Naked in Melbourne

I’ve never been a fan of sleeping naked. I have difficulty slipping into otherworldly slumber without the soft cotton comfort of my nightie, not to mention my undies. But recently, on a trip to our southern sister city, the airline we traveled with lost our luggage. Apparently it was never checked in. Despite the fact that we stood in an extremely long line, for an extremely long time, waiting to do just that. Apparently, although we watched it being pushed onto the conveyor belt and into the bowels of the airport, it never made the aeroplane. Or at least not the plane we were on.


So it was with a kind of weightless wonder that we left Melbourne airport that evening and rode into the city on the Skybus, which to our relief stuck to the road. Perhaps in compensation for our bag-less state, or maybe just because the sun sets later in Victoria and storms had passed through in the late afternoon,  the yellow-grassed hills that surround the Tullamarine Freeway were glistening with recent rain and the golden slant of the westering sun. On the eastern horizon, amongst the still heavy slate clouds, hung the widest tricolour rainbow I’d ever seen. And oblivious roos chomped steadily on the moist grass just outside the windows of our bus.  It was a beautiful welcome to a city so familiar yet at the same time so unknown.

The baggage claim attendant at the airport had said that our luggage would be delivered at 11pm that night which with the practiced cynicism of the seasoned traveller I of course did not believe.  When, after a lovely feed and a good bottle of red, we returned to the hotel and my expectations were indeed met, it put me to thinking about the chicken and the egg.  But luckily it was time for bed not philosophy.

Of course the bathroom bag was in the luggage so there was no toothpaste or toothbrushes. Oh well, who hasn’t occasionally had the extremely late night and tumbled into bed without brushing their teeth? I carefully took off all my clothes and hung them in the wardrobe for re-wearing the next day. Oh well, who hasn’t occasionally  worn their clothes two days in a row? But of course my jammies were also in the luggage! And clean underwear! Note to self: in future always carry spare intimate things in hand bag. I took off my underpants and carefully arranged them on a hanger for airing. They would have to do a double shift. That had certainly never happened before! Now I was ready to slip into the smooth, clean, white sheets. How is it that my sheets at home never feel this smooth or clean?

I prepared myself for a night of sleepless tossing. There’s something far too vulnerable, too open, and too strange about having absolutely no clothes on in bed. I would never be able to sleep naked.  I have met people who do. You know, those relaxed types who seem to glow with inner health.  It always seems far too risqué to me. After all who knows what could happen?

I was woken at 7am by the clang of tram bells. Ahh Melbourne; sure beats waking up to the profanities of the inner city ice addicts back home. That’s when I realised I’d slept the whole night through. In fact, I can’t remember having had a better night sleep since I was about three. I felt alive. I felt healthy. I felt energetic. I’d always assumed the glow those nudists had was due to all the sex but it might simply be all the sleep. What other delights had I denied myself in my nearly fifty years of life?

Just as I was contemplating how much more exciting life could be without baggage, a text arrived on my mobile. “Great News! Your luggage has arrived in Melbourne. We will contact you once it has cleared security to arrange for delivery. We estimate this will be within three hours.”

Well that was great news. I’d never slept naked before and after trying it I couldn’t feel better. Now I had the opportunity to experiment with a little more adventure in my life. What could be better than appearing in my birthday suit at the breakfast buffet? And so, I leapt out of bed, all ready for my first day in Melbourne.


Images: The Bookworm by Hermann Fenner-Behmer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; and authors own image of Melbourne at dawn.

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My Top Ten Books

Here are ten books that I enjoyed reading last year and thought were worth sharing. They’re a mix of fiction and non-fiction in no particular order. I read them at the beach, on the train, on the couch, in the park, in waiting rooms and in bed. Enjoy!



Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit   hinthedrs                                          Rebecca Solnit embodies two of my favourite attributes, she writes exquisitely and is a radical peddler of hope. Described as a ‘cultural historian in the desert mystic mode’, Solnit argues that our pessimism and despair arise from assuming we know what will happen next. Subtitled Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, this fascinating collection of essays unearths the transformative power of political engagement.


xjourney-s-end-jpg-pagespeed-ic-erloa0y-mvJourney’s End by Jennifer Scoullar                                                               Set in the Byron Bay hinterland this is the perfect summer holiday read.  In the genre of page turning rural romances but with a rewilding twist, it will have you dreaming of selling up your city life and escaping to the country.


Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit  wrs                                                                     Ok so it’s obvious I’m a big Solnit fan but she just writes so beautifully. This is a book about walking. It’s also a history of thinking while wandering, with tales and adventures of the mind and spirit from philosophers and poets, trouble makers and adventurers. I also recommend The Faraway Nearby,  A Field Guide to Getting Lost and The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness.


Philosophy for Life And Other Dangerous Situations by Jules Evans    pforl                               Part self help, part cognitive psychology this entertaining and wise book inspires us to use classical philosophy to solve modern day problems. Structured as a day shadowing  the ancient philosophers at the School of Athens it will inspire you to keep your New Year resolutions.


Oldest foods on Earth: A History of Australian Native Foods by John Newton  oldest-foods                This is a fascinating survey of the native foods that grow on our continent and have been used for thousands of years by Indigenous Australians. I love the suggestion that we celebrate Australia Day with a meal of native Australian foods shared between European and Aboriginal Australians. A revolutionary idea and a perfect way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of  the 1967 referendum this year.


The Art of Grace by Sarah L Kaufman art-of-grace                                                              A delight to read, this beautifully written book delves into all aspects of the elusive quality of grace.  Subtitled, On Moving Well Through Life it’s like a wander through a well curated modern art museum. It ends with a lovely chapter guaranteed to make even the most slothful and clumsy amongst us more at ease in the world.


The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones         last-chinese-chef                                             A delicate love story immersed in the philosophy and high art of Chinese cuisine. Sublimely written it is nourishment for the soul but it will also make you hungry for the traditional food of the Middle Kingdom.  (Try Chinatown’s Golden Century where Sydney’s top chefs can be found after their shifts). I also enjoyed Mones’ other novels set in modern China, Lost in Translation and A Cup of Light.


My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem gslonther                                                            This is a terrific memoir of a life well lived. Gloria Steinem regales us with tales from her travels.  As a feminist activist, democratic organiser and writer since the 1960’s, she credits a deeply held attitude of hope to a lifetime on the road.



Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen xmiller-s-valley                                                                    I love this writer and this, her latest novel, is possibly also my favourite. Set in a small American town that is about to be drowned to make way for a dam, it is a beautiful exploration by the main character, Mimi Miller, of truth, identity and home. Quindlen is just one of several female American writers whose novels I have enjoyed. Others include Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Patchett, Amy Tan, Ursula Le Guinn, Toni Morrison, Nicole Mones and Marilyn Robinson.


The Story. An anthology in three parts: Love, Loss, Life Chosen by Victoria Hislop                 I thoroughly enjoyed this  terrific collection of short stories by women writers such as Katherine Mansfield, Doris Lessing, Alice Walker, Flannery O’Connor, Hillary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and many, many more. These are some of the most brilliant and profound pieces of short fiction I have ever read.

Top image: Winslow Homer, Reading by the Brook (wikimedia commons)


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Get On Your Soap Box

This summer, as you enjoy Christmas carols or the symphony in the Domain, see if you can also spot an old time orator on their soap box in Speaker’s Corner.


The tradition of Speaker’s Corner comes to us from London’s Hyde Park, where open-air debate and discussion are allowed as long as the constabulary consider that speeches don’t break the law. Here in Sydney, between the two world wars last century, the Domain had become such a hotbed for political debate that some wanted free speech banned from the area. Instead, the Government reduced the hours when you could climb onto your soap box to 2 pm – 5 pm in winter and 2 pm – 5:30 pm in summer. This restriction apparently continues to this day so be wary if you’re tempted to speak out.

In 1932 Speaker’s Corner was the scene of one of the largest rallies ever held protesting Governor Game’s dismissal of Premier Jack Lang. Similarly people came together in the Domain after the dismissal of Prime Minister Whitlam by Governor General Kerr on 11 November 1975.


