Scarecrows, Sprockers and State Visits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Here we go a-truffling

When I booked onto a truffle hunt with my dog Bertie, I pictured him scampering around in the orchard and sniffing out a mature Tuber Melanosporum aka a Perigord Black Truffle. That’s because Field Spaniels – Bertie is half Field and half Cocker Spaniel – are being bred specifically for the truffle industry. Field Spaniels are renowned for their hunting skills and exceptional noses. When Bertie was a puppy and we attended puppy pre-school at the vets, he quickly located where the treats were. While the other dogs wriggled around on people’s knees, Bertie maintained a hypervigilant eye and nose on the prize.  His olfactory system never sleeps – even a short trip around the block will usually yield an edible find. He once shot off across the beach­ – leaving me panicked that he would run onto the road – hot on the scent of a sausage sizzle hosted by a party of Rotarians. He would have made an excellent sniffer dog. In fact, he could have excelled in many different nose-based careers.

As it is, he is a much-loved and over-indulged pet. Which is why we booked onto a Truffle Hunt organised by a company called Gourmet Pawprints offering ‘pawfect’ food and wine experiences for people who like to take their dogs along for the ride. As befits a canine-centric business, the dogs are guaranteed a window seat on ‘Bella the Bus’ (Kerry, the owner of Gourmet Pawprints, not only runs the business but also drives the bus!) and are greeted with a goody bag of treats. Bert sat across from Penny, a skittish but adorable Dalmatian (one of two on the trip), and Iggy, a well-behaved black lab. At one point, Penny barked which lead to a Mexican wave of barks across the bus, reminding me of a classic read from my childhood, The Starlight Barking by Dodie Smith.

I once dreamt that Bertie accompanied me on a trip back to Britain. In my dream there were sofa beds – you know the ones with the pull-out metal frame – and the dogs slept underneath.  Wishful thinking on both accounts; you’d only find a sofa-sized bed in First Class (dream on Charlotte) and from a cost and quarantine perspective, taking Bertie on holiday to Britain would be totally impractical. I do love to imagine him, however, running across babbling brooks and green fields criss-crossed by dry stone walls in somewhere like Derbyshire (where I was born) or Yorkshire.  But travelling up to Daylesford by bus – Bertie kindly let me share his double seat on the way back – on a Wuthering Heights-type wet and wintry day came a close second.

Our destination was Black Cat Truffles just outside Creswick, and we were greeted with oozingly rich truffle-infused d’affinois cheese and a glass of sparkling wine – just an hour earlier we had had chocolate brownies and coffee in Ballan! We learnt that truffles are the edible fruiting bodies of fungi that grow underground in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of host trees such as hazlenut and oak, most typically in low nutrient soils with a high pH level. At Black Cat the orchard is planted with French and English Oaks and the truffle dog is a trained Labrador named Ella. She had already sniffed out where the mature truffles were located, and the owners Andres and Lynette had marked the trees with a ribbon.

Thankfully the rain let up and ushered in a brief sunny spell just long enough for us to get up close and personal with the truffles. We were invited to kneel and sniff the soil before digging up a few spectacular specimens; mine was the size of a cauliflower and would have commanded a price of about $1000 on the market.  It’s hard to capture the distinctive aroma of a truffle in words; it’s strong, woody, earthy, pungent, heady and sticky sweet.

Needless to say, none of the dogs got a look-in when it came to walking around the truffière. The environment in the orchard needs to be carefully controlled and protected – we had to dip our boots in disinfectant. Instead the dogs got their own special treasure hunt in an adjacent paddock and had fun unearthing treats.

After sampling and/or buying truffle butter, truffle salt and truffle honey in the shop, it was time to move on for lunch at the Farmer’s Arms in Creswick. The entire menu – bar the wine – was truffle-infused from the charcuterie platter to the main course of barramundi or beef cheek. But it was the honey truffle panna cotta with a berry coulis that stole the show. The sweetness of the honey and the earthiness of the truffle shavings (spot the black dots in the photo) were perfect foils for the cooked cream.

