Barry Humphries: The Man Behind the Mask

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img_5888Barry Humphries is a man of many faces—actor, writer, comedienne, producer and raconteur—and the man behind a clutch of loud and larger than life alter-egos famed around the world. But in his latest Australian tour, it’s his own face that is given the limelight as he takes the audience on a retrospective ride through his early days and career and allows us to discover a little more about the man behind the characters.

The night in Canberra, ‘gateway to Yass’, was a leisurely stroll through the past. In fact it takes well over two hours, but it’s a well-paced journey, as you’d expect from a master of comedic timing. We travel back to childhood days in inner Melbourne (then outer), of attempted poisoning and bullying, the influence of his mother, the ‘mistress of the vocabulary of disapproval’, and a failed Shakespearean debut. Along the way, amidst a torrent of one-liners and anecdotes, the spawning of his greatest characters are revealed – Dame Edna and Sir Les Patterson – borne from true life. It’s a fascinating insight.

The stage set is simple: an man in a pink suit (of course) on a bare stage, save for a matching pink lounge chair. His old mate and faithful accompanist of 25 years, Andrew Ross, sits at one side and gently adds some tinkling and a few words from time to time. There’s no need for much else. In Canberra the venue was unduly large and cavernous, a pity as it didn’t befit the notion of an intimate unmasking and the painting of a self-portrait. Perhaps the marketing was too low key—surely a talent of this calibre deserves a full house.

The body language lets you know this man is ageing (he’s 84), as he potters across stage and slumps occasionally into that pink chair. But his mind is quick, his language precise, and his timing impeccable. No doubt it’s well rehearsed, but it’s not all scripted and there’s an opportunity for a moment of impromptu repartee with an audience member — Helen, who lives in an apartment, not a flat. Just a friendly little chat, by all accounts, but all the while gently taking the piss out of her for the audience’s pleasure. Just as Edna might do.

The great characters of Barry’s career – Edna, Les and Sandy Stone – join him on stage in the second set , not in person but in the form of selected film clips and archival footage. In front of a star-studded curtain, another liberal scattering of stars appears — of the Hollywood kind, royalty and presidents — revealed in a snippets of classic moments of the past. Even a young Donald Trump was there with Ivana, before he was orange, but who appeared just as clueless then as he is now.

The clips are old so the vision is not crystal clear from a distance and sometimes the audio difficult to catch, particularly the speech of the outlandish and despicable Sir Les. Or perhaps it’s the fault of those dreadful teeth he had to mumble through?

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It’s a joy to look back and remember the moments many grew up with, and marvel at how risque some of it was. To watch Mrs Norman Everage, dowdy housewife of Monee Ponds, evolve over the decades and climb the ranks of society to become Dame Edna Everidge, international star and style icon, beloved of royalty, with a charming grin and wickedly acid tongue.

Of course, Edna and particularly Sir Les can get away with a lot more than Barry can, although the man himself still likes to push the boundaries, provocateur that he is. But he does get away with quite a lot, as his string of politically incorrect one liners and name calling would attest. The particularly faint-hearted might be offended, but the audience well and truly deemed them funny.

It’s not all fun and levity. At one point we’re let into a little of the whirlwind decade of the 60s, when fame and drinking mixed to dizzy heights, and when he dodged oblivion by staying for a time at a ‘private hospital for thirsty people’. He seems grateful for the rescue and his escape from the chemicals which consumed others, and the opportunity to enjoy the things still dear to him – his refuge the stage, art, music, and grandkids. And so are we.

He finished the show with a song (dreadful as his singing may be), as he always does, and a promise to be back next year with a new show. He might be well and truly an octogenarian, but he’s not going anywhere yet.

See him in this show if you can, or wait for the next if you must, but see him because, in the words of that random bloke he came across recently in Sydney, the one who doesn’t know him from a bar of soap:

‘Baz, you’re a fucking icon.’

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Making the most of a photo obsession: how to share the photography love

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Confession. I have a tendency to become a little OCD with certain things. Recently it seems photography has moved into this space and may have consumed my life a bit. A lot. Taking photos, sharing, editing, deleting (not nearly enough), learning, looking, liking, reading about photography, dreaming about photography holidays. It’s surprising there’s been room for anything else.

