Gimme Shelter

 The browney – whitey house, (clue’s in the name, bestowed by granddaughter Matilda) is ready for her and sister Claudia to arrive for Christmas.** Brett and Beth the equal opportunity Bunning’s bears await, along with the shell collection, the family arrayed around the walls and even the old Yamaha organ set up by hopeful grandma. (Well, Mozart didn’t write his first symphony till he was nine!) They will have Kevin the koala and his tribe of well- worn dolls and soft toys for company, not to mention a shelf of books and a cupboard full of games and blocks and jigsaws.

 We keep it all because we can’t be arsed cleaning it up, but also because they just love to rediscover things they have seen and played with before. Claudia is already setting up play dates with Kirsty Lorraine -Thea’s Cabbage Patch kid! Good to know that some things don’t change, and can be relied upon. As well, two doting (doddery) grandparents are a fixture – hopefully part of a childhood that is building emotional credit from which they will draw for the rest of their lives. But while that comes from being loved and cherished, we cannot discount physical familiarity; that some things will stay the same and give a feeling of permanence.

It’s the same feeling that has us return to places of childhood and stand in front of houses we’ve lived in, or the need to handle the stuff of our early lives, stroke the fur of a balding teddy, or leaf through a dilapidated picture book. It’s woven into who we are.

But what if you’re never allowed the luxury of permanence? What if you don’t happen to have the requisite thousands of dollars necessary to purchase some of that security for your family, no matter how much you try? What if you and your children live in insecure rental accommodation and are subject to the vicissitudes of the famous ‘market’ so prized by our system as a way of making the economy function. Finding affordable rent is becoming a joke – and a grim one at that. For thousands of Australian families, no matter how hard they work, the idea of a home they can afford to rent or buy in order to give them security and permanence is a distant dream. A friend of mine who volunteers for St Vinnie’s is trying to contact families to send them Christmas hampers, but finds that many of them have moved, or are not answering their phones. It’s a stark reminder that some people live with a level of precariousness that is truly frightening.*

Hopeful renters queuing for the chance to put their names on a list for a flat.

Successive governments haven’t seemed to mind that house prices keep going up. By some calculations it makes the figures look good – private wealth for individual Australians is on the increase, and it’s one marker of a booming economy.

But surely there are other more important measures of a successful society. I’ve had many conversations about rising house prices, and the sense of achievement, that one’s dwelling is now worth so much more than when it was purchased. But this is bonkers accounting! Yes we might be sitting on a million dollars of real estate, but we have to live somewhere, and if we sell, we have to buy again in the same market, so we don’t actually have that money. 

And if by virtue of your relative youth, a gig economy, and property speculation you are unable to get into the market, it becomes soul destroying. (Even more so when folk claim that you have frittered all your dosh on smashed avocado and latte.) Let’s see, that meal costs about $10, and the cheapest house in a city in Australia is $300,000. By my reckoning you’d have to eat 30,000 smashed avos to make up for a house – and that’s before you pay interest on a loan. It would only take you 82 years! And you’ll probably be sick of smashed avo by then. 

When did shelter cease to be a human right, and become a way of making money? When did governments stop helping people to find affordable housing?

The health issues created by this uncertainty are unthinkable. Children growing up with a lack of permanent shelter amid the anxiety of parents trying to make ends meet are being robbed of a decent childhood.  So many of those who end up moving from friends to family to living in their cars are ‘normal’ families who have been priced out of the market – ‘fallen through the cracks’, is the popular phrase. Isn’t it up to a decent society to mend those cracks?

Bill Clinton famously said, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ Allow me to rephrase that, Bill. ‘It’s the stupid economy!’ Even if you want to look at everything through an economic lens, the price we will all pay now and in the future, for the illness and stress that follows from insecure housing will cost a fortune!  By one reckoning, a dollar spent to ameliorate the conditions for a child will save you twenty dollars spent trying to fix the unhappy adult. One way or another we will all pay for that! You can’t leave everything to the market – you have to intervene, but that takes a government with the courage to take the long view, not just the small window to the next election.

Check out the Attlee-led British government in the 1950’s that managed – in a war-damaged country that was stony broke – to build one million homes! (And, by the way, a free health system.) It can be done. It’s probably no coincidence that Attlee lived in a modest house in a suburb of London and was driven everywhere in a 1936 Hillman sedan by his wife Violet. No sign of the famed gold wallpaper refurbishment of Downing Street ordered by Boris Johnson, or the ninety (!) vehicles that accompanied Biden through Europe on his way to Glasgow. How did it come to this?

 Amazon delivery is in overdrive, which tells us Christmas is approaching – and our thoughts turn to a small shelter in Bethlehem. 

“Oh, that we, that we were there,

 Oh that we were there!”

So goes the beautiful old carol, saying if only we had been present at the stable in Bethlehem we would have…we would have what? That stable is emblematic of a world we currently occupy – a couple on the road, seeking shelter – sounds a bit like refugees to me, or homeless people. And Mary and Joseph didn’t even have a car to sleep in – can’t sleep on a donkey!! Have we forgotten that their much-revered baby grew up to say things like: 

‘Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me.” (Matt: 25: 40)

So now with contemporary stable – dwellers in full sight in a country supposedly renowned for its generosity and decency – governed by a man driven by his Christian beliefs, we find it more comforting to live in wistful regret that we weren’t there. 

But we are.

(*I don’t want to disparage the many modest investors-turned-landlords who save for their retirement in this way. I just want to draw attention to a bigger systemic problem that needs some courage and vision.)

(** I’m aware that our house looks pretty posh! But that’s because we managed to buy that block of land in 1986! We boomers were such a lucky generation, due in large part to free health and education provided by a visionary government. Bob and I were the first in our families to buy a house. We are the embodiment of what a government can do for its citizens.)


