Scarecrows, Sprockers and State Visits

Have you ever thought about the history of scarecrows? I hadn’t but the 12th annual Ranskill and Torworth Scarecrow Festival – a village fundraiser close to where my mother lives in Nottinghamshire – prompted me to do some research. The Egyptians were the first to make wooden scarecrows in the likeness of deities to deter the birds from eating grain. In medieval Britain children would walk through the fields throwing stones at birds raiding the crops but when the Black Plague decimated the population in 1348, there weren’t enough people to work in the fields so they made scarecrows out of straw with turnips or gourds for heads.

I always think of that song in Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat (still one of my favourite musicals of all time) Stone the Crows, the one that comes after Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream:

Well, stone the crows
This Joseph is a clever kid
Who’d have thought that 14 cows
Could mean the things
He said, they did

And who remembers Worzel Gummidge, the TV series from the 70s and 80s, based on the books by Barbara Euphan Todd with John Pertwee aka Dr Who as Worzel, the scarecrow? I’ve just read that the BBC is filming a new adaption to be screened later in the year. There’s something very lovable about a scarecrow who comes to life and befriends children, getting up to tricks and mischief.

I didn’t count the scarecrows lining the roads around the two villages but there must have been a good fifty or more covering topics ranging from humour to history, cartoon characters, fiction, fantasy and fairy tale. Mum and I hopped on Wilfreda Beehive, a 1965 London Routemaster Bus, to view the exhibits in style.

Some of my favourites included three Spitting Image-style politicians: Theresa May, Jean Claude Juncker and Jeremy Corbyn, a policeman holding a hairdryer as a speed detector and a robed figure sitting on a chair entitled Mindfulness. Positioned atop trees and hedges along the route were knights on horseback, astronauts and children’s favourites such as Peppa Pig. A lot of fun.

But there was more: amid the stalls selling hand-crafted bags and natural skincare products there was a dog show and competition with categories including Gundogs, Working Dogs and Hounds, Pedigree, Pastoral and Toy, Good Looking Boy/Girl and Most Appealing Eyes. Drawn to the spaniels, I met several Bertie lookalikes. They were, in fact, sprockers – a mix of cocker and spring spaniel. Bertie is the result (one of ten) of an accidental mating between a field spaniel and a cocker spaniel. What does make him? A focker, a flocker? The mind boggles. That same day I accompanied Mum to St Peter’s Church in nearby Clayworth, home to theTraquair Murals by renowned Scottish Arts and Crafts artist Anna Traquair (1852-1936). I reckon Mum goes more for the social connection than any deep-rooted faith. The somewhat happy clappy vicar – it was Pentecost Sunday (reminding me of our/Australia’s Pentecostal PM, Scott Morrison) – challenged us to reflect whether we were ready for God’s Kingdom on earth. The lady in the front pew assented with a vigorous YES and clapped her hands in the penultimate hymn. Mum, meanwhile, whispered all too loudly, that the service was going on way too long and she hoped there wouldn’t be yet another hymn. There was. I enjoyed a bit of time out to reflect, count my blessings (excuse the pun) and admire the fabulous murals.

Not to be defeated by the rain, we also visited Retford’s local museum housed in a handsome Georgian mansion. A mix of various private collections – china, glass etc – and displays of bygone eras, I enjoyed the Second World War Kitchen, the cabinet full of lotions, potions and medicines such as Dr MacLean’s Stomach Powder and the Victorian schoolroom. Although once a thriving market town (granted its first charter by Henry III in 1246) and then a coal-producing centre connected by a network of canals, it’s gone rather downhill and is now full of shops such as Primark and Poundstretcher.

There’ve been some afternoon naps – I’ve bagged what was Dad’s reclining chair and plugged in a little hot pad in an attempt to create a sun lounger experience. I’ve done lots of cooking and, to Mum’s delight, tried recipes that I have collected over the years with only one culinary flop so far. And all this against the backdrop of the ongoing Brexit debacle: no deal, a revised deal, a postponed deadline, proroguing Parliament, a General Election, scrapping Brexit or remaining. It’s chaos. And the way the Conservative party leader selection process is going, it looks like the UK and the US will each will be ruled by blond blusterers with bad haircuts. I met a lady on the train to London who was on the Conservative Executive Committee under Thatcher and was injured in the Brighton Hotel bombing in 1984. She knows Boris and insists that the buffoonery is all an act and that he is a shrewd player. Let’s hope she’s right!

Trump, of course, basked in the attention, pomp and ceremony surrounding his State Visit to the UK (labelling anti-Trump protests as fake news) to mark the extraordinarily emotional 75th Anniversary of the D-Day landings. Britain being Britain, he was highly criticised for his sartorial faux-pas with the vest of his white-tie outfit way too long under the jacket. Then there was the errant h in his spelling of the Prince of Whales and his vicious verbal attack on the Mayor of London. By contrast, the Queen so dignified and chipper and doing her bit for that so-called special relationship between the two countries.

 

The Republic of Words 3 of 3: Writing, dogs and the meaning of life

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, a book about writing and the relationship between animals and humans, was another perfect fit for me. It’s a novel but I thought it was a true story as it reads like a memoir and is, I discovered, the most autobiographical of Nunez’s book to date. It is a simple story but one that is multi-layered and full of literary allusions with an animal as the central character. It’s about a woman in New York – the narrator – who reluctantly inherits a dog – a Great Dane – when its owner, her friend, a womanising professor who has been married three times, commits suicide. Nunez, like the female narrator, both teaches and writes.  She has no social media accounts and leads a quiet life: “I became a writer because it was something I could do alone and hidden in my room.” She is an ‘old school’ writer who views the craft as a vocation and was surprised to find herself in the limelight as the winner of the 2018 National Book Award.

Nunez/the narrator has a dig at the proliferation of writers and quotes the deceased friend as agreeing with Garrison Keillor: “When everyone’s a writer, no one is,” a sentiment Nunez traces back to the pre-digital era: French critic Sainte-Beuve said in 1839: “To write and have something published is less and less special. Why not me too? everyone asks.” What would have Sainte-Beauve have made of self-publishing and blogging?

