A few good men (and one bad one)

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Tadaa! Drum roll! Glitter descending! Champagne ! (well, prosecco). Huzzah!

This is the first of what will become a ceaseless stream of self-promotion, as I prepare the world for the self-publication of my book, Treading Water.

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What used to be dodgy Vanity publishing has become cool! It’s now Independent (or Indie) publishing and is all the rage, so I’m about to add my offering to the deluge of print spewed out from Macs and PCs all over the world. It was hard enough writing the thing, but now I have to promote it non-stop on Facebook and twitter and every other outlet I can find. Hubby has even volunteered to dress up as a town crier, so if you hear some loud bell-ringing in your local shopping centre, it could be him! (Jokes)

town crier

So, what’s my book about? I was once told by a very wise fellow, that every book needs a bastard in it, so I’ve got a doozy in mine. Feel free to hate the handsome, rich and selfish David Connolly, who leaves his wife and family with such casual cruelty, that his two little girls become collateral damage. It’s not immediately obvious in the relatively privileged circles in which they move – they still have good clothes, good schools and plenty of friends. But Lucy, the youngest, is so deeply affected by the loss of her beloved father, she finds herself Treading Water through her childhood and teenage years.

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I’ve made the dad the villain of the piece, partly for dramatic effect, and partly because I’ve seen (and read, in students’ poems and stories) how the loss of a dad’s attention at a crucial age can have a devastating effect on a daughter. It’s not always so. Loads of parents who can no longer manage to stay together, handle it all fantastically well, with patience and decency and love. Step-parents and step-siblings often become the new version of the extended family with really great outcomes for everyone. But Treading Water is a shout of protest for those little gals so hurt by their loss, that it threatens to blight their whole lives. But please don’t think it’s a man-hating diatribe. I have a few flawed women in the mix, and plenty of very nice men in there too. Hopefully I’ve achieved a gender balance not evident in the current parliament!

gender balance

(Update: Friday 11th September Malcolm Turnbull replaces Tony Abbott as Prime Minister and wastes no time in adjusting the gender balance in his ministry. Who knew he was reading my bog!)

However a couple of good men really stand out. They’re not actually in the book, but they have been absolute champs in the long and fraught process of getting the book out there.

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The first is that most accomplished Brisbane novelist, and generous mentor of fellow writers – Nick Earls. There he was minding his own business one Saturday morning in the deodorant aisle of the local supermarket, when a certain deranged woman recognized him from his many school visits and writers’ festivals, and accosted him with an extremely cheeky request. Could he give her a line of endorsement for her soon to be published masterpiece? Mr. Earls, to his eternal credit, smiled uncertainly, gave me his email, and didn’t call security. He was probably hoping that the loony lady would forget the email, but no, three chapters and a synopsis thundered into his inbox, and elicited from him a fantastic line:

“Treading Water gets beneath the surface of lives that look suburban and safe. We need to see stories like this being told.”

Earls, Nick 2 It’s now emblazoned on the front of my book… such a famous name to lure the punters in! I did write back, to make sure I was authorized to put it on the cover, and received a very nice reply to the effect of: put it wherever you like! He didn’t actually say stick it up your bottom for all I care, but I wouldn’t have blamed him if he did. All praise to the decent, generous and talented Mr. Earls.*

And a hemisphere away, a Glaswegian photographer by the name of Gary Ross,** demonstrated a similar mix of generosity and talent. In looking for the right image for my cover, I came across his beautiful image of a young girl… my Lucy! It was on a site freely accessible, but the publishers needed more, so I tracked him down and rang him. Not only did he give permission, he sent a special high-res version of the picture, and refused payment, asking instead that I send a copy of the published book to his daughter Skye (the girl in the picture) with a personal message. What a legend! Faith in humanity officially restored!

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And never fear, amid the struggles of the characters, there is still plenty of hope and humanity in my book. Here’s the blurb:

“Life seems good for Lucy – she’s so pretty and popular at her exclusive girls’ school. But under that smiling facade is a dark secret that draws her back to the bridge where a young man died.