For Friendship

‘When I am laid, am laid in earth …remember me, remember me…’ keens Dido in one of the most beautiful and moving laments ever sung. I defy anyone to hear it and not weep.

But did it have to be this way? Where were Dido’s friends? Wasn’t there anyone she could call, who’d say, ‘Hang on, Dide honey, why don’t you stop lamenting, get in that chariot and come over to mine? We’ll have a few wines and talk about it. And btw I never liked that Aeneas – too up himself!’* I guarantee Dido would wake up next morning and think, hey, it’s not so bad, I’m still a good-looking intelligent Queen of Carthage! Phew, glad I didn’t get laid in earth yet. OK, we’d miss out on Purcell’s glorious music but Dido could have carried on for a good few years.

Tragic heroines, whose men ‘done them wrong’ make for wonderful heart-searing music and drama: Dido, Cleopatra, Anna Karenina, the list goes on and on. But wait. Did their stories have to end in tragedy?  Didn’t any of these abandoned women have mates with whom they could have a wine or a cuppa to give them some perspective? (OK Cleopatra had Nerissa, but she just joined in the misery-fest)

And as for that Anna! No need to go under that train, get on it!* It was headed for Moscow and we would have met you at the station and taken you to a really good vodka bar we know. And as for your little boy, get a lawyer – a good one. You’re entitled to joint custody, or at least visiting rights. And your brother will support you – let’s face it, he’s no saint!

 And Cleopatra! That bastard Antony should have trusted you, but he was too busy bestriding the world like a Colossus – or trying to. As if you’d betray him to slimy Octavius! Get on that barge – the one you sat in like a burnished throne, that burned the water – and come over to mine*. We’ll have a few of those beers that pharaoh left. And I have anti-venom in the bathroom cabinet in case you get bitten by that pet asp of yours.

This is the way women friends support each other – they often look for other ways around problems that seem utterly hopeless when you’re in the middle of them. They will be there to support, bring sustenance and leave judgment at the door. This is not to say that men don’t support one another – they do, and it’s often encoded in activities like sport, which gives them opportunities to get together and talk, to help one another, and even – if it’s football – permission to hug each other! 

But women don’t seem to need a formal activity – with rules – to get together and just be with one another over a coffee or a drink. In my experience women often fold their love and support into small domestic packages – pick up your kids from school and feed them, deliver dinner and put a load of washing through, or just make a cuppa, and listen.

So why do we love these big stories? Is it because they elevate the notion of love to the highest plane of human sacrifice – that you would literally give your life for it?  And in that there’s a tragic grandeur that is somehow inspirational. It seems to me that love also resides in the small, the quiet, the constant, the patient, the unseen and unsung. Not the big gesture, just a million small gestures that are the architecture of a good life, not a spectacular death.

*With apologies to Virgil, Shakespeare and Tolstoy

Poor Me

So here we are in lockdown gazing out the window, wondering how long it is till I can have a drink. Poor me! (No, not Pour me…not yet)

  • Can’t travel to see our grandkids…the latest only 6 weeks old. (But we do see them all the time on the phone.)
  • Can’t go out much… but OK, when we do, it’s a walk on the beach.


  • Have to cut my own fringe…oh no!
  • Running out of things to watch on Netflix…might have to talk to Hubs!
  • What else? I guess I’m a bit bored.

Is that it?  Actually, no.

Never before have I felt so deeply the privilege of a life lived with enough money, shelter and health. Never has the gap between haves and have-nots been so massively huge and impassable. And not just the homeless or the dispossessed; this thing has tipped so many, many people who were managing fine – working, paying their bills, raising their kids – into an abyss of fear and uncertainty. And that is not to mention the millions and millions of people whose lives have always been a day–to-day proposition, who cannot escape crowded conditions, and have little if any medical support. It’s all on a scale that is incomprehensible and unimaginable. And that is the economic fallout. The toll of illness, death and grief is incalculable, and the work of those caring for them equally so. This thing is so big, so unknowable and will spread its horror over the whole world for who knows how long.

But amid all this, and equally extraordinary is the way our fellow humans are responding. The global tsunami of courage, kindness, generosity, selflessness, creativity and inventiveness is staggering. Where do people find the reserves of will to keep on doing those shifts whether they have the kit or not, to make meals and deliver them to those in need, to volunteer at food banks, and to raise the spirits of whole streets with their beautiful music?  cellistYet they do. And they keep on doing. If there is a single lesson to take from this unholy mess, it is that – contrary to what all those dystopian Armageddon-y books and films would have us believe – society doesn’t break down. Dog doesn’t eat dog. People don’t take to their bunkers fending off all comers with firearms. Leather clad vigilante groups don’t stalk the streets. Instead, people with flimsy masks collect the shopping for their elderly neighbours, and children leave teddy bears out to cheer each other up.

teddy bears 2

So in the spirit of cheering us up, I’ve assembled a few random positives from the wreckage of our previous and – in my case smug – lives. In no particular order:

  • Can see the Himalayas from India – and with them the incontrovertible evidence that it’s us, our cars and our planes that are destroying the planet.


