Monday, August 30, 2010


By the time I was back in the city, S had been transferred out of Emergency. A small group of family and friends now held vigil in her room. She had not yet, through waning consciousness, expressed anything but the will to hang on. Medical staff still talked about obscure infective processes, and needles still sucked more blood for more tests. They only needed to look at her. The family asked me about the Hospice, a destination I had flagged on that Sunday when she was rushed in, and what could I say, except that she was still in control of her decisions. Very early on Friday morning, the sun just risen, the night special still there, I called in on the way to work. "Ring the family darling' she said clearly and certainly. "I want to die, and I want the family with me when I do."

I am back in the country, waiting. It was expected yesterday, the phone call. Those with her are the ones she wants and needs. Little B is here. He was curled into the fold of my knees as I read into the early hours of Saturday, Iris Murdoch's 'The Sea The Sea', and this sentence was the one which closed the night: "How does a child perceive such things, or rather how is it that they are so perceptible, so obvious, to a child, who perhaps, like a dog, reads signs which have become invisible amid the conventions of the grown-up world, and are thus overlooked in the adult campaign of deceipt?"

(click to enlarge)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Here's Bear, our boarder.

Under full sail, heading into the wind, with a determination that runs in the family.

Down among the gum trees, tous les trois.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


At the risk of sounding outrageously pretentious, this is the first winter in five years we haven't gone to France. It, going to France, took on a life of its own, revolving around the Aix-en-Provence Festival and its Ring Cycle, with the Berlin Philharmonic. I'd find a conference somewhere, K would arrange some meetings, and off we'd go, anywhere from London to Budapest, and everywhere in between, ending up in Paris before hurtling down south on the TGV. We had also managed to escape winter here, or at least put a big enough hole in it.

This year, budgets need to be better balanced, the Ring is done and dusted, and the winter here is wonderful. Everyone says how cold it has been. I'm liking it. It suits me and I feel safe here in winter, surrounded by forest, rather than wondering all summer if and when the bush fires will come. So I'm not really that sorry we can't go, especially as we could easily slip into taking things for granted and nothing is more dulling than that.

But France has been on my mind. I've just finished reading Lucy Wadham's 'A Secret Life of France' and I'm madly envious of her. (Remember though, I never want to be anyone or anywhere but me and where I am - that much I've resolved.) But, she absorbs the reader into her life with such honesty that for all its complications, it is fantastic, alluring, and sexy. Frenchmen are incredibly sexy, Italians and Spanish notwithstanding. Being In France is a sexual experience, eyes meeting in the street is more sensual than a week in bed with most, and ... that's enough for now. With rare insight fired by a sharp intellect, and some pretty amazing connections (we're talking BBC here), it's like landing on a ladder and being zoomed up the French Experience game board. Lucy Wadham now lives in the (Huguenot) Cevennes, and it's there I'd love to go, maybe next time. There will be a next time.
M had lent me the Secret Life book. She is crazy for France, and on her last visit bar one had ended up in hospital before being sent back home needing her aortic valve replaced. I rang her when I'd finished reading it.

"Have you seen it?" she asked.
"Seen what?"
"So French"
"What's so French?"
"The book"
"Book? What book?"
"The book. It's called 'So French'. You remember Dany Chouet - you met her mother on the plane."

I bought it the next day. It is So French.

Many many years ago I was flying home from Paris via Bangkok. We sat for hours in the CdeG departure lounge before being told the plane was broken, or wouldn't start, or something, and were bussed back into Paris for the night while they fiddled with whatever they fiddle with when planes don't work. I'd especially noticed a not yet but nearly elderly round faced woman with an easel under her arm, and a worried smile (you know those smiles, on someone who doesn't know how not to smile, even when they're worried), sweeping all aside whenever she turned around.

I was hoping we might be seated together, but it wasn't till we were finally in transit in Bangkok that I saw her again, the easel still underarm and a long queue behind tailing through the terminal, in animated French monologue with a blank faced Thai attendant. We had missed our connection to Sydney, and now were about to have a night in Bangkok. With my French and her English about par, and that's no compliment to either, all eventually resolved with the airline reassuring her that her daughter, one Dany Chouet, would somehow be notified of Maman's new arrival time. We were to share time and later letters in the time of snail mail and I would visit Dany at 'Cleopatra' in Blackheath where, with her partner the fabulously stylish Trish Hobbs, she presided over legendary weekends of food and comfort. Remember too her sister Monique, who married Michael Manners, and set up Glenella. To the best of my knowledge, Cleopatra is now a private residence.

(From 'So French', Cleopatra, in its full glory, as it was when Trish and Dany ran it as a guesthouse.)

