bird in handbag


It was in a crowded lift that my handbag started bellowing like an outraged bull seal when a rival approaches his harem.

My bag was no Fendi, but how people stared – first at it and then at me – as they pressed back against the lift walls.

Puce with embarrassment, I grappled with it and, after what seemed like forever, finally retrieved the phone.

Hello, I whispered, silencing the snarling and the lift passengers, who were eavesdropping quite shamelessly.

What do you think of the new ringtone?” asked a cheery and familiar voice.

I’d always wondered about the poor sods who were seduced by those old adverts for freaky ringtones, paying $5 a pop for the crazy frog and demented cow and not bothering with the fine print so they ended up being charged in perpetuity.

Now it seemed I was married to one of them.

Well,” he persisted, “whaddayathink? I put it on outdoor setting so you’d be sure to hear it.”

It, as it transpired, was the grunting of a territorial male koala, a sound imported from the website of a team of nature sound recordists who have made it their life’s work to capture the sounds of the Australian bush and of exotic forests.

Now there may indeed be people who can carry off the accompaniment of a cross koala in a confined space with aplomb. I’m not one of them, but I liked the idea of an “organic” ringtone to go with my Fairtrade coffee so now the phone gently warbles to me as a magpie.

What better than a bird in the handbag, to remind us there’s still a few in the bush.



a grave undertaking

john crop1john b+w2

The rhythmic scrape of shovel on stone is the perfect requiem to a hard-working man. “I don’t hold with backhoes,” John Shay says, letting fly a shovelful of earth as exclamation.

I dig to a nice shape. The backhoes just dig rough and square. You have some graves that are too wide, too long and you can’t even put the casket-lowering device on them. A decent grave should be 6ft7in (200cm) long and 2ft3in (69cm) at the shoulders.

The other thing I don’t like is laying them this way and that. We were always told to dig them facing the east so a body can sit up and watch the sunrise if they’ve a mind to.”

Sometimes you literally stumble across stories and so it was with the old gravedigger. We’d come to Moliagul Cemetery on the trail of John Deason, the co-discoverer of the Welcome Stranger – the world’s largest recorded nugget – and struck gold.

You know that nugget might have sat in the kitchen of my house when it was first found,” John muses. “Old man Deason used to have the place before my folks went out there in about 1931.”

The Shays and Deasons remain neighbourly in death as in life – generations of families laid side by side in the gum-ringed graveyard.

I’ve dug my mother’s grave. I dug me wife’s grave two year ago – the youngest son helped me do that.

For a long time I knew Vera wasn’t too good. The doctors had been treating her for 20 years for her heart. She was very lucky to see her 60th birthday and she ended up getting to 75, so we couldn’t complain.

I was proud to dig her grave. It’s the last decent thing you can do for someone, isn’t it – to bury them. I have buried a lot of my own cousins, uncles and aunties too – right here.”

In all John estimates he’s dug over 1800 graves since he was first asked to dig half a dozen in Tarnagulla Cemetery in 1970.

They couldn’t get the graves dug in other cemeteries so they asked me to come and dig ’em. I finished up with 14 cemeteries, but I never took Wedderburn or Dunolly to begin with. Then there started to be quite a few cremations and I thought I’ll take the others.

Some weeks I mightn’t do any – some of the really little country ones might only have one of two funerals a year, but in the bigger ones you might have anything up to 17 a year.

I have dug up to five a week, but that was going back to when I was younger and fitter. I can’t work as quick now as I used to – I’m 75, coming up 76 after all.

Down at Marong where I have dug for a long time I knew the chap who was the shire mayor. He used to say: ‘There’s no good you getting a job on council, John – your shovel work’s too quick’.

Some of the graves in Inglewood are getting a bit tough for me. Inglewood has a lot of ironstone in it. That’s hard, I tell you.

These days it takes me a good two days to dig a grave because I can’t push myself any more. This one here’s for a Mrs Gordon. I don’t know her, but I hope she likes it.

To me death is nothing to be afraid of. It’s like when it happens it happens. No one gets any say. You can be here today and go for a drive and be gone tomorrow.

The biggest problem I reckon is that people never talk about it. And when something happens the family don’t know what has to be done.

The first thing you have to do up here in the country when someone dies is you have to have a grave to be able to bury them. Once the undertakers know they have got someone they ring me straightaways to see when I can have a grave dug. Then they go to the family and say, ‘we can have the funeral on a certain day’, but they can’t have it before because they have to give me time to get it dug.

Nearly everyone else uses backhoes. My son is thinking of getting one. I plan to keep on digging while I can because it keeps me fit and active. I reckon if I give up, me muscles and joints will just seize up and that will be the beginning of the end.

I will be buried here with the wife. My son will most likely dig my grave for me.

I only hope he doesn’t use a backhoe.”

olé, olé, olé

sarah matador 2

It was never the intention to stockpile symbols of Spanish machismo, honestamente. I don’t even like bull-fighting, although I respect the tradition and all the Hemingway-esque associations.

