Sunday, June 5, 2016

"Whether the weather be fine, or whether the weather be not ......"

Sydney weather has been ricocheting around.  May was totally glorious, I was in basking seal mode only a couple of weeks ago, swimming in the ocean off Lion Island in Pittwater, one of Sydney’s great natural harbours.  The water was a bit bracing but nothing compared to my childhood summer swims off St Andrews where I used to enter the water, draw a sharp breath and exit swiftly climbing back into three layers of clothing and hoping the blue tinge to my flesh faded quickly.  In contrast two weeks ago, we sat around the boat in the sunshine with that glorious feeling of salt drying on your skin and marvelled at one of the warmest Mays in record for Sydney with daytime temperatures over 20 oC every day for the first 26 days of the month.

But as in all good fairy stories there is always something nasty lurking in the woodshed.  In this case, an East Coast Low, apparently partly caused by the high sea temperatures that were responsible for my unseasonal sea like frolicking.  Having got a grand total of 7.2mm of rain in the whole of May, Sydney has received 226.2mm since Friday – most of which appears to have pooled under our house.  Husband has been looking manly in shorts, up to his knees in water creating siphon systems with hoses to get the water out – I refused to do the sucking bit to start the siphons off, having had nasty experiences with that particular exercise, in the past, with emptying out fish tank water.

We went for breakfast on Sunday at our local beachside café, Bathers' Pavilion at Balmoral.  As Balmoral is a harbour beach, rather than an ocean one, you normally get the kind of waves that you encourage your four year old to jump through, but as we sat at our window table, carefully avoiding the pools of water from the rain that was driving in through the frames, we could see surfers out on the water, surfing very respectable sized waves into the beach.

The storm coincided with the highest tide of the year, last night, a so called King Tide – have actually mentally labelled it the King Canute tide as he would have had more than a few problems trying to hold it back.  We went back down to Balmoral for a walk last night as the tide was at its peak, fortunately the storm had abated but the size of the waves as they crashed onto the usually placid beach and over the esplanade walls was impressive.  We spotted a pelican amongst the chaos of the surf, presumably looking for fish attracted by the Bathers' Pavilion lights that shine out at night over the water.  As we marvelled at his skill in dodging waves, he suddenly got it wrong and had to fly for his life down the face of a giant wave coming zooming out of the froth and water, skimming millimetres away from the wall of water.  It was one of those images that will stay with me for a long time as he flew in low towards us, before flapping off into the night in a somewhat disgruntled fashion.

It’s not just the weather that seems barmy in Sydney.  My front garden looks bizarre at the moment, though I would hate to give you the impression it ever looks particularly flash.  I have daffodils out, actually technically I think they are some kind of narcissi or jonquil but daffodils covers it, whilst at the same time the imported trees are turning gold and orange.  Given both flowers and trees come from northern hemispheres – surely one or other species has got it wrong re Spring and Autumn as a concept in their adopted home – and I’m guessing it’s the daffodils who are confused.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Mother's Day - Champagne or Colonoscopy?

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day in Australia. I would actually love it if we could get a global Mother’s Day – an International Day of the Mother. UK Mothering Sunday is linked to Easter and the Christian calendar and this year was March 6th, whereas Australia and New Zealand follow the US custom of the second Sunday in May, which is tomorrow.  It is unfortunate that the UK Mothering Sunday falls before the Australian celebration in that it means my own mother’s chances of scoring a on time card from this particular off shore offspring are remarkably low.

My own Mother’s Day celebration tomorrow, is on paper, not shaping well.  Drama Queen No.1 is in hospital recuperating from an operation, Drama Queen No.2 is down at university in Melbourne, recuperating from a night spent on a beach photographing a meteorite shower and watching the phosphorescence in the waves, and Drama Queen No.3 is spending the night at a friend’s place so I am going to wake up with no daughters in residence – BUT IT GETS MUCH WORSE – because actually celebration of motherhood and the implied goal of me getting my just rewards in terms of cake and champagne does not actually require offspring physically present – I am quite capable of quaffing it with Husband or on my own.  The disaster is the result of a move that only I could make, I have somehow scheduled for Monday morning, the routine, age related, something it would be good to do, colonoscopy that I have been gently, and rightly, nagged into by my GP.

