Christmas Eve 2016

Christmas Eve, the candles are lit, fairy lights twinkle, the choir of Westminster Abbey sings carols quietly in the background, the Christmas cards from friends and family deck the sideboard, tops of paintings, and book table, MasterB is paying misdirected carnal attentions towards his newest toy, a yellow feather boa that Octavia brought him from Melbourne.

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Little Innocent

I know there’s a term for this, people who are turned on by inanimate objects such as lamp posts or handbags, which though odd and somewhat disturbing, is probably no less odd than people who develop phobias about inanimate objects such as lamp posts or handbags. How common a condition these lusts are in cats I don’t know, and why this toy should have sparked such desires in MasterB I have no idea.

I’m spending the evening at home, just me and MasterB. This morning was work, last night nibbles and drinks here with some neighbours. I should have asked more people, but the flat is small and there’s limited seating. Reinhild came before joining her husband at the theatre; my lovely neighbour Lawrence who broke the news to me that he is moving in a month; Charlie (Mr Celia); B&J: Celia a bit later.

Charlie’s arrival was the signal for MasterB to go into hiding. He’s accepted Lawrence, but is deeply suspicious of Charlie. J was bereft. I have a feeling my invitation was only accepted as she wanted to see Himself again. It is a humbling experience to be less socially successful than one’s cat. She tried coaxing him out with biscuits, no luck. Eventually I opened the drawer in which he had secreted himself under the bed and he hopped out. Little Star, he not only conquered his fear of Charlie, he actually rubbed his face against Charlie’s feet, and spent the rest of the evening with us.

December has passed in a blur, hence the lack of blog posts and comments. I finally downloaded my holiday pictures, and looking at them has brought details of my trip flooding back. I probably say “when I was in Australia..” annoyingly often, and I know I should like to return there. Equally I should like to return to Singapore.

Here and in the US, as well as other countries in the west, we are increasingly seeing the politics of division on the rise; there is much talk about our differences, less about our similarities. More in Common became a rallying cry in the wake of the murder of MP Jo Cox by a right wing extremist. In Singapore I saw diverse communities living together in harmony. As a white westerner I was just another ethnic minority, accepted and welcomed. When I looked online at reasons why the crime levels in Singapore are so low, I found articles citing the heavy penalties for anti social behaviour: ten year prison sentences for graffiti for example. The slip of paper handed me by immigration when I entered the country warned of the death penalty for drug smuggling. But it didn’t feel to me as though Singaporeans were only behaving because they feared the consequences of stepping out of line, and I reckon there must be more carrot than stick that makes this society work. People seemed to have a real pride in Singapore, they wanted me, a vistor, to feel welcome. When the rain poured down I was offered the shelter of an umbrella to cross the street; people smiled at me and I smiled back.

One of the things that caught my eye was the Art Connector, a series of seats celebrating fifty years of independence, and all quoting lines from the National Pledge which says, in the four official languages of Singapore; English Chinese, Malay and Tamil:

We, the citizens of Singapore,
pledge ourselves as one united people,
regardless of race, language or religion,
to build a democratic society
based on justice and equality
so as to achieve happiness, prosperity
and progress for our nation.

The Art Connector

The Art Connector

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In the Bosom of My Family

More a comment than a post tonight, and no added pictures as it's late and I am likely to be woken earlier rather than later by some junior members of the family. My cousin, correctly first cousin once removed, collected me from the very lovely Alison and Bruce this morning. There was a certain amount of chat as both Victoria (my cousin) and Bruce are actuaries and realised very quickly they knew people in common. I love these connections, the invisible skeins that join us.

Victoria drove across Sydney to her home and we caught up on family stuff and news. None good about her cousin Tom who is still in a bad way. I last met her husband at their wedding, and although I have seen many pictures of her children, today was the first time we met. The older daughter reminds me of my cousin, her great aunt, Mary. The younger is like her father. Both girls were wet, having enjoyed the narrow swimming pool beside the house.

Remembering how I used to do the Sperrins Hill Walking Festival when I stayed with her parents, Victoria had a walk planned for us. I'd had a look at it and it seemed to involve a bit of up and down. Are there many steps, I asked. My knees get quite distressed by steps. She didn't think so. In the heat of the day we set off. There were steps quite near the beginning, then some more a short way in, and more a bit further along. It quickly became apparent that this is a Walk With Many Steps. My knees began to mutter, then to groan, then to mutiny. Fortunately we reached a stepless part before they gave up. I was expecting to feel pain by tonight, but am relieved to say I can still climb the stairs without wincing. Naturally I have done my stretches.