In the way of these things the matador collection started innocently enough when I espied a solitary 1960s made-in-Japan figurine in a garage sale of absolute junk. Olé!

He seemed to need rescuing. I’d never seen one the same before and besides he cost only $5.

You know how when you buy something because you think it’s a bit of a one-off and suddenly it’s ubiquitous?

I became like a bull in a china shop. Every time I turned around there was another maddening little chap waving his cape.

There is something about them that speaks to me. They are undeniably kitsch, but also aesthetically pleasing.

Having been hand-painted, every single one is subtly different. There are examples where the colours have been botched and the cape might be orange instead of red, or a figurine has escaped the factory without part of his ensemble coloured at all.

Mostly I think it’s the incongruity of them that appeals to me – the fact they have oriental faces.

It’s Tokyo meets Torremolinos tacky at a specific point in time when made-in-Japan meant much the same as made-in-China means now.

Sometimes surveying them en masse I wonder – with some trepidation – just how many more there are out there lurking unloved in china cupboards .

But mostly I wonder what on earth the manufacturers were thinking about the west’s seemingly endless appetite for matadors made in Japan.


in a word

It could have been the end of a beautiful friendship. “I think your house is really hoogly,” declared the gal pal looking around.

Say what!

Agreed, a 1960s ski chalet complete with faux stone walls built by a homesick Austrian with nary an alp in sight is not to everyone’s taste, but that’s pretty harsh, Raelee.

It’s a Danish word, she explains. It’s actually spelt hyggelig, but like so many Scandinavian phrases it’s pronounced as if speaking through a kazoo.

It implies a sort of welcoming fire-lit cosiness and intimacy.

And it’s just one of scores of evocative words with no English equivalent.

That tub of ice cream you ate after breaking up with the boyfriend, creating extra lard on your hips, is kummerspeck – a German word that translates literally as grief bacon.

The person who calls you on your mobile and hangs up so you call back, saving them money, is a real prozvonit to the Czechs.

Folk addicted to solarium tans – a la perennially bronzed actor George Hamilton – are called slampadato by the Italians.

In the language of the Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego that “look shared by two people each wishing that the other would do something that they both desire but which neither wants to initiate” is a mamihlapinatapai.

That smart comeback line you thought of too late? The French phrase is l’espirit de l’escalier – a retort thought of halfway down the stairs.

Just where is all this boketto – the Japanese equivalent of gazing vacantly through a window – going?

Truly, I’m at a loss for words to explain.

PS: The husband found the below  list from the 1970s.

In 1970 Dmitri Borgmann and Dwight Ripley compiled a list of “missing words” — foreign words with complex or interesting meanings that have no counterparts in English. I can’t immediately confirm most of these, but they’d certainly be useful words:

DENTERA (Spanish): a setting of the teeth on edge
PAPABILE (Italian): having some chance of becoming Pope
PIECDZIESIECIORUBLOWY (Polish): costing fifty rubles
PREDSVATEBNY (Czech): taking place on the eve of a wedding
KWELDER (Dutch): land on the outside of a dike
PASAULVESTURISKS (Lettish): of worldwide significance
MIHRAP (Turkish): a woman still beautiful though no longer young
UBAC (Provençal): the sunless north side of a mountain
HARFENDAZ (Turkish): one who makes insulting remarks to women in the street
PENCELESMEK (Turkish): to lock fingers with another and have a test of strength
MEZABRALIS (Lettish): a revolutionary hiding in a forest
MATAO (Brazilian Portuguese): a jockey who crowds the others against the fence
NEMIMI (Japanese): the ears of one sleeping
YOKOTOJI (Japanese): bound so as to be broader than long — said of a book
TOADEIRA (Portuguese): a harpooned whale that continues to sound


food memories


There are certain sounds, smells and tastes that have the power to catapult us into the past.

Travelling in a car, lulled by the motion and warmth of the sun through the window, I can filter out any sound except that which approximates to someone eating a biscuit.

Crrr-unch and suddenly I’m Miss Five or Six, dozing in the back of the family Holden with the dog serving as a furry demarcation line between me and big brother.

The home-made Anzac biscuits are being quietly passed around the car in an ice-cream container and then, there’s that sound.

Head-spinning Linda Blair may have stolen the scene in The Exorcist, but I was the original Regan when it came to cookies.

Food memories punctuate our whole lives.

A waft of spice evokes cold nights by the fire with a hunk of sugary, buttery, cinnamon toast.

White pepper tickles up an image of my grandfather carefully carving a tomato onto toast for his breakfast – a ritual made all the more fascinating by several absent fingers blown off in World War I.

A squeeze of lime delivers a freshly shucked oyster topped with tomato and coriander and a romantic weekend in Tasmania.

Then there are those culinary recollections best disgorged at the feet of a psychotherapist – think cold, grey beans and strawberry-flavoured school milk left too long in the sun.

But, chiefly that awful ’70s concoction known as Sunshine Salad which featured cucumber or green capsicum, grated carrot and tinned pineapple suspended in lemon jelly.

They say we are what we eat, but pretty please, not that!