Spirit of Place: The Lost City

This time last week I was in a tropical paradise. A place where the sun sets over the aquamarine waters of the Arafura  Sea, and where in the cool depths of Kakadu rock shelters, layer upon layer of gigantic fish jostle for position, overlapping each other,             x-rayed in red and white ochre, sometimes coloured in sandstone yellow, sometimes beside a wallaby or turtle or a human.


The giant fish are Barramundi. I’d been eating them all week and it was a lightening moment of connection to realise that I shared a taste for this soft, white, flaky fish with the humans that lived here thousands of years ago.


[Attribution Wikicommons: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bild:Aborigine_kunst.jpg%5D

At both Ubirr and Nourlangie in Kakadu National Park you can visit Aboriginal rock art sites that are over 20 000 years old. The sheer scale of time is shocking. Yet on the Bardedjilidji walk near Ubirr, a walk that takes you through layered sandstone outcrops, it felt like I was entering an abandoned city. The rock shelters with their hearths and middens, looked as if the inhabitants had only walked away that morning. It was easy to imagine that the artists had only just recently been painting on the walls of these cavernous rock shelters that were an oasis of shade in the 35 degree dry season heat.

Ubirr Rock Art 1

(Image of Namarrgon, lightning man, at Anbangbang gallery)

The joy in these paintings is palpable.  It’s particularly apparent in the overlapping abundance of food, particularly fish, that is depicted. And in the fact that layer upon layer of images have been painted over the top of each other over thousands and thousands of years, giving the distinct impression that it was the making of the art that mattered so much more than the final product.  Perhaps  they were painted in the wet season when the water ways flowed and both people and animals (except crocodiles) retreated to higher ground. A time when the hunt might have been a little easier and the feasting and dancing may well have gone on well into the night.

And what about the stars 20 000 years ago? What did these spirit people see at night as they looked up from their camp fires?

Ubirr Rock Art 2

I guess we’ll never know. Because although the traditional owners, the Bininj/Mungguy, still manage Kakadu National Park and maintain a deep spiritual connection to their country, they no longer live the traditional life that had been theirs for tens of thousand of years before colonialisation. This is the joy that has been ripped out of the heart of Aboriginal culture. This is the dispossession.



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My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

The Revolution is not over. The Feminist Revolution that is. And the Democratic one too. In fact they’ve barely begun.

“All my years of campaigning have given me one clear message: Voting isn’t the most we can do, but it is the least. To have a democracy you have to want one.”  1

My Life on the Road GS

Gloria Steinem, in her inspiring memoir ‘My Life on the Road,’ 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.  “Altogether, if I’d been looking at nothing but the media all these years, I would be a much more discouraged person – especially given the notion that only conflict is news, and that objectivity means being even handedly negative.” 2

From her meetings with Ghandians in India, addressing Women’s Conferences across the USA, organising for political candidates at Democratic Conventions, crisscrossing the country on book tours and engaging with the First People’s, her travels have connected her to inspiring ideas and the hope that our society’s current obsession with excess and hierarchy can be re-balanced. And it’s not just hope that have been the legacy of a life time of activism but joy, laughter and a deepening spirituality.

She tells us about discovering the Trickster from Cherokee writer, folklorist and anthropologist Rayna Green.  “A common figure in native mythologies, a boundary crosser who can go anywhere. Unlike the jester and the Clown, who are at the bottom of a hierarchical pile and survive only by making the king laugh, the Trickster is free, a paradox, a breaker of boundaries who makes us laugh – and laughter lets the sacred in. In Native spiritualities there is often a belief that we cannot pray unless we’ve laughed. Because the Trickster is sometimes female and is the spirit of free space and the road, I began to feel I’d found a totem of my own.” 3

Steinem unearths worldviews in which all living things are related, layers and layers, rich and deep, circular rather than hierarchical, that inspire us to engage in our own quest to re-balance our society away from the ravages wrought by our obsession with materialism.

One great example that particularly spoke to me was her habit of asking about the vertical history of people who had lived in the places that she traveled to. This led to her discovery of Native Indian agricultural methods.

