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 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

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!

‘Flirt’, the sculptress’ umbrella and the Duldig Studio: House Museum Series 1 of 3

This weekend, as part of Open Melbourne 2017, I visited a few historic properties starting with a group of corrugated-iron houses in South Melbourne that were saved from demolition by the National Trust.  These portable homes were shipped out from the UK in the mid-1800s, during the Gold Rush, when tent dwellings were springing up to accommodate fortune hunters.

Forerunners of IKEA furniture, these dwellings were labelled, numbered, flat-packed in wooden crates and shipped overseas. The wood from the crates was used for wall linings, floor boards and partitions – you can still see the initials of one of the property speculators RP (Robert Patterson), on one of the walls at 399 Coventry Street. Abercrombie House (originally from North Melbourne) was moved onto the Coventry Street block by the National Trust in two halves to save the many layers of wallpaper that tell the story of how the house evolved over time.

But the stand-out property was the Duldig Studio, a house museum in Malvern East, once home to émigré artists Slawa Horowitz-Duldig and Karl Duldig who settled in Melbourne after World War II. Forced to leave Vienna at the time of the Anschluss in 1938, the Duldigs settled in Melbourne after 18 months in Singapore and two years in the Tatura internment camp. Both Viennese modernists, Karl was a sculptor and Slawa a sculptor and painter. One of Karl’s sculpted masks is owned by the  NGV in Melbourne.

Slawa was not only a successful artist– she trained at two prestigious art schools in Vienna – she also invented the first foldable umbrella and there are prototypes of her ‘Flirt’ model on display at the Burke Street property. Fleeing Nazism, Slawa was, however, forced to sell the rights to her umbrella, but the royalties she had earned paid for furniture which she designed and had custom made. With rooms in the house opened up specially for Open Melbourne 2017, we got to see her furniture.

And this is what makes the story of this couple so extraordinary. Before they fled Austria, Slawa saved everything from their apartment in Vienna, and her sister Aurelie known as Rella, hid everything away in a cellar in Paris, keeping a meticulous inventory of every item.  Even more amazingly, their cache escaped detection by the Nazis and was shipped to Australia on the aptly named Rembrandt in the 1950s.

They kept everything from dining settings to their artworks, furniture, silk curtains, lamps, ceramics, sculptures and books. Given they lost all their family bar Rella to the Holocaust, it’s consoling that their possessions survived. It’s not as if they were hanging on to clutter – I am thinking of Marie Kondo here, Queen of Life Laundry and author of The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, whose rule of thumb is to keep things only if they spark joy. The Duldigs were people for whom art was a way of life – Karl carved a sculpture out of a potato while they were in Tatura –  and everything around them was an expression of their artistic sensibility.

Part of the Secession Movement (formed by a group of Viennese artists including Gustav Klimt in 1897), which represented a move away from more traditional and conservative forms, the Duldigs created interiors where everything was designed to be beautiful and part of the artistic whole – even their dog had a Persian carpet bed! Materials were incorporated into the design in such a way that they were seen – from the Salzburg stone supporting a sculpture and lattice leather straps in a chair designed by Slawa to the grain of the wood on their hand-crafted bedroom wardrobe. Even their china and dinnerware survived the high seas from the chunky ceramic coffee cups and plates in the living room to the fine blue, white and gold china in the dining room. Throughout the house the mixture of art forms –  from primitive to African, Asian and classical – is characteristic of the modernist aesthetic.

(Picture taken from the Duldig Studio brochure)

At the back of the property are the sculpture garden and Karl’s studio, complete with kiln, coloured dies in jars (the couple were also both ceramicists and took commissions) and a bakelite phone, the receiver still crusted with dried clay. Just as it would have been when Karl was working, the studio remains packed with maquettes as well as finished works in wood, bronze and clay. Both Slawa and Karl taught to supplement their earnings – Slawa at St Catherine’s, where she inspired many of her students to pursue their love of art.

Shortly before her death Slawa told her daughter Eva de Jong-Duldig, who is now in her 70s and a patron of the Duldig Studio, not to throw anything away and to keep everything. Accordingly, their family home was opened to the public in 1996 and is now a museum and art gallery. Leaving us a rich legacy and insight into their creative lives in Vienna, Singapore and Australia the museum owes its existence to their practice of documenting and curating their lives with passion and purpose.

