Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

31.3.10

Sunbury without the mud.

I nearly fell off my chair.

No, it wasn't the third gin and tonic. It was a commercial on television. It was a cheap ad on Channel 31, where all the ads are cheap. You can probably buy a spot for $50 on Channel 31. You get a small audience but a good one. (The in-joke at the Channel 31 studios is that the '31' is their average audience number, and that Channel 10's name indicates its average viewer IQ. That slight is probably over-generous while The Biggest Loser is on air.)

In the ad, superimposed over a picture of a green field with a tractor in the distance was a line that read: Sunbury Backroads. Then three names scrolled onto the screen, in order: Chain. Madder Lake. Spectrum. Then the date came on and I knew I hadn't travelled back in time to January 1972 when these three bands last appeared on the same bill. I don't know which is the best. Chain was blues, Madder Lake was progressive rock and Spectrum was I'll Be Gone. They were all loud. One night late in 1973 - it was Melbourne Cup eve - I watched Madder Lake live on-stage at St Therese's parish hall; after the Dingoes had headlined with their new hit Way Out West (a song that was later murdered by James Reyne who makes every song sound as if he eats it and then regurgitates it). That night Madder Lake ground out a version of Twelve Pound Toothbrush that must have rocked every house in Essendon. The Sunbury festival had nothing on St Therese's hall that night. We used to go home from concerts like that and not be able to hear for days. Now we complain about our children wearing headphones.

I imagine the audience at Sunbury Backroads will include some of those who were last there during that festival in the heat of summer 1972. I wonder if they might recognise each other? Perhaps not. Last time they saw each other, many were long-haired, naked and stoned in the mud of Jackson's Creek.

29.3.10

Warm vegetable salad for a humid night.

I boiled three potatoes chopped into quarters and two carrots chopped into batons. When they were almost cooked I dropped a dozen green beans and two bricks of closely packed cabbage into the pot. When they were all done I drained them and placed them into little or larger piles on my large oval serving platter. The potatoes were a cairn in the middle, the cabbage made haybales at either end and the carrots and beans lay about like roadmakers' tar-brooms at smoko time.

Meanwhile two eggs were simmering in another pot, chattering their undersides on its aluminium base.

I cut two ripe tomatoes into eighths and scattered these about the plate, and took half an unpeeled cucumber and cut it into sticks and added them to the general disarray. Then I peeled the soft-boiled eggs, successfully this time after years of varied results, and sat them way up in the potato cairn like an eagle's eyrie.

The sauce was bubbling away all of this time: two large tablespoons of natural peanut butter (natural meaning the one that has no stabilisers or salt and separates in the jar: it is pure peanut), two tablespoons of sambal oelek, a chopped clove of garlic, a dash of sugar and two very generous squirts of soy.

Sauce into a bowl, serving plates to the table, dip and eat. Lazy gado gado salad. It was hot all night and it rained heavily into the morning.

26.3.10

Pick a colour, children. It's dinnertime.

Once upon a time, very long ago, when William and Thomas' much older brother and sister were children, I used to play cooking games with them. Which is to say I would make faces out of pancakes and use a slice of kiwifruit for the nose, strawberries for the eyes and a segment of banana - sliced from its middle, lengthways - for its mouth. Right way up for happy, wrong way up for sad. I always made it happy.

Hair was maple syrup poured above the strawberry eyes and sitting in the syrup was its hat: a scoop of icecream, sometimes with coloured sprinkles and a wafer if it was spring racing carnival time.

Another trick was dinner with a coloured theme. They'd choose a colour and we'd build a meal out of the colour. Before you laugh, remember last time you ordered shiraz with steak.

One night the chosen colour was white. (OK purists, white is not a colour. Let's call it a tone. Is it a tone? I don't know. Maybe white is just an optical illusion.)

Never mind. Here's what we cooked:

A mountain of mashed potato sat in one corner of the plate. Next to it was one perfectly soft-boiled egg, and three florets of cauliflower wearing a fine coat of white sauce. A salad of peeled radish and apple with mayonnaise (delicious combination, by the way) completed the dish and there were slices of white bread, crusts cut away, on the side. Drink? Milk. Dessert: sweet white custard made from corn flour. Much better than that yellow-coloured stuff out of a packet.

