Week 260 – robots and realists

Maisie was glad to get back to school on Monday (the start of her last term as a ‘prep’ pupil!), and Tommy was glad to get some time (and mummy) to himself. The spring sunshine has brought a bumper blossoming of clivias (as well as elms – they only really go for it every couple of years or so!). In the late afternoon we bumped into my neighbour Emma who offered me a free ticket to a talk being given by one of her friends that evening, at the grand old (mid C19th!) Athenaeum Theatre in the city. Emma works in publishing, and her friend happened to be Richard Flanagan, one of Australia’s best-regarded authors. I hurriedly checked in my bookcase to see if I had read any of his works – and I had read (and enjoyed) one of them – ‘Gould’s Book of Fish’.

Flanagan was talking about his new novel which picks apart the conventions of memoir. The background story to it was fascinating, harking back to his first substantial piece of writing, where, under very unlikely circumstances, in the early 1990s, he had been employed to ghost-write the auto-biography of one of Australia’s most notorious con-men. They had met a number of times over a period of 3 weeks, and then the con-man had committed suicide, and Flanagan (having got almost no information out of him) had to complete the book as best he could – so although presented as a memoir it was more a work of fiction.

He also had some passionate things to say about the importance and ‘truth’ of a novel, as opposed to ‘fake news’. I quote (from a Sydney Morning Herald article) ‘…they [are] fictions designed to bolster power and deny people the fundamental truth of the world. Lies are a pernicious form of fiction, while novels are a liberating form of fiction that we need more than ever.’ He also argued for the novel as a rare private space, allowing the reader to explore their multiple identities. He was very scared about the totalitarianism of social media, although he retained a surprising optimism for the positive strength of human nature.

On Wednesday evening I went to see an interesting film by the writer Mike White (I like his perceptive, deftly-characterized social commentaries). ‘Beatriz at dinner’ was about a Mexican masseuse who works at a holistic health centre, but who one evening gets stuck (due to a broken down car) at the luxury gated beach mansion of a wealthy client. The client, who has known her for a while, invites her to stay for dinner, and it turns out the gathering is of hot-shot property developers who are celebrating their latest land-steal. Beatriz’ initial nerves and awkwardness become (carefully contained) horror and rage as she realises who these people are (she had been displaced from her Mexican home as a child by just such a ruthless team), and she feels spurred into some sort of action.

On Friday Tommy and I met up, at a park in town, with Liam and Moko (we’d met the little boy and his mum in another park a couple of weeks back and the boys had hit it off so well that we exchanged numbers!). The boys were very excited to see each other again, and ran around driving their toy cars and splashing water for an hour or so, while Moko (who is Japanese, and has also lived in Melbourne for 5 years) and I and chatted and tried to keep warm, as it was a distinctly chilly morning, threatening rain, which finally appeared driving us inside to the ACMI galleries (where Tommy tried out his first joystick-controlled computer game).

Afterwards Tommy and I caught the tram up to RMIT, to see their current exhibition ‘Experimenta Make Sense: International Triennial of Media Art’. It was great fun – full of colourful, immersive, installation art and striking projections. Tommy loved it so much that it was quite hard to get him to leave!

In the first gallery was a huge clear balloon, inside which were two shiny silver and gold ‘lungs’, which gently inflated and deflated. The outer balloon represented economics (the pressure was governed by live share market data), the inner two ‘breathing’ balloons represented ‘nature’ and ‘humanity’. Alongside this were several video pieces, one which I’d seen before (an exploration of the British Museum’s archive of aboriginal artefacts), the other an attractive 4-screen presentation of an alien’s visit to earth (Tommy loved this one!) – the alien’s destinations included the greenhouses at Kew Gardens.

In a darkened side-room, two large floor-level pools of water, swirling with clouds of dry ice, were projection screens for images of swimmers in water that was sometimes blue, sometimes green, sometimes blood red. Both Tommy and I were mesmerized by this one, it was very beautiful. We also enjoyed another room with great wall-sized projections of slow-motion waves filmed from under the water, and (this one particularly intrigued Tommy) a mechanized sculpture where two red sandstone rocks were slowly dragged across a rough metal table, as they wore down they left bright orange trails of dust.

A final room featured a sound and light installation about electro-magnetic currents. A small floor-based rotating robot emitted buzzing clicking noises (it sounded like a swarm of insects whizzing around your head) which directly interacted with a laser projection of electromagnetic waves.

The futuristic theme continued for me in the evening, with a packed-out Friday night screening of Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Bladerunner 2049’. The original Bladerunner (well, whichever reboot of it that is regarded as the ‘classic’ version) is one of the few sci-fis that I’ve genuinely enjoyed – I guess it’s the beautifully realised (and convincingly grimy) production design, the dystopian bleakness, the slowness, and the lack of slimy aliens (the presence of Harrison Ford helps too!).

‘2049’ was a worthy sequel, the great destroyed vistas recreated and expanded in breathtaking CGI (not something I say very often!!). 30 years after the previous film left off, a young replicant (i.e. robot human) policeman is tasked with finding and exterminating the remaining survivors of an earlier ‘rogue’ replicant series. On a routine job he uncovers a ‘miracle’ – traces of evidence that suggest that a replicant has given birth to a live human baby. He is tasked with finding this ‘miracle child’. But he isn’t the only person on the trail – its (possible) presence threatens the status quo, so the ruthless leaders of the controlling corporation are also in pursuit, and will destroy anyone or anything that gets in their way.

Neil flew to Sweden on Saturday for the very last instalment of his sabbatical there – a 2 day dissemination event. He decided not to stay away for any longer, so the majority of his 4.5 days away were spent in the air! Maisie, Tommy and I spent a sunny afternoon hanging out at the MPavilion, listening to a free music performance. Two young Fitzroy hipster bands were playing. The first was a solo set by ‘Sweet Whirl’, a lugubrious but compelling singer who accompanied herself on bass guitar. The second (which I didn’t enjoy quite so much, although Maisie was entranced, and wanted to stay till the end!) was a trio of piano/singer, bass and drums. The singer, Sarah Mary Chadwick, had a distinctive, but after a while, annoyingly effected, vocal style. Her melancholy songs were generally rather slow, with the occasional, welcome bust of energy.

We were invited for tea to Mip and Stacey’s house. All the kids (Maisie, Tommy, Polly and 2-year-old Nelly) happily went off to play in another room while us adults sat round the kitchen table and chatted. After supper, Mip got out his old electric train set which was greeted with huge excitement – Tommy was squealing with joy! The kids were so undemanding, that I was surprised to check my watch and discover it was 9.30pm! We suffered for the late night the following day, with some feral behaviour, but I reckon it was worth it.