Among the sculptures and paintings on display are some of the letters Slawa exchanged with her sister, Rella, over a period of 30 years. The sisters only met up again once in the 1960s so these letters are a poignant reminder of a time when hand-written correspondence was central to people’s lives, helping to overcome separation and distance.

And, most moving of all, is Karl’s simple but heartfelt love letter to Slawa, written after her death in 1975, describing their life together “as a continuous musik.” (Karl’s German spelling of music). How heartening it is to see the essence of the Duldigs and their cultural contribution preserved for future generations.

A blog about love, actually

A girlfriend and I recently did an online test to discover which kind of sleep animal chronotype (personal biological clock) – we are.  She is a bear – from what I understand bears are, on the whole, pretty good and solid sleepers. I am a dolphin and our sleep characteristics tend towards the insomniac variety as we skim the surface of sleep, our eyes and ears always on the look-out for predators. The good news about being a dolphin is that it seems to be linked to a high level of creativity and intelligence; Dickens, Shakespeare and Sir Richard Branson are dolphins according to Dr Michael Breus. That adds up – we know that Dickens was a nocturnal wanderer.

“Dickens was a solitary walker. He often set off alone at night and sometimes stayed out until morning. In this way he came to know the whole of London.” (From The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin).

Another writer I have recently discovered who has all the signs of being a sleep skimmer is Bill Hayes, author of Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me. What a joy it was to accompany Bill, a frequent contributor to the New York Times, on his night-time perambulations round New York.

To set the scene, Bill came to NYC in 2009 with a one-way ticket and no plan as to how things would work out. Grieving the sudden death of his partner, he had moved from San Francisco. A life-long insomniac, he wanders the streets of New York talking to, and photographing, the colourful characters he meets from Sam in the newsstand to an edgy, young skateboarder high on drugs, young lovers, cab drivers, a go-go boy, street artists, a homeless crack addict, an urban poet and many more. Some he captures on camera and others in exquisitely written vignettes, extracting the beauty in all of them, delving briefly but deeply into their lives and finding a connection, making sense of who they are.  He brings to life  the New York streetscape through the sights, sounds, smells and rhythm of a city that never sleeps.

 

“Sometimes I’d sit in the kitchen in the dark and gaze out at the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. Such a beautiful pair, so impeccably dressed, he in his boxy suit, every night a different hue, and she, an arm’s length away, in her filigreed skirt the colour of the moon”.

“The comical kerplunk over and over of cabs on Eighth hitting a metal plate on the avenue.”

But the heart of the book is actually about love. Hayes falls in love again, and it all starts with letter writing.  Dr Oliver Sacks, the late neurologist and writer, (of The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat fame) writes to Hayes apologising for forgetting to write a blurb for Hay’s book, The Anatomist. That kicks off a correspondence and, in due course, they meet in New York.

What makes Hayes’ and Sacks’ love story so delightful and charming is that, on paper and at first glance, it seems so unlikely. I can’t imagine that the world of internet dating would have ever brought them together! Although both insomniacs, Hayes is 48 and has been around the block in more ways than one, had lots of lovers, casual and otherwise. Sacks is 75 and falls in love for the first time at a period in his life when the ageing process is beginning to manifest and his health to fail. He approaches the relationship with child-like innocence:

Hayes tells us: “After I kiss him for a long time, exploring his mouth and lips, with my tongue, he has a look of utter surprise on his face, eyes still closed. “Is that what kissing is, or is that something you invented?””

And when Hayes shows Sacks how to pop a champagne cork, Sacks wears his swimming goggles, just in case. Hayes likes to be verbal in bed but Sacks is becoming hard of hearing and so they dissolve into giggles about ‘Deaf Sex’. Extracts from their conversations, titled Notes from a Journal, are interspersed with  Hayes’ musings about life on the  streets of New York.

O: “Oh, oh, oh…!:

I: “What was that for?”

O: “I found your fifth rib.”

In the middle of the night. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could dream together?” whispers O.

We get an intimate glimpse of Sacks and the brilliance of his mind – as he explains the difference between organic and non-organic chemistry, Hayes admits he doesn’t ever expect to understand half of what he is saying – and his quirky habits: he likes things in fives; he habitually announces each item of clothing before putting it on; measures the temperature of his bath (106 degrees deemed perfect); and talks of Kierkegaard, Jesus and smoked trout in the same sentence.

