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


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?





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

blue plates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

devastated house owners

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

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

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


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

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

rfs volunteer near Bell NSW

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

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

Pictures courtesy of Channel 7 and the ABC

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