Life in the suburbs of Canberra: when peacocks become your neighbours


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Peacock head

The sight of a number of chilled out peacocks and their lady friends, in their dazzling shades of turquoise and iridescent blue, is something you might expect in a zoo or perhaps sub-continent India, but surely not in the streets of downtown Narrabundah, one of Canberra’s inner-most suburbs. But there they are, as they’ve been for decades, just strutting around as if they own the place. And now, after years of consideration and a bit of a community stoush, it looks like they’re here to stay.

No one is exactly sure how the birds got there. There’s a reported story from the locals that a peacock, variously called Andrew or Harry, turned up at a house in 1992— and just stayed, venturing from the backyard to the front. Gradually others moved in to keep him company and they seemed to get on well, because their numbers have slowly grown to their current count of around 30.

There are also reports from other locals that the peafowl have been around in smaller numbers long before then, since the 1970s and 1980s. One theory is that they were released from a small zoo on Mugga Lane in Symonston that closed in the early 90s. Another is that a former diplomatic resident in the area kept them at his house for several years and released them when he went back home. Take your pick. There’s also a smaller muster (that’s the collective noun, although pride or ostentation is also used) of them at Pialligo, where they’ve similarly been hanging around for some time.

I’ve lived in or close to the area for nearly 30 years, so the occasional sighting of a peafowl while on a walk has become quite normal, though still delightful. Our dogs over the years have been most intrigued, but well behaved from a distance. Last week in the middle of a heatwave, six peafowl unexpectedly turned up in my driveway, the first time I’ve ever seen them stray this far from their usual haunts, and wandered happily around for an hour or two before they headed off home in a pack, or a pride.

Although they surprise visitors to the neighbourhood, they’re very well known locally and drivers are well-trained to look out for them. Most of the locals with whom they share streets are very fond of them, or at least largely unfazed. Although they do rummage in gardens, many residents delight in their company and often leave out seed and water. In return, they get to watch the beautiful birds and their fine colours, and sometimes their exuberant feather displays and shimmering dances as the boys try to attract the girls. And around Christmas, they get to see the families and watch cute parades of little chicks tottering around close to their mums.

Peahen and chicks at Narrabundah

Not all the residents love them, of course, citing their droppings, loud mating calls and the damage they can cause to gardens as the reasons for their complaints. The ACT Government has taken the complaints seriously and a couple of times over the years has attempted to capture some with the intention of re-homing. Only problem was they couldn’t find suitable homes, so they were returned back to where they came from.

In April 2018, the government again put out notice of its plan to capture, cull and re-home the birds and called for submissions from the public. A Save the Narrabundah Peafowl movement was  formed by a group of supporters dedicated to protecting their feathered friends, and the community spoke quite loudly, holding meetings and advocating online. While some in the community voiced objections, the responses to the consultation were overwhelmingly in favour of retaining the birds, who have become part of the fabric of the neighbourhood.

So in June 2018 the cull was cancelled. Power to the people! Now there’s an agreed approach to managing the peafowl into the future so hopefully they’ll stick around for quite a while longer.

Now safe in their suburban home, at dusk when the light dims the peafowl appear on the streets and in their favourite ‘safe’ gardens where they know they’re likely to be fed. A number will jump on the rooftops to watch the sun go down. It’s rather a lovely sight.


Personally, I love this little ostentation of peafowl (just giving each of the collective nouns a go) and I’ve popped in a couple of times of late to try and capture some photos. It was harder than I’d imagined. They’re not stressed by people, but they’re constantly on the move and they don’t like you to get too close. I managed to see a couple of clutches of chicks, but on the day I took the grandkids for a little peek, we could only spot one. Sadly, I’ve read that our heatwave over the last week or so has been too much for a few of them to cope with and some haven’t made it.

It’s nice to know whenever I venture that far on my walking outings, I may run into some. I’m always thrilled when I do.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get over their colours. Surely they are one of nature’s most splendid creatures.

Do you have any usual inhabitants in your area?

Peacock at Narrabundah




Six ways to kick start your year: new year, new you


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Here it is 11 January and I’m still pfaffing around with notions of new year resolutions, or not, and already the month is escaping.

There is always much written about using this season for refreshing, revitalising, reinventing, or even resizing. There are a hundred ways of approaching the whole thing. Of course, entirely ignoring the hoo haa is also one of those ways – as you were, soldier.

But I don’t want to miss the chance entirely so here’s what I’m doing. You may like to use a couple of the ideas or modify them to suit yourself.

1. Write down your goals

Every year The Dearest and I write a list of five goals for the year. Call them aims, intentions, resolutions, things on the to do list—despite the semantics, it’s pretty much the same thing. But the important thing is we write them down. That means:

  • we have to consider what goes on the list carefully (like having only three wishes from a genie, you need to make them good ones)
  • we’re inclined to remember them and take them more seriously once they’re committed to paper. Like writing a shopping list before you go to the supermarket—even if you leave the list at home, you’re way more likely to remember what you intended to buy.
  • as we keep the lists over the years, it’s a hoot looking back on the ones we wrote decades ago and seeing how many we managed to achieve. We even had the kids to do it when they were at school and some of those old lists are pretty funny.

