Turning our lives upside-down

November 7, 2020 at 10:11 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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A hand-built house

It’s a big decision and I was going to be sensible about it. We were in Braidwood because I thought that booking a cheap backstreet Air BnB there for a couple of nights would give us the chance to see if the small country town suited us. I planned to stay in different Air BnBs there over a few months, just to see about the possibility.

It’s a lot like a place I love in County Kerry: Cahersiveen, three miles from my writer’s residency of February to March this year. Both towns have hills and a river, a low population, an arts community, plus a fantastic French café.

On the first afternoon we were strolling through the town, wending our way through streets where certain houses were for sale. With such a low population, there are never many. We knew we wanted something very old, like the 1850s to 1880s, which is old by Australian standards when viewed with an Anglo-European slant on things.

My boyfriend had seen one on the web and liked the look of it. But it was only five years old. It was the first one we passed. Set back on the long block behind a garden it had a winding path of stepping-stones through the grass. You couldn’t see much, but the house was timber, with a wide verandah and a chimney.

Faded Tibetan prayer flags strung across the verandah moved slightly in the faint breeze. It had a hippy-ish feeling, which would suit my boyfriend but not me. (Just because I have hippy-ish values of love, peace and [semi] vegetarianism doesn’t mean I like hippy-ish architecture.) 

A promising 1860 house

And it certainly didn’t date from the century before last. We wandered past others that looked more interesting, winding up at a real estate agent where we made an appointment for the next day to see a promising 1860 house with dormer windows.

Then we went into the agent responsible for the first one we’d seen. She said, ‘What about a look right now?’ and drove us down the hill. And with one step in the door of that house we fell in love.

It had features I hardly dared dream about, like a heart-lifting cathedral ceiling. The kitchen was enormous and the wide deck wrapped around three sides. There was a ton of north-facing living space, which in the southern hemisphere is what you want. From the huge bedroom upstairs and all the others was a view of the creek winding through the long backyard down to an Australian Wind in the Willows scene with a little waterfall. Across the creek was the Taj Mahal of chicken coops and a greenhouse.

The next morning we were woken by kookaburra calls – no, I didn’t interpret this as a sign that Fate was laughing at us – and we walked to the estate agent and made an offer on the house.

The 1860 house we saw after breakfast was small and dark with no view from those cute dormer windows except of the houses across the road. Like every house or flat I’ve ever lived in in this country – and they are legion – it had almost no north-facing bits. (The years of my life spent typing film reviews, book reviews, novels etc in places where the sun spilt itself uselessly against the north-facing brick wall, while the toilet, bathroom and laundry were bathed in glorious warm light!)

Mrs Posh from Bowral

Back in Canberra, we put our own house on the market and visited a solicitor who deals with both ACT and New South Wales properties, (predictably, getting our wrists smacked by him for being rash). He was just doing his job. He’s right. It is foolhardy to buy a huge house before selling our own, when our only wealth is our own house – and what if it won’t sell for ages?) Of course we did chemical tests etc and had a second look, instantly seeing that it was even better than it appeared before.

And that time it was necessary to endure the threat of a tall, impeccably-dressed, posh woman from Bowral striding through Saturday’s Open House, phone glued to her ear and announcing to her husband that it was perfect for an Air BnB. – The implication being that to live in it themselves would be slumming it, dah-ling. She strolled proprietorially down to the sparkling creek, where I jammed my hands in my pockets to resist the urge to push her in.

Since then, and hoping that Mrs Posh from Bowral didn’t try gazumping us, it’s been a crazy whirl of cleaning and storage and gardening and Open House twice a week. All with the most fantastic help from the kids, but still my boyfriend says mock lugubriously:

‘We, of our own volition, turned our lives upside-down.’

And I walk out to the kitchen, amazed by the beauty and cleanliness. ‘It’s like having servants! Everything’s shiny and neat all the time,’ I say – ‘uh, except that we are the servants.’

I still try to write every day, and mostly manage one or two thousand words of novel (working title now A Late Flowering). But I don’t manage to write many blogs. As usual I’m reading every chance I get. An outstanding book is Choked by Beth Gardiner (Granta, 2020), every bit as readable and fascinating as all the reviews said it was. We’re being poisoned by the invisible fumes from fossil fuel burning and car exhaust.

The author’s American. She married an Englishman. They and their daughter now live in London, which is much worse than New York for air quality, mainly because of the massive number of diesel cars in the former.

