Back in Blighty

Well, I made it over here in one piece. The flight was LONG as it always is but I stuck to my plan of seeing it as a mini holiday. The food was pretty mediocre but I watched three films, a light Spanish comedy, Ocho Apellidos Vascos, Words and Pictures, a rather hard work film with Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I loved. I also continued to read Slipstream, Elizabeth Jane Howards’s autobiography. Howard, who died recently, was an author married to the naturalist Peter Scott and then, latterly, after multiple affairs with married men, to Kingsley Amis. The book is full of encounters with literary figures, artists, playwrights and the like – from Charlie Chaplin, Laurie Lee, John Betjeman, Laurens Van der Post, members of the royal family and other glitterati. The rest of the time I slept and dozed and longed to lie down. I’m normally very organised but had run around all day like a mad thing only taking Bertie to the dog sitter a few hours before I was due to leave so I was still watering my lemon tree and washing up when the taxi came. No wonder I felt a bit tense and stiff by the time I got on the plane!

I’m now back in Nottinghamshire, the county we’ve all heard of thanks to the forest-dwelling tax evader, Robin, he of the Hoodie, with my parents. I did spend some of my childhood years in Nottinghamshire, but I don’t feel any particular allegiance to it or that it’s what the Spanish call ‘mi tierra’, which, literally translated, means my homeland or my country, but on a deeper level conveys a sense of soul connection with a place.

I flew into Manchester airport, where Eddie from Mum’s village met me, along with his dear little dog Scruffy who was rescued from a Spanish village. We travelled over the Pennines (following at one point the Tour de France route) passing through wild expanses of moorland cloaked in bracken and heather, now turning brown and gold as autumn moves into winter. It was unseasonably mild and sunny and the trees look magnificent in shades of russet, copper and gold. We passed through tiny villages with names such as Tintwhistle and Stone and past fields bordered by hedgerows and dry stone walls. I’d forgotten about hedges but now I’ve seen and remembered them, I realise how much I’ve missed them! Hedges are havens for wildlife – according to the Royal Society of the Protection of Birds, Hedges may support up to 80% of British woodland birds, 50% of British mammals and 30% of butterflies.

A good native hedgerow is made up of a mix of plants such as Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Crab apple, Guelder rose, Dog rose, Wild privet, Honey suckle, Hazel, Field maple and Holly. As a child I used to look for birds’ nests in the hedges and watch the parents flying in and out until the babies flew. Even in my mother’s garden we get a great selection of birds; this morning we saw goldfinches, blue tits, robins and green finches all darting around on her bird feeders. Although Australia has a rich diversity of birds, I only seem to get mynas, an introduced species, wattle birds (they can be very noisy too) and pigeons in my Melbourne suburban garden.

Much as I love Australia, the life I have created there and all my wonderful friends, I really miss the British countryside. It’s definitely mi tierra, my spiritual home. There’s something about the soft, green, gently rolling landscape that gets under my skin; it reminds me of family walks on Sunday afternoons, picnics by rivers, bike rides along country lanes, village fetes with tombolas and teas and long summer evenings when it’s light till ten o’clock.

I read an article a few years back about Sidney Nolan who moved to England in 1955 and then to the borders of Wales where he settled in 1983. He painted Australian landscapes from afar, but also travelled widely outside Europe to Africa, China and Antarctica, returning regularly to Australia to connect with the quality of light and the shape of the trees. When people talk of homesickness, perhaps what they are really getting at is a yearning for the topography of their native country. Every time I return to English I feel like doing a Pope John Paul II and kissing the ground.

I have very intermittent internet access and so am writing this from the library in Retford near where my mother lives. It’s a small market town, worlds apart from Melbourne in every way, but I’m rather fond of it. There are no shops to speak of – not even a Marks and Spencers – but there is a great little market on Thursdays and Saturdays. On Saturday I bought a wonderful 1950s style cloche hat with a flower on the front ready for Krakow and Zurich, and a red leather collar for Bertie. The hat cost just £10 and the collar £3.50; everything seems much cheaper here. My brother tells me that the cost of living is indeed higher in Australia but so are wages. Not mine, I fear! Next time I come over I’m going to bring an empty suitcase and load up with goodies.