Despite the late night, the kids were up at 7am (a little later than usual, it has to be said!). We joined Ante’s soccer class at Maisie’s school oval, and both Maisie and Tommy had great fun running after the ball and kicking it around (although rarely in the right direction). We went out for a cafe coffee afterwards, and then whiled away the afternoon in the park, which was heaving with birthday parties/school group gatherings – I’ve never seen it so full. Happily a few of my friends were involved in these, so I managed to catch up with my neighbour Rachel, and Michele, who is currently managing crowds of petrol-heads at the Motorcycle Grand Prix.

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Week 259 – underwater adventures

Neils’ and my week started fabulously with a day trip to the Great Barrier Reef! Becky and Shannon very kindly took the kids off our hands (they all had a fun-packed time at the movies and a water park, and spotted yet more turtles in the sea, which we didn’t!).

First thing on another rather murky morning we checked in at the smart ferry terminal, and joined an excited crowd of (mainly Chinese) tourists on the large three-decked catamaran. As we powered off towards Hamilton Island (to pick up yet more people – there were 300 of us in total), it started to rain so everyone was huddled inside. To avoid the worst of the rain we took a scenic route, traversing the length of Whitehaven Beach again, which was a treat, but under the grey skies the colours were rather subdued – it didn’t zing like it had done on our previous visit!

After about 3 hours the closest of the outer islands was a shadow on the horizon. The sun had burnt through several layers of cloud, and as the boat slowed, the turquoise shallows of the reefs, lapped by choppy little waves, became visible. Our catamaran moored up alongside a large pontoon stationed just off the banks of Hardy Reef.

There was a mass rush to disembark and don snorkelling gear, but we took our time and chose first to go on the little semi-submersible. This is a glass-bottomed boat that potters up and down a short stretch of the reef, giving you a pleasant, although slightly distorted and dulled yellow/green view of the corals and accompanying wildlife [disclaimer – all the underwater photos were taken through this glass, hence their dull colours!]. The guide was lively though, racing through a quick history of the reef and a rundown of the main corals and fish. There were few soft corals, but plenty of hard corals – a forest of spiky stag-horn coral (some of it a striking indigo blue colour), brain corals, table and plate corals populated by shoals of small black-and-white-striped or yellow fish. I loved the dark wiggly ‘lips’ of the large clams which opened a little as we approached.

As we emerged from the submersible, an announcement was made that lunch was being served – this swiftly drew the crowds out of the water and into the canteen. We found ourselves some wetsuits (the warmest ones they had), flippers, snorkel masks and buoyancy aids (it made the swimming much less tiring!) and climbed down onto the wire mesh platform from where we had to lower ourselves into the water.

When I looked down, directly below me was a diver (the boat’s photographer) being nibbled at by a huge colourful Maori wrasse. It was a good start to our snorkel! We swam slowly around the edge of the reef, admiring the knobbly textures and patterns of the corals, and the wonderful colours of the fish – some darted singly, some hustled in crowds around popular feeding spots, some (mainly the larger fish) lurked deep below us, others hung about just below the surface of the water (such as the tiny long-snouted ‘trumpet fish’ who eyed us up warily from several inches away).

The fish were stripy, spotty, mottled, bi-coloured, and boldly banded in yellows, blues, blacks, silvers and purples, and sometimes all-over rainbow-hued (the parrot fish were particularly spectacular, glowing green, blue and purple). Even the names of the fish are poetic – amongst others we saw ‘copperband’, ‘chevron’ and ‘double saddle’ butterfly fish, anemone-fish, triggerfish, bird wrasse, ‘spotted’ and ‘diagonal banded’ sweetlips, angelfish, orange-spine unicorn fish, grouper and coral trout.

Sometimes you were suddenly engulfed by a glittering cloud of tiny fast-moving fish like fragments of mirror flashing blinding white as they suddenly changed direction, catching the sun’s rays. The temperature of the water was ever-changing – at times I felt pretty chilly (there was an awful lot of sea below us, the coral cliff descending into the deep blue murky depths), but then there’d be a welcome jet of warm current.

Having initially been rather anxious about the snorkelling, after a while I completely relaxed into it. There was just so much to see – we reached the last marker buoy (at the end of our section of reef) without me realising! At that furthest point, we had the whole reef to ourselves, and could hang around quietly and observe the fish foraging. On our return to the pontoon, it was fish-feeding time and we had to make our way through enthusiastic shoals of yellow-tail fusiliers (see picture).

We had been in the water for 45 minutes or so and were glad of cups of tea and platefuls of wholesome buffet food (as the trip was mainly catering for Chinese tourists, there were some interesting spicy noodle dishes and salads, as well as mountains of prawns). Later we went on the semi-submersible again, and, as the sun had gained in strength, the colours were much brighter. Curious scissortail sergeant-fish came and nibbled at the seaweed growing on the craft itself, and a gang of glum-looking trevally lingered under the pontoon.

We also went down to the viewing deck on the lower level of the pontoon. We could watch everyone’s legs as they hopped into the water, and amongst the humans were plenty of curious fish, including spotted yellow-fin surgeonfish, and the wonderfully strangely-shaped batfish (pictured).

The ship’s horn blasted and it was 3pm already (we’d been there 3 hours and the time had flown) and time to get back on the boat for the long journey home. Fortunately, the clouds had lifted so we were able to find a spot on the top sun-deck to enjoy doing nothing for the next few hours. The huge skies were patterned with ragged layers of cloud through which the sun valiantly peeped through, sending funnelling beams of white light and shadow into the metallic sea. At dusk there were glimpses of pink/gold through the dark banks of blue/grey cloud. It was very still. When we arrived at Hamilton Island the golf buggies were whizzing around (it’s rather like a toy town) and the raucous Australian birds were chattering as they got ready to roost for the night.

It was dark in Airlie Beach on our return. All the ferry’s staff and crew lined up to say goodbye to us as we disembarked – it was a nice, friendly touch (we’d been impressed by the service all day). Becky and the kids met us, and they couldn’t wait to tell us all about their adventures (not so fussed about ours!).

Tuesday was the last day of our holiday. On our way to breakfast at the Fat Frog, we spotted a little lizard hanging out on the railing wire of the walkway. He was very chilled out and both Maisie and Tommy managed to stay quiet enough to enjoy a close look at him. We walked to the lagoon in the afternoon, and Neil bought Maisie a snorkelling mask, which she was utterly thrilled by. Once she had it on, she swam (without any flotation devices) confidently across the pool! Tommy also worked out how to swim a few strokes on his own with the help of a swimming noodle.

