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.

 

 

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.

Blinky and me on the 243 – welcome to London

graffiti 2

When I come to London from  peaceful little Noosa Heads sur Mer, I feel as if some myopic paramedic has applied those paddle things they use to revive people, not to my heart, but to my brain! It’s not as if I’m a stranger here. This is my hometown. I grew up in Marylebone, went to a little primary school just behind Selfridges, and lived here on and off till my late twenties. Maybe I should heed the wise words of Terry Pratchett: Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. But I don’t know if even he has prepared me for this whirling, spectacular, cacophonous and completely bonkers experience … and that’s only a ride on the 243 from Stoke Newington to Waterloo. I think you’ll agree the expression on the face of my little friend Blinky says it all.

koala on bus 1

Just so many, many people. I’ve always been good at just staring at other people (discreetly of course), watching the passing parade, wondering what their lives are like, what they think, believe, hope for, and what possessed them to wear those shoes with that frock!

London folk 1

But here – initially at least, my brain is on overload. The beautiful young Jewish girl, in the black wig and dark tailored coat eases her stroller with her four children and six bags of shopping hanging on to it, past the pair of schoolgirls, in their neat blue blazers and silk -swathed heads bent over their i-Phones. Weary grandmothers – Irish looking or West Indian origin maybe – offer a smile before they sink gratefully into a seat. Tall young black guys lope gracefully through the bus; smart-suited young profs, hold on to the rail and gaze seriously at their phones; someone down the back talks loudly into space, entertaining the whole bus with what they’re having for dinner. I try to imagine the worlds they all step back into when they leave the bus. That’s what a writer is meant to do, right? (write?) But I can only sit and stare. I haven’t a clue! London 2

Maybe if we look out the window we’ll pick up few hints. Our big red chariot jolts and judders us through streets teeming and people weaving busily through shops, chatting on corners, lounging outside pubs in the spring sunshine. Seems the trusty 243 offers a kaleidoscopic lesson in socio-economics as it slices its way through the layers of generations, classes, ethnic groups, rungs on the fiscal ladder, fashion proclivities and just general out-thereness. A trip on the 243 is a snapshot of the city…better yet, a short film (that feels like a very long film if you’re late for the movie) as it heaves its way through Dalston, past street markets, peeling shop fronts offering everything from wigs to wedding gowns, cheap phones to children’s clobber. The all night bagel shop vies with eco-veggie restaurant and the halal kebab vendor for your eating pleasure….actually don’t start me (or Blinky) on the food, or we’ll never get out of here. Blinky wants cake1

If we gaze down the long vista of kingsland Road we’ll catch a tantalizing glimpse of that huge green gherkin, or the sharp shiny splinter of a building known as the shard. That’s where the money is, but there’s a journey before we reach them. We must pass gracious Victorian civic buildings; a cluster of wonderful Vietnamese restaurants, a canal that has spawned bijou urban dwellings that now overlook its murky depths. And the Geffreye Museum sits sedately back from the road with its garden shining green through cast iron railings. Then we’re in trendy Hoxton, where the remnants of the livid night-life can still be detected in posters for rock bands and tired looking young folk queuing at the bus stop. Cyclist weave their way in and out in grungy fluoro patches and what looks to me like reckless abandon, and at every stop light, a surge of humanity sweeps across our path. koala on bus 2

Now we are in the heart of it…skirting the old city wall at the Barbican, passing Hatton Garden for the diamonds and the Inns of Court for the justice. Gracious edifices line the way, peppered with the new and audacious glass-fronted buildings of all shapes, and angles imaginable that reflect the London of the bankers and the financiers back to themselves. Then we’re at the edge of theatre-land. And yes, Mama Mia is still pulling the punters, there on the corner where Aldwych curves us round in the same old path to the Thames it has offered for hundreds of years.  The river glideth at his own sweet will said Wordsworth in about 1802 and it still does. No amount of new buildings thrusting themselves confidently into the London sky, not even the big unsightly red box at the end will change the grace and majesty of the view from Waterloo Bridge london skyline 2

And what do we find at the end of our journey? For a mere three quid (plus thirteen for two glasses of rose…all right, they were large ones), we can watch Alan Bennett talking to Nicholas Hytner in the Olivier Theatre. In his deceptively mild northern burr he dissects all that he finds wanting as well as all that he finds wonderful in the Britain he’s documented so brilliantly in a life of 80 years. For Bennett and millions of his fellow Brits this is what it’s all about and, as Churchill was rumoured to have said when someone wanted money diverted from the arts to the war effort “What are we fighting for?” I’ll let the poet Shelley finish for me. If I’d let him start, you wouldn’t have bothered with mine, because he pretty much says it all:

 You are now In London, that great sea, whose ebb and flow

At once is deaf and loud, and on the shore

Vomits its wrecks, and still howls on for more

Yet in its depth what treasures!

