Beyond the Bends



Pittwater and the Peninsula

This afternoon I took a lazy drive with my girls, wending our way up the Northern Beaches, heading beyond the Bends.

The sun is finally shining in Sydneytown after a week of relentless rain, and the temperature is on the rise too. Today we had no plans — just a vague idea about hopping in the car and driving north. And with The Bloke back at work and several more weeks of glorious summer ahead of us, that’s just what we did.

We cruised up the road, reveling in the beauty of the blue of the skies and the sea, taking it easy. One of the best things about summer holidays is not having to rush…

We stopped for lunch — burgers, because another great thing about the long summer break is getting to eat your main meal in the middle of the day if you feel like it — and then poked our heads into various shops before getting back into the car.

This time we headed briefly west, making the short trip across the peninsula from the beaches to Pittwater.  For me, it’s like taking a trip down Memory Lane…particularly when we drove past the holiday house that had once belonged to family friends when I was growing up. I found myself telling the kids that the first place I ever saw a koala in the wild was in their front yard, and then lost myself in a reverie of recollections as the road meandered down towards Clareville.

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Summer skies…

The water was welcoming when we arrived, and the shade beneath the huge eucalpyts at the sand’s edge was deep.  We sat for a while, listening to the lapping water, watching the clustering cumulonimbus clouds on the horizon, searching for giant seed pods beneath the ancient trees. Time slows down during those moments…those lazy summer afternoons that new memories are made of…

Miss Malaprop fell asleep as we made our steady southbound journey home, while Marvel Girl stared dreamily out the window. And even now, as the first raindrops of that summer storm begin to fall, I still have a smile on my face.

Today, we had no plans…and it was wonderful…

Lux Veris

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Morning on the Corso…this is Spring in Sydney

I love the light at this time of year, when bleached skies and metallic seas signal the onset of Summer. There is something uniquely Australian about the quality of that light: an intrinsic brightness with a shine and sheen that we recognise — instantly — as being the light of our homeland.

Pilots call it ‘severe clear’, a term used to describe conditions of unlimited visibility, but it’s a remarkably accurate expression. There is nothing subtle about the light in the Antipodes: here the sun blazes, the heat blinds.

In Sydney we appear to have skipped straight past Spring, with the temperatures in recent days soaring into the thirties. Around here, the beaches have been packed and the Manly Jazz Festival has been in full swing. It’s great weather for jazz, and for Jamiroquai too. While Winter might make us head for the mellow tunes of Milky Chance, Spring and Summer have us cranking up the car stereo, and reaching for Robin Schulz and Ministry of Sound Annuals. At this time of year my rear view mirror often provides glimpses of Marvel Girl busting out her best dance moves (quite a range, considering the confines of her car seat) while Miss Malaprop sings along — in her own words, as usual — thinking she can rap just as well as Nicki Minaj (she so can’t).

It’s been fantastic weather for footy, too, with last Sunday going down in the history books as a golden day in Australian sport: first the Wallabies won at Twickenham and sent the hapless Poms packing out of the Rugby World Cup, and then the North Queensland Cowboys took home their first NRL premiership in spectacular fashion with Johnathan Thurston kicking them to victory over the Brisbane Broncos with a field goal in extra time. It was a Grand Final for the ages, and one I won’t forget.

But then again, the October Long Weekend always has a touch of enchantment about it, because every year at 2:00am on the first Sunday of October, a magical thing occurs: Daylight Saving Time begins. Well, that is to say, it begins here in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania — for some obscure reason (still unknown to the rest of the states and territories along the Eastern Seaboard) Queensland doesn’t participate. To be fair, they always have done things a bit differently up there…though not even I am game to mention the Bjelke-Petersen years…

Still, for the rest of us, the beginning of Daylight Saving Time means longer days and lingering twilight. It means trips to the beach after school, it means barbecues and a few quiet beers at dusk. And for a lot of Australian kids, it means going to bed when it’s still light.

Strangely enough, some of my most vivid childhood memories are of lying beneath my window in my bed as the golden light of day slowly faded into the deep tropical green of evening. I can still hear the last raucous squawks of roosting lorrikeets, and the rhythmic thunk of the filter in the neighbours’ pool after someone popped in for one last swim. I can still see the inky silhouettes of trees on the horizon, and the first twinklings of the stars high above. Only when I had seen the Southern Cross wheel its way above my head would I close my eyes and sleep, secure in the knowledge that I was truly home.

