Saturday, July 31, 2010
We had an unusual visitor at 7.15am on Wednesday. A farmer with a truck full of apples and citrus saw my husband leaving for work and decided to stop ‘in case we needed any fruit’.
Well yes, we always need fruit but I had a feeling that he didn’t mean three apples here, 2 oranges there.
‘It’s just a box’ said my husband excitedly adding in words such as ‘organic’, ‘pesticide-free’, ‘never frozen’ and ‘picked yesterday’. As I spread Vegemite onto toast I considered that a box would probably translate to quite a few apples but I also hadn’t finished my mug of tea so I decided to let him deal with the farmer.
Well, I can now say from experience that a box of apples = LOTS of apples. ‘How are we meant to eat all this?’ I asked as my husband dropped the box onto the kitchen table.
‘We’ll get through it. The kids love apples’, he said over his shoulder as he left for work.
This is true, the kids do love apples (they’re the only fruit Ned will eat at the moment) but there are only three of them. Not 30. So after sending each child off into the world for the last couple of days with an apple for recess and another for lunch; after offers of apple on porridge for breakfast; of pork and apple sauce for dinner; of stewed apple for dessert... we still have LOTS of apples.
Luckily, there is a chapter devoted to apples in Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion. It’s a short chapter, unfortunately, but there is a tasty looking apple cake I plan to bake this weekend. And as it is a weekend, I thought it would be fun to share the recipe in case anyone else has a kitchen full of apples... if you don’t, I really do have more than enough to share.
Quick Apple Cake
2 cups peeled & chopped apples
2 tbsp Kellybrook Winery apple brandy, brandy or rum
140g unsalted butter
160g plain flour
1tsp baking powder
120g castor sugar
Soak fruit in chosen spirit for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 200°C.
Butter a 24cm ring tin or 22cm round cake tin.
Melt butter & allow to cool
Sift flour & baking powder
Beat eggs & sugar until thick and fluffy and fold in flour mixture gently.
Drizzle in melted butter, then fold it in
Fold in apple & any juice
Spoon into prepared tin and bake for 40 minutes until cake is golden brown & tests clean
Serve warm or cold with cream
Recipe taken from The Cook’s Companion by Stephanie Alexander, Viking, 1996
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Virginia Lloyd was just 34-years-old when she lost her husband John to cancer; they had been married only a year. In the tumultuous months that followed, their old Victorian double-fronted home badly affected by rising damp, appeared to grieve alongside her. As she was forced to watch her house dry from the inside out, its walls rendered, painted and transformed, she also watched herself move from a grieving widow to becoming a stronger woman with her own future to paint.
It is this story about the parallels between ourselves and our homes that became the basis of her beautifully written memoir The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement. The paperback edition was selected as One of the 50 Books You Can't Put Down as part of the 2009 Books Alive campaign, which encourages Australians to read.
For Virginia, home was central to both her grieving and recovery. ‘Any home is unique if you live there with the person that you love but it becomes such a potent place when you have lost that person you love most in the world.’
As John’s condition deteriorated, home became a very private place. ‘We experienced great joy and happiness alongside great sorrow and pain within those walls. Here was a place we could just be ourselves, be together and have our intimacies. After John died it was the place I most wanted to be but equally the place where I most felt his absence.’
Virginia likens her grief to an open wound; damaged and bruised. ‘You can’t avoid it; you’re always aware of it and you don’t realise how much you need something until it’s gone. The reality is that when you lose a spouse, you grieve their loss for the rest of your life, no matter what happens or who happens. It’s a loss that can’t be repaired.’
But for Virginia, what could be repaired was their home. While largely unaware of the problem of the rising damp when John was so ill, it was evident soon after his death that the house needed extensive attention. For Virginia this became perhaps a sanity-saving project.
‘Focusing on the house and upending every drawer, shelf, cupboard, sorting, de-cluttering, looking through old photo albums and literally immersing myself in every nook and cranny of the house was both a part of grieving and a part of gaining some sense of control in a life that felt completely anarchic.’
‘I had plantation shutters installed quite early on after John’s death. We had talked about having them so I thought it would be a good project for me; I needed to organise quotes and choose the ones I wanted.’
Having to deal with tradesmen and service providers was also therapeutic. ‘It was quite surreal and I remember being intrigued and almost seduced by the way inviting these people into my home was so impersonal. I could have a friendly exchange with a stranger who knew nothing about me. There was something refreshing about those experiences, which was divorced from the reality that was going on. In a way it made me feel I had a life going on outside the walls of my home.’
Virginia, of course, did have to go out into the world everyday: she would catch the bus into the city to work, buy groceries, talk to people and come home again where she would then collapse ‘in a puddle’.
‘It was like being a different person. When I left the house it felt like putting on a suit of armour. Inside that suit of armour I could get through what I had to each day. While it was invisible to others I was very conscious of wearing it.’
Home became the only place where she could be herself. ‘I could watch mind-numbing DVDs or flick through magazines. It was a long time before I could concentrate on reading anything longer than a paragraph and as a great lifelong reader that was shocking to me.’
During this time, Virginia allowed the hedge at the front gate to grow disproportionately high while the vines covering lattice on the front porch grew very thick, hindering light coming through the house. The back garden, where she and John were also married, offered a private sanctuary with more tall trees and seclusion. In her own words, she sequestered herself.
But it was the home improvements that gave her a sense of hope for her own recovery; those plantation shutters did more for Virginia than look good over a window. ‘Even though I might have been in tears on the floor late at night, I would look at those shutters and think, “Well, something has changed here. Something looks better.” Even though I felt on an emotional level that nothing had changed or that it was impossible that anything might change how I felt, I liked the fact the house was improving.’
As the rising damp dried out and the house was rendered and painted the changes to both the house and Virginia became more visible. ‘When the walls were rendered, I finally saw how much the house was the canvas on which I’d painted my grief. That was when the idea of the metaphorical relationship occurred to me.’
The very last stage of Virginia’s home improvements was the garden. She had the hedge trimmed right back and tore down the vines. The light could now shine into the house and anyone walking by could see past the hedge.
