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

IMG_3382270px-Mungindi

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?

 

*http://www.smh.com.au/national/this-is-why-finland-has-the-best-schools-20160324-gnqv9l.html#ixzz455UH1Uco

 

Join a Choir – It’s a Gift

Music score

What did you get for Christmas? It’s a question I dread because always feel I have to make stuff up. And I have been known to fudge the evidence of how much my hubby loves and cherishes me/ has a clue what I might like (anything, really…fudge would be a start) /and remembers what date it is. Fortunately he has no objection to me buying whatever I want, wrapping it up and acting all surprised on Christmas morning.* But this year I absolutely outdid myself with my DIY gift. And it really is one that keeps on giving. I now have a head-full of music, courtesy of the wonderful Noosa Chorale.

chorale_orig

It’s the only thing I’ve actually joined since we moved to our little seaside town…talk about beginner’s luck! For a start they let you just rock up and sit amid 70-odd people who’ve left families unminded, dinner uneaten, and whatever’s on the telly on a Tuesday night, because they all love the music. I look around to see if anyone has realised that I don’t know a dotted crotchet from a minim and it soon becomes evident that I’ll need to pay attention. Most of the others sight read and know what they’re doing, nevertheless they’re extremely helpful to this newbie. And the audition process is simple. The choir director demands glorious music to be sung at a very high standard and if you can’t keep up, don’t bother coming. It doesn’t take me long to twig if I’m to have a hope of joining in Vaughn Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols in four, and sometimes six parts I’ll have to tape the music and sing along with it a few thousand times, no matter how many funny looks I get in Aldi.

But the rewards! There are moments when we altos are ooh-ing and crooning in our particular range that while deeply satisfying, isn’t going to get us on Australian Idol, then suddenly the sopranos soar over us, lifting us to a perfect spot between them and the soulful bases. If you haven’t done it you should. It puts you in a place that makes the day you’ve had, the draughty hall, even the fact that your too tight jeans are extremely uncomfortable, fall right away. And afterwards we all walk out into the night smiling and humming and slowly connecting back with the mundaneness of Tuesday.

And as if that wasn’t lovely enough, there’s more!

  • All those mindless chores? Done. Because I have to spend so many hours listening, the house is spotless (well, nearly) and I’ve even done the ironing.
  • Walking in the National Park with an earful of splendid music is nothing short of sublime.
  • I helped make 1100 mince pies! OK I was demoted from flour measuring, after the first attempt at figuring out what 200 grams looks like, but hey, they also serve who only stand with their arms in a sink of soapsuds.

MincePies-4842ffd0-50c0-46df-9f32-cacef29a7732-0-472x310

  • I helped fold napkins and place programmes on tables with rigorous exactitude. Hubby was there too and much better at it…all that geometry.
  • I’ve been forced to join in all this community stuff! We sang carols in Hastings Street (upstaged somewhat by some screechy kids, and maybe Santa’s helpers in their tiny red fur-trimmed skirts drew the focus a little, but we were troupers!) Then we sang for the newly minted citizens on Australia Day, and will be singing and walking on Noosa Beach at 4am on Anzac Day.

hastings carols

  • Belonging! Find a black dress, pin on the scarf thingy and join the line and you become part of something…you look the part, and all you have to do is not muck it up.
  • Lovely, lovely music, and so much to learn…some of it in French! My aged brain is really getting a workout.

Choir 4 crop

Everyone is really friendly and helpful and the shared love of music takes us a very long way, but P’s and Q’s still need to be minded. Here are some tips:

  • Scent or aftershave is forbidden so we need to be smell-free zones. But if, heaven forfend, some fragrance lingers, let it be Chanel or Dior.
  • Do your homework, especially if – like me- you’re trying to fake it till you make it.
  • Don’t upset the director if he/she is fantastic, in case they leave. Ours is wonderful – a remarkable musician and musicologist whose calm admonishments are softened by a Lincolnshire burr, and a droll turn of phrase. But make no mistake, we will do it over and over and over until it approximates some very high bar he has in mind. Needless to say, we are all in love with him and want to have his babies but to his undoubted relief, lots of us are post-menopausal, so it’s not really an issue.

The spin-offs from simply joining in have been legion, not least of which is my current head-full. If you haven’t heard Karl Jenkins’ Mass for Peace entitled, The Armed Man, do yourself a favour and Google it. It’s quite wonderful, and together with Songs from the Trenches and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, a la Andrews Sisters, will be performed at the Noosa J on 17th and 18th April (shameless plug, but they do sell out apparently).