While we had been feasting, the dogs were treated to massages and edible treats on the bus. With the dogs relaxed after their pampering session, and the humans sated and soporific after rich food and fine wine, there was much dozing on the way home. That’s what’s so enjoyable about a tour; it’s all done for you and you can sit back and let the day unfold – no map-reading, thinking or organising needed. Pawfect indeed.

Experiments with off-line living: more meeting up than hooking up

When was the last time you unleashed your inner child and pretended to be a blind dog, an alien from Outer Space or a French person struggling to make themselves understood? These were just some of the scenarios we were given to act out at a Theatre Games and Improvisation Meetup on the weekend. As a child I loved dressing up and putting on plays with whomever else I could rope in, and I had a bit of a knack for mimicry and accents. But that was then. On Saturday afternoon I struggled to tap into that playful vibe – it felt like being in the classroom on the first day at a new school – although I was warming up by the end. The degree to which I engaged was also partly determined by the group I was in; we were in the same group of four for the whole two hours. And my group was on the reticent side.

It was interesting to observe the dynamic and watch the more ‘Am Dram’ types take centre stage with their suite of accents and gestures, while others played out more slapstick scenes without much sublety. I observed the bolder ones and wondered what their day job was and whether this was the ultimate release; the chance to let go of corporate or even family constraints. It reminded me of the Karaoke party I hosted for my choir last year. Some people tapped into their inner rock star or channelled Madonna, hamming it up and belting it out, while others sat on the side lines. However buried, I think most of us have a desire to clown around as it gives us the freedom to tap into an alter ego.

I went to the Improvisation Meetup not only to unleash the thespian in me, but also as part of my ongoing experiment with adventures in off-line living. It’s not so much about meeting a partner and avoiding online dating, but more about expanding my world and living to the full. But maybe by doing what I love to do and not actively searching, I might meet someone like-minded in the process.

In March I went to a Cryptic Crossword 101 at the NGV. I’ve always wondered what the clue to solving the clues is. A Friday afternoon event, it was full of retirees, mainly women! However, there were a few younger people including the two engaging male presenters, one of them very dishy in a swarthy Hispanic kind of way. As it turned out, he also does cryptic crosswords in Spanish, one of the few languages apart from English with a vocabulary extensive enough. And for fans of factoids, British-born Arthur Wynne created the first crossword in 1913, and it was published in New York World.  Talking to the dishy Hispanic after the event, I found out that you can do Spanish crucigramas online. That might be a stretch even though my Spanish is pretty good. I still haven’t mastered the art in English.

Visiting my favourite beach café a few weeks ago, I got chatting to a couple of older blokes – way too long in the tooth for me – who were pouring over a crossword puzzle. I confessed that my brief 101 hadn’t equipped me to crack the clues – I reckon it takes not only a great deal more practice but also, possibly, a more lateral-thinking brain. But, hey, I now have a new string to my bow. Where once I might have ‘posed’ in a café with my book and beautiful dog child, I can now add the crossword to my arsenal of conversation starters.

Needless to say, there are also crossword Meetups. Incidentally, did you know that Meetups emerged from the community response to 9/11 in New York when people reached out to help one another? I didn’t. I’m quite a regular at the German Language Group Meetups.  I went to a wonderful exhibition of poster versions of black and white photos (the originals are in Berlin) from 1970s East Germany at Melbourne’s Goethe Institute, the only place outside Germany where they are showing. As with all Meetup groups, there’s always an eclectic mix of people from all walks of life. At a German social at the Hophaus I met a young man, impeccably dressed and well mannered, who does the marketing for Viagra, helping to maintain sales over the generic brands. I had thought the key consumers would be men of my vintage but, no, it’s younger men who want to last for longer. It’s always intriguing finding out how people earn their living. At the same group there was an academic, a shy Frenchman with lots of piercings who translates films and a psychologist who works in drug addiction.

I still think it might be my dog Bertie who leads me to someone interesting.  There was a new man on the beach this summer who caught my eye. He had an open, honest and smiley face – a boyishness about him – and lightly curly hair that matched his dog’s, one of the ‘oodles. And, importantly, no gold band on the third finger of his left hand. A fellow dog-walker, Suzanne, thought he might bat for the other side, something about the timbre of his voice and the pink floral towel, so she did some investigating for me. One should, of course, never judge a book by its cover; ring or no ring, he is, in fact, married.   In a nutshell, dear reader: been there, done that. Nein Danke.

