Come and write

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Cushions plumped, set ready – now come and write at The Black Hen

Looking forward to being upstairs at The Black Hen in Deloraine this Saturday morning (26th September) and hosting a “Writing Memoir” workshop. Contact shop keeper Julie Hall on 0437 833 201 to see if there’s any more room at the table – or lounge! It’s a beautiful space to feel inspired. I’ll have some vintage hilbarn recipe books to give away and Julie, a most generous host, has a writing set for everyone. So, no excuses and every incentive to put pen to paper!

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Upstairs at The Black Hen, a workshop space ready for story-telling

The kind of welcome the world needs

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The onboard airline announcement went on forever. Instructions in Malay, followed by an English translation – the Australian Government’s requirements for entering the country. Two forms to complete including a lengthy Travel History Card “to help us protect you, your family and other members of the community” requiring a signature “to ensure you’ve made a truthful declaration”.

The woman sitting next to me turned and said she hadn’t seen this degree of bureaucracy in all her travels. “What’s Australia coming to? This is the welcome home we get – in our own country!” she exclaimed so anyone could hear. A young man on the other side who’d spent nine weeks travelling around Europe on a Contiki tour was trying to work out whether he was expected to squeeze in 21 countries on the three rows allocated.

Contrast entering Brunei: just a one-sided transit form asking if you’d visited an Ebola country, and in Britain and Saudi Arabia: no forms, just smiles for my EU passport and “Welcomes”.

If how airports greet you is a reflection of a nation’s personality, then Britain now has it down pat, while Australia is fast undoing everything Hoges ever made happen with his ‘Come ‘n say G’day’ campaign. On first impressions, you get the feeling that Australians don’t want to put on a BBQ for anyone these days.

First impressions count. At London Heathrow, billboards featuring smiling Londoners – a police officer, a busker, a Beefeater – greet you even before you hit Duty Free, with a handwritten “Welcome” sign. They’re not selling anything other than a big friendly hello. And the country itself seems to measure up. The English are friendlier than I remember because they seem to be enjoying who they are more than they ever have. Leftovers, perhaps, from a successful Olympics and a London Mayor who seems to hit the right note of fun and civic pride.

Contrast Melbourne airport where the billboards are sponsored, selling luxury lifestyle brands, and you’re greeted by a bank of E-passport booths and customs officers (re-branded “Border Force”) who observe you from a distance. There was no “G’day” on the day I arrived back in Australia. But I did meet a Tasmanian coming home.

I hadn’t bumped into Becky Shrimpton in Tassie for a few years. Like me, she’d spent August holidaying with family and friends in England, her birth country. And she was glowing as we compared notes over a coffee in the Brunei transit lounge.

Becky had also noticed how friendly the Brits were – more so than she recalled. “I did a lot of travelling on trains in southern England,” she explained, “and on every journey the rail staff and fellow travellers were extremely helpful and friendly – not just because there was an event on.”

Later, we exchanged emails about our Arrivals experience in Melbourne.

“I always thought that 20 years ago I’d made my home in a place that prided itself on a warm welcome,” wrote Becky, “but it was quite a contrast coming back into Australia. At Melbourne airport I kept hearing less than positive conversations between staff and customers and wondered what kind of welcome this really did give visitors to Oz.

“Clearly our stance to date on refugees is not sending out a very welcoming message either. I heard lots of negative comments about this in England when I said I was from Australia. I’d never had negative comments before – saying you’re from Australia used to produce a very positive reaction.”

Home a couple of days and Australia’s attitude is the subject of a New York Times editorial: “Australia’s brutal treatment of migrants”. Thanks to a boy washed up on a Bodrum beach like driftwood, and open protest in our capital cities, Australia is now offering Syrians asylum.

Just because the former Prime Minister’s first and automatic response was to defend the nation against people escaping desperation – rather than go to their aid – shouldn’t make the rest of us appear inhumane. Regardless of whose side you’re on, it’s a relief to hear the new PM say  “there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian”.  Now time to prove it.

We know that good people doing good things rarely make the nightly news. So it’s up to us to remind ourselves of the stuff of life that pops up, gives us hope, shows that regardless of the havoc mankind wreaks on the planet, there are positive acts going on in communities.

For example, in that airport café in Brunei, Becky told me her husband Art is now Tasmania’s first appointed ‘Emergency Response Team’ member for Shelterbox. The international Rotary-affiliated organization is headquartered in Cornwall in the UK and was set up, initially as a one-off Millennium project, to help aid go directly to the people who need it in troubled areas like Nepal, Greece and Syria. Each box supplies an extended family with a tent and essential equipment while they are displaced or homeless.

Art, a former oceanographer, told me he found out about the job through an old Cornish school friend of Becky’s who’d been in touch while holidaying in Hobart last year. It turned out he was the Australian manager for Shelterbox and just happened to be looking for someone to join the organisation in Tasmania. Art put up his hand, flew to Brisbane for an assessment, and spent nine days on an intense training course in the UK.

