Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


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No stone unturned

An ’80s’ movie etched in my memory is Costa-Gavras’ chilling Missing, the story of an American family’s search for their journalist son who had disappeared in post-coup Chile. The 1973 toppling of Chile’s first democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende, ushered in an era of bloody repression under the CIA-backed military dictator General Augusto Pinochet.  The Palme D’Or-winning Missing centred on the search for left-leaning reporter Charles Horman by his businessman father Ed, played by the legendary Jack Lemmon, and Charles’ wife, played by Sissy Spacek. Ed at first blames his son but slowly discovers the complicity of the American Government. The Chile coup shocked many Australians, maybe because Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party had recently won office after 23 years of Liberal-Country Party Government rule.

Three years later Argentina suffered the same fate as its western neighbour when a military junta ousted Isabel Peron. Argentinians woke up to find their parents, sons, daughters, husbands, wives – everyday men and women – “disappeared”. These commonplace tragedies are given ongoing focus as now-grandparents continue to search for missing grandchildren, many of whom have ethereal status without a confirmed existence. I have just put down the gripping 2016 novel The Memory Stones by Australian journalist-turned-author Caroline Brothers, a fictionalised telling of one such generational search. Brothers worked as a foreign correspondent for media organisations such as the  International Herald Tribune, including stints in Mexico and Central America. She told an Avid Reader gathering last year she chose a fictionalised format for Memory Stones because the non-fiction version had “already been told” through extensive reports over decades in the foreign media.

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The choice of style was effective: fiction allowed the creation of characters who brought life to the events of the period and allowed the reader to suffer the anguish of all those who experienced devastating loss, through disappearance and death.  It’s estimated that between 1976 and 1983 up to 30,000 Argentinians vanished or were known to have been killed. The book also brings life to the courage, tenacity and ingenuity of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo –  the Asociación Civil Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo – which still works relentlessly to find the the babies born to “disappeared” or executed young mothers and adopted out to junta officials. The abuelas’ efforts have recovered 122 grandchildren, seen 1000 of the dictatorship’s torturers tried and 700 sentenced.  No stone unturned indeed.

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The classic touch

For 15 years I’ve been an enthusiastic subscriber to the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Masterfully lead by the energetic and creative Richard Tognetti the ACO captivates with its eclecticism and daring scope.  While performing under an Australian flag Tognetti has brought together a virtual united nations of performers with orchestra members hailing from French Canada, Japan, Finland, Ukraine, Slovania, Singapore and Romania. Tognetti is not your average chamber orchestra director and conductor, roles he has played at the ACO since his 20s. Still youthful at 52, and until recently sporting a trendy brush-up hairstyle, the world-acclaimed musician likes to take his followers on musical “magical mystery tours”.

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Concert-goers know to always expect the unexpected. During my  time I’ve experienced a full-screen movie of the keen surfer’s wave-hunting expedition to remote Western Australia with the orchestra performing the Tognetti-composed score live; a collaboration with Whitlams lead singer and keyboardist Tim Freedman; an evening of Bell Shakespeare Company readings with ACO accompaniment; and a Barry Humphries Weimar Cabaret evening with the world-famous comedian joined by award-winning performer Meow Meow. Tognetti, with or without the full orchestra, is just as happy performing in ski village clubhouses in Hokkaido, and small outdoor sound shells in rural Australia, as the Sydney Opera House or grand concert halls in world capitals.

But for the ACO’s concert at QPAC concert hall last week it was a return to the classics, a sublime evening of Bach violin concertos rounded off with a Haydn symphony. For the Concerto for 3 Violins in D Major, Tognetti was joined by long-serving and accomplished lead violinists Helena Rathbone and Satu Vanska. Then they were joined by Vanska’s Finnish countryman Timo-Veikke Valvo for a solo performance of the Sarabande from Cello Suite No. 4. No wonder the ACO is often referred to as an ensemble of soloists. Which is exactly what the orchestra’s next national tour is titled – ACO Soloists.


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Happy New Year – 明けましておめでとうございます

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Nengajou welcome the New Year for multiple millions of Japanese.

