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.
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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…

Princely gardens, barmen and baggage

My mother loves the Royal Family and is fascinated by them. From all she’s read, observed and seen I think she thinks she knows them. I’m quite happy to join in. When I got to England in August she’d recorded a documentary and saved it for us to watch together. Prince Philip: The Plot to Make a King made fascinating viewing and started with his family’s flight from Greece in revolution when he was just a baby. Funnily enough, the same program screened recently here in Australia on SBS. Anyway, the reason I say all this is that it referred to a country residence owned by his German relatives, Wolfsgarten near Frankfurt, where he would sometimes spend the summer holidays.

My ears pricked up as I was due to stop in Frankfurt on the way back to Australia. A Google search revealed that the gardens at Wolfsgarten open twice a year, and, as luck would have it, my trip coincided with the autumn weekend, the Fuerstliche Gartenfest (Princely Garden Festival).

So it was that on a glorious autumn day in September – blue skies and temperatures in the low 20s – I found myself in the gardens of a former hunting lodge tucked away in the woods in Langen, just outside Frankfurt. I had envisaged an open garden but it turned out to be a garden design and outdoor living expo with stalls selling everything from garden furniture, plants and ornaments to hats, scarves, food and wine.

hats

In the old orchard, amid ancient pear and apple trees, I stopped to admire a jumble of retro galvanised metal watering cans and enamelware. Then I came across a table laid out with heritage apple varieties in all their mismatched, variously coloured, un-waxed,un-polished, irregular glory.

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heritage apples

Strolling on through a courtyard and past a large imperial-style fountain, I came to the Japanese garden, an oasis of calm with Monet-like water lilies floating on the surface of the lake amid shimmering reflections of acers and willow trees. Another favourite place was the old half-covered swimming pool where a flower arranging competition was in full flow. And we’re not talking church rota type arrangements but lavish and exotic sculptures.

Jap Garden

A bed of dahlias in reds, yellows and oranges (the theme of the show was ‘flammende Gaerten’ meaning flaming gardens, as in warm and hot colours) reminded me that, yes, it was autumn here even if I was days away from returning to spring in Australia.

Lots of stalls were selling edible treats: I sampled truffle-infused honey; salt infused with cornflower petals; variously aged Gruyere cheeses; and baked apple chips on offer at a wholefood store where a lean, lanky guy with sandals and a beard (a cliché but true) was promoting the nutritional benefits with evangelical enthusiasm. With the rigorous Australian customs regulations in mind, I decided against buying the honey and the apples but did get some of the salt. It’s blue and turns my scrambled eggs green! Other treasures I would have loved to bring back include a pink-painted ladder and an Ark-like collection of brightly painted animals.

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Wandering around, I listened to a string quartet, ate my home-made picnic (smuggled out of the hotel breakfast bar), supped on mint tea at one of the many stalls selling Moroccan sweetmeats and got chatting to a like-minded local woman in a courtyard where cheeky putti angels sat atop the garden walls.

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Wolfsgarten is surrounded by woodland – there’s something special about German forests that goes beyond Black Forest Gateau fame; in fact I spotted a red squirrel (a rare thing since the introduced greys have taken over) on my way to the station – and was a very special find. I felt a deep wave of happiness walking round the gardens and a renewed love for Europe, its history, languages and culture.

Another bonus was that the hotel where I was staying was just three stops away from Wolfsgarten. Searching for something affordable yet elegant, I remembered Hotel Wessinger from the 90s when I went to Frankfurt for the International Book Fair as part of my job The Wessinger was good then – small and family run with its own chocolate shop and patisserie – but it’s recently been renovated and now has a fabulous pool and spa, which I made good use of.

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After cheap guesthouses and/or Airbnb places the last few trips, it was a treat, and I ate in the excellent restaurant every night. I also had a drink in the bar, a cosy place suited to tea with your aunt or a drink with a business colleague, two of the nights. I wheeled out my best German for the barman only to discover he was Irish, and flirty at that. Calling me young lady, he assured me I was only as young as the man I was currently feeling. Had that been the case, it would have taken about twenty years off me; I discovered he was a mere whippersnapper born in the 80s. On my last night he asked what my plans were for the evening and was most insistent that I join him for a nightcap, adding that he would be around till 1 a.m. Flattered as I was (golly, can I still pull?!), he was a bit of a lush and I preferred to save my energy for shopping at the flea market the next day.

