Sunday, 26 January 2014

Our Strength Is In Our Roots...

Our strength is in our roots and what we cling to.

It's a quote from a book I received from Mum at Christmas - a photographic panorama of Melbourne by Ken Duncan. The quote sits next to a picture of the cottage of James Cook's parents in Fitzroy Gardens, dismantled and transported - much like many of Australia's forefathers - from Yorkshire in 1933 to be reassembled as a testament to this English explorer who first made landfall in Botany Bay on 29th April 1766. In any case, the pictures are wonderful and remind me of the unique character of this city on the other side of the world that I used to call home.

I've just returned from the Phoenix Cinema where, on this wet grey afternoon I watched The Butler, the story of one man's life throughout the enormous changes of the 20th and 21st centuries. Having seen 12 Years A Slave a couple of weeks ago, I was interested in this alternative take on the slave movement and the role of black people in society over the past 100 years. And while '12 Years' was a great (and brutal) movie, I loved how The Butler spanned generations in time, crossing the eras of the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X's Black Panthers, the Vietnam War, apartheid and the election of Obama as America's first black president in 2008.

Well today is Australia Day and I have found myself quite reflective about my feelings towards my native country. Australia Day actually pays tribute to the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove, eleven ships filled with convicts and a small contingent of freemen and soldiers who would settle the harsh and distant land. There remains much controversy about this, particularly around the role of the indigenous people in this pioneering 'tale' but while there might be parallels with the American tale, it's only meant as the starting point rather than the purpose of this post.

It was an interesting thing to do on my national day, go to the cinema and watch the history of another child of The Empire unfold. And it took me back to last Wednesday night when I saw Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap (The Book Nook #40 - 2011), interviewed by The Guardian's John Mullan. This controversial novel, set in suburban Melbourne, for me lays bare the legend of the lucky country. 

When I read the book back in 2011, I felt both shocked and vindicated by its truthfulness - that beneath the laconic veneer of suburban life might lie a sense of seething resignation and resentment. I was also unprepared for Tsiolkas, a thoughtful and perceptive Greek Australian who talked openly about wanting to write about modern Australia as it truly was (and is). We are close(ish) in age so grew up in parallel Melbournes, chasing teenage dreams across the 80s, traversing (even if only figuratively) the realities of adulthood in the 90s and finding our respective ways into the new millennium so despite not being Greek, so I could relate to his reference points.

Tsiolkas talked about a grasping and selfish society and lamented a pervading sense of unkindness (although I would say that is not something that is limited to Australia's sandy shores). He also mentioned that multiculturalism has become less overt Down Under, the veritable babel of past playgrounds full of ethnic variety a distant memory. I remember a conversation with a visiting Irishman in Young & Jackson's (pub) in 2003 and how indignant I was that he would even suggest that Australia was a nation of racists.

Little did I know how the rest of world 'out there' looked and how it would all appear now I look from the outside in.

But there are many wonderful things about being Australian to cling to. Our willingness to chip in and lend a hand, our ironic sense of humour, our 'everyman' classless-ness. The sense of exploration and willingness to play beyond our current backyard - after all there are almost half a million Australians living in the UK alone. Our laid-back optimism and our sporting obsessions. Our outdoor lifestyle and our foodie culture. Our coffee - great, great coffee. And our vast open spaces. Sharp blue skies, stark landscapes, sparkling coasts and 'architectural' landscapes - wonder after wonder shaped by Mother Nature herself.

So as Australia Day in this part of the world draws to a close, it's a big Aussie cheers from this Australian abroad who, despite finding food for her soul under the grey skies of London, still finds her heart - and her roots - Down Under.

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Saturday, 25 January 2014

Heady Stuff...

Over the last few weeks there seems to have been a theme emerging from my inspired meanderings. Whether it's being prodded, protected or paying its way, it would appear that the head is making ...well headlines. 

You see it started for me with my first haircut with a new hairdresser. The previous one returned to Hungary via the magic carpet of love and while I am happy for her, it sucks for me. Quite frankly, it's ALL about my hair and a poor do does not a happy girl make.

Anyway also started off 2014 with a review: of the top ten business ideas that they thought stood head and shoulders above the rest. Among these were a folding bicycle helmet from the UK, an invisible one from Sweden and some face-recognition payment systems from Finland.

Then I found out about the Science Museum's latest exhibit called Mind Maps: Stories in Psychology which has made it on my 2014 list of things to do. (I've got until August to see this one.) And then both TED talks and Upworthiest posted about depression and The New Yorker ran a piece on anxiety. 

