Monday 29 October 2012

The Flaneur

I first read The Flaneur about 10 years ago, but I didn't remember it all that well. For some reason a week or so ago I spent a frenzied 20 minutes sifting through the bookcases looking for this slim volume. I had to read it again. I don't quite know why it became such a burning ambition. But I'm glad I did reread. It's a fascinating promenade through "the paradoxes of Paris".

Novelist and biographer Edmund White lived in Paris for 17 years from the age of 43 to nearly 60. He spent many pleasant hours strolling around Paris and clearly loves her, although he does seem to love her, purported flaws and all. "Paris has become a cultural backwater.......... London, New York, Berlin and Tokyo are the happening capitals. French culture has become a museum".

Paris is well suited to The Flaneur- a beautifully French concept- an "aimless stroller who loses himself in the crowd, who has no destination and goes wherever caprice or curiosity directs his or her steps". Paris, where "virtually every district is beautiful, alluring and full of unsuspected delights, especially those that fan out around the Seine in the first through the eighth arrondissements. This is the classic Paris, defined by the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower to the west and the Bastille and the Pantheon to the east. Everything within this magic parallelogram is worth visiting on foot".

Edmund tells us that "Americans are particularly ill-suited to be flaneurs,..........they are always driven by the urge towards self-improvement." I wonder if that applies to Australians too? I did try to do aimless wandering on my evening walks, although I was always particular to try and pay attention to where I was going because I didn't want to get lost. Perhaps I'm too practical to be a flaneur? Too grounded in the mundane?

The first chapter is about the joys of strolling through the cobbled and busy streets of Paris. The rest of the book is more about the "Paradoxes of Paris". Each chapter more fascinating than the last- race relations in Europe, a Jewish history of Paris, gay Paris, the many and varied museums of Paris, and the most fascinating of all about the royal history of Paris.

I learnt so much in the rather too brief chapter on the royal history of Paris. Many French Queens were crowned at The Basilique de Saint Denis (very high on my wish list for next year), whereas the Kings were generally crowned in Rheims (something that I knew because of my ever so slight fascination with Joan of Arc). Louis XVI was sentenced to death by just one vote! 361 to 360, after a trial lasting two months. He was then killed in the Place de la Concorde, before being put into a common grave where Louis (and Marie Antoinette) where to remain until the restoration of the royal family in 1815.

I was more than astonished to realise that there are still royalists in France 223 years after the revolution. Actually, there are royalists and monarchists. Somehow these are different, but it seems you need to be French to understand how. And perhaps even more amazingly there are those who consider themselves the heir to the French throne.

Some fascinating factoids.

Slavery in Europe disappeared by the sixteenth century. Although continued in colonies for some time.

Black American soldiers were not permitted combat duties in the First World War.

Balzac is said to have inspected, but not partaken of the hashish jelly on offer at fashionable meetings of the intelligentsia. Baudelaire may have tried it "once or twice". Although perhaps this was enough to make him scratch the glass from the lower panes of his fashionable Ile St Louis windows, so that only the sky was visible.

The Flaneur is not for everyone, but I think it's fantastic. A highlight in Bloomsbury's The Writer and The City series.

Dreaming of France, a weekly meme from Paulita at An Accidental Blog

Saturday 27 October 2012

Silver Gull

Lots of people don't like seagulls. But I do. Yes, they're a bit raucous at times, and flock around as soon as you start on your sandwich or your fish and chips, but if you actually stop and look at them they're quite an attractive bird. It's important to find the beauty in the ordinary.

Their lines are beautiful in flight.

You can find sea gulls wherever you go.

Circular Quay, Sydney
Bar Beach, Newcastle


When you start looking at them a bit more closely, you start to notice things. They don't actually all look the same. 

The juveniles have paler legs and beaks

Calling them Silver Gulls helps too. Sounds a bit fancier, than sea gull. Choricocephalus novaehollandiae sounds even fancier of course.