Paul has always been there when she needed him – so grown up and capable and kind. But as they grow ever closer, what he knows about the tragedy at the bridge threatens to destroy her faith in him forever.

Two young people struggling in families fractured by divorce and bereavement. Can they ever be free of the past?”

Intrigued? I hope so! I’m planning lots more shameless promotion, a launch and a bit of razzamatazz – any excuse for some cheap plonk and nibblies. The launch will be in Brisbane, but you can all be there in spirit.

It is available as Print on Demand, or as an eBook on Amazon, Smashwords and many of the usual outlets, so we’re on our way. This is just the start!

*Nick Earls is the author of novels including The Fix, Zigzag Street, Bachelor Kisses, The True Story of Butterfish and Perfect Skin and the collection of short stories Welcome To Normal. His work has been published internationally in English and in translation.

**www.iworksphotography.co.uk

***”Villainc” by Caricature by J.J., SVG file by Gustavb – Moved to current name from Image:Villianc.svg (see original file history below). Move approved by User:Superm401. This vector image was created with Inkscape.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Villainc.svg#/media/File:Villainc.svg

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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.

A country that doesn’t forget 1915 -2015

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You could not be in Australia, or among Australians* in 2015, and be unaware of what happened to an extraordinary group of men** on the Gallipoli Peninsular on April 25th a hundred years ago. Their extraordinariness has grown with the legend and become inextricably linked with the story of a newly federated nation in a new century. And they have come to represent all that is to be loved and admired and treasured by a small population emerging as a nation on the world stage. As many have observed, their feats of courage, loyalty to mates and stubborn determination to dig in, in the face of hopeless odds, have been replicated in many other places, from The Somme to the Burma Railway, from Vietnam to the Kokoda Trail. But it is on that sheer and beautiful Turkish headland that – like it or not – the legend of what has come to be seen as the quintessentially Australian character was forged.

Part of it is that they were unlikely heroes; lads seeking adventure, insulated by distance from an understanding of the political endgame in which they were unwitting players. They were endowed, according to the legend, with physical strength, a capacity for hard work, a larrikin disposition, and most poignantly, blithe optimism, which drained away with their blood into the Aegean, just like the heroes of Greek myth and The Iliad. It was replaced by dogged endurance, mateship and resourcefulness learned in no small part on the stations and small towns of country Australia.

And it is how they behaved in the face of impossible odds and bureaucratic bungling that has come to represent a rich vein of the national character, at least in our perception. And it endures as strongly as ever even though the last Gallipoli veteran died in 2002. All the revisionist versions – that it is a masculine and martial depiction of the national character that leaves out so many other important strands – cannot displace it. Indeed the SBS reporter Scott McIntyre, who dared offer a seamier version of the bronzed Anzacs – one of rape and careless violence typical surely of any armed force – was summarily sacked.Whatever our view of war and waste and sacrifice – and these questions are complex and troubling – the courage and fortitude of these men and women continues to be honoured. Anzac-Cove-Gallipo_3280787k

And the celebration has been remarkable. Some of us might have found the rock-concert scale of the Gallipoli service disconcerting (and absolutely freezing apparently, for special guests and ill-clad choristers forced by the logistics to sit for many hours in the dark.) They probably hadn’t imagined they would not only remember the campaign but they would go close to replicating the conditions!

