Archive for the ‘memory’ Category

Imaginary Dogs – Patch’s Vanishing Act

May 5, 2015

“Say hello to Patch for me,” my brother commented.  So I did.

This morning I had a go at walking Patch, but he didn’t stick around for long.  I expect he was off after seagulls, or else looking for a goat that he could round up.  Patch was a white dog with black patches (doh!) – a kelpie/collie cross, with that wonderful black and brown face typical of the tri-colour border collie.

Patch 1

He lived as a classic Australian dog of the fifties: he wasn’t really ‘walked’ much as such, but just lived around the place, taking himself wherever he wanted to go.  Because we lived at Nelson Bay, those places included the beach, where he would swim out hundreds of yards towards the fishing boats, silently sneaking up on seagulls.  The only time his great ambition was realised and he actually caught one, alas, it escaped by flapping and squawking, and he didn’t quite know how to deal with that.

The view from the beach towards the heads.

The view from the beach towards the heads.

As a puppy, Patch did a real vanishing act.  One day he just wasn’t there any more.  We were devastated.  We searched high and low.  My mother suggested he might have been ‘stolen by gypsies’ – rather an Enid Blyton solution – but we grieved and came through.  Then there came a day on the beach, maybe a year later, when we saw a dog in the distance and Mum said “That’s what Patch would look like if we still had him,” – and, lo and behold, the dog pricked up its ears and looked at us.  So we called and he came running.  And in that way, Patch came back to us, full of the spirit of independence and joi de vivre.   He was his own dog, for all his loyalty, and if he came for a walk it was his own choice.  If he left the walkers for a while to explore the bush or round up a couple of goats (memorably once) and bring them back to us, pink tongue lolling with delight, that was his choice too.  He must have known how to deal with snakes: the bush around there is full of them.

Patch among trees -

Patch among trees –

He lived life to the full, and we loved him passionately, as only kids can.

When the decade closed, so did our childhood life by the sea, and we moved away to Queensland.  In Ipswich, life was much more suburban, but dogs still ran free.  Our eventual house had a little white fence that he could hurdle easily – about a three foot fence, I guess.  With no sheep, goats, or seagulls to herd, Patch turned his attention to cars.  He was pretty good at keeping them from coming and attacking us – for years he kept guard, he growled and ran alongside, nipping at the wheels, but of course it was always going to be the death of him.  In Australia a dog like that is called a ‘car-chaser’ and people wag their heads sadly and wisely. ‘Ah, a car-chaser,’ and no more needs to be said.  When you’re older, you just don’t have the reflexes of a young dog.  I was watching him the day he was hit: I watched him vault the fence with his easy style and grace, and arrive in the house.  He lay down on his side, and was gone.  Not a mark on him.

Patch with my father.

Patch with my father at Nelson Bay, 1959

a poem by Les Murray

February 16, 2015

         Drought Dust on the Crockery

Things were not better
when I was young:
things were poorer and harsher,
drought dust on the crockery,
and I was young.

The Execution of Maximilian by Edouard Manet

October 10, 2014

There’s a touring exhibition called ‘Unreliable Evidence’ at the Mead Gallery, University of Warwick.  We went there on a day of pouring rain, and drove around endlessly, searching for a place to park the car.  I was expecting to see the Manet painting of ‘The Execution of Maximilian’.  I’ve seen reproductions in books about art, but it’s always wonderful to see the full-sized reality.



No substitute for the real thing – but this gives you an idea.


And that indeed was what I saw – sort of.   In my inexperience I didn’t know that there are three versions of the painting, and the one I saw – part of the National Gallery tour – is incomplete.  Nothing like the painting represented above.
So I was a little disappointed not to see (for example) Maximilian’s face; or any part of his second General. (Actually, three people were executed by firing squad that day, but the painting’s title only mentions one of them.)


in pieces

in pieces



There were other installations and exhibits accompanying the Manet – some a little jejune, some repetitiously under-ambitious, but there was one that spoke to me. I’m still thinking about it now. On a small television screen, a nice-looking man – lean, bearded, slightly greying was seated in a room, richly-coloured like a library, all browns and dark reds. He looked perhaps fifty, but then, one thought, war must age people.



