Thursday, 28 July 2011

White walled - Magpie Tales 75

white walled wheels
inflated tyres.

white washed flesh
pneumatic breasts.

siriusly sexy

Who's to blame?
Paris. Je t'aime.

More? Click on the Magpie stamp. You might also like this "Me and My Bike"

Monday, 25 July 2011

IKEA Flatpack

My son and I spent the afternoon putting together some 'flat-pack' furniture this afternoon. It was a nice opportunity to spend time working together. Father passing on some of his highly developed technical skills to his son.

There are too few opportunities for father-son bonding in my life. I keep busy, Nick keeps busy. We occasionally go to the football together; two years previously we spent a week at Carnarvon Gorge walking and camping with my mate Denis and another 'old fella'; last year we spent a weekend camping in the high country of Stanthorpe freezing our butts off in the middle of winter visiting wineries and climbing granite outcrops.

It's winter again and though the sun shines each day the cold gets into your bones. This year our bonding looks like being an IKEA experience. Nick has moved out. He moved out for the first time eighteen months ago when he got a teaching contract on the Darling Downs, the fertile tablelands one hundred kilometres west of the coast. He was terrified of living in the country so chose to live in Toowoomba, a regional centre, ahead of Clifton, the tiny one street, six shop, grain silo siding where his teaching job was located. He survived his year and discovered the joy of living in a household other than with his parents.

He quite liked Toowoomba and learnt a lot from a year in a tough country high school where talented young sportswomen were forbidden by their fathers from competing at the state athletic titles because they were needed for early morning milking duties; where one young fella chose to sleep on the footpath outside the Principals residence because he figured he'd be safe there. Those places teach you about the best and worst aspects of family life.

He came home at the beginning of 2010 as the Clifton contract, a maternity leave back-fill, was not extended and he was desperate to return to the city and his mates. He moved back in with mum and dad for a couple of months. And stayed eighteen. Mum and dad then went away for two weeks over Easter in 2011 and he rediscovered the delights of independence.

So he's gone. He's signed a 12 month lease on a two bedroom apartment in the neighbouring suburb of Yeronga, an inner ring suburb five minutes drive away. Funny, it's been less than two weeks since he left and we've done more together in that time than we normally do in a month.

Furniture is our common bond. I have a tow bar and access to a trailer and he has a bed, and a fridge and a washing machine which need moving. Saturday morning we head to Springwood, a half hours drive south on the motorway. The IKEA showroom is less a building and more of a football field with a roof. We find a park (under the football field) and head upstairs. I nearly turn back to the car when I see the crowd. It's like it's grand final day and it's a sellout.

IKEA is designed to sell you stuff. You enter one end and can't deviate from a preset path until you reach the exit 30 minutes later. As a maze it works well. I wish I was a kid again and maybe I could enjoy it. We do some aisle surfing, swerving in and out and around families who seem to have come for a sightseeing trip. A day out at IKEA. We're efficient. We spot the table we want, sit on four seemingly identical plastic chairs and select the cheapest and head towards the pick up area and the exit. Nick has noted the code and pick up aisle on his iPhone. Things are going smoothly. We find the aisle, load the flatpacks on to a trolley and head for the cashier. We're all done in twenty minutes. We've broken the official land speed record for shopping at IKEA.

That afternoon the fun begins. We carry the rectangular packages up one flight of stairs to the flat and feverishly begin to pull the boxes apart. Ten minutes later the floor is awash with discarded plastic and cardboard and we've laid out the pieces we need to put together. We start with the table. IKEA instructions are designed to work as well in China as on the coastal plains of Australia. Everything is set out as a series of diagrams.

At first glance it looks like a simple task and the first few steps flow freely. We chat and laugh and line things up together, the only challenge comes with attaching the legs. Hey, who needs legs on a table? We choose to continue, deciding eating Japanese style is probably not our ultimate goal. We do manage to finish the job and set it up in the corner of the room. It's white melamine and looks good. Our struggle with the legs was a simple case of alignment - bolt with socket. We've made a few false starts but it doesn't prepare us for the chairs.

These chairs are SIMPLE. Four pieces of black metal plus a plastic back and a seat. We also have two screws, four bolts and an Allan key. We follow the large diagrams. They are designed for children and could translate into a childrens illustrated story book - "My Chair". Sadly these two adults have lost their ability to read children's books and the first horizontal metal rod connecting the left and right frames across the front takes twenty minutes to attach. We've explored sixteen variations in our attempts and finally have them in place.

