A Pregnant Australian Pre-Raphaelite Lesbian Fitness Guru Speaks

I used to be in a soap on the BBC World Service called Westway. I played a lesbian, Australian gym-instructor called Billie. Me and my girlfriend had a baby. In fact (after I walked out on her, fled to Oz and then returned remorseful, wanting her back and having come to terms with my future as a co-parent) we had a baby at the funeral of her ex-husband. Yes – at the funeral of her ex-husband.

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The Westway Cast

That’s soap.

When asked who my character was in this soap I would often say she was a gym-instructor. A pre-Raphaelite gym-instructor if pushed, because according to the writers, she was. I am many things but one of those is not pre-Raphaelite. Furthermore when I began the contract I couldn’t have been further from gym-instructor because I was seven-months pregnant. Lesbian I would avoid because it seemed wrong to emphasise her sexuality as her especially defining feature, and I don’t like to admit to Australian except under contract. So for me, if Billie had an adjective it implied ginger tresses and a faraway look. Which was never in the script.

It didn’t pay many of the bills and there was little kudos involved but it was a good project. Westway was openly instructive. The neatly diverse set of characters set up small businesses, coped with foreign ideologies, learned about each other’s differences and, because it was largely set in a GP’s surgery, shared news also about their diseases and psychiatric conditions. This might sound cack-handed but it was not. It was simple and direct and compassionate and useful. I was proud to be part of it.

The pin-board in our green room was peppered with letters of thanks from listeners around the world. They had strong opinions about the behaviour of some of the characters and they were also grateful that Westway was there for them each week. Their letters had a completely different tone to the fan letters I was used to seeing. There was an investment, there was some implication of a federation between the drama and its listeners, they were not service-users or licence-payers, they were people on the other end of a conversation. I especially remember hearing from a BBC journalist who had been in the refugee camps in Darfur. He returned and made a point of telling the producers that every week when Westway was broadcast, groups of refugees all over the camp would huddle around wind-up radios to listen.

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The Westway Flyover

That was it: a GP’s surgery in West London. Under a flyover. Busy with the comings and goings of all sorts of urban types: lost and slick, assertive and traumatised. All the World. Chirruping out from inside a wind-up radio in a dusty, hungry refugee camp in a part of the Sudan no-one would want to live.

And then it was axed. Axed is the word we use and I think it’s germane here because it did seem sudden and violent and utterly unreasonable.

The difficulty with a programme like Westway and dramas on the World service is that they go out in the small hours here in the UK. Although Westway had an audience of tens of millions they were mostly abroad and mostly voiceless. They were not on the end of a wind-up email address or internet connection. The foreign pleas to continue the service, though many, were not many enough and not influential enough and so in spite of the foot-stamping which would have looked like self-interested job-protecting from us, the cast, Westway went.

Gordon House, a former World Service Drama Producer describes here how when World Service listeners are asked which programmes they particularly remember they will cite dramas and documentaries. Not the news.

The World Service is now planning to axe the meagre rest of the small number of dramas they annually produce as of early next year. Here is a petition.

Please sign because although you may not tune into the World Service (if you are English) – many do and many of those are used to their half of a global conversation being, when it comes to the crunch, the unheard, listen-only half. In recent years especially, many World Service dramas are by untried writers from abroad as well as English, collaborations with people and worlds far from ours. It is about looking out and understanding something outside of ourselves, it is about people across the world looking out.

It is something we do well, it doesn’t cost us much at all and I want us to keep doing it.

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Ice Blocks (Manila 2)

(…cont…) Part Two of a little taste of the Philippines.

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In Manila we take cold showers which would normally be unbearable but are a relief here. After one of these Rob lies on Jo’s sofa in his pyjama bottoms. His skin is rashed from the impossible heat. He is reading, Give me a Home Among the Gum Trees.

He doesn’t want too much cuddling when it is this hot. We stick and it’s uncomfy.

At night he sprawls with arms and legs wide open on a mattress in the kids’ room. Jo’s kids are used to it and sleep easily. When I go to bed I find Robbie whimpering in the dark.

‘It’s so hot.’

‘I know lovely boy.’

‘I can’t sleep.’