  • Commuting may not be as necessary as we thought. Ditto rush hour.
  • Real estate re-assessed. Maybe cut down on some office and retail space, and – I don’t know, convert it to housing?
  • Big, pollutant and unaccountable cruise ships may be sailing permanently into the sunset.

cruise ship

  • Governments can do
  • They can house the homeless. Who knew?
  • Doctors… no wonder our mums wanted us to marry one. They really are gods.
  • Police, nurses, paramedics, orderlies, hospital cleaners and porters, nursing home staff. If we needed a definition of heroic…here it is.

nurse 2

  • Teachers –the ones who get the blame when our kids can’t reed, rite or do sums like we used to. Well, one day of home schooling might change your mind. You’re welcome.
  • Scientists! Turns out they do know a thing or two. The dedication, the collaboration, the inventiveness! Makes you proud to share species-hood with these folk.
  • Those Zoom choirs and orchestras make spirits soar and tears flow. Who are these wonderful people? Maybe I’ll have another go at the ukelele!
  • Workers – in supermarkets, on farms, driving trucks, collecting rubbish – where would we be without them?
  • Artists, dancers, actors, comedians –first out of a job, and first into inventive and inspiring work shared for free. And NT Live on YouTube!
  • Captain – sorry, Colonel – Tom Moore.captain tom moore

When things return to ‘normal ‘ everything will be imbued with an aura of joy. ‘I have to go to work – thank goodness.’ ‘Please, please can we go to school now?’ ‘I’m sick of screens, can we play cards?’ ‘My turn to take Fido for his walk!’ ‘Meet for coffee? Oh joy, oh bliss!’

But for how long?

We have been dragged screaming and weeping into a new world order. Surely all this pain has to mean something. People have reached out, but when this is over will we drop the hands we held, silence the music we shared?  No matter what happens, surely we cannot un-know what we have seen and been.

Don’t we owe it to those who have suffered and died to be better, to learn from this…not just how to manage a pandemic, but how to manage the human race.


Isolation Consolation

Socially isolated, but thankfully healthy, so I have no excuse for not attacking all those dreary tasks that I’ve been putting off because ‘I don’t have time’. Well time is all I have on a day when putting out the rubbish is the main event. Let’s see what’s on offer:

  • Clean all the windows and screens and all those pesky little grooves that they slide in. (Hmmm…anything else?)
  • Take all the covers off the chairs and sofas and wash them. (Oh no, looks like rain!)
  • Take all the books off the shelves and clean behind them. (Oh no…so many books!)
  • Go through and chuck all the paperwork I’ve been keeping since 1982. Who will come after me to see if I paid the rates on a house we sold in 1995? (Well, you never know!)

  • Throw away 40 years of teaching paraphernalia. Who is about to ask me to deconstruct a Shakespeare sonnet, or analyse what ideological world view is privileged in the text? The only text I’m sharing with young people lately is Peppa Pig. Come to think of it…why is daddy pig such a lovable fat loser who always claims the remote? Is this a fourth wave feminist ideological grab at the malleable minds of our kids, seducing them with bright happy pictures of mummy pig fixing complicated things and being the cleverest pig in the room, while baking chocolate cake? (Might leave that job – too political.

  • Write in the blog that I’ve neglected for two years? No way!

I know. Why don’t I go through and cull all those photos on my phone.

Let’s see what made the cut…just about everything! The fact that I made nice looking cupcakes in 2005 was such a rare triumph it was apparently worth recording. Don’t be daft, those cupcakes tasted horrible! Shchk!

(That’s the Apple sound that makes deleting things so satisfying.)

What’s next? The first (and last) time I made Kale donuts – shchk! Hubby in front of a hill (where was that and why did I take three photos of it?) – shchk!  Hubby in front of a big building – shchk! Hubby in front of a bunch of rocks, trees, walls, beaches, houses, castles, blurry lights – shchk! shchk! shchk! Me, in front of a series of similarly random things – shchk? Wait…I look really good in that one. So I should – it was twenty years ago.

OK I made up the kale donuts but you get the drift.

So I’m on a roll (pun intended). Here is every possible choice of hardware, bathroomery and lighting for building our house. Shchk! The entire contents of Bunnings. Shchk! Dozens of dimly lit dinners with unrecognizable drunk people. shchk!  Lots of strangers’ backs at parties. Shchk! Three million identical shots of our first grandchild asleep on Skype. Shchk! Wait…can I un-Shchk some of those?

What’s this? Some kind of fish stew? Looks nice, but…wait! Fish SoupThat was Rome 2014, in a restaurant down a lovely little side street near the mad apartment that our old friends found through patient negotiation with…what was her name? The name is gone, but Rome comes flooding back. Before I know it I’m back in those gorgeous warm streets…with soft yellow and terra cotta crumbly-chic apartments, the flowers, the vistas waiting quietly, painter-ready for anyone with a brush and some talent. our street 4 cropThe piazzas tumbling with life and food and folk with gorgeous scarves and shoes eating and laughing and strolling casually around one of Bernini’s magnificent sinewy arrangements of form and flora carved in white marble. My photos don’t capture it, but they bring the memory. spanish steps allx4 crop
So we Skype our friends and send them the picture of us all on the Spanish steps…remember the seagull we fed with chips who terrorized us, the suicidal little wrought iron lift clanking its way up four stories to an ’apartment’ where nothing worked, but through our Prosecco haze we could see domes in every direction….

Thus a chore becomes a joyous stroll back to a lovely part of life, and for now, backwards is a more edifying direction than forwards. Escapism? Not entirely. The news from Rome today is utterly heartbreaking. Those restaurants are closed, Bernini’s fountains are dry, and grief stalks the empty streets. We are selfishly grateful that we were there, but how will Rome ever come back to its former splendour?

But then I remember what so delighted us about Rome. It was the constant and enchanting surprise of the streetscapes, it was families making their homes amid ancient buildings and history, it was music and food, and the casual everyday beauty of the language and the way of life. These things have been the soul of the city for centuries. They have weathered empires rising and falling, invasions, wars, even Eurovision! They are still there, and will surely return. Meanwhile, memory and hope sustain us. Rome – you are in our thoughts, but, since everything sounds better in that most musical of languages:

Roma –vi siamo vicini con il pensiero


Lost and Found

We did it! After puffing and staggering our way through the gleaming corridors of Frankfurt Airport, we made our connecting flight to Bangkok by seconds. Phew! Time for drinkies, blankies, movies and sighs of relief.

