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Showing posts from October, 2020


Gnocchi in olive oil, a scattering of parsley growing wild - approved wild - in the back garden, and a dusting of parmesan sent me sleep (I found a bottle of red as well). I had worked until after sundown.  Now it was 7.30am. I walked down the hill for the morning paper and it was a ghost town, even in the early morning sunshine. The permanents must have been still quaking inside their houses set behind front gardens fussily manicured as if in purse-lipped contrast to their enforced back-to-nature neighbours. Now, back at the house, coffee and the paper, and back to work. The mountain of thistles lay behind the old bungalow, the original fisherman’s hut that sat further down the block a couple of decades before the modern square flat-roofed timber house was built on the crown of the hill to catch the 1970s sun. I got the mower out of the shed. By mid-afternoon the place looked half-civilised again, the mower modified by leaving off the catcher and wiring the flap to half-open. I cleane


It was late afternoon now, and I stared at the once-lawn. My thoughts raced ahead of themselves, and one of them won, so I abandoned the idea of resting after the four-hour journey with a cup of tea and one of several half-finished books on my chair at the north-facing window of the lounge room. No motor-mower could cut down a hundred four- to five-foot thistles. And I didn’t have any other power tools. A combine harvester would have been handy. But that was wishful thinking. I might have to pull them out by hand. The sheer force of unbridled nature had produced an almost perfect three-tiered wild garden. The thistles towered over a lower level, those weeds that grow to about two feet and produce seed heads that stick to your socks. The understorey below that was a mess of assorted flora of the weed and non-weed kind. In one corner, a poppy about four feet high was about to raise its several heads into flower. I hadn't had poppies here for years, but this was clearly offspring. Its


This time there were no trapped birds or mice plagues, and the ever-present unkillable cockroaches were minding their own business in dark corners. They were probably hibernating, long having finished off any micro-crumbs of food that might have been left the last time humans were here.  First things first: the refrigerator. I couldn’t remember what I’d left in it, if anything. Having travelled directly by tram, train and long bus ride, I did not want to set off again to the supermarket which in any case was several kilometres away - and furthermore - was off limits, due to lockdown regulations. I opened the freezer door. One pack frozen pumpkin gnocchi, one pack frozen mixed vegetables: that’s dinner. Frozen bread rolls and sliced bread, and frozen sliced ham. That’s for tomorrow.  Oil, salt, pepper, tea, coffee, sugar in cupboard, plus random cans: tuna, beetroot, tomatoes. Rice. I could live here for a month without leaving the house. Then I passed through the kitchen and unlocked t

Bus ride.

Late afternoon, another lonely Sunday. I got off the bus, empty now apart from the driver, and faced the long road up a gradual hill that rose away from the bay, with the lowering sun to the right of picture. The silence hummed. Ten minutes’ walk past houses where nobody stirred, or that were long vacant, the difference to me immaterial, then a right turn and left again where the hill rose even steeper. The house is at the top, and if it were of two storeys, you could see the bay. There is no fence, just an upstretch of what was once lawn from the road to the house. Now it was a field of weeds to the path that runs along the front of the house connecting the unmade driveway to the porch, and the front door. I unlocked the sliding door and rumbled it open, and moved around raising blinds and looking for whatever you look for when you open up a long-unoccupied house. Years ago I’d left it for a couple of months and when I’d next visited a young Spring-born bird had somehow entered throug

Small penne - pennine - with pancetta and cream.

Pennine is hard to find; it’s just a smaller version of penne. They sit up better on the plate when served, especially with a creamy, rich sauce like the following. These rarer pasta shapes can be in those small densely-packed supermarkets deep in ageing Italian migrant suburbs, such as Foodworks in Hadfield, where the pasta shelves go around about three dark corners and reach up to the ceiling.  Mince six generously thick slices of pancetta with seven garlic cloves and a few fresh sprig-leaves of rosemary. (Yes, this will be flavoursome - and further turbocharged by the cream.) Sauté in olive oil until the pancetta starts to brown. Now add a can of tomato purée or passata equivalent, and allow to simmer away while you cook the pennine. You want a coating consistency, not a fluid. Stir a quarter cup of thick cream into the reducing sauce, combine with pasta and serve, swearing you’ll never eat plain pasta napoli again.

Wet Saturday afternoon.

