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

 

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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

 

 

 

 

Bring a Plate… and they did!

 

retro-housewife1

This is by way of a massive thank you to all the folk who answered the call to Bring a plate to the launch of my book Treading Water, because as far as I’m concernedthey are the three most terrifying words in the English language. Scary words like Make my Day! Mind the Gap! or, ‘Yes, you’re Pregnant! pale into insignificance compared with the dreaded words, ‘Bring a Plate’.

It’s a wonderful Australian tradition, and epitomises the combination of hospitality, sharing the workload, neighbourliness, and sheer competence that is found among my friends. But in a person of my culinary ineptitude it strikes terror. Because no one ever eats anything I bring! (At least I know to bring something, unlike my English pal, who took it as a plea for crockery and just brought the plate…but it was a nice one)

‘You’re being paranoid’, said hubby after my fifth failed attempt to wow them at Nursing Mothers, and I returned with my tragically still-laden plates. He had an ulterior motive though, because it meant he could happily tuck into the returned goodies: leaden scones, soggy tea-cakes, Anzac biscuits you could sole your boots with and on one auspicious occasion, a pizza that was so dry and hardened we hung it on the wall and told everyone it was a Mexican wall plate (this is true!) It stayed there for six months…even the ants wouldn’t touch it.

mexican   Why would he eat it? Suffice to say the competitive element of the bring a plate thing generated an improvement on the normal offerings. It’s not that I don’t try, I do! And I can turn out a dreary litany of spag bol, roast chicken, and lasagne that kept the family from starvation. If ever I happened upon a new recipe that worked, I’d be so thrilled I’d serve it up ad nauseam (literally), until they were all screaming for that marvelous spag bol again. Not all bad though. We’ve turned out a pair of kids that will eat anything and can cook most things rather well.

Can’t you read a recipe? I hear you ask. Yes I can, and if I make a massive effort, it will be edible, but not a patch on the people who just have a sense of it, who know what goes together, who know that exotic herb, (and can probably grow it in their window box), and their love of it, and casual audacity about what will go with what, infuses the food with flavour. It does! A plate of cheeses and grapes…my latest safe offering just doesn’t cut it._windowbox_xlg

And it’s a skill my friends pass off with such casual competence. After a massive year of house building and moving, one lot found time to leave a wonderful dish of beef cheeks with chermoula in our fridge to welcome us home from a trip. (What’s chermoula? Dunno, but it’s delicious). When asked about some delectable but elusive taste, another friend will say, ‘Oh, I had this at a restaurant…they’d added blah blah, so I experimented with it.’ And in between marking piles of books, cleaning the house, looking after kids, hubbies, parents and most of the neighbourhood, will turn out a spectacular feast…every night.

And, these accomplishments were displayed even more spectacularly at my recent book launch.

Out now on Amazon

Out now on Amazon

me maybe best

(Shameless plug…you knew it was coming!) The booze was the easy part, and just required boxes and boxes of wine to be delivered to our door every day. The fact that the postman thinks we’re raving drunks was a small price to pay for the conviviality it generated. But, given my own ‘issues’, the plea to bring a plate was made with some trepidation. I shouldn’t have worried. The food was absolutely fantastic and there was so much of it. And it’s not just the quiches and the dumplings, the meatballs and the roulade. It’s the idea that those three words invoked a response of such extraordinary generosity, kindness and people’s desire to bring along their friendship in tangible (and edible) form that was so special.

crowd nice 2

Renowned political journo Annabel Crabb has nailed it in her TV series ‘Kitchen Cabinet’ during which she routinely disarms the most hard-arsed politicians with food. They are prepared to risk becoming lard-arsed (sorry…couldn’t resist) in order to appear more human. Hard to hate a person in a frilly apron, no matter how draconian their policies.frilly apron It’s a notion explored her new book, Special Delivery. Needless to say, she is wonderful with food, but also wise enough to know there is more to it, as she explains in a recent interview:

Annabel“Food is the internationally recognised culinary code for ‘I come in peace’. It is a language that says so much more than ‘Please let me in, Madam Speaker’. To friends and family, food can say everything from ‘I’m sorry you had a bad day’ to ‘Congratulations, you clever thing’. And it means still more when brought to the door.”

So maybe it doesn’t matter if the gingers won’t snap or the torte is a bit tart, it’s the thought that counts. OK, I’m thinking, profiteroles would be nice, or maybe some of those chilli lime shrimp cups. And naturally, I’m hoping like hell that someone else brings them!

profiterole

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.