Ahhh…that light, again. Severe clear by day, warm and inviting by night. And while Dorothea Mackellar may be justly famous for summing up what Australia is like in “My Country”, I think — oddly enough — that it was Wordsworth who understood just what I experienced as a child, even if he felt it a few miles above Tintern Abbey instead of in Sydney:

My local credit Yury Prokopenko

My local rockpool…photo credit Yury Prokopenko

         …And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.


So Hot Right Now…

Syd Sunset 2Summer is coming to a close. It’s February…season of sweats and humid yucky-ness. Had John Keats been around to write about the end of an Sydney summer he would probably have been even more florid in his praise of autumn.

It’s funny — summer is something we long for, but by the time Australia Day has rolled around and we’ve yelled kung hei fat choi as fireworks burst against the backdrop of an eventually darkening daylight-savings sky, we’re slightly over it. Not the long evenings of sunshine and endless twilight, not the many happy hours at the beach, nor the impossible stretch of bleached blue skies that pilots refer to as “severe clear”.  No, those things we’re happy to embrace, to celebrate, and — come July — to immortalise.

It’s the humidity.

Humidity, that drooping, relentless, monsoonal wet blanket. Those never-ending February days filled with hot, moist air dampening all that it touches, followed by nights when the temperature does not dip below a balmy 23 degrees. Nights when bedclothes are abandoned, and sheets become stained with sweat.  My children sprawl across their beds, legs and arms flung into starry shapes as they sink into turbulent sleep, disturbed by short, sharp bursts of rainfall on the roof.  In our own bed my husband seems somehow distant from me, separated as we are by the contorted, constricting snake of doona, squished between our torpid, somnolent forms.

And then there are the really hot nights, when all the old stories come out: tales of being taken to the beach in what felt like the middle of the night to splash in the shallows and cool down.  Of nights when the heat defeated any prospect of sleep, and people sat around having a quiet yarn and maybe the odd beer, and everyone knew that the occasional “How hot is it?” was not even a rhetorical question, but an admission of surrender.

The word “humid” is actually derived from an old French word for “moist” or “wet”, but is probably influenced also by the Latin word “humus”, meaning “earth”.  It’s remarkable accurate, really, because that is what it feels like, this Sydney heat — moist earth.  And it smells like overblown frangipani flowers, trodden into the mouldering undergrowth.  It wilts us, saps us of our energy, sends us to our knees. We droop in ancient deckchairs, waiting for the southerly winds to blow in and trace cool fingers across our brows.  We know, only too well, that the humidity won’t last, and neither will the summer.

Yes, here in Sydney, summer is coming to a close.

Holiday Bonus Points — A Cautionary Tale

Note to prospective readers: this post may contain traces of nail polish or acetone and could, quite possibly, have resorted to the use of expletives.

Here in the Great Southern Land, the summer holidays are drawing to a close: those longed-for, clear-skied, sprawling days of uninterrupted leisure are now well and truly numbered.  In five more sleeps Miss Malaprop will be back at preschool, and in nine my Marvel Girl will resume school.

Looking back over the past five or six weeks, a large part of me is already veering wildly towards nostalgia.  I have relished my time with my girls this summer, the hours of building jungle hideout forts from shoeboxes, of creating crazy craft and science projects, of swimming every chance we got, of reading books (and more books) aloud, of happy chatter during endless sessions of imaginative play.  I will miss, in particular, the little gems that have dropped into their conversations…“Ants are very capable creatures — I want to get a magnifying glass so I can see how big this ant’s eyes are!” or “Our new cubby house is hotter than a vampire bat!”, or the many sentences that ended with the phrase “this [whatever it was] has been the best EVER!”.

Realistically speaking, however, I admit that my already sentimental recollections of the summer holidays have blithely glossed over the numerous occasions when the kids have not gotten along, or when I have raised my voice, or when one of us — or sometimes more than one — has completely lost it.  We are, none of us, angels (a fact which, quite naturally, reminds me of Sherlock Holmes’ marvelous quote from the superb Reichenbach Fall episode).  But these holidays, I did manage to introduce a new scheme aimed at promoting more angelic behaviour: Holiday Bonus Points.

The concept of Holiday Bonus Points came to me one morning when I was about to launch into my customary post-breakfast tirade about hair brushing, bed making, teeth cleaning, floor tidying or whatever it happened to be that day.  Instead of rattling into my usual rant, I took a deep (supposedly calming) breath and made a proclamation from the middle of the mess that was my kitchen: a Holiday Bonus Point would be awarded to any child who performed a task without being asked to.