2. Make your goals SMART

For fear of sounding like a retired communication professional, I’m actually putting a bit of thought to using an acronym and trying to make the goals ‘SMART’, that  is:

  • specific
  • measurable
  • achievable
  • realistic
  • time-bound.

That means thinking about making the goals and avoiding the really fluffy ones and making myself really accountable.

If you want to go one step further, you can even break down one aim into some nuts and bolts of how you’ll get to achieve those goals. What are the actual steps you’ll take to get there?

For example, it’s fine to write down you want to ‘be happy’, but how are you planning on getting there? Maybe, investing in some ‘you’ time, having more social interaction, etc.

3.Choose a defining word

Choose a word, or even two, that encapsulates what you want to achieve for the year and use that as an ongoing inspiration. I learnt this idea from Sue from Sizzling Towards Sixty when she wrote about the word she’s chosen (although she did cheat a little and choose two words – rules are made to be broken!) Choosing a word can focus your thoughts on what’s important to you or something you want to change. In fact, this word for a year is a ‘thing’ with its own website, hashtag and all. #oneword365  I quite like it!

I’ve chosen productivity as my word. It’s an adaptable and active word. As someone very prone to procrastination and time-wasting, I need a word (as well as tools and activities, and sometimes a good foot up the backside) to keep me on task. I’m going to plaster that work up across the inside of my eyes!

4. Don’t be restrained by a timetable

Miss the very beginning of the New Year? No worries! So did I. The start of the year is a very popular incentive for renewal thoughts and activities, but it can be pretty busy after all and many of us are still in a Christmas pudding coma.

It’s not too late! Use any marker you want as your starting point for achieving what you want- new week, season, whatever. Important thing is just get started.

5. Use props as little helpers

There are all sorts of tools to help keep on track of aims. Some people use a diary or a list to track what they want to do or achieve. I’m a big list lover and always have several on the go to keep me on track and focussed. And it’s sooooo good when you start ticking things off!

Jo from Andanyways has a lovely long list of 101 things to do in 1001 days . Imagine the satisfaction of madly ticking off all those babies? Tick heaven.

Some people like stickers or posters stuck in prominent places to remind them of what they’re trying to achieve.

Others like to have an accountability buddy, someone to meet regularly with to check in on progress.

I’ve just invested in a couple of physical props – a selection of pretty notebooks (all the pinks and greens) in the hope that it will assist in keeping me organised and focussed. Different notebooks for different purposes. If I have everything arranged nicely and looking beautiful, surely that will help counteract the messiness of my mind?? I’ll let you know.


It would certainly help if I tidied up my desk too. My solution so far this year has been to simply move my computer into a different and beautifully clean space. I fear I’m missing the point. #headinsand

6. Do what’s right for you

There’s no right way or wrong way to approach a new year, armed with lists and objectives or otherwise right in and see what eventuates.

Whatever you do and however you approach the year, hope it’s a good one for you with as much health and happiness as possible.

In case you’re interested, here’s my list for the year:

  • Achieve publication in three external sources
  • Write and adhere to a comms/marketing strategy
  • Improve my productivity/organisation
  • Keep the house tidy
  • Start painting the outside of house (note I didn’t say finish!)

Now that I’ve stated that publicly, I’m accountable for it, right?

What are you planning for the year ahead? What do you use to keep you honest?


Notebooks for the year ahead


Farewell to the Christmas sparkle: the end of the 12 days of Christmas


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It’s 6th January today, which means I’m right on target to take my Christmas decorations down for the year, or I may have missed it by a day, depending on your chosen timetable.

Which may or may not mean I’m in for some back luck. Take your pick.

That is of course, if you celebrate Christmas in the first place and have had the company of a sparkly Christmas tree for the last month or so. And that is of course, if I – or you – are to be influenced by century old Christian traditions and liturgical calendars, which seem to shift with time and have various iterations and interpretations according to religion and culture. There’s actually a lot of variation. In any case, they’re really quite interesting.

Have you heard about the Twelve Days of Christmas? That’s what it’s all about. The 12 days of Christmas start on Christmas Day (or perhaps Christmas Eve, depending on which theory you subscribe to) and therefore end on 5 January, or the 6th (depending on which theory you subscribe to).

The official liturgical ending of Christmastide, the Christmas season, is the Epiphany, celebrated on 6th January. That’s when the three wise men finally discovered little baby Jesus, some 12 days after his birth, and had an ‘epiphany’ or great revelation. They had to travel quite a distance to meet him, so according to that timetable the wise men are only arriving now, bearing their gifts. The 6th January is also the day that Jesus was baptised by his cousin.

