Sharing the love — little heart warmers

2016 has been a bit shit in a lot of ways, hasn’t it? Loss and meanness and downright ugliness. But, as Heart would say, or sing, rather, what about love?*

Well, recently my writerly community was gathered in Melbourne** celebrating their love of the written word, in various literary and visual forms, and my wife and I were off at the other end of Ballarat taking a quiet anniversary weekend out. Here’s a picture: let’s call it Love 1.

Worldmark Ballarat resort

If you like willows and lake reflections and red bricks against blue sky, you’ll find more pictures here.

On day 1 of the weekend, we ate dumplings at our favourite dumpling house (Fu Man Lou) and then went on a ghost tour***, the tickets for which had been given to me for my birthday. That’s love right there — a gift from someone who “gets” you. For the record, the tour started out pretty well, in a haunted Victorian-era bakery subject to flooding, but kind of went off the boil as the night wore on and the cold set it. Too much sauce, not enough substance — unlike the dumplings. Nom nom nom. Funnily enough, the site of the dumpling house was also the setting for one of the ghost stories. What the hell, Love 2.

The second night, we went to Catfish Thai. Oh my, times a bunch. Seven courses, each one delectable. We had a window seat looking over this old brick place and next to it a wall covered in winter ivy — noice. Wonderful restaurant, great service, divine tucker, with a bill best suited to special occasions. Love 3.

And then, as there are on anniversaries, wee small gifts of affection: a Plague Doctor Bird! My beloved secured this months ago, a fabulous work by KJ Bishop, a damn fine writer who also is a dab hand at gardening and sculpture. Round it out with a Batman mug: Love 4!****

Plague Doctor Bird

The weekend wasn’t entirely without its “literature”, of course. We slummed for a day and watched Anomalisa, a disappointing film from Charlie Kaufman about a dude not coping with his decisions in life and hurting everyone; the well-constructed and quite engaging, and infuriating, The Big Short; and a surprisingly entertaining Trainwreck. Claymation annoyance, effective rom com and political statement: Love 5. The wine and cheese gets the movie marathon over the line. Also, do check out a card game called Sushi Go! Great for pairs or groups, quick and easy but not without its strategy. It’s Australian, and, I’ve just found out, was the subject of an Indiegogo campaign: more love!

And, as readers of this blog might realise, I finished off that weekend by sharing that other love of mine: my vampires. But that’s enough about that.

As shit as it all gets, we’ve got nature, and art, and each other. It’s worth taking the time out sometimes to remember that. Love out.

* New album out next month! (New versions, a couple of new tunes *drums finger* still no Oz tour, but.)
** We missed youse all!
*** We did their Ararat ghost tour a few years ago and it was brilliant.
**** In return, there were poppets. We love poppets 🙂

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A Valentine’s Day journey to the lost cemetery

Blue Mount Cemetery

Entrance to Blue Mount Cemetery, near Blackwood

There is something about an overgrown cemetery. Headstones covered in ivy and moss, that slow return to nature, memorial if not memory fading. So when I saw a story in the local paper about just such a graveyard near Blackwood, not even an hour from Ballarat, I had to check it out. Besides, what better way to spend Valentine’s Day?

Unfortunately, the cemetery wasn’t marked on our Google map, and guided only by this very informative blog post, our first foray yielded a couple of miles of rough dirt road but no graveyard outside Blackwood. (I’ve since found this website, which offers GPS co-ordinates for oodles of cemeteries.)

But with the clues contained therein and a serendipitous spotting of a road sign outside nearby Newbury, we found our way to the Blue Mount Cemetery. (Heading from Trentham, towards Newbury, take the gravel Old Blackwood Road on the left and shortly after, on the right, Tower Track.)

The fenced area, at the base of a hill on which sits a tower, was covered by ferns and blackberry vines — bonus, the berries were ripe. Nom nom nom.

More pictures

Only about a dozen gravesites were visible. The latest interment seems to have been in the ’60s, although there is a more recent memorial plaque. The couple of family names visible on the few remaining headstones suggests some district pioneers here.

Scat suggests there might also be wombats in the area.

There is no signage, just the gate posts by the side of the road and the sagging wire fence to denote the site.

It reminded me a little of other wonderful wild cemeteries in the UK, Highgate and York, where the line between existence and nonexistence is blurred by wild growths of green. A little melancholy, even under the sun, but overall peaceful and quite beautiful. If you want a symbol of the passing of the human age, this would be one of the more powerful ones.

For the record, the Valentine’s Day celebration of togetherness included a picnic by a duck pond in Trentham, a new gargoyle for the patio and some yard work, fish and chips and a bottle of red. Death and life thus marked, the great wheel turning, all in its own good time.

