Wednesday 26 December 2012

It's a Wonderful Life

Christmas is a tough time for many people.  Vulnerabilities are highlighted, like loss, grief, unfulfilled desires or disappointments about love, relationships, accomplishment or finances.  Even those who believe in the joy and promise of the arrival of Jesus, who know they should feel grateful for all they have, may be challenged to see the ‘glass half full’ at Christmas. 

Personally I was dreading the season this year.  No matter what I did or thought in preceding weeks I was dreading being reminded of 2011 when a precious brother was facing the most brutal battle with cancer.  We were desperate to believe it wouldn’t end badly but our family seemed to be disintegrating under the pressure.  Then when we felt it couldn’t get any worse another brother was given a similar diagnosis; albeit with a different type of cancer.  2011 was horrific on so many levels we limped into 2012 barely on automatic pilot.

2012 brought positive things, most important of which was my brother Sean’s recovery and our dear Mum’s successful operation for a new hip, but not before we had struggled through the funeral for the brother known affectionately as “the number one son” and flown back to Australia to celebrate his life with all the people who knew him before he launched his successful life and career in France and then San Diego. 

So I guess you could say my family was battle scarred in 2012.  I had other challenges too, like leaving behind Australia and Italy to move to the UK, finding a house, work, networks, and a sense of place in the world.  Over the course of the year I lost two friends (one to cancer), reconnected with lovely old friends, and made new ones.  I took part in the Olympics and Paralympics and many of those mates I still see and enjoy.  As Christmas approached I was busy with social engagements, theatre shows and writing.  Yet still I dreaded ‘the day’, or the week from Christmas Eve to New Year, knowing many pals were going, or had already gone, out of town.  It irked there was going to be no public transport on the 25th such that it was going to be difficult to accept invitations for Christmas lunch.  And I wished I had a) my car, b) the sunshine promised for Australia, or c) proximity to family, especially the children who are the light of Christmas.

The real thing hanging over me, however, was a consciousness that I hadn’t yet found the courage to look through all the messages, tributes and photos left for my brother Rohan on his funeral website.  Nor had I looked at the video footage loaded on another site by his devoted work colleagues.  I didn’t look in January or February as everything was far too raw, and then I put it off and off and off until I found myself in December approaching his first anniversary on the 29th with the knowledge these sites were only going to remain accessible until then.  Every time I thought of it I felt sick.  I was afraid, I guess, that reading pages and pages of loving messages about Rohan’s beautiful life and character would not only make me cry (that was a given) but undo me.  I knew he would be gentle enough to say “Jules, if you can’t look, don’t, it’s cool”… but I felt I owed it to him.  I didn't want to regret not doing it. 

But here’s the happy part of the story: I was having a conversation with a new friend about my need to put aside a few hours to do this thing, and out-of-the-blue he offered to come over and do it with me.  I was surprised.  I hadn’t thought to ask anyone – but in the moment he offered, I realised that was exactly what I wanted.  I did not want to go to that vulnerable place alone, I wanted to share it with someone caring, so I wouldn't feel such an acute sense of separation. 

And just like that he offered.  And just like that we set a date.  And just like that he came over on the 21st December and we drank wine, cooked dinner, and I introduced him, via the internet, to my wonderful brother.  And the strangest part: I cried before I had the site open, and a little after, but not at all while I was reading and sharing and remembering.  All I felt then was love and closeness, and the privilege of having such an incredible brother, who people the world over adored and admired.  It was revelatory.  I had reached a point in my grieving where I was going to be able to begin (however slowly) to reframe my feelings – taking more consciously from my brother’s life and example the things which could sustain me, which I could hang on to for strength and guidance.  The loss could begin in 2013 to be channelled as nourishment, as comfort that I had been extraordinarily lucky to have been so close to someone so special.  That won’t stop me desperately missing him of course, or wishing it could have been different, but with my friend’s support, generously holding my hand and speaking about my brother as if he was also present to him, some of the isolation and pain of that loss vanished.  It was such a warm act of kindness; like the friends who offered support in Rohan’s last months and who gathered for his funeral and memorial, fortifying us to face the ordeal.  It was something Rohan would have done.  And I felt him smiling. 

Fresh from this experience I went out the following day with another friend, who had invited me to see a film in The Old Vic Tunnels underneath Waterloo Station.  The film and the timing were so perfect for the continuation of my pre-Christmas tuning - tuning of the spiritual and mental variety - that I can’t help but suspect a little divine intervention.  It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart is a spectacular story, brilliantly written, conceived, acted and produced.  So to see it in such an atmospheric setting (the tunnels leaking like the old house in the movie) surrounded by Christmas trees, tinsel, candles, mulled-wine, and a hundred people sufficiently in the mood for nostalgia and sentiment that there was not a soul without a handkerchief, was a special experience.  When the lights came up we were all smiling with glistening eyes - the essence of the film’s message, simple but crucial to remember:   

à        Life is a gift.

à        Don’t be discouraged by material disappointments but remember what is really important.

à        You may never fully know the extent of the contribution you are making to the world, but at the end of the day you will be remembered and valued most by the way you touch, interact, help and care for people.

à        And no man or woman is a failure if he/she has friends.

Of course there’s also the message that God and your Guardian Angel are watching and caring… that there is reward and comfort for those with integrity and a good heart… but Hollywood navigates this aspect gently such that It’s a Wonderful Life can be enjoyed by people of any spiritual persuasion.

My experience was that I came out feeling reaffirmed and inspired.  I had a sense of being rich in friendship, rich in connections which are meaningful, rich in experience and opportunity, and, if I allow myself the time to focus and reflect, rich in Faith.  I was less worried about things which haven’t yet added up.

