Giving My House an Airing

One of the reasons I renovated was to make my house more guest-friendly; that’s why I made a second bathroom out of a laundry cupboard and a ‘powder room,’ and created an ensuite bathroom to my room. Having two bathrooms avoids awkward nocturnal meetings in the corridor or having to queue up in your own house to brush your teeth. It’s nice to have left all that behind along with exams, backpacking and dormitories.

I’m now getting my house ship-shape for the Airbnb photo shoot, a free service offered by the hugely successful online accommodation business, which connects travellers with people in over 190 countries who have a spare room or entire property to rent out. Airbnb launched in 2008 and by 2012 had reached five million bookings. In 2014 Airbnb was valued at $10 billion, making it worth more than the worldwide portfolio of Hyatt Hotels. Impressive stuff! According to the webinar I tuned into, it’s all about building ‘virality’ (not to be confused with virility) into the DNA of your product. But that’s another story.

My Airbnb symbol - spot the beach huts!

My Airbnb symbol – spot the beach huts!

What I love about Airbnb is that you can escape the stuffy sameness of hotel accommodation and find a place that has character, is homely and enables you to meet and share stories with local residents. In December 2012 I stayed in a spacious and stylish flat in a trendy district of Copenhagen. Although I didn’t see her much (she had just met a new man), I got on really well with my host, a freelance photographer. She was great fun, helped me with my onward travel arrangements, offered me home-made marinated herring (you can’t go to Denmark and NOT try herring) on my last night and let me cuddle her pet rabbit. Although I fancy myself as something of an animal whisperer, (not counting the belligerent donkey in Greece who deliberately nudged a boulder in my direction), the rabbit took fright and shot into its burrow-like enclosure. Never mind.

That’s why I’ve decided to ask the Airbnb photographers to include a picture of Bertie in one of the shots, so prospective visitors know that this house has a resident hound, one who loves to be part of the action. I was initially worried that Bertie’s excitable nature was going to make it difficult with guests coming and going. But, thanks to a recent one on one training session, the boy is beginning to understand that jumping up is not cool but that sitting down definitely is, and earns him a few edible treats. He does still bark in tandem with the neighbours’ dogs (they don’t seem to understand that dogs, especially those designed to herd sheep need regular exercise, ARGH!) but if I catch him and shake the jar of coins before he flies out the laundry door flap and barks up a storm, he stays by my side ever hopeful that a biscuit will magically drop out of my pocket. I never go anywhere nowadays without dog poo bags and treats…

He does still bark furiously at the possums and gets so worked up that he tries to climb the fence, so I only let him out a couple of times before bed. I’m hoping that my guests will be so enchanted by Australia’s nocturnal native animals that they will overlook the occasionally canine cacophony. I can always offer earplugs as part of the package.

Barking at possums - who me?!

Barking at possums – who me?!

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.

Renovations stopped play

It’s been a long time between blogs (writing my own and reading others) but not that long between drinks; which is not to say I have turned into a boozer but I have found that a medicinal whisky and soda (my maternal grandmother lived till her 90s on little tots of whisky) while soaking in my new claw-foot bath has helped soothe my frazzled nerves. Let me explain. Having sailed through my renovations by avoiding the whole thing down in Anglesea, I ran into a few issues on my return.

But it wasn’t the dust (even if it did find its way into EVERYTHING including the freezer compartment), the dirt, boxes and general chaos of drop sheets and furniture piled up in the middle of the living room that got to me, or the clothes dryer jammed next to my bed, or the chair that developed a coating of white fuzzy mould in the shed, or the wires hanging down from the bedroom and living room ceilings where light fittings are yet to be chosen. It was the Paint Problem (capitals intended). In my attempts to cut costs I had told my builder that I would not be using his painter, but would instead get my handyman to do it. Interestingly, my mother, when she was over, did express concern that I didn’t know about Mr H’s painting, but I chose not to listen. And, boy, do I regret it now!

Where do I start?!

Where do I start?!

The truth is that Mr H is not great at painting. So you can imagine my distress when I first got back to the house and noticed patchy painting, wiggly lines between walls and cornices, paint spots on the tiles (my gorgeous new black and white bathroom floor blemished already…) cupboards, mirrors and the timber floors. And that, a bit like Bunnings’ lowest prices (incidentally I’ve been to Bunnings about ten times in the last month) was just the beginning!