“I try out my question about original cultures. A very old and scruffy looking white guy at the back of the book store says he’s heard there are abandoned fields nearby that have an odd pattern of large bumps in the earth every few feet, like a giant rubber bath mat. They’ve been there since time immemorial and are supposed to be an Indian method of planting. I enlist the help of a Smith College Librarian.  We discover the bumps are milpa, small mounds of earth on which complimentary crops were planted. Unlike linear plowing, which encourages water run off and soil erosion, the circular pattern traps rainfall. Each mound is planted with a cluster of the Three Sisters that were the staples of Indian agriculture: corn, beans and squash.  The corn provided a stalk for the beans to climb, while also shading the vulnerable beans. The ground cover from the squash stabilised the soil, and the bean roots kept the soil fertile by providing nitrogen. As a final touch, marigolds and other natural pesticides were planted around each mound to keep harmful insects away.  Altogether it was a system so perfect that in some Central American countries to0 poor to adopt linear plowing with machinery, artificial pesticides, and monocrops of agribusiness, the same milpa have been producing just fine for four thousand years.”   4

Towards the end of the memoir she tells us about the character ‘Spider Woman’ in the novel Ceremony by Leslie Silko.  “She is the thought Woman who makes things and so brings then into being. Until then, I had imagined myself alone in believing that spiders should be the totem of writers. Both go into a space alone and spin out of their own bodies a reality that has never existed before.” 5

Gloria Steinem inspires us to spin from our own experiences, and our connections with others, a future world where equality is a reality that exists for everybody.  Like all good books this one leaves you trawling through the notes pages wanting more and making lists of so many other books to read and ideas to think about.

1 – p171, 2 – pxx,  3 – p225, 4 – p235, 5 – p237

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem, Random House, 2015

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A Christmas Trifle

There’s something about Christmas that brings out the need to prove myself.  Usually in an area that I have absolutely no prior experience in.

This year it’s dessert.

I’ve volunteered to bring dessert to my partner’s family Christmas lunch which is traditionally held on Boxing Day. I have plenty of prior experience in bringing dessert. The bakery around the corner is excellent.

But the bakery will be closed on Boxing Day and I have absolutely no experience in actually making dessert. So, a week before Christmas, and I am doing a test run.  I begin this project in the same the way I begin all my projects. By leaving the house and not thinking about it.


But then the spectre of an embarrassing failure drives me home and onto the internet. How hard can it be?

I find lots of delicious but complicated recipes for sweets. But what I need is something very simple.  I discard any recipes that require eggs. Being against cruelty I have no intention of separating a yolk or beating an egg white until it is stiff.  I also discard any recipe that requires baking. Australia’s insistence on celebrating Christmas in the middle of summer makes this no time to be standing in front of a hot oven. And I discard anything that requires a food processor, Christmas night, after a day of eating and drinking, is not a recommended time to be operating heavy machinery.

That’s when I ring a friend. Perhaps she has a spare plane ticket. She does not but she does suggest a trifle. Apparently it’s very simple to make.  She explains that a trifle is a no bake dessert. Perfect.  She also explains that the trick to creating a truly great trifle is in the layering. So I carefully write down the recipe.

There’s a lot to do before you can begin, including a quick visit to the shopping centre (strangely none of the ingredients are in my cupboard).



Prepare the jelly by following the directions on the packet. Mix jelly crystals with warm water. Add fresh raspberries. Place in the fridge for one hour or until set.

Prepare the custard, also according to the packet directions.

Now that the preliminaries are over you can tackle the trifle itself.

Take the Italian sponge finger biscuits out of the packet and layer them across the bottom of a deep dish.

Open the bottle of  sherry and drizzle it over the biscuits.
Lustau_Papirusa_Manzanilla_SherrySpoon a layer of custard over the top of the biscuits. Take the jelly out of the fridge, chop roughly into cubes and layer over the custard. Repeat. Top with candied fruit and nuts. Place in the fridge until required.

This is what it should look like.


This is not what mine looked like. I was foiled by the layers. I suspect it takes a lot of experience in trifle making to stop yourself eating each layer as you make it.

I ate the jelly with fresh raspberries straight from the fridge.