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Ruminating on the Railway

I'm about two hours away from Sydney, sitting on a train that started off from Melbourne nine and a half hours ago. I thought I'd spend the morning asleep, but I was enjoying watching the changing scenery, so despite the early start – the alarm went off at quarter to six and we went to bed around midnight – I stayed awake. My neighbour for the first couple of hours was a Finn who arrived in Melbourne yesterday. We exchanged a few sentences. Then lapsed into agreeable silence.

My next neighbour companion, who is still with me, had just finished a seven day coach tour. She and her companions are scattered about the train. We smiled and said hello, then to my relief she put on an eye mask, reclined her seat, and prepared for sleep. In contrast, the woman in the seat in front seemed keen to share her family history, the trials and tribulations involved when her dog, a Jack Russell, requires his vaccinations, the exact details of her itinerary.

I was plugged into my iPod when my neighbour awoke, disturbed by the arrival of a new influx of passengers. Despite moaning that she wanted to sleep, she began a conversation with me that continued for nearly two hours. I say conversation, but my rôle was to listen. It was this relentless gentle flow of words that eventually made me close my eyes and sleep. She is also going to Sydney, so we have had more conversation, but I have learned to open my book, and she has also dozed.

I have been amazed by the lush greenery. Currently we are riding through a wooded landscape, the light coming into the carriage filtered through spring leaves. There have been open prairies, railway stations in deserted landscapes, wind farms, cows, sheep, and lots of birds, and a golf course. As we near Sydney so the frequency of houses increases. Leaving Melbourne, riding through the outer suburbs, it was easy to see how older bungalows are being pulled down and replaced by two storey houses.

I've eaten most of the food I brought on board, just one apple left, and I've drunk a fair amount of water. The Tasmania book given to me by Vicki's dad is a quarter read and very good.

Vicki and I said our goodbyes at the station this morning where she nobly accompanied me. I'm not good at goodbyes. I said goodbye to Billie at the house and told her to keep off the sherry. I have become very fond of Billie in the last three weeks. She is a very sweet dog, and I don't think I'm flattering myself when I say she likes me too. Continue reading

Across the World to Camberwell

At home, I live not far from Camberwell. It's where generations of my family lived, and where my father was born. For that reason, and is there a better one? I wanted to visit Camberwell, Melbourne before I leave.

After yesterday's heat there was a night of heavy rain, followed by a grey cold day with intermittent drizzle. Perfect for suburb touring.

As it turns out, the two Camberwells, while being topographically dissimilar, have things in common. Both are suburbs which would have been homes to market gardens, and homes for the well to do middle classes. Both saw their status tumble and have been reclassified as downmarket, and both are again on the rise. The Main Street of Melbourne's Camberwell is home to a jumble of shops, testimony to the transition status they enjoy. There are chic cafés and cheap take aways; two great shops selling plants within doors of each other; unsympathetic alterations made to shop fronts and structures; chichi shops selling items to aspirational home owners; buildings of changed usage.

We reckoned this bar was once a bank.

These terraces caught my eye fom the car. You'll see it was still raining. I particularly liked the windows.

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Tasmania Farewell

Above the clouds on the flight back to Melbourne. Already this morning seems a long time ago, packing our bags and receiving a visit from a local cat who dropped by and came into each of our rooms, a welcome chance to stroke soft fur as I am missing MasterB an extraordinary amount and we shan’t be reunited with Billie Dog until this evening. I am guessing the cat visits once its people have set off for work, looking for other appreciative humans.

Visiting cat

Our tours of Tasmania’s penal institutions continued with the Female Factory just outside Hobart, and Richmond Jail at Richmond. I’d recommend the first over the second. Both are sobering, but the Female Factory is particularly well done. Time prevented us from joining the guided tour but we overheard snatches of it and it was quite clearly in a different class to the tour we had on the cemetery island at Port Arthur. The scale was also much smaller and the contrast between the accommodation for the superintendent, the matron and the sub-matron was less stark. To be a woman convict, often transported for the most trivial offences, was to find yourself vulnerable to sexual abuse, locked into a vicious cycle where your word would always be doubted if contradicted by anyone in authority. The fact that so many survived and went onto marry, have families and prosper is testament to the human spirit. The site has worked with archaeologists and artists and builds a poignant picture where, belatedly, these women are given the respect that all human beings are due.

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But Is It Art?

