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!

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

 

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.

marathon

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.

 

 

Resolution revolution

resolutions 2Last New Year’s Eve, I had a brilliant idea. We’d write down three resolutions, put them in an envelope, then take them out at the same time next year and check them. I’m not sure what I thought would happen then. I suppose we’d either feel new yearsridiculously smug, or be seething with self – loathing, neither of which are especially appealing. Anyway as you might imagine, it didn’t turn out as planned. Our first mistake was resolving to do this before a few glasses of bubbles. Predictably, by the time the fireworks fired, the clock struck twelve, Auld Lang was signed, no one could be arsed to find a bit of paper and a pen so we decided to do it in the morning!

Given that my first big resolution was to stop procrastinating it wasn’t a promising start to 2016. But my second resolution – to stop wasting time – fared a bit better. At least we hadn’t wasted valuable time writing down fragile promises to ourselves. And that’s when it dawned on me. Stop wasting time making resolutions! If you really wanted to do it, you would! You don’t waste time writing down the things you really want to do, you just do them. If I made mine into a list it would go something like this:

  • Eat some chocolatechocolate
  • Have a drink
  • Watch some telly
  • Walk on the beach
  • Cook something nice for dinner
  • Have some friends over
  • Practise my choir music
  • Read my booktyping
  • Skype the kids
  • Write something
  • Email friends

 

 

Whereas the resolutions go more like this:

  • Lose weight
  • Clean the house
  • Do tummy crunches
  • Start Yoga
  • Clean up and organize all my emails since 1998

But hang on, would I be a better person if I’d achieved the latter and stopped doing the former? I’d be thinner, more toned and I’d have a clean house and a clean computer. But was the old chocolate-munching, beach-walking, offspring-skyping me so bad? That word RE-SOLUTION is basically an attempt to keep solving the same problems…over and over. So maybe it’s time to de-problemmatise my inability to be someone else, and just be me.

And this latest blog post is incontrovertible evidence of the uselessness of resolutions. I started it weeks and weeks ago and we’re already half way through the season of Lent, just in time for another bout of self-flagellation about my shortcomings! So this year I’ve decided to give up feeling inadequate, and just try to do what I like to do, really well.

pink-diaryFor a start I like – more like a compulsion really – to mark the passage of time with some kind of record-keeping. It’s an attempt, I suppose, to make some meaning out of my days on the planet, and to that end I’ve kept a diary since about 1962. Clearly it was part of my make-up long before ‘time’s winged chariot’ went into the warp speed it is now.

So, since we have spent these last three months in London, I decided I’d post something quirky or interesting on Facebook every day. How easy it would be! London provides endless inspiration, and I have my lovely new ipad mini so I can click and post seamlessly. And it was fine for the first few days…a pink wintry sky or a gleaming red bus was enough to intrigue my Facebook friends (all 37 of them).

red sky

bus

me and matilda 2But now – on day 70 – it’s dominating my entire life! I’ve scoured the streets and sky, hung out of train windows, and trespassed in people’s gardens in the quest for some post-able event. I’ve had to shuffle the days, make stuff up, perv on unsuspecting tube travelers, and set my family up in all manner of poses (OK, that one with the Dalek was a bit much.) diaryOnly occasionally have I resorted to granny-bragging, even though our new granddaughter – the main reason for our visit – is completely adorable. But, with one week to go, I’ve pretty much done it. And I have to say it feels OK to set a goal and fulfil it. But more than that I now have a photo-record of a lovely time in our lives – daleks and all.

And in a curious Mathematical equation, which you probably won’t find in the pages of Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (because you won’t be looking…and neither did I!) the cumulative effect is greater than the sum of its little parts. It’s something to do with the links and connections, and the blithe ignorance of the future that is in a daily post. After a while a pattern emerges of what a period of a life looks like. It’s a bit like a patchwork quilt. The pieces on their own are unremarkable, but brought together and chucked on the bed…it looks terrific. And – bonus – it will warm you on a cold night.

patchwork quilt

 

 

 

 

Back to the Past (but only my bit of it)

funny-girlI’ve just read Nick Hornby’s new novel Funny Girl in one sitting, because I just had to keep going. It’s a nice plot: likeable, good-looking Blackpool girl makes good in big bad Loondon with only wit, northern nous, and a longing to be on the telly to rely on. And it’s trademark Hornby: decent self-effacing folk triumph over tossers, amid lots of laughs and acute social commentary.