It’s time consuming this photography thing, and addictive, challenging, and even frustrating – but it can be exhilarating too, like when you manage to just catch that shot at just the right moment.

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I’ve also discovered it’s opened up a whole new world to me – even if it was the same one as before, which I just wasn’t taking enough notice of.

Because with a camera in hand – or even a phone – suddenly I’m seeing the world differently. I’m so much more observant to what’s around – the changing colours of the season, the glories of a sky, the character of a city, the minutiae of daily life, the expressions on a face.

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And oh, the light! Once you start seeing the complexities and nuances of light and watch them shift throughout the day,  you can’t un-see it. Ever changing intensities, shadows and moods.

I truly never noticed it before but now having searched for it for so long to capture in a frame, it’s constantly visible – even when the camera’s away.

That makes life one continual visual adventure, full of constant opportunities, and very slow walks.

But it doesn’t have to be a solitary adventure. For those wanting to expand your photography skills and share your passion with others, here are eight possibilities which actually involve others.

  1. Share your photos on Instagram. Warning, you may potentially lose your life! I spend an inordinate number of hours taking snaps and sharing them with family and others on this social media platform. But it can be rewarding. I was thrilled recently to be included in a Top 10 Canberra Instagrammers list among some talented photographers. Very addictive, but also inspiring to see what others are doing.

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2. Connect with local instagrammers, if you’ve got a local group or a broader one. You can connect on online or (perish the thought) in person. I’ve participated in an art exhibition with a local group and also attended a couple of events, including a night photography ‘light painting’ evening and  a tour of a historic property. Much fun and you get to travel with others who are also photo obsessed – which means they don’t get annoyed when you stop all the time or ask about camera settings.

 

3. Join up with a local photography group to meet others who share your passion. Activities might include meetings, excursions and competitions. Members are very willing to share their experience.

4. Do a photography course. Many workshops and short courses are available, including online learning, some free and some paid. I love in person training and last year completed one unit of the Certificate IV photography course at Canberra Institute of Technology – three hours a week for one semester. Really pushed up my skill level.

5. Join in with an online community, perhaps on Facebook. Great for learning and inspiration. Lots of ‘challenge’ opportunities to join in with to keep you on your toes and sometimes thinking outside the box.

6. Join in with the Canon Collective, and no, you don’t have to use Canon gear. They offer free and paid workshops across Australia (where you can try out some of their equipment), ‘challenge’ opportunities, an online community for advice and inspiration, and even photography holidays. An entire weekend of activities in Canberra was my first exposure.

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7. Take advantage of the wealth of information available online – articles, tutorials, workshops. Many offer free stuff in the hope you’ll also buy some of their services. Digital Photography School is a great source of tips, resources and free tutorials.

8. Take an guided photography holiday. No photos of this option yet – still on my dream list.

So many options to keep you interested and inspired.

Then you just need to work out what to do with all those photos you’re collecting.  But fear not, I’ve got lots of suggestions for those too coming in a separate post.

Recycling – what’s in and what’s out

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Plastic-waste-shutterstock_426187984-72dpiThere’s been a lot of talk in Australia recently about recycling, following China’s unexpected announcement in January it would be taking in far less of ours for processing. They do have over 1.4 billion people over there so they have quite a lot of their own recycling to contend with, but it was reportedly the high levels of contamination in recycling that was the catalyst for their revised import restrictions. It’s now set to ban 24 categories of solid waste – not just from us but the US, EU and Japan as well – in an effort to protect their own environment and public health.

This is sending Australian recycling systems into a state of panic. It’s also putting the onus back on us to work out other or better ways of dealing with our own recycling on our own shores, reducing our contamination rates, or even creating less of it in the first place. Opportunity abounds! (How we seize it is another matter.)

This recycling idea has been around some time and the vast majority of us in Oz urban centres have recycling bins with tell-tale yellow lids provided and collected. Easy peasy? Apparently not, as many of us haven’t really twigged as to what goes in those bins and what doesn’t.

So, in the interests of Planet Earth and to assist in our current rubbish crisis, here’s a little guide to help reduce recycling at the household coalface.