(From 'So French', Dany Chouet, at home in the garden in the Périgord)

As I said, I bought the book next day. It is Dany Chouet's story, beautifully presented, well written and full of gorgeous photos and recipes. It is so seductive, so French.

Trish and Dany now live in the Périgord. We're already talking with the McCs about planning a visit to celebrate someone's (not me) special birthday. Somewhere Périgorgeous.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Whatever else, they can't take it away. The day, the sky, bluer than ever, the radiant warmth of sun on a cold morning, the stillness, the first call of the kookaburras, the thrown open doors onto the verandahs, the sound of the kettle boiling.

We finished the night soon after midnight, playing some Chopin Nocturnes after C and G had left, the (election night) despondency fading with light-hearted banter about where we would move - Canada, France, Portugal, with Tasmania a late pragmatic finalist. K was still fiddling with the loudspeaker crossovers, and I was eating more spicy apricot chocolate cake which I'd overcooked. Millie was in the scrub just off the bedroom transfixed staring down the wombat hole and the old dog was asleep under the table. On the couch was a newcomer, a silky terrier. We're minding him. His mummy, as she calls herself, is in the final stages of disseminated cancer and no longer able to care for her little dog, or herself. Nor does she care what happened last night.

We've tried to position our lives beyond the reach of politics and its players. There's something about country though, something about what you want to be and be seen to be ...

All that was yesterday, Sunday, and now it's 24 hours later. I stopped writing to answer the phone. It was T, to whom I'd been talking more and more in the last few days. On Wednesday last she had taken S (the terrier's mummy) home to care for her when she refused the hospital admission her oncologist recommended. Now an ambulance had just been called and S was on her way to hospital. "It's scary" T managed to confide through tears, after describing the bubbling gasping breath.

Two hours later we were together and variously gathered around her bed in Emergency. What I had expected to be an irreversible decline had in fact been a cardiac arrhythmia which had now reverted with minimal therapeutic intervention. She looked wasted, small frail and balding behind the high delivery oxygen mask and was unable to speak because of painful mouth ulcers. Her chest rattled. We had some time alone, and among the things she wrote (and I am looking at the piece of paper now) was 'I have no intention of dying'. The question of course was just how far this treatment was to be pursued, the profession on the one hand seeing a respiratory decline as a reversible infective side effect of chemotherapy, against the necessary question of when to say enough is enough. She had now accepted hospitalisation as not only necessary but desirable, and moreover had made it quite clear, the fight was far from over.

So driving back to the country last night was a time for rebalancing. It is a remarkable country, where I want to be if I end up like my dear friend, in a wonderful city, in a wonderful hospital, surrounded by wonderful staff, on every level, and, hopefully, some friends to whom I can write final messages.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


J rang this morning to chat about last week's Simone Young concert, and good it was too. It wasn't part of our series but C and G had used the clever 'bring your friends for free' tactic, so there we were. Very close. And I liked it. The sound I could get used to down there, and the proximity has its rewards, like the rather gorgeous Latvian violinist with a Strad with a perfect balance of sound which by the time it reached the circle may well have unbalanced itself in favour of the orchestra over the violin, small sound that it makes.

There are disadvantages though - you don't see any of the brass, or winds, or percussion, and you are perilously close to Simone's shoes, which had a strange perspex look about the back of them, but then my eyes have been letting me down a little. I kept wishing her trousers were longer... now I've gone off track -

J alerted me to a big unknown, a birthing, a big baby indeed: a new orchestra! and right here in this very city, at the local Town Hall, for cryin' out loud, and I missed it. And they've called it Orchestra Romantique. Baby and family (at least one daddy, Nick Byrne of the trombone, not to mention Ophicleide, with Nicholas Carter conductor, with midwives you could say, Kirsty Hilton concertmaster and the fabulous tireless Diana Doherty) are all doing well, very well in fact, Murray Black reports today. (He'll also tell you all you need to know about Simone and the SSO.)

The orchestra is "dedicated to performance of works by the great masters of the 19th century in intimate and accessible venues." And that's not all - there is a strong emphasis on returning to the instruments of the period (Berlioz is next with a Symphonie Fantastique you've likely never heard before), the hope of engaging a new young audience (pricing and concert times), and a wish to travel beyond the city.

