Saturday, 17 January 2015

Of class, diplomacy and a bit of Downer

One of the great things about being an expatriate is that you can observe the society and city you live in with fresh eyes - but at times, you can apply the same prism of distance to really 'see' your own culture, its politicians and artists  outside their natural context and in an international environment.

I remember very clearly as Herald Europe correspondent, seeing both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard speak in big, global political gabfests (G20s etc) and understanding in an instant significant aspects of their characters, their strengths and weaknesses. Penny Wong was one politician who is widely lauded at home and yet outside the home ground, underwhelming is the only word I can think of. 

Anyway, this ain't a report card for Aussie politicians, but rather a musing about Australian attitudes to class, to accents and the realization that living here in the UK, I can clearly see that there is an anti snobbery in Oz I've always perceived but could never put my finger on. So here, I'll try.

On Thursday night, the British-Australia Society held a party at Australia House in the rococo folly of the Downer Room to farewell and laud the outgoing British politician and former Foreign Secretary, William Hague. 
Hague is a fantastic speaker, funny, relaxed, utterly uninhibited in his remarks about the relationship and was visibly delighted to receive his plaque, thanking him for reviving the Oz-Brit political relationship. Lord Carrington, British High Commissioner to Australia in 1956 to 59, now in his 90s, spoke with humour and a twinkle in his eye, reminding people that before Hague, no British Foreign Minister had bothered to visit Australia for 16 years! Shows how high we figured on the priority list for so long!

But my interest is in Alexander Downer, now the High Commissioner in Australia. A figure of fun most of the time at home (plummy accent, Billy Bunter jokes, never lived down donation of his fishnetted  legs to that 'whose are they' competition in the Women's Weekly), Downer is  in fact the consummate diplomat, one who can speak off the cuff with both aplomb and wit and is as much at ease with old ladies who have been coming to Brit-Oz society do's for decades as he is chairing a meeting of the awkwardly named AUKMIN (Oz and UK foreign affairs and defence ministers meeting). 

(The fact that we meet about defence when we barely share anything really is madness - perhaps an AUKMIN about climate change might be more appropriate, but that's another story). 

Anyway, the truth is that Downer's a diplomat who doesn't make you cringe, who holds his own amongst the Brits without fawning but sans gaffes, with a self confidence born of being utterly Australian and himself as well as the clear, cultural understanding of his host nation and its mores. 

He is eloquent and well read.

In his speech, he made fun of himself (failed PM, i.e. party leader in Opposition never in Government), fun of William Hague (also a failed PM), the long time spent in Opposition (more jokes about failure as leader), the fact the British Tories may soon be in Opposition (risky but very funny), potential for Liberals to be in same position (very risky but funny), lots of history (and the neglect by the UK of Australia for so long), pisstake about how one of his first acts on arrival to London was to rename the room we were in to the Downer Room (named for his father) and so on. (FYI his accent here, by the way, sounds happily Orstraylian, but with 'eyes' 'ohs' that obviously come from private school, not the back of his nose).

In my mind, all the attributes that have made him a figure of fun in Australia appeared to me to be skills and peccadillos that define a certain kind of politician/diplomat - one who represents my country with style, dare I say class - and didn't make me cringe. 

In my book, that's a bloody good thing. So there, I've said it (and if he does end up making us all cringe, okay, okay, I'll eat crow. In public.)

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Of dreams, of stupid instincts and the business of life.

Ten days or so ago, I woke up in a sweat, heart pounding in terror. I'm not one who often remembers dreams, indeed it is very rare but this one left me so shaken that I had a strange, quiet feeling for days afterward.

In a nutshell, two armed men wearing black facial coverings burst into the newsroom where I was working. The thing I remember most was the profound silence and the deep realisation that all in that room were about to die. I woke when a rifle was pointed at my head. I knew my life was to end and the physical terror of that instant continued after waking for some time.

Then, the Charlie Hebdo horror unfolded. 

I certainly don't believe in premonitions. And I'm not a believer in God. Tell me you believe in astrology and I'm sorry but a part of me will look down her nose and wish you'd read a little more, go expand your mind with some science. I pretend I'm superstitious but am not really - I just like the ancient, rather silly Italian rituals that supposedly protect you from the evil eye. 

So how to explain my dream? Was it the sub conscious manifestating a growing realization that we live in a big, global city, that the threat of random acts of terror are a fact of life, that I have kids and fear for them in an increasingly violent world? Deep fears expressed in dream?