  1. Make it a habit to recycle in your house. Have separate bins in the kitchen and think about what you do. If it’s not a habit yet, stick some little post-its up around the place to remind you until it becomes second nature. Remind others to do the same. Nag if required. Train kids early. Forming new habits is easier than stopping old ones, so part way there already.
  2. Only put in recyclable materials in the recycle bin – like bottles, cans, paper, hard plastic. Not crockery, or food, or paint cans, or dead animals. Check out the rules that apply to your local area – local councils always have advice. Some places take pizza boxes, some don’t. If they don’t and you pop one in (or six in the case of parties), you risk contaminating the whole bin. Oops – out goes the whole lot to landfill.
  3. Do not painstakingly put all your recycled products into a plastic bag and drop that neatly in the bin. The people at the other end hate that and just chuck the whole lot in the normal bin for landfill. No one will open the bag and pull things out. No one. It’s just called contamination.
  4. Take the lids off the top of bottles. They’re usually made of different materials so is easier for sorting. And if lids are on, air can get trapped and explode, which does no recycling worker any good, particularly anxious ones.
  5. Not all plastics are created equal. It gets a bit complex with all the different plastic types, PETS and BPAs and different symbols, but the basic rule is you can put hard plastics in your recycle bin but not soft plastics. If you can scrunch it up, don’t put in your yellow recycle bin because it will ‘contaminate’ the other stuff and can cause havoc with the sorting conveyors.
  6. If you have lots of soft plastic in your life, help is at hand. Redcycle has teamed up with Coles, Woollies and various others to install soft plastic recycling bins in handy places. There’s now one in every Coles supermarket. They also work with other partners to make products from the recycled products (because we have to actually do stuff with the things we’re collecting).
  7. Mums, Dad and grandparents on babysitting duties – this one’s for you. Don’t put your used nappies in the recycling because – that’s truly just disgusting. Who does that, you say? Apparently lots and lots of dirty people do. Or lazy ones. Or sleep-deprived losing-their-minds one. Recent research showed 4% of homeowners in one catchment in Sydney put nappies in their bins!! Don’t be one of them. It’s gross. Don’t put other crap in there either, like fabric, or bikes, or food, or fans because that’s just ridiculous and yet apparently that also happens. Syringes are common too (ugh) and that’s plain and simple dangerous.
  8. You can rinse out bottles and food containers but they don’t have to be pristine. Don’t leave lots of liquid in though.
  9. Recycle your *aluminium (see note below). It’s incredibly energy intensive to make (we call it ‘frozen electricity’ in our house) but it’s totally recyclable and can be recycled over and over again. Recycling only uses 5% of the original energy needed to create it Doesn’t even matter if there’s a bit of food on it. So don’t throw it out – it’s valuable stuff.
  10. When in doubt, leave it out. No use risking the whole load for one item. Nappies, fans and food? – no doubt about those.

Go forth, Earth citizens. Recycle your hardest. This planet is having a really hard time and every bit surely counts.

Here are a couple of useful links if you’re feeling enthused:

War on Waste

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Who’s got some other great tips?

And just for interest:

* Note to US readers: In case anyone’s wondering, ‘aluminium’ is the same element referred to as ‘aluminum’ in the US. Blame Mr Webster, of dictionary fame, for changing the spelling back in the 1920s from its original format. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (based in the US) officially standardised the aluminium spelling in 1990, but it hasn’t translated across the American population yet. I suspect the opportunity has been lost.

Coffee in the country

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img_9777Usually a pack of lycra-clad cyclists at a cafe means you’ve found a good coffee spot. But in a sleepy little village not  far from Canberra (whose name may or may not start with M), this is not necessarily the case. Traveller beware.

Our timing probably wasn’t ideal, as we arrived behind a clump of people, including those cyclists. Maybe 10 all up. Not extraordinary for a cafe to cope with, you’d think. We waited patiently in line and watched with bemusement as the operations of the cafe unfolded before us. I kid you not:

Take an order on a pad, take the money, put it carefully into the open cash drawer laid out on the table, walk over to the kitchen area, pass on said order verbally to the guy out the back making coffee. Move as slowly as humanly possible. Go back. Take another order, pass that one on verbally too. Repeat. What could possibly go wrong?

What sort of biscuit is that? someone in front enquired.

Ooooh, I’m not sure actually. The woman who makes them often makes chocolate chip?’ was the hopeful response.

Or then again, maybe they were peanut cluster, not so ideal if you’re likely to go into anaphylactic shock from a peanut allergy. I guess you wouldn’t risk it if you were vulnerable, but best to know what food you’re selling to the public, I’d have thought?