And wouldn’t you know, we’re following in Shelley’s footsteps to Italy, not far from La Spezia where he met his tragic end. Ours will be a happier visit I’m sure, and promises lots of blog-fodder.

A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett

Sonnet Composed on Westminster Bridge  by William Wordsworth

Percy Bysshe Shelley, from a letter to Maria Gisborne 1820

The Valley of Broken Dreams: A Moving Experience # 4

Piano 2

There it goes up the driveway. It takes two strong young men and one strong older hubby to heave our piano up to the Salvation Army truck and out of our lives. This gives rise to a surprising amount of anguished soul-searching, and not just because of what we discovered had been living behind it. It’s what it represents that is so disturbing because it belongs to a time of endless possibility and optimism.

We acquired it along with many other optimistic objects that we were sure would enhance our lives. Let’s see…there was a juicer that provided an hour’s bonus cleaning for every healthy drop that entered our bodies; a mini trampoline from which we would jump our way to beauty; a knitting pattern for a tea cosy in the shape of Versailles (memory leads me to some embellishment here…. it was actually a thatched cottage.) But it might as well have been a palace, because our delusions were certainly on a grand scale.

chemistry set

We were young, we had a house to renovate, a life to build and most importantly, two young children to guide towards illustrious futures so of course we wanted to supply all the equipment in advance to pre-empt all that genius. Heaven forfend that our young Mozart should be thwarted by the lack of a piano, or that a future Nobel prizewinner should miss out just because he or she had been denied access to that Junior Chemistry set. Fortunately the kids, to give them credit, tried hard to fulfil our dreams for about a week, then they very sensibly started concentrating on their own.

No, this journey up the driveway represents the end of all that parental hubris.

550px-Do-Quilling-Step-2

So out go four quilling tools, three French tapes, two cricket bats and the plans for a tree house in a mango tree!  (Let’s face it we could never have managed the Treehouse Mahal below. Some things are better left as dreams.) And I discovered I was far more attached to the remarkable folders of incomprehensible Chemical Engineering notes than our daughter, who told us to bin them without a backward glance. Same with our son’s Podiatry instruments and plastic replica foot… his feet are firmly on a different path now.

Taj-Mahal_0510-lg

bear

We were the ones who held on to boxes of jig saw puzzles for imagined grandchildren, the bags of soft toys, the medal for third place in the egg and spoon race and even a complete 3-in- one pram. But it’s not all wasted. The Salvos or the wonderful Brain-Injured Children charity shop in Rosalie are passing them on to other couples still in the first flush of hope. I don’t want to dampen their enthusiasm but I feel like leaving a note inside saying: If they want a flute or a junior lathe, they’ll ask for it.

Some things did take, but mostly the ones they figured out for themselves. Our son spotted a surfboard outside a second hand shop in Bondi for $50 in about 1989 and has never been off it,  – or one like it – since, and all those tennis lessons with Wayne at Milton left them both with a mean forehand and plenty of kudos for a good ol’ Aussie upbringing when overseas.  But it’s not just the stuff…it’s the life we all had together that will never return – Friday night swimming club, Saturday morning soccer with the under-7 koalas, Wednesday nights debating…the list really is endless, as were holidays… from some old units overlooking the shiny water at Bribie Island (renamed Bribery Island for obvious reasons.) to a gite in Provence overlooking a valley of lavender, and so many other places in between, it all needs a blog of its very own. But all the blogging in the world won’t bring it back. When the stuff disappears down the road it really is the end of those lovely years!

bongaree

lavender-provence

And it’s not just the kids who are gone, so many illusions about ourselves, and our own capabilities  (or lack of) have to be faced, so I’m offering few tips for any fellow delusional hoarders among you. One is from the annals of Country and Western wisdom: Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ’em.

Not sure if that last bit refers to the ironing…in which case you might prefer your advice to come from the Oracle at Delphi: Know thyself.

