanny and then a 20-year old girl.

Saving the best for last, I visited the Van Gogh Museum on my final day. Another scandal-ridden artist with a prolific output. Not only did he paint 900 paintings in his short ten-year career, but he was also a skilled draughtsman and made nearly 1100 drawings, half of which are kept in the museum and displayed on a rotational basis due to their sensitivity to light. Some of his letters – many to his brother Theo – are also on display giving an insight into Vincent’s  troubled emotional life.From his famous Potato Eaters peasant painting through to his self-portraits, orchards in bloom, Sunflowers, and the emotionally-imbued landscapes of waving wheat, blue skies, gardens and rural scenes of his final days in Auvers-sur-Oise, this was the highlight of my trip.  Getting up close and personal with his paintings was to experience their intensity of colour, depth of expression and extraordinary beauty. As Van Gogh himself said: “Paintings have a life of their own that derives from the painter’s soul.”

I’m happy to say that my immersion in Dutch culture continues back in Australia. Last week I went to see the film Loving Vincent. In fact, I didn’t love it as I found the plot weak and a bit clichéd but, as the first fully painted feature animation, it’s visually stunning; each frame is hand-painted on canvas with oil paints – it took 150 artists six years to paint over 65000 frames.

And even better, I just found that Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age: masterpieces from the Riijksmuseum is showing at Sydney’s Gallery of NSW until mid February 2018.

Amsterdam Part One: Hippies and Rosehips, Canals and Cafes

I never dreamed that a fundraising job based in Australia would take me to Europe – until I got the chance to attend the International Fundraising Congress in Amsterdam in mid-October. The Congress was in Noordwijkerhout, about half an hour outside Amsterdam, in the bulb growing region famed for its tulips. October is not the time for spring tulips, but Noordwijkerhout is also situated about 5km from the North Sea. The day before the conference kicked off, a group of us hired bikes – those wonderful Dutch bikes with the wrap-around handle bars that ensure effortlessly good posture – and rode to the sea through the sandy dunes, dotted with bracken, rose-hips and autumn leaves. And how different the North Sea is to Port Phillip Bay here in Melbourne – the water so grey, the landscape so flat, the beach dotted with windbreaks, a line of defence against the chilly winds.

I got to Amsterdam the weekend before the conference and stayed in an Airbnb place in the Jordaan, in the heart of the city centre, an area that in the 17th century was home to the working classes and immigrants – Amsterdam was known for its tolerance towards other political and religious beliefs. It’s still a pretty tolerant kind of place – where else does marijuana waft out from seemingly every other bar and café? Having spent a couple of weeks in the UK visiting my mother and other relatives and friends – one long, if enjoyable, talkfest ­­­­– I arrived in Amsterdam exhausted and with a sore throat. The upside was that I learnt to override my normal tendency to move into manic sightseeing mode and, instead, to take it more gently, absorbing the place in a more visceral way.

Had I never gone further than the Jordaan’s many canals and flower-decked barges, zig-zagging over bridges, dodging the multitude of bikes, and window-shopping in the narrow streets lined with eclectic shops selling everything from antiques and antiquarian books to vintage, vinyl records, jewellery, designer goods and more, I would have come away sated. Every building, street corner, view and vantage point is a delight to the eye.  Like every other tourist (the bane of the locals’ lives) I found myself standing on the various bridges and marvelling at the canals lined by tall, narrow houses – some of them lop-sided and leaning Pisa-like to one side –  with their distinctive gables and winches, which are still used to hoist furniture in and out through the windows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My first stop was the Noordermarkt, which, on Saturday, sells organic and fresh produce as well as second-hand clothes, bric-a-brac and craft items.  After sampling different cheeses and cured meats and browsing the many stalls and hearing a bit of folk music, I ordered a lemon and ginger tea (excellent for the throat) in a nearby café.

Bas-relief of Saint Nikolaus

 

I got talking to a permaculture-loving hippie who was reading ‘The Freedom to be Yourself’ by Osho. He was pondering whether you have to step out of mainstream life to find freedom or whether it’s more of a mental attitude. I noticed a jar of thick, orange-coloured liquid on the table and asked what it was. Turns out it was home-made rosehip puree, packed with vitamin C. He offered me some and it was delicious, and I credit it with knocking my sore throat on the head. Who knows, maybe ingesting one of his vials of home-brewed therapeutic grade cannabis oil minus the mind-altering THC would have done the trick, but I stuck to the hips. Amusingly, my soul-searching friend drinks two strong espressos follow by a slug of cannabis oil to calm him back down. Each to their own.

