London: Hamming it up in…Ham

My ankle now healing I am now more mobile if not entirely comfortable, and more or less beyond the RICE (Rest, Ice, Compress and Elevate) period – at least the ICE bit, not that I could follow that neat little anagram on my travels in France; I’d have needed a lackey to fetch me cold packs or to carry me around in a sedan chair!

So it made me smile when I met up with my oldest and dearest friend Monica last week and saw she was also sporting a bandage around her ankle. She has a bit of a history with ankles – I once pushed her around the Royal Academy in a wheelchair – and this time she’s broken a bone and so her foot is (as one of my nieces would say) well puffy. Puts mine in the shade in fact. Suffice it to say, however, that we were as one moving at the same non-brisk pace, every now and then having a stork-like rest on one foot.

We started our day out at Petersham Nurseries near Richmond in London, an upmarket (shorthand for pricey), artsy, vintage-y nursery surrounded by grassy meadows along the Thames. We had lots to talk about over our artisan tea in the café, the walls framed by cascades of fuchsia-coloured bougainvillea in full bloom.

From there it was a short hop to Ham House, a Jacobean mansion gifted to courtier William Murray by Charles I. Educated with the King, Murray was a ‘whipping boy’ and took the lashings for any of the king’s behavioural transgressions – it was meant to serve by example. Talk about a scapegoat. The least the King could do, later in life, was to make Murray one of the Gentlemen of the Bedchamber and reward him with a sumptuous mansion!

Before visiting the house, we had lunch in the Orangery café situated in the walled kitchen garden, a riot of colour and lushness with purple lavender borders contrasting with the orange nasturtiums and yellow sunflowers. Ham House was considered one of the grandest in Stuart England, and is now hailed as ‘the most complete survival of 17th century fashion and power’. Not only that, it’s reputed to be one of the most haunted too. I was disappointed not to see an aristocratic spectre or even an ectoplasmic footman!

Ascending the intricately carved wooden staircase you come to a series of rooms including the Long Gallery lined with aristocratic portraits including one by Van Dyck of Charles I, a library with a screen made of a double-sided map dated 1743 in which Australia and New Zealand are drawn as one landmass, and my favourite, The Green Cabinet Room, with walls covered in green damask and hung with small paintings and miniatures, one of Elizabeth I dated 1590. Another portrait of note was of Erasmus (school of Holbein) with an intricate frame carved by Grinling Gibbons.

Monica and her husband Jonathan (we met at university) live nearby, and to my delight, Jonathan joined us unexpectedly. By 3.30 pm a volunteer guide started to close the blinds and to shut up the house to protect the paintings – interestingly, the Green Chamber was designed with a curtain rail and protective silk curtains, now restored by the National Trust. Like kids running away from the Bogey Man, we rushed to stay one step ahead.  That was all we needed to revert to our long-standing default of hamming it up – silly faces, voices and giggling – as we sped-read the information cards in each room, here a Japanese lacquer cabinet, there an exquisite monogrammed parquetry floor, here a leather stamped wall, there a bedchamber decorated in honour of Charles I’s wife, Catherine of Braganza. By the time we got below stairs to the servants’ quarters – complete with the Duchess’s bathing room with its round wooden bathtub – we were off the hook. Phew. That’s what I love about old friends; you simply pick up where you left off.

Our final stop was The Still, perfumed with dried lavender and other herbs, the shelves lined with ointments for gout containing pig fat and a bottle of dew harvested in spring this year. In bygone eras, May dew was considered a cure-all and beauty treatment for women, and for men, washing their hands in dew was said to strengthen their skills in knots, locks and net-mending.

I looked up the origin of the word hamming it up as I thought it might be Shakespearean but my research indicates that it means “overacting inferior performer,” dates from America, circa 1882,  and refers to ham fat used to remove stage make-up. Who knew!