  • Know that thou wilt never ever make amazing leather waistcoats out of the scraps thou gathered when thou worked for the rag trade in London in the 70’s. Especially as thou now liveth in Queensland.
  • Know that thou wilt never convert thy old faded slides from the Bahamas in the 1960’s into a digital file. Or if thou dost, thou wilt still never look at them, or inflict them on anyone else.
  • Know that keeping all those back issues of The Writer will not transform thee into a best selling author.
  • Know that thou wilt never again fit into that purple velvet mini-skirt, no matter how many mung bean and ry-vita diets thou goest on. Neither should thou!
  • Back to Kenny Rogers: Know when to walk away, know when to run!

So, to resort to yet another popular music cliché: You can run, but you cannot hide. No matter where you go, you take your head with you and that’s where the work begins. We have to re-invent or find again the people we were before we threw our energies into the building phase. It’s time to dismantle the structures we needed in order to run a family and a job, and hopefully discover that that when the structures are gone, we don’t just fall into a heap of boneless jelly. Well, I’m OK, but not sure about you dear!

So new life, new place…will we do more than just watch telly, drink tea and flicker-bicker? Watch this space.

butterfly

Quilling: also known as paper filigree is an art form that involves the use of strips of paper that are rolled, shaped, and glued together to create decorative designs.

A Moving Experience #3: Open for Inspection

dudley 17 front

Forget the Yoga retreat; ditch the human chorionic gonadatropin diet, the herbal body wraps, the counselling sessions. Cancel that trekking tour to Outer Mongolia. Just put up a great big sign that says your house is  Open for Inspection. Now that really will change your life.

signopen2

Because it’s not just your house, but your whole life that you open up between 11 and 11.30 on a Saturday morning. It’s your report card… and this time it’s not for disappointed parents, but for the whole world  – your street, your neighbourhood and all those open house pervs who want to go away feeling really smug that their house is so much nicer, and worth so much more than yours. And we subject ourselves to all this public scrutiny in the hopes that someone will like it enough to part with some of their hard-earned cash. The real estate agents don’t let you stay in the house, oh no. In fact they make you go as far away as possible, so you can’t hear the shout of derisive laughter when they see your tiles, or that macramé hanging that you treasure so much, or that your furniture is not exactly Chippendale – just chipped.

sign 2

It’s not just your taste that’s on the line here. Suddenly the way you’ve been living is exposed to the world…well, the street. And a lifetime of careless housekeeping can’t be rectified in one big clean up. That needs about a month of scurrying round every nook and cranny with an armoury of brushes, mops, cloths and spray cleaners and no sooner have you finished, you have to go back to the start, because the first naughty corner is all dusty again. I know that the American comedienne Irma Bombeck reckoned that a clean house is the sign of a failed life, but for a higher cause I’m prepared to fight the good fight against the evils of dust and grime. And actually, when it’s all sparkly it does look lovely.

dudley 17 dining to kitchen

The world is divided into two types: the leavers and the putters-away and unfortunately Bob and I are both of the former species (so our kids had no chance) and subject to laws more inexorable than those of quantum physics. It goes like this: In a given day a leaver will engage with something approximately every hour, do something with it, and then leave it somewhere, vowing to put it away later. Even if you do a conservative calculation of twelve hours per day, that’s twelve items left lying about, not to mention the hours lost wandering round saying where did I put that? Multiply that by the number of days we’ve lived in this house: so that’s 12 x 365 x 33 = 144,540 things left, lost, stepped on, replaced and then found later… grrrr! Double that, because there are two of us, then add two kids for about 20 of those years and you have about 433,620 completely unnecessary stressful events that make it abundantly clear why you are officially off your rocker. Clearly it’s the putters -away who will inherit the earth, and if you were sufficiently bored you could go through all the people you know and guess which one they are…or even do a celebrity version. Let’s see: Angela Merkel? No prizes for that one.

But here’s the thing. An open house will cure you. Yes, you’ll have to bag up all the unsightly things you thought you loved and shove them in the cupboard, do about twenty trips to the charity shop, and have to sneak out to the neighbours’ bins in the dead of night with the overflow of your rubbish, but once it’s gone you won’t miss it…in fact you won’t even remember it was there in the first place. Most of the clutter has been there so long, you no longer registered it. OK there will be a few minor crises while hubby goes around looking for his favourite sparse-haired shaving brush, and I do fear that the remote for the air conditioner has gone forever, but that’s a small price to pay for the joy of a clean, stylish smooth-surfaced house.  And then when your house looks like the setting for a fashion shoot, or an ad for a family made really happy by a tub of margerine or a cleaning product, you’ll have to shape up as well! And you’ll want to. Once you see yourself properly in the sparkling mirror, with the light shining though the newly cleaned window, you’ll be so horrified it will be off to the gym and the beauty parlour before you can say sold!

