Saturday 22 November 2014


Could the girl who has been variously nicknamed Bubbles and Typewriter suddenly be getting economical with words?


Still, it’s interesting my last two posts had one word titles.  It wasn’t planned.  Yet as it’s rather a good writing exercise to pick one word and weave a story around it, today I’m going to follow up Perky and Tempo, with Focus. 

The study of something’s opposite can be instructive.  For example, my diet and exercise regime has gone out the window since I completed my first half-marathon on the 5th October – in a rather good time if I do say so myself - at 1 hour, 47 minutes and 19 seconds.   At first I had recovery as an excuse, then a friend’s wedding, then extremely occupied delivering multiple events per day at work.  My free time vanished, the weather deteriorated, and I couldn’t find the energy to get out of bed at 6am.  This is all true, I have been tired and busy.  But the real issue is a lack of focus.

I haven’t been singing.  I miss it dreadfully.  But why?  Lack of time?  Yes.  But no, lack of focus.  This is a dreadful thing for a professional to admit, and it’s no excuse that I have several strings to my bow and currently am working on the other side of the footlights, because if you don’t use your instrument it seizes up.  So does your repertoire and employability.  Professionals don’t make excuses, they deliver.  So, frankly, until I get focus back to singing regularly, get back to coaching and practise, buy a piano to replace the keyboard which died (and the other one still in Italy), then I really can’t call myself a singer.  I need to set a goal, get a gig booked, and get back on track.

And Heavens - don’t look at my desk and briefcase, or mountain of unread personal emails and bills, for my home admin is currently a disaster.  This isn’t always the case.  It’s the side-effect of giving full priority to the contract I am working on – which is crazy busy and because I care about doing a good job in the timeframe I find myself – so I’ve let lots of other things slide.  My focus has been work.  So it’s no surprise that is where my more recent achievements have been made.

Because if life, at the base level, is simply time... then how we spend our time, how we focus our thoughts and activity, is closely aligned to how we spend our life.

And the remarkable thing, is that when we focus – on whatever or whoever – time expands to accommodate that reach like a photographer’s lens.

Such was the case with my half-marathon training in the first two months of my current contract.  Focus kept me disciplined, discipline made best use of my time.  I managed to jog and work.  I got fitter.  Work was easier.

There’s a parallel in something which happened this week. 

I enter writing competitions now and again, but once the application has gone in I usually forget about it.  However I returned home on Monday night, utterly exhausted after a rough day, and after a bowl of carrot and coriander soup I fell on the sofa like a dead weight.  Opening my laptop there was a mountain of stuff I really needed to deal with - not least, giving authority to my sister to attend a Tribunal in Australia on my behalf, because some selfish and irresponsible people rented then trashed my house and would rather not pay me any compensation.  

Then one email jumped out at me.  I was immediately focused.  I was being told I had won a little competition with the Wandsworth Guardian to attend a Writer’s Masterclass at the University of Roehampton.  This is the university on my London doorstep, and funnily enough the one I seriously looked into attending for a Masters in Renaissance and Romantic Literature some years ago.   

(Don’t ask me why I did a Masters of Commerce instead, as sometimes I don’t know the answer to that question... but such is life, and “way leads onto way”.)

The thing about this email was that the Masterclass was the very next afternoon – with the hugely successful children’s author, Jacqueline Wilson, who is also the recently appointed Chancellor of the University of Roehampton. 

But... I hadn’t been thinking as a children’s author since I put the first three books of a (potential) series ‘on the shelf’ where it’s been gathering dust since I finished a writing-holiday in Greece in August 2013.   Nor have I been flexing my creative muscles enough generally - even my blogs dropping off due to lack of ‘time’.  So to be able to seize this opportunity I was really going to have to focus!

First I had to find my children’s manuscripts on any number of hard drives.  Then I had to read them, shake up the grey matter on that side of the brain.  (Somewhere in there I slept.)  Then I had to get into the office, delegate tasks, clear my diary, work out how to get from Kings Cross to Roehampton by 3.30pm, make sure my boss was happy with this new development (which happily she was), and then turn up at the Masterclass ready to write, read and discuss topics that are a million miles away from delivering a live event, overseeing a theatre, or analysing bar and box-office takings.   

Did I do it?  Of course I did.  And it was wonderful.  Wonderful to meet the inimitable Jacqueline Wilson, to hear her stories and be led through some fun writing exercises; wonderful to be in a room with enthusiastic writers, wearing a creative hat.  Was there much in the Masterclass I didn’t know before.  No.  Not for me, because I’ve been putting myself through a disciplined writer’s apprenticeship since 2008 (in a variety of genres) so I am well on my way.  But when I had my little children’s books published in the GirlzRock series in 2005 and 2006 I knew one day I’d get back to the place I started.  So was this session useful?  Absolutely.  It was a privilege to be invited.  Jacqueline Wilson is a legend, about to publish her 100th children’s book.  The Masterclass was stimulating, a much needed personal ‘tune up’ and, above all, an opportunity to relax and focus.   

Moreover because of that focus I could refile a few little things in my head... seize upon an image, or collection of words, which Jacqueline used to describe something I hadn’t quite perceived that way... and this will broaden my palette and practice.

Most importantly it reminded me of my desire to finish this series; to do something with it.  And it gave me the kick I needed to believe again that I can do it, that my voice is alive and well even if it requires a little shake up. 

So, of course I had to write a blog this weekend.  Writers write.  Joggers jog. Singers sing. 

What are you going to do this week that is all about you and what you do?  

Because all you need is a little focus.    


And because I currently work at Central Saint Martins I must also mention:


Sunday 19 October 2014


If you’re a singer fronting a band you have to count them in.  You set the tempo for each number; pulling the musicians together to conduct the ebb and flow of the songs and the set.  It’s one of the most important things you do, because if you don’t capture the right tempo, the right mood and attack, your rehearsed interpretations will not hit their mark.