Anzac Centenary-advance notice

And lastly I could not possibly leave this topic without paying tribute to Mrs Celia Thomas, legendary music teacher at St Aloysius Convent in Euston circa 1963. I was a miserable disappointment to her, because having taught my Auntie Doreen, whose lovely soprano has graced many a church choir, she was hoping that her niece would do a bit better than skulk at the back of the class rolling her eyes and making smart arsed comments. So to Mrs Thomas, who is almost certainly no longer with us (she seemed as old as God’s grandmother to my arrogant teenage self, but even so she would have to be a centenarian, and then some). Thank you, thank you, for not giving up and chucking me out of the class, as I deserved. Finally I get why you banged on about the tonic sol fa and made us sing Mozart and Handel. You, and all the other teachers out there who feel on a daily basis that your pearls are being cast before swine (and what a little swine I was!), take heart. Those pearls are seeds that – when the recipient finally grows up – are ready to sprout like that cress we used to grow on the windowsill with a jam jar and some blotting paper.

Or for those who prefer the swelling strings finale …the seed, that with the sun’s love, in the spring, becomes the rose!

* I do get lovely gifts from our kids and friends and family, but why let the facts get in the way of a good ol’ rant?

Nil by Hand

pen and ink

The other day I ran into a couple of ex-students (not in the car…it wasn’t that kind of school). These were two of the lovely girls from my last school and even though they have fiancés and careers and weren’t wearing blue stripy uniforms, I know them. The names escaped me but it didn’t matter because I immediately formed a picture in my mind of their handwriting. And with that came a slew of attributes, ways of thinking and speaking, seat in the class, sisters, friends, and (about two days later) names…Lauren and Stephanie. It happens more often than you might imagine. A tall shaggy haired young fellow will greet me at a folk festival and have me looking for the young face beneath the beard. Unlike the girls, the boys change dramatically but once I know him the handwriting is there. It might be spidery black meanderings or firm confident blue strokes evenly engraving thoughts on the page, but with it comes the individual, whose uniqueness seems to have become embedded in my brain by a mysterious mechanism I long to apply to the mystery of where I left my glasses, or why the remote is in the fridge.

student smiling

And the years do not diminish the memory, even though they’ve obliterated great slabs of my own life. I remember Reggie Forbes, whose wide lettered smoothly looped musings on Macbeth were gracefully replicated on the basketball court or Vincent Pratt (aka “Cool”), whose tight small twenty words to the line belied his insouciant swagger. This was my first job: Robinson Road High School, Nassau, Bahamas, 1970, and these guys are now in their fifties! And the once-troubled boy who appeared on our doorstep last week as a confident and successful young man was astonished and touchingly pleased that I could describe the large sad curling words he eked out of an unhappy adolescence.

But handwriting is on the way out. The journey from papyrus to quills and ink to fountain pen to biro has reached the keyboard.  And documents that are now word-processed have quite a few things in common with their nutritional counterparts: they save labour, are less messy, come neatly packaged, and are easier to digest. So other than providing an aide-memoir for an ageing teacher, does it matter that longhand will soon be among the skills demonstrated in museums of social history along with darning a sock or reading a map?

Longhand as the name suggests, takes longer to form and forces the hand into a series of mini-gymnastics in a process that by today’s standards, is slow. And in a world where speed is always assumed to be better – if the hype is to be believed it’s been accorded a kind of moral value along with thinness and youthfulness – it now feels pedestrian and laborious.

But as many writers will attest, there is something mysterious in the way in which thoughts and ideas find their way on to the page and the direct arterial and sensory connection between brain and hand still holds some magic power, which they are reluctant to relinquish. Yes, it’s slower but surely any thought or idea worth its salt needs time to come to fruition. And the idea that the greatest works and thoughts of our culture were sweated on to a page by an actual hand curling around a pen and leaving – along with the riches of stories or poems – his or her actual DNA, is oddly moving. If you don’t believe me go to the British Library on Euston Road and see the actual scrap of paper on which a trench-weary Wilfred Owen wrote: Bent double like old beggars under sacks. Knock-kneed, coughing like hags we cursed through sludge. One only has to imagine that as an email, or worse still a text message or a tweet (#thiswarsux) to say it matters.

Is this why we still go in our droves to the houses where the books we love were created? The writers are long dead, but there is something about seeing the actual desk, breathing the same air, placing our foot in the same worn place on the front step. If not for the thick blue rope, we would touch the sofa where Emily Bronte died, run our hand along the worn velvet. The words aren’t quite enough; we need to be closer to the person.

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Handwriting offered this connectedness for everyone, not just the great writers. When a letter hit the mat we often knew who’d sent it before we even opened it. A person’s individuality is evident in every curl and stroke, so much so that the study of handwriting has given rise to all sorts of psychological analysis. And letters can be revisited, caressed, smelt, tied in ribbons, taken out years later to be smiled about or wept over. The colour and texture of the paper, the shade of the ink, all express the uniqueness of the individual, and when they are no longer with us it is comforting to hold in our hand the actual paper that was in theirs. Trawling through your inbox just isn’t the same!