dudley 17 living

Nothing wakes you up like seeing yourself through the eyes of a real estate agent whose consummate diplomacy could teach Tony Abbott a thing or two. Not everyone likes the older photographs, she suggests quietly, so out go Bob’s parents’ wedding photo…and to be even-handed mine too, even though I reckon they were better looking. How about all those pics of the kids? Cute, but not that cute, apparently. And that’s a no to the fluffy toy dog on the sofa…so witty, you think, but won’t actually persuade someone to part with a shedload of money, whereas spotless highly controlled surfaces might. And the place has certainly perked up. Even the cushions are standing to attention…no more lolling about in a random heap like their owners. Let’s face it, we needed a bit of discipline. When I cleared the notice board there were invitations on there from the 1980’s! We always wondered why those nice people stopped speaking to us…it’s because their big party was inadvertently moved down the social order by the Taj Bengal takeaway menu. All right, their beef saagwala is fabulous, but it’s no excuse.

So now the classy music is softly playing, there are more flowers than the Vic Market and the fans are wafting the fragrant air through the half open windows. Suddenly we love living here and our only regret is that we could have been living in Open for Inspection mode all the time! But it’s not too late for you. Whether you’re selling your house or not…pretend you are! It will transform your life.

  • Amazing photographs are courtesy of photographer John Byrne and Space Property Agents, Paddington
  •  Taj Bengal in Waterworks Road Ashgrove  – great food.

 

A Moving Experience #2: Ten things I cannot throw away

blue plates

It’s council rubbish day on Monday, which means that a drive round the streets provides a sociological snapshot of the neighbourhood. The things other people throw away! The folk on the corner can afford to discard a sofa that’s better than the one I’m sitting on now! It doesn’t worry us that a midnight foray to pinch it would cement our status as the street cheapskates – that prize is unassailably ours – but it won’t happen. From now on things are allowed to be seen but not hoard(ed) because it’s crunch time. No longer can we afford to imagine that lovely old chair with the wonky leg will come in handy some time; or that we will rub back that cabinet that was such a bargain in 1985. Unless they discover a pill that will give us eternal life, we do not have enough hours left to spend on stuff.

Those of us who have had the disturbing – and exhausting – experience of clearing a house for an elderly relative will emerge with a different relationship to possessions. My sister took the brunt of that in our family but I saw enough (a) to imagine the kids trawling through our stuff exclaiming in disbelief, what were they thinking?  And (b) to realise we’re all just on a conveyer belt that moves things into our custody for a few years before they go to the Salvation Army. This makes all that cleaning, polishing, storing, shifting, restoring and painting seem like a waste of life’s precious gift of time.

But as the only members of our family in Australia we feel an obligation to be the repository (no, Tony, not suppository) of the mementos of our family history, even though the ensuing clutter is threatening to suffocate us. Storing, dusting, moving, displaying it all takes time and energy we don’t have, but how do we arrive at the clean, streamlined life we long for? Maybe we should be systematic, and sort out some criteria for retention:

  1. Sentimental remembrance/ family history.
  2. Might come in useful
  3. Incentive to lose that weight,
  4. Meant so much to someone else
  5. Too beautiful to throw away
  6. Just plain stupid, but I can’t help it.

So if it doesn’t make the cut, it goes. Let’s see:

  1. My wedding dress (6)
  2. My Godmother’s missal (4)
  3. Child’s dresser made by Bob’s grandfather that no one has ever played with (6)
  4. Collection of tools gathered over 40 years (2)
  5. All the diaries/letters/scribbles/ kids’ stories and pictures (1,2)
  6. Photos – no brainer.
  7. Tax returns since 1980 (2,6)
  8. All that blue china (5)
  9. Miner’s lamp from the time of the Jarrow march (1, 4)jarrow_old
  10. Four leafed clover found on the banks of the Charente (have to invent a new category!)

As you can see, we’re not making much progress, but at least that gets rid of all those fitted shirts, flared jeans, plastic takeaway containers and that cork water container we lugged all the way back from Africa that I never liked anyway. But my attempt to systemise these things of the heart shows it’s not that simple.  We only have to look into the eyes of the heartbroken victims of the horrendous fires sweeping through New South Wales at the moment to realise there is a bit more to this possessions thing.

devastated house owners

Standing in front of the rubble that used to be his home one man tried the gender explanation: it’s just bricks and mortar to me, but my wife will take it hard, but the tears in his eyes told us he was putting a brave face on what is a terrible grief. It’s about the things we choose to gather and enclose with us to give our fleeting lives stability. And our transient experiences are held captive in the stuff amid which they took place – not forever, but for long enough to see us out, or into the nursing home.

