Tuesday 31 August 2010

Photographic Memory

It is odd to me that (as previously chronicled on these pages) I have only the haziest of memories of previous time spent in Australia EXCEPT it turns out that I remember the tiniest details of the time I spent in Queensland.

I remember Noosa beach,

I remember walking along Hastings St (I even, I’m ashamed to say, remember having breakfast here wearing a blue silk bandana on my head.
Why? Why?)

I remember this night club, where my sister Róisín coined the phrase ‘twenty hundred’. She was looking for a snappy comeback to some gormless English kid … but it didn’t come out exactly right.

I remember Wild Horse Mountain where we stopped on our way back to Brisbane to admire the view,

And I took a picture of three lovely ladies, Róisín, Alma and Máire Áine walking back down this path.

Monday 30 August 2010

Since I Left Plumtree, Down in Tennessee

Those of you who weren’t lucky enough to have a father read to you from Robert Service’s Tales of the Yukon, might not be familiar with The Cremation of Sam McGee. How’s this for a refrain?

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold,

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

The northern lights have seen queer sights,

But the strangest they ever did see,

Was that night on the marge of Lake Labarge

I cremated Sam McGee.

The story goes that Sam McGee, being as he was from the Deep South, felt the cold of the Yukon harder than most. Sam’s deathbed wish was that he be cremated, a wish duly granted by the narrator of the poem (though he confessed it pained him to hear Sam ‘sizzle so’.) When the narrator checks the body (or the charred remains he expects to find), a beatific Sam pleasantly asks him to shut the door because … ‘since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.’

I’ve been thinking of old Sam this weekend because stepping out of the airport in Brisbane was the first time I felt warm since I arrived in Australia. No joke. Two hours’ plane trip is enough to take you to what feels like – not just another country – another planet.

The air is mild and warm, everyone’s in shorts, people are (even now at 8pm) sitting outside bars and restaurants. I love it. I even love having a sunburnt face.

By 11.30 Saturday morning I was in my hire car cruising towards the Sunshine Coast. This was by nature of a pilgrimage. When I had to choose – very spur of the moment-ly – where to spend my 24 hours of free time in Queensland, I decided to go back to Noosa, last seen in 2002.

I got to Noosaville at lunchtime and found a fish and chips place beside the river. I ate my fish and chips

looking at this fisherman,

and this fisherman.

If only Sam McGee could have gone to Queensland for the weekend – he’d have been in a much better frame of mind.

Friday 27 August 2010

On the Road Again

I found out TODAY that I'm flying to Brisbane TOMORROW (morning, quite early).

I have been running around like a blue-arsed fly, as they say around here, leaving very little time for blogging.

I'm not sure what my internet access will be like in Queensland, but I will do my very best to send you some sunshiny photos (21 degrees in Brisbane, yay!)


ps I realise the image above is potentially misleading as I'm a very long way from Monte Carlo ... but the bit about the plage and the restaurants is true.

Thursday 26 August 2010


I haven’t gone in much for homesickness. Or more accurately, I haven’t been feeling what the French call mal du pays. I miss family and friends, but I haven’t been missing Ireland. I’ve been too busy sampling the delights Australia has to offer while I’m here.
But I confess to a pang when I saw that the Rose of Tralee had been crowned on Tuesday night. It’s very hard to explain the Rose of Tralee to anyone who hasn’t grown up with it. A beauty pageant that’s about inner beauty and cailíní deasa? Where grown women deliver party pieces and there’s a singalong at the end? The fact that, with no intention of ever entering the competition, I was still devastated when I discovered that I was officially too old to be eligible? Nice as the people are here, that stuff can’t be translated.
So I’m just going to sit here and sing along with the Count. You can sing too: The pale moon was rising above the green mountain… Sniffle.

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Fine Feathered Friends

You know, days can go by here without me thinking much about the fact that I’m in Australia. I mean, I know I’m in Melbourne, but everybody speaks my language and people look more or less the same, and I have a passing acquaintance with the characters on the soaps (though Neighbours has really jumped the shark – how much evil can Paul do in one lifetime?)

