The Republic of Words 1 of 3: Pie and Mash down the Roman Road

“How’s retirement?” “How’s the lady of leisure?” friends asked when I left a busy job at the end of March to take time-out to pause, refresh and reflect. Not surprisingly, it took a while to come off the million-miles-an-hour adrenal whirl, and I struggled to carve out leisure time amid catching up on everything I had neglected in favour of work. Every time I tried to create some lazy space something or somebody would butt in.  Relaxing and letting go takes practice!

Swimming against the tide – jumping out of work at my stage of life  – has its challenges. But whenever, I fidget and fret, wondering how, why, what, what if and what next, I’ve been experimenting with embracing whatever emerges. Instead of being goal-driven and pushing ahead with an agenda, I am seeing what happens if I open up to receiving life, wisdom and guidance in whatever forms it takes. My biggest treat when I let go of the to-do list is sitting on the sofa, drinking tea and reading with Bertie nestled beside me. T

In a recent radio interview journalist Louis Theroux  described he environment he grew up in as a  Republic of Words. I’ve decided to borrow that – books are my current credo, my anchor, my therapy, relaxation and intellectual stimulation. And each book I have read so far has resonated or contained some kind of message.

The first book, Pie and Mash down the Roman Road: 100 Years of life in one East End Market, tapped into my English heritage – in much the same way as an exhibition entitled: Royal Portraits: from the Tudors to the Windsors –  and my fascination with history and the cultural, social and political movements that have shaped my country of origin and who I am.

The Roman Road is the oldest trading route in Britain and, around 1900, stalls extended for a mile. The  book follows the lives of key families who lived, ate, worked, married and had kids in East End. The pie makers, tram drivers, eel dealers, printers, barrow-makers, Billingsgate porters, dockers, costermongers, the lady who looked after the public toilets, Sylvia Pankhurst (Emmeline’s daughter,  leader of the Suffragette movement) and the notorious Kray Twins.

by Melanie McGrath

G.Kelly’s Pie and Mash shop at 526 Roman Rd in Bow is another fixture  – the business has been in the same family for nearly 100 years.  I lived in London for nine years in the late ’80s and early ’90s but have to confess I’ve never eaten pie (minced beef), mash and liquor (which is a mix of flour, water and parsley). The Romans first introduced meat in a pastry envelope to Britain and they got it from the Greeks who probably got it from the Egyptians! That same global thread is mirrored in the waves of migrants who have populated the East End. And what a rich mix from Protestant Huguenot weavers in the 17th Century to the migrants from Ireland, Italy and Portugal, Jews from the Iberian Peninsula and then in the late 19th Century Eastern European Jews fleeing the pogroms. By the 1950s the Jamaicans were coming in, and in the 70s it was the turn of the Bangladeshis. Research suggests that sub-Saharan Africans, who were sold as slaves to planters and colonial officials in the 17th and 18th centuries, have been living in London from the 12th Century.

The other migrants are the eels of stewed and jellied fame, whose complex lifestyle sees them travel across the Atlantic Ocean before they reach the coasts of Europe as young eels, from where they head up rivers and streams and, as mature eels, migrate over 3000-miles back to their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea. The author Melanie McGrath has done extensive research both of people and place, and I learnt that eels have been eaten since Anglo Saxon times. As well as being the food of the poor, they have a reputation as an aphrodisiac. One Aldgate eel dealer used to cry out: “Everyone’s a baby.”

Talking of babies, there’s mention of Nonnatus House, which, of course, features in Call the Midwife, a TV series based on the memoirs of a lay midwife who lived and worked with the nuns in Poplar, more than 60 years ago.

This book paints a picture of a strong community, based in hard work and resilience.  The East End was very badly hit in the Second World War – most of the 1.2 million homes lost in the Blitz of 1941 were here. The author describes the area around Kelly’s pie shop in 1945 as resembling “a bad set of dentures; discoloured, smelly and uneven, full of gaping holes.”. As the rubble and slums were cleared, however, and new high-rise developments came in, the easy access to the market, the dance halls, social clubs, dog tracks, pubs and lidos disappeared.