Another time we did yellow and that was easiest of all: juicy, fresh corn on the cob doused in melting yellow butter.

There's a point to all this nonsense. This post is for Neil, and also for one of Tracy's nephews. I'm not sure if the latter is a single-colour food eater but were he to visit our place, he might get it anyway! We're doing green tonight. I've got more pesto than I know what to do with.

24.3.10

Water.

And so Queensland's floods will flow down through the Darling system and eventually relieve pressure on the Murray.

Maybe they should have waited a little longer before starting to build that enormously expensive - in both money and electricity terms - desalination plant. Wonthaggi was once a dirty mining town. Maybe they thought the locals wouldn't mind a bit more industry. They'd never build a dam in the wilderness, of course.

22.3.10

Grilling gently in the dying of the light.

Or something like that. The sun had left the building earlier and the cool air stole in so we sat closer to the brick wall that was still warm. I moved the old cast-iron barbecue closer to the table so that it provided a second front of warmth. I spread out the glowing coals over the iron and put the grate back on and got the steaks ready to grill.

Apart from the coolness in the air at night, these golden autumn days are perfect and warm and they slide by slowly. February is always a busy month for no reason that I can think of, and its ferocious weather makes it a monster; so that tamed, softer March is always a great change. But we keep sitting outside in the evenings as if summer were still with us and we pretend it will never go. Before we know it we will be sitting inside in front of the gas heater again with nothing on the television and a shelf full of books to be read through winter, which we hope will be short and mild, and with rain. That’s not too much to ask, is it? I remember frost every morning in the winters of childhood, but Melbourne had a third of its current population then and my suburb was like living in the country and we walked to school and home again, where now the streets are paved with black four-wheel-drives.

I digress, wildly. The fire was ready and issuing a nice warm glow and I had one fine very large T-bone (upper case because that’s the shape of the bone, not ‘t’) at room temperature, here meaning almost warm, and I placed it carefully on the grate and turned it after two minutes and left it for three. Then I removed it and cut away the eye fillet and returned that to the grate and put the rest of the T-bone on my plate. I turned the eye after three minutes and left it there for another three so that it was perfectly well-done for Tracy and I had the rare T-bone. Thin slices of butter laced with garlic, ground coriander and ground pepper sat on top, and on the side we had small whole potatoes dressed in butter and spring onions and nothing else at all except a pinch of salt. About as simple as it could be but satisfying. The grilled and layered vegetables and the fish in foil with soy and ginger and the stuffed chicken and the vast platters of antipasto and all the other fanciful early summer tricks are gone now, and at this end of the season an excellent steak straight off the barbecue and on to the plate is faster and realistic and practical and good.

Buzz! The other thing about this end of the season is bugs. Billions of them. Long green ones and short zappy ones and strange buzzing ones and flies. March flies and vinegar flies and horse flies and blue bottles and blow flies and dung flies. I think I made half of those up. Of course, you have to have the outside light on at this time of the year now, and the light attracts them. Has anyone invented a light that repels bugs? The wasps have joined us also. You can put up with most of these except when they get in your drink, and then you say to hell with it and go inside.

18.3.10

Fluorescent food.

It’s easy to be superior about food. Take those jars of supermarket gloop for example. You could regard them as nasty confections of lurid colours, chemicals, preservatives, salts and gelatinous gums. Because that’s what they are. No-one can argue. Instant sanctimony! Chicken Tonight comes to mind, as does Kan-Tong fluorescent sweet and sour sauce, which resembles the kind of glue my children use to stick sections of egg carton, painted noodles and glitter onto large sheets of butcher’s paper at kindergarten. (Perhaps, by contrast, I should make pasta alfredo with Clag instead of Maggi dried alfredo powder one night. A few glasses of chardonnay beforehand and I shouldn’t even notice the difference.)