I ate the custard warm and straight out of the bowl.

I ate the biscuits straight out of the packet.

And I drank the sherry straight from the bottle.

I ate my trifle one layer at a time.

So any other suggestions for a very simple, no bake, Boxing Day dessert?


Photo attributions via Wikimedia Commons: Aeroplane Jelly: By Albert Francis Lenertz (1891-1943). Sherry Bottle: By Matt Saunders (Own work). Trifle: By Pradeepraajkumar1981 (Own work).

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Christmas Luck

This week I gave some luck.

My family and I have stopped giving each other Christmas presents. We all have too many things already. Instead we just do a lot of eating, drinking and general merriment. So I like to give the money I would have spent on gifts to people who aren’t as lucky. One of the derivations of the word ‘gift’ is from an Old Norse word, ‘gipt’ meaning good luck; making this a great time of year for the giving of luck.

Xmas  lights Redfern st

But there are so many people in need, so many charities, and so many worthwhile projects, how do you choose? Sometimes I just close my eyes and pick the first charity that comes into my head. At other times it’s the issues that make me particularly sad or heart sore, that I want to focus on. I usually can’t go past poverty, hunger and war as an excuse to give a gift.  Things so far away from the luck that is my life that I want to weep at the total randomness of our world.

I read the newspapers and I feel despair. I make a donation and I feel hope. Hope breaks down the big things into little things that we can do something about.

I can’t end war in the Middle East but I can help to look after those that are escaping it.

I can’t stop drought and famine in Africa but I can help to feed a child in Malawi.

I can’t eradicate homelessness in Australia but I can help to feed and shelter someone.

I can use my money and my voice, the gifts I have been given, to celebrate this holiday season with peace, hope and love.

Xmas Post 2 Hope

So this year I gave to Mahboba’s Promise, an Australian organisation that builds and runs schools and orphanages for girls and boys in Afghanistan.


I gave to the Australian Red Cross to support their work in closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy in Australia and also support people who are homeless in our cities and towns.


And I gave to Greenpeace.  Because if we don’t start paying attention to climate change soon some of the poorest people in the world are going to suffer even more.


Xmas Post 1

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Spirit of Place: Redfern Park

There is a beautiful fountain in Redfern Park.  It’s called Lotus Line and children run through it squealing with delight. Dogs, however, stand at its edge staring in puzzlement at the spot where the water shot out and smacked them on the snout. The fountain is part of the children’s play area set amongst the Moreton Bay figs; sculptures representing seed pods, yam seeds, and Biami (an Aboriginal male ancestor figure of South East Australia) double as places to play. The whole creation is an installation by artist Fiona Foley called Bibles & Bullets.


Twenty three years ago Prime Minister Paul Keating gave his now famous Redfern speech in this park. An extract is carved on a bronze plaque at the southern edge of the water play fountain. These words inscribed in the ground at the Redfern Oval end of the park are a physical acknowledgement of Redfern’s political importance as a centre for Koori history and activism.

According to the Dictionary of Sydney, Redfern Oval and Redfern Park were, “where big plans for self-determination and Aboriginal autonomy were first discussed and made. It was here that an informal ‘politics in the park’ produced early ideas for the formation of the Aboriginal Medical Service and the Aboriginal Legal Service, which were both set up in Redfern in the early 1970s.” (1)


Keating’s speech was the first time that an Australian Prime Minister publicly acknowledged the responsibility of European settlers for the atrocities committed on Indigenous Australians. A brave and hopeful event in our sometimes dark history; the speech was delivered after the High Court’s historic Mabo decision which overturned the concept of Terra Nullius and acknowledged the existence of Aboriginal people in Australia before colonisation.

It begins, I think, with the act of recognition.

Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing.

We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life.

We brought the disasters.

The alcohol.

We committed the murders.

We took the children from their mothers.

We practised discrimination and exclusion.  

It was our ignorance and our prejudice.

And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.

With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds.

We failed to ask – how would I feel if this were done to me?

