Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Painting walls, not pictures

We've been in this house ten months now and it's time to start tarting the old girl up.  We have jokingly given the house a name - Turd Hall (or Tird Hall for posher spelling) as with two cats and a dog there is a lot of shit to pick up! Also as I get the shits with work quite a lot it's appropriate. But I digress…

So the tarting has commenced.

Firstly I had a painter - delectable Daniel, so cute I could almost eat him - do the outside woodwork around the windows.

Inspired by Daniel, who made the woodwork absolutely sing, I decided to paint the inside window trim in the living room and re-lacquer the windowsills because it looked so bloody disgusting compared to the outside woodwork. It took me a weekend and got me back into the swing of painting. I realise I am going about this upside down as the ceilings should come first, then the walls, then the trim, but oh well!!
Ready to go!


I also repainted the inside front door jamb after spending a couple of weeks mucking around with Plastic Wood and sandpaper restoring a section which had been thoroughly chewed by a friend's dog (hate to think of the splinters the poor dog must have got in her mouth!). It's not absolutely perfect - which is annoying to this perfectionist - but on first glance you wouldn't know there had ever been damage. It's not like it was a square piece either, there was a little recessed bit I had to match. I am considering becoming a sculptor using Plastic Wood as my medium!
Job done  - just have to pull the tape off.

After the delectable smell of oil enamel and turps had faded, I got withdrawal symptoms and wanted another nice task. By that stage I'd amassed around 50 colour swatches for the hall, living room and main bedroom. I bought a few sample tins and did some sections here and there on various walls. For a few days there were parts of the hall which looked positively patchwork as I tried them out!

Tird Hall is double brick and the interior walls are cement rendered, so it's a rough surface and interesting, if a bit labour-intensive, to paint over. The nice thing is that because of the surface you can be a bit slapdash with the roller and it won't show in which direction you've rolled.

The hall was originally yellow and while I wasn't enamoured of it, plenty of farting around with colours brought me back to yellow, but a lighter and more citron shade. The hall is pretty dark so needed a light and warm colour. I don't do cream. I did try with some cream sample paint but I rebelled against it. It's just not me.

I dithered about waiting until we'd had the ceiling painted, but then I thought: I'm a mucky pup when it comes to painting around cornices. I'll be really cross if I get paint from the walls on newly-painted cornices. I can easily touch up the wall for any paint spatters from the ceiling.

Before. The paint looked tired, it had worn away around the light switch, it had scuff marks that wouldn't shift and it was plainly dingy.

So I got the blue painter's tape out and got taping around door jambs, cupboards and skirting in the hall. It took me a roll and a half to do the job properly - it's a big t-shaped hall. I thought, "It's not a huge painting job - there are plenty of cupboards taking up space." Well. The first coat and a bit of the second to use up the paint in the roller tray took me eight straight hours. I didn't even stop for lunch as I was getting a bit tired by then and thought if I stopped, I'd STOP.  My arms were a bit sore at the end of the day and I was getting blisters from the roller handle.
After. You can see there's a slight citron tinge to the yellow.

Nonetheless, it looked great. And the good news is it only took me four hours to complete the second coat the next day. I was on a roller - er, roll - by then.  When I peeled away the tape there was very little paint where there shouldn't have been paint and the carpets didn't get a single drop on them. Phew.
My paint job was very neat - but my clothes weren't by the end of it!
Last weekend's project was the woodwork around the exterior of the front door - undercoat and two coats of glossy white enamel. The paint was original, i.e. 1960 vintage! And it looked it. It was peeling here and there where it hadn't yellowed. Now it's all shiny white again. Have to figure out how to repair the door sill though; it's falling apart.

What's next? Paint the screen door at the front its old original glossy black, as well as the matching grilles which go in front of the windows on either side. I've sanded the grilles ready for undercoat but have to sand and rustproof the front door.  I won't get the opportunity to pick up a brush this weekend though, dammit!!! We have too many social activities planned. Hmmph!!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Mum and Max Oldaker, the last of the Matinee Idols

In her late teens and early 20s, my mother was an avid theatre-goer. She loved musical comedy, ballet, operetta, theatre and to a lesser extent opera, as the three very full scrap books full of theatre programmes she kept confirm.

These scrapbooks are gems, with the programmes carefully stuck in and occasionally kept companion by newspaper reviews of the performance.

Mum used to go with a group of girlfriends, and it wasn't uncommon for them to go to opening night, last night and sometimes a night in between. The programmes bear testament to that, as there are multiples of some of them. Those young girls stayed good friends all their lives, through husbands, divorces, children, whatever, and met once a year. Mum was the last of them; one by one over the last twenty years they have seen the final curtain.

She used to talk about those old days with love and affection; you could, after the performance ended, take a tram home by yourself close to midnight and feel safe. You might meet for coffee at Repens before the performance. And then there were the stars themselves.

Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh visited Sydney in 1948, and Mum, while she didn't see the play they were in (perhaps it was too expensive, or perhaps it booked out before she could get tickets), she did manage to get their autographs. And George Formby's.

When Mum spoke about her theatre-going days however, the name that cropped up the most was Max Oldaker.

Max who?

Max Oldaker. Tasmanian-born, he was the heart-throb of the theatre in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. He epitomised Tall, Dark and Handsome. He could act, he could sing, and was highly sought after for operetta roles and had a successful career in the UK as well as Australia. He understudied Rex Harrison in London in My Fair Lady, and the night Rex fell sick brought the house down; Rex made a damned quick recovery as Max did the role much better than he. With his fine tenor voice he considered doing serious opera, but it was in roles such as The Red Shadow in The Desert Song that his audience loved him.

What a looker! Max Oldaker as The Red Shadow in The Desert Song with co-star Joy Beattie. 1945
What a looker! Max Oldaker as The Red Shadow in The Desert Song with co-star Joy Beattie. 1945

Max Oldaker as The Red Shadow in The Desert Song, 1945
Max Oldaker as The Red Shadow in The Desert Song, 1945

Max Oldaker and Joy Beattie, stars of The Desert Song, 1945.
Max Oldaker and Joy Beattie, stars of The Desert Song, 1945. I'd love to know the story behind this pic. Max is in theatrical makeup, Joy isn't, and they're in a bathroom.

Mum and her friends used to hang around the stage door for a sight of Max after the show was over. They made friends with Olga Deane, who ran the Sydney branch of the Max Oldaker Fan Club (sadly no remnants from that in Mum's amazing haul of theatre memorabilia). Olga was one of the Albert family of Albert Music fame, and very well-connected in the world of music and theatre.

She'd invite Mum and the girls to jam sessions at her house in (I think) Rose Bay. You'd go up a set of narrow stone stairs to a house perched up on the hill and see a sign: Here it is! Inside you'd sit wherever you could - on a chair if you were lucky, on a cushion on the floor if you weren't, and musicians would drop in, instruments in hand, after their shows and have an impromptu jam session. You wouldn't know who would turn up (Max never did) but you'd hear music and singing, get up and dance and have a great time. And catch the tram home at some ungodly hour early Sunday morning.
Jack Burgess at the piano with Max Oldaker.
Jack Burgess at the piano with Max Oldaker. Max played the piano beautifully and composed music as well as having a fine tenor voice; a very talented man.

While Max was Red Shadow-ing the Actors' Benevolent Fund of Australia had organised a Popular Man contest to raise funds for charity, and entertainment organisations such as J. C. Williamson put up candidates. Max was working for them at the time and was their chosen man. Olga got Mum and the girls busy, selling buttons and badges with Max's face on them at the Theatre at nights. I don't think it was every night, but Mum certainly did her shift. I can't find any of the badges in the house but I'd be surprised if she didn't keep one.

Max won the contest - not to Mum's surprise - by raising the most money for charity.

By then Mum, aged 20, and the girls were getting on pretty well with Max. With their button-selling status and their 'inner circle' membership of the Max Oldaker Fan Club as friends of Olga, they were allowed into his dressing room, and would wait there while Max was on stage.

"In he'd come at the end of the act or the show," Mum used to say, "In full costume, with his face mask still on, and his cape wrapped around him. He'd fling it open with one arm, very theatrically.  He must have thought us a bunch of giggling girls but he was very nice and friendly to us."

Max gave Mum two signed photos of him being 'crowned' the winner - more about that later on.