While also working as a teacher at Tarremah School in Hobart, Art loves his role with Shelterbox. Says it’s helped people in a total of 90 different disaster areas, including residents of Dunalley who received 18 Shelterboxes during the 2013 bushfires.

“It’s hooked up with Rotary, we fundraise, and many people bequeath funds to us,” explains Art, “so we don’t have to get involved with government funding and all the associated red tape. We deal with people on the ground, through Rotary and Red Cross, where you really get to see results, fast.”

Now that’s the kind of welcome the world needs. From a group of people seeing a need and just helping.

First published in Tasweekend, September 19th, 2015

‘I just want to be sure of you’

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Photo: Hilary Burden | Friends at Gravetye Manor, Sussex, once home to William Robinson

     Do you think leaning on a tree is better than leaning on a friend, or is it the other way around? Seeing friends from the past lately I’m inclined to think they’re on the same par and more precious than money in the bank.

     We worked out, Deb and I, that we hadn’t seen each other for almost a decade. She gave me my first freelance commission on W magazine when I moved to London in the late 80s. That makes her one of my oldest London buddies. When we were single we holidayed together in European cities from Budapest to Nice. More often than not the places we chose revolved around food. For a farewell holiday, before I left London a decade ago, and after seeing Diane Keaton in the movie Something’s Gotta Give, we decided to spend the weekend in Paris – just so we could dine at Le Grand Colbert.

     So when we met up again in London recently, Deb chose Brasserie Zedel in Piccadilly Circus, good-valued elegance in the same Parisian brasserie style we’d enjoyed in Paris. We talked over the Prix Fixe menu and the Samedi Plat du Jours featuring Celeri Remoulade, Lapin au Cidre et Pâtes Fraîches and trolley of cheeses. Classic French dishes are like drop pins on a map – you know where you are, even when it’s not your language. Hours’ of conversation had passed without either of us realising until we noticed the Saturday night tables and banquettes had emptied around us.

Although we weren’t expecting to truly catch up because there had been too much time in between, in the end we agreed we made a pretty good job of it. The next day, I told Deb it had been like visiting St Paul’s Cathedral or Uluru for the first time in 10 years. Our friendship was still there, little changed, despite its lack of presence in our lives. Deb thought we were “the same but even better”.

There’s a kind of listening that goes with old friends, and why they should be cherished at all cost, re-visited as often as possible, not for any purpose or intent, or out of duty or due. Years can go by with very little exchange but it’s the true friend that will find a way of turning up eventually like a memory of perfume. It’s a way of taking the temperature of a life, measuring the distance, of how far you’ve come and where you might still go.

Friendships don’t or shouldn’t make headlines. They are the pursuit of a kind of nothingness, a ramble along a path with no particular destination. Then, pause for consideration to stop at this seat, or that, in that pub or the next for a drink that’s not the point of it… And returning only when the balance is in favour of it, signaled by a nod, an eyebrow, a gentle question raised: shall we head back now?

Visiting quintessentially English gardens on this trip, strolling through woodlands and meadows, has brought back memories of Winnie the Pooh and a thought that evokes the best of friendships:

“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.

“Pooh!” he whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
― A.A. MilneThe House at Pooh Corner

 With new friends I discovered English Sparkling Wine and the South East Wine Route that certainly wasn’t celebrated, and I’m not sure even existed, when I lived here a decade ago. Thankfully, some things do change. Seems it’s not only our Tasmanian Sparkling challenging the dominance of French Champagne. Prosecco and Cava are giving it a run for their money, and it seems “Reef, Beef and Bubbles” is now the up-scaled English version of “Surf n Turf”.

But who would have thought you could taste English vintage bubbles at an English pub? And be spoilt for choice. On the wine list at The Cat Inn in Sussex are six very local varieties alone. Appreciating my interest, Andrew the barman promptly handed me the South East Wine Route map (launched for the first time in April this year), circling his top choices of Sparkling vineyards in Surrey, Sussex and Kent, all a short radius from the pub. He explained that, with warming English summers, acidity levels had been steadily improving, favouring the production of méthode champenoise Sparklings.

Our favourite came from a small vineyard in the folds of the Sussex Downs, first planted by pioneering vigneron Peter Hall in the early 1990s.   One thing the French will always have over the English, though, is a sense of romance as opposed to bald innuendo. Ordering a second glass of our favourite English Sparkling (good value at £6.50 a glass) we found ourselves stifling a giggle asking for another ‘Breaky Bottom Cuvee’.