‘There’ll be a little wait’, the woman told me when it was my turn, pointing to the small group of cyclists outside.

What, 20 minutes would you think? I asked.

Oh no, ten minutes most, we were assured.

Silly me, I believed her. How long could it take to make even 10 coffees after all, even with their rather bizarre technique of passing on orders? Because it’s a cafe, right, and they mainly make and sell coffee? I gave our order, and then we were committed.

Outside in the courtyard we took in the sun, sat back and relaxed, and then we watched a comedy of errors unravel as Ma and Pa Kettle attempted to cope with the morning rush.

The silver-haired barista (I use the term barista loosely) wandered out calmly every so often carrying two cups to deliver them. Sometimes the orders aligned with people, sometimes they didn’t. Bit like a lottery. Back he went to make the next two, perhaps to pick up another verbal order as we went.

At one point another woman, perhaps someone’s aunt, appeared, ferrying a tray with two more drinks wobbling perilously to a waiting table. This was an excellent sign. Perhaps another pair of hands would speed up the process and the barista could, I don’t know – maybe actually make the coffees?

A couple of orders were gradually delivered. Ten minutes went by. Couple more coffees arrived. Fifteen. We waited. Hmmm. Twenty. La la la. And waited some more. Getting anxious now. Little bit peeved actually. Some new people arrived. They ordered. Twenty five minutes. Then the new arrival’s order was delivered. Oh no. Not good. Where was ours?

Then the barista appeared and slowly shuffled off out the back, off into the distance and out of sight. Perhaps he thought his day was done. Or maybe he was taking a break. Who knows, but he was gone.

All hope was dashed. Time to cut our losses.

Umm, I think our coffee order might have been lost, I explained back inside, and the guy making coffees seems to have taken off. Might be best to just give us our money back and we’ll be on our way.

Oooooh, yeeeeees. I think I may have lost my barista somewhere.

Indeed. An issue when there’s only one of them.

Even the refund transaction was excruciating, interrupted halfway through by the protestations of said holders of the miraculously-quick takeaways, whose order was of course – completely wrong, and whose teas somehow became a chai and a coffee instead. Not sure what they decided to do, but we were gone.

That’s half an hour of my life I won’t get back. And no coffee to boot.

It could have been quaint, it could have been charming but actually it was just extraordinarily inefficient. Praise Lord there wasn’t any cooking happening out there to send the place into total meltdown.

If you’re heading back to Canberra from the south, dear travellers, I’d suggest this cosy little town might be good for a wine stop, but if you’re after a coffee maybe get your fix in Yass instead or hit the Long Track Pantry in Jugiong. Now those people know what they’re doing.

 

Anzac Day heroes, and lessons we don’t seem to learn

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img_9560I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Gallipoli and Anzac Cove twice. I’ve been especially fortunate to make those visits in times of (relative) peace, not as a soldier but rather as a tourist and as an Australian paying homage, and was able to return home with all my body parts, my life and my sanity. Such was not the fate for thousands of others. More than a hundred thousand of them.

This fabled site of war heroism and horror on the coast of north-west Turkey was where the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp (ANZAC) first landed at dawn on 25 April 1915. As a narrow, natural strait of water forming a border between Europe and Asia, the Dardanelles were of  immense military importance in World War 1 and it was the site of a hard-fought battle. The area was also the site of abject misery and ridiculous loss of human life, on both sides of the fence.

The ill-fated campaign spawned the creation of Anzac Day itself and has become synonymous with national pride, even identity. It’s the day when we Australians, New Zealanders and various others, commemorate the sacrifice of those who fought and died – not just at Gallipoli but in all conflicts past and present.

The first time I visited Gallipoli I was a young 20-something backpacker traipsing around Europe trying to squeeze in as many countries as possible within a year while spending the least amount of money, and the second time was when I dropped in on my daughter’s honeymoon for a few weeks (yes, really) and spent the night at Anzac Cove before attending the Anzac Day dawn service. That was nearly 100 years after the shores and the sea water ran red with the blood of young men and boys.