Max was gay (a 'confirmed bachelor', as they used to say), but whether the girls knew that at the time I don't know - Mum knew he was gay when she spoke about him to me as an adult, but when she found that out I'm not quite sure. I suspect these young women from very ordinary families thought he was just behaving in the flamboyant and over the top way some actors do.
Max Oldaker clowning around, 1945
Max Oldaker clowning around, 1945
Mum followed his career for years, but after she married Dad she'd found a real life 'matinee idol' and the theatre programmes dwindled a bit. Dad wasn't into theatre like Mum was but the more he went with her the more he liked it.

When I was four, Max was playing in Half A Sixpence in Sydney and Mum took me to see a matinee performance. I don't remember a thing about it. I don't remember Mum taking me to the stage door to meet Max, and Max recognising her and greeting her by name after nearly twenty years and being absolutely delightful to both of us.

Several years ago I discovered that writer Charles Osborne had written a biography of Max: Max Oldaker, the Last of the Matinee Idols. I bought it for Mum for Christmas that year, read it after she did and something saddened me. I have just finished re-reading it, and I'm a little bit sad again and wonder if Mum was too. She never mentioned it. In a nutshell, here's what saddens me:

Max, you see, was embarrassed about the whole 'matinee idol' palaver. He had asked that the Max Oldaker Fan Club be wound up in 1944. I quote:

'To his dismay the Sydney Morning Herald in November published "a long and nauseating column which is disgusting - a degrading presentation of childishly adulatory material given to them by Olga Deane."'(Max's words)

In a letter (to his parents? It's not stated) Max writes, 'I've written to her and told her that there must be no compromise and that the whole of this nonsense must stop at once. I really think I should publish my views on the whole thing. I might have known that, for all Olga Deane's kindness, she is a person of no taste. I feel ashamed that I allowed her to start the club, but I suppose I couldn't have known what it would develop into. Now I hate it all. It's really not the sort of publicity I want.'

Ouch! I wonder what Mum thought when she read that, when Max had been so pleasant and welcoming to her and her friends - and Olga?

And as for what Max thought of being the winner of the Popular Man contest - here are Max's own words in a letter to Charles Osborne:

'At 12.30 am the trumpets blared and the ceremony began. Out of the gentleman's lavatory came little Max clad in a rather short regal robe which two attendants attempted to carry. Said robe was surmounted with an ermine collar which had provided a breeding ground and happy home for many generations of J.C. Williamson moths. My dear, the dais shook, the crown wouldn't fit and poor little Max felt most embarrassed. Kathleen Robinson, the actress-manageress of the Minerva Theatre, "kreowned" me, and we were both convulsed when the wretched thing would insist on coming to rest over my right eye as I made my epic speech. Many silly speeches were made about me…  The photographs of the ceremony were devastating, and I look positively repulsive in a crown.'
Max Oldaker, winner of the Popular Man contest, with his badly-fitting crown on 31 October 1945. Also in the photo, Jack Cazabon, Peter Finch and Jack Burgess
Max Oldaker, winner of the Popular Man contest, with his badly-fitting crown on 31 October 1945. Also in the photo, Jack Cazabon, Peter Finch and Jack Burgess

Looking rather embarrassed, Max Oldaker being 'kreowned' by Kathleen Robinson, 31 October 1945. Also in photo are Dick Bentley, Strella Wilson, John Cazabon, Wayne Froman, Jack Burgess, Hal Lashwood, Marshall Crosby, Leonard Bullen
Looking rather embarrassed, Max Oldaker being 'kreowned' by Kathleen Robinson, 31 October 1945. Also in photo are Dick Bentley, Strella Wilson, John Cazabon, Wayne Froman, Jack Burgess, Hal Lashwood, Marshall Crosby, Leonard Bullen

The back of the photo above, signed for Mum who had volunteered her time to help Max win the Popular Man contest.

Max must have gritted his teeth when he personally autographed two photographs of the ceremony for Mum.

Max's attitude to his longtime fans mellowed, you'll be happy to know. By the time Mum took me to see Half A Sixpence, Charles Osborne writes about the show, 'In Sydney, he had his old star dressing room back again at the Theatre Royal, and was touched to find so many fans from the forties crowding around the stage door every night.'

If you want to find out more about Max, read the book by Charles Osborne. Max had a real wit and style about him, and was a prolific letter writer who could tell a good story against himself. His letters are a delight. You'll find several copies for sale on the interweb.

Barry Humphries wrote the Foreword in Charles Osborne's book, and I'll share a bit of it here. It's 1956 and Barry is working with Max in a show called Around the Loop:

'"How do you manage, Max," I once asked him, "to smile with such sincerity at the curtain call on a thin Wednesday matinee?"

"Dear Barry, it’s an old trick Noel (Coward) taught me, and it never fails.” He demonstrated, standing in the middle of the dressing room in his Turkish towelling gown, eyes sparkling, teeth bared in a dazzling smile. “Sillycunts,” beamed Max through clenched teeth, bowing to the imaginary stalls. “Sillycunts,” again, to the circle, the gods and the Royal Box. 

“It looks far more genuine than ‘cheese’, dear boy,” said Max, “and you’ve just got to hope that no one in the stalls can lip read.” I couldn’t help thinking of all my mother’s friends at those Melbourne matinees, their palms moist, hearts palpitating as Max Oldaker, the Last of the Matinee Idols, flashed them all his valedictory smile.’

I love it! I have real regrets that I don't remember meeting The Last of the Matinee Idols when I was four.

There's not much on the interweb about Max, sadly.
Max died of heart failure in his home town of Devonport in 1972 at the age of 64. In nearby Launceston the Princess Theatre has a tribute wall for Max, with memorabilia and photographs.

G and I visited Launceston last year, and while I was in the Princess Theatre looking at the Max wall, I phoned Mum and described it all to her, and took photos to show on my return (they are reasonably rubbish photos, taken through glass, so I'm not posting them here). I'm so glad I did as Mum was gone herself two months later.

Who else remembers Max Oldaker and Olga Deane? Is there anyone out there who went to Olga's place late at night for a jam session, or whose parents did? At the risk of sounding like Olga and upsetting Max's ghost, I think the chap could do with some publicity. He was very talented and a true theatre star of the era. And dammit, he was handsome. That's reason enough.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Colour my world - or at least my mid-century house

This place is dingy. Seriously. A number of the walls are still proudly bearing their original 1960 paint job and while the paint is clinging happily on the internal walls with no sign of peeling, 54 years of wear and tear means there are places I just can't get clean, no matter how much sugar soap I apply. Paint has worn away near the light switches and the poor old place just looks a little underloved.

It's worse outside. The house is red brick, which is a blessing as the walls don't need painting. However all the north-facing windows have peeling paint to an embarrassing extent. Until now we haven't been able to do much about it as we have been saving - or at least G has - for the paint job.

I had a painter out today and if I may digress for a moment, my God he was cute! Dark eyes, dark hair; he had the look of a guy I had a crush on in my teens - a jockey, but he was taller. If I was younger I'd be tempted to try a Mrs Robinson. On looks alone he had the potential to pull me back from my current asexual status (digressing even more, I have been both sexual and asexual during different times in my life). He knew his stuff, too. We chatted about paints and techniques and paint additives, la la la…

So now I'm awaiting his quotes. Three quotes. One for outside, one for the ceilings and stairwell inside, and one for the internal walls in some of the rooms/hall. I'm capable of doing the internal walls myself but a) he'll do a nicer job and leave less mess on the carpets and everything else and b) because I feel obliged to answer every phone call and email I get, I doubt I'll have the time. There are lots of walls. Depending on the price I may have to pull the plug on the internet and put the phone on silent for a few days.

He left me with some colour charts to whet my appetite, and duly whetted it is. I have found colours that more or less match the original 1960 colours in the living room and our bedroom. The living room is the old colour Chartreuse (pale yellowy green) on three walls with an aqua feature wall. It rocks. I'm keeping the colour scheme as it suits the house and looks wonderful with the big stone fireplace. The bedroom is a pale ice green and I'm repainting in a very close colour as it's restful and brings the garden inside.

