Tuesday, 30 December 2008

High summer

Five pm on a day between Christmas and New Year’s days: 38 degrees centigrade. Sweat drips at the slightest movement. Laundry bakes on the line. Bare feet toast on the paths. Long daytime naps are taken. The sky seems enormously blue and filled with billowing clouds like swirls of heavy cream. It would seem like a romantic metaphor except that you can only think of how you could keep the cream from going rancid.

You try to feel virtuous at your environmental soundness in not having air-conditioning. Does spending an hour grocery shopping in air conditioned comfort then having the car air conditioner on to keep the milk from spoiling count in one’s cosmic environmental footprint? The ceiling fans seem to only circulate warm air. You could dry your hair under the warm draughtiness. Tasks are allocated according to likelihood of heat exhaustion. No soffits today and it might even be too hot to lay flooring. Paint dries as it is applied. Will the council accept weather as a justification for lateness?

Storms blow past intermittently in the valley and increase the moisture and heat: patches of red and dark blue on the weather radar. This is Christmas in Australia.

South Africa beats Australia in cricket on our own turf for the first time in 16 years. Truly nature seems against us.

Thursday, 18 December 2008


Did I ever mention that I live with a very talented man and am related to a number of other very talented people, some of whom have really useful skills? I have been despairing at the notion that at this late stage of house renovations, impending Christmas and general expense that we would have to get a new computer. My brother-in-law came up with the idea of a USB port to internet router adapter and liberated one from my other brother-in-law with whom he shares a flat. Mr Blithe found the Mac open-source software driver for the adaptor on the web, installed it in about five minutes flat and we are back in action almost exactly a week after frying vital pieces of our computer.

Our other problem is a little more intractable: we have a swarm of bees that has taken up residency in the walls of the new living room. If I had time, I would write a story about the plagues of Marburg. Instead, I will be attempting on the advice of both a Department of Primary Industries-recommended apiarist and my beekeeper brother to persuade the bees to leave (or perish) by dint of strategic application of petrol. The thought of drenching the beautifully repaired and painted walls of our new living room with petrol fills me with fear, but so does the idea of the tongue and groove walls exploding in a few months under the weight of wax and honey. It would be a sweet yet tragic end to our building saga. As always, I will keep you informed.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008


I realised today that it has been several weeks since I’ve spent time with the Jaeckels. The poor things made it all the way to Australia: four months across the ocean via Batavia, surviving storms and incompetence and the everyday dangers of ocean travel. And now they sit becalmed in Moreton Bay, abandoned by their creator and activator. What must they be thinking? What hand of nature has forestalled them?

On the plus side, I’ve been studying pictures of Brisbane in the 1870s and trying to get an idea of what they would see when their ship finally enters the Brisbane River and begins its twisting journey upstream to the city. Surprisingly, they will see hills already covered with houses, substantial warehouses on the river and at least one bridge across the river. It will seem the ends of the earth to them, but not the end of civilisation. That will come once they have disembarked, spent some time in the city at the German settlement at Nundah, made their way upriver to Ipswich and then struck out on foot. Then they will feel the loneliness and isolation. There will be other travellers, but there will also be mile after mile of deep forest, strange bounding animals, an astounding number and variety of insects, snakes, a burning sun, heavy rain, only the supplies they can carry themselves and a beginning understanding of how hard and long the work will be to create a new life.

Fortunately what won’t be added to their burden is the effort of my writing. That I must do myself.

Monday, 15 December 2008

The hand of nature

My natural inclination towards slow blogging is not only reinforced by family life, work and house renovation but apparently now also nature has joined the fray. After a busy final week of school before the summer holidays, I was frantically scrubbing my bathroom last Thursday evening in preparation for a Christmas gathering on the following afternoon. Assurances by people that I had no need to tidy the house for the party merely showed how unfamiliar they were with my housekeeping. A storm was predicted and I had carefully shut down the computer in preparation. The storm was unimpressive, the rain merely a 5mm splatter, but either our shed or very close to it was struck by lightening. The flash and immense immediate crack of thunder were accompanied by a long sizzle, a sudden cessation of power and a few exclamations from me along the lines of “drat, bother” and so-forth. After about half an hour, I contacted the local electricity company who at first were unconvinced by our loss of power. Approximately twelve hours later, they managed to track it down to us and eleven other houses in Marburg that lost power due to an “area fault.”

Twelve hours without power are not anything major unless of course you rely on electricity to power the pumps that provide water to the house. Or if you are not partway through a pre-party house clean that requires water. Or if you don’t have fridges full of party ice and food preparations. Or if perhaps the weather is not unbearably hot and you are lying sweaty in bed wondering how to host a party without water or electricity and smelling, shall we say, less-than-fresh. At four am after further calls to the electricity company assuring them that we still did not have power in spite of their recorded messages that “no power outages are reported in the Marburg area,” the power was restored.

I barely had time on the Friday to check the results of the power failure. The safety switch in the shed had been tripped so I reset that to get the party fridge going again. Various household electrical items were flashing to get my attention so those were dealt with. I did notice that the modem seemed to not be working. Then I tried my email and it was clear that the modem had been toasted. Trauma but no time to dwell on it.

Mr Blithe ordered and picked up a new modem on Saturday (yes you can pick up VOIP ADSL modems in Brisbane on a Saturday if you are prepared for a drive) and your partner seems about to have a breakdown. Then we discovered that it wasn’t only the modem that had been fried. The surge had blown up the modem, then two ports on the router switch, then the internet port into the computer.

