Sunday, April 16, 2017

An Eastertide Blessing

My Austrian Dad loved Easter. I'm not quite sure why he affectioned it so. It certainly had nothing to do with the apparently religious aspects of the season. Or the 'holiday' which it has, for some reason, in these days, become.

Easter means just one thing to me. Fourteen years ago, when I had not been for long the Graf von Gerolstein, a stray mother cat laid a brood in a hollow tree on our river bank. One by one, Wendy and I caught the wee ones and took them to the vet's speying-and-homing unit at Rangiora. Finally, we caught poor, raped mother, too, and 'saved' her from a life of sin. But one, few-weeks old, kitten evaded us. Oh, well. We'd tried.

Easter Sunday 2003. I suppose we had left the back door open. Anyway, this walked right in to our living room and simply sat down.

'Haha' she said 'it's Easter, and the vet is closed'. And, of course, by the time Easter was over ... she wasn't going anywhere.

Now it's Easter 2017. Minnie has epilepsy and an arthritic leg, she's given us a few worries and cost us more than I can count ... but she is an adored part of our family ...

Happy Easter!

Friday, April 14, 2017

HATS, or the relegation of the Turkish beanie


 Big hats, small hats, picture hats, straw hats, cloche hats, cloth caps … Some people look great in them. Any of them. All of them. And then there are those of us who don’t. I don’t think I’ve ever bought a hat. I’ve owned a few – I was proud to wear dad’s old mountaineering hat when I was a child. I tried a beret and a tweed cap in my twenties. And when Bomac gave away free hats with horse feed, I accepted one. I wore it twice. When various racing clubs gave members advertising caps, I tried them. I just don’t like caps. Tight around the forehead. In the last years, my only head covering (in the cold) has been Johnny’s Turkish beanie and Veronica’s home-made woolly. In the heat, a piratical silk scarf.

But. At the age of seventy plus, my life has changed. I have come to live in glorious Yamba. And I have somehow, somewhen, mislaid my hair. The temperatures in Yamba this year have ranged from 44 degrees down. Not far down, either. And the Yambanic sun, pounding on my pate … there was nothing for it, I needed some sort of protection before I got sunstroke.

Turkish beanie, hmm. Rod’s golfing hat. Hahahaha! I looked and felt like a dessicated mushroom. Hanky knotted at the corners? Well, at least that’s comfy. Silk scarf? At 70? I’d look like an antique Joanna Depp. So I just shoved the whole thing in the too-complicated basket.

Friday 14 April. 11.30, lovely massage (ow!!!!) from the impeccable Amanda. Then a gangly 12.30 lunch at the Beachwood Café with Renée, Rachel and Harry. Harry went off to save lives on Pippi Beach, and the girls went to have a wander round the shops. So I went too. Rachel wanted a new sunhat. She didn’t find one. But, while she was looking, I waited by the hat stand. And idly picked one up and put it on. Well, blow me down. I quite liked it…

And it was comfy. And … what! $50? After massage and lunch, the wallet was kinda leaky. Eftpos? I’ll have it. Rachel immortalised the moment on camera.

So I am now the owner of A Hat. Perhaps I shall wear it to this year’s Grafton Cup. Mostly, I think, I will wear it when the sun shines at its superbest. If I can get the habit after half a century.

Sunday, April 9, 2017



Sunday 9 April and, at last, nearly two weeks in, a perfect Yamba autumn day. Blue skies, half-horsepower sunshine (17 rising to 25), the sea mostly blue, except where the storms have ruffled the sea bed, and lovely big white-toothed waves crashing on to the beach. Perfect.

 Why perfect? Well, it’s grand to look at, but today was An Occasion. The Yamba Surf Lifesaving Club was holding its senior championships and our Harry was coming down to take part. So I got rid of breakfast, the mail etcetera and, at 10.45, I waddled the 50 metres down the hill to Main Beach. The beach was practically empty a week ago, now it was thronged with people and surfboards and body boards and cricket players. Something like the dream beach of a century ago. With hardly a knotted hanky or a scarlet woman bulging out of a one-piece anywhere.  Children playing, running … dream children … no screams and tantrums, just little ones having a fine time.

Lesson (1) buy a hat. I was the only person with no hair without one. I had to retire to the shady shelter of the surf club: only to find I’d plonked myself right in front of the board room.