‘It was very symbolic, although I didn’t realise it at the time. I just acted. This really reflected my journey of being completely inwardly focussed within the walls of the home to gradually reaching out and connecting with the rest of the world.’
Fortuitously Virginia had won a Green Card to work in the USA in the annual lottery a few years previously. After the renovations were complete, she decided to move to New York for 18 months. ‘My identity was in a state of flux. After John died I didn’t know who I was. I was a jumble of what I had been, what I’d done, what I wanted to do and what I was afraid to do. All those things were exciting and confusing.’
In New York she finally had geographical and emotional distance. ‘The fog cleared and I was able to write the book in a small apartment in Brooklyn.’ Renting out the house to friends of friends meant she still felt a connection to it. ‘I had one foot in and one foot out that front door’.
On returning to Australia, she assumed she would happily move back in and get on with her life but ironically the publication of the book made her realise that to truly move on, she would need to leave the house behind.
‘I was fortunate to have lots of radio and newspaper interviews when the book was first published and I found myself waking up several mornings a week inside this house, preparing myself for the same run of questions about this house, going out and talking about this house, then returning to this same house in the evening.'
‘Soon after I became really sick with the flu and was literally housebound for a couple of weeks. I was so ill and so fed up with myself and one day looked around and thought I’d turn into Miss Havisham if I didn’t do something about it. I didn’t want to become the old lady swanning around behind the hedges.’
It was only then that Virginia felt she had reached sufficient detachment of herself from the house. ‘The house had finally become a house. It wasn’t John; it wasn’t our home. It wasn’t even my home anymore.’
For Virginia, the home she shared with John had very much become a reflection of their love. ‘I was afraid of losing my memories of John and our marriage (which was very short) if I left. Psychologically I had latched onto the house as an emblem of our relationship and it took me a long time to realise our marriage had nothing to do with the house; that they were separate.'
When it came time to sell, Virginia admits that her heart was in her mouth, yet she also knew it felt right.
Today, she likes to think of a new family enjoying all the wonderful things about the home both she and John loved. ‘It’s right for them to be doing that. It’s not right for me to be kicking around there trying to create a new life when the old life was so apparent.’
All photos © Virginia Lloyd
Monday, July 26, 2010
After admitting to coveting a ‘fantasy’ house and fairytale lifestyle as a teenager recently, I thought it was perhaps time to come clean about my fantasy house of today. It also seems fitting as last week we received a letter from the Council approving our plans. Perhaps fantasies will become realities?!
But, stepping away from reality (which is also very time-consuming and expensive) let’s go back to the homes of fantasy for today. Obviously, I have always loved the idea of ‘home’ as recently I found two of my favourite childhood books and now read them to my children: both by Richard Scarry and both – surprise – about home.
I loved the house in his Best Word Book Ever and I still do. The Rabbit Family’s house had everything I thought a ‘grown-up’ house should have: stairs, a fireplace and bunk beds.
And the mood I wanted to have in my ‘grown-up’ house was most definitely the home of Mother Bear and Father Bear in the Richard Scarry book Good Night, Little Bear.
The picture below of Father Bear putting Little Bear to bed still makes me feel warm and cosy. I remember loving the playfulness of this family; that Mother Bear ‘loves a joke’ and is 'such a tease' while Father Bear carries Little Bear on his shoulders and lets him have the delicious looking chocolate cake well after bedtime. I still love it, so much so I bought this book for my godson recently whose father would be one of the first dads I know to let his little boy have chocolate cake before carrying his 'wiggling and giggling' baby to bed.
It’s amazing how illustrations can evoke such strong feelings that – for me anyway – haven’t faded as I’ve aged. Since returning to the world of picture books with my own children, I have found other fantasy homes.
After Lily’s birth seven years ago, a friend in the UK sent me the first book in the Blue Kangaroo series by Emma Chichester Clark. She loved it because the little girl in the stories was also called Lily. My Lily loved it because she loved the Blue Kangaroo. I loved it because I wanted Lily’s parents’ garden. I still do. What’s not to love?
That huge old tree with the swing (just like my teenage fantasy), tulips in the garden, flowers everywhere, lots of grass, happy children and even a white picket fence...
And wait until you get inside... look at that big armchair surrounded by shelves and shelves of books.
Great stories and beautiful illustrations are a potent mix, no matter what your age. Maybe that’s just me. Or is it?!
The Best Word Book Ever by Richard Scarry,Hamlyn
Good Night Little Bear by Patsy & Richard Scarry, Golden Book
I Love You, Blue Kangaroo; Where Are You, Blue Kangaroo? by Emma Chichester Clark, Random House
In keeping with this theme, it’s going to be a bit of a book week here. I have an interview with author Virginia Lloyd about her memoir The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement coming up. Also the Sydney Sunday Telegraph and Brisbane Sunday Mail Books Editor, Lucy Clark, will write about how books create a feeling of home for her.
Friday, July 23, 2010
When you are an actor, a singer or an entertainer you tend to live a very itinerant lifestyle following work all over the world. John Waters knows this life well; not entirely due to his own 40 year long career (both as an actor and singer) but because he also grew up with a father who was an actor.
‘It’s not an ideal way of life for small children and I am keenly aware of that with my own children so we try to keep home as stable as possible even though I’m here one day and gone the next.’
The last couple of months have seen John touring around Australia performing the songs of the 1950s Belgian-born French singer Jacques Brel. His music is dramatic and passionate and much of it explores his ideas about home, house, place and country. It is these themes that resonate deeply for John and have done since he first heard Brel’s songs as a 17-year-old travelling around France.
‘I still feel very strongly about the building I grew up in, a two-bedroom flat in suburban Teddington, south-west London. It was an unspectacular flat in an unspectacular area: an old Georgian building that had each floor converted to flats in the late 1940s. My parents rented it and brought up five children there.’
The flat stayed within the Waters’ family for more than 50 years and when it was sold 15 years ago John found it quite a loss.
‘As a small child I used to feel very insecure about being away from this building and from the people within it, but as a teenager I did everything I could to be away from it. I now look back and think that my desire to get away from that home was actually a desire to overcome my strange fear of being away from it.’
After leaving home at the age of 17 to travel around Europe, John eventually made his way to Australia and never returned to live in that flat. Yet, whenever he goes back to London he will always return to that building.