As diplomatically as I could (oh the speech rehearsing that went on beforehand), I told Mr H that he had done a good job but it was clearly too much to expect of him so I had decided to get professionals in to finish the job. Far from taking offence, Mr H was clearly relieved. Phew. One major hurdle overcome.

Someone recommended a team of professional painters to get it all into shape. Their price was similar to the quotes I had had from professionals in the beginning and so I thought it was worth the financial stretch (yikes). What’s more, a team of four were ready to start and blitz the place the following weekend if Bertie and I could vacate. I hadn’t much enjoyed evenings camping out on a sun lounger eating takeaways in front of the TV in my guest room (the sitting room was still under dust sheets), so was quite happy to decamp to my brother’s house just down the road complete with Aga cooker and cocker spaniel playmate for Bertie.

But the so-called professionals ripped me off and did an appalling job. And it still hurts. Every time I lie in the bath, wash up, sit on the loo (sorry but you do notice things from that vantage point), I see blobs and blotches of paint, paint on the floors, and lots of rough, uneven areas on the woodwork.

I found out that the boss guy of this dodgy outfit has one service for the mansion owners and one for the rest of us. One of his staff, a lovely guy and trainee painter (that makes him cheaper you see), let slip that the boss had told him: “Don’t take too much time on this job. She’s not paying much.” He had the cheek to tell the student that I was paying 50 per cent less than I actually was. Needless to say the woodwork didn’t get properly sanded down or prepared. And the belligerent boss insisted on using oil-based enamel even though I requested water-based. “No worries (his catchcry), I’ve already bought oil-based paint,” he said in his thick Eastern European accent. Perhaps he had purchased a job lot, I couldn’t help thinking afterwards. So the place STANK when I finally moved back.

Dusting off the contents of my wardrobe

Dusting off the contents of my wardrobe

What’s more, the painters (well it was just the student for the last two of the four days) didn’t seem to know what was and wasn’t included in the job. So I had to yoyo back and forth to my house, checking on progress. But the biggest challenge was standing up to the boss man when he came to collect his money and refusing to pay the total amount until the work was brought up to an acceptable standard. I was scared; he’s an imposing man, four times my size, a bit of a bully and, I suspect, a misogynist. If I had rehearsed my speech to Mr H, this time I wrote a dissertation. The bastard tried to intimidate me, to pull the wool over my eyes blaming an old house for imperfections in walls and woodwork (for someone that grew up in houses dating from the 1700s in Britain, a house built in 1969 is NOT old.) So that didn’t wash. Then he was rude to me (If I had known you were going to be so difficult…) but I stood my ground and went round pointing out the areas that needed attention, such as a door that had clearly not been sanded. Grudgingly he agreed to send back the student for a few hours (it turned into a day) and apologised for not project managing the job more closely. Something about his son having bad asthma.

There were 56 bits of masking tape highlighting areas that needed fixing when the student arrived. He did his best, and in fact unbeknown to his boss, is coming back this weekend to fix up more areas but we’re never going to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. At some stage I will stop looking at the place with a magnifying glass and let go of the drama of it all.


Thank Goodness I had a comfortable base at my brother’s house as the whole episode knocked me for six (add a few noughts and you’ll appreciate just how painful it was!), but it wasn’t just the money or the bad craftsmanship, it was all the nervous energy it gobbled up as I vainly tried to juggle work, tax demands, backlogged paperwork, cleaning and scrubbing paint-flecked everything, unpacking my house (I couldn’t find anything) and spending weekends flogging round IKEA, Bunnings and Masters looking at carpets, fixtures and fittings and trying to track down someone to lay a bit of vinyl in the laundry.

I went through about ten days of total brain fog. I got lost in several car parks, went shopping for milk and came out with everything but, struggled to focus on my work and would spend hours on one paragraph, sent invoices out with the wrong number, left the oven on one night, tried to turn the television on with my phone and so on. You get the picture. I was totally overwhelmed. And into the bargain I had a severe migraine (Bertie dog took advantage and kept me company on my bed; what better therapy), another massive paint-induced headache a week later and several episodes of bursting into tears. But there was an upside; I changed the colour from Hog Bristle quarter (too beige) to Antique White USA and it looks great.

Thank god for soothing  baths!