Both times were very different but amazing experiences. The first time our young group of six hired a wizened and white-haired Turkish guide who drove us to Gallipoli in his little van and showed us the sights. He pointed out a bullet in the museum pierced by another because the cross fire was so thick. He honoured our Anzac perspective and gave insight into the Turkish perspective, who actually suffered far greater loss of life. We visited Lone Pine, and stood on the landing shores (now completely closed off to the public) and wandered the beach of Anzac Cove totally by ourselves and attempted to clamber up the sides of the cliff. Impossible. And we cried.

The second time I was with thousands of others, mostly Aussies and Kiwis, young and old, as we paid our respect on Anzac Day itself, part of the growing spectacle of Anzac remembrances, and we looked down onto the beaches I’d wandered nearly 30 years before. And we cried.

What stayed with me most from the first visit was the shocking narrowness of the thin strip of beach on which the soldiers landed, after wading ashore from ships that stopped too far from the coast, and the brutality and impossibility of the vertical cliff faces that confronted them just 20 metres from the water, from which Turkish soldiers shot them down as they attempted to climb, drenched and weighed down by guns and equipment. Futility even at the start.

The thing that stuck from the second visit was the bone-crushing, mind-numbing cold and wind of that black night and the dawn of 25 April, cold I’d never experienced before, cold that had people in tiered tourist seating groaning in pain. It was the coldest and most unpleasant night of my life, and I was wrapped in layers of wool and hats and gloves and sleeping bags, not drenched with sea water or covered with mud, and I was surrounded by friendly people. It was unfathomable what it would have been like as a soldier in 1915.

I very rarely write poetry but that evening inspired me to write some. Today seems a good day to post it (below).

On both trips, I stood in front of a large, stone plaque and read the famed words attributed to Attaturk, beloved founder of the Republic of Turkey and the one who led the Turks to victory at Gallipoli. You can’t read them standing in that place and not be moved to tears.

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours … You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

These words have been quoted in many ceremonies and by a number of our Prime Ministers since, and are in place in a number of memorials. But as it turns out, their historical accuracy is under a cloud of doubt, as explained in this article from The Guardian. Perhaps poeticised by others and with the addition of some extra bits and some strongly emotive language, they have regardless become an enmeshed part of the growing Anzac myth. The issue of historical authentication aside, they certainly pack a punch.

Today on Anzac Day, we Aussies and New Zealanders will take a day off and pay homage to all those people in Gallipoli long ago, including the Turks, and across the world through the centuries who have given their lives and fought battles on our behalf which we feel are worth fighting.

Yes, we certainly appreciate the incredible and unimaginable efforts of so many people who have fought and died in wars not of their own making, with the intent of making the world a better place.

But dear God, over a hundred years later, and we’re still bloody fighting here, there and everywhere, and young people are still losing their lives, mothers are losing their children, and babies are losing their parents. Let’s remember them, but let’s imagine if one day we just stopped the wars.

It’s actually unimaginable.

Lest we forget.

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In the arms of your father

Cocooned in layers in the still of night,

Layer upon layer, row upon row, flank upon flank,

Breathing fog into air already thick with

breath, and gasps, and gurgles bubbling with death.

We sit, we wait,

we remember.

 

In the still of night,

we shiver

and wind whips through flesh

as it ate yours, before the bones were crushed,

and listen to the silence through its distant screams,

and wait for the light.

 

I hear the gentle lap of waves

Still coming, still coming,

And listen to the mothers’ tears

lost in the sea

which once ran scarlet

As you dropped,

Its beach cut as short as your youth.

 

Come now, stand proud where you lie, thick with the company of thousands

And watch the realisation grow

Of wanton waste and futility,

Of filth, disease, and hopeless despair.

Feel the freshly-salted tears seep through.

 

Rest in your bed.

Kemal’s embrace holds you close as you lie entwined with your foe, as if you were lovers,

Lost sons now joined, mothers’ grief as one,

No longer alone.

 

The morning light has come now,

not yet enough to see.

A wedding with a difference

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This week I went to my first gay wedding.

It was a smallish affair, midweek, pulled together rather quickly (though you’d never have guessed from the detail) – and it was sublime.

Set high against the magnificent backdrop of Sydney Harbour, even the sky turned on a show, letting light shards through its grey to pinpoint the boats as the sun went down. Even the rain held off.

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But beyond the silver skies and the selected strings and sounds of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (oh yes, indeed!), this wedding felt different.