And some of these things choose us. Our kitchen table was given to us by our next-door neighbour Lenny who, after a failed marriage, had come back to live with his mother in the house where he was born. It was under his house and covered with linoleum, as was the fashion in the 1950’s, and, when stripped and oiled, enjoyed an 80’s fashion renaissance.table

Also entrusted to us is the portrait of my grandmother, and the story that goes with it…that her fine hair (just like mine) kept falling out of its Edwardian Gibson girl arrangement, and the photographer told her just to leave it. It has been left for more than a hundred years, and shipped back and forth across the world. I don’t see it ending on the footpath any time soon, but it will outlive us and will need to find another home with someone for whom it still means something.

Nana

Bob’s egg collection is emblematic of the process…it starts innocently enough with a friend bringing a perfectly rounded stone all the way from the Khali Gandaki Valley in Nepal. After that it seemed like a nice thing to do…collect eggs from our travels. Then it became the perfect solution to the age-old problem of what to buy dad for Xmas/ birthday, and friends, family and students enthusiastically found eggs from places as diverse as the White House and Wimbledon, and of materials from obsidian to ostrich offspring.  eggs 2

Then we need somewhere to put it all so we buy a nice teak cabinet. But what now? Where will it go in our new sleek streamlined life? And are we just laying up exhausting jobs for the kids who will presumably be sad already if they are clearing out our stuff? If this sounds morbid, it’s not meant to be…just practical. It’s high time we examined our relationship with this stuff, and at least we have a choice, unlike those desperate families in the Blue Mountains.

rfs volunteer near Bell NSW

But as usual we seem to be erring on the side of the sentimental, because we all want life  somehow to be held captive and the way that happens is to trigger the memory, recall the feeling. Our kitchen table is more than just a slab of old timber (albeit with nice turned legs). Our gentle and generous neighbour Lenny – who was found by Bob, having died in that front bedroom where he was born – is remembered there. As well, its grooves and scratches and indentations say a family sat here and ate and laughed and argued and sweated over quadratic equations, or essays on Napoleon.Dinner at the table

On a Saturday night it would put on its best lace tablecloth, while kindly candlelight lent a flattering glow to many lovely loud libation-laden dinners. And the only tangible thing left of all that is the table. So yes, it’s coming with us to our super smooth slick new life. If we get around to building a house, we’ll have to modify the imagined clean shiny house designs around our stuff, because that’s what will make it feel like home.

Pictures courtesy of Channel 7 and the ABC

Anyone who wants to assist those so badly affected by the New South Wales fires can do so through the Salvation Army at http://www.salvos.org.au or 13 72 58

A Moving Experience #1

dudley

We are in the throes of throwing our entire lives up in the air and letting the pieces land where they will…OK, a bit dramatic, but we are preparing to leave the place that has been home for the last thirty-odd years, in which we’ve reared our two kids, three cats, any number of goldfish and our own special colony of white ants. Not to mention the possums and those ugly bush turkeys, who clearly find it – as we did  – a nice comfortable family home.  And this business of throwing is proving more challenging than we imagined.

Why should it? We’ve moved many times before, and it’s been good for us. What’s not to like about landing in places and jobs among people that shake up your sense the world? And it’s fun to hunt around for furniture, tizzy each new place up with a lick of paint and a splash of cushion covers, figure out where the shops/pubs/coffees are to be found and as a collateral bonus, to meet new people. But is there a limit? Do we humans have a certain number of dwellings in us? If so, what’s the magic number? Let’s see:

baby photo     Nash house

My first home was a tiny mews flat behind Regents Park where, if this picture is to be believed, my companions were the statues that usually adorn the Nash terraces. Clearly that was what passed for childcare in the 1940’s!  After that, a flat above a shop on the other side of the park – 56a Park Road – was where we lived until I was sixteen. Then we moved to The Gun, a 400-year old pub on the Isle of Dogs. It’s now a fabulous gastropub, but back in the 60’s it was a scruffy little local in the middle of a working dock awaiting the trendiness that would not arrive for another thirty years. We couldn’t wait that long and after one year the parents, who were far too nice and trusting to run a pub, were evicted, and we fled to the welcoming arms of our lovely auntie in the ‘burbs, until they found another place.

