Wednesday, 24 December 2008
Brisbane is F...ing hot.
Windows vainly seek the slightest of breezes
Bodies glistening with perspiration sit slumped in cane chairs.
Nana slips off for a quiet afternoon nap.
Presents hide under a plastic tree
wrapped in last years paper.
The old rust encrusted esky
makes its annual xmas acquaintance
with crushed ice, a leg of ham
and a dozen assorted sparkling ales.
The air is bush-still
Cicadas growl outside the window
sending Xmas greetings to each other.
The brush turkeys have taken a sabattical.
Their PHDs in garden deconstruction on hold.
The tiger prawns and side of atlantic salmon
sit patiently on the top shelf of the exhausted fridge.
The preparations are complete.
Now we just wait.
Sunday, 21 December 2008
I feel calm. This feels right. The family had debated the option of setting dad’s ashes free here at Currumbin but there was a stronger draw from across the border in his home land of the Northern Rivers. Nevertheless here we are. It’s a beautiful day. The air is still, the ocean is a mill pond. A perfect winters day.
Not unusually for me I'm mesmerised by the water. I enjoy the light, the constant movement, the air on my body, the feeling of space and an impossibly distant horizon. I'm hypnotised. I yearn to immerse myself in this body of water, this planet before me.
I have an idea. Remembering that Kev was rarely one to say no to a swim, I decide we must indulge one last time together. I tuck him under my arm and head for the wet sand at the edge of the Pacific. I’m thinking he’d probably think this was a bit ridiculous. Certainly the rest of the family do. The ice cream lickers have returned and I’m followed to the water’s edge by pleading voices
“You’re an idiot dad”
“What if you lose him”.
I ignore their sensible comments. I’m planning to be careful.
I get to the edge where the waves lap my ankles and advance and withdraw in ordered lines. There’s a small gutter a few metres off shore and I walk in up to my mid calves. I whisper a few words of encouragement to the box.
“Hold your breath”
“Keep your head down”
“Look out for other surfers”
“Don’t dive in shallow water”
I bend and gently lower the cream plastic container into the water.
Dad seems to have lost some of his buoyancy. As I settle him into the salty brine I withdraw my support momentarily and suddenly he lists to the left. I’m about to panic when he settles, straightens up and is stuck on a sand bar. This is a first for Kev. He would be feeling pretty stupid. Luckily there’s no one to see and I’m not going to tell anyone. I whisper my assurances and we sit for a short time soaking up the sun and the memories.
I turn to see six pairs of eyes glaring at me as if I’ve just committed patricide.
“It’s time to go” they chorus.
We two brothers would practice, always measuring our skills against each other. Catch the same wave; punch the air and whoop in triumph even when only a matter of inches and some dodgy practices separated us; race back through the lines of white surging towards us, smashing our chests into each and being slapped in the face by nature for our impudence, to do it all again.
Meanwhile dad would have disappeared “out back” for what seemed like hours. Mum certainly felt the hours. Ever faithful, she would sit, read, doze under the brolly patiently waiting for the return of her man. His role was to be the water hero; hers was to apply sunscreen, pass out hats, keep us hydrated, break up fights and at regular intervals wander to the shallows where she would spend time bobbing. She was never a surfer. She was a suburban Sydney girl from the inner western suburbs.
My father, who’d never had a swimming lesson in his life but had grown up on the banks of the Richmond River knew the secret. We watched him. He watched us. We strived to beat him and eventually did. We’d learnt from an expert.
It was on one of these beach holidays that I had my first inkling that my father was not immortal. Inexplicably he declined an invitation to join us boys in tackling a pretty decent surf. The ear plugs he’d used as his only artificial aid in his years of surfing lay unused in the side pocket of the beach bag. He never ventured beyond the broken surf again. He was probably only sixty. Still a young man in my eyes despite the years.
The final photo in this collection would see an old man wobbling across the same stretch of sand, supported on either side by a son and his daughter-in-law, making his last pilgrimage to his beloved Currumbin. Everyone in the photo knows the truth. If you look closely at the photo you can see the pain in their eyes - knowing what they all know and not wanting to speak about it.
Friday, 19 December 2008
Here, another choice. Straight ahead to the border or exit to the beaches. We cut left and cross the old Pacific Highway and climb the hill separating us from Currumbin Beach. We’re giving Kev a tour of some of his old haunts and this was one of his spiritual homes. This is where the clan from down south gathered each year, where he taught us boys to body surf. Over a period of 50 years this was the first choice destination for a day at the beach.
A time line of photos would show the family sitting in the same spot on the wide beach each year lazily gazing at the ocean.
There would be a shot of two boys waving from the lookout atop Elephant Rock trying to catch the attention of the adults stretched out under the yellow and brown striped beach umbrella. There’d be one of a dad kneeling beside his beach equipment digging a deep hole for the wooden shaft of the umbrella, his strong straight back hovering above the sand. Another would show us exploring the rocky outcrops at either end of the 400 metre stretch of sand – Elephant Rock at the southern end and Currumbin Rock at the other. The scene would be of wild thrashing seas in heavy weather or in others a tranquil snorkeller’s playgound, water the colour of green glass slipping and sliding in and out of craggy rock pools.
You’d see the two boys approaching the jagged edge of the rocky outcrop, gingerly finding a path across the sharp wind-etched platform and then you’d see them racing back, ignoring the cuts to their feet, when a monster wave collided with the immovable mountain. Spumes of water would be flying 30 feet into the air and drenching the squealing kids. Mothers would be looking on in fear while fathers watched their daring sons or daughters with pride.
Currumbin Rock at the northern end guarded the entrance to a sheltered creek. In those days it was an island only accessible at low tide.
This was “The Passage”, territory of the board riders and their admiring and often bored girlfriends.
Somewhere in that collection of photos there’d be a series showing the two boys, under the tutelage of their curly headed father, progressing from beginner body surfers to masters of the 12 footers which thundered past Elephant Rock every summer, urged to their perfect form by a constant south easterly.