But then I see something that reminds me that I’m a long way from home. We don’t get birds like this flying around Dublin.

PS These were taken just outside the library, so that's another reason to love it: the wildlife!

Tuesday 24 August 2010

I Heart East Melbourne Library

East Melbourne Library is everything a library should be. For a start, it’s a three-minute walk from my abode.

It occupies a handsome building on George St, where it stands out from the terraced houses with their wrought-iron verandahs.

It’s full of light, the staff are very helpful and it’s clean. You may laugh, but it is my opinion that if more libraries were cleaner, I would use them more often.

But a great library is not founded on aesthetics (and/or cleanliness) alone. What about the books?

Put it this way. I don’t know when I last wanted to borrow so many books from a library. When I actually borrowed the full number I was allowed. When I danced a little happy dance in the stacks at the prospect of so many books I really wanted to read. Old books. New books. Paperbacks. Hardbacks. Magazines. (New ones! In pristine condition!) DVDs. CDs.

And I love it all the more because books in Australia are crazy-expensive to buy (something about import taxes, I’m told.)

So I will bid you farewell, because it’s time to go to the library.

Monday 23 August 2010

Nom de Café

You’ve heard of NOM DE PLUME and even NOM DE GUERRE. Some elderly Frenchmen might say nom d’un nom when they’re agitated and my Very Adorable Nephew says nom nom nom when he’s enjoying his dinner.

And now I’ve added the NOM DE CAFE. Quoi?

It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. When you order a coffee to take away, they often ask you what your name is. I’ve discovered the hard way that saying ‘Eithne’ just involves pain and really far too much confusion for a simple transaction. I tried just ‘E’ but that wasn’t much better – I got a lot of ‘E … for what?’ Finally, I settled on Beth.

Why Beth you ask? Well, it has all the features of a good coffee alias. Easy to spell. Easy to remember. It has the advantage of sounding quite like one of my nicknames (Eith/Eth) AND my middle name is Elizabeth, so I don’t feel like a complete fraud.

Today I tried it out for the first time. When the woman behind the counter said ‘is there a Beth here?’, I yelled, ‘here I am!’ I took a photo (with my phone) of the spot for posterity. It still feels a bit weird (am I Beth material? Do I look like a Beth?) but so far seems to be working out, with the added bonus that I feel a bit like a spy. Vive le nom de café!

Friday 20 August 2010

No Time for Romance

Paradise Books in Daylesford is the kind of secondhand bookshop I love. I knew when I walked in the door that I would find a treasure – and I did.

I browsed the stacks for a while, looking through fiction, non-fiction, children’s books (does anyone remember Seven Little Australians? The lady who wrote it has dozens more to her name) and then wandered upstairs to look in biography, where I thought I might find a copy of Monica Dickens’ memoir One Pair of Feet, about being a nurse in the 1930s, long since on my list-to-look-out-for in bookshops. Funnily enough, the book that – literally – fell out at me, was about a nurse in the 1930s, but a different one.

I don’t know where I came across Lucilla Andrews, though I suspect one of her paperbacks was knocking around either in our house in Dublin or Granny’s house in Ballymena. It was, I’m sure, set in a hospital (all of her books were) and was a well-written romance, lighter on the romance and heavier on the medical detail. There was definitely something of the Mary Stewart about them in that the heroines (if mostly preoccupied by the heroes) are well-read and full of common sense.

I read a few more books by Lucilla Andrews from the library – and one, The Phoenix Syndrome, is an excellent insight into the struggles of a group of doctors and nurses immediately after the Second World War, all of them trying to get back some sense of normality. I knew Andrews must have drawn on her own experience to some degree as the blurb at the front of the book mentioned she had nursed in WWII and later returned to nursing owing to her husband’s illness.

And that would have been that, if it weren’t for Ian McEwan and Atonement. I read Atonement a few years ago, and liked it very much. The scenes of Briony as a wildly out of her depth VAD during the Blitz were well drawn – in fact (probably testament to my love of old school hospital romances) I wished there was more of them. I noted with interest that Ian McEwan listed Lucilla Andrews’ memoir No Time For Romance in the acknowledgements.