Sacks has hip trouble, his eye sight is failing and in, 2015, he learns that the cancer he had nine years earlier has recurred and spread to his liver which is “riddled like Swiss cheese with tumours.”

Hayes explains – and there is so much love in this –  “I help him get ready for bed – “de-sock” him, fill his water bottle, bring him his sleeping tablets, make sure he has something to read.”

I: “What else can I do for you?”

O: “Exist”

As the cancer takes hold and Sacks can no longer read, Hayes reads to him.

“I love it. I love reading to you,” I tell him. “I feel very close to you.”

He nods: “It becomes another form of intimacy.”

Insomniac City is one of the most beautiful and heart-warming books I have read in a while. It restores my faith that love can happen at any age or stage of life and can tolerate the quirks, idiosyncrasies, foibles and habits that we all acquire along the way. Just what I needed after my, albeit short-lived, trials with internet dating. See my recent post: The Start-Up Entrepreneur, the University Researcher and the IT Specialist.

O: ‘It’s really a question of mutuality isn’t it?”

I: “Love? Are you talking about love?”

O: “Yes.”

Virtual travel to Spain and down memory lane

The week before last I went to one of the Cities of Architecture series at ACCA – (the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art) here in Melbourne. This one was on Madrid and was presented by Qianyi Lim, Director of architectural practice Sibling.

Australia may be geographically isolated, but I find numerous opportunities to connect with other  countries, cultures, ideas and foods; I never feel cut off. On the contrary, I celebrate the accessibility of multiple art forms on my door step. Highlights this year so far include attending a flip book film show show by an itinerant German photographer at the Adelaide Festival, spending a day at Womadelaide listening to everything from Jewish chanting, Korean drumming, Chilean pop and Spanish funk to reunited 80s UK band The Specials. Recently I’ve enjoyed taking in Van Gogh and the Seasons at the NGV, and catching the UK theatre production of 1984 with an Australian cast at the Comedy Theatre. Virtual travel at its best.

In a bizarre echo of 1984, the virtual experience morphed into something slightly surreal recently when I got stuck in a lift in the CBD. After a few jolting stops and starts, the lift  jammed on the third floor and an automated voice advised me to press the Emergency Button, which I duly did, only for another voice – this time a human one coming through the speaker – to take the necessary details and call out a technician.  A bit spooky, but I did get out after an hour.

But back to ACCA. The event was supported by local whisky distillers Starward (Port Melbourne) and we were greeted with tumblers of spiced Spanish hot chocolate made with dark chocolate, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla (an underestimated subtle flavouring), cayenne pepper, a bit of honey and a shot of delightful Starward Wine Cask Single Malt Whisky. Deliciously smooth, it was warming, peppery and altogether a bit decadent for a Monday night.

The drink was inspired by the thick Spanish hot chocolate dipping sauce that traditionally accompanies churros – the deep-fried doughnut-like spiral snacks. I last had churros in Spain when I was a third-year Modern Language undergraduate doing ‘my year abroad’ (in my case, half in Granada in Southern Spain and half in Augsburg in Southern Germany) in 1984. Fortunately, Big Brother wasn’t much in evidence back then when CCTV cameras and constant surveillance weren’t part of the backdrop of our lives.

Talking of brothers,  a fellow Bristol University student (Danielle) and I became friends with a couple of boys, Paco and Pedro, who, contrary to the hot-blooded Don Juan stereotypes one might associate with Spain and all things Latin, were in fact sweet, dependable and, it seemed to us, asexual. Whatever their sexual preferences, they were ideal companions and extremely generous with their time in taking us out on day trips to the country, rustic meals, Flamenco dancing, and a couple of times up to the Sierra Nevada to ski. I wonder where they are now and what they are doing? I’d love to find them and thank them.

Left to Right: Paco, Danielle and Pedro

At the other end of the scale was Sarah, also studying at Bristol, who had three men on the go, one at home and two in Granada. I was wide-eyed and agog at her stories and her appetite (a rather splendid euphemism for libido that I heard recently in the film My Cousin Rachel based on Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel). How Sarah juggled them all – one a market seller from Senegal – and, moreover, smuggled them into the boarding house where she lodged with two crochet-knitting widows beats me.