I feel sure my brother, Rohan, had a wonderful life. 

I feel renewed confidence in the belief that it’s a wonderful life when we love and give honestly of ourselves, conducting our lives in the way which is uniquely authentic and true for us, honouring our personal integrity.

So when Christmas arrived I went to carol services, where I variously sang, played piano and trumpet, I went to Mass, had the company and care of a couple of old friends (and their friends/family), ate to excess, and went to the Sisters in Ladbroke Grove to feed the homeless, only to see reflected in their eyes a longing for connectedness which contrasted with my Blessings.

It was then I remembered what my girlfriend had so lovingly said to me after It’s a Wonderful Life, as we sat beneath old London town mulling over the meaning of life : “Julie, be content… be content with who you are and where you are … whatever else is going on… whatever else hasn’t come together yet… for your true friends love you just as you are… and none of us will love you one jot more or less whatever you do or don’t do, achieve or don’t achieve…”.

Now that’s a Guardian Angel.  That’s the love of God.  That’s the warmth of real love and friendship.

It’s what got me through 2011 and 2012.  And it’s how all of us navigate from the day-to-day to the years which make up a wonderful life.

Merry Christmas and a very happy and peaceful 2013.




Saturday 22 December 2012


We each have areas in which we like to indulge.  For some it’s food or wine.  I do that too.  Clearly though my key indulgence, as a profession and hobby, is the arts.  I am a self-confessed culture vulture.   

A case in point: a few mornings ago I was in bed catching up on Twitter while putting off going out for a jog, when an old friend, Henry, called to say he had a dress rehearsal ticket waiting for me at the Royal Opera House box office.  I jumped up, showered, caught the train and was running across Covent Garden within the hour.  The piazza looked wonderful decorated with trees, lights and baubles, and I had to fight the urge to stop and wander as the curtain would soon be going up. 

I landed in the seat next to Henry and Penny just as the conductor demanded hush and attention with the lift of his baton.  Surrounded by lush gold and red velvet, voices and publicity cameras silenced, the feeling came over me – the anticipation, the readiness to sink into another world, to indulge imagination and senses.  That delightful precipice lasts but a moment, a levitative pause like no other, but once addicted you’ll hunger for that feeling of artistic expectation forever.  And of course the ROH has a world-class orchestra and one of the more rich and beautiful auditoriums in Europe, so the effect as you anticipate the overture, and then watch the curtain folding and unfolding on a secret scene, is dazzling.

I didn’t care less what the ballet was going to be – are you kidding, the ticket was free and it was the ROH – I was simply lucky it was a Triple Bill starting with The Firebird.  I’d seen the Bolshoi present Stravinsky’s famous work before, but was excited to see this popular London production revived as many years ago I studied the orchestral score.  The overture starts with a sparse pianissimo, ever so gradually growing in depth and volume; the wooded warmth in featured oboe phrases deliciously suited to the forest setting about to reveal itself. 
As Mara Galeazzi, in the role of the Firebird, flutters unpredictably from wing to wing, nervous about the hunter’s attentions, the sharp-edged, occasionally angular manoeuvres in her dance, echo the provocative strides made by the composer with respect to a modern harmony.  When the strings give up their bows to pluck a number of rhythmic passages, accented dramatically with brass and percussion, Stravinsky’s gift to a new age of choreographers is palpably evident.  Then as the episodes evolve, something particular about Stravinsky strikes me: his melodic and harmonic shapes are edgy and innovative, pulsing with life because it isn’t clear how he is going to navigate from one chord or passage to another… and there on the stage the choreographer, Mikhail Fokine, seems to have intuitively understood and captured this dynamic exploration of shape.  I am so impressed with the aesthetically appealing angles of the forest creature tableaus, particularly when commanded by the Firebird to pay homage to Tsarevna (the enchanted princess) and Tsarevich (the peasant hunter soon to be made king), that I am almost sad when they move. 

Repeatedly Mikhail Fokine, with help from Christopher Carr (and original staging by Sergey Grigoriev and Lubov Tchernicheva), create original and innovative shapes and sequences.  To me this seems like a physical embodiment of the development of classically-proportioned triads into a bold and more chromatic twentieth century harmony, and I find it wholly satisfying.

The second and third acts in this Triple Bill are very different to the Stravinsky, but each with its own charm.  If you’re a traditional lover of dance, or would like to experience dramatic expressions of love and romance in physical and musical form, then In The Night set to glorious nocturnes by Chopin, recreated and restaged by Jennifer Tipton and Christine Redpath to original choreography by Jerome Robbins, is one of the most delightful twenty-two minutes you could spend in a theatre. It’s a shame to single anyone out when all three couples were tremendous, but Alina Cojocaru (from Romania) and Johan Kobborg (from Denmark) are so perfectly paired and delectable you could take a bite out of them. 

Then the consummate duo of Zenaida Yanowsky (from Spain) and Nehemiah Kish (from the USA) return in the third act for Raymonda which completely lacks a narrative but is an indulgence of design and costume and a romp from the opening pageant to the last musical and balletic variation; especially showing off to advantage a strapping Japanese dancer, Ryoichi Hirano, in pas de deux with Christina Arestis. 

Upon reflection, this is the kind of Triple Bill which someone who doesn’t usually spend their discretionary dollar on ballet should be convinced to taste.  Not only are the acts bite-sized but you also have the fabulous Royal Opera House champagne bar to lounge around in during the two generous intervals, with windows that rise to the sky with the same optimism and grandeur of the theatre curtain.