Two gleaming pairs of eyes, one dark greeny-brown, the other light greeny-blue, locked onto mine, followed by a rapidfire barrage of questions, and before I knew it, the Holiday Bonus Point scheme was up and running — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it was made up and running.  The details were invented as I quickly as I answered the kids’ questions: any child who got five HBP’s before school went back would get a special treat of their choice, but the award — and the possible removal — of points was entirely at my discretion.

For the most part, Holiday Bonus Points were a roaring success: instead of constantly nagging the girls, I was able to (ever so vaguely) wonder aloud whether anyone would get an HBP that day.  Conversely, if anyone was misbehaving, I could warn them that if the infraction continued an HBP might be taken away from them.  In fact, I would even go so far as to say that the scheme worked brilliantly — until Miss Malaprop surprised us all by being the first to be awarded a full five points a whole week before the holidays ended, and promptly requested a trip to the shops to buy some nail polish.  Specifically, aqua and purple nail polish.  And pehaps a pink one, too.

And here, as you may have guessed, begins the cautionary portion of our tale — the part that begins right after I managed suppress the loud groan that very nearly escaped me when the words “nail polish” were mentioned.  It was, of course, the point when I realised that I not only had to purchase her chosen treat, but that I also had lost the by now almost mythical power of the Holiday Bonus Point scheme for the final week of the holidays.  This flaw, this great gaping hole in my formerly smooth-running system, was brought into particularly sharp relief when Miss Malaprop — despite being told in no uncertain terms NOT to open her brand new five-pack of glittery nail polish until I had finished showering and was able to supervise her — was unable to resist the siren song of the brightly coloured bottles, removed them from their shiny silver packaging, and promptly spilled some of the green (yes, green) nail polish on the carpet in her bedroom.

After a great many tears (hers) and far too much yelling (mine), we managed to resolve the situation. Miss Malaprop’s room still has a faint whiff of acetone, but the carpet is clear and we have both calmed down.  As it turns out, bottles of nail polish are just as easy to remove as Holiday Bonus Points, so the scheme has been salvaged to some degree.  But it was not without a serious amount of trepidation that I asked Marvel Girl (who is currently in possession of four HBP’s) what

The brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in The Reichenbach Fall.

The brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in The Reichenbach Fall.

she was planning on getting should she manage to procure her final point. To my great relief, she simply smiled dreamily and said she’d love to get the fifth book in the Swallows and Amazons series.

We are, none of us, angels, but I think even I can handle that.

We Turned Left

For years now, when time and money allows, The Bloke and I have been going on various little holidays up and down the eastern coast of this Great Southern Land.  Generally speaking we head north from the Big Smoke, seeking surf and serenity at one of any number of beaches that we count as favourites (the list is extensive and ever-expanding).  Why we choose to vacation beside the sea when our family home is located less than a kilometre from the nearest beach may be a mystery to many, but it’s a pattern that has remained unchanged since the arrival of Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop.  And what it usually means is that every school holidays, the family piles into the car and we drive along the Pacific Highway as far north as we intend to go, then turn right and head for whichever stretch of coastline is currently taking our fancy.

Until this holiday.

You see, some time ago, some bright spark (who may or may not be the author of this blog) was having yet another whinge about her husband’s surfboard collection – or quiver, to use the correct terminology in surfing wankery parlance – which, like a certain list of favourite beaches, is extensive and ever-expanding.  She was, she said, sick to death of sand being tracked through every holiday rental and of surfboards being strapped to the station wagon roof.  And so, in deepest midwinter, she booked a different kind of holiday for the family’s post-Christmas summer jaunt: an inland holiday, beside a meandering river and surrounded by rolling hills.  Not quite a farm stay, but one that involved charming pursuits like horse riding, bush walking, canoeing and perhaps even a spot of platypus watching.

Now, you must understand, booking any sort of vacation invariably — and immediately — involves The Bloke asking the two all-important questions about the destination I have chosen, namely: is there any surf, closely followed by just how good is that surf.  (Yes, yes, it was me having the whinge about the ridiculous number of surfboards he owns.)  I freely admit that I frequently engage in a spot of melodramatic eye rolling while answering these questions about the proposed location as briefly and perfunctorily as I can.  My responses never extend to pointless minutiae relating to the number of breaks at the chosen beach or whether they are left or right handed or whatever, but generally involve some glib quip about the fact that they’re not going to stop making waves any time soon, so he can take what he gets.