This fatal flaw on the timing front means that as per the instruction sheet, not only am I taking a variety of what I presume are laxatives – and I must confess to some worries about the speed and ferocity at which they work, based on the advice to stay close to a toilet, but I also have to exist on a clear liquid diet for 24 hours before the procedure, which effectively scuppers any hopes of a Mother’s Day high tea or indeed knees up.  I did phone the doctor’s receptionist in the vain hope champagne might qualify on the clear liquid front – it does, but sadly fails the no alcohol test.  

The upside is that I console myself that I am so lucky to live in a country with a fabulous medical system that supports and cares for us as a family, and that I am offered a test that could be invaluable in saving my life, so in the contest between champagne and colonoscopy – I guess colonoscopy wins hands down – with champagne afterwards naturally.

And of course there is the fact that I feel very loved by the dramatic offspring everyday of the year, so before I get absurdly sentimental I’d like pay homage to Tom Lehrer who wrote one of the best songs about loving your mother – Oedipus Rex – that contains one of my favourite lines “I’d rather marry a duck-billed platypus”.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Dum de Dum de Dum - The Archers and the joys of internet radio

You know you are becoming a crusty old bore, akin to the type of colonial relics that inhabit a Somerset Maugham short story, when you start talking about ‘When I first went overseas …………. “

In the heady days of the early 90s there was no internet or email so you wrote and received letters in the form of blue areogrammes that you folded up and sent off – it was a red letter day when a blue letter arrived and I used to skip up the steps to the various rented flats clutching one when they came.

Phone calls to overseas countries were accompanied with a timer and hissing of in-drawn breath – my parents-in-law only rang us a couple of times during our years overseas as it was regarded as prohibitively expensive. 

And if you wanted to listen to the BBC Radio 4 long running serial, The Archers you had to get your parents to make a recording and send it out to you.

I wasn’t actually such an Archers fan that these desperate measures were required but when we lived in Hong Kong in the early 90’s, I had a great friend, Laura, whose mother used to tape the omnibus edition every Sunday and then send said tape to Laura.  When I tell this story to anyone under the age of 30, I can see their eyes roll in complete incomprehension, whilst they mentally pause and wonder whether to ask for a translation.

I love having the internet, and email, but I also love my box of tattered areogrammes, mainly from my mother who wrote the most superb letters, but slightly irritating never dated them beyond the month.  I now realise I should have written the year on them when I received them as it is now a deduction process from the contents, and the address on the front, in terms of working out when it was actually written.

One of the things I love most about life now is that I can conjure up BBC Radio 4 and Radio 3 at the touch of a button on my computer, either live or as a podcast.  As I write now I have Essential Classics from Radio 3 playing in the background as I am someone who always needs noise around to work.  Most early evenings I will cook to the wake up call of the BBC Radio 4 flagship ‘Today’ programme which sets the tone for news and views each morning in the UK, and when ironing I will find a podcast from Woman’s Hour or The Life Scientific – both of which are the most fantastic programmes and I very rarely come away without having heard something that really interested me.   Desert Island Discs is a weekly treat and when I find one I love, I am on a one-woman mission to spread the word and all my friends find the link posted to their inboxes. 

‘The Archers’ is typically British institution, a radio soap opera that has been going since 1951, originally, and perhaps still, billed as the ‘everyday story of country folk’, I can remember listening to the after lunch slot in my primary school uniform and the theme tune is instantly recognisable to any Brit of my age. 

There is still a distinct rural flavour to it, and we are definitely talking village life, complete with established families, wealthy farmers, poor but honest (most of the time) tenant farmers and labourers, village shop, now run by worthy volunteers and a village green.  But no one could accuse The Archers of not being of their time – over the past couple of years the storylines have included a gay civil marriage, infidelity, donor insemination and the vicar marrying a Hindu and my personal favourite, one character, Emma, managing to marry not one, but two brothers in quick succession.  I have to come clean and admit I am now totally addicted and will listen to the 12 minutes slot whilst I cook most evenings.

In recent weeks the tension in The Archers community has ratcheted up as a domestic abuse storyline took over.  The build up was very dramatic and I was reduced to getting up and listening to the next episode whilst I ate my breakfast, furiously hushing any of my family who dared to interrupt the storyline.  When things came to a head – or to knifepoint – it was I think the story that stopped the nation.  The Today Programme had to utter a spoiler alert before they discussed the episode as one of their leading news stories of the day.