Particulate matter, which is smaller than viruses and one-thirtieth the width of a hair, damages the brain. Women who breathe polluted air are more likely to have an autistic child. Babies’ death rates are higher in polluted areas, their rates of SIDS, breathing problems, leukemia and cancers higher.

The pea-souper fogs of 1950s London got into people’s lungs but that was coal dust. (The 1956 Clean Air Act stopped it.) Particulate matter, mostly from diesel, gets into our bloodstream and causes far more damage in all areas of the body. Did you know that Boris Johnson, when he was Mayor, sprayed dust suppressants near pollution monitors to artificially lower readings?


Gardiner doesn’t mention Australia but our country deserves a whole book on the delinquency of our government in this area. (And of course you won’t read a word about the following in any Murdoch press.) We have no choice about what vehicles to buy, thanks to lax regulations governing fuel efficiency, CO2 emissions and fuel quality. CO2 emissions are growing because of ever-increasing four-wheel drive vehicles, most of them diesel, which pour out nitrogen dioxide, a seriously detrimental toxin we’re all breathing. Diesel’s sooty particles are coated with a nastier brew of chemicals than petrol and they trap heat in the atmosphere and play a big part in global warming.

Most countries are regulating fuel quality, emissions standards and fuel efficiency and have been for many years but Australia is failing in all three. For fuel quality we rank 66th in the world. We’re way behind the rest of the world in developing electric vehicles – and we can’t run the best and most efficient car engines here because of our poor fuel quality; we have the same problem with hybrids. (Info. from Guardian Weekly, 15/11/19 and Crikey, 26/11/20.)

It’s not a bad idea to get an air filter, which many did during the bushfires here earlier this year. Unlike smoke, diesel fumes are not visible and we can’t smell them. But they are wreaking havoc on our health. It would be great if we had a Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London who took measures to clean London’s air, including a ‘T-charge’ for Toxicity. He said, ‘I refuse to stand by while Londoners are killed by pollution.’

That’s the sort of leadership Australians can only dream about.

How to make moving house easier

Another book I read, which was of course lighter and funnier, was Marie Kondo’s Joy at Work (Bluebird Books, 2020). Clutter increases cortisol levels, which causes or increases a lot of horrible things, like high blood pressure, insomnia and even diabetes. The author takes you by the hand and tells you how to clear it up step by step and feel much happier. I was already a fan of her previous two books – see my blog post here – but it’s good to reinforce her methods, specially when moving house.

You probably know, but it’s worth repeating: multitasking reduces productivity by 40%. Research shows that to get more done, sometimes we need to work less. Downtime is necessary to incubate ideas.

And the more time we spend on social media the less happy we are. Research proves that the more emails you handle the lower your productivity and the higher your stress levels. Siimon Reynolds – siimonreynolds.com – in his uplifting new book Win Fast recommends only answering them in two time-slots a day. Siimon Reynolds’ latest book is published by Penguin (2019) and his previous one, Why People Fail in 2010, also by Penguin.

Marie Kondo recommends cleaning your work-space before starting work. Productivity will rise. She’s right. The visual clarity definitely helps mental clarity. Think of it not so much tidying and cleaning as interior design.

She also reminds us that there are lots more negative words in English than positive, so we must actively try to be positive. And my favourite bit in the whole book is her subheading under Chapter Three’s ‘Paper’ – ‘The Basic Rule is To Discard Everything.’ I took that to heart. It makes moving so much easier!

Hectic Reading. Starting all over again (3)

January 16, 2020 at 12:14 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

via Hectic Reading. Starting all over again (3)

What is story? Intercultural Perspectives on Narrative 

August 16, 2016 at 12:55 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

[Feature image: Christine Napanangka Michaels’ painting “Lappi Lappi Jukurrpa” © Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation] What makes a good story? Blogger in Residence, Sophie Constable, expl…

Source: What is story? Intercultural Perspectives on Narrative 

Food Blogging- more than just a love of food

August 7, 2016 at 12:11 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment




Diving into the River

May 24, 2016 at 11:02 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My first blog as a Blogger in Residence at the ACT Writers Centre is up on the CAPITAL LETTERS site. It is on screenwriting. Future posts will be on writing and refugees, prisoners’ writing, the health of writers (all that sitting, for one detrimental thing!), food blogging, writers dreaming … all topics I’m interested in and things I really want to do more research on. They won’t be once a week, more like once a month, because there are three other Bloggers in Residence, but you can get access to their posts through the same URL below. And between ACT Writers Centre posts I’ll write my personal ones here more often.