All that's fine if it stopped there, at a dream. But what I hate about it is that post dream, in the aftermath of the ugly reality of Hebdo, I realise I'm now wrestling a newly awakened ugly feeling of overriding suspicion. I hate the fact that I look at my neighbours, the men and women who walk down my street in a different, fearful way. I absolutely deplore that since this dream - and for some reason the Hebdo murders - I have to battle irrational feelings I never had before. 

I'm an educated, middle class woman who works in media and my brain will not allow me to respond solely instinctively. I know this too will pass and I won't allow this stupid response to dominate my behaviour. 

However it leaves me with the profound sadness that if I, who read and try to educate myself on the past to explain or at least contextualise the present, react like this (with, let's face it honestly an us/them instinct) what will it be like in the banlieux of Paris, on the peripheries of big cities all over Europe (and indeed Australia) where social dislocation is high and suspicion and overt hostility between communities is a fact of life?

I don't like to admit this gut sensation. And I will fight it with every ounce of will/intellect I have and know it too will pass. 

I can only hope and pray that the global desire for solidarity and unity expressed for the victims of Hebdo will not divide us further and that the instinctive fear we probably all feel at some level won't be allowed to prevail.

We need more cultural inclusion. More dialogue. Greater attention to education and employment for those who fled war and conflict - and better discourse to explain notions of freedom of speech, democracy and personal liberty at personal level - and in society.

I grew up with my French grandfather's pride in liberte', egalite', fraternite' - and fraternity is the bit I want to nurture, keep going, never allow to die.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Okay, I admit it: I hate taking the Christmas tree down and the end of holiday thing brings on that 'whale of gloom/now to find work again/will I work again?' feeling . However being anal retentive about some things (see kids, I do admit it!) I got a little solace from packing them up in near perfection and by theme. Pathetic but it made the whole darned ritual bearable. . .at least I went to the gym today. Blah. Blecch. #notsureaboutjanuary

Funnily enough, seeing them all there makes me think of the stories attached to them...the jack in the box at the very back far left was bought when I was pregnant with Allegra. We knew it was a girl but pretended (or hinted to the other kids, Rosie, Stevie and Sean) that I loved the name Jack and steered them to it being a boy! 

The candles and holders were bought in a tiny bavarian town on one of our first forays while living in Europe, lots of the glass balls came from my mum who had a ritual - buy one new decoration each year. When we left, the majoiry became mine and there are still a couple I remember from childhood (which is a long bloody time ago!) There is a whole Australiana section at right, while the wooden stars at right are one each for the chidlren...ha, thinking about it all made me cheer up....the glass typewriter is this year's addition...hopefully an omen of lots of writing!

Monday, 5 January 2015

Ikea: the modern soup kitchen?

Today, I uttered the words my husband dreads most (well, almost): "I want to go to Ikea". 

A new kitchen is on the horizon - the old is at least 30 - and the loss of yet another baking tray into the house's bowels thanks to decrepit cupboard backs  pushed me into activity.

Our closest Ikea is in less-than-salubrious, Croydon, on the site of one of South London's biggest power stations. The only remaining signs of this previous life are the two enormous chimneys, now painted in Swedish blue and yellow stripes. I love 'em because I inevitably get lost driving there and can and use them as beacons to lead me into the car park. 

London's FT reports that the business, founded in 1943, now sells one of its Billy bookcases every 10 seconds. Last year, there were 684 million visitors to Ikea’s 345 stores around the world while its total revenues reached €28.5bn.
Rather creepily, it is now also reported that one in 10 Europeans are conceived in one of its beds.

Which led me to observe today that Ikea is now not just about cheap and cheerful furniture. Its in-store restaurants - offering good quality food at incredibly cheap prices thanks to the sheer economies of scale - have become a kind of integrated social service, a giant, light and airy soup kitchen for both young and old, poor and not so poor. Today, I watched a bunch of very old people sit and drink endless cups of free tea in comfy armchairs, reading magazines and hordes of very young parents drink coffee, chat and re-fill baby bottles ad infinitum (I watched one mum who couldn't have been a day over 18 fill three bottles with milk and stash them in her pram bag) and observed for half an hour while two carers/social workers sat with their young disabled charges sharing coffees and cake in a cafè that has enough room for scores of space-guzzling wheel chairs.

Downstairs, the queue for child minding in the Smaland playrooms snaked around the corner and I pondered how many young parents seek Ikea out as much for the hour or two it gives them free from their little ones as they do for the chance to cart home a book case in a flat-pack.

The truth is that there'd be few of us (apart from the stonking über rich) who haven't had to go to the ubiquitous Swedish chain for something at some time. And anyone who says they haven't tried and surreptitiously enjoyed the meatballs or gravlax are probably telling porkies.