You don't get to find really young ones all that often

But I did in Melbourne, by the Yarra

Saturday Snapshot, is a wonderful weekly meme from at home with books

Friday 26 October 2012

Author Event David Hill

I hadn't heard of this book when I saw the flyers at my local library for an upcoming event with author David Hill.  But I immediately knew that I needed to go, and it just needed a little roster rearranging to get there. Easy peasy. It was great to see a full room, even for a lunchtime, midweek session.

David Hill has written three books before, all of which I have meant to read, some of which I've even bought, but they still languish unread on my shelves. Much more my fault than his of course. Perhaps this will be the book I'll read first? After all timing is everything. I've been reading a little bit about early explorers of Australia this year, and I was captivated to learn something about the early French fascination with Australia at the recent Napoleon exhibition in Melbourne. The Great Race perfectly fills the spot here.

The Great Race begins with an account of the early exploration of Australia by the Dutch, Portugese, Spanish and English, but is ultimately the story of Matthew Flinders and Nicolas Baudin, who were both charged by their respective governments of England and France to map the uncharted coast of the great south land.

David Hill gave us a fascinating overview of the history involved. He said that this book needed more research than his other three books combined. Whilst researching 1788, he had realised that at the time England consigned the 11 ships of the First Fleet to travel to Australia and found a new colony they didn't actually know what Australia was. England in the 1780s didn't know if New South Wales was connected to what is now called Western Australia! Joseph Banks must have been very persuasive that Botany Bay was such a marvellous place to settle. Of course, the First Fleet spent three days in Botany Bay, before deciding it was too awful, and heading north to Port Jackson (now Sydney Harbour).

The Dutch had actually charted half of Australia's coastline before 1650, and yet it would be over 150 years before the job was completed by the French. The Portugese had been in the area establishing the spice trade with Indonesia, which was then taken over by the Dutch. David Hill told us that the Portugese and Dutch were motivated by trade and wealth, whereas the English and French were motivated by the spirit of exploration and scientific discovery.

Australian school children are taught that Matthew Flinders was the first to circumnavigate Australia. Indeed I think I still thought that he was. Google says he was. David Hill tells us he wasn't, not by a long shot. Turns out that the first circumnavigation of Australia was undertaken by a French ship under the command of the fabulously named Antoine Raymond Joseph de Bruny d'Entrecasteaux, who was sent to Australia to search for the lost mission of La Perouse. David told us that the disappearance of La Perouse had united revolutionary France. Louis XVI certainly seems to have been fascinated by his disappearance, but hoped for good news each day. de Bruny d'Entrecasteaux circumnavigated Australia searching for La Perouse and his two ships 10 years before Matthew Flinders' voyage.

Some fascinating if somewhat random facts.

The Australian Navy maps of today still use some sections as charted by Flinders.

The British Navy ration included half a pint of rum per man per day. How they ever got them to work I don't know.

Often half the crew died on each voyage. Scurvy was the biggest killer of course. Captain Cook was one of the first to beat scurvy and keep most of his crew alive.

The Great Race details such an interesting time in Australian history, but also world history. I'm really looking forward to reading it.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Wondrous Words Wednesday 24/10/12

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a fabulous weekly meme hosted by Bermuda Onion, where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our weekly reading.  

This weeks words come from my recent reading of Watership Down. A literary walk through a bucolic Berkshire fields. 

1. Glaucous (Adjective)

Hazel squatted on his haunches and stared at the orderly forest of small, glaucous trees with their columns of black-and-white bloom. 

A grayish, bluish, or whitish waxy coating that is easily rubbed off. 

Glaucous Gull! Picture source

2.  Gibbet (Noun)

'And you, Acorn, you dog-eared, dung-faced disgrace to a gamekeeper's gibbet; if I only had time to tell you-'

A device used for hanging a person until dead; a gallows. 

3. Scut (Noun)

Outside, in the thickening light of the afternoon, with the rain trickling into his eyes and under his scut, he watched them as they joined him. 

A stubby erect tail, as that of a hare, rabbit, or deer. 

4. Stridulated (Verb)

The insects buzzed, whined, hummed, stridulated and droned as the air grew warmer in the sunset. 