Our hall and stairway are currently yellow and I'm going for a lighter version as it's dark in the hallway. I'm hoping the colour I've chosen won't turn out looking cream as I detest cream walls. Too 'reproduction fuddy duddy' for me - makes me think of people with reproduction Chippendale antiques and uncomfortable chairs topped with antimacassars. And… too much like the cheap neutral colour you get in rental properties which looks 'dirty' very quickly. The British equivalent is a colour called 'Magnolia'.

The second bedroom was originally pale pink and repainted yellow in 1974. I'm sticking with a yellow as it's on the south side of the house and needs a bright, warm colour. The 50s colour palette was pretty well out there - yellow was a popular colour.

My office originally had pale-ish pink walls too but got a coat of white in the 70s. I like the white. This is a small, dark room and needs light, lovely walls. I'm choosing a variant of white. Not terribly 50s but I need the brightness.

The laundry has yellow walls the same as the hall, and they look odd with grey floor tiles and deep aqua (Amulet Blue as I recall, or Apmat Blue as my Dad used to call them, after a famous pacer of the day) wall tiles. I've chosen a white with a hint of grey/green which will look much fresher.

The bathroom and loo originally had pink walls (Mum LOVED pale pink. I don't) which Mum and I repainted in the late 80s/early 90s in a colour called Beige Shroud. Yup. Ugly name. The colour isn't fab either but we wanted to move from the pink which looked too dark in the room. You still get a hint of pink through two layers of Beige Shroud. That pink doesn't give up a fight easily. Beige Shroud is going though. I'm not heading back to pink but have found an interesting shade of pale green with a hint of mushroom grey called China White by Dulux which will complement the tiles better and look just cracking. It's not dissimilar to some of the colours from a 50s palette. I'll be painting the loo and bathroom myself.

So that's it. The kitchen is fine as I repainted it in the original blue and white 12 years ago and the paint looks fine. I'll redo the white oil enamel on the cupboard doors as they could do with a lift but the walls are fine.

Our plan is to get the outside stuff done this year. Depending on the quotes we may then get Daniel - Daniel….Daniel… those eyes! - to do the ceilings before Christmas too. It's exciting. And I think this house will appreciate the time and money spent on it.

And I suspect that next time I visit a psychic I'll get a message that Mum is relieved I have painted the outside woodwork!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Does success equal happiness?

I get a lot of emails. I guess we all do, but because of the contacts I have in the business world I get plenty of emails from business coaches etc talking about success. I got one five minutes ago from one such person who was offering me a special deal on a seminar which would unlock my potential and guide me onto the road to success.

I found myself saying out loud, "But I don't want success. I just want to be happy."

All through my corporate life I kicked and fought my way up the ladder. I started my own business in 2001 with the aim of being successful and earning more than I did in the corporate world. That hasn't happened. I've come near to breakdown twice owing to demanding clients and their deadlines; I can only work seven days straight for so many weeks in a row before I start feeling like self-harming.

So now I work part-time. My business is anything BUT a success. And you know what, I don't care. I make just enough to scrape by, my house is paid for and my husband is on a half-decent but not mind-blowing salary.

I don't want success; success means going back to full time work, to dealing with more people than I care to deal with.

Happiness is more important. Having the time to bake bread which is an 18 hour job including overnight rising. Having the time to tend the garden in the middle of the day. Being able to do the clothes washing midweek. Being with my animals. Working on the house. In summer, being able to nick down to the local river baths for an hour or two if I want to.

I think I'm achieving happiness. And that's more important, for me, than success.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The happiness sucker; or, why perfectionists are a pain in the arse.

What's your view on perfectionists? Not your average perfectionists who simply want everything they do to be the best, but the kind of perfectionists who tries to suck the happiness out of your own activities by putting you down because you're not bloody perfect?

Today I went Dragon Boat Racing for the first time at a local festival. It was an amateur event for corporate teams, school teams, sports club teams but no professional dragon boat teams were allowed. For half of our team it was the first time we'd tried it. Our only practice was paddling the boat to the starting line.

I got very wet and I had a ball. The first race we went in we came second and we were overjoyed. Last year our team had one second and 2 last places. We were fortunate in having a great 'sweep' at the back of the boat who coached us mercilessly.

In the second race we also came second at a much faster time; as a team we felt much more together. We were all gee'd up for the third heat, and it was neck and neck. A photo finish. We came second but we were exhilarated. We were paddling in unison, we were flying on the water and we were a tightly-knit team of people who'd suddenly grasped a sporting concept. We had qualified for the minor final on the day but many of our team had other commitments and couldn't stay, so we satisfied ourselves with a team best. You'd be hard pressed to meet a happier, more satisfied bunch of people after that third heat.

After the first race my 'friend' Whingy arrived and proceeded to pick on everything and everyone. Wasn't I going to take my bracelet off to paddle? (No.) Was I really paddling wearing THAT? (That being technical merino leggings, top and knickers, chosen because they dry quickly in the sun, and I told her so).

According to Whingy our team was hopeless in the second race. And the third. I in particular was rubbish apparently. G was watching from the shore with Whingy and she kept up a running commentary on how awful all the teams were, putting everyone down and being generally degrading. G couldn't believe how nasty she was being; maybe she was jealous because everyone was having fun and not taking it too seriously.

Whingy you see, is a serious dragon boater. She is with a dragon boating association, practices in a team twice a week, paddles in regattas with other teams who practice regularly and therefore judges our amateur efforts unfavourably against her own (naturally perfect) ones.  Like everything else Whingy turns her hand to she has to be perfect at it - and she has no time for people who aren't perfect at it too. She is unbearably smug.

She was doing her best to suck the happiness out of my day. So what if my team was a bunch of mugs having a go? The main thing is this bunch of mugs had a go and loved it. I suspect that perfection comes at a price and if she judges her performance to be less than perfect she doesn't enjoy it at all. For me it was about being out on the water on a stunningly sunny spring day. And that was perfect.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Cinderella does NOT want to go to the ball

Tonight I have to attend a Local Business Awards night on behalf of one of my clients. For most people, the opportunity to party is one they look forward to.

I'm dreading it.

It's a sociophobe's nightmare. 450 people in a room. I know the people I'll be sitting with at my table but oh, the hell of having to network beforehand with complete bloody strangers. Finding something intelligent to say in a room that will be echoing loudly with 449 people doing the same. I can't saunter in late either as there won't be any parking spaces left.

So I'll be stuck from 7 till at least 11 in this bloody function, wishing I was at home with a glass of wine, 2 cats, a dog and a husband. Because I'll be driving to the function I can't have more than 2 glasses of wine so even good old Dutch Courage is out.

To make matters worse I have to do the same thing next week on behalf of someone else. They offered me their ticket as an honour, knowing I was too broke to buy a ticket of my own and thinking I'd love the opportunity to attend. The real truth - I wanted to avoid the event at all costs and not being terribly financial was a great excuse. Now I'm Sucked In Cinderella, with two socially terrifying events in two weeks.

As a result of tonight I've been depressed all day. I can't concentrate on work this afternoon so I've been playing jigsaws online. I've eaten chocolate for the first time in weeks. I had a screaming fit earlier in the day after a phone call with another client, one who always puts my back up because he calls hands free from his car and shouts down the phone. Also he has a thick accent and I can't always understand him. To cap it all I'm waiting for a box of brochures to take to tonight's event on behalf of my client and the courier still hasn't arrived. I've been waiting since 7am and have phoned them. I have to deliver the box to the venue by 5, then come home and get changed and rush back again.

I can't make excuses and get out of going tonight as my client will be going herself and she's just undergone a medical procedure and will be dragging herself there, the walking wounded. Just because I'm a sociophobe doesn't let me out of it.

Hate hate hate my job and the ensuing social events. Dammit, universe, please let me win the lottery so I can retire!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Two houses and a haunting

Last weekend I drove past my old house. I was going to visit a friend nearby and thought I'd swing by. We have tenants in the place and their teenage son deals drugs and has friends who have sprayed graffiti liberally in the lane outside our house. They are moving out this week. The son has caused such trouble with my neighbours I have decided not to renew the lease.

But I digress.

This post is not about delinquent teenagers but about houses and districts - two of them: where I live now and have lived most of my life, and where G and I spent the first 7 years together.

So, I saw my old place. Jonquils I had planted years before were blooming in the courtyard garden at the front, so I nipped in and helped myself. There was nobody about to challenge me and as an owner I have every right to do it.

