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.

Weaving the story of a Witness Tree

A few weeks ago, I was sitting under a Canary Island Pine tree (Pinus canariensis) weaving three-stranded pine needles through a re-purposed children’s trampoline safety net. It required great focus and flow, feeding the needles through the correct holes to maintain the pattern of what would become an 8-metre wall hanging. Sheltered from the wind on one of those less kind late summer days, I was taking part in a community art project known as Refuge. Created by artist Carmel Wallace from Portland, Victoria, Refuge celebrates and pays homage to trees as silent and enduring witnesses of the past.  The Canary Island Pine is in Brighton’s Billilla Gardens, an English-style nineteenth century garden with lawns, trees (many of them non-natives), flower beds and a water fountain surrounding the Art Nouveau mansion built in 1878. Now owned by the Council but leased to a Jewish Orthodox school, the gardens are open to the public.  Other ‘migrant’ trees include two Bunya Bunya pines and a Canary Island Date Palm. Before the Suez Canal opened, the Canary Islands were a stopping-off point for sailors to the New World. Hence Carmel’s reference to trees as metaphors for Australia as a “nation enriched by displaced and transplanted peoples.”I have wandered many a time in the lush and leafy gardens, sometimes with my dog Bertie, or on summer days I sometimes go alone and lie under a tree with a book with just the rustling of trees for company. You can’t fail to spot the iconic Canary Island Pine with its distinctive shape. From the side it resembles the bustle on a Victorian dress with its backward curve. I love the way it commands the space. Sitting on a deep carpet of pine needles and weaving a row or two with Carmel, I discovered that the tree owes its singular form to a lightning strike in 1918 and that it is listed on the National Trust Register of Significant Trees.  You can see the scars where the tree has lost branches, but I’d never lingered long enough to notice the jewel-like beads of sticky resin.Standing under the broad canopy of the tree and looking up offers a quite different perspective; the mosaic of sky peeking through the gaps in the branches, the sparkling droplets of resin sparkling against the reddish bark and the vivid green of the pine needles.

Chandeliers made from spectacle lenses and electric cable

Carmel is  part of Bayside City Council’s Artist in Residence program and worked from one of Billilla’s studios – formerly one of the property’s outhouses. She uses variety of media in her work and often incorporates cast-off or recycled materials as part of an exploration into environmental awareness and ethics. Her studio is a magpie’s den of salvaged bits and pieces: spectacle lenses suspended on copper wire like chandeliers; a collection of drinking glasses and goblets from charity shops; wood, branches and leaves.  The glasses are part of a work inspired by Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra (1743-44) which represents Cleopatra wagering with Mark Anthony that she can stage a more lavish feast and outdo the latter’s excesses.

Eighty people from the community took part in the weaving, sharing stories under the tree, tapping back into the oral tradition of pre-literate societies. The process was timeless, meditative and encouraged contemplation, respect for nature and connection to the earth and community. Trees don’t rush, don’t judge, don’t gossip, complain or engage in conflict and warfare. They stand the test of time and bear witness to man-made and natural events.

The week of the launch of Refuge at Brighton Town Hall, I watched a program called Judy Dench: My Passion for Trees. One of the things I remember most is the story of a 1500-year-old yew tree in a churchyard in Surrey in the UK. Hidden inside its immense, hollowed-out girth is a cannon ball most likely dating from the English Civil War. The tree predates the church and would have been revered by the pagans and druids as a symbol of life and longevity. At the launch Carmel quoted from British author Robert McFarlane: Witness-tree:” originally a tree that stood as a record of property boundaries, marked as such by scores in its bark. Now broadened to mean a tree that has seen remarkable things, that stands as “a repository for the past.”

It was a privilege being part of the work and seeing it unveiled at the 5th May launch.  Mixing with artists, arborists, neighbours and curators, we drank toasts to the tree and to Carmel with Prosecco, and even better, vodka that had been infused with a green pine cone. I can thoroughly recommend Vodka canariensis! For more information on Carmel visit www.carmelwallace.com  

 

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.