I will also admit that I do recall feeling inordinately pleased with myself that I had somehow persuaded The Bloke that an inland holiday would be a wonderful experience for the whole family – enriching, even – a welcome change from whatever stretch of coast we would have headed to otherwise. It felt truly exhilarating, and more than a little sacrilegious.  Until the months rolled by and Christmas came and went, and suddenly we were pulling out of the driveway and heading north in the station wagon once more, sans surfboards on the roof.

And then we turned left.

No one could have been more surprised as I was when we finally arrived at our new, inland, holiday destination.  After some dithering from the front desk staff we were directed to our cabin, our home for the next six nights.  I must admit that my breath did catch slightly when we pulled up to that dingy brown shack, which bore little or no resemblance to the smart little cottages featured on the resort’s website and glossy brochure, and I might even have groaned aloud when we finally managed to yank open the ancient sliding door and peered in.  The entire cabin was outfitted in what might best be described as Soviet-style grey: the kitchen cupboards, the threadbare bed linen on the kids’ bunks (which were not made up beyond a base sheet), the sagging vinyl couch in the living room — all grey.  That said, I did note that the colour scheme matched the relentlessly pouring rain outside, and soon found an exception to the rule in the towels that had been provided, which were an unusual shade of…tan…or perhaps something slightly murkier.

And yet, while I stalked around trying to cram food for a family of four into the tiny, rusting bar fridge (the website had depicted a clean, well-lit cabin with a gleaming full sized fridge), the kids were already enthusing about the prospect of sleeping in bunk beds and The Bloke was happily eyeing off the (steadily rising) river and was unpacking the girls’ wetsuits.  To their credit, they largely ignored the dark mutterings of She Who Books The Holiday Accommodation about the Trade Practices Act and false and misleading advertising and, bless them, had already got on with the business of making the best of things.

It took me the better part of two days, a decent massage and the sun coming out for me to get out of my funk.  And when I was finally able to shrug it off, I was able appreciate the holiday my lovely family were already enjoying.  We bushwalked, led the kids around paddocks on horses (a dream come true for Marvel Girl), rode inner tubes down the river, went canoeing and platypus spotting (though saw none), made a couple of trips to the swimming pool in the nearest country town, visited a local farm to meet the animals up close (this had to be done twice it the girls loved it so much), and finally got down and boogied (like it was 1999 in Miss Malaprop’s case) at the bush dance in the resort’s wool shed on New Year’s Eve.

And despite our less than appealing lodgings, the surrounding countryside was beautiful and the overall experience was an enriching one — not least because it made me take a long, hard look at myself.  I know I won’t be in any rush to return to that particular resort, but I am glad I dug my heels in and pushed for a different kind of holiday: one that let Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop discover a whole new world.

I’ve already booked our next two holidays.  Not surprisingly, they’re both by the beach.  But down the track, when the urge takes us, I suspect we might just turn left again.

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Swallows and Amazons Forever!

SwallowdaleThere were shrieks of excitement at our place last week when we arrived home to discover a flat brown cardboard box on the front doorstep.  Now, my kids have both wised up to the fact that there are really only two things that get delivered to our house with any regularity, and since this carton was not big enough to contain a dozen bottles of wine, they immediately deduced — correctly — that this box contained an equally precious cargo: books.

“SWALLOWDALE!” yelled Marvel Girl, elated.  When given the choice between a sparkly ice-blue Elsa dress and the second installment of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, my darling girl — bless her — picked the book.  For me, her choice speaks volumes (if you will please, please pardon that dreadful pun).

Swallows and Amazons and the series of books that follow it were first published in the 1930s.  They recount the adventures of the Walker and Blackett children during their summer holidays, first in the Lakes District of England and subsequently in other parts of the world.  Much of the action involves sailing — in dinghys named Swallow and Amazon, hence the title — camping, and a great deal of outdoor exploring and imaginative playing.

My parents read these books (yep, all twelve of ’em) to me and my younger brother when we were children.  At that time the stories were already more than half a century old and evoked an obviously bygone era, but they still motivated us to embark on a variety of nautical escapades.  The most memorable of these took place on a particularly windy day at Narrabeen Lakes, when my mother and I were careening so quickly — or maybe even recklessly — through the water in the family’s trusty Mirror dinghy (both of us high on adrenalin and the rush of freedom every sailor knows and loves) that my father, waving his arms in consternation on the sandy lake’s edge, turned as crimson as our tiny boat’s sails, while my brother fell about laughing watching the combined on-shore/off-shore spectacle. Our other adventures took place on a slightly grander scale on my Grandpa’s yachts, first Aphrodite and later Saracen II (who was built for speed had competed in seven Sydney to Hobart races), before increasing age finally forced my sea-faring grandfather to stow away the sailcloth, and we all putted about Pittwater with him on a Halvorsen cruiser called Chloe.