“Stand here. Face the shore. And when the broken wave catches you, dive forward with your arms stretched out in front.”
Shouted instructions followed us to the shallows.
“HOLD YOUR BREATH!”
‘KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN!’
Thursday, 18 December 2008
No songs today. Nick Cave is singing mournfully about lost love from the cassette player. We’re in dad’s 15 year old Peugeot, the last in a line of cars that fed his working class obsession with motoring. A 1949 Standard Four Tourer with its soft top was his first and his prized possession. This was followed by a Morris Minor (registration 673 800), two Volkswagens (one canary yellow - NLD 718), a series of Holden Kingswoods, a risqué sky blue “first release” two door Monaro coupe ( no number plate necessary to legitimise this one), and then his two beloved Peugeots – a 404 and a 405.
He’s with us today but, unusually for him, he’s not in the driver’s seat, He’s in the back seat between two of his grandchildren. He’s locked away in a plastic box 10 inches by 4 inches by 6 inches.
His journey to this back seat has been a long and eventful one; the story of a simple man with a great capacity for love and a lust for life. An everyman’s journey from the cane fields of northern New South Wales to the suburbs of Brisbane via a war and as many beaches as he could muster. A journey from the slaughter house floor of the abattoir via the life of a travelling salesman to the daily round of a postie on his pushbike until retirement.
How the life of a man of 5 foot 11 inches can be reduced to 240 cubic inches baffles me, but there he sits accompanying us on his last journey. A journey home.
Tuesday, 16 December 2008
After what seemed like half a day’s drive we’d race down the last hill on Creek Road and curl to the west to meet Logan Road where the second stage of the journey began. This really was the edge of the city. Now we’d start the real trip. Travelling beyond Mt Gravatt past the neglected fences and isolated petrol stations of Eight Mile Plains. we’d catch a glimpse of the mysterious OPAL Home for aboriginal kids from the country set discreetly back among the trees before entering a no man’s land of no interest.. The name Eight Mile Plains seemed to just about sum it all up. Gods forgotten country. Halfway to nowhere.
From that point a series of milestones marked our path to the Gold Coast or sometimes we’d be venturing beyond to the Tweed or annually to Sydney. First came the Logan River, hovering over cows and fertile river flats; then the Coomera River and finally after an interminable hour of boredom and games of Eye Spy and Spotto came the big decision. Fork left to Southport via the Coombabah swamps or right to Nerang on the dirt road. Nerang was the short cut to Surfers Paradise. Only those in the know took this option. No sign posts to guide us, only a few subtle landmarks to guide the knowledgeable.
The Coombabah swamps were full of bird life; white ibis in their droves nesting around water-loving paperbarks amid acres of water. The stink was overwhelming even with the windows up tight. At this point the largely silent passengers erupted with cries of phew! and pooh! and accusations flew back and forth in the back seat apportioning blame for the smell, each brother indignantly denying any responsibility and both whinging to their parents that their brother was picking on them.
This riot quickly died with the intercession of dad reminding us that at the next crest we’d probably be able to see the water. Both my brother and I, now best mates again, crawled up the back of the seats in front of us craning our necks for the best view. Despite the threats from mum we bounced around like tennis balls and clawed and climbed up and occasionally over the high backed bench seat to tumble ridiculously into the front. The car was now full of laughter, squeals, threats and cries of “Look Look”. On each rise our anticipation expanded, our eyes popped and strained only to have our expectations dashed time and time again until at last the glint of the Broadwater filled us with excitement and anticipation. We could already taste the salt and began feverishly searching for our togs and towels so as to be first out of the car and onto the beach. To our frustration, and even more so for our parents, this hint of a swim was in reality still 15 minutes away as we slowly drove parallel to the still water holding our breath for the burning hot sands of Main Beach and the magic of the surf. My father could never countenance stopping and swimming in the still waters of Southport. It was unthinkable. Literally.
Today, however, we fork right, but the road is sealed. It’s a four lane high speed bypass. This time there are five spirits in the car and we’re on a mission.
Monday, 8 December 2008
Walking along the shoreline barefoot, hair wrestled into a seaweed toupee, my towel wrapped around my waist, my skin sticky as the salt dries in the warm sun - I feel like a water god.
I am at the same beach which awed me as a child. Kings Beach in 1955 was in the grip of a cyclone. I recall a windswept stretch of sand with spumes of spray lashing across the bay and waist deep froth the colour of whipped cream bubbling around my body. I remember spending a week running between the lino floored army igloo hut on the foreshore over the natural sandhills to the wild shoreline. It was unforgettable.
Today I am at this same place. The sand-hills are tamed and a car park and coffee shop have replaced the igloo huts. The ancient saltwater swimming baths have been refurbished but the headland is the same and the cargo ships still glide by almost within touching distance.
The water is clear. Blown glass could not be clearer. Glossy brochures of scenes from tropical islands do not do today justice. The variations in sand bars and gutters are marked by varying hues of green then iridescent turquoise, then deepening blues merging to black beyond the lines of swimmers. To the naked eye it’s unremarkable; through my polaroids it’s a riot of pastels and light infused energy.
I am feeling good because I too am infused with light.
As I walk I think about the contrasts between my life on terra-firma and my life in water. On terra firma I am encumbered by clothes, confronted by social expectations, exposed by my awkwardness in land based sports and reminded of my shortcomings by mirrors and my attempts at small talk with strangers and attractive women. On land I am a minnow.
In water I am in charge. I am a seal. My quest, my challenge is singular. I am one with the medium. I am a water spirit.
Unlike cricket and conversation, where practiced skills and complex rules abound and conspire to trap the unwary me - here everything is instinct. Instinct tells me whether to dive under or punch through, to charge or retreat; my body knows how to glide and then explode through the backs of waves effortlessly emerging dolphin-like behind lethal walls of water; I am comfortable being tossed and wrangled in a swirling mix master world beneath a giant dumper; I understand that a lungful of air between enormous southerly swells is the difference between life and death; I see the next two story wall before me and in one fluid motion I experience a sublime moment as tonnes of water thunder towards the shore with me as a passenger sliding gracefully at speed down a smooth wall of green. “Look mum no hands”. All instinct. At least that’s how it feels.