But I did get a double Shakespeare fix, once in the British Library, repository of the Shakespeare’s First Folio dated 1623, and then at an open- air production of Midsummer Night’s Dream in Regents Park with my sister and brother-in-law. Booking an al fresco event in England is always a gamble but we hit the heatwave week, perfect for a sumptuous picnic accompanied by a fine English rosé wine, and then watching the play with the setting sun as a backdrop. What a treat to see mischievous Puck, Titania in her fairy bower and the elves on a stage fringed with reeds and surrounded by oak trees. And one of my favourite lines spoken by Helen to Demetrius (who scorns her): “And even for that do I love you the more. I am your spaniel.” Seems spaniels have a long history of being faithful and adoring!

Today my niece and I are off to see a wartime comedy by Terrence Rattigan at Richmond’s Orange Theatre, a theatre in the round. Heatwave permitting, we also plan to do a guided tour of Sandycombe Lodge, one of the houses designed and built by J. M.W. Turner in Twickenham, amid the Thames-side landscape that inspired him.  My long-cherished plan of making the most of my self-awarded time-out in the European summer is going to plan!

Wandering down Memory Lane

It’s been a week of reminiscing – meeting up with two university friends after a gap of 32 years and visiting Oxford, my home from 1997 to 2002.  The amazing thing about meeting Victoria and Charlotte (la otra Carlotta – we all read modern languages at Bristol) was that we just picked up where we left off. And, yes, we’ve all aged but, conversely, we all looked exactly the same. What had changed was our choice of food and drink. Prosecco wasn’t the drink du jour back then, fancy grains like quinoa hadn’t come to the West and spiralized didn’t exist as a verb and certainly not when teamed with vegetables!

I received the warmest of welcomes from my friends Hilary and John in Oxford. Freshly picked roses and a selection of hand creams by my bed, a kettle and a supply of herb teas in my room along with a stack of interesting books including Rose Tremain’s memoir, Rosie. How I love my creature comforts! Drinks and nibbles in their stylish garden followed by a delightful dinner was the perfect prelude to a good sleep.  Breakfast the next morning was beautifully laid-up with gluten-free cereal and bread, sliced mango and pomegranate and a pot of Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade. Luxury.

On Saturday morning Central Oxford was heaving with shoppers, tourists, students, day-trippers, school kids, buskers and performers – you name it. I met Juliette – I worked with her husband Giles at the Wildlife Trust and she and I used to sing in the same choir – and we wandered, chatting ceaselessly, through Christchurch Meadows where traditional England was in full swing: green striped lawns; punts gliding by; students in full regalia hurling themselves into the Isis to celebrate the end of exams; a cricket match in progress and cows grazing. We crossed over Magdalen Bridge and walked up a good stretch of East Oxford’s Cowley Road, known for its more Boho and multi-ethnic scene, to a park where Giles was DJ-ing between bands. I wish I had had more time to hang out at the Florence Park Festival and tap into the earthy, folksy, eco-friendly, funky vibe. I caught a bit of music over some polenta chips before bussing back to Central Oxford to give myself a little break before the next chat fest.

Another delightful dinner with friends Tom and Annemarie that evening, this time in Kidlington. And in a belated celebration of the summer solstice we sat outside after dinner overlooking a scruffy field, a donkey sanctuary (I also spotted a fox slope by), warmed by a crackling fire with the occasional bat flying over.

On Sunday I caught up with two girlfriends, Anne and Michele, and in the afternoon we all went for a walk through the fields (one of the things I miss most about living in Australia) starting in the village of Stonesfield and ending in Coombe. The walk so carefully planned by Anne ticked every box and more: green fields with red kites wheeling overhead; hedgerows dotted with fragrant elderflower and dog rose; a gently flowing river; country cottages adorned with blowsy climbing roses (lots of these); AND the ruins a 4th Century AD Roman villa in North Leigh, once one of the largest in Britain.

And the highlight: a section of a surviving Mosaic floor complete with patterns of leaves, knots, stylised pots and a swastika or ‘Greek Key’ pattern possibly serving as a maze to ward off evil spirits. The colours of the stone tesserae have faded, but it’s easy to imagine the original blues and reds and the wealthy Romans lounging around on couches, enjoying the underfloor heating.