You can find it here: https://actwritersblog.com/2016/05/24/diving-into-the-river-screenwriting-in-the-digital-age/  

Eating real food: a quick comparison of cookbooks

January 4, 2016 at 2:12 am | Posted in Books, Cook books, food, health, nutrition, recipes, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

‘Gosh it’s easy to write a cookbook. Well, it’s easy if your primary role is “quality control”, and all the actual work is done by seasoned professionals and my slave-driven wife,’

writes David Gillespie in the Acknowledgements of his The Sweet Poison Quit Plan Cookbook (Melbourne, Viking, 2013, p. 199). He states that he ‘did practically nothing (other than eat pudding on a regular basis)’.

photo(2) copy

Having your (sugar-free) cake: two of David Gillespie’s books

David Gillespie presents the facts about serious and complex subjects (how sugar makes us fat and exhausted and gives us chronic diseases like diabetes Type 2 and certain cancers) simply and clearly. Equally clear are his reasons why we should avoid vegetable oils. The facetious self-deprecating humour in his Acknowledgements quoted above is typical of his style, and at other times the mental dexterity with which he expresses himself is highly amusing.

The highly unamusing fact is that food manufacturers well know how addictive (and cheap) sugar is, which means ever-escalating profits for them, so they are putting sugar in virtually everything on the supermarket shelves. It’s not just sweet things you need to avoid; it’s all the savoury things too. This means that if you do what Gillespie advises in his Eat Real Food (Viking, 2014), you will be okay. This book is written as simply and compellingly as all his others. The sugar-free recipes work well and taste good.

The David Gillespie recipes in all his books – see www.howmuchsugar.com – are more consistently better than the ones in Sarah Wilson’s books, which you can see on. www.sarahwilson.com Many of Sarah Wilson’s recipes taste good but some are dodgy. While they look good in the photographs the taste and texture don’t always live up to their food-styled, gorgeously photographed visual aesthetics. I have a hunch about this.

David Gillespie and his wife test their recipes under the severe conditions of catering for their six children, (a domestic kitchen in Brisbane catering for the palates of childhood, adolescence and the adults) while Sarah Wilson and her hip young Sydney-siders I Quit Sugar team, I’m willing to bet, have more money and more time and are more interested in creating quantity than quality so perhaps some recipes get a tick when they shouldn’t. That said, the Sarah Wilson ones that work (e.g., almond butter bark, I Quit Sugar, p.175) are wonderful, and it is of course a subjective thing, as you see with the positive and negative comments on her website about the same recipe.

David Permutter’s Grain Brain (NY, Little, Brown and Co., 2013, p. 291) contends that gluten is also a cause of today’s escalating rate of chronic disease. Haven’t we been eating grains for thousands of years? Yes, but the food manufacturers have engineered the grains to contain a much higher concentration of gluten than previously, to give their products longer shelf life. Permutter maintains that today’s low fat, high grain and other carbohydrate diet is the origin of headaches, insomnia, anxiety, autism, depression, epilepsy, schizophrenia, ADHA, inflammatory diseases like arthritis, and dementia.

Grain Brain: The surprising truth about wheat, carbs, and sugar – your brain’s silent killers contains evidence, recipes and case studies. You can get access to his latest research and recipes etc at www.DrPerlmutter.com

This book is a controversial best-seller. Many disagree with his theories. His research is not expressed nearly as clearly as David Gillespie’s. The website quackwatch.com disagrees with his findings and Alan Levinovitz ( www.nymag.com/scienceofus.2015.06problems-with-the-grain-brain-doctor.html presents a detailed critique of his research. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that sugar (the fructose half) is the worst thing that has happened to our health in the last two or three generations.

An award-winning website about food and flavours is www.bizzylizzysgoodthings.com and it features Lizzy’s beautiful photography as well. She is an engaging writer and her recipes are well and truly tested, and they do work consistently well. Her recipes are not necessarily sugar-free or wheat-free, and neither are Jules Clancy’s – thestonesoup.com – but they are both healthy overall and quick, easy and reliable. My copy of Jules Clancy’s 5 Ingredients, 10 Minutes: Delicious, healthy recipes for tired and hungry cooks (Michael Joseph, 2013) is ingredient-spattered and book-marked all the way through – I use it when I’m tired and hungry or not – it really does take ten minutes and every recipe I’ve made is a winner.