To my left as I walk towards the surf pavilion the crowd dot the sand like sandflies. Young children, mothers, fathers, teenagers, couples, lifesavers, squirming nippers all intent on worshipping the day, oblivious of each other and the absurdity of so many people crowded onto such a small beach in an island continent with tens of thousands of deserted beaches.
In my narcissistic state I am the centre of (my) attention. The king on his beach. So enamoured am I of myself that I sense glances of admiration from left and right and my sense of being in my element is affirmed. It does occur to me that perhaps it is my slightly deformed middle aged body parading in a pair of sky blue budgie smugglers that is the real point of interest but I am able to deflect this thought simply by feeling the sun searing across my shoulders, casting me back to my childhood and another world.
I reach the clubhouse, turn and retrace my steps. The water winks at me in recognition. It’s 8am, and as I wander along the foreshore back to my unit for coffee and breakfast towel in hand, I become aware of a group of young men cruising by in a red commodore, circa 1985. One of them leans out the window and calls to me “Hey Speedo!”. His mates turn and seem to understand his taunt.
Suddenly I feel naked. I am bemused. A beloved national swimming icon has become a term of abuse and I am the subject in a game of ‘Spotto”.
Friday, 5 December 2008
Thursday, 4 December 2008
Monday, 24 November 2008
Suddenly I’m airborne as he sweeps me up and plants me on his shoulder. I’m so high I can see over the high riverbank and glimpse the other side of the broad river. I’m standing, balancing on his muscled shoulder, holding his right hand which he stretches up to me. His shoulder, his up-stretched arm encase me securely as if on a platform. I can let go of his hand and balance without any help. I’ve spent hours walking along the top rail of our Moolabar Street fence practicing to be a tightrope walker. This is simple.
My curly headed little brother bounces around at the feet of our double height, double headed body. He’s three and scurries around like a puppy, leaping up, trying to launch himself into my father’s arms. Without effort my father steadies me and bends to gather up my brother and tucks him under his left arm. Now all three of us, looking like some weird 12 limbed creature, move forward – the water beckons.
We’re at Murarrie on the Brisbane River. It’s 1954. The war is less than ten years gone and my brother and I have no awareness of it or of our father’s part in it, but the idea of swimming here has the added excitement of my father’s story of this as the site of a WWII submarine base. His mate Ken is in on the story as well.
In front of us is an excavated site the size of two Olympic swimming pools carved alongside the river. On the river side a high bank separates it from the main waterway. On the southern side, a cliff-face, of enormous height to a four year old, marks the other edge . At the far end an opening allows the tide to fill this submariner’s hide-out. We, meanwhile, stand on a sloping bank, its clay base slippery under our feet. It leads gently into the bottomless hole.
Whether for storytelling or fear inducing purposes Ken (Uncle Ken as we know him) creates a picture of unfathomable depth and danger as a precursor to our swimming lesson. Far from being afraid or reluctant to enter this underwater, underworld black hole, we are even more excited by the possibilities. This excitement is further enhanced by the barren landscape surrounding us. We are beyond civilization, out of sight of any signs of our home city, having arrived here at the end of a long thin gravel road leading from the familiar world to this moonscape. And we are alone. The four of us. We are the only people who know about this secret place. My father and Uncle Ken are explorers of the unknown, dare devils who have brought us here for our first swimming lesson.
I’m not sure what it is about this submarine base that excites us but as I prepare to swim, my mind conjures up black shapes lurking below the black surface. These shapes carry men I’ll never see or know and they come and go in secret, under cover of darkness. It’s a story I’m more than willing to embrace. I have no expectations of ever having the story confirmed or resolved. It just is.
My father loves water. I will inherit his merman genes. He is preparing me and my brother for our destiny. He will teach us to swim. We turn towards the water. I jump down from my shoulder perch and await his instructions.
He also pointed out at the full title of "The Swimmer as Hero" is "Haunts of the Black Masseur. The Swimmer as Hero." The first part of the title adds an added level of mystery to this eccentric account of swimming through history. I'm still grappling with it and would be interested in other's thoughts. There is a dark and obsessive side to the accounts in this book - at one level painting water as a siren-like element luring its devotees to their watery graves; at another endowing it with rather powerful erotic overtones and in some cases sado-masochistic. Deep, black, mysterious, powerful - the ultimate seducer. Hmmmmmm.
I found another book on this theme at Avid Reader today. Waterlog - the account of a mad swimmer who set out to swim across Great Britain via lakes , streams, rivers, puddles and any other repository of water. I'm hoping that someone might pick it up for me for xmas. I discovered it when I was investigating if anyone had written a book of stories or accounts about their swimming experiences. I'm thinking it could be fun to create such a collection. My mate Denis has expressed a vague interest in the idea. Would there be an audience? My next blog follows this story theme.
Sunday, 16 November 2008
His gift, "The Swimmer as Hero" by Charles Sprawson has opened up to me the world of the swimmer from Ancient Greece to the most recent olympics. And I can tell you my infatuation is mild compared with some of the eccentrics he explores in this book - one in particular (Swinburne) who seems to have embraced water and swimming as both the mystical and erotic centre of his life.
Interestingly I have a close female friend who describes her relationship with the ocean as one which only really works "when she experiences it as a thrashing!"
Monday, 10 November 2008
I read that haiku is much more than the 5-7-5 syllable structure we learnt at school and can take many forms, but I'm still drawn to that simple discipline of 5-7-5 and the challenge of finding the best set of sounds to capture something fleeting or profound. Steve Earle also insists that he follows the Japanese tradition that every haiku refer to a season somewhere in each poem. I don't know that mine do.