Oops, maybe not.

We made it, but our luggage didn’t, and it’s pretty depressing watching a luggage belt going round and round long after margaritaeveryone else has gone. And while they are ordering Margaritas at their poolside resorts, we are in a tiny office in Koh Samui Airport looking for our little luggage stickers. (You had them, no, you did!). We did eventually find the stickers, a taxi and even a Margarita. And to our surprise we also discovered there is an upside to a luggage-free life (well, couple of days).


Villa Kalyani on Koh Samui. Margaritas on tap!

The first realization is that no one notices what you’re wearing! All that time matching the scarf with the shoes was a complete waste of time. No wonder I haven’t finished the ironing, learned how to meditate or written the great Australian novel…too busy tossing up between the pink linen and the navy cotton. But when I appear in the same outfit three days in a row, not a word! Turns out people wanted to see me, not my apparel! (See below)

Me n Tids on boat

Effortless nautical chic

with claudia3

Great fashion choice, Grandma

And when our luggage finally arrived we greeted it, not with delight, but dismay. All that stuff! Piles and piles of neatly folded frocks, T-shirts, shorts, shoes,togs, undies, scarves  – and that’s just me.  Hubs has his own pile of kit – just as big as mine – only neater. They represent hours and hours of choosing, buying, washing, ironing hanging up, taking down, packing, lugging, and – eventually – losing. It was a moment of confrontation that had us asking: which part of dragging half of the contents of our wardrobe all the way round the world seemed like a good idea?

robe bobAnd as for that wardrobe! Let’s just say it’s big, and apparently built on that old adage, ‘if you build it they will come’. Because they did…in walked enough shoes to rival Imelda Marcos, and don’t start me on Hubs’ polo shirts (well you never know when you’ll need to change your shirt 37 times in one day). And that’s just the stuff that we didn’t deem worthy of flinging round the planet using all that precious energy so we could look good. Vanity, thy name is four pairs of jeans when you only need one! And yes, my bum looks big in all of them.
So it was with firm resolve to kick our massive luggage habit and travel light, we arrived in Hanoi. One glance down the street where we were staying showed us travelling light at a whole new level. Whole homes tucked in behind the street vendors would have fitted in our walk –in wardrobe! It made sheltering a family seem rather more important than sheltering a bunch of jumpers and scarves. So not much room for storing vast sartorial splendour, but everyone looked just fine. Clothes were fit for purpose, and did their job of keeping the wearers cool/warm/dry in the sudden showers that pelt down at a moment’s notice in wet season. Plenty of scope for a colourful scarf or jacket and the slender beauty of the people ensured their bums definitely didn’t look big in anything.

But if their wardrobes were relatively bare, their lives didn’t look that way. They were full of people, of chat, of work, of traffic, and of sitting down on tiny chairs (even our chairs seem vast) being with and in each other’s lives the whole time. ‘Personal space’ is a foreign concept, and the street carries on in what looks to the outsider like low-level chaos with benign tolerance, smiles, talking, working, and generally busying themselves with life.

The last thing I want is to romanticise or patronise lives that look really hard, and vietnamese womanwhich I would not choose. And let’s face it, I have choices, which most of the people in that street do not. One of our tour guides asked me how old I was, and told me I was very active for my age (!). I’ve been called a few things in my time, but active definitely isn’t one of them. He told me that a Vietnamese woman of my age would be broken down with hard work, and added that there would be little in the way of social services to look after her. All I am saying is that as a person with all those choices, I have chosen to accumulate lots of stuff, which needs housing, curating, fixing, and worrying over and one day chuffing off to Vinnies, where it will clutter up someone else’s life. And this is after reading any number of studies that tell us that it’s people, not things that make us happy.

empty streetSo here I sit in my ‘huge’ house looking out over a peaceful – but largely empty – street, feeling ridiculously wealthy and fortunate. Time for a rethink? Absolutely! But maybe after I’ve checked out the jeans on sale at that lovely little boutique on Hastings Street. (Just kidding…no, really!)



Hankering for a solution

There’s something nice about a handkerchief (eoww I hear you say…so dirty!) But hear me out. I’m thinking of a washed, (but not ironed…saving the planet here!) and folded square of fresh linen ready to be pulled out to dry tears of a lover, absorb the liquid evidence of a cold, wipe the breakfast leftovers from a baby’s face, and any number of things that involve waste-absorption. It speaks of an old fashioned readiness to care for things, mop them up, and unlike the dreaded tissue, will come back and fight more germs after a spell in the wash where it won’t disintegrate in a million bits of fluff all over your very best jumper.

To that end I went out this morning to buy some hankies, one of my new guilt assuaging moves to use less paper/plastic/packaging. I know it won’t save the environment or help those desperate creatures asphyxiating in ocean garbage. But it makes me feel better…as usual it’s all about me! Re-usable bags and avoidance of plastic for fruit and veggies at the supermarket, taking my own mug to the coffee stall, returning egg cartons, refilling water bottles from the tap and at least thinking about a compost bin are a few more of them. And we did build our house out of greenboard. (Basically it’s polystyrene. Yes we live in a great big esky!). And we purpose-built for the breezes to save using aircon. As well, I’ve been using bee-wax cloths instead of cling wrap…something spotted at the Eumundi Market by an environment –conscious young friend, who immediately passed it on to her bee-keeping sister, who now makes her own!


But that’s about it. I never use public transport (unless I’m in London) and have personally used massive amounts of fuel criss-crossing the globe at least 50 times in order to mitigate the separation involved in a life choice to move to Australia back in 1976. And not buying American grapes or Mexican mangoes won’t offset that bit of planet-crime.