A trip down memory lane

At last I return to my blog. This time it was work that stopped play. I’ve had a couple of assignments that have proved tricky and overwhelming. From an article on aged care legislation to a government tender and a newsletter for a university, they’ve all been a bit dense, brain-clogging and writers’ block-inducing. Anyway, today I’ve come up for air and, so far, have celebrated by going out for lunch at one of my favourite cafes and reading the paper over a bacon and egg sandwich. There’s some so comforting about bacon and eggs – I think it must hark back to childhood.

Talking about childhood, I’ve now got to the fun bit of my home renovations and am unpacking boxes of ‘stuff’ (there is no better word) that I shipped from the UK about 18 months ago. As well as books, plates, ornaments and decorative bits and bobs, there’s quite a bit of memorabilia. The Life Laundry gurus might disapprove but I’m really happy that I held onto some treasured items before I moved to Australia. Unpacking them years later (I was too deluged with work to celebrate but, as of last Wednesday, 9th July, I’ve been in Australia for ten years) I’ve smiled, laughed, cried, felt amazed, incredulous and deeply respectful for times past.

I’ve got quite a few letters spanning about three decades – remember those beautiful hand-written items we used to pop in post boxes before electronic communications took over? I’ve got some of the first letters I wrote to my parents in the late 60s when they were away and I was staying with family friends. The spelling is atrocious, there are no punctuation marks anywhere and the words on the page are jumbled reminding me of magnetic scrabble letters on a fridge. But I’d been to the sea and thrown sticks for the dogs and was excited about going with Susie and Gillie to the laundrette and having hot chocolate from a machine. Then there are letters I wrote home from my brief stay at boarding school (where I was miserable) telling my parents: “I love Queenswood. It’s just at night the people in my dormitory talk till about half past ten and when the horrid old house mistress, who is equal to the size of four elephants, comes along at night she says I should be asleep otherwise I’ll have to go to the doctor for some tablets.” Later on I insist: “I am extremely happy here,” and I concluded another letter by saying: “Don’t forget I’m tremendously happy here.” Methinks that I did protest far too much.

1960s letter>

Letters from both grandmothers brought tears to my eyes. My maternal grandmother told me she was expecting lots of guests over the summer and shared her menu plans with me. Memories of her signature dishes came flooding back. I must ask Mum for the recipe for Granny’s Bombe Surprise made with blackcurrants. A tactful letter from a boy I had a crush on in my teens let me down gently by asking about my love life and sharing holiday plans to go to America where there would be “lots of lovely girls!!.” Another male friend (I wonder if he ever realised I had a thing about him?!) wrote me a long, long letter in 1978 full of his pre-university adventures (toad racing, potato picking and meat packing) travelling up the East Coast of Australia. He sent me a special full-colour fold-out souvenir of the Great Barrier Reef (when it was still pristine) and apologised for his writing style: “Out here everything is said backwards or abbreviated.” He was in Queensland at the time… Little did I ever dream that I would end up living in Australia! Back then it was a faraway land, dry and dusty, and full of kangaroos called Skippy.

I’ve also got many of the letters I wrote from Vienna in 1982 when I was an au-pair girl for a family. A bit like at boarding school, I was terribly, terribly homesick not helped by the crushing routine of having to walk the two little girls every morning in the Stadt Park whether it was minus five or plus 30 degrees. But I did enjoy Vienna itself and still have programs from the Opera House (Carmen, La Bohème, Arabella etc) complete with the playlist for that day. You could get a standing ticket for six Austrian Schillings – a bargain! I’ve also got programs from the Volksoper (the less fancy ‘people’s opera’ where I went to operettas by the likes of Offenbach), brochures from Schönbrunn Castle, a poster advertising a Festival of Clowns, a postcard of the Prater (the famous Ferris Wheel) and a glossy program from the Spanish Riding School (those wonderful Lipizzaner horses).

The Opera House Vienna - this postcard looked dated even in the 80s!

The Opera House Vienna – this postcard looked dated even in the 80s!

The Spanish Riding School, Vienna

The Spanish Riding School, Vienna

There are years of diaries in my boxes including a lockable five-year diary that I wrote for three years, love letters, papers and magazines marking special occasions such as Royal Weddings and much more. Some of it will undoubtedly end up in the attic or the shed and I’m not mourning the things I threw out – such as folder of beer coasters and matchboxes of every restaurant I went to in California in 1984 – but I’m happy to have created a small and meaningful time capsule.