There’s all sorts of ways people around the world celebrate the day, not just by clearing away the Christmas gear. According to Rob Kerby from

‘Celebration varies widely around the world. Greek Orthodox youth take a frigid swim. In New Orleans, it is the start of Carnival, which ends with Mardi Gras. In Russia, any water poured on Epiphany is regarded as holy. In Latin America, children receive gifts. In Shakespeare’s England, it was the last day of a series of wild parties!’

That last bit explains the name of that famous play Shakespeare wrote to be performed on Christmastide, the Twelfth night, about the shenanigans that went on with people getting dressed up and being silly impersonating others etc. I only discovered that about Twelfth Night last night – so I guess I had a little epiphany of my own!

So there you have it, the reason people often say you have to pack your Christmas stuff away on 5th (or possibly 6th) January. Beware the bad luck if you don’t.

Of course, this means that if we’ve just restricted our Christmas celebrations to  Christmas day alone, we may have missed out on eleven whole days of celebrations, partying and present-giving. Remember that song, on the first day of Christmas …?

So farewell Christmas sparkle and my little angels and shimmering tree. See you in December …

2018: the year that was, in words and pics


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Fireworks in Canberra

Personally speaking, 2018 was a pretty bloody good year, though it disappeared much more quickly than I’d like. A tell tale sign of ageing, to be sure.

There was much to be grateful for. I’m aware it wasn’t great for many, so that’s even more reason to be grateful.

My year brought some great joys and many good times. The most special joys related to new arrivals in the family and news of imminent arrivals:

  • firstly a delightful fur ball with the name of Harkin


  • the safe delivery of a little angel with the sweetest of dispositions and the worst of sleep habits.


  • the great news of another bubba on the way, this one to be a first-born.


There were pictures of the days and the moments, the little ones as they grew and charmed, and the travels and the sunsets and the pretty things all around.

Mainly it was about my family. What a tribe. How do you capture a year of living and laughter and little ones at your feet? It really doesn’t do it justice.

  • img_3921

Let’s be frank. There were a ridiculous number of photos, far too many, but much has been captured forever to help it into our eyes as well as our hearts. (2019 will perhaps be the year of taking less but better photos, and certainly should be the year of culling them.)

But still,  here’s an attempt at putting my favourite pretty bits of 2018 in a little pictorial grid.


There were more good things.

I officially retired and now have a new world of opportunity before me, including photography and writing. Lots of travelling up and down the coast and visiting family.

We packed up and sold my Mum’s home and saw her happily settle into a new and improved life, although a lot of her belongings are still at my house!!

I was part of the Urban Providore Taste Panel and met some lovely new people, both online and in real life.

I joined in a local group and learnt new skills, like capturing light painting at night.


I went to my first gay wedding, in the first year it was made legal.

I had an article published about ghosts, with the promise of more in 2019 (articles, hopefully not ghosts).

Yep, it was a good year.

Unfortunately that long list of thing to do around the house remains remarkably long, but I guess there’s always next year.

And let’s just not mention the political disgraces that are going on around us, here and overseas. But let’s not go there – that would drag this down.

Happy New Year! Bring on 2019.

Pretty chocolate bark for Christmas: perfect for making with the kids


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I’m very much into all the Christmas happenings and festivities, including the marvellous edible Christmas treats. It’s just that I don’t like to cook them myself.  I’m actually not a bad cook, but I’m very lazy in the kitchen and I’d rather eat things which other people cook or bake rather than do it myself. Take this special chocolate bark, for instance.

I reckon it’s a triple winner because:

  • it’s super easy to make (especially when someone else does it)
  • it’s delicious
  • it looks really pretty.

As a bonus, the little ones in your life can actively help and it’s not too difficult with not too many ‘rules’ to abide by. Last year, my Mr T thought it would be wonderful to make his own bonbons and include granddaughter as part of the fun. As it turns out, bonbon making requires a certain degree of precision with taping and gluing and cutting paper neatly, all of which are a challenge for chubby young fingers. It was all a bit much for Miss 3 who pronounced at the end: ‘I thought it would be funner.’

No such issue with this chocolate bark. Very little precision is required: whatever the kids (or you) chuck on the top looks good.

This post is largely borrowed from the delightful @GeorgeandGouma, who not only bakes Christmas delights, but produces gorgeous children to cook Christmas treats with.

Here’s what you need to know about making chocolate Christmas bark.

This was our fun and (relatively) easy Christmas cooking activity for the kids and it doubled as their gifts for the school teachers. So many requests for the recipe so here it is!

  • Melt nine blocks of broken up chocolate (3 white, 3 milk and 3 dark) in separate bowls over simmering water.
  • Pour the chocolate mix into baking trays lined with baking paper.
  • Let the kids (or adults if you don’t have kids) sprinkle the chocolate with little treats like freeze dried raspberries and strawberries, desiccated coconut, pieces of orange zest, or chopped cranberries, figs and pistachios. Whatever takes your fancy. A little sea salt on dark chocolate is lovely.
  • We also put some tiny dried rose petals on and flicked the chocolate over the top in little drizzles (in contrasting colours) for decoration.
  • I had visions of combinations like orange and cranberry with dark chocolate but the kids went rogue and chucked on everything together of course.
  • Place in the fridge to set.
  • When set, break into pieces and bag up in little cellophane bags (so you can see how pretty it is). Tie with string and gift tags. These ones from @pennedblack.


