Friday, 29 August 2008

From the mouths of children

At breakfast one morning this week I was steadily chewing my muesli and wondering whether I was a pessimist, a realist or a depressed optimist. Between chews and admonitions to “sit still,” “eat your breakfast,” “don’t put your fingers in your juice” – the usual cadences of breakfast with a young family, I decided that I am probably just delusional. Life gets busy and I tell myself that after this event, or that deadline or some other date, things will quieten down and I’ll get back to blogging and writing more. At times things have been so bad that a friend offered to “ghost blog” for me, fancying the notion of being Blithe’s Ghost. Every time I think that I will have a moment for literary pursuits, some other thing comes up. Now I’m managing another blog for the Residents’ Association, pulling together some things for a family event, rushing into town to buy camping equipment for Blithe Girl’s first overnight camp…There’s always something to do. If I am going to write I am going to have to do it in spite of all the other things that come up. My conclusion is that if you want to write, if you really want to write, then you will find the time somehow. Or you will just wait until your children have grown up and left home and you’re trying to write in between the other things that will inevitably rush in to fill the space.

Wrenching my thoughts away from such early morning philosophising, I realised that Blithe Girl and Merry Girl were discussing their own literary efforts. Blithe Girl is on chapter two of her book and is concerned that she is only now introducing the villains. Merry Girl is also composing a story. An animated discussion was under way as to appropriate font size and selection because “the story is more interesting if you have a good font.”

I had never considered this aspect of my book. In fact, font isn’t an issue at all because it’s scribbled in my notebook. Now I have to think about it. I realise intellectually that good design is part of a good book, but they have the issue nailed. Perhaps I should just get them to type up and layout the book.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Ode to quietness

I think I’ve turned into a country bumpkin, or maybe just gently rusticated. I had to go into Ipswich today to do some shopping and was surprised at the traffic and general bustle. I learnt to drive in Sydney traffic and always laughed at people who didn’t like to drive in traffic. Now I get tense if I have to stop at more than one traffic light. And don’t get me started on parking lots. I particularly hate those. I will actually drive around searching for on-street parking rather than even enter one of those grimly echoing concrete parking mausoleums. I think I’ve seen too many crime thrillers where dreadful things happen in parking stations.

When we moved to Marburg, you could drive through North Ipswich into downtown along a quiet curving street. Just a few years later, there are four or five sets of lights, a new shopping centre and traffic everywhere. There are still plenty of trucks coming off the highway which makes for an interesting blend of shopping traffic and transport. The mayor is thrilled at the retail dollars flooding back into the CBD. I’m happy too, as long as they stay there and don’t start to stream westwards. Similarly, I’m happy for the Ripley Valley to develop as long as it means suburbia moving that direction. I wonder how long Marburg has as a country village. In five or ten years will we see acres of rooftops from our hillside? Will they install traffic lights in town? Will we be a “lifestyle” acreage block on the outskirts of suburbia?

Driving home, I could feel my shoulders relaxing as the hills came into view. Driving along at 100kph with B-doubles and highway traffic doesn’t worry me at all. It means I’m heading home. Then you see the emu farm, pull off the highway, taking seriously the sign that suggests taking the turn at 40 and slide through a cutting into downtown Marburg. In the middle of the day, it is almost abandoned. A few people have made a start at the pub, someone has pulled up for a newspaper and some milk, a dog scratches at the side of the road. Coming over our crest, a few birds circled, dust from the road billowed and the breeze picked up our neighbour’s new flag and tossed it skywards with a flash of red and blue. Otherwise all is quiet. And that’s how I like it.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Restless dreams

I slept badly last night and dreamt of snakes, websites and painting. It is clear what is on my mind. Today is the official launch of the Residents’ Association and the historical society websites. It’s a small event up at the school at 10.15 (come along if you’re in the area). I have a small role to play in my non-Blithe persona. I’ll be the one with a small boy clinging to my leg or hip. Maybe not a professional look but I recently read an article on Gail Kelly, one of Australia’s most successful woman CEOs, who described attending a job interview at the first bank she worked for when she was changing careers from teaching. Her dad had wangled her an interview with a major South African bank and she couldn’t find anyone to look after her baby triplets. Her mother looked after one at home, one was deposited with the receptionist and she did the interview holding the third. She got the job and started her rapid upwards move.