In place of white roses in vases and lapels, there were bower bird nests and tiny blue feathers instead; there was no overflowing present table (just champagne); and the bride was not five minutes fashionably late. There wasn’t even a bride. There was a dear uncle instead, and then (officially), a second one to boot.

It was more than a wedding: it was the culmination of years of unfairness and impossibility, and the emotion and joy of it pulsed through the evening.

It had been a long wait because – although they’d been together 29 years – of course it wasn’t possible until just months ago when the nation got to vote on a decision that we shouldn’t have had to vote on in the first place. The enormity of that took its toll on voice projection, the words of commitment consumed by emotion and uttered so quietly they had to be repeated to all by the celebrant.

From the wedded, there seemed no bitterness about the wait, but a gratefulness that it was now possible. I didn’t think that this would ever happen to me, said one in the speeches, even though he was okay with that – but it did, and it was very moving. The large number of grown, weeping (and often beaming) men, and women, in attendance was testament to that. How happy we were.

I was privileged to be there as family, part of a very small contingent. Much smaller than it should have been because the wait had been too long – so long that most of the parents had long since departed, to make appearances only in frames; one sister was beyond attendance and true appreciation; another absent as she was reeling from the departure of her own husband just days before on the other side of this big land. Another death on the other side just before left another gaping hole where important people should have been, but we made space for them all and embraced the moment regardless.

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In case you were wondering, this wasn’t a Godless affair – a Uniting Church minister joined with a (family-owned) celebrant to celebrate the wedding. People who are concerned with caring and helping, and who understand it’s just about loving other people.

I love weddings – they’re a time of joy and celebration, and I pay them great importance – but rarely do I want to go back again the next day and do it all again. This time I did, to breathe it in a little more slowly, a little more carefully, and safely tuck away the words and the sentiments – and let’s not forget the sounds of the strings and the cor anglais – and the feel of the breeze off the harbour. (And to be completely honest, I’d really like to eat all that food again.)

It shouldn’t have taken this long.

 

 

Sydney’s secret garden

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img_6953There are thousands of wonderful gardens in Sydney, but there’s a very special secret one – that’s actually open to everyone. And what a delight it is.

Actually, it’s not that secret – it’s been much talked about and written about and photographed for many years, but when you first catch a glimpse of it tumbling down a steep embankment below an aged and sprawling Moreton Bay fig, it feels like you’ve chanced across a marvellous discovery, just like that one you may have read about as a child.

The garden sits nestled at the foot of Lavender Bay, peering across Sydney Harbour and one of the world’s most beautiful views. Built on public land, it’s the brain child of Wendy Whitely, widow of one of Australia’s most iconic artists, and sits at the base of her Rapunzel-like home overlooking the blue of the water.

Its formation begins with grief: when Brett Whitely died in 1992, Wendy hurled herself into a restorative project and attacked the wild overgrown mess (and state railway-owned) that sat unused except as a dumping ground below her home, and, without any knowledge of gardening – began to weed, and rip out, and plan, and gradually transform the space, for over 20 years.

It was an enormous project. No one told her to stop, so she kept going, and even more fervently when her only daughter died some years later.

It’s the result of many, many hundreds of hours of love and labour, Wendy’s own and those of the gardeners she funds, and now a band of willing volunteers.

And it’s a wonderful result.

Wander through the terraced pathways that meander down the hill and you’ll discover little trails and eruptions of colour, and moments of whimsy, the connection to art and creativity never far away. A teapot here, a fairy there, an old bike that was discarded years ago – and everywhere paths wandering up and down, revealing little treasures, and generous pockets of shaded space where anyone is welcome to come and sit.

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And that view.

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Oh, and look – there’s Wendy herself, hard at work pulling out weeds, conferring with a gardener, then stopping to have a good old natter with the neighbours.

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And here’s that view again, this time in the form of a portrait by Brett Whitely, now hanging at the Art Gallery of NSW, painted from the same place of his beloved harbour, his ‘optical ecstasy’ as he once described it.

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I just love that in one of this country’s most coveted locations where only a few could dream to reside, a little corner of tranquillity has been claimed back from neglect to be shared with everyone. That there’s a green space of surprises that’s open to all to meander, and discover, and to relish.

How very Australian.