Our taste was vindicated over Classic Afternoon Tea at too-posh Sketch in Mayfair, where London’s class system (these days based on foreign wealth not just English aristocratic lineage) is thriving. A glass of Pommery added £11 to the set price of £39, while a glass of 2010 Breaky Bottom Cuvée added an astounding £21. Per glass. At that price, you’re compelled to make afternoon tea last the whole day, and would sit there, too, if you weren’t pushed off the table by waiters with attitude after your exactly allotted 90 minutes.

If Brits can’t afford the price of an old-fashioned afternoon tea in an iconic place, they are making do with watching people baking cakes on the telly. One of Britain’s most watched TV programs of the year attracts nearly 10 million viewers a week (almost as popular as the top rating final of Britain’s Got Talent). Series Six of The Great British Bakeoff stars hot British baker Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, former cookery editor of Housewife magazine in the Sixties, whose mission in life this century is to “get everyone baking” – even though why would you when it’s the height of the English summer.
First published in Tasweekend, 29 August, 2015

Hunt Nature Birth

The best artists make hearts and minds do cartwheels – and that’s what happened for me last Friday night at the opening of Tara Badcock’s Hunt Nature Birth, a Solo Commission at the Devonport Regional Gallery. Tara invited me to speak at the launch and I was subsequently asked by a number of those attending if my words might be published. Do make a point of seeing Tara’s exhibition if you can. It continues in Devonport for the next few weeks and tours to The Barn in Rosny in 2016.

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Detail, ‘Cradle of Life’, by textile artist Tara Badcock. Photo: Hilary Burden

“One of the roles of an artist is to give birth to the unknown – regardless of whether it has an audience.  But it’s a hard road in a world increasingly being driven by questions like: ‘Who is this for?’, ‘What’s your audience?’,  ‘How will you reach them?’ and ‘What’s your USP – in three words?’.

These are so often the questions asked of creative people these days. It’s not where Tara Badcock plays. But Tara has conjured her three words with Hunt Nature Birth.

My astonishment at Tara’s talent began when I first moved back to Tasmania and saw photographs taken by her friend Alan Moyle: a dress in a barn, a chair in a paddock with her cushions on it. And the name of her business? Paris+Tasmania.

For someone who had just moved back to Tasmania after nearly two decades living in Europe, wondering how I was going to make both sides of the world come together, Tara’s vision was a revelation. Here was someone practicing at the top of her game, boldly saying that she could, and in the process turning it into a label.

Paris+Tasmania seemed to say to me two places could matter and work. But, more than that, how the artist might have a duty to make it so.

With our history of colonisation Tasmania is two places. It is a familiar struggle. The struggle of being a migrant in your own home. Of forever trying to make the other relevant, matter, gel, co-create… I believe this is an area where Tara Badcock leads. Like many of you I’ve observed her sharing of the frenzy of her creation of Hunt Nature Birth.  On one occasion, early on, Tara posted on Instagram:

“I was trying hard NOT to make work with any relation to this subject (birth experience) and it was all going pear shaped until I gave in and all the artworks started appearing very naturally.”

How sweet that sounds.

For those of you who know Tara, or if you’ve been following her progress on Instagram, you’ll be familiar with her sense of madness, her self confessed silliness, her vulnerability, how she admits to being wracked with doubt… And love her all the more for it because she just keeps going.

And when Tara first told me over cake (gluten free) on her dining room table, how she was working on this Solo Commission which featured a ‘marsupial mummy’, with a baby in one hand and heart with arteries in the other pulled from the pregnant dress – my everything tingled at the clever madness; at her gumption; at the visions she left in my mind.

When Tara asked me to say a few words this evening she wrote,  “I hope you don’t find the subject matter unpleasant, it’s a very personal expression of the confusion I felt having children – in my mind it was supposed to be a very natural, essentially biological experience, and it turned out to be an estranged one, surgical even, which left me feeling divorced from the whole process.”

What I revel in here, and you will too, is Tara Badcock’s  infinite energy to explore and create, and the absolute insistence on growth and fulfillment, despite the unravelling of identity that motherhood can bring.

I’m filled with admiration for her achievement. And just as much for her ability to maintain consciousness, self-awareness and objectivity of the birth process and being a mother. I have a small feel of the sense of ‘madness’ she may have been going through during these years, but only infinitesimal,  because I’ve never been a mother. Most mums I know seem to necessarily ‘disappear’, and Tara has done the opposite. That’s what’s genius.

She won’t self-congratulate – that’s what we’re here to do for her. Tara, it’s a joy to share a room with you and your artwork in front of your family, friends and peers. All together we congratulate you.

You thoroughly deserve the attention and every honour.”

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Artist, Tara Badcock, being interviewed at Devonport Regional Gallery in September 2015

Hear Tara Badcock  in conversation at the Devonport Regional Gallery, Tuesday September 15th, 11am, admission free. The artist’s exhibition continues at the Devonport Regional Gallery until October 18th, 2015.