We then turn our attention to the rear cross bar and after five minutes have managed to complete the second step. Next comes another straightforward task. The diagram tells us we need to "slide a plastic sleeve up the back upright, rotate and attach it with the screw provided". This takes another seven minutes. Nick is impatient and keeps trying to force the screw, consistently missing the intended destination. I take over and demonstrate to him the art of gentle persuasion. 'It like making love to a woman' I tell him, 'don't force it. It's all about touch. Be gentle'. He looks at me bemused.

I may be older and think myself wiser, but my eyesight is not my best ally. The black plastic sleeve and the black metal frame contrive to turn me into a blind man. I can't see the hole. I resort to closing my eyes and working by touch, caressing the pieces into place. The final step in constructing the chair is to slide the plastic back over the metal sleeves and then over the plastic guides until with a final 'CLICK', the only words included in the instructions, it will be finished. But there is no way the plastics will fit, let alone 'CLICK'.

We try the same step a number of times until out of the corner of my eye I spy the instructions lying beside me as I work on my hands and knees and the penny drops. 'Shit', I say to Nick. 'We've got the frame reversed'. 'Are we dumb or something?' asks Nick, beginning to lose confidence in his intelligence and his fathers. I assure him that IKEA has set out to achieve this outcome on a global level. The Swedish pointing out to the rest of the world how intellectually and visually advanced they are and how far we have to go before we catch them.

We start again, unscrewing all the connecting screws and bolts until we again have a pile of bits strewn around us. It's now thirty five minutes we've spent on this one chair. Luckily we have learnt something from the previous excruciating experience and our second attempt achieves an outcome in five minutes. The sun is sinking. We decide to proceed, attacking the task of putting the final two chairs together with enthusiasm.

We have succeeded in completing our task. We have managed to avoid serious damage to our relationship and I have demonstrated to my son that my sixty one years of life have taught me many things, about women, relationships, trailers and tow bars, curtain rods and light fittings, cooking and budgeting but clearly I have not reached full competency in the IKEA department.

It's then that Nick digs into his pocket to check for messages on his iPhone. His face drains. It's not there. I pretend to stay calm. We retrace our steps and realise that he must have put it on the shelving in the aisle where we loaded the table on to our trolley. We've been so busy he hasn't paid attention to his favourite toy. 'How much to replace your iPhone if you've lost it' I ask gingerly. '$900' he replies, his body language giving away his despair.

It's a forty minute drive down the highway at this time of day. We're part of the endless sets of tail lights as we have another opportunity for extended father son bonding and we have IKEA to thank.

Friday, 22 July 2011


I've arrived at 'the framer' to pick up a print for my wife's birthday. It's a piece from Vanuatu. I like this artwork. I'ts as a woman's story. I sense a strong feminine essence in this work. I see children sheltering in a safe place from a menacing presence. The children are fish and shelter in the centre of a breadfruit plant. There is security in this womblike haven. The world is a dangerous and wild place. I'm quite chuffed with myself. For once I'm thinking of her tastes and not mine in selecting a gift, an art piece.

'Be with you in a moment' calls Kerry as I enter the shop. She's tall, fit and wearing navy jeans and a dark t-shirt. She is an artisan in artisan's clothes. Her eyes glimmer with excitement at the prospect of framing another loved piece brought to her by another stranger.

The shop was once a butchers shop in the days when the butcher had his own smoking room. It's still there behind the old timber structure. These days its painted in shades of cream and heritage brown. It fits in with the new West End where style is gradually pushing out the old grunge, the old charm. Still Kerry is okay. She's had a connection with the area for many years. She understands the place. She has kept the business simple. For her it's about making things, not a glossy and superficial shop full of baubles.

I wander around the open space while I wait. She has some local artist's work on the walls and a pile of cheap, ready made frames propped up against the wall. There are two other people waiting. A young woman about five foot three with long blonde hair. She's wearing jeans and a singlet top. It shows off her strong young body and seems to accentuate her quiet presence. There's a tall bloke with her. Nothing much to report about him. They talk quietly.

'Okay' says Kerry as she turns her attention to the three of us. "Won't be a moment' she again says to me. I'm in no hurry I think. But she's making sure I know she hasn't forgotten me. She disappears into the back and brings out a number of large images which have been mounted on lightweight foam sandwich backing. The only image I can see is of a young blonde woman with a shoulder smashed with tattoos. Only then do I notice the tattoos creeping across the shoulders of the young woman in front of me and flowing down the inside of her upper arm. They are flowers and vines and abstract designs - not roses and romantic flowers. These have a tough edge and the red reminds me of blood. There's not a dragon in sight.

