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.”

Slowing Down to survive the Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speed dating is all too speedy

In a rash moment of FOMO (fear of missing out) I recently booked onto a speed-dating evening. My rationale was that it had to be better than internet dating – see: https://wp.me/p3IScw-id  –  in that at least you can see the person and get a feeling for them and whether there’s any connection or chemistry, or can you?

The evening was held in a local wine bar and there were 12 women and 11 men– one man cancelled at the last moment–  and thank Goodness. 11 seven-minute small-talk chats with an uninspiring selection of men was quite plenty. By man six, I already had a bad case of the Groundhogs. I tried jumping in with interesting conversation starters and did share a love of dogs with one man and dreams about retirement travel with another, but they were just not my kind of men, physically or otherwise. When I got to the tenth man and he asked how I was enjoying the evening, I confessed I was looking forward to going home. By that point, I couldn’t fake interest any longer.

The experience reminded me of a literary speed-dating event I attended about five years ago.  Intrigued by the book angle and reassured by having a handy prop if the conversation dried up, I went along clutching one of my all-time favourites, Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd.  Placed opposite each other at long tables, we had the opportunity to get to know ten members of the opposite sex in fifty minutes. And that’s the thing about speed dating; it’s fast and furious as clocks – both biological and real – keep time.

I warmed to guy number three; he had read Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus (a quirky love story) and told me he did Tai Chi. “The trouble with speed-dating is the speed,” I confessed a little wearily. “Ah,” he said slipping out a green piece of paper from between the covers of his paperback and sliding it across the table. It was a flyer for slow -dating. “Much less hectic and adrenal than the current caper,” he said explaining that it attracted mind, body, spirit types. I imagined a roomful of vegans with shaved heads sitting in the lotus position.

Would I have been better off supping an alcoholic beverage with the Dave Allen lookalike with the florid face and cream woollen scarf? He had brought Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and not wanting to let him down, I pretended to have read it. He insisted that I listen to an original reading by Faulkner himself on YouTube, peppered every sentence with the F-word and dropped in mention of his ex-wife. The next man told me had recently retired and was suffering retirement angst. He also referred to an ex-wife. Another guy had overly flared nostrils. I was sure I had read somewhere that wide nostrils should ring alarm bells, but couldn’t remember why.

In the interval I stuffed down the nasty sugar and salt-laden potato chips and drank the cheap, acidic wine. And then the bell rang, and we were under starters orders and off again. The next man shared my English heritage, oohed and aahed about Thomas Hardy and Dorset and generally made all the right noises. He was neat, tidy and polite but could have been controlling under his polished veneer.

By the time the final bell rang I felt wrung out, my head was thumping, and I could hardly remember who was who and what was what.  When it came to filling in the ‘match’ forms, I wrote down Dorset man and ticked the platonic rather than the romantic tick box.  But, clearly, I didn’t tick his boxes – platonic or otherwise – as I never heard from him.

I still had the green slip of paper given to me by Tai Chi man.  There had been something a little strange about him, a certain tentativeness and lack of ease, but then again, he was more likely to be on my wavelength than an investment banker.  A few days later I emailed him on the pretext that I was interested in writing a feature for a magazine about the slow-dating evenings. Perhaps he could organise a free ticket?

He replied that he was not keen on having a journalist snooping about.  It wouldn’t be fair on the guests and would undermine the integrity of the whole thing. I wrote back saying I was not the snooping kind and suggested instead meeting for coffee during the week.  After a bit of toing and froing, it became clear that weekdays weren’t going to work so I suggested meeting for breakfast one weekend.  He replied enthusiastically suggesting a venue my side of town and then asked point blank: “Would it be easier if I stayed over the night before?”

Amazed at his audacity – meeting for breakfast is a very normal thing to do in Melbourne – I didn’t reply and deleted the email. He wrote again asking if he had been too forward and claimed he had only been joking. Well, if he had only been joking, why hadn’t he added an exclamation mark, some elliptical dots or even a smiley face emoticon? You have to be careful with emails, I said.  Without any indication of nuance or humour, it’s not clear what you’re trying to communicate. I hit a nerve and he penned a sarcastic reply. Maybe I could deliver a workshop on how to write emails and communicate better. He could provide the venue if I could find the clients.

In an effort to walk the talk, I sent off a final reply: “Don’t worry about it. It’s just that it’s strange for someone promoting slow-dating to be so quick to suggest a sleepover! 🙂 🙂

 

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.