To produce a shrill grating, chirping, or hissing sound by rubbing body parts together, as certain insects do. 

5. Susuration (Noun)

But beyond the light movements of birds and the first buzzing of the flies immediately around them, they could hear nothing but the continual susuration of the trees. 

A soft, whispering or rustling sound; a murmur. 

6. Riparian (Adjective)

Along its farther side the riparian plants grew thickly, so that it was separated from the river by a kind of hedge of purple loosestrife, great willow-herb, fleabane, figwort and hemp agrimony, here and there already in bloom. 

Of, on, or relating to the banks of a natural course of water. 

All definitions today from The Free Dictionary. 

Sunday 21 October 2012

Who Explored Australia? James Cook

Captain James Cook is perhaps one of Australia's most famous early explorers. It's almost impossible to grow up here and not know something of him. That he came to the East Australian coast in 1770. And that he died in Hawaii.

This book, the second I've read in this fabulous Who Explored Australia? series helps to fill in some of the gaps.

James Cook was the second of eight children born to his Scottish farm labourer father, James Cook, and his mother, Grace Pace. Four of his siblings were to die before they were five years old. Young James only had 4 years of schooling, from 8 to 12 years, which was paid for by his father's employer. James was believed to be an average student, but to have been quite talented at mathematics.

I walked past the cottage recently in Melbourne,
but didn't go in. 

He left school initially to work on the farm, before leaving as a teenager to work in a grocery shop, and then beoming a sailor. Working mainly in the North Sea, he quickly rose to become a ships captain. James Cook joined the British Navy in the lead up to the Seven Years War with France. Most of his naval service was in North America, where he developed a great skill charting unfamiliar waters.

In 1768 Cook was tasked with leading an expedition to Tahiti to observe the Transit of Venus due on 3 June 1769, and to search for the Great Southern Land. 94 people were on board The Endeavour, and the book includes an interesting two pages on the provisions that she took on board for the journey. 800 pounds of suet! Who would know what to do with that these days? Or where to get it from?

After spending three months in Hawaii, The Endeavour then went in search of the Great Southern Land. Several months later, on 7 October 1769 she sighted New Zealand. After six months spent charting the coast of New Zealand (the significance of Cook Strait never really dawned on me before, d'oh!), James Cook set off to find New Holland. The first sighting of Australian land came on 17 April 1770 at Point Hicks in what is now Eastern Victoria.

Captain Cook Memorial, Canberra
Showing Cook Strait and the three routes he took on his 3 Pacific voyages. 

After travelling up the East Coast, James Cook anchored the Endeavour in what was to become Botany Bay, south of Sydney Harbour. Interesting to read that he first named it Sting Ray Harbour, and then Botanist Bay, before it became Botany Bay. By August the Endeavour reached Possession Island off Cape York where Captain Cook claimed the Eastern Coast of Australia for Britain in the name of King George III.

There is an interesting page on Joseph Banks who was a mere 23 years old when he was selected by the Royal Society to travel with James Cook to the South Pacific- a journey that was to ensure his ongoing fame.

It's rather amazing to note that there were three botanists aboard the Endeavour! Dr Daniel Solander and Herman Sporing certainly don't have the enduring fame in Australia that Joseph Banks does. Banks' name lives on in place names and multiple plants- most notably the Banksias of course.

A Banksia in Blue Mountains National Park
James Cook was to lead two further expeditions to the Pacific. In 1779 after being unable to find the Northwest Passage he headed back to Hawaii, where he was killed on February 14. It took almost a year for the news of his death to reach England.

Check out my first post on this series Who Explored Australia? Blaxland, Lawson, Wentworth, Evans and Strzelecki.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Federation Square

I hated Federation Square when it was newly built. I thought it was gawdy and awful. Perhaps it was the shock of the new. Perhaps it's grown on me. Perhaps I've just become used to it. Fed Square hosted the recent Melbourne Writers Festival, so I spent quite a bit of time there. It's a great place to hold an event like that. Lots of different rooms of varying sizes in ready proximity, and so close to transport. Trams and trains right on the corner.