As well as the flea market, I explored the arty/studenty area of Sachsenhausen and had fun browsing in a olde worlde crime fiction bookshop with a spiral staircase. I bought a few books but restricted myself to avoid excess luggage. I asked the ladies in the shop if baggage in the German language can mean emotional as well as physical baggage. I told them I was writing a humorous, warts ‘n’ all memoir, formerly an A-Z. We came up with a good opening line: Charlotte always had so much baggage…

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The baggage problem became a self-fulfilling prophecy after the flea market and I had to cram my cases to the gills! I’m always a bit sad to leave Europe so like to buy up a few souvenirs – that’s my excuse anyway!

Bird, Beaches and Balmain

I started writing this post at the weekend sitting outside on the deck surrounded by subtropical rainforest with a soundtrack of bellbirds, whip birds, scrub wrens, finches, kookaburras, catbirds and yellow-tailed black cockatoos echoing around me. I was staying with my friend Nicki, who moved from Melbourne to the New South Wales (NSW) Central Coast earlier this year, for the Australia Day weekend.

Having been in Melbourne all over Christmas and New Year I was more than ready to get away, and NSW very much delivered. Nicki had an unexpected family commitment in Sydney on my first day and offered me the choice of staying home with her delightfully playful and engaging young cat, Maya, or catching a ride into the city. I decided to go into Sydney but wasn’t up for touristy stuff, crowds, shopping centres or sightseeing.

Maya

Maya

I just wanted wander without any fixed agenda. Nicki used to live in Balmain and suggested that it could be a good place to nose around. It sounded suitably village-y so I took the ferry (‘ticking off’ – from the relaxed distance of the boat – a few of Sydney’s iconic landmarks on the way) and got off at East Balmain.
I’d only walked a short distance up Darling Street when I found a small shop called Home Industry selling vintage items, linens, glassware, china, soft furnishings and cotton reels in jars. I bought a non-vintage, but charming, small white bowl with an embossed dragonfly on the rim – it’s already in use as a butter dish – and got chatting to the two sisters who run the business about cushion cover sizes. As you do…

Further up the hill I came to St. Andrew’s Church where there’s a weekly market. I browsed bric-a-brac and jewellery and then spotted a Chinese massage stall. Something to do with the early start the day before and Jetstar failing to get my luggage on the right plane had left me with a cracking headache. I negotiated $15 for a head and shoulders massage and the guy worked wonders, pinpointing the areas of tension and hammering away at the knots.

Feeling clearer and lighter I walked on to a café where I enjoyed an extended cup of tea and the papers. I got chatting to a few people, even a good-looking man, but it started to spit with rain (it’s hair-curlingly damp in NSW this summer) so it was time to move on. Part of the fun of hanging out in an unknown area is observing people, their houses, gardens, kids and everyday comings and goings.

Balmain was once a working class suburb and home to coal mines, shipbuilding, metal foundries, boiler making and soap factories. The tiny cottages lining many of the streets were originally built for the workers. Now, of course, it’s undergone a process of gentrification – hence the smartly groomed samoyeds and standard poodles walking head-in-the-air with their owners and the boutique-style shops, but I’m happy to say that it’s retained its soul and character.

I browsed a few shops and ended up buying a hand-made damask duvet cover with matching pillow cases in a knock-down sale in a pop-up shop. At only $70 including postage to Melbourne, it was an irresistible bargain. In a men’s clothing store, I got some ‘designer’ shaving balm as a birthday present for my brother, and then met Nicki for lunch at a wholefood emporium called About Life, a wonderfully earthy place with a sustainable/paleo focus. We had planned to visit the Brett Whiteley studios in Surry Hills but it got too late. Next time. Less is more.

We picked Sunday, the only totally rain-free day of the four days, to go to Pearl Beach. We walked from one end of the beach to the other looking out over northern Sydney and Pittwater Basin. We tapped back into that slow, leisurely holiday vibe and swam, sunbathed and read the papers watching pelicans flying overhead.

Dodging the rain, we managed a couple of bushwalks over the weekend too. We got a bit lost on one of them and negotiated a steep slope by slithering down on our bottoms, collecting a few leeches in the process. Like sticky, super-glue sticky slugs, leeches cling to your skin or shoes and take some prizing off. Yuk! On another walk we laughed at a laryngitic-sounding kookaburra surveying his territory, as we enjoyed views out over Brisbane Water.

Nicki looking out over Brisbane Water

Nicki looking out over Brisbane Water

In between bushwalks and outings I enjoyed reading on the deck with Maya cuddled up close by. I started Ruby Wax’s A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled while, for once, feeling anything but. In her inimitable humour and with soul-baring honesty she explains really clearly what mindless rushing around and constant multi-tasking does to our bodies, brains and neural pathways. I decided to follow her 6-week program and started then and there by attuning all my senses to the birdsong on Nicki’s deck. Let’s see what happens when life speeds up again back in the Metropolis and world of work!
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Hoovering, holidays and tents

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

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

Deck the Halls...