Surprise (1) ‘Senior’ in surfing is 18 and over. So Harry was competing against … Big Joe! His Dad! Who seems to have trimmed marvellously since last year.

Lesson and surprise (2) Watching surf competition live, even from the clubhouse, is sooooo much more enjoyable and exciting than watching it on telly. I guess that’s the truth for most sports.

 So: on to the racing. Heat One: the board. Out past the breakers round two buoys and back. Easy? Oh no. Predictable? Far from it! For safety reasons, the whole field wears the same cerise jacket, which is hell for picking out who’s leading, but three swimmers passed the buoy together.  Joe seemed to have gone er … slightly wide. The three entered the home waves together, and one took the right wave. Come on Harry, 2nd! But disaster! The leader got into the shallows and splat! And while Joe was steaming home out wide, Harry mastered his remaining rival in the run up the beach: Harry1st, Joe fourth.

Next heat: 'ski'. Same course, this time with canoe paddles. The waves won this one. Joe capsised once, Harry twice. Some folk were still trying to get OUT through the breakers when the leaders were coming back.
Trying to identify the boys from their hairdos … I think Harry was second.

Third heat, another variation on the theme. Thrills and spills all over the place … and this time Joe waved the Fahey flag with a smooth second…

 Finally, the fourth heat. The whole lot in succession. This was a race won at the start. Mr Whiteboard skittled straight over the outgoing waves and opened up a vast lead before his opponents had cleared the turbulent water. In the conditions, keeping to the rules was hard work, and there were a couple of DSQs, but our Harry, in spite of inevitable mishaps, made up much ground for 3rd. And Joe … oh, heck, where was Captain Joe? Well, blow me down, there he was holding the finish banner. I thought we had been one short at the start!

And to top it all, Harry took out the beach sprint and something called a ’snake race’. It was all such plain, unvarnished glorious fun!

A delicious and delightful two hours (Mia brought me a plastic chair, which added greatly to the grandstand comfort), I’m just sad that the Yamba Surf Carnival only takes place once a year. And I’m glad I saw it this year, in today’s conditions of sea, sun, wild surf and Sunday.

And, of course, it helps when the family is starring!

Sunset celebrations at Fusion on the Hill …

Monday, April 3, 2017



It's ten days since I arrived in Yamba, at my Winter Palace, for the season. A long, lazy, relaxing season, just writing, eating, drinking, pottering and eating lotuses … as elderly, retired gentleman do.

Well, it’s been rather more dramatic, so far, than that! Mostly on account of a termagant by the name of Debbie…

 I flew into Coolangatta on Air New Zealand. It’s a flight of less than three hours, but it is not very comfortable. I guess I’ve got used to travelling Business Class to Europe by Emirates and Etihad. Air NZ’s idea of what they call ‘The Works’ is to give you two seats at the front of the plane with airline food and a drink. At twice the price of one seat. So I decided to suffer, and spend the money saved on Wendy’s Birthday!

For yes, this time Wendy was travelling with me, for a week’s holiday and a glimpse at the Winter Palace, and her birthday. Sister-in-law, Rose, made up our little team, and the girls were to be installed in my new acquisition, a two-bedroom flat of charming proportions, overlooking Yamba’s main beach. Right across the courtyard from me.

‘Nephew’ Harry picked us up at Coolangatta airport and transported us to Yamba in steaming, muggy heat (30degrees, 96% humidity).

Michael and Angela, the new managers, had left the keys and carried my two roller boxes of personal possessions up to the Palace …the next days were spent finding all my bits and pieces and remembering how things worked .. in between dips in the pool, the sea, strolls up and down the hill to the High Street for this and that and especially a reunion brunch at the wonderful Beachwood Café.

Tuesday we had a grand, sunny boat trip to Iluka, with Rod and Veronica, ate the best fish n chips I know beside the Clarence River, tossed down a pint of Toohey’s Old … and the heat and the humidity didn’t waver, although there were nasty stories of a cyclone further north.

Wednesday was Wendy’s birthday, and we celebrated with a splendid massage apiece, chez my favourite masseuse, Amanda, and dinner at my favourite restaurant, Fusion on the Hill …

And Thursday, Cyclone Debbie decided she was bored with Queensland and decided to attack New South Wales. In 24 hours, Yamba had nearly 400mls of driving rain. Then the winds struck. Actually, sitting dry inside, it was quite spectacular, but there was one big worry. The storms had closed the roads. Everyone’s plans were disrupted. How would the girls get back to the airport!