For anyone feeling nostalgic, here’s the theme tune, you only need the first few bars to be transported.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Dress Code - Pac-a mac or pearls

Absolutely fabulous, hot autumnal afternoon in Sydney with golden light slanting through the trees round the outdoor café I am sitting in, but as with all good dramas this is now the point for a line of dramatic dots……………… the weather forecast for the next few days is not good.

Rain is normally not a problem in my life, however in a crazed social organiser moment, crossed with the desire to embrace my inner cultural being, I have revved up several of my friends about what fun it would be to go to Turandot the Sydney Opera production staged outdoors on a floating stage on Sydney Harbour.  I fear I have perhaps waxed too lyrical about the operatic and dramatic delights in store, to the extent Husband is convinced he is going to see a fire breathing dragon – and whilst it is true there is definitely a giant pagoda and a mechanical dragon, I am not completely convinced it is going to spit fire – but as a result of my enthusiastic sales pitch, I now find myself in the fairly unaccustomed role of heading up a party who qualify for a group discount – am considering whether to get one of those little flags to wave so I can marshal them?  Meanwhile I am haunted by a craven fear that it will pour,  and my loyal concert party of opera tragics will be glaring at me from beneath plastic hoods as the rain drums around us.

However there are few things as spectacular as an evening spent sitting on the purpose built seating in the Botanic Gardens, complete with the bars and restaurants that appear for a couple of months whilst the Outdoor Cinema and the Opera on the Harbour are on.    The scenery is out of this world with the Opera House and Bridge as a backdrop as the lights go down and then the lights around the Harbour providing a sparkling frame as darkness falls.  The Flying Foxes (large and incontinent bats) used to make sitting in the back row of seats, underneath the overhanging trees, a bit of a sartorial challenge – what to wear that you don’t mind getting covered in bat shit was always a puzzle, but now the bats have been persuaded to move on, it is possible to sit in the back rows without more that an occasional glance upwards.

I am not a great opera buff – hence have had to consult Sydney Opera’s helpful ‘cheat sheet’ to discover that the final “t” in Turandot is not pronounced – bit like the Drama Queens’ pronunciation of ‘water’ which also generally lacks any mention of the ‘T’ sound, but I do love the drama of the outdoor opera – and boy do they go to the max on set and effects.  Fireworks are completely obligatory and are apparently going to light up the sky during ‘Nessum Dorma’.  During Carmen, a couple of years ago, a vintage car appeared to great effect whilst one of the highlights of Aida last year was getting up close with the camels that made a star appearance.

However the biggest nightmare is of course, what happens if it rains?  And the closely related question, what on earth am I going to wear, pac- a- mac or pashmina?  Normally I am never particularly stressed by dress code questions, taking the fairly characteristic, eg lazy, view that unless one looks spectacular or dreadful, people rarely notice and I would prefer they remember me for my sparkling repartee rather than outfit.  Note this attitude is mirrored by my thoughts on hosting dinner parties, where I feel that unless the food is beyond delicious, or I poison people, then that’s fine.  (Anyone who has been subjected to my dinner party food – please feel free to rebut this statement).

However I do at times get the dress code so spectacularly wrong that I am out of sight on the fashion front – and not in a Kardashian type way.   The worst I think was the Derby Day – part of the racing festival centred around the Melbourne Cup, in November– it was unfortunate that in the excitement of being invited down to Derby Day in Melbourne I had failed to ask anyone about the Dress Code – it turns out it is traditional to wear black and white to Derby Day.  It was perhaps a tad unfortunate I had gone for a celebratory fire station red outfit topped off by a red hat – if the expression ‘sore thumb’ comes to mind then you have the correct and bizarrely quite accurate picture in your mind of me, clad as the scarlet imposter, in the midst of a sea of black and white – it was like an inverted “Where’s Wally?” picture.

The good news is that being Sydney, anything will go at Turandot, so I can get it wrong in good company, and if the rain lashes down, I’ve got some great raingear that I wore daily in my northern hemisphere life that now hangs in the laundry unused most of the year.  And as for the under layer, as it were, I’m going to take Dan Porta, the set designer’s words to heart – “We have to temper the aesthetics to the weather …… but still make everything look dangerous and exciting” so I’m mentally channelling the black jumpsuit rather than jeans and sweater.