There are many parallels: the captain of a yacht plays with the angle of his boat to ride or resist the speed of the wind; dancers glide through a waltz, kick through a cha-cha, and sass through a tango but without the right tempo it won’t be convincing. 

Rhythm is just as present in sport: rugby and tennis players change tempo to throw their opponents off guard, and when they find the opening they’ve been looking for, they hammer a beat relentlessly to get the ball over the line. 

Lovers also mix up the tempo of play.  Well, I hope they do! 

As to the music, when the tempo is perfect and a band is really hooked into one-another... musicians borrow from billiards to say it was “in the pocket” – meaning not only that they brought the track home but that it was comfortable, the music flowed how and where it should have. 

So often in life the harmony of tempo and place is what we’re looking for.  Yet so often it’s just a wee bit off, like a distorted radio station – or worse – a singer or violin slightly out of tune.  When things are flowing at the tempo in which they are organically meant to be (and that is different for everyone in a million different circumstances) there is usually a greater sense of peace, of being at home, or perhaps being on holiday.  Indeed it’s in those sweet moments of good alignment that we may not even notice tempos changing around us because, whatever the speed, we’re flowing in a comfortable groove.

Yet alignment and perfect tempo setting is harder to achieve in our modern world than it used to be.  Life is so often fast whether or not it’s reasonable or desired. We text and expect an immediate response.  We email and presume it’s been read.  We rarely ponder over a ‘real letter’, sending thoughts that have been carefully considered and matured.  We tease and procrastinate about where we’re going and what we’re doing, often leaving social engagements until the last minute so as to keep our options open.  Yet I remember a time when you said “I’ll meet you at Piccadilly Circus at 7pm Saturday week...” and that’s where you went because you’d promised that you would.  You didn’t have a mobile phone to change arrangements. 

One could argue that the world now has ‘fast’ as a default, and that is no better or worse than an old world where perhaps it was too often stuck on ‘slow’.  Perhaps. 

But for many reasons it makes me wonder about our ability to know which ‘play’ is the right one for the moment.  When is a ‘fast play’ or a ‘fast decision’ advisable?  When is the ‘long play’ likely to reveal a better result?   And if our big-city, global-world tempos are stuck on ‘fast’, with sub-titles screaming “I want it now”, are we losing our ability as a society (or a workplace, a family, a group of friends) to even notice when we’re getting it wrong?

Thoughts about tempo have come to me after attending an exceptionally good wedding last weekend in a country hotel in Surrey.  A dear friend was marching up the aisle (or rather, waiting for his bride to do so) and as their engagement was short many of us were still a little surprised to find ourselves gathered for such an occasion. Their engagement, if you like, was a fox-trot... their wedding celebration, by contrast, a slow and luxuriating rumba.

We arrived at the hotel between 10 and 11am, and by 11.30 corks began to pop.  The ceremony started at 12 (ish) followed by a splendidly languid period of champagne and conversation, music and photographs, both inside a comfortable room and outside on the luscious green lawn of a converted stately manor.  There was no rush or bustle, tension or over-fussing, we all sank into the joy of the day, renewing friendships and quickly making new ones.  At 14.30 we meandered down a corridor to greet the bride and groom at the doorway to their beautifully decorated reception room.  People introduced themselves, friends of friends mingled, families smiled.  There wasn’t a hint of anything other than sanguine waltz and leisure. 

Then my inner tempo changed.  I met someone.  I met someone to whom I was inexplicably but immediately drawn.  And it was mutual.  Our inner sound track, whatever it had been before, switched to swing... hell, a quick-step... and that was before we got near the dance floor. 

Of course we were cooler than that in our outward appearance, in our polite conversation, but within minutes we were (secretly) delighted to find ourselves seated on adjacent tables.  Some days you just get lucky! 

But back to the wedding: the ‘breakfast’ and speeches were chirpy yet serene, packed with good stories, great food and wine, and without any sense ‘time was getting away’.  Only at 5.30pm did we take an interval of sorts, to return to our rooms to rest a little and get changed for the evening festivities.  At 6.30pm it all started again – tables and chairs had been pushed aside, a large dance floor uncovered, and a row of DJs sat in a line preparing to work their magic.  This room of guests were all lovers of jive – because the groom has run his own dance company for many years – and so it is gross understatement to say the “bridal waltz” was spectacular... for it was a jive/tango like no “first dance” I’ve ever seen (well, outside Strictly!).   We oohed and aahed, and caught their wonderful energy like a thrown gauntlet.  The dance floor filled.  The style continued, the DJs worked magic, and underpinning our mood was a sultry, passionate beat, a collective delight that our friends had found one-another and taken ‘the big step’, and a hunger to not let the night escape before we had sampled all the good things life has to offer.  Weddings will do that to you.  

Of course our celebration of life was massively helped by the fact that the wonderful hotel didn’t close the bar. They stopped the music at an agreed time, but they left us to party as long and as wildly as we liked.  It was brilliant hospitality.  And only when 80% had gone to bed did the final 20% make their way up to various hotel rooms to laugh and carry-on and no doubt annoy their neighbours.  There was one major party room you could write a play about.  But there were others too, many rooms, many couples, where the tangos and delicious rumbas went on through the wee hours of the morning... where giggles and delight clung to our tired bodies until the sun tipped over the horizon and we could twinkle our toes not a second longer.  The band, in the end, has to stop.

When we met again the following morning, there was a full set of sunglasses and far less conversation.  We nodded and grinned at each other, but were hardly able to speak until we’d topped up our reserves with a good English Breakfast.   Then we moved (rather gingerly it must be said) to another town, another country pub, and did our best to keep the celebration going. 