‘I always go back to walk those streets and stand out the front of that building and stare at it. Teddington, the river and the park surrounding it will always be very dear to me. I love that I can stand in the streets I kicked a football around, see the two skinny trees in the clearing there by the church that framed the goalposts of the makeshift pitch when I was eight years old.’
Brel once said that it’s important to progress in life but that it’s also important to return to where you come from. People unable to do so, he thought, were dislocated and would always feel a sense of loss and dislocation. John feels a strong affinity with this idea and was fascinated with Brel’s love/hate relationship he had with his home country, Belgium.
‘Brel writes very emotionally about the place, even though he feels he escaped. The intellectual side of him told him Belgium was a backwater; considered the sticks for French people yet he also has a strange affection about it and the land itself and finds beauty in it.’
‘In one of his songs, Le Plat Pays, he describes Belgium as a flat land, harsh, bitter, featureless with no mountains except the steeples of the churches (and he was haunted by the spectre of organised religion). For three verses he continues to describe how hard it is to love such a country and then in the final verse it explodes musically into different chords and becomes more lush. “When the south wind blows, the beauty is returned and the whole land begins to sing.” It’s very moving.’
Expected to take over his father’s cardboard carton company, Brel was born into a middle-class family who didn’t understand his artistic ability. As John explains, ‘In another song, Mon Enfance, he describes his life as a little kid who was a dreamer and was ignored by these fat, Flemish men who smelt of cheese and tobacco. He sings that in summer time he would play cowboys and Indians even though he knew “ my fat, old uncles would steal the far west from me; they would take my dreams away”.’
John continues that Brel also wrote songs with a degree of affection for this mismatched family. ‘He writes about his family as a tribe who only seem to come to life when there is a death. Later in his life, he talked about the “great house which had thrown its anchor just to the north among the jonquils.” His imagery is really beautiful; this idea that the house looked like it had drifted away from the rest of the town.’
Such a strong sense of a childhood home perhaps comes from people who travel, John thinks. ‘You need to leave home – leave your country – to get that sense. My brothers and sisters who still live in London certainly feel strongly about our flat but I don’t think they feel it as keenly as I do.’
Perhaps Brel’s most affecting and poignant song is J’arrive about a young, dying man. ‘It’s a very autobiographical song although I’m not sure that when Brel wrote it he knew he was going to die at the age of 48 but he was always haunted by the idea of premature death’, says John.
‘In the song this young man is saying ‘I’m coming, I’m coming but why now? Why me? Before I go I want to see once more if the river is still a river; to see if the place I come from is still there; to see myself in that place once more. The place where I first entered the world; where I was born.’
For John, he will always belong to two countries, ‘My Englishness stays because I keep travelling back. Sometimes I will return to London just to read the paper, have conversations about politics and football and once I’m immersed in that world I feel ready to return to Australia.’
But also for John, thoughts of returning to Teddington ‘just one more time; to see if the place I come from is still there’, are not strong. ‘Now I have young children again, I see the future through them. What I love about having children at this age is that it has given me something about the future to look forward to. The future now, for me, keeps going through them.’
To purchase a CD of John performing the music of Jacques Brel live, click here.
Photo © John Waters
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Patricia Fisken hasn’t lived in Scotland for a number of years but she still takes comfort in cooking the dishes handed down through the generations of her family. ‘My family love food and any get together always and still involves food. My Grannies and Great Aunts all had their signature dishes, which were brought out on every family occasion. My mum has continued this tradition and I hope to do the same.’
Food is so closely tied with Patricia’s sense of family that she compiled a ‘family recipe book’ a few Christmases ago. Recipes from her immediate and extended family were included and Patricia was amazed at how many people sent her the same recipe, which reminded them of that relative. ‘The other interesting thing was the realisation that some recipes had travelled the length and breadth of the world.’
One such recipe is her Granny Thornton's shortbread. ‘There was a moment of panic when neither my mum nor I could find the shortbread recipe and we contacted everyone we knew who may have it. Finally, a relative in Australia sent it over to us saying Granny made it on one of her visits to Britain and she loved it so much that she got the recipe.’
For Patricia, this recipe in particular evokes strong childhood memories. ‘We always visited Granny for the summer school holidays and I distinctly remember the smell of her shortbread (always freshly baked just before our arrival) wafting down the stairway as we approached her house. Granny's shortbread was very distinctive. It had a marzipan-like taste, due to the almond essence she put in it.’
‘It was such a comforting smell and full of promise: of hours sitting with her while she reminisced over photos of her exotic life.’
Exotic stories included how she ran away from her strict convent school to join the South African Women's Army. ‘It was on an army ship out to Egypt that she met my grandfather, a Major in the British Army. He was 20 years her senior and engaged to someone else, but my granny was a very alluring young woman and she ended up capturing his heart and becoming his wife. After the war they settled in Kenya, where they ran a coffee plantation and raised three young children (including my dad), before being forced to move back to Britain because the Mau Mau made it too dangerous for them to stay there.’
‘It is funny how, when I baked the shortbread last Sunday, the memories all flooded back and I was in granny's house, sitting next to her on her sofa, drinking tea, eating shortbread and being enthralled by her tales of life in Africa.’
For Patricia this is the beauty of a well-loved family recipe, ‘It can transport you back to another place, one that was home for a time.’
Here is the unadulterated recipe for Granny Thornton's Shortbread:
3oz castor sugar
6oz butter (soft)
9oz plain flour
1tbsp ground rice or semolina
1tsp almond essence
Heat oven to 325 degrees fahrenheit
Mix dry ingredients together. Add butter with almond essence (chop up into small pieces with a knife first)
Work mixture with hands until resembles scone mixture
Put into a baking tin and knead into shape (in the tin)
Fork all over
Put in heated oven for half an hour
Then move to next shelf down and turn oven off. Leave for another quarter hour
Take out of oven and sprinkle with castor sugar
Cut into 8 pieces
Photo by Patricia Fisken
Monday, July 19, 2010
One upon a time, in a land not so far away, there were two 18-year-old girls. On the cusp of adulthood, in their first year at university, these two best friends had bonded over a shared reading of Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room. Enjoying their Women’s Studies option in their Sociology course, they were ready to take on the world. For university was opening their eyes, just as it had for Mira, the main character in The Women’s Room. Although thankfully neither of them had to play the part of a submissive wife in a traditional 1950s marriage before their own feminist awakenings.