For all the mod cons including indoor bathrooms, the new tower blocks lack the community spirit of the streets where grandmothers sat out on their stoops, peeling vegetables and chatting, and children played hopscotch. And the high rises are no good when the electrics fail. When Rita Willets goes into labour in 1964, she’s living on the 14th floor, the lift doesn’t work and her husband can’t reach the runs at Nonnatus house by phone. In the olden days, the street grapevine would have summoned someone to help. Someone like Marian Old, who worked at the Bryant & May match factory and, although too young to take part, recalled the first all-female strike of 1888 when women campaigned for better pay and conditions. Before conditions improved, women fell victim to ‘phossy jaw’, phosphorus poisoning that resulted in fluorescent vomit and jawbones disintegrating. Men and women alike did it hard in those days; Martha supplemented her wages with egg box-making, midwifery and pickling onions.

Another of my favourite characters is Ron Moss who grew up on Fish Island, now redeveloped as part of the Olympic Park, then a river backwater. Known as the Artful Dodger, he came from a poor family and lived by his wits quickly learning to leaf (Cockney rhyming slang for thief: tea leaf = thief). He forages for food, snares rabbits, steals swans’ eggs and fish from the river and on market days along the Roman he pinches sausages and other food, which he hides in his long-pocketed coat.

Then there’s Marian Old who cleans the toilets and loves her work. She is her own boss and sings while she mops and cleans. She has cups of teas with her regulars and keeps up with all the gossip, even giving sartorial advice as women and girls try on garments they have bought in the market. “She’s grown accustomed to handing out everything from fashion to family to romance advice with the sheets of crispy, disinfectant-smelling Izal paper.” The East End is well known as the home of London’s Rag Trade. Interestingly, the children’s rhyme Pop Goes the Weasel references the manufacture of clothing: Pop is a cockney term for pawn, a weasel both slang for the yarn-winding machine and part of ‘weasel and stoat’, cockney rhyming slang for coat. Incidentally, my father referred to champagne as weasel – as in popping corks!

Redevelopment since the Second World War has changed the social fabric of the East End considerably – Bryant & May’s was converted into one of London’s first gated communities of apartments in the ’80s, and, more recently, areas such as Docklands and the Isle of Dogs have become home to glittering tower blocks, with some areas yuppified and others hippified (think smashed avo and artisan coffee instead of pie and mash). And, yet, the old East End survives in patches; Kelly’s Pie and Mash shop at 526 Roman Road is still going strong albeit catering to contemporary palettes (chicken and leek pie and vegetarian options) and under renovation.

The author explains the pull of pie and place for customers all over the world searching “for a taste of the past that still lives vividly inside them, or that they may hardly recall or only know from older relatives but to which they nevertheless feel viscerally connected.” That neatly describes how I feel about England – which is why I so loved this book.  Much as I love my life in Australia, you can’t take the Brit out the girl – there’s an essence of Englishness that sits in my DNA. I am heading back to Britain soon and a trip to the East End is definitely on my list.

In praise of staycations – and the luxury of time

One of my Christmas presents was My Little Happy Book – a journal to record happy moments, happy scribbles, happy songs, quotes, meals – even dreams. Curiously there’s also a section called My Happy to-do List. While I am huge fan of lists, happiness over the Christmas holidays has been an absence of lists, deadlines and rushing. That’s the beauty of Christmas falling in the summer months – I’ve just about got used to hot, light, beach-y, seafood-y Australian Christmases, the sky an endless blue, the flowering gums alive with the squawking of Rainbow lorikeets, the jacarandas dropping purple confetti.

Like August in some European countries, the whole place slows down, the vibe shifts to something kinder and gentler allowing the days to blur into one another. It’s like slipping into a timeless zone and pressing pause. At one point last year I had thought of visiting America or heading to the coast for the Festive Season.  Neither plan materialised and, so, I have luxuriated in the simple pleasures afforded by a staycation.

I like to honour the Christmas rituals of my childhood, one of them being attending church. Whether you are a believer or not, Jesus’ birth is a magical story and presents an opportunity for reflection and renewal. Over the years I have been to a local church – one year with both my parents when visiting from England, and last year with my mother. While I escaped my usual Yuletide sense of geographic dislocation and depression this year, I didn’t want to push it by attending a church service so redolent of Mum and Dad. My father used to love belting out O Come All Ye Faithful and Hark the Herald Angels Sing – I can see him, now, half singing, half conducting.

Attending a German Meetup Group before Christmas, I discovered that there was a service on Christmas Eve at the German Lutheran Church in East Melbourne at 7pm.

Here was an opportunity to embrace the Christmas spirit without any emotional triggers. I enjoyed listening to familiar readings from the Bible in German and tuning into the cadence of the language as well as singing well-known carols to German lyrics; it’s harder than you would think to get the phrasing and pacing right!