You can learn more about the garden on its website (https://www.wendyssecretgarden.org.au) or you can buy (or beg or borrow) the book ‘Wendy Whitely and the secret garden’ by Janet Hawley. They have signed copies of those at the local bookstore just up the road from the garden in Lavender Bay.

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The final clean out

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After many months and literally hundreds of hours of sifting, sorting, cleaning and distributing, my mother’s house is finally cleared and emptied, and sold to another family.

It’s a pretty huge job, this cleaning out the goods and chattels of your parents’ lives and emptying a house. Enormous. And it seems there are several ways to approach the situation and the process:

  • get rid of everything without qualm or hesitation
  • leave it for others to do
  • do it with painstaking care and thought, one tiny item or piece of paper at a time, inching forward bit by bit with excruciatingly slow progress, and constant pause for reflection and consideration.

Guess which camp I fall into? Of course, that last one – the most exhausting one, physically and emotionally. Self-appointed keeper of the faith and the memories, and of way too many of the things. Thank goodness a sister was sharing the load – and likewise  the distribution and retention of earthly goods, with several willing helpers and recipients of belongings. And praise lord for hard working and patient husbands.

The more invested you are in capturing the past, the harder is the task. Some things were very easy, and others too difficult, so decisions kept getting deferred, and the piles of ‘to keep’ or ‘to think about’ kept growing.

When there was a home where no-longer-needed goods could go to do some good, that provided a respite. Like glasses to optometrists to use for those in under-privileged countries. Another life.

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But how do you discard books dating in the 1800s inscribed to your great grandfather that no one else wants? They’re falling apart and speckled with the brown spots of age, but are they worthy only for landfill? No doubt they’ll get there eventually, but not just yet. As for some of the furniture? While it’s much appreciated and of a quality that’s now difficult to find, a happy, loving home just can’t be found for some of it. Yes, there may be a few bits still lurking in a garage somewhere, gathering dust and awaiting further thought.

And it makes me consider how fleeting is our existence on this earth. Unless we are world changers or somehow famous for doing something extraordinary, within a hundred years or so perhaps all or just about all vestiges of our lives will have disappeared, and the things we treasured and loved most may be discarded to the rubbish tip without the blink of an eye. Perhaps only in the memories of our children and grandchildren, and the dearest of friends, will we linger for a while for what we were, did and loved.

Just a tiny, insignificant blip in time.

I’m constantly grateful that we’re going through this process while my mother is alive, and happily ensconced in a new and better environment for her. Dealing with death at the same time as cleaning out would be so much more difficult. Grief is bad enough on its own.

One of the last things left in the house was the container of my Dad’s ashes, which had  sat quietly, tucked away in his chest of drawers for five years, awaiting a decision.

‘Throw it out’ said Mum. ‘I don’t want that.’ Simple. (And yes, they were a devoted and loving couple.)

No, I can’t do that. Instead, at some point, we will go to Dad’s golf club of days gone by and play a game in his honour, tell a funny tale of him or a joke on each hole, and have a few laughs. He did love a joke. We decided the winner on the day will take home one of his retained golf trophies as their prize, which meant that there was just one less item to make a decision about.

After all of this, perhaps an even more frightening thought is that I know my house is worse. Much bigger and also full, not just of my stuff collected and kept from decades, but now too of some of the passed on collections from generations before.

I know I must start some of my own clearing out. Right now.

And I must also go and thank my daughters and sons-in-law right now, in anticipation of the efforts they will undoubtedly put in for us, decades down the track.

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Groundhog day: Who let the cats out?

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As the little girl next door came seeking her missing kitten the other day – the one that apparently keeps climbing the fence into our garden – I am reminded of a previous post.

Theirs is a new cat, my old dog has since moved on to Rainbow Bridge, but some things stay the same….

Here we go again.

An open letter to cat owners

I love animals. Just about all animals, especially dogs. I like cats too. But I don’t like irresponsible cat owners, and I don’t like their cats in my backyard, especially when they embark on a terror campaign against my dog and my garden and impede my enjoyment of my own space.