If you think my day of indulgence ended there, it didn’t.  I adjourned with Henry to a toasty bar beneath Covent Garden for hot chocolate.  After he left I wrote and posted some Christmas cards, then headed toward the Strand where I happened upon a charming café called Il Tempo serving traditional Italian aperitivo.  Sitting at the little bar (a quiet haven compared to pubs at this time of year) I met two chaps who’d been indulging their own passions at a pop-up restaurant temporarily housed on the top of the Royal Festival Hall.  Sponsored by Electrolux presenting Michelin Star Chefs such as Daniel Clifford, this glass kitchen, with eighteen seats and stunning views over London, has proven so popular with executives and foodies they’ve left it operating far longer than expected.  Over a glass of Italian red, which these nice gentlemen purchased for me, I got a detailed explanation of The Cube’s rich tasting menu - course after indulgent course for Andy and Jon the equivalent of the variations and acts I’d been enjoying at the ballet.   

My day of indulgence wasn’t yet over.  For I then rushed down the street smelling of truffle and garlic salami, under the arches to the Charing Cross Theatre, better-known as the Players, to see the OperaUpClose production of La Bohème directed by Robin Norton-Hale.  Dan was looking at his watch as I rushed in the door with the foyer bell ringing.  He’s an investor in the production and, as it happens, we first met in the bar at the Kings Head during the Carmen season.  We’ve seen many shows around London in recent months, separately and together, and it’s great to have a play-mate who loves the theatre as much as I do.  I was pleased to see this production of La Bohème again, this evening with a different cast, and enjoy the purity of tone of Susan Jiwey’s Mimi and the erratic passion of Phillip Lee’s Rodolfo.  It isn’t easy to sing opera in English – far too many consonants – but the translation brings out much of the libretto’s tension and humour, and the intimate experience of young, talented singers, bringing characters to life with realism rather than reverence, is a refreshing compliment to traditional interpretations of much-loved scores.    

As I walked home that evening, there were drunks and Christmas party revellers everywhere.  Yet in my head there was only space for the tones of my own dear father’s voice, walking around our family lounge-room singing Che Gelida Manina with exceeding warmth and tenderness.  I suppose when you’ve grown up with splendid renditions of Your Tiny Hand is Frozen as part of your daily routine, are taken to the Opera House and encouraged to study drama and music, it was highly likely I’d become an indulgent consumer and practitioner of the arts.     

And that’s an indulgence definitely worth passing on…


Wednesday 19 December 2012

Rock Around The Clock

Bill Hayley and the Comets had an upbeat view of life.

One, Two, Three o'clock, Four o'clock rock,
Five, Six, Seven o'clock, Eight o'clock rock.
Nine, Ten, Eleven o'clock, Twelve o'clock rock,
We're gonna rock around the clock tonight...
I’ve been trying to emulate them.  I hired a trumpet on the weekend to prepare for an audition.  Having not picked up a trumpet for the best part of ten years, it was the first tune which came to me.  I seem to remember learning Rock Around the Clock at boarding school to annoy my teacher, who thought I should pay more attention to the Hadyn Trumpet Concerto I was soon to perform for the Music Examinations Board.  Despite the disadvantage of not being able to sing at the same time (or, for that matter, talk) I did like the instrument.  But the teacher had greasy hair and the salacious way he licked the mouthpiece was too gross for a fifteen year old girl who may have had promise as an orchestral soloist but who frankly was more interested in boys (without greasy hair) and scoring the lead in the school play.

Nevertheless those years of study provided a good grounding in an instrument which complimented my love of the piano.  It also helped me get the part of Miranda in the Australian production of Return to the Forbidden Planet; one of the first musicals where the actors were also the band.  Anyway last Friday I took the hired trumpet home and did my best to revive my lip.  Apologising to my lovely neighbours in advance, Jim asked “did you get a mute?”.   “No” I replied, “it cost me fifty-five quid as it was, so I’ll get a mute if I score the part and have to keep practising”.  “Oh right” he sighed in a sweet Scottish brogue, “well, if it gets too much I’ll buy you a mute”.  Can’t argue with that.  

I thought it a good sign when no parcel appeared on the doorstep – though perhaps their little children helped mask the noise – and the audition went well.  I rocked around the clock and enjoyed myself despite badly splitting a top F in the middle of a lyrical Beatle’s phrase.  Doh!  That’s the lack of fitness in my embouchure… about which the panel were kind, saying my tone was good.  I was in strong voice too, a little Cilla Black appropriate to the genre of the production, so I left the room feeling I’d done my part of the job and it was up to them to decide if I matched whoever else they might be thinking of casting.  That’s always the thing of course when balancing an ensemble cast, and in this case covering all the instruments as well as the characters.

I was on a bit of a high and had some time to fill, so arrived at Shepherds Bush and headed to the food court.  Over a tasty Indian snack and a glass of wine I chatted with a nice guy on a late lunch break from the BBC – a Neighbours fan as it happened – then went in search of an Italian coffee.  By the time my date arrived I’d been treated to a complimentary lemoncello and had my hand on top of the glass to stop the friendly waiter from giving me another.  It’s all very well to rock around the clock but it was only 5pm and I didn’t want to miss a nuance of the Bond film I’d been hanging out to see.  

Skyfall.  Wow.  What a terrific movie - all the suspense, stunts, glamour and indulgence of all the James Bond films, with added depth of characterisation, relationships and plot.  Victor and I loved it, and adjourned to a bar outside Westfields to curl up on a comfy sofa, drink red wine, and analyse all the features we most admired. I was sad about the ending (which I won’t give away) but it was beautifully handled and must have made the actors and director (Sam Mendes) very satisfied.  The end of an iconic era, and moments later, brilliantly edited, the launch of a new one.  Don’t you just love it when you sense $ signs ringing at the same time as artistic integrity?  I’m dead jealous of those actors.  Who isn’t?!

