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

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

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

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Pall Mall at night

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

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Pricey Pearls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A hand-written draft page from Oliver Twist

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

To sleep, perchance to dream

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

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

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

Sleeping Princess and the Pea-style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florence’s sitting room

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

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

The Straws on their annual seaside holiday in Scarborough

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Two tap luxury

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Picture taken from the Duldig Studio brochure)

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

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

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

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

A blog about love, actually

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

O: “Oh, oh, oh…!:

I: “What was that for?”

O: “I found your fifth rib.”

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

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

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

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

I: “What else can I do for you?”

O: “Exist”

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

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

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

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

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

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

O: “Yes.”

Virtual travel to Spain and down memory lane

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

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

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

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

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

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

Left to Right: Paco, Danielle and Pedro

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

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

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

From Left to Right: Pilar, Lucia and Marie

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

 

Spot the 1980 car models…

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

Torres Blancas

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

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

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.

Woman on a mission

Hello blog! It’s nice to come back to you; it’s been ages! For much of the first half of this year my emotions and energy were directed elsewhere following a family bereavement. My reaction to the deep well of sadness was to keep myself busy – a classic avoidance technique – and my activity centred around my house, my place of sanctuary, stability and safety.

As well as prettifying and enhancing my home environment – the soft furnishings part of renovations I had done in 2013 – I also had a strong urge to get every area of my life in order. My to-do list ranged from searching for a new dining room table and chairs to getting the outside of my house painted, making a will, getting my passport re-renewed, reviewing my home loan, ordering new curtains for my bedroom, re-designing my garden, de-mothing my wardrobe, and a fair bit of de-cluttering and paper shredding.

As a strategy for coping and holding it together, it was fairly successful, but I can’t pretend it was restful. The impulse was not just to block out the grief but to keep my life moving forward. Maybe if I stood still for any length of time and got too enmeshed in my feelings, I would get stuck and stagnate. And then what? When someone close to you dies, you are super aware of your own mortality. Who knows how long any of us has got on this planet? Especially in today’s world of political and environmental instability with a Twitter-addicted, trigger-happy ego maniac in the White House. 

I was a woman on a mission flogging somewhat obsessively round furniture stores starting with the big brands progressing to more quirky shops selling custom made furniture, pre-loved and vintage. Then there was the quest for curtains and bringing home fabric sample books and agonising over colours and patterns, plodding through the legalese of the first draft of my will – it’s still incomplete as I find it hard to imagine a time when I will no longer be around. It all feels a bit surreal deciding who gets what and where I want my ashes scattered – perhaps half here and half in England to honour both of my homes, or is that too much to ask of my Trustees – and do I need to leave them an airfare as part of the package? With inflation factored in, how much should that be? What will the world look like by then – I am hoping it is a good 30 years off.

Oh, and then there was the punishing obstacle course travel insurance claim related to changed travel plans back in January. In this case, I had to produce a 2-year medical history of my recently deceased father, along with a form signed by his doctor to prove he had not been expected to die when he did. Talk about salt in the wound. That was one of about eight documents I had to assemble as proof that my claim was kosher. My father’s medical history ran to 96 pages – happy reading insurance people I thought with a tinge of schadenfreude. Doggedly (sorry, Bertie, for putting negative connotations on a canine word) I stuck with it and won.

My focus during this time tended to be inward rather than outward; I didn’t feel drawn to socialising on any grand scale, just quiet catch-ups with close friends although, conversely, I did have a little flirtation with internet dating (not my thing) but I had taken out an expensive subscription in October and thought I might as well give it a go. One weekend in February, I met three different characters (that’s a blog post in itself) but I realise now that I was merely box ticking and doing it for the sake of it. I much prefer meeting people in the real world; it’s so hard to get a sense of someone from a profile. And there seem to be so many frogs out there. Ironically one of my nicknames for my father was Toad. Not as in fat-bodied, warty and crusty – my father was anything but, in fact I used to call him Dapper Dad – this was an affectionate moniker that had more of Toad of Toad Hall about it.

However, I did settle on a dining room table, one I had found quite by chance one weekend in mid-February in Cowes on Phillip Island. Happy to discover it was still available in May, I snapped it up. I ended up ordering chairs online from a store in Sydney – first having dashed to Schots Emporium and Goldilocks-like tried out a number of styles for comfort. Amazingly my blind date chairs (you can only glean so much from a photo online) were a perfect match with the table. A marriage made in heaven. Perhaps the moral of the tale is that when you are not looking too hard, the right thing turns up.

