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.

Blind Dates and Silent Movies: 36 hours in the Barossa Valley, South Australia

Could I trust him? Take him at his word? Or would he lead me astray (not again, I hear some of you murmur)? Even though – let’s call him George – spoke nice RP (Received Pronunciation) English, cut glass diction is no guarantee of reliability. George, you see, was very much a blind date.

Although just about everyone else I know – bar perhaps Mum and other octogenarians – uses GPS navigation to get them from A to B, I am a bit of a Luddite and still use hard copy maps and the Melway. It’s part silent protest at the increasing digitisation of our lives, and part preference for following a route across the pages from end to end. So here I was in my rented Toyota Corolla, a sat nav virgin, with George the GPS my co-pilot.

My brain wiring isn’t used to screen, voice, road and dashboard interactivity – there was no way I could listen to the radio as well as tune into George and take heed of the endlessly changing speed limits (I jumped the first time George beeped with a road safety camera warning). What would have happened if something went awry with George’s wiring and I ended up in, say, Port Lincoln, rather than Tanunda in the Barossa? You really have to trust the technology. To be fair to George, he got me to Tanunda although I had to ring the B&B where I was staying for directions for the last two kilometres as he took me in a big loop beginning and ending in Seppeltsfield Road.

I arrived after an afternoon meeting in Adelaide about 4.30pm on Friday, just in time for a quick sunset walk. My original plan, had I left in the morning, had been to drive via German/Australian artist Hans Heysen’s (1877-1968) studio, The Cedars, near Hahndorf.  Instead I spent a very enjoyable hour and a half in the Adelaide’s Art Gallery. The permanent collection in the Melrose Wing is divided into themes and combines some European classics – think Rodin, Van Dyck, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Reynolds, Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud – with Australian artists such as Sidney Nolan, Hans Heysen and members of the Heidelberg school. And alongside cabinets filled with 18th century bonbonnières, scent bottles and snuff boxes are some arresting modern pieces, one of them titled We are all flesh, a sculpture of two horses made from horse skins (acquired from a tanner in Brussels) suspended from the ceiling.

We are all Flesh by Berlinde De Bruyckere (2011-12)

Saturday was my only full day in the Barossa so, as is my wont, I rather packed it in – barrelling around in more ways than one – as I had two fixtures shaping my day: a 2 pm cookery demonstration at Maggie Beer’s Pheasant Farm and a 7.30 pm silent movie night with live organ accompaniment in Tanunda. With George stuffed in the glove box, I started my day at the Mengler’s Hill Sculpture Park admiring the sixteen or so sculptures, most of which are hewn from local marble and granite, and enjoying views over the verdant Barossa Ranges.

Chateau Tanunda was my next stop, a family-owned winery and bluestone estate built in the late 1880 by migrants from Germany – as is the case with so many of the Barossa wineries. As well as sampling some oaky reds and a botrytis (dessert wine), I enjoyed looking at the vintage photos of when the estate had its own railway. Next up was a trip to the Barossa Bush Gardens, a volunteer-planted native garden with prolific bird life and a backdrop of laughing kookaburras and screeching galahs and parrots. In the neighbouring nature reserve there’s an open-air chapel with a huge gum tree acting as a kind of altar and pews hewn out of tree trunks. I had a mini contemplative moment or two,  but wanted to get to Maggie Beer’s so I’d have plenty of time for tastings in the Farm Shop before the cookery demonstration.

For those who don’t know of her, Maggie Beer is an Australian national treasure – a bit like Britain’s Mary Berry. In fact, she wasn’t around on Saturday as she was resting in between filming the Great Australian Bake Off in Sydney. She pioneered the use of Verjuice (green juice from unripe grapes) in cooking and is also big on Vincotto (cooked wine made from non-fermented grapes). After wandering through the shop sampling delicious pâtés, salad dressings, jams, pickles, dark chocolate and vincotto paste, salted brandy caramel and passion fruit curd (I had thirds of the last three), it was time for the demonstration.  Simple but delicious, we witnessed and tasted how much zip a bit of verjuice can add to sautéed mushrooms and roasted vegetables.