One memorable soap box orator, amongst many, was John Webster. Deliberately provocative he delighted crowds from the 1950’s through to the 80’s with his unique pronunciations on every ideology along the political spectrum. After his death his family wanted his ashes spread in the Domain but the Sydney Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust requested a $10 000 donation from The Exodus Foundation, a charity that feeds homeless people, and that had assisted the family with their request. Reverend Bill Crews declined to give the donation and instead chose a rainy wet night to return John Webster to Speaker’s Corner.


Earlier in the 20th century, on 18 November 1934 crowds gathered to hear another famous speaker, Czech writer and journalist Egon Kisch. Despite having held a valid visa he’d been refused entry to Australia on the grounds that he was a communist. He’d been detained on the ship that had brought him here while his case was taken to the High Court. Meanwhile the ship was ordered to leave the country, the determined Kisch attempted to disembark by jumping off, landing on the dock in Port Melbourne.  Unfortunately this resulted in a broken leg and his return to detention on the ship. The press went wild. When his case was presented to the High Court, Judge H.V. Evatt ruled in Kisch’s favour concluding that the ban could not be justified by the Immigration Act.

However the saga was not yet over. On his arrival in Sydney the authorities awaited to give him the Dictation Test; a small hurdle embedded in the Immigration Act. The test was in Gaelic. Kisch knew at least eleven European languages but Gaelic wasn’t one of them.  He failed the test and was once again imprisoned. His case was taken up by the International Labour Defence who specialised in helping political prisoners around the world. For four months Australians were regaled by the press with stories from this battle between the illegal immigrant and the Attorney-General, Mr Menzies.

Finally Kisch was released and was able to tell his story to thousands of supporters in the Domain. He told of being taken prisoner by the NAZI’s in Berlin in 1933 on the night of the Reichstag fire; a critical event that led to the the NAZIs taking over Germany. He told of being lucky to be expelled from Germany, compared to friends who had been beaten to death in jail. He warned of the threat that Hitler posed to the world.


So this summer, as the musicians take a break, you might want to wander with your glass of bubbly over to the ‘Viva Voce’ Soap-Box sculpture by Debra Phillips that commemorates ‘Speaker’s Corner’ and contemplate the lives of the radical souls who have stood on their soap boxes in the Domain. Maybe even have a crack at it yourself – but only if it’s in the prescribed hours.


Books and websites: The history of soapbox oratory by Steve Maxwell, Chiswick, (1994); Discovering the Domain edited by Edwin Wilson, Hale & Iremonger, (1986); Kisch in Australia Exhibition,Catalogue, NSW State Library, (2005);; (Bill Crews scatters John Webster’s ashes in Domain – ABC Report)

Images and attributions: Tropfest in the domain By John Polson via Wikimedia Commons; John Webster by Raymond De Berquelle, Courtesy of National Library of Australia; Egon Kisch by Sam Hood via Wikimedia Commons


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Bugs, Birds and Bees

Recently I was talking to my mother. My phone call interrupted her in the shed where she was wrestling with the pesticide pump. She was removing the original hose and replacing it with a longer one. By way of making conversation I stupidly asked why. Her plan, she told me, was to climb up into the roof cavity and spray the pesticide throughout the ceiling. At this point I should mention that my mother is in her seventies. She’d obviously just been told that’s the new thirty.

I almost said, “Haven’t you heard that the European parliament has banned pesticides because the honey bee has lost its dance?” But I caught myself in time. My mother’s Italian. Italy has very few songbirds, hardly any bees and virtually no insects. Anything that crawls, flies, or moves on four legs must be stomped out, or eaten, as quickly as possible, including the European parliament. So what I said instead was, “Can’t you call the pest control man to do that?” I’ve found that delaying tactics sometimes work better than outright obstruction.


“No. No. No. I did that last time.  He just stands on the ladder and does ‘puff’, ‘puff’, two times in the air. He doesn’t even go inside. And two weeks later the ants are marching across my kitchen again. He is a waste of money. I will do it myself. And I use three times what they say on the bottle. I make sure that it works.”

The problem had now escalated from simple pesticide use to toxic chemical warfare. I attempted a bus analogy, “I don’t think you need three times as much to kill the pests. If you get hit by a bus and die, it doesn’t matter if two more buses run you over. You’re not going to be more dead.”

It didn’t work.