You can sneak the odd quiet spot,
but usually it's pretty packed

Although some folks manage solitude wherever they happen to be

The wildlife has adapted too

They have book fairs each weekend
I happened upon the monthly kids book fair
And found a couple of bargains!

I like how they sneak in lots of fun

I didn't know what these things were

But the kids were intrigued

So I peeked too.
Fabulous. A window into another world. 
There were quite a few, every one was different
There's always lots to see and do.

These ladies burst into an Andrews Sisters style song
 while I was queueing for a Writers Festival Event
They were amazing.
And the Foyer of ACMI made a natural amphitheatre, it was really beautiful.

You can peer into the National Gallery of Victoria where
they were having a tattoo exhibition
complete with a live tatto booth!
He was always busy whenever I happened by. 

The Laughter Club of Victoria in action

Saturday Snapshot, is a wonderful weekly meme from at home with books

Thursday 18 October 2012

Fifty Places to go Birding Before You Die

I hope Fifty Places to Go Birding Before You Die will change my life. I would love to think that I'll get to visit all 50 places, but that does seem a bit of an impossible dream. A remote but lush valley in New Guinea, the distant Arctic vistas of Greenland and the exotic isolation of Bhutan do make for a wonderful wish list of travel destinations though. It's going to be expensive as well as challenging to get to all 50 places!

Someone has kindly put the full list online here. Heavily Amerocentric, rather disappointingly 24 of the 50 places are in the United States. Which is a bit much I think. Only two locations in Australia, versus 24 in the US. Basically nowhere in Western Europe, well two on the edges. Tarifa in Spain, which is at the very tip, overlooking  the Strait of Gibraltar, and Cley Next the Sea, in Norwich, England. While Tarifa does sound astonishing when you think about it- the chance to watch birds migrating between continents (Africa is less than 10km/6 miles away, and the hills of Morocco are often visible),  I'm sure the 400 million folks in Western Europe might enjoy somewhere a bit more convenient too.

Perhaps the most surprising location to me was New York's Central Park. And then just last week I read a great post by Arti over at Ripple Effects about a new documentary called The Central Park Effect! And it seems totally feasible that Central Park acts as a green magnet for many different bird species. Now of course I want to both see the movie, and hit Central Park.

And what of my neck of the woods down here in Australia? Two locations here- the Capertee Valley- a mere two hours from my home, I've driven through but never stopped for birding, and Bruny Island off the coast of Tasmania. New Zealand gets a mention of sorts with the imposingly remote Sub-Antarctic Islands. Happily I'm a frequent visitor to New Zealand, and I'm optimistic that this might be possible one day. New Zealand's birds are quite different to Australia's, so I always get to see something new when I'm there anyway.

So, while it's possibly not perfect, this book is a great reference and will provide years of inspiration for future travels. It's so easy just to look up an individual chapter and read the 3 or 4 pages on each destination. Each chapter has a handy little If You Go section at the end. How to get there (from America), the best time of year to visit, and a couple of suggestions for local bird guides if they exist. I hope to need to consult it often.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

The 26-Storey Treehouse

Silly me, I thought The 13-Storey Treehouse was a standalone title! But no, here in a timely fashion is the sequel, and I see  in the back that the third in the series, The 39-Storey Treehouse is scheduled for release September 2013.

Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton are a prolific Australian writing and illustrating kids lit powerhouse. Their books are extraordinarily popular. Andy Griffiths had one of the longest signing queues I saw at the recent Melbourne Writers Festival.

Here, Andy and Terry are still living in the their treehouse, although they have added on an extra 13 fun-filled storeys including an anti-gravity chamber, a dodgem car rink and an ice-cream parlour with 78 flavours run by an ice-cream serving robot Edward Scooperhands.

The 26-Storey Treehouse tells the rather tall stories of how Andy and Terry met, and how they met their friend and neighbour Jill who lives on the other side of the forest. It involves emergency self-inflating underpants, open-shark surgery, pirate captains with wooden heads and large fish who smell like blue cheese. It's all rather improbable, and that's a whole lot of the fun, right there. I enjoyed this book more than the original, whereas my 11 year old preferred the 13-Storey Treehouse.

