August 31, 2010

The Magpie family

On 18 August Simon confirmed that at least one chick had hatched in Mrs Magpie's nest in the bottle tree. Mrs M had been spotted bringing in food supplies. Four hours later, two 'craning, scruffy-looking grey chicks' were confirmed. They seemed quite large already, my friend reported, so he doubted there was room for any more. Soon afterwards, however, there did appear to be a third chick.

A couple of days later, I received another report. Both Mr and Mrs Magpie had been observed (he with a bright white back-of-neck, upper tail and shoulders, hers grey) coming and going to the nest, bringing in food. My research since suggests Mr may have been bringing food for Mrs rather than the chicks. The parents also seemed to be clearing out the nest. If there are any Australian Magpie specialists out there who can confirm this behaviour, I'd be grateful. 20 August saw almost continuous rain in Brisbane for several hours. Mrs Magpie sat over the nest acting as an umbrella while Dad sat on the sidelines (a branch to one side of the nest where I have seen him sit since), as if wondering what to do. His chief job of course is to protect the new mother and her babies, and any other females with newborns in his patch.

This was very exciting news and I couldn't wait to get back before the chicks fledged. Incubation of the eggs lasts about 20 days, and the young stay in the nest for about four weeks after hatching.

There's now a lot of activity. The chicks are clearly visible, practising wing-spreading but within the confines of the nest. They're also preening themselves. They rear up to such an extent at times that they seem about to hop on to the branch alongside the nest where Mr Magpie sits. And there are definitely three. Mr and Mrs, especially Mr, seem less in evidence. It cannot be long before the chicks venture out...

I really never thought I'd become a birdwatcher.

August 30, 2010

Which way's home?

Last weekend we went exploring Tamborine Mountain, a volcanic peak that's part of the Scenic Rim, an hour south of Brisbane. In the tourist information office, where I had collected a map and instructions on where to find the best views, the lady asked me, as they do, where I was from.
'Well, originally, the UK,' I replied, as if I'd lived in Oz for years.
'Yes, yes,' she said, chivvying me along. It was clearly the wrong answer, and this lady was obviously deeply intuitive.
'I live in Brisbane,' I added, meekly.
'Thank you,' she said, with a beaming smile.

As my trip back home approached, during June and July, I described it as exactly that: I was about to go 'back home' for my daughter's birthday. (I have noticed that my friend talks of 'going back' but he does not add the word 'home', although he would doubtless attribute neither conscious thought nor significance to his choice of words!) While I was in the UK, many people asked me the same question: did I feel as if I was coming home as I flew from Brisbane to London, or was I merely on holiday in England and would be returning 'home' to Australia after three weeks?

It was a difficult question. I'm not sure I can answer it even now. As the plane approached London at the end of a tedious 26 and a half hours, I was strangely elated. I can't remember ever feeling excited about returning to London from foreign parts before, it usually signifying the end of an excursion. I took pictures out of the window like a first-time tourist. I loved the first view of English soil in gaps between billowing clouds. A most unexpected reaction. How much of it was delirium from lack of sleep or relief in the knowledge I would soon be out of confinement and on terra firma I do not know.
It was wonderful to be greeted by my family at the airport and then a succession of friends during the first few days. My cats were rather less than enthusiastic, which hurt, I can tell you. I was staying in my house, where my daughter and her partner are now living. I was in a spare room, which felt not the least bit odd. So, in effect, that made me a visitor, and I was quite comfortable with the fact.

As time went on, I got more used to being back. I spent a few days in London and even found myself doing a day's work back 'at the office'. To recreate the experience right down to the last last detail, I even left late (and on a Friday evening, too)! I spent relaxing days with my girlies at a spa, and we had lots of family meals, something I've missed. As my departure date approached, the idea of leaving them again became daunting. As I wandered around Meadowbank (below) with my remarkable aunt, Lilian, I couldn't bear to wonder when we might walk our familiar circuit again.
And here's a similar spot on Bulimba Creek in eastern Brisbane. It seems apposite to include it here and now... (And it will confirm everyone's preconceived notions about weather in the UK and Australia.)
On the plane 'coming home' to Brisbane, I was sitting next to a first-timer to Australia. She was visiting a mate in Bris. I enjoyed saying, when she assumed I was also going on holiday, 'No, I live in Brisbane.' I have long wanted to live in a different country from the one I was born and raised in, and now I'm doing just that. I also really loved being able to answer her questions like an old-timer. What are temps like at this time of year; how long would it take to get through immigration at the airport; how long does it take to fly from Brisbane to Cairns; how expensive is it to go clubbing (actually, I didn't have a clue about that one).