As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.” (2)


There is another beautiful fountain in the park.  It’s called The Baptist Fountain and was donated by John Baptist in 1890. This Victorian era, tiered, cast iron fountain transports us back to the 19th century. A very different Redfern to that evoked by the sculptures, representing the Indigenous spirit of this place, that form the modern play area. The Baptist Fountain, in contrast, represents for me the spirit of 19th century Australia which did it’s best to crush that Indigenous spirit.

Allowing the dark and light of our history to live side by side in this local park is a powerful expression of hope; the juxtaposition of these artefacts a symbol of reconciliation.

In contrast to the 19th century, the 20th century and in particular the 1960’s were a much more radical time in Australia’s history. In 1962 the right of Indigenous Australians to vote in Commonwealth elections  was legislated .  In 1967 a Federal referendum was held asking Australians to decide whether two references in the Australian Constitution, which discriminated against Aboriginal people, should be removed. That referendum saw the highest YES vote ever recorded in a Federal referendum, with 90.77 per cent voting for change. The 1990’s brought recognition of land rights and Keating’s Redfern speech but it wasn’t until 2008, when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, that we formally acknowledged  the wrongs committed in the past.

These historic milestones, along with targeted Government policy and funding, have improved education and health outcomes for Indigenous Australians but Aboriginal life expectancy in Australia is still more than 10 years below that of the average non-Aboriginal Australian: 69.1 years for males and 73.7 years for females. (3)

We need to tell our Governments that this gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians’ is unacceptable.

And Australians need to once again be given the opportunity to vote in the current proposal to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution.

This might be a complex and difficult area of public debate but we need to discuss the possibilities and what they will mean for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and all Australians.

As I was writing this post I was trying to decide on an appropriate ending for it. I couldn’t think of anything so I decided to check my emails, as I usually do when I’m stuck on something. It’s a lovely form of procrastination and sometimes just taking my mind away from the problem solves the problem. As it did this time. Literally.

One of the emails was from my local Greens group inviting everyone to a FREE FORUM WITH FINGER FOOD at Redfern Town Hall to discuss Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution at 3pm on Sunday 25th October. Here’s the link for more info: http://nsw.greens.org.au/event/nsw/debateforum-recognise-constitutional-recognition

In two years time, on the 27th of May 2017, it will be the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum. I would love to be at Redfern Park on that day celebrating that amazing event. And I would also love to be celebrating an overwhelming YES vote in a referendum on Constitutional Recognition for Aboriginal Australians.


(1) http://www.dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/redfern_park

(2) Transcript of Redfern Park Speech:https://antar.org.au/sites/default/files/paul_keating_speech_transcript.pdf

(3) “Closing the Gap Report 2014” produced by the Council of Australian Governments;https://www.dpmc.gov.au/sites/default/files/publications/Closing_the_Gap_2015_Report.pdf)

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In the Jaws of the Shark

Yesterday I found myself wrestling with the toilet seat. Ahh, the joys of home ownership! Having rented for the last 22 years, this level of maintenance is an entirely new experience. Normally, toilet seat broken? Easy. Call the landlord. But now I am the land lord.

And so the weekend found me at Bunnings buying a new toilet seat. I’d hardly ever set foot in Bunnings, let alone hung out with the toilet seats. The choice was astounding. Who would have thought I could sit on the Union Jack for only $63, or be the owner of a Rainbow Toilet Seat embedded with jelly beans for $49, but my favourite was the ‘Loo With a View – Two Piece Shark Toilet Seat” for only $129.

I’d always wanted to sit safely in the jaws of a shark, but would it really be safe? I stepped away from the shark seat. I had to think this through. Replacing the toilet seat was proving much more difficult than I thought it would be. I needed a coffee.  But where on earth would I get a coffee? That’s when I spotted it. A coffee shop. In Bunnings. No wonder thousands of people flock to these places every weekend. I waited in line relieved that the only decision required of me now was what type of coffee to have. How many types of coffee could a hardware store sell? But I never got to find out because that’s when I spotted it: the specials tub filled with a whole stack of PLAIN WHITE PLASTIC TOILET SEATS, at only $17.99 each. Not a shark in sight. Done! I grabbed one and ran to the cash registers.