How spiders got me writing

Spiders: the stuff of nightmares, fairy tales, fantasy or fiction? Arachnophobia or arachnophilia – what camp are you in? A recent re-read of a childhood favourite Charlotte’s Web – complete with my nine-year-old joined-up writing signature on the inside front cover – steered me towards the latter.

And what a wonderful story it is featuring Charlotte A. Cavatica, the grey spider and heroine of the piece who saves Wilbur (the pig’s) life. It’s a story of selfless friendship, loyalty, devotion, commitment and love. There’s plenty of humour and humanity too: Charlotte tell us: “Well, I am pretty. There’s no denying that,” seven is her lucky number, she’s a good writer and storyteller and prone to some wonderfully Zen reflections (none of which I noticed aged nine). She compares her web spinning prowess to the building of the Queensborough bridge and how long it took. She adds a comment on the pace of human life: “they just keep trotting back and forth across the bridge thinking there is something better on the other side. With men, it’s rush, rush, rush, every minute. I’m glad I am a sedentary spider.”

She’s also very pragmatic – while still storybook – and unapologetic about being a bloodythirsty predator consuming: “flies, bugs, grasshoppers, choice beetles, moths, butterflies, tasty cockroaches, gnats, midges, daddy longlegs, centipedes, mosquitoes, crickets — anything that’s careless enough to get caught in my web. I have to live, don’t I”?

As we all know, her ingenuity and patience save Wilbur from ending up as crispy bacon on a dinner plate: “She knew from experience that if she waited long enough, a fly would come to her web; and she felt sure that if she thought long enough about Wilbur’s problem, an idea would come to her mind.” Her solution is to weave words into her web to persuade the farmer, Homer Zuckerman, that Wilbur is an exceptional pig who must be saved.  And it works; Wilbur becomes a celebrity attracting attention far and wide, and becomes the star at the County Fair.

“I wove my web for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”

If only I had re-read Charlotte’s Web before my first trip to Australia in 1995…

A kayak instructor I met on the backpacker trail lent me his house in rural Gippsland in Victoria. Here was my big chance to have a solo adventure away from my family and friends in the UK. I’d imagined a rose-covered cottage perched on a hill with views over a valley, where I would be able to tap into my inner poet, be at one with nature and meditate into the middle distance.  In reality, it was a wooden shack in Nowheresville and any view was obscured by the mountain drizzle.

Even worse, on my first (and, as it turned out, only night) I noticed a huge black shape profiled against the grubby white duvet covering the mattress on the floor.  It was a spider and I was terrified. Back then, I thought all Australian spiders delivered killer bites. Clearly, I had read too much Bill Bryson. To quote from his book Down Under: “Australia has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip.”

It was in fact a huntsman spider. Although they are relatively harmless, they are hairy, have eight-eyes, can span two hundred and fifty to three hundred millimetres and are dead ringers for tarantulas. I tried chatting to it: “Would you please just toddle off and leave me alone,” but it stayed put, defiant and rubbery, until I raised my boot, praying it would dart off, Alice-like, through a hole in the skirting board. Alas, my prayers went unanswered and so I ended up beating the life out of the poor defenceless thing.

The deathly deed done, I looked around the room and noticed there were webs  everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Plugging the skirting board hole with cotton wool, I swept the sills and then got under the well-worn coverless quilt. I hardly slept, flinching against the spider-like loose threads every time I turned over. As soon as daylight came, I was up and into the shower where – and I exaggerate not – a spider dangled from a bare light bulb. The place had now taken on Hitchcockian associations.

I dressed, packed and fled down to the shop at the bottom of the hill. Distraught to hear that the next bus wasn’t for two days –  a timeframe seemingly exaggerated by the shopkeeper’s slow Australian drawl – I accepted a lift to Warragul station from a kindly farmer who took me the scenic route via the Lakes.  So much for my journey of self-discovery.

Too proud to return to the bosom of my family – my brother was living here and my parents visiting from the UK– I called friends of friends from a pay phone at the train station. “It’s Helen’s friend, Charlotte,” I said in a high-pitched squeak, explaining my flight from the spider shack.  Even though she had never met me, the lovely Connie (now in her late 80s) asked whether I would like to go and stay with them in Kyneton. And that was the start of a beautiful friendship with Connie and Norman and their family.