And just as a footnote, I have just heard on the radio that today was the hottest April day recorded in Sydney - no wonder it all seemed glorious - keep those opera loving fingers crossed it lasts.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Real People and Imaginary Friends

Today’s weather which is grey, not a scud of sun and heavy rain alternating with drizzle is a forcible reminder that perhaps I wouldn’t be that good at living in the UK any more.   I think I have become too much of a Southern Hemisphere gal – used to a default setting of sunshine, heat and blue skies, and rain that is more of the tropical downpour variety than the depressing backdrop to life stuff we are getting now.

During the almost 25 years we have been married, we’ve only spent 5 years in the UK.  It was a brief, undoubtedly rain-filled, but very happy, interlude, where we lived in Balham, and went from having one child to three.  Towards the end of the five years, I went back to university and qualified as a teacher, but before that foray back into student life, I spent a couple of years based mostly on my knees or sitting on the floor, clutching a cup of tea, chatting to my friends whilst numerous small children crawled and roamed around us.  In terms of timing it was just the best, our return to London, complete with a growing number of small children coincided with the brief period of time when the majority of my university friends were London based and all having children, so I had a ready made social group and the great luxury of having time with people who made me laugh, and even better understood my jokes.

I have just read ‘Late Fragments – Everything I Want to Tell You (About this
Magnificent Life)’ by Kate Gross.  She was as she says “ a successful thirty-something with an amazing job through which I travel the world and converse with presidents and prime ministers.  My adorable twins are three, and their father, Billy, is my soulmate, as well as being the best-looking man I’ve ever kissed.”   And then she discovers she has advanced colon cancer, and she decides to write a book for her twin sons to tell them who she was.  I loved the book, though I approached it with some trepidation as I am always nervy of cancer/illness memoirs as I think it takes really great writing to rise above the grief and misery, but what I think sets Kate Gross’s book apart is her thoughts on the business of living if you like, rather than dying.  I particularly liked her chapter on female friendships – I sat reading, going, ‘yes, yes, yes’ – thinking as I read that she was saying, so brilliantly, what I have always thought, and I so wish she were still alive so that I could write to her and say “Please, please, be my friend’. 

One of the things Kate says about her time at university is that “I count my time at university as precious not just because it is where I hatched [from a grub, as she characterises her teenage years], but because it is where I made the friendships that have accompanied me ever since.”  One of the upsides of moving round the world is that it forces you into situations of similar type intensity to those university days –  a survive, make friends or die type mentality, so I have been blessed in that I have continued to make great friends in life, but in the end it is the university and school friends who tend to get the middle of the night hysterical phone call or to whom I can admit that I have just eaten a whole packet of Cadbury’s mini-eggs and am now lurching round the kitchen like a Labrador that has committed a similar transgression.

Perhaps I actually was a Labrador in a previous life as I’m obviously very prone to wanting to bound up to people saying ‘Be my friend’ and metaphorically nuzzling around their knees – though obviously giving the sniffing their groin a miss.  Having just read J K Rowling’s address to Harvard Graduates in 2008  - (missed it at the time but it is just doing the rounds on Facebook a mere eight years later), she is clearly going on the list too as yet another inspirational and funny woman who seems to speak for me, and to me, but who also I feel wouldn’t be averse to a gingernut dunked in a mug of tea.

Before I get too carried away with my new all female fantasy friendship group, I should add the person who started me off on the wanting complete strangers, who take my fancy, as friends kick, which is now how I typify people who I admire and who make me laugh, was Jimmy Mulville, after I heard him on Desert Island Discs

Regardless of the rain outside and my bizarre Labrador like tendencies to want to be friends with the outstanding who cross my path, in print or on radio, what I should be reflecting on is how lucky I am like Kate Gross, to have so many outstanding friends in my life already, who do inspire and make me laugh on a daily basis, so this is a reminder to myself to cherish them and always to have a packet of biscuits or a bottle of wine handy in case they drop in.

