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!

Changing lives – making lists and having fun

December 12, 2017 at 3:19 am | Posted in Christmans presents, libraries, list-making | Leave a comment
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Why write?

‘It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by.’ I’ve quoted Vita Sackville West https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vita_Sackville-West before but this bears repeating. Writing or any activity that produces something will prevent that feeling of empty past days. But it should also be remembered that Vita Sackville West probably had servants. So if she didn’t write on a given day, perhaps she could do nothing if she felt like it.

Few of us have that luxury now. The days of most people, even if they’re wealthy, are filled to overflowing with too many things to do. (I’ve met two super wealthy people and even at a dinner out I never saw them relax – they’re always on the mobile, checking some crisis in the China factory or whatever.)

There’s another quotation I like:

‘Lists are the butterfly nets that catch my fleeting thoughts…’ by American blogger Betsy Canas Garmon.

Continue Reading Changing lives – making lists and having fun…

Hope and optimism in a world of worry

January 7, 2017 at 8:06 pm | Posted in creativity, decluttering, Inequality, politics, writers' health | 1 Comment
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A single word

Rather than making a list of New Year’s resolutions, someone I know chooses a single word to guide her through the coming year. It could be ‘simplicity’ or ‘generosity’, ‘creativity’ or ‘serenity’. Careful thought about the choice of a meaningful word makes decisions during the year easier and quicker.

Even though a glance back at last year, especially politically, could plunge us into despair, there is a case to be made for choosing ‘hope’ or ‘optimism’ for 2017. You know how certain people float into your mind at odd times? I’ll recall them while cycling on quiet bike paths or in the shower or swimming laps at my local pool. Sometimes they’re people who give me hope.

Some Churchill Fellows in my book, Inspiring Australians (www.churchilltrust.org.au/shop ) are often on my mind because of the positive difference they make to this country, like environmental experts Hugh Lavery and Peter Cundall – more about them later. I also think about Al Gore. I’ve never met Al Gore but it’s because of his TED talk from last year, ‘The case for optimism on climate change’ – that I keep recalling him.

(See https://www.ted.com/talks/al_gore_the_case-for-optimism_on …)

He presents some bad news (of course) but much more significant good news about climate change. The bad is catastrophic and Gore presents the facts in accessible language. He asks, ‘Must we change?’ and ‘Will we change?’ and answers with the evidence that justifies a ‘Yes’ to both questions. It’s not too late to act – and we are acting.

Solving the crisis

‘We are solving this crisis,’ he says, pointing out that in China, Europe and the US, coal plants are being cancelled at a massive rate in favour of renewable sources of energy. Even though fossil fuels are still subsidised by many governments, solar energy is growing exponentially, so that renewables have achieved grid parity and are getting cheaper all the time.

He shows pictures of solar panels on grass huts and we learn that microcredit schemes enable even desperately poor people to buy them. At the other end of the scale (and this is my observation, not Gore’s) money is the only language some people understand – well, Al Gore presents the evidence that now there is more financial profit to be made from renewables than from coal and gas.

We’ve known that investing in renewable energy and not digging up more coal is backed by science, we’ve known it’s backed by reason, and now we know that it’s backed by better investment opportunities and financial profit. This last is what is now changing things in a hurry.

Hungry for decent leadership

People’s motives for abandoning fossil fuels don’t matter – what matters is that it’s finally happening, and Al Gore’s stirring words ring in my head: ‘The will to act is itself a renewable resource!’ In a world hungry for decent leadership we’re lucky to have some people like him showing breakthroughs like this and inspiring people to action, demonstrating a leadership rarely seen these days.

We don’t see leadership in most of our politicians and we’ve come not to expect any. Too many of them have vested interests in maintaining the status quo, to put it mildly and politely. Some visitor to Australia said recently, ‘They say a country gets the politicians it deserves, but nobody deserves Australia’s politicians!’

From their abusive treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, to say nothing of our own Indigenous people, we can see that most of our political leaders are morally bankrupt. If decisions are left to them they will soon bankrupt our nation financially too because of the same limited vision that causes their racism.

The only leadership we’re going to get is from ordinary people. Hugh Lavery AO, an early Churchill Fellow, from Queensland, with environmental qualifications, experience and awards as long as your arm (see www.churchilltrust.org.au/shop for Inspiring Australians, p. 76-77), learnt much from stockmen and fishermen, as well as those developers who ‘are informed and smart and who keep out of the news’. He maintains that the quality of the environment is ultimately delivered by the people and he agrees that ‘now, we have tough times. But it’s a good time for opportunity.’

Peter Cundall AO (Churchill Fellow, 1974) is optimistic about the future of the planet and about the wisdom of ordinary people once they see that things are wrong. He sees the environmental movement growing stronger every day and he believes that it is beyond politics. He says that people all over the world are improving the earth and the planet and they are doing it themselves: ‘The politicians won’t do it; the people have to.’

Life-changing magic!

What can we do? We can live more simply and harm the environment less. The program called ‘A Simple Year’ is a good one – it’s inspiring and keeps you on the right track. They focus on a different theme for each month, like January’s is ‘Clutter’ and February is ‘Busyness’. (See http://simpleyear.com/ )

See also Courtney Carver’s www.bemorewithless.com and Sarah Wilson’s blog on living a healthy and sustainable life, every Friday: www.sarahwilson.com

You could also check out the Australian Conservation Foundation’s website at http://www.acf.org.au and see how they focus on five big ideas, such as clean energy; laws to protect our air, water and wildlife; and putting the planet before profits.

Living a simpler, more sustainable life frees up your time and resources to do more meaningful and creative things, creating a happier you and a healthier planet. Does that sound saccharine? Well even if it does, I’m not deleting it because it’s true. Healing the planet is up to us – ordinary people, and it’s amazing the difference living simply makes.

Courtney Carver’s Be More with Less blog is where I discovered Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Ten-Speed Press, 2014). See my 2 Nov. 2015 blog post. This book is whacky and funny. The translator seems to have preserved the young author’s voice of originality and verve. If you go to the initial trouble of following her unusual advice, it really does make your life easier and happier. Before you know it, with the free time and mental clarity you have, you’ll be full of hope and optimism and chipping large chunks away from that world of worry the media keeps flinging at us every day.

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