Not quite how I remember it - did he really wear a suit?

Not quite how I remember it – did he really wear a suit?


He was in the middle of reading (or reciting?) a story in Arabic, about a family whose apartment is bombed, turning a single sheet of yellowed paper, like a newspaper, over in his hands from time to time.



Rabih mroue 2

reading from a piece of paper.


His voice was smooth and deep – a dark brown voice – while the English subtitles (in white) were just a little rocky, and a fraction behind the beat. Or it seemed that way. How would I know? I have no Arabic at all. It was mesmeric. Of course, wandering round a gallery one actually hears such a story in pieces: from the middle to the end, and then from the beginning to the middle. Provided you linger in front of it for long enough, provided you pay attention. Then it turned out (how did I know this?) that real life had imitated the story, again and again, and so he never wrote another story. As I talk about this, I can feel accuracy slipping away from me. What did I see and in what order? When did I know these things? How? The reading was only a part of the installation. Near it on the wall I think there was a description of the story – or of the events that mimicked it. Or were they also part of the story? Maybe the mimicking events never really happened at all?

Near that again, there was a wooden set of card-holders attached to the wall, holding what seemed to be old-style file-cards for the books in a library – also in Arabic, so I can’t guarantee that they were indeed that. Beautiful, light wood, carefully routed out to hold each individual card separately;





beautifully written file card entries, all in fountain pen.





I have always loved the file-card indexes, and regret their passing. And I thought – do I like this piece because so much of it involves words and books? It hooks me where I care most. But there was more still. The file cards were out of order. The story around them was that they were devised to help the artist’s (storyteller’s) father to locate books on his chaotically unsystematic shelves. They worked efficiently for a time, but later they were themselves scrambled, and so became useless – yet, they represented the state of the bookshelves more accurately. I think it said that his Dad died somewhere during this process of organisation and disorganisation. See? I’m losing it again.


And then there was a third object, also part of the installation. In a glass case, laid out flat, about thirty sheets of ruled paper, filled with mathematical calculations equations and argument. Again the manuscript was neat and the penmanship beautiful.  Written on one side of the page and thus we can see it – complete.  (Do I begin to feel just a tiny bit suspicious?)  It was in English, insofar as maths is in any language, analysing aspects of Fibonacci’s work. Never published.





We are told that this was a work that his father had devoted himself to, and again I lost the thread: something to do with rabbits multiplying exponentially. Like the Arabic material, it was wondrously inaccessible to me.

Later, at home, I started to see how that installation only appears to say that reality can be built out of bits. More profoundly, it speaks of the fragmentation of reality through its reportage. It displays an understanding that the stories around the family’s experiences of war, and of life generally, are bitty and sometimes impenetrable. And also, certainly, untrustworthy – for who am I to say that a cluster of artefacts in a gallery was real, and not assembled – fudged up – by the artist for precisely this purpose? Or maybe some bits of it were more closely related to reality than others.


That brought me back to the fragmented painting. In the ‘Execution’, the painted reportage of the event is broken up as if the painting has been cropped, just as we do digitally nowadays with our out-of-kilter photos. And so our gaze is directed somewhere else, away from the centre.  The main character is missing, and another is there in his place. Frustrated viewers, we want to see Maximilian’s obscure face, as he looks at death, but the cut has spirited him away from those close-thrusting rifles. We grasp at history, and bits fall apart before our eyes, showing us instead altogether other things: the ambition of Manet starkly outlined in the soldiers’ trousers; the general who might (or might not) have held the tin-pot Emperor’s hand. The Sergeant with his focussed face, cut out, stands taller on the right hand side and becomes a separate subject in his own right.


This what we are told: this is the history.
The Execution of Maximilian depicts the fatal moment when the young Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, abandoned by the French colonial forces that had installed him there some three years earlier, was shot alongside two of his generals, Mejia and Miramón, on 19 June 1867. The left hand section of the canvas was lost during Manet’s lifetime. After his death it was cut into smaller fragments, some of which were sold off separately, eventually to be reassembled by Edgar Degas. The painting has been part of the National Gallery collection since 1918.