I have pre-lecture nerves. What if the website is down? What if the laptops aren’t working or can’t find the projector? Silly concerns. If any of these things happen we’ll just have coffee and cake and enjoy the company. And if no-one comes, there are 45 schoolchildren to demolish the cake.

The snake winding through my dreams was our newly resident, or perhaps newly visible, carpet python. It appears to be living somewhere in our roof and likes to venture forth around midday, slithering off the roof and into the pittosporum tree next to the office window. I hear a small flurry of birds, then perhaps a tiny creak and look up to see its length stretching across the gap. As soon as it is in the tree it disappears, its startling yellow and black markings effective camouflage. I worry about the guinea pigs. How will I explain to the children that a python ate their pets? I have to hope that there are enough rodent alternatives at the moment to keep it occupied while I think of ways to fortify the cage.

And painting, it continues ever onwards. I’ve temporarily run out of prepped areas to paint and have to go back to sanding and scraping. The hallway now matches the old house. It’s hard to believe it was once a horrible green bathroom. The house seems to be organically growing outwards as areas get painted. Now the connection and hall are part of the house and the area lying beyond seems to be the extension. I hope that the effect will extend to all of the new area – that it will seem to be a part of one whole and not something tacked on the back of the house. Meanwhile I need to go make sure that the last of the paint is off my hands and out from under my fingernails before I start waving them around in front of people.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Variations on the cold

It’s been cold recently. Nearly every night for the last fortnight we’ve had the fire lit. The children have suggested several times that I should also light the fire in the mornings. I might be tempted if I didn’t have too many other things to do including getting them to school. Instead I just suggest more clothes. I follow the same suggestion. Right now I am in pyjamas and a sweatshirt, followed by dressing gown and a padded coat. Parents at school drop-offs are wearing all varieties of gear. Some prefer the beanie and glove look, others stubbornly cling to open shoes and light clothes (a rather blue and shivering look), while others drag out their eighties big woollen jumpers (myself included).

The frosts have been heavy in the valley and in the sunken bowl of Ipswich. There are reports of people having to scrape ice off their cars early in the morning. Several days my kitchen hasn’t warmed above the low teens centigrade.

The garden has been lovely. The cold seems to have intensified the colours and increased the blooms. The pelargoniums (Gardening Australia reports that they are back in fashion because of their drought tolerance and people are increasingly referring to them by their proper name, instead of the common mislabel of geranium) are intense spots of colour, the roses had a brief fling of blossom. We’ve had yellow and white jonquils, grape hyacinth and now the hyacinths proper are pushing up mounds of colour and scent. The winter fields are heavy with grass from the earlier rains. Instead of green, there are now stretches of silver and old gold. The wind presses the grass into deep ripples of light and movement across the hillsides.

By many standards, this isn’t really very cold, but it is Queensland. We revel in warm summers and mild winters. People move here from southern states to avoid the cold. We live in raised wooden houses with lots of windows. There are cracks in the floors of old houses like ours that let in whistling gales. This kind of weather is not supposed to be. But it is and like most things we just cope with it and hope for warmth. In a few months people will be complaining about the heat and humidity.

It has been lovely in the evenings with the fire lit. Everyone congregates in the kitchen and dining room. Blithe Girl does her homework at the dining table, the others read in front of the fire while I cook dinner. We often have the radio on and we seem to be enclosed by a circle of light and warmth. We could almost be a model old-fashioned family right down to squabbles, family roles and the passing cow mooing outside.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Reluctant royalty

After recent weeks I have been dubbed the official “Painting Queen” by my family. The irony is that I am not crazy about painting. I am even less keen about the work that precedes it – the scraping, sanding, hole filling and sugar soaping that is required before one can even start thinking about painting. I’ve noticed that most people who volunteer to help with painting (not a huge selection so my conclusion are not statistically significant) turn up ready to paint and turn up their noses at the prep work. A notable exception is my mother who valiantly sanded, washed and painted many windows when she was here.