My favourite was one I wrote for my good friend Pauline Peel when she resigned from her job in the Brisbane City Council (BCC) where she had reached the dizzy heights after beginning life on a dairy farm 150 kms outside Brisbane.
Haiku for Pauline
Warwick maid shuns cows.
Wends her way to B C C
Cream rises to the top.
At our house we have a biennial Lime Festival where Lime is king for a night and all things lime prevail. At the last festival we had a Laiku competition. These were my offerings:
Lime Haiku 1
Citrus fruit, one bite
Sends shivers up my spine
Shudders of delight
Lime Haiku 2
Citrus haiku thoughts
Swing gently from my branches
Waiting for harvest
There's a story on this blog about the lime festival - see October 14 "Carmen Miranda meets the Tea Cosy".
And finally for something completely different - one for those opinionated radio talkback hosts.
Wallet and ego
Twin bulges in their fat pants
Radio shock jocks
Not a season in sight - though nature does feature strongly in all but the last.
Thursday, 6 November 2008
I was so relaxed that I started to look for some amusement, something which would add to the experience of village life. We'd had a coffee at both tabacs (bars), we'd become best friends with the height challenged young girl in the boulangerie: "un baguette s'il vous plait".... "oui".... merci".. au revoir" "au revoir" - intimacy is simple really. It's all a matter of inflection. Anyway, for my amusement I decided to book myself in for a haircut at the local salon.........................
Le Coupe de Chapeux
I am prepared for my 10 am appointment at “Mille et une Coupes”, the village hairdresser. Clean socks and underwear, hair washed, and a fresh t-shirt. I don’t want to smell like the tourist that I am.
I’ve borrowed a French phrasebook and jotted down four phrases I hope will be useful. They’re on a piece of paper stuffed in my back pocket. As I walk from the door my head is full of useless snippets of French. “Yesterday I went to St Malo”; “Je suis Australian”; “ Next week we go to Normandie”.
Even as I run through each of these I know they are full of gaps. I don’t have any past or future tense. I have no adjectives except a few colours. No sentence is likely to be longer than 3 or 4 words. How will I fill in 30 minutes?
I think back on my most recent hairdressing experiences and reassure myself that silence is normal in the hairdressing salon. My reference point is my Vietnamese hairdresser in Brisbane where I have the same conversation each visit, sometimes repeated twice within the half hour.
The walk from our rented farmhouse takes me through a series of streets lined with planter boxes in full bloom. It’s spring.
I’ve only allowed 5 minutes to get from the outskirts of the village to the main street. My fussing over my preparations has put me under a bit of pressure. Luckily there are no traffic snarls here. I’m more likely to be confronted by a hay-baling tractor crossing between fields.
J’arrive at exactly dix heures - I am aware of the French concern with neatness and punctuality. My hand reaches for the door handle and I have a last minute urge to turn on my heel and escape. Too late, I have been spied. I push on the fading yellow door. It’s a bit sticky but responds to my gentle shove.
The hairdresser is a young woman in her early thirties. She’s thin. Glasses, conservative blouse and trousers, shoulder length blonde hair carefully coiffured. She’s with a middle aged client hair swathed in gladwrap and curlers.
We make eye contact, my apprehension reflected in her look. Bonjours exchanged I make my first attempt to use my rehearsed list of words hidden uselessly deep in the arse-end of my trousers. “Le cheveux” I say pointing to my head. She smiles, her face relaxes.
She motions me back towards the door. I’m confused. Suddenly I think I must have made some terrible mistake – perhaps I’ve come to a ladies only hairdresser or maybe there’s a special room for les hommes, a stupid thought because from here I can see the whole salon and there is no other room. I turn in a circle looking for the answer and in doing so meet a coat hanger being offered me by my host. She’s offering to take my coat. “Merci” I say, the first of my many “mercis” – my standard response to almost any enquiry or comment.
At last I’m sitting in the chair wearing a black plastic coverall. I’m feeling a little more confident after my “le cheveux” success and add “le coupe” to “de cheveux” hoping for recognition of my mastery of the word for haircut – a little superfluous given that I’m sitting in a hairdressing salon, in front of a mirror and a bench lined with combs and clippers. She looks at me blankly. We both agree to pretend not to notice this hiccup in our rapidly developing rapport.
I think she then asks me how I want my hair cut. I use my second word from my list.
“Moyen” I say.
Success! She nods and seems to understand, but while medium sounds clear enough to me she wants a little more detail. She turns to a tabletop piled with hairdressing magazines and extracts one with someone on the cover who looks like Brad Pitt. I glance in the mirror and observe that there is very little similarity between the reflected and the offered image. Now were turning pages looking at more Brad Pitts, all beautifully manicured and presented, hair cropped short and gelled, or full and perky. There’s one very gallic looking chap with long black hair tied back in a pony tail. He doesn’t look like he’ll ever need a haircut and I certainly will never have hair like his. I point at a suave image of a young man in his prime and laugh in embarrassment wondering how this weathered visage staring at me from the mirror could ever hope to look like that.
She closes the magazine. I have no idea what we have agreed upon. I sense we both share a common hope that we’ll arrive at a mutually satisfactory outcome.
We begin. She snipping, me clutching my phrasebook, searching my muddled brain for a circuit-breaking phrase which will unleash a flood of conversation. She speaks to me in French and shares a conversation over my head with her other client who is eyeing me off suspiciously. I recognise the word “Juvigne”. It’s the village we are in.
“Oui” I say. Yes we are staying in Juvigne.
“At le Rach-ait” I add. They repeat “le Rach-ait” to each other trying to figure out what I’ve just said.
“Oh, le Rachet” they finally translate. Down the hill on the right?
“Oui” I chime in.
We’re on a roll.
“Je suis Australian”, I say.
“Australienne” They repeat.
“I speak English” I say. That’s really helpful because they both agree they definitely don’t.
We try again.
“Oleedai?” asks my hairdresser using one of the four English words in her vocabulary.
“Oui, vacance” I reply taking every chance to prove my credentials as a linguist.
