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.”

Slowing Down to survive the Season

How was your December? Did you remain in one piece? By Christmas Eve I was bit done in.  I’d been through an intense month at work, flown to Singapore for a few nights to meet my 86-year-old mother who came in from England. On day two her viral aches flared up big time and I got gastro so there we were in our twin-bedded luxury hotel room, me rushing to the bathroom and my mother whimpering with pain, making the next day’s onward flight to Australia a bit of a challenge to say the least.

On arrival in Australia, Mum got the gastro (which lasted two weeks) and I had to fly straight up to Brisbane for work the following morning at 7am. Still a bit of digestive disaster, I had stayed overnight in a pretty basic motel at Tullamarine and, distracted by worry about Mum,  managed to leave my laptop on the conveyor belt at Security. Inconvenient, but I did get it back the next day; as a dear friend quipped, security is a pretty safe place to leave your computer.

The previous week, rushing for a train, I had nearly fallen down the steps at Flinders Street and the Friday before  Christmas I was so caught up in thoughts that I threw the ball for my dog Bertie into the road rather than into the trees. Bertie has zero road sense and, but for the timely appearance of a Guardian Angel disguised as a fellow dog walker, he would have run out in front of the cars. Like so many of us I was galloping mindlessly towards the end of the year.

By Christmas Eve, although the gastro had gone, I had a touch of Bridget Jonesitis (the world can appear very smugly married at Christmas time with everything screaming happy families and TIS THE SEASON TO BE JOLLY).  Remember Colin Firth’s reindeer jumper in the film of Bridget Jones’ Diary?  To add to the heady mix, I had some personal life entanglements – the jolly season does tend to heighten emotions – and the night before Christmas I experienced a resurgence of grief for my father who died last December.  How I wished I could pick up the phone and chat to him. Dad loved Christmas and was always the life and soul of the party – I can remember him drinking a bit too much and playing catch with a bowl of Christmas pudding one year.

Never one to be defeated and wallow, I took a deep breath – well several – and spent the evening dipping into some inspirational texts, quotes, poems and other self-help bits and pieces which I have collected and curated over the year, treating myself to a philosophical and spiritual immersion.  One of the texts I returned to was by Henry Scott Holland, a piece that was read at my grandmother’s memorial service and at my father’s funeral in January. Here’s an excerpt.

“Death is nothing at all…I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the way in which you always used. Put no difference in your tone, wear no forced air or solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed.”  

My father and I enjoyed lots of in-jokes, references that only we understood, and we invented multiple silly languages that involved Mr Bean-type gesticulations. That humorous and playful thread still connects me to the essence of my father. Then I came across Mad Dogs and Englishmen (as in they who go out in the midday sun), the song written and sung by Noel Coward (although some attribute the words to Rudyard Kipling) in 1931. It satirises the failure of the British to adapt to foreign climates and starts like this:

“Mad Dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun,
The Japanese don’t care to
The Chinese wouldn’t dare to.
Hindus and Argentines sleep firmly from twelve to one
The Englishmen detest a siesta.”

While my father was not an embarrassing English man ‘abroad’, he was quintessentially English and always had dogs at his side. I can picture him now striding across heather-clad moors with his black Labradors. How these memories nurture me.

Then I dipped into a bit of Buddhist compassion – for self and others, remembering to slow down and simply be present to what is and to surrender to things and situations I can’t control and change; life doesn’t always deliver what we want.  I love the concept of coming back to the senses as a way of circuit-breaking the chatter of the mind. There’s a softness to kindness and compassion – it’s the opposite of achievement-driven rushing. And softness can twin with resilience; I remember an Ayurvedic retreat where we visualised a strong spine, our support system, while breathing in and out peace.  Just ten deep breaths can re-set an agitated system. Ahh…By Christmas Day I had undergone something of a 360-degree transformation. When I walked my dog in the morning, I felt my feet on the ground, listened to the rustling of the trees and the orange of the canna lilies and the purply blue of the agapanthus flowers jumped out at me. I spent a joyous day with my mother and my brother and his family celebrating in the traditional way.

A few days later, I heard a wonderful program on BBC Radio 4 about sloths and the benefits of taking life at a more leisurely pace. Slow-moving animals live longer – and even creatures associated with industriousness have some less active members among them – think un-busy bees and lazy ants. The only time that sloths speed up is when they have sex and that’s all about survival. As they normally keep a low profile to reduce their exposure to predators, raucous sex and lots of movement puts them at risk, making it sensible to get it over with quickly. Well, we don’t have to take too many leaves out of the sloth’s book, but a few maybe, and those that we do, we should digest slowly – they take a week to digest their food!

Happy New Year to all my readers! May it be evenly-paced, kind and mindful.

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.”