Happy New Year! As millions of lunar calendar followers around the world welcome in the 2017 New year, those following the Oriental calendar are preparing to wave goodbye to that little scallywag the monkey and welcome in the stately rooster.

In Japan, where Oriental symbolism is synced with the lunar calendar the Rooster has crowed his first 2017 morning call. Multiple millions of nengajou, the little symbol cards that friends and family send each other, rather like Christmas cards, are arriving in special postal deliveries through the day. Across the world revellers are waking to sore heads, or the first day of well intentioned resolutions. The rooster will be in hot demand this year, this famous early morning riser credited with being able to foretell the future. Many will hope that he can see an end to the political upheavals experienced in numerous countries in 2016.

2016 calendars will come down and their replacements will go up. I have written before about the attachments I form to my calendars, which usually include one put together by my photographically talented older brother; another which I order specially from Tokyo’s captivating Blue and White Shop in Azabu Juban; and one which arrives every year from a young Japanese woman who stayed with us as an international language student over 20 years ago.

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Hello new Blue and White, goodbye old; and a sad farewell to this Southern NSW egret image. 

This year I’ll be putting up a beautiful calendar featuring Japanese art treasures, given to me by my Japanese family, which has been published by JAL Airlines for as long as I can remember. The pieces chosen for each month are exquisite, of the quality of treasures I’ve seen in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Oriental section. While a calendar’s not quite as good as the real thing it’s an excellent substitute.

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A section from the January illustration from the JAL calendar. 

Whether you’re an Oriental or a lunar cycle person here’s wishing you a very happy 2017 . May the qualities of warmth, generosity, diligence, sociability and excellent communication skills attributed to the rooster be the overriding zeitgeist in 2017.


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Avid readers

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A favourite haunt back in the ’90s when we lived in inner-city Brisbane was the original Mary Ryan Bookshop in Latrobe Terrace. Apart from its laden shelves there was a welcoming coffee shop on the lower level where I would take my mother for our fix of caffeine and to enjoy its treed garden sloping down one of Paddington’s many gullies. Mary Ryan was one of the first bookshops to incorporate a coffee shop and the genial owner Phil Ryan a pleasant and knowledgable source of advice on what to buy.

Alas, Mary Ryan Paddington was one of many such book-lover-friendly enterprises that succumbed to the competitive forces unleashed by  the internet in the 2000s. Those that have survived are much treasured. In Brisbane the best known of these are Riverbend Books in Bulimba and Avid Reader in West End. As a end-of-year treat my bookclub facilitator had the prescience to reserve a spot with the latter’s knowledgable owner Fiona Stager, a much-sought-after presence at such talks because of her wealth of knowledge of the latest publications and her well regarded opinions.  Apart from her status as an avid and discerning reader Fiona has a wealth of knowledge of the publishing industry as a lecturer on the subject at the University of Queensland.

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Over glasses of wine and tempting snacks she talked through her reading suggestions from the latest publishers’ offerings. Interestingly a number were by Australian writers, underscoring the health of our literary scene.  Her recommendations:

Not Just Black and White, by Lesley and Tammy Williams, which tells Lesley’s story of being an Aboriginal girl from Cherbourg settlement forced from home to work as a domestic servant; Ghost Empire, beloved ABC Conversations host Richard Fidler’s rich telling of the history of old Constantinople; The Riviera Set,  the rollicking bed-hopping and partying history of the monied and famous at the Chateau de l’Horizon near Cannes over a period of 40 years; The Atomic Weight of Love, Elizabeth J Church’s story of an ornithologist who marries a much older physics professor recruited to work on the Los Alamos Project and her battle to retain her own academic identify; The Birdman’s Wife in which Melissa Ashley gives artist Elizabeth Gould the credit she deserves as the true genius behind John Gould’s famous early sketches of Australia’s unique bird life; To the Bright Edge of the World, an Alaskan explorer’s story extracted by Eowyn Ivey from journal entries, military reports, letters and documents; Our Souls at Night, a tender account by Kent Haruf of a widow who asks her widower neighbour if he’d consider sharing her bed – not for sex but for warmth and comfort; My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Stroud’s telling of a hospital-bedside reconciliation between a long-estranged mother and daughter;  Between a Wolf and a Dog, the heartfelt account by Georgia Blain, daughter of acclaimed journalist Anne Deveson and broadcaster Ellis Blain, of a woman dying from a brain tumour, and written at a time when Blain herself was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer; Truly, Madly, Guilty, world top-seller Australian Liane Moriarty’s latest pot boiler and suggested by Fiona as the perfect beach holiday read; One, Patrick Holland’s well researched account of the demise of Australia’s last bushrangers, the Kenniffs, in western Queensland;  in Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil, popular writer of young  adult novels, Melina Marchetta, makes a provocative move to crime fiction to reviewer approval; Midsomer Murders screenwriter Anthony Horowitz has fun with the vintage crime novel genre in Magpie Murders;  nature writer Simon Barnes tells how birds help us understand the world we live in, in The Meaning of Birds; and finally,The Memory Stones, Caroline Brothers’ harrowing account of the Disappeared of Argentina’s  military coup in 1976 and the ongoing devastation down the generations.