My list of work-related injuries is mounting, but I haven’t yet fallen off the ladder. The injuries are limited to scrapes, bangs, bruises, pulled muscles and what looks like a permanent French manicure but which is really encrusted white primer under my nails. In a sign of our increasing seriousness, we bought a second ladder. Mr Blithe can then be fitting trim and fixing ceiling gaps while painting continues unabated. This particular ladder has a panel affixed to one side that lists all the things one should not do while up the ladder including the following dire and comprehensive list:

“Do not use this ladder if you tire easily or are subject to fainting spells. are using medication, drugs or alcohol, are pregnant or physically handicapped.”

Blithe Girl pointed out that if I were using drugs or alcohol, I probably wouldn’t be reading warning labels. I might even be sitting above the second step or resting my feet on the paint holder! I personally like the injunction against people who tire easily. What if you are already tired from months of renovations? Will they provide a suitable painting contractor?

The sad thing is that we have been painting for a long time and still have so much more to go. However, last night I remembered that it took the painter about two weeks of solid work to paint our then existing house so my track record isn’t too bad. Completed are the laundry, toilet and nook. The hallway and joining section are all undercoated. All the trim is finished in these sections. I don’t think you realise how much trim there is in an old house until you have to replace most of it. Merry Girl is especially pleased that the “mouse-keeping-out-boards” are installed in the hallway (what we would call skirting or kick boards).

Between painting and multitudinous school and other activities I have intended many times to sit down and write but have been ambushed by exhaustion and lack of time. The Residents’ Association and the Historical Society are launching their websites next week and we are rushing to tidy up the site and get some of our advertising up. Somehow, I have volunteered to mock up several of the advertising banners. That’s the big push for this week. I’m also meant to be doing the “guided tour” of the site at the launch and have to work out what to say. The mayor and assorted dignitaries will be there and I’m wondering if I should sneak my house completion documentation to them. I’m sure the building branch of council would accept the mayor’s signature on a paper napkin with smears of icing, aren’t you? After all, I am royalty.

Monday, 11 August 2008

A voice from the 1850s

“Rose early, according to my custom, and surveyed my new dwelling with a particular sort of satisfaction. ‘No rent to pay for you,’ said I; ‘no taxes, thats pleasant; no poor rates, thats a comfort; and no one can give me a warning to quit, and thats another comfort; and its my own thank God, and thats the greatest comfort of all.’ I caste my eyes on the plain before me, and saw my flock of sheep studding the plain, with my working bullocks at a little distance…As we sat at breakfast that morning in my rude cottage, with the bare walls of logs of trees and the shingle rough above us, all rough enough but spacious, and a little too airy, I began to have a foretaste of that feeling of independence and security of home and subsistence which I have so many years enjoyed.”

A pioneer settlers’ writing quoted in Derrick Stone and Donald Garden, Squatters and Settlers.

Friday, 8 August 2008


1 the quality of being unchanging and dependable: faithfulness. 2 firmness, endurance (OED)

Cape Moreton lighthouse began operation in 1857. At the time Queensland separated from New South Wales, it was the only lighthouse on the Queensland coast.

Built of stone, it is one of five remaining lighthouse constructed prior to 1860. Oil wick lamps were used to provide the light that could be seen for 26 ½ nautical miles in clear weather. Oil lamps were replaced by kerosene burning lamps which were in turn replaced by an AGA acetylene lamp, then electric 110V DC then 240V AC. A tungsten lamp was installed then solar power. Finally the light was fully automated in 1993 removing the need for head and assistant lightkeepers. Today the light can be seen for 27 nautical miles. Progress?