These heady reflections might sound timely - post Christmas/New Year blues and all of that - but we in the northern hemisphere are already lacking a few happy hormones (via Seasonal Affective Disorder) and sunshine-y daylight hours so I vote for focussing on the things that put a smile on your face.

Like the Little Rooster.

Little Rooster is an 'alarm' for the ladies. It's a small vibrating device that is popped in the underpants before going to sleep that promises to transform your first waking moments. Delivery to the UK takes only 2 business days so for UD$69, you can put a smile on your dial every Wednesday.

Now THAT's heady stuff! 

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

A Daring Adventure...

Ten years ago today I arrived at Heathrow Airport. I had two large suitcases and a visa in my passport. There was no-one to meet me (he was late). So I sat in the large grey Arrivals Hall, jetlagged and scared and certain that this - whatever 'this' was - was what was next for me.

How ever much pre-work and planning could have helped me in my new and daring adventure we'll never know because I had leapt. Leapt straight out into the wilderness, albeit an English-speaking one, with not much more than two months elapsing since my decision to pack up and go. I remember thinking to myself, 'little ol' me against the world. What will I do if he doesn't show?' 

Well he did, but not for long.

So I picked myself up and built a life. And as with all daring adventures, it is never a straight trajectory. Each time I thought I was within reach of that magical brass ring (the great job and happy living situation being the two early contenders for this honour), it contrived to slide away, slipping through my fingers to shatter cruelly before me or disappearing into the ether leaving me wondering whether I had ever been close to it in the first place. 

But there's more to life than brass rings. 

So I snatched moments for careful consideration. Joyful ones, sad ones, frustrated ones, peaceful ones, excited ones and lonely ones. Scrutinised each one to find the clues to happiness, success, contentment and power in this new and daring adventure. 

I took chances and bottomed out. Made friends, unmade them again and kept the ones that mattered. Thrust myself into the thick of local life both past and present and grew to love my new hometown. Took steps forward - many of them small and unplanned - and some large ones back. Struggled with why I wanted to be here when it was just so damned hard. Laughed and cried and celebrated. Lost the love of my life and got the job of my dreams.

In ten years I built an extraordinary life.

And when I walk down Whitehall to work each morning, with Admiral Nelson at my back and Big Ben peering over the rooftops ahead and beckoning me towards the office, little ol' me says quietly to herself, 'look what I did'.

And smiles.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

My Backyard... Building Blocks

Today I was reading an interesting piece on Fevered Mutterings on what constitutes 'travel' and the premise that we tend to think about the packing of a suitcase, backpack or even overnight bag as an activity inextricably linked to travelling. 

When I think of travel, I think of going from point A to point B (which is the definition that comes to my mind given the Transport for London website exhorts me to 'travel by foot' for a portion of most of my journeys) but this is not a vision that will keep me going in the depths of winter darkness. Thank goodness Mike Sowden suggested that redefining travelling as 'venturing somewhere new' means it is right under our noses - that 'travel *is* our own backyard'.

And last Sunday it was my own 'backyard' that I ventured out into to have a gander around Old London Town. I'm not sure that under normal circumstances, I would be up for an architecturally themed stroll on a wintery Sunday morning but I enjoyed Blue Badge Guide Paula's trek around Shardlake's London so much last September that it was an easy and enthusiastic 'yes' when the flyer came through for her guided walk through Post-War City Architecture

So we started at Barbican tube station and followed Paula - and her post-war story - through the City of London. Here's what we saw...

Standing outside Barbican station on a crisp January morning
Following the bombing raid on London on 29th December 1940, much of Greater London was flattened. But contrary to wider plans, the City took its own view of its rebuilding and commissioned architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon to create urban villages for the working class...

The Golden Lane Estate was originally positioned outside the City boundaries until 're-zoning' brought it into the fold - perhaps that explains why a 2 bedroom apartment here goes for around £680,000.
...and the more affluent inhabitants of the City.

The Barbican Estate was opened in 1969 (that makes it as old as me) and stretches over a 40 acre site. It contains more than 2,000 flats, of which a 2 bedroom version will set you back about £900,000. Oh and check out the upside looking windows top right.
We then ambled around the back of the Museum of London, took a quick peek at the Pedway System (a scheme based on raised pedestrian walkways which never really took hold) then crossed London Wall to Wood Street.

Traditional building blocks adorn the home of the City's Police Force (yes, a separate force from that of Greater London). Standing with your back against the wall will give you a great view of the tower reflected in the building opposite.
The tower of St Alban stands in the centre of the street in stark contrast to the architecture around it and here the Norman Foster designed 100 Wood Street forms a geometric backdrop to Christopher Wren's deft touch. But walk through its checkerboard frontage and you'll find a veritable oasis. Soaring windows angled outwards bring light into the old churchyard and provide space for the old plane tree's leafy boughs.
Next it was a trot down Gutter Lane to emerge on Cheapside - crossing the road, we found ourselves standing in One New Change with this rather spectacular view...

