Rusk Assessment

Phew! Finally, we’ve moved into the house we’ve been imagining for 30 years. And it’s lovely – all new, all clean, and best of all, clutter-free! Thank you, Lewis the fantastic carpenter and clutter-buster, who built us hundreds of drawers/cupboards/ built-ins/walk –ins/ plug-ins and slidey bins that have us as close to minimalist as we’re ever likely to be.

But not for long.

Enter our granddaughter Matilda Florence Byng and her lovely parents, trailing the vast paraphernalia of stuff required to deal with a baby’s hunger, thirst, tiredness, cold, heat,boredom, snot, vomit, plops, and anything else that mess-croppedisn’t going to help her get into Oxford. (Well you can’t start these things too early). And it’s messy. But somehow a pile of miniscule vests, a cereal- encrusted bib or a little coloured brick that gouges a chunk of skin from the unwary foot, are all so cute!

Nevertheless when she leaves, we like having our clean house back – for about ten minutes! Less, actually, before I find myself all teary when I come across a packet of her special organic rusksrusks-cropped – the signature snack for our favourite dribbly person – trailed around the house with her particular pals, Pinkie the pink thing and Kevin the koala. And suddenly we find ourselves with a big Tildy-shaped hole in our lives that we long to fill with all that wonderful mess, tedium, vigilance and joy that a gorgeous little person creates effortlessly. I’ve always thought a clean house was overrated, now I know why.




We didn’t have long to wait before we were reunited for her first birthday celebration in London. It’s a trip we’ve made at least forty times before, so why do I suddenly feel so anxious? It’s all here – the family, the old friends, the dulcet articulate drone of Radio 4, the shops, the theatres, the streets and buses and tubes we’ve been hopping on and off since childhood. And maybe because Tildy is our tangible, and precious reminder that so much is set down early in life, I’ve been thinking about that childhood.

Freedom to roam the streets, taking ourselves to and from school, risking our lives on dodgy playground equipment with no parents hovering, are all gifts we didn’t value at the time. We were allowed to get on with it, and I can see now, that if you’ve just come slidethrough a world war, letting your kid hurtle down a slide the size of Nelson’s column, was the least of your worries. Nevertheless, I don’t remember feeling scared of my world, and I’m the person who invented risk aversion.

I do get it, that the golden era of free university, a bag of chips for sixpence,fries a month in Greece for twenty quid, and a house that we didn’t have to mortgage our souls for, is long gone. And was it really that golden? I remember pubs so smoky you couldn’t see who you were talking to (just as well really), having to go down the street to make a phone call, living in flats with no central heating,  no fitted carpets and – ikeaunimaginably – no IKEA furniture or Netflix! But there were reassuring, if dreary certainties: a job for life with a gold watch and a pension if you stuck it out, a religion that promised you a spot in heaven if you did all those Novenas, and the knowledge that tomorrow would be pretty much like today…just a bit duller.

This generation has to write its own script – aided and abetted by Messrs Jobs and Gates and Zuckerberg, who may or may not have equipped them for the bumpy ride on the Globalisation/Brexit/Trump juggernaut through a warming planet into a sharing economy, armed with a smart phone and a flexible take on each new scary twist technology throws at them. nokia-3310And while there’s no way they want to go back even to the Nokia 3310, never mind the shared phone box in the street, what kind of world is our lovely little bub going to inherit?

Louis MacNeice – well known Irish poet (and friend and colleague of my lesser known  dad) – must have been having the same wake-up-in-the-night scary thoughts about the future for children yet unborn, when he wrote these lines in his sombre and frightening poem ‘Prayer Before Birth’*

‘That the human race may with tall walls wall me…

Would freeze my humanity…

Would make me into a cog in a machine…

Would blow me like thistledown hither and thither…’ (Oh no, poor Matilda!)