I was able to view my little house dispassionately. When we moved out I felt a little bit sad as it had been such a happy home for us. Six months later I've managed to disassociate myself and think of it as an investment property, with the occasional hope that the tenants appreciate the colour scheme and the garden beds (well, Sonny Jim certainly did with his marijuana plants) and are keeping the garden alive and tidy.

To be frank, I was able to look at the place with a sense of disbelief that I had ever lived there. It no longer felt like home. I have moved on.

I had a companion with me and was chatting to her on the drive. I kept my eyes on the road but it did feel weird driving back to my old house. I drove the route almost mechanically, not thinking twice about each twist and turn as we left the main road. I noticed subtle changes on the way; houses that had been knocked down for apartment buildings, houses which had been knocked down and were being rebuilt as a single dwelling. It was familiar but it wasn't my district any more.

Even the local shopping mall had changed hands and had a new name; if I'd had time I would have dropped in as their prices are pretty good and it's much bigger than my own shopping centre.

Back here, I'm still reconnecting. I didn't have many friends here when I moved out - being an insular bugger I didn't belong to sporting clubs, bridge clubs or have the school mums network to draw friends from. My friends are scattered.

My small local shopping centre, with its woefully small Coles supermarket, feels like my territory again now. I'm on nodding terms with the local dog walkers. I know all the dogs in my street - they all arrived before we moved back. I have a developed a new mental map of shops and businesses and services in my area and the surrounding suburbs.

It's taken me a few months to settle back into an altered reality of my old life. I lived in my current house since childhood until I met G. It seems odd sometimes knowing the master bedroom is ours and I'm living with G and not Mum in this house. I almost feel guilty, as if I've snuck a boyfriend home! I still miss Mum and expect her to be around; still save up things to tell her which I've learned from my friends.

Last week I know she was in the house with me. I smelt her scent, a faint hint of Johnson's baby powder, just inside the front door. I said hello. I believe she's here a lot, and helps me when I can't find things. God only knows what she thinks of the new furniture I've brought in.

My companion on Saturday was a psychic. I've mentioned her before. I was taking her to my friend's house as she was doing a reading for a party there and I was having one of the readings.

My house - my current house - came up in her reading. She said Mum was telling me to fix the window downstairs, and was being very insistent about it. I explained we had to wait for a tree root to wither and the house to settle down before we put a new sill in the window (I explained in case Mum was hovering around and listening).

The psychic told me that Mum strokes the cats and the dog, and that wouldn't surprise me. It's probably why Pwinceth Girl Kitten lies on the bed after breakfast, as Mum used to sit there in the mornings and talk to whatever cat we had at the time.

She told me that Mum and Nan watch over me, and I believe they do. My house is pleasantly haunted. You know, that actually makes me happy.

Monday, August 18, 2014

My Dad's list of books - a penchant for philosophy

"What's that pile of papers and magazines?" G asked, opening the cupboard under the kitchen bench.

The top shelf held tablecloths and napkins, the bottom phone books and a pile of…well… newspapers. Mum used to put old newspapers there to use to line the birdcage/cat tray/whatever.

"Isn't it funny," I said, "how you can live with things for years and not really notice them? I'll go through it all and chuck it out. Since we get the newspaper every day we don't need a store cupboard for the stuff."

So I did. Half way down, beneath the more recent newspapers (recent meaning dating back to 1997!), there was a heavy sheet of cardboard, and it became obvious that beneath that were magazines and news clippings Mum had hung onto.

I diligently went through them. Most of them were binned after a cursory read through, but I kept a few I found interesting (heaven help me! I'm turning into Mum!).

At the very bottom was an old-fashioned 1940s cardboard-bound foolscap ledger. I flicked through it and recognised Dad's elegant handwriting.

Most of the ledger was empty, and it had been used as an address book and notebook rather than for recording figures. Judging by some of the dates, it was Dad's book in the late 1940s. He'd written addresses for men he'd served with in the RAAF, with little notes beside their names about their families or what relationship they'd been to him during WWII.

Following the addresses, after many blank pages, Dad had headed a page Books. It was a list of books he owned, because I recognised several of the titles. They are still here in this house (although many of them are destined for the local church fete as I've tried to read them but they're not my sort of books). Most of them are popular fiction of the time by authors such as Ion Idriess.

The next page was headed Books to be read in order for educational purposes.

Now, Dad wasn't the most educated bloke on earth. He'd been second-last in his class in maths in high school. Having said that, he was intelligent - he'd been an officer in WWII, he was well-spoken and clever, but he hadn't had a classical education or been to university. Clearly in 1946 he thought his education needed finishing, for the list of 112 books began with Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. It included all the Greek philosophers. Marcus Aurelius and Leonardo da Vinci made the list. Erasmus. Francis Bacon. St Thomas Aquinas. Milton. Descartes and Hume. Classics authors such as Thackeray, Defoe and Swift. Voltaire.  Goethe. Darwin. There were 112 authors on Dad's list, which ran to nearly four pages.

He'd marked off the ones he'd read or obtained:

  • Plato's Dialogues
  • Aristotle's works
  • Lucretius' Of the Nature of Things
  • Ovid's Metamorphosis
  • Marcus Aurelius' Meditations
  • The New Testament
  • Maimonedes' Guide for the Perplexed
  • St Thomas Moore's Utopia
  • Montaigne's Essays
  • Shakespeare's Complete Works (which I have in the house)
  • Thomas Hobbes' Elements of Philosophy
  • Rene Descartes' The Passion of the Soul
  • Milton's Paradise Lost
  • Newton's Opticks
  • Kant's Critique of Practical Reason
  • Ricardo's Principals of Political Economy and Taxation
  • Hegel's Philosophy of History
  • Darwin's Origin of Species
  • Wundt's Outline of Psychology
  • Nietzche's The Will of Power

I feel as if I've discovered someone I never knew at all; the Dad I remember is the Dad of my toddlerhood. Hardly a man to be sprouting philosophy to his two year old daughter.

The Dad Mum spoke of wasn't a philosophiser either. He was an intelligent man with a sense of humour, a careful attitude to driving and piloting, a man with a successful betting system for the races, a part time SP bookie, a carpenter and handyman, a man with a taste for beer and good wine, a man with a sometimes carefree attitude to spelling and written grammar, a man who'd pull his hat down over his ears and make a silly face for the camera, a man who had an affair and buggered off. I feel as if I know that Dad reasonably well.

I wonder now about that list from the 1940s; why he lost interest. I wonder who inspired him to create that list in the first place.

And now I'll never know.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Give us this day our daily (delicious) bread

I go through phases of bread-making. There's something satisfying about making your own, and in the last place we lived in I did quite a bit of it.

However, like most hobbies I tend to try and take things further. You know what it's like. You buy a cheap guitar or bicycle and decide it's rubbish and start to upgrade after a few months when you've got the hang of it.

So it is with my bread making, which I am just getting back into again.

I was quite happy messing around with a mix of spelt and white flour, wholemeal and white flour, but then I bought the baker's Bible. A fantastic book on bread baking, Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman. I considered carefully before I bought it; reviews were mixed as some of the methods are quite complicated and aimed at professional bakers. The initial blurb said that recipes were cut down for home bakers, which made me press the Buy button. They are… but you have to convert from American imperial to metric. Oy vey!

I haven't made many of Hamelman's breads yet simply because more than half are sourdough (I didn't realise that when I bought it!) and I don't have a sourdough starter. The starter would be easy enough to obtain or make, but with only two of us in the house we don't go through enough bread to make keeping a starter alive (as the fifth pet in the household) a logical option.

With all the faffing around I've done with various flours over the last few years, trying my hand at ciabatta bread, olive bread, baguettes, I've come to the conclusion that the right flour is key. You can't make a really good, authentic-tasting and -looking baguette with the 'strong flour' you buy at the supermarket. Same goes for ciabatta and any sort of rustic loaf. You don't get the crunchy crust or the beautiful open crumb.

So I did more research on bread baking forums and went in search of T65 French Flour, and found it online in Brisbane. Yes, my flour has air miles. It is genuinely from France and performs quite differently to flours I've tried locally. I have almost 5 kilos of it in my cupboard. I did have 5 kilos but I've been baking.