They wouldn’t make products like these if people didn’t buy them, the good angel on my right shoulder whispers. The market drives demand. But if they didn’t make it, people wouldn’t be able to buy it, replies the bad angel on my left shoulder. Begone, bad angel with your nanny state thinking! That philosophy would have the developed world squatting on its haunches grinding spices, queueing for scant foodstuffs and running to the well to fetch disease-ridden water. Like democracy, the free market is the least-worst system.

So no superior attitude. I don’t have to like gloop, but I will defend to the death anyone’s right to eat Chicken Tonight. Maybe not to the death.

*

This stream of barely-consciousness started when I referred to several cook books for a tandoori chicken recipe, and they all specified chicken and a jar of tandoori mixture. I could have got that off the side of a jar of Sharwood’s paste.

So I searched through my file of hand-written recipes from years ago and dragged out the following. The chicken comes out of the oven a lot paler than the lurid red commercial pastes and some restaurants produce, but I never liked the taste of additive 120 anyway. Or is it 221? The red one.

Tandoori Chicken.

Pound six saffron threads in a mortar, stir 3 tablespoons of warm water through, leave for a few minutes, and then process with 5 garlic cloves and two inches of ginger.

Stir this into a cup and a half of yogurt along with: one teaspoon of salt; one teaspoon of black pepper; half a teaspoon each of cumin and coriander; a quarter teaspoon each of cardamom and ginger; and a small pinch each of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. (All spices ground.)

Take 2 kilograms of skinned chicken pieces on the bone, slash each piece twice and place them in a glass or ceramic baking dish. Make a mixture of 3 teaspoons of cayenne pepper, one teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of black pepper and work this into the chicken pieces. Now squeeze a lemon over it. Flavours of citrus and pepper will hit your nose and you will salivate and wish you had started earlier, because now you have to let it marinate. First, pour the yogurt mixture into the dish over the chicken and put it in the fridge for a few hours if you can stand the wait.

Pour off excess marinade and bake until done. This depends on the cuts of chicken, your oven and how pink you like your chicken. I used Maryland portions and drumsticks, and they took 40 minutes in my very hot oven on 180. (Very hot meaning it will cook something much faster than someone else’s oven on the same temperature. Don’t ask me why.)

Serve with basmati rice, sliced iceberg lettuce (with tandoor flavours, a marriage made in heaven, or India) and a salad of tomato and onion.

Option: if you leave the excess marinade in the baking dish instead of draining it off it works just as well and becomes a delicious sauce to mop up with naan, parathas, chapatis or – my favourite - fenugreek roti. What the hell - mop it up with a slice of Wonder White. It's still delicious.

15.3.10

The rubber dinghy.

So, at last, this was summer after summer had already gone. After a weekend of storm and flood and damage came a sunny weekend with no wind except a gentle zephyr that barely moved the curtains in the open kitchen window and the poisonous white oleander flowers outside it.

This is painting weather, I thought to myself, and I got up on the ladder in the early Saturday sunshine with a can of white gloss and a large brush and started at one end of the aluminium roof edging on the bungalow in the backyard of the beach house and moved to the other end, slowly. I had the radio on because you paint faster when you’re listening to something. Off the Record started with a track from Bob Dylan's Oh Mercy album from about twenty years ago. Producer Daniel Lanois had made Dylan sound less like a frog by setting his voice further back and scattering swirls of atmosphere into the mix. He still sounded like a frog, just not as much. It's still one of my favourite albums.

*

In the middle of the very still, very warm afternoon I opened the tin shed and dragged out the old rubber dinghy that was encrusted with last year’s sand. I wrung it into the car boot and drove the boys to the beach and hauled it out again and pulled it up to the sand and inflated it. Then with William in the stern and Sir Thomas Lipton in the bow - where I could catch him quickly should he make any sudden movement such as diving out of the boat – I tugged on the rope tied to the bow ring and hauled the boys out to sea. The tide was out, and at first there were sandbars and I had to drag the boat once or twice, but then we were clear and floating.

We went out a little way and looked back at the beach and the houses high on the hill beyond the road hidden by ti-tree. Two sets of brown arms flecked with pale gold rested on the dinghy's sides and we watched yachts way out in the bay and a great cargo ship. The ship was threshing towards Melbourne and it turned at Mt Martha where the shipping channel makes ninety degrees. First you see the starboard side, then the stern as it moves into the angle, and finally you see only the top half of the port side as the ship rides down over the horizon.