So I switched to an occupational health and safety angle. “You know that it’s really poisonous to breathe in those chemicals?” As I listened to her answer, I watched a drunken cockroach stagger across the carpet of my living room.

Leaf cutting ant at the London Butterfly House in Syon Park

“I”m not stupid. I wear a mask.” She said. And just as I was about to mention that the chemicals seep through your skin, “And gloves. I wear your father’s old boiler suit. The white one. I look like I am going into space,” she chuckled.

“How do you get up into the roof?” I asked.

“I climb up on the ladder.” Her tone was one of wonder at the enormous stupidity of her own daughter.

“You go all the way into the roof?” I persisted.

“To every corner. That’s where they hide. But don’t worry; I take the telephone with me. If anything happens I will call you.”

And with that she hung up. She had things to do, places to be, a whole roof cavity to napalm.

Later that day as I sat down with a cup of tea I saw the cockroach under the coffee table. The poor thing was lying on its back. That’s when I remembered the baits I’d put out a few weeks ago. The first bug of the season had succumbed to my need to euthanize these living creatures.

“Oh!” said the pot to the kettle……


Images via Wikimedia Commons – attributions: Bumble bee on a flower by Christian Bauer ; Leaf cutting ant by William Warby; Still Life: Turkey and Songbirds in a Landscape by North Italian School.

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Songlines, Starmaps and Ubiquitous Suburban Roads

A friend recently flew back into Sydney. It was after sunset and she had the window seat. As the plane banked lower and lower across the north west of the city she began to recognise some of the main roads that she was used to driving on. Seen from the air they looked a little different. But it was when she saw Parramatta Road, beautifully lit up at night, that she realised that Sydney from the sky looks like a huge Aboriginal dot painting. And like the paint lines on those canvases, none of the roads are straight, rather they snake slowly north, south, east and west. It was then that she wondered if our main roads followed the ancient dreaming tracks of the original inhabitants.


I’ve always been fascinated by old roads. On long road trips along modern highways playing ‘spot the old road’ is a favourite pastime. Sometimes they run parallel for a few kilometres, then disappear over a cumbersome hill, now conveniently bypassed by the billion dollar ribbon of concrete that we are speeding along. Highways are fast, modern places but most of them still trace the old routes, the Aboriginal people’s roads along which they traveled for trade. From these came the songlines or dreaming tracks, “effectively oral maps of the landscape, enabling the transmission of oral navigational skills in cultures that do not have a written language.” 1   Songlines are part of a complex Indigenous belief system connecting knowledge of the land with spirituality and culture.


I’ve also discovered the old roads during my walks across the city. I’ve done a lot of walking since ditching my car three years ago. Walking connects you intimately to the landscape. Sydney, when you walk, is a very hilly city. These hills, when we lived close to the harbour became my constant companions. I came to know their ridges and the valleys below. I got over those hills, literally, and found myself choosing paths that avoided going up and down them. I would find a road along the ridge of a hill and stick to it, even though this might be a more circuitous route, rather than dip into a valley only to climb back out again. Now that we have moved to the western side of the city we are blessed with flatness, or at least softer, smaller hills, mere slopes. I wonder how many of the roads laid along these ridges are songlines masquerading as the ubiquitous suburban streets of this unplanned, lopsided city.

Shannon Foster, D’harawal Educator and Saltwater Knowledge Keeper at Sydney University, in his article, The Aboriginal Science Behind Sydney’s Nightmare Traffic, talks about the local Aboriginal people using fire to create and maintain these paths. “When the Europeans landed on the sandy shores of our sparkling harbour, not only did they comment on the highly manicured appearance of the landscape, but they naturally decided to explore the well-trodden paths of the local Aboriginal people who had been maintaining these walking paths with the use of fire for thousands of years. One of the first paths wandered down by white men led directly west to Parramatta and is now known as George Street. Not far from there, a path led to a fresh water supply and is now known as Pitt Street. There was a path running south connecting Sydney’s two main waterways War-ran (Sydney Cove) and Gamay (Botany Bay), known to us now as the peak hour debacle that is Botany Road.”2