Thank god for soothing baths!

And we’re winning now and it is beginning to look like home. I love my new bathroom, my breakfast bar in the kitchen and my $180 antique shop period sofa shipped all the way from Gippsland makes a cosy spot to curl up of an evening. If I haven’t lost you in the drama (yes, I’ve bloggd on a bit long haven’t I?), stay tuned for the next episode; next week my builder returns to get the place ready for carpets and to install fixtures and fittings and I’m awaiting quotes to lay vinyl in Bertie’s bedroom aka the laundry.

A Stay of Execution

I was due to go back to my newly renovated house in Melbourne today and had been gearing up for a while, bracing myself even for the rigours of city life. But when I learnt that the painting was way behind schedule and that one of the shower screen panels and a pedestal basin had to be replaced, I was only too happy to postpone my return for another week. Well, what could I do? How would I manage the increasingly bumptious Bertie (all the beach romps and sea air are making him super fit and harder to tire out) around paint pots and wet surfaces? I was envisaging white paint on his paws and nose and chocolate brown hairs trapped in newly painted walls.

So, I’m still here with the pounding of the ocean my bedtime lullaby, the chatter of birds my morning wake-up call and starlit skies unblemished by light pollution my night-time vista. And this week’s full moon sunsets have coloured the sky magnificent shades of purple and pink. Gaining an extra week here feels like precious time I have stolen back. You see, I’ve rather fallen in love with life on the Surf Coast and haven’t really missed city life at all. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Life is gentler here, quieter, slower and calmer and it feels GOOD. I’m not missing the traffic, the cacophony of caffeinated chatter and clattering of coffee cups in Melbourne’s many ‘go-to’ cafes, nor the one-upmanship and competitiveness about who is busiest or the most tired, the running around from thing to thing, the tail chasing and endless pursuit of the latest thing in retail, culture, sport, fashion or food. It’s easy to get trapped in wanting to keep up with it all and follow the crowd.

Here my phone rings less, I write fewer lists, am less wakeful in the night and am more focused in my work. Some of the concrete-like tension in my neck and shoulders has softened, and I’ve become fitter, even running (well more or less) up the steep beach steps and doing mini jogs with Bertie. I’ve had moments of feeling like I did when I was a child; more carefree and in the moment without one eye constantly on tomorrow.

There’s a more laidback vibe here what with all the surfer dudes, coastal dwellers and retirees, and things are less of a drama without the intensity of urban living. The other day, for example, I lost my internet connection and didn’t know why. I was working on a big project with a tight deadline but took it all in my stride. I drove up the hill to see if it was a signal problem (it wasn’t), so then rang my ISP provider and finally Telstra – whose 4G WI-FI device I am using here – only to find out I had run out of credit! It turns out that video calls on Skype gobble up lots of data. Lesson learned. Anyway, I lost about half a day but remained unperturbed, instead of going into a spin and wasting time and energy.

Yes, I know, I’m being escapist and can’t run away from my other life forever. If I had moved here permanently, I would no doubt have regretted it by now, and felt I was missing out on the many advantages of city living. I’m talking as someone who has had a brief taste of country/coastal life and enjoyed it knowing my other life and everyone in it would still be there when I got back.

But I think it goes deeper. I grew up in small rural villages in England or on the edge of small towns. Rolling green fields, country walks, dogs, tuning in to the seasons, peace and quiet were all part of my landscape – all low key stuff rather than the high-jinx and high-life. I think perhaps I’m a sociable loner who needs regular periods of solitude, preferably in nature, in between interacting with others.

That’s why I so enjoyed reading Ailsa Piper’s account of walking the Camino (Sinning Across Spain) and her quest for solitude. Many fellow walkers wanted to be her friend and to barge in on her space. Ailsa was one of the writers at the recent Lighthouse Literary Fest in Fairhaven. She talked about the city as having no gaps and compared it to music in elevators; one of the many ways we block out silence.

I’m going to luxuriate in the space, silence and serenity of my coastal surrounds this weekend. But, and here’s the social loner in action, there are a few excitements planned as well. A trip to Torquay tonight to see the local acting troupe in Twelve Angry Jurors, dinner with a writer and wine-maker tomorrow night and an opportunity to get up close and personal with a bee hive on Sunday.