When she speaks I am shocked. I expect this pure sound to fill the room but her voice is thin and its American. This is not the voice of mainstream America. No movie comes to mind which could help me. It's a little girl's voice, almost innocent but there's somthing not right. The voice shouldn't have a tattoo on its shoulder. I try to imagine the map of North America. and struggle to find a state to place her in. I realise how limited my knowledge of geography is. I imagine she's from somewhere remote but the best I can do is to picture a large expanse of desert. She's a survivor of a harsh environment. That's my guess.

The exchange is over in less than a minute and she exits with her male friend carrying the collection of images. 'Thanks Phoenix' says Kerry. 'All the best with the show.'

I watch her walk out into the soft afternoon haze and turn back to Kerry who has retrieved my piece from the storeroom. 'Phoenix' I say out loud for no one in particular. I turn to Kerry. 'What's Phoenix's story' I ask, sensing something here than I am not aware of. Kerry lets out a short breath and arches her eyebrows. 'Oh. She's getting ready for 'sexpo'. She's got a stand. She's a stripper.' Kerry is wrapping my frame and shares this with me as if I should know.

'So those pieces are her backdrop?' I probe. 'Sort of' says Kerry. 'There's some beauties there' she adds. 'I wrapped them up so the most discreet one was at the front. There's a couple of pretty hot ones' she adds as she prints out my invoice.

My present looks good. We've made the right choice with the frame. My women's piece seems rather demure beside Phoenix's.

At home I do a little research. I google Phoenix and Sexpo and there she is. She's a cover girl for the news-stand mags that men love, Picture and People. She has a bio that tells of a body which has travelled the world. She's selling what she's got while she can.

I can't get that voice out of my head. 'Good that she's a dancer' I think.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Waste Wealth and Art

I read an interesting article in the Weekend Australian last weekend about wealth and art. It argued that collecting art has, for some people, become a substitute for spirituality; swapping mere money for something on a higher plane.

The poor, he argued, buy things they need; the rich pay large sums of money for things they don't need. He argued that the spiritual conversion rate was higher when the work purchased is intrinsically worthless: "Spending on nothing is the ultimate demonstration of wealth". He refers to the work of Michael Landy shown here on the left, "No Frills Drawing", as a good example of paying a lot for nothing. I can't see this piece surviving the test of time myself.

Why do people buy art? Why do I buy art?

Well it does mean I have disposable income beyond my basic needs. It might indicate that I am seeking some deeper connection with meanings beyond the immediate and the everyday.

I recently bought two small pieces by an artist friend, Tony Rice. Tony has been an artist all his life, beginning as a potter then drawing and painting and then, over the past twenty years, making kites as artworks. Now he has become absorbed in the detritis of the beach. That and the impact of our waste on the wildlife on our doorstep.

Tony makes art because he has to. He's obsessed. He sees everything as colour and form. He has spent the past twelve months collecting rubbish from beaches and has studied the impact of these discards from our material lives on marine life.He has combined his kite-making talents with his sculpting skills and created a series of large pieces - dolphins, manta rays and dugong using cane and wire - and then threaded a tube of rubbish through the guts of the each piece. The result is quite evocative.

What did I buy? Well I couldn't afford these beautiful pieces so I bought a set of sun bleached cigarette lighters arranged to follow a rainbow sequence. That, and an abstract piece made of string and foam and a cigarette lighter and plastic.
Why? My search for beauty perhaps? The excitement of seeing one man's imagination caught in a moment of time.? Some sense of finding meaning in nothing? And a desire to support Tony and make some recompence for the works he had given me in previous years for nothing.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Mr Wilkins revisited

The world is a mysterious place. I posted a story about a Mr. Wilkins on July 1 and told how this 89 year old man, whom I'd met on the plane to Vanuatu, was travelling to a remote island to reconnect with old friends from his days as a colonial administrator. And then this week I found a comment on my blog from his son, Simon from Tweed Heads (40 minutes drive from where I live) who had read the story, enjoyed it, read it to his father (Mr. Wilkins) who had just returned from his three week trip. How can that happen in a world of countless millions of people? What's the liklihood of finding a reference to your father on some obscure blog site?

I had said, rather presumptuously in my post, that Mr. Wilkins was probably on his last visit to Vanuatu. I had him with one foot in the grave already. Turns out he, his son and siblings, are planning to set up a tourist B&B venture in Vanuatu as their next big adventure, with Mr. Wilkins at the helm. They have such strong and fond memories of the people and lifestyle that they've decided they can't sever their ties.