One of the most famous of these paths is the Great Western Highway over the Blue Mountains. In, The Significance of the Route across the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, Ian Jack tells us that prior to 1789 these mountains were, ‘a meeting-place on the periphery of several language groups. For the Wiradjuri, the Gundungurra, the Darug people, the Mountains were a natural point of contact. One result was that there was widespread knowledge of how to attain the table-top from the plains and valleys and how to cross the climactic landscape of the table-top without abruptly terminating one’s journey. Aboriginal people knew that the single track from the Sydney basin to the Bathurst plains, and vice versa, held to one narrow ridge on top. They knew also that there were only a few viable options for attaining that ridge from the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley at the east and from the Hartley Valley at the west. This knowledge was passed to Europeans whether directly in the form of Aboriginal guides or indirectly through discussions with Aboriginal people.’3

This would have been the case, not only for Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth, but for many of the other colonial explorers of this country. Robert S. Fuller in his article, How ancient Aboriginal star maps have shaped Australia’s highway network reflects on the star maps, or songlines in the sky, used by the  Kamilaroi people of northwest New South Wales as a mnemonic aid. ‘In the winter camp, when the summer travel was being planned in August or September, a person who had traveled the intended route was tasked with teaching others, who had not made this journey, how to navigate to the intended destination. The pattern of stars (the “star map”) was used as a memory aid in teaching the route and the waypoints to the destination. After more research I asked Michael if the method of teaching and memorising was by song, as I was aware that songs are known to be an effective way of memorising a sequence in the oral transmission of knowledge. Michael said, “you got it!”, and I then understood that the very process of creating, then teaching, such a route resulted in what is known as a songline.’4  Fuller’s discovery of the proliferation of songlines across the Australian landscape and their uncanny mimicry of the routes of major roads, or vice versa, as the songlines were there first, makes for a great read.


It is a beautiful privilege to live on a continent with such an ancient history and wonderfully inspiring to be able to read about the culture and practice of this country’s First Peoples. I now have an enduring image of a starlit winter astronomy lesson to carry with me on my summer road trip. And on my next walk I’ll keep Shannon Foster’s image of the ‘D’harawal tackling prickly tea tree bush, thick undergrowth and enduring the face scratching torture that is Australia’s drought resistant, dry sclerophyll (hard leaved) forest’1 in mind as I venture those same, now sealed, virtually treeless, but still hilly roads that encircle our city.


Image attributions: Vivid Sydney 2016, James Horan/Destination NSW via Wikimedia Commons; Canning Stock Route by Peter WH via Wikimedia Commons


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A Conversation

The USA will soon have a President elected by people who voted for simplicity over complexity. The kind of simplicity that harks back to 20th Century Germany and Italy, Spain and Japan, Austria, Chile and Brazil. The list unfortunately goes on. Those years of fascism created neither happy times nor happy nations but they began as a response; a call from those that believed they weren’t being heard. Sadly it is this belief that brutally propels democracy towards despotism. And fascism is just one of its forms.


Fascism discourages engagement suggesting that you leave democracy to the experts. But they cannot give the consent that democracy requires. That’s what politics is, the process of elected representatives gaining consent to make decisions on our behalf.  These decisions are made in the public arena of parliament not behind closed doors. That is why it’s noisy and messy. If the polis does not engage then that consent has not been given. But that doesn’t mean that decisions won’t be made. Engagement is essential if the widest variety of voices are to be heard. There’s little point in lamenting a decision after it’s been made (as in the case of Brexit and the US election), particularly if you reveal that you didn’t participate in the making of it, didn’t fight it with everything you had.

Fascism beguiles us with simplistic, easy solutions. ‘Build A Wall’, Keep Them Out’. Slogans targeted at our simple fears, our childish selves.  They are designed to stop us stepping up to the plate as adults and taking the responsibility that differentiates us from children. Voting for someone that promises to solve all your problems without you having to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty is at best a fantasy and at worst a con that makes us all worse off.  Believing that democracy is what you do once every few years at the ballot box and not every day, is a sure fire way to gain the status of a child. But children don’t vote and they don’t pay taxes. Adults do. And what is politics, parliament, government but the activation of our taxes – the decisions about what to do with our money. Why wouldn’t you want a say in that? As Thomas Jefferson once said, “eternal vigilance is the price of democracy.” That’s the job of adults who are allowed to stay up late.