We watched it disappear and then I towed the dinghy further out, almost to the edge of the shelf where it drops away and the water deepens dramatically. Late afternoon now, and warm. The boat rocked gently on the ripples and the seawater slapped the dinghy. Just off into the deeper blue there was a splash, and a tail flicked high out of the water, and then another tail, and then two or three fins arced lazily over the water and back down again. Dolphins. I counted at least eight but there could have been more. They paired up and rolled over, fins going around like a lazy mill wheel, and then they drifted farther north and west where the lower sun made the water blinding to look at and you couldn’t see them any more.

It was well after dark when I squashed the dinghy back into the shed and shut the door on it. It's harder work deflating it than pumping it up.

12.3.10

Early morning rain.

I woke up early next morning and came out and made a pot of tea and took it out on the verandah and didn't read the paper. Light rain was falling but it was warm and the low sun was below the clouds and the green Gippsland hills were fluorescent. No-one else was awake. Let's leave sleeping children lie. And this early solitude is gold. The trees on the slope across the valley were heavy with rain and you could see them dripping with each breath of a slight breeze.

Later, there were bacon smells on the air and toasting bread and brewing coffee and the sounds small elephants make when they wake up and face the day. I went inside. We sat at the kitchen table and ate bacon and French toast and drank coffee. Tracy's mother told us the boys had enjoyed the storm and enjoyed the blackout even more; but Thomas had seen the lights go out and the candles lit and had wanted to know where the cake was. Exactly, I replied. I thought the same thing last night up on the hill.

There's something new: the boys like French toast. Well-buttered bread dipped in plenty of beaten egg and fried golden brown and then topped with rashers of bacon cooked until crisp. Is there a better breakfast?

10.3.10

Rolling thunder review, part two.

There was nothing flash about the menu. But there doesn’t have to be. Inner city chefs write over-elaborate menu descriptions, but country hotel cooks fight the trend by truncating them. In the city, you might have ordered ‘boutique pale ale and panko-battered tails of estuary flathead with seasonal foraged vegetables served with a house-made tartare of locally-grown cucumber gherkins’. Not here. Someone had chalked ‘flatty tails’ on the blackboard menu. Tracy ordered these and I had the roast.

The tails were good. There were five, and they curled together around the plate like a hand of bananas. Each tail sat inside a fat pocket of crunchy batter, which sealed the moisture inside and the fish stayed hot and succulent. The accompanying vegetables were good and neither overcooked nor undercooked. The roast of the day was a large plate of thick discs of almost-melting flesh under made-from-scratch pan juice gravy, and the roasted vegetables beside the meat were almost caramelized on the outside and steaming on the inside. A roast like that needs nothing. Not even salt and pepper. Maybe a glass of wine or a cold beer. And you go to bed happy because a perfect roast cannot be bettered by any meal anywhere in the world, especially when you eat it on a lazy Saturday night looking out a window at black clouds sitting on a mountain. As we ate, more thunder boomed, getting louder now, and the lightning was closer. This was the tail of the storm that had smashed a narrow line through Melbourne earlier in the day.

We hadn’t ordered bread because we had one eye on the sticky, hot, creamy, chocolaty items chalked onto the dessert board. Sticky date and butterscotch and chocolate sauce puddings might be out of fashion with cutting edge chefs but no-one eats lime sorbet and pistachio biscotti after a roast dinner.

The place was mostly empty now. The waitress took our plates away and suddenly there was a deafening crash. I thought she had dropped the plates behind me, but it was the storm. Then the lights flickered, and after several teetering seconds they went out and stayed out and everything was black. Lightning crashed into the room, illuminating the black intervals like a giant flash camera. After a while someone lit a match and found a candle and the waitress brought more candles and the room was suffused with a soft warm glow. The fans were still turning overhead, idling slowly without power. The storm raged on angrily outside.

Then the waitress came back. “The good news is that you can have another drink. The bad news is that the kitchen is closed so you can’t have dessert,” she told us. “Sorry!” she added, smiling at our haggard expressions on hearing the bad news.