Becky, Shannan and the kids brought pizzas over to our hotel for tea, and (thanks to the television) we (the adults) managed to sit down and have a bit of a chat and a catch-up on the balcony (our first – on all the other occasions we’d met we’d been too busy managing children). Tommy was so tired he fell asleep on the sofa before Sarah and John had left, and he didn’t wake up even when I changed him for bed!

Our flight the next day was at a civilized time in the morning. Becky drove us to the airport, and we spotted a number of grazing wallabies on the way. They were only metres away from the airport (there are only 3 scheduled flights a day!). The kids were really good on the plane. Tommy mainly slept and Maisie quietly played with activity books – it was so nice to have model children for once (it was certainly our best flight ever)! They were very excited to get home and re-engage with all their toys.

On Friday I took Maisie out for the second half of her birthday treat – a visit to the ‘Clip and Climb’ play centre with her friend Sophia. It’s a very tall room lined with a number of different climbing walls made of different materials – foam, plastic, wood, metal, rope etc. Sophia whizzed up to the top of them all, even mastering the ‘leap of faith’ where you had to ‘walk the [very high] plank’ and jump into thin air. Maisie climbed up to the top but wouldn’t jump. However, she attempted most of the climbs, and got pretty high when she could be bothered to. Tommy, as the smallest child in the room, also did pretty well. He liked the ladder-based climbs, and tried some of the simpler foam-based ones, but he didn’t have the reach to get very far on most of them.

It demanded a lot of the accompanying parents, as we had to be on hand to clip and unclip our children on every ascent. Michele and I had hoped to catch up while the kids were busy (we hadn’t seen each other in 3 months, during which time both of us Brits had been back to the UK/Europe) but we were too occupied trailing behind being the backup team. We managed to have a bit of a chat over a snooty cafe lunch – the food was delicious but our waitress was rude – she clearly hated children, despite the fact that the place had an extensive kids menu!

In the evening I met up with Lizzie K to see an Italian film. It was the glitzy biopic ‘Dalida’, about a hugely successful female Italian/French singer whose career took off in the 1950s. Known for her emotional ballads, she nevertheless embraced the new styles of the 1960s and 1970s, and late in her career evolved into a disco diva, audaciously engaging the choreographer of ‘Saturday Night Fever’ to shape her late 1970s greatest hits show. She was a strong, independent woman but she had atrocious taste in men, be they frustrated socialist intellectuals, music svengalis, or smarmy playboys – no less than 3 of her lovers ended up committing suicide (as she did herself in the mid-1980s). The casting of the film was remarkable – all the main characters bore a striking resemblance to their real-life counterparts.

On Saturday it was warm and sunny – not a patch on the tropics, but Maisie and Tommy were raring to go to the beach! We did make it there in the afternoon. We brought buckets and spades but didn’t anticipate that the kids would want to go straight into the sea (freezing compared to the mild waters of Queensland) – they dashed in fully clothed, and didn’t seem to feel the cold at all! I’m dreading the point at which they want to try and swim and I have to get in with them!

Later I met up with Rowena for our final Italian film of the festival, entitled ‘Let yourself go’. Starring my favourite Italian actor, the twinkling Toni Servillo, it was a screwball comedy about an uptight psychotherapist. Following a minor health scare, he reluctantly engages a young Spanish personal trainer whose crazy chaotic energy turns his life upside down. It was ridiculous, but smartly plotted, and Servillo (who is known for his serious roles) rose to the comical challenge and was as wonderfully watchable as ever.

On Sunday we sampled some of this year’s Melbourne Festival offerings. I went alone to the Melbourne University gallery to see a new exhibition entitled ‘The Score’, which brought together experimental music and dance scores, and other cross-disciplinary works where dialogue might be translated into movement, sound into painting or sculpture etc. It wasn’t the most visually striking exhibition, but there were plenty of interesting artefacts.

There were pages of colourful visual scores by Ligeti and Stockhausen (with accompanying samples of their music), sets of instructions by John Cage (see his ‘Water music’ pictured – which I saw being performed at the White Cube art gallery a couple of years back), and Cornelius Cardew. There were examples of mensural notation (pre the recognised musical stave, where there was more flexibility in interpreting the blocks of notes on the musical stave – I remember many happy hours deciphering these in my first year of university!).

Various artists had chosen to translate morse code, into either physical sculpture (pictured) or sound sculpture. I liked some of the oddities, such as a performance reconstruction, by Australian artist Danae Valenza, of the premiere of Scriabin’s experimental 1915 symphony ‘Prometheus: The poem of fire’ which had attempted to ‘paint sound with light’ by employing a ‘light keyboard’ called the Chromola. Valenza chose to use a piano reduction of the score, and attached a hand-painted lightbulb to each key, each colour ’allocated according to a system of tonal correspondences’. The performance was documented in a couple of long-exposure photographs which recorded every note played.

I also enjoyed David Chesworth’s sound piece ’36 Dia:Beacon Room Tones’. He had used the floor-plan of the New York gallery ’DIA:Beacon’ as a musical score, making sound recordings at specific marked points, then re-assembling them in random patterns. It was fascinating, and very evocative!

I met up with Neil, Maisie and Tommy at this year’s MPavilion, which was designed by the Netherlands-based architects Rem Koolhaus and David Gianotten of OMA. They are huge names in the world of architecture, but this temporary structure is their first ever completed Australian architectural commission!

At first glance I found the rather stark silver-grey hovering box rather unprepossessing, but having walked round it inside and out, I found plenty of details to enjoy, in the cave-like red-earth landscaping, the pleasant cosiness of the internal amphitheatre, and the gentle throb of the ambient lighting.

We went on to ACCA. This year’s Melbourne festival funding has brought over an excellent exhibition of works by the French Algerian artist Kader Attia (known in the UK for his Tate-exhibited citadel of couscous). His work explores conflicting European and non-Western narratives of race, conflict, destruction, injury and repair. The first piece was a towering construction of prefabricated steel shelving, piled high with European book and journal illustrations from the C19th onwards illustrating attitudes towards ‘otherness’ (i.e. every racist cliche).

Beyond this was a darkened room marked out by an army of deformed rough-hewn wooden heads on plinths. They were all facing a large screen, on which played a clip of ‘J’Accuse’, a 1938 French film about the war dead awakening and overwhelming the survivors. It was remarkably powerful, and the children were fascinated by it (it gave Tommy another chance to dwell on death – it’s something he often does – this time he wanted to be reassured that mummy and daddy and Maisie wouldn’t die before him).

In another room a battalion of wooden doors with loud-hailer heads looked like they were about to spring into action. The most disturbingly lifelike figures were a life-sized crowd of almost identical silver-foiled mummies seated in the prayer position. From the back they appeared substantial, as if real people were inside, but from the front you could see they were all just empty shells.