I’m not sure how many people have read the two authors (they don’t – didn’t – exactly move in the same circles) but there was a big hoo hah a few years ago when a D.Phil. student looking at the connection between Atonement and Andrews’ memoir found that Ian McEwan had relied very heavily on the latter – so much so that accusations of plagiarism started flying.

In his defence, McEwan says that he was always careful to acknowledge his debt to Lucilla Andrews and that, writing historical fiction, he wants to draw as much as possible on source material to make it as accurate and lifelike as possible. He points out that a lot of his father’s stories about WWII also made it into Atonement. Fair enough. But I think it does make a difference that Andrews was also a writer and had already put her stories to paper for publication.

Of course, at the time of the controversy, her memoir was long since out of print (though it was reissued in 2007 with a cover quote from the historical consultant to the film version of Atonement.)

Getting back to the book that landed on my head on Monday: it was, of course, Lucilla Andrews’ memoir, No Time For Romance. It is, with no exaggeration, one of the saddest books I’ve read. It recounts a loss of youth, innocence and joy. If you think the hospital scenes in Atonement are harrowing, they’re nothing by comparison with the reality the author faced. Lucilla Andrews began her hospital career as a VAD then decided to train as a nurse at St Thomas’s, in the heart of Blitz London. When she wasn’t consoling sailors who’d lost limbs, she was telling bombed-out parents that their children were dead. When she wasn’t working back-to-back shifts, she was sleeping under her bed to avoid being hit by plaster and debris when the bombs fell. And the scene in Atonement when Briony lifts the young man’s bandages to discover half his head missing? Yes, that happened too.

Andrews touches lightly on her own romance. We’re given to understand that she met and married a young doctor just after the war but by the end of the honeymoon (literally on the honeymoon) she realised he had a life-threatening illness. She was left to be the family breadwinner and raise their daughter alone. Reading this I guessed (there were lots of references to his smoking) lung cancer. I guessed wrong. I looked up Andrews’ obituary online before I wrote this and discovered that her husband had become a drug addict, using drugs he was able to access as a doctor. He was committed to hospital and died in 1954, the year Andrews had her first book published.

When I mentioned the bookshop in Monday’s post, Rattdl commented that ‘the problem with very good second hand bookshops is that you think they are good because you find books that you like AND HAVE ALREADY READ.’

But just occasionally you find a book by an author you already like and it makes you see her books (that you have already read) in a whole different light. I never would have guessed that writing those hospital romances was an act of real bravery. Now I – and you – do.

Thursday 19 August 2010

Burns Goes Old West

Way back in November I mentioned I was on the trail of Robert Burns. Based on the idea that Burns has more monuments to his name than any other writer, my partners in crime on the new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum (opening soon! Go visit!) commissioned me to record any Burns references I encountered on my travels.

I’ve been a bit slack, but I spotted this fine specimen on Monday morning, slap bang in the middle of downtown Ballarat.

Given the surroundings, I couldn't resist applying the 'Old West' effect in Photoshop. Burns was a man much given to dramatic spectacle, so I think he would approve.

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Two Goldfields Towns

This is a compare and contrast between a five-horse town and a one-horse town.

The five-horse town is Ballarat, which owes its size to this:

Well, not literally to that building, but to the gold which was found there. It’s a handsome place, with wide streets and sturdy, monumental public buildings.

Including this one, the very fine Fine Art Gallery.

In this gallery I took the opportunity to add to the occasional series Eithne Takes Photos of Herself in Mirrors:

But for all Ballarat's grandeur, I preferred the charms of Daylesford, half an hour’s drive away.

I’ve called it a one-horse town, but though small, Daylesford is really and truly perfectly formed. It has one long main street, lined with cafes (I had a delicious pot pie in one), several very appealing shops, including the previously mentioned secondhand bookshop. It’s called Paradise Books and when you walk in there’s a sign saying ‘relax – you’re in Paradise’.