Never mind, a few days later Bertie raced off to a rocky outcrop flanking the beach. Worried that he might repeat his trick of a few years ago of getting a bait-loaded fish hook in his mouth, I dashed after him and narrowly avoided colliding with an attractive silver-haired man changing after a swim. Apologising for invading his privacy, we had a chat and I picked up a German accent – well done Bertie for taking me over there! The man was Swiss German and had a strong accent and a good sense of humour, not something always associated with the Swiss. And I didn’t spot a wedding ring. Chances are that he’s married too but I enjoyed our brief chat and practising a bit of German. And it reinforced my belief that you never know who and what you might encounter in the real world. Onwards and upwards.

I never can say goodbye: RIP Woody

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A love-in with Mudgee

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_4432

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

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

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

IMG_4420

IMG_4434

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

IMG_4429

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

IMG_4440

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

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

IMG_4437

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

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

IMG_4417

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

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

IMG_4446

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

The Start-Up Entrepreneur, the University Researcher and the IT Specialist

Sounds like the opener to one of those classic Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman jokes, doesn’t it? In fact, I’m referring to the three dates I crammed into a weekend back in February. And don’t they sound promising? Spoiler alert: appearances (online profiles) can be deceptive!

The Entrepreneur, a self-described Europhile and part of an ‘am dram’ group, was a bit of an old stodge, a portly man sporting a straw fedora (alarm bell number one), striped shirt and chinos. Had he been an Englishman, he’d probably have spoken with a plummy accent and voted for Brexit. With a nod to my British heritage, he wondered if I would like a gin and tonic – this at eleven in the morning! Rather than order tea and fall into another stereotype, I ordered a smoothie which at least gave me sustenance to get through the meeting. We met in a prestigious sport club where, of course, fedoras and reactionary views (think also climate change denial) are not out of place. Grilling me on my single status and relationship history (don’t ask…), he asked: Wouldn’t a bloke around the house annoy you? Quite probably, I replied (thinking, especially if it were you wielding your heft around the place) but who says we’d have to live together? His eyebrows shot up at this; clearly, he’s not across the concept of LAT (Living Apart Together), a potentially elegant solution for couples who like their own space but also want to be in a relationship.

According to Wikipedia LAT relationships account for ten percent of couples in Britain and between six and nine percent in Australia, Canada and the US. In a variation on the LAT theme, I always think of the British Royals who supposedly have separate bedrooms or chambers. Sounds quite fun to me as long as there are visitation rights. What a good way to keep the spark alive.  Doing a brief bit of research on the subject I found a wonderful quote by Lady Pamela Hicks, the Queen’s cousin: ‘In England, the upper class always have had separate bedrooms. You don’t want to be bothered with snoring or someone flinging a leg around. Then when you are feeling cosy you share your room sometimes. It is lovely to be able to choose.’ If a monarch can’t avoid flying leg syndrome, who can?’ You have to love the euphemistic no-sex-please-we’re British-style reference to ‘feeling cosy’! To my mind, cosy conjures up pyjamas, cocoa and a hot water bottle not passionate encounters. And, of course, the upper classes can afford sizeable properties where separate bedrooms are an option.

Back to the dates; the University Researcher was an extremely shy man from Eastern Europe. Nice enough and bright, but I’d say he hadn’t recovered from the death of his wife and was not, I suspect, entirely at home in Australia. Somewhat adrift in life, he didn’t seem that fond of his homeland or parents and siblings either. I struggled to hear him as he spoke so softly and with a heavy accent. And much as I tried to pitch in on the academic research, the conversation went nowhere. The chai was good though!