I could have done with underfloor heating in my Oxford terrace, a rather hotchpotch house full of quirks and wonky angles, and not nearly as light and airy as my house in Australia. The energy always felt a bit stagnant – not helped by rivers of condensation that poured down the north-facing front window in winter. I recall an alternative health practitioner – Dr J – who I consulted in my digestive disaster days attributing my health imbalances to geopathic stress! Something to do with  underground nuclear testing since the Second World War causing splits in the earth’s crust. He said it was often present in people with syndromes and illnesses that failed to respond to other treatments, and who were living in damp or mouldy houses, plagued by wasps, bees or ants.  That was my house to a tee including invasions by wasps and bees nesting in the attic in summer.

Driven by an overwhelming urge to visit my old house – lifting the lid on the past is seductive and is maybe a subconscious desire to take stock of the present – I knocked on the door on Sunday afternoon. Sadly, I had just missed the current owner but I managed to peek through the window and saw that she’s put in a new kitchen and got rid of the cat-scratched carpets and replaced them with polished boards. I caught up with the neighbours on each side, both still living in Islip Rd, and found out my house has also had a loft conversion.  One can only hope that the makeover has driven out any geopathic radiation and ushered in feelgood vibes!

My house is/was the first on the left

Returning to my mother’s house talked out and ready for a rest – it gets very intense jumping into so many people’s different lives and absorbing and integrating information – I went to make a cup of tea after lunch only to find the kitchen windowsills teaming with ants. Geopathic Stress?! Probably not, I’d put it down to Climate Change and the strange weather and humidity. I am off to Paris this weekend where the temperatures are going to be in the late 30s, quite a change from today’s cloudy 19 degrees!

 

 

 

 

 

From the Dreamliner to the Dales

I decided to change things a bit this year and booked Qantas Flight QF9, the Dreamliner, flying non-stop from Perth to London. I loved it and am a convert! The door to door journey from one continent to another shifted my perception of the distance, reducing it to more of a hop than a long haul. And what joy to avoid the hassle of a stopover and getting off the plane – often at an antisocial hour when sleep beckons most – and shuffling back through security, belt off, laptop out, liquids in plastic bags.

Boarding at 3.15 p.m. in Melbourne, I enjoyed a celebratory whisky and light lunch on the way to Perth and read the papers cover to cover.  Getting out at Perth airport is a breeze and there’s an open-air lounge where you can re-oxygenate and even hear birds flocking.

The next 17 hours flew by – literally. A couple of hours’ reading and then dinner before settling down for the night. I am always frazzled by the time I get on a long-haul flight, job or no job, which makes me nicely tired. I slept on and off – am I the only one to get a stiff neck?! – and didn’t check my watch until we were six hours away from London – nearly there then, I thought to myself. A bit more snoozing then I foot-tapped to a video of a Coldplay concert filmed in Sao Paolo before the plane landed in London.

Cut to a few days later when I got whacked with a bit of delayed jet lag and wanted to crawl back to bed as soon as I got up. Instead I spent nearly all day cancelling a long-planned trip to Wales with Mum (just too far, too complex and too exhausting at Mum’s stage of life and for me as the driver) and booking an alternative, more local, trip to the Yorkshire Dales. Endless conferring with my brother who lives in Yorkshire, viewing accommodation on Booking.com at crazily slow internet speeds, and phone calls to see if we could get rooms next door to each other etc. We decided on two locations: one night in the spa town of Harrogate and then three nights in a more rural location in Nidderdale.

We went through more chopping and changing, booking and cancelling – but I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that we booked into a Premier Inn in Harrogate, one of those impersonal, functional places that lacks soul. Dinner – charred to a cinder chicken and chorizo skewers and gloopy, rubber cheese lasagne for Mum – was inedible. Perhaps as subconscious karmic revenge, I managed to set the toaster on fire the next morning with my gluten-free bread! Thankfully, we had been to Harrogate institution Betty’s Tearoom for lunch and enjoyed a succulent and tasty kedgeree. And somehow – without a Sat Nav or detailed map, I had managed (with a few wrong turns) to negotiate the one-way system and found my way to a dress shop I had read about that specialises in 1950s dresses. Purchasing the dress of my dreams – a full swing dress complete with net petticoat and turquoise silk jacket to match was one the trip highlights! And we managed to get Mum to Marks & Spencer, hard-to-find parking meter, slippery wet pavements, brollies and shopping bags notwithstanding.