My four days in Kyneton turned out to be food for mind, body and soul – everything Gippsland wasn’t. There was porridge for breakfast, morning tea on the veranda, roast dinners in the evening and trips to Hanging Rock and Castlemaine. What’s more, under Connie’s excellent tutelage, I wrote my first short story (based on an experience in Parsley Bay in Sydney) on her typewriter. I still have the original today and am proud of it. Thank you spider, you helped to kickstart my creative writing!

Live to work or work to live?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then a few weekends ago a friend and I went to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Cranbourne, where the Australian Garden is planted up with a staggering 170,000 species of native plants set in a contemporary landscape – the gardens only opened in 2006 – of water, rocks, dessert, dunes and more. One of the most impressive features comprises 86 (if I remember rightly) narrow strips of land planted with indigenous plants representing all the different bioregions in Australia. I was reminded that Australia has an incredible diversity of beautiful trees and plants – from tiny, brightly coloured heathland plants to beautiful banksias and flowering eucalypts.
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Last weekend was the ultimate treat; a whole weekend away. The dog child and I went down to my brother’s beach house in Anglesea for the first time in over a year. From the minute I got out of the car, I felt myself unwinding. There’s something incredibly restorative about being away in a list-free, desk-free zone with no WIFI, and slowing down to the sound of the wind, the waves, the birds and the spaciousness of it all. On Sunday the weather was glorious and I drove to Lorne where I walked Bertie on the beach and savoured a pot of chai at a cafe overlooking the water which sparkled in the winter sun.

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

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At Home in Hobart

Last week I was in Hobart for work, to run a grant-seeking workshop and meet with a few clients, and I stayed on for a couple of days afterwards. For three out of the four nights I stayed in a delightful studio which I found on Airbnb. Situated at the back of a beautiful period home just 10-15 minutes’ walk from the city centre, it was attached to the main house but had its own entrance reached via a red brick path. But for the bay window (which reminded me of my Oxford terraced house) overhanging the sandstone wall on the street side, you might not notice that there’s a house tucked away up there. Even the wooden lattice gate and steps up to the house are enveloped in a tunnel of foliage.

incognito house

tunnel of green

It was fun working in a different space and looking out on a sun-filled courtyard planted with a bay tree, clematis armandii, weeping Japanese maple trees, succulents and geraniums. My charming host, Bruce, is an architect who relocated from Sydney. What made the stay particularly special was the delicious breakfast he prepared every morning. There was something flavour-enhancing about the blue and white china, the yellow milk jug, the red bowl full of creamy white yoghurt, the black and white striped sugar bowl and the Mondrian napkins. What a joy it was to enjoy a slow and convivial breakfast; Bruce and I talked about everything from politics to arts, books, music and travel. The simple elegance of the breakfast table was echoed throughout the house with its dark green shutters, stained glass panels flanking the front door, polished boards and floor rugs.

Garden view two

breakfast

Having visited MONA – the Museum of Old and New Art – on a previous visit, this time I went to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, where I explored the section covering the arrival of the early settlers who brought with them their ideas of order and post industrial revolution ‘enlightenment’, not to mention animals, plants, trees, insects, salmon and trout eggs, furniture, china, silver and glassware. How strange it must have been moving to the other side of the world in the days before air travel and fast communications. One of the exhibit captions really sums up the experience: “The swans were black, not white. The trees shed their bark but kept their leaves. The seasons were reversed. European settlers in Van Diemen’s Land viewed the new world they encountered with amazement and wonder. They called It ‘The Antipodes” – the name means ‘direct opposite’.

The top floor documents the Aboriginal genocide (with ‘Bugger Off’ you white fellas translated into the native language) and the fear, ignorance and savagery of the colonialists. What I found most confronting is that one of the tribes was completely wiped out and so will never be able to tell their story. On a brighter note, the exhibition does at least acknowledge the atrocities, and Aboriginal people from the community had a hand in developing the space.