“Do you like Juvigne?” I think they ask.
“Oui” I reply.
“The flowers?” the older lady asks.
Yes I say and stumble around trying to search for words to add – the streets, the houses, the fields …… My head is stuffed full of English words. I want to say: “I am enjoying your village immensely, particularly the historic houses and the beautiful church, not to mention the serenity and the charming rustic village life”.
But all I can muster is another “oui” and watch myself pointing out the window and waving my hands around as if conducting the local choir.
I’ve probably insulted them because the village has made an enormous effort to create a spring display of flowers at every corner and in every street. I suspect my choir conducting hasn’t quite communicated my appreciation of this.
I mumble a few more incoherent words interspersed with the names of our hosts and add, in English, the fact that we’ll be here for another week and then go to Normandy.
I don’t now whether it’s the mention of Normandy, perhaps a great rival, or perhaps I have just managed to demonstrate that any further productive conversation will be futile, but a deep silence falls over the salon.
For a while I continue to finger the phrasebook but each heading I turn to offers no help. There are a multitude of phrases for getting a taxi, booking a hotel room, ordering in a restaurant, shopping for fruit and vegetables but, though I pore from cover to cover, nothing, absolutely no mention of conversing with a hairdresser. What a terrible oversight!
Meanwhile, my locks continue to fall, my pointy skull emerging, my face appearing younger but something tells me no Brad Pitt or Gerard Depradieu will be magically conjured from the hands of mademoiselle hairdresser.
A car horn toots. A man emerges from a delivery van across the narrow street. I notice a distracted look cross my hairdresser’s face. She is watching, perhaps even longing for the deliveryman to notice her. It occurs to me that this attractive young woman is stuck in this village of 400 people with little future. Is she a wife? Does she live with her family? How does she cope with working alone in this salon six days a week with the same ageing clients cycling through each week; the view of a cobbled street and an ancient stone wall opposite as her constant companions? I too am trapped by my language deficiency and can’t possibly begin to ask the questions which will help satisfy my curiosity.
Suddenly a familiar figure is peering through the window miming drinking a cup of coffee and giving me a thumbs up. It’s my mate Richard, come to rescue me.
We three inside laugh.
“Un café” I say
My first words in the past 15 minutes. They nod and seem to agree that this would be a good idea. A mirror appears. The back of my head is offered for inspection, a ritual the same the world over with little meaning. What can you do if you don’t like your rear view? Ask for a new one? Suggest adding some hair back to lessen the view of your rabitty ears? No need to use my third phrase, “un petit plus”, there’s nothing left to take.
I think we’re finished. She brushes loose hair from my neck. I stumble to my feet grabbing my phrase book. She offers me my jacket. I mutter my favourite double word mantra.
“Oui. Merci” I say.
I pay. We smile. Another round of “merci beaucoups” and I’m on the street.
I’m relieved. She’s relieved. The gladwrap unwinds in the window behind me.
“My name is Steve”, I think to myself in French and add “What is your name?”
It’s too late. I’ve wasted my last phrase.
I head up the hill towards the tabac to join Richard for an espresso wondering if the experience might have been different if we had known each other’s names.
Monday, 3 November 2008
Sunday, 2 November 2008
Brighton Beach UK June 2008 - Only the english!
Monday, 27 October 2008
Nearby was Hamstead Heath. It has a huge public swimming pool (60m x 30m) lined with aluminium rather than tiles. The aluminium creates a beautiful shimmering effect making the water shine. Unfortunately it doesn't change the tempurature. It was freezing and this was June. Nearby lay another swimming hole which was much more interesting.
This is a much longer story than anything I've yet posted. Tell me how it works as a blog entry. Maybe it's better in some other publishing form.
Beware of Breeding Swans
The English are mad. They love the sun - what little there is of it. So any day in summer which even hints of skin cancer, they’re out in droves, on the streets, in their tiny pocket sized backyards and most importantly in their parks.
So there I was on Hampstead Heath, a 350 acre public park in the North West of the city but definitely inner London by any measure. Me and hundreds of others walking, jogging, dogging, eating, drinking, kiting, kissing, sunning, frisbeeing and swimming.
It’s actually 5.30 pm. The sun should be setting. People should be at home preparing meals but here on Hampstead Heath the masses are frolicking. What else? The sun will be up for another 3 hours, its time to indulge and soak up a years supply. In 6 months time they’ll be lucky to have 6 hours daylight.
I’ve got my mini micro fibre travelling towel and my budgie smugglers tucked under my arm and I’m heading for the men’s bathing pond - one of a series of spring fed ponds fringing the northern edge of the Heath.
It’s a bit like heading for the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens for a swim in the duck ponds - the ones that greet you when you enter the main gates. The ones young children throw loaves of bread into despite the warning signs about dangerous bread induced cholesterol levels in ducks.
Anyway the men’s only bathing ponds is my destination. From a distance it looks quaint, inviting and very cold.
There are ducks, swans, men fishing from the bank, a series of wooden buildings housing two lifeguards in red and gold caps, a diving platform and a jetty-like structure pushing out 25 meters into the water.
My English brother-in-law thinks I’m crazy. He’s lived nearby for 20 years and has never swum here. It has a reputation – he confides in me.
Doesn’t worry me. I’m an Aussie and a stretch of water to me is something to be swum in no matter what conditions or the warnings.
The entrance looks innocuous enough. Shaded by trees and lined with deep green English shrubs, a quiet path leads me towards the men’s change shed.
I ignore the ticket machine asking me to pay two pounds for the privilege. Richard has given me the low down on this. The locals are refusing to pay, having swum here for 100 years free of charge, they’re not about to pay the local Camden Council for access to their birthright. It’s a protest.
I love a protest. So in solidarity I ignore the signs. It’s not about the money I tell myself. It’s the brotherhood.
Immediately on pushing open the sprung entrance door I am catapulted into the middle of a large open change room not unlike the old change rooms at Davies Park or Langland’s Park pools of my youth. A room 10m x 30m bordered by a slatted bench below a line of clothes hooks at eye height greets me.