Her television did not have Seven programmed for some reason so I set it up for her, just so she could watch the grand final tonight. It was Saturday afternoon, and had been raining and the race was coming up, and on the screen hi-vis-vested racing officials were bending over the turf on the home turn as if looking for a lost contact lens; but they were probably testing the wetness of the track. In a little while the camera cut to an old guy wearing a blue scarf over a grey sweater on a makeshift stage facing the empty grandstand. He sang ‘Horses’, probably because this was a race track on Cox Plate day.  Then the horses jumped, and two minutes of flying mud later, Glen Boss pumped the air having got his horse around the desperate corners of Moonee Valley quicker than the others. The one hundredth Cox Plate, and no-one there except horses and jockeys, a rock band from the 1970s, and the track officials. I turned the volume up to 100, as she is going deaf now, and went home.

Life in Tarbox according to John Updike.

I wrote on 27 July that by the 1960s Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place would be old hat, superseded by a new brace of copycat writers who would turbo-charge the prurience level to an alarming new velocity, a kind of mile-high club of novelists. Then along came John Updike, with Couples, a fictional expose of ten married pairs in a town called Tarbox, published in 1968. There was plenty of turbo-charging; it fills the book, but it is not the subject of the book. In any case ‘subject’ is too mundane a word to describe what a book is about. Updike launches into a reinvention of language that psychoanalyses not just people but actual things using Joyce-like prose that takes storytelling into a stratospheric form of new journalism crossed with transcendental stream-of-consciousness. It’s that good. Or bad. For me, it made Couples easily one of the top ten books I’ve read. (Apologies to the late Mr. Updike if that sounds patronising, which it does very much.) Aspiring novelists should read Updi

Table service.

Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli takes up the cudgel against the increasingly sinister sinophile Victorian premier Daniel Andrews, who has decided that if you want to go to Church you can stand outside. Comensoli, in today’s Herald Sun: “Churches, temples, synagogues and mosques are shut. ... Victorian people of faith are not too pleased at being forced to stand outside the doors of their sacred places to celebrate ... their ... beliefs and commitments. ... If they are gathering outside in the wind and rain... it’s pretty hard to explain why the doors of the cafe across the road are invitingly open.” Fr. Anaya, parish priest of Sacred Heart in Wodonga wants to take matters into his own hands: “I might organise to book out a restaurant... stay there for two hours... first half hour as the service ... the rest of the time they can eat.”

Praise the Lord! Hotels re-open.

But churches are into the sixteenth - or is it the seventeenth? - week of closure, locking out those whose faith may provide them with some of the fortitude necessary to carry on. Fr. Marcus Golding of St. Bernard’s Bacchus Marsh has been on radio this morning accusing the Victorian premier of openly mocking people of faith.  He’s not the only one, but then again the rest are not running the state. The federal treasurer was also on air describing the premier of bloodymindedness and ‘making it up as he goes along’. (Cartoonist Johannes Leak portrays the premier wearing the uniform of the Chinese military thanks to his Belt and Road Initiative ties. They shut down churches in China too.)

Pecking order: chickens trump children.

The full-page colour ad on page 2 (because you can’t buy page 1) showed a photo of a smiling one-year-old in overalls sitting in a high chair, his beaming mother gazing lovingly, about to feed him. The headline: ‘Raised better. That’s the Australian way.’ OK, we’re good at raising kids, even if the second sentence is needlessly patriotic. All the world raises children. It’s an individual thing. It doesn’t break on national lines. But wait. Read the text: ‘We care about the food ... you eat. That’s why all our ... Chicken comes from ... Approved ... farms, where they are free to perch and forage.’

Perhaps it’s something to do with the weather.

A survey of international travellers a few years ago found that the world’s best coffee was to found in Melbourne, beating Rome, Vienna and Lviv. A cafe owner quoted in the 2014 story said that Melbourne baristas took pride in their craft and this was appreciated by locals and tourists. Coffee and cafe culture was a part of our lives, he said, and was a unique thing to Melbourne. Melburnians like to think the coffee ascendancy is a modern phenomenon. Not so. The Essendon Gazette, 8 October 1909: “The coffee palaces of Melbourne are said to be the best in the world.”

Upside-down eggs Florentine, early twentieth century.

The Essendon Gazette of 8 October 1903 suggested washing ‘two pailfuls’ of spinach, then boiling it in a very large saucepan with about half a pint of water ‘sufficient to keep the spinach from burning’ and two tablespoonfuls of salt, pressing it down frequently with a wooden spoon for evenness of cooking for ten minutes. Then:  “Drain it into a colander, squeeze it quite dry, and chop it fine. Put the spinach in a stew pan, with (an ounce of) butter, and a seasoning of pepper; stir over the fire until quite hot, then put it in a hot dish ... Grated nutmeg, pounded mace, or lemon juice may also be added to enrich the flavour ... poached eggs are frequently served with spinach ... (these) should be placed in the top of it, and should be garnished with sippets of toasted bread.”