Anyone who has tried to write a book and bumped up against the self-doubt, angst and feeling of being a fraud will take comfort from learning that John Updike always felt he had got away with something when he saw his books in a store. For Virginia Woolf and Isak Dinesen the act of writing helped to ease pain and sorrow, whereas Philip Roth found writing frustrating and humiliating. And how surprising to learn that prolific writer Georges Simenon described writing as a vocation of unhappiness.  The most pertinent quote for me was from Rainer Maria Rilke: “If you were forbidden to write, would you die?”

I certainly don’t feel compelled to use my time out from work to write a novel, memoir or best seller – not at the moment anyway. For now, I am content to blog for the love of writing and to maintain the practice of crafting words. Although I do rather love the image of tapping away at a  book n a house by the beach with my dog at my feet…

The friend in the story refers not only to the deceased professor but to the Great Dane Apollo.  This is no saccharine story of puppy love, however. At first an unwelcome burden, the dog is a wise old soul who gradually becomes central to the narrator’s life – she even reads to him (something a holistic vet suggested I do to calm my dog Bertie!) – and manages to persuade her landlord to let her keep him in her tiny New York apartment. Much of the book is about the relationship between humans and animals: “They may know us better than we know them.” I also loved this: “I like that Aborigines say dogs make people human.” The Friend also references famous people who have owned dogs such as J. R. Ackerley (1896-1967) editor of BBC magazine The Listener. While he took a rather unhealthy interest in his dog’s heats and bodily functions (there’s a chapter in his book My Dog Tulip called Liquids and Solids), he spoke of his relationship with Tulip as a 15-year marriage, the happiest of his life. In similar vein the narrator in The Friend quotes a passer-by as saying: “Better a dog for a husband, than a husband who’s a dog.” Hear, hear, I say!

Although a fictionalised life lesson, I also enjoyed The Why Café by John Strelecky, partly because I read it in German – Das Café am Rande der Welt ­­– and tapped back into the language, and partly because it never harms to ponder the meaning of life! The narrative construct is that a stressed advertising executive runs out of petrol and finds himself in a café in the middle of nowhere. On the menu are three questions:

Why are you here?
Do you fear death?
Are you fulfilled?

Through conversations with the café owner, waitress and a patron, the book encourages readers to challenge their thinking. Are we being true to ourselves or doing what others wish us to do? Are we slogging away to earn money to amass belongings that we think will makes us feel happy? Are we keeping madly busy because we haven’t found our purpose or our calling? Are we waiting till retirement to do what we love? Do we swim with the tide or against it? What is our life purpose?

I sometimes wonder if writing is my calling or just something I love to do. Maybe dogs are my calling – or animals. Or maybe it’s writing funding applications to support animal welfare and conservation! I certainly find great solace in nature and love being away from screens and devices, chatter, noise and distraction. Walking out across the fields in Nottinghamshire yesterday, bright red poppies dotting the landscape and foamy cream hawthorn blooms bordering the path, I stood and ‘chatted’ with a cow, who stopped his meditational chewing and turned to look at me, its eyes full of knowingness. Mindful moments like those remind me how wondrous it is to be alive. And, for all the self-help and psychobabble, we don’t need to have all the answers. Another brilliant quote from The Friend by Rilke: “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart… live in the question.”

 

 

The Republic of Words 2 of 3: Timeless on the Silk Road by Heather Ellis

The second book in my Republic of Words series is Timeless on the Silk Road by Heather Ellis. If I were to sum up what this book is about in one word, it would be Trust. Capital intended. As a book about venturing into an unknown and uncertain future, I took great comfort from it. It strengthened my post-work resolve to let go of needing answers about what next and to simply wait and see.

You may be familiar with books that illustrate a spiritual path through story-telling. I remember reading The Celestine Prophecy back in the ’90s and I also read Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist, but I have to admit I’m not really a fan of spiritual teachings delivered via fiction. And that’s what I loved about Timeliness on the Silk Road, it’s the author’s lived experience of a solo motorbike journey along the 4000-km Silk Route from Europe through Russia and Central Asia to South East Asia. Told with extraordinary courage and honesty – it’s visceral, raw and unashamed not to mention compelling.

But this is no ordinary traveller’s tale. Following a solo motorbike trip across Africa in 1993, Heather is diagnosed with HIV.  The book starts in 1994 when she is working as a motorcycle courier in London and receives the devastating news of her diagnosis. Overcoming periods of doubt and despair, she is determined to embark on this her last journey – she is given five years to live – and to trust in the same universal energy that guided and protected her in Africa (I highly recommend her previous book, Ubuntu: One Woman’s Motorcycle Odyssey Across Africa). She says: ” I felt all those chance encounters and coincidences that came my way, often to save me in the nick of time, were more than just good luck. Maybe, just maybe, I would be saved again.”

Setting off from London on a grey November day on her trusty steed, her TT600, Heather lets go of any need to control how her journey pans out. And I admire that greatly! Packing for my trip to the UK recently – admittedly a longish trip involving many different people and events, not to mention the vagaries of the British weather – I tackled it, as I always do, like a military campaign leaving nothing to chance and planning for all eventualities. My hand luggage alone is carefully considered – from the  compression socks, eye mask and neck pillow to a small vial of oregano oil to ward off germs, some peppermint oil to pep me up the other end, some de-clogging aspirin and a homeopathic jet lag remedy, organic (no less) mouthwash, snacks, reading material and other lotions and potions to make me more comfortable. Had I travelled in Edwardian times, I would have probably had a suite of trunks. Packing lightly is not my forte.

Pernickety packing

There’s little room for creature comforts when all your luggage has to fit on a motorbike but Heather does take a stock of medication to treat Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) in the event she contracts the life-threatening lung infection. And she does have to use it quite early on in her trip. Small wonder that she has death musings in Delphi, Greece, or that a fellow worker in a café in Istanbul notes: “I feel you carry a big problem, and it weights heavy on you, but I know you are strong. Allah is with you.” Call it Allah or benevolent universal energy, Heather’s trust is challenged at times and her health starts to decline towards the end of the trip, but she never gives up. And the irony is that, away from the trappings of the modern world and living day to day, she doesn’t have access to the internet, where she’d have learnt about advances in HIV treatment.