Week 258 – Airlie sunshine

Maisie’s holiday social whirl continued into Monday and Tuesday with playdates with Christopher and Polly. Neil and I snatched moments to pack in readiness for our Wednesday trip to Airlie Beach.

We had to leave at 5am – the kids were so excited that they awoke instantly in the early morning darkness and were ready for the taxi half an hour before it arrived! The journey to Queensland went smoothly, but exhaustingly for Neil, who was stuck between Maisie and Tommy and had to answer their every, constant, inane enquiry. Tommy was pretty thrilled by the whole process and mechanics of the flight. We arrived at 10.30am at the modest metal shed of Proserpine airport, and the heat was already oppressive. The kids wilted immediately (although in time they acclimatized), and retreated to Becky’s air-conditioned house while Neil and I went shopping for supplies and checked in to our hotel, which was situated right on the waterfront, overlooking one of the (several) exclusive marinas.

Every Wednesday after work sailing clubs across Australia stage races, and Shannan (my brother-in-law) rarely misses a local meet – he never gets bored of winning! He’s always happy to take on extra crew, as long as they pull their weight – quite literally – that was my main contribution to the afternoon. Every time the sailing boat tacks, the sail boom swings across (you have to dodge under it to prevent decapitation) the boat tips sideways at a 60 degree angle, and everyone has to swiftly shuffle across to the high side to prevent the whole thing keeling over!

We were racing in ‘Sardine’, a small sailing yacht owned by Shannan’s friend Brent, and there were only 4 of us on board. The course was triangular, and the winds were northerly, which meant that there were two speedy sides (when the boat coursed along at a precipitous angle, reaching speeds of up to 8 knots) and one leisurely even-keeled one, when there was time to crack open a beer! We were ahead of all the other boats (even the larger ones) right from the start, and none of them ever came near. We achieved the line honours (i.e. first past the post) with ease.

The guys were constantly tinkering with the lines, tightening the sails, calling out bad waves, and chatting about technical stuff (I hadn’t a clue what 90% of the conversation was about) but they were very friendly and the experience was more exhilarating than nerve-wracking (although it was that too – I was worried I’d fall off!).

Best of all was the crystalline afternoon light on the waves, and the sudden fiery glow of dusk over the bumpy blue-grey coastal hills.

On Thursday we started to relax into the tropical heat and constant sunshine. The kids were up at 4.30am, so we ate a rather bleary-eyed breakfast of sugary cereals and watermelon on our lovely hotel-room balcony.

We walked/biked/scooted along the boardwalk, spotting darting lizards, and lots of birds unusual to us (the laugh of kookaburras was constantly in the air).

Our destination was our nearest beach-side park, where Maisie climbed to the top of a towering rope climbing frame, and both kids enjoyed spinning around on a brand-new giant basket swing.

Maisie joined her cousins at a pirate-themed reading event at the local library, and Neil, Tommy and I enjoyed a relaxing breakfast at the Fat Frog cafe – a classy breakfast joint which we ended up becoming our regular.

In the afternoon we all met up with Becky and the cousins at the Airlie Beach lagoon (a lovely open-air civic pool which has just re-opened following the completion of post-Cyclone-Debbie refurbishments).

There’s a huge kid-friendly shallow area, and the girls hung out at the far end with a gang of Sarah’s friends chatting and trying to avoid the more boisterous lads’ water fights, while the boys just ran around and splashed alot.

On Friday morning Becky drove Sarah, Maisie and I out of town, past the denuded cane fields (the harvested crop was piled high in the trucks of the cane train, on its way to the sweet-smoke-belching refinery in the next town). We took a turning up a quiet wooded road to a small stables, where Sarah and Maisie had their own private riding lesson.

The girls led the ponies in from the fields, and were instructed in brushing them and tacking them up before they headed to the riding arena.

Happily the ponies were docile, and used to having small girls man-handling them (to be fair the Maisie and Sarah were very gentle and concentrated hard!). Maisie’s pony was an elegant golden-hued stallion named Thowra.

Once in the arena, there were balancing and co-ordination games and after Maisie had been led around a couple of times by the trainer, she was left in sole charge, and had to guide Thowra around a set of poles. She did well and was very calm and super-smily!

After half an hour’s riding the horses were led back to the stables and it was time for the sponging down (unfortunately once water and taps and buckets and sponges became involved, the girls weren’t quite so sensible!).

While Maisie was riding I enjoyed watching all the butterflies and nectar-seeking birds (such as the olive-backed sunbird pictured) drawn to the hibiscus blossoms.

We rejoined Neil and Tommy at the Fat Frog, and spent another afternoon at the lagoon.

Happily Maisie and Tommy were were becoming confident enough in the water that Neil and I could watch them from afar, and take some time to relax and chat in the sunshine. As the 6pm dusk drew in we dried off and bought fish and chips and ice cream which we ate by the sea.

Our walk home took us past patches of tangled coastal mangrove, snatches of rocky beach and super-tidy hotels and marinas (all newly refurbished post-Debbie).

The crepuscular glow of sea and sky was quite magical – even the sleepy kids (reluctantly biking/scooting their way back) were entranced!

On Saturday I headed out at 6am for a run. Even though the sun was only just rising, it was already hot and humid, and it was quite an effort to keep my heavy limbs moving for 10 kilometres. But there was plenty of activity (early birds, Saturday morning market stallholders setting up) and some spectacular scenery to keep me distracted.

At 8am we met up with Shannan and Becky and the kids at the end of one of the marina pontoons, where we boarded a spacious Tornado rib (Rigid Inflatable Boat) which Shannan (who works there) had borrowed for the day. We loaded up all our swimming gear, packed lunches, sun-shades, sunscreen and bottles of water and were soon whizzing off to Whitsunday Island!

Maisie had been very excited about the boat trip, Tommy not so much. And when we left the calm of the harbour and Shannon powered the rib up to 28 knots – it was bouncing up and down and we were furiously bracing and holding onto anything we could in order not to fly over the sides – Tommy sat very quietly between Neil and I gripping both our hands very hard. When asked whether he was having fun, he said it was brilliant (but he didn’t let go). It certainly was exhilarating! The cloud that had been hanging over the coast soon evaporated and the sun blasted down as we zoomed past the motley flotilla of boats also making their way out to Whitehaven.

As we came in sight of the iconic white-sand beach, it was looking pretty busted up by the cyclone. The storm spray had been so high that in places the soil 10 metres or so up the banks had been salt-saturated and all the trees were dead. In other places the tree-line had been knocked back several metres and the beach had become steeply shelved (Shannon mentioned also that the storm had carved out a new canal behind the beach, now filled with stinky brackish water).