Late night alchemy: leftovers into biryani.

Sometimes they don’t finish - or even start - the second lamb cutlet, or chicken drumstick. Children’s appetites are unpredictable, except when you take them to McDonald’s. So let’s make short-cut biryani, the dish that layers meat, rice and vegetables with a fragrant spice blend that gives leftovers a second life especially when, having already cooked the first lot, you hear the call of something different - spicy - later at night. I cleared away the mess of dishes and set the lamb cutlets aside, three or four fat pink glistening handles of protein. Then I boiled a pot of basmati rice adding turmeric for some happy late-evening yellowness. Now you freelance: combine the rice and meat with a shower of spice in a pan with just enough fluid to keep the rice moist. I’ve been using Shan ‘Biryani Recipe and Seasoning Mix’ (the actual name on the pack) which is a turbocharged flavour accelerant without the manufactured aftertaste that affects so many products of this type. Now add cucumber,

History repeats: children play in creek.

A few hundred metres before it loses itself in Merri Creek, the smaller waterway twists back on itself and forms a rock pool with its own small natural beach. The switchback extends up to the bank where a small grassy flat sits directly below a section of rock strata, a mini cliff. I sat on the grassy flat with my back against the rock and watched Alex and her friend swimming in the early spring sunshine along with three or four others. I dozed, cap down against the sun. An hour passed. The sun lowered. It was still hot. More people now, and dogs.  The water tumbled and rushed back through the zig-zag. Mothers and fathers stepped precariously, like toddlers, on the crossing rocks. I woke as if from a dream. A dog tore through the water shaking itself as it burst out, its madly winding tail sending a catherine wheel of water droplets backlit and monochrome against the blinding sun. This scene might never have occurred if not for people looking for a place to go in their within their fiv

Text messages straight from the heart.

I was turning the pages from business to sport when the word Zoom jumped out of the personal notices. Words do that sometimes, even when you are not actually reading the item. It said, ‘ ... after a wonderful Zoom celebration of her life, (name) quietly slipped away ...’. The tentacles of technology have connected everyone to everyone, enabling apparent release from isolation. But its gift was a wooden horse, smuggling its cold convenience into every corner of every life to destroy physical contact and cleave human from human. I turned on the radio. At least there is that. The song came on - Love Letters - a 1962 hit by Ketty Lester, one of the finest singers you could hope to hear, her voice mixed right up front, with the piano down back, an evocative echo just following right along. 

It’s warm where you’re touching me ...

Rick Hall took all the credit for the songs he produced, but his down-home endearing manner probably disarmed any client friction. A kind of doom-laden staccato beat opened Mac Davis’s Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me, with a contrasting melodic guitar note rising behind it, an unnerving mix that painted imminent personal disaster better than words. Any teenager who has just been told the relationship is over knows that. You could feel doom walk into the room before you were told it was over.  Hall did the job on the song for Mac Davis, who died this week. Davis’s lyrics were suggestive and the song could have been mediocre but that atmospheric opening portending doom made the song a masterpiece. Australia agreed, sending the track to number one in early January 1973 just as pop fans were setting off for Sunbury.

Don’t let the internet tell you what to do.

The first page said spray them - the army of aphids sent in by some unknowable natural force to quell the rioting spring roses, by occupying their tender young shoots and buds. The next page said don’t, because the spray will kill everything else as well. Use garlic and detergent instead, in a weak solution, it said. I dug deeper, and found sage advice - in a book. It said do nothing. The aphids will naturally attract predators within a week which will do the job for you. That was seven days ago. Today I blinked in the early morning sunshine and watched a fat red round ladybird with brown armour waddle across a big green leaf of my newest rose, John F. Kennedy, planted in July. John Updike was right when he said the ladybird (ladybug) was one of two creatures that looked more toylike than any toy.

Sunday morning coming down.

Something about early Sunday morning. I remember my sister’s hat, a white yellow-frilled straw boater; maybe because it was incongruous on her 13 year old head outside the mid-century-modern 1960s yellow stain glass windowed church in the pale Sunday sunshine, a kind of dress-up that was thrown to the floor once home again.  But that early amber reverence still remains. Last Sunday, no one else was up and Magic Carpet, the 6am to 9 set before the gospel show, floated soft and clear from the speaker and the first coffee was liquid communion. The music was out of some lost treasure trove of triumphant, doleful R&B tinged with Hank Williams tears and guitars that cry. The announcer played two Mickey Newbury songs in a row, then back-announced them; and added with a note in his voice that sounded like the innocent Chandler character caught with someone else’s gun under his pillow, that a listener had texted him during the first track to chide him because the material was no longer acce