Timeless on the Silk Road is a geographic and spiritual journey against a backdrop of majestic mountains, nomadic pastures and ancient cities. I was fascinated to learn more about the ‘Stans, countries that were once part of the Soviet Union: from the lost city of Merv in Turkmenistan, built on the site of a large oasis around 3000 BC but destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1221; Baku in Azerbaijan, the Paris of the region built on oil money; to the Chuysky Trakt, one of the world’s ten most scenic roads in the vast Altai Mountains between Mongolia and Russia.

Heather is an extraordinarily resilient woman and gets into some narrow scrapes fending off testosterone- and vodka-fuelled men in Georgia, sleeping (unknowingly) atop deadly spiders in Turkmenistan, coming close to being shot by a Tajik border guard, almost running out of food in Kazakhstan and playing cat and mouse with Chinese Government officials. And yet, miraculously, something always turns up – whether it’s the Turkish sheepdogs protecting her tent, the warm and generous hospitality of nomadic people’s in Krygyzstan and Siberia, meeting a kindly long-distance truck driver from Wales or three Russian horsemen in the Altai. At times, it reads like a modern-day fable tale punctuated by moments when time seems suspended – hence the title – such as when she witnesses a mesmerising sunset over the Caspian Sea from the bows of a rusted ferry. Inspiring, uplifting and life-affirming, this is a book that will prompt you to question your own journey through life. You can purchase this and Heather’s previous book Ubuntu via Amazon or in Australia from Readings bookshops. For author-signed copies (including postage) please go to Heather’s website at: https://www.heather-ellis.com/.

The Republic of Words 1 of 3: Pie and Mash down the Roman Road

“How’s retirement?” “How’s the lady of leisure?” friends asked when I left a busy job at the end of March to take time-out to pause, refresh and reflect. Not surprisingly, it took a while to come off the million-miles-an-hour adrenal whirl, and I struggled to carve out leisure time amid catching up on everything I had neglected in favour of work. Every time I tried to create some lazy space something or somebody would butt in.  Relaxing and letting go takes practice!

Swimming against the tide – jumping out of work at my stage of life  – has its challenges. But whenever, I fidget and fret, wondering how, why, what, what if and what next, I’ve been experimenting with embracing whatever emerges. Instead of being goal-driven and pushing ahead with an agenda, I am seeing what happens if I open up to receiving life, wisdom and guidance in whatever forms it takes. My biggest treat when I let go of the to-do list is sitting on the sofa, drinking tea and reading with Bertie nestled beside me. T

In a recent radio interview journalist Louis Theroux  described he environment he grew up in as a  Republic of Words. I’ve decided to borrow that – books are my current credo, my anchor, my therapy, relaxation and intellectual stimulation. And each book I have read so far has resonated or contained some kind of message.

The first book, Pie and Mash down the Roman Road: 100 Years of life in one East End Market, tapped into my English heritage – in much the same way as an exhibition entitled: Royal Portraits: from the Tudors to the Windsors –  and my fascination with history and the cultural, social and political movements that have shaped my country of origin and who I am.

The Roman Road is the oldest trading route in Britain and, around 1900, stalls extended for a mile. The  book follows the lives of key families who lived, ate, worked, married and had kids in East End. The pie makers, tram drivers, eel dealers, printers, barrow-makers, Billingsgate porters, dockers, costermongers, the lady who looked after the public toilets, Sylvia Pankhurst (Emmeline’s daughter,  leader of the Suffragette movement) and the notorious Kray Twins.

by Melanie McGrath

G.Kelly’s Pie and Mash shop at 526 Roman Rd in Bow is another fixture  – the business has been in the same family for nearly 100 years.  I lived in London for nine years in the late ’80s and early ’90s but have to confess I’ve never eaten pie (minced beef), mash and liquor (which is a mix of flour, water and parsley). The Romans first introduced meat in a pastry envelope to Britain and they got it from the Greeks who probably got it from the Egyptians! That same global thread is mirrored in the waves of migrants who have populated the East End. And what a rich mix from Protestant Huguenot weavers in the 17th Century to the migrants from Ireland, Italy and Portugal, Jews from the Iberian Peninsula and then in the late 19th Century Eastern European Jews fleeing the pogroms. By the 1950s the Jamaicans were coming in, and in the 70s it was the turn of the Bangladeshis. Research suggests that sub-Saharan Africans, who were sold as slaves to planters and colonial officials in the 17th and 18th centuries, have been living in London from the 12th Century.

The other migrants are the eels of stewed and jellied fame, whose complex lifestyle sees them travel across the Atlantic Ocean before they reach the coasts of Europe as young eels, from where they head up rivers and streams and, as mature eels, migrate over 3000-miles back to their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea. The author Melanie McGrath has done extensive research both of people and place, and I learnt that eels have been eaten since Anglo Saxon times. As well as being the food of the poor, they have a reputation as an aphrodisiac. One Aldgate eel dealer used to cry out: “Everyone’s a baby.”

Talking of babies, there’s mention of Nonnatus House, which, of course, features in Call the Midwife, a TV series based on the memoirs of a lay midwife who lived and worked with the nuns in Poplar, more than 60 years ago.

This book paints a picture of a strong community, based in hard work and resilience.  The East End was very badly hit in the Second World War – most of the 1.2 million homes lost in the Blitz of 1941 were here. The author describes the area around Kelly’s pie shop in 1945 as resembling “a bad set of dentures; discoloured, smelly and uneven, full of gaping holes.”. As the rubble and slums were cleared, however, and new high-rise developments came in, the easy access to the market, the dance halls, social clubs, dog tracks, pubs and lidos disappeared.

For all the mod cons including indoor bathrooms, the new tower blocks lack the community spirit of the streets where grandmothers sat out on their stoops, peeling vegetables and chatting, and children played hopscotch. And the high rises are no good when the electrics fail. When Rita Willets goes into labour in 1964, she’s living on the 14th floor, the lift doesn’t work and her husband can’t reach the runs at Nonnatus house by phone. In the olden days, the street grapevine would have summoned someone to help. Someone like Marian Old, who worked at the Bryant & May match factory and, although too young to take part, recalled the first all-female strike of 1888 when women campaigned for better pay and conditions. Before conditions improved, women fell victim to ‘phossy jaw’, phosphorus poisoning that resulted in fluorescent vomit and jawbones disintegrating. Men and women alike did it hard in those days; Martha supplemented her wages with egg box-making, midwifery and pickling onions.