But the sand is still its magical white colour, and once we’d found a place on the (tourist-busy) shore to moor up, the kids were leaping out of the boat into the turquoise sea and setting off on their beach adventures. Sarah and Maisie buried themselves in the sand and cavorted in the gentle translucent green waters, John and Tommy tried to build sandcastles without (on purpose) knocking each others’ over.

Tommy was happiest playing on his own fetching bucketfuls of seawater and finding huge pieces of driftwood which he dragged over the sand making complicated ‘train tracks’. He was also very taken with the sea-plane which landed very close by.

Becky, the girls and I paddled over to the rocky end of the cove. Maisie found a huge coral boulder which she insisted she wanted to take home (luckily she forgot about it later), refusing to relinquish it even as she struggled over the spiky oyster-shelled rocks in her bare feet. I found a beautiful piece of driftwood which photographed so well on its silica-sand backdrop.

On our way back along the beach, the tide was rapidly dropping, and the sea-snails were engaged in a convoluted race with the receding waves. Maisie was fascinated by their tiny spiraling trails. She also loved the worm casts which looked like loops of piped icing.

Becky and Shannon offered to mind the kids while Neil and I followed one of the island’s walking trails. The heat of the day was at its highest, and many of the larger trees had been knocked out by Debbie, so there was little shade, although there was lots of new low spiky green growth.

A sliver of shadow often hid a large monitor lizard (see picture). Most unnerving was hearing one scuttle in the undergrowth – they are so hefty that it sounds like a large mammal is approaching!

The trail took us to Chance Bay on the southern side of the island, a quiet sandy inlet where Shannan and Becky often moor up for a few days of family holiday (they had been there the previous week). They brought the boat and the kids round into the bay (spotting turtles off the reef on their way!) and weighed anchor.

Tommy had fallen asleep on the precariously narrow bench in the back of the boat so we took it in turns to watch him. Sarah took Maisie and John off to the ‘coconut hotel’, a beach cubby made out of driftwood and shells which they had built a few days earlier. Later they joined forces with some other kids on the beach and searched for crabs in the rocks.

When Tommy woke up he immediately went off in search of driftwood. We had to make a trip to the long-drop (a pit toilet), and he was absolutely fascinated by it, peering down the hole and asking lots of questions about it. I later asked him what his favourite part of the holiday was, and his answer (on several separate occasions) was always ‘the long-drop’ (followed by ‘the aeroplane’)!

We enjoyed a last delicious splash in the clear bath-temperature water, and Maisie tried on a snorkeling mask for the first time and immediately got it and ducked her head underwater and started swimming unaided. Then we reluctantly packed up our sunburnt selves (the white sand reflects those vicious sun-rays into all sorts of places that never usually get a glimpse of UV!) and found things in the boat to cling on to as we bumped our way back to the mainland. We passed a couple of former resort islands which had been totally written off by the cyclone (one of the older resorts, which had been crumbling away as it was, was simply blown to bits – it was like we were suddenly in a third world country).

When we arrived back in the marina, 3-year-old John lost his beach ball in the water. While we unpacked the boat and the other kids bewailed the lost ball, resourceful John went and found one of Shannan’s colleagues and asked him for his help – the next thing we knew John was whizzing round the corner in a dinghy (piloted by Brent), directing the ball retrieval operations!

On Sunday it was rather overcast, but as we were all pretty sore from the previous day’s sunburn, that was no bad thing! We took the kids to the park (our walk taking us past a tree full of seed-crunching black cockatoos) and sampled more of the Fat Frog’s smoothies, and for some reason they’d baked a rainbow cake – which was so sweet that one (shared) slice almost defeated our kids.

In the afternoon fat sparse drops of rain turned into a driving chilly drizzle (we were told that this was the first rainfall since the typhoon in March). We did a bit of beachwear shopping and spent some time at the lagoon. Unsurprisingly we were almost the only people there – the rain didn’t bother the kids one bit, but it wasn’t so much fun for Neil and I!

Week 257 – in theatres

On Monday Tommy and I went to Maisie’s first school concert. Held in St Kilda Town Hall, it was an entirely original 50-minute musical show written and devised by school staff, and performed by children in years Prep, 1 and 2. It was entitled ‘Skipper the penguin saves the world’, [Skipper the penguin is the school mascot], and was a sweet and amusing cautionary tale about global warming.

A few of the older kids acted out the parts of penguins, car-drivers, rainforest-axemen, even Malcolm Turnbull (saying ‘yes’ to gay marriage – very topical!), and all the others sang and danced to the musical numbers. Maisie featured in ‘The melting song’ (‘drip, drop, can you hear the sound, drip drop’!), and ‘The recycling song’ (‘don’t put it in the trash, you can do it in a flash…’). She was very keen to get everything right, but was pretty self-conscious. At the end all the performers had to dance across the stage (some were leaping and doing cartwheels) while ‘Uptown Funk’ was played on an endless loop. When it came to Maisie’s turn she scampered across the stage looking away from the audience (she said afterwards that she had felt nervous)!

Early on Tuesday morning, about an hour after Tommy had arrived at childcare, I got an anxious phone call from a member of staff there telling me to come over immediately. Tommy had run into a raised wooden-sided flowerbed in the yard and had knocked several teeth out. They hadn’t noticed for ten minutes or so as he didn’t cry, just went and sat in a corner quietly clutching his mouth. They couldn’t find the teeth so were worried that they’d jammed into his gums/lips somehow.

When I arrived, Tommy was grey-faced, but alert and talking, and not bleeding dramatically. One of the staff drove us both to the Children’s Hospital – a place that has become rather familiar to us (one of the nurses referred to us as ‘frequent fliers’!). After the swift triage and the initial examination (the cheery Irish consultant smiled as he said ‘he’s done a real job there’ – it took me a while to realise that that was bad news!). They dosed Tommy up with painkillers (which cheered him up instantly), and we were fast-tracked to Dentistry, and happily the x-ray revealed that the three top front teeth had simply been knocked out rather than forced in, so it wasn’t as serious as we’d initially thought. The gums had been torn and the top lip, but the adult teeth still appeared to be in the right place. They recommended surgery to minimise the long-term damage, so we headed up to the surgery department, and crossed our fingers that a theatre slot would come up before the end of the day.