I love this heat – even though I have had the most fantastic headache since we arrived here. I don’t think that is so much the heat as the fact that we are on the final leg of a terrifically turbulent trip across the world and back. I love this heat because I am leaving it for a long time very soon. I love it because it has been a hard winter at home and I have been cold for months and months. I love how here you can put your clothes on straight from the washing machine and let them dry on you, how you don’t need many clothes, or bed linen or even food. You can make a sandwich with frozen bread because in a few minutes, the time it takes to get it to the table, it will be thawed. Heat like this makes your body soft – it makes your brain soft too.

The Philippines is a Catholic country. Catholicism and this viscous heat are a strange match. I can’t put the two together. What I know of San Pietro, Michelangelo, those Tuscan roadside shrines – and this impenetrable, slow-moving, insect-heavy heat, does not go together. Italy gets hot but this is equatorial and to my euro-centric view, utterly without reference. This might as well be Mars.

Jeepneys and a suburb

Jo gets an ice block out of the freezer – the kind that goes in an esky – and she wraps it in a wet tea-towel. Rob takes it back to bed mewling a little and cradling it like it’s a hot-water bottle. Only then can he fall asleep.

In the morning, of course, the tea towel is crispy dry and warm and the melted ice-block slurps.

Jo is very sympathetic. ‘It’s a strange place. Everything is strange here. The heat. The smells. Everything looks different.’ I am expecting Rob to adapt expertly to this environment which is so unfair. Even I am a bit in shock.

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Qantas

Yes, and exhausted after Australia. At the end of this week we will spend a day in Singapore. You can drink the water in Singapore and you can get ice cream. And after Singapore we will be home to a cool English Spring.

 


The Ground Relative to the Feet

This is the first half of a little slice of the Philippines.

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Jeepneys in Manila. Public Transport. GI leftovers.

On our way back to the UK from Australia, Rob and I visit my old school friend, Jo, in Manila. She has lived here for years. We are her first visitors outside her family. She has four children and lives in a tiny house with no air-conditioning, no garden and a rabbit. Manila is hot and poor and polluted and noisy. All the white people have drivers and ‘help’ and live in gated areas. Except Jo. She drives their nine-seater family van on roads without lines or laws and they live in a Phillippino area.

The cars here drive in shoals. There is a complete and total lack of order and calm. You cannot even be sure which roads are one way until a truck comes towards you.

Four children. And white. I spend three days with Jo witnessing the most impressive, stoical and acrobatic act of Extreme Parenting I could imagine. Her children are immaculate, creative, articulate and so, so happy.

In Manila, Robbie has to take his top off at every opportunity. He is skinny, like a little raw bird. We go for a swim at the apartment block down the road. We stay most of the day at the pool. He spends more hours in that pool than he has spent in water in the last six months. Including baths. When he needs a rest he finds a warm spot on the concrete beside the water and pillows his head on his arms. I remember that day-by-the-pool pose. That is a happy, restful, sun-filled position – your body on the hot concrete, your arm hanging down, your ear at water level, the rest of the world a general quiet roar away in the back there. The tickling drops of water collecting on your spine and down your chin. The drying bits and the wet bits. The cool on your front when you peel yourself away from the ground to go and find a lounge chair or the heat building up til you to tip back into the pool. The terrible, laughable shock of the cold water. The close silence and distance of having your head under – the distance from everything else.

We leave the pool at the end of the day, the kids are comparing wrinkles when Robbie starts skipping – hopping and zig-zagging all over the road. I have taught him so carefully about roads. ‘Rob! It’s a road! Rob!’ I use my big voice.

As it happens, there are no cars anywhere nearby. There is, however, a principle – so I shout.

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‘Rob!’

‘Oh! Oh! Oh!’

‘Rob not in the road – get off it!’

‘It’s hot! Ow! Ow! Ow!’

Then Jo and I shout ‘Head for the grass!’

He had no idea where to go – the asphalt has been exposed to sun for about 12 hours now. The temperature is in the mid-thirties somewhere – perhaps higher. Even the Philippinos call this hot. I wouldn’t even think of walking barefoot on this road. I didn’t notice he was barefoot. He leaps onto the tiny patch of grass and giggles.

Two weeks ago in Australia he refused to take his shoes off. My sister, who will brook no opposition, muttered, ‘I’ll get him barefoot.’ She succeeded. But it was only two weeks ago and Australia is pleasantly autumnal. Here in Manila you can chew the heat.