I wouldn’t have missed that weekend for the world.  It was a most memorable wedding - for which we can thank the bride and groom for their immaculate choreography, their superior sense of tone and tempo, style and comfort, and their uncanny ability to conduct festivities for their friends even as they retired to the Honeymoon Suite. 

Sweet indeed.  And much to muse upon.


Monday 21 July 2014



Have you thought much about that word?

I hadn’t until recently.  But I’ve decided I like it very much.  It’s a flexible and evocative word.

It sounds... well... perky.  Try it: perky.  Say it with a smile: perky.  Say it with a skip: perky  Imagine all the instances in which this sprightly and spirited word could be applied...

Personalities can be perky.  People and moods can be perky.  Responses to conversation can be perky.  Parts of the body can be perky.    

That’s how the word came to me recently, in a rather intimate and flattering context.  So of course that made me utterly predisposed to like it.  Still, I think my admiration for the word is well placed.  And as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I wouldn’t dream of arguing with the handsome man’s chosen application. I’ll enjoy the idea for what it is, just as I enjoyed his perky charm.

So now I’m back in London after my perky Irish holiday, and I’m on the lookout.  Generally Londoners are at their perky best at the moment, friendly on the tube, dressed in bright colours, because the weather is glorious and every other day there is some kind of summer event.  If they’re not watching an outdoor concert, play or opera, or rushing off to the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, they are sure to be stripped down to their shorts and reclining in a park or holding a pint on the pavement outside one of London’s many fabulous pubs.  Ties and suit-jackets have been thrown aside, crowds of smiling people with rounds of lager that never tasted so good, under a sun which refuses to set, the ambience and camaraderie distinctly jovial, decidedly light, and unmistakeably perky. 

It’s true the Pommies droop more in hot weather than an Aussie or Kiwi would, but even when they talk about ‘heat waves’ that makes me feel a cheeky combination of proud and perky that I’m southern-hemisphere bred; or ‘Tonka Tough’ as we used to say, after the resilient toys.  “Drink some water” I advise my wilting friends in a perky (and perhaps provocative) way.  And they remind me then that “you aren’t half so perky when it’s a long cold winter...”.   But at the moment so long and thankful does the Summer seem, that I toss my long locks with a dismissive shake of my head and a perky laugh.

The thing about this word is that ‘perky is as perky does’.  Take that laugh, for instance: I might have said ‘cocky’.  Yet one can feign cockiness.  It can be full of sound and fury. Whereas ‘perky’ is inevitably sincere: you can’t fake it.  Good or bad, it is what it is.  It’s an honest word.  ‘Perky Polly’.  There’s no arguing with it. 

I saw one such little girl on the tube the other day.  She was so gorgeous I wanted to scoop her up and swing her around and around in my arms.  Sadly the tube – and probably her mother – wouldn’t have allowed it.  So I teased her instead.  She was on the other side of the Perspex at the end of the aisle, initially with her back to me.  Her little hat was white with swirls of colour and butterflies which looked poised to fly away. Her sleeveless little sundress had even more colour – awash comes to mind – in a pattern which recalled a free and hippy time, though there was less than a meter of fabric required from her shoulders to her knees.

When she turned in my direction she was singing.  It was a sweet song but I couldn’t quite place it, and I smiled at her light-hearted and innocent expression. Her eyes were as large and round as the little girl in Frozen, in an ancient dark brown that would have defied the creaminess of her skin had it not been tinged ever so slightly with a hint of olive.  Her hair was brown and shiny smooth, cut into a perfect bob which framed her perfect face.  Her lashes were as long as a camel’s, her nose and chin as cute as a pixie’s but rounded in such a soft and gentle way that it suggested a struggle between ebullience and shyness. 

Her song was as a Mermaid’s to a Sailor: I longed to hear more.  But she turned away again. And the tube was silent except for the metallic rock ‘n roll of a raw and groaning track.  I poked my finger through the gap in the partition and touched the top of her arm.  She didn’t respond.  I wondered, like the Sailor, had I really heard the music?  I tried again.  This time she turned those enormous brown dials toward me, and the sparkle in them told me she knew what I wanted, she knew I was under her spell – as surely hundreds of admirers have gone before.  “Please keep singing” I whispered. She imperceptibly shook her head; though she seemed to like that I’d asked.  “Please” I proffered again, hoping like many a performer that flattery would get me everywhere.  But she held firm.  She did, however, give me a smile that would melt iron.  And for the rest of the journey this perky little creation, spun away from me, and back, away and back, in an elaborate game of ‘peek-a-boo’ with a stranger who was mesmerized by her sheer unadulterated beauty and innocence. 

When she left the train, I was not only dead jealous of her mother, and reminded (as I so often am) of the love I have for my own nieces and nephews, I pondered how exquisite a phase in life it is, around about four or five years of age, when everything about you and within you is incontrovertibly perky.  Everything is bubbling, bouncy, curious, positive and pure. 

And now that sweet little brown-eyed girl wrapped in a rainbow of colour and a halo of pure light will remain for me a metaphor of all that is perky and good.

That’s not to say, of course, that perky can’t also be naughty... perky is as perky does... oh, a most evocative and energetic little word.


(P.S.  Thank you to my dear friend Jackie Manuel who, after discussing my activities in Ireland, challenged me to write a blog with the word perky in it.  I think she expected more moderation, but maybe not.)


Saturday 5 July 2014

Three marines and a sheila

If it’s true there’s always a story, then you can’t find a better reservoir than Ireland. 

The villages are packed with fodder – situational and character. And long may it be so.

I came back to Westport, County Mayo, for the Music and Food Festival last weekend.  It was a cracking success – blue skies and high spirits giving birth to many a yarn.