No, for these two best friends the future was bright and full of opportunity and independence. They began meeting at a cafe in a well-heeled area of Sydney, not at all near where either of them lived, and after coffee one wintry Sunday afternoon they took a walk around the streets peering at the beautiful old sandstone homes and large front gardens.
Then they saw it: a rambling old two story house on a corner block. Smoke puffing out of the chimney, a standard lamp lit behind an armchair by a window. There was a huge old tree in the middle of the front garden with a child’s swing hanging from it, rose bushes and gardenias bordering the old brick wall.
Or perhaps it was a white picket fence for this house seemed to suddenly represent their picket fence dream; one they didn’t realise they had... oh, the irony. They were spellbound.
From that day on, conversations over coffee centred around the perfect life of that house and the imagined perfect family who lived there. After each coffee there would be a quick walk past or – memorably – one night a drive by. What luck, the front door was open! Candles flickered on a small table against a wall, there was much laughter inside and a beautifully dressed woman in high heels walked past the door carrying a steaming coffee plunger. Following just behind was an attractive man in an open necked shirt carrying a bottle of red and a corkscrew. In the split second the girls saw him they thought of Michael Douglas in his prime. Yes, this was the home they wanted.
Behind that front door lay the perfect life; they were sure of it.
I’ve driven past that house a few times in the years since I was 18 and I’m pretty sure my friend has too. For me now, it just looks like a house; an attractive one full of character but still just bricks and mortar. The powerful emotions we both attached to it have disappeared – thankfully – but it fascinates me how that house symbolised so strongly the emotions of what we felt home represented.
Yet houses don’t have emotions, do they? They don’t own our memories or our secrets; they can’t be responsible for our relationships with our partners or our children; our happy moments or our sad times. Home is created within us and our houses simply bear witness.
And yes, it must also be said that the irony of our youthful feminist ideals intermingling with a young Michael Douglas on our arm still makes us both laugh hysterically.
Fuzzy felt picture by Lily Leece
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Home can have a powerful effect on our lives and for Shannon Fricke her feelings about a particular house changed the direction of her career.
I was in my early 20s when I first encountered Shannon’s house. It was a fisherman’s cottage near the harbour in the Sydney suburb of Watson’s Bay and she had written an article for a magazine about renovating this beautiful old home. It was an article I cut out and kept, imagining the day – yet to arrive – when I too was living in a double-fronted cottage and slowly doing it up.
At the time she worked in the fashion magazine world, a childhood dream realised. ‘As a young girl my first love was fashion magazines. I discovered magazines at around the age of 12 and spent my teenage years buried in Dolly, Glamour, Seventeen and later, Cleo. I was completely enthralled by all of the visual elements that make up a magazine and after school, some overseas travel and university I landed a job on Dolly magazine, which was a dream come true.’
So how did she move from writing about fashion to writing about home? ‘It wasn't until I bought my first house with my husband that my interest really shifted from fashion to interiors.’
Being a creative person, it was no surprise that this move was an opportunity to express her creativity differently. ‘This house gave me a creative canvas that I hadn't had access to before and I took to this new medium with gusto. As with all forms of creativity, decorating a home is an opportunity to express oneself or – if you're part of a family – the greater needs of the group in a unique way. And it was this challenge that really appealed to me.’
And with this passion came the new career direction: ‘I took to researching and learning about design and decoration until it became the obsession that it is today.’
Despite this, Shannon’s design philosophy has actually not strayed far from her childhood experiences with ‘a mother obsessed with decorating.’
‘My decorating point of view has been largely shaped by watching my mother decorate and her belief that your home should be a representation of the life and loves of the people who live there. A belief that has become my decorating credo.’
It was only a few years after I cut out Shannon’s original article about renovating her first home that she appeared as a presenter on the Foxtel Lifestyle channel production Home. And not long again before she published a series of books Sense of Style about using colour and space to create a home that reflects who you are. By now, Shannon was well regarded as an interiors expert and it’s amazing to think that this unassuming cottage – her home – set her on such a different life course.
‘It was our first house as a couple, the place we were living when we had our children, my blank canvas where I really began to build my sense of style. I had hoped to live in this house forever. But things change, people grow and what fitted the bill at one stage doesn't necessarily work for another.’
This journey towards finding their new home landed Shannon and her family in the far-north NSW town of Byron Bay. She likens both homes to her children, ‘I'm attached to them all on a very deep, completely non-rational way! We are so lucky to have found this rambling old house in the hinterland behind Byron Bay. It's not perfect. It has been compromised in many, many ways from its original heritage. Even still, I love it.’
The family’s new home is evolving and growing as they do. ‘I love that we've only made small changes to the house to shape it into the type of home that we, as a family, love to live in. Not precious. Comfortable. Easy. But beautiful. We spend a lot of time being together in this house. It's large enough to be comfortable but not too large to lose your way. It's also very easy to keep clean, which is a bonus!’
Shannon’s decorating philosophy remains the same whether she is decorating a client’s home or her own. ‘First and foremost I try to create a home that is an extension of my client’s journey through life. One that is comfortable, that is a perfect fit. One that isn't so much dictated by fashion but is a representation of who they are on a grass roots level.’
There is one difference, ‘For a client you are working to a time frame. For my own home I can take as long as I like and at the rate I'm going it could be forever!’
But Shannon and her family are in no rush to move, for living away from the city has also created a lifestyle change, ‘Our house is on 88 acres of beautiful Byron Bay farmland and forest with views across rolling green hills. We have little creeks down in the rainforest which also gives us endless fun on a sunny weekend... a lovely way to spend one's days.’
Despite how much life has changed for Shannon since her childhood love affair with magazines began, her feelings about home have not. ‘I've always loved being at home. Even as a small child there was nothing that I loved more than hanging out at home and in the garden, playing with the ladybugs. And today, there's nothing more satisfying for me than a day at home hanging out in the garden. The only difference now? Age!’