Owning your (my) own style

I haven’t seen my house for a few weeks but the renovations are nearly finished and I’m dissatisfied already! But only in my head, you understand. I think it’s a case of renovation envy. It all started when I visited a lovely new friend in Anglesea – she’s a writer and artist – and had lunch in her beautiful home. You can see her artist’s eye at play everywhere; the triangular patterned tiles echoing the earthy shades of terracotta and blue on the walls and in the boxed shelves, the art on the walls, the huge (and well-fitting windows) framing views of gnarled and forked gum trees, the marble-top kitchen and chunky pottery dotted around, the funky butter dish, the lime green weighing scales, the brightly coloured mosaic tiles in the bathroom beautifully toned in with the sink, a colourful Mexican-looking ceramic bowl. And then there’s the wood burner with the sliding glass front warming the room and adding another stylish touch.

If only I’d seen her house before I chose the white subway tiles from Bunnings, I thought going all Discontented Pony (anyone else familiar with the Ladybird Books story from childhood?), and maybe I should have persisted in getting the shelving unit in the living room re-done the way I wanted. And then what about my kitchen bench top fiasco? In truth the kitchen tops are the only part of the renovations that have gone a bit ‘off message’ and it’s one of those situations where it’s not really anyone’s fault. My builder – and I can’t praise him enough; he’s absolutely meticulous, punctual, professional and gentle with it – noticed that the laminex pattern I had chosen was 30 per cent more expensive than the standard range. So he hunted around and found a match from another company. He showed me the sample when I went up to the house at the end of March, and I approved it.

What neither of us noticed (the sample was the size of a match box) is that it had a strange indentation which, over a large area, looks like a series of scribbly scratch marks. While it’s not what I would have chosen, I’m going to make the best of it. The bottom line is that changing it would stuff up the budget bottom line by $2000. And once all my things are dotted around – yellow lemons on my grandmother’s green cake stand, my Italian ceramic fruit bowl (also featuring lemons), my blue and white candlesticks and all the other paraphernalia and memorabilia currently stacked floor to ceiling in various cupboards, the strange scribbles will fade into the background.

My spare room cupboard packed to the gills

My spare room cupboard packed to the gills

And that’s the thing. My style is my style. Although I am a little restricted by a modest budget, my choices reflect who I am and where I hail from. I’m not an artist with an eye for the Tuscan look and triangular tiles, but I am a homemaker through and through, and the interior of my house is a somewhat eclectic mix of classical English meets country cottage meets suburban Melbourne. I’ve got some treasured antique pieces from both my grandmothers, a fair few bits of charity shop chic, a bit of IKEA and lots of pictures on the walls, none of them which could be described as modern or abstract. So when I embarked on renovation plans, my aim was to keep a classical, if slightly quirky, look. Hence the claw foot bath, black and white tiles and hand-crafted cloche light in the bathroom, and the white painted shelving unit on either side of the fireplace so I can – at long last– display all my treasures from an antique ginger jar to more modern glassware, favourite books, tea cups, jugs and ornaments.

In fact the older I get, the more I love antiques, not just the look of them but the stories behind their design, creation and use. I’ve been watching a British program on SBS called Antiques Uncovered hosted by an historian and an antiques expert. In the last episode they went to Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire to look at the history of tea cups, sofas, Georgian glassware, chandeliers and more. It’s all a bit broad brush as they cover so many items in one program, but I particularly enjoyed the bit about the history of porcelain. The Chinese, of course, developed porcelain in the tenth century, but it was not until the British discovered the magic ingredient, Cornish soapstone (talcum powder), that porcelain or, ‘White Gold’ as it was known, became all the rage in the eighteenth century. And it said something about your class as to whether you drank from translucent china which held hot water without leaking, or from a rough, porous earthenware cup. The upper classes could pour the hot tea straight into the cup and then add the milk, whereas the lower classes had to put the milk in first to prevent the cup from shattering. That’s why the ‘right’ way is still considered to be the tea first method.

Tea cup

It’s like Downton Abbey – I’m an unashamed fan (although the last double bill episode of Series Four was terribly implausible and a big anticlimax) – it’s all about class and what’s going on Upstairs and Downstairs.