Just over the road is St Patrick’s Cathedral, and as our service concluded, theirs was just starting, the bells ringing out in great rippling peals. One of my favourite sounds, I could have been anywhere in ‘Mittel Europa’ what with the magnificent tree sparkling in the chancel. Only momentarily, though, as the heat – half the congregation were fanning themselves with the service sheet – brought me firmly back to the Southern Hemisphere.

After a delicious Christmas Day with my brother and his family of feasting, present-giving, snoozing, swimming in the pool and reading, I arm-chair-travelled back to Germany in the following days. Airbnb guests earlier in December recommended a German drama on SBS entitled Kurfürstendamm 56 and the second series Ku’Damm 59.  Set in Berlin in the 50s, it’s the story of a mother and her three daughters at a time of huge political and social change. They own a dance school along the Ku’Damm and the advent of rock ‘n’ roll – and the looser morals that went with it – are just one of the challenges to the old order of genteel waltzes and tea dances. What a joy it was to have time to watch six 90-minute episodes and to give it my full attention. Although the plot became a little contrived towards the end of the second series, I was transported back in time and found myself gripped.

I also went off to Oxford courtesy of a wonderful book called A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings by Helen Jukes. The author reminded me of me! I also used to live in Oxford and worked for a charity. I, too, sometimes struggle with the rigours of the workplace, the pressure, the ever-shifting KPIs (key performance indicators) and suffer from computer neck. Jukes takes up bee-keeping as a way of changing her way of sensing and seeing the world. Another highlight was listening to a reading on BBC Radio 4 of Italian classic The Leopard by Lampedusa. English actor Alex Jennings inhabited the world of the fading grandeur of the Sicilian aristocracy of the 1860s brilliantly, inserting just the right measure of pathos and humour. Nectar – forgive the bee pun.

I had a list of things I planned to do over the break and have ditched most of them in favour of rest, relaxation and a few refreshing swims in the sea with my dog Bertie. And the tasks I did accomplish had a quality of a spaciousness and didn’t have to be rushed, teeth gritted. Did I mention I managed to crack my dental splint towards the end of last year? The KPIs can wait till I start work again next week. I am hoping I don’t return to the scenario faced by Jukes after Christmas one year: “When I arrive there’s a new set of ‘key performance’ indicators on my desk – a New Year’s greeting from Head Office. Thirty fresh targets, divided into six neat categories, which we are now required to report on each quarter. Everyone’s fuming about it […] I want to throw the performance indicators in the dust bin.” I’m not saying anything.

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.

I never can say goodbye: RIP Woody

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A love-in with Mudgee

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

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

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

Cupid Calling – App-y Valentine’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luxury is not all it’s cracked up to be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Playing ‘Who Are you?

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

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

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

Slowing Down to survive the Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amsterdam Part 2: All’s well that ends well

I stayed in Amsterdam either side of the International Fundraising Congress in mid-October. And the two experiences couldn’t have been more different. I booked the first weekend’s Airbnb in the Jordaan well in advance but, at the suggestion of a friend, I left booking the last couple of nights until I got there. Little did he or I know that Amsterdam often reaches full occupancy (well, in the sought-after areas anyway), and that ADE (Amsterdam Dance Event– a massive five-day electronic dance festival) coincided with my last weekend.

Either I had to pay an extortionate price to stay in the centre amid the canals and tall gabled houses, or I had to look further afield.  Time was not on my side and the price band I put into my internet search yielded few results. But the aptly named Ozo Hotel in South East Amsterdam sounded a reasonably good bet. The reviews spoke of friendly staff, comfy beds and proximity to the Metro. Still not cheap, but doable and available, I booked without doing any further research.

After the conference the shuttle buses dropped us at Amsterdam Central Station. Still sporting some disco glitter on my eyes and cheeks from the closing night gala, I grabbed the first available taxi, hefty luggage in tow (one of my goals for 2018 is to, once and for all, master the art of travelling light), and gave the address of the Ozo. The Turkish taxi driver told me – with glee, I now realise – that it was way out of Amsterdam; he held up Google Maps to prove it, and said he doubted it was near the Metro. Heart-sinking, glitter fading, energy flagging and metre ticking over – we arrived at the Ozo about twenty-five minutes later. The bill was a hefty 70 Euros. In truth, I don’t remember seeing a metre or getting a receipt – later I found out I had been well and truly fleeced. Never mind, I didn’t make the same mistake again, and, on my last day, took a short taxi ride to a train station where I got a five Euro train to the airport. Thankfully the hefty luggage had wheels!

