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.”

 

 

The Republic of Words 2 of 3: Timeless on the Silk Road by Heather Ellis

The second book in my Republic of Words series is Timeless on the Silk Road by Heather Ellis. If I were to sum up what this book is about in one word, it would be Trust. Capital intended. As a book about venturing into an unknown and uncertain future, I took great comfort from it. It strengthened my post-work resolve to let go of needing answers about what next and to simply wait and see.

You may be familiar with books that illustrate a spiritual path through story-telling. I remember reading The Celestine Prophecy back in the ’90s and I also read Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist, but I have to admit I’m not really a fan of spiritual teachings delivered via fiction. And that’s what I loved about Timeliness on the Silk Road, it’s the author’s lived experience of a solo motorbike journey along the 4000-km Silk Route from Europe through Russia and Central Asia to South East Asia. Told with extraordinary courage and honesty – it’s visceral, raw and unashamed not to mention compelling.

But this is no ordinary traveller’s tale. Following a solo motorbike trip across Africa in 1993, Heather is diagnosed with HIV.  The book starts in 1994 when she is working as a motorcycle courier in London and receives the devastating news of her diagnosis. Overcoming periods of doubt and despair, she is determined to embark on this her last journey – she is given five years to live – and to trust in the same universal energy that guided and protected her in Africa (I highly recommend her previous book, Ubuntu: One Woman’s Motorcycle Odyssey Across Africa). She says: ” I felt all those chance encounters and coincidences that came my way, often to save me in the nick of time, were more than just good luck. Maybe, just maybe, I would be saved again.”

Setting off from London on a grey November day on her trusty steed, her TT600, Heather lets go of any need to control how her journey pans out. And I admire that greatly! Packing for my trip to the UK recently – admittedly a longish trip involving many different people and events, not to mention the vagaries of the British weather – I tackled it, as I always do, like a military campaign leaving nothing to chance and planning for all eventualities. My hand luggage alone is carefully considered – from the  compression socks, eye mask and neck pillow to a small vial of oregano oil to ward off germs, some peppermint oil to pep me up the other end, some de-clogging aspirin and a homeopathic jet lag remedy, organic (no less) mouthwash, snacks, reading material and other lotions and potions to make me more comfortable. Had I travelled in Edwardian times, I would have probably had a suite of trunks. Packing lightly is not my forte.

Pernickety packing

There’s little room for creature comforts when all your luggage has to fit on a motorbike but Heather does take a stock of medication to treat Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) in the event she contracts the life-threatening lung infection. And she does have to use it quite early on in her trip. Small wonder that she has death musings in Delphi, Greece, or that a fellow worker in a café in Istanbul notes: “I feel you carry a big problem, and it weights heavy on you, but I know you are strong. Allah is with you.” Call it Allah or benevolent universal energy, Heather’s trust is challenged at times and her health starts to decline towards the end of the trip, but she never gives up. And the irony is that, away from the trappings of the modern world and living day to day, she doesn’t have access to the internet, where she’d have learnt about advances in HIV treatment.

Timeless on the Silk Road is a geographic and spiritual journey against a backdrop of majestic mountains, nomadic pastures and ancient cities. I was fascinated to learn more about the ‘Stans, countries that were once part of the Soviet Union: from the lost city of Merv in Turkmenistan, built on the site of a large oasis around 3000 BC but destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1221; Baku in Azerbaijan, the Paris of the region built on oil money; to the Chuysky Trakt, one of the world’s ten most scenic roads in the vast Altai Mountains between Mongolia and Russia.

Heather is an extraordinarily resilient woman and gets into some narrow scrapes fending off testosterone- and vodka-fuelled men in Georgia, sleeping (unknowingly) atop deadly spiders in Turkmenistan, coming close to being shot by a Tajik border guard, almost running out of food in Kazakhstan and playing cat and mouse with Chinese Government officials. And yet, miraculously, something always turns up – whether it’s the Turkish sheepdogs protecting her tent, the warm and generous hospitality of nomadic people’s in Krygyzstan and Siberia, meeting a kindly long-distance truck driver from Wales or three Russian horsemen in the Altai. At times, it reads like a modern-day fable tale punctuated by moments when time seems suspended – hence the title – such as when she witnesses a mesmerising sunset over the Caspian Sea from the bows of a rusted ferry. Inspiring, uplifting and life-affirming, this is a book that will prompt you to question your own journey through life. You can purchase this and Heather’s previous book Ubuntu via Amazon or in Australia from Readings bookshops. For author-signed copies (including postage) please go to Heather’s website at: https://www.heather-ellis.com/.

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.