From there I headed off to another market in the Lindengracht, this time tasting salted caramel-coated almonds before plonking myself down in a canal-side café to drink Earl Grey, write post cards and people watch. A man with an unleashed dog trotting along at pedal height cycled past, then a woman balancing a suitcase on the back of her bike, and another with groceries piled up  in a large box attached to her front wheel.  A girl with a German shepherd dog – no Nanny State health and safety fuss here – came into the café and ordered her coffee.

In the afternoon, I took a ferry (a free, three-minute trip) over the River LJ to Noord Amsterdam, an area that was once home to industry and shipbuilding but is now vibrant, edgy and home to places such as Café Pllek, made out of converted shipping containers, and the iconic EYE Film Institute, a modern geometric building with floor to ceiling glass windows designed to mimic film concepts of the illusion of light, space and movement.

I had lunch (this time with fresh mint tea) in the terraced café with views over the water (it’s a similar concept to the Sydney Opera House minus the sails and sun) and then explored the exhibition.

The EYE documents the history and evolution of film to the present day. From dioramas and zoetropes to the magic lantern and a showcase full of static frames, it’s a fascinating journey through the world of moving image with lots of interactive exhibits including a 360-degree panoramic room where you can choose from various film fragments on subjects such as slapstick, celebrity culture and voyages of discovery. I also watched part of a German vintage film in one of the film booths.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday was a glorious warm and sunny day and I started with pancakes (a must-do in Amsterdam) – goats cheese, spinach and smoked salmon – followed by a browse in a vintage clothes shop where I fell into conversation with an American couple. I overheard them mention Frankfurt and knowing the Frankfurt book fair is in October (I used to be in publishing) got chatting. Beyond Words are the company that published the hugely successfully self-help book The Secret. Later that evening, I bumped into them in the Thai restaurant next door to my Airbnb place and we had a drink – I even gave them an idea for a book. I was starting to like this more spontaneous style of sightseeing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two more cafés (and I thought Melbourne was the café capital) punctuated my day; one right by the water and with a selection of international newspapers, and the other one –  Rembrandt’s Corner – a nice post-brunch, pre-dinner refuelling stop after a tour round the Greater Master’s house (who would have guessed he went bankrupt and couldn’t pay his 13,000 Gilder mortgage? – more on Rembrandt’s House in Part 2).

A few days in London: from pearls to plywood and the Pickwick Papers

Being a tourist in a city where I once lived  as a worker, commuter, tax payer and home-owner is a joy. It’s an absence makes the heart grow fonder scenario. Although I made the most of London when I lived there from 1987 to 1996, there’s nothing sweeter than returning, unencumbered by day to day responsibilities, with the time and space to experience the place afresh, and inspired by the appreciative perspective of a long-distance traveller. Google tells me London is 10,497 miles away from Melbourne.

This time I tapped into a bit of glamour with dinner at the Athenauem Club in Pall Mall, one of London’s oldest clubs which counts 52 past and present Nobel Prize winners among its members and has oil paintings of Dickens, Darwin and other dignitaries lining the walls. Another night, my sister took me to the theatre to see the Ferryman by Jez Butterworth at the Gielgud Theatre in Piccadilly. The play set in the 80s about four generations of an Irish family was mesmerising with 22 actors on stage at one time plus a live rabbit and a real-life baby. It’s a tale of grief, disappearance and loss – an aunt to dementia and an elder son’s body is found in the bog. Woven throughout the family narrative are myth, magic, ‘the Troubles’ and the corrosive and threatening presence of the IRA.

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Pall Mall at night

Before the theatre we strolled through the Burlington Arcade admiring its high-end jewellery, leather, cashmere, shoe and perfume stores all so exclusive that, in most cases, you must ring the bell to be admitted. For fun, we enquired about the price of a beautiful pearl necklace only to find it was £77,000!

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Pricey Pearls

As if to bring things down to earth – albeit in an airborne way – the ceiling space in the Arcade featured the work of French artist Mathilde Nivet whose 300 bird sculptures, painstakingly crafted from paper, fluttered overhead.

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After that it was onto Fortnum & Mason known as Fortnum’s for short, an elegant and gracious store with its plush red carpet and spiral staircase connecting the floors selling luxury hampers, teas, coffees, cheeses, biscuits and fine wines all presented in its trademark green tins or boxes. It’s a bit like entering a fairy tale until you come to pay the bill.