But the reason I wanted to stay in this book is because, whether by listening to his mum and dad a lot, watching loads of vintage British TV, or just good old fashioned research, Hornby was able to take me right back to the time when I was the same age as Barbara/ Sophie, lived in London, watched all those TV shows, was glued to the radio, and witnessed the emergence of London from its wartime privation to become the capital of cool. (Or what passed for cool in 1964)

By any standards it was a remarkable time I suppose, but then we boomers have no trouble asserting that our time was more remarkable than all the other generations put together. We absolutely refuse to move over gracefully, determined to wear our blue jeans, not our blue rinses, to the bitter end. And there must be a buck in it, because so many TV shows pander to us, and lovingly recreate the sixties in all their kitchen sink glory.

Heartbeat I reckon it started with Heartbeat, where the police chases are less convincing than the ones our son used to enact with his Matchbox cars and the crims only get caught because they are even slower than good old plod. It’s British fair play at its best. But clearly it struck a nerve because thanks to the likes of George Gently, (that’s Mister Gently to you), The Hour, and the earnest young Morse in Endeavour, beehives and Beatles hair, shillings in the meter and phones the size of small cars all glow under a patina of nostalgia.

george gently

Or is it the fug of cigarette smoke? Because in these brilliantly textured reconstructions, everyone smokes… all the time! How did any of us survive? Of course it took Madmen to make it all divinely stylish, even though the actors must have had a lung cancer clause in their contracts.Mad-men-title-card What a simple, wholesome time it is in our memories. People were somehow more decent, and we can be lulled into the notion that maybe we were too. As well, giving our youthful naivete the vintage treatment makes it OK that our legs were permanently purple mottled in those white boots and minis (in winter!)white boots with our panda eyes (watering from the cold) and ironed hair that we thought made us look like Jean Shrimpton…sorry Jean.jean shrimpton

And at least it made us resilient. Imagine today’s young ‘uns permanently, wired to their networks, having to go down the road (in the rain) to the phone box if they want any life outside a front room confined to silence while Dad listens to THE NEWS.

But doesn’t every generation like to think they invented youth, and that those embarrassing old fogies gyrating in the corner and screeching She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah arrived in the world that way? They certainly could never have been the zeitgeist-savvy uber-coolies that each succeeding generation imagines it is. We all have our time to which we are drawn, and which becomes a kind of touchstone. Everyone feels that their young years were remarkable because they were the years of hope (and potential glory). Start playing a signature tune from any era, and watch the appropriate age group smile mistily and star bopping (or groovin’ or makin’ shapes) How many times have you smiled and nodded gamely at a party when the not-my-era song was shouted in joyous union by folk for whom it was embedded forever by the potent mix of youth and possibility?

OK, I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll never wear those white boots again (Is that a collective sigh of relief I hear?) But some things are still possible. Let’s start with food: who remembers creamed rice (in a tin) or bacon sarnies (on white bread with HP sauce)? ambrosia - creamed rice My tin of Ambrosia creamed rice is Britain’s answer to Proust’s humble madeleine, which was accorded iconic super-powers in A la Recherché de Temps Perdu…roughly translated as: to find again, times that are lost. One of the saddest lines in literature, especially as Ambrosia tinned rice is not available here in Oz, and I have to make do with Home Brand.

Here’s what the madeleine (dipped in tea) did for Monsieur Proust: And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me …immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents … and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine …in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, all from my cup of tea.

Proust madeleine  But wait! According to a site called Poms in Adelaide Ambrosia creamed rice can be found in Foodland, Hope Valley! I’m in the middle of googling flights to Adelaide and then I think…do I really want to go back there? The equipment with which one first tastes something is so sharp and well-developed (and hungry, in a way I never am now). But that me whose taste buds (and all other faculties) were so acute, is no more. The tasting equipment is more than a bit clapped out from sixty years of constant activity. And even if I could get the taste back, all the other stuff…and the people that went with it…are gone forever.

OK Pass me the remote. Apparently they’re showing re-runs of The Avengers, and I’ll just wallow for a while in the nostalgia tinted version of how it all was…so much more flattering and comforting. And, you never know, maybe Foodland in Hope Valley do home deliveries.