Singapore: Tiong Bahru and time for tea

Imagine a world where scramjets (supersonic-combustion ramjets) travelling faster than the speed of sound could transport us from Melbourne to London in two and a half hours. While this may sound like something out of a sci-fi novel, a joint US-Australian research team has been running trials and recently sent a scramjet attached to a rocket booster to an altitude of 278km at seven times the speed of sound. But the reality is that until rocket-propelled hypersonic travel becomes practical and affordable, travel between Australia and Europe will remain L O N G haul.

That’s why I stopped off in Singapore for a night on my way back from Oslo in August. I’d had a somewhat mixed time in Oslo; some fabulous sights and museums – Viking ships, Edvard Munch and the Vigeland Sculpture Park – but didn’t connect with the locals, couldn’t get a decent cuppa of tea (I know, how very English of me), or enjoy the hotel that was Grim by name and by nature (you couldn’t tell if it was night or day in there). So I was ready for a softer experience to bookend my travels and set me up for returning to Melbourne.

I stayed at the Nostalgia Hotel in the suburb of Tiong Bahru, about a ten-minute taxi ride from the CBD. And what a find! I’ve stayed a couple of times in a fancy hotel in the centre of Singapore with all the city slicker and business suits, where everything is seemingly on tap at all hours, even a pillow menu, which is fun in its way but very impersonal. On arrival at the Nostalgia Hotel, I felt as if I were visiting family, such was the warmth of the welcome by the lady on reception, looking immaculate in her red silk cheongsam. She helped me to my room where, dear reader, I immediately spotted the kettle and made a cup of Earl Grey. No such luxuries at the much more expensive Grims Grenka in Oslo where you could only make an approximation of a cup of tea by blending hot water and frothy milk in a cardboard cup at the coffee machine next to the reception desk.

My room at The Nostalgia

My room at The Nostalgia

Tiong Bahru is small, compact, easy-going and away from the hustle and bustle of the CBD, making it a delightful area to explore. Built in the 1930s and 50s, it was the country’s first public housing project and is a living, breathing suburb where people work, play and hang out at the hawker market.

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Much like the décor in the charming Hotel Nostalgia, which blends old and new, Tiong Bahru is an interesting mix of tradition and trendiness with the French-inspired Tiong Bahru Bakery and other cafés selling cupcakes and sandwiches cheek by jowl with restaurants full of people slurping noodles or sitting down to seafood banquets at wipe-down plastic tables. Then there’s pampered pet parlours, design shops and expensive florists selling terrariums and bonsai alongside shrines wafting incense from doorways.

The Tiong Bahru Bakery

The Tiong Bahru Bakery

After a pleasant swim in the hotel’s lap pool (again, nothing fancy, but I had the pool to myself and views over red tile rooftops), I enjoyed a comfort food dinner of Hainanese Chicken Rice at the Tiong Bahru Club, another vintage venue with wooden ceiling fans and school desks and chairs. That night I slept like a baby – always such joy to be in a bed after a night on the plane – ready to tackle the shops the next morning.

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I went straight to Uni Qlo in the nearby Tiong Bahru Plaza, where I made the most of various items on sale – including a liberty print top – and the tax free rebate. Then, after a quick lunch of sushi in the shopping mall, I took a bus to Orchard Road. I didn’t have the right change and was fumbling about in my purse – so much so that I managed to drop my left luggage ticket from the hotel into the cash box – when three dear ladies, all of a certain age, came to my aid, one of them offering to pay for me. The bus driver, amused at my luggage ticket sitting in his cash machine, told me not to worry about the fare. How welcoming and generous these people were and how different from the reserved (sometimes frosty) Norwegians.

Orchard Road was, as ever, heaving with shoppers. It’s not really my kind of place, but hey, when in Singapore… So I went to just three shops: Marks & Spencer (well, like drinking tea, it’s in the blood), a shoe shop and a small local department store that was easy to navigate called Tangs. At about 4pm as I was trying on the umpteenth dress, jet-lag began to kick in and I started to flag. Luckily, there was a café right in the middle of the ladies’ dress department at Tangs. The Provedore is the kind of place patronised by ladies who lunch and have expensive shoes, handbags and haircuts. Feeling scruffy by comparison, I was nevertheless happy to sit down and I ordered a pot of Earl Grey Jasmine.

In contrast to all the lukewarm mugs of water with a tea bag on the side that I got served up in Oslo, the hot tea, properly steeped and in a pot, was cause for celebration. I couldn’t detect any Earl Grey but the jasmine was suitably floral. And all was well in my world. Then I got the bill and my jaw dropped open – it was $11.20 (so, about AUD 11). That seemed very steep if you’ll forgive the pun. That’s the kind of price you would expect at somewhere like the Ritz! Later on before I got a cab to the airport I had a quick dinner of fish with ginger sauce and a bottle of water for $22. Needless to say, there were no lunching ladies there just locals dining at no-nonsense white plastic tables.

The steepest cuppa ever!

The steepest cuppa ever!