Definitely my kind of place.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Sovereign Hill

Some of my loyal readers will remember visiting Sovereign Hill with me in August 2001. Not much has changed. But then, when you’re talking about a site that recreated a 19th century mining town, not much has to change.

Sovereign Hill is on the outskirts of Ballarat, a goldfields town about 100km north west of Melbourne. The place is billed as an open air museum. You pay $40, enter through the unprepossessing information centre and emerge onto a street that really does look like it could be Victoria c. 1850.

There are wooden shops will false fronts and a line-up of businesses from chemists to sweetie shops. Since it’s a visitor attraction, all of these shops flog their wares to the tourists but, to be fair, a lot of the goods for sale are made by craftspeople on site.

Costumed interpreters roam the streets and I’ve got to say I enjoyed having handsome man tip their hats at me. Is this something we could bring back, please?

It was Steam Day the day I was there, so there was a parade of puffing vehicles going up and down Main St.

I walked up Main St in the rain, admiring the shops. I took cover under a porch and listened to the steam organ across the street. With perfect timing, the organ started playing Singin’ in the Rain just as the drizzle turned into a deluge.

How perfectly Wild West is the foundry?

Eventually the rain got so hard that I went inside for shelter ... into a funeral parlour as it turned out.

Thinking I would be better off underground, I went on a tour of one of the mines. Even though the guide who sent me down reassured me I was on cctv the whole time, it’s still a bit creepy on your own in a dimly lit tunnel underground….

Really, the afternoon was an exercise in duck and cover, as I ran from one shelter to another. The tent that doubles as the Catholic Church was a bit leaky, but I amused myself by taking photos of the raindrops. (See, it really was very rainy.)

Then I walked down to the miners’ camp where the small scale diggings were. A few brave souls were panning for gold in the rain.

A quick visit to the Chinese temple and then I decided I’d had enough of getting wet.

What to do?

I found a table by the fire in a nice tea room that served scones. Nom nom nom.

Sovereign Hill is worth a visit, but it’s definitely more fun when it’s not raining.

Monday 16 August 2010

Back from the Goldfields

Well hello there. I’ve just got back from a 28 hour tour of the Victorian goldfields. (That’s Victorian as in the state, not Victorian as in the era. Although, come to think of it, there was a bit of time travel involved.)

The weather was bad and I’ve definitely decided not to become a goldminer: the combination of freezing in a mine underground and freezing in a little tent above ground doesn’t really appeal.

However, I did pack in a trip to Sovereign Hill Open Air Museum, a son et lumiére experience, a tour of Ballarat (including its very Fine Art Gallery), a visit to the Eureka Stockade, lunch in Daylesford, a browse through one of the best secondhand bookshops I’ve ever been to and several sightings of signs warning me about kangaroos and koalas. Pretty good going, no?

I’ll post pictures tomorrow, but here’s just one image I took on the road (actually parked SAFELY AND CONSIDERATELY on the side of the road) between Daylesford and Ballan.

Friday 13 August 2010

Degraves Noir

I teach a class on Friday afternoons from 2.30 to 5.30. It seems like cruel and unusual punishment for the students (and for me) to sit in our allotted, windowless room for three hours at the end of the week, so I’ve decided Friday afternoons are for exploring.

Last Friday’s exercise was to go to Degraves St, a narrow passageway connecting Flinders St to Flinders Lane. It’s lined with cafes and shops and stretches under Flinders St to the main station via an underground subway. The students have to create maps on which they will plot the stories – real or imagined – they encountered last week.

I decided to create my masterpiece for your delectation, in the style of a film noir (something about the photos called for it).

The End of the Shared Zone

The telephone rang. Meet me at the café, she whispered.

Meet me at the café, she’d said. But which café?

Wasn’t that her bicycle, there, that one …?

He caught a glimpse of a dark head, a flash of scarlet lipstick.

I’ll wait here, he thought. I’ll order two coffees – it was an act of faith.

He waited, but she never came.