To read Shannon's blog, visit http://shannonfricke.blogspot.com/
All pictures © Shannon Fricke
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
I am reading an interesting memoir at the moment: The Last Supper, by Rachel Cusk. A successful writer living in Bristol with her family, Rachel becomes frightened by the monotonous routine of life so they decide to sell up and head to Italy for a summer. I fantasise about this kind of adventure regularly; the need for new experiences and perspectives wrestling with the lure of home and ‘its shady labyrinth of memory and emotion’ as Rachel so elegantly writes. But more on that later.
What struck me today was a passage about home: ‘I often felt our life lacked beauty... I would put peonies in a vase, wash the floors, tidy up; but I never found much art in daily things. There was always too much reality, churning just ahead, mixing everything together into a grey, agitated mass.’
‘Reality churning just ahead’ – is there a more apt description of a home with small children?! Every evening when Lily and Ned were toddlers, I would put away all traces of toys and books to make the lounge room feel like adult space again. Now we are outnumbered and Louis is still a toddler, I find myself wondering whether there is any point in arguing with the children about tidying up when the room is only going to become as messy the next day. After growing up in a house where there was ‘art in daily things’ and wanting that for my own home I now wonder if I’m too tired to create it. Like Rachel, at the moment I think need to look for art ‘in the world itself’ or in reading books such as this.
Onto blog housekeeping matters, I have finally worked out how to allow comments more easily. Now you can make a comment without needing to sign in or be a registered user. Hopefully!
And, stay tuned for more interviews including interior decorator, author and media personality Shannon Fricke; author of The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement Virginia Lloyd; actor, singer and entertainer John Waters; illustrator Mandy Sutcliffe of Belle & Boo; and designer Marnie Goding of Elk Accessories. All with their own unique take on what ‘home’ is. I can’t wait to write about them.
Picture taken from Australian Women's Complete Household Guide Illustrated, Colorgravure Publications
Monday, July 12, 2010
We recently stayed in a lighthouse. Well, an Assistant Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage to be exact. And it was like no where we have ever stayed before: perched on a cliff top with views of immense ocean in every direction made us feel a million miles away from Sydney, work and school.
And did I mention the whales? One morning we counted eight stretching out to sea.
The cottage was, like all lighthouse keepers’ cottages in Australia, built around Federation: large stone walls, ceilings perhaps 14 ft high, huge thick wooden doors, fireplaces in every room and wide dark floorboards. I was a bit surprised at how substantial the cottage felt. For this lighthouse, there were two Assistant Lighthouse Keepers’ Cottages and one Head Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage. The word ‘cottage’ seemed much too small and cosy to properly describe such houses.
It wasn’t until I started reading about the lighthouse families that lived here from 1875 that I understood why the housing was so important. What was a lovely, isolated, escape from the city for us was a very tough and lonely life to live full time; even before thinking of the responsibility of keeping that light beaming 40km out to sea every night.
To be a lighthouse keeper, you had to be a married man. Wives were responsible for creating a ‘nurturing family unit’ which supported the stressful and physically taxing work of keeping that light shining. It was because of this awareness that a light was only as reliable as it’s keeper that such spacious family houses were built here. A comfortable family home would be a happy one, it was thought.
The three keepers shared four hour shifts between dusk and dawn every night and during the day would be busy bookkeeping, maintaining the light and lantern housing, practising signalling by morse lamp or flags by hand or on mast.
While we relished the thought of being cut off from the rest of the world for 48 hours – arriving with a boot full of food, wine, warm clothes, board games, books and magazines – living here in the 1880s would have been quite different. The families then needed to be self-sufficient or get provisions off passing ships (which would mean rowing out through the rocks and rough sea to receive them).
The family who first lived in this cottage had 13 children (!) and the visitor’s book of the time apparently comments on the excellent housekeeping and hospitality from them. It seems wives have forever been judged on their ability to keep a home and to entertain. How would this be possible with 13 children, is all I can think; although, maybe with a family of this size your job would simply be to delegate?
With this many children living on an isolated cliff-top it’s amazing to think that no lives were lost from falls. Unfortunately though, one of the children did fall ill and needed to get to hospital. She was seven-years-old and her father signalled for a ship to stop, take her aboard and get her to a doctor in Sydney. He rowed his sick daughter out to the ship and would have had to leave her and get back to the lighthouse. She never made it to Sydney, dying on board. In the documents I read it sounds like she was alone on that ship: her mother had all those other children and babies to look after and her father had to get back to his job.
I watch my daughter, also aged seven, healthy and glowing, running around this cottage garden, delighting in the fresh air and sense of adventure that living on a cliff top brings and feel such sadness for that mother of another era. For staying here now is to be isolated out of choice; it’s a treat and a luxurious option for a weekend away.
Our only reminder that we are cut off from the rest of the world is a note taped to a laundry bucket: in case of storms we should make sure the kitchen lantern is charged, the bucket is filled with water for flushing the toilet and the kettle is filled with filtered water for drinking. We did have some heavy rain both nights but the only sign of that was a dodgy digital television reception and no mobile phone coverage. How times have changed.
Friday, July 9, 2010
My last post about ‘home’ as a state of mind has me intrigued about exploring the philosophy of home and how our own philosophies of what home symbolises shape our lives completely. And, what better way to start this exploration of philosophy than with a philosopher.
Damon Young holds a PhD in philosophy and is a writer and commentator. He is the author of the book, Distraction, about how to creatively craft one’s own life, and has another book, The Mystery of the Garden, out next year. He has been published in Australia, America and the UK. He has also written many opinion pieces for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
So, what is home for Damon?
‘Home is a varied thing: part sanctuary, part nursery, part kitchen and vegetable garden, part office. If I were to give a word to what unites it all, I wouldn't say bricks and mortgage. I'd say 'rhythm'.
‘Home combines all sorts of rhythms: eating and sleeping, outings and returns, work and play, and the cadence within each. For example, the rhythm of chopping parsnip and carrot for mackerel soup is very different to the rhythm of writing a newspaper column. Yet home throbs with all of this. It has to be maintained daily, in countless routines and rites. Then there are the longer rhythms of days - the rituals of breakfast, lunch, dinner - or seasons: summer's roses dying back, and the camellia arriving in April.’