(Elsewhere we are told that Manet kept the painting in poor conditions and damp got at the left hand side, some portions of which could not be saved.)

the raincoat

August 14, 2013

Mentioned in despatches twice now, the raincoat feels that it deserves a moment all to itself.

a downpour in the Berry - raincoat doing well.

a downpour in the Berry – raincoat doing well.  Also note strong sandals.

Dostoyevsky purportedly said that we all came out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ – he meant the short story, of course, not any literal overcoat.  It turns out that he didn’t mean ‘we all’ in the sense of the whole human race, though one can easily place that kind of interpretation on Gogol’s story.  Taken in context, his comment referred (I am told) to the cutting-edge fiction writers of his time in Russia.  Dostoyevsky’s own ‘new wave’ of writers who explored what it is to be human – and to be human in the darkly cruel social world of contemporary Russia.

There you go – it wasn’t just a post about a raincoat after all.

In fact this is my favourite of all the many raincoats that I have never bought.  Back when we had teenage children, there were lots of visitors to our house.  Sometimes they arrived in wet weather, kindly kitted out with umbrellas and/or raincoats by their fond parents.  Many times the rain had stopped by the time they left, or else they were going somewhere where sensible practical garments were just not cool.

Too cool for a raincoat - no names no pack drill!

Too cool for a raincoat – no names no pack drill!

They left their coats hanging in the hall, and their brollies dripping quietly in the lean-to conservatory out the back.

Darth Vader never wears a raincoat.

Darth Vader never wears a raincoat.

When we packed up that house and moved out we found maybe six or eight ownerless raincoats, and three useful brollies (I didn’t count the broken brollies).

A brolly would only get in the way.

A brolly would only get in the way.

I’ll admit that we had bought some of the raincoats for ourselves in France – caught out by unexpected summer rain (one daughter-in-law would deny the word ‘unexpected’).  One can buy very useful, flimsy rain jackets cheaply in SuperU.  Of all of those, though, the raincoat in question was clearly superior – lined, a perfect fit, strong, and sporting its own hood.  It is even a recognisable brand-name, that chance acquaintances and even my adult kids respect.  Perfect.  Yes – I really did try to find its owner – but it has a happy home with me now.  I am growing ever fonder of it, as it progresses through so many adventures of its own.  Maybe I, at least, have come out of this wonderful raincoat.

Canberra Centenary – and a poem

May 12, 2013

Canberra is celebrating a hundred years since its Foundation in 1913. There are many dates one might celebrate: 1911, when the whole area of land was set aside and named the Federal Capital Territory; 1913 when Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin’s design for the city was selected together with the name ‘Canberra’ (February – first survey peg driven in; March for the naming ceremony); 1920 when a formal foundation stone was laid; 1927 when Parliament House was opened and parliament moved from Melbourne. These options bear little relation to anything we were taught at school. Marion Griffin was never mentioned in those days, and for some reason the date 1921 is fixed in my mind (if nowhere else) – but hooray for more detailed histories, and hooray for Canberra!

As for me, I first saw Canberra back in the winter of 1958, when a bridge still crossed the Molonglo and there was no lake. This isn’t my own photo, but the car on the far right could easily be our Morris Minor.


This poem, though, is about arriving in Canberra in the hot, hot February of 1967. In this centenary year, writing memories of Canberra seems appropriate.

Higher Education

It was the worst inland drought for decades
the year I turned seventeen. I left school
and gladly quit my family home in the north:
leafy, suburban, sub-tropical, cramped.
I packed poetry books, took the sleepless overnight train south
to Canberra (thirty hours – change at Strathfield, seven-twenty-five
for the Monaro Express)

The high plains were yellow-grey:
an unusable waste of dingo-coloured grass;
a desert, but so unlike the familiar
golden deserts I knew from National Geographic
that the very word seemed wrong.