Then there was the IT guy – let’s call him Tom – a smug and strangely detached individual who swiftly brought the conservation round to himself, his weight loss and gastric sleeve (surgery that reduces the size of the stomach rather than having a silicone band implant (a lap band)  inserted at the top of the stomach to restrict food intake), his alcoholic mother who lives in a home, and his father in he US, with whom he has a fractured relationship. Not the most encouraging start to a first chat, you’ll agree.  Ever polite, I thought I’d  make him feel better by dropping in mention of the FODMAP diet and a recent bereavement – just to even things up. Instead, the conversation moved back to Tom and his change of career plans – he was researching nursing. Mistaking expedience (he singled out nursing as one of a few suitable options for re-training) for a sense of vocation, I offered that there’s a huge demand for carers in the aged care sector but that he’d need to be emotionally resilient to deal with the frequent occurrence of death. Oh, I wouldn’t care about that, he said dispassionately, but if they were sick on my uniform I’d change it. He had a dark sense of humour too, the kind of humour that thrives at others’ expense. What’s more, he didn’t like dogs. Computer said NOOOOO! As did my head, heart and restriction-free gut.

The Entrepreneur (at least he was a dog lover) and the IT Specialist were keen to meet up again, but, not surprisingly, I wasn’t interested. I resolved yet again to be open to meeting people in the real world and to enjoy the time I spend with those I already know. Trawling through profiles takes time and energy; I’d rather devote that time to landing a more compatible fish in the real world, preferably one without a fedora or a gastric sleeve.

Live to work or work to live?

While I have encountered la few live-to-workers in my time (a scary breed), I’m definitely in the work to live camp. My work has been pretty busy recently and some of the living seems to have been squeezed out, but even during the frantic periods, there have been moments of joy, beauty, learning and a few treats along the way.

At the end of June, I went to Adelaide on a Sunday night ready to run a workshop with my boss on the Monday. We had a good social chat over a delicious dinner in a Greek restaurant (the fried saganaki with preserved figs was particularly tasty) and then repaired to our rather stylish hotel. The rooms were super spacious with electric blankets on the beds and sliding Japanese screens in the bathroom. What a shame, I thought, as I soaked in the bath, that there was no one to play peek-a-boo. Something about those screens brought out my inner child.

The following Sunday I went to Canberra, my first visit to the Civic City since I backpacked around Australia in 1995. This time, at the recommendation of a friend, I stayed in an Art Deco hotel, the Kurrajong, which opened in 1926. As their website so accurately says, the place ‘combines old world charm with a stylish and contemporary twist’. Right up my street.

The Kurrajong is conveniently located for the art galleries, Old Parliament House and Parliament House. I spent a few enjoyable hours at the National Portrait Gallery in the afternoon, focussing on portraits of the first and second wave of European settlers, those early colonialists who made their mark either politically, socially or culturally. Among them were: David Jones (1793-1873), founder not only of Australia’s oldest department store, but the oldest department store in the world still trading under its original name; James Reading Fairfax (1834-1919) son of the founder of the Sydney Morning Herald; Caroline Chisholm (1808-1877) – her portrait used to be on five-dollar bill – an English-born philanthropist and activist who worked tirelessly to improve conditions for immigrants; Miss C H Spence (1825-1910) a writer and reformer who stood as Australia’s first female political candidate in the Federal Convention elections in 1897; and Irish-born Lola Montez (1818-1861), a dancer who came to Australia on her travels. Remarkable in a very different way to Caroline Chisholm, she led a scandalous life, had lots of lovers including King Ludwig of Bavaria (not the so-called mad one) and died of syphilis-related symptoms aged 42. Trivia quiz fans take note off all these useful snippets!

That night I dined in and enjoyed a perfectly cooked steak in Chifley’s Bar and Grill, named after Australia’s 16th Prime Minister Ben Chifley, who lived at the hotel for 11 years until his death from a fatal heart attack in 1951. Rumour has it that the hotel is haunted but, thankfully, I didn’t hear anything go bump in the night.

John Curtin and Ben Chifley, 14th and 16th Prime Ministers of Australia respectively

John Curtin and Ben Chifley, 14th and 16th Prime Ministers of Australia respectively

Then a few weekends ago a friend and I went to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Cranbourne, where the Australian Garden is planted up with a staggering 170,000 species of native plants set in a contemporary landscape – the gardens only opened in 2006 – of water, rocks, dessert, dunes and more. One of the most impressive features comprises 86 (if I remember rightly) narrow strips of land planted with indigenous plants representing all the different bioregions in Australia. I was reminded that Australia has an incredible diversity of beautiful trees and plants – from tiny, brightly coloured heathland plants to beautiful banksias and flowering eucalypts.
IMG_4063
IMG_4048
IMG_4049

Last weekend was the ultimate treat; a whole weekend away. The dog child and I went down to my brother’s beach house in Anglesea for the first time in over a year. From the minute I got out of the car, I felt myself unwinding. There’s something incredibly restorative about being away in a list-free, desk-free zone with no WIFI, and slowing down to the sound of the wind, the waves, the birds and the spaciousness of it all. On Sunday the weather was glorious and I drove to Lorne where I walked Bertie on the beach and savoured a pot of chai at a cafe overlooking the water which sparkled in the winter sun.