To that end, I also saw a program featuring Downton producer Julian Fellowes going behind the scenes at another of England’s huge stately piles, Burghley House. Burghley was built by William Cecil, treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I. He was the one who ordered the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. The house is still owned and run by his descendents today. It was a fun program looking at parish records, letters and diaries to unearth some of the stories of the lords and ladies and their servants. As Fellowes said, “we’ve all got ancestors that were giving or taking orders. History belongs to all of us.”

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.

A whiter shade of pale…

Q: What do Lexicon, China, Barrister, Berkshire, Stowe, Hog Bristle, Goat’s cheese, Eskimo Hut, Table Linen, Enchanted, Cloud Stream, Peace Flower and Skydancer have in common?

A: They are all paints marketed under the banner of whites and neutrals. And there are hundreds of them!

A few weeks ago my nephew popped round to see Mum (who was visiting from England). I asked him if he’d help me out by painting some colour swatches on the wall while I tapped away at my latest article.


The previous weekend I’d slogged (sweated) round Bunnings (for non-Aussies, Bunnings is a warehouse-style DIY store) mid-heatwave. No wonder it boasts the ‘lowest prices’ (its strapline on every ad), the air-con is either on energy-saving low or is just a series of fans pushing hot air around. I was in between paragraphs writing about melanoma (no risk inside Bunnings at least), and once I’d bought drawer and door handles, plastic drop sheets, oversize garbage bags (the local charity shops are growing to LOVE me) and looked at blinds and sinks, I was pretty much over the whole thing – the heat, my impending renovations and having to make so many decisions. So by the time I got to the paint section, I grabbed six tester pots and hoped for the best. Rather like the rare occasions I bet on the horses, I was influenced by names I liked as much as the actual colours. How could I go wrong with Peace Flower, for example? Surely it would create an oasis of calm in my living room and block out the screeching bird in my neighbour’s garden.

But, of course, none of the colours looked right; they were variously too silver, too white, too bland, too yellow or too brown – all very Goldilocks. Mum suggested a hint of pink would add a bit of warmth. And she was probably right but that would mean ANOTHER trip to Bunnings to get more tester pots and I simply couldn’t face it.

The wrong shades of white...

The wrong shades of white…

Then I had a light bulb moment! Helen and John were due to arrive in Melbourne the next day as part of their world trip from the UK to Vancouver, Tahiti, Australia and Cambodia. Helen is an artist and has a keen eye for colour, and she and John, a gorgeous man and retired farmer, have renovated what they call the ‘bung,’ Helen’s bungalow, in Somerset.

Almond white is what you need they said, it’s much nicer and warmer than Magnolia (an over-used favourite back in Blighty). They’d used Almond White in the bung and it looked great. Paint dilemma over, I thought, relieved. After studying my renovation plans in detail (rather heroic of them as they were, after all, on holiday), we set off for lunch and then did a tour of St. Kilda and Albert Park. On the way home, we stopped at my local hardware store (the opportunity was too good to miss) to get some of the Almond White to test out. But it wasn’t quite that simple. It turns out that Almond White is a UK colour so we rang Dulux Australia for the ‘recipe’ but they didn’t have it. However, they did tell us that Dulux in New Zealand do an Almond White in their range, but they didn’t know if it was the same as its British cousin. But, if it were the same thing, Hog Bristle Quarter was the nearest match. I duly bought a small pot of the Hog Bristle (white with a bit of ochre) and Helen painted it on various sections of my walls. While not quite Almond White, Helen and John thought it was pretty close and a big improvement on the other colours I had chosen.

That night they went off to stay with friends near Warrandyte. I stayed home and had plenty of time to stare at the walls, not in a sad-singleton-Shirley-Valentine-kind-of-way you understand, but in a colour-appraising way. Did I really like Hog Bristle Quarter or was I just making do? Helen and John returned on Sunday night. And guess what? They had admired the colour on the walls at their friends’ house only to discover it was none other than Hog Bristle Quarter. That was enough to convince me that HBQ was indeed the one and that I didn’t need to test out another Fifty Shades of White. Phew!

On toes and too much to do

The truth is that life has been truly, madly, deeply bonkers and busy this last ten days; too busy even to brag about my brilliant welcome-to-mum beetroot soup. Because, although I say it myself, it was rather good.