"Don’t apologise. It’s not your fault," I said, nobly. Then, just to make sure, "You don't have to heat the dessert. We'll eat it cold."

She was laughing now. There was a crash in the kitchen, like someone falling over something in the darkness. I paid the bill by candlelight and we left and I drove out of town and into the valley to the house on the side of a steep hill that hangs over the Tarago river.

Kings Arms Hotel
Main Rd, Neerim South

9.3.10

Rolling thunder review, part one.

The hotel was on a hill at the top of the town. It was a low square building made from brown tumbled bricks and a flat colorbond roof and fake Colonial windows, built around 1979. I pushed open the door that led to the dining room and wondered what kind of building it had replaced. Probably a double- or triple-storey grand Victorian with lace ironwork and staging posts and a dark, cavernous public bar and a ladies lounge and bedrooms with bedsteads opening off long corridors upstairs and a share bathroom at one end of each corridor and a smoking lounge at the other.

We sat at a table in the middle of the room near a large heater stove inside a round iron guardrail. The stove was sleeping through summer, waiting for the colder days ahead. Ball lights and fans with imitation rattan inserts hung from a low ceiling. The fans turned slowly. It was still humid and far away, muffled thunder boomed. This was Saturday and the thunder had started earlier in the afternoon and would not stop until Monday. As it grew darker, lightning could be seen dancing about the hills.

There was no décor, just walls. The doorway we had entered was in the north wall, and at one end was the bar and over the rest of it was a random collection of pictures. There were pictures of dogs including a long-eared cocker spaniel, pictures of flowers, and several ancient, fading sepia prints of the local area; old sawmills and narrow gauge trains and teams of horses. The dog and flower pictures looked kind of bumpy and Tracy told me they were tapestries and I had no reply to that. Two or three dusty potted plants stood on a half-hearted platform at one end of the room and the servery opened out of the other end.

The south wall was glass from hip-height to ceiling and it stretched the length of the room. From the hotel’s vertiginous position high on the hills, the window seemed to overlook most of South Gippsland. That explained the lack of décor in the rest of the room. It wasn’t needed.

There was table service for food, but you bought drinks from the bar near the servery and they put it on the tab. I ordered a bottle of Limestone Coast chardonnay from that mystical part of South Australia 'that was inundated by sea as recently as two million years ago'. The waitress brought the bottle in an aluminium cooler and we sipped the limey coolness and watched a large table of about eight restless elderly ladies who kept looking around as if impatient for the bill. Curiously, they all had identical grey hairstyles and pursed lips. Their hair was cut into severe bobs just below ear height and they looked like a church committee out for a quick dinner before a torrid annual general meeting. One straggler was eating some sticky date pudding and trying not to enjoy it. After a while the waitress brought the bill and they all fished around in their purses and got rid of as much small change as they could, and then they pointed their noses to the door and left. One snuck back and drained a wine glass. She would be the treasurer.

6.3.10

Good year for the ...

... yes, roses. They went in from early July to late September last year. Now let's take an early-autumn walk around the garden and see how they are going.

First, in a side bed on the western fence we have Radox Bouquet, which Stirling Macoboy describes as 'richly fragrant (although hardly of bath salts!)'. This position was something of a gamble: it gets summer sun in the morning but is shaded by the house in winter except for a few hours in the middle of the day. The tag stated Radox Bouquet reaches 1.5 metres, but the plant has already topped 1.8 metres. It has long stems, shiny dark green foliage and delicate deep pink flowers. Can't be faulted. 9/10.

Now we move to the back fence that has already been vaulted by Climbing Gold Bunny (which did nothing for two years and then exploded and is now as high as fourteen feet). Next to that, and in retrospect possibly a little too close, is another 'gold' - Golden Giant. It's a slow starter. We'll wait and see. 6/10.