Lest we forget and the legacy of a black cello

Sitting at a favourite beachside café recently, I spotted among the display of black and white photos one featuring a group of World War 1 soldiers on the beach.  According to the caption they were on leave or recovering from injury – there was a Rehabilitation Hospital in nearby Hampton. How they must have savoured escaping the squalor and carnage of the trenches.Although films and books such as Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong have informed my knowledge of the Great War – the war that was to put an end to all wars – I never studied it formally in school. Even if I had, the focus would have been on the battles, movements of troops around the various fronts, logistics and numbers rather than the human stories.

A friend of mine curated an an exhibition at the Melbourne Museum called Love and Sorrow, documenting the wartime experience of eight service personnel and their families. The exhibition was on for two years but, as it turned out, I got to see it the week before it closed – just before the Centenary of World War 1 in November last year.The exhibition started with the propaganda posters and parades extolling the virtues of courage, patriotism and duty. But following the trajectory of the eight characters and their families through photos, scrapbooks, letters, diaries and other personal effects, it soon became a story of separation, loss, trauma, mental and emotional disfigurement.

One mother, on hearing her son was missing in action, was catapulted into premature senility, another sent her husband their new baby’s booties only to have them sent back – redirected – in the same envelope. How chilling it must have been to read the words: Return to Sender.  One of the most confronting sections was ‘Men with Broken Faces’ – before the advent of sophisticated technology and plastic surgery, facial reconstruction methods were cumbersome and crude. One man who underwent surgery never went out in public without wearing a scarf over his mouth, his self-esteem and confidence as shattered as his jawbone.

One of the more positive stories concerned Lil Mackenzie, an enormously plucky nurse who cared for patients in France and Italy close to the front-lines. She was summoned to Buckingham Palace to receive a Royal Red Cross 2nd Class for her outstanding public service. On returning to Australia, Lil and her sisters set up a care home in Boronia, Melbourne, and many of her patients were veterans. She lived to 90 but suffered bouts of depression after the war; no one came back from WW1 without some form of physical or mental scarring.

The statistics were sobering too: over 60,000 Australians died in the war and thousands more went on to die of war injuries out of a population of only five million people. The stories of the eight characters got under my skin, and their sacrifice and suffering lent context and poignancy to a Centenary of Armistice 2018 service that I attended at Green Point overlooking the Bay in Brighton. As the Last Post sounded before the one-minute silence, I thought of all those who had set out with ideas of glory and heroism and either lost their lives or returned broken, tearing families, friends and communities apart.Soon after, I spotted Peter Jackson’s (Lord of the Rings) film They Shall Not Grow Old, which was on limited release in Australia.  This extraordinary film co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW and The Imperial War Museum in London in association with the BBC used original footage from the trenches (stored in the Imperial War Museum’s archives) and used modern day technology to deliver it to us in colour.  Using oral histories from surviving British veterans as the soundtrack and actors voicing beyond-the-grave dialogue based on forensic lip-reading of the silent footage, this film is a tour de force and offers a visceral snapshot of life in the trenches and on the frontline. The oral histories were recorded by the Imperial War Museum in the 1960s around the 50th Anniversary of WW1, the first time the human element of the war was captured.

What struck me was the no-nonsense approach of the soldiers who approached the war as a job they had to get done whatever it took. Resilient, hard-working, committed and uncomplaining they got on with it. Watching footage of them enlisting (many lied about their age to qualify and none had an ounce of spare flesh– no fast food in those days), it was clear that they had to take whatever boots, shirts and uniforms they were given, irrespective of the fit. And they only had one change of shirt. Quite apart from the bombing, bloodshed and loss of life, life in the trenches was gruelling; from dysentery to rats, lice, the stench of rotting bodies, foot rot, frostbite, lack of sleep and the general filth and all-pervasive mud. And, yet, such camaraderie and mutual concern among the soldiers as well as an ability to make the most of any down time –playing cards, laughing, joking, telling stories and, of course, smoking. Lots of that back then.

My immersion in all things WW1 prompted me to ask an uncle about our own family’s involvement. My great-grandfather and two great uncles served in the war but, amazingly, they all survived; how I wish I had known enough to ask them questions while they were still alive.

However, my uncle did share a wonderful story of a musical legacy. In the 1890s a Belgian family came to live in England and in 1904 the father gave his musically-gifted son a black cello. So talented was the boy that he played for Queen Victoria. But in 1914 with the advent of the war, he packed the cello away and went to the front to fight for the British army. Senior officers heard that that the boy was a virtuoso player and gave him ten days leave to return to the UK to get his cello so that he could play for the troops. The cello got damaged along the way but was glued together and survived the war as did the man, who went on to teach cello at the famous independent school, Eton. Cut to 12 November 2018 and a contemporary pupil played part of Elgar’s Cello Concerto on the very same black cello as part of a Centenary Remembrance Service for the 1570 Old Etonians who were killed in World War. If that cello could talk, I wonder what stories it would have to tell.