Another of my favourite characters is Ron Moss who grew up on Fish Island, now redeveloped as part of the Olympic Park, then a river backwater. Known as the Artful Dodger, he came from a poor family and lived by his wits quickly learning to leaf (Cockney rhyming slang for thief: tea leaf = thief). He forages for food, snares rabbits, steals swans’ eggs and fish from the river and on market days along the Roman he pinches sausages and other food, which he hides in his long-pocketed coat.

Then there’s Marian Old who cleans the toilets and loves her work. She is her own boss and sings while she mops and cleans. She has cups of teas with her regulars and keeps up with all the gossip, even giving sartorial advice as women and girls try on garments they have bought in the market. “She’s grown accustomed to handing out everything from fashion to family to romance advice with the sheets of crispy, disinfectant-smelling Izal paper.” The East End is well known as the home of London’s Rag Trade. Interestingly, the children’s rhyme Pop Goes the Weasel references the manufacture of clothing: Pop is a cockney term for pawn, a weasel both slang for the yarn-winding machine and part of ‘weasel and stoat’, cockney rhyming slang for coat. Incidentally, my father referred to champagne as weasel – as in popping corks!

Redevelopment since the Second World War has changed the social fabric of the East End considerably – Bryant & May’s was converted into one of London’s first gated communities of apartments in the ’80s, and, more recently, areas such as Docklands and the Isle of Dogs have become home to glittering tower blocks, with some areas yuppified and others hippified (think smashed avo and artisan coffee instead of pie and mash). And, yet, the old East End survives in patches; Kelly’s Pie and Mash shop at 526 Roman Road is still going strong albeit catering to contemporary palettes (chicken and leek pie and vegetarian options) and under renovation.

The author explains the pull of pie and place for customers all over the world searching “for a taste of the past that still lives vividly inside them, or that they may hardly recall or only know from older relatives but to which they nevertheless feel viscerally connected.” That neatly describes how I feel about England – which is why I so loved this book.  Much as I love my life in Australia, you can’t take the Brit out the girl – there’s an essence of Englishness that sits in my DNA. I am heading back to Britain soon and a trip to the East End is definitely on my list.

In praise of staycations – and the luxury of time

One of my Christmas presents was My Little Happy Book – a journal to record happy moments, happy scribbles, happy songs, quotes, meals – even dreams. Curiously there’s also a section called My Happy to-do List. While I am huge fan of lists, happiness over the Christmas holidays has been an absence of lists, deadlines and rushing. That’s the beauty of Christmas falling in the summer months – I’ve just about got used to hot, light, beach-y, seafood-y Australian Christmases, the sky an endless blue, the flowering gums alive with the squawking of Rainbow lorikeets, the jacarandas dropping purple confetti.

Like August in some European countries, the whole place slows down, the vibe shifts to something kinder and gentler allowing the days to blur into one another. It’s like slipping into a timeless zone and pressing pause. At one point last year I had thought of visiting America or heading to the coast for the Festive Season.  Neither plan materialised and, so, I have luxuriated in the simple pleasures afforded by a staycation.

I like to honour the Christmas rituals of my childhood, one of them being attending church. Whether you are a believer or not, Jesus’ birth is a magical story and presents an opportunity for reflection and renewal. Over the years I have been to a local church – one year with both my parents when visiting from England, and last year with my mother. While I escaped my usual Yuletide sense of geographic dislocation and depression this year, I didn’t want to push it by attending a church service so redolent of Mum and Dad. My father used to love belting out O Come All Ye Faithful and Hark the Herald Angels Sing – I can see him, now, half singing, half conducting.

Attending a German Meetup Group before Christmas, I discovered that there was a service on Christmas Eve at the German Lutheran Church in East Melbourne at 7pm.

Here was an opportunity to embrace the Christmas spirit without any emotional triggers. I enjoyed listening to familiar readings from the Bible in German and tuning into the cadence of the language as well as singing well-known carols to German lyrics; it’s harder than you would think to get the phrasing and pacing right!

Just over the road is St Patrick’s Cathedral, and as our service concluded, theirs was just starting, the bells ringing out in great rippling peals. One of my favourite sounds, I could have been anywhere in ‘Mittel Europa’ what with the magnificent tree sparkling in the chancel. Only momentarily, though, as the heat – half the congregation were fanning themselves with the service sheet – brought me firmly back to the Southern Hemisphere.

After a delicious Christmas Day with my brother and his family of feasting, present-giving, snoozing, swimming in the pool and reading, I arm-chair-travelled back to Germany in the following days. Airbnb guests earlier in December recommended a German drama on SBS entitled Kurfürstendamm 56 and the second series Ku’Damm 59.  Set in Berlin in the 50s, it’s the story of a mother and her three daughters at a time of huge political and social change. They own a dance school along the Ku’Damm and the advent of rock ‘n’ roll – and the looser morals that went with it – are just one of the challenges to the old order of genteel waltzes and tea dances. What a joy it was to have time to watch six 90-minute episodes and to give it my full attention. Although the plot became a little contrived towards the end of the second series, I was transported back in time and found myself gripped.

I also went off to Oxford courtesy of a wonderful book called A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings by Helen Jukes. The author reminded me of me! I also used to live in Oxford and worked for a charity. I, too, sometimes struggle with the rigours of the workplace, the pressure, the ever-shifting KPIs (key performance indicators) and suffer from computer neck. Jukes takes up bee-keeping as a way of changing her way of sensing and seeing the world. Another highlight was listening to a reading on BBC Radio 4 of Italian classic The Leopard by Lampedusa. English actor Alex Jennings inhabited the world of the fading grandeur of the Sicilian aristocracy of the 1860s brilliantly, inserting just the right measure of pathos and humour. Nectar – forgive the bee pun.