In the middle of this stands a large man. A man not unlike the Maharishi whom the Beatles adopted as their guru in the 60s. He stands naked. Wild hair mimicking Albert Einstein or Andrew Symonds. It’s wild and long and mostly grey. He’s not an old man, probably 40 something with a beach ball for a stomach and in his hand he holds a towel.
This is not unusual in a change room except in this case he’s standing dead centre in this space - out of reach of any clothing hanging above the slatted seats, and seemingly concerned only with the drying of his privates.
I hesitate, look right, left – avoid eye contact with him and choose a spot as close to my entry point as possible.
The Maharishi meanwhile proceeds to elaborately dry himself.
The sun shines into the change room coming through the non existent roof. It catches and lights up a second body – a man stretched languorously on his white towel reading a book and looking very relaxed. I take him for a posturing intellectual for he’s reading some obscure post modernist text whose title makes little sense to me. At least Monsieur Foucault has on a pair of swimming trunks.
Meanwhile the Maharishi continues his ritual. He appears to be having an ongoing problem with his rising damp. I’m terrified that of all the piles of clothes around the room his might be beside mine and that, at any moment, he’ll join me and fix me with his wild stare. Around the perimeter of the room are a number of other men either entering or exiting the swimming ritual. All bar one are not notable as they behave normally – for a men’s only bathing pond change room.
The one who catches my eye is a young Adonis. All blonde hair, smooth white skin and blue eyes. A living Michelangelo sculpture, a David reincarnated … and doesn’t he know it.
He’s wearing a tiny low slung hand towel. Wrapped around his waist this drape, a size too small, shows off a slash of exposed thigh. Adonis distractedly wanders the change room floor, a distant lost look in his eyes – which I am avoiding. Eventually he takes up a position at my end of the pavilion and leans lazily against the wall which separates the change room from the nude sunbathing area.
Adonis has one arm stretched towards the sky and one leg bent at the knee, foot supported by the wall behind. He looks wistful as the sun’s rays lighten his blonde locks creating a halo effect around his head and chiselled features.
In all I’ve probably been here for three full minutes but the atmosphere is thick with unspoken rules and rituals. I’m the outsider here but there’s no point in hesitating, so in 20 seconds flat I’ve dropped my trousers, doffed my t shirt and in one jump I’m in my aussie DT’s and out the door leading to the pond.
Out here there suddenly seems to be a lot of space and time. The sky is blue, the water a murky brown and still. Great for reflecting the drifting clouds above, but not offering the same invitation as the iridescent waters of my regular Queensland beach.
There are a few blokes swimming. Most laze about. One laps the perimeter of buoys marking out the limits for swimmers and the beginning of the fishing zone.
I’ve bought a pair of ear plugs to protect me from what might be contained within a duck/swan/off leash dog inner city pond.
The lifesavers give me some confidence about my immediate physical safety – though I notice that the one device which is present is an old wooden row boat that might not reach me before I disappear forever into the black depths.
No sook when it comes to cold water, I admit to entering this deep dark pool rather tentatively. I use the ladder rather than the diving board and enter inch by careful inch.
It’s not too bad. The ducks keep their distance, no subterranean creatures drag me into the watery Hades; the swans content themselves with preening and I glide, head above water, towards the up welling swell; the natural spring which feeds the expanse of water.
I’m beginning to relax..
I love the view you always get from the water. It’s the reverse of the familiar. In this case the pond is surrounded by English foliage through the full 360°. There is a sense of isolation. I marvel at the tranquillity, and have the intense sense of being miles away from suburbia but equally and more intensely knowing that I’m actually within view of St Pauls Cathedral and central London.
The only distractions are my ear plugs which pop in and out and which I adjust obsessively; that and my heightened awareness of my male companions.
There are clues everywhere to the secondary life of this congregation. Phallic symbols abound. The jetty thrusts much further than necessary into the pond, the diving board reverberates with a deep hum whenever one of the blokes shows off his athletic skills; the swans stretch their long necks towards the sky and when I’m floating on my back I’m confronted by a hugh vapour trail following a silent jet as it streaks across the sky.
Somehow I can’t quiet relax. Its pleasant but its not exhilarating – swimming in dirty water, smelling like stale duck shit lacks some aesthetic dimension; similar to smoking a cigarette in a strong wind where the exhaled smoke is whipped away before you can enjoy the aesthetics of your nicotine addiction.
I swim across. I swim up. I adjust my earplugs and having satisfied myself that getting out will not mark me as a wuss defeated by the challenge, I breaststroke my way back to the ladder and pull my cold white body back into the cool summer London sun.
Back in the change room, Adonis is still attached to the wall enjoying the sun and waiting for something to happen. The Maharishi has disappeared. The sun has shifted and the shadows have reduced the area available for Monsieur Foucault who doggedly continues his quest for knowledge while reclining uncomfortably on his towel on this concrete floor.
My micro fibre towel looks and feels pathetically small as I dry off the pondy water. I modestly discard my trunks not wanting to inadvertently give any unintended signal that might see the Maharishi suddenly re-enter the scene or cause Adonis to skip a heart beat.
I think I’ve sussed the place out as I prepare to leave but then unexpectedly through the door arrive five Jewish boys in full regalia - traditional Hasidic Jews.
Their side burns drop in ringlets from beneath their black skull caps. They are dressed in conservative black trousers, white shirts and black vests. They speak to each often in what I presume is Yiddish and I wonder if they’ve entered this temple inadvertently. Should I tell them this is not a synagogue? Should I introduce them to Adonis? A Greek god and a possy of Hasidic Jews would surely have a great deal to discuss.
I wait and wait expecting some bizarre new event but they are in no hurry. Perhaps my Aussie presence in this local men’s club is inhibiting them. Has my bright blue micro towel given me away – or is it my baseball cap or tourist’s sandals.