Although the Ozo was bland, IKEA-ish and situated in a business park, it had everything I needed (including a restaurant that, while soulless, served up one of the best meals of my trip: gloriously fresh cod baked with spinach and potatoes)  and the Metro was, as advertised, in walking distance even if the graffiti-adorned urban landscape lacked canal-side charm.

In fifteen minutes I was back at the Central Station and heading off in sheeting rain and battling past ADE and other tourists (the relative peace at the Ozo began to appeal) to Anne Frank’s House in the Prinsengracht.  It is one of the more touristy  attractions, and you have to put up with shuffling along in a long line. But as you climb more and more stairs to reach the secret annex (Achterhuis) above the offices and warehouse of the spice and gelling companies Otto Frank worked for, Opekta and Pectacon, you sense just how constricted and trapped they were with eight people confined to a few rooms and the threat of discovery ever present.  When they were raided after two years in hiding, everything was cleared and seized bar a few personal effects – including Anne Frank’s diary – which survived. Looking at the photos of how they arranged their living space converting bedroom to living and dining room and back again each day, I was amazed at how orderly, respectable and even cosy they managed to make it. I asked a volunteer guide if it is known who informed on the two families and was surprised to learn that an ex-FBI agent has been trying to solve the case for the last three years.

The bookcase covering the door to the Annex where the Franks were hiding

By contrast, Rembrandt’s House (also in the heart of Amsterdam) with its attractive red and green shutters is a fully restored 17th century house that allows you to go behind the scenes and see where Rembrandt worked and taught other artists. Along with an extensive display of his etchings and sketches, there are hands-on demonstrations of how Rembrandt mixed pigments with linseed oil to make his paints.He bought the house in 1639 but didn’t manage to pay off the 13000 Gilder mortgage. The house was reconstructed from the inventory that was drawn up when he went bankrupt in 1656 and had to move out. As well as his box bed, I was fascinated by the collection of objects which he used as models for his paintings such as Venetian glassware, marble busts, seashells, dried animals and exotic weapons. Considered one of the great artists of all time, Rembrandt was, apparently, a moody man, and enjoyed a scandalous love life involving  extra-marital affairs with his nanny and then a 20-year old girl.

Saving the best for last, I visited the Van Gogh Museum on my final day. Another scandal-ridden artist with a prolific output. Not only did he paint 900 paintings in his short ten-year career, but he was also a skilled draughtsman and made nearly 1100 drawings, half of which are kept in the museum and displayed on a rotational basis due to their sensitivity to light. Some of his letters – many to his brother Theo – are also on display giving an insight into Vincent’s  troubled emotional life.From his famous Potato Eaters peasant painting through to his self-portraits, orchards in bloom, Sunflowers, and the emotionally-imbued landscapes of waving wheat, blue skies, gardens and rural scenes of his final days in Auvers-sur-Oise, this was the highlight of my trip.  Getting up close and personal with his paintings was to experience their intensity of colour, depth of expression and extraordinary beauty. As Van Gogh himself said: “Paintings have a life of their own that derives from the painter’s soul.”

I’m happy to say that my immersion in Dutch culture continues back in Australia. Last week I went to see the film Loving Vincent. In fact, I didn’t love it as I found the plot weak and a bit clichéd but, as the first fully painted feature animation, it’s visually stunning; each frame is hand-painted on canvas with oil paints – it took 150 artists six years to paint over 65000 frames.

And even better, I just found that Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age: masterpieces from the Riijksmuseum is showing at Sydney’s Gallery of NSW until mid February 2018.

Amsterdam Part One: Hippies and Rosehips, Canals and Cafes

I never dreamed that a fundraising job based in Australia would take me to Europe – until I got the chance to attend the International Fundraising Congress in Amsterdam in mid-October. The Congress was in Noordwijkerhout, about half an hour outside Amsterdam, in the bulb growing region famed for its tulips. October is not the time for spring tulips, but Noordwijkerhout is also situated about 5km from the North Sea. The day before the conference kicked off, a group of us hired bikes – those wonderful Dutch bikes with the wrap-around handle bars that ensure effortlessly good posture – and rode to the sea through the sandy dunes, dotted with bracken, rose-hips and autumn leaves. And how different the North Sea is to Port Phillip Bay here in Melbourne – the water so grey, the landscape so flat, the beach dotted with windbreaks, a line of defence against the chilly winds.