A few hours later our conversation turned from frivolous matters to the bereavements we had each experienced in the previous year.  We bonded; our talk interspersed with hugs.  Then I went upstairs to the bathroom, and upon my return found Victor talking to a northern Irish lady called Rosie.  She’d been sitting opposite in an arm chair, writing in a journal and enjoying a couple of pints.  Unable to avoid hearing some of our conversation she felt compelled to join, and we learnt that in a similar period of time she had lost her twenty year old son and her husband.  Her son had drowned trying to save someone else’s life while on holiday in South America; and cancer had taken her husband in six vicious months.  I have intimate experience of the destruction of cancer, but the former hinted at a pain so horrendous it could only be made worse by learning this young man had also left behind a devoted twin brother.  Within minutes of this story we were all crying.  And soon after laughing, telling stories and drinking more red wine.  Where would the world be without the Irish?  Where would Australia or the United Kingdom be?  I’m proud of my Irish heritage and adore every crazy, passionate, expressive drop of the spirit which is quintessentially Irish and admirably warm and resilient.  Need I say, the craic that evening was grand.  We rocked around the clock until the last bus.

The next morning I had to shake off my sluggishness to spend a few hours baby-sitting Kate and Mike’s two and half year old daughter, Scarlett.  She was delightful after getting over an initial shy spell, a precious bundle of curiosity and assertive opinion; advanced for her age because of her older brother and sister, sensible parents and natural intelligence.  It took me three hours to woo her to sing, after which she only complied when I carried a high stool up stairs to the landing where she fashioned a make-shift stage – me sitting below to clap or sing as instructed.  Two year old Scarlett going on twelve is a case in point for the discussion about a broadly defined and imaginative UK Baccalaureate.  For seriously, how could you establish standards which would crush intuitive imagination?  Or as James Bond said to Q in the National Gallery (I paraphrase): age is not a determinate of skill or competence, nor youth a guarantee of innovation. 

That evening, sitting in a pub in the West End, happily enjoying a pre-show meal with a family friend from Australia, Marilyn said to me: “Julie it was a watershed moment in my life when you told me that my sons were not interested in learning to play the piano, that what they wanted to do was play rugby”.  And apparently I went on to say “it’s you who are interested in the piano, Marilyn, so why don’t you learn?”  I remember her lessons clearly, a baby girl rocking in a basinet beside the grand piano, and I remember how proud we all were when Marilyn faced her first exam and came out with Honours.  What I hadn’t appreciated was how important it had been for her to do something unexpected, to try and succeed at something she loved, despite it having no other logic or long-term rationale.  And the fact that she thinks so fondly of this experience still, that it deepened her confidence and character, confirms again that a creative education doesn’t mean everyone is going to be a professional artist but that, if encouraged to express what is uniquely true to themselves, they have a better chance of contributing positively to society, whatever the scale. 

Then after this touching moment we headed off to Haymarket to see the National Theatre’s One Man Two Guvnors.  Talk about laugh!  We were six women in total, cackling and spluttering in the front row of the Upper Circle, with Marilyn and I laughing especially loudly every time the immensely talented and inventive cast made wise-cracks about the tragedy of having to immigrate to Australia where they’d be forced forever to enjoy “beer, BBQs and opera”.  I’m a big fan of Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, but Richard Bean’s play based on the same premise is equally clever.  Nicholas Hytner’s production set in 1963 in Brighton is hysterical; Owain Arthur, Tom Edden, Daniel Ings, Ben Mansfield and Jodie Prenger particular favourites in a musical and theatrical ensemble of real excellence.  The energy coming off the stage from every performer was electric, leaving even someone accustomed to an eight show week wondering how they’d recharge sufficiently between a matinee and evening performance.  Hytner clearly works well with his fight director, physical comedy director, choreographers and designers as each element hits a special note, tying together into the most wonderfully chaotic harmony.

So if you want to get rocking around the clock this winter, get yourself to One Man Two Guvnors in London or on tour, or to the Southbank to see The Magistrate which is sure to follow in its footsteps. 

And that’s the thing about London: you can’t go and lie on a sunny, sandy beach… but there’s a pulse, a beat, in which you can endlessly indulge your creativity…

We're gonna rock around the clock tonight,
We're gonna rock, rock, rock, 'till broad daylight,
We're gonna rock around the clock tonight.

Thursday 13 December 2012

A mix of goodies

A single theme eludes me today.  So this blog is a mix of goodies.

I’ve recently been to Newcastle and was very impressed with the friendliness of northerners.  Getting off the train someone carried my bag.  Within ten minutes of arriving in the theatre someone bought me a pint.  An hour later I’d been propositioned; which of course I politely declined but it’s nice to be wanted.  And then I saw The Borrowers – Erica Whyman’s last production before leaving the helm of Northern Stage to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company. 

I’d gone up from London on the train, and the warm buzz of the foyer followed by Erica’s staging of the classic children’s tale (written by Mary Norton and adapted by Charles Way) was well worth the trip.  For starters the cast were good actors who could sing – an important emphasis when you want solid dramatic performances.  The musicians were also actors, so they glided on and off stage with tuned theatrical timing. 

The music and lyrics by San Kenyon were a delightful mix of originality and cheeky ‘borrowings’, creating a comforting familiarity without losing spice or freshness.  The trickling of violin solos throughout was clever too.  It allowed mobile musicians to act as wordless narrators, ‘turning the page’ from one vignette to another with a touch of fairy-dust.  And this sprightly nuance of melody, sensitively delivered, added a child-like anticipation to the atmosphere as one might expect from Ariel or Puck.