After a week in Paris with sublime baguettes, what passes for those delectable long loaves here doesn't cut the mustard unless you hunt out a French bakery which also imports T65. And that means your baguettes will be expensive; it's cheaper to buy the flour and make them, even allowing for the postage from Brisbane (which costs more than the flour!).

Last week, I made my first baguettes with my T65. The recipe I used was one I'd downloaded a few years ago and is a 7 hour process. You use very little yeast and so it rises slowly. The slow rise is the key to getting bread with a luscious open crumb. Also being gentle with it after it's risen keeps the crumb in good shape.

I had bought some baker's linen a few years back and the baguettes, on the second rise, took their shape in the canvas.

I then put a pizza stone in the oven, whacked the heat up, and steamed the oven the instant before the baguettes went in on a baking tray on top of the pizza stone. I spritzed the inside of the oven with water too at that point. This is the key thing to that fab crunchy crust. After ten minutes enough crust had formed so I could slide the little lovelies directly onto the pizza stone for another 20 minutes' cooking.

They were superb. The flavour and texture could have been from a baguette made in Paris. G and I wolfed down one for dinner with cheese and pate and wine, and the other for breakfast the next day. Baguettes only have a 24 hour life span before they go stale - it's no hardship to gobble them up!

Inspired by the baguette success, I then made a Country Loaf out of Hamelman's book. This time the process was a little different. I made half the dough the day before and let it prove overnight - up to 17 hours, Hamelman says, and I was a bit worried as the room temperature was a little lower than recommended. That poor bloody pre-ferment dough with a tiny bit of yeast had its work cut out for it. After 18 hours (!) I added it to the rest of the mix and it had to rise for another 2 1/2 hours, with me folding it gently twice during that time. The dough was a bastard - very sticky. I had my real doubts about this one. Anyway, it was finally time for the last rise in the baker's linen again, and the dough looked a bit better.

Once again I steamed the oven before I put the loaves on their tray on top of the pizza stone, and then again once I'd put them in, following Hamelman's directions. Hamelman didn't say to take them off the tray after ten minutes, but I did, figuring they would do better straight on the pizza stone.

I was overjoyed with the results. Two lovely brown-crusted loaves with a perfect open crumb, lots of holes for butter to drip through. The texture was a little like a ciabatta when we started eating it, and I suspect the initial room temperature had something to do with that.

But I am hooked on bread baking again. Hamelman has a baguette recipe which takes 24 hours from go to whoa, with a pre-ferment dough, and I'm trying that next.

Bugger the carbs!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The quarterly hell of BAS

I run my own business (ha! "Business" is giving it more gravitas than it merits right now) and have to report quarterly to the Australian Taxation Office, lodging a Business Activity Statement (BAS). I dread the 28th day of each quarter as BAS lodgement cutoff looms.

I am not great at keeping the Excel spreadsheet I use to run my very basic accounting system up to date, so BAS prep is a flurry of going through three months of bank statements and matching items to bills or payments, and chasing up things that I can't think for the life of me what they may be.

Excel likes to crash on my Mac, too, so it means saving after every single entry as I HATE having to retype items. I don't like using Excel as I get confused with writing formulas. I'm thick as two short planks when it comes to algebra. I am rather innumerate in general.

I also hate typing numerals; as a touch-typist I am crap and freely admit it.

I was rash enough to get a second-hand car on hire purchase 3 years ago as it's a good tax break, and the calculations required to run a car do my head in.

I could use a bookkeeper but can't afford to pay one, and I would still have to go through all the shite of printing invoices out, writing stuff on the bank statements etc etc so the bookkeeper could make sense of it. Then answer questions anyway, so I may as well just do all the stressy stuff in one afternoon myself.

To cap it all, my Mac has a java issue which means it can't talk to the ATO's tax portal, and my choices are to completely reformat the thing and lose a day or two while I hunt up licences for some programs, or buy a new one and lose a day or two etc etc. I don't have the time for either or the money for the latter. Thankfully my accountant has been lodging the BAS figures for me at no charge since the java issue popped up.

So I took out my annoyance after doing this quarter's BAS this afternoon and did a rather badly-drawn cartoon about my feelings. I have stopped swearing now; I think I will have a cup of tea.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Welcome to my workday

I'm not the diligent worker I used to be. Part of that is not being in the corporate world any more. Another part is realising that even if I work six or seven days a week I'm not going to double my income… maybe earn 1/5 more and it's not just worth it.

So I seem to have developed a pattern that is ever-so-slightly ambivalent when it comes to work tasks, especially if I'm trying to write a business proposal for one of my clients, as I am at the moment, and finding it hard going. The temptation to goof off is irresistible - so I do.

Today, therefore,  has been somewhat like this:

8.50am. Have a fag.
9.00am. Open up the laptop and head to Facebook while the emails are loading.
9.05am. Good. Nothing urgent in the emails. Back to Facebook. Share some posts for major client.
9.15am. Better check that Forum I'm a moderator of. It's not work-related.
9.40am. Is that the time? Gosh. Better check the emails again. Will have a fag first though.
9.45am. Real work. There's an email I have to respond to which means a website update for major client, plus social media sharing etc etc. And a MailChimp email to go out.
10.10am Check if the items I'm selling on eBay have any more watchers.
10.11am. Bugger, they don't. Back to Facebook. But first, a fag.
10.20am Major client phone call; take notes
10.30am Check emails for fellow contractor for major client who's on holidays this week.
10.35am Gosh there are some interesting links off the Facebook feed this morning. If not interesting, then trashy enough to get my attention.
10.45am Check email. Ooh, look, there's one from the people who sell great baking products. French flour, the special stuff used to make baguettes, is on sale this week. I try to buy a 5kg bag but my login won't work. I phone the company and they say they've redone their website since I last bought anything from them so I have to set up a new account. I do and I order the flour and speculate happily for a few minutes about bread baking.
11.00am Fag
11.05am Sigh, I get onto that proposal. I feel as if I can't write bum on a wall today. It's a hard slog.
12.00pm. Fag. Then back in to Facebook. I get diverted by Simon's Cat videos.
12.20pm Lunch. I heat up some Asian chicken and rice leftovers from the meal I made on Monday night and enjoy a pleasant 40 minutes reading 1,000 Years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke.
1.00pm. Fag break. Then I decide it would be nice to light a candle as the scent will inspire me.
1.10pm. Feeling inspired somewhat. Time to get off Facebook and back to writing.
1.30pm  Muse, where the **** are you? Wonder if there's anything interesting on Facebook at the moment? I'll just check. Oh look, some silly cow spent £18,000 getting plastic surgery to make herself look like Kim Kardashian. And now she's broke. Hell, she could always hire herself out to open shopping centres or something as a would-be Kim.
1.45pm  Any more movement on eBay?
1.50pm  Back to writing that proposal. Word. By. Word.
2.00pm Oh look, there's an email from The Fabric Store. There's a 40% off sale this week only for VIP customers like me. It's been months since I made any outfits. Worth a look on Friday then as I have to be over that way anyway. I spend a happy five minutes browsing the website to see if it's worth my while heading into the physical shop.
2.05pm The candle smells great. I'll put a post on Facebook about it. And then I'll have a fag.
2.15pm  The words are coming a little easier now. Must be the candle.
2.45pm  Nope. Words have dried up. I take the compost container down to the compost bin and inspect my veggies. Something's got at the purple cauliflower.
3.00pm Anything new on Facebook?
3.05pm. Fag break. Then back to the proposal.
3.15pm  I give up on the proposal and decide to write this blog post instead. After this I'm going to spend a bit of quality time on Pinterest, another great time waster, where I am currently enthralled by mid-century modern furniture. I'll give the proposal one more bash before I stop for good today.

Some days work. Some just don't. And that applies to me personally too.

How about you?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Embracing my mid-century modern heart

In my twenties, I rebelled.

Not in the usual way - the sex, drugs, rock'n'roll way. Nope. I rebelled against the house and furnishings I'd grown up with. Mum's house was firmly held in a late 50s/early 60s time warp. Atomic furniture with little legs that diminished in diameter until they were almost pins at floor levels. Tangerine dining chairs. French polish everywhere. Colourful walls when the world was heading to white. And the bar in the living room - black glass top with yellow vinyl sides - oh no, how horrible! How …. embarrassing!!!