Well, to cut a long story of ‘on again, off again’ short, the gallant Greyhound Bus made it through the flood waters by the skin of its tyres, and Wendy and Rose duly flew off (pursued by Debbie, who now wants to play tourism in New Zealand) to Christchurch, as Yamba move back to more sort-of-temperate weather.

 While Wendy and Rose were struggling north, my Yamba pal Robert and his friend Ben were struggling south. Last season, Robert and I had a standing date for Friday lunch at the beloved Beachwood Cafe, but family reasons have led to his selling up and returning to Sydney. Now he is back for a few days visit, so even though it wasn’t Friday, we naturally headed straight to Beachwood. 

And then (for Robert has a car) to Cole’s supermarket: 32 bottles of sparkling water, 32 bottles of Le Petit Rosé and, lastly, the final thing needed to get the Palace all set up and homely, 32 pansy plants for my little garden.

Considering the burning summer they’ve had here, the garden has survived quite well. Last year’s flowers, of course, are gone, but some of my herbs are still going and growing, and amazingly, the avocado stones which sprouted into 15cm treelets are re-sprouting … did I eat THAT many avocados … Cousin Natalie came by and prised the pansies from their plastic holders (my useless hand can’t do things like that) and, in between tropical showers, this morning, I planted them. Soon, there will be colour!

Last evening, rather than restauranting, the Winter Palace hosted it’s first dinner party. Ben (chef) and Robert (sous chef) descended from next door with a load of Yambirical delicacies and invaded my almost virgin kitchen. The results were breath-taking. I felt as if I were in an episode of Masterchef.

We brought the table indoors (Debbie was still wagging her tail) and sat down to dine on the most delicious prawn-tomato dish

Followed by oysters. Followed by fillet steak from Sean the Yamba butcher, undercooked to perfection, accompanied by a superb mash

All washed by a little chilled rosé….

So the Palace has had it’s inaugural feast … and, hurrah! The first birds, the little mynahs and the honeyeaters, are back …

Let the season begin! Pass me a lotus, someone …


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Hero or Murderer, or which Adler were you?

My family history never ceases to surprise me.

I, recently, watched (a very rare occurrence) a highly enjoyable and intelligible series on television, hosted by Simon Sebag-Montefiore, on the history of Vienna. And I remembered that, many years ago, I had bought and read, with curiosity, a semi-scholarly book entitled Vienna: Legend and Reality by one Ilsa Barea. I decided I would dig it out and take it, as an alternative to struggling with a recalcitrant video screen, on my plane trip to Australia. Reading it again, 20 or 30 years on, in the light of the TV show, and my own subsequent delvings into things Viennese, I was reminded of an essay I wrote in University days: What really happened at the Battle of Marathon? Well, what did? No one knows. You either believe the Greek version, or the Persian version. And they are well and truly different! Mrs Barea was clearly a confirmed socialist. So here we get the Persian version.

Her book’s biggest hero seems to me to be Dr Viktor Adler, the effective developer of the poorly-organised Viennese left-wing movement into the Austrian ‘Social Democrat Party’. His son, Friedrich Adler, was the politically-motivated murderer of the Austrian Prime Minister in 1916.

Adler? Adler?

 Politics didn’t get a mention in our house when we grew up, and I remain, today, what some have called ‘politically naïve’ and what I call, simply, ‘utterly uninterested’. However, in an earlier generation of my family, it was quite different. My Viennese great-grandfather, Eduard Stojetz (1860-1942), was a keen and active participant in the new party’s affairs, and there are records of his daughter, my grandmother, reciting political poetry to the ‘brothers’ at the meetings of the Floridsdorf chapter.

 Nana (widow of a Jew) stayed in Vienna, through the war, and when I asked what she did, I was told that she was ‘a secretary at the Social Democratic Party’. Well, that sounded middle-of-the-road enough. How was I to know? I didn’t ask any more. Father clearly thought I had understood, and he told me one day, slightly apologetically, that his grandfather had seen the famous charge of the mounted imperial cavalry against the ‘workers’ and never forgot it. The trouble is, that happened in 1848. Unless they did it twice. So maybe it was his great-grandfather. I didn’t ask any more. I was only interested in stories about music and opera and theatre and literature and sport. Politics schmolotics.