Thursday, 7 July 2011

Eruptions in Tanna

I wasn't expecting too much from Mt Yasur, Tanna's active volcano. I thought I might see a pool of lava far below me. I thought maybe some volcanic ash (and maybe a QANTAS flight plunging to earth); maybe some rocky lava fields from eons ago. Not much. But I was determined to see it. I mightn't 't get a second volcano in my life I figured.

I was not disappointed. One and a half hour drive in the trayback of a Mitsubishi 4WD ute over the worst oficial roads I've ever experienced brought us to a black ashen plain at the foot of the monolith. A further ifteen minutes up a 30 degree incline past walls of steaming earth lining the road and we were parking a mere 250 metres from the summit.

We climbed the lava strewn path and reached a plateau which gave us a view of the crater below. It was smoking with occasional jets of sparks and associated huffing and puffing from the fissures below. I ventured closer to the edge. And then the thing went off, exploding with a thunderous blast, sending shockwaves through the ground under my feet and lava shooting about 200 metres into the sky above us. F...k I thought and scuttled back a few meaningless metres to save myself from certain death. I was hooked.

We stayed another hour and a half watching transfixed as this beast of the earth coughed up clouds of lava and belched black sulphorous smoke into the sky above. It seemed like it took a breath after each blast and prepared itself for another magnificent belch. The sound was disconcerting, as if the mountain was warning us off.

We stayed until the sun had set. we got a final sunset performance and stumbled back down the slope to our waiting 4WD for the rough ride home with my collection of photos - every one a variation on the same theme - KAPOW!

Monday, 4 July 2011

Doctors inTanna

Vanuatu is a simple country. People largely still live subsistence lives. The government has very little income, tax wise, and therefore very little cash to invest in more than basics. Roads are mostly dirt, secondary schooling is fee paying and medical supplies and medical practitioners are in short supply.

I was told that there are no ni-Vanuatu doctors. An exaggeration perhaps? Or perhaps not. There is no medical training available in Vanuatu. Fiji has the nearest medical school and the fees are prohibitive. And so the voluntary efforts of Australian (and other) medical practitioners are often the only medical treatment on offer.

I met two groups in the past week. One was a group of 25 Australian health practitioners - doctors dentists and other specialists, who had travelled to Vanuatu at their own cost to work in remote communities for a week. They were part of a pastoral Christian group and drew members from across the nation. The two I met were from Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, a gold mining town remote enough in itself. They spoke of seeing thousands of people in the week including some babies and young children with malnutrition due to a diet of powdered milk and milo. The dentist was particularly busy extracting teeth.

The other was a group of medical students from Wollongong University. This group of second years was spending two weeks on Tanna attached to the Lenekal Hospital. One of the young men had a connection. His father is the administrator/head clinician at the hospital, even though his skills are in biochemistry. Things are desperate.

These eight students have set themselves the task of collecting samples from villages across the island to test for the presence of TB. It’s not a simple blood test but the collection of sputum samples. Not pretty work. The men of Vanuatu are not averse to a good cough and spit, mind, as this is the after-effect of drinking kava. They have identified about 15 cases from about 100 samples analysed in their first week.

This is the first stage. They hope to use the data to support their application for funding to return and begin a treatment program. They have established their own charity to raise money to continue to support this work into the future. They reckon they need $60 000pa to continue.

People are amazing.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Welcome to Tanna

Paul and I almost missed the welcome our host had arranged for us and our group. We walked across the tarmac in the drizzling rain and entered the one room arrival area, a room about 5 metres square. We watched as the ground staff loaded and unloaded the baggage from the twin engine plane we’d just arrived on. As we had checked in early it stood to reason that our bags would be the last to emerge from the bowels of the aircraft.

Before they arrived I heard a call: ‘Stif, Pol, over here’. We followed the sound of Franklin’s voice and headed back through the entrance gate towards the plane. As we emerged through the doorway there, lined up beside the building, were four young women in make-up and traditional costumes, two chiefs in tribal cloth , and Seth our Tanna host. We were greeted, swathed in fresh garlands of greenery and given a feathered adornment which was supposed to be held in our hair. Problem was our hair was short and soft. The feathers were designed for tight curly hair. We improvised, me by putting mine into the band of my hat and Paul by arranging his behind his ear.

So began our visit to Tanna.

We then travelled 20 minutes along the coastal dirt road over a series of fast flowing creeks in 4wheel drive vehicles finally arriving at the Nakamal where we would be working for the next week. Here we again were treated to local hospitality with a morning tea of peanut butter sandwiches, fruit and French style donuts. Next was Tanna Lodge, ten minutes awy.