I had a list of things I planned to do over the break and have ditched most of them in favour of rest, relaxation and a few refreshing swims in the sea with my dog Bertie. And the tasks I did accomplish had a quality of a spaciousness and didn’t have to be rushed, teeth gritted. Did I mention I managed to crack my dental splint towards the end of last year? The KPIs can wait till I start work again next week. I am hoping I don’t return to the scenario faced by Jukes after Christmas one year: “When I arrive there’s a new set of ‘key performance’ indicators on my desk – a New Year’s greeting from Head Office. Thirty fresh targets, divided into six neat categories, which we are now required to report on each quarter. Everyone’s fuming about it […] I want to throw the performance indicators in the dust bin.” I’m not saying anything.

Weaving the story of a Witness Tree

A few weeks ago, I was sitting under a Canary Island Pine tree (Pinus canariensis) weaving three-stranded pine needles through a re-purposed children’s trampoline safety net. It required great focus and flow, feeding the needles through the correct holes to maintain the pattern of what would become an 8-metre wall hanging. Sheltered from the wind on one of those less kind late summer days, I was taking part in a community art project known as Refuge. Created by artist Carmel Wallace from Portland, Victoria, Refuge celebrates and pays homage to trees as silent and enduring witnesses of the past.  The Canary Island Pine is in Brighton’s Billilla Gardens, an English-style nineteenth century garden with lawns, trees (many of them non-natives), flower beds and a water fountain surrounding the Art Nouveau mansion built in 1878. Now owned by the Council but leased to a Jewish Orthodox school, the gardens are open to the public.  Other ‘migrant’ trees include two Bunya Bunya pines and a Canary Island Date Palm. Before the Suez Canal opened, the Canary Islands were a stopping-off point for sailors to the New World. Hence Carmel’s reference to trees as metaphors for Australia as a “nation enriched by displaced and transplanted peoples.”I have wandered many a time in the lush and leafy gardens, sometimes with my dog Bertie, or on summer days I sometimes go alone and lie under a tree with a book with just the rustling of trees for company. You can’t fail to spot the iconic Canary Island Pine with its distinctive shape. From the side it resembles the bustle on a Victorian dress with its backward curve. I love the way it commands the space. Sitting on a deep carpet of pine needles and weaving a row or two with Carmel, I discovered that the tree owes its singular form to a lightning strike in 1918 and that it is listed on the National Trust Register of Significant Trees.  You can see the scars where the tree has lost branches, but I’d never lingered long enough to notice the jewel-like beads of sticky resin.Standing under the broad canopy of the tree and looking up offers a quite different perspective; the mosaic of sky peeking through the gaps in the branches, the sparkling droplets of resin sparkling against the reddish bark and the vivid green of the pine needles.

Chandeliers made from spectacle lenses and electric cable

Carmel is  part of Bayside City Council’s Artist in Residence program and worked from one of Billilla’s studios – formerly one of the property’s outhouses. She uses variety of media in her work and often incorporates cast-off or recycled materials as part of an exploration into environmental awareness and ethics. Her studio is a magpie’s den of salvaged bits and pieces: spectacle lenses suspended on copper wire like chandeliers; a collection of drinking glasses and goblets from charity shops; wood, branches and leaves.  The glasses are part of a work inspired by Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra (1743-44) which represents Cleopatra wagering with Mark Anthony that she can stage a more lavish feast and outdo the latter’s excesses.

Eighty people from the community took part in the weaving, sharing stories under the tree, tapping back into the oral tradition of pre-literate societies. The process was timeless, meditative and encouraged contemplation, respect for nature and connection to the earth and community. Trees don’t rush, don’t judge, don’t gossip, complain or engage in conflict and warfare. They stand the test of time and bear witness to man-made and natural events.

The week of the launch of Refuge at Brighton Town Hall, I watched a program called Judy Dench: My Passion for Trees. One of the things I remember most is the story of a 1500-year-old yew tree in a churchyard in Surrey in the UK. Hidden inside its immense, hollowed-out girth is a cannon ball most likely dating from the English Civil War. The tree predates the church and would have been revered by the pagans and druids as a symbol of life and longevity. At the launch Carmel quoted from British author Robert McFarlane: Witness-tree:” originally a tree that stood as a record of property boundaries, marked as such by scores in its bark. Now broadened to mean a tree that has seen remarkable things, that stands as “a repository for the past.”

It was a privilege being part of the work and seeing it unveiled at the 5th May launch.  Mixing with artists, arborists, neighbours and curators, we drank toasts to the tree and to Carmel with Prosecco, and even better, vodka that had been infused with a green pine cone. I can thoroughly recommend Vodka canariensis! For more information on Carmel visit www.carmelwallace.com  

 

Manifesting wealth: Walnut Baths, Barsony Lamps and Book Boxes

I’ve been in a very quest-y phase, working on creating what comes next in my life. Other people get hooked on drugs, gambling, food, shopping – name your poison – but I find self-development can be quite addictive. I’ve always been very determined to steer my life forward, even more so when setbacks occur.

One of my goals this year is to build my finances, which, for me, equates to freedom of choice. I’m not interested in designer labels, handbags and luxury restaurants; it’s more that I don’t want to be doing a desk job at 75, or even 65 for that matter! But I do want to increase opportunity and decrease stress.

Earlier this year I signed up to a 27-day online course – I forget the exact title – but something about manifesting financial abundance. It involved creating a positive ‘attitude of gratitude’, re-framing limiting beliefs and writing affirmations. The values and mindsets we grow up with do play a part in our relationship around money –  that bit rang true for me. But I found the affirmations written in quasi Biblical archaic language risible: ‘my lamps are now filled with the oil of faith and fulfilment.’ But, for sheer ridiculousness, nothing compared with the Feng Shui cures.