I got chatting to a couple in the gallery café and told them I was heading to the Botanic Gardens. Before I knew it they were giving me a lift – thank you Ray and Anne! It was lunchtime when I got to the gardens and I headed straight to the restaurant where I secured a table on the balcony with glorious views over the Derwent Estuary and hills beyond. After lunch I strolled through the gardens in the soft autumn sunshine through the fernery to the lily pond and onto the oak woodland, no doubt planted to remind the colonialists of the Mother Land. Here, briefly, I was back in the land of deciduous trees and the snap of fallen leaves underfoot, the dappled light through branches and the musty smell of leaf mould was so evocative of England that I felt tears pricking my eyes. A few steps on and I was back to the Antipodes in eucalypt woodland watching fairy wrens foraging on the ground for food.

Botanic gdn view

oak trees

That afternoon I headed up to North Hobart to the State Cinema where I got chatting to a woman who was seeing the same film, Rams, a wonderful tale of sheep rearing and sibling rivalry set in Iceland. We shared one of the comfy leather sofas and laughed and cried our way through the film. She insisted on giving me a lift back to my lodgings afterwards. What is it about Tasmanians and friendliness? Perhaps it comes from living on a small island where the pace is slower and people have more time to chat?

Dinner that night was a $12 steak at the Irish pub down the road. It was delicious and easy, and, as with everywhere I chose to eat, dining solo felt very relaxed and I escaped away to Southern Ireland care of my Kindle and Colm Tobin’s (of Brooklyn fame) novel Nora Webster.

After a quick peek at the Salamanca Markets on Saturday, my last day, I headed back to the Art Gallery to see a wonderful exhibition documenting the experience of migrant women, mostly from Britain and Europe, who moved to Tasmania between 1945 and 1975. What I loved most were the re-created interiors showing how the women maintained a connection with their homeland and customs through food, fabrics and costumes, books, religious icons, photographs and paintings. Before the days of email photographs documenting important events and milestones were sent to relatives back in the homeland, even – particularly for Catholic families – mourning photos showing the deceased person. Whether consciously or sub-consciously, many of us more recent migrants still hold onto keepsakes, furniture, china, treasured objects and items of pure sentimental value that connect us to our heritage. My house certainly has an English cottage feel about it.

museum interior

One of our clients at work is the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and I was able to attend one of their matinees on Saturday. Cleverly titled Bach to the Future, the concert featured works by Haydn, Bach, Mozart and Barber. But, for me, the most heart-soaringly beautiful piece was variations on Bach and Mendelssohn by Elena Kats-Chernin and other artists with Genevieve Lacey on recorder and clarinet. My only experience of the recorder being at school when it was invariably squeaky, never have I heard it played with such dexterity and clarity. The ‘Re-Inventions’ were interspersed with choral movements from Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Creating an evensong feel, the choir sang by torchlight up in the roof space and the whole thing was sublime. When I turned on the car radio back in Melbourne on Sunday, they were playing a recording of the very same concert. Spooky or what?

Before heading to the airport, I had a final cuppa in the café at the Grand Chancellor Hotel (where I had left my luggage) looking out over the water. Ah, Hobart, you’ve treated me well. Can I come back again soon?

Warbling about climate change

I had a real treat on Saturday; I was immersed in the natural environment from dawn till dusk and what bliss it was. I headed out with Bertie just as the sun was coming up and the magpies were starting their melodic carolling. The skies seemed to belong to them and them alone. What a fitting start to a day of birding.

Through a fellow dog walker, I got myself onto a trip over to Mud Island with a group from the Bayside Birdlife group. Originally called Swan Isles by the European settlers in the 1800s because of the large number of swans, Mud Islands Reserve lies approximately 6km north east of Portsea on the Mornington Peninsula, covers an area of 50 ha and is now designated a RAMSAR wetland of international importance. More than 70 bird species have been recorded here making it a bird spotter’s haven.