It takes a long time for us to learn to form letters, for our tiny hands to trace the impossibly smooth curves of the primer, and if as we laboured to force the watery blue ink into those lovely shapes, someone had said, don’t worry, use this, and popped an iPad into our weary hands, we’d have been delighted. This is pretty much what is happening now. While we still teach our children to write, the opportunities to use the skill are diminishing in inverse proportion to the proliferation of devices that save us the effort. This is a loss for a couple of reasons: the formation of letters and words with fingers demands a high level of coordination that if practised, becomes a kind of brain-gym where our physical and mental selves coalesce on the page. And it’s uniquely us on the page, we have to generate the thought, not choose from a range of options offered in seductively smooth fonts and formats. Doing the thinking and the choosing, knowing we have no other tools but ourselves, the pen and the page, forces us to scour the corners of our brains for the best we can find there. The writer Mike Carlton used letters and diaries of the young men of HMAS Perth, to tell the story of their courage in WW2. In beautiful copperplate, he tells us, these men – often teenagers from ordinary backgrounds – wrote with clarity and depth that may not be found in a similar demographic today.

a-girl-writing-by-henriette-brown-free-public-domain

Depriving our young people of yet another difficult task does them no favours. Life is no less difficult, language still has to be processed at high levels if we are to function successfully, and pretending that it’s all easy is depriving them of the chance to learn skills at an age when it’s still fun and not a chore.  And the latest research on brain plasticity tells us that what we do forms us, so we are being formed by homogenous, commercially driven toys… so slick, so beautiful, but we are losing some of the unevenness, the roughness and individuality of effort. And at least the keyboard gives your fingers a bit of a workout. With touchpads, voice activated text and apps that predict what you may wish to think or say, and correct your spelling and grammar without so much as a by your leave, your fingers are free to do all sorts of other things fingers do…hmmm.

Boy (4-5) and Girl (1) play with iPad and iPhone

I love the totally brilliant devices at our disposal and have seen many a struggling student’s learning transformed by them. But when it comes to the next generation of young malleable brains surely we need to control our love affair with speed, ease and slickness. Humanity is a slower, more lumbering creature that is still lagging in the wake of its spritely counterpart, technology. Sure we created it but once it goes beyond the speed of our movement, thought and feeling it will dictate the terms. Is this what we want?

Picture of children using iPads taken from the website of the new Steve Jobs School opening in Amsterdam offering iPad centred education for children from 4-12 years. 

Envelope containing May Edward Hill’s letter to David Hill Jr January 5th 1919 Archives of Ontario.

A girl writing by Henriette Brown

Press the Undo Button

wrong way

There’s an ad doing the rounds that sells insurance with the idea of an “undo” button for a minor prang in the car, which got me thinking…how many of us have longed for an “undo” button for certain episodes of life? All those bad decisions wiped out with the press of a button. Goodbye to all those angst-ridden chagrin soaked sleepless nights, hello peaceful dreamless slumber which comes with the knowledge that you can undo that terrible decision…the one that ruined your life…or at least embarrassed you so much you could never show your face at that house/street/town/country again.

Some of them can be life threatening, such as insisting I was OK to drive with the family asleep and unaware while I drifted off and over to the wrong side of the road – thank goodness there was nothing coming the other way or none of us would be here to regret that! Also life threatening but a slower burn – so to speak – was my oh so 70’s notion that a sun tan was fashionable. Turns out skin cancer and premature ageing isn’t…oops. Less serious are fashion decisions like that see-through crochet dress or the crooked seam right down the front of my homemade wedding dress. It seems (pun not intended) that the 70’s was a bad decade for choices. And I certainly feel grateful that many of my relationships have managed to survive any number of wine-liberated remarks that felt extremely witty at the time, but were deemed less so next day. That might just be because no one was listening, or that I only mix with fellow wine enthusiasts who don’t remember what I said, or who I am! Thank goodness I have lived most of my life in the era before we could be electronically reminded of every stupid thing we did/said last night. And apparently it’s there forever! Thank you, fallible human memory, which allows me to airbrush out the ugly bits of my life!

undo  button

Even if we can’t undo or forget the more regrettable episodes of life we still have a few choices of response:

  • Get over yourself. You’re not that important, no one even noticed!
  • OMG I’ll never ever do that again! N.B: important life lesson.

But for some people it’s not that simple. Such terrible things happen – sometimes through foolish choices, sometimes through the random awfulness of life, and that’s when they make the most amazing choice of all, to exercise the remarkable capacity of humanity to make gold out of the dross of tragedy. We hear every day of such supreme acts of will and courage shown by those who choose to transform their adversity into acts of goodness and hope and sheer guts for us all to share. We need look no further than the Paralympics to see and be inspired, and only this week I read the story of British model Katie Piper horribly burned by a vicious acid attack. Not only has she fought her way back to personal equilibrium, she has changed the parameters for what should be promoted in a Marks and Spencer fashion shoot. These people are game-changers, who shift our preconceived notions of beauty and athleticism and success, not to mention how to be a better person.