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.

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  

 

The joy of flying solo

The Sunday before last I dragged myself out of bed early to get to a 10 a.m. Meetup group. Intriguingly titled ‘All My Friends are in Couples and I’m Single’, I thought it was worth including as part of my experiment with offline living.  Sporting my five Euro sequined hat (purchased for the Gala evening at the International Fundraising Congress in Amsterdam last October), I yawned my way into the city on the train wishing I had stayed in bed.

It’s busy in Brunetti’s on a Sunday morning. I scoured the place and eventually located what looked like the group. Disappointed by the imbalanced ratio of women to men, probably about 4 to 1, I hovered with my pot of tea and wondered where to sit. The group was arranged around a long refectory-style table which made it difficult to circulate. As much as you can ever judge a book by its jacket, I liked the look of a man at the far end; he was slim, with receding, greying hair and had an air of refined intelligence about him. He seemed engrossed in conversation with the woman next to him.  Hmm, how could I break in? As I approached I noticed that they were both wearing wedding rings and seemed uninterested in mixing with the rest of the group. It wasn’t till they had eaten their breakfast and left that I realised they were nothing to do with the Meetup. And that they must have been married to each other.  Good start, Charlotte! I had to stifle a little giggle at this point.

Instead I got chatting to one of the three remaining men. Stocky but clean shaven and OK-looking, he tucked into a hearty plate of smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and mushrooms while I sipped my English Breakfast. His opening line was to admire my hat, so I had to give him credit him for that. Bridget Jones-like, I made a note to self that the hat might come in handy on future sorties into the dating world.

He didn’t waste much time in letting me know that he was comfortably off, his IT business pretty much runs itself and he has plenty of free time to travel (business class, of course), play golf and go to the gym. But he confessed that finding someone to travel and enjoy life with is proving a challenge.  In the next breath, he related his bad experiences with internet dating, telling me that half the women he was interested in turned out to be resident overseas and those on these shores were mostly gold-diggers. Doesn’t he see a connection between bounty hunters and him flagging (bragging about) his wealth as a selling point? And, moreover, doesn’t he see that most of us would only see the wealth as a bonus if it were part of a package involving an interesting personality, a strong level of connection and shared interests?

One woman who had ensnared him had persuaded him to join her on a European river cruise. It later materialised that her female travel companion had had to cancel at the last minute and so it was more about finding a convenient stand-in. It didn’t go well but he did enjoy the Abba Museum in Stockholm. Turns out he was right on trend with that one given the recent news about Abba making a comeback. To which I can only exclaim: Mamma mia!

portrait,adult,recreation,wear,people,woman,festival,actress

All they need is a sequined hat…

His hand brushing momentarily over my right hand, he admired my pearl ring and told me he had tickets for the opera. And maybe I would be the lucky one. That, at least, sparked my interest. What opera and which company? He didn’t know any of the details, only that it was an opera.  Call me fussy but he would have needed at least to know the name of the composer and the opera.  He came across as a box-ticker. Trying to do and say the right thing. If he were an item of clothing, he’d be an off-the-peg number whereas I prefer the designer gown approach, one of a kind and plenty of character.

There is much to be said for the freedom, fullness and flexibility of the single life, a sentiment that was explored in a Spanish film – No Filter – I saw on the weekend. It’s a comic romp of a film featuring an over-the-top cat-loving sister, an Instagram-mad millennial, a pot-head chauvinist neighbour, a selfish and self-absorbed artist husband and an ex-boyfriend with a controlling girlfriend who puts them both on a pre-wedding diet of baby food. The protagonist, Paz, gets increasingly stressed as she runs around people-pleasing and putting up with second best. Then, with the help of a phoney Chinese guru, she finds her voice and starts saying what she thinks, really thinks – hence the title. https://www.spanishfilmfestival.com/films/no-filter

Birthday cake for cats

This is a film that will resonate with many women who have held back from saying what they really want to say. I can think of times in my life when I wanted to let rip but didn’t. Such as the self-important work meeting where I fantasized about sweeping all the coffee cups off the table and screaming out in frustration, and the post-argument lunch with an American boyfriend in Paris (he was ultra-preppy and precious) where I seriously considered upending my bowl of vinaigrette-drenched frisée au lardons all over him and his Calvin Klein suit. Then there’s my alter ego who writes anonymous letters to neighbours about squawking parrots in cages or puts up notices in the dog park warning of the karmic consequences of not picking up the poo.

In No Filter Paz doesn’t fall for the guilty overtures of her hopeless husband. Or her ex who questions if she wants to remain on her own.  No, she replies, I don’t want to be alone. I want to be with myself. She reclaims her life and her voice, and, case packed, takes off to the airport. Flying Solo – the flipside of the relationship coin –  at its best.