A few days later I’m in the pub made famous by Matt Malloy from the Chieftain’s, hatching a plan to sneak in the back door of a comedy gig that’s sold out.  I rustle up behind a young man who seems to be well-acquainted with the doorman, and without thinking I push up behind him whispering “hey, if I stay close to you we might both get in”. Of course I haven’t stopped to register my superior assets are pressing tightly against his back, so his reply quickly puts me in fits: “sure, but you could at least buy me dinner first”.

And that’s how the night begins.  With a witty Irishman called Kieran.  It’s always good craic at Matt Malloy’s.

Observing this play in the pub yard are three American marines.  Well, three military.  One is a fully-fledged, combat-strong marine with a Viking heritage.  (His friends think he’s bragging unnecessarily about this but, to be sure, he’s as broad-chested and serious-looking as you might imagine a Viking.)  Rob is now technically civilian, working for the military on deployment in Europe, but his service credentials are clear enough.  He even has the remains of a bullet in his jaw.  Really he does.  I touched it. 

His buddy, Mike, is former-navy, still in the thick of military management at a base in Bavaria.  And the third of the musketeers, Scott, is a NATO commander and pilot who must be very clever as he lands big planes on comparatively small ships.   

Of course, curious soul that I am, I need to know how you prepare for such a task.  I wonder if they go to Wellington, New Zealand, to make repeat attempts at her infamously short and windy runway?  But it seems they find a big field or desert and artificially light/partition the ground in the shape and length of a boat, to practise on dry ground hundreds of times before risking sea landings. It’s a relief to know they don’t get all Top Gun until they’re ready.  I wonder if they have similarly smart uniforms with shiny buttons, but after the boob-back-crush-affair I’m trying to be demure.   

Now this particular evening I happen to be wearing a new shirt, decorated with stars and stripes.  And it occurs to us I’m in it a day early – for tomorrow is the 4th July.  When I ask the lads how they plan to celebrate American Independence Day they tell me they’re going to climb Croagh Patrick.  Then I really get interested.

Croagh Patrick is Ireland’s holiest mountain, on account of the legend that Saint Patrick fasted for forty days on the summit in 441AD – no mean feat, I can tell you, when the mountain is infamously exposed to changeable and dramatic weather.  I had been wanting to climb “the reek”, as it’s called, but lacked a companion; something necessary for safety as the rocky terrain is treacherous when it’s dry, let alone-wet.  By the end of a pint we’ve agreed to meet at their hotel at 9.30am the following morning, ready to walk; rain, hail or shine.  Famous last words.

I head off then to keep an appointment with a nice man – that’s another story – and it takes some doing for me to get to bed at 3am and still honour my pledge.  But a good Aussie sheila keeps her word, so at 9.30am I approach the hotel already sloshing through rain.  Unlike St Patrick, however, I have pockets filled with chocolate bars. I’m also wearing two pairs of socks, a fleece and water-proof jacket – which surprisingly, leaves me better equipped than the marines.  They must be really tough; only shoes and muscles betraying their background.     

When we park the car at the traditional pilgrim start, we can not only not see the 2,500 feet summit but, so thick is the fog, we can barely see six feet ahead of us.  Geraldine’s welcome in the visitor’s centre says it all: “so you’re going to chance it are ye?”  There are grumbles about the conditions but I am excited.  Surely I can’t be better protected?  I’m confident, anyway, they’ll form a solid wind-break.

So up we go.  We now each have walking sticks, recommended for the steepest incline and slippery descent. And though I usually don’t like the interruption to ambience of sticks going “click, click, click” on a path, water is gushing so keenly across ravaged stones I barely notice.  When we come to a sign which says “Do not proceed if windy or wet” we stare in silence.  This is the west of Ireland.  Rugged is a given.  Nevertheless when the rain’s trajectory pierces sideways into our ears the smart-talking kicks up a gear - the boys’ humour as voluminous as the clouds and relentless as the howling wind.  I enjoy the banter.  I ignore the naughtiest jokes.  I have the perfect excuse.  But that only encourages them to engage me further.  So I enjoy the attention.  It’s all good fun.  And a necessary distraction from the drudgery, the pressure to kick this mountain’s proverbial however challenging the conditions.  I start to understand why there’s good reason to relax a feminist-PC sensibility in the armed forces.  You need latitude with jokes when working under intense pressure.  Though occasionally the boys go quiet when reminded this is a holy mountain and St Patrick is listening.

The strangest thing is that we really have no idea where we are.  We can’t see.  We could be climbing to heaven as likely as the white chapel hidden by mist on the summit.  When Rob and I take the lead and look back about twenty metres to see how Mick and Scott are travelling, they are only the faintest of shadows.  In space no-one can hear you scream.  I move a bit closer to Rob, letting him carve out our path lunge by lunge. I’m tempted to ask him to carry me.  Instead I scurry in his slipstream.   When we get to a particular plateau the wind is so strong it threatens to throw me over the edge.  I feel like a munchkin in a tornado.  We huddle in a group and agree to persevere a little further before making a decision about the final ascent.  The wind drops a bit on the flattest part of the mountain and this is a welcome reprieve.  But it doesn’t last long.  At our next drink break the gale mocks our resolve.  If it were a ship we’d be under full sail travelling at thirty knots.

Mick, who’s climbed Croagh Patrick before, thinks it’s too dangerous to continue.  Scott agrees.  Rob teases them.  I can tell they’re thinking of me, particularly with respect to the descent from the summit – where stacks of small rocks (known as scree) threaten to move like popcorn on a sloping tray.  But we’re already drenched.  I don’t want to stop.  And the Viking offers to take me up and get me down safely if I want to continue.  We agree breaking into pairs is the only other option to four of us staying together.  So after some predictable banter and sledging, we say goodbye to Scott and Mike who find themselves on descent in the worst weather of the day.  They get more wet than us and it’ll be over an hour before they get to the safety of Campbell’s Pub – the ultimate watering-hole and reward for Croagh Patrick pilgrims.