‘Why is it so hot?’ He is shocked and laughing. How can a road get hot? A road is a road.

I have spent this last month with him in Australia seeing things he has never seen before. But I am stupid and slow about adjusting to the difference. The road will be hot. You will need shoes. You only need to learn this kind of thing once. I need to learn that it is not enough to know these things – I should also be able to say them.

(…cont…)


What Words to Use

We are driving away from Canberra. M asks if we are going to see the desert.

‘No, we’ll see a lot of bush.’ I say.

‘What’s bush?’

‘The countryside. Outside the town. Where there are a lot of trees.’

‘You mean forest.’

‘No, the bush is not a forest.’

‘Yes it is.’

‘No it’s not.’

‘Yes.’

‘No.’ And then I go into an insistent and ludicrously idealised description of the Australian bush. I talk about the towering, terrifying, cathedral of bush I remember from when I was a child. Like most things we know when we are small, it was a landscape unlike anything I have known since. I know that’s life – not landscape – but I fill it out for him anyway and he is impressed. This will not necessarily turn out to be a good strategy of mine.

When we were in Sydney we walked past some native Australians doing aboriginal dances and posing for photos. I told M these were real native Australians. He laughed and laughed. I couldn’t convince him. I am ham-fisted with the lexicon. I don’t know in what context to use the word aboriginal or if I can use it at all. I don’t know what any of it means or how I am meant to describe it to him.

I was not very comfortable standing there alongside rows of tourists pointing at the native Australian dancers so I dropped it. M and I walked away, he still shaking his head at me like what did I take him for. They were just people with stuff painted on them.

Now a few days later we are driving down the coast to the bushland and beach (Me: ‘Not seaside. Beach’; M: ‘Yeh. Seaside. I know.’) where I spent all my summers as a child. It is fantastic to be out of the city. We have the road to ourselves.

The sky is just everywhere. When the sun is high like this and the sky is as big as it is, you could be flying. I say to my sister who is driving: ‘…it can’t be that it is bigger. It must be that it is just more…’

‘…apparent?’

‘…obvious?’

‘You have more days like this,’ she says.

This one is a corker – a beaut. It is autumn and the temperature is 24 degrees (Celsius). The sky is polar blue – gemstone blue – a rude raw blue. Bigger than church. And like I say, it’s everywhere.

We both point at a spilt mess of milky cloud on the horizon. The only interruption in the sky. Some residue of vapour above the bush in the distance.

‘See?’ we both say as though that illustrates our point.

After a day of this we arrive at my Aunt’s house on the coast. My sister and I have not been here in over twenty years. I get out of the car and search for the key hanging on a stringy bark. I pick my way over the ground, the leaves are inches thick. Prickly things grab and dead things disintegrate under my feet. The key is perfectly camouflaged against the hairy old gum. The bush sighs and whispers all around and there is not a house in sight, just this rusty bit of fence hanging from grey old tree posts.

There’s a whip bird somewhere. Something else makes a knocking call. Giant ferns spill orange fruit out of their centres. The gumtrees are perfectly branchless until the canopy way, way above us. I wrestle a bit with the padlock. The car goes through and I am left behind in the quiet to shut the gate. I pull apart the barbed wire fence pretty easily to climb back through to the car. The house is still a five-minute drive through the bush from here.

M is pushing himself up in his seat and looking all around.

‘Wow,’ he says, ‘wow. Wow.’

Half an hour later we are on the beach. We walked down from the house through the bush. From the sand you can hardly see a single building. The sea roars at us. The bush and rocks, the seaweeds and caves are all colours. There is not a soul in sight.

‘Why…?’ M prepares to ask – not knowing where to start. ‘Why don’t we live here?’

Go and Shoot the Cocky

Birds here shout. I’d forgotten. God they’re rude.

They don’t chirp and sing offstage, they stand up in the front row and shout, they throw things into the orchestra pit, abuse the actors, heckle. Cockies, particularly, sit in the tallest trees swearing at the top of their lungs. They flare their yellow crests over their heads like they are raising their eyebrows in horror.

‘RATBAGS! BASTARDS!!’ They yell. ‘TOE RAGS – ALL OF YOU!’