Blue Mount Cemetery, near Blackwood

Blue Mount Cemetery, near Blackwood

Getting crafty at the biennale

Photographic exhibit by Vanessa Brady

Photographic exhibit by Vanessa Brady

Wendouree circuit of the Ballarat International Foto Biennale has been achieved — with added craft!

First stop was breakfast at one of our favourite cafes, Eclectic Tastes, which is hosting a small group exhibit. Then:

  • chic French cafe Eau Verte for Nina O’Brien’s black and whites of kids being kids;
  • road kill at the Wendouree Performing Arts Centre — a few victims were missing (an aside: there are a couple of wonderful works by Aboriginal artists — curse me for not getting proper details — in the foyer, a feature of which is a hanging Marc Rogerson sculpture reflected in mirrors);
  • wildlife and landscapes on canvas at the Lake View Hotel (a woman with blurred face in a forest, kind of Blair Witchy, was my pick) — sadly, still running on the big brekkie so couldn’t snaffle a $15 lunch special;
  • Oodles of wunnerful black and whites ’80s concert photos by Jeremy Bannister, including — gasp — Sisters of Mercy! at Racers (hard to get up close to, though, in the busy cafe);
  • cool landscapes set against star fields by Matt Thomson at the Ballaarat Yacht Club (old spelling of Ballarat reflects the club’s founding in 1877);
  • close-ups of flowers at the Statuary Pavilion at the Botanic Gardens;
  • and finally, probably the day’s highlight, rural landscapes from Vanessa Brady on show at the Robert Clark Conservatory in the gardens. Brady also has some wildlife pictures, and also in the conservatory are sculptures by Kim Percy.

    A morning well spent, with plenty of variation and an admirable matching in most instances of theme to venue.

    Adam Lindsay Gordon Craft Cottage

    Adam Lindsay Gordon Craft Cottage

    Also in the Botanic Gardens is the Adam Lindsay Gordon Craft Cottage, a store run by the Crafts Council of Ballarat occupying the relocated home of the intriguing poet (1833-1870). A wide selection of handmade giftware is on offer, including exquisite timber pepper grinders and cute door stoppers.

    The biennale runs until 20 September 2015. The cottage is open daily September-mid June, otherwise at weekends and public and school holidays.

  • Headstones and lake reflections in Ballaratia

    Ballaarat Old Cemetery, Ballarat

    Ballaarat Old Cemetery

    Friday was sunshine and fluffy clouds, little breeze, the typical Ballaratian winter’s day, we are told, but the first we’ve been able to enjoy. So Kirstyn and I took the day off and went to the Ballaarat Old Cemetery.

    The city fathers were indeed wise to commission a second, with the city being a boom gold town and all, and the cemetery quite compact — population, about 25,000 (according to a sign board at the graveyard).

    Here a lawn of unmarked pioneer era graves, here the Jews, here the Irish, the Germans … here the Chinese with the only oven I’ve seen outside of Mt Morgan.

    Diggers' Eureka memorial, Ballaarat Old Cemetery, Ballarat

    Diggers’ Eureka memorial, Ballaarat Old Cemetery

    Probably the boneyard’s greatest claim to fame is the Eureka rebellion, with separate monuments for soldiers and rebels who died in the uprising, the insurgents so popular a jury would not convict them for treason. Interesting wording on the monuments, too. Fascinating insight.

    We were struck by the number of children and infants mentioned on the stones, a sign of the harsh conditions in the late 19th century, no doubt. Those simple engravings conveyed so much sorrow.

    Others blustered with Christian piety or simple resignation and hope; some struck more affecting messages: my beloved has gone down into the garden to gather lilies in the garden.

    More cemetery pictures

    The cemetery is well tended, sparkling with wafting strands of cobweb glistening like fishing line. An information building offers some insights. There are few grand monuments, defying expectation of a wealthy town’s significant departures; maybe the toffs have got their pillars out at the ‘new’ cemetery … We will investigate!

    Eclectic Tastes Cafe, Ballarat

    Eclectic Tastes Cafe, Ballarat

    Next to the cemetery is the Eclectic Tastes Cafe. This converted home is one of those cafes that is welcoming as soon as you walk through the door — eclectic in decoration through its various rooms, a proudly parma-free zone, and a darn tasty menu with good coffee. I knocked back a sensational skillet of kidney beans and cheese and stuff, gently spiced, served with sourdough for sopping up the sauce. Kirstyn had a vegetarian pizza that even tempted me, thanks to nuts and blue cheese sauce. It’s the favourite eatery we’ve come across here so far.

    Boathouse Restaurant, Lake Wendouree, Ballarat

    Boathouse Restaurant, Lake Wendouree

    Later in the afternoon, we headed for Ballarat’s defining geographical feature: Lake Wendouree. It’s been a site for rowers since 1864; now it’s dotted with boatsheds and cafes and parkland. We’ve yet to do a proper tour of the lake, and on Friday were content to just hover around one part where the Lake View Hotel enticed with its second-storey balcony … but we opted for cake and coffee on the deck at the tad pricey Boathouse Restaurant, right on the water, with a wonderful willow tree for extra scenery. There we could take in the water birds and joggers, rowers and paddlers and anglers as the sun sank and chill came down. One couple in a canoe pulled up at the cafe for coffee.