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A quick trip to the Victoria & Albert Museum offered plenty of contrast. An exhibition about plywood  showed how layering cross-grained veneers to make material stronger than solid wood has been used since 2600 BC in Ancient Egypt, but the advent of mechanised saws in the 1830s saw it emerge as a key material in the industrial age as it was cheaper than cast metal.  From the covers for Singer Sewing Machines, tea chests, car parts, surf boards and the moulded fuselage of Mosquito aeroplanes in the Second World War, the exhibition highlighted the versatility of plywood. Today, plywood has become popular as a material for digital design due to rise of digital fabricating machines known as CNC Cutters (Computer Numerical Control).

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No visit to the V & A would be complete without a wander through the fashion section where we took in (crazy) cumbersome court mantuas, corsets and crinolines –  the starchy, scratchy and restrictive Victorian costumes were a perfect segue to a trip to the Dickens Museum the next day.

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A court mantua worn by women in the 1750s to royal assemblies and balls

Dickens and his wife Catherine lived at 48 Doughty Street in Bloomsbury from 1836-1839, and this is where he wrote OIiver Twist, the Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby. Some samples of his hand-written drafts – they were published in monthly parts – are on display along with his writing desk and chair and one of his reading desks, from where he performed his public readings. He’d edit his own text and write himself stage directions in the margins. Upstairs in one of the bedrooms is a mirror in which he practised impersonating some of his characters so he could ‘see’ them.

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A hand-written draft page from Oliver Twist

Other more quirky exhibits include a model of a hedgehog in the kitchen (they were kept in Victorian kitchens to eat insects and keep the bug population down), a commode with a letter from Dickens to his doctor complaining about: “distention and flatulency, and disagreeable pains in the pit of the stomach and chest, without any disarrangement of the bowels.” Sounds like a long-winded way (forgive the pun) way of describing indigestion. Dickens was also a big fan of cane chairs, perhaps the latest in ergonomic design back then. He writes to a friend: “I can testify there is nothing like it. Even in this episodical hotel-life, I invariably have my cane chair brought from a bedroom, and give the gorgeous stuffed abominations to the winds.” I’m sure Dickens would have been a fan of mattress toppers had they existed in his day. See: To sleep, perchance to dream

To sleep, perchance to dream

Are you getting enough sleep? And how much is enough?

A professor of neuroscience and psychology, Matthew Walker, has written a new book: Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams – the premise of which is that not getting enough sleep shortens our lives. Walker advises that adults need between seven to nine hours’ sleep every night. He says that you can measure ‘objective impairments’ in brain and body in those that regularly sleep less than seven hours –  these include increased blood pressure and heightened flight-or-fight response, calcification of the coronary arteries, a depressed immune system and a higher risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease.

The article I read in the (London) Times was teamed up with a feature on ‘The Best Beds in Britain’ which I read with interest as I’m quite picky when it comes to beds. Billed as the most luxurious mattress is a four-poster bed in the royal suite of the Savoy Hotel in London which comes with a topper made from hair hand-combed from a species of yak found only in the Khangai region of Mongolia – guests can buy replica mattresses for a mere £70,525.  My favourite, though, is the glamping option at a secluded cabin in the Vale of Glamorgan where the bed has a state-of-the-art mattress and is decked with locally woven blankets and sits in the middle of a circular space with views over the countryside. Glamping or even plain camping in nature without electric light also cancels out issues related to what Walker calls our ‘dark deprived society’.

Sleeping Princess and the Pea-style

I used to be able to sleep in just about any bed but, now, my spine and I are very particular – downright fussy in fact.  Just like Goldilocks, I don’t like my mattress too hard, too soft, too springy, too high, too low, too synthetic, too full of lumps, bumps and ridges or plagued by an annoying creak or squeak.

I’ve experienced quite a variety of mattresses in my time, some of the most memorable being a lumpy horsehair mattress in a flat full of heavy Biedermeier furniture when I was an 18-year-old Au Pair girl in Vienna,  a roll-up Japanese futon (I needed two mattresses to stop my vertebra digging into the floor), a queen size pocket-sprung mattress (to minimise partner disturbance) – there’s another variable to throw into the sleep mix; you can have the right man but the wrong bed or the right bed and the wrong man), a hard unforgiving mattress (once my sister’s vicar’s guest bed) and a super saggy bed worn into a permanent banana shape in a one star ‘hostal residencia’ in Spain. Then there have been lumpy creaky sofa beds and collapsing Z-beds at friends’ houses, bunk beds, hospital beds and school dormitory beds. Talking of school, I was the only new girl to be still awake the first night of the new school year when the brute of a housemistress –she of the tight perm, tight lips, dandruff-sprinkled collar and pointy boobs came round with her strong beam torch to check on us all. What’s more, she named and shamed me at the house meeting the next day; all the other 59 girls in the house were apparently sleeping peacefully.