He wrote this poem during World War 2, and it seems like a highly appropriate response to all that carnage and hopelessness. But then it dawned on me that the generation for  whom he held such fears, was mine! And only a few years after all that horror, we just strode on through perfectly OK lives with scarcely a backward glance. Indeed as he hoped, in his last verse, the earth:

‘Provide[d] me
 with water to dandle me,

Grass to grow for me,

Trees to talk 
to me,

Sky to sing to me,

Birds and a white light
 in the back of my mind to guide me.’

So clearly there’s no point in viewing the future through my nanna-shaped lens, so badly distorted by worry and bewilderment. Hell, I don’t even have a smart phone, so how would I know how it all works! parot-3-200x150What I do have is the weight in my arms of a fragrant little person pointing with equal delight at the jeweled bright Queensland parrots, or the soft, dun coloured London sparrow-1sparrows…she’s not fussy…everything is a complete delight to her. And together with trusty friends Pinkie and Kevin, her joy in the adventure of her life is what will inspire us all.


  • These are just random extracts from this poem. The full version is very powerful, and a bit scary. Nevertheless I commend it to you (maybe with a strong cup of tea…or gin.)

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?




Press the Undo Button

wrong way

There’s an ad doing the rounds that sells insurance with the idea of an “undo” button for a minor prang in the car, which got me thinking…how many of us have longed for an “undo” button for certain episodes of life? All those bad decisions wiped out with the press of a button. Goodbye to all those angst-ridden chagrin soaked sleepless nights, hello peaceful dreamless slumber which comes with the knowledge that you can undo that terrible decision…the one that ruined your life…or at least embarrassed you so much you could never show your face at that house/street/town/country again.

Some of them can be life threatening, such as insisting I was OK to drive with the family asleep and unaware while I drifted off and over to the wrong side of the road – thank goodness there was nothing coming the other way or none of us would be here to regret that! Also life threatening but a slower burn – so to speak – was my oh so 70’s notion that a sun tan was fashionable. Turns out skin cancer and premature ageing isn’t…oops. Less serious are fashion decisions like that see-through crochet dress or the crooked seam right down the front of my homemade wedding dress. It seems (pun not intended) that the 70’s was a bad decade for choices. And I certainly feel grateful that many of my relationships have managed to survive any number of wine-liberated remarks that felt extremely witty at the time, but were deemed less so next day. That might just be because no one was listening, or that I only mix with fellow wine enthusiasts who don’t remember what I said, or who I am! Thank goodness I have lived most of my life in the era before we could be electronically reminded of every stupid thing we did/said last night. And apparently it’s there forever! Thank you, fallible human memory, which allows me to airbrush out the ugly bits of my life!

undo  button

Even if we can’t undo or forget the more regrettable episodes of life we still have a few choices of response:

  • Get over yourself. You’re not that important, no one even noticed!
  • OMG I’ll never ever do that again! N.B: important life lesson.

But for some people it’s not that simple. Such terrible things happen – sometimes through foolish choices, sometimes through the random awfulness of life, and that’s when they make the most amazing choice of all, to exercise the remarkable capacity of humanity to make gold out of the dross of tragedy. We hear every day of such supreme acts of will and courage shown by those who choose to transform their adversity into acts of goodness and hope and sheer guts for us all to share. We need look no further than the Paralympics to see and be inspired, and only this week I read the story of British model Katie Piper horribly burned by a vicious acid attack. Not only has she fought her way back to personal equilibrium, she has changed the parameters for what should be promoted in a Marks and Spencer fashion shoot. These people are game-changers, who shift our preconceived notions of beauty and athleticism and success, not to mention how to be a better person.

But those of us fortunate enough to dodge the tragic bullets of fate can still be inspired to be our own DIY alchemist. Even in my little and lucky life, that narrow escape from turning my family into road kill makes me think twice every time I drive anywhere and my visits to the skin doctor have turned me into the sun cream and hat Nazi for everyone else. If we’re alert to it we can make our humiliations work for us, as happened to me after my one and only attempt at roller-skating. This was in the days when I was still trying to keep up with the kids and prove I was more than just an endless source of lifts and vegemite sandwiches. Plus they looked so lovely – gracefully gliding around laughing and chatting. But when I tried it the big clumsy boots took it upon themselves to slip from under me and land me on my bottom – every time. Hanging on to the side and gibbering helplessly was not the look I intended and I will always be grateful to the pair of four-year olds who helped me back to the kiosk with some sympathetic there there’s and an offer of a cup of tea.