Tommy got increasingly quieter and more sleepy – I think he was in shock (he hadn’t been like that on our previous visit when he lost the tip of his finger, he’d continued to be very active all day). He lay on a seat and watched endless children’s television. He was very engaged and kept commenting on it so I wasn’t too worried about him. An hour and half or so after we’d entered the waiting room they checked us in (it was around 3pm by this point). The nurse added him on to the theatre waiting list, and said she wasn’t sure how long it might be till he was called. But then, literally 2 minutes later, another member of staff came in and asked if Tommy was on the list for another theatre. In that 2 minutes they had transferred him to a vacant spot and we were straight into the pre-op suite (that, as the nurse exclaimed in surprise, never happens!).

About an hour later, Tommy was wheeled into the anaesthesia room. He was very quiet and calm, and the anaesthetist was particularly laid-back and gentle, and put a cartoon on his phone for Tommy to watch as he administered the sleeping gas. Thankfully it wasn’t anywhere near as distressing an experience as it had been last time Tommy had had a general anaesthetic (but I so hope he doesn’t have to have another one of those for many many years, if not ever).

By 5pm Tommy was out of surgery, crotchety but lively, and certainly no longer in shock. He devoured a pot of jelly and two ice-creams and they said he was fit to leave. We made it home on the rush-hour trams (which kept him engaged!).

The next day he was as bouncy as ever (too bouncy – I was worried he would crash into things and re-open the wound). He was on a liquid diet for the next few days, and the healing of his lip was remarkably quick. By Sunday, the swelling was completely down, the outer scars had fallen off and the stitches dissolved. The gums were still sore but he was able to eat soft foods. Happily his teeth have never been too prominent, so the large gap is not immediately obvious (he will have that gap until the adult teeth appear).

When not watching Tommy like a hawk (and Maisie – it was hard to get her to stop attacking him, as is her modus operandi, but we did get the message through to some extent), I managed to get out and see a couple of films. The first was ‘It’s all about karma’, a movie showing as part of this year’s Italian Film Festival. Rowena and I had enjoyed the director’s previous film ‘God Willing’ – a sparky science versus religion comedy, and this had a similar format, throwing together a gentle mystical millionaire and a petty conman and watching the sparks fly. But the premise was preposterous (the millionaire believed that the conman was the re-incarnation of his beloved father who had committed suicide when he was 4 years old) and it was all rather silly and sweet-toothed.

The other movie, ‘Heal the Living’, by the French director Katell Quillévéré (I am a great fan of her previous films ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Love like Poison’), was something entirely different. Based on an award-winning novel, it was the story of a heart transplant – a beautifully sensitive, empathetic, non-melodramatic study of all those affected. The young surfer boy who dies (the film of his final dawn surfing adventure was stunning), his estranged, grieving blue-collar parents, the hospital surgeons and nurses, staff at the donor centre, the ailing musician mother of two student sons who believes that she has little time left, but then (via the transplant) gets an astonishing reprieve. A depiction of the surgery itself formed a central part of the movie, but I couldn’t watch that bit!

Friday saw the end of Maisie’s third term of her first school year (she has one more to go). She was pretty exhausted and came down with a cold, but her behaviour wasn’t quite as awful as it has been following previous terms! Her weekend featured several play-dates and a party (our social calendar was nowhere near as exciting!).

At the party they had a clown and Maisie loved her so much that she chose to get her face painted in the same design (one of the other kids decided she wanted to be a mirror-ball!). The day happened to be extremely hot (29 degrees!) so Tommy, Neil and I spent a relaxed afternoon absorbing the sudden summer warmth in the park (the next day we were back down to a high of 16 degrees).

Week 256 – ballet, bells and banana cupcakes

Feeling a bit more human after seven days of jet-lag, I managed to make it out this week to see a couple of films. The first was ‘That’s not me’, a new Aussie indie comedy film about an aspiring young actor struggling to make a name for herself, whilst in the shadow of her much more successful actor twin. When she turns down a brief role in an Aussie soap (because her conscience baulks at the idea of playing an albino character), her career is condemned, spiralling ever downwards. Meanwhile her beloved parents celebrate her twin’s escalating success. The actress (who also co-wrote the script) playing the twins was brilliant. When the sisters finally appeared in a scene together, they seemed utterly unlike each other, despite minimal make-up/camera effects.

I also went to an early morning showing of ‘God’s Own Country’, a film that was both a bleak social-realist drama about small-scale sheep farming in the Pennines, and a hopeful, sensitively portrayed romance. The loyal son of a stroke-afflicted farmer struggles to keep the family’s failing farm going, numbing himself to the daily hardships with hard bouts of drinking and loveless (gay) sex. When a capable, watchful, young Romanian farm-hand (the son first greets him as ‘Gypo’) arrives to help with the lambing, an initial violent attraction develops into a surprisingly tender relationship. And a bit of kindness effects a dramatic transformation in the young farmer’s life.

It was Maisie’s birthday on Friday, a cold and rather rainy day. I baked a lot of banana cupcakes (28 for school class-mates, 20 for home) and we went out for a family pizza and ice-cream tea.

Earlier in the day (while Maisie was at school), Tommy and I went to the Royal Botanical Gardens to see the spring flowers.

He loves to collect petals (he filled his monkey toy with an astonishing number of pink camellia petals) and watch the ducks…

…and he humoured me in my tour of the daffodil and bluebell lawns, the beds of early cherry blossom and the rhododendron and azalea groves.

We didn’t hold a party for Maisie this year, instead we purchased a couple of eye-wateringly expensive tickets (for me and her) for the Australian Ballet’s new production of Alice in Wonderland (a production initially developed for the British Royal Ballet). Maisie had watched a DVD of the Royal Ballet production during mum’s visit last year, and had been quite entranced.

We had seats in the back row of the stalls (in the end, although not our preferred spot, quite a good choice, as Maisie could stand up/fidget as much as she liked and still see and not bother anyone!). As the lights dimmed and orchestra tuned up, Maisie was clinging to me and shaking with excitement (I’m not sure when I can last recall experiencing such genuine emotions from her!). And as soon as the dancers entered she was utterly engaged. It turned out she remembered the ballet incredibly well from her one viewing of it a year ago, and she kept whispering excitedly about what was about to happen next.

It is a remarkable production, full of artistry and magic. Projections were used effectively to portray the roller-coaster ride down the rabbit hole, and Alice’s crazy distortions in size. There were various puppets – a marionette Alice, a giant Cheshire Cat with disparate limbs and head manipulated by a whole team of black-clad puppeteers. The Red Queen whizzed around in a monstrous lacquered gown on castors (which later opened to reveal her hen-pecked King inside). Of the many other gloriously colourful costumes, the tutus of the ‘pack of cards’ were particularly effective – when the ballerinas leaned over, they were all sharply cut in the shapes and colours of the different suits.