If I’m serious I have to ditch the car and buy an electric one, learn to ride a bike, be content to watch our granddaughter grow up on Skype, only use products grown/made locally (oh no, those hankies were made in China!), stop eating environment-destroying meat, shower in cold water, install those solar panels asap. If I’m honest, none of that will happen.

There are some things that are easy. Happy to accept bent carrots and odd-coloured fruit, install a low-water garden, put a jumper on instead of the heating, use up leftovers instead of binning them…all this is second-nature to a string-saving post-war baby-boomer. But this feel-good is strictly small scale. What about the big stuff? I just don’t go there because it all feels too enormous and crushingly difficult. What we need is a change of mentality…Al Gore’s tipping point, which will be the point where we all tip into oblivion, if we don’t pay attention.

If you’re not feelin’ it, a visit to Las Vegas will bring our environmental bonkers-ness to front of mind. It’s basically a dazzling conurbation plonked in the middle of one of the hottest, driest places on the planet, sustainable only by air-conditioning on a massive scale. And in case you’re tempted to check the unregulated temperature (117f. when we were there) you have to find the exit from your cavernous and maze like hotel…because there is not a window in sight.

Google Vegas and you will uncover a long history of chancers and bankers and celebrities, (with some corporate corruption thrown in) all based on gambling. And what they have created is – it has to be said – enormous fun. It’s the sheer audacity of it all. We stayed in a hotel that completely recreated a beautiful Parisian early evening, complete with Pont Neuf, Arc de Triumph, and our very own Eiffel Tower, all under a glowing blue sky. Anything we required was in-house, we didn’t have to go out and confront the real temperature, and could amuse ourselves endlessly with food and drink and shows and – yes – gambling. With no sense of day or night or weather, time has no meaning.

But it struck me as fitting emblem for the state of our world, only it’s not a few dollars in the slot machine, it’s the future we’re gambling with! Much better to kick back with a few drinks and roll a dice, hoping to win big, than face the reality awaiting us. Guilty as charged! And a few small feel-good actions aren’t going to ameliorate drought in Somalia, water rising in the Polynesian Islands to our north, the heartbreak that is coral bleaching of the Barrier Reef…the list is brain bogglingly endless!

But I guess we have to start somewhere. Ok, investigate solar panels, check out those worm farms, dust off the bike (in a minute), go vegan (a bit), join the bush regeneration group in my street…oh and everyone I know is getting something planet-friendly for Xmas!

Action always feels better than inaction but I am seriously scared. Not for me in my comfy bubble, but for what we are bequeathing to our kids and grandkids.

tildy on skype


Sorry it’s such a dismal offering. I started with a few gags, but by the end, none of them seemed funny!



Share BnB – the Caring Economy

Recognise me? Not really, but you get the drift

I grew up in post-war London in a small flat just up the road from Baker Street – great spot, but pretty crowded for a family of five. However, considering the number of grassed over bombed sites and streets of houses with sudden gaps like missing teeth, the parents were glad to get it. And they loved it. My dad could walk across the park to work at the BBC, up to the cricket at Lords, and best of all over the road to the Gloucester Arms for lots of convivial company. And Mum was more than happy to join him.

Somehow, they ended up offering a bed to one of their drinking buddies who – after being chucked out by his (third) wife came to stay the night, and stayed seven weeks! On the sofa in our sitting room! And he wasn’t a shrinking presence. He was a large red-haired actor called Howard Marion-Crawford, widely known as “Boney” apparently because of his mannerism of placing his arm across his chest, resting in his jacket a la Napoleon Bonaparte. He was notable also for his bushy moustache and very British demeanour, that had him popping up in any number of films as the actor who,often played “blusterers”, “old duffers” and upper class military types, appearing as guest performer in television programmes like The Avengers, and three roles with Patrick McGoohan in the television series Danger Man: the 1964 episodes “No Marks for Servility” and “Yesterday’s Enemies” and the 1965 episode “English Lady Takes Lodgers.”#

That’s from his Wikipedia entry, and in our memories he’s fixed as comic episode from our childhood. He liked to sleep late, and didn’t appreciate three little kids wanting to play. On one occasion he threw us a ten-shilling note (a fortune in those days) and bellowed at us to go out to the cinema. One other memory springs to mind…a piece of cabbage that – unbeknownst to him – lodged in his moustache, and was the cause of much hilarity. Well we didn’t have TV, so were easily amused.

The reason I have cause to remember our larger than life visitor is because we’ve recently made a foray (armed with some freshly laundered towels, and fistful of miracle microfibre cloths) into the world of Air BnB, and that was to be the topic of this blog. I was planning on making some comic comparisons between the large grunting presence in our sitting room and the charming folk that we have hosted from a discreet distance in our downstairs area.

But then I started Googling our visitor, and in that mix of nosiness and intrigue that enables us to waste so many hours, I began to piece together the parts of a life that – far from being a comic turn for us – held the stuff of tragedy. Once I joined the dots and calculated some dates, I find it less surprising that he needed a bed for seven weeks, and have to acknowledge my parents’ generosity in sharing their tiny flat with him. This was surely the original spirit of Air BnB…the sharing economy before it became cool. But in this case, no money changed hands (other than the occasional ten bob to get rid of the pesky kids)

‘Boney’ Crawford was born in 1914 into an illustrious family. His great grandfather Thomas Crawford was a noted sculptor, of among other works, ‘Armed Freedom’ on top of the Capitol in Washington DC. His grandfather Francis Marion-Crawford was a well-known novelist, and his father Harold, had a distinguished career in the Irish Guards. As well, he moved in luminary circles. At RADA, his classmates included Vivien Leigh, Ida Lupino, Anthony Quayle, and Trevor Howard, and apparently he numbered Winston Churchill among his friends.