I’m pretty broad-minded when it comes to ‘alternative’ stuff whether it’s past lives, angel guardians, karma, soul contracts, tarot or the one-ness of all things, but I draw the line at these hocus pocus cures and the investment of time they require. For example, the cure that called for water collected from nine successful businesses between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.  Once collected, you had to put the water in an empty vase, rub a little over your hands and chant a mantra visualising the water turning into not just wine (Biblical scholars will pick up the reference), which was spelled as whine (ouch), but actual money. Then there was the instruction to collect soil from a rich person’s house – with their permission. There are plenty of wealthy people living in expensive real estate in my suburb, but I am not going to go round with a trowel and ask if I can dig up a bit of their garden so I can plant my seeds of wealth. Who knows, maybe they would think I was some kind of plant thief or worse!  The crazier the cure, the longer the explanation; this one also required Chinese coins, silk or cotton in five different colours, money from nine different countries, dried foodstuffs and 100 coins of any denomination. Coins and foodstuffs combined have happy memories for me – Christmas pudding baked with sixpences inside, a tradition that harks back to ancient Yuletide customs. 

Talking of baking, another cure recommended fixing one or three convex mirrors above the stove in the kitchen. The aim being to energise your money luck and prevent your money going up in smoke. But my favourite was the one about bathing for precisely eight minutes in walnut juice (made from boiling whole walnuts that had been soaked overnight), making sure you immersed yourself fully – head included – seven times to wash away any feelings of unworthiness blocking your money luck. I don’t know about you but I prefer my walnuts in a piece of cake or encased in chocolate.

Interestingly although abundance did not manifest in 27 days (who knows what would have happened had I faffed around with vases of water, bowls of rice under my bed, jade plants with coins buried in the soil not to mention walnut baths), some useful financial tools and tips came my way. A friend recommended comedian Claire Hooper’s Pineapple Project on Radio National. To quote from the blurb: learn what rich people know, how poor people think, and how you can take control of your coin. From how to save smarter, to earning more, and setting yourself up for a secure future, it’s all the money skills no one ever taught you. Incidentally, did you know that a $50 dollar note in Australia is colloquially referred to as a pineapple? I didn’t.

The podcasts covered lots of ground from interviews with super rich retail giant Gerry Harvey to a  mother feeding a family of four on $50 a week. But it was the episode on debt control – or lack of it – and low levels of financial literacy among women that made the greatest impression. Particularly the story of a woman in her 20s who had been through an acrimonious divorce and, keen to cease contact with her ex as soon as possible, settled for the investment property while he kept the apartment they had shared.  She thought that sounded fair until she realised the investment property was heavily mortgaged. Alone and devastated by the divorce she sought refuge in spending with the help of four credit cards, and soon failed to keep up with the mortgage payments. It wasn’t until she received a letter from the bank re-possessing the property that she realised the gravity of her situation.  But what I found most upsetting is that this woman, already up to her eye balls in debt, then invested $15,000 on ‘Get Rich Quick’ courses and workshops. It seems as if her ex-husband, the bank and so-called self-styled gurus were all out to manipulate her. At this point, I should say that my online dabble in financial self-helpery only cost me $30.

In a nice twist of synchronicity, the following week I received an invitation to a free local seminar – Inspiring Conversations for women: Empowering Your Finances. I reckon I will come away with some useful tips, none of which involve water or walnuts.  And creating a budget and finishing reading The Barefoot Investor are on my list.

But I confess to still being a bit of a dreamer and, secretly, long to be part of a discovering a-million-dollar-Old-Master-in-the-attic story. A few weeks ago, I went on an Airbnb Experience, an Antique and Treasure Hunt. Darren used to be in insurance dealing with cyclone and bush fire-related claims,  but got tired of ‘dealing with death’. He now has a portfolio career and plays in a couple of bands, is an Airbnb host and buys and sells antiques online. It’s all about having a keen eye and knowing what sells. We had a fun day out and I learnt about some of the things that command a good price such as antique book boxes (trinket boxes masquerading as old classics), Barsony lady table lamps (Barsony denoting matt black coloured ceramics named after Hungarian refugee George Barsony who came to Australia in 1949) and Kiss (the band) memorabilia. My purchase of the day was a $13 pair of jeans that fit me like a glove – nothing I can translate into retirement millions, but a good money-saving buy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And last week I had two wins: a fine bottle of wine in a door price and $37 in the lottery. Maybe my cup will soon runneth over. Meanwhile I should have enough oil to keep my lamps of faith and fulfilment burning brightly!

For all Melbourne-based vintage and treasure hunters, check out Darren Trott’s Facebook page for some finds: https://www.facebook.com/antiqueandvintagemelbourne/

 

 

I never can say goodbye: RIP Woody

Last week was a bit of a flat-liner for me; life consisted of patchy nights and weary bleary days of fog-brain and fatigue. By the end of my working week on Thursday I felt desiccated in mind and body and was ready to hang up my tools. As I was wolfing down some pasta (gluten-free, of course) before choir practice that evening, a text came in from my friend Nick. And it was bad news: the eldest of his two Border Collies, Woody, had been diagnosed with internal bleeding and tumours. The vet was due to go to their house that night to release him from his old age infirmity – he was thirteen and a half.

Tears welled up and dropped into my dinner. I felt the grief as sharply as if it were my dog, Bertie. That all-familiar sense of absence and loss. Beautiful Woody, who, although increasingly arthritic as he aged, still embodied so much joy, innocence and playfulness whether luxuriating in puddles or hanging out with his ‘bitser’ girlfriend Minnie, a dog about a tenth of his size. Woody had the biggest heart – he’d rush across the park to greet me with great whooping barks and then he’d dance around and make a fuss of me. He made me feel special – I used to joke with Nick that if I found a man as devoted as Woody, I’d be doing well.

On arrival at choir, I felt dizzy and spaced out and, when a fellow chorister, Steve, who also writes grants for a living, mentioned a particular grant round, I couldn’t make sense of what he was saying. And that was it: the floodgates were unleashed, this time in great wracking sobs. My speech somewhat incoherent, I tried to explain how the news about dear Woody had tapped into a seam of grief. And I was so sad I hadn’t had chance to say goodbye – particularly as I hadn’t seen Woody for several months.

We’re not very good at goodbyes in our family and I am no exception.  There have always been so many comings and goings; by the time I was fifteen, I had lived in nine houses and been to eight different schools with a spell at boarding school. You could argue that all the chopping and changing of friends and places might have made us more practised in the art of efficient, painless farewells, but the opposite seems to have been the case.