Cruising with Charles – A Baltic Adventure

 

 

Baltic Skyscape theme?even betterBob and Ang Sunset

 

If you’re any good at lolling on deckchairs, being plied unobtrusively with drinks at the swirl of a signature, mooching from meal to meal, chatting amiably to anyone who sits nearby, gazing at water and sky for long spells, and generally floating along becoming benignly institutionalized, then cruising is for you.

But when you’ve exhausted the possibilities of Crafty Corner, bean bag bowls, the bridge tournament and Scalphabet, and it’s a bit early to order cocktail of the day, you will need a good book. I can recommend Claire Tomalin’s wonderful biography of Charles Dickens, because even though the Baltic Sea is a far remove from the grimy streets of Shoreditch (not so grimy these days), I had no trouble imagining the master novelist charismatically cruising and schmoozing on board the MV Marco Polo.

seascape leaving Helsinki 2Baltic cabin

 

And he wouldn’t have been lazing in his comfy cabin reading biographies of himself. Oh no. He would have been out there, charming everyone, hobnobbing with the captain, taking over the bridge, the Captain’s Club and no doubt guiding us single-handedly through the impossibly narrow Kiel Canal. Then in the evening, with the indefatigable energy and enthusiasm that apparently characterized his life, he’d be in the wings ready to take over from the sequin-laden entertainers (and, being partial to dress-ups, he wouldn’t mind donning a few sequins himself.) He’d be giving dramatic readings that would put the lecture on the Hanseatic League in the shade, and, better yet, eavesdropping on a cast of character ready made for his next novel: A Tale of Lots of Cities: Copenhagen, Helsinki, Tallin, St Petersburg and Stockholm.

Baltic Deck and islandBob and rudy 5

The days “at sea” would have his quill sharpened and scratching overtime. He might start on the aft deck, where the early drinkers gather in convivial groups, around the bronze statue of an apparently gelded Nureyev – arms outstretched to welcome the smokers relegated to the chilly starboard side. Then there’s the enterprising widow who lives twenty minutes from Tilbury and hops on and off these cruises like a number 24 bus, holding court with a cuppa and a fag and dispensing investment advice to anyone who’ll listen. He’d meet be-jewelled older ladies with their young consorts, and mothers and sons who have come a long way just to sit opposite each other without talking.

But he’d also see lifelong friendships blossom among hitherto strangers who have streamed up the gangway from all walks of life. For a few days the campanologists leave the bells of Crowland Abbey, and the Bodleian archivist abandons his nineteenth century pamphlets. The teachers busy themselves figuring out how to make a trip to the Summer Palace tax deductable, and the florists, lawyers, builders and all their fellow workers submit gratefully to a comfortable captivity where hardest decision is to choose the smoothie of the day (Chocobanana or kiwi and almond anyone?) By far the largest demographic are the retirees, who have left all those grandkids unminded while they enjoy Mood lifting melodies from the Movies in the Show Lounge, and have a good old moan about the demise of the UK .

baltic Matryoshka-dolls-cherub Hermitage

 

All this is to the accompaniment of food, food and more food…not so much booze and cruise, as float and bloat. Well, that was us. Plenty of fitter folk – from the tall and rangy to the small and tubby – walk the decks and pump the gym machines with enviable brio.

And Dickens wouldn’t be the first writer to see a ship as a metaphor for the voyage of life, most especially its hierarchical divisions. Clearly the poshies are up the top amid the swirling spas, and if status is indicated by the size of your window, the folk down on Deck Five, who need a ladder to peek though their porthole, are still a cut above the inside cabins. Even further below, the staff range from the humble squirter of hand-sanitiser, to the beautiful Ukranian dancers – at least seven foot tall on their black patent stilt shoes. But on board a ship, unless you’re festooned with buttons and braid, you’re not very important, and we did wonder if the lovely Edison, who kept our cabin spotless, saw much of the ocean until his annual trip home to his family in the Philippines.