Boom! How simple is that?

And I didn’t have to lift a finger!

What’s your favourite Christmas treat? Have you been baking?


The trauma of the Christmas Santa photos: Ho ho horror


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Family Christmas photo with Santa

Yes, it’s that time of year when we— again—subject our children, grandchildren or other trusting and unsuspecting small people to the annual trauma of a Santa photo session with a oddly dressed stranger who is usually neither chubby or cheery enough for the real deal.

Of course, many (most?) kids relish the opportunity to nab a minute with the man from the north to whisper what they might like for Christmas, or as our Miss 4 says, ‘to put in her order’. Usually the older kids get, the more comfortable they become with the idea of sitting on some random old man’s knee in a shopping centre or department store to spell out in minute detail what they’d like magically delivered to them in the comfort of their own homes on Christmas Eve while they sleep, if you please. For true believers, it’s surely an opportunity not to be missed.

Of course, for some of the littlies, it can be a little overwhelming, even though they usually REALLY, REALLY wanted to go there in the first place.

But look at these faces if you need pictorial evidence of what can eventuate. Any quick Google search will bring up hundreds of similar faces, in various shades of red and throes of panic. And that’s not always just the kids’ faces. Sometimes Santa is quite frightened himself.


Of course, my own grandchildren were subjected to the Santa saga again this week. We thought this year might be a total success, given both the kids are very fond of Santa Claus and the great promise he brings. As it turned out, not quite—but I have to say the photographic results were hilarious.

While Big Sister was full of confidence, Mr 2 was a little shy and thought he might be able to pull the whole thing off from a safe distance without even venturing onto the stage.

“I want a digger!’ he shouted boldly at Santa from four metres away.

That should do it, he thought. Don’t even have to make physical contact.

But it was when the rest of the family approached Santa, with him in tow, that he got a little undone.

You can see what happened. Santa doesn’t look very impressed himself.

Scared boy at Santa photo

I suspect it has always been thus. Parents have been doing this Santa photo thing for decades, except way back yonder we got all glammed up for the occasion in our Sunday Bests. We were probably scared ourselves too at one time or other all those years ago, but my overriding memory is the great little paper bag of lollies you got at the end, in the black and white hounds-tooth pattern of David Jones in my case. Clearly I’ve been a sugar addict from a very young age, or maybe that was the start of it?

Thee kids having photos with Santas in the 1960s

There’s me in the middle looking somewhat dubious. At least I’ve got that lolly bag!!

Perhaps trying for the perfect happy Santa shot is a just like eating too much at Christmas dinner, or wearing a paper hat. Some things just have to be done over and over again, even when there’s a small moment there when you think ‘Why am I actually doing this?’

I’m sure all those crying kids will love the photos in future years. We love them already.

Disclaimer: Before anyone gets too upset, I’d like to state that I’m not really mean and I’m not into terrifying children, not even my own grandchildren. I’m actually very nice to children. The two big kids went along very happily (the baby hasn’t noticed yet) and one just had a little panic at the end, but was soon placated in the warm embrace of his mother. No children were harmed in the making of this blog post. No judgement required.

Have you got any funny Santa photos to share?

Related: The perils of Christmas photos

Christmas gift giving without the crazy: reining in the excess


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Sparkly Christmas reindeer

I’m feeling a little conflicted. Christmas music is playing, parties are in full swing and the Chrissie spirit is really gearing up for a big end of year shindig. I love the whole big Christmas thing, especially fun times with family and friends, but I’m a little aghast at the craziness that often comes with it, including the wanton excess and wastage.

Just as we’re embarking on crazed and panicked spending sprees, buying lots of useless, crappy things that will be discarded before the year’s out or that the recipients won’t want or even vaguely like (often with dollars we don’t have or shouldn’t splash around), we’re also reading constantly about the dire state of our planet and being reminded of the many, many who don’t have enough and are doing it tough. Sure, it’s great to spend the day with loved ones and indulge in some spirited gift-gifting, but it seems a trifle (pudding?) hypocritical to be rushing around buying excesses of gifts and food with little regard for what’s going on around us.

Maybe it’s time to stop the crazy, or at least get it back in control. I’ll admit I’m a bit guilty as charged. I actually LOVE presents, both giving and receiving, and Christmas is a magical time, especially now we have small grandchildren sharing the day and taking it to another level of special.  But as we edge towards Christmas day, and the pile of presents under my tree oozes out inexorably like a lava flow, until it takes up half the family room, I’m determined to stop it in its tracks, or maybe slow it down a little.