“Sometimes, in the Atlee years, Howard would journey out to Chartwell for an afternoon playing chess with Churchill, outdoors on a table set up on the front lawn.”* He had two sons. – Harold, from his first marriage, and Francis from his second marriage to the distinguished actress Mary Wimbush.

But beneath this rather privileged life, there were many difficulties. It seems that the Marion-Crawford men are blighted by the tragedy of early death. Howard’s grandfather Francis died at fifty-four leaving his son Harold fatherless at nine. No sooner had Harold married and brought Howard into the world than he was killed by a grenade in 1915 – aged twenty seven! So Howard never knew his father. It’s a loss no amount of posh schooling can make up for. Howard himself served in World War 2 and was invalided out of his father’s regiment with a serious leg injury that caused him lifelong pain. He then volunteered for the RAF and served as a navigator.

And although it seemed to us he was always popping up on the telly, his long career in film and TV and radio proved unreliable, and not especially lucrative. This was despite various awards, critical acclaim for his role as Dr Watson to Ronald Howard’s Sherlock Holmes, a well-known cameo in Davis Lean’s epic ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, and ‘ the triumph of his life when he performed the title rôle in the Agamemnon of Æschylus. Paired with Margaret Rawlings as Clytemnestra, the performance was so powerful that the BBC Transcription Service decided to release it as a three-disc recording, which, it is sad to write, is almost impossible to find.”* So when he came to us, he was clearly between jobs, had two young sons to support, and was probably in pain, which no doubt contributed to his consumption of alcohol. The men of that generation were notorious for self-medication.

In a little over ten years he too would suffer an early death. On November 23rd 1969 It seems he had had a few drinks, and a couple of sleeping pills, and the mix had a pernicious outcome, causing him to choke in the night. He was fifty-five, and broke. ‘He had inherited none of the very considerable fortune left by his grandfather, and had done little but subsist during his thirty-four-year career in radio, television, and film. At his death, his whole monetary worth was only one thousand six hundred and nine pounds, all of which had been consumed swiftly in expenses after his death. His estate, as The Times put it, had a “net value nil.”*

Not so funny after all!

Clearly not a life of nil value though. By all accounts he was a lively and amusing friend and a fine talent, and his life and death still have a few things to teach us:

  • We had pretty much reduced this man to an amusing anecdote from our ‘bohemian’ childhood. We are all entitled to our own version of our lives, our memories and the people in them. But in order not to diminish those people, we need to be open to other versions of the same events, and be prepared to adjust and consider that ours is not the only truth.
  • The wonderful Tim Winton, in his recent interview with Geraldine Doogue, on Compass (ABC), said that in order to live an ethical life we need imagination. We need to be able to put ourselves in the place of others in order to empathise and communicate. This is what makes a compassionate community. (I’m paraphrasing here…check it out, it’s a great conversation) I’m with you (and Atticus Finch), Tim!
  • I’m so sorry I didn’t talk more to my parents about their lives and history and family and the people they knew. It’s too late for us, and I’d give anything to be able to chat to Mum and Dad and ask them about so many things…and to say well done for taking in your friend, at a time when you didn’t have a great deal yourselves.

    Our family – Christmas 1957 (?)

  • Lastly, you young’uns, take heed! Talk to your folks. If they aren’t famous, Google won’t help you after they’ve gone!

# Wikipedia

*These are all extracts from an excellent and detailed account of the life of Howard Marion-Crawford, but I’ve searched and searched and cannot find it again to acknowledge it. Sorry!

Rusk Assessment

Phew! Finally, we’ve moved into the house we’ve been imagining for 30 years. And it’s lovely – all new, all clean, and best of all, clutter-free! Thank you, Lewis the fantastic carpenter and clutter-buster, who built us hundreds of drawers/cupboards/ built-ins/walk –ins/ plug-ins and slidey bins that have us as close to minimalist as we’re ever likely to be.

But not for long.

Enter our granddaughter Matilda Florence Byng and her lovely parents, trailing the vast paraphernalia of stuff required to deal with a baby’s hunger, thirst, tiredness, cold, heat,boredom, snot, vomit, plops, and anything else that mess-croppedisn’t going to help her get into Oxford. (Well you can’t start these things too early). And it’s messy. But somehow a pile of miniscule vests, a cereal- encrusted bib or a little coloured brick that gouges a chunk of skin from the unwary foot, are all so cute!

Nevertheless when she leaves, we like having our clean house back – for about ten minutes! Less, actually, before I find myself all teary when I come across a packet of her special organic rusksrusks-cropped – the signature snack for our favourite dribbly person – trailed around the house with her particular pals, Pinkie the pink thing and Kevin the koala. And suddenly we find ourselves with a big Tildy-shaped hole in our lives that we long to fill with all that wonderful mess, tedium, vigilance and joy that a gorgeous little person creates effortlessly. I’ve always thought a clean house was overrated, now I know why.




We didn’t have long to wait before we were reunited for her first birthday celebration in London. It’s a trip we’ve made at least forty times before, so why do I suddenly feel so anxious? It’s all here – the family, the old friends, the dulcet articulate drone of Radio 4, the shops, the theatres, the streets and buses and tubes we’ve been hopping on and off since childhood. And maybe because Tildy is our tangible, and precious reminder that so much is set down early in life, I’ve been thinking about that childhood.

Freedom to roam the streets, taking ourselves to and from school, risking our lives on dodgy playground equipment with no parents hovering, are all gifts we didn’t value at the time. We were allowed to get on with it, and I can see now, that if you’ve just come slidethrough a world war, letting your kid hurtle down a slide the size of Nelson’s column, was the least of your worries. Nevertheless, I don’t remember feeling scared of my world, and I’m the person who invented risk aversion.