It’s now just the two of us on the mountain.  Even the sheep have disappeared. If anyone else is climbing this morning we sure can’t see them.  Anon I have a word with St Patrick about the wind, pleading with him to drop it back a few knots, and to our mutual delight he does.  The back-side climb to the top of the infamous cone is doggedly steep, but the wind is less and this energises us.  The Viking is a good mentor, helping me to use my sticks more strategically, and when we’re fifteen metres from the summit and he says “look, there’s the white chapel”... I can’t see it for some seconds... so thick is the fog.  But after a few more twists and turns over the stones, pride in our achievement and the adrenalin of victory, rush at me at once.  We’re there!  There’s a sign to confirm it; which is just as well because there’s no view.  There’s just the outline of a foggy chapel and my marine.  And to thank him I push my superior assets into his huge torso as he wraps his protective biceps around me.  Brilliant.  I think we’re legends.

We don’t dally up there though.  There’s no pub.  And if this doesn’t deserve a Guinness I don’t know what does?

We take the descent slowly, carefully, not wanting to disrupt our joy with a silly injury.  But once we’re down the worst of it we up our pace.  Then the fog starts to lift.  The sun is coming out.  It’s hard to believe how far we’ve climbed, our journey having been cloaked so completely in white. When we start to see the path we are even more impressed with ourselves.  Well, I am.  He’s probably done many impressive feats of athleticism.  And in the second half of the descent we stop to encourage climbers who’ve, sensibly, waited for better weather.  The best part is that we can now see beautiful Clew Bay, miles and miles of green grass, interspersed with sparkling water.  But it’s still a long way down. 

As the sun really warms up even little children appear with their parents to climb.  One little girl is exquisitely cute – with black plaits and a perfect number of freckles across her milky-white turned up nose – and she wants to know “what are you doing with those sticks?”  I’m tempted to say I need them to beat my Viking when he misbehaves, because though our conversation has been delightfully various (affording an opportunity for me to learn all sorts of things about combat, training and weaponry), he is irascibly cheeky.  Instead I just giggle at her cute little nose and adorable Irish accent and explain that her knees are in better shape than ours.  She doesn’t understand this either, but clearly finds my accent silly and hides behind her Daddy’s leg. 

Over the last rocky terrain we practise our jibes ready to tease the two Musketeers who proved to be Girls Blouses.  Rob relishes the opportunity he’s been given to get on top in their relentless bouts of mutual mocking.  Then once the glorious warmth of our first hot toddy works its magic, and we follow it up with a Jameson’s Irish Whiskey and the first of several rounds of Guinness and Seafood Chowder, there’s not a joke or a jibe that’s one too far.  I surprise them, I think, with my ability to join the fray – later explaining I’ve been prepared for just such an occasion by my four brothers – and they declare me to be “an atomic sledger” and “an awesome sheila”. 

It is hard to say goodbye when the boys drop me back into Westport, to drive on down to Galway.  They invite me to join them, urge me even.  But I figure a night in a hotel with them might be more dangerous than our treacherous mountain climb.  Likely a lot of fun... but there’s only so many risks a girl can take in one day. 

Then after a long bath, when I’m just about to eat dinner and go to bed for an early night, they sweetly call me from Galway to tell me they are “missing me already”.  I like my three marines.  I’ve had a great 4th July.  I might meet the Viking on another mountain in another land... wherever he goes next to conquer.  But even if I don’t, I doubt there’ll be another American-Irish 4th of July experience like it!


Monday 19 May 2014

Passivity in threes

I’m having a gorgeous time by the beach at the moment.  But a couple of weeks ago it was a disaster which came in threes.    
Reflecting on the blows I wasn’t sure why I wasn’t more stressed.  Was it the parallel joy of reconnecting with loved ones in Australia?  Was I in a particularly sanguine mood?  Or perhaps too shocked to react?

I’ve decided it was simply that I couldn’t get the milk back in the bottle.  The damage was done.  Beyond my control.   So the electrical circuits in my brain disengaged and watched from afar – waiting for the future to slowly reveal itself... rather than fighting or resisting the reality of the situation.  And it was this passivity, this instant resignation, which I found to be far less stressful than trying to affect change.
In some respects this can’t be a permanent state of affairs.  Apart from the fact that I’m probably the least passive person you could ever meet, there are practicalities which will eventually demand attention and action. But in the short term, it was an interesting experience in letting stuff wash over you.  And I’m inclined to think that lessons I’ve learnt from living in a big tough city like London, have been unexpectedly beneficial.

The three disasters:

1)    My house has been trashed.  There are holes in the walls.  Broken doors.  Incredibly stained carpet.  A pesky cat who is busily pulling out threads on the now wilting carpet. So much dirt, dust and clutter that who knows how many creepy-crawlies have found a home.  A collapsed retaining wall in the rear courtyard (which the Body Corporate were supposed to fix over two years ago).  And everything is breaking at once such that I have to quickly replace things like the oven, garage door motor, floor tiles etc.  This was quite a shock when only two and a half years ago the house was in perfect condition.  And the tenants smiled and told me they’d cleaned the place in anticipation of my inspection!  Hmm, none so queer as folk...