Mum at Betty’s

There were a few lowlights too. Arriving at our second destination, a country pub in the small village of Wath – accessed by a tiny humpback bridge reminding me of the Three Billy Goats Gruff song – we both sensed the place had a strange vibe. There was no reception but we located someone in the kitchens and she led us through a labyrinth of ramps, steps, swing doors and passages to our rooms. Red Flag number one: this place was not Mum friendly! While our rooms looked comfortable with their four-poster beds and chest-of-drawers, the old-style bathrooms only had showers over the bath. I had requested and been re-assured there was a walk-in shower for Mum. They apologised for stuffing up the booking and we agreed to move on.

We made a few calls to other places only to get a ‘no room at the inn’ response. Rather than panic, I resolved to trust that we would find somewhere and we drove over the moors to the popular village of Grassington, where we secured two rooms at a nice country hotel overlooking the square. Mum’s room was small and full of hard edges – tea tray, wooden bedposts – and an unpredictable shower that propelled me into overprotective mode. We drove each other mad at times! However, by 5 p.m. we had made a pot of Earl Grey in our room and enjoyed an energy-boosting complementary mini chocolate brownie. Dinner – wild halibut – was excellent too even if Mum’s hearing aids magnified the other diners’ voices and the clatter of crockery…

Rested and refreshed by the next morning, we woke up to sunshine – at last – and had a memorable day. We drove through narrow, twisty lanes bordered by green, green fields, ancient churches and moss-clad stone walls to Parcevall Hall.

The oldest part of the hall dates back to 1600 but the garden was created by Sir William Milner, a refined gentleman of Arts and Crafts sensibility and strong religious faith, in 1927. A series of stone terraces, beds brimming with summer pinks and purples bordered by immaculately cut yew hedges looked over out the vast expanse of Wharfedale and beyond. We sat in the Chapel Garden and listened to the soundtrack of birdsong and bleating lambs. Glorious.

Lunch afterwards in Appletreewick’s historic Craven Arms pub, full of fascinating memorabilia and collectibles – from old miners’ lamps to postcards of the Queen and a sample 1910 menu – rounded off a wonderful morning.

Our last day was a bit of a wash-out as the rain came down inducing a feeling of Cabin Fever. We got accommodation in Skipton at one of the only places with vacancies on a Friday night, a canal-side 1980s hotel with lots of exposed brick and endless fire doors. Dinner in the conservatory overlooking the canal gave rise to a few giggles: the wine waiter confessed to not knowing about, or even liking, wine, and the waitress described the salmon as coming with avioli – I think she meant aioli – and ‘loadsa other stooof” in her thick Yorkshire accent. The food when it came wasn’t bad at all, and we loved watching the ducks, swans and occasional barge passing by.  Nevertheless, when we got home at lunchtime on Saturday, it was a case of home sweet home!

The Republic of Words 3 of 3: Writing, dogs and the meaning of life

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, a book about writing and the relationship between animals and humans, was another perfect fit for me. It’s a novel but I thought it was a true story as it reads like a memoir and is, I discovered, the most autobiographical of Nunez’s book to date. It is a simple story but one that is multi-layered and full of literary allusions with an animal as the central character. It’s about a woman in New York – the narrator – who reluctantly inherits a dog – a Great Dane – when its owner, her friend, a womanising professor who has been married three times, commits suicide. Nunez, like the female narrator, both teaches and writes.  She has no social media accounts and leads a quiet life: “I became a writer because it was something I could do alone and hidden in my room.” She is an ‘old school’ writer who views the craft as a vocation and was surprised to find herself in the limelight as the winner of the 2018 National Book Award.