Deck the Halls…

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the World is a Tent

All the World is a Tent

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

Bertie sporting sand and salt sculpted hair...

Bertie sporting sand and salt sculpted hair…

Never a dull moment

It’s been a long time between blogs but here I am again. There’s a lot happening in my world – from a potential new job to Airbnb visitors (the first since Easter), getting my shower fixed, my car serviced, my teeth filled, quite a bit of work and deadlines, deadlines, deadlines (luckily I am a big forward planner) as well as lots of family stuff and overseas phone calls. My father’s health is not so good but, on a brighter note, my 16-year-old Melbourne-based niece is somewhere – beyond the reach of phones and social media (sounds blissful to me!) – in deepest and darkest Peru doing a World Expedition Challenge, one of my London-based nieces is preparing to walk the Camino de Santiago with her boyfriend, a friend of mine has just been on a food odyssey to Hong Kong and Vietnam, another is doing the whole massage, cocktails on the beach and party thing in Bali, while my friend Simon is wandering around Europe. Everyone is on the move in one way or another!

Apart from changing jobs I’ve been aiming to keep myself moving by making enough time for exercise – it’s that whole work/life balance thing. Mind you, some of us have it relatively easy compared to the work culture in other countries. My Singaporean guest, an accountant, tells me she regularly works from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Yikes! I find it essential to make time for both exercise and free-fall soul-nourishing time where life just is without the phone beeping, the chit chat, the dashing off to cafes for catch-ups and social interaction. Time to move and time to just be, and sometimes a bit of both.

To that end Saturday mornings are now sacrosanct for a bit of cardio activity. Unlike many of my friends and colleagues I don’t go to the gym or have a personal trainer but I am a big believer in the outdoor gym. Bertie and I take off to Hampton Beach in good time on Saturdays. There are plenty of steps and slopes leading down to the beach so we intersperse jogging and walking with running up and down the slopes. Bertie loves it and scrabbles up the banks like the true working dog he is. I might not go as fast as him but I do get my heart pumping and it feels good, clearing out any stagnant energy from the week.

Then this week I bought a new bike –well, not exactly new, you know me… I found it in the Op Shop at work. I do already have a bike and I haven’t sat on it for about five years so it’s looking pretty neglected. But the difference is that this pre-loved bike is a classic ‘sit-up and beg’ model – so no back-ache-inducing forward tilt – and comes complete with a wicker basket on the front. All very Brideshead Revisited. Funnily enough, before I came to Australia I visualised myself riding along the beach path on just such a bike. I do believe that we can visualise certain things into being.

If the new job doesn't come off...

If the new job doesn’t come off…

Once I’d bought the (bargain) bike, the luck continued. I texted my dog-walking friend who has a Subaru Outback on the off-chance that he and his car might be in St. Kilda sometime soon. Nick is a glass artist and it turns out he works in a studio just around the corner every Wednesday. Bingo! So me and the new bike popped round at lunchtime and were able to watch him glass-blowing and sculpting. I was amazed at how malleable the glass becomes at high temperatures – Nick was making a giant acorn and welding on the stalk. I was in awe at the dexterity with which he worked. What a skill!

Adding the stalk to the acorn

Adding the stalk to the acorn


Apples and acorns and foil-wrapped potatoes for lunch

Apples and acorns and foil-wrapped potatoes for lunch

With the bike delivery scheduled for Friday, Bertie and I skipped off between work and a bit more work to the beach – not for cardio (hardly a goer in Wednesday work clothes and wellies) but for a gentle walk as the last rays of afternoon sun swept across the sand. As an added bonus, we met a pure bred Field Spaniel (Bertie is half field spaniel/half cocker) called Grace. We compared notes about our dogs’ behaviours and tendencies. We agreed that as working dogs, our spaniels need plenty of exercise – they need a job to do – and that they are hugely greedy and prone to pinching food off the kitchen bench. But we adore them.

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Bertie is the most delightful boy but he is quite a handful. If he gets onto the scent of something or is scared or curious he’s off like a shot and barks up a storm. We were in the country a few weekends ago and got up early to go out walking in the forest. It was rather magical – a bit misty with rain dripping off leaves, lichen and moss clinging to ancient tangled branches with no sound other than the birds and the occasional rustling in the undergrowth. Until a wallaby appeared from nowhere and Bertie took off in pursuit. It ended in a stalemate with the wallaby looking bemused on the far side of a gully as Bertie barked furiously! He’s scared of ironing boards, skateboarders, wheelie bins and now wallabies. Oh and he barks at the TV if there’s a wildlife documentary featuring birds.

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Nature programs aside, we’re both in need of a bit of down time so tonight it’ll be a case of SIT, DROP AND STAY… in front of the TV.