During a protracted phase of insomnia some years ago, I was convinced that a new mattress would fix the problem AND alleviate my back ache (never mind that I spend longer hunched at the computer than I do lying in bed). I’d read somewhere that bed coil springs conduct electricity and intensify our exposure to electromagnetic waves and radiation hence keeping us wired.  Cut to 2009 or thereabouts when I got sucked into purchasing a memory foam mattress – not a spring in sight – at Melbourne’s Mind-Body-Spirit Festival (wasn’t that a clue that the bed might come with healing hype?). I told the guy – he of the twinkling bedroom eyes – that I am like the fairy tale Princess who can feel the pea under twenty mattresses and twenty eider downs. “We don’t make Princess-size beds, only Queen and King-size,” he quipped at the same time offering an irresistible discount and to deliver the bed in person.  Giggle, giggle, twinkle, twinkle.

The bed came rolled up in a plastic tube. As I sliced open the covering, smells of newness and fire-retardant chemicals wafted out. “Made in China” I read and panic set in. I meant to buy an all-natural latex bed but had somehow been seduced into a glorified piece of foam.

The first night, I struggled with newly manufactured chemical smells and the strange feeling of the foam. I liked it and I didn’t, it felt good and it didn’t.  Lying on my back, I slid my hand under the arch of my back to gauge the level of support – kicking myself for not doing a more through test before I bought it. I wasn’t sure it was doing what I needed it to do. Ouch, and I had just spent the best part of $1000. After a few nights, my lower back hurt more than before and I kept getting up and prodding the foam to watch how it held its shape (hence the memory thing and contouring to your body) and gradually bounced back. I read the sales bumph and the ecstatic testimonials but remained unconvinced. It felt as if the foam was making my spine sag.

A few weeks later I visited a store that sells natural latex beds and learnt that memory foam beds often lack the proper density needed to support the spine, and so, yes, the sagging feeling I was experiencing was probably accurate. I ended up selling that mattress on eBay – not everyone is as Princess and the Pea as I am. That’s when I discovered toppers, my first choice being a cheapish feather and down topper that covered my mattress and floor with feathers which were rough and poked out of the casing. Ditching that, I then ordered a dual layer polyester topper from British store John Lewis and have not looked back.

My other hot tip to any other fidgety types out there is that stores like Kmart sell cheap ‘egg box’ foam toppers that are light and easy to transport when travelling. Like a guilty secret, I always smuggle in my topper when I stay with certain friends whose spare bed is like a brick. It’s revolutionised my weekends with them. And they need never know.

Berlei bras, Bridges and Bakelite Radios: Brave New World

It’s easy to put on rose-tinted glasses and think that the world used to be an easier, better place in bygone eras. Pick your decade and add a touch of sepia and a few cherry-picked memorable events, and it can all seem much more glamorous, if not romantic.

Wandering round the NGV Australia’s exhibition of life in 1930s Australia – Brave New World, named after Aldous Huxley’s classic futuristic dystopian novel – I was struck by how many of the themes and concerns of that era still preoccupy us today – from consumerism, traffic congestion and the loss of individuality in an increasingly fast-paced and mechanised world to the position of women in society.

The exhibition starts with paintings and photos documenting the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  The painting by Grace Cossington-Smith (a nice overlap for me as I saw some of her work recently at an exhibition entitled O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: making modernism at the Art Gallery of New South Wales) of the bridge during construction has an optimistic feel; there’s colour, movement and expansive skies. It’s as if the bridge – the largest single-arch bridge in the world when it was completed in 1932 – heralds the dawn of a new era. Horizons were expanding and skyscrapers going up – Melbourne’s tallest building at the time, the Manchester Unity building, was built in 1932.

 

Grace Cossington-Smith

Speed, efficiency and expanding road and rail networks gave artists working in new media and styles a rich source of imagery. Max Dupain’s 1938 photo of Rush Hour in Kings Cross hints at the stresses of modern life, although, to my contemporary eye, the moody black and white finish and all those vintage cars feels more 42nd Street than Darlinghurst Road. It’s sepia-tinted nostalgia at play again.

A non-stop daily train from Melbourne to Albury – the Spirit of Progress – averaging 70 mph first ran in 1937 and featured an ‘ultra modern’ kitchen meaning passengers could choose a 3-course dinner for six shillings. The menu is wonderfully dated and includes delights such as consommé or clam chowder, boiled leg of mutton or boiled flathead with parsley sauce and, for dessert, steamed Victoria pudding or compote of peaches and custard.