Italia: terra di bellezza

roof gardens rome

The tinny clang of a church bell is the only sound to be heard, besides the occasional bird twittering and the distant roar of a motorcycle. We sit on our sundrenched terrace in utter calm. Where are we? Some beach-side idyll? Not a bit of it, we are slap bang in the centre of Rome…that renownedly crazy, noisy city. But if you are lucky enough to get above it all, (or in our case to have a friend and fellow-traveller who doggedly pursued Luciana through the labyrinthine processes of European booking to secure her apartment for six glorious days) you too might find yourself on one of the thousands of rooftop gardens patch-worked throughout the city.

view from terrace 3

All around us are the tips of spires and domes and towers. The washing machine doesn’t work, but who cares, the window next to it looks out to an ancient and beautiful church cupola. It’s the first of many contradictions to be found in Italy – the place where beauty holds sway and exerts its charm on everything. (Not sure how we made it through…the beauty police must have been on lunch.)

If you then saunter out into the Roman evening, prepare to fall in love.

our street 4 crop

The people move around at an elegant pace, in clothes that have been put together with careless care, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron. The city breathes with them as they thread their ways through winding streets that suddenly open out to squares or wide corners on which might stand a large stone church or a green cloister, waiting with the patience of centuries for pilgrims to enter the cool interior.

Rome building 2 crop

cloister 3 crop

Or maybe you will come upon a gracious café-fringed piazza with yet another of Bernini’s remarkable fountains to astonish you with its muscular beauty.

bob and ang navona

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eventually you will find yourself at the famous Spanish Steps that sweep down to a large cobbled square. It’s milling with people jostling cheerfully, in an atmosphere of such anticipation that the thrusting of roses at every juncture can be amiably refused.

spanish steps allx4 crop

The shops by this time are lit up: Dior, Versace, Dolce and Gabanna…displaying maybe one slender figure in a striking fall of fabric, and some other contrivance, such as a huge flower – window artworks that make the street a back-lit shining gallery of beautiful things.

dior window

Being surrounded by such beauty takes the breath, but also enables us to share a sense of pride that creatures of our own species have the vision, the audacity and the artistry to create such beautiful towering elegance. And the locals live amid it in such ease – something we will notice everywhere we go in Italy.

Apartments abut the surrounds of the colosseum and overlook the ancient forum.

Forum 6 living near

Rome  next to collos

In one window pink balloons and flowers announce the birth of a baby girl, telling us these are not just monuments to the dead, but a continuing history.

smoking near keats house

Next to the petunia-laden balcony of the house where Keats died, a young man leans out of a window smoking and staring at the crowds on the Spanish Steps, (Alone and palely loitering?) We can imagine that two hundred years ago, a young man at the same window might have turned his face to ask how that poor frail English lad is doing.

post office crop

And what about that fine building with the gracious inner courtyard filled with early summer foliage? That’s the post office! This beauty is not to be admired from a distance, but to be lived in.

So much beauty makes it easy to forget the inequities that built organisations like the Roman Empire or the Catholic Church, and enabled them to acquire the wealth to commission these most awe-inspiring edifices.

vatican

Massive basilicas are filled with ornate gold and precious marbles and gemstones and covered with magnificent paintings and frescos.

colosseum 2

The huge colosseum and capitol, forum and temples are of such scale and grandeur they force the viewer to look up in wonder and forget how many thousands of slaves have been subsumed into the demands of empire, whole lives lived only to serve the massive symbols of power.

Arch forum rome crop

And even today the splendid shining rows of shops, offering the world’s most beautiful and expensive attire, light up a huddled beggar on the street, or a group of vendors with their fake designer gear spread out on a sheet or hanging off their arms. But we are so caught up in the wonder of this great city that we brush the thoughts aside with the proffered roses. No different from big cities everywhere, but Italy casts a spell that enables us to ignore the ugly side of what might otherwise be just a tired and well-worn tourist trail.

The Vatican is a good place to start.

vatican view 3

vatican 27

vatican 26 shepherd

We are so overawed by that exquisite little city-state where are gathered the world’s most beautiful objects in the name of Christianity, that we might overlook the fact that it’s staffed by the grumpiest and least obliging group of people even invented. A bored little wave of the hand passes for a direction, and good luck getting a coffee, let alone a smile from the café staff, who must have passed out top of that class where they train parking inspectors and people on the end of the phone when you’re trying to get your internet/phone bill/tax return or pretty much anything else sorted. Not sure what happened to all that beauty, but it hasn’t yet entered the souls of the staff.