Nunez/the narrator has a dig at the proliferation of writers and quotes the deceased friend as agreeing with Garrison Keillor: “When everyone’s a writer, no one is,” a sentiment Nunez traces back to the pre-digital era: French critic Sainte-Beuve said in 1839: “To write and have something published is less and less special. Why not me too? everyone asks.” What would have Sainte-Beauve have made of self-publishing and blogging?

Anyone who has tried to write a book and bumped up against the self-doubt, angst and feeling of being a fraud will take comfort from learning that John Updike always felt he had got away with something when he saw his books in a store. For Virginia Woolf and Isak Dinesen the act of writing helped to ease pain and sorrow, whereas Philip Roth found writing frustrating and humiliating. And how surprising to learn that prolific writer Georges Simenon described writing as a vocation of unhappiness.  The most pertinent quote for me was from Rainer Maria Rilke: “If you were forbidden to write, would you die?”

I certainly don’t feel compelled to use my time out from work to write a novel, memoir or best seller – not at the moment anyway. For now, I am content to blog for the love of writing and to maintain the practice of crafting words. Although I do rather love the image of tapping away at a  book n a house by the beach with my dog at my feet…

The friend in the story refers not only to the deceased professor but to the Great Dane Apollo.  This is no saccharine story of puppy love, however. At first an unwelcome burden, the dog is a wise old soul who gradually becomes central to the narrator’s life – she even reads to him (something a holistic vet suggested I do to calm my dog Bertie!) – and manages to persuade her landlord to let her keep him in her tiny New York apartment. Much of the book is about the relationship between humans and animals: “They may know us better than we know them.” I also loved this: “I like that Aborigines say dogs make people human.” The Friend also references famous people who have owned dogs such as J. R. Ackerley (1896-1967) editor of BBC magazine The Listener. While he took a rather unhealthy interest in his dog’s heats and bodily functions (there’s a chapter in his book My Dog Tulip called Liquids and Solids), he spoke of his relationship with Tulip as a 15-year marriage, the happiest of his life. In similar vein the narrator in The Friend quotes a passer-by as saying: “Better a dog for a husband, than a husband who’s a dog.” Hear, hear, I say!

Although a fictionalised life lesson, I also enjoyed The Why Café by John Strelecky, partly because I read it in German – Das Café am Rande der Welt ­­– and tapped back into the language, and partly because it never harms to ponder the meaning of life! The narrative construct is that a stressed advertising executive runs out of petrol and finds himself in a café in the middle of nowhere. On the menu are three questions:

Why are you here?
Do you fear death?
Are you fulfilled?

Through conversations with the café owner, waitress and a patron, the book encourages readers to challenge their thinking. Are we being true to ourselves or doing what others wish us to do? Are we slogging away to earn money to amass belongings that we think will makes us feel happy? Are we keeping madly busy because we haven’t found our purpose or our calling? Are we waiting till retirement to do what we love? Do we swim with the tide or against it? What is our life purpose?

I sometimes wonder if writing is my calling or just something I love to do. Maybe dogs are my calling – or animals. Or maybe it’s writing funding applications to support animal welfare and conservation! I certainly find great solace in nature and love being away from screens and devices, chatter, noise and distraction. Walking out across the fields in Nottinghamshire yesterday, bright red poppies dotting the landscape and foamy cream hawthorn blooms bordering the path, I stood and ‘chatted’ with a cow, who stopped his meditational chewing and turned to look at me, its eyes full of knowingness. Mindful moments like those remind me how wondrous it is to be alive. And, for all the self-help and psychobabble, we don’t need to have all the answers. Another brilliant quote from The Friend by Rilke: “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart… live in the question.”