For over 150 years, this light has flashed a warning on the isolated point of Moreton Island. When Queensland was a colony, ships entered Moreton Bay through the south entrance between Moreton and North Stradbroke Islands. Ships had to have permission to pass and the Regulations for Penal Settlement provided that “No unauthorised or strange vessel shall be allowed to come to an anchorage at a penal settlement except in cases of distress or necessity, in which case they shall receive a military guard on board during their stay...” In 1846 Brisbane was declared a Port of Entry and in 1849, a Warehousing Port.

In the 1840s extensive surveys of Port Moreton were carried out and the north entrance around Cape Moreton was decided to be safer and more easily navigable. In 1848 the pilot station was moved from Amity Point on North Stradbroke Island to Bulwer on Moreton Island, becoming the first European settlement on the island. For a while ships used both entrances but shipping gradually shifted to exclusive use of the northern entrance.

This light flashing from the only piece of solid rock on a sand island would have been the first sign of their new home for the Jaeckels. It must have seemed like a mirage, this brightness coming out of the darkness after so many months at sea. At the very least, it would be a reassurance that civilisation still existed in some form in this new land.

I’ve never visited the bay islands. There is a hugely popular resort on Moreton Island – Tangalooma Wild Dolphin Resort. I wonder how many people who visit know of the lighthouse surrounded by national park and its history. The only access is by 4WD on a sand road across the island or along the beaches. The lighthouse itself isn’t open to visitors but there is a small museum in one of the assistant lightkeeper’s residences. I want to visit to get a sense of what the Jaeckels’ first impressions of their new home would have been. I’m just trying to work out if there is some way to get a tour of the lighthouse and whether I can get a tax deduction on research expenses…

[For comprehensive information on the lighthouse and its associated buildings, visit its listing in the Queensland Heritage Register]

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Thoughts of food

I have spent much of the last week thinking about food – making it, buying it, whether we have enough. I’m not having an Armageddon phase, imagining that the end of the world is nigh, nor am I over-reacting to constant news reports of food shortages around the world, serious though the problem is. No, I am just in the midst of a tidal wave of family visits, all of whom need to be fed, watered and have beds provided. This is in spite of the fact that we have a half-finished extension and only two properly working bedrooms, both of which are fully occupied by my immediate family.

These successive waves of visitors are camping out in the new bedroom on a series of borrowed beds and air mattresses piled high with sleeping bags. My parents are the most welcome. In addition to extra pairs of hands, they also travel in a campervan and simply park amongst the trees at the back of the property. All they require is a power cord, access to wash facilities and main meals.

I don’t see very much of my family which is probably why I sometimes find their descent, especially when it is en masse, overwhelming. My parents I see a few times a year. My siblings only every few years when they return from overseas, usually frazzled with travel and work.

I remember what it was like coming to Australia every few years and being dragged around by my parents to see people of whom we were supposed to be fond, but whom we didn’t really know. Names, places, beds, kitchens, all blurred into a whirl of making sure that we were doing the right thing and had all the things packed that we were meant to. I assume my brother remembers me, but I’m not so certain of my niece and nephews. All I can do is make sure that my lot share their toys and are friendly and that they are fed.

In pursuit of that, for the first time in my life I have been making meal plans for the week ahead. Usually I am of the “what do I have available and what do I feel like eating once four o’clock rolls around” school of meal planning but I have actually been making notes and lying in bed thinking about what to feed people. Over the rest of the week I have twelve people at most meals.

I’m beginning to realise how much time looking after large families must take. I am doing it with all the modern facilities of refrigerator, deep freezer, cooktop and oven. Not to mention a supermarket only a short drive away. My mother-in-law looked after five children with only a wood stove. I can’t even begin to imagine cooking with only an open fireplace for the large families typical of German migrants to this area. Simply putting food on the table must have been an immense effort especially as most of it was grown, farmed or hunted by people for themselves. Sometimes I hear people rhapsodising about the past and I wonder if they have any idea how difficult everyday life was. I certainly don’t even though I try to imagine it.

I have heard that there are a few doubters out there who believe that there might not actually be a book – that I write about writing but might not really be doing it. At times I wonder if that might be true. My recent blogging silence is certainly not the way to answer the critics. But I certainly am writing, if only shopping lists and food plans.