Even when I make a conscious decision to leave something or somewhere that no longer serves me or gives me joy, it can create emotional upheaval. Reading recently that Frances Lincoln Ltd, a publishing company where I worked from 1988-1995, had been sold to the Quarto group, brought back a flood of memories. Started by Frances in 1977 it was the publishing house for quality gardening and illustrated books; the attention to detail was extraordinary. I realise now what a privilege it was to work there. And it was fun; trips to book fairs in Bologna and Frankfurt and to publishing houses in Europe and America. As the article notes –  there was a huge overseas market back then for books on Gloucestershire ladies’ gardens. I loved my job but was feeling a bit burned out when I left after seven years. I jumped off with no job to go to and, instead, took off to on my travels – mainly to Australia. It was a bold move back then when the concept of the adult gap year was still in its infancy.

I was given the most lavish and warm-hearted send-off – and a hand-made card designed like one of the titles on the children’s list complete with the most cleverly-worded blurb full of in-jokes and references. Although I was excited about pastures new, I cried almost non-stop the day after my leaving party, reflecting on the friendships I had formed and the many shared experiences – all those publication deadlines, conferences and overseas trips were deeply bonding. My colleagues had become part of my family. Grief can strike at your very core even when you have chosen to move on.

And that’s why farewelling an animal friend, one that has shared our life day and night over several years is so extraordinarily painful. Because we can’t intellectualise, verbalise or rationalise with our animal friends – as we might prepare for the end, say, with an elderly relative – it requires us to be present emotionally and to communicate with our senses and heart fully engaged. Maybe that’s why even the toughest and most pragmatic of people crumple when their dogs depart this life.

When I first moved to Australia, I bonded with my brother’s Blue Roan Cocker Spaniel Mudgee. Looking back, she helped me get through those first few difficult few months. She was a loving presence offering unconditional love and support. When she died, I cried on and off for weeks, great noisy sobs that shook my whole body.

A love-in with Mudgee

But there is a silver lining to this tale. After choir on Thursday I got another text from Nick to say that the vet had failed to show up and that he would bring Woody for a final sniff round Dendy Park on Friday morning.  A bit like a person with a terminal illness might rally before they finally succumb, Woody had a spring in his step, was barking and loving all the attention as his tearful human friends gathered to say goodbye. And I am happy to report that Woody got to enjoy one more weekend on earth and swam in the sea on Saturday.

I feel so blessed to share my life with a canine companion. Woody’s departure (last night) reminds me to cherish Bertie all the more. If it weren’t for him, I would never have net Nick, his wife Saabi and their dogs (Woody leaves behind Jessie and Belle).  Even writing this post is wringing the emotion out of me.

This blog is dedicated to Woody and to all my canine friends past and present. Their gift to us silly humans who make such a mess of so many things with our supposed superior intellect and powers of reasoning is their unfailing and constant loyalty, devotion and love.  They stand by us through thick and thin; they don’t say one thing and mean another, harbour grudges, judge, change their tune, blow hot and cold,  play games (unless it’s ball-chasing) or leave us guessing. Theirs is the language of unadulterated love. They just are.  Which is why it’s so very heart-breaking when they go. RIP dear, dear Woody. You will be greatly missed.

Reflections on Writing Part 2

Following the interest in my recent post about writing, I was inspired to share further reflections and other pearls of wisdom I have gleaned over the years.

For anyone who has gone through the process of trying to get published, whether a short story, feature article or a novel, this quote will resonate.

“Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.” Don Marquis (novelist, poet and columnist 1878-1937)

Getting published requires enormous perseverance and you need to develop a thick skin.  Between 2013 and 2015 I made multiple submissions to both agents and publishers of a memoir-style book I was writing. I got close, and received some useful feedback, which, with the benefit of hindsight, validated the process. As I mentioned in a previous blog, I am now glad it didn’t get published – a lot of what I wrote was a kind of self-therapy – but I do give myself a pat on the back for putting myself out there at the time.

It strikes me now that it’s a bit like internet dating; you cast your net far and wide, and into an unknown and bottomless pit, to see what interest you attract. You might find a match, you might not.  You might have a bit of a flirtation only to find it comes to nothing or you may get rejected outright.

Whether online dating or writing to get published, you need to have a strong sense of self, who you are, what your values are, what you stand for, what you bring to the world and what you want to achieve.  One of my all-time favourite quotes is Oscar Wilde’s “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.” And then, on LinkedIn today, I spotted one of those inspirational quotes which, paraphrased would be something like: don’t be afraid to be yourself, be afraid of not being yourself.  Which brings me to an unattributed quote I once wrote down – I think it comes from an article I read in one of those New Age-y publications. And it very much resonates with me:

“If you are a budding artist, or a sportsman or anyone whose heart’s desire is to create more in this incredible world, then don’t listen to the doubts or insecurities of the mind. They are just voices in your head that keep you in separation from your true nature. That is all. By shifting your focus onto the peace within you, you become a vessel to express whatever wants to flow through you.”

Expressing who we are as writers, creators, employees, friends or lovers without feeling the need to change ourselves to fit an alternative agenda takes enormous courage. Another go-to read of mine which combines tips on writing with self-empowerment is Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (what a great title!). She advises:

“Learn to trust the force of your own voice. Naturally, it will evolve a direction and a need for one, but it will come from a different place than your need to be an achiever.”

And she encourages a visceral relationship with writing: “Basically, if you want to become a good writer, you need to do three things. Read a lot, listen well and deeply, and write a lot. Just enter the heat of the words and sounds and coloured sensations and keep your pen moving across the page.”

But even if we do have a strong sense of self-belief, tap into our inner creative and get some flow happening, writing can be a tough gig. I love the raw honesty in this Evelyn Waugh quote (taken from How to Write a Novel.)

“If only amateurs would get it into their heads that novel-writing is a highly skilled and lugubrious trade. One does not just sit jotting down other people’s conversation. One has for one’s raw material every single thing one has ever seen or heard or felt, and one has to go over that vast, smouldering rubbish heap of experience, half stifled by the fumes and dust, scraping and delving until one finds a few discarded valuables.’