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Vale Yarloop

When my mother was alive she constantly had to fend off jokes about her home town. Although born in Albany, on King George Sound and the oldest settlement in Western Australia, my “sand groper” mum lived many of her formative years in the tiny timber town of Yarloop. And it was that name that caused such mirth – although being a person of good humour she took it all in her stride.

Those early years coincided with the Depression and, like many families across Australia and around the world, the bread winner found himself without a job. The family was torn apart with my grandmother and the two youngest children sailing to Sydney to join East Coast family members. My grandfather, my mother and her elder sister stayed behind in Western Australia. Then my aunt and grandfather also moved to Sydney while my mother stayed with her grandparents in Yarloop where her grandfather worked in the timber industry.

Eventually a wealthy uncle paid her boat fare to Sydney and she joined the rest of the family. She remained very attached to Yarloop and often talked fondly about her life there: the stability of staying put in a secure environment at a time of such upheaval; of going to the pictures and holding hands with a boy when the lights went out – the same boy who continued to send her cards well into her 80s and who said he still carried her photograph in his wallet; her bittersweet farewell from Yarloop, happy at the prospect of being reunited with her family, sad at the thought of leaving her grandparents, friends and the embrace of that little town.

So to hear today that Yarloop has been all but wiped off the map in south-west Western Australia’s brutal bushfires is devastating news. How heartbroken my mother would be that the little wooden cottage she had shared with her grandparents, just across from the war memorial and next to the railway workshops, had fallen victim to the destructive flames. The cottage had been the focus of many a visit from the East Coast descendants over the years. The long-suffering owners had tolerated tours by me and numerous cousins and most recently my brother and sister-in-law late last year.  My heart goes out to them and I hope they are safe.

Today I located some snaps from a visit I paid with my daughter about 10 years ago and my brother sent some from his recent trip.  Despite the name, Yarloop is probably an early-settler mispronunciation of Yarlup Brook, only about five kilometres north and using the common Noongar-language place-name “up” ending.

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Railway Workshops Museum, Yarloop. 

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My mother’s grandparent’s cottage, Yarloop.

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The War Memorial across the road where my mother and her sisters like to play. 

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Rivers run through it

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Sunset at Cudgen Lake, behind Cabarita beach.

It had to happen. With such an abundance of gifts from nature – rich volcanic soils, sub-tropical climate, mighty watercourses, a bountiful ocean and rich pastoral lands close by – the New South Wales Northern Rivers district was destined for gastronomic distinction.

This serendipity of ingredients is coalescing into serious recognition with two innovative Northern Rivers restaurants recently claiming a place on The Weekend Australian colour magazine’s top 50 Aussie eateries list. And, as good fortune would have it, on the very weekend the list was published I was heading off with visiting family for two days in that very region. Quick phone calls secured bookings at both prize-winning eateries, Fleet at Brunswick Heads and Paper Daisy at Cabarita Beach, both of which make ready use of the local bounty of seafood, tropical fruits and plants.

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Cosy at Fleet, Brunswick Heads.