Lake George, desperately low, shimmered in edgy mirages
where the ironbarks in blackened prongs weathered into fissures.
the lake-floor exposed acres of caked, baked-earth hexagons ––
filled out the official margins on the Survey Map

Grainy-eyed and stunned, I evaporated gradually
into the derelict moonscape.
The burning morning hours trundled past,
the smell of hot eucalyptus hung in air
so purely dry it scalded every in-breath.

Then the final curving descent into Canberra,
watered and shining with the brilliant arcs
of fountains and sprinklers;
where cool shops retired discreetly behind Spanish-style colonnades;
a green world
breathtakingly contrived; so ostentatiously artificial
it defied understanding, on any terms.

Blundering astonished back into a kind of self,
I was saved by bookish words:
Then at dawn we came down into a green valley, wet below the snow line.
Here, it was two in the afternoon, and civilisation
was under construction before my blurring eyes.

Queensland Places – Brynhyfryd Park, Blackstone | John Oxley Library

April 20, 2013

Queensland Places – Brynhyfryd Park, Blackstone | John Oxley Library.

Children and memory 2

March 18, 2013

When she was little I used to hold my baby daughter up high in my arms to show her the moon.  ‘Moon, moon,’ I would say, drawing out the vowel.  And sometimes, just for fun, ‘O, more than moon’.  I can almost feel her substance, the solid delightful weight of her, as I lifted her as high as I could.  Quite how that extra foot or so would help her see the moon I don’t know – but it just felt right.

I knew to do this from a family story: I used to point up into the sky when I was little and say ‘Moon up dere’.  I suppose my mother taught me that.  I still do something similar – as this evening, seeing the crescent moon through the leaves of the tall gum tree in my tiny English back garden, and silently saluting her.  I wonder if my grown up daughter does it too?

the moon through the gum tree - March 2013

the moon through the gum tree – March 2013

Children and memory

March 14, 2013

By coincidence lately I am reading about loss and about memory.  First, John O’Farrell’s entertaining homily about a failed marriage – The Man Who Forgot His Wife – and now a review of Wave: A Memoir of Life After the Tsunami by Sonali Deraniyagala.  The review talks about loss and the healing power of writing, and of remembering through writing.  Two reactions: I wonder if I want to read the book?  And: I could use that.  We hear about “finding a space to feel suffering as well as joy, and realising one was an aspect of the other.”  It could be a deconstructive move, but apparently this is Buddhist thought.


It sounds like a wonderful, sane method.  I grieved so long for Josie, but always through a kind of rationalising pain: anger and arguments for the lost present and the lost future, never through remembering what we really had in the short years when I was her mother.  How should I achieve this alternative method?  In chronological order, or in the order of the memories?  Some of those memories are hackneyed, familiar, over-rehearsed.  I wonder whether I will discover more as I work it through?  Typing here isn’t the way, I think.  Handwriting is what is needed.


And then Deraniyagala’s reviewer (Tim Adams) sees again the difficult wisdom that we all know as an intellectual truth, but find so hard to know in our souls: “all childhoods are about transience, every day, and all parenting is about mourning little bits of that passing.”  Thus it truly is.  It doesn’t matter now what might have taken place in Josie’s childhood (or in any of them, I suppose) because now they are adults, and those little children aren’t gone, exactly, but they hover, loved, in memory.  Unless we work differently with memory, we see them schematically, like ghosts, through photos and through re-told stories and we access our knowledge of them erratically.  I look forward to trying the writing method.

Knitting rage

March 13, 2013

As  the traditional crafts teeter on the brink of extinction, it’s sad to see people who should know better making mistakes.  In a TV programme on Sunday night, a crochet square was clearly referred to as ‘knitting’ (BBC1 Call the Midwife).  It was an outrageous and egregious mistake for a programme whose dominant mode is an affectionately detailed presentation of the materiality of life in post-War London.  It’s not the mistake alone that I mind: it’s the leading astray of impressionable youth; the missed opportunity to offer accurate information to those who are ignorant of handcrafts.  They missed the chance to educate and that is unforgivable.  The distinction bewteen knitting and crochet is important: is, if you like, the equivalent of calling a bolt a nail, or of calling a Band-aid a bandage.  They do broadly the same job, but in very different ways.