Meeting the sunlight: taking time to think

December 21, 2015 at 5:38 am | Posted in Books, digital technology, Quotations, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The picturesque town of Mallaig is on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands. I was waiting for a coffee at the Mallaig Tea Rooms when I saw a framed scroll on the wall above the little coal fire. It read:

‘These are times of more convenience but less time, more knowledge but less judgement, fast foods but slow digestion, tall men but short character, steep profits but shallow relationships.

‘It is a time when there is much in the window but nothing in the room.’

The Dalai Lama.
It was when I was travelling for six weeks between writing the text of Inspiring Australians and organising the book’s photographs. The quotation put me in mind of my book because a Churchill Fellowship enables the opportunity for time and expansion of thought, for slowly unfolding realisations and deepening rapports with overseas peers. Many Churchill Fellows told me that one thing they really treasured was the luxury of time to think. In the daily work world of back-to-back meetings and multi-tasking to meet competing deadlines there is little time to think.

Time to think shouldn’t be a luxury. Time to think is a necessity.

In the time since publication of my book, I have treasured my own time to think (about topics unrelated to my book). I’ve been cycling to the local library and coming away with an enormous pile of books to put in my basket, then riding home and devouring them. In one, Daniel Levitikin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking straight in an age of information overload (Viking, 2015) the author tells us that the brain is not wired to multitask and doing so increases our levels of cortisol and adrenaline. This overstimulates the ‘wrong’ parts of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, and causes foggy thinking, and sometimes aggressive and impulsive behaviour. If students watch TV while doing homework, the schoolwork information goes into the stratium, a region specialised for storing new procedures and skills, not facts and ideas. Without the distraction of TV, the information goes into the hippocampus, where it is organised and categorised in ways that make it easier to retrieve.

Focusing on one thing reduces the brain’s need for glucose. Multitasking chews up glucose, causing ‘the brain to burn through its fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain. This leads to compromises in both cognitive and physical performance.’ (The Guardian Weekly Feb. 2015, p. 27)

Writer Norbet Platt said, ‘The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought, this in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium.’ Of course the act of putting fingertips to keyboard, though not as pleasantly alliterative, does the same thing. So those of us who write blogs or journals or columns etc are doing the right thing in these times of having no time for reflection. It is our job to reflect. We must think in order to do our job properly. (And must try to in spite of those competing deadlines.)

American writer Pat Conroy thinks that ‘blog’ is the ugliest word in the English language. But he has a blog (www.patconroy.com) and he uses it ‘as a way to sneak back to his writing without being noticed’.

I thought that blog was the abbreviated combination of ‘biography’ and ‘log’ like a ship’s log but for a life (even if not aboard a ship). But no, apparently it is short for weblog. I hadn’t read Pat Conroy (Prince of Tides) in years, then my friend Bernadette recommended his memoir, My Reading Life (Random House, 2010), which is enjoyable, funny and rewarding. All Conroy’s life, books have been for him the portal to a wider world. He writes:

‘I have always taken a child’s joy in the painterly loveliness of the English language…. What richer way to meet the sunlight than bathing each day of my life in my island-born language, the one that Shakespeare breathed on, Milton wrestled with, Jane Austen tamed, and Churchill rallied the squadrons of England with?’ (p. 300-301)

Winston Churchill was steeped in these writers, as well as Gibbon and the King James Bible, and he loved the English language as much as Pat Conroy does. Unfortunately, most Reports of Churchill Fellows for the last 15 or so years are not written in language found in books like these but in the corporate jargon we are so familiar with now. Churchill would blanch if he could read what is being done to his beloved language. Exceptions include Rifaat Shoukrallah on road safety, virtuoso recorder player Genevieve Lacey and Courtney Page-Allen (digitising 1,535 portraits of Australian soldiers of World War I). All Reports can be viewed on the Trust’s website: www.churchilltrust.org.au

‘If you don’t breathe through writing,’ wrote French writer Anais Nin, ‘if you don’t cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.’ Times have changed. Now our culture has plenty of use for the leaden and deceptive obfuscations of managerial language. But although it is everywhere, most people don’t want to waste time on this unreadable bilge so popular with politicians, bureaucrats and bankers. They want to read people who do what William Wordsworth long ago advised: ‘Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart’. That is what we should all be doing, in fiction or blogs, letters or reports, articles or cook books. (Look at Nigella Lawson’s books – a delight to read them.) If you write in plain English with an open heart like she does, and like her compatriots George Orwell and Winston Churchill did, you won’t go wrong.