So, on to the Baltic cities, and to quote our mutual friend Charles, it was the best of times, but it was also the worst of times.*  Vodka in an ice glass at the Helsinki Ice Bar? It sounds cool (pun…sorry) and if you want to drive 30 miles from the city to see a huge shed with a bit of snow  and  a few sad huskies going round and round a track, maybe it is.Baltic Bob in ice bar Baltic Ang in Tall-in the rain

But that was only marginally worse than Sunday in Sassnitz. If I want to go to a quiet little town where everything is closed, I’ll go back to the nineteen fifties for a day out at the English seaside. And getting soaked in picturesque Tallin-in–the-rain detracts somewhat from its mediaeval charm, not fully redeemed by a bowl of elk soup at III Draakan. Back on board we were rather dismayed by our first night at dinner with a surly couple who barely spoke to each other. (No, it wasn’t us). But a fortuitous move to an earlier sitting found us joining a really lovely crew. Thank you, Jo and Roy and Joan and David, for our nightly dinner party…definitely the best of times.

Baltic dinner for sixBaltic Bob & Ang dinner 2

And there were many, many more: sailing in the golden evening light through the innumerable islands of the Swedish Archipelago … red and yellow timber houses amid the trees, boats bobbing and kids fishing from pontoons…just idyllic! Baltic back deck islandsBaltic house on island 2

And Stockholm is one of the most beautiful and livable (if not affordable) cities we’ve ever seen: miles and miles of gracious buildings on the prettiest of waterways, biked, sailed and jogged around appropriately enough by the prettiest of people. Even their politicians look like models!

baltic beautiful buildings stockholm3Baltic boats stockholm 2 Baltic good looking MP &waterwayBaltic good looking MPs

 

And if you imagine, as I did, that the Vasa Museum housing a fully restored 17th century ship, or a building called the Rock Church in Helsinki would be a bit ho-hum, think again, they’re both splendid.

Baltic VasaBaltic church in rock 2 better

 

I can also recommend a boat ride along the charming canals of Copenhagen. You’ll join lots of hardy Danish families out picnicking on their unique floating tables, dangling their bare feet in the freezing water!

Mermaid 2 Baltic Canals Copenhagen

St Petersburg is a must, and if you’re as fortunate as we were, you’ll score as your guide the droll Tolstoian Anatoly whose cultured and witty commentary made all the other guides sound like a speak your weight machine. He also knows which souvenir shops give away the best vodka, and is prepared to offer his own version of Russian history. With a sad shake of his head he declared that the assassination of Czar Alexander 11, in whose memory his son built the wonderful Church on the Spilled Blood, lost Russia her chance of being a constitutional monarchy like Denmark, or even Britain.

Baltic Spilled blood 3Spilled blood inside 3

 

 

 

 

 

The truly remarkable Summer Palace speaks for itself: white and gold and grand, with huge delft fireplaces in every room, each more splendidly ornamented, until we reach the stunning Amber Room.

Baltic Delft fireplace 3Baltic amber_room_

 

And The Hermitage with its wonderful art and beautiful objets is on a scale that defeats the day-tourist, and needs more time.

Balticamazing ceiling hermitagebaltic hermitage ceiling

Baltic leonardo hermitageBaltic picasso hermitage

 

 

And as for the gardens! A glance through the windows of both palaces offers stunning vistas and avenues on all sides.

Baltic Gardens Cathpal Baltic garden 2 hermitage

 

A night at the ballet completed our Russian experience, but like a Tolstoy novel, it’s so vast and complex we feel as if we’re still on the introduction. Baltic Bob at the ballet Baltic Bob & Ang winter palace square

All in all it was a really great trip, and if you want to take advantage of our distilled vodka, sorry, wisdom read on:

  • If you can hold your nerve, and wait until the last minute to book, you will often get crazy reductions. We didn’t, but in future we’ll be ready if an interesting cheapie comes up.
  • If you’re like us, and don’t mind gawking from the bus and seeing the greatest hits, book the shore trips. But if you do your homework, you can often just walk around yourself. It’s not in the brochures, but they frequently put on a free bus.
  • While we’re on homework, cruising is a bit like school, with lists and reminders and announcements over the loudspeaker for the latecomers. But it’s very pleasant and efficient, and unlike school, there’s vodka. So, (pun alert) just go with the flow.
  • Choose a smaller ship. The MV Marco Polo holds a mere 800 passengers and according to the seasoned cruisers, is very friendly. One snooty couple did complain there were no chocolates on the pillow! Just bring your own chocolates.baltic big and little ship cropchocolate
  • Probably don’t read the essay on cruising by David Foster Wallace in his darkly witty collection entitled: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.
  • You will see a bucket-load of stuff in a short time…not always what you expected, but so much the better for that.
  • Did I mention the vodka…cranberry or cherry flavour, you choose.

*Famous beginning of Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities customised to fit my sentence (sorry, Charles)

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

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