It was lovely to emerge from airside and see my friend carrying flowers and a wide smile. The Gateway Bridge was still not fully operational... and the streets of Murarrie were strangely deserted, at not even 10pm. The next day was fine and clear... and we were off to David Jones at Carindale. Ah yes, I'm back... those endless waits at traffic lights. The next day was fine and clear... and we were off to the Powerhouse market. We sat on the grass drinking coffee and watching Australians meet and greet and busy about in the warmth. As we waited for the Cat at New Farm, I noticed a slightly different quality of the light. It was more intense, somehow, and dripping with the promise of heat. The blue was bluer. It's spring in a couple of days.

Many people come to Australia for a couple of years and are still here after 20. Will I be one of those? Right now, I doubt it. I definitely came home a few days ago, but to very much a temporary one, as yet. I am confident I'll be happy to call Brisbane home for a while, even a few years, but I'm not one of those people, I suspect, whose home is wherever they lay their hat... even if there is a rather stylish straw fedora in my wardrobe.

And they do say you cannot become a Queenslander; you have to be born one.

August 15, 2010

A foreign posting

I sit writing this at the end of a day intended to include more pampering (my daughters and I have already spent two days at a spa celebrating the youngest's birthday). We were headed up to West London for a pedicure with a difference: immersing the feet in one's own individual water tank full of small fish (Garra rufa, aka nibble fish) keen to feed on dead skin for lunch. Signal failure on the District line scuppered the plan somewhat. We arrived late: my daughters were able to share a free appointment slot half an hour later, but my feet missed out on this tickly fishy treatment. Another time, perhaps, but I may have to wait. C'mon Australia, it's not weird or disgusting. There are so many spas there: somebody, somewhere must offer this soon? (Please let me know if you do.)

We dashed back to Dorking, later than planned. My eldest daughter was off to a wedding after-party; the soon-to-be birthday girl had plans of her own; and I was left to my own, hopefully quiet devices. The last week or so has been hectic: to Norfolk to visit family; to London to see friends and former colleagues on the London newspaper's magazine; and catching up with my Dorking pals. I even sneaked a day's work into a packed schedule.

All day I had been relishing an evening of catching up – on diary writing; emailing; checking the results of the first day of Premiership and Championship football action; and reading the Aussie press and the
BBC's Sydney correspondent, Nick Bryant, on the latest election developments back in Oz. But suddenly, a desire to blog instead. Millie (small black and white cat) sits beside me, having got used to the fact that I'm back. I look out of the casement window beyond my computer and the sun is still glinting through the trees, low in the northwestern sky. It is 8pm. How I miss light summer evenings when I'm in Brisbane. A true child of the temperate zone. I must confess, however, to having long argued for the abolition of daylight saving time (known as British Summer Time, or BST) in the UK.

While I've been away from Brisbane I've missed the
Ekka, the Royal Queensland (agricultural) Show. My friend has reported that is well worth a visit in order to appreciate Queenslanders' idea of a fun day out and to witness the farming community putting on a show to 'bring the country to the city'. It is considered to be such an important part of Southeast Queensland life that many people are given public holidays so they can attend. And these are staggered, presumably so the Show is never so rammed you can't move nor the roads so jammed you can't escape. Next year I will see the Show for myself, unless I've been persuaded by Animal Activism Queensland that it perpetuates a romanticised view of where our food comes from and is in breach of welfare regulations for cute little furry animals. (Why Ekka, are you wondering? It used to be called the Brisbane Exhibition. Ex. Ekks...)

My friend tells me that, with the exception of a couple of days of downpour prior to the Show, the weather in Brisbane has relaxed into what, they say, August is all about – settled sunny days. (Here in the UK it has been very warm, but now it's very wet – more typical August weather.) And I've missed Tony Abbott's display of how not to be 'a tech-head'. He was being grilled about the Opposition's plans for improving Australian's sluggish broadband network by veteran political commentator Kerry O'Brien, whose style has grown on me enormously since I've lived in Australia. The aspiring PM did not appear unduly concerned that he was unable to discuss peak-speed capability. Well, this is the man who dismissed the idea of anthropogenic climate change as 'crap'.