Now moving north again along the east side fence. At the south end of the ornamental grape-festooned pergola is a corner of the garden that traps the afternoon summer sun. It feels like an oven between four and six before some shade creeps across the garden and gives some relief. Here I planted Climbing Friesia, also known as Sunsprite. It went into the ground in late spring and has just this last week peeped over the fence at the neighbours. It has brilliant green foliage on long slender stems bearing pale yellow flowers the colour of the slice of Meyer lemon in my gin and tonic. Fizz! Another block of ice and refresh the drink, thanks waiter. Oh, the rose: 10/10.

Putting the drink down for a minute, we come to Climbing Seduction. No, wait, this went in three years ago. There has been no climbing, and no seduction. It did nothing in the first year, sulked in the second and got brown leaves this summer. I cut it back at Christmas and now it is shooting and flowering at about 18 inches elevation. Must try harder! 4/10.

Now we proceed to the east sideway between house and fence. Darker here; shaded by the house next door in the morning and this house in the afternoon. So I needed a couple of valiant climbers that would get up high and bask on the fence. And the race is on! Albertine, a prolific small-flowered climber has a nose in front as we write, with fine rambling stems that have already reached over the resurgent Hydrangea; but Climbing Lorraine Lee, an old Australian favourite, is a stayer and as a winter flowerer, might just sneak up onto the fence first. Each 8/10. (Lorraine Lee was popular early and mid-last century. I often see huge, ancient examples with trunks as thick as fruit trees on my long walks around the inner northern suburbs. It's fun to play rose detective.)

Now to the front garden. Here, on the eastern fence line, Handel is in a lost corner of garden bed you cannot see, but will climb up and cover the divider section between fence and house, and greet the crimson bougainvillea that is growing next door. A red-and-yellow flowerer, it is already four feet tall. 7/10.

Finally, in the front garden bed, Hero has yet to make a move. A little foliage and a clear-pink double flower or two have appeared, but no great progress yet. She's waiting for Leander. 6/10.

*

I'm already planning for winter and spring. Today I broke concrete. I had forgotten how much fun breaking concrete is. You have to have the right tools, however. A mattock and a pick or at least a heavy mallet and a crowbar make the job easier. The concrete was an old paved section that served no purpose any more, a bare spot next to the shed close to the hottest position in the back garden. I dug it out, barrowed the rubble behind the shed, dug out the old dead soil, ripped up the creeper grass that would grow under Sydney Road if you let it, sprinkled gypsum over the clay and filled the hole with compost from one of the two bins. It was full of worms. I'll leave it for a few months and then I'll put in another rose. It's the perfect spot for Just Joey. Or Leonardo Da Vinci. Or St. Patrick. Or Marilyn Monroe. Or Spellbound ...

Help! I'm a rose tragic.

3.3.10

Maria.

She was the eldest of seven. I was number four, six years younger.

She had a quality you couldn’t quite put your finger on; a kind of other-worldliness. I used to imagine she was the elven princess from Lothlorien (what was her name?) She was slight and had long brown hair flecked with red lights, and pale freckled skin. And she was strong. I used to watch her as a teenager running races against Pam Kilborn and a very young Raelene Boyle at the old Royal Park grass athletics track that is long gone now. But she was vulnerable as well. One summer afternoon in the garden at home, she lowered her lithe body into a striped canvas timber deckchair in the shade of the old peach tree. She might have been sixteen. That would make it 1967, the ‘summer of love’. The frame cracked and the chair collapsed, crushing one of her delicate fingers. The pain in her face burned a hole in your heart. My other more robust sister would have cursed and kicked the chair across the garden.

We had some kind of an affinity. Some relatives would have no idea what to give a scowling male teen crossing the stormy straits from childhood to maturity, but one Christmas she gave me a Donovan record, a poem on scrolled cardboard that she wrote herself, and an Antoine de Saint-Exupéry book.

Then she was grown up, and she left home. One sweltering day in January 1972 I rode the tram into sleepy Parkville and walked up blistering Gatehouse Street to her Victorian terrace house for lunch, which was a kind of hippy salad with raw vegetables and bean shoots and sultanas and unroasted unsalted peanuts; and while she made it, the house cat watched from the sideboard in the cool, dark kitchen and I sat on a tall stool by the window and watched the sunlight move across the table. Before eating, we walked to the shop in Park Drive for some bread, through eerily quiet streets of empty houses baking in the heat. This was the academic precinct, and the owners of the houses would still have been holidaying in seashell-decorated beach cabins at Somers or Merricks or Queenscliff; reading The Age on the seaweedy beaches or drinking white wine and discussing left-wing politics on shady sundecks.