map of parkthe gun

After that was a lively college residence in Strawberry Hill, and then to a number of dodgy student dwellings in Twickenham. Next was a tiny summer sublet on 41st and Lexington NYC, that we (I’d met Bob by then) shared with about 27 of our closest friends, before we moved to Nassau, in the Bahamas. Living above Dipper Dan’s 99 flavours of ice cream was an exotic experience for us, reared as we were in a mono-confectionary vanilla Britain, that wasn’t offering hot fudge or bubble gum flavoured anything, let alone ice cream. After that we moved to a cute little flat underneath the big house owned by a cult of white-toothed American Christians. They didn’t bother trying to convert us and would have had even less success with their other tenant, a generous, troubled ex Vietnam medivac pilot, who did not so much a runner, as a flyer, cramming everything that would fit into his crop duster one dark night and taking off, hoping the nasty men who wanted money from him wouldn’t follow.

New York

map-of-BahamasDipperDansIceCreamLogo

Then it was back to London and a bedsit at World’s End – the downmarket part of Kings Road Chelsea – until we got it together to buy a wee terraced house in Mortlake that we probably shouldn’t have sold for 16,000 pounds. Oops! But still young (and restless) we thought we’d try Australia, where the Victorian Education Department gave us a house on top of Wombat Hill in Daylesford, complete with a chook shed and a view for fifty miles. Three years later, in search of a place where it didn’t rain quite so much, we took our two week-old baby (!) to a flat in Zillmere in Brisbane’s northern suburbs. Finally we bought a timber Queenslander near Rosalie in the inner west… and that’s the one we’re about to leave. We were 32 and 33 last time we moved, and what a difference that makes, because now as I write out the inventory of all the moves, I’m starting to understand why I’ve lost the taste for it.

worlds endcbk

Daylesford view

You’d think we’d be used to it, because we’ve done it so often, and we’ve loved the adventure. But as with most of life’s pleasures there is a trade off, and with every carefree move, we lose part of what makes for permanence and a sense of belonging. If you can make a life wherever you go, does home have any meaning at all? This might seem like more of the usual self-indulgent drivel for which I beg your indulgence every couple of weeks, but it actually points to a much bigger social and emotional phenomenon. The world has opened up and offered such freedom to ping around the world. Work or adventure might send you to Hong Kong or Dubai at the drop of a hat – hopefully not of an exchange rate – and moving from Melbourne to Sydney or Los Angeles to Boston is commonplace. So gathering the accoutrements of a settled life is a skill many of us have acquired – house/school/neighbours/book group – everyone has their own list of essentials, and it might be a useful exercise to compile your own. But here’s the problem. Once you begin to quantify and calculate what you think you need for a happy life, you may discover that actually, these things are incalculable. I defy you to compile an inventory of the smells and the air and the sounds and sights that give that immediate sense of being in the right place. It’s a deep familiarity of memory and people built up over years, and nothing to do with choosing a suburb or a school. Belonging is chosen for you before you are aware that that is what you are seeking.

It might be very Zen to flit from place to place gathering few possessions and commitments and discarding them easily, after all that’s what the birds do. They rebuild every year but sensibly they stick to a natural colour palette so they won’t be stuck with that burnt orange throw that is so last year! But as well as being a matter of personal choice, surely this is a culture – altering phenomenon. It’s the people and families and dare I say the generations who spend long years and make a wholehearted commitment to their place that are the glue of community. And those of us that roam freely actually want our cake (just how Grandma made it) having already eaten it! We want the things we leave behind to be the same, to give us that frisson of familiarity when we drop by our old haunts. Well someone has to stay there to keep it all going! And the casualties of a movable global population – the stability and comfort of institutions, once considered uncool and old-fashioned – might already be too far-gone for resuscitation.

If there is one thing all this moving around has taught us, you can never go back. You can stand outside the old school or the house where you grew up, but that’s all it is – a building. You will never again be that person who felt those feelings in those places. But something in us urges us to try. Randolph Stowe – acclaimed West Australian novelist  – was so forcibly struck by some kind of race memory felt in the East Anglia that his forbears had left five generations earlier, that he moved back, and indeed died there. Not to go all existential on you, I have to say that F. Scott Fitzgerald had a point when he wrote the wonderful words that closed the book on Jay Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

NB: I am fully aware that this is a reflection from the luxurious perspective of a first world middle class existence. The families whose search for a better life is coming to such a tragic end on the shores of Lampedusa, or Christmas Island might wonder what on earth I’m going on about!

Pictures courtesy of someone with a Brownie camera and Google images