IMG_4076

Then it was on up the hill through tree ferns and gum trees and past rolling green hills dotted with sheep to the Deans Marsh, where friends have a weekend house. Perched on a hill with nothing but garden, orchard, paddocks, dams and trees all around, the house is an attractive mix of timber and corrugated iron with an open fire and cosy sofas inside and a veranda wrapping around the front and to one side. After a week of arctic weather, it was warm enough to eat outside. Bertie ran around in the garden with their dog Boston and the kookaburras did their mirthful routine up in the trees while we enjoyed delicious roast beef and veggies. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a Sunday roast al fresco but it was all the more delicious. I definitely work to live!

IMG_4082

IMG_4090

I’m proud to be a 41-percenter

Lists, lists, lists, lists/ lists, lists, lists, lists/ LISTS….. (to the tune of Monty Python’s Spam, Spam, Spam). I love a good list and get immense satisfaction when I achieve and complete a job or chore. I used to try and wean myself off my inner list-ticker but now I’ve decided to embrace and celebrate it.

My notebooks are never this empty...

My notebooks are never this empty…

Some so-called leadership experts (if you believe the Sunday papers) claim that to-do lists are a no-no and can make you more stressed. Studies have shown that only 41 per cent of professionals who write lists actually complete the tasks. I clearly fall into this bracket. But I don’t just make lists for work, I write lists for everything even when I’m on holidays. I like to get things done and make the most of my time whatever I am doing. In some ways I’m a woman on a mission to squeeze the maximum out of life. By working through my to-do lists, I reckon – perhaps kid myself – that I make more time for new experiences and adventures.

Talking of adventure, I recently had an Out of Africa moment or three at the Fundraising Institute of Australia’s annual conference, which, this year, was in Melbourne. I work for a fundraising consultancy that assists not-for-profit organisations to develop effective grant-seeking strategies. Our theme this year was: ‘It’s a jungle out there and we can help you get out of it.’ With a foliage-draped stand dotted with blow-up zebras and monkeys, we donned pith helmets (sourced on-line from the UK; perhaps not surprising given Blighty’s colonial past), leopard print scarves and khaki jackets. It was a whirlwind of networking, meetings, exchanged business cards, chats, dinners, drinks, lots of business development and regular injections of caffeine. It was exhausting being ‘on’ for the best part of three days but we had a lot of fun.

Out of Africa...

Out of Africa…

IMG_3403

Post conference our workloads have trebled and it’s still go-go-go. That’s why I’m so happy I embarked on a list-a-thon during February. I wanted to clear not just my desk but the decks in general – I’d had a whole load of chores building up and hanging over me since Christmas. I slashed and burned my way through my lists and lists of lists of lists every weekend for a month. I tackled the front garden by my carport and replaced a weed suppression mat covered with dusty old stones and shells with new soil and plants. I weeded and pruned my courtyard at the back, moved pots around, transplanted cuttings from a hardy geranium grown eleven years ago from a cutting taken in Country Victoria and scrubbed paint splotches off my garden table. On behalf of the Body Corporate, I finalised negotiations with fence contractors and tree removalists, did the minutes and the accounts, the latter badly as I am no mathematician, and organised for a new fence to be erected.