Boarding the boat, I didn’t know what to expect. Looking around I noticed a good few grey beards, lots of dun-coloured pants, reef boots, cameras and massive telescopic lenses, tripods and a fair few Akubra-style hats. I never have the right gear for all this outdoorsy stuff – as in those trousers that unzip at the knee (like the reef boots, so good for wading through the water…), a special rucksack with built-in water bottle holder etc., but there were other mismatched bods (rain jackets teamed up with straw sun hats) and we made a merry band.

MI one

The trip was led by the local Birdlife President, Tania, who really knows her birds and is a mine of information on all sort of things. We learnt, for example, that sea urchins (known as sea hedgehogs in some languages) have five-fold symmetry, that the weight of a bird’s feathers is seven times that of its bone mass and that the nearby South Channel Port is an artificial island built as part of a network of fortifications in the 1880s to protect Port Phillip Bay against foreign invaders during the Gold Rush.

Spending five unhurried hours walking round an uninhabited sandy island and being away from all the noise, chatter and busy-ness of everyday life on the mainland was magical and immensely soul-soothing. I marvelled at the unspoilt environment all around me: saltmarshes, dune scrubland, seagrass beds, mudflats and water shading from light blue to green to dark blue, all a rich feeding and breeding ground for waders and sea birds. The beach is dense with mussel shells in varying tones of purple, large rock-like oyster shells, clam and scallop shells, one of which was covered in sponge and reminded me of a clasp purse. Another interesting find was a group of nests from a straw-necked ibis breeding colony.
scallo shell

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I didn’t have an agenda or anything to achieve unlike my comrades, many of whom were armed with notebooks in which they listed species they had spotted (regular readers will know that I don’t need any more lists! (See https://thisquirkylife.com/2016/03/22/im-proud-to-be-a-41-percenter/), noting any ‘firsts’ and adding up their totals. Twitchers through and through. My own binoculars are pretty average, so I made good use of Tania’s spotting scope to see the doubled-banded plovers, the ruddy turnstones, the red-capped plovers and the red-necked stints. We also saw lots of pelicans, black swans and terns as well as a foraging swamp harrier and a couple of pacific gulls toying with a washed-up mullet.

reef boots

On the return boat trip, we stopped by a gannet colony on a wooden tower-like structure where a few fur seals were basking. The photographers rather hogged the view as they snapped away. I took a picture with my iPhone but it came out looking blurred as the boat was listing quite heavily. Well that’s my excuse anyway. That and the increasingly chilly wet feet – the downside of not having the gear!

Wet feet and wind burn aside, I got into my car feeling exhilarated and energised from a day immersed in the elements with only feather markings, flight patterns, bird calls, beak size and wing spans to think about. I grabbed a cup of Earl Grey tea at a café before driving back from Sorrento in sunshine, singing at the top of my voice to opera classics on ABC Radio. I was in the zone, so much so that I kept exceeding speed limit by mistake – let’s hope I didn’t get caught on camera!

I can’t pretend that I wasn’t whacked by the time I got home and could have happily gone to bed at 9pm, but I had promised my friend Simon (from my former choir) that I would attend one of his multi-media ‘Music for a Warming World’ shows. And I am so glad I made the effort even if it did mean driving through the CBD on a Saturday night.
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Simon of Simon Kerr Perspective fame is a talented singer/ songwriter and academic. He and his girlfriend Christine have put together a fabulous show ‘where science, art and hope converge.’ Drawing on photos, peer-reviewed science, quotes, facts and figures, the show weaves together song and overhead visuals.

One of the pieces that really hit home was played by violinist Kylie Morrigan. Composed with one note representing the average global temperature for a single year from 1880 to 2012, it got higher and higher until it felt really frantic. As Simon says, the scientific evidence around global warming and climate change is irrefutable and 2015 is the hottest recorded year to date. What kind of world are we bequeathing to our grandchildren?
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That’s where the hope comes in. We can do more than ride our bikes and be vigilant about our recycling. Instancing the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (a private charitable fund) who have recently announced their decision to withdraw their funds from fossil fuel investments, he encouraged us to find out what kind of investments our banks and super funds are making. With a playful song entitled ‘Cheerio Coal’, he ended with a call to action: disinvest from the fossil fuel sector and stop propping up an economy that drives climate change.