My taste vacillated between the modern - and we're talking 1980s, yikes! - and the more distant past as I hit my 30s. In the 80s I bought some questionable storage furniture from Freedom Furniture which, sadly, I still have as we need the storage facility. By my mid-30s I was into 1920s, Edwardian and art deco, even a jaunt here and there into repro Georgian, which didn't quite fit into this very 1959 property. I tried my best, buying two beautiful Edwardian chairs and a recliner that could have been designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh but I don't think it was. I swapped my bed for one with a gorgeous iron frame. I bought a 1920s maple wardrobe. I created my own little 1920s hideaway downstairs. When I moved out I took the 1920s with me and created a cosy cottage which mixed a bit of Danish with earlier pieces and repro.

Having inherited Mum's house, with its original wall paint, original kitchen, mostly original bathroom and laundry, I have seen my childhood home with new eyes. It rocks.

I love the big stone fireplace in the living room. I love the yellow bar. I love the 1950s pulldown light over the dining table. I love most of the wall colours. I find myself tending the French polished doors and trying to get scratches out of them, and cursing Mum for touching up one of them with varnish that looks bloody shocking in daylight.

Slowly I am trying to refurnish the living room to period furniture - or at least get rid of most of the 80s stuff Mum bought when she was feeling a bit flush and some of my own contributions. You can see by my previous post I have a new dining suite. On the other side of the room there is a hodgepodge of 80s sideboard and repro Queen Anne hi fi cabinet (yes, of course Queen Anne loved a good CD or vinyl) which is going to go when I've saved up enough to buy a period sideboard from the late 50s.

This house isn't the best example of Mid-Century Modern, but it has good bones. Mum was about five years too old to really embrace the Atomic look or go for a mad coloured mural on the wall such as that at Rose Seidler House. Being a child of the Depression, she was thrifty. She may have lashed out on tangerine chairs and a green lounge suite that were the height of fashion in 1960, but the mirrors in this place are early 50s or 1940s, for example. There's a mix of decor which basically ended in 1960.

With the research I've done this year on mid-century modern furniture and decor, I have fallen in love with the simplicity and elegance of it. I think it has been creeping up on me. I used to drool over IKEA catalogues at our old house, loving the simple Scandinavian design with its nod towards the great designers of the 50s and 60s. Now I'm hooked. I get on Pinterest and drool for hours over chairs, sideboards, tables, paint colours and architecture.

I think I've found my life's work: making this house what it should be. A paean to the mid-century modern era.

Now I just need to win the lottery - do you know how much some of this stuff COSTS!!!???

Monday, July 14, 2014

What would my aunt Betty have said?

My aunt Betty could be a bitch. She was a master at the backhanded compliment, or occasionally simply rude and abusive. In particular, her bitchy side came across if my mother (her sister) or my grandparents bought anything new. It could be an item of clothing, or a piece of furniture. Her middle name wasn't 'Jealous', but it should have been.

Betty hated people 'getting ahead' if she wasn't. Her rage at Mum's new car in 1979 was spectacular. Mum's previous car had lasted since 1963 and at that point I took it over and kept it in the family. Mum had been putting money aside for years to buy a new car and was so proud to be able to show it to her sister; she thought Betty would be pleased for her. Betty, of course, was anything but and accused Mum of stealing money from their recently-dead mother's estate to buy the car. Betty's car at that time was early 70s and huge, a big old V8 that gobbled up the miles and the petrol in equal quantities. Until Mum bought her new little hatchback, Betty was fond of jibing in a very superior manner at Mum's '63 Beetle, joking nastily about the size of the engine and little Herbie's hill-climbing abilities, and how much better her big Falcon was.

When I bought my first horse at 16, a heavyset but stunning white grey galloway, Betty was quick to sneer that she was going to buy her daughter "a horse of greater quality".  (It turned out to be an undistinguished bay and in all the photos she sent I never once saw it going properly on the bit.)

In the 1980s interest rates went skywards which was crap if you had a mortgage (Mum didn't) and great if you were trying to save. Mum's term deposits were doing well enough for her to spend a couple of grand on a new lounge suite and dining setting in 1985.  By that time, Betty had been dead nearly four years; her raging bitterness had morphed into an aggressive cancer which saw her in the ground only six weeks from diagnosis. Mum and I were not invited to the funeral.

I thought at the time Betty would have put a hole in the ceiling if she'd seen the lounge suite and new table and chairs. She was probably watching from above (or below!) gibbering with rage.

This week, nearly thirty years later, I have replaced the dining setting with an early 1960s setting which better suits this mid-century house. I bought the table and chairs from two different eBay sellers but thankfully the wood colour is a good match. I have the 1980s one for sale on eBay and Gumtree and nobody seems to want it (bugger).

G and I moved it in yesterday and stood back admiring it. The table is teak and by Parker; it extends to 215 cm.  The chairs are also teak, and the seats and spade-shaped backs are teal vinyl and in great condition; still padded after all these years. As I set them under the table for the first time Betty came to mind. She'd find fault with it or sneer that I bought a 'second-hand' dining suite.

We invited the Whingies to dinner. I told them we had bought some new furniture but wouldn't say what so I would have them intrigued. Mr Whingy, who came earlier in the afternoon to fix a couple of power points for us and install groovy new lights in the hallway, admired the table and said his mother had had one very similar. He loved the quality of the wood.

Whingy herself, however, was rather dismissive. "Oh, what was wrong with the old one?"

"It was out of place in this room," I answered. "This new one is very similar to the original one Mum bought in 1959. It suits the room better."

I was struck (not for the first time) at how very like aunt Betty Whingy is. I didn't need to wonder what Betty would say - Whingy said it! Like Betty, she never seems to be happy if someone ELSE gets something new - but you hear all about it in bold cap type if Whingy does.

Whingy, predictably, hated the chairs. "Oh, they're not as padded as your other chairs. They're very hard on my bottom. What's wrong with the other chairs? Why get rid of them?"

"I found the other chairs hard on my back, as they were very straight-backed. These chairs have a nice curved back," I responded politely, thinking, get some meat on your scrawny arse, you cow, and you won't find the chairs uncomfortable. "And I love the colour of these ones."

"I like the other setting." Whingy pointedly went and sat on the sofa while I dished out dinner, only returning to the 'hard' chairs to eat. I kept filling her wine glass. I find that helps. She's never as sour after a couple of wines.

Two hours later her grumpiness had faded to a grudging cheeriness but I was still marvelling at how like aunt Betty she is. I 'spoke to Mum' as I was cooking pudding - that is, I talked quietly out loud as I believe Mum still hangs around - and shared my thoughts on Betty and Whingy. Mum never really warmed to Whingy and thought she was rather like Betty, but I'd never seen the Bettiness so much in action as last night.

Anyway, I like my new dining setting. It's comfortable. It's beautifully designed and elegant. It makes the room look bigger and makes Mum's early-70s glass fronted teak display cabinet look like it belongs in the room too. I am not a fan of the display cabinet, but now I think I can live with it and it perhaps isn't as hideous as I think it is.

And here are the groovy new lights in the hallway. Whingy didn't find much fault with them; but by then she'd had a few. So I'll never know what Aunt Betty may have thought of them!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

On a slow boat to …Sydney

Once upon a very long time ago I used to take the ferry to and from high school (aka St Trinian's… although it wasn't nearly as much fun) every weekday. Or, rather, those days when I wasn't suffering too much from 'nerves' to go to school. Gosh, I had quite an impressive absentee record when I look back.

But I digress.

This post is about Sydney's ferries. Here's what a modern Sydney ferry looks like:

Nice enough, but rather soulless compared to the lovely old ferries I used to use as a teenager. The 'Lady' and 'K' series were built in the early 1900s through the Edwardian era, and featured padded and reversible seats downstairs, painted wooden seats upstairs which curved nicely around your bum, and, excitingly, a view down the stairs to the smelly, noisy and quite glorious diesel engine. You'd hear the bell the captain rang telling the engineer to give it some welly, put it in neutral, or in reverse.