The churros in Granada were drenched in very strong extra virgin olive oil unlike the finer, crispier version with fluted edges I sampled on a visit to Madrid. The pattern was to go out ‘de marcha’ or ‘de juerga’ meaning to live it up and have a good time until the early hours of the morning. That’s when we’d repair to a bar – probably at 5 a.m. to sop up the alcohol with churros and chocolate. Never a night owl, the combination of going through the night – trasnochar in Spanish – topped off with chowing down artery-clogging churros often meant I climbed into bed about 6.30 a.m. feeling a bit heavy and undigested!

I have no doubt that the urban landscape in Granada will have altered somewhat since I was there. From Qianyi Lim’s talk and slideshow, it’s clear that Madrid has changed hugely. I don’t recall who I went to Madrid with – perhaps one of my flatmates from the stuffy little apartment – my room looked onto an internal courtyard (think laundry lines and cooking smells) – in ‘Pilchard’ Street (Calle Darro del Boquerón – the Darro being the local river). Two of the girls – Lucia and Marie were staunch Catholics and when Mari’s boyfriend Pedro came over, he had Mari’s bed, while Marie bunked up with Lucia, the cross hanging above the bed seemingly warding off sin. I reckon it was the more liberated Pilar, a zoologist,  who had a lovely boyfriend and took the pill, who accompanied me to Madrid.

From Left to Right: Pilar, Lucia and Marie

What I do recall –- as well as trips to the Prado and boating on the lake in the Retiro Park – is visiting a selection of bars at lunchtime on the Sunday – all crowded, noisy and with sawdust-scattered floors –  where we drank beer and ate tapas – not the fancy shmancy offerings you might find on a trendy urban menu now – but simple offerings such as a slice of hot roast pork or some salted almonds.

 

Spot the 1980 car models…

Going on a virtual architectural tour of Madrid gave me an interesting update – and a yearning to go back at some stage. The Puerto de Europa twin towers straddling the Paseo de Castellano built in 1996 by Philip Johnson are like modern day symmetrical towers of Pisa leaning in towards each other. Also built in 1996 are the Girasol apartments designed by the Catalan architect Corderch, their five separate towers with undulating walls designed to maximise light and regulate cooling and warming. And, most surprising of all, the Torres Blancas, which were designed by Francisco Saenz de Oiza during the repressive Franco era (another echo of Big Brother). Tall, cylindrical, curved towers with landscaping at the top, the forward-thinking design represented a covert anti-regime sentiment; architects having more freedom than writers to express their opposition.

Torres Blancas

Other major changes include the newish Reina Sofia Museum building, expanded in 2005, which is part of the Golden Triangle of Art in the Prado Complex. The triangular roof of the Reina Sofia Museum almost dips down to touch the classical Prado in an elegant fusion of old and new.

Qianyi told us that 70% of architectural practices in Spain closed during the Global Financial Crisis – Spain was particularly hard hit. So it was heartening to learn about the post-GFC multi-million dollar Rio Madrid development, a new area on the banks of the Manzanares River. Once a polluted river with a highway running alongside it, the traffic has now been diverted into underground tunnels and it has been transformed into a cultural and recreational zone complete with beaches. With a focus on liveability, air quality and sustainability, it reflects some of the best trends in contemporary urban design.

Feeding my inner European

When I got back from Europe in September last year, I went through my usual grieving process: one minute I was walking round Goethe’s house and sipping tea in a chandelier-bedecked café in Frankfurt and, seemingly the next, I was in a yellow cab in Melbourne on my way home, Dave Hughes’ unmistakeably strident tones issuing forth from the radio, the front page of the Herald Sun screaming all things footy and, outside, Beach Road fringed with palm trees.

It’s always a bit of a wrench going from one world to the other, from my former, still parallel life in England were I ever to reclaim it, to my ‘new’ life here. A bit like those early settlers I read about in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, I have held onto bits and pieces from my original home and country as part of the re-settling process here. But at what stage does the new life cease to be new?

I think, in my case, it’s probably already happened. And any newness is simply a figure of speech and a way of distinguishing my life before and after my move to Australia. I’ve now lived in my Bayside suburb for twelve years – the longest I have ever lived in one place – and it does feel like home. Apart from putting my own stamp on my house and garden, getting a dog really helped me to put down roots. I’ve got to know many people and their pooches on our daily walks on the beach or in the park, and that has created a sense of community and belonging. Bertie and I are part of the local landscape and we blend in. And we’re getting used to summer being in winter and winter being in summer.