After a cup of reviving chai and a quick flick through the papers in a café in Tanunda, I had just enough time to return to my B&B, shower and change for the evening. Tanunda is the kind of place where restaurant kitchens close at 9 pm so I needed to get dinner around 6 pm to make the silent movie show. And what a highlight that was. Built for Adelaide Town Hall in 1875, the magnificent Hill & Son organ, the oldest concert organ on the Australian mainland, is now housed in the Barossa Regional Gallery. The evening included a selection of 1920s silent film classics ranging from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to Felix the Cat. Accompanied by David Johnston, considered Australia’s finest exponent of silent movie accompaniment, it was a gem of an evening. What skill it is to play the soundtrack to those slapstick silent films and get the timing, intensity and nuancing right. My favourite was Felix the Cat: with just four main characters the laundry-washing mother; the piano-playing boy; Felix; and a bunch of cheeky mice, it’s crisp, funny and deceptively simple. What a treat.

Walking back to my car I passed a wine bar with live music playing. Savouring a glass of smooth Cab Sav named Audrey (making me think Hepburn, a bit of a pin-up of mine) I caught the last quarter of an hour of music and got chatting to some interesting locals, one of whom I met for coffee the next morning.

After coffee on the Sunday, my belly full of an enormous B&B breakfast, I drove back to Adelaide via a few more wineries: Langmeil (long mile in German) was once a small village which extended over a mile (hence the name) from the site of the winery to the church. Here I sampled some delicious reds, my favourite the 2015 Valley Floor Shiraz, and then I walked up to a small boutique winery, David Franz, with wonderful views over the hills. Here I tried and bought a rich, syrupy Shiraz liquor – rather like a young port. Then it was time to rehabilitate George and let him get me back to the airport, which he did, and on time. All is forgiven. I might even take him out again.

The joy of flying solo

The Sunday before last I dragged myself out of bed early to get to a 10 a.m. Meetup group. Intriguingly titled ‘All My Friends are in Couples and I’m Single’, I thought it was worth including as part of my experiment with offline living.  Sporting my five Euro sequined hat (purchased for the Gala evening at the International Fundraising Congress in Amsterdam last October), I yawned my way into the city on the train wishing I had stayed in bed.

It’s busy in Brunetti’s on a Sunday morning. I scoured the place and eventually located what looked like the group. Disappointed by the imbalanced ratio of women to men, probably about 4 to 1, I hovered with my pot of tea and wondered where to sit. The group was arranged around a long refectory-style table which made it difficult to circulate. As much as you can ever judge a book by its jacket, I liked the look of a man at the far end; he was slim, with receding, greying hair and had an air of refined intelligence about him. He seemed engrossed in conversation with the woman next to him.  Hmm, how could I break in? As I approached I noticed that they were both wearing wedding rings and seemed uninterested in mixing with the rest of the group. It wasn’t till they had eaten their breakfast and left that I realised they were nothing to do with the Meetup. And that they must have been married to each other.  Good start, Charlotte! I had to stifle a little giggle at this point.

Instead I got chatting to one of the three remaining men. Stocky but clean shaven and OK-looking, he tucked into a hearty plate of smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and mushrooms while I sipped my English Breakfast. His opening line was to admire my hat, so I had to give him credit him for that. Bridget Jones-like, I made a note to self that the hat might come in handy on future sorties into the dating world.

He didn’t waste much time in letting me know that he was comfortably off, his IT business pretty much runs itself and he has plenty of free time to travel (business class, of course), play golf and go to the gym. But he confessed that finding someone to travel and enjoy life with is proving a challenge.  In the next breath, he related his bad experiences with internet dating, telling me that half the women he was interested in turned out to be resident overseas and those on these shores were mostly gold-diggers. Doesn’t he see a connection between bounty hunters and him flagging (bragging about) his wealth as a selling point? And, moreover, doesn’t he see that most of us would only see the wealth as a bonus if it were part of a package involving an interesting personality, a strong level of connection and shared interests?