When I was Australian, gun laws were fairly elastic – now you have to show you are a farmer to own a gun. Farmers need guns to cull roos (native) and cockies (native) and foxes (imports). A close relative of mine is a farmer. He didn’t always use the gun. He would chase after fly-blown lambs in the ute (flatbed utility truck) trying to run them over while we kids rolled about in the back with the fencing equipment and the used cartridge shells.

My sister is describing all this to M. ‘You know what they call it? Shooting cockies?’

‘No’ – he flutters eager eyelashes.

She hesitates.

‘Cocky shooting.’

M chooses not to respond to this signally useless piece of information.

‘I COULD BUY AND SELL THE LOT OF YOU!’ barrack the cockies.

The Magpies in Australia are different to the Maggies in the UK. They sound different. They are regarded as among the gentler of the garden birds and a lot of people prefer them to the native Currawong and the friendless Crows, of course. The Maggies are sweet, it’s true, and they have a song like an old lady gargling. It’s a carrolling, conversational call. The Currawongs, though, ring like bells. Heavy bells. It’s a trilling call but rich and chocolatey. They call on the wing too, so there is often a doppler effect. A Currawong’s cry is a landscape.

My friend Megan and I agree that the Magpie appeals to the Australian Royalist and the Currawong to the Republican.

Give me Currawongs, we say quietly and giggle because we are sitting on her verandah in Canberra, the Nation’s Capital.

When he was a boy, my brother-in-law would visit his grandmother on their farm. The Cockies there would strip the trees and the trees would die. So his grandmother would say: ‘Go and shoot the cockies, Tig?’ And off he’d trot with his rifle and shoot a lot of cockies. The short-haired Jack Russell would race up the drive to collect one and bring it back to the house. M thinks that sounds cool. That was a long time ago, we have to tell him.

My cousin in Tasmania has been warring with the European wasp for years, as many Australians do. They are not native, they have no natural predators and the winters are not cold enough to keep their numbers down.

Sounds familiar.

It’s all about getting the balance. More of that later.

In the early (colonial) days, Sydneysiders survived (largely) not by guns, but by planting. In Tassie, the Gun was Law. Until all the different colonies were federated in 1901 Anything Went locally. Some Governors were very liberal – others were (as they say here) bastards.

The cockies go’…AND SO WERE THEIR MOTHERS!! GW’AN! GET ROOTED! PISS OFF!’ It’s true – they are just bloody rude.

Sydney’s Penguin Colony

‘Yes but equating family with national identity is a sol-(mnmnmnm)-icism, surely.’ says my friend Tom who I haven’t seen for possibly twenty years. We don’t bother to calculate exactly how many or when we last met. We just “pick up” like boys.

I rifle through my inner dictionary. My real dictionary is in my bag and not to hand. “sol-(pluhrpluhr)-icism”…?

I can see the Harbour Bridge from where we are. It is eight at night and the bridge is perfectly lit. It blends with the stars. Yesterday M (7) was less than impressed with the Harbour Bridge. I wonder if an icon’s value is directly proportional to its novelty. M has never seen the Harbour Bridge or an image of the Harbour Bridge so there is no thrill in seeing it for real. It’s a bridge, a bit like the one across the Severn because you can see the sky through a web of metal strings as you drive over, and also because it goes over something – that’s what a bridge does. Also this one has incredibly large flags at the top and incredibly small people under the flags looking at the view. Those people booked three months ago to get up there. That’s pretty fascinating.

‘I don’t know if family and national identity is… hang on… solipsistic? How is that solipsistic?’ I ask, wiping my eyes and my cheeks downwards with both hands. I probably look like a dog.

My eyes are aching and I have a notebook full of literary sludge after 48 hours here. I feel like I had flu yesterday and like I might have a tummy bug tomorrow. Nothing has an outline – nothing has any colour. It hurts to walk and to smile. I long to lie down and when I do I can’t sleep. That flight has siphoned everything I need out of me.

My husband put P (9) on the phone from England when we landed in Sydney. I was walking from customs to the taxi rank in 24 degree overcast heat you could slice.

“Hey Pazzie.” I said.

“Mummy when are you coming home? When are you coming home?”

“Oh Pazzie – twenty-six sleeps…”

“No! You’re not! Not twenty-six! Five!”

“Oh little boy…”

“Five!” He takes a sobby breath. “Four!”