2)    I went to a new hairdresser to get a tiny bit of colour on the roots of my hair; just to tide me over until I get back to London.  And after decades of insisting on a natural look and only a subtle use of highlights... the new brand she used turned a T shape stripe across my head bright orange.  Seriously, Bozo the Clown orange – not at all complimentary to my former golden-copper tones.  Yes, aaaggghhh!  My hair is my thing.  So what could I do except let her try to fix it.  She added another colour, then my hair went purple.  Yes, mahogany purple.  The poor girl was as stunned as I was.  She called the Hairdresser’s Crisis Helpline (apparently there is such a thing) and they told her to give me a bleach shampoo.  Really?  On my very natural and never bleached hair?   Aaaggghhh again.  Then my scalp and forehead went bright red and started to sting.  She added more colour, something to take the brightness out, and a few highlights to aid the blend.  And six hours later I left the salon with patchy red skin on my face and still looking very much like a relative of Bozo or a raging Drag Queen.  I’ve washed my hair daily, my scalp has peeled off in disgusting clumps, and only in the last few days has it faded enough for me to not want to have a bag on my head.  But what could I do.  She didn’t mean it.  She didn’t charge me.  And she really tried to help...

3)    I received a letter from the publisher of my children’s books telling me with pride that the GirlzRock and BoyzRule series have been released as CDs.  An exciting development, after several years, to have these new readers going out anew to school libraries.  I open the accompanying package with enthusiasm and there is my name on the cover – spelt incorrectly!  I am immortalized as Julie Mullens right when I’m out there discussing publication of a long awaited new book as Julie Mullins.  Doh!

I was beginning to think I’d been jinxed, given these three incidents occurred on three consecutive days.  However as I sit on the plane on my way to Auckland, I can see the funny side.  And I wonder how many hours it will take my precious friend Hayley to ask: “what the hell happened to your hair Mullins?”  
She didn’t exactly say that, as we were distracted by her new baby and the toddler competing for attention.  But her honest friendship could be relied upon when, after about thirty hours, I blurted out the Major Hairdresser Malfunction story and she sighed “oh thank goodness you don’t think it looks good... I was getting worried”. 

So I did what you can do: I opened a bottle of wine and tried to forget about it.  There’s still time to sort out my house and tenants... she says optimistically... my lovely hairdresser, Toni, will rescue my locks the day I get off the plane again in London... and I guess children aged 5 to 7 years don’t really care about the names of authors on their books... so my ego will just have to get over it.
Meanwhile I’m at the beach in Kiama on the south coast of NSW, the sun is shining, the water is gloriously warm, and I’m having very valuable time with my dear Mum.  You’d be mad to worry about much else really.

Ah, passive.   Not usually me.  But nice to try it on.

Toni Benjamin – my wonderful (regular) hairdresser -
(ph) +44 7810 454389


Tuesday 22 April 2014


Good or bad the human spirit is made to get used to things.  We adapt. Get familiar.  Make routine.  So often it takes change, and a break in daily patterns and structures, for us to see things in a new light. 

As someone who loves to travel, who needs a large dose of freedom, it is these shifts in perspective and consciousness which make me feel most alive.

Here are a few contrasts which have jumped up and clobbered me in the last few weeks since leaving London and landing in Australia.

The smells: one minute I’m in the city not smelling much at all (too much cement perhaps... not helped by picking up a cold)... the next I’m standing in a forest surrounded by towering gum trees and late summer, early autumn heat.  They don’t say you can taste scents for nothing.  I was inundated with eucalyptus.  A glorious sensation and as familiar a welcome home as one could get.

Later came my reunion with the Aussie sea: the salty air and sound of waves crashing, calling me from the car the second I opened the door at my Mum’s beach house in Kiama... urging me to run onto the beach to feel sand between my toes.  Ah, bliss.

 Of course I’m as white as a light-house at the moment, after the best part of two years without sun-baking... so just as quickly the searing sunshine forced me back indoors until I could: a) escape the midday heat (you know, Mad Dogs and Englishmen and all that), and b) find a huge tub of sun-screen and my old Aussie cricket hat with a wide brim.

Another contrast is the light.  Australia is so bright!  Seriously, every freckle and blemish on your skin suddenly feels like it’s under a spotlight.  I ordinarily admire the skin of English girls for its purity – but could I have turned into a scaly crocodile overnight?!  It’s like the unforgiving fluorescent lighting in nightclub toilets at 2am... where your slightly smudged mascara takes on the look of a wanted felon.  Searing Aussie light also makes rogue grey hairs yell like Kath and Kim “look at me, look at me”.  Ooh, not good.  Though past experience tells me it won’t be long before they’ll be bleached golden by the sun; and if that fails there’s always a hairdresser.  Meanwhile I’m in and out of the fabulously warm water so much that my hair is frequently wet; not to mention extra curly because of the vigorous sea-salt.  

I could complain this extraordinary light is playing havoc with my one dodgy eye – whose pupil was damaged such that it doesn’t contract as it should – but it just means I must be vigilant and not leave the house for a moment without wearing really good sunglasses. Yet even that reminds me, in a strangely fond way, of the reasons Australia is called ‘the sunburnt country’.  It seems when it comes to vivid colours and natural spotlights, Australia is like a lead actor down-stage centre in a special, while other countries hover in comparatively subdued light like an under-appreciated chorus line.  I’ve had similar experiences when sailing around the Greek Islands or living in Tuscany, and many tell me the light in Africa has a dramatic appeal, nevertheless this is a keenly felt contrast upon ‘coming home’.  The surprise, is that I’d forgotten.

A trivial but fun contrast is that I’m driving again.  I hardly go near a car living in central London.  Down Under I am zipping around happily in my old Mazda – which friends and family cannot believe is still going, but which I heartily defend as she’s never let me down and as the engine works that’s all that matters to me.  Oh, and the air-conditioning.  She and I have been companions for more years than I can remember.  It’s a shame the on-road taxes are now so high it probably doesn’t make sense to keep her going in Australia while I’m spending most of my time in Europe, but it’ll be a sad day when I say goodbye.  She’s cute and small and would be perfect to drive around European cities if I could teleport her abroad.  Otherwise I rather like telling my young nieces and nephews “no, there’s nothing wrong with my car... it’s called manual locking... “ to which they screw up their faces in non-comprehension, only exceeded by bemusement “the car from the olden days” is installed with something called a “cassette player”... not a CD or iPod device.  I’d have liked to find a tape to educate them with a bit of Aussie rock from the 80s, but no doubt they’re lost or stored in a box somewhere (like much of my stuff, scattered around the globe). 