There were terrifying set pieces (the cook and her monstrous sausage-making machine were like a scene from Sweeney Todd), and scenes interpreted entirely in tap-dance (led by the Mad Hatter – who looked great, but, frustratingly, never quite managed to get his steps in time with the orchestra). The whole audience (made up mainly of elderly women) swooned with the appearance of the lithely topless Caterpillar in his shiny turquoise harem pants (I must admit I wasn’t immune to his charms, either!).

The croquet scene, with its scuttling child hedgehog-balls, and cleverly-choreographed female flamingo-mallets, was a highlight, as was the chaotic climactic court scene, where the evil Red Queen charmed with her prat-falls (Maisie claimed this was her favourite bit!), and the scenery (the pile of cards – see picture above) collapsed in a dramatic flourish.

The running time (including 2 intervals) was 3 hours, and Maisie was utterly gripped until midway through the final act (when she started asking if it was nearly finished), and with a bit of encouragement (‘who’s that over there’, ‘what’s that hedgehog doing?’ etc.) she made it through to the end. I was so impressed with her!
  I enjoyed the ballet too, but I think the strengths were in the production (unaltered from the Royal Ballet original), and in the orchestra’s lively rendition of Joby Talbot’s atmospheric musical score, rather than the dancing, which was charming but often lacked finesse.

On Sunday we all enjoyed an energetic physical theatre performance in Acland Street. It was a new interpretation, by the ‘Theatre Research Institute’, a Melbourne-based group of acrobats, of ‘The Bells’, a piece first devised by the Australian company ‘5 Angry Men’ in 1990. Riding ancient bicycles, wearing voluminous black overcoats, the 5 performers slowly circled the audience then clustered round a tall frame trailing a number of hefty dangling ‘bell-pulls’ (there weren’t any bells, but pulling and releasing the ropes triggered the sound of them).

They suddenly grabbed the ropes and started viciously ringing them in a chaotic, but occasionally beautifully synchronised, carillon. They swung high and low and stampeded into the audience, had fights and occasionally hung, suspended, high above our heads.

Maisie was a bit scared by it all, but Tommy was very intrigued, keeping up a constant running commentary!

Week 255 – the Melbourne winter continues

The first week back after my wonderful holiday was completely excitement-free (probably a good thing!). It was cold, grey and wet – too unsettled to make it out to the park at all (every school pick-up was in the driving rain) – and the jet-lag was pretty all-consuming. I drank a lot of coffee and gradually felt a little more human each day! I made some muffins for my birthday and joined Jules and other friends for a joint birthday drink at a virtually empty beachside bar on a freezing rainy night.

Tommy was on exuberant form, each day a new character – one day he was a ‘scarecrow’, another day we had to address him as ‘Baby James’, another ‘Timothy crab’, and for several days ‘Baby Skipper’ [Skipper the penguin is Maisie’s school mascot].

Neil also got better day by day. At the weekend the sun came out at last, and we were able to muster up enough energy for a family stroll/bike/scoot down to the beach and along the pier to say hello to the penguins.

Week 254 – Paris, London, Melbourne

Monday started well with a glazed apricot pastry and an espresso in the sunshine at the excellent Parisian patisserie, Paul, then Lizzie and I caught the Metro to Montmartre. We approached Sacre Coeur from the far side, the winding tree-lined streets and steep flights of stone steps quiet and shady.

Paris is so full of remarkable churches – and Sacre Coeur is unlike any other, with its all-white decorative Romano-Byzantine-style cluster of bright white towers and elongated domes, and its pole position, proudly surveying the sprawling city which unfurls beneath it.

The full onslaught of tourists hit us as we walked around to the front of the building – the queues, the buskers, the hawkers, the holiday-makers laying out their hotel towels on the threadbare grassy slopes to sit on for picnics(!) etc.

We stopped briefly to admire the wonderful view, and to pick out the classic landmarks (the churches, the theatres, the galleries) – most of which are clearly visible as the centre of the city is free of the monstrous modern speculative towers that mar most other European (or indeed any) capitals. We joined the crowds choking the narrow cobbled streets but soon managed to peel off into some less populated corners, spotting some lovely things along the way.

I was taken by a beautiful owl-themed art deco door, and a bizarre sculpture of a man partially emerging from a stone wall (on closer inspection, we found that it was situated behind a large floor-based air vent, hence the Marilyn-Monroe-style pose!).

We found a tiny secluded park and peered through the hedge into a secret garden, the trees so dense you could hardly see the little old cottage they surrounded. I took a picture of one of the elegant new bomb-deterring-wastebins that you now see everywhere in Paris (I liked the fact that this one was filled with classy-looking empty French wine bottles).

We meandered our way down to the Montmartre cemetery, where many famous C19th and C20th artists and musicians are buried. We picked 6 of our favourites and set off on a mission to find them (not as easy a task as you might imagine – although there was a map, the graves were so densely packed, it was often hard to locate the exact spot).

The first was Nadia Boulanger – the remarkable French composer, conductor (she was the first woman to conduct many of the major European and American orchestras) and teacher (her pupils included Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones and Phillip Glass).

Two other composers had fancy memorials. Jacques Offenbach (known mainly for his operettas which influenced later composers such as Johann Strauss and Arthur Sullivan) whose red marble slab was emblazoned with a bronze Greek lyre and topped with a noble bust, and Hector Berlioz, who was commemorated in a great curved screen of grandly austere, shiny black marble.

There were plenty of other fascinating structures to see along the way – many notables had tiny but terribly ornate gothic-styled stained-glass chapels erected in their honour, with carved stone turrets and pointy roofs. I spotted a glint of gold inside one grand sepulchre – and was impressed by the beautiful mosaiced interior. The pathways were patrolled by the many (very friendly) graveyard cats.

I was very glad to pay tribute to the inventor of the saxophone, Adolphe Sax (although, sadly, I no longer regard myself as a saxophone player!).

The artist Edgar Degas was interred in his simple family tomb, with only a small bronze plaque on the door mentioning him by name.

The grave of film-maker Francois Truffaut was also simple, just a plain horizontal black marble slab. Fans had sprinkled it with old metro tickets (one of his most popular films was the 1980 classic ‘Le Dernier Metro’).

In the afternoon we window-shopped along several of the, seemingly rather unloved, little old arcades. Amongst the themed restaurants and concessions selling tasteful tourist tat, a few antiquarian bookshops remained and there were several wonderful children’s boutiques, devoted primarily to dolls-house furnishings. Every product under the sun was reproduced in minute, lavishly detailed, form. There were to-scale working light-fittings of every style; furniture and furnishings for every taste (much more variety than you’d find in a regular furniture shop!), and, best of all, a vast array of foodstuffs. These included pin-sized fruits and vegetables and accoutrements, bottles and glasses of wine, packets and tins, and platefuls of cakes and trifles and pasta and salads and steak tartare etc. etc.