What will happen to places like Mud Islands Reserve if we carry on as we are and the planet’s average annual global surface temperature rises by another 1 degree above the pre-industrial level?
For more information or to host one of Simon’s shows go to: http://www.simonkerrmusic.net/.

I’m proud to be a 41-percenter

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

My notebooks are never this empty...

My notebooks are never this empty…

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

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

Out of Africa...

Out of Africa…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A good soaking

I recently watched a program featuring Dunleary on the Irish Coast and, specifically, an open-sea bathing area known as Forty Foot, where hardy souls brave the chilly waters of Dublin Bay all year round. On Christmas Day the number of swimmers increases significantly as festive frolickers plunge in.

I wouldn’t like to think how cold the Irish Sea would be in the height of summer let alone the depths of winter. But it did look gloriously wild and rugged and the chance of coming nose to nose with grey seals might warrant the risk of hypothermia.

Here in my Bayside suburb of Melbourne, there’s a mob called the Brighton Icebergers – they’ve been around since the 1980s and even have their own website – who swim year round in the Bay. And don’t confuse Melbourne with more tropical parts of Australia – the water here drops to around 7-12 degrees in winter and the air temperature might be a mere 5 degrees topped off with a wind chill factor. And when it’s cloudy, the water can seem as grey as the Atlantic.

I’ve certainly made the most of the warm summer days and enjoyed swimming in water at an ambient 20 degrees followed by a spell in the sun to dry off afterwards. A few weeks ago I met a seasoned Iceberger who tried to convert me: “The water’s lovely even in winter,” he said, describing how he puts on a neoprene cap over his regular swimming cap to insulate his head against the cold. “The worst thing you can do is to jump straight into a hot shower when you get home. Your body’s numb and you need to warm up gradually. Anyway, you should be used to the cold, you’re British.”

How many times do I get that comment?! And how many times do I reply that a person’s ability to tolerate extremes of temperature is not so much determined by geography as by constitutional type. Having said that geography can of course influence your body type (think Inuits, for example), but not in my case. I didn’t tell my fellow burgher and iceberger that if I go swimming when the outside temperature is anything less than a warm 20-something, preferably 25 or over, my hands go numb and my ears ache.

I may have terrible circulation, but my Anglo-Saxon heritage has made me stoic when it comes to dealing with inclement weather. I think nothing of putting on waterproofs (you still get soaked) and walking Bertie even if it’s tipping down with rain and blowing a gale. Thirty-something years of (often) wet holidays in the UK and family walks in all weathers, come rain or shine, have proved a good training ground.

What’s more, I once sat through A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the pouring rain in the garden of an Oxford college – the show clearly had to go on even if it were more like a midwinter night’s dream. It was hard to concentrate on the rhyming couplets as the rain puddled in the grooves of the bucket chairs on which we were sitting, forming a mini lake around our bottoms.

And just last summer when I was in England, Dad, Sally and I had a wet picnic in the Yorkshire Dales. But, this time, with a combined age of 216, the three of us opted to stay in the car and enjoy the wonderful views. Without all that rain, of course, the fields wouldn’t be such a lush and vivid green. Sally, who is wonderfully organised and a fabulous hostess, had prepared a delicious lunch served in 1970s orange-coloured Tupperware-like containers. A bit like an in-flight meal but way better, we had bread and butter in one compartment, prawn cocktail in another, strawberries in another and so on.

Spot the orange lunch trays!

Spot the orange lunch trays!

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As I write this the temperature is climbing to a sticky 33 degrees in Melbourne. If I had managed to get out of bed an hour earlier, I would have been able to enjoy a swim before getting to my desk. A bit like all-weather swimmers, I greatly admire people who can get up between five and six every morning. I am definitely a lark rather than an owl, but I’m currently struggling to get out of bed at 7am! Anyway, mustn’t grumble as the Brits would say (that’s the thing we grumble, we don’t whinge) as I might fit in a swim after work instead. If I can first clear my desk…