And if you're short of a quid (or not for that matter), where else can you get a huge, full English breakfast for £2.30 along with bottomless coffees? 

It seems to me that Ikea has created a giant, flatpack curtain that manages to hide the stigma of poverty for a short while for many. Indeed, what seems to have begun as a service to cultivate loyalty from customers has morphed into a high capitalist way of offering less well off customers the chance to feel comfortable and mingle with the richer ones - even if they can, in fact, only afford a bowl of soup and a free bread roll.

I'm not sure how I feel about this - but I found today's first kitchen foray way more interesting than I'd imagined.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Maples, Wiltshire

Every now and then, nature puts on a display that leaves you without words, sans mots, speechless. Which is, as those of you who know me, rather odd. . . 

If you are a lover of the seasons and the dramatic changes they bring in the northern hemisphere, pay a visit to the Westonbirt arboretum in Wiltshire. A kind of tree museum established in Victorian times by a nature loving aristocrat, Robert Stayner Halford, it is one of those places that sear themselves into your memory and revisit in your dreams.

We've been in summer, autumn, spring and winter. Every time, nature offers something to gawp at. We always take the dog, plenty of treats to entice him to return - and we've never been disappointed.

I'm posting this photo today, actually taken in the autumn,because we were supposed to go to Wiltshire for a couple of days but at the eleventh hour, it ain't going to fit in. I'm really really disappointed but will just have to wait!

Saturday, 3 January 2015

'Baroquing the Streets' 

Very quick post today as it was Rob's birthday and I've been busy. But I did promise to report back when I found the most recent of the 'Baroque the streets' murals (see yesterday's post). 

So, here it is: Guido Reni's 'Europa and the Bull' through the eyes and spraycans/brushes of Faith47

I think this one is wonderful too. Here is her website

Rather wonderfully, I've found the Aussie artist too but will save that one for later. . . .and intrigued that a former colleague, Julia Baird, has been in New York and has written about her experiences on a similar subject!

Here is her piece

Friday, 2 January 2015

Baroquing the streets


I've no idea why but a column by Elizabeth Farrelly last year came to mind this morning and as January 2 dawned bright and clear, I figured I might just get on my bike and go exploring the 'hood. 

The plan is to go see if I can find the new street artwork that's belatedly joined a fantastic suite of murals spawned by the 'Baroque the Streets' project, brain child of the clever types at the Dulwich Picture Gallery last year. 
For those who don't know it, this was London's first, purpose built gallery, designed by the Regency architect Sir John Soane using innovative illumination designs (natural light, glass cupolas) and which opened to the public in 1817.

It's on our doorstep and in the four years we've lived 'souf of the river, Hockney lithographs and Whistler on the Thames have been highlights. The permanent collection is built around the gift of hundreds of Baroque old masters by the aptly named Sir Francis Bourgeois in 1811. It's mind boggling, the two BIG Canaletto's alone worth hours contemplation.

Anyway, the education team at Dulwich decided a couple of years ago that Baroque ain't cool enough to entice younger types into its permanent galleries and decided to throw open the collection for inspiritation to a raft of street artists from around the world. (There's an Aussie there too). We residents of Camberwell/Peckham/Dulwich are the lucky beneficiaries of these fantastic murals. I've snapped a few of them and pinched pics of their inspiration. . . .

My absolute favourite on the wall of the pub on Bellenden Road is this detail from the 1645 painting by Pynacker, 'Landscape with sportsman and game' by the Belgian street artist, Roa. I adore it

Here are a few others 

Rembrandt's 'Girl at a Window' by Remi Rough 

Franceschini's Guardian Angel by Stik

Triumph of David by Poussin (near the school) by Phlegm

Van Dyck's Samson and Delilah reinterpreted by David Shillingsaw

Will keep you posted if I find the new one!

Thursday, 1 January 2015

One of the things I've promised myself in 2015 is to return to blogging. This time however, I want to do it with discipline: write short, write often, above all, write interesting. (I hope!)

I've traveled a lot on my own and one of the things that strikes me about lone adventuring is the never-ending urge to share experiences when you've seen something beautiful, unexpected, interesting.

I'd love this blog to be my 'OMG, will you look at that?! Have you read this? You simply MUST go and see X".

A Facebook aficionado, I love swapping life/stories/photos with friends all over the world and find that medium easy and natural. Blogging, at least for me when I started last year, felt like sharing into a vacuum, a monologue rather than a dialogue.

In 2015, I'm going to give Euro File another go: see if I can find a way to share not just the domestic but the political, the news worthy, the creative, indeed whatever takes my Euro-hearted fancy! 

So, happy New Year to you all - from the dog park on Sherlock's birthday of course!