The dome of St Paul's pierces the sky right opposite One New Change. Thirteen 'views' of the cathedral are protected by the London View Management Framework which prevents the construction of any buildings which may impinge on the view. There's even a protected view from Richmond Park's King Henry's Mound several miles away.
We headed out of One New Change and down to Bank Junction where the architectural contrasts abounded again.

This is No 1 Poultry: the street, like those around it (Milk Street, Bread Street) named after the market produce originally sold here. The building, designed by James Stirling for Peter Palumbo, carves a ship-like post modern silhouette against the sky and has caused much outcry from those - including Prince Charles - whose more conservative sensibilities it offends.
Turning from the post-modernist perspective, we found more traditional architecture clustered around the junction with the Royal Exchange (top left) and the Bank of England (bottom left) dominating the view.
We headed up Cornhill, our guide Paula setting a brisk pace...

The Leadenhall Building (the 'Cheesegrater') looms above the stone buildings along Cornhill while St Michael's doors (right) are tucked a few neat steps back from the street.
...and came to a stop on the corner of Leadenhall Street and St Mary Axe, finding ourselves both surrounded and dwarfed by edifices of steel and glass...

The famous Lloyd's of London 'inside out' building (right) was designed by Richard Rogers (who also designed the Pompidou Centre in Paris with Renzo Piano) on the site of both the previous Lloyd's building and before that, East India House. The construction style (called Bowellism) is notable for having its interiors - stairwells (spirals), restrooms - the boxes behind the piping which contain electrical and water conduits -  and air conditioning ducts easily accessible to ensure that building never need close due to any malfunction of its 'essential' services. This 1986 building was Grade I listed in 2011 much to the chagrin of Lloyd's (the listing means that the building cannot be changed in any way) so the insurance company's 'overflow' will be moved right across the road to...
...the Cheesegrater (official name The Leadenhall Building). Situated at 122 Leadenhall Street, this building is nearing completion and is expected to open in Spring this year.
And not to be outdone, just a stone's throw away stands The Gherkin.

The Gherkin's official name is the Swiss Re Building - or that's what previous owners Swiss Re insisted on. Another Norman Foster design and completed in 2003, 30 St Mary Axe was built on the site of the former Baltic Exchange which was damaged in a Provisional IRA bombing in 1992. I thought it seemed rather fitting that The Cheesegrater is within arms reach of The Gherkin...
And with that, it was a short walk to Bishopsgate and the end of our tour. Almost 3 hours (including what Paula likes to call a 'warming coffee break' at the Costa Coffee halfway point).

I strolled back towards Moorgate tube station filled with excitement at what a dynamic and fascinating city I live in. The time had flown by and I was so glad that I had dragged myself out of bed and braved the chill to explore this amazing 'backyard' of mine. I kept gazing around, wondering about the stories of the buildings that loomed over me and as I reached the intersection of London Wall and Moorgate again, I couldn't help but take just one last parting shot.

The old and the new right next to each other again.

I don't know their story. But I am sure it's fascinating.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Between The Sheets...My Year In Books

It's a bright shiny Saturday and I have a mountain of chores on my to-do list at Gidday HQ today but I couldn't help but dwell a little longer between the sheets this morning to finish my 4th book of the year so far, Liane Moriarty's The Husband's Secret. (Yes I know - four already!) I have been reading it for the last few days on my tube ride in and out of London and I just couldn't start my weekend without knowing how it all turned out in the end. 

My literary start to 2014 has been a good one with three cracking 4-stars and a pleasant 3-star to kick off the year. And having returned to my commuting routine, I thought it was a good time to review 2013, my year spent flicking through Audrey's e-pages. 

Looking back through the list, it was an interesting spread of surprises, themes and disappointments. I 'favourited' new writers and revisited old ones, I read about places in fact and in fiction and as is wont to happen along the way, I found myself both disappointed and delighted by my bookish meanderings.

The 5-star favourites were few and fabulous. In February I roamed the streets of South West London in John Lanchester's Capital (2013 #6), revisited a long forgotten fave in March, author Val McDermid and Killing the Shadows (2013 #13) and went nuts in August for Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (2013 #35). And the theme through all of these? Who really dunnit.