Another thing which seems strange, is to be hearing Australian accents.  I know I still have the accent of my heritage... but I’m used to listening to British accents on the street, in the pub, on the news, in the theatre, with friends... so this is currently a marked contrast. It’s nice.  But it’s different.   

The price of fruit and vegetables is a huge shock too.  Volume ensures these products are far cheaper in the UK and, though that’s no guarantee of quality, it does take some getting used to that a small bag of groceries from Woolworths costs $50 whereas at my local Co-Op or Sainsburys in Wandsworth I’d pay £15 or £20 for the same.  Thankfully, my sister Rebecca has pointed out that legs of lamb are far cheaper Down Under, and access to quality seafood is easy, so I think for the month of May I’m going to go on a protein load-up.

When I first got off the plane in Melbourne – after a particularly quiet and spacious flight on Royal Brunei’s new Dreamliner 787 - a great mate, David, picked me up and drove me to a pretty part of Victoria, the Yarra Valley.  That evening David and lovely Linda (and her mum, Gwen) hosted an evening of music around a fire pit.  Jet lag had not yet taken hold, so I lay back on a wooden bench listening to songs on guitar and blues-harp, and looking up through boughs of gum-trees to a perfectly clear sky and hundreds and hundreds of stars.  The flight takes a day, so it was technically a day and a half then since I’d left the UK, and two days since I’d looked up at the sky in suburban London, so the vision of these glistening constellations - the southern cross as familiar as the eucalypt, the music, the company and the beer - was a welcome reminder the sky is not only different from one hemisphere to the next, but always a feature of movement from the city to the outback or less populated countryside.  And that is a contrast of place which I need to feed my soul and bring me back to the basics.  I could not have asked for a softer landing on the other side of the world.

Which brings me to one’s mates: it’s sad to part, to leave friends behind for a time, but it is wonderful to be reunited with the other people in your life, in your heart, who you’ve been missing.   It’s precious to find in that place of contrast people who mean so much to you, and who are genuinely happy to reconnect, to quickly fill the gap since you last met with stories, love, memories, laughter and shared hope for each other’s prosperous well-being. 

Where would we be without our mates, eh?!  It’s those contrasts, those individuals who share a history and an affection with you that is unique, which is most precious.  So if I haven’t seen you yet, I’m looking forward to it.

Hello Australia and happy Anzac Day! 


[P.S.  Sorry about the unusual gap of time since my last blog post.  Moving apartments, travelling, and a misbehaving laptop have proved distracting.

Thanks for checking back in with ‘There’s Always A Story’.  Cheers, Julie]


Saturday 1 February 2014

Sniff & Sew

I have a friend who thinks blogs are indulgent.  In fact he used a more derogatory word, but as he can barely write a birthday card without his wife’s help I’m unlikely to turn to him for artistic or literary advice.  And anyway, if somebody reads, identifies with, or enjoys them then what’s the harm?

I have other friends who are encouraging about my blogs, and one gave me a small, bulky book for my last birthday called “The Writer’s Block”.   I’ve enjoyed dipping into it for random ideas but I haven’t actually needed it.

Well, not until this week.  When after a rough fortnight I found myself suddenly, for the first time, unable to write.  I thought this only happened to other people, I whined to no-one but myself.  How come I can’t find a single cohesive word when over the Christmas holidays I was exceptionally productive?   Can one’s imagination run out of juice that suddenly, or is stress giving me stage-fright the way guys occasionally get performance anxiety?  Whatever.  It isn’t sexy. 

So, aware that a blog composed as therapy leaves me open to criticism… I have dipped into an old creative-writing exercise and chosen a couple of random words around which I have now set myself the challenge of writing exactly five hundred and one thousand words respectively.  I like alliteration so, for better or worse, here are two stories on: ‘sniff’ and ‘sew’.


Have you ever considered murder?  Not “I could kill him” murder… “I really hate her” murder… but mapping out a route-to-action murder?

I did last week, on the train from Wolverhampton to Milton Keynes.  And it wasn’t the route which proved provocative, but the man sitting opposite.

He boards at Wolverhampton and wakes me by banging into my legs.  He stands like an ominous shadow emptying his pockets and dropping things noisily onto the table.  I’m in the aisle.  He claims the opposite window with his iphone and other contraptions.  When he moves to sit he kicks my legs again.  Two minutes later, wanting something he’s forgotten, he stomps on my toes.  I keep my eyes closed trying to reclaim a sense of peace, but his bulky frame inches from my face is distracting.  Eventually he sits with only one more kick.  No apology but at last stillness. 

Then the disturbing behaviour begins.  He sniffs.  One long, loud, deep sniff so disgusting I feel sure it’s a taunt.  Yet upon opening my eyes to glare he is fiddling with his phone and not at all aware of me.  I close them again, discombobulated, but figuring such behaviour must be an accidental one-off. 

Wrong.  In a minute he does it again.  And again, and again, so as the train rolls from an embarkation point of horror to an unsure hell I dislike this man more than I can ever remember disliking anyone.  Sniff.  Sniff. Sniff.  Not in a rhythmic, regulated way – such that I might prepare for the next onslaught - but in a random, in-your-face, assault rifle kind of way.  Sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff, sniff… loud, unpredictable, and in a tone so increasingly high-pitched and filled with mucus I feel I might be sick.