But the importance of this major anniversary is reflected in the many and varied stories offered by all media outlets. And even if your main source is ABC Radio National (guilty as charged) the offerings were varied, absorbing, and moving. We learned of Indigenous Anzacs denied the vote, but proving more than equal when asked to fight for Australia. We discover that all of our lives have surely been enhanced (and maybe saved) by the lessons learned from the remarkable feats of medicine miraculously achieved in appalling conditions. Emergency methods of triage and the role of the paramedic invented by the humble stretcher-bearers are just a couple. And what about those unique and wonderful war-horses, the Australian Walers? I defy you to podcast their story and remain dry-eyed. And what happened to the conscientious objectors, or the shattered men whose war continued long after the Armistice? So many, many stories, all of which will richly repay a visit to http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/

gallipoli poster And let’s not forget Peter Weir’s elegaic, impossibly romantic and handsome film Gallipoli. The music alone will get you, as will Reflections on Gallipoli performed by the amazing Australian Chamber Orchestra with Richard Tognetti. On a more modest, but no less moving occasion, the Noosa Chorale sang Karl Jenkins’ Mass for Peace entitled The Armed Man. Even my somewhat reluctant hubby, who arrived murmuring something along the lines of this is two hours I won’t get back, had to admit he was blown away by it.

armed man

But the closest we came to peeling back the layers of legend, of hype, of militaristic jingoism was at a tiny settlement in the Sunshine Coast hinterland called Verrierdale. It consists of a small community hall with a raised stage in the corner, whose worn timber could speak of many a fiddler and foot-tapping accordionist at the dance on a Saturday night. Not easy to find in the pre-dawn darkness, nevertheless the grounds were full of locals gathered round a simple shrine. memorialWe had a piper, some speeches and Abide with Me, followed by the Last Post. An old proud uniformed soldier limped forward to lay a wreath, followed by a young girl remembering her Vietnam veteran grandfather. And then, for the price of a latte in some of the swankier spots of Noosa, a magnificent breakfast served by a dedicated group of locals of all generations. Smiling grandmothers doled out the milk liberally dosed with rum (known as a gunfire breakfast or, more locally Moreton Bay porridge!). And their grandkids buttered the toast and threaded their way through the tables serving and clearing. So enduring a tradition is it that the tablecloths are stitched with hand-knitted poppies, and come out every year, lest we forget. poppies

In nearby Eumundi, twenty spreading fig trees throw their welcome shade over the main street; one for each man lost from this town.The grief that spread like a stain through this small community is emblematic of the suffering of families all over the world. All that love, and all that loss somehow endured for the sake of a higher ideal. It has to mean something: decency, community, freedom, and ordinary people being extraordinary.

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* And New Zealanders (great anthem!) and so many others, although surely the Dublin Fusiliers deserve a moment of our remembrance for their terrible losses.

**And women, who waited aboard Hospital Ship Gascon a mile offshore from Gallipoli ready for the 557 casualties from that first day.)

Join a Choir – It’s a Gift

Music score

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

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

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

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

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

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

hastings carols

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

Choir 4 crop

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

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

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

Anzac Centenary-advance notice

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

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

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

The Twelve Nays of Christmas

Photo on 2014-12-06 at 12.12 Christmas…the season of unalloyed joy and festive fervour…so why do I find myself huddled shakily over the steering wheel in the bowels of a shopping centre the size of a small city? (Clearly it’s not called Shoppingtown for nothing). Well for a start I managed to find a park, but that took so much energy I’m not sure I have the fortitude to launch myself on the dazzling delights of decadence. shopping-mall-center decorated-for-christmas-shopping-time-with-glistening-lights-and-trees What is wrong with me? Everyone else loves it… and what’s not to love? As you might have imagined I’m about to tell you. So in synergy with that famous song of the season I’m offering you the twelve “nays” of Christmas, (with a few “yays” added in the interest of balance):  

(1) Those Christmas newsletters!. Finding out that your daughter is studying at the Sorbonne, and your son has won the Nobel Prize, is not helping. Neither is the news of your world trip, during which you sailed a yacht round the Med, had arvo tea with the Obamas, and built a school in an African village. newsletter cartoon That doesn’t mean I won’t be cobbling together my usual airbrushed version of life with the Oakleys. This is a rant, so don’t expect consistency.