I replaced saggy cushions on my newly-acquired op shop sofa with firmer foam inserts that didn’t leave bottom-shaped hollows. The only problem was that the guy in the shop measured the new cushions against the old ones which cascaded over the edge of the sofa. As a result, they stuck right out like a ledge and my feet barely reached the ground. Off I went straight back to Clark Rubber to get them trimmed, problem solved. I also replaced my old office desk with a state-of-the-art electronic height-adjustable desk. My brother, who happens to live next door to a guy who runs an office furniture outfit, got me a fabulous deal. While I don’t stand for more than about 30 minutes at a time, it does relieve the pressure on my lower back and keep me energised. Another of my back saving strategies is to swap my chair for a Swiss Ball here and there as it (apparently) helps to engage my core muscles – and that’s de rigueur nowadays, so the gurus tell us, if we want to stay fit and healthy, that and the consumption of chia seeds, pomegranates and kale. The change of desk brought on an office spring clean and general tidy-up. I threw out lots of old paperwork, tied up all my phone and appliance leads with cable ties and made the room feel more spacious. My old desk is in my carport awaiting collection by the Salvos. Another tick!

IMG_3465

Once my desk and office were sorted, it was time to tackle the paperwork and I did so with a vengeance. All that getting up and sitting down and circling my pelvis on the Swiss ball clearly put fire in my belly. I started by changing bank and credit card. The process wasn’t as complicated as I thought, thanks to my lists of course, but time will tell if I managed to successfully swap over all the direct debits, standing orders, on-line accounts and other payments. Then I had to do my tax return. Technically, it wasn’t due till May but the ATO thought I owed them money (for reasons I won’t bore you with) so I had to get it done. Lots of phone calls, scanned documents and spreadsheets later, the matter was all settled. I also had to call my health insurance provider about some back claims and make some on-line purchases, cashing in a Marks and Spencer voucher for me and then ordering a replacement dog training whistle for Bert. I can’t think where or how I lost the old one, but my voice just doesn’t carry over the wind and waves at the beach so a new one is essential. I could have ordered a cheapo pack of children’s party whistles from China but thought better of it and ordered a couple of shepherd’s whistles instead. When I came to phone through my credit card details, I found myself talking to a delightful woman in Inveraray on the West Coast of Scotland. We had a lovely chat – lists can you take you interesting places.

My kitchen was also in need of a bit of life laundry. First, I bagged up some surplus dry food items and tins and took them to a drop-off place for asylum seekers, then I sorted a large pile of recipes torn out of magazines and newspapers and filed them, at the same time banning myself from looking at any more recipes for at least a year. Needless to say, I did have a recipe relapse the weekend before last when I took a photo of a delicious-sounding chicken salad in Sunday Life. Leopards and spots…

Another task that I’d been putting off since I got my new job in October was to transfer all my photos, files and music from my old to my new computer. I’ve now moved them over but haven’t organised the photos, which somehow seem to have duplicated themselves into copies and copies of copies. Getting round to sorting out the photos keeps dropping to the bottom of the list along with doing my stretches, shredding old paperwork and cleaning Bertie’s teeth (he swallows rather than chews his food so gets plaque build-up).

I may sound like I’m incredibly organized, and in some ways I am, but don’t be fooled, I can also be chaotic and absent-minded with too many things on the go. But a bit of chaos and unpredictability is good and healthy. Too much listing, doing and thinking kills off spontaneity and bombards the brain with too much activity. How about you? Which of you are go-with-the-flow types and which of you are more plan and list-driven?

Needless to say I never arrive at the Nirvana-like state of being list-less, but after a blitz, the lists tend to plateau out and it’s easier to tackle the day job and to keep the rest of the time free for fun, creativity and socialising. In April I’m signed up to go to Mud Island off Sorrento on a bird-watching trip. It promises to be wet, muddy and full of fabulous waders and wetland birds. Well, I hope I get to go, I am on a wait LIST!

Hoovering, holidays and tents

Even though I returned to work on 4th January, I’m still tapping into the holiday vibe as much as I can. There’s such a frenzied build up to Christmas Day and a pressure to get everything done that I’ve begun to really cherish the peace that comes afterwards when everything and everyone calms down.

Two months into a new job, this year’s yuletide season proved quite a marathon. My workload started to intensify at the end of November and, from the beginning of December, life became a seamless blur of grant-writing and deadlines, social stuff, choir rehearsals and practising new songs (I’ve joined a smaller choir and we did a couple of pre-Christmas performances), putting on a garage sale, co-hosting my first dinner party for about two years – typically, it turned out to be the night (a late night) before two morning choir gigs, one of them in an aged care facility. What joy it was to sing (even if I was a bit post party croaky) new versions of old favourites such as Away in A Manger and Silent Night to the oldies.