One woman who had ensnared him had persuaded him to join her on a European river cruise. It later materialised that her female travel companion had had to cancel at the last minute and so it was more about finding a convenient stand-in. It didn’t go well but he did enjoy the Abba Museum in Stockholm. Turns out he was right on trend with that one given the recent news about Abba making a comeback. To which I can only exclaim: Mamma mia!

portrait,adult,recreation,wear,people,woman,festival,actress

All they need is a sequined hat…

His hand brushing momentarily over my right hand, he admired my pearl ring and told me he had tickets for the opera. And maybe I would be the lucky one. That, at least, sparked my interest. What opera and which company? He didn’t know any of the details, only that it was an opera.  Call me fussy but he would have needed at least to know the name of the composer and the opera.  He came across as a box-ticker. Trying to do and say the right thing. If he were an item of clothing, he’d be an off-the-peg number whereas I prefer the designer gown approach, one of a kind and plenty of character.

There is much to be said for the freedom, fullness and flexibility of the single life, a sentiment that was explored in a Spanish film – No Filter – I saw on the weekend. It’s a comic romp of a film featuring an over-the-top cat-loving sister, an Instagram-mad millennial, a pot-head chauvinist neighbour, a selfish and self-absorbed artist husband and an ex-boyfriend with a controlling girlfriend who puts them both on a pre-wedding diet of baby food. The protagonist, Paz, gets increasingly stressed as she runs around people-pleasing and putting up with second best. Then, with the help of a phoney Chinese guru, she finds her voice and starts saying what she thinks, really thinks – hence the title. https://www.spanishfilmfestival.com/films/no-filter

Birthday cake for cats

This is a film that will resonate with many women who have held back from saying what they really want to say. I can think of times in my life when I wanted to let rip but didn’t. Such as the self-important work meeting where I fantasized about sweeping all the coffee cups off the table and screaming out in frustration, and the post-argument lunch with an American boyfriend in Paris (he was ultra-preppy and precious) where I seriously considered upending my bowl of vinaigrette-drenched frisée au lardons all over him and his Calvin Klein suit. Then there’s my alter ego who writes anonymous letters to neighbours about squawking parrots in cages or puts up notices in the dog park warning of the karmic consequences of not picking up the poo.

In No Filter Paz doesn’t fall for the guilty overtures of her hopeless husband. Or her ex who questions if she wants to remain on her own.  No, she replies, I don’t want to be alone. I want to be with myself. She reclaims her life and her voice, and, case packed, takes off to the airport. Flying Solo – the flipside of the relationship coin –  at its best.

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.

Manifesting wealth: Walnut Baths, Barsony Lamps and Book Boxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

I never can say goodbye: RIP Woody

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A love-in with Mudgee

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

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

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

Cupid Calling – App-y Valentine’s Day

Whatever the history of Valentine’s Day – and there are conflicting versions – the month of February has come to be associated with romance, love hearts, lots of coochy-cooing, red roses, chocolates, gift giving and specially themed dinners, not to mention Hallmark greeting cards.

So I thought it was a good time to revisit the thorny (that’s the trouble with the roses…) issue of dating and how to find love. Friends who have been married for many years or ensconced in long-term relationships – perhaps envying me my freedom and flexibility – tell me not to bother: “You don’t want to tie yourself down.” Then Dad’s partner used to worry that I wouldn’t want to iron a man’s shirts and put dinner on the table each night. I didn’t have the heart to tell her he would iron his own shirts and that we would most likely share the cooking.

Just because romance may have been killed off or long ago faded for some shouldn’t spoilt it for the rest us.  I haven’t yet abandoned the pursuit of romance, frills, bows, bells and all – just spare me the Valentine’s schmaltz.

Past child-bearing age and the pressures of juggling work and a young family, romance for the 50-something can be wonderfully rich and satisfying with opportunities for love, passion, companionship, shared travel and joint voyaging through all that life has to offer. There’s a more mature model on offer with less to prove and more to enjoy.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics divorce rates have increased among the 55-plus age bracket – a trend that is being driven mostly by women (so what’s new?) – but what this means is that there is a pool of second-time-arounders coming back onto the market. During a brief flirtation with internet dating a year ago, most of the men I met had very recently separated – some were still dividing up the spoils down to the pots and pans – and clearly nursing wounded egos hence their rush to go online and re-partner. But I did also meet others who had let themselves settle and adjust. Just none that I felt like pursing.