After lunch, with the sun over Royal Park, we sat in the cool courtyard at the back of the house under a giant gumtree. Gumtrees and old railways sleepers were common inner-city garden features then. The cat came outside too, and arched and rubbed our legs and settled on the end of a sleeper and slept.

Years passed. Six months ago I found a letter while I was going through my old arch file. She sent it to me from Dharamsala in India in 1980, when she had already been ill for quite some time. It was what the words didn’t say. The strength was gone now. ‘Evidently,’ she wrote - she had been reading a Tibetan horoscope – ‘after my twenty-ninth birthday, things will improve for me.’ The letter went on and there was a kind of verbal lethargy, a weariness that I could read between the lines written on airmail tissue paper. That year she returned to Melbourne and she would never leave again.

The next year, two policemen knocked at my door late one night. I left the book I was reading and they told me what they had to tell me and we rode in the car. One of the policemen was very young and very nervous. “I’ve never had to do this before,” he said. “Neither have I,” I replied. She had been found in Royal Park. She was two weeks short of her thirtieth birthday.

The funeral was held in a small church on a hill at Bulla, a small village in bare rolling hills then, but surrounded by fake Georgian suburbia now. I knew all the faces in the church. They had been her school friends, but now they were in their late twenties and they were doctors and businesswomen and nuns but they still looked like schoolgirls and they had streaked wet faces and they were hugging each other.

I still have the Donovan record and the Saint-Exupéry book. I lost the poem years ago.

1.3.10

Rachmaninov on rails.

There seems to be nothing on television except food shows and filth. Free-to-air TV is practically dead in the water, confirmed by the fact that the federal government has just handed the three commercial channels $250 million to ‘bolster local content’. Great: the taxpayer just paid for another ten years of Neighbours.

It’s only out of a years-old habit that I occasionally scan the green guide to see if anyone is broadcasting anything worth watching; something, for example, that has humour and plot and uses an actual script written by a writer. Series such as Minder and Callan come to mind, but I haven’t seen them in the listings for years. Perhaps the writer died. Perhaps he starved to death in a garret.

The descriptions in today’s program guides are all the same:
Jasmine sets Alice up on a blind date but things go awry when he turns out to be a vampire, so she flees to the wild and lives on spider’s eyes cooked by Ian Hewitson (who just happened to be there filming a new series of Huey’s Cooking Adventures), before being discovered by a Lost producer who makes her the star of a new reality series hosted by Eddie McGuire in which she marries Prince William in front of a live audience, before Jeremy Clarkson drives them away to a eco-resort honeymoon in a 1954 Aston Martin DB4, which crashes, and (warning: plot disclosure) they are all killed.
(Rated PG: low level violence, language, bad taste, sleazy commercials, adult themes, drug references, medical procedures and nudity. Note: no actual spiders or Aston Martin DB4s were harmed in the making of this program.)
It’s the same night after night.

But then I noticed something called Monster Moves on SBS. The series documents the moving of very large objects such as houses, vintage trains, churches and aircraft across land and sea. The director of this series had obviously decided that production values should make a long-awaited return to the screen, while superlative soundtracks give each episode a kind of ethereal atmosphere evoking something of the triumph of nineteenth century engineering feats. The episode in which a vintage steam train is moved ‘back home’ to Glasgow from its rusty graveyard in South Africa is accompanied by a moody, atmospheric music track performed by a male choir. Its motif mimics the beat of a slow-moving steam engine.

The series wasn't made for children, but the boys watched the steam train episode with me and were transported into an hour-long wide-eyed silence, before going off to bed like zombies. Next morning they were chanting the song's chorus, which had echoed through the episode like Rachmaninov through an old Russian church:

This is the train from Bloemfontein
Mighty workhorse of the African plain
This is the train from Bloemfontein
Off to Scotland ... home again.