Given my admiration for this creative use of music, I was pleased to discover one of the performers was none other than Elisa Boyd – Arthur Boyd’s grand-daughter, the great twentieth-century Australian artist.  I’m a huge fan of Boyd’s impressionistic and expressionistic work, and my house in Kiama on the south coast of NSW is not far from Bundanon; the artist’s residence given to the Australian Nation by Arthur and Yvonne Boyd in 1993.  Given Elisa’s genetic pedigree – gifts extending to aunts, uncles, parents, siblings and no doubt cousins – I was not surprised to find her talent for acting as strong as her musicianship; her social skills and personality delightful.

I also loved the design by Andrew Stephenson.  It framed the wide proscenium exceptionally well, layers of images unfolding toward the action like the pages of a pop-up story-book.  When richly lit by Charles Balfour, the endless colours on wide horizons and oversized objects (to contrast with the little people known as ‘borrowers’) made you feel anything was possible.  Of course it was Erica’s imaginative and tight direction - with help from her assistant Rachel Oliver - which brought all these attractive elements together: a fitting swan song from someone who has taken Northern Stage from strength to strength.

In the foyer afterwards, as person after person chatted freely, without any of London’s status-conscious or reserve, it hit me.  It felt like Australia – the northern laugh, down-to-earth manner and direct way of talking, wonderfully robust and familiar.

The icing on the cake was an extremely enjoyable detour to visit a special friend, returning back to London just in time to see the final dress rehearsal of the much-loved Wind in the Willows in the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House.  Directed and choreographed by Will Tuckett, to a score by Martin Ward after inspiration from George Butterworth, it would be hard to say which was most engaging: the inimitable, timeless characters; the dancing; the music; the puppetry; or the evocative design.  I was very happy to see a friend, Anthony McGill, in the role of narrator, and as the production has been restaged many times audiences must agree dance is an effective way to express the camaraderie and mischief of Kenneth Grahame’s pastoral romp.  It certainly seemed to speak straight to the hearts of the children present, their lively imaginations freeing them of the need for discursive rationality.

A day later I was gutted to hear my friend was struck down with a bad cold followed by laryngitis.  It’s dreadfully frustrating for a performer to lose his instrument, let alone before opening night – like a tennis player breaking his wrist before Wimbledon.  It reminded me of the experience of losing my voice right before they made the Australian Cast Recording of Return to the Forbidden Planet.  To this day I cringe at the memory of it; for the recording sounds more like Kermit the Frog than Janis Joplin and absolutely nothing like myself.   Ah, the ups and downs of showbiz. 

Feeling flat the next couple of days – due, amongst other things, to coming down from the friendly northerners and missing Australia’s summer sunshine – I decided to embrace the season and do something quintessentially London: go ice-skating at Somerset House.  What a great venue it is: bucket-loads of style, atmosphere and good cheer.  My Olympics buddies stood at the rim cheering me on, as we hadn’t booked in advance so I was the only one to score entry (on a returned child’s ticket which the charming chap in the box-office decided I deserved).  And, happily, I managed not to fall over even once!  We then adjourned from the cold into the deliciously warm tent for mulled wine and ebullient chatter.  Many hours, bars, and red wines later, I fell asleep on the night bus from Trafalgar Square and had to walk fifteen minutes back toward Clapham Junction in the bitter cold. 

It was all good though because it was a night which could have only happened in the West End… reminding me why I am drawn to the city Samuel Johnson famously said should appeal to anyone who is not “tired of life”. 

So despite the struggles I have sometimes with London, while I work on getting my books published there is always another show and museum to see and another evening of high quality entertainment.  

And who knows, maybe the next bag of goodies will include a white Christmas…


Saturday 8 December 2012

Luck Be A Lady

Have you noticed that jobs, buses and lovers arrive all at once or none at all?

That’s not to say you take each… but that you have the opportunity to… that you feel flush with fortune, interest or attention… in contrast to the periods where, try as you might, you can’t even get arrested. 

Fortune or Luck is perverse in this sense - the timing of her arrival and departure as fickle as an Italian man who still lives at home with his mother.  I’m sure there are better similes but impressed on my memory is a comment the father of an ex-Italian boyfriend said to me when we were breaking up: Lui è molto volubile. Ha bisogno di sua Mamma. Si può fare meglio. 

Clearly by that point the father admired me more than the guy or his mother.  But anyway, molto volubile, very fickle, is the character of Lady Luck.  She’s hard to pin down.

And when you are waiting for the tides of fortune to change, the tension is a powerful mix of hope and need, desperation and optimism... like Sky Masterton sings in Guys ‘n Dolls, as he holds the craps in his hand waiting to roll...   
They call you Lady Luck.
But there is room for doubt
At times you have a very unladylike way of running out
You have this date with me
The pickings have been lush
And yet before this evening is over you might give me the brush
You might forget your manners
You might refuse to stay and
So the best that I can do is pray.

Luck be a lady tonight
Luck be a lady tonight
Luck if you've ever been a lady to begin with
Luck be a lady tonight.

When things are personified as women it frequently means they are considered the best or most important of their kind: "Paris is the queen of cities"; "the queen of ocean liners".  So perhaps when our luck isn’t good we should invert it and say “luck is a man tonight”? 

Related to the phenomena of luck, is timing.  For sometimes it’s the timing of events which make them good or bad, lucky or unlucky: like horses at the racetrack, balls rolling around a billiard table, traffic jams, bus connections, invitations, meetings, offers, proposals… they can all be helped or hurt by timing and, therefore, luck.  No wonder for so many thousands of years people have blamed or thanked the Gods for unexplainable outcomes, because it’s the seeming lack of control which unnerves and excites us.

On the other hand, when things are going well and those buses, jobs, opportunities and (potential) lovers all start lining up, it’s hard to complain...