Life in all its various guises, and how we experience it is indeed our raw material. The good times and the bad. It’s all material! I am reading a book about author H. G. Wells (author of War of the Worlds and The Time Machine) and his multiple affairs with young women. He was a proponent of Socialism and free love and a member of the Fabian Society and, amazingly, his second wife put up with all his amours. His book Anna Veronica published in 1909 was clearly inspired by his relationship with Amber Reeves. Rather than defuse the scandal about the affair, the book threw it into the spotlight. Amber’s husband, a lawyer,  (who gallantly married Amber when she was pregnant with H G’s child) threatened to sue Wells for libel, forcing him to sign an agreement not to see Amber for three years. Needless to say, Wells didn’t learn from the experience and repeated the same pattern with writer and feminist Rebecca West. If we are going to mine our life experiences to inform our writing, it’s a very fine line – beware defaming others –  and we have to tread carefully. Plus it can work both ways: other writers may weave us into their stories.

For Paul Auster living and writing are inseparable: “By living my life as a writer, I am living my life to the fullest. Even if I sit there crossing out sentences, tearing up pieces of paper, and I have not advanced one jot, I can still stand up from my chair and say: “Well, I’ve given it my best.”

Although I am not currently writing a book, writing is still part of my life; I write grants and proposals for work and I blog, but I also rely heavily on journalling and jotting down thoughts as a mental health exercise. It’s part of how I express myself.

“Writing practice embraces your whole life ( … ) It’s a place that you can come to wild and unbridled, mixing the dream of your grandmother’s soup with the astounding clouds outside your window.” Natalie Goldberg.

 

 

Luxury is not all it’s cracked up to be

I recently read I am, I am, I am by Irish writer Maggie O’Farrell, an account of her Seventeen Brushes with Death. In one of the episodes she’s at a luxury resort in East Africa as part of a press trip.  She brilliantly sums up the claustrophobic level of attention to guest needs, their every whim indulged, as she seeks refuge in the sea.

“No one is in danger of rushing towards me with an ice-bucket, a finger-bowl, a complimentary tray of hand-made chocolates.  No one is trying to clean the sea.”

Although in recent years, I’ve sometimes upgraded to Premium Economy flights and from shared house Airbnb accommodation to boutique hotel, for much of my life budget travel – think 2 to 3-star hostels and hotels, packed lunches (or sandwiches made at breakfast and smuggled out of hotel buffets), DIY holidays and everything BYO – has been the go.  Whereas I’ve always liked comfort and my ‘Princess and the Pea’ tendencies have increased when it comes to beds, I am also a big fan of learn as you go experiences.

I recently had a small taste of the luxury end of the market when I met up with my mother (we met halfway between the UK and Australia before flying on to Melbourne) at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Singapore. It’s large, sleek, formal and rather sombre with a glass lift at the heart of the place whirling guests between floors. Yes, the beds were super comfy and the high thread count sheets gloriously soft, but the much-advertised breakfast buffet, where everything from Indian to Asian, Western and American was on offer, offered quantity over quality. With many of the dishes sweating under a hot lamp, you could have got the same fare at a Little Chef motorway café in the UK. And although the staff were impressively attentive remembering our names, newspaper, dietary and tea and coffee preferences on the second day, it felt a little intrusive and a bit obsequious. Just because I had camomile tea on day one doesn’t mean I wanted it again on day two. I simply wanted to make my own choices and be left in peace.  At one point, a waiter adjusted the lid on my teapot as he came past our table.

The one time I managed to get down to the pool, a white fluffy towel and robe magically appeared along with a glass of iced water. But it started to rain when I got into the water which was fine by me, but not by the attendant who told me the rules forbade swimming in the rain. Luxury is not just suffocating, it can be bossy too!

The Singapore experience prompted me to look back on some of my memorable travel experiences, and none of them involved luxury.  Back in the 80s a school friend and I went to Galicia in Northern Spain. We arrived in the town of Pontevedra on a fiesta weekend to find a no room at the inn situation. The only room we could find was above a bar and it had a bare light bulb, sagging beds and the loo in the bathroom along the corridor had no seat. But we had a fabulous time; that night we met a charming couple José and Maribel who invited us to join them for dinner – they were cooking fresh sardines over repurposed oil drums. How deliciously fresh, meaty and smoky they were, complemented by the local rosé wine. Jose took us on a drive the next day and we stayed in touch for a few years after that.Later in the trip we travelled by overnight train in a sleeper compartment from La Coruña to Madrid. We’d come straight from the beach and our bikini bottoms were still gritty with sand. A man with a dark five o’clock shadow and reeking of garlic came into our compartment early in the night and claimed the third of four bunks.  After a few station stops where, each time, travellers would slide open the door to our compartment in search of a bed, garlic man got up, swearing a very Spanish joder (Google it!) and locked the door. Terrified as to his motives, we whispered frantic contingency plans, but soon realised that he simply wanted to get a good night’s sleep without disturbance.  Selfish maybe, but not a sexual deviant, his swearing was replaced by snores. No joder simply a bit of roncar!

A 1990s holiday in a rental house in the South of France with a bunch of friends relied on simple pleasures: self-catering, walks, reading, swimming in the lake, drinking wine and playing silly games in the evening. One night we went to a local festival of music and, after a few glasses of wine, ended up dancing with total abandon on the roof of our hire car. And then we visited a restaurant specialising in all things duck starting with jambon de canard (cured meat like parma ham) followed by duck pâté, pâté de foie gras and then roast duck. I’d never tasted foie gras before and wanted to know if they sold tins of it. I asked – in all innocence – “avez vous du foie gras dans un préservatif?” Which caused an explosion of mirth – I had asked whether they sold foie gras in condoms!

 

Playing ‘Who Are you?

And that’s my quibble with in-your-face luxury; all that pampering and pre-empting of one’s every need takes away the joy of discovery, the journeying, exploring and mishaps along the way. And I feel uncomfortable around the servile attitude of those delivering a luxury service. It all feels like a throwback to colonial times.

I’ll never forget the expert massage I received from a hill tribe woman in the Chang Mai region in Thailand back in the 80s. I was stiff from trekking and she walked on my back, pushed and pulled and smoothed out all the knots. It was bliss. Yet there were no dolphin music or pan pipes in the background, no white robes, scented candles or oils.  Simple pleasures.

In the words of Eugene Fodor: “You don’t have to be rich to travel well.”