The position of women in society was changing as it became acceptable for women to live alone, work and even frequent nightclubs! At the same time, a leaner body type became fashionable with defined waists and more revealing clothing. To help women achieve a more sculpted figure, clothing companies such as Berlei used a Figure Type Indicator, a measure that made sure women wore suitable foundation garments to correct their ‘figure faults’. An amusing ad by Berlei – It isn’t Done –  that ran in cinemas in 1930, plays on a screen. You can view it here:  https://aso.gov.au/titles/ads/berlei-it-isnt-done/clip2/.  Women’s rights still had a long way to go.

One of my favourite parts of the exhibition is a whole room of radios from those that were set into pieces of furniture to portable Bakelite models and others with fancy Art Deco grilles. How exciting it must have been when radios first brought the outside world live into the home! A soundtrack playing in the background includes Fred Astaire favourites such as Night and Day and Cheek to Cheek.

A single black negligée on display hints at glamour and the Hollywood femme fatale – and, interestingly, an advert for a white goods blends glamour, romance and elegance with a photo of a fridge flanked by a couple in evening wear. Although it was still not acceptable for middle-class women to light up a cigarette in public in the 20s, by the 30s smoking was portrayed as being sophisticated. There’s a wall of paintings of women of the era, some of them smoking or looking suitably louche or rebellious.

Peggy Crombie painted by Sybil Craig

Reactionaries like the photographer Max Dupain didn’t like to see women emerge from being just wives and mothers and begrudged them their new-found freedoms: “there must be a great shattering of modern values if woman is to perpetuate the race… In her shred of a dress and a little helmet of a hat, her cropped hair, and stark bearing, the modern woman is a sort of solider… It is not her fault it is her doom.”

Contrast his views with those of Jean Broome-Norton, a sculptor whose Hippolyta and the Amazons defeating Theseus depicts the Queen of the Amazons with a proud and strong physique complete with conical breasts – Madonna didn’t get there first.  Worryingly, between the war years, there was a move away by some sections of society from what was perceived as the corrosive influence of Europe and a tendency to look inwards.  The human body and physical form and prowess expressed through references to Classical Greece and mythology became synonymous with nationhood. A new Australian ‘type’ became desirable, a white Australian hailing from British stock, but one that was muscular and athletic from swimming and surfing.  With the benefit of hindsight and historical knowledge, this cult of the body is uncomfortably close to the Nazi Party’s Aryan ideal and racial cleansing.

As war loomed in the 1930s, lifesavers became linked with military service as they were trained for ‘battle’ in the surf and male lifesavers became poster boys – literally– for ads marketing Australia to tourists.  It was all about manhood, military service, muscles and virility.Of course, no exhibition of this inter-war period would be complete without reference to the Great Depression. In contrast to the negligees, glamorous gowns, airbrushed posters, radios, fridges, cars and speedy trains with restaurant cars, there was huge unemployment (levels reached nearly 32 per cent in 1932) and poverty.  A series of photos and black and white grainy film depict life in the slums in the cities, while works by artists such as Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker express anxiety and existentialism.

One of the last photos in the show is by Max Dupain and it reflects concerns at the time that machines and mechanisation were destroying the body, perhaps even humanity. Brave New World (1938) shows a woman trapped by technology. Naming the piece after a book that had been banned by the Australian Customs Department, with existing copies rounded up and burnt, was provocative. One wonders how Dupain reacted (he lived till he was 81 in 1992) to the first man in space, women’s liberation and the pill. Not to mention how he would fare in today’s world where much of life is actioned by the swipe of a finger across a screen.  Brave New World is on at the NVG until 15th October, 2017.

 

 

How spiders got me writing

Spiders: the stuff of nightmares, fairy tales, fantasy or fiction? Arachnophobia or arachnophilia – what camp are you in? A recent re-read of a childhood favourite Charlotte’s Web – complete with my nine-year-old joined-up writing signature on the inside front cover – steered me towards the latter.

And what a wonderful story it is featuring Charlotte A. Cavatica, the grey spider and heroine of the piece who saves Wilbur (the pig’s) life. It’s a story of selfless friendship, loyalty, devotion, commitment and love. There’s plenty of humour and humanity too: Charlotte tell us: “Well, I am pretty. There’s no denying that,” seven is her lucky number, she’s a good writer and storyteller and prone to some wonderfully Zen reflections (none of which I noticed aged nine). She compares her web spinning prowess to the building of the Queensborough bridge and how long it took. She adds a comment on the pace of human life: “they just keep trotting back and forth across the bridge thinking there is something better on the other side. With men, it’s rush, rush, rush, every minute. I’m glad I am a sedentary spider.”