A classic small square like this is the basis for an 'Afghan rug' - though more commonly the outermost edge is black.

A classic small square like this is the basis for an ‘Afghan rug’ – though more commonly the outermost edge is black.

Knitting is enjoying a resurgence of popularity – the groups of ‘knit bitches’ and ‘knit witches’ and the less outspoken groups of knitters who just get together occasionally – all of these suggest that knitting is making a comeback.  I still love knitting: it has carried me through many a dark hour, ever since girlhood.  My Auntie Beryl taught me to knit when I was about six, and I still have the needles we used.  She really knew how to teach: allowed me to choose the wool and the needles myself.  I chose lavender fluffy yarn – very impractical for a beginner as it snapped easily, the colour slowly turned grubby grey, and the fluff got tangled, but I loved it and perhaps I learned to ride out the frustrations along with learning to knit.

They are shiny pink anodised aluminium (I think) and most recently they knitted this scarf for Bunny -my grandson's  favourite soft toy - who has been feeling the cold.

They are shiny pink anodised aluminium and most recently they knitted this scarf for Bunny -my grandson’s favourite soft toy – who has been feeling the cold.

Almost everything from my early life has been shed as I traversed the world  to and fro, to and fro – so I was amazed to realise that the shiny pink size 7  needles at the bottom of my oldest knitting bag (circa 1960) actually date back to the 1950s.  Possibly my oldest possession.

Plastic, and long enough to hold most needles, with little holes at the end to accommodate the over-long ones.

Plastic, and long enough to hold most needles, with little holes at the end to accommodate the over-long ones.

The knitting bag is a little younger – probably late fifties or early sixties.  No doubt an expert could make an informed guess on the basis of the pattern, which reeks of the late mid-century to me.  Even at the time, while appreciating the convenience, I felt a smidgin of doubt about those irregular boxes and pseudo-random green stalks.


Do you see what I mean?  Years later I heard:

‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful ‘.  (William Morris)

Alas, by then my knitting bag was an essential item.  Some of those pale brown marks in the background are not the design, but stains.  Probably Nescafé, given the era and my known habits as a teenager.  We used to have ‘a last coffee before bed’ – in my mind’s ear I can hear Dad’s voice saying those very words.  Knitting as if there was no tomorrow, I usually answered:  ‘just to the end of this row’ and quickly sneaked round the end onto the next one.  Decades later he let on that he had tumbled to my devious behaviour – that part of it, at least.


February 23, 2013

Mostly you don’t even notice that it’s there – life is led normally.  Ish.

Feeling weak at the knees and wobbly

 Just the thought of her passes across my mind now and then –

 I find myself planning what would be in her Heaven – choirs, gardens, good food and drink; (it feels a bit Persian – like Omar Khayyam);  all her family and friends at all their different ages, simultaneously; a rack of Oska trousers at half price.  In fact it would be much like her existence on earth.

 Absent mindedness: last night I broke a large fruit cake; today I am burning the bacon for lunch while I write this.  Yesterday on the phone I forgot what day it was. 

 Still shaky

 Pondering the nature of death – what is this vanishing? This non-being? 

 Suddenly remembering that she isn’t there any more.

 Feeling aware of her

 Choking up when talking about her – and on the phone, and then laughing and joking in the same conversation.

 Waking up in the night and lying awake for hours.

 Seeing things that could memorialise her – ‘I’ll plant a hellebore in her memory’; ‘I’ll go to the gym’; ‘I’ll eat more sensibly’; ‘I’ll be more positive about things’ – all for her, because she was like that.  And because those are things she taught me.  To wear one’s feminism lightly.  (I don’t know that I’ll ever get that one.)


Time passes.  The busy world crowds in.

All that was in the first week or so.  Now already everything is more distant, and more analytic.

Thinking of her key words: generous; lucky; wonderful.


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