I do get it, that the golden era of free university, a bag of chips for sixpence,fries a month in Greece for twenty quid, and a house that we didn’t have to mortgage our souls for, is long gone. And was it really that golden? I remember pubs so smoky you couldn’t see who you were talking to (just as well really), having to go down the street to make a phone call, living in flats with no central heating,  no fitted carpets and – ikeaunimaginably – no IKEA furniture or Netflix! But there were reassuring, if dreary certainties: a job for life with a gold watch and a pension if you stuck it out, a religion that promised you a spot in heaven if you did all those Novenas, and the knowledge that tomorrow would be pretty much like today…just a bit duller.

This generation has to write its own script – aided and abetted by Messrs Jobs and Gates and Zuckerberg, who may or may not have equipped them for the bumpy ride on the Globalisation/Brexit/Trump juggernaut through a warming planet into a sharing economy, armed with a smart phone and a flexible take on each new scary twist technology throws at them. nokia-3310And while there’s no way they want to go back even to the Nokia 3310, never mind the shared phone box in the street, what kind of world is our lovely little bub going to inherit?

Louis MacNeice – well known Irish poet (and friend and colleague of my lesser known  dad) – must have been having the same wake-up-in-the-night scary thoughts about the future for children yet unborn, when he wrote these lines in his sombre and frightening poem ‘Prayer Before Birth’*

‘That the human race may with tall walls wall me…

Would freeze my humanity…

Would make me into a cog in a machine…

Would blow me like thistledown hither and thither…’ (Oh no, poor Matilda!)

He wrote this poem during World War 2, and it seems like a highly appropriate response to all that carnage and hopelessness. But then it dawned on me that the generation for  whom he held such fears, was mine! And only a few years after all that horror, we just strode on through perfectly OK lives with scarcely a backward glance. Indeed as he hoped, in his last verse, the earth:

‘Provide[d] me
 with water to dandle me,

Grass to grow for me,

Trees to talk 
to me,

Sky to sing to me,

Birds and a white light
 in the back of my mind to guide me.’

So clearly there’s no point in viewing the future through my nanna-shaped lens, so badly distorted by worry and bewilderment. Hell, I don’t even have a smart phone, so how would I know how it all works! parot-3-200x150What I do have is the weight in my arms of a fragrant little person pointing with equal delight at the jeweled bright Queensland parrots, or the soft, dun coloured London sparrow-1sparrows…she’s not fussy…everything is a complete delight to her. And together with trusty friends Pinkie and Kevin, her joy in the adventure of her life is what will inspire us all.


  • These are just random extracts from this poem. The full version is very powerful, and a bit scary. Nevertheless I commend it to you (maybe with a strong cup of tea…or gin.)

A place to Mungindi for (apologies for the terrible pun!)


In April I was able briefly to swell the population of Mungindi (NSW and QLD) from 1,110 to 1,111. It happened when the gals from the local book group wanted to discuss my book (Treading Water – shameless plug), and invited me to join their next meeting. ‘What’s that?’ I exclaimed to my friends George and Jane, who issued the invite. ‘They want to read my book, and they only live 500 kilometres away? I’m there!’

Fresh from hob-nobbing with the Clapham trendies in London, I knew it would be different, and it is. It’s hotter and drier and less crowded than London, but Mungindi can give Clapham a run for its uber-trendy money. And where better to start than in that that barometer of cool – the coffee shop? Does that pass muster? (note rural metaphor) Let’s see, does it have:

  • A clever pun for a name? Yup
  • Authentic industrial chic? Definitely
  • Great coffee? absolutely
  • Welcoming/familiar /home from home/ stay as long as you like? (You know, like in the Friends’ coffee shop Central Perk) Oh yes!
  • Fashionable clientele? Well, we did bump into a well-known local artist and cotton farmer, who was wearing a pair of shoes I considered mugging her for. But if ‘active wear’ is all the go in the coffee shops around Clapham, they might find themselves out-chic-ed by that tall willowy gal looking amazing in jeans and white shirt. Her fashion choice has to accommodate running her house with four kids and a nanny, managing her and hubby’s large business enterprise, and maybe taking the helicopter to Wollongong later! I suppose that might just qualify as active wear.

daily grind

So yes, The coffee shop gets a big tick.

What about accommodation? Well, if you’re as lucky as I you’ll be welcomed into the pages of Vogue Living, all due to the design flair and enterprise of Anna, Jane’s multi-talented daughter.

Jane:Annabrekkie MungAnd since they are both foodies from way back, the cuisine got lots of stars from me (to be honest, I lost count after the third -or was it fourth – G&T). As for the guest wing (attached to the vast machinery shed) it’s so gorgeous, I wanted to live there foreverguest room

So all this augured very well for the Book Group. I’m a bit of a BG veteran…six at last count, and still active in three of them, but this one was a bit special. For starters you just couldn’t live in this community if you were daunted by distance, and I couldn’t begin to calculate the number of miles driven by everyone in order to be at the meeting. But once welcomed into Sally’s spacious and gracious home, they were there to laugh, talk, share experiences and party! It’s an all day frock up, morning tea, lunch, afternoon drinks affair. And they were so appreciative that I had come all that way to talk about the book. They have to be joking! I wouldn’t have missed it for anything…it was quite wonderful, as you can see. And can you spot the one who had to leave the lunch a little early to drive 80 kms to supervise the sheep mustering? She’s the one in the active wear!

book group

Some time in the afternoon a crowd of children wandered in for after-school snacks and a swim in the pool. Someone had picked them up from the bus and delivered them all safely – just part of this far-flung village raising its children together. Earlier in the day I had met many of them all in their all age classroom at the local school. I was immediately reminded of another small place a mere 13,000 ks away and about 20 degrees cooler, which happens to have the best education system in the world!