Our route back to St Germain des Pres took us through the Grand Palais, where we stopped to see a new exhibition that had just been installed in the courtyard. Ten gigantic ceramic white spheres had been placed along a colonnaded walkway. If you put your head down to the small cylindrical opening in each, a pungent herbal smell (emitted from a small scent diffuser in the base) would engulf you. Some of the aromas were fairly pleasant and floral, others were intense and bitter, like a clove-laced mulled wine. The perfumier Chantal Sanier who had devised the piece had researched and reproduced the scents favoured by various famous historical figures (including Cardinal Richelieu and Moliere).

We enjoyed our last Parisian summer’s evening in much the same way as the others – with a bottle of rose in the park and an al fresco meal at our neighbouring bistro. We were served plates piled so high with oozing blue cheeses, sliced cured meats and patés, that it was impossible to finish them off!

On Tuesday we decided to visit the catacombs, but a lazy start (via a rather magnificent fountain – see picture!) meant we didn’t get there till 10.30am, and discovered that we were 2 and half hours away from the front of the queue (we hadn’t realised it is Paris’s number one attraction!).

So we gave up on that idea and went to look at the Pompidou Centre instead. Nearby there is a new shopping mall built in the shape of a giant stingray. It seemed rather out of place, perhaps better suited to a city in the Arab Emirates! (see pictures above and below).

The Pompidou Centre, even though it is now a bit grimy and rundown and dated-looking, still has an amazing presence.

We walked round the outside (sadly it was closed for the day) admiring the crazy colourful-piped facade, then stopped at a nearby creperie for a delicious brunch. I picked my favourite French classic – sweet crepes with marron (chestnut) paste.

We also said hello to the lovely kinetic fountain sculptures, which unfortunately no longer move!

A nearby church was welcoming visitors in to view their unlikely art installation. The nave and aisles were filled with the piped sounds of rainforest birds and insects, and hanging from the ceilings were huge ‘egg sacs’ constructed of broken bits of old furniture. It was rather odd, but effective!

We walked down to Notre Dame and met up with Megan, Ian and Fin, who happened to be in Paris for the weekend as part of their own trip over from Australia (we’ve all lived in Australia for the last 5 years, but in different cities, and, for various reasons, have never managed to meet up there!). We found a shady spot for a picnic, with a handy sandpit for Fin, and caught up with a lot of news and made plans for a future meet-up closer to home.

In the mid-afternoon we made a reluctant start to our journey back to London. There was Eurostar chaos at the Gare du Nord, so our stress levels quickly zoomed back to normal after our wonderfully relaxing sojourn! But we made it back to London okay in the end.

On Wednesday, in London, it started raining at 10am and didn’t stop till it got dark! But that didn’t matter as I’d arranged to meet up with a couple of friends for coffee and lunch. I met Natasha in Spitalfields market, and we fled that sadly corporatized space and found a seat in a little off-Brick-Lane independent coffee shop instead. I had the best cup of coffee of my 3 weeks in London, and we also stopped by the Brick Lane Bagel Bakery (which hasn’t changed one bit in 5 years) for a bag of chewy fresh bagels.

I headed up to Euston to meet my old flatmate and Saxpack bandmate Anna Br (from my university years), who had come up from the Midlands especially to meet me – I felt very honoured! We hadn’t seen each other for an extremely long time, so there were many, many things to say. Anna’s a professional saxophonist, musical director/composer/arranger and her twin boys have just turned 17. There was sad news about some of our old bandmates, and some hair-raising stories about teenage boys! We started our conversation over lunch at Ciao Bella at 1.30pm. We were so engrossed in conversation, that it was 4pm before I looked at my watch (I did wonder why the place was so empty!). We carried on the conversation next door in the Lamb, and before we knew it Anna had to catch her 6.30pm train home!

I went down to Clapham to join Jan and Andy and Di at one of their favourite restaurants, the oddly named ‘Fish in a Tie’! The fare was homely (I had potato-loaded fish cakes) and the service was very friendly.

Thursday was my last full day in London, and happily the sun reappeared! Which was just as well, as I’d planned a day out in Kew Gardens. Jan came along, and Dad, and Sonya and Effra too.

We visited all my favourite spots – the waterlily house (a symphony of tropical greens), the grand Victorian palm house (all misty with spray)…

…the Japanese garden (sadly the Pagoda was completely swathed in construction plastic), and the bamboos (wonderfully verdant – they’d expanded in size dramatically since I last saw them).

We visited the new Shirley Sherwood Gallery, full of exquisite recent and historical botanical illustrations, and the Marianne North Gallery (which now forms an extension to the new space) with it’s incredible floor-to-ceiling montage of her illustrations of the flora and fauna, landscapes and village people she encountered on her many exotic late C19th travels. Her paintings are so evocative – there’s a real sense of place, whether she is capturing the South American rainforests, the South African savannah, or the Australian bushland.

New to me was ‘The Hive’, a huge metal mesh tower which is meant to replicate the structure of bee-hive. At the base was an interesting interactive exhibit which enabled you to hear like a bee (capturing sound vibrations through a wooden lolly stick).

Also, as wonderful as ever, was the Princess of Wales Conservatory, which recreates the conditions of the drier tropics and arid, desert landscapes.

My favourite cacti had grown substantially, and I enjoyed the unusual variants of orchids and anthuriums, and the myriad varieties of tiny, almost invisible, ‘stone plants’.

In the evening Andy and Di cooked up roast lamb with all the trimmings (including potatoes roasted in goose fat, mint sauce and mint jelly) for Dad, Jan, me and their neighbour Gabi, which we ate in their elegant conservatory (the evenings were beginning to get chilly!). It was such a treat – a roast is something I rarely eat (being as how I live with a vegan and a couple of super-fussy eaters!), and everyone was on very entertaining form!

The following day I did a last bit of English high street shopping (it turns out there are lots of shops that I miss!), and made my way across town to the airport. The journey home was straightforward and I found a Shahrukh Khan film to watch.

When I arrived home first thing on Sunday morning, it was very cold. Neil had just about enough energy to say hello before he collapsed into bed, and I didn’t see him for the rest of the day (he was ill with flu for a few days – he’d managed to stave the worst of it off whilst he was on full-time childcare duty!).

I took the kids out to the Father’s Day (the irony!) St Kilda car rally, and Tommy got extremely excited about every car (Maisie was up for a few shiny cars, but ran out of interest fairly quickly!). Then we did a circuit of the local parks, and managed to stay out till the late afternoon. I had to keep going until I’d bundled them into bed, and I was in bed too shortly after that!