PS Belatedly I realise the title for this post was stolen from the titles of two books by Alison Lurie, the American novelist, who is definitely on the list of desired friends, though such is the level of my admiration for her, I am not sure I would actually be able to utter a word were I ever to come face to face with her.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Just a cough to the left, a splutter to the right

It’s been fabulous weather in Sydney and to be honest there are few places to beat Sydney Harbour when the sun is shining.  

February is often the hottest month of the year, coinciding helpfully as it does with school going back, but this year summer is continuing to excel itself well into March.  Sydney is in the middle of a record breaking run, 37 days in a row where the temperature has been 26 oC or over and 21 nights where it has been 20 oC – (for my Fahrenheit readers that’s a daily temperature of 79 oF or over and a lot of the time it has been well over, we are not talking warm here, we are talking days that are candle melting hot, and a nightly temperature that hasn’t dropped below 68 oF).  Basically safe to say jolly consistently hot, no matter what temperature gauge you are using.

I went to see La Boheme at Sydney Opera House on Friday– please note the way I slipped that in, culture vulture that I am – the reality is I am complete operatic philistine and were it not for subtitles I would not have a clue about what is going on in any given opera.  However I loved La Boheme and was mesmerised by the music, energy generated by the performers and the set.  The heroine, Mimi dies of consumption at the end – as in all operas in my limited experience, death seems to feature pretty majorly.  As she coughed her way to her last, I reflected upon the fact that despite the type of weather than induces heat exhaustion rather than a constant hacking, coughs are pretty much theme of the day in my household.

Based on past history a visit to my hairdresser is often fraught with drama – over the past year the monthly snip has been interrupted in one instance by a tow man towing my week old, brand new car out of the underground car park where it had given up the ghost, many of the locals still dine out on the story of the maniac woman with her hair in foils and wearing a black smock, who was directing traffic (and swearing a lot) during that incident.  Then there was the phone call I received, also whilst clad in a becoming black gown, to say my brother had been knocked down by a cyclist and was in an ambulance on his way to one of the major Sydney hospitals – fortunately he was okay after a few stitches and a couple of days rest, and equally fortunately (being totally self-centred as I am) Roger had finished cutting my hair before the phone call came and I belted out of the saloon at high speed.  As a result of these and other incidents, Roger and I both approach the cut as a time-trial before fresh drama breaks out.  So when my phone buzzed this time and I saw it was a text from Drama Queen No. 2 who has just started at university in Melbourne, approximately 876km from home, my heart sank.  Her text read, “ What do I have, a dry irritating cough or a chesty one?” – difficult to call that one from a distance I felt, but I was touched by her faith in my diagnostic powers on the cough front. 

However her chest ailments pale into insignificance next to those of Husband who is marooned in the grey and cold of a UK March, and who claims that he thinks he has got Legionnaire’s disease – there is an potential outbreak in Sydney at the moment and the source is thought to be close to his office here – so technically he could be afflicted, particularly as he assures me the incubation period is up to 10 days (he looked it up). 

In the great operatic tradition I feel I could be conducting my own cough symphony quite soon, waving in the hypochondriac section, and then cuing the student splutters, so that we finish in a combined family coughing fit of which Mimi would be proud.  Meanwhile I'm hoping we make 40 days in a row of great weather.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

21 and the joint is jumping

Hooray, we survived.  Actually, pause for a brief moment whilst I check on full count of teeth, limbs, state of marriage, number of Drama Queens still on talking terms with rest of family.  All present and correct – just amazing, given I had expected to wake up post Drama Queen No. 1’s 21st Birthday Party in my own particular version of T S Eliot’s Wasteland.

She was actually 21 four days before Christmas, but sensibly decided to postpone the party until a time when no other major birthday (Jesus or anyone else) or celebration could overshadow it.  Having decided upon a Scottish theme, whiskey and haggis quickly hit the must have list – I vetoed requests for the sheep that would apparently add Scottish authenticity to our suburban Sydney house – apparently you can get one for $60 on Gumtree, but I remained resolute, having a pretty fair idea who’d be playing Little Bo Peep post party and frankly I’m far too old for the golden curls and shepherd’s crook called for by that particular role.