This is the lovely old Karrabee, which was the ferry I usually rode home on:
She's painted in the colours I remember too, and went off the run in the 1980s as the oldest ferries made way for the current batch. The Karrabee memorably sank in the Australia Day Ferryboat Race in 1984 but managed to make it back to Circular Quay. Refloated, and fixed up, she was sold and became a static floating restaurant up at the Central Coast. Sadly she wasn't well-maintained at her new home and gradually deteriorated into the mud she rested on, and was broken up nearly ten years ago.  Find out more about her here.

These old ladies had dual controls - the captain could change ends, so that when he berthed at Circular Quay he could stroll the top deck and use the wheel at the other end, simply sailing out from the wharf rather than having to reverse and turn as the modern ferries do.

Riding the ferries was a big thrill when I was a little girl, before my high school years. A trip on the ferry was a trip to town in the school holidays, to see a movie or meet with friends and family. Ferries meant a treat, with the journey as big an excitement as the movie or friends. And 'town' was much nicer then, with only a handful of high-rise towers and most buildings on a human scale.

Because I rarely use the ferries - I'm not a huge fan of the Sydney CBD and only venture in there when I have to for client stuff, or a few times a year to visit the Art Gallery of NSW, see a show or other activity only available in town - going for a trip on the ferry still has some of that childish thrill for me.

Is there a nicer way to travel to the city? I doubt it. When the sun's shining, even on a winter's day it's a lovely journey. You simply HAVE to slow down. You're not in a car cursing the other drivers and wondering if the parking station will be full. You're not on a bus with a fat man redolent of body odour plonked beside you and oozing flesh over your legs and arms. It's probably sad for the ferries on my run that they AREN'T crowded. Even in peak hour, you rarely reach 'standing room only'.

Today I had to head into town for a client meeting and caught a ferry soon after 10am. I was one of about 15 people on it. Likewise on the return journey at nearly 2pm. And this is during school holidays, so about 1/3 of those travelling were kids with parents.

There was a chill breeze this morning so I sat inside on my trip to town, relishing the sun sparkling on the water, eyeballing the lovely waterfront houses at Birchgrove, enjoying the choppy water under the Harbour Bridge which boaties call The Washing Machine and missing our grumpy old boat Bootle (which we sold earlier this year).

The sun had hit full capacity on the way home, so I sat out the back with the breeze on my face, enjoying my surroundings. Sydney's main attractions always look nicer from the water. As the ferry left tourist-infested Circular Quay behind it my spirits lifted.

I could have taken this photo without the ferry's superstructure, but I chose not to. Likewise this:
Through The Washing Machine and over some nice bouncy wake from another ferry, around the corner heading away from Balmain's Thames St Wharf I saw these buildings, which have received a very jolly coat of paint since I last saw them - which must have been months and months ago:

I like this photo - you can only really see Sydney Tower in the background; just a hint of the Horrible Highrise that is our CBD these days.

Even though I was using the ferry for work, the trip on the water made me feel as if I were playing truant from my business, which was a superb and uplifting feeling.

If I didn't hate the soulless, cement-ridden modern Sydney city centre so much, I'd find excuses to ride on the ferries more often. I look back at my time at St Trinian's and realise the ferry rides were the best part of those four hated years and I was privileged to use such a pleasant mode of public transport. There are times when it really is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Just what is it about Paris?

The French. You either love them or hate them. Or love France and hate the French.

Just what is it about Paris that makes it flavour of the month for sea change (or country change) biographies and blogs? Why IS it the city of romance? Why does my local $2 shop sell hat boxes covered in drawings of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame?

Your roving reporter spent a week there earlier this month to find out.

Paris smells of pee. Mainly men, some dogs. Every tree along the Seine near the Musee D'Orsay and the Louvre has been anointed by a hundred penises. As it hadn't rained for a while, the smell was intense.

If you want to move to France, you'd better speak French. Unlike here, where all government paperwork is available in about sixteen different languages, French paperwork is only in French. French officials only speak French. Parlez-vous Francais? Non? Tant pis… va t'en!! And French officials are legends when it comes to being obstructive. Not that I have tried to move to France but in my travels I spoke to a couple of expats who told the same story.

The drivers are bonkers. I was insane enough to drive through Paris in 1988 and I wouldn't be game to do it now. We had three wild rides in taxis which had my right foot permanently jammed 'on the brake'. So as a pedestrian in Paris I took my life in my hands. Drivers don't stop for pedestrians at pedestrian crossings. You have to wait until the road is clear and hope a Vespa doesn't come screaming out of nowhere when you're half way across. Scooters, motorbikes and bicycles have a scant disregard for red lights, especially if they are making a right hand turn. So what if you have a green light to walk? They'll be inching closer, itching, just itching, to run you down. Don't ever look them in the eye; it might be all the encouragement they need.

Paris is full of crowds. Forget going up the Eiffel Tower, it costs a bomb and you'll be queuing for years. Especially if you're waiting for the lift. The Louvre and Notre Dame also measure their queues by the furlong.

The French love their strikes. While we were there the RER (Railway) was on semi-strike; some of the trains were running but not to the usual schedule. There was also a baggage handlers' strike at the airport, making us happy we'd come on the Eurostar.

And let's not forget the scam artists who prey on tourists in likely spots, e.g. the Quartier Americaine (the part of Paris on both sides of the Seine near the Louvre. It's not really called the Quartier Americaine. I made that up. But it should be. It's where the American tourists hang out.) They pretend to be deaf mutes and ask you to donate ten euros to them and sign their badly-photocopied Official Donation Form (bollocks to that!). And there is the Paris Gold Ring Scam; I had a couple of those tried on me. I was stupid enough to have my camera out of my bag at the time, looking like a tourist. A simple snarl of "Va t'en!" usually had them apologising and moving away. When I swear in French my accent is perfect.

We were also accosted by very well-fed and reasonably well-dressed beggars at Gare du Nord station; there seem to be more beggars around than two years ago. The French economy is fairly buggered but not that you'd know it from all the locals eating out at cafes every night.

And those were all the downsides I found. Not that I looked hard.

We lived in an apartment for a week, in the 11th arrondissement. It was up four floors in a 120 year old building with an original and worn staircase. I suspect the paint on the stairwell was original too!

The apartment is owned by a young guy who works in IT and we found it on airbnb.com.  Our neighbours were all permanent residents, owning or renting their apartment. We were living like locals in a 50 square metre house with the tiniest kitchen imaginable. A two burner hotplate, a sink and a microwave inside the front door. Even the toaster and cutlery had to live in the living room. This is not atypical for a Parisian apartment; I think it's why a lot of people eat out at cafes.

Downstairs, on either side of the iron door onto the footpath, was a boucherie  and a boulangerie. We didn't buy anything from the butcher's - I was tempted as it all looked delicious - but got our daily fix of baguettes and croissants from the baker. Ask for a baguette traditionel and croissants du beurre to make sure you get the good stuff. And this WAS good, and a fraction of the price you'd pay at a decent Sydney bakery.

A block down the hill was the supermarket with an impressive wine section and big fresh veggie section - not to mention a huge cheese and pate section. Dinner sorted. The supermarket was small but had everything you'd need at a reasonable price. In Paris itself - within the route peripherique - you don't find big shopping malls and shopping centres; they are in the outer suburbs.

And across the road was a cafe where I'd head for my daily fix of coffee. Ask for un cafe and you get an espresso; a flat white is a cafe creme. I love the sharp taste of un cafe, drunk within a minute of arriving at the table before it turns bitter.

I got propositioned during my afternoon cafe fix one day at the cafe by an ageing roue.  He was a sweetie and didn't speak any English - not that you need anything except the language of lurve, non? So my pathetic French was well and truly tested and I had a great conversation with him.

When I wasn't walking - and I walked for about five hours a day on average - I was hopping on the metro to get to my walking destination. The metro is fab; trains every three minutes. You buy tickets, or carnets, in books of ten and it works out as about $2.50 per trip. Once you're in the metro you can swap trains etc on the one ticket. I had a morning's fun just riding around; I took the metro going in the wrong direction and had to change and swap over. All part of the Paris adventure.
The architecture is beautiful. I loved walking along the street - any street - and looking up at the apartment blocks, none of them taller than six storeys with an attic. Mostly stone, some brick, each with slightly different decorations. Paris is built on a human scale, and I love that. Peeking behind gates I saw courtyards with posh cars, old cars, smart tubs of fruit trees, lines of washing… as diverse as you could expect. Especially on the day when I got lost thanks to my iPhone app. I didn't realise that when I pinched it to enlarge the map swivelled around. I'd been aiming for the Seine. I ended up at Place de Clichy after a vigorous two hour walk through a very suburban, untouristy, pleasant but not overly opulent or rich part of town.