The Northern Rivers is part of the family fabric, with my mother’s clan resident since the 1930s. Until recent times an aunt remained in picturesque Murwillumbah, her home a long-ago refuge for my brother and me from the confines of Brisbane boarding schools during mid-term holiday breaks. From around the 60s and 70s the beaches north of Byron Bay suffered in the shadow of the glitzy Gold Coast and the aftermath of sand mining which flattened sand dunes and stripped away vegetation. The development this century of resorts such as Salt have restored dignity to the beaches.

The Northern Rivers has always been one of those “God’s Own” sort of places with the crooked thumb of Mt Warning – Wollumbin, or Cloud Catcher, in the local Bundjalung language –   a reminder of its volcanic past. Early settlers made the most of the fertile soils to grow sugar cane and bananas. But now those rich soils yield so many more crops including coffee, macadamias, pork, dairy and cheeses, berries, bush tucker, mushrooms, exotic vegetables and herbs.

Fleet and Paper Daisy both make the most of this produce to craft their menus. Fleet takes the prize for original concept with diners sharing a communal slab in a space that limits numbers to around 20. On the one side are the wine and drinks waiter, and the hostess-cum-menu interpreter, who is also the co-owner, with the diligent chef working meticulously at the far end. The menu delights with inventive offerings such as smoked mullet, crispy skin, potato and dill; cauliflower, sea urchin, butter; sand whiting, corn, truffle; and mandarin, buttermilk, pistachio, thyme.

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Fleet fare offerings.

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Paper Daisy, right on the beach at Cabarita in renovated surfing motel Halcyon House, is as capacious as Fleet is cosy. Much of what’s available on the menu is made in-house with an emphasis on the local. Offerings include wholemeal sourdough with macadamia butter; pippies with potatoes and peas; grilled cauliflower with kefir and black garlic; fresh ricotta with raw and preserved vegetables; sweet potato with brown butter and seeds; zucchini with lemon, parmesan and fried squid legs. Worth waiting for.

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By the book

When I retired a few years ago I was regularly quizzed on how I would spend my oodles of new-found leisure.  “Read more books” was my repeated response. Of course, I haven’t read nearly as many as I planned – there’s always so much to do when you’re retired!

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Many friends have resolved the ambition to “read more books” by joining a book club.  Most speak glowingly of the enjoyment derived from getting together with others to discuss and analyse a shared book, often over a glass of wine and a meal. There’s companionship and the exchange of opinions and the discipline imposed which gets the books read. But despite those reassurances joining a book club wasn’t my thing.

Until recently! A friend, a seasoned book clubber, said a spot had become available in her circle and would I like to join? Curbing my instinct to graciously decline I chose to do a trusty old SWAT analysis on the proposition. My reluctance hinged mostly on the disciplines involved: to read a book I may not like; to have to read according to a set timetable; the tricky dynamics of groups, especially when you don’t know the other members well; the risk of the group being too much “club” and not enough “book”; my responsibilities to the group dynamic.

On the potential plus side? The discipline would ensure I completed at least one book a month – what better way to “read more books”? I would pay more attention to the writing so I could substantiate views on the read – it’s easier to say you’re enjoying a book than to explain why. I would be introduced to tomes I might not otherwise have considered. And then there’s always the enticing meal and glass of wine to enjoy with refreshing company.

My SWAT research turned up useful musings on the very subject which have, serendipitously, given me a couple of other potentially interesting blogs to follow. Not surprisingly both aired similar reservations to mine when mulling to-join-or-not-to-join decisions.

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Since becoming a book clubber we’ve read and discussed three novels: The Miniaturist by British writer Jessie Burton; Someone, by American Alice McDermott; and the current selection, Australian and Booker Prize winner Thomas Keneally’s Daughters of Mars. I was engaged by Someone, the story of an ordinary life in the Irish American Brooklyn community told in modest style, the characters so finely drawn. Jessie Burton’s debut novel took my fancy less, building unrealised intrigue. But as a window into the life of the well-to-do merchant class in 17th century Holland it held the attention. Thomas Keneally’s account of the lives of Australian nurses in the First World War, drawn from the journals of actual participants, falls into the category of “epic”, and is a timely read given the recent ANZAC centenary. I’m pleased we have six weeks between meetings this time to do justice to the almost-600 pages which foster profound feelings of admiration for the courage, skill and spirit of these Australian women of a century ago. We can be truly proud of them.