The run up to the party, mentally billed in my own mind as the Ben Hur event, was relatively smooth as the birthday girl is a three hour drive away at university and aside from fielding the boxes of tartan themed objects turning up on the doorstep I was able to stay calm.  Australian male friends wound up Husband with cries of “Mate (mate being drawn out in that peculiarly Australian way) you’re going to need more beer.  More beer, Mate” – I’m never sure whether his friends find it necessary to repeat these kind of instructions because they think he is hard of hearing,  or whether they worry about his powers of understanding.  As a result in between the tartan paperchains, bunting and ribbon deliveries, boxes of beer kept arriving and our spare room was soon standing room only for bottles as well as potential guests.

In the event we were blessed, it was a fabulous warm Sydney evening, the 21 year olds were on top form and a pleasure to have in the house. Even the dog dressed up as type of tartan shuttlecock and “My oath” another great Australianism, did they drink – at the end of the night we had six bottles of beer left which I think officially counts as being drunk dry and basically proves the Aussie blokes were right on the bottles of beer per head calculation.  We had people in the pool and a naked dancer on the dance floor – events that frankly all good parties need.

I am now a convert to the concept of a 21st – forget 18th or 16th birthday parties.  By 21 the guest list is that bit older, used to having a drink without going crazy and just an easier crowd to deal with in terms of the parental health and safety worries – not to mention sanity concerns.  So thank you to all the guests for making it such a fun event that was a pleasure to host, and I’ll carry on taking down the bunting – anyone thinking of hosting a St Andrew’s Night or Burn’s Night supper, have I got the décor for you.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Cupboard Love

We are of course in mid February and it is very true to form that it is only now that I am reflecting upon Christmas presents and resolutions for the New Year.  In fact now I think about it I am just in time for Valentine’s Day, which is traditionally actually the date I normally send out my Christmas Letter.  Whilst in the resolution reminiscent mood I should make one resolution right now; that at some point today I will find a suitably tasteful and romantic card to hand over to Husband on Sunday morning, thus avoiding the usual scramble at 5pm on February 13th, where I, together with a group of disconsolate males, for strangely most of the other late purchasers tend to be male, stand gazing at sad remnants of the left over cards at the newsagent, these last minute tokens of love generally featuring koalas and/or badly drawn teddy bears clutching roses to their chests, and have quite rightly been deemed by more timely purchasers, as unfit for human consumption.

My family gave me a copy of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying” for Christmas, apparently, I asked to be given it, I have no memory of making such a request but I do concede that if I was taking a clear look at myself in the metaphorical mirror (generally smeary and surrounded by interesting objects parked there over the years) I would perhaps have acknowledged a guide to tidying could come in handy.

If I condense the wisdom of the author Marie Kondo in a couple of sentences, the essence is discard, discard, discard and then tidy the few possessions that remain.  Key to the discarding element is that if when you handle an object/book/clothing if it doesn’t bring you an immediate jolt of pleasure/joy you get rid of it – am so tempted to test this method on dog/Drama Queens/Husband but fear it might lead to unfortunate scenes, particularly as our council ‘Throw away day’ is coming up and I would hate to see a member of my family sitting on the kerb looking for a new home.  I can see the sense of her particular ‘no joy and it’s out’ mantra and I am actually looking forward to tackling my wardrobe as I do know there are many garments in there that I pick up, consider as daily wear, and then put back on the grounds they fail to thrill.

However an infestation of pantry moths meant that the larder cupboard was the place that needed my tidy-minded attention – top tip if every time you open the cupboard door, you are greeted by a flutter of moths, and your teenage children are complaining that the chocolate chips are full of weevils and they think they may have unwittingly eaten some, then it’s time for action.  I cleaned out the whole thing, discarded, discarded and discarded, less on the grounds did things give me joy, and more on the basis that were foodstuffs a) infested with weevils, b) out of date by a number of years, c) conspicuously bulging or d) fitting into the category of the type of food that is bought in a fit of optimism but which clearly is never going to be eaten by any member of the family – step forward flaxmeal. 

The whole thing was a gloriously purging exercise – and I was overcome with satisfaction at the end of it – until I opened the cupboard door this morning and another moth flew out.  I suppose on the bright side at least the moths and weevils have somewhere tidy to live – and I can now move onto the more entertaining wardrobe purge, hopefully not moth infested in its turn.

Just to avoid embarrassing confusion - these are pictures of my larder cupboard POST clean-up!