For Damon it’s a mix of rhythms that create the truest sense of home, but the rhythm of writing is at the heart of it. ‘And I don't just mean the structure of form of writing - I mean the physical act of putting pen to paper. It's the quiet glide of a fountain pen, as it loops into words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages. It is a cadence of creative meditation.’
These rhythms, Damon believes, are crucial for a creative life. ‘Not simply the time or quiet – as vital as these are – but the juggling act itself: I'm not just a writer, I'm also a husband and father. I'm not just a pensmith, I'm also nappy changer, cook, cleaner and massager. All of this adds to my experience; it enriches what I bring to the pen and paper.’
Fatherhood has changed the rhythms of Damon’s home in many ways, ‘The pulse of home has been more intricate, entangled. My sleeping is inextricable from the snores and cries of my son and daughter. My meals are no longer as meditative, or punctuated by quiet conversation. My work is often interrupted by firm requests for cheese, or for me to pry apart Lego blocks.’
Yet these extra rhythms have brought with them more focus, ‘It's disciplining: I write more quickly and boldly and concisely as a father than I did when I was younger.’
While Damon writes that combining fatherhood and work has been exhausting and frustrating, he has also found it enriching, ‘My psyche now includes the rhythms of these new lives, and their quirks. It's challenging, but it adds to my feeling of life's solidity and vitality.
Damon has written articles about combining work and parenthood and while he says that it wasn’t ‘a pre-planned blueprint’ it did come naturally. ‘I never wanted to be a distant father or husband. I know why this happens: couples have bills to pay, debt to service, and the separation of labour can be efficient. But it makes too many sacrifices for me: of relationships with kids, and one another. I wanted to share the precious, precarious rhythms of domestic life: nappies, night feeds, kindergarten runs, weekend doctor dashes, Lego and walks to the cafe. It's also a recognition of equality: that both my wife and I deserve to cultivate ourselves diversely, in work, parenting, and intimacy. This is an investment of sorts: in a more lasting bond with my wife, our kids, and our own ideals.’
Damon also feels that the physical house and neighbourhood are important for making a home, ‘Our neighbourhood is friendly, quiet, slow: the city's busy indifference can be exciting, but also draining. We have a big garden, so the kids can get fresh air, and we can garden together - a way to get exercise, common rhythms, discipline and food, all at once. And we rent, which means we're not always chasing a mortgage. We can put our time into other things, like our creative work, and one another. The house is warm in winter, cool in summer, so the kids have slept better (so we all have). And then there's the interior design itself. We've not put enough time and effort into this, but we try: the built environment - its colours, shapes, smells - certainly plays a part in the mind's adventures. It can objectify ideals and tastes, and provide an encouraging or stimulating atmosphere.’
Overall for Damon and his family, the philosophy of home can be summed up as a question of value, ‘We value time together more than we value wealth. We sacrifice income and status, so we don't have to sacrifice familial bonds, or creative independence. It's about not being distracted from what's worthwhile in life.’
If you would like more information on Damon’s book or to read any of his published newspaper articles, visit www.damonyoung.com.au
Photos © Damon Young
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
The last few days I have overheard or been a part of conversations where ‘home’ is mentioned. It’s funny how when you’re focused on a subject you suddenly start hearing or seeing it everywhere. A bit like when you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant and the world seems full of pregnant bellies, babies and prams in a way it never was before. Anyway, what has been interesting about these conversations is that people haven’t been referring to ‘home’ as a physical place but rather as a feeling, a sense, or a moment.
In the Sydney Morning Herald this morning I was reading about the new movie about to be released, The Waiting City. It’s an Australian movie, written, directed and produced by Claire McCarthy but shot entirely in India. When asked how she felt about taking on such a big project relatively early in her career, Claire answered ‘I felt very safe in a way – I just feel so at home in Calcutta’.
Last week my friend’s four-year-old daughter had been up all night with an awful cough. In between coughing and tears she told my friend, her mother, ‘I just want to go home. Take me home.’
‘But you are home’, my friend answered before fully understanding what she was really saying.
The week before I overheard someone describing falling in love, ‘I knew it, as soon as I put my head on his chest. It felt like... well, just like home’.
It’s interesting to think of home as a euphemism for safety and security. It’s one thing for the physical space of home to be a refuge, a way of cocooning or hibernating from the outside world but it’s another to feel that ‘home’ is a state of mind.
When has home represented a state of mind for you? For me it would be every time I have smelt my nanna’s perfume in the 20 years after her death. Walking past someone wearing that perfume is the quickest way to send me back into her arms or to hear her chuckle. It reminds me of feeling safe with her as a child. My sister admitted recently that when she is feeling down she sometimes takes the lid off the old compact container that used to hold nanna’s face powder and smells it to feel better.
Whenever I’m overseas and I smell someone wearing my mother’s perfume I feel the same way. When I was in my early 20s I was in London staying with family friends and became ill with a virus.
‘You just want your mum when you feel sick’, said this family friend reading my thoughts of complete homesickness at this moment. ‘I still want my mum when I’m sick’, she continued; this woman who was aged in her mid-50s with a husband and adult children and had lost her mum 35 years before. But was it our mothers we wanted or the feelings of complete safety and protectiveness they give us throughout our lives?
We took our three children to America last year and over the three weeks we were away, my four-year-old took to muttering to himself quite a bit when something went wrong. ‘I knew I shouldn’t have come to America’, he would say if he fell over or the ravioli he ordered was round rather than square, ‘I just want to be home. NOW!’
It wasn’t the physical space he craved, it was the reassurance that all was right in a world he understood.
When my father died I had a four-week-old baby. Home for me then was most definitely that baby in my arms – as often as possible. The feelings of loss in a world I couldn’t imagine and didn’t understand were only countered by my arms being full of that new life.
What is it about the word ‘home’ that is so emotive? And isn’t it endlessly fascinating that at different times in our lives or even on different days of the week that little, seemingly harmless four-letter-word can conjure such disparate feelings.