 

 

Here we go a-truffling

When I booked onto a truffle hunt with my dog Bertie, I pictured him scampering around in the orchard and sniffing out a mature Tuber Melanosporum aka a Perigord Black Truffle. That’s because Field Spaniels – Bertie is half Field and half Cocker Spaniel – are being bred specifically for the truffle industry. Field Spaniels are renowned for their hunting skills and exceptional noses. When Bertie was a puppy and we attended puppy pre-school at the vets, he quickly located where the treats were. While the other dogs wriggled around on people’s knees, Bertie maintained a hypervigilant eye and nose on the prize.  His olfactory system never sleeps – even a short trip around the block will usually yield an edible find. He once shot off across the beach­ – leaving me panicked that he would run onto the road – hot on the scent of a sausage sizzle hosted by a party of Rotarians. He would have made an excellent sniffer dog. In fact, he could have excelled in many different nose-based careers.

As it is, he is a much-loved and over-indulged pet. Which is why we booked onto a Truffle Hunt organised by a company called Gourmet Pawprints offering ‘pawfect’ food and wine experiences for people who like to take their dogs along for the ride. As befits a canine-centric business, the dogs are guaranteed a window seat on ‘Bella the Bus’ (Kerry, the owner of Gourmet Pawprints, not only runs the business but also drives the bus!) and are greeted with a goody bag of treats. Bert sat across from Penny, a skittish but adorable Dalmatian (one of two on the trip), and Iggy, a well-behaved black lab. At one point, Penny barked which lead to a Mexican wave of barks across the bus, reminding me of a classic read from my childhood, The Starlight Barking by Dodie Smith.

I once dreamt that Bertie accompanied me on a trip back to Britain. In my dream there were sofa beds – you know the ones with the pull-out metal frame – and the dogs slept underneath.  Wishful thinking on both accounts; you’d only find a sofa-sized bed in First Class (dream on Charlotte) and from a cost and quarantine perspective, taking Bertie on holiday to Britain would be totally impractical. I do love to imagine him, however, running across babbling brooks and green fields criss-crossed by dry stone walls in somewhere like Derbyshire (where I was born) or Yorkshire.  But travelling up to Daylesford by bus – Bertie kindly let me share his double seat on the way back – on a Wuthering Heights-type wet and wintry day came a close second.

Our destination was Black Cat Truffles just outside Creswick, and we were greeted with oozingly rich truffle-infused d’affinois cheese and a glass of sparkling wine – just an hour earlier we had had chocolate brownies and coffee in Ballan! We learnt that truffles are the edible fruiting bodies of fungi that grow underground in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of host trees such as hazlenut and oak, most typically in low nutrient soils with a high pH level. At Black Cat the orchard is planted with French and English Oaks and the truffle dog is a trained Labrador named Ella. She had already sniffed out where the mature truffles were located, and the owners Andres and Lynette had marked the trees with a ribbon.

Thankfully the rain let up and ushered in a brief sunny spell just long enough for us to get up close and personal with the truffles. We were invited to kneel and sniff the soil before digging up a few spectacular specimens; mine was the size of a cauliflower and would have commanded a price of about $1000 on the market.  It’s hard to capture the distinctive aroma of a truffle in words; it’s strong, woody, earthy, pungent, heady and sticky sweet.

Needless to say, none of the dogs got a look-in when it came to walking around the truffière. The environment in the orchard needs to be carefully controlled and protected – we had to dip our boots in disinfectant. Instead the dogs got their own special treasure hunt in an adjacent paddock and had fun unearthing treats.

After sampling and/or buying truffle butter, truffle salt and truffle honey in the shop, it was time to move on for lunch at the Farmer’s Arms in Creswick. The entire menu – bar the wine – was truffle-infused from the charcuterie platter to the main course of barramundi or beef cheek. But it was the honey truffle panna cotta with a berry coulis that stole the show. The sweetness of the honey and the earthiness of the truffle shavings (spot the black dots in the photo) were perfect foils for the cooked cream.

While we had been feasting, the dogs were treated to massages and edible treats on the bus. With the dogs relaxed after their pampering session, and the humans sated and soporific after rich food and fine wine, there was much dozing on the way home. That’s what’s so enjoyable about a tour; it’s all done for you and you can sit back and let the day unfold – no map-reading, thinking or organising needed. Pawfect indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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