New Beginnings and New Year Muffins

January 5, 2014 at 11:15 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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I’m a stationery junkie. I love notebooks of every kind, from school exercise books to hand-made, leather-bound journals. Once I bought a very small hand-made notebook in a Knightsbridge stationers in London. Its cover was soft suede of the palest green and the smooth, creamy-textured pages inside were exactly the same shade. The endpapers were of marbled paper in delicate pastels. It was so pure and pale and perfect that it was ages before I could bring myself to sully its perfection with my dark blue scrawl. It was years actually. This probably had something to do with my having bought it while travelling with my boyfriend, who died the following year.


Finally, finally, about twelve years later, I let myself dive into the beauty of the notebook and my blue scrawl became a part of that beauty. My scrawl is a semi-legible idiosyncrasy that a girlfriend used to call a spider’s two-step tango – back in the days before computers when we all saw one another’s handwriting often. But my writing is expressive of a creative person who has lived a life of vicissitudes so I’ve come to terms with my scrawl and it’s easier to read now than it used to be, possibly a sign of more sanity and serenity than I had in my youth.


Don’t I use a computer most of the time? Yes. Touch-typing is much faster. I’m always amazed at the number of people for whom typing should be a tool of the trade – like academics – who can’t touch-type. There are easy courses on the web like ‘Type Quick’ where you can learn it in a fortnight of just one hour every day and that investment is worth its weight in gold, time-wise plus ergonomically plus easier on your eye sight as well. I can type this while looking at the plum trees out the window. It makes it a lot easier and pleasanter to write.


My computer crashed on New Years Day. What sort of omen is that? It doesn’t sound good unless you interpret it as New Beginnings. Well, let’s hope it means that! On that morning, at 8.00am I cycled the five minutes to the pool as I often do. It was unusually and unpleasantly crowded. The lanes were peppered with thumpers as well. Thumpers are inexperienced swimmers who slap their hands onto the water and thump their feet, thus showering bucketfuls of water onto your face as you’re backstroking past them.


I was annoyed. And then suddenly I relaxed. This happens every year and I’d forgotten. It was New Year, the time of New Year Resolutions. The majority of these unfamiliar faces would have resolved to swim every morning in 2014. Inevitably, the first cloudy day or the first morning they feel too tired or when work starts getting busy, they stop coming. Most of these thumpers will not be crowding the lanes in a few days’ time.


Am I feeling smug about my own New Year’s resolutions? No. Nothing to feel smug about – I’m just stubborn. If I make them I usually keep them, in spite of the usual massive obstacles flung in my path. Maybe it’s because of my history of massive obstacles. If you want more morally appealing terms for stubbornness, I could say that my lifetime of vicissitudes have made me determined and persevering, patient and steadfast. If I say I’ll do something, I will do it.


We all have obstacles in our paths and it’s good not to lose sight of the gentle, small things of life that can lift it up to a happier place. Simple things like digging out my ancient laptop from the shed and discovering it still works, the old faithful. And simple recipes. Jules Clancy’s recipe for New Year’s Raspberry and Dark Chocolate Muffins is a good one. I’m going to take them to work on Monday, my first day back. Jules Clancy got it from The Bourke Street Bakery cookbook and it is easy and simple and very wonderful.


250 g plain flour

1 and a half teaspoons baking powder

200 g caster sugar

200 g unsalted butter

Three-quarters of a cup of natural yoghurt

Half a cup of water

2 eggs

100 g dark chocolate, chopped into rough bits

150 g raspberries, fresh or frozen

2 tblsp raw sugar for the tops


Pre-heat oven to 190C degrees. Line two big muffin trays with patty pans – that’s cup cake papers to Americans and everywhere now.


Combine flour, baking powder and sugar in a big bowl and make a well in centre. Melt butter, remove from heat. Stir through yoghurt and water and then add eggs, stirring well.


Pour butter mixture into the well in the dry ingreds and stir to combine. Fold through raspberries and chocolate and spoon into muffin papers. Sprinkle with raw sugar. Bake for 30-45 mins or when they are golden and feel springy. Cool in tray. (If you take them out early and eat them warm from the oven you get the chocolate still a bit molten so it melts in your mouth. Yum!)


Yum! And if your New Years Resolution is to give up sugar? Go to the website of either David Gillespie www.sweetpoison.com.au or Sarah Wilson http://www.sarahwilson.com.au where there are chocolate recipes with no sugar. Sarah even has an I Quit Sugar Chocolate Cookbook, which is good.


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