But as it turned out purchasing the toilet seat was the easy part. Home is only a quick bus trip away and Bunnings are one of the new eco-friendly stores that don’t provide plastic bags just cardboard boxes. Normally I would applaud this except that I’d forgotten to bring my own bags and the toilet seat didn’t fit into any of the boxes and the only seat on the bus was the one facing everyone…..

When I finally got home I went straight into the bathroom. I carefully unwrapped the new toilet seat. Then I looked long and hard at the old honey oak wooden seat that we were getting rid of. We weren’t getting rid of it because it was honey oak (although I had wondered how we would ever know it was actually clean in that colour) but because the hinges had broken off. I decided to dive right in. How hard could it be?

Several minutes of strenuous scuffle followed as I tried to get my head around the s-bend to see how to unscrew the old toilet seat. That’s when I realised I should probably have cleaned the toilet before beginning this DYI project. But alas it was too late. Luckily I was going shopping soon for new clothes anyway. These clothes could go straight into the bin.

The space between the wall and the toilet was so small that I decided to use a few of the moves I’d learnt in yoga. It took a combination of downward facing dog and warrior two to finally loosen the beautifully rusted on screws that seemed to hold the whole contraption together remarkably well for a toilet seat that was in the habit of tossing us off in the middle of the night. Finally I was able to position the new white plastic seat perfectly and twirl the screws into place. I felt triumphant. I had passed my first DIY home owner’s test.

Levels of satisfaction have remained very high. Perhaps it’s just the excitement of moving to a new suburb. Redfern is a beautiful place. The high street is lined with lovely old sandstone buildings, reminiscent of a country town, that glow a deep rusty gold at sunset.


We live across the road from both the Aboriginal Medical Centre and St Vincent de Paul Catholic Church.  So I now sleep with the Aboriginal flag waving outside my bedroom window and a statue of St Vincent staring into my kitchen window. I’m really pleased it’s not the other way around. I don’t mind a saint having access to my kitchen shenanigans but the bedroom? No thanks.


We can see Centrepoint through the back windows and we can hear Centrelink through the front windows. I’ve never lived in the centre of town before. I popped out to buy the newspaper the other day, after I poured my tea and before I took out the teabag. The newsagent, and Centrelink, are right next door. And I live so close to the train station I have to walk around the block four times so as  not to get to work too early. There are so many trendy cafés that we’ll never need to eat breakfast at home again. And there are a whole lot of little bars to while away the evenings in. They’ve got great little names like, The Angry Pirate and The Bearded Tit.


Redfern is a place of contrasts, the sad and desperate souls that congregate on the weekday streets, often sitting on Mum Shirl’s bench outside the church; juxtaposed by the trendy urbanites that flock to the cafes on the weekend. And the Block, which when I went to uni was a total no go zone to be walked past very fast, now hosts the Redfern Night Markets once a month and Redfern Groove during the Sydney Fringe.

I’m looking forward to exploring more of my new local area. Especially the parks – there’s Prince Alfred Park nearby and my local park is Redfern Park where Prime Minister Keating delivered his Redfern Speech in 1992. It’s a lovely park with a beautiful spirit of place about it that will get its own post very soon.

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Some of My Favourite Things

You are where you live.

As you are all of the things that you do and love.

For the last eight years I’ve been lucky enough to live in the village of Double Bay on the eastern shore of Sydney Harbour.

Steyne Park

One of the things I’ll miss about living in this part of the world is the wildlife.  I don’t mean the partying going on into the early hours of most nights at The Golden Sheaf. I mean the wildlife. For example at 4:30am, if you happen to be asleep, you’ll be woken by the sad song of loss sung across the misty marshes by our very own nightingale. Actually there are no misty marshes, just a whole lot of old flats surrounded by trees, but that doesn’t deter this bird. Maybe it’s a fox or possum returning to its burrow that has disturbed it. Yes there are foxes in Double Bay, I’ve seen one whilst out on a 3am walk, but that’s a whole other story.

Then at sun rise the chorus of currawongs begin volleying their curlicues, back and forth, back and forth as the world lights up. That’s when the parrots begin to chase and chatter through the trees eliciting warning laughter from the kookaburras in the garden next door. And at sunset I can’t hear myself speak if I make the mistake of making a phone call while the currawongs are lined up in the trees around us singing into the dusk.