I vowed never to set foot on a rink again and I haven’t but the odd thing was that next time I was in front of a class asking questions, the look of shame that washed through the boy who stumbled over his words, and the subsequent careless naughtiness he threw out to distract us all from his embarrassment, was suddenly familiar. That was how I felt on the skating rink! And didn’t I make lots of lame wisecracks to deflect the pity? And how lucky am I that I don’t need to be able to roller skate in order to earn a living unless I want to join the cast of Starlight Express? Those of us who grow up with the great good fortune to find reading easy often have trouble understanding why someone cannot read a relatively simple text. I know I did. But once I understood that those kids feel hot with shame and embarrassment every time they are confronted with their failure – exactly the way I felt at Skate Arena – it transformed my teaching. I suddenly saw what a remarkable skill it is to decipher and interpret all those complex little black shapes, and found myself amazed that so many of us can read, rather than that some of us can’t. And I had a bit of an empathy transfusion into the bargain.


So embrace your stuff-ups! They will humanise you. Easy for me to say from the relative obscurity of my writing desk, less so for those caught in the relentless twenty-four hour news cycle, where all is remembered and nothing forgiven! Current Prime Minister Kevin “Lazarus” Rudd thought he was getting away with it. He seemed to be able to airbrush Julia Gillard from history and erase the last three years. In order to make such a seamless transition back to the cameras, he must surely have been practising the smile and the cringeworthy taglines every morning in front of the bathroom mirror. But as the weeks progress, it’s becoming clear that his magician’s sleight of hand isn’t enough to transform him or induce collective amnesia in the voting public. The polls are showing that any number of hand-shaking, baby-kissing, forelock flicking and gotta zipp-ing won’t alter the fact that he has some serious character flaws: egomania, hypocrisy and inability to see make-up girls as worthy of his attention to name a few. Personally I can’t bear to see his Tin Tin face beaming at me from the telly but if he rescues the Labour Party from a complete rout a la Queensland, and if some of the failures are sheeted to him and not just to Julia, his reinstatement will have some value for us all.

But we have to give him credit for avoiding what someone once called “buttock-clenching” embarrassments offered by the other side for our edification and for some of the few laughs to be found in the bleak Australian political landscape at the moment. In an all time low (or high, depending on your politics) our potential future leader Tony Abbott addressed a crowd of Liberal faithfuls at a launch event in the Melbourne electorate of Deakin declaring “No one, however smart, however well educated, however experienced, is the suppository of all wisdom.”  Needless to say it has been seized on for a plethora of jokes of the so that’s where your policies come from variety so Tony must be eternally grateful to one Peter Dowling (aka What were you thinking…no really, what were you thinking?) In case you’ve been on Mars and haven’t heard, this Queensland politician, previously noted for being Chairman of the Ethics Committee!!! (Can this get more ironic?) Dipped his willy into a glass of wine and sexted it to his mistress. The now famous dick pic (!) must have felt like a gift from the PR gods for Tony because it got him off the front page and sent the ribald gags into the stratosphere and away from him. Coq au Vin, anyone?

In the end all you have is how you behaved at the time and you have to live with that because it’s who you are, indeed it probably helped you become that person. Having said that I still have plenty of  “sorrys” to contemplate:

  • Sorry I “liked ” the Facebook page “I wish life had an undo button” because now I’m inundated with cute pics of people and kittens doing silly things.
  • Sorry Bob and I worked that weekend in our New York restaurant jobs instead of going to Woodstock…yes, it’s true!
  • Don’t even get me started on pressing send when I should have pressed delete.  But there’s nothing to stop you doing that right now!

Why don’t you post some of your own sorrys…make us all feel better about ourselves!