You can hear Andy Griffiths speaking about The 26-Storey Treehouse on Books and Arts Daily recently at Radio National. Or his rather eclectic selection of his top 5 favourite cultural items on Top Shelf.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Love List to Life

About this time last year I was very moved to read an article in the Sunday paper about an extraordinary woman. Marie-Therese Khan was only 35 when she suffered a catastrophic brain stem stroke, that left her with locked-in syndrome, much like Jean-Dominique Bauby who wrote The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. 

Marie-Therese had lived the last 17 years only able to communicate by blinking. Living in a nursing home as a young woman, fully dependent. She was surrounded by such a loving and supportive family and community. Living what to me seemed like a life like hell. And yet, she blinked out a Love List to Life. 100 lovely reasons why she was thrilled to be alive. Sadly Marie-Therese died just a few days after finishing her list.  

I think perhaps her most astonishing one is 

15. Daydreaming- I can still boogie board down a wave in my dreams. 

I kept thinking about Marie-Therese, and wondering if I too could find 100 things to fill out my own Love List to Life.

I've been stewing over this list for a while now, letting it spring to the surface. And now even more recently I read a Guardian interview with Haruki Murakami (who I haven't read yet, but am becoming more and more intrigued with), reprinted in the Sydney Morning Herald where he wisely suggested that "If you don't know what you love, you are lost."

So, lets see.... (and not necessarily in order)

1. My son. I was to only have one child, but he gives me such joy. And just as Aesop's Lioness states "I may only have one son, but he is a lion".

2. That I married a man who is intelligent, creative and such a great father. Who doesn't like coffee either. 

3. My family

4. My friends

5. That I live in a time where it is easy to keep in contact with friends from all around Australia and the world. Yes, facebook has it's faults, but how astonishing is it really?

6. Reading

7. To pass on a joy of story and reading to the next generation.

8. Spring flowers.

9. Paris. That it exists. That I've been there. Twice. That I will go again. 

10. Mangoes. Slurping them over the sink is still the best way to eat them. 

11. Champagne.  

12. That even though my son is eleven we still do bedtime stories, not every night, but we always have a book on the go, and more to look forward to. It's been hard work, and yet easy, to keep it going this long. 

13. Asparagus.

14. My dogs running full pelt to great me at the door when I get home. My son trying to beat them. 

15. Trying to become a bird watcher. So much to learn!

16. My son's laugh as he plays a rough-house game with his father. 

17. Listening to an audiobook in the car on the way to work. 

18. Blogging. Every new post opens up a new world of connectivity.

19. The little barks the dog does when she's dreaming. 

20. Travelling to new places.

21. That I took the circuitous path. 

22. Trying to take photos of birds, and occasionally getting one in focus.

23. Soup. Particularly pumpkin soup, and most surprisingly celery soup, but pretty much any soup. 

24. Learning, and sometimes remembering, fabulous new words.    

25. Sleeping in.

26. Even though I am one of life's procrastinators, I do love the feeling of finishing a job, especially if it's one that I've put off (again and again).

27. A nana nap of an afternoon. Although I have been known to have them of a morning too.

28. Getting time to read the papers on the weekend. Especially the weekend they were printed. 

29. Raspberries. Chocolate. Chocolate and raspberries.

30. Doing the kenken on Saturday. 

31. Doing the Stuff quiz with the family each day.  

32. The orange freesia that juts up in the middle of the footpath in my street each spring. Did someone plant it? Was it blown there by the wind?