I’m feeling like that just now.  I have the distinct impression that after months of Luck being a Man, lately in several areas of my life, my goals and hopes are advancing, my Luck is becoming a Lady again.  It’s too early to say exactly how, so I’ll save it perhaps for another blog, but years in showbiz has taught me that when the phone doesn’t ring there is not a damn thing you can do about it, but when it starts ringing again you better be ready for it.  So I am.  I’m on it.  Out and about with leads and connections starting to flourish.  I’m not ‘in the pocket’ yet, as some say when musicians jam and everything locks together perfectly, but I’m back on the table and the bets are on.

Funnily enough that reminds me of a silly anecdote.  It seems with me there really is “always a story”...   

Several years ago I was alone in Mt Cook, a remote town at the top of Queensland – with a harbour into which Captain Cook famously limped, when his ship, the Endeavour, tore her hull to shreds on the great coral reef.  I’d struck up a rapport with a sexy stranger called Matt (as you do) and in pretty much the only pub in this isolated outback town, the Mt Cook Hotel, we were playing pool together. 

I had been playing badly and was running out of excuses, when I remembered the advice of my good friend, Felice.  On occasions when he was beating me at tennis or bowling, or pretty much anything except long-distance running, he would give me the kind of encouragement which makes sense to a performer: “Julie, just act like a tennis player… believe you are good at it”.  And sure enough my serves started to go over the net and into the right square. 

Well, leaning over the billiard table, cue in hand, big strong handsome man watching, I adopted Felice’s attitude and acted like a pool pro.  I imagined I was playing in a serious tournament and knew what I was doing.  I suspended my disbelief, as actors are trained to do, and voila… that night in Mt Cook I sunk THREE BALLS in a row.  The only time in my life, I might add, that I’ve done it! 

Matt was almost as delighted as I was.  He came around the table with a huge smile on his face, just the right amount of sweat glistening on his incredibly appealing upper arms and shoulders, shown off to maximum advantage in the typical northern garb of a Bonds singlet, and he grabbed me in a hug so huge it lifted me off the ground.  My head was light.  I felt a million dollars.  And when he put me down, this time he kept his arm around me. 

Mmmm, a very nice memory when Luck was a Lady… with a little bit of help from her subject who needs to respond when the call comes.  And we didn’t just have those days together in Mt Cook and Port Douglas (my favourite spot in north Queensland), my very own Hugh-Jackman-look-alike even took me to lunch when he passed through Sydney some months later.    

My only regret was that my brothers and sister, Rebecca, who is an excellent pool player, weren’t there to witness it.  They’d put my THREE BALLS story down to dehydration or heat mirage.  And yeah, it really was hot up there in Mt Cook… ooh, very hot… but I guess it was one of those moments you just had to be there for!

So Ms Luck, can you hang around a while please in London?  ‘Cause when you’re a real Lady, Luck flows in multiple directions. 


Tuesday 4 December 2012


Christopher Nolan made a movie called Memento. Guy Pearce starred, playing a bloke who wrote messages on his body as he couldn’t remember things.  It was a difficult narrative to follow, but I liked the pretext and the film’s ideas have stayed with me.

In my last blog I talked about memories and the way they scramble or reboot over time.  Perhaps that’s why we like mementoes.  It brings memories closer.

Around me now in my new apartment are a scattering of collected mementoes: sunflower cushions; an olive-themed tablecloth which I bought after seeing my friend Rachel’s in Volterra; and a straw hat from Firenze.  It’s hanging on a hook on the wall, as if to say ‘wherever I hang my hat is home’.  Yet in my case it isn’t a cliché.  It really is the way I’ve lived my life.  In Melbourne I had a black fedora.  In London in the 90s a slouched cap (like Eponine wears in Les Misérable).  In Tuscany a turquoise hat a dear friend gave me, which was large, bright and attracted attention and introductions.

Sadly I’m not so keen on the straw hat anymore, as the man I was with when I bought it turned out to be cruel and reckless with my heart.  But in time those scars will heal, please God, and I’ll still have the hat… and memories of my favourite restaurant in San Lorenzo where a colourful character called Antonio always used to get me up on a chair to sing for my supper.  

If you think I’m joking, I’m not.  I had two restaurants in Tuscany where I could get a free meal or free drinks if I pulled out a few tunes, that one in Florence and another in the middle of Chianti.   And whenever I dropped in I received the kind of warm welcome you get in a sitcom like Cheers… making me feel less like a visitor in a foreign country.

Also around me now in my apartment in Clapham Junction are two paintings from St Paul de Vence in the south of France.  I picked them up in a charming gallery while travelling with my mate Fiona; aka Little Fiona or Fifi, as I have two important friends called Fiona so need to differentiate.  (I also have two great friends called Jacqui but that’s another story.)

The mementoes on the bookshelf include a pair of beautiful wine glasses from David and Linda, a gift after they stayed with me in Tuscany.  I love to drink from them because a) they’re a cheerful blue, b) they feel exquisite, and c) they remind me of my escape from the Smelly Cat in the blog Sensory Terrorism.  Even now I’m grinning to remember David was on my side re wanting to kick the cat, whereas Linda, sweet soul that she is, found sufficient empathy to stroke its manky fur.   Also often around my neck is the green Murano glass necklace they brought back after a weekend in Venice, and it never fails to make me smile or think fondly of them. 