She’s also very pragmatic – while still storybook – and unapologetic about being a bloodythirsty predator consuming: “flies, bugs, grasshoppers, choice beetles, moths, butterflies, tasty cockroaches, gnats, midges, daddy longlegs, centipedes, mosquitoes, crickets — anything that’s careless enough to get caught in my web. I have to live, don’t I”?

As we all know, her ingenuity and patience save Wilbur from ending up as crispy bacon on a dinner plate: “She knew from experience that if she waited long enough, a fly would come to her web; and she felt sure that if she thought long enough about Wilbur’s problem, an idea would come to her mind.” Her solution is to weave words into her web to persuade the farmer, Homer Zuckerman, that Wilbur is an exceptional pig who must be saved.  And it works; Wilbur becomes a celebrity attracting attention far and wide, and becomes the star at the County Fair.

“I wove my web for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”

If only I had re-read Charlotte’s Web before my first trip to Australia in 1995…

A kayak instructor I met on the backpacker trail lent me his house in rural Gippsland in Victoria. Here was my big chance to have a solo adventure away from my family and friends in the UK. I’d imagined a rose-covered cottage perched on a hill with views over a valley, where I would be able to tap into my inner poet, be at one with nature and meditate into the middle distance.  In reality, it was a wooden shack in Nowheresville and any view was obscured by the mountain drizzle.

Even worse, on my first (and, as it turned out, only night) I noticed a huge black shape profiled against the grubby white duvet covering the mattress on the floor.  It was a spider and I was terrified. Back then, I thought all Australian spiders delivered killer bites. Clearly, I had read too much Bill Bryson. To quote from his book Down Under: “Australia has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip.”

It was in fact a huntsman spider. Although they are relatively harmless, they are hairy, have eight-eyes, can span two hundred and fifty to three hundred millimetres and are dead ringers for tarantulas. I tried chatting to it: “Would you please just toddle off and leave me alone,” but it stayed put, defiant and rubbery, until I raised my boot, praying it would dart off, Alice-like, through a hole in the skirting board. Alas, my prayers went unanswered and so I ended up beating the life out of the poor defenceless thing.

The deathly deed done, I looked around the room and noticed there were webs  everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Plugging the skirting board hole with cotton wool, I swept the sills and then got under the well-worn coverless quilt. I hardly slept, flinching against the spider-like loose threads every time I turned over. As soon as daylight came, I was up and into the shower where – and I exaggerate not – a spider dangled from a bare light bulb. The place had now taken on Hitchcockian associations.

I dressed, packed and fled down to the shop at the bottom of the hill. Distraught to hear that the next bus wasn’t for two days –  a timeframe seemingly exaggerated by the shopkeeper’s slow Australian drawl – I accepted a lift to Warragul station from a kindly farmer who took me the scenic route via the Lakes.  So much for my journey of self-discovery.

Too proud to return to the bosom of my family – my brother was living here and my parents visiting from the UK– I called friends of friends from a pay phone at the train station. “It’s Helen’s friend, Charlotte,” I said in a high-pitched squeak, explaining my flight from the spider shack.  Even though she had never met me, the lovely Connie (now in her late 80s) asked whether I would like to go and stay with them in Kyneton. And that was the start of a beautiful friendship with Connie and Norman and their family.

My four days in Kyneton turned out to be food for mind, body and soul – everything Gippsland wasn’t. There was porridge for breakfast, morning tea on the veranda, roast dinners in the evening and trips to Hanging Rock and Castlemaine. What’s more, under Connie’s excellent tutelage, I wrote my first short story (based on an experience in Parsley Bay in Sydney) on her typewriter. I still have the original today and am proud of it. Thank you spider, you helped to kickstart my creative writing!

House Museum 3 of 3: Mr Straw’s House – hoarding Edwardian-style

Walking into No.7 Blyth Grove in Workshop, Nottinghamshire, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Straw family were hoarders. Not the kind of hoarding that provides voyeuristic fodder for Reality TV shows – television hadn’t even been invented when the Straw family bought their semi-detached house in 1923 – theirs was more of a post First World War ‘Make Do and Mend’ approach.

The charm of the house is that little has been touched since 1932, giving a real life – rather than a museum curated – insight into a bygone era. William Straw was a prosperous tradesman, a seed merchant and grocer with a shop at the top end of town, and father to two sons, William and Walter. William senior died suddenly while gardening aged 68 in 1932 and his wife Florence passed away seven years later.