I’m not suggesting a gift free Christmas (personally I couldn’t cope though some happily choose that path), but I am trying hard to be sensible and thoughtful.

If you’re keen to master the madness, here are a few ideas to keep the joy of this magical season while remaining mindful of the impacts of our self-centred holiday carry-on.

Rein in the crazy

There are few things more disturbing that a pack of ungrateful, crazed kids ripping through piles of presents, wild eyes flashing, flinging discarded paper and boxes upwards as they dive onto the next one, with little idea what was in the previous gift let alone who it was from. It’s even worse when the adults do it. This is not Christmas spirit, and hardly joyful.

There’s a rule in our family to slow things down: only one present can be unwrapped in the room at any one time, distributed by the appointed ‘Santa’. This can take a looooong time, but what’s the rush? Of course, a calm, elongated present-opening session means you will be terribly delayed in putting on the planned Christmas lunch, which you then won’t get to eat it until at least 2pm when everyone is half-tanked and it’s as hot as Hades (at least in the Southern Hemisphere) , but it wouldn’t feel like Christmas otherwise. At least not at our place.

Christmas wreath

This is not a competition

Don’t feel you have to compete with others to be the best gift giver or the most generous aunt or uncle. Being extravagant won’t necessary buy you popularity. Set limits. Stick to them.

What about a Secret Santa? That’s where rather than buying everyone in your family or circle a gift, you are allocated one particular person to buy for anonymously. Only one present to buy! There are various versions and you can set a sensible limit. We’re doing a $20 Stealing Santa this year with an extended family group, which means if someone opens a gift that gives you present-envy, you’re allowed to steal it from them. Introduces a bit of jostling and sometimes hard stares and coercion, but it’s a bit of fun, and you have a better chance of scoring something that tickles your fancy. We allow voluntary mutual trades after the conclusion for those not sated.

Consider your recipient

Most of us like receiving gifts, but let’s be honest – who hasn’t ever received a shocker that leaves you gobsmacked. What the hell were they thinking? And then whoosh, out it goes. Do a bit of thinking/planning before you pull out your wallet and make sure what you’re buying suits the recipient and not you. Asking for suggestions beforehand can be useful, and let the receiver know they can exchange the present if they’d like. Check with the store first about that (most at least exchange), and keep the receipt.

Buy practical things

Forget oodles of hand cream or talcum powder (does anyone actually use that anymore?) that sit lonely in dark cupboards for years to come – go for things people will actually use.


  • Clothing or other ‘needed’ items still make lovely gifts. The old socks and jocks may be a bit predictable, but they’re pretty useful. At least most of us wear undies.
  • Consider the person’s habits or hobbies – thing for the garden, tools, towels – stuff people will use.
  • Think edible. Delicious things make great gifts and are practically guaranteed to be consumed. I mean, who throws out chocolate? For the clever cooking queens, go one better and make something yourself – rum balls, gingerbread men, Christmas pud.
  • What about ‘experiences’ or vouchers – a dinner out, movie tickets, a massage voucher?

Confession: I’m one of those annoying mothers who stockpiles life’s little necessities in the month or so before Christmas and then presents them for gifts. Wooden spoon just snapped? Just wait till the 25th. Out of shampoo? Whack it in a gift bag. This of course has pissed off the kids over the years. Once we wrapped a toilet seat and put it under the tree for (then) Miss 8 who was mad with anticipation for weeks looking at that big present. Not so happy when she opened it. We’re still chuckling and she’s still annoyed. To be fair, she was the one who broke it.

Moms in november

Give your time

Gifts don’t have to be physical things you unwrap – you can give your time or share your skills. What about visiting an elderly friend or neighbour, mowing someone’s lawn, volunteering for a week’s worth of housework, or helping someone with a task they can’t manage. No cost except your time and expertise – precious. (Mind you, I think I have a couple of unused vouchers in my dressing table drawer, expired of course, because one daughter cleverly ensured there was a use by date.)

Buy something for someone you don’t know

Many charities have come up with ingenious ways of spreading the holiday joy with catalogues of gifts you can buy for those in need on behalf of someone else. One year I ‘gave’ my children goats from World Vision which were distributed to families in Africa. We were thrilled when several months later we received a letter from our sponsor child to say her family had received a goat which provided their family with milk.

Here’s a couple of places who provide these gift catalogues online, just for starters:

World Vision



There are lots of ‘giving trees’ in shopping centres, at charities and at work places, where donated presents are distributed locally to those in need. Charities are becoming clearer about specific things they need as well. A great way to teach kids about compassion.

Consider second hand

As we become more aware of the mess we’re leaving behind us, second hand can be perfectly acceptable, even preferable for some, but remember:

  • Pick your audience, some will appreciate your thrifty and environmental stance – others will not. Very small children – perfect! Work colleagues for the Secret Santa – you risk looking like a tight ass.
  • Don’t try to pass second hand items as new. See above.
  • I’m personally okay with re-gifting, but it should be done with thought and caution. It’s not good to palm something off to someone who else will have no use for it either, and make sure you’re not caught giving it back to the original giver. That’s rule number one – break it at your peril. Nor can you give it to someone who travels in the same circles, or who even vaguely, possibly could travel in the same circles. If you can’t remember exactly where it came from, sorry – you’re stuck with it.