What else can I see?  There are pictures of my lovely friends Sue and Virginia who do not think or look AT ALL like women of their age (go girls!) and who never fail to inspire me with their wisdom and kindness.  There are bottles of perfume from my generous friends, Jane and Emma, a ceramic jug from my sailing holiday in Greece, and the children’s books I published in a series created by my confidant and Neighbous co-star, Felice Arena.  There is a baby-suit hanging on the back of a chair, waiting to be wrapped for little Max who has come into the world after his parents struggled for years and years with IVF.  God love him.  Not far away there’s a photo of another miracle baby, Kiki, my smiling God-daughter and precious child of the friend known in Italy as ‘the other Fiona’… and on the laptop a recently posted clip of Charlotte making googly-singing-noises with her grandma, Mazza.  Grant and Hayley know I’m missing their little daughter, not to mention them, while they’re off in New Zealand and not around the corner as I’m accustomed to finding them… so I’m loving You Tube this morning, a great place for mementoes.

While on the kid theme, beside my bed is a blue plastic Smurf holding up a red heart.  He has wings on his back and an enthusiastic little expression, and I love him to bits because he brings my niece Frankie and nephew Harry right into the room with me.  We have a whole Smurf Obsession Thing going on, a Penguin Thing too, which has brought hours of joy and innocent playfulness between us.  I miss them terribly but I like to picture them leaning over my Smurf Collection and moving the characters around.  I unearthed the collection last year (soft toys, plastic figures, houses, the lot!) when the new film came out, having stored them in a box since childhood.  Oh, ok Rebecca, that’s my sister, I wasn’t exactly a child when I collected them… and yes, I am a big dag… but they did come back into fashion and now I’ve got the originals which if I didn’t love so much I could sell on e-bay for lots of money.

The Smurf theme continues actually, in pictures on the walls which the kids did the day before I left Australia.  Harry did a picture of himself with a long-bearded Pappa Smurf.  Oscar drew a remarkably good tree with a message that is too grown-up for his years: “we hope you have a great time in London and we hope to see you soon”.  Molly and Frankie drew themselves with me as Princesses in pretty dresses. Molly has her arms spread wide with a thought bubble saying “I love you THIS MUCH”, and Oscar added a big castle until the temptation to join Darcy and Angus in the garden for rugby got too much. I treasure these pictures, and the special cards they have given me, and not a day goes by where I don’t feel my nieces and nephews close to my heart. 

Moving right along before I get too nostalgic... the Smurf is not the only plastic memento in my house.  I also have two plastic figures I picked up in Rome in 2009.  They sit to the right of my desk, one bright blue, the other fluorescent pink.  Wrapped around each other in an embrace, they are made from bendy rubber material, typical of the old Flatsy Dolls.  Funnily enough that comparison only came to me because my brothers used to use the song from the tv commercial to tease me I was flat-chested.  Happily they were proved wrong, but the catchy tune has never left me.   Anyway late one evening I was browsing in a trendy shop just off Rome’s gorgeous Piazza Navona (as you do), waiting for a date who was late knocking off work, and the figures simply made me smile.  They reminded me of the twins, Molly and Oscar, inseparable as they were at that age.  Then over time they came to represent my imaginary audience, the people to whom I was talking when I wrote.  And I found I could endow them with character, as I played around with ideas, testing out whether or not my stories were hitting their mark.  At any rate they were always smiling, agreeably reflecting back at me whatever I wanted to hear.  So I’ve kept them.  And for whatever reason they encourage me to get past the blank page and to write…  

I have mementoes with me too of Australian beaches – shells collected from my beloved Kiama, and others from Pearl Beach where I’ve oft stayed in the stunning home of pals, Nick and ‘the other Fiona’; or ‘Big Fiona’ because she’s tall.  These shells have travelled to London via Tuscany and no doubt they’ll move with me again, like the tide.  Every so often I hold them and stroke their smooth surface, their familiarity soothing. 

Also beside my bed is the cylindrical container of opals given to me by my dear friend Adam.   It was such a thoughtful gift, quintessentially Australian, and, if I’ve been moved to think tenderly of him every time I’ve picked them up since 2008, they are even more special now, since Adam’s unexpected and sad passing. 

Many Australians were alienated from the opal in the 70s and 80s when the fashion in jewelry led to chunky, garish settings.  Yet they are incredible stones, which especially glisten when wet.  Peeking at me now from within chalky, unpolished edges are hues of turquoise, green, midnight blue, lilac, olive, lemon, acqua-marine and purple…as changeable as the colours of the Australian ocean and landscape.  I love them.  And they act like a metaphysical hug from Adam, and from the people and things I value about Australia. 

As we approach Christmas… and the first anniversary of my brother’s death, which I still seem so far from being able to process or accept… I suppose mementoes get inevitably more sentimental.  Yet at any time of year we are rather like turtles, who, John le Carré famously said, carry their houses on their backs… for our houses are our memories… the only thing we carry with us to the end. 

So perhaps dear Molly’s present to me the Christmas before last has its own wisdom… the last Christmas, as it turned out, that my siblings would all be together… a tiny porcelain statue of a turtle… which she gave to me with a big smile and her usual warm embrace… carrying with it all the love we shared and the memories we hold dear. 

Now that’s a nice memento.   



Friday 23 November 2012

Time is a strange thing

A couple of weeks ago I lost a dear friend, Adam, to lung cancer. 
His illness and death were quick, and as we were separated by oceans during his last weeks I am struggling to believe it’s real.  Then today another good friend sent me a photo of our gang, together less than a year ago in a country pub on the south coast of NSW.  Looking at the photo of Dave, Linda, Adam, Jenny and I – actors I trained with at drama school and who mean the world to me – I am transported back in time to see Adam on stage performing… Adam young and virile… Adam full of warmth and energy… Adam playing the guitar… Adam doing the salsa with a hip-swivel most white guys don’t possess… Adam on the rocks with his fishing-rod… Adam jumping out of a plane and running across the field toward his friends and family with a smile of achievement and exhilaration on his face… and for a moment he is so vivid and close I am back there… not with the loss but with him. 