You might be thinking one of two things at this point. She's extremely discriminating or she's really stingy with her stars. With 5-star ratings I am - something has to really make an impact to get one of the these so this trilogy comprises the stand-outs of the year. But it's not all about the stand-outs - I had a myriad of great reads during 2013 with 26, or 48%, of my 54 reads warranting a 4-star rating. So perhaps not so stingy.

At the other end of the spectrum, I awarded eight 2-star and one 1-star rating, the latter being #38 in 2013's Book Nook, Charlotte Moseley's The Mitfords: Letters from Six Sisters. Having read about the Mitford girls several years ago, I was so looking forward to reading this book of letters. But I struggled and strained right up to the final page, confused by pet names and left bereft of the enchantment I'd hoped for. It felt like it went on forever. Maybe I'm just not a letters kind of girl.

And of the eight 2-stars, I was most disappointed by Hilary Mantel's Bringing Up The Bodies (I made the comment 'drowned in detail' in the Book Nook 2013 #47) and the damp squib that was Fifty Shades Freed (#8) which was anti-climactic to say the least. 

Returning to the 4-stars, four of the 26 writers accompanied me on journeys near and far starting in January with David Revill's London by Tube: A History of Underground Station Names (#5) now stored on Audrey for dipping back in to now my daily commute has gone 'tubular'. In May, I tucked a borrowed Paris: The Secret History (#18 by Andrew Hussey) into my backpack and read page after page in the glorious Paris sunshine and in June, I was inspired by my visit to Seattle-A in - yes you guessed it - Seattle to buy Sons of the Profits: There's No Business Like Grow Business by Seattle's famous son William Speidel (#25). And then it was back home to old London Town in September with Niall Fergusson's controversial (as it turned out when I read the reviews) Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World (#36).

And last but not least, there were the delightful surprises. Since my entry to Kindle-dom, I have a rule that I will not pay more for an e-book than I would for a 'paper' book (and given Tesco across the road offers 2 for £7 on paperbacks...well, you do the maths). This means I'm often found digging around Amazon or Kindle's Daily Deals for a complete unknown...which can end up being an absolute diamond.

As far as the diamonds go, I stepped into an extraordinary expat story with The Cypress Tree, Kamin Mohammadi's tale of growing up in Iran and then leaving the home of her childhood for London (#3). I took a walk alongside Harold Fry to be reminded of the joy in small everyday things (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce #16). I discovered a new string in CJ Sansom's bow with his post-civil-war tale in Winter In Madrid (#17) and I was moved by Tan Twan Eng's story of war-torn Malaysia in The Gift Of Rain (#26). And to round off the year, I came back to London to meet The Radleys (#53), a truly surprising find given vampire tales are not a genre I usually enjoy.

So that was 2013, my year in books. As always, feel free to have a browse through the Book Nook tab for my thoughts and links to reviews on all of my literary meanderings. I've actually set myself a target of 54 books again for this year - a little more than one per week. So stay tuned. As I mentioned, 2014 is already off to a cracking start!

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Keep Calm And Carry On...

Gidday peeps and welcome to 2014. I hope you found something to celebrate and be inspired by as one year ended and another began.

In between getting out and about, I've been sorting stuff at Gidday HQ over a restorative nine days off before facing my first day back at work on January 2nd. And life's bright shiny distractions meant that a further two days passed before my first 2014 post. 

So here I am at last -  better late than never - four days in.

Today has been a bit of a personal maintenance day (the ladies out there will know exactly what I mean - looking good takes a little effort) but the other important thing on my to-do list was to find Gidday HQ's 2014 calendar. I had ventured out a couple of times over the Christmas period in an effort to have something ready to go come January 1st but had not found anything sufficiently inspiring, heart-warming or engaging to take pride of place on my fridge...

...until today.

This is part of the front cover of the Simon Drew's Famous Phrases calendar.  You can probably see why I was drawn to it...hic!

Anyway, each of his sketches is accompanied by a particularly witty twist on a well-known phrase. This one was also on the cover...

Core Jets / courgettes...geddit?

Anyway, it made me laugh in the shop so I bought it and brought it home, filled in all of the important dates and events I already know about and stuck it on the side of the fridge. And to celebrate its comic contribution here at Gidday HQ, I thought I'd take on the Calendar Challenge again, last seen in 2012 and featuring the irreverent bunch from Violent Veg

The Calendar Challenge means publishing a post on the first day of each month using the corresponding calendar page from that month as my theme/inspiration. And look at this, it's the 4th and I'm late already. But January has some good advice...

...although I'm not sure who 'Ron' is.

Anyway, I reckon there's only one thing left to do - let's get stuck in to 2014 and see what happens. 

Hope you enjoy the ride.