I’ll miss the birds.

And then there are the arboreal marsupials. Like the possum which wasn’t happy with its nightly forage in our attic.  Deciding that it wanted to explore our living room it spent an entire night trying to get in through a small door that accesses the gas tap; despite someone stacking boxes and chairs up against this door it persisted, only a rap on its paws at 4am with the spaghetti ladle eventually convincing it to cease and desist.

And there was the rather large antechinus whose claws clipping on the wooden floorboards woke us up over several nights. What was it doing under the bed? Someone, who claimed to have surprised it in the kitchen in the early hours, called it a rather large rat, and suggested it snarled at them.  I never saw it but I did find a beautiful object under the kitchen sink a few weeks later. It looked like a hand woven felt basket worthy of display in an art gallery. Someone insisted it was a common rat’s nest.

And then there’s the sea life. I’ve spotted a manta ray and an eel while walking along the esplanade at Rose Bay. And there are the little dinner plate stingrays in the shallow water next to the ferry wharf, hoovering their way over the sand, hunting for even smaller sea life than themselves. And of course the dolphins that now regularly make their way into the harbour and I’ve heard have been spotted all the way up the Parramatta River.


One of the most fantastic things about living in this part of the world is the ferry commute to work. While on the ferry the other morning I remembered the day the Captain announced, “Attention passengers. Dolphins ahead. Brace for impact.”  He didn’t actually say the last bit. After the first moment of surprise we all rushed to the front and there they were; a pod of dolphins in the water right in front of us. The ferry continued to barrel towards them and just as the bow of the boat reached them, and I thought I was about to witness a massacre of marine mammals, they all dove deep, neatly swimming under us, still visible through the clear green water. They’d been playing with us! Making magic, these imps of the sea.

As I was remembering this I noticed a fishing trawler up ahead, returning late with its catch. There were a whole lot of silver gulls jostling above the boat. That’s when I saw the pelicans flying fast and low, only about a metre above the water, straight past us, landing right behind the little trawler.  They dipped and splashed, having a little rest, by which time the trawler had moved on and we’d caught up with them. But they continued to splash around oblivious  to the danger bearing down on them and just at the last minute the captain swerved the ferry to starboard narrowly avoiding the silly birds who alerted by the sudden swell took off; once again chasing the trawler loaded down with fish, and shrieking, snapping seagulls.


But it hasn’t just been the wildlife, there have been a few domestic animal incidents too and some foul play.

Like the time that I was bed bound because my back had decided to pack it in and someone went down to the clothes line leaving the front door wide open just as the pups next door were being taken on their daily walk. Well they saw that open door and they’d dashed inside before their owner could say French Boxer. They ran straight into the bedroom and were circling the bed like sharks circling a life raft, only their ears appearing above the waterline.

And of course there was the tragedy of the geese. The day after we moved in we walked down to Double Bay, got a coffee and walked to the little sandy beach near the wharf. The night before as I’d fallen asleep I’d been able to smell the salt in the air. I’d never lived this close to the sea and couldn’t wait to explore. As we approached the water we noticed some really strange shapes sitting on the sand and as we got closer we heard honking.  There on the beach were four big white geese.  I felt like I’d accidentally wandered into a children’s story.

For the next six months, as I walked to the ferry wharf each morning,  I’d be greeted by this gaggle of geese. And then one day an article appeared about them in the local paper. It was written by the work experience student who’d been fascinated to discover these animals on a city beach. A week later the geese were gone. Who knows what happened to them but sadly I doubt that they’re charming the locals on some other harbour beach.

I’ve loved living in Double Bay.  Wildlife aside, there are many things I’ll miss when we move.  The sheer physical beauty of the harbour in all its moods; summer dips at Redleaf Pool or Neilsen Park; the breathtaking cliff top walks at Watson’s Bay.  And I’ve loved the bold brashness of the eastern suburbs; it’s inspired a lot of theatre and  a lot of writing.


These have been just some of my favourite things. I look forward to meeting the local inhabitants of my new part of the world – Redfern.

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