Sunday, July 4, 2010
Before even meeting Natalie and Simon Thomas, owners of The Sydney Picnic Company, it is obvious how friendly and comfortable their home will feel: ‘I will have the kettle on for you’, Nat emails when confirming the time for our interview.
And so it is as I walk into their lovely, tiny, weatherboard workers’ cottage located on a narrow lane hidden behind the main streets of the Sydney suburb of Woollahra. The house is impossibly cute with its white timber walls; bedroom overlooking the lounge area, the brick chimney and fireplace; the dining nook surrounded by windows looking across to the huge old camellia tree in the courtyard; and the long, narrow kitchen running alongside it.
‘We loved this little house as soon as we walked in. It was so cute with so much personality’, says Nat as we sit down at the dining table. Simon adds, ‘Everyone said how English it looked and joked that we came to the other side of the world to find England again.’
It does feel very English – even the name of the lane sounds like it should belong in an English village – and Nat and Simon have always loved old houses. ‘We need our home to have character and soul and I think you often find that in the older houses’, says Simon.
Nat adds, ‘We’re so used to the weather being crap in the UK that we have always felt home had to be a refuge and that feeling hasn’t changed.’
It was food rather than architecture that brought the couple to Australia in 2002. Arriving in Sydney for the first time while on their honeymoon, they ate out every night. ‘We had booked the restaurants before leaving the UK and people gave us money for our meals as wedding presents. It was great, we’d send them photos of us in a restaurant saying “this is the meal you gave us!”’ says Nat.
They both found the Sydney lifestyle to be very refreshing, loving the mix of city and beach and decided to move here soon after. Simon took the opportunity to leave his career in finance behind and move into the food industry, ‘My parents owned a wine bar / bistro so I grew up around food and it was my first job out of school for a few years. Being a family business I didn’t really appreciate what my parents were offering me though and just wanted to hang out with my mates.’
He feels he has come full circle now, ‘Food was always a passion; almost an obsession. Anything outside of work was always geared around food.’
They moved all their furniture from their home in Brighton, England into storage and shipped only eight boxes to Sydney. ‘Luckily we didn’t bring much with us as we hardly have room for furniture here,’ quips Nat. But what they did bring were the essential items needed to make sure they felt at home straight away: ‘We just shipped all our cookery books, Si’s knives and saucepans, any kitchen related stuff and all our bedding. That was enough to make any place feel like ours.’
Indeed it was also food that helped build the foundations of Nat and Simon’s relationship, ‘We were students when we met and during that time my mum had cancer’, says Nat, ‘I moved back in with my parents while mum was undergoing aggressive chemo. Her taste buds were all over the place and Si would come over to visit and we’d say to her “what do you fancy for dinner tonight?” She’d say something creamy or something spicy and we’d go off to the supermarket and cook for her together.'
Both of them still feel the way of showing someone that you love or care for them is best done through cooking, ‘I think food is the nicest gift anyone can give you. So much time goes into thinking about what to cook, then shopping for it, cooking it, clearing it away’, says Nat.
‘How people prepare food is a reflection of their personalities,’ adds Simon, ‘it means a lot when you go around to someone’s house and it’s obvious they have spent a lot of time preparing the meal.’
The couple agree that their favourite past time is having friends over for dinner, ‘When a friend is feeling down, this is where they come. We’ve looked after a lot of broken hearts and there have been a lot of tears on that sofa.’
What do they cook for a broken heart? ‘Definitely a roast’, answers Nat, ‘because when you walk into a house with the smell of meat and potatoes roasting it feels like home. As Nigel Slater says, “one of the best smells in the world is a chicken roasting”.’
Nat’s father passed away recently and on their return to Australia after his funeral friends would ask if she wanted to be on her own. ‘It was the last thing I wanted. I was saying “no, come over for dinner” or we’d go there for dinner. Food and eating with friends has been a massive comfort and I think it helps. In other cultures you feast when someone dies and I like that idea.’
Food is always at the heart of this couple’s life and home, ‘The most money we’ve spent in this house is on the dining chairs’, says Nat, ‘we spend most of our time around this table eating, talking, being together so we knew we’d need really comfortable chairs. We were both brought up in houses where you sat down to eat as a family every night and I still think that is so important. Sitting here we take the time to talk about what we’ve been doing and what we’re cooking.’
And now it has become their shared career too, starting a picnic catering business nearly two years ago. ‘We love having picnics in Sydney because when we arrived with not much money we would get a baguette, some cheese and a bottle of wine, find a spot by the harbour and eat looking at the amazing views feeling so lucky.’
A couple of friends asked Simon to create surprise picnics for them. Nat stitched personalised menus and looked after the presentation while Simon made the food. Their friends were amazed with the result. As Simon says, ‘Their enthusiasm rubbed off and made us think we could give it a go. It was something we could do that combined my love of food and Nat’s love of design.’
At the time Nat was stressed and unhappy working in the design field and they decided it was a now or never time to try working for themselves. It was a gamble that has paid off with the business continuing to grow steadily. They love being a part of other people’s special occasions and receive many emails and photos of their customers enjoying the picnics, so happy they are with the result.
Working together from home has not caused much of a problem either; Nat believes it was tricky at first: ‘a few times we had to say, “I’m just going for a long drive” and a few times we felt like killing each other’ but this is all said in jest and
Simon is quick to add that the transition was in fact quite easy.
What was hard was switching off from thinking about the business at the end of each day. ‘We had to make sure that at 6pm we tidied everything away and switched back to us. At the beginning we couldn’t stop thinking about work and the house stopped feeling like home which was a bit strange’, says Nat.
To rectify this, they converted their front entrance room into an office. ‘We really needed to separate the two spaces. I love doing the stitching and sewing of the menus and now feel I can make a huge mess whereas before it was all over the dining table. Without that separate space our lives became blurred.’
For Nat and Simon, home and food will always define them. ‘Home is such a sacred place,’ says Nat. ‘Every time I walk in here I think how much I love this house even though it’s tiny.’ As she walks me to the front door, she laughs, ‘but if we were somewhere larger I’d really miss not being able to talk to Si while he’s in the kitchen cooking and I’m in the bath a metre away.’