Fascism uses terms such as the ‘political elite’ to deny that we live in a democracy, deny that there is anything we have to do to keep it vibrant and alive. Believing that there is an us and them, and that the us is powerless, simply gives consent to the people who’ll do whatever it takes to get what they want. It also give us an excuse to do nothing. But that’s the fundamental problem with life, and democracy. It’s impossible to do nothing. Those people in Britain and the USA recently who decided that the best decision was to do nothing, to not make a decision by not voting, still ended up doing something. Something rather big. We have to be informed. We have to be active. We can’t bury our heads in the sand as much as we may want to. And it’s not enough to just have an opinion. Anyone can have an opinion. It’s what you do that matters.

Let’s all pledge to reject fascism.  In my own case I need to be better informed and braver about putting that information out there. And I need to make sure I don’t run away when bullies with loud opinions disagree with me. I need to not be afraid to say something different to what many around me may be saying. Democracy is a conversation. A conversation that doesn’t need a perfect solution. A conversation that has room for compromise. A conversation that isn’t just about winning an argument. Being an adult is not our opportunity to make up for not getting into the high school debating team. Being an adult, who is lucky enough to live in a democracy, is about taking the opportunity to make a satisfying dent in inequality across the planet. It’s about breaking down the simplicity that harbours fear, and celebrating the complexity that opens up the world.


Image 1: Guernica by Picasso (Photographed by Papamanila) via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: By Auguste Migette (Reproduction de tableau) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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The Art of Grace

What does the word grace conjure in your mind? For some it’s divine assistance, particularly when unmerited. For others it’s a gentle disposition and an elegance of movement. For me it’s the sublime beauty of a sunset at the end of a hard day.

V0016540 Grace Darling rowing out to sea in a furious storm. Colour w

Sarah L Kaufman is the dance critic for the New York Times. She knows grace when she sees it and in this delightful book, The Art of Grace, she examines this elusive quality. Humorous, inspiring and beautifully written, the book delves into all aspects of this virtue, from the flair and charm of Cary Grant both on film and in real life, to examples of grace under pressure in athletes, performers, and people who live challenging lives.

Subtitled, On Moving Well Through Life, the aim of the book is to highlight moments of grace and to give us hope that we might be able to emulate them. One example is the wise advice Ptahhotep, an Ancient Egyptian vizier, writes for his son, “…honour the people around you by being bright faced, generous and humble, and by helping them feel comfortable and appreciated.” (pxxi)  This beautifully encompasses that joyous quality of caring for others that is the hallmark of a graceful person. It is possibly the epitome of grace; and unfortunately a quality light years away from our modern habits of self obsession.

Kaufman suggests three steps to leading a more graceful life. “Being aware of grace in others allows us to feel some of their ease ourselves.….The next step is practice: cultivate ease of movement, self control, and warmth, and the Greta Garbo walk may very well follow. The third step is to learn to face the world willingly (or at least without obvious panic) and with regard for those around you.” (pxxv)  I very much related to the third step, at least the part in brackets.


Combining elements of spirituality and DIY with heartening stories and enchanting images, this book is like a satisfying wander through a well curated modern art museum. It ends with a lovely list guaranteed to make even the most slothful and clumsy amongst us more at ease in the world. My favourites from this list? All of them! But I will list only two as I encourage you to buy the book and read the rest:

“Make room for others – on the sidewalk, at the bus stop, in a coffee shop, at a business meeting, and in your life.”  (p278) So simple. So obvious. But so easy to forget.

And, “Enjoy. Raise a glass, as Lionel Barrymore did in the movie Grand Hotel, ‘to our magnificent, brief, dangerous life – and the courage to live it!’ ”(p278)

And now in an attempt to live more gracefully, or just watch others do so, I’m off to download some dashing, debonair Cary Grant and buy  a good bottle of red with which to raise  a fine glass.


Images: Grace Darling rowing out to sea, to save sailors from a shipwreck, in a furious storm. Colour wood engraving by E. Evans after C.J. Staniland. via Wikimedia Commons and John William Waterhouse, The Soul of the Rose, via Wikimedia Commons

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