When your cat appears – every day, several times a day – daintily tiptoeing along the fence, swaying its tail proudly in a one-eyed salute, it sends my dog just a little crazy. And when it propels itself suddenly from under a bush, teeth barred and hissing at my sweet, shaken and suffering dog, she is driven into a frenzy. With shackles raised and heart racing, she suffers a brain explosion and momentarily forgets she is not allowed in garden beds. Completely disregarding 10 long years of diligent and, to this point, successful training, she races over flowers and darts behind hedges in a vain attempt to chase that teasing menace. Of course, she will never catch it (even if she did, she would badly lose any battle and wear the scars sorely), but the garden bears the brunt of the unsuccessful chase, while your cat smirks nastily, now safe back on top of the fence preparing for its next onslaught, likely to be only minutes away, as it continues its cruel day-long sport.

We have been cultivating rows of ridiculously slow-growing hedges for a decade, and countless hours (days, weeks, perhaps months) of my existence is spent gaily snipping and trimming and shaping. Imagine my joy when I observe patches of hedges slowly browning and shrivelling away after continually being pissed on, by YOUR CAT, in some feline territorial display, or possibly act of spite. I place objects in front of the ailing sections and cut back dead material hoping it will recover. Occasionally a patch is saved, but sometimes a whole plant is lost to the toxic virulent cat pee and a gaping hole in my hedge remains as evidence of the power of the feline poison. It’s akin to someone knocking out one of your front teeth. It just doesn’t look attractive.

And let me be clear about your cat’s defecation. I do not enjoy discovering and disposing of little cat turds from my yard. Even less do I enjoy discovering them underfoot or lurking surreptitiously in garden beds as I weed. And I am angry at the disease threats posed by these cat turds.

That is because, as all cat owners should be aware, cats are the primary host for toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease which can have significant health risks. Humans become infected through contact with cat poo or the soil it’s been in. It’s particularly dangerous for those with suppressed immune systems and pregnant women as it can cause birth defects. For those with small children and neighbourhood cats, be especially wary if you have a sandpit, because guess where wandering kitty-kats love to poo? Yep, in that same soft sand your toddlers love to play in.

Now Cat Owners, before you reciprocate with tales of ill-behaved and raucous dogs in your neighbourhood who bark incessantly at day and howl at night, that doesn’t cut it. Uncontrolled dogs annoy everyone (with the possible exception of their irresponsible owners) and there is no excuse for uncontrolled, dangerous dogs – ever. But other irresponsible pet owners and their ill-behaved pets don’t excuse your wandering cat.

I don’t even care if you do keep your cat in at night (thank you – that’s commendable and the wildlife much appreciates it, because make no mistake – your cat is also a finely tuned killing machine and night time is when it is particularly effective and dangerous) but it is still your responsibility during daylight hours. And it’s not enough to say it’s in cats’ natures to wander and impossible to keep them in. It’s not impossible – it’s your choice. You just need to accept it’s your responsibility to do so.

The RSPCA agrees it is entirely possible to keep cats contained successfully and healthily, but you need to embrace the challenge. You can’t rely on just asking your cat nicely to stay in the backyard – work out some serious strategies to keep it contained. Maybe that will be as simple as keeping an eye on your cat when it’s outside with you and taking it in with you when you go in, or maybe you need to build a suitable structure yourself, rather than expecting your neighbours to invest their weekends in vain attempts to cat proof their yard. Oh – I mean my yard.

I can’t lay all the blame on cat owners. Some I save for local legislators. Why is that cats are so often the only domestic animal that don’t need to be kept under the control of their owners? Why don’t cats need to be registered in most jurisdictions? Dog owners are required to have their dogs registered and restrained in public areas, unless designated an off-leash area. If I take my dog on a walk, I am expected to clean up after it (and I do), yet cats are allowed to pee and poo wherever they like. Same same but different.

In my home town of Canberra, there are now a number of suburbs where cats must be ‘contained’ at all times, and a couple more new suburbs will soon join the lists. Fabulous idea! While this is excellent news for the local wildlife, the non-cat owners of the neighbourhood must be equally delighted. Now the authorities just have to enforce the rules.

At the risk of sounding like a cat-hater, let me assure I’m not. I agree entirely cats can be gorgeous and cuddly and wonderfully loving. If I’m visiting your house, I will be the first to cuddle your cat and make silly, gooey noises to vie for its attention. I understand cats are great company and you love them a lot. I just don’t want your cats at my place.

Enough, cat owners – enough. Get a cat, keep it home with you. If I wanted the company of a kitty all day long, I’d get my own.

Oops – there he is back again!