My husband takes the phone after more of this and P has given up, “Sorry, I didn’t know what he was going to say.”

“It’s good he’s cross.” I said.

Pazzie has trouble Naming Emotions. My husband tells me our youngest (5) took two boxes of tissues to bed with him last night. We reminded each other we love each other. We both pressed the red hang-up buttons.

Now sitting here under The Bridge I am frustrated that my head is sore and slow. I only got off the long-haul flight 48 hours ago.

‘Solecism.’ says Tom. ‘It’s a fallacy to put the two together.’

Oh solecism. Those two are a solecism. I think it’s silly, sure, but it’s not crazy, it’s human. I don’t string this or any other sentence together. I’m not sure what we are talking about.

He tells me about the rise in shark attacks in the Harbour. The water is warmer, the bait fish are coming in and the sharks follow. A guy lost a leg recently. Tom talks about seahorses too, how they are small and transparent, camouflaged in the seaweed in the Harbour. Tricky to find.

I caught up with my schoolfriend, Lucy (ten years since I saw Lucy), yesterday who has stopped her marathon ocean swims. “Harbour’s got sharky. The bait fish are coming in.” Lucy described a sea dragon her stepson found – its legs like leaves, how it was only recently washed up so still had its beautiful colours. My brain could not cope with asking what colours those were. It was dealing with the legs.

There is a new baby elephant at Taronga Zoo. Everyone mentions the baby elephant – the vet  to the press that it was dead and how it might take months for the mummified baby elephant to be delivered from the mother – elephants having the gestation period and birth habits that they do – and the next day it was born, standing, feeding and posing for photographs. Artificial insemination and an animal in captivity – it can work and it can boost news sales.

M visited Taronga Zoo this morning with his Aunt/ my sister – he tells me often how far an elephant can pee – and with what force. The novelty and triumph of the baby elephant’s survival was no match for the emus and… the Komodo Dragon.

“3 metres long!”

He has never used the word metres before.

Tom tells me there was a colony of penguins under the very wharf we are sitting last year.

‘Apparently two penguins is a colony,’ he says. We laugh.

Two.

Present-Giving: A Guide

Tim is just back from Bangkok where he lives and writes for most of the year. We miss each other very much.

He says, ‘I haven’t got you a present. Well, I did have a present for you but I don’t now. Let me tell you what it was: I saw these three women a little while ago. They were young and well-built, really big and strong and they were walking together through grass this high.’

We are ordering our coffee. He points to his thigh which is level with some blocks of chocolate tiffin. I really do not need tiffin – even this chunky, glistening homemade tiffin for £3 a handful – but it takes a little effort not to mention it.

‘And they were carrying bags of rice on their heads. Big bags of rice. I took a photo. I had it printed. Sunset. Three women. Grass. Sky.’

He holds his hands above his head to show something like a very large hat.

‘Then they put the bags down against a wall and I went over and I tried to pick one up.’

The cappuccino machine wheezes like a train about to go and he has to raise his voice.

‘And I couldn’t lift even a corner of the bag. Couldn’t lift it.

‘So I thought you could put it on your wall and when you are writing your novel and you get tired of writing your novel and you think why did I start writing this novel? you could look at your lovely picture and think well I could be carrying bags of rice and then you would be happy to go back to your novel.

‘I had it framed with glass and everything and put it in my suitcase. But when I opened my suitcase this morning it was all broken. I tried to fix it but I got jam on it.

He looks sheepish but also delighted.

‘Jam/glass – it was all a bit of a mess so then I thought I’d just tell you.’

‘That’s lovely,’ I say. ‘That’s just as good as a present.’

‘You wouldn’t want to be carrying bags of rice.’

‘No. I wouldn’t be very good at that.’

‘I couldn’t even lift a corner!’

Then the Australian chap gives us our coffees. There is a coffee-milk-coffee pattern on the top of each – they look like a pair of stripey hearts.

Or perhaps onions cut in half.

This is how coffee is poured in Melbourne. We are in Soho, London. Tim is excited about the coffee, which is Australian. Creamy and vanilla-ey, he reckons. He is drinking a lot of coffee because of the jet lag.

When I am tired of writing I will look at the space on my wall and I will think of the three young women. I will think to myself thank you very much.