*William Doyle, Fulbright scholar and a lecturer on media and education at the University of Eastern Finland was advised by his Harvard professor to “learn from Finland, which has the most effective schools…” Following his recommendation, he enrolled his seven-year-old son in a primary school in Joensuu. Finland, “which is about as far east as you can go in the European Union.” What he discovered is also there for all to see at St Josephs Primary – which is about as far west as you can go in one day in Queensland! Let’s see…

  • “Most children walk or bike to school, even the youngest.” Yup
  • “Fresh air, nature and regular physical activity breaks are considered engines of learning.” Definitely
  • “Children are assessed every day, through direct observation, check-ins and quizzes by the highest-quality ‘personalised learning device’ ever created – flesh-and-blood teachers.” Absolutely!
  • “In class, children are allowed to have fun, giggle and daydream from time to time. Finns put into practice the cultural mantras I heard over and over: ‘Let children be children,’ ‘The work of a child is to play,’ and ‘Children learn best through play.’ Oh yes!
  • “The emotional climate of the typical classroom is warm, safe, respectful and highly supportive in a classroom atmosphere of safety, collaboration, warmth and respect for children as cherished individuals.” Right on!
  • “As a visiting Chinese student observed: ‘here, you feel like you’re part of a really nice family.’” Couldn’t have put it better myself.

Most of the kids will go to boarding school in the city, but what resilience and sense of themselves and their place in their community they take with them. I used to work in a school that had a boarding strand. So a simple question like what did you do on the holidays? Opened up a whole new world for us all. The town mice, who thought wandering round the shopping centre looking for the right nail polish and the hot boys, was good fun, had to concede that their country cousins had something pretty special going on. Amid the cotton chipping, lamb rearing, mustering, harvesting etc etc which these gals did routinely, their stories told of community, hard work, wonderful family times (that includes their horses, dogs, and all manner of four legged and feathered creatures), more hard work, resilience, yet more hard work and a long treasured sense of belonging to the country they love.

Internet service in Mungindi might be dodgy at times but communication is fantastic, not to mention all age learning, talking to each other, being accountable and important in your group, active community work through all sectors of the town, and mutual support. These are the offers made by the country. Ooh…where have I heard that before…is it Finland?




Thrills and Spills

tilda 5Thrilling is not a word I’d use to describe our life at the moment. Comfortable, yes. And predictable. We know we won’t be running the New York Marathon any time soon, I’ll never be size 8 again, and there will definitely be a re-run of ‘Midsomer Murders’ some time in the next 24 hours.


So predictable is a bit dull, but it’s pleasant. We might cruise tranquilly through the specials at Aldi, or have morning tea at the seniors film club, go to choir practice, or play golf…fortunate indeed to be able to drift peacefully into our sunset years. The closest we get to thrilling is when Midsomer Murders shows an episode we haven’t seen before. Or maybe we just can’t remember.

midsomer murders

But all that changed at 4.35 pm on Thursday 21st January at St Thomas’ Hospital. Within sight of Big Ben and the London Eye and probably within the sound of Bow Bells – if they were dinging especially loudly – our first grandchild, Matilda Florence (Mo Flo* to her friends) arrived.

big ben

Our first sighting was on Skype, but within 24 hours we had in our arms the soft weight and heft and smell of this brand new person. It is nothing short of astonishing. A couple of days before, she was a tidy bump that twisted and flexed, but didn’t stop her mum going to the movies or eating a birthday banoffee cake (made with mango – Queensland style). But now! This wriggly bundle of life with the dark eyes and rosebud lips is so emphatically here! She commands us all to smile and coo and repeat to each other how beautiful she is. And she is.

thea banoffeetilda skype

OK, arguably no more beautiful than all the other babies, but try telling that to all the people grinning stupidly around her. She is beautiful because she’s the next bit of our families – those little houses of hope we constructed in the face of all the crap that life might rain on us (not literally, we hope). Thank goodness we don’t know this when we embark with such blithe optimism on the business of rearing new people out of love and hope. And thank goodness we don’t know how hard it will be to give ourselves over to these new people…to watch and fret over their every move, to minister blindly to their every need, even when we are only guessing what that need is.

Tilda 4

So that’s part of the thrill – the sheer optimism of a new baby. But there is more to it. Trouble is, every time you try to explain it, you end up in clichés, because it’s the most common thing in the world. It has to be, or we wouldn’t have a world, so why is it so special when it happens to you? That’s the paradox – it’s unique and commonplace, profound and ordinary. It’s so huge it connects you with the grand universal story of humankind and yet all these unexceptional people have managed it…even idiots like your own parents!

Tilda me and Bob

But there are a few special thrills for grandparents:

  • You get to relive and remember when it was you that was suddenly responsible for this other life…the whole sweet awfulness of it all.
  • Airbrushed by time, you realize what a remarkable job you did getting them to sleep, feed and poo unscathed. (That’s them. You were extremely scathed at the time).
  • You get to say profound things like, ‘I think it’s wind,’ and people listen to you as if you know stuff.
  • And it’s your baby with a baby of her/his own. We can’t help taking some vicarious pride. Job done, back patted. We must have done something right. (Certainly not tight swaddling…I still can’t manage that.)

tilda and me

And as for that old chestnut, ‘the best thing about grandchildren is that you can give them back.’ Nup, that’s not it. Surely the best thing about the degree of separation is that you feel the same ridiculous love for this little person as you did for your own, but because it’s no longer you in that hormonal haze of exhaustion and exhilaration, you can enjoy the marvel of it, and savour it, think about it, gaze at the baby and later at the pictures (all 529 of them) with a bit of time to enjoy it. Not too much savouring went on first time around. More like saving – your life – before you go bonkers.

Thea, Si and Matilda

Happy two-month birthday Matilda – the thrill that keeps on thrilling!

*Can’t claim the name…that was coined by that well known wit Dr Tim Dark.