    We snapped off a bunch of photos and retreated to home in the gloaming, appetites whetted for further exploration of Ballaratia.

    More sunset pictures

    Lake Wendouree sunset, Ballarat

    Sunset, Lake Wendouree

    Steeplechase, by Krissy Kneen — that’s quite a ride

    steeplechase by krissy kneenBrisbane writer Krissy Kneen has a deft touch with prose; her character’s voice in Steeplechase (Text, 2013) flows off the page, captivating and intriguing and thoroughly believable. And what a tale she tells, of her and her sister, her mother and Oma, all locked up in a history of mental illness where reality and truth are stretched to breaking point, not unlike a painter’s canvas stretched on a rack.

    For Emily Reich is a painter of renown, having left her sister Bec — our narrator — in the shade.

    Life for the sisters has been insular, to say the least, with their grandmother running the house, father gone, mother herself locked away inside a mental breakdown of sorts, a haunting presence that dominates the rural homestead. Stern Oma restores paintings for a living; she sequesters the girls, perhaps fearful of them falling prey to their mother’s sickness. For naught, as it happens.

    Emily, having had her turn with illness, is in China, living large on her renown, while Bec, still very much in her shadow and more than a little fragile herself, ekes out a living as an art teacher and painter of less renown.

    There’s that student Bec’s bonking — how wrong, but yet, so occasionally right — and there’s the imaginary boy who teased her and her sister so magnificently; the neighbour’s horse of childhood distractions, the games of steeplechase in the back yard, sisterly dynamics and a past disaster that hangs over them both.

    I’ve read the word ‘claustrophobic’ used to describe the first section of this two-parter, and it’s a good choice, the past infusing the present, Bec locked between the two. And in her future, inducing yet further unease, that invitation from her sister to attend an exhibition in China — the second part, less claustrophobic but no less unsettling as Bec flounders in the foreign streets, trying to work through to the truth of the past and forge an understanding with her brilliant, troubled sister.

    My only hesitation of the course was in the denouement: a little too much too soon for me, but I can’t argue that Bec earned her just rewards.

    Identity, mental illness, art and, yes, horses — though equestrians might not find much to please them, here — form this delicious miasma, with the weather — sub-tropical Brisbane, I belatedly realised; and confronting, bird-less Beijing, Kneen drawing on her time there to invoke smells and sights fit to alienate our heroine — used superbly to enhance the mood.

    Kneen debuted sensationally with her gorgeously rendered erotic memoir Affection and followed that with thoughtfully pornographic Triptych (which I have yet to read), both through Text; this, her first foray into less salacious fiction, confirms she’s a writer who deserves to go the distance.

  • This is my second review as part of the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge. The first was Glenda Larke’s Havenstar.
  • Hungarian Chimney Cakes … nom, nom, nom

    hungarian chimney cakeFor six months, the sign tantalised: there on the side of the highway on Ballarat’s eastern approach, “Hungarian Chimney Cakes’.

    Oh, the mystery! The exotic appeal — why Hungarian? What chimney? Just … what?!
    Well, the answer is tasty indeed, with the pastries being dispensed at Ozzie Creations, right next to the remarkable Mill Markets.

    The cylindrical pastries, harking from Transylvania and baked on a rod, have the texture of doughnut under a hard crust. Sayest the blurb: ‘a handmade pastry with a crunchy caramel coating wrapped in sweet spices and nuts’. They unroll in a long tendril that’s not only noms but damn fun to munch. They take 6-7 minutes to bake, but there’s enough pretty — gem stones and gewgaws and clothes, personalised jigsaws made from photographs — in the shop to occupy your attention, as well as tables and chairs if you can’t wait to get home to tuck in. They make other snacks, and coffee, too.

    The adjacent Ballarat branch of the Mill Markets is well worth a visit for antique hunters and gift buyers: the sprawling complex is divided into bays where shops range from artisans selling glassware, handmade soaps and paintings, to business offshoots hocking old toys, antique and funky furniture, and all manner of stuff — even suits of armour. If you’re into old stuff, allow two hours at least to peruse, and take heart that there are clean loos and a cafe on site … plus a seriously large fireplace with sofas.

    Yes, it’s getting cold in Ballaratia, with the morning mists a’lingering. Thank goodness for the chimney (cakes)!


    Mill Markets, Ballarat

    Note the mobile rocket launcher, one of two we’ve seen around Ballaratia. Something to do with the Great Bendigo Putsch of ’03, we believe… NEVER AGAIN!