Think about the planet

Think twice about buying disposable rubbish that will probably go straight into landfill in a week’s time. All those crappy little plastic things were once fossil fuels and have probably travelled quite a long way to get to you, so they’re likely to be pretty energy intensive. Same goes for rubbish decorations, plastic cutlery and other disposable items. Go easy if you can. Quality decorations will last decades so at least you don’t need to keep restocking. And remember to BYO bags when you go shopping to avoid bringing home more.

Ahhh. So many gifts. So many options.

What about you? What are you doing this Christmas? Are you on a gift giving gala or trying to be a bit restrained.

Related article:

Modern gift giving: thoughtfulness or an exercise in excess


Is there an Elf on the Shelf at your house this Christmas?


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Elf on a shelf eating cookies

Have you seen this ‘elf on the shelf’ phenomenon that’s been taking over the world (or at least social media) in the lead up to Christmas in the last few years?

For the uninitiated, it’s where special envoy elves have been sent from the North Pole to homes where small and trusting children reside pre-Christmas on behalf of the big man in red to keep a check on who’s being naughty or nice and report back. While they’re there, the elves often create overnight mischief and most seem to have fairly robust senses of humour and marvellous imaginations. The kids think it’s absolutely hysterical to wake up each morning to discover what prank they’ve played the previous night while they slept peacefully.

Here’s a couple of examples of the goings on that have been happening in my daughter’s house, where three small people live. Their elf is named Ben.

Elf on a shelf on the roof

Christmas elf on a shelf writing with toothpaste

There’s even one at my son-in-law’s work, helping out:

Christmas elf on a shelf making coffee

The whole thing started back in 2005 when mother and daughter team Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell in the US wrote and self-published a book about a cheeky little elf, and set the ground rules. The child/children must name and love their elf (this provides the magic), but they must not touch. And hopefully they will behave nicely so they get a good report.

Since then it’s grown and grown, with animations, awards and follow up books. In 2016 Elf on the Shelf even made it onto a Simpsons’ episode, parodied as the ‘Gnome in the Home’. ” I mean, if you make it onto the Simpsons, you’ve pretty well made it in life. And of course the elves have got their own website where you can, of course, buy stuff. Or just get ideas, or play games, or get apps, or do quizzes, or adopt things, or learn fun facts. Oh my lord! The possibilities.

These little critters are in fact almost all over the world. Check out the hashtag #elfonashelf on an online platform of your choice if you need evidence. Allow several hours for web surfing when you do.

And it seems not only Christian folk are being catered for. As an alternative, a clever Jewish dad, who happens to be a toy marketer, came up with the idea of the ‘Mensch on a Bench’, a toy that looks like a rabbi, so Hanukkah celebrators don’t have to miss out on the holiday fun. A mensch is a person of honour or integrity, by the way. Actually, I think there’s a few family members. It seems that these little Mensches are having quite a bit of ‘funukkah with their Hunukkah’, with some suggestions coming from the manufacturers and, of course, with their own hashtag #menschonabench  More surfing and time wasting available for the taking.

Long live commercialism!

Of course, there are detractors of the concept (to be clear, there will always be detractors of anything) who are aghast at normalising the concept of spying and kids having to submit passively to these invasions of privacy. Where are their civil liberties, they demand to know. Goodness gracious, if it’s okay for the elves to spy on kids, what next? They’ll grow up thinking it’s acceptable for the government to spy too, and what sort of message does that send????? Or it’s really just a dangerous parental crutch and parents are attempting to modify their children’s behaviour with bribery (which is pretty much what this whole naughty/nice business with Santa is all about anyway).

Or …

… it could be that it’s just a whole lot of fun and the kids have an absolutely hoot in the morning tracking down the elf and discovering what the cheeky little fellow has been up to the night before.

Because. Fun. That’s it. No need to moralise or think too deeply. Those elves are just enjoying themselves, and it seems the kids are too.

Not sure about the crazed parents though as they struggle to come up with more and more outlandish ideas of harmless pranks the elf can carry out night after night with increasing measures of the ridiculous.

I rather like the idea of this elf from the Cromlix Hotel. That’s my kind of elf.


And there’s still weeks to go!

Is there an elf at house near you? What’s he/she been up to?

Ben the elf having a Christmas tea party with Barbie and the other toys on the kitchen bench.

Photo: @georgeandgouma


The stories behind the stories: the architecture of the National Museum


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Night view of the National Musuem of Australia

The National Museum of Australia strikes a bold pose at the edge of the lake in Canberra, its massive orange arm arching high behind the building and looping off into the distance. It demands your attention. Constructed over 11 hectares in a blaze of coloured shapes, the building itself has almost as many stories to tell as the exhibits it contains, and a guided tour as part of the Canberra Design Festival was the perfect way to discover some of its architectural secrets.