There’s no question that there are men out there, but is it possible to by-pass all the frog-kissing, data-trawling, profile-perusing trials and tribulations of online dating and find love in the real world? I’ve decided to conduct a social experiment and find out.

I went to a party recently and got chatting to a woman in her late 50s. She told me she’d been widowed, sold the suburban family house and bought a flat with fabulous city views. Noticing she had a new partner, I asked how they had met.  Although they were introduced by a mutual friend, Angie had dabbled in online dating and instanced one man who had suggested, as a first meeting, a rendezvous at the airport on the way to a holiday in Hawaii! Talk about speed dating!

They suggested I take up golf – the idea being that there are always men on hand to help and advise with one’s technique. This puts a new spin on swingers, just that these ones would be in collared Polo shirts, checked trousers and studded shoes.  Golf is just not me – from the clothes to the clubiness. Although if a potential partner were a keen golfer, I’d be sure to get some space and time to myself. I am not looking to trade flying solo to being joined at the hip 24/7. I’ve written in previous blogs about maintaining some degree of independence, perhaps living in separate houses but as a committed couple – at least to start with; it’s known as LAT – Living Apart Together.

A friend suggested I downloaded Bumble, an app designed by women for women. Women make the first swipe (to the right) and men have 24 hours to respond. As with Tinder, it’s a location-based app that relies heavily on appearances and, I think, tends to attract men keen on a fling rather than a deeper connection. “Not your average 50-year-old – take me for a spin around the block,’ says one and another, “let’s see if there’s chemistry for a fling or more.” Some advertise that they are passionate and sensual, or good kissers.

Radio National’s Life Matters program is running a series on Online Dating, and last week it was dedicated to the over 50s. One woman, who did succeed in finding love, believes that the profile and how it is written is all-important – forget photo-based apps. For her, one spelling mistake or errant comma spells a no. I’m inclined to agree. And I liked her idea of meeting a date in an art gallery – it’s a good testing ground and on neutral territory. How a potential partner responds to an exhibition provides a good insight into their personality too.

But what is the likelihood of meeting an available man – I seem to have been a magnet for married men all my life – by chance in a gallery and getting cosy over the captions? Which brings me back to options in the real world and my determination to try a few. Hanging out in cafes with my dog and an interesting book is not new, but I will aim to frequent different cafes in different neighbourhoods (interestingly, a friend recently sent me an article detailing which Melbourne suburbs have the highest density of singletons).

Then a girlfriend and I plan to go to book launches and other events that have a social component, the kind of functions where you can start a conversation with someone based on what you have just seen or heard. Solo travel can be exciting on all levels too, and there’s a you-never-know element. I got chatted up by a 30-year-old barman in Frankfurt a few years ago – he was a bit of a lush and a bit louche to boot but it did my ego the world of good and reminded me that anything is possible.

In a concession to Cupid, I considered going to a Valentine’s Day event billed as a ‘Single, Mingle’ hosted by Bumble. With menu items including a kiss booth, photo booth, match-making and speed-dating it sounded much more 20s to 40s than my vintage. I emailed to ask about the age range and a week later got a reply: “unfortunately we have been unable to provide further details to users about this as of yet.” I decided against it.

Instead I am going to a German Meet-Up group which will get my brain cells into gear if nothing else.  Last time I was having a deep and meaningful chat with Fritz (not his real name) who told me he was an introvert and came across as a bit lonely. I was enjoying our chat until someone came up and asked how his wife was. Plus ca change as the French would say.

Ah well, if the real world bears no fruit, I might have to eat my words, swing a golf club or two, swipe an App or craft a word-perfect profile.  Watch this space.

Luxury is not all it’s cracked up to be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Playing ‘Who Are you?

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

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

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