Strangely enough, The Bloke spent half his childhood on the water too.  His father remains a keen sailor and still races his yacht twice a week, despite being well into his seventies.  More significantly, however, The Bloke’s dad also built a Pirate Boat (from scratch, in his garage) for Marvel Girl, Miss Malaprop and their cousins, and even took the time to outfit this marvelous vessel with a mermaid Barbie figurehead and a bespoke Maltese Cross-bearing sail.  Watching his grandkids sailing about, every last one of them bedecked in a life jacket and pirate hat, brings a huge smile to his face — and to that of anyone else watching that little dinghy tack about the shallows with the Jolly Roger flying atop its mast.

I suspect that Marvel Girl’s own piratical capers have contributed enormously to her taking to the Swallows and Amazons series like a certain proverbial duck…that, and the fact that even though this is only her first year of school, she is loving reading.  She is, apparently, the second best reader in her class (a fact that she is nearly as proud of as her mother is).  When she emerged from her latest school assembly clutching a merit award praising her fluent and expressive reading, the spontaneous fist pump and grin of utter triumph she gave when she saw me in the playground more than made up for the fact that I wasn’t there to see her get the certificate.

But an equally big thrill for us both, and for Miss Malaprop, too, is that there are eleven — yes, eleven! — more books in the Swallows and Amazons series for us to read together.  I will enjoy reading my girls the stories of John, Susan, Titty and Roger (the crew of Swallow) and Nancy and Peggy (the Amazon pirates) and their summer holiday

Swallows & Amazonsadventures — even though there is no way I would ever let my own children camp, completely unattended, on a small island in the middle of a lake for over a week.  (More to the point, I suspect any parent remiss enough to do so these days would be reported to the relevant authorities faster than you can say “Child Protection Officer” or “Lord of the Flies“.)

But I am looking forward to re-visting that age of innocence which, although lost, lives on in print.  And I can think of no better way to spend our own summer holidays than revelling in the tales of theirs.

Swallows and Amazons forever!

The Flags are Up!

The Flags are UpSummer.  Glorious, sultry, turbulent summer — the subject of this Great Southern Land’s greatest love affair.

The season we yearn for, along every seaside centimetre of this vast island’s perimeter, in this sand and saltwater obsessed nation of coast-clingers.  Our time of glorious wonder, complete with severe clear skies and the solace of a seabreeze on a sweltering day.

It’s on its way.

Anyone born within cooee of the coast can tell you the signs.  It’s not just the rising temperature, the lengthening days, the lingering golden light of evening.

It’s the flags going up at the start of the Surf Lifesaving Season, and the banners advertising registration days for Nippers.  It’s in the sharp briny scent of the sea, the smell of sunscreen and surfboard wax.

It’s in the first incessant, maddening calls of the koel.  The thwock of cricket balls in the nets at the local park, as footballs are ditched in favour of willowtree bats and dreams of one day wearing the baggy green.  The crash of the screen door after the kids have been reminded for the zillionth time not to let the mozzies in.  The satisfying crunch of a Stelvin cap unscrewing from the top of a crisp Sav Blanc on a Saturday afternoon.

It’s the slide into Daylight Saving Time on the October long weekend, when altering the clock also requires adjusting your headspace, signalling the start of the great unwinding of the end of the year. The deep exhalation as we shuck off out shoes and slip into thongs — we’re talking footwear, here, people — secure in the knowledge that once the race that stops the nation is run on the first Tuesday in November it’s just a few short weeks until the rounds of office parties and Christmas drinks begin.

It’s in the grin that tugs at the corners of your mouth on the first really hot day, knowing that soon enough there will be six weeks of school holidays, of tracking towel-slung to and from the beach, of backyard barbecues and endless lawn mowing, of a whole season of sand being trailed through the house and ever-present in the shower recess, and nights so warm that the sheets are kicked off every bed in the house as cicadas shrill and the Southern Cross wheels overhead in the deep Antipodean darkness.

I felt that grin today.

Ah, Summer.  It’s really on its way.