Last time I got back to Australia and was still battling the pull-push of Europe versus the Antipodes, a friend suggested I found ways to honour my inner Brit and European. Because it doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. I have, after all, chosen to live in the most European of Australia’s cities. Since then, whether consciously or subconsciously, I’ve been finding ways to stay tuned – literally – to Europe and, as a modern language graduate, to rediscover my languages. I started by joining a German Meetup Group. So far I’ve been to a fascinating film about Techno Music in Berlin in the 80s and to a Stammtisch (an informal gathering at a bar) at the Bavarian-styled Hophaus on the Southbank. And I’ve found German cuisine in the most unlikely places. Das Kaffeehaus in Castlemaine is a Viennese café complete with red leather banquettes, gilt-framed mirrors and chandeliers housed in a former carpet factory. I spent five months in Vienna as an au-pair girl when I was 18, and I can vouch for the authenticity of the food – think Wiener sausages, schnitzel, goulash and sweet favourites such as Linzer Torte and apple strudel.

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Then there’s SBS Radio and Television, a hotline to all things multicultural and multilingual. I have downloaded the Radio App and sometimes listen to Spanish news or I download the German Radio podcasts which deliver newsy and interesting items in easily digested 10-minute bites. Listening to the spoken language, its rhythms and cadences awakens dormant neural pathways and I start to remember words, phrases and expressions. Like old friends they flood back with a welcome familiarity. Tunein Radio has been another wonderful discovery; the app allows you to listen live to different talk shows and music stations from all over the world.

I love foreign language films and letting myself be transported to wherever it is. This past weekend I saw two excellent Spanish films (a rom-com set in Madrid and a quirky Mexican road movie) as part of the Spanish Film Festival. We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to foreign language film festivals in Melbourne – French, Spanish, German, Greek, Turkish, Israeli, Russian and Latin American to name but a few, and even, last year, a BBC First British film festival showing golden oldies as well as new releases.

And that’s not all. Palace Cinemas screen productions filmed live in HD from London’s Royal Opera House, La Scala, Opera Roma and the Opéra National de Paris as well as some of the best performances from the British Stage as part of the National Theatre Live program. Whoever first thought of sharing these live-filmed productions globally is a genius.

So far I’ve seen heartthrob Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet and Royal Opera House productions of the Marriage of Figaro and La Bohème. The joy of these performances is that you get the equivalent of front row seats for a mere $20 or so and, in the case of the operas, you can read the subtitles and follow the plot with ease. Not only that, each performance is introduced by a well-known actor and he or she goes backstage and interviews the director and actors or singers. My favourite so far has been John Copley’s production of La Bohème. Originally intended to run for a few seasons in 1947, it stayed in the repertoire for forty years, the 2015 filmed performance being the last ever.

The weekend before last a friend treated me to a surprise night out. It turned out to be the BBC Proms – the Last Night no less. Echoing the UK’s Albert Hall tradition, the program on the last night includes sea shanties and jingoistic numbers such as Rule Britannia and Elgar’s Jerusalem. It felt a bit strange sitting in an auditorium in Melbourne waving a dual English/Australian flag and belting out songs about Britain ruling the waves. I reflected that there are certain things you can’t export – it all becomes a bit ersatz. There’s a time and a place to celebrate your heritage and a time and a place to adhere to the old saying: When in Rome, do as the Romans.

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At Home in Hobart

Last week I was in Hobart for work, to run a grant-seeking workshop and meet with a few clients, and I stayed on for a couple of days afterwards. For three out of the four nights I stayed in a delightful studio which I found on Airbnb. Situated at the back of a beautiful period home just 10-15 minutes’ walk from the city centre, it was attached to the main house but had its own entrance reached via a red brick path. But for the bay window (which reminded me of my Oxford terraced house) overhanging the sandstone wall on the street side, you might not notice that there’s a house tucked away up there. Even the wooden lattice gate and steps up to the house are enveloped in a tunnel of foliage.

incognito house

tunnel of green

It was fun working in a different space and looking out on a sun-filled courtyard planted with a bay tree, clematis armandii, weeping Japanese maple trees, succulents and geraniums. My charming host, Bruce, is an architect who relocated from Sydney. What made the stay particularly special was the delicious breakfast he prepared every morning. There was something flavour-enhancing about the blue and white china, the yellow milk jug, the red bowl full of creamy white yoghurt, the black and white striped sugar bowl and the Mondrian napkins. What a joy it was to enjoy a slow and convivial breakfast; Bruce and I talked about everything from politics to arts, books, music and travel. The simple elegance of the breakfast table was echoed throughout the house with its dark green shutters, stained glass panels flanking the front door, polished boards and floor rugs.