(2) The gifts! How many times to we unwrap a parcel of disappointment? The queues at the refunds desk on Boxing Day attest to that. unwanted giftOne memorable year our son Tom, expecting some trendy piece of kit from his sister in London, had to command all his acting ability to look delighted at receiving a toilet in Africa. Actually, it turned out to be the gift that kept on giving, because he was able to recycle it in his comedy routine, telling the audience he kept getting phone calls from someone in The Gambia asking him kindly to put the seat down.

(3) The Goop Gift Guide! I don’t mean to single you out but it’s too tempting because you have gathered in one supremely tasteful place, all the snobberies and insecurities triggered by this time of year. Is my gift good enough? Does it demonstrate my generosity/good taste/utter coolness? Let’s see…would she like the gold safety pin for $1,995? Or maybe Le Cut Off Short in Blanc (!) at $185…mmm, can’t afford that but wait, there’s the Jasmine Candle for Inner Light and Joy at a mere $68! anita-ko-safety-pin_product2_largeframe-ex-le-cut-off-blanc_product2_b164b829-6695-452b-a4ad-887a90512492_large

Sorry, Gwynneth, I may have to consciously uncouple from your blog even though I’ve had to split an infinitive to get there. But as an antidote, you can check out the Mulberry Christmas 2014 ad and have a larf about it all.

(4) It’s all about the kids! Well if that’s the raison d’etre for the Lalaloopsy Babies Daiper Surprise Blossom Flowerpot Doll, whose claim to fame is that she “magically poops charms,” which can be gathered on a bracelet, and which retails for a mere $79.99, surely we are at the end of civilization as we know it. daiper surprise And what’s the message for young girls…changing nappies will offer you all sorts of surprises? Well, I can attest to that, but hang them on my wrist? I don’t think so. But actually my inner Scrooge will never destroy the childhood magic, the sparkly lights, the alluring packages, the pitch of excitement that as adults we can never access again except vicariously through the kids’ sense of wonder.  

(5) Carols in October! We wish you a Merry Christmas! Nice try, but actually, you don’t, you just wish to prolong buying frenzy season by a couple of months, and make us so sick of the tunes, we’ll buy anything just to get out of there. A-christmas-carol1 It’s just fortunate that these carols have such beautiful melodies, that communities world-wide from St Martin in the Fields to the Noosa Chorale (shameless promotion…I’ve just joined!)* revisit them every year, and really do bring Joy to the World.

(6) Tree lights! How many marriages have foundered while trying to locate the rogue bulb that renders all the others useless? But hey, what a magical glow they spread through the house when they go on…and off…and on…and off. ChristmasLights (7) Santa! Sorry, old geezer in red suit doesn’t do it for me…never has. FatherChristmas  (8) Hi-jacking a Christian festival in order to make a buck! Not sure Jesus would have been pestering Mary and Joseph for the latest edition of Grand Theft Auto. But the same spirit inspires people to serve Christmas dinner at a homeless shelter, or sing Silent Night and play football in No Man’s Land. Clearly this is complicated.

soldiers trucefootball match

(9) Loneliness audit! Like it or not, Christmas is when we’re all expected to be able to display what we’ve gathered in our lives. Perfect strangers will feel free to interrogate us, “What are you doing for Christmas?” All very well to say it’s just another day but no one asks you in the supermarket what you’re doing next Thursday unless it’s Christmas. That’s what I’d call an unintended consequence: when a cheery greeting make you feel like crap.

(10) Family! And while we’re on a downer, we should acknowledge that Christmas is often a time of increased family tensions, sometimes with tragic consequences. If you feel un-Christmassy because you want to murder Great Uncle Harold, seems you’re not alone. The explosive combination of old wounds, alcohol and disappointment sees a seasonal spike in family violence every year.a_christmas_carol family But for most of us the national excuse to gather in family groups creates far more joy than sorrow. For most families, the worst thing that happens is a mad dash on Christmas Day from in-laws to out-laws, making sure that all the Nanas and Grandpas and second cousins aren’t left out. This can involve consuming a year’s food in one day, but at least you got to pull a cracker with Great Aunt Gertie, which brings me to:

(11) The food! So much of it! And for someone with my culinary ineptitude, so much pressure! Sebastian Barry said that motherhood makes heroes out of women*, but I reckon producing all that Christmas food comes a close second. And don’t get me started on the booze. Seriously, don’t or I’ll forget to turn the oven on…again.elf cooking (12) The telly! The term Christmas Special seems an oxymoron to me. Exactly what is so special about watching the toffs of Downton Abbey scoffing peacocks tongues in aspic, courtesy of their hordes of below stairs slaves, while I’m busy trying to produce something remotely edible for my lot? The last thing I need is Lord and Lady Creepy-Crawley patronising the peasants, or Lady Mary making my best frock look dowdy! _downton_abbey_christmas_1 But later, back at Oakley Towers around five o’clock …the washing up is stowed, dad is snoring gently, supper is sorted (for the next three weeks!) Kids are bickering amiably amid a mountain of toys. Oh all right, just one more slice of Christmas cake and it’s time to watch Jimmy Stuart bumble his decent way through a cruel world to discover It’s a Wonderful Life. And for any of us lucky enough to be enclosed in a charmed circle of love, shelter and food …it really is. its-a-wonderful-life

*If you’re in the area, make sure you come along to the Noosa Chorale’s Christmas Wassail Sat 20th and Sun 21st December at 7.30. You’ll hear Vaughn Williams’ Fantasia, lots of your favourite carols, and the remarkable young cellist Louise King, while you make merry with mince pies, a cheese platter and a few trips to the bar. Bookings: http://www.thej.com.au

*Sebastian Barry A Long, Long Way

*Cartoon drawn by Fran and the rights paid for at cartoonstock.com by moi!

Keep calm and try again…and again. Bureaucracy for the bewildered.

OK…these are the twilight years, bathed in sunlight, time to relax, see friends, play golf, learn a language etc etc…but before I can start this halcyon phase, I just have to do the tax, let’s see….

Xmas letter photo

I just need to retrieve last year’s online tax account. Oh goody! It’s been made really easy for us now. All we have to do is log on to myGov. How lovely…my very own Gov, and all they need is my email. No probs. What’s that? Rejected? Oh well, there must be some mistake. I’ll try again. Nope. And I can’t do it again, because three strikes and you’re banned from ever darkening these doors again.

Photo on 2014-11-10 at 10.40

All right, I’ll get myself a brand new email. Still calm and confident…this won’t take long. I go to Yahoo, only to be inundated with suggestions about how my life will be immeasurably enhanced by getting this app, and signing on to that site, not to mention being gifted with a new bright purple advert every time I log on. I negotiate my way between the pop-ups and the drop downs, until I find something that stays on screen long enough to set up my new email. Then, I offer what I consider perfectly nice usernames. Babaam! Reject, reject, reject. I’m trying hard not to take it personally, until finally I find one that works. Phew! Now where was I? Oh yes, my password. DON’T use birthdays DON’T use the same ones as you’ve used before, DON’T do anything that might alert an evil cyber person who will come in and rob you blind. In other words, DON’T use anything familiar. OK done that. What was it again? Oops, I can’t remember, and my three tries are used up. Deep breathing…find a paper bag. OK do it all again. I now have three email addresses, that’s three opportunities to be offered penis enlargement, but at least this time I WROTE IT ALL DOWN.

Actually, I do write things down, much to the amusement of our kids who find it quaint and cumbersome until they put their phones through the wash/drop them down the toilet and/or leave them on top of the car.

phone down the looCell-phone-washing-machinephone on car roof

And I used to feel very smug when they’d call me in a panic for someone’s address/email/ phone number and I’d bring out my faithful little blue book. But such hubris was never going to go unpunished, neither was my cunning plan of keeping the book in my bag, so it was always available to me. Guess what? That made it equally available to the fellow that broke in and stole it.

blue notebook

hieroglyphics

And with it, everyone I know: their addresses and phone numbers, emails and birthdays, the names of their kids and grandkids. OK that was retrievable. But not so the pages of hieroglyphics in the back, on which were encrypted the necessary information for every single transaction I might ever wish to make.