33. My quest to read 1001 Children's Books. I'm somewhere above 190/1001 now.

34. Those precious times I can be home alone. 

35. That if you eat enough asparagus in the spring, you will have a supply of purple rubber bands to last you throughout the year

36. Lemon desserts

37. Watching the French news on SBS and pretending that I understand most of it.

38. Eating Maltesers at the movies. 

39. Chatting on the phone with a friend.

40. Skype

41. Eating dinner outside in the summer

42. A picnic lunch with the family, or anyone for that matter.

43. Berthillon

44. Gospel music even though I'm not religious at all.

45. Meeting internet friends

46. Having days off mid-week

47. Reading Paris blogs, although they only fuel the fire. 

48.  Walking the dogs

49. The Northern Lights. I haven't seen them in decades, but their memory is strong, and I hope to see them again sometime, and maybe the Southern Aurora too. 

50. Reading the French Classics. Oh so different to the rather staid worlds of the Austen and Bronte brigade. 

51. A scalp massage at the hair dressers. Definitely the best part of a hair cut. 

52. Holidays. Even if you don't go away. 

53. Anticipation.

54. The wit of Oscar Wilde

55. African drumming

56. Reading the obituaries. 

57. Pinot noir. Five appellations of Syrah from the Upper Rhone.  

58. Listening to old daggy 70s songs in the car. 

59. Friday night movie and pizza night. 

60. Doing the school run. I don't get to do it that often- it's special.

61. The wildlife I get to see on the school run now- goats, birds, often kangaroos.

62. That I live in a world where I can medicate my hayfever.

63. A quiet night in watching the ABC or SBS. 

64. That digital cameras make a photographer (of sorts) of all of us. 

65. Learning family history and the surprises it has brought so far. And the many, many new relatives.  

66. Colours. Jacaranda blue. Yves Klein Blue. Purple and Yellow. Learning to appreciate red.  

67. Seeing Sydney Harbour, it's a thrill every time still, even now. 

68. Rainbows, in the sky, or made by those prisms you hang in the window.

69. Movies made before I was born.

70.  Wrapping presents (as long as they're easy shapes)

71. Dr Seuss. Still. I think he was a genius.  

72.  Watching a funny tv show.

73. Those movies that even though they're on tv all the time, if you see 3 minutes of it- you're sucked in to the end. A Few Good Men. You've Got Mail. 

74. Waynes' World. Possibly still my favourite movie ever. Will I ever grow up? 

75. Ordinary household objects that have a special history. The pie dish that was my grandfathers. The trivet I bought in Paris. The red silicon spatula a friend sent me. 

76. Yum Cha. My record is 5 days in a row in Melbourne. A great time with friends, a mix of old favourites, and always something new. 

77. Japanese food. Agedashi tofu. Chawan mushi. Edamame. Sushi. Sashimi. Asahi. Aaaah.

78. Slide nights. I always liked them. Facebook albums are the modern non-daggy equivalent. 

79. Organising a surprise for someone.

80. Doing a jigsaw with my son. 

81. Having favourite charities that I donate to regularly. Knowing that two people somewhere get their cataracts done every month, and by that simple act they regain their sight using money I don't notice. 

82. Sponsoring a child. Knowing a child in Colombia is having a better life because of it. 

83. Listening to some of my favourite shows on Radio National. 

84. Curiosity. 

85.  Stroking a cat. I miss that actually. Dogs are nice, but not the same. 

Poor Maxy. Best cat ever. 

86. Sending and receiving postcards.

87. Attending writers festivals.

88. Opening the windows for the first time in spring, to air the house out properly.

89. The sun on my back.

90. That I live in a place and at a time where food, shelter and access to health care can be taken for granted. 

91. The smell of sheets and bedding line dried in the sun.    

92. Taking the audio tour.

93. Laughing. 

94. Perfume.

95. Playing card games or board games with the family.   

96. Hearing birdsong. 

97. Stopping at a lookout. 

98. The look on my dog's face as she asks you to throw the ball.

99. Learning that it's all in the story. 

100. Not knowing what will thrill me next.   

There are some special moments that happen at my work, but I chose not to include them. 

I'm glad to finish this list. It's taken me too long really. I'm sure if I was to start it today, it would come out differently. And that's fine.  I thought of it again recently after meeting someone who was in a very fragile way. Life's not all bad, we have a lot to be grateful for. 

What about you? Can you write a Love List to Life? I'd love to see your list too.