And the trains are fabulous – cheap, efficient and easy to find on the Trenitalia website. But if you haven’t mastered the electronic ticket machine, or if it’s broken, be prepared to queue for a long time at a bank of windows which reveal a couple of earnest workers dealing with the great unwashed, while three or four of their colleagues in the background chat, drink coke and walk around with bits of paper. Their main skill appears to be avoiding eye contact with the frantic folk outside, especially when the old lady near the front of the queue goes into paroxysms of despair as she watches her train pull out of the station. And don’t get stuck in the lift with a big pile of luggage and expect the fellow in uniform to care. His shrug of unconcern could be seen from Mount Vesuvius.

And as for stunning Cinque Terre…the cute little trains run so smoothly and it’s so picturesque you don’t notice being jostled and relieved of all your money.

train cinque T

view 1 ct

And to add insult to injury be serenaded all the way out by a tuneless accordion player, who looks affronted that you didn’t drop some Euros into his hat. Sorry mate, no Euros left.

But do we care? Absolutely not. In Italy all is forgiven, because of the utter beauty of the place: the food,

Fish Soup

the wine, the weather and the charm of everyone not in an official uniform. But most of all it’s because of the language. It’s impossible to say/do something ugly in Italian, as old Joe Green (that’s Giuseppe Verdi to you) can attest, because it’s all music. Even the most mundane of objects sounds alluring. Consegna dei Bagali…now, that’s a name I’d consider for my daughter. Never mind that she’d be mercilessly teased when someone realises it means Bag Drop. And on our way to Milan we encountered a Treno Sciopero…what a fine name for a boy. We don’t care that it means we were delayed for a day because it’s a Train Strike. Got something difficult to say? Do it in Italian: Togliere la spazzatura sounds so much more enticing than: take out the rubbish, and as for Abbiamo perso tutti i bagagli. Lost all my baggage have you? Well, never mind, I’m too busy listening to you say: Mi scusi ho appena rotto vento. That’s: Excuse me, I just farted. Actually that one will need no translation!

And if you have some lovely things to say, you’ll never hear them more sweetly sounded than when the Italian celebrant joined our daughter and her new hubby in santo matrimonio.

Si and Thea and celebrant crop

Posso presentare la sposa et lo sposi. Ciao! 

 

 

Mother of the Bride – Surprised by Joy*

Us with Si and Thea “But you’re the mother of the bride!” My friends all chorus as I contemplate a pair of $300 shoes that just might go with the frock that took far longer to find, and cost far more than the one I wore to my own wedding. “Buy whatever you want!” Of course sanity (and parsimony) prevailed and in the end I wore my ten year-old shoes that, according to the lovely bridesmaids, are back in fashion and – bonus – are so painful, they are hardly worn! But now as I look back on our daughter’s wedding (more like gaze mistily at the photos with a soppy smile and a swelling heart) I realise that all that worry about frockage was completely irrelevant. (Try telling that to the companies that continue to festoon any page I open on the internet with big lacy draperies that look great on the stick thin model, but make the average middle aged woman look like a pair of curtains, or shiny pink satin sheaths that risk the wearer looking so much like a sausage she might be mistaken for the food.) Thea and Si  & No, it’s the other stuff that’s such fun: doing the rounds of the bridal shops with my sister, quaffing prosecco while the bride comes in and out of the change room stunningly swathed in a succession of creamy frothy creations. Then it’s the shoes (six pairs bought, five returned) the headpiece, the earrings, the make-up, nails, hairdo all needing serious experimentation and providing a wonderful excuse for buying lots of heinously expensive bridal mags to be discussed endlessly over yet another mother /daughter/auntie boozy lunch. IMG_0770 Not all glitz and glamour either…try carrying a big bridal bundle in all its packaging on to the tube, then on two buses in the middle of rush hour. And all those decisions! Flowers? Acres of peonies are still invading my dreams (not such a bad thing.) Photographer? I had a few reservations about Alessandro, whose signature snap is the bride in the ocean. However we’ve seen a few of his pics (see below) and so far not a drowning bride in sight. FRamed kiss Amazing shot of wedding What about table settings? Eighty-five lemons, each with its own hand-written leaf? Why not? Lemons No, it’s not all lolling about leafing through glossy mags. There was work to be done and everyone was there to help. They also serve who only stand and iron the gorgeous bridesmaids dresses, who fill organza bags with sugared almonds (exactly five if it’s health, wealth, happiness, long life and fertility you’re after); who cut and distribute individual green leaf name cards, and who blow up five inflatable kangaroos brought by the Bells all the way from the Australian Geographic shop at Indooroopilly in Brisbane. (Yes, it’s true!) skippy and mate