Thief Thank you, Mr tea-leaf for running off with my entire life. I think of you every time I want to book a train/plane/theatre ticket/car/trip to the psychiatrist, order a book or a crate of gin, verify a payment, check that it really did cost that heinous amount, access a bank account to find the money, pay to keep the lights on or to stay insured, watch the super fund being less than super, or have a bet on the favourite in the last race, download anything on to the Mac or log in to any government agency, and generally be a functioning citizen of the modern age. Just about every other day I have to re-establish my identity, and thanks to our security phobic world I now suffer from the medical condition known as Multiple Username Disorder (MUD for short). No known cure, just more hieroglyphics.

OK I digress…probably a mistake, when I have only just started to get acquainted with myGov, and still have to wrestle with tax-speak. If anyone can explain in words of one syllable what non-concessional super contributions are, or allocated surplus contribution amount, please do. Actually, they explain that one. It’s an amount that is allocated from a regulated super fund surplus, by a trustee, to meet an employer’s liability to make contributions. Now, I can read…in fact it was usually a prerequisite for being hired as an English teacher, but Beowulf in the original has nothing on that for impenetrability. And it doesn’t even tell a story! No plot, no characters, just circular gobbledygook that makes me feel stupid. So I give in, and open the yellow pages and look up tax accountants. (I know, I know, no one’s in the yellow pages any more, in fact yellow is an appropriate colour for pages that are aged and faded into disuse – I know how they feel.)

Old_book_bindings

So I leave it for now because I have to go to Centrelink to re-instate my Seniors Card. This is serious sh#t…not just cheap movies or $1 off a choc top. Oh no, this brings doctors, scans, X-rays and drugs into affordable territory. But before I can attend to my crumbly bones or gnarly hands, I need the card. The Centrelink office is a place to make you feel lucky…luckier than the slender barefoot fellow who has had more addresses than hot dinners, or the harassed mum who has to keep asking the gal what to do next on the computer, or the elderly lady with the papery Queensland skin frowning perplexedly at the bank of brochures to which she’s been directed.

They are really helpful in there, but even they cannot surmount the bureaucracy that says you can’t apply for the card here IN PERSON. No, you have to go home and ring up, and let’s hope you’ve spotted on the website the magic words charges apply! (And remember, your call is very important to us, so we’ve placed you in a queue). All they can give you at the office is a special code so that when you ring up, they are authorised to ring you back when your spot in the queue comes up. Then, they will send you a form (five working days), then you have to send it back (five working days) and they will process it and send it to you (ten working days). More deep breathing, this time into a plastic bag…put me out of my misery.

Actually my misery isn’t really the point. I have a landline and good internet, and I don’t have to be out looking for work so I can wait for the phone call. Imagine if I was very young/ very old/ out of cash/ not online/unable to sustain a smart phone/left school without a decent education/ mentally or physically unwell/ supporting a family etc etc. Those Centrelink people do their best, but the world belongs to the electronically connected, and if life has set you adrift with no visible means of support, woe will indeed betide you, and bonus! You may even cop the blame for your own difficulties. But it could be worse. Thanks to the courage and vision of the extraordinary Gough Whitlam, who was both mourned and celebrated this week, we have support for single mothers and their kids and a health care safety net – an achievement that President Obama has tried to emulate, with deep unpopularity as his reward. Maybe when he turns 98, someone will acknowledge the decency of what he tried to do.

Barack ObamaGough

Meanwhile, my computer is telling me I have blocked plug-ins, and until I unblock them I won’t be able to look at any more videos of kittens doing cute things.* I just need to download Flash Player…no worries. What’s that they need? My password? Umm…

cat-cute-pop

*No kittens were harmed in the posting of this blog.

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)