Even in the non-posh areas, such as the part I got lost in, there are joys and interesting sights around every corner. The shops are interesting; even washing powder and dishwashing liquid seems more exotic with a French label. (I have a vision of me bringing back a bottle of dishwashing liquid and getting pinged by Customs. "What on earth is this?" "Dishwashing liquid. Look, it's Pamplemousse scent, have a sniff. Mmm.")

The French have a sensible attitude towards animals and hygiene. Dogs are welcomed at cafes; outdoors as far as I know but possibly indoors too. There was a dog at the table next door when we had a farewell dinner at our local cafe and watched France wallop Switzerland in the World Cup (Mondiale to the French). Every happy smoker lit up like a chimney too without the slightest hint of being ostracised. And there were two very Parisian girls at another table who managed that casually put-together but magically elegant look that French women just do so well.
I could do an entire blog post - or more - on Parisian chic and how these women must have a gene that enables them to do magical things with scarves. Perhaps that's another reason Paris represents an almost-mythical place for some; the hope that somehow they will transform into a French woman.

And the French themselves, scarves notwithstanding? For the most part they were as delightful as my hopeful, would-be suitor, Marcel. Even though my French is execrable it got me food, drink and everything else I needed (including books! yay!) and most shopkeepers were happy to talk slowly to me once they understood I was from Australia.

I had halting conversations in French, some in English, and only found friendliness. I spoke to women who had the same breed of dog as I; there are quite a few about in Paris. I shared a table with a Parisienne near the Trocadero with a beautiful view of the Eiffel Tower and we spoke in two languages about our countries; she gave me a great tip for an exhibition to go to.
And maybe that's the real key to the love affair people - me included - have with France. French is such a beautiful, if complicated, language. Things just sound better in French. That pamplemousse I mentioned earlier; it's grapefruit.

I learned French for one year at high school and enjoyed it but as my attendance record was so crap I gave it up. My Mum learned French and while she'd forgotten most of it could obediently trot out that staple sentence of 1940s schoolgirls: La plume de ma tante est sur la table (the pen of my aunt is on the table). I used to tease her with my own version: La plume de ma tante est le cul de mon oncle (the pen of my aunt is up the arse of my uncle). Being me, I learned the rude words first. I did two years' part time Conversational French study twenty years ago but have forgotten most of that too, worse luck. I can read French more easily than I can speak it or understand it when it comes at me rapid-fire.

After a week there, the longest time I've spent in Paris, it does have a magic for me. Could I live there for a while? Yes. Even though it would mean an apartment about one sixth the size of the house I have now and no garden save the obligatory pots of red pelargoniums on the balcony, should I be lucky enough to have one.  I do love the place, but I think I'll have to visit in winter one year to make sure my love isn't just a summer love. I love the metro, the bonkers drivers, the fresh and wonderful food, the phone deals which mean really cheap broadband and free international phone calls, the  flights of stairs and the French themselves.

I did have one beautiful moment though, when the legendary French Service With A Sneer reared its head. We were at Charles de Gaulle airport, wandering around before boarding the aircraft home, when I spied an elegant shop (below) selling macarons. I had been very good during my week in France - not a pastry had passed my lips, nor a macaron. I had five euros left and bought one each for G and myself.

The exquisitely pretty mademoiselle behind the counter (you can see her in the pic) managed condescension with such silence, and a mere lift of one eyebrow, that I realised here was the personification of the French that people love to hate. It wasn't just that I was a cheapskate. The guy before me bought about 90 euros worth of them and received the same treatment. My faith in The Superiority of the French was restored. It was the perfect ending to a fabulous week.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Gunsynd - the horse who stole a nation's heart (and mine)

I was ten years old, and furious that Mum was making me wear a dress. I was a tomboy and while I owned two dresses I rarely wore them. And this was such a special occasion for me: Mum was taking me to the races for the first time, something I'd been begging for for ages. Horses and dresses don't mix, I argued, and Mum stated that women didn't wear trousers to the races. They hadn't in the 50s, anyway!

I could wear the dress or we wouldn't go at all.

Reluctantly I put the dress on. It had a patterned purply top and hot pink skirt. Very 1973. No way was I going to miss the races as my hero would be racing: Gunsynd, the Goondiwindi Grey.

Gunsynd had taken the public's imagination by storm. He was a dappled grey, and a character as well as a winner.

We watched him head onto the track, with the number 1 saddlecloth. It was 31 March, 1973 and he was entered as top weight in the Rawson Stakes at Rosehill. We sat in the stand as Kevin Langby took him onto the straight and turned him for a warmup on the way to the barrier gates. The horse stopped, and Langby gave him a nudge; but it was a game between them. Langby knew Gunsynd wouldn't budge until he was ready. The grey turned and looked up at the grandstand, and the crowd went wild. It was only when it seemed the horse was satisfied with the reception he'd got did he respond to Langby, turn and canter away. And that was part of the Gunsynd legend, the Gunsynd character which so endeared him to racegoers.

I have the race book beside me as I write this, and note that I'd got Mum to back him for me and won $2 on him. He carried 58kg and won easily.

He would only have three more starts before heading for retirement. His last run was in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Randwick almost a month later, and I remember watching on the black and white telly at Narrabeen with my grandfather. Pop had put 25c on him for me at the TAB, and we were breathlessly watching the race. So close… so close… but Apollo Eleven, carrying less weight, pulled away to win and the mighty Gunsynd finished his career in second place. The entire country wanted him to win. The roars from the crowd were as much disbelief as cheers for the handsome grey who'd tried so hard. Poor old Apollo Eleven may have thought the cheers were for him, but the grey knew better.

Apollo Eleven may have won, but Gunsynd had the last word. In the saddling paddock, he bowed to the crowd like a circus horse, one foreleg bent and his head near his knees. The crowd went ballistic. I have a newspaper clipping still of the photo of Gunsynd bowing. It's never been mentioned who taught him to do it, or whether Langby gave him a signal, but it was pure showmanship.

Photo from barnesphotography.com.au

It wasn't just Gunsynd's character and track record which caught the public's imagination. The horse was the story of four small town blokes from Goondiwindi (pronounced GUNdawindy) in Queensland, who pooled their money and bought a colt and called him Gunsynd, for GUNdawindi SYNDicate. Gunsynd only cost them $1300 but earned them more than $280,000 and was the highest stakes winner to date. He put the little town of Goondiwindi on the map and fulfilled the great Australian dream of buying a bargain horse who turned out to be a champion. It's a story mug punters dream of emulating.

His owners were Jim Coorey, Bill Bishop, George Pippos and Winks McMicking; ordinary blokes with jobs, farms or their own small businesses. Bill Bishop is the only surviving member of the syndicate, and he was - and I love this - an SP bookie on the side. Read Bill's story here.

At the height of his fame Gunsynd inspired a song by country singer Tex Morton. No, not the Tex Morton who sings rock-blues, but a former cowboy-hatted version. I have a copy of the single. It has a photo of Gunsynd in full flight printed on the record. Here 'tis:

Gunsynd never won the Melbourne Cup. He won just about every major mile race on the calendar, however. And he won hearts Australia-wide.

As a sire he didn't throw any real champions; he had a few useful sons and daughters but none of his own calibre. My aunt and her family were lucky enough to visit him at Kia-Ora Stud near Scone - visiting Gunsynd was invitation-only as even in retirement he was still wildly popular - and sent me a photo they'd taken of him rearing up for the crowds on an open day at the stud. I still have that, in its frame.

Sadly Gunsynd was put down in 1983; he had been operated on for polyps in his nasal system a couple of years before, but the polyps returned and were affecting his breathing to a point where letting him go was the kindest and most sensible option. I cried when I heard the news; so many memories from my racing-made childhood were tied up in Gunsynd.

There's an in-depth and excellent history on Gunsynd here at the Barnes Photography website.

(And you know what? At the races on Rawson Stakes Day in 1973, plenty of women and girls were wearing trouser suits. Boy, did I ever feel stupid in my dress!)