So the short story is, we need a new computer that can talk to the outside world. The long story is that I can still blog thanks to the kindness of my brother-in-law who spent five hours last night setting up our modem and phone systems and loaned us a laptop so that we can access our internet. The only glitch is that I need to use the old computer to write (owing to age and obsolescence issues on the laptop), then save it onto a zip drive, transfer it to the laptop and upload it from there. But hey, I’m here and nature is again circumvented (if that’s not tempting fate).

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Cornice opinions

Many things are charming about the Queenslander house: the building raised off the ground to allow air circulation; high ceilings; simple large rooms that flow into each other; horizontal or vertical tongue in groove flooring, walls and ceilings depending on the specific era; all-wood construction; architectural details such as multi-paned windows, window seats, dado rails and for some periods, carved ventilation screens above doorways. Everything is about coolness and the flow of air.

I never before realised how much of the charm depends on a good paint job. These are not walls and ceilings you can simply paint with a roller. If you were experienced, you could perhaps spray paint them. Or if you are me, it is painstaking hours up a ladder with paintbrushes of varying widths painting the ceiling and cornices one colour and the walls another. I now have an opinion as to whether the bottom edges of cornices should be the ceiling colour or the wall colour (yes really, I have become that obsessed – be very afraid).

I read in some design magazine that you can incorporate different architectural styles in an extension by continuing the paint scheme from the original part of the house. The cottage we bought has slightly higher ceilings (3.2 metres or 10 ½ feet) than the original house and quite different windows. So we elected to at least paint it the same colours and style so that the houses flow into each other and hopefully become one house. This means solid-coloured walls (pale daffodil yellow in the public rooms), off-white ceilings and what seems like acres of gloss off-white trim.

Another thing I had never realised until recently was how many parts a door or colonial archway has. Each door can take an hour of careful application of gloss paint to architraves, door itself and innumerable “fiddly bits” whose names I don’t know. Where the dining room wall and window were in the original house is now an archway that echoes an archway that joins the dining-room to the kitchen. This new archway opens to a wide hallway that was once a decaying bathroom in the added house. The builder built the connecting hallway and the basic arch. Mr Blithe carefully added the trim and components to make it a matching archway to the original. My task was simply to paint it. It is amazing what a difference gloss trim can make. Now the houses are coming together.

A few weeks ago I was despairing at the thought that I was still painting, at my paint-ingrained fingernails and at my constant odour of eau-de-methylated spirits. I mentioned it to a friend who was surprised as she said to her that it seemed as if we were galloping along. Then I ran into the painter (not literally) who painted the entire outside and the inside of the original house. He asked how the painting was going as he knew that we were trying to do it ourselves. At my comment as to its difficulty, this man who has been painting for more than forty years, sympathised “Yeah, any ceiling nine foot and over is a bugger.” I felt immensely cheered. I’ll be even more cheered when it’s all completed.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Non-theoretical chaos

“So now that you’ve got a job, I guess you’re shelving the book for now.”

I looked at the speaker in surprise. Well yes I am tired, yes I am grumpy, yes I look like some sort of deranged generalissima mother hen herding her chicks maniacally around, but the thought of putting the book away had not even entered my mind.

“I’m almost finished so why would I put it away? And really, it’s only a part-time job,” was my response. I think they thought it was self-evident (see above description of my behaviour and appearance).

I’m not sure how things will go with adding another thing to the chaotic equation of this household, but I am determined that the book will not fall victim to it. After all (she tells herself optimistically) this house project will soon be completed and I may become a normal human being again. We might rediscover a social life, unearth old friends, do some gardening, occasionally watch television again (or talk – I hear that’s a nice thing too).

I’ll let you know how it all goes.

Monday, 1 December 2008

The curse of pedantry

About a month ago, the hills around Marburg were splashed with blodges of purple. Everywhere you looked you could see jacaranda trees in bloom. Despite being listed as a noxious weed by Ipswich City Council, the jacaranda remains popular. Google “jacaranda Australia” and you will quickly discover that South-east Queensland and Brisbane in particular are noted for their jacaranda trees. And of course, there is the famous Grafton Jacaranda Festival in New South Wales.

I had originally thought that I would weave something about jacarandas into the Jaeckels arrival although they will be arriving a little earlier than high flowering season. On doing a little research, I found that the jacaranda arrived in Australia from Brazil in 1879. It was brought to Grafton by an enthusiastic local seed merchant, H.A. Volkers. I haven’t been able to track down if he was the original importer of seeds or if he simply popularised them in northern NSW.

Noxious weed or not, they have become iconic plants in Australia with stories woven around their flowering, common references to “purple snow” and use of their name to denote Australianess e.g. Jacaranda Wiley Press. This is spite of the fact that they are common in India, Africa, warmer parts of the US and their native South America.

Reluctantly, I have decided that the Jaeckels won’t be welcomed to Brisbane by flowering jacarandas. Even if they had spread north to Queensland, the tree can take many years to flower and practically I can’t imagine that they would be around in the early 1870s. I’ll have to find some other exotic and more historically accurate trees to represent their new life.

I will however, leave you with a few photos of the huge old jacaranda behind the former principal’s residence at the state school just because it is beautiful and pedantry shouldn’t excessively inhibit aesthetics.