Before I leave I take one last long slow look at the picture before me and capture it as if in a photo for sharing with Richard and my London dinner companions tonight.
The final element of my day lies at the exit where a large sign awaits me. On my way in I had failed to pause and take it in, wisely as this would have been a dead give away when I was intent on masquerading as a local.
Now I read with renewed interest the rules and regulations, risks and advice which Camden Council offers me.
What catches my eyes is the list of health risk I have just exposed myself to:
§ Sudden Immersion Syndrome (SIS)
§ Mild gastroenteritis
§ Eye and ear and respiratory infections
Strangely there is no reference to the unwritten rules which I have largely failed to negotiate. Perhaps the final warning alludes to this and is a coded message. In large print and definitely not included under the health cluster, it reads –
Beware of breeding swans.
Saturday, 25 October 2008
In Barcelona it’s 6am.
I like to rise early in strange cities and trawl the streets alone. It’s when you catch a city unawares. I love the sweet breath of dawn, the light creeping across deserted streets.
The sun is rising as I emerge from my sunless apartment. As I begin my early morning adventure along Calle Guardia (KA YAY - GWAR DIA) the sun, an orange orb, is perfectly obscured by a circular traffic sign directing it to keep to the right. The harbour lies somewhere east of my apartment. It’s my dawn destination.
The streets are deserted save for a few working girls on the main drag doing the late late late pre-dawn shift. A dark eyed brunette in a denim mini skirt blows a kiss my way and mouths an invitation that doesn’t test my Spanish. As I pass she pats my bum, checking it for a wallet.
I jump at the touch, startled, fear suddenly crossing my face. I’m taken off guard.
In my confusion I respond with an apology “Sorry” I say, “Not today. I don’t have any money”
Swerving to cross the road and escape I marvel at such a stupid response. It crosses my mind that it’s lucky she didn’t offer me her services on credit.
Suddenly I find myself a lone tourist on full alert in a street full of early morning shadows. Everyone on the street is dangerous.
My radar sweeps 360degrees.
A nearby tout senses my panic and shapes up to mock me, pretending to back away in fear. Momentarily I laugh, to myself, understanding that this is a game and I’m part of it.
Still I don’t relax. My senses are on red alert. I see everything. Smells and sounds become exaggerated. I experience each moment as a conversation inside my head. It’s funny, intense and dangerous – all at the same time. My adrenalin is pumping.
Once on the other side of the street I pass through deep shadows.
I don’t look back but know that my new friends are receding into the distance behind me. They won’t follow me, they know my pockets are empty. They will have turned their attention to breakfast and the days work to come with more lucrative customers.
A young woman in joggers and an aqua top the colour of the nearby Mediterranean glides past, blonde pigtail bobbing, footfalls slapping time to the IPod keeping her company. She’s oblivious to the danger.
I begin to relax, slowing my pace. My racing heart begins to settle as I approach the water.
On the harbour, ocean going yachts jostle with cruise liners for parking space. Their masts sway from side to side clacking and pinging out of time, creating a gentle hypnotic song. Vertical lines criss and cross and, ignoring gravity, climb skyward fracturing the view of the ancient city into multiple concurrent Picassoesque images.
As I emerge from the shadows the sun blinds me.
Having ignored the keep right sign it blasts me with its molten rays melting my fears.
Wednesday, 22 October 2008
I’ve returned from four hours of walking the laneways of Barcelona.
It’s a beautiful part of the world.
It’s day two of my week.
I have a good view from my half open window. There are scores of jumbled apartments in serious need of repair backing on to our neat Spanish hide-away. They are all silent. The locals are all having a siesta.
I’m trying to have a siesta too. I’m buggered.
Lying beside me is a clutch of brochures demanding my attention; offering me more advice than I can possibly absorb.
On the other side of the six inch thick stone wall held together by time and the traditional skills of builders of my great grandfather’s generation, my brother sits in the living room mumbling and cursing his travelling companion – his computer.
It’s been more than 40 minutes and still it hasn’t connected with the wireless network he was promised.
He wants to google the world wide web for a pixillated view of where we are in Barcelona. For some reason he needs to be reassured that he is really here.
He doesn’t seem to see the irony of his quest.
“Look out the window” I suggest, “use the map you’ve got in your pocket”, but no, he wants google-earth so he can see our rooftop. “We’re on the top floor” I tell him. “The door beside the lift leads to the roof and a view of the city”. My suggestions fall on deaf ears.
I love my frustrating brother. I resolve to help him. I go to the window and wave at the sky. I tell him this will help him identify his target.
He doesn’t seem to appreciate my assistance. He’s intent on his micro screen.
Suddenly he’s on line. I sense his virtual excitement. I wave harder, bigger, more ironically, leaning dangerously from the tiny fifth floor balcony.
I’m waving so hard I’m sure Lorenzo, our Italian ancestor who passed through here in 1861, will psychically connect through the computer and once and for all resolve for us who he really was. But his ghostly presence is even more hard to connect with than google world.
Another curse from my virtual brother.
The system is down again.
I 'm ready to depart from the knitting theme. It was fun grandpurlbaa but there are other stories to follow.
Tuesday, 14 October 2008
Time to get back to my promise to flesh out (love that phrase) the history of
Wild Tea Cosies. – the wildly successful book of eccentric knitting sculptures by Grandpurlbaa herself.
If you look at the cover of the said book you will see the subject of this story.
Carmen Miranda and The Tea Cosy.
There were two families; lets call them the Bountys and the Barrens.
The Bountys had a citrus tree which was much admired by the Barrens.
Mr Bounty, being a thoughtful man, felt this deep gap in his friend’s world and presented to him, on his birthday, a potted Lime Tree.
The next day, a Sunday, Mr Barren excitedly planted the tree in a vacant spot in his garden - west of the spreading macadamia and east of the loquat tree. From that day he lovingly tended it weekend in and weekend out. He watered it by hand; he sprayed it with soap suds to fight off the ants and scale insects; he peed on it occasionally because he had heard that this worked wonders for the productivity of citrus trees – something to do with husbandry and hormones he mistakenly believed; he pruned, ever so gently, and waited and watched and waited and waited.