Our Tasmanian adventure is almost over. This time tomorrow we’ll be at Hobart airport, waiting to board our flight. It’s been short but sweet and we have packed a lot in to a few days.

More by luck than judgement we visited the important historic sites shortly after arrival. As I said, our accommodation is in Battery Point. Trying to find Tourist Information we strode the streets around Salamanca, finally making it through the doors minutes before closing. Our conversation was swift and to the point; we explained what we were thinking of doing, asked for relevant information, and advice on anything else we should do. Sorted. Battery Point has a Sculpture Trail. Without actually following it, we have managed to see most of it. It’s a great way to get acquainted with the area.

As well as Salamanca, Battery Point and Mount Wellington, we have also been to Port Arthur, a one hundred acre site of a convict penal colony, today a disorientating mix of the beautiful and the horrific. Along the route to get there we kept passing rusty sculptures; a tractor, a fish, a horse and many more. Much as I should have liked to add something similar to my own home, the practicalities of getting it back to Melbourne, let alone Walworth, made that a non-starter. However, I find that they come in various sizes, so I have a diminutive rusty Tasmanian Tiger who will fit in a plant pot. Result. Continue reading

Melbourne by Day

I finally got my tourist trousers on and made it into Central Melbourne on the train and got out at Flinders Street station.

First stop, the tourist info centre at Federation Square, where I loaded up with leaflets including a few self-guided walks.

I'm booked on a guided walk on Friday which I am hoping will fill me in on history and culture in an informative and entertaining way, help me to understand what I am looking at, how to 'read' Melbourne.

So toady has been more of a wander with frequent stops to take photographs and to sit and watch the world go by. I chose to follow Melbourne Walks #3 On the Waterfront to give my wandering some structure. I had looked at the waterfront from the train and thought I should like to see more, so it was a good choice. All settlements are built by water, so looking at the Yarra was the obvious place to start. Fortunately both Marlon Brando clines and living statues were notably absent.

Art, evidence of prosperity, and homelessness all featured; people lying on the grass in the spring sunshine, other visitors like myself, locals, tents and blankets, people keeping fit.

I broke my walk to visit the Immigration Museum. Racial screening made for sober reading, and the presence of several school parties meant some galleries were more or less inaccessible. I'm not complaining – it's a good excuse to go back, and I hope the short film about why people leave their homes and their countries will sow seeds in the minds of the children who watched it, so they reject the current anti-refugee narrative flourishing in the West.

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Sunday Night

Cousin is watching a programme called Suits where the most commonly used line by any character is I don’t give a shit about…. If there were a swear box it would be getting quite full. As dialogue goes, I feel it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. Do the script writers have these words on a clipboard and paste them in every few lines or so? I think I’ll stick with Shakespeare.

Night is falling and I plan to head off to bed soon. Tonight we have not been to the hospital so we are at home and the prospect of getting to sleep before midnight is deeply attractive. Westie Boy and I had another walk.

We have a deal: he can stick his head into rabbit holes so long as I can take photos. These are my favourite gate posts along the road. I must have photo graphed them dozens of times.

Quite a few of the pictures of hedgerow flowers I have tried to take have suffered from a sudden impatient tug by Westie Boy at the other end of the lead. Really he is not keeping to his part if the deal very well, maybe he resents the fact that I refuse to let him roll in the cow manure that patterns much of the road.

Weekend plans

Friday already. The days are flying by. Staying with Cousin is like stepping into a life I know but do not usually live. I catch up with her friends, her children, the dogs, her in-laws, our shared family.

Walking Westie Boy yesterday I met her neighbour Julie. “How long are you home for?” she asked. Home is a loaded word, and I am not sure I could ever live here. Apparently I am an Irish citizen by right and birth, but I am English in my core. It is England that has raised me nurtured me, made me who I am. Mostly. Because in England I am aware that under my Home Counties accent lies another self, my half-Irish self, complicated by it being a Northern Irish, Protestant self, which to some means a non identity, a non country.

Which I find odd; because my English self is descended from immigrants from both Germany and France, and maybe elsewhere that I don’t know about. Why is it that your claim to nationality in one country should depend on ancestors rooted there for millennia and in another by your ancestors desire to belong to that country?

After Mother died I donated her mother’s autograph book to the Ulster Linen Library. The entries were from before her marriage. Around 17th March many were signed by friends describing themselves as proudly Irish. There were carefully inked harps and shamrocks; poems about Ireland; love of country written in flowing copperplate. A few years later those same people presumably described themselves, post partition, as British. Nationality is a strange creature. Continue reading