It is now a beautiful Sunday morning, 15 August. I have just returned from a run over the Downs in hazy sunshine. The perfect temperature for running. Much to my surprise, there were
Chalkhill Blues still fluttering by. And I spotted Field Scabious (below), Cow Parsley, Sloe berries, still-red blackberries, thistles, Sweet peas and Mombretia, which I remember from Cornish cliff walks as a child.

My thoughts this weekend, however, are with the family and friends of Ella, a 24-year-old who lost her life not far from
Dorking on Friday night when she crashed her car in torrential rain. My eldest daughter has known her since their first day at school, aged five. I hadn't seen Ella for a good while but bumped into her a few days ago in the high street. I was introduced to her delightfully smiley, big-blue-eyed six-month-old, Teddy.

A beautiful yet awful morning.

This post was last updated on 15 January 2012

August 2, 2010

Election special

What do Mother’s Day and general elections have in common? I’ve had two of each this year. Whereas the first of these events has very pleasant connotations - I had lovely greetings from my girls on the UK’s Mother’s Day in March and then from my son (in Victoria) on Aussie mums’ day in May - the second is distinguished by the fact that, by the time I return from a trip to the UK at the end of August, I will have missed both and voted in neither. Not for want of trying in the case of the first, in the UK in May, and because I am not entitled to vote in the Australian election on 21 August.

When Julia Gillard became Prime Minister on 24 June in an infamous and recriminatory ‘bloodless coup’, there was great excitement. She is Australia’s first woman PM. (How much of this politically correct excitement there was among Aussie Blokes in the outback is impossible to gauge.)

Overnight, literally as far as the public were concerned, the Australian Labor Party removed Kevin Rudd (we live in his Griffith constituency) because polls were suggesting that he had lost the support of a sufficient number of Australian voters to put Labor’s re-election later in the year in jeopardy. There were lots of mutterings in the media about ‘the Gang of Four’, ‘the Labor machine’, and ‘numbers games’ played, doubtless in smoke-filled back rooms and definitely late into the night. Ms Gillard had been Rudd’s number two and seemed efficient, articulate and, it transpired, ruthless.

While still, she hoped, in her honeymoon period - which is an interesting concept, since she is also the first Australian Prime Minister never to have married - she called an election for 21 August to get a mandate from the Australian people.

July 25th saw the one and only Leaders’ Debate. On such occasions, some TV channels use a market research analysis tool affectionately known as The Worm. This reveals some of the audience’s reaction to comments made by the speakers on a line graph on screen, which moves up or down through time. We watched ABC (like the BBC) which didn’t have any worms. But other channels’ worms revealed that women didn’t like Tony Abbott (leader of the Liberal party) and men didn’t react well to Julia G. Anyone who’d read a newspaper or listened to news radio in the previous 10 days knew this already. Political pundits gave Ms Gillard a narrow ‘win’.

During the following week, however, a different creature crawled out of the woodwork in the form of disgruntled leakers of Cabinet secrets that suggested Ms Gillard had opposed some Labor legislation she had claimed credit for. You can imagine how much speculation there has been as to the source. Gillard’s ratings have plummeted and Abbott is now in the lead in the polls. As Labor panics and Abbott takes advantage, there are three exciting weeks to go in this race to capture Australia’s political middle ground.

Differences we have noticed in campaigning here are that far fewer ministers and party leaders seems to speak on the campaign trail, or maybe the media just don’t cover them. It is largely down to Big Ears and Ranga. But most interesting is to see Labor and the Libs promising money hand over fist without any use by commentators or journalists of the word bribery. As the world over, announcements are made in appropriate locations. So Mr Abbott stood in a fish market in Mackay and assured his listeners that if the Liberals won the election, he would make sure that the Fisheries Minister had just as much say as the Environment Minister in deciding which marine areas should be protected, suspending the marine bioregional planning process. And there is, as ever, a generous helping of babies in photo opportunities.

And the hot topics in this election? Taxation and what to spend the money on, health funding, industrial relations (known here as WorkChoices), pensions (known here as ‘super’), paid parental leave, and – out of all proportion in every respect – how to ‘stop the boats’ bringing asylum seekers. Despite a recent abortive attempt to introduce a carbon emissions trading scheme, conspicuous by its absence (just as in the UK election) is any significant action on climate change and the reduction of Australia’s huge carbon footprint.

At my Pilates class the other day, I asked how many of the assembled group were excited about the forthcoming election. They're normally a lively, chatty lot, but there followed a deafening silence.