So this perhaps is the point of it all. It was a magical weekend because our daughter Thea and her gorgeous new hubby Simon had gathered so many people who love them, and wanted to help make it all fabulous, (and as a bonus provided us with such a lovely family to join up with!)

Byngs Wonderful music came from cousin Melissa with her violin, and from friends Charlie and Antonio on piano and guitar, Mel playingMusicians

and Auntie Maria reduced us all to mush with her beautifully rendered Songbird, while multi-lingual cousins Fergus and Shona had scoured rural Italy for electronic equipment for Kat the DJ. And how can we forget bridesmaids: Visnja the detail gal; Greer, on the make-up for us all (in between feeds for three month old Hardy), and Caroline forensically organising the tables before leading everyone in a massive dance-off. Bridesmaids and dad And the groomsmen and best man were as handsome as they were handy, taking care of everything from the rose petal shower to the obligatory and witty character assassination of the groom, with elegance and style. Thea lolling with the lads And what’s a wedding without  acupuncture for the morning after? Well done, Cara. Acupuncture 2 As well, everyone had made the most amazing efforts to be there…planning their leave, booking flights, wrestling with Italian ticket queues, all the while juggling babies, frocks, suits and glasses of Aperol Spritz. Fergus the human tray2 And did I mention massive kudos to all those Aussies (thirty at last count) who thought, hmm…wedding in Italy? Sure, count us in. Train crew 1 Yesterday morning on Woman’s Hour (BBC radio 4) there was a phone in prompted by the national trauma of bridezilla Kirsty getting jilted at the altar by love rat Tom Archer*. Many callers felt the wedding money should be used for more everyday expenses like the mortgage and child-care, but I couldn’t disagree more. How many opportunities do you have to gather all the people you love together for such a joyous three-day party? celebrity shot cutting the cake It’s a bit like the Olympics of life. Where would all those wonderful athletes be without them? Just running worthily round and round a track. Yes they were expensive, but there are sometimes more important measures in life than just the fiscal – ask anyone who was caught up in Teem Gee Bee 2012, or Sydney 2000. OK, I know I sound horribly first world and privileged, but surely we all need moments in life where we come together as a group united in a purpose. So I discovered that the role of MOB was to watch and listen as the weekend brought together all the elements of my life that are most important. If bringing up a family is anything to me, I can die happy knowing that our daughter is an amazing, capable and beautiful gal who’s found a gorgeous soul mate, and our son Tom is as caring and loving of his sister as any parent would want, My kids not to mention a hilariously funny MC, under whose smooth chat everything flowed seamlessly. aced version Fosters callAnd lastly good old hubby Bob brought the house down with a truly fantastic Father of the Bride speech that was as tender as it was funny.

ace version favourite pic

  walk down the aisleAnd I think I can safely say that the humble bumbag (humbag?) has attained legendary status for all who were there. Thea and bag (amazing) crop

As for me, I spent the day with a beatific smile on my face. It’s still there, actually. And I was rendered inarticulate by happiness. I know…me! I couldn’t think of a single sardonic thing to say! All these lovely young people came up to thank me, and I had to shake my head. Thea and Simon did it all, with a spreadsheet and a budget and the acumen to find an amazing venue, pin down every detail – in Italian; track down a designer gown, and to stitch together a headpiece on the tube! I can only take credit for giving birth to our own two kids…they’ve done the rest. Oakleys sunset And that is all a parent can hope for. In the beigeness of life, as we limp blindly along hoping we’ve done an OK job with the lives that were entrusted to us, through all the effort, all the anxiety and all the joy, we need times when we stop and celebrate it. And to have it all come together in one stonkingly amazing weekend is something I can’t put a price on.

* Surprised by Joy – title of a poem by William Wordsworth…I know how he felt!

*The Archers – An Everyday Story of Countryfolk  legendary long-running radio serial that is part of the fabric of British life.