 And then, this year, I opened nana’s boxes of photos and therein (amongst other things) was my father’s ‘baby book’. Written in wretched German Sütterlin. But I could make out some of it. After baby Fritz was born, mother and child went to the healthy countryside for his earliest days. To Hinterholz bei Kirchstetten, to the home of ‘Professor Adler’.  Well! Is it the hero Adler or the murderer Adler? I am sure it must be one or the other …

So my father, it seems, spent his first days … hmmmm … Dad was five when the murder took place. Maybe that’s got something to do with the reason why politics wasn’t talked in our house… even by the indomitable Nana.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

In search of (another) singer…

 Three days ago, I completed the revisions of the half-a-million words that will make up my new book, VICTORIAN VOCALISTS, and sent everything required in its making, off to the publishers, Routledge, in Britain. In 48 hours, I head off to my winter palace, by the sea, at Yamba, NSW ..
So what to do for five whole damp and chilly days. Ah! Tidy my computer. What are some of these files lingering on my desktop? Bits and pieces of ‘interesting stuff’ that I’ve saved, at one time or another. Clues, and suchlike.

Ah, here’s a hard one. Wharton. ‘[William] Henry Wharton’ was a baritone from Manchester. A fine baritone. He sang in the best English companies, in America, and he became a star in Australia. But he broke down and went home to Manchester to die. When it, suddenly, was revealed (to me) that he had a wife. And there she is, travelling with the Lyster Opera Company in 1865. But not 1864. Who is she? Is she a singer? A chorine perhaps? Well, I’m still searching …  but during my scanning of the chorus lists, I gathered a handful of ‘candidates’, ladies to whom I couldn’t put a history. Miss Shirley, Miss Ainsworth, Miss Gregory and one, Mrs Andrews or Andrew, who sometimes appeared as a principal and sometimes as leader of the sopranos. I know all the other principals, even the very bit part-cum-chorus men, but who was this Mrs Andrew(s), who held the same spot in the Lyster company from 1862 to 1868?

 I guess I was looking for ‘Miss Shirley’ when I came upon a ‘Theresa Shirley’ singing in concert in Melbourne in 1853. Then, in 1858, a Theresa Andrew and in 1860, a Theresa Shirley Andrew at Loch Street, Beechworth, Vic … those all have to be my girl! So, who exactly is she? It wasn’t too hard to discover that she was, indeed, already a married lady, that her husband was named Edwin, that he became the district valuer and rate collector at Beechworth … who was he?

 Well, I dug. And I, more or less, got there. Theresa was born in Coventry, England and christened there 30 March 1835. Her baptism record, however, is in the name of Theresa Ball, her father [William] Shirley Ball, her mother Maria. Father was a sergeant in the 8th Hussars, then barracked in Coventry. He was also a scion of a wealthy and influential Irish family of Abbeylara, Longford. And Theresa was a little bastard. Presumably, out of one Maria Nolan, for, after escaping me through the census, she reappears, getting married (21 November 1852) to Edwin Andrew of Romiley, Cheshire as Theresa Nolan. With her father listed clearly as ‘Wm Shirley Ball’.
And Edwin? When one of his children was born, he posted in the Australian press that he was ‘late of Dean Water Hall, Wilmslow, Cheshire’. Sounds grand? It wasn’t. His father didn’t reside in marble halls, he was a tailor and Edwin was brought up to the same trade, before becoming a ‘clerk’.
Shortly after their marriage, Edwin and Theresa emigrated to Australia, and ‘Theresa Shirley’ made her Aussie debut. 

Probably the main reason for her invisibility, through much of the next decade, was children. Five of them, the last (which died) in 1864. By which time, Theresa had become longterm comprimaria prima with Australia’s best opera company. And in 1868, she travelled to America with them.
Did she come back?
A Mr Edwin Andrew, ‘storeman’, of Windsor, Melbourne was in the bankruptcy court, in 1867, complaining that his wife had more or less abandoned him and the children. Is that our Edwin or another one? Our one is supposed to be in Beechworth.
Well, I don’t know whether Mrs Andrew came home, and back to her husband. He died at 58 Newtown, Beechworth 12 August 1889 (though the family historians insist he lived till 1905). And she … well, now I know who she was, but not what became of her.

Maybe the family knows. The Andrews, the Whitelaws, the Diedrichs and the Macnamaras, the Southams …

Oh, and if Theresa Shirley Andrew was ‘Mrs Andrew’, who the hell was ‘Miss Shirley’? One thing leads to another. Or a mother.