After the death of their parents the two boys continued to live in the house, keeping everything exactly as it was for the rest of their lives, William being the last to depart when he went to hospital in 1985. It’s almost as if the house is a shrine to their parents’ memory.  They kept the curtains closed to keep out the sun in Florence’s sitting room, her bible on the table, the French Empire-style clock on the mantelpiece, her music scores on the piano stool, the bookcase fully stocked and side board crowded with ornaments and china. Fortunately, for us and future generations, William bequeathed the property to the National Trust on his death in 1990.

Florence’s sitting room

The dining room, which is to the right as you enter the front hall, where William senior’s coats, caps and hats still hang from pegs, is the room where time seems to have stood still. The calendar on the wall with a picture of two kittens is from 1932, William’s pipes and tobacco pouch and favourite chair to the left of the fireplace are as he left them. The walls are covered in dark wallpaper and hung with oil paintings, the furniture heavy and every surface laden with glass, china and pewter ornaments and collectables.

One of the most touching rooms in the house is the parents’ bedroom, where William’s detachable collars are still in a box on the dressing table with Florence’s diaries, gloves and the blue sunglasses she used on her annual seaside holiday in a drawer. The brass frame bed is heaped with Florence’s clothes perfectly preserved between layers of newspaper and carbolic soap to protect against moths. While the Straw parents hung onto everything ­– from postal correspondence to bills and old newspapers (even those that were delivered while they were on holiday) – there’s an air of thriftiness about the place. This wasn’t the age of fast fashion with flimsy throw-away items, worn just a few times, creating mountains of toxic waste in landfill sites, of electronic gadgets with built-in obsolescence or one in which plastic water bottles and takeaway food containers litter the landscape.

The Straws on their annual seaside holiday in Scarborough

Yet there’s a homeliness and cosiness amid all the paraphernalia, clutter and heavy furniture – possessions were an indicator of status and wealth in the 1920s. And, while the sons remained deeply resistant to change after their parents died, refusing to make way for modern conveniences as they became available such as phone, radio, central heating and television, their parents were not afraid to move with the fashions of the time.

One of the first things you notice on entering the house, with its attractive stained glass door panels,  is the Axminster stair carpet bearing an Egyptian design, one that was very much in vogue following the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before moving in, William Senior had all the rooms decorated with fashionable Sanderson wallpapers, dado and picture rails put up, new curtains, carpets and lino laid. And, in a concession to modernity, a new lavatory was installed in the bathroom, and in 1927, a new sink and bath were put in with two taps to accommodate the introduction of hot water.  Imagine two taps being a symbol of luxury! With exposed lead piping – I always think of Cluedo and whodunnit – it looks sparse to our modern tastes but, along with improvements to the electrical system, the Straws were very much up and coming.

Two tap luxury

In 1940 William drew up an inventory of the entire ground floor of the house – down to every last packet of food in the kitchen cupboards –  and labelled some items of furniture. In common with the original owners of other house museums, the Straws documented their lives for posterity, whether consciously or unconsciously. What kind of legacy are we creating today in the absence of letters and hard copy documentation. Will our lives be digitally recorded and archived? What will happen to all our emails?

Curiously, the boys used a cupboard on the second-floor landing as a pantry. Sauces, tins, jars and bottles – some vintage such as Fowler’s Pure Cane Indian Treacle and some more modern such as a tin of Heinz baked beans – line the shelves. A lumber room on the same floor – probably originally a maid’s room (there are servants’ bells in the kitchen) served as a storeroom. It’s crammed with eclectic objects such as a foot-operated Baby Daisy vacuum cleaner, jars of home-made bottled jam, hat boxes, biscuit tins, wooden crates and a World War Two wardens’ helmet.

My family lived in Workshop, a small market and former mining town, in the 70s. I wonder if I ever passed William and Walter, both regular churchgoers (always sitting in the same pew) in their serge suits and bowler hats? What austere lives they led –baking bread once a week to their mother’s recipe and using her utensils, only ever lighting fires in two of the rooms even in the coldest months, their bachelor beds covered in checked blankets.  Little did I think I would return one day as a tourist from Australia thrilled to discover a time capsule of the Victorian and Edwardian Age.

 

Liberace with more money? David Roche Foundation: House Museum two of three

Canopic, canine, camp with a hint of kitsch –  perhaps not obvious bedfellows (read on…) but a recent trip to Adelaide’s first privately funded museum – the David Roche Foundation House Museum ­– convinced me otherwise. That’s why I love house museums; just as characters in novels are revealed through the pages of a book, a tour round someone’s house is similarly revealing; how they inhabit and arrange their space, their choice of books, furnishings, paintings, colours and collectables gives you an insight into their personality, their preferences and passions.