There was a big spread in the July Limelight, which can be downloaded here. Full marks and hopefully, surely, there will be enough support for full steam ahead.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


There's a million reasons why here is where I want to be. 'Here' is at the edge of the Morton National Park, and where we built our house. Well, we had the house built, but with the materials we wanted, driven by pretty well informed environmental concerns, in a style we wanted, driven by the adobe based look of the modern housing of Santa Fe, where the houses looked like they'd been lowered into the desert, dressed with (apparently) completely natural desert gardens, and driven by budget, fortunately. All the things an unlimited budget could have given in retrospect would have meant a loss of simplicity and meaningfulness. Too much is always too much.

We're on the edge, literally, tucked into a ridge of tall, sometimes open, eucalypt forest, looking down, into, and across the gullies dense with the closed canopies of rainforest lush with tree ferns.

All this was planned. What I didn't consciously realise was how intimate our relationship with wildlife would become. Of them all, marsupials, rodents, lizards and snakes, it's the birds that are so fantastic (except perhaps for the Goannas, but they can't sing). I go for days here with no added sound, no radio, no TV, no music, no talking, except to the dogs. Just the wind and the birds. I've been raving a bit about the birds on and off, but the most astounding, the most secret, the best secret, is the legendary Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae). It is much more widespread than commonly known, found east of the ranges from southern Queensland, along New South Wales into eastern Victoria. And they are rampant here.

There may be the brilliance of Rozellas and Parrots, the subleties of the Robins, the melodies of the Thrushes, the cadenzas of the Blue Satin Bowerbird, the screech of the cockatoos, the squarks of the Wattle Birds, or the size and majesty of the Eagle, and so on and so on. The Super Lyrbird trumps them all and he does it not only with song, but with a tail of impossibly beautiful design used to turn an otherwise dull scrubby brown body into a dazzling shimmer of silver quivers contained within an arching pair of striped feathers in the shape which gives him his name. From under this trembling guise he courts, singing loud his seductive calls, his own native songs and especially to impress her ladyship, he adds the songs of every other bird of the bush as well as anything else he thinks may give him the advantage and clinch the wooing.

We hear them a lot, especially in the cooler months, when they come up from the gullies and fossick around the house. They love to root through the rotting mulch which I'm forever shovelling around, particulary near new plantings. The strong feet and claws move rocks and there are fleeting moments when I think 'pest' before I realise again they can do what they like as long as they stay.

Coming down the hall the other morning, something caught my eye. If not the song, and they stop singing as soon as they are aware of another, it's usually their movement that draws your attention because their colours are the same as the forest floor. This time it was the tail against the bird bath base that gave him away, You can imagine that without that tail how hard it would be to notice the male, and the female, with a short brown plain tail about the same lenght of her body, is even more discrete. And, no offence meant, very ordinary.

(click to enlarge)

That eye misses nothing. I managed a few quick photos from one of the north windows looking across the grass to the birdbath under a wattle. It was when I moved to another window on the other side of the fireplace he noticed me, even though I was inside and he was about ten metres from the house. In the few seconds it took to try for another angle, he was off, a blurred scurry away over the grass to disappear into the security of the scrub.

They are incredibly alert and really vulnerable, barely able to get off the ground, having to rely on fast feet to flee through open space, or in the bush they half scramble half fly, hauling themselves up tree trunks to escape danger. Descent takes some form of gliding with reverse scramble. It's all very awkward.

But the songs. Even Messiaen came to hear them. "For Messiaen, the lyrebird represented a source of 'pure' music, undefiled by the modern world" (kurtbrereton).

Here is the superb (sic) David Attenborough film, just in case you're not one of the millions who have already seen it:

And, while this is not mine, it is of this place, and, despite the sound of cars closeby, takes you into the "undefiled by the modern world". This is exactly what we hear. There's lots of his own song as well as much mimicry of other birds. How many can you pick?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


From the BBC, and Norman Lebrecht, you have just a few more days to listen to Simone Young, Music Director at Hamburg Opera, about school and youth in Sydney, about 'faith' and music making, about her early time at Opera Australia particularly with Stuart Challender, about cracking it in Europe, about prejudice and gender, about hard work and study and research, about music making, and about her time as MD of Opera Australia and how and why it ended. It was a pretty gutless severance, a phone call from her manager to say her contract wasn't being renewed.

She seems to carry no bitterness, is rooted in Australian (she uses words like soul, brain and happiness), and you feel the outstretched hand, waiting for the new pit, because it essentially comes down to that. I've no doubt it will happen although the philistines who run our country, on every level, dent even the most optimistic punter.

Simone Young conducts the Sydney Symphony Orchestra this week in the Concert Hall.

(Before this slips away, I should note that Simone points out she left behind a deficit of $40,000 not the projected $2 mill they were wringing their hands over. And audience numbers were increasing at 10% pa. What I had forgotten was that there was this 9/11 thing in 2001.)