The design

Completed in 2001, the building is perhaps not beautiful, but it is certainly remarkable—modern, brightly coloured, full of light, texture and unexpected angles. It’s not a traditional museum building, but this is not a traditional museum. The design for the museum was chosen from among 74 entries in an international competition in 1997. Designed by Howard Raggatt of Ashton Raggatt McDougall and Robert Peck von Hartel Trethowan, telling a story was always part of its function.

The building consists of a number of pieces of a puzzle, of differing shapes and materials, which fit together in an unfinished circle around the central garden. The entire building is modelled on the notion of multiple strands of a rope, tied together in a giant knot. This represents the various stories of our history, tangled and interwoven with many strands and perspectives. When you step into the huge, light-filled air space of the foyer, you’re actually stepping into that knot, now removed, into its imagined cast model with the roof forming the edge of the cast. A bit like those plaster of Paris moulds you may have created in primary school, only bigger. Much, much bigger.

View of the open foyer of the National Museum of Australia depicting the inside of a knot

The various strands of the rope (and the stories) continue through the building, splaying into three levels of exhibition spaces, complementing and extending the museum’s story-telling theme. Bits of red ceilings above show you the continuing threads as you wander inside.


It’s a post-modern building, which means that cultural symbolism is important, and indeed rife. Look for a recurring ‘X’ motif, or pentagon shapes, and shards of the word ‘eternity’ as immortalised by Sydneysider Arthur Stace who wandered the streets of Sydney for 35 years writing that single word in copperplate text on pavements and buildings. The challenge is to discover the symbols and interpret what they mean. It’s a bit like returning to high school days, looking at words and imagery in a novel and working out what they mean within the larger text. Some inferences are clear; some not so much.

A garden of dreams

Outside, the Garden of Australian Dreams is both barren and complex, combining suburban and Indigenous landscapes. It’s essentially a map of central Australia, depicted in concrete, water and even a bit of lawn, marked out with fences and surveyor posts. Harsh but welcoming: the word ‘home’ appears in a hundred languages on the ground.

You won’t find any flowers but there’s more than you see at first glance. Look out for references to some iconic Australian artworks, including those by Jackson Pollock and Arthur Boyd, originals of which are both housed in other Canberra institutions. The strange angle at which the stand of Alders grow at the garden edge is no accident, and is that a dingo fence, or perhaps one that hails from any ordinary Aussie backyard?

Window view of the Garden of Australian Dreams

Contentious moments

Like many great buildings, this one hasn’t been free from controversy or sadness. Springing from the site of the endeared Canberra Hospital, the building process itself started tragically when the ill-fated demolition of the hospital, mistakenly touted as a family day out, went horribly wrong and the spraying debris took the life of a beautiful teenage girl.

A number of architectural features clearly reference other buildings. The nod to the sails of the Sydney Opera House is an obvious one, but there are many more. A notable mimicking is the shape of the exhibition spaces, almost an exact replica of the zigzag design of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, much to the ire of its architect, Daniel Libeskind. To rub salt into the wound, the Berlin museum officially opened four months after the Australian museum did, though completed years before. Raggatt maintains he wasn’t plagiarising, he was just ‘quoting’.

Even the exterior of the building, covered in the equivalent of 3,500,000 drinking cans of iodised aluminium cladding, houses a feature that created a bit of a hullabaloo. The raised circular discs on the outside walls are actually Braille, spelling out Australian idioms like ‘mate’ and ‘she’ll be right’. Secretly, they also included the word ‘sorry’, the word of apology the then Prime Minister wasn’t willing to give to the Indigenous people of Australia. Those Braille words of apology were obscured by the addition of extra dots. Perhaps the original wording should now be replaced, given we’ve grown up enough to say the words out loud.

And that orange looping arm that transforms into a thick red path? Turns out it’s actually looping off in the direction of Uluru/Ayers Rock, to the central heart of Australia.

The curved arm at the entrance to the National Museum of Australia

Want more?

And this is why I love tours—because you learn so much. It’s a reminder that the design and construction of a building can sometimes tell us almost as much as the contents. The tour went for one hour: I stayed for two, retracing my steps and taking photos. And then I started reading…

If you want to know more, discover the building yourself by wandering through (it’s free) or take a general tour (free too!). The book The Building of the National Museum, available for sale at the bookshop, reveals a myriad of hidden secrets.  You can also read more about the building on the museum’s website and listen to a fascinating podcast about the architecture.


A week of Queen: reliving the music all the ways


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Last week was a Queen-filled week. As in the rock group Queen, that is, not the grandmother of Wills and Harry. As a Queen tragic from way back yonder, that suited me very well, and I might have been heard singing along a bit. It started with a TV special, then things got serious.

Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie

Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic telling the tale of British rock group Queen, hit the screens and I was there for the first night preview. Ten years in the making and suffering all sorts of setbacks, the film had already hit the media well before it reached cinemas, with stories of disagreements over and changes in the direction of the script, and changes in the lead actor and director. There has been much discussion in the media and among critics, including some praise – particularly of lead actor’s Rami Malek’s convincing performance as Freddie – and some criticism, which seems to be par for the course for anything Queen  with an inevitable bit of controversy.

To be clear, the film is not entirely accurate (a biopic is a film about well known people, not a documentary), so some licence has been taken with dates and sequencing and even characters for the purposes of narrative. There are a number of challenges of massaging the story of someone’s life (and even more so, four people’s lives – Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon) into the fairly formulaic structure of a biopic, so certain aspects have been massaged to fit into a narrative fit for screen-viewing.

No doubt Roger and Brian, the two remaining active members of Queen, had a strong say in the elements of the story they wanted emphasised. There has been criticism that the film glossed over some of the realities of band’s and Freddie’s lives – the drugs, the hedonistic lifestyle, particularly of Freddie, but it’s difficult to put much of an R-rated reality into a PG film, and innuendo played a role.

By concentrating on the early years of the band, we’re given an insight into its formation and how the four members worked together in the studio, creating and pushing musical boundaries, and clashing heads. In my opinion, it was these formative years which gave rise to some of their finest and most innovative music, the stuff that still colours my musical appreciation, years before the world had ever heard the oddity that was Bohemian Rhapsody and introduced them to the world.

Along the way, we discover more about the background and vulnerabilities of the deeply complex and creative Freddie, the focus of the film, even though the scrip can at times seem a little trite and some of the story  simplified.

Even if you’re familiar with the story it’s fascinating to see it recreated on screen, with the actors providing the most uncanny likenesses of the characters they depict, both in looks and movements. It’s particularly interesting to watch the process of recording, and re-recording, and the use of the existing technology to overlay vocals and instrumentals to create the sounds now so familiar to us, and so quintessentially Queen. Four artists dedicated to creating the very best they could, over and over again, and pushing the boundaries – and each other’s buttons in the process. And there’s a rather interesting fact revealed about those teeth – one of the few things I didn’t already know.

But park your inner critic at the door and just go along for the ride, enjoy the music and relive the magic that was Queen, maybe learn some new things, and you’ll leave the theatre with a smile on your face. It’s actually a lot of fun.

The film actually finishes in 1985, with the virtual re-enactment of the Wembley performance at Live Aid (aghhh, the one I missed because I left London the week before!), seen by many as the pinacle of their live shows. It doesn’t dwell on the years to follow and Freddie’s demise from an AIDS related illness, no doubt a disappointment to some, perhaps those who like to dwell on morbid things, but allows the movie to finish on a high.

Strangely, almost the entire cinema cleared out before the final credits, If you see it, don’t do that – stay till the end otherwise you’ll miss out on some great original footage right at the end.

We Will Rock You – the musical

Then just as my Queen fanaticism was piqued, I got a last minute call with free tickets to the We Will Rock You musical (WWRY), showing in town for the first time ever for a few nights only. Having seen it three times already and not being entirely sure of the chosen large venue, I hadn’t planned on going, but free tickets AND Queen – who could say no? Turns out, it’s still a lot of fun, no matter how many times you’ve seen it before and each production brings something new.

WWRY is a light-hearted musical, set in the future when music is programmed and rock unknown and Bohemians roam around trying to discover the past. Written by Ben Elton, it’s very funny in parts, and weaves together a gala of Queen hits into a highly entertaining tale and a great night out. When it comes down to it, it’s just a bloody good excuse to reel out a parade of Queen hits in a theatrical setting, and it’s a hoot.

This particular show was very good, the leads vocally strong and engaging. Queenie Van der Zandt, hailing originally from Canberra, played the role of Killer Queen (I’m not making up all these Queens) and did an excellent job. I recognised one of the performers as one my daughter used to perform with years ago. Ah, such a small town for a bit city. If it’s showing near you, get along – you’re guaranteed to leave feeling lighter than when you arrived.

It’s surprising to recall that WWRY was completely panned by the critics when it first hit the stage in London in 2002,dismissed as juvenile and manufactured. But audiences loved it from the start, the ones singing, clapping and stomping along, and the musical played non-stop in the West End for12 years and played in six continents, defying the opinions of those original critics.

In fact, there’s a bit of a common thread here. The musical panned by critics but embraced by audiences, a film sometimes derided by reviewers but lapped up by movie goers, a band out of favour with the media and in many ways the mainstream music industry but who managed to fire up audiences, survive decades and become a part of the music history. Despite their ‘unpopularity’ at times and their differences, their longevity and re-incarnation to a new generation is testament to their talents and musical ingenuity.

Go to see the movie yourself or the musical, if you haven’t already, and make your own judgement. It mightn’t be exactly what you were expecting, but Queen never was. That’s what made them special.

Have you been? What did you think?

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