Mum arrived on one of those early morning flights about ten days ago and kept going all day. She didn’t have much choice. Bertie dog was ill and passing blood – my courtyard was a mess – and so we spent the first afternoon scrubbing down the paving stones and then had an hour-long appointment at the vet’s (he’s since recovered after lots of tests and mega doses of antibiotics). After the vet’s I had an hour to prepare dinner, change and get my head in gear for a meeting with a publisher in Carlton. I only just made it as I ran into heavy traffic and had to ditch the car and jump on a tram.

Our second day started well and ended badly. We took Bertie for an afternoon walk in the park and went off the path and under the trees to avoid the sun. Don’t ask me how but, within minutes, a stick with attitude had singled out Mum’s leg and gashed it in two places. What would have been a bandaid affair for me or you, resulted in a major wound for Mum. Just as Bertie had stopped bleeding, Mum started, ruining her new shoes in the process. Yikes!

We got an appointment with the unpopular male doctor at my local practice the next day. He’s a belligerent, opinionated kind of medic totally lacking in any bedside manner. Mind you, Mum can be quite a tour de force herself especially when it comes to insisting that they use her special dressings the had brought from England. Was she planning to have wounded legs? Did she fear bashing her legs so much that it turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy? Sometimes I do wonder. Mum is the one who banged her leg on bed post in Singapore, had a similar stick incident on a beach in the Mornington Peninsula and, on a holiday in Cornwall in 2001, dropped a TV on her head. That really was quite a drama; she had tried to tilt the television downwards but it wasn’t fixed to the bracket so toppled over.

This is not to make light of her recent wound. Her leg was very sore and swollen but, more than that, Mum was furious it had happened and frustrated at not being able to swim, walk Bertie and help me clean and clear out cupboards in preparation for my renovations. I probably added to her frustration by running around like a mad chook flipping from thing to thing – writing grants and feature articles, buying a finger glove and special chicken-flavoured toothpaste for Bertie (he’s got a bit of plaque on his teeth apparently), doing the body corporate accounts (I can’t make them add up), clearing out cupboards (Mum is appalled at the stuff I have amassed – “you never used to be like this”), taking stuff to my local charity shop, testing paint colour on the walls, and toing and froing with the builder and other suppliers on everything from shelf heights to electrical points, Laminex samples, tiles and telephone points. Renovations are like migraines; you’ve got to go through it to know what it feels like. Believe me.

Then I’ve been emailing the folks back in England and dipping a toe in world of eBay to sell some of my clutter. So far I’ve sold a dress and am two dollars out of pocket. It sold for a dollar and I underestimated the postage. And talking of toes, my sister in London has dislocated her toe and it hurts like hell. She got out of bed in the night to attend to her husband who has had major knee surgery and has his knee in a brace. Are we accident prone in our family or just Drama Queens, or both?

Anyway, in between all of this whirling around, we’ve had some lovely moments of R & R: a lazy lunch in the garden with gorgeous rose wine, lunch at a local cafe in between a gentle bit of window shopping and, the highlight, a visit to Tim and Bruce in Hepburn Springs where we sat on the veranda watching greedy cockatoos nibbling on pears, read books, chatted about all and sundry, and had a beautiful dinner (Chicken Coronation, none the less, and Nigella’s plate trifle). With renovations looming in my own house, it was gorgeous to get away.

Bertie's hair clip...

Bertie’s hair clip…

I came back wondering how I could de-clutter not just my house but my to-do lists. And I’ve come up with a way to make combing Bertie’s ears less of a chore (see my last post about the bossy groomer). Getting out the knots and grass seeds is one thing, but food gets stuck in his hair and makes it all matted and he hates it when I try to comb it out. So, short of coming up with an edible chicken-flavoured comb, I bought a hair grip, one of those Lady Jane things, and I pin his ears back before he eats. As he gobbles up his food in about 30 seconds, he doesn’t even notice and it works a treat. The only thing is that I get the giggles as his little face looks so funny with his ears back. So I have to work hard at keeping a straight face when issuing the SIT and WAIT commands. These are two of the commands we’ve got down pat unlike leash walking…

On Sunday morning, he yanked on his lead and nearly pulled me down the front steps. My sandals caught on the step and my foot got bent back and I ended up with a huge bruise and rather sore toes. What was I saying about our family and the Drama Queen gene?

Looks like a Greek sculpture gone wrong...

Looks like a Greek sculpture gone wrong…