Each year Mr Bounty’s Tahitian Lime produced an avalanche of fruit and these would be shared with Mr Barren and his family in a non patronising and generous spirit. And each year Mr Barren would watch as the fruit budded on his tree and struggled to survive and finally, each year, produce nothing.
Mr Barren was not naturally gifted when it came to gardening and hated nothing more than reading instructions, which is why he had inadvertently planted his beloved Lime Tree in a shady spot on poorly drained shaly ground. Still this was not known to him at that time and each year he found another excuse for his recalcitrant Tahitian.
After three years, and then year in which he obsessively loved that tree (call it a tree, yet it was still below his shoulder in height) his patience and obstinate optimism bore fruit in the form of a solitary lime. So amazing was this event and so heaven sent, that Mr Barren decided that this indeed was a blessed fruit worthy of celebration. He called his circle of friends and, in a state most of them could not comprehend (apart from Mr Bounty and his wife who had been witnesses to this agony), invited them to gather at his house to celebrate. Mr Barren, who had a penchant for excess decided to call this event the Hill End Lime Festival, for that is where he lived with his wife and two bemused children. He did not regard this as self indulgent or grandiose but simply apt.
To cut a long story short (for it subsequently became a much anticipated biennial event and there are many further stories to tell) Mr Barren invited friends to contribute something hand crafted for the evening in keeping with the lime theme. His plan was to auction or raffle these items to benefit a cause in need. Mr Barren having suffered his winters of trial understood adversity and wished to alleviate such suffering in others.
Among the works of art which were lovingly created for the night were a hand made mosaic tile featuring a lime in all its plumpness, a full colour portrait of a lime dignitary of royal descent and many more but of particular note there appeared a hand knitted tea cosy adorned with the most amazing set of knitted fruit bursting with abundance from atop this masterpiece. This Carmen Miranda inspired creation was the prized piece and despite the general closeness of the group caused some jealousies.
The raffle was arranged so that each winning ticket holder could choose which item from the fine array on offer they preferred. Such was the power of this citrus creation that as ticket after ticket was drawn each winner studiously chose to avoid the prized tea cosy, as if choosing would unleash a tidal wave of resentment and angst amongst this tightly knit group. Finally, in a fitting irony, after six tickets and six reluctant retreats from the opportunity to own this masterwork, Mrs Bounty was heard to cry as her ticket was drawn “Oh, bugger it. I’m not afraid of the bloody thing. I want it. And bugger the rest of you..”
Ahhhh. The perfect solution. The serendipitous homecoming of the prize to its natural resting place. No friendships were broken. No fights broke out. Justice had been served.
The second miracle of the night emerged over drinks towards the witching hour when Grandpurlbaa, as she is now known, confessed that, while she had knitted other tea cosies previously, this had been a quantum leap for her in her craft. It was evident that, until this moment, she had merely been knitting. The creator in her had suddenly been revealed and the rest, as they say, is history.
One small lime for a man, one giant leap forward in the art of the wild tea cosy.
Steve Capelin © 2008
Sunday, 12 October 2008
I love your embrace
Your hug and soft caress
You mould yourself to me
And we are as one.
Your singular sense of purpose
Can smother me
Hide my form.
Your colours, tassels, rosettes
Your gaudy stripes and flourishes
Your need to be seen
Your rampant ego
It needn’t always be about just you.
A simple love could work as well.
Don’t presume your pre-eminent place
Don’t presume me cold, alone, aloof.
I am fire and passion
Fashioned from clay.
I come from the earth and join with the sun..
My form is more than function
My elegance is not strident
But tempered by the humble task
I will perform.
Stout belly, fine spout and handle
I welcome heat, water, leaf from exotic lands
Combined by experienced hands
To offer understated pleasures
On quiet verandahs, in delicate tearooms
In company or alone.
Of course you’re welcome to join me
I am no mere mannequin
To give you form.
Teacosy to Teapot
You little upstart
So you’ve been around since the Song Dynasty
Yes, you may have many forms
And your porcelain cousins are quite attractive.
Still you remain
A vessel existing out of need
A container for the higher purposes of others.
Don’t get above yourself.
Can I say without appearing to be smug
that I am more recent, more evolved
Not merely earth and fire.
I am beyond the elements
I am fleece and breeding
I am spun and dyed
I am forged before fires in quiet rooms
By taloned extensions to human form
Rushing forward line after line at breakneck speed.
Reinvented over time
I too give pleasure.
Dismiss me as mere tea cosy
And you underestimate me
I am valued in my own right.
Steve Capelin © 2008
Friday, 10 October 2008
Oh and by the way I do like a good cup of tea made in a teapot with loose leaf tea. A teapot is a thing of beauty in its own right - no mere mannequin to show off tea cosies.
Tuesday, 7 October 2008
Good question, since there's nothing there. So ......................................
Since Loani (Grandpurlbaa) helped me set this in motion - here's a little poem dedicated to her and her obsessed knitting friends.
Knitting Poem (for Loani)
A spindle of knitters
Knitting independently with bone and bamboo knitting needles
Night after night
Nattering nonchalantly to no one in particular
Beneath the waning moon –
Never knowing, others also quest
For the bees knees of a beanie
Or a nice naturally knitted knee rug.
One night a knitter (who will remain nameless) used her noodle
Perhaps knitters knit to ignore the gnawing need for company.
In a nurturing initiative
Invited a nondescript group of knitters
For a knit
And a natter
Nine months on
The knitters meet monthly
Motivated by growing knowledge
Of knit and knot and purl
Of stocking stitch and garter
And the husbands favourites -
Mattress stitch and slip one over
No longer alone or lonely
Are not a lot of nincompoops
Neither nutters nor ne’er-do-wells
But a simple group of north coast knitters
For whom knitting is a necessity -
Knit-wits one and all.
© Steve Capelin 2005