We were shown to our thatched roofed accommodation on the black volcanic sand beach and then spent an afternoon in the drizzle enjoying the view, dark clouds hovering low over the Pacific.

A group of mature women who had been stranded at the airport when their transport from the eastern side of the island failed to materialize were unexpectedly accommodated at the Tanna Lodge. They had hit paydirt. Unbeknown to them or us Seth and Hugh (owner of the Lodge) had arranged a surprise performance for our group of facilitators.

First was a family string band singing fabulous harmonies and that, ewe thought was the end of that. Suddenly our coffee was interrupted by a group of eight warriors who invaded the dining area and proceeded to perform a series of traditional and at times funny contemporary dances accompanied by chants similar to the Maori Haka and then danced to a sound track – the ni-Vanuatu version if a John Travolta soundtrack. The local ladies were in fits.

I went to bed at 10pm the music and dancing continued until about 11”30 when the party animals in our group were ushered off to bed.

Big day in Tanna.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Black sand

I'm staying at the Tanna Lodge with 13 Ni-Vanuatu workers and Paul from Australia. We're here for 7 days. The beach is black. Volcanic sand smashed by thousands of years of wave action along the east coast of the island.

Strangely, to my ears, the main township, Lanakal on the map, is known locally as "Black Man Town". My friends explain that this is the claim the local indigenous Tanna tribes have made over the township, stating to all comers, that this township is not for sale.

We'll be working in "Black man Town" for the next week as the support workers to a five day Community Development workshop (Komuniti Aksen) being delivered by the Ni-Vanuatu facilitators to about 40 island leaders from across Tanna.

I'm white I say. That's okay says Christian, We'll help you change colour for the week.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Mr Wilkins

With ten minutes to go before we land at Luganville on the Island of Santo I strike up a conversation with the man I’ve been sitting beside for the past two hours.

I’ve decided I need to find the toilet at the rear of the plane before we land. The beef casserole with mashed potato a la Air Vanuatu, accompanied by the requisite side dish of coleslaw, a bread roll, block of dry chocolate cake and a lukewarm cup of tea has arrived at its destination early forcing me to disturb my white haired and elderly companion in the aisle seat.

I squeeze past him then, five minutes later, squeeze back. Then Paul, whom I do know, decides to make the trip to the southern end of the flight deck and crawls over both me and the old bloke. We’ve only exchanged half a dozen words, mostly apologies, but this seems to open an opportunity for a question from me.

Where are you heading? I ask.

Malakula, he responds. It’s an island north of Efate and Port Vila.

I nod and notice that he sports a tiny stud in his left ear lobe. He’s also wearing a cream woollen scarf wrapped stylishly around his neck and shoulders. He has a slim build and is wearing pressed jeans and an expensive discreet long sleeved shirt. We’re landing in Vanuatu and though it was winter when we left Brisbane I can’t imagine what use he’ll get from a scarf here in the tropics.

What brings you to Vanuatu? I enquire wondering what on earth a man of this age and obvious wealth would be doing visiting this third world Pacific nation. And then his story flows.

I came here after the war with my young wife, he tells me, I’d been working in East Africa as an administrator and this job in the New Hebrides came up so I applied.

Born in Australia, he completed his law studies at Cambridge in the UK, where he met his wife, also an Australian and took the opportunity to take a posting closer to home.

He was close to home, it was true, but it took him another thirty five years to make it there, by then with four adult children. He had been the colonial administrator for the British for those years. He was judge, magistrate, mediator and administrator of three large islands in the archipelago. He was the arms and hands of British power all rolled into one. He had loved it and was returning for the first time in ten years, possibly for the last time, to catch up with old friends and see the place again.

How old are you? I asked rudely. I was fascinated. He’d retired in 1980 when the New Hebrides became the new nation of Vanuatu. It was perfect timing for him. That was thirty years ago.

Eighty nine he replied. I nearly fell off my seat. I was envious. Eighty nine and travelling alone to visit a remote island with few facilities.

The next day I mentioned his name to some of the Ni-Vanuatu facilitators I was working with. Have ever heard of Darville Wilkins? I asked. These middle aged men would have been less than ten when he retired.

Mr Wilkins they chorused. They used to say “Here comes the government”. That was his nick name “The Government”
He was good, said Christian. Tough he added.

I tried to imagine the eighty nine year old with a stud in his ear and designer jeans as tough. It was possible. It was there.

Good luck Mr Wilkins. Enjoy your last years.