I got to Amsterdam the weekend before the conference and stayed in an Airbnb place in the Jordaan, in the heart of the city centre, an area that in the 17th century was home to the working classes and immigrants – Amsterdam was known for its tolerance towards other political and religious beliefs. It’s still a pretty tolerant kind of place – where else does marijuana waft out from seemingly every other bar and café? Having spent a couple of weeks in the UK visiting my mother and other relatives and friends – one long, if enjoyable, talkfest ­­­­– I arrived in Amsterdam exhausted and with a sore throat. The upside was that I learnt to override my normal tendency to move into manic sightseeing mode and, instead, to take it more gently, absorbing the place in a more visceral way.

Had I never gone further than the Jordaan’s many canals and flower-decked barges, zig-zagging over bridges, dodging the multitude of bikes, and window-shopping in the narrow streets lined with eclectic shops selling everything from antiques and antiquarian books to vintage, vinyl records, jewellery, designer goods and more, I would have come away sated. Every building, street corner, view and vantage point is a delight to the eye.  Like every other tourist (the bane of the locals’ lives) I found myself standing on the various bridges and marvelling at the canals lined by tall, narrow houses – some of them lop-sided and leaning Pisa-like to one side –  with their distinctive gables and winches, which are still used to hoist furniture in and out through the windows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My first stop was the Noordermarkt, which, on Saturday, sells organic and fresh produce as well as second-hand clothes, bric-a-brac and craft items.  After sampling different cheeses and cured meats and browsing the many stalls and hearing a bit of folk music, I ordered a lemon and ginger tea (excellent for the throat) in a nearby café.

Bas-relief of Saint Nikolaus

 

I got talking to a permaculture-loving hippie who was reading ‘The Freedom to be Yourself’ by Osho. He was pondering whether you have to step out of mainstream life to find freedom or whether it’s more of a mental attitude. I noticed a jar of thick, orange-coloured liquid on the table and asked what it was. Turns out it was home-made rosehip puree, packed with vitamin C. He offered me some and it was delicious, and I credit it with knocking my sore throat on the head. Who knows, maybe ingesting one of his vials of home-brewed therapeutic grade cannabis oil minus the mind-altering THC would have done the trick, but I stuck to the hips. Amusingly, my soul-searching friend drinks two strong espressos follow by a slug of cannabis oil to calm him back down. Each to their own.

From there I headed off to another market in the Lindengracht, this time tasting salted caramel-coated almonds before plonking myself down in a canal-side café to drink Earl Grey, write post cards and people watch. A man with an unleashed dog trotting along at pedal height cycled past, then a woman balancing a suitcase on the back of her bike, and another with groceries piled up  in a large box attached to her front wheel.  A girl with a German shepherd dog – no Nanny State health and safety fuss here – came into the café and ordered her coffee.

In the afternoon, I took a ferry (a free, three-minute trip) over the River LJ to Noord Amsterdam, an area that was once home to industry and shipbuilding but is now vibrant, edgy and home to places such as Café Pllek, made out of converted shipping containers, and the iconic EYE Film Institute, a modern geometric building with floor to ceiling glass windows designed to mimic film concepts of the illusion of light, space and movement.

I had lunch (this time with fresh mint tea) in the terraced café with views over the water (it’s a similar concept to the Sydney Opera House minus the sails and sun) and then explored the exhibition.

The EYE documents the history and evolution of film to the present day. From dioramas and zoetropes to the magic lantern and a showcase full of static frames, it’s a fascinating journey through the world of moving image with lots of interactive exhibits including a 360-degree panoramic room where you can choose from various film fragments on subjects such as slapstick, celebrity culture and voyages of discovery. I also watched part of a German vintage film in one of the film booths.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday was a glorious warm and sunny day and I started with pancakes (a must-do in Amsterdam) – goats cheese, spinach and smoked salmon – followed by a browse in a vintage clothes shop where I fell into conversation with an American couple. I overheard them mention Frankfurt and knowing the Frankfurt book fair is in October (I used to be in publishing) got chatting. Beyond Words are the company that published the hugely successfully self-help book The Secret. Later that evening, I bumped into them in the Thai restaurant next door to my Airbnb place and we had a drink – I even gave them an idea for a book. I was starting to like this more spontaneous style of sightseeing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two more cafés (and I thought Melbourne was the café capital) punctuated my day; one right by the water and with a selection of international newspapers, and the other one –  Rembrandt’s Corner – a nice post-brunch, pre-dinner refuelling stop after a tour round the Greater Master’s house (who would have guessed he went bankrupt and couldn’t pay his 13,000 Gilder mortgage? – more on Rembrandt’s House in Part 2).