But those of us fortunate enough to dodge the tragic bullets of fate can still be inspired to be our own DIY alchemist. Even in my little and lucky life, that narrow escape from turning my family into road kill makes me think twice every time I drive anywhere and my visits to the skin doctor have turned me into the sun cream and hat Nazi for everyone else. If we’re alert to it we can make our humiliations work for us, as happened to me after my one and only attempt at roller-skating. This was in the days when I was still trying to keep up with the kids and prove I was more than just an endless source of lifts and vegemite sandwiches. Plus they looked so lovely – gracefully gliding around laughing and chatting. But when I tried it the big clumsy boots took it upon themselves to slip from under me and land me on my bottom – every time. Hanging on to the side and gibbering helplessly was not the look I intended and I will always be grateful to the pair of four-year olds who helped me back to the kiosk with some sympathetic there there’s and an offer of a cup of tea.

I vowed never to set foot on a rink again and I haven’t but the odd thing was that next time I was in front of a class asking questions, the look of shame that washed through the boy who stumbled over his words, and the subsequent careless naughtiness he threw out to distract us all from his embarrassment, was suddenly familiar. That was how I felt on the skating rink! And didn’t I make lots of lame wisecracks to deflect the pity? And how lucky am I that I don’t need to be able to roller skate in order to earn a living unless I want to join the cast of Starlight Express? Those of us who grow up with the great good fortune to find reading easy often have trouble understanding why someone cannot read a relatively simple text. I know I did. But once I understood that those kids feel hot with shame and embarrassment every time they are confronted with their failure – exactly the way I felt at Skate Arena – it transformed my teaching. I suddenly saw what a remarkable skill it is to decipher and interpret all those complex little black shapes, and found myself amazed that so many of us can read, rather than that some of us can’t. And I had a bit of an empathy transfusion into the bargain.

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So embrace your stuff-ups! They will humanise you. Easy for me to say from the relative obscurity of my writing desk, less so for those caught in the relentless twenty-four hour news cycle, where all is remembered and nothing forgiven! Current Prime Minister Kevin “Lazarus” Rudd thought he was getting away with it. He seemed to be able to airbrush Julia Gillard from history and erase the last three years. In order to make such a seamless transition back to the cameras, he must surely have been practising the smile and the cringeworthy taglines every morning in front of the bathroom mirror. But as the weeks progress, it’s becoming clear that his magician’s sleight of hand isn’t enough to transform him or induce collective amnesia in the voting public. The polls are showing that any number of hand-shaking, baby-kissing, forelock flicking and gotta zipp-ing won’t alter the fact that he has some serious character flaws: egomania, hypocrisy and inability to see make-up girls as worthy of his attention to name a few. Personally I can’t bear to see his Tin Tin face beaming at me from the telly but if he rescues the Labour Party from a complete rout a la Queensland, and if some of the failures are sheeted to him and not just to Julia, his reinstatement will have some value for us all.

But we have to give him credit for avoiding what someone once called “buttock-clenching” embarrassments offered by the other side for our edification and for some of the few laughs to be found in the bleak Australian political landscape at the moment. In an all time low (or high, depending on your politics) our potential future leader Tony Abbott addressed a crowd of Liberal faithfuls at a launch event in the Melbourne electorate of Deakin declaring “No one, however smart, however well educated, however experienced, is the suppository of all wisdom.”  Needless to say it has been seized on for a plethora of jokes of the so that’s where your policies come from variety so Tony must be eternally grateful to one Peter Dowling (aka What were you thinking…no really, what were you thinking?) In case you’ve been on Mars and haven’t heard, this Queensland politician, previously noted for being Chairman of the Ethics Committee!!! (Can this get more ironic?) Dipped his willy into a glass of wine and sexted it to his mistress. The now famous dick pic (!) must have felt like a gift from the PR gods for Tony because it got him off the front page and sent the ribald gags into the stratosphere and away from him. Coq au Vin, anyone?

In the end all you have is how you behaved at the time and you have to live with that because it’s who you are, indeed it probably helped you become that person. Having said that I still have plenty of  “sorrys” to contemplate:

  • Sorry I “liked ” the Facebook page “I wish life had an undo button” because now I’m inundated with cute pics of people and kittens doing silly things.
  • Sorry Bob and I worked that weekend in our New York restaurant jobs instead of going to Woodstock…yes, it’s true!
  • Don’t even get me started on pressing send when I should have pressed delete.  But there’s nothing to stop you doing that right now!

Why don’t you post some of your own sorrys…make us all feel better about ourselves!