The first thing that strikes you when you enter the late David Roche’s house in Adelaide’s Melbourne Street is the riot of colour and richness of textures; everything seemingly gilded in some way. Spanning British Regency to French Empire and Neoclassicism, the place is packed with antiques, fine and decorative art: there’s silk, damask, bronze, silver, gold, parquetry, marble, malachite, china, porcelain, polished stone, glass, crystal and more.

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David Roche was born in 1930 and started collecting antiques and valuables when he was just 17, a practice he continued until three months before his death in 2013. He came from a property owning and developing family and clearly never had to do office work to pay the bills. A photograph of him in a double-breasted suit with a red silk tie in the breast pocket suggests he was a man of refined taste – who knows perhaps he was even a bit of snob?

By all accounts he was a generous but highly private man, which makes it interesting that he bequeathed his property and wanted it to be enjoyed by the public. His 1950s Federation home is the House Museum part, and a purpose-built adjoining gallery, once kennels for his Afghan show dogs, houses more works, many of them larger items from the Roche private collection.

The place does shout camp – you only have to look inside the master bedroom – think Empire Bed and chaise longue sofa covered in leopard skin fabric, bespoke oak-garland wallpaper ordered in Britain, French silk curtains dyed to the colour of the back of a magnolia leaf, a cabinet of snuff boxes, parasol handles and Fabergé items, a George 1V mirror and a vitrine cabinet full of priceless china – Meissen, Tournai, Sevres and Worcester.  One reviewer described Roche’s collection as ‘Liberace with more money.’

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But that’s not all. There’s a canopic jar on the wall, one of many references to all things Egyptian, an interest sparked by Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition in 1798.

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The ancient Egyptians used these jars to store and preserve the organs of the deceased, one each for the stomach, intestines, lungs and liver in the belief that they would be needed in the afterlife (the heart as the seat of the soul was left inside the body).  The cultural and artistic influence of the Grand Tour, a mostly 18th century phenomena when young men of means would travel round Europe in search of the roots of western civilization, is also evident in the collection, many of the pieces in the neo-classical tradition – there’s plenty of furniture adorned with claw feet, winged creatures and sphinxes.

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Napoleon himself makes an entry – one of the display cases in the bedroom contains a flintlock pistol that was gifted to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 by an English military commander. Other aristocratic characters featuring in the collection include Catherine the Great whose portrait by Johann Baptist Lampi hangs in the Russian Room, which is rich in malachite, gilt-edged mirrors and candelabras. Then in chinoiserie bedroom there’s a French commode from around 1820, owned by the 1st Duke of Wellington.

As with many house museums, you can’t just tip up and look round. You need to book on a timed tour. Although, here, it’s an intimate experience without any cordons or ropes sectioning off the treasures.  The tour starts with tea, coffee and biscuits and a short video among the classical statues and torsos in the Roman room then continues into the hall, its deep red walls hung with the kind of framed sporting prints you’d expect to find in an English stately home, the carpet underfoot dark green and patterned with black stars, copied from a design in the White House – it’s not all inspired by classical antiquity.

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Far from it, in fact, the kitchen is surprisingly kitsch with its printed hessian walls, curtains patterned with cockerels, and the kind of clutter you might find in a car boot sale: lustreware mugs, chunky pottery, toys, mechanical money boxes, a butcher’s shop diorama – it’s more Country’s Women’s than Haute Cuisine.

Perhaps the closest we come to seeing the man behind the beautiful objects is in his den, which is modelled on an Englishman’s study with racing, hunting and canine portraits.  Roche, it turns out, was a dog lover and breeder – hence the kennels where the new gallery now stands – and a judge at Crufts and dog shows around the world.  Alongside a collection of The Kennel Club Stud Books are other canine-related books and trophies and rosettes that his dogs won in shows.

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I couldn’t help wondering if the dogs ever came into the house – the thought of wagging tails dislodging a porcelain vase from the Qing Dynasty makes me shudder.

Staffordshire dog figurines in the gallery took me back to my childhood and to my mother’s house where a pair of hearth spaniels (they were typically displayed on mantelpieces in 19th century England) still sit atop a tall boy dresser in the living room.

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Talking of home, the third house museum in my series will feature Mr Straw’s House in Nottinghamshire, England, where time has seemingly stood still since 1926. Stay tuned.