A few days in London: from pearls to plywood and the Pickwick Papers

Being a tourist in a city where I once lived  as a worker, commuter, tax payer and home-owner is a joy. It’s an absence makes the heart grow fonder scenario. Although I made the most of London when I lived there from 1987 to 1996, there’s nothing sweeter than returning, unencumbered by day to day responsibilities, with the time and space to experience the place afresh, and inspired by the appreciative perspective of a long-distance traveller. Google tells me London is 10,497 miles away from Melbourne.

This time I tapped into a bit of glamour with dinner at the Athenauem Club in Pall Mall, one of London’s oldest clubs which counts 52 past and present Nobel Prize winners among its members and has oil paintings of Dickens, Darwin and other dignitaries lining the walls. Another night, my sister took me to the theatre to see the Ferryman by Jez Butterworth at the Gielgud Theatre in Piccadilly. The play set in the 80s about four generations of an Irish family was mesmerising with 22 actors on stage at one time plus a live rabbit and a real-life baby. It’s a tale of grief, disappearance and loss – an aunt to dementia and an elder son’s body is found in the bog. Woven throughout the family narrative are myth, magic, ‘the Troubles’ and the corrosive and threatening presence of the IRA.

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Pall Mall at night

Before the theatre we strolled through the Burlington Arcade admiring its high-end jewellery, leather, cashmere, shoe and perfume stores all so exclusive that, in most cases, you must ring the bell to be admitted. For fun, we enquired about the price of a beautiful pearl necklace only to find it was £77,000!

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Pricey Pearls

As if to bring things down to earth – albeit in an airborne way – the ceiling space in the Arcade featured the work of French artist Mathilde Nivet whose 300 bird sculptures, painstakingly crafted from paper, fluttered overhead.

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After that it was onto Fortnum & Mason known as Fortnum’s for short, an elegant and gracious store with its plush red carpet and spiral staircase connecting the floors selling luxury hampers, teas, coffees, cheeses, biscuits and fine wines all presented in its trademark green tins or boxes. It’s a bit like entering a fairy tale until you come to pay the bill.

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A quick trip to the Victoria & Albert Museum offered plenty of contrast. An exhibition about plywood  showed how layering cross-grained veneers to make material stronger than solid wood has been used since 2600 BC in Ancient Egypt, but the advent of mechanised saws in the 1830s saw it emerge as a key material in the industrial age as it was cheaper than cast metal.  From the covers for Singer Sewing Machines, tea chests, car parts, surf boards and the moulded fuselage of Mosquito aeroplanes in the Second World War, the exhibition highlighted the versatility of plywood. Today, plywood has become popular as a material for digital design due to rise of digital fabricating machines known as CNC Cutters (Computer Numerical Control).

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No visit to the V & A would be complete without a wander through the fashion section where we took in (crazy) cumbersome court mantuas, corsets and crinolines –  the starchy, scratchy and restrictive Victorian costumes were a perfect segue to a trip to the Dickens Museum the next day.

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A court mantua worn by women in the 1750s to royal assemblies and balls

Dickens and his wife Catherine lived at 48 Doughty Street in Bloomsbury from 1836-1839, and this is where he wrote OIiver Twist, the Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby. Some samples of his hand-written drafts – they were published in monthly parts – are on display along with his writing desk and chair and one of his reading desks, from where he performed his public readings. He’d edit his own text and write himself stage directions in the margins. Upstairs in one of the bedrooms is a mirror in which he practised impersonating some of his characters so he could ‘see’ them.

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A hand-written draft page from Oliver Twist

Other more quirky exhibits include a model of a hedgehog in the kitchen (they were kept in Victorian kitchens to eat insects and keep the bug population down), a commode with a letter from Dickens to his doctor complaining about: “distention and flatulency, and disagreeable pains in the pit of the stomach and chest, without any disarrangement of the bowels.” Sounds like a long-winded way (forgive the pun) way of describing indigestion. Dickens was also a big fan of cane chairs, perhaps the latest in ergonomic design back then. He writes to a friend: “I can testify there is nothing like it. Even in this episodical hotel-life, I invariably have my cane chair brought from a bedroom, and give the gorgeous stuffed abominations to the winds.” I’m sure Dickens would have been a fan of mattress toppers had they existed in his day. See: To sleep, perchance to dream