Thoughts about time recall a passage I’d like to share from my (as yet unpublished) manuscript Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues 



Time is a strange thing; memories too.  Only weeks ago I was kissed in the Milano moonlight by a rugged Swede.  A little over twenty years ago I walked the streets of Florence.  As I return to Firenze, as the Italians more correctly call it, both scenes are now vivid; a million things forgotten in between.

How can it be that our mental library rewinds so accurately at times, opening the image file without hesitation, even if we’d rather it didn’t?  Yet on other occasions we can’t find where we stored details of something we thought we’d never forget?  Random I suppose.

Today excitement seems to have shaken the memory loose, like a rapid reboot after a file lay previously frozen.  Perhaps the file is corrupted, only partly saved, but what has been salvaged is now there in front of me, demanding attention.

Of Firenze twenty years ago I don’t recall who I met… but crystal clear is the excitement of actually being there, of walking across Ponte Vecchio, of taking a bus to an out-of-town hostel and, most startling, the picture of myself as a spirited, young woman.  How can so much time have passed, yet I feel so little changed?  How can I be hardly more grown up yet so much older?  That is time’s mystery and magic. 

In this moment I move toward Firenze with the same hope and excitement of bygone years.  It’s taken me only forty minutes to arrive by car from my house in the olive grove, with air-conditioning and CD blaring Puccini.  My clothes are cleaner and there’s no back-pack, but I feel much like the same girl. 

I ditch the car at Porta Romana, to avoid what I’ve been warned are extreme fines for driving into the no-traffic zone, and walk along the old city wall to Piazza T. Tasso.  After turning right up Via del Campuccio, in a few hundred meters I get the feeling I should turn left.  The first voices I hear are American and they confirm my suspicions that where I want to go is off to the right of Via dei Serragli upon which I’m now strolling.  These back streets are quiet not only because locals are away on holidays but because I’ve arrived, intentionally, during siesta.  My inner tempo increases with anticipation and then suddenly I’m there – at the River Arno. 

Moving quickly towards Ponte Santa Trinita I lean over the side and look up stream to the one and only Ponte Vecchio.  The famous bridge -  designed in 1345 by either Giotto’s pupil, Taddeo Gaddi, or, as more recently believed, by Neri di Fioravante -  is exactly as I recall.  Yet until that second I could not have properly described it.  It’s as if a fog in my brain is slowly lifting, recognition fighting the cobwebs of clutter to rejoin the dots of experience past.  I can do nothing but stare.  Caught in a time-warp even taking a photo seems glib.  I then surprise myself by being consumed by two competing sensations: one a sense of privilege that I’ve returned, when so many have not had the pleasure; the other, a little sour grapes that it’s taken me so long.  I laugh at my greed.  And also my hording instincts, for after all this time I still posses a musty old Firenze map with highlights circled; so sure was I then, that I’d be back much sooner. 

Eventually I do take photos of course.  Then I approach Ponte Vecchio from the northern side.  Pretty jewelry displays fill every shop window.  Was it so twenty years ago?  I don’t remember.  I soon learn that indeed it was: for the butchers, tanners and blacksmiths who operated from the bridge originally, were thrown out by Duke Ferdinando I in 1593 for creating too much noise and stench.  Back and forward along Ponte Vecchio I wander, luxuriating in the fact that there’s no hurry.  Nor does it matter that it’s Monday and museums are shut, as I plan to visit Firenze over and over again.  I feel rich with opportunity, and my Tuscan hat provokes conversation. 

Next I wander along the Archibusieri, the corridor adjacent to the river, until I find myself looking straight under the arches of the infamous Uffizi Gallery.  I smirk to see I had scribbled the names of favourite paintings on the back of my precious map.  And I wonder if my experience of them now will be as satisfying?  I walk in circles around Piazza della Signoria still reveling in the lack of need to rush.  A talented guitarist adds to the atmosphere, playing classical augmentations of well-known pop songs.  Friends laugh at my fondness for John Denver - cemented after going to a live concert not long after my father died and finding him of immense comfort.  What would they think of hearing Annie’s Song in the middle of Firenze?  I can see Brunelleschi’s Dome poking up over buildings in the distance but decide to save the duomo’s delights for later.  Instead I walk toward Basilica di Santa Croce, stopping on the opposite side of the piazza to stare at the white stone façade glistening in the strong afternoon light.  Churches of this size really do need a large space in front of them, for one of the things that makes the Duomo in Milano and the Vatican in Rome so special is the life going on around them.  At any rate you can’t absorb the grandeur with one or two glances, so I plonk myself down in the shade happy to eat an apple and watch tour-groups bustle…

After hours of indulgent wandering in the vicinity of Piazza della Repubblica and Piazza San Marco, I finally make my way back across Ponte Vecchio toward my car.  On the south side of the river I drive around to Piazzale Michelangelo.  Sinking into splendid views over the city and river, Brunelleschi’s Dome sparkling in early evening sun, I am soon refreshed by the gradually-cooler air and the music provided by buskers, one strumming a Ukranian dulcimer. 

After driving back to my new home in the Tuscan olive grove, I then top off an invigorating day by preparing a salad with tomatoes, basil and peppers picked freshly from the garden near my cottage.  Combined with pane, olio e parmigiano reggiano this is about as good as it gets, and I walk up the hill to the pool with a bottle of Chianti under my arm and the scent of freshly-cut basilico in my nostrils.  The key to this country living, I’m fast realizing, is going to be to mix it up - alternating between bustling town and social experiences, with quiet time for reading, writing and swimming. 

A new wave of contentment washes over me. 
(Copyright: Julie Mullins)