Deck the Halls...

Deck the Halls…

The week before Christmas I went up to Brisbane for a couple of days of work and play. After a day and half of strategizing followed by a long and lavish staff Christmas lunch, I raced off to the Powerhouse to see a show by Cocoloco, a madcap duo consisting of a university friend from Bristol and her Australian husband.

IMG_3237

I spent my last day wandering round GOMA – the Gallery of Modern Art – before squeezing in another show at the Powerhouse, having a quick chat with Helen and Trevor, and then travelling straight to the airport from there. It’d all been fun but exhausting and I had a sense of humour failure when I got stopped in security because the funky fish-shaped corkscrew I had bought for my nephew had a foil-cutting knife on it. What?! I’d been in too much of a whirl to notice. Amazingly, I was allowed to go back out to the Qantas desk and post it back to myself. Even more amazingly, it arrived in time to go under the tree!

I got home late the Saturday before Christmas and on route to a lovely Christmas lunch the next day, I managed to hit my head on a shelf, drop a bowl I was given for my 21st and then scrape my car along my carport wall. Not a good look, any of it! Things continued apace until Christmas Eve when I spent all day cooking two complicated desserts (and this from the woman who is 90% sugar free) to take to my brother’s. Dinner was at 7 p.m. and at 6.30 p.m. I was still hoovering and mopping the kitchen floor. I just couldn’t bear to leave it dirty; Christmas, for me, is also a time for renewal and reflection and I didn’t want to kick off with a crumb- and dog-hair-strewn floor.

Talking of hoovering – it’s not just the Brits, some Kiwis also talk of hoovering – reminds me of my trip back to the UK in August. My hoover is a Sebo (yes, I know that’s like saying my Mazda is a Toyota), a German make, which travelled the seas with me from England in 2004. It could probably do with a complete overhaul but my mission in England was to track down a spare part. Now the small market town in Nottinghamshire where my mother lives is no retail Mecca – at best, you’ll find Dorothy Perkins, Primark and Poundland, but it is exactly the place to find a store specialising in vacuum cleaners. Near the train station, in a residential street, is a shop that looks just like the one in the BBC show Open All Hours with Arkwright and Granville. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4mTxaK1AHMc

The shop is delightfully cluttered, dusty (don’t think they ever hoover it) and a bit dark. Somehow it’s escaped the digital age completely and there’s not even a computer anywhere in sight. An older man in brown overalls (Arkwright without the stutter) explained that the shop started life in 1946 when his father was one of the first approved Hoover dealers in the area. He, in turn, now works alongside his son who will inherit the business. Helpful as they were, they didn’t have the spare part I needed – my Sebo is now so old as to be obsolete. However, visiting the shop was quite an experience. As we were leaving, a curious-looking man with a pot belly, lank, dyed blond hair and a generally dishevelled appearance strolled in and greeted us with a rather affected and effeminate “Helloooo!” The son explained it was his brother and quickly ushered him next door to a rather run-down house. All I can say is that if this bloke wasn’t the inspiration for Little Britain’s “Only Gay in the Village” sketch I don’t know who is.

Anyway, back to the Christmas holidays – once I had farewelled English and interstate visitors on the 28th, I sat in the garden with my feet up and got stuck into a fabulous novel about a Special Operations Executive parachuted into France as a spy in World War II. But the real hero of the holiday was a sun shelter tent lent to me by friends. I feel so blessed to live near the beach and really made the most of it. There’s something magical and healing about swimming in salt water and then lying on warm sand and sculpting it to your body shape. It’s as good as a massage. Without phone calls, emails, chatter and the normal day to day stuff, it was pure bliss and the tent meant I could stay for longer and not get burnt. Just me, the birds, the waves, the wind, the sun and the sea.

All the World is a Tent

All the World is a Tent

I even let myself off the hoovering – well almost. All that time on the beach – whether alone in my tent or walking Bertie adds up to quite a few grains of sand on the floor…

Bertie sporting sand and salt sculpted hair...

Bertie sporting sand and salt sculpted hair…