Garden view two

breakfast

Having visited MONA – the Museum of Old and New Art – on a previous visit, this time I went to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, where I explored the section covering the arrival of the early settlers who brought with them their ideas of order and post industrial revolution ‘enlightenment’, not to mention animals, plants, trees, insects, salmon and trout eggs, furniture, china, silver and glassware. How strange it must have been moving to the other side of the world in the days before air travel and fast communications. One of the exhibit captions really sums up the experience: “The swans were black, not white. The trees shed their bark but kept their leaves. The seasons were reversed. European settlers in Van Diemen’s Land viewed the new world they encountered with amazement and wonder. They called It ‘The Antipodes” – the name means ‘direct opposite’.

The top floor documents the Aboriginal genocide (with ‘Bugger Off’ you white fellas translated into the native language) and the fear, ignorance and savagery of the colonialists. What I found most confronting is that one of the tribes was completely wiped out and so will never be able to tell their story. On a brighter note, the exhibition does at least acknowledge the atrocities, and Aboriginal people from the community had a hand in developing the space.

I got chatting to a couple in the gallery café and told them I was heading to the Botanic Gardens. Before I knew it they were giving me a lift – thank you Ray and Anne! It was lunchtime when I got to the gardens and I headed straight to the restaurant where I secured a table on the balcony with glorious views over the Derwent Estuary and hills beyond. After lunch I strolled through the gardens in the soft autumn sunshine through the fernery to the lily pond and onto the oak woodland, no doubt planted to remind the colonialists of the Mother Land. Here, briefly, I was back in the land of deciduous trees and the snap of fallen leaves underfoot, the dappled light through branches and the musty smell of leaf mould was so evocative of England that I felt tears pricking my eyes. A few steps on and I was back to the Antipodes in eucalypt woodland watching fairy wrens foraging on the ground for food.

Botanic gdn view

oak trees

That afternoon I headed up to North Hobart to the State Cinema where I got chatting to a woman who was seeing the same film, Rams, a wonderful tale of sheep rearing and sibling rivalry set in Iceland. We shared one of the comfy leather sofas and laughed and cried our way through the film. She insisted on giving me a lift back to my lodgings afterwards. What is it about Tasmanians and friendliness? Perhaps it comes from living on a small island where the pace is slower and people have more time to chat?

Dinner that night was a $12 steak at the Irish pub down the road. It was delicious and easy, and, as with everywhere I chose to eat, dining solo felt very relaxed and I escaped away to Southern Ireland care of my Kindle and Colm Tobin’s (of Brooklyn fame) novel Nora Webster.

After a quick peek at the Salamanca Markets on Saturday, my last day, I headed back to the Art Gallery to see a wonderful exhibition documenting the experience of migrant women, mostly from Britain and Europe, who moved to Tasmania between 1945 and 1975. What I loved most were the re-created interiors showing how the women maintained a connection with their homeland and customs through food, fabrics and costumes, books, religious icons, photographs and paintings. Before the days of email photographs documenting important events and milestones were sent to relatives back in the homeland, even – particularly for Catholic families – mourning photos showing the deceased person. Whether consciously or sub-consciously, many of us more recent migrants still hold onto keepsakes, furniture, china, treasured objects and items of pure sentimental value that connect us to our heritage. My house certainly has an English cottage feel about it.

museum interior

One of our clients at work is the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and I was able to attend one of their matinees on Saturday. Cleverly titled Bach to the Future, the concert featured works by Haydn, Bach, Mozart and Barber. But, for me, the most heart-soaringly beautiful piece was variations on Bach and Mendelssohn by Elena Kats-Chernin and other artists with Genevieve Lacey on recorder and clarinet. My only experience of the recorder being at school when it was invariably squeaky, never have I heard it played with such dexterity and clarity. The ‘Re-Inventions’ were interspersed with choral movements from Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Creating an evensong feel, the choir sang by torchlight up in the roof space and the whole thing was sublime. When I turned on the car radio back in Melbourne on Sunday, they were playing a recording of the very same concert. Spooky or what?

Before heading to the airport, I had a final cuppa in the café at the Grand Chancellor Hotel (where I had left my luggage) looking out over the water. Ah, Hobart, you’ve treated me well. Can I come back again soon?