* All photos © Natalie & Simon Thomas
Thursday, July 1, 2010
Artist Lizzie Buckmaster Dove is described in her most recent catalogue essay in the words of American writer and curator Lucy Lippard as ‘a nomad with a serially monogamous passion for place’. It is this juxtaposition between a desire to be home and a desire to be away that has fuelled her creative life.
‘I have always been a nomad – it was inflicted upon me as a child and then it must have gotten into my bones as I have continually chosen movement.’
Growing up in country Victoria and NSW, Lizzie has also lived in Sydney, London and Spain. ‘There is something in me that compels me to move. My husband and I describe ourselves as compulsive travellers. We will, at the drop of a hat be off. We have an enormous appetite for new experiences of people and place.’
After finishing art school, Lizzie worked in creative fields for a decade but not as an artist. In 2005, the couple was living in Spain with one son and another on the way. It was during this year that a couple of major life events occurred: a month before becoming a mother for the second time, her father died.
‘This really brought to the fore my own mortality and it gave me the opportunity to examine my creative life. I realized that although I defined myself as an artist I had never said it out loud and didn’t feel as though I had the right to because to the outside world there was no evidence of it. I was kidding myself.’
Soon after, planning to return to Australia to live, Lizzie’s husband Mike put voice to her thoughts, ‘he said to me that when we returned to Australia I shouldn’t get a job, I should make art. I was dumbfounded and overwhelmed and tearfully replied “… you really understand me”. He has continued to be an enormous support and champion of my practice.’
Living in three countries has had profound impact on Lizzie’s art: it defines it. Being away from her homeland gave her the opportunity to see the Australian identity, as a culture and as an individual, in a different light.
Cacophony: Rip Rack Roar Rumble
‘When we returned to Australia it was as if I had never taken notice of my natural surroundings before – the flora and fauna appeared so harsh and aggressive. I had empathy for how hard it must have been for the early colonialists to settle here as well as how inappropriate it was for them to impose their culture upon this wild dry continent.’
Following her return, she created her first show based on this premise. Exhibited with NG Art Gallery in Sydney, it was named Into the Woods; an inversion of out of the woods and it was all about coming home. ‘I literally felt as though I was diving into a knowing of this land, and through that a knowing of myself. It was my first solo show since having enacted a professional practice so it was also the action of going deep into the unconscious of my own creativity. (And I was not afraid!).’
Cacophony: Toot Tweet Twitter Trill
Since that first show Lizzie has gone on to create many others, all focussing on work that explores identity, connection and place with direct reference to Britain, Spain and Australia; those countries which have shaped her and her family. ‘I think I have always desired to belong to a ‘place’. I think it is a very human desire.’
Lizzie’s early years were spent on a cherry orchard farm in Gruyere, at the foothills of the Dandenongs in Victoria. With grandparents living on one side and her aunt and uncle on the other, Lizzie wonders whether being surrounded by family fuelled this ‘passion for place’.
Being a ‘country girl at heart’ and after a long stint in London, Lizzie and her husband felt ready to live out of a city on their return to Australia. Lizzie had always loved the Illawarra escarpment in NSW and after a drive through it one weekend, her husband was equally impressed. They now live in this area, surrounded by nature. ‘We have the escarpment, bush and sea at our feet. It is very grounding to be locating our family in this setting. After many years of travelling, we are putting down roots. From this grounded place, I feel as though we can continue to explore other places but that we have a real sense of place to return to, a place in which we belong.’
Lizzie’s latest body of work focuses on this connection to place. An interactive project, Tide Project, Things to be Forgotten, is about identity, connection and place. It sprung as an idea after a trip to Mexico in 2008, ‘While in a supermarket I stumbled upon a stand of paint swatch cards coloured a most extraordinary range, which seemed to encapsulate the Mexican identity. I became intrigued by the concept that the range of colours available in paint could represent the identity of a culture.’
Towards the end of 2009, Lizzie travelled back to Britain, where her first son was born and Spain, the birthplace of her second, looking for swatch cards. ‘In Britain I found Farrow & Ball where the colours are demure and subtly graded, in Spain, Arts & Claus that are bold and strong and in Australia, (where her third child will soon be born) Taubmans where the colours encompass an entire spectrum from pastel to bold.’ All coincidentally colours which seemed to define each country’s identity.
For one lunar month, beginning with the new moon on January 15 and ending on February 13 2010, Lizzie’s friends Anna in London and Chris in Barcelona emailed daily a photograph of a piece of ‘flotsam or jetsam along a daily route’. From these images Lizzie cut a silhouette through each of the three sets of swatch cards. ‘The backbone to the project was about connection and place. Perhaps the biggest connection experienced by all of us was a connection to place. The project insisted we interact with the place we were in. For Anna and Chris this was the city, for me, it was predominantly the beach and nature.’
Tide Project, Things to be Forgotten, Australia ii
Tide Project, Things to be Forgotten, Britain ii
Tide Project, Things to be Forgotten, Spain ii
While a connection to many places fuels Lizzie’s work, she also says, ‘I have always loved being at ‘home’ and long to be settled and in a routine. As an artist, ‘home’ is the solid base from which I can create. It is by having the support of a loving family that I am able to and have the confidence to make art.’
Speaking as a wife and mother, ‘home is a place of refuge. It is a place from where my children garner their values and morals and from where I hope they have the confidence to be truly themselves.’ When asked which area of her house most says ‘home’ to Lizzie, she answers that it would have to be her sons’ bedrooms, ‘If they are not happy, I can’t be happy.’
But it’s belonging to a ‘place’ that is more complicated for Lizzie, ‘I think you can create a ‘home’ anywhere. ‘Home’ is something that is transportable as long as you have the right ingredients. I found I could be away for a while but eventually I grew tired of always longing and thinking back to Australia. I felt divided. Our existence in the UK and Spain could sometimes feel as though it didn’t penetrate the surface; that our lives were on hold. It could only be remedied by returning here.’
Given the need to be away from her homeland to create it is no surprise that Lizzie is quick to add ‘This isn’t to say we will not leave again! Though I suspect we would never give up our base here. We would make it very easy to step back into.’
*Photo of Lizzie taken by Miho Watanabe for NG Art Gallery; all other photos © Lizzie Buckmaster Dove
For more information about Lizzie's art, visit