Nothing could be more gross.  And the idiot with no handkerchief or manners has absolutely no idea what offence he is causing.  Indeed he’s so ignorant and rude, hiding behind his hoodie and earphones, he wouldn’t care anyway. 

So murder is my only solution.  He is too big to abuse.  He might fight back.  There aren’t enough free seats on the train to shift; if indeed other corners are safer.  He must be banged on the head with a heavy object and thrown off the train while it’s moving.  The crows will have their way with him and I’ll escape at Euston with no traceable evidence because everyone else in the carriage is inexplicably still sleeping! 

I try to imagine Poirot working backwards to solve a case of Murder on the Wolverhamption to Milton Keynes… as I’m keen to avoid rookie mistakes… but my weapons are limited and my plan starting to feel shaky when, suddenly, the sniffing zombie stands, pushes past my legs, bangs me on the head as he swipes his bag from the shelf above, and jumps off the train as the doors close on Milton Keynes.

Oh the quiet, from there to Euston, is one of the most pleasurable of my life.


Aussies are very aware of the risk of skin cancer; especially those of Irish or Scottish descent.  So a few months ago I present myself at a skin-clinic in London.  “Yes, there are a few freckles that have got a little darker, but no great change” I say confidently.  The doctors get very excited and want to chop three of them out. 

This seems a little over-the-top, when monitoring may work as well, but if the NHS is happy to volunteer preventative services then I suppose I shouldn’t look a gift-horse in the mouth.  I ring to make a hospital appointment, only to be told “it will be an experienced GP carrying out the procedure”.  I baulk.  “I’m sorry” I say, quickly processing.  “I’m sure he or she is very good, but I would only be happy with a surgeon, a specialist thank you, otherwise I’d rather not go ahead”.  The secretary is speechless.  She can not rationalise that 1) I’m not really used to the NHS and expect to have a choice, and 2) this is advice I have received many times from my late father, himself a surgeon, and nothing will provoke me to change my mind. 

Correspondence is exchanged; a new appointment made.  Then as Christmas approaches I find myself in hospital being prepped for day-surgery.  I walk into the operating theatre and suddenly I’m nervous.  Is it the stark metallic table, the bright clinical lights, or the smell?   This is not territory with which I’m familiar.  The head surgeon who I have met and agreed parameters, instructs me to get up on the table – which frankly feels far too helpful, when even a pig will do her best to avoid being cut and spliced.  No sooner have I wriggled uncomfortably into position, my clenched and naked back exposed, she bids me good afternoon and makes to leave the room.  “Where are you going?” I call in alarm.  “Oh, I’m not doing it” she says with a grin “I’m leaving you in the capable hands of my colleagues”.  And she’s gone.  Well, if that isn’t pay-back for insisting on the best I don’t know what is.  Damn. 

I nervously introduce myself to the other doctors: one an apparently experienced surgeon, the other a beginner.  OMG he looks twelve and the cocky nurse is bullying him.  God help me!  I start praying to my father and can hear him saying: “Lie still and be quiet, Julie, if I hadn’t trained lots of junior doctors we wouldn’t have the next generation of good surgeons”.  This silent dialogue continues: “I know, I know, Dad… but this is my back…my previously unscarred back…”. 

The older doctor is on one side doing two excisions.  The youngster is on the other side handling just one.  He’s being instructed every step of the way: “no, not like that… like this… watch the angle… ok, now cut through the something-or-other layer of skin… yes, straight in, that’s right…”.  Jesus Mary and Joseph, do I need to be hearing this?  What happened to old-fashioned pethidine, the fun drug which knocks you out in blissful ignorance? 

The tall young doctor with huge hands and big eyes is mercifully being very careful, but the digging goes on and on and he’s still going when the other doctor has finished double the work.  On one side I’m being sewed up.  I can feel the push and pull of the thread; also an occasional sense of metal on flesh.  It’s weird. 

I can be silent no longer, and break the tension by commenting on the doctor’s talent with a needle.  “I reckon you’d be handy at home darning your socks” I say with an attempt at humour, distraction, or anything other than visions of gaping holes in my torso.  “Oh no, I wouldn’t want to over-use my skills” he replies.  “Huh, I bet your wife isn’t very impressed with that excuse” I jostle.  “You know” he replies, after a rather meaningful pause, “you aren’t really in such a good position to be teasing me…”.  You’ve got to pay that.   And we both laugh. 

This is followed by a chat about how many weeks I have to abstain from exercise including lifting and jogging.  “Don’t you be showing up here with torn stitches” he warns.  “I can see you’re one of those exercise fanatic types… and you’re cheeky… probably can’t sit still….. so when I say no exercise for at least three weeks I mean no exercise.”  “But it’s Christmas, I’ll get fat...” I start.  However he cuts me off: “if you think these wounds will scar… it’ll be a whole lot worse if you tear them”.   He knows vanity will get me.   

At this point the youngster has finally finished his excision.  Phew.  Now he is trying to sew me up.  Yet the senior doctor is not convinced so instructions begin again: “don’t start at that end… why are you going from that side… come around here etc…” until I suspect my flesh is the first piece of human meat this doctor has had the privilege to practise on.  Just my luck. 

When finally he’s done and I can argue no more with the other doctor about the merits of exercise… I ask “so, how did he do?”  Well, it’s no secret this was a lesson.  “What would you give him out of ten?” I add.  And the more experienced doctor answers quickly “nine out of ten. He did well”.   I know this may be a lie but I turn to the youngster who is looking relieved and smiling I say “Congratulations, I’m very happy for you.  For me too”. 

And for the first time that afternoon the rookie speaks: “Well thank you Madam.  I’m going to go home now and practise on some socks.” 

Funny.  He may have a lot to learn about excisions and sewing, but dedication and a dry wit will take him far.  As for the wounds: thank you doctors, they are healing nicely.  Thank God!