How spiders got me writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I never can (or could) say goodbye…

Saying goodbye doesn’t get any easier, particularly when it comes to waving off members of my family at the airport. That’s the thing about having family in England and living here in Australia. It may be just a day away, but it’s a long (and rather costly) day spent in a pressurised cabin.

I loved having my mother here and once we got a few teething troubles out of the way – the stick in the park leg gashing, the jet lag and Bertie dog’s digestive dramas – we got into a good rhythm. Mum did confess that she found it hectic at times with me madly trying to keep so many balls in the air– work, renovations, dog walks, visits to the vet, the lighting shop, the bathroom and kitchen showroom, cupboard clearing, introducing her to my friends, taking her places etc – but I think she loved dipping into my life for a few weeks.

When she left I missed her like mad – especially at lunch, afternoon tea, drinks and dinner time, congenial punctuation marks in our day, however busy. How I loved her company, the effortless chat and someone to cook for and eat with. For a few days after her departure I couldn’t look at the things that reminded me of her – the coffee pot, the breakfast grapefruits, the earl grey tea and the apples I bought her from the farmers’ market. There was a big absence where she had been, and I shut the door to her room rather than look at the stripped back bed, only to fall apart when I spotted one of her hearing aid batteries on the window ledge. After a few days, however, I was able to shift from feeling weepy to celebrating how successful her visit had been, that she had arrived home safely and was planning to come again next year. And, as just as I predicted, we had created a stock of new memories and stories to feast on in the meantime.

In the midst of all the pre-renovation madness and my cramming in bits of work to pay for said renovations, we went off for a little holiday to Gippsland in South East Victoria, and wonderful it was too. We stayed in a little cottage with a sunny veranda adorned by roses and lavender just outside the little township of Koonwarra, known for its general store.

Although we were just off the highway and were aware of the traffic at times, the main soundtrack had a more bovine register. In fact, such was the cacophony that we thought at first that there must be a folk festival (I could have sworn someone was playing the trumpet) or party going on in the nearby paddocks. And Mum, whose room was at the front, reported that it went on all night. This continued for a few days until, on the way to Leongatha, we passed a sale yard and found the source of the trumpeting to be chorusing cows. We were, of course, in the heart of cattle country. I worried that the trumpeting was perhaps signalling distress: “It’s the kind of thing that tempts me to become a veggie,” I said, “but, then again, I simply couldn’t live on flatulent beans and pulses.” That night I made a beef nicoise salad– oh dear– using local porterhouse steak. A short-lived dilemma, you could say.

Our only other quibble – in an otherwise perfect getting-away-from-it-all break – was the use of the word luxury to describe our cottage. Lovely as the setting and general vibe were, the beds felt like bricks, the sofas sagged and the lighting inside the cottage was poor making it dingy after sunset. And my room consisted of nothing more than a bunk bed, electric fuse box (while Mum had the nocturnal cows, I had buzzing wires) and a cupboard. Petite as I am, reading in bed was tricky as my head bumped up against the top bunk. OK, so there was a spa bath – a very 1980s one at that – but the place lacked the kind of cushioned comfort, waffled bathrobes and chocolates on the pillow that normally come with luxury. But all this apart, we loved our time in Gippsland or Gippers as I now call it.

We sat on our veranda and watched the fairy wrens flit around, listened to the wind rippling through the tall gums, played patience games (Bisley and Fours for card connoisseurs), listened to a CD of Yorkshire-born playwright Alan Bennett (you may know him as the author of the History Boys) reading his wonderfully poignant and funny Untold Stories, visited the Lucinda Winery and tasted earthy reds, a light fizzy rosé, and cider made from apples and pears, walked a bit of the Great Southern Rail Trail, had a couple of picnics – one in the car in the rain– and toured local townships.

This part of Gippsland – (the Melbourne side of Wilson’s Promontory) – attracts artists, artisans, food lovers and crafts people. In Fish Creek, where fish symbols and sculptures adorn roof tops and benches alike, we admired the sculptures and furniture at Ride the Wild Goat, where artist Andrew McPherson creates flowing, organic shapes from salvaged metal, iron, wood and other materials.


In Meeniyan we browsed gift shops and galleries, tasted local cheeses and deliciously vanilla-y prune plums at an organic food shop, dined on wood-fired pizza at Trulli Pizza run by a young Italian chef from Brindisi, and treated ourselves to the most wickedly calorific flourless chocolate cake at the Koonwarra General Store. Then at the antique shop, I bought an old-style two-seater upholstered sofa from an eccentric character with more than a passing resemblance to Tweedledum. I even had my hair trimmed at the local hair dresser.

Who needs Melbourne, I thought when we hit the traffic driving back after five days of bucolic bliss.