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Australia: Possum Circus

One night as I lay in bed trying to get to sleep, the possums on my roof were making such a din that I yelled at my ceiling … What’s going on up there? Are you in training for the circus? … and then the idea struck for a poem that I quickly scribbled into the notebook beside my bed.

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And here it is (after lots of fiddling for rhythm and rhyme), illustrated by Gabriel Evans, in The School Magazine, for you to commiserate with during those noisy, sleepless nights … Possum Circus.

Please click on the link.

I’d love to hear your possum stories.

And … the possums are still performing on my roof – I think they’re now training for the Possum Olympics!

Possum Circus

Australia: art through the eyes of children

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an artful gallery

The members of the Northern Sydney sub-branch of the Children’s Book Council (CBCA) were in for a treat when they gathered on Saturday morning (19h March) in the imposing foyer of the Art Gallery of NSW.

Approaching its glowing sandstone exterior flanked by mock columns and scribed by the names of the greats of Western art, such as: Giotto, Rembrandt, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, and framed by the parklands of the Domain and Woolloomooloo Bay, this edifice to art commands your full attention.

And it was full attention and imagination needed when we started our Storytelling through Art tour with our vice-president and multi-hatted, multi-talented, Lindy Batchelor. Lindy is a volunteer children’s guide at the gallery, and as writers, librarians and illustrators, we were to become the children on the tour.

a sobering truth

a sobering truth

We started in the oldest wing delighting in the colours and images. At John Glover’s 1838 Natives on the Ouse River, Van Diemen’s Land, we looked at backgrounds, middle grounds and foregrounds; we reenacted the action – fishing, swimming and cooking. Then Lindy showed us a map and told us that many in the painting were the last Tasmanian aboriginals before they were rounded up and taken to Flinders Island.

so much to tell

so much to tell

As we gathered at our next painting, David Davies’ From a Distant Land (1889), Lindy handed out tokens: a letter, candle, a woman’s photo, shoe polish. We each had to tell the story of the painting. As the postman rode away, what was happening in the hut? ‘Look into the shadows; look at his shoes,’ Lindy urged. Relating to the kids on her regular tours, she said it was great, ‘because it teaches the kids to interact; to trust their eyes; to tell their own story.’

Lindy's bag of tricks that she carries

Lindy’s bag of interactive tricks

After looking around the 3-D of sculptures, and discovering unimagined treasures that the sculptor had hidden, we came to another interactive part of our children’s tour. We stood in front of Thomas Cooper Gotch’s 1891 My Crown and Sceptre. Lindy knows exactly how to capture the imagination of children as she seats one of our group, Alicia, on a seat in front of the painting. It is the story of Phyllis (Gotch’s daughter) celebrating the Queen of the May. As we decided what Alicia needed, Lindy dressed her until she transformed into Phyllis. Alicia declared, ‘I feel royal and want to be painted!’

Alicia or Phyllis?

Alicia or Phyllis?

We reenacted Sir Frederic Leighton’s white marble statue, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, and listened to the sounds in paintings: ‘What can you hear?’ Lindy kept urging us on. We looked at shadows cast by reimagined eucalyptus poles and pondered over the spiritual metaphor of such.

At Grace Cossington Smith’s 1928, The curve of the bridge, Lindy brought out a handful of brushes for us to contemplate how the artist would have used them.

a brush with the bridge

a brush with the bridge

We looked at the traditional carvings and paintings on the Pukumani grave posts from the Tiwi Islands, and at John Olsen’s 1963 Five Bells, Lindy urged us to ‘take your line for a walk and see where it takes you,’ before she produced a swatch of blue colours for us to try and connect with the painting.

the Pukumani ceremony is unique to Tiwi - a final goodbye

the Pukumani ceremony is unique to Tiwi – a final goodbye

A final walk through the John Kaldor contemporary gallery found us wondering over reimaginings: the playful and dynamic ways modern artists have used colour. Lindy gave us each a coloured pipe cleaner and we had to twist and weave it to create one of the 87 tin sculptures in Robert Klippel’s display. ‘It makes you look more closely,’ says Lindy.

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wire imaginings

At the end of our Storytelling through Art tour we were thinking how lucky children are today who can have this much interaction and fun with so many treasures in such a magnificent building and with such an expert. If you would like to see what’s on offer for your child or school group, see: http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/discover-art/gallery-kids/

grown-up kids of the CBCA - Art through Storytelling - what a happy group

grown-up kids of the CBCA – Art through Storytelling – what a happy group

Australia: Interval at the Sydney Opera House

One of the most intoxicating views of Sydney Harbour at night is from the northern foyer of the Opera House.

a view from every angle

a view from every angle

As the orchestra breaks for its mid-concert interval, the audience flows to the foyers within this graceful ivory sail.

My exit door is nearest the northern foyer. I sidle along the crimson seats, squeezing past the fat knees of patrons wishing to stay seated. While many line up at the bar for refreshments, I join the throng who gravitate to the topaz glass wing that suspends us towards the harbour. We are a tumble of furs and jeans, bubbly and beer.

the northern foyer waits for sunset

the northern foyer waits for sunset

Below us, on the path lit by sea-misted lamps, a large heart has been fashioned out of tea lights. The inside is bedded with red rose petals. As if on cue, a young man, hand in hand with his girlfriend, walks towards it. He lifts her into its refuge. Presenting a bouquet, he goes on bended knee and proposes.

The back-dropped harbour celebrates as its lights slide and riff across the pewter-stippled water. The Bridge, like the Colossus of Rhodes, straddles the two shorelines. A chain of climbers, headlamps flickering like fireflies, makes its way up the arch. On top, the red light nicknamed Blinky Bill, winks between the dual flags while the water-rippled pylons guard the harbour like golden sphinx of ancient times.

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Across the harbour, Luna Park laughs; its yellow hair spikes and recedes. Within the fun park’s kaleidoscope of colours, the ferris wheel spins like a giant red chocolate wheel.

The harbour is in its evening ritual, its unique version of la passeggiata. Party boats parade their electric light shows. An eerily rigged tall ship glides. Red-lit water taxis flit and flirt with lumbering, ghost-windowed ferries as they chug towards their dark destinations.

Fort Denison sits like a giant plug in the centre of the harbour. One pull and you imagine the water spiralling clockwise to the centre of the earth giving off its final glug as the chill night air is sucked into its eddy.

fort denison

Opposite the Opera House, the Overseas Passenger Terminal awaits its next arrival in spangled colour. Around the curve of Circular Quay the ferry wharves underpin festooned city skyscrapers whose primary colours waver through the water like the tresses of Medusa.

I gaze towards the darkened north shore of Milsons Point and Kirribilli and think of Kenneth Slessor’s 1930s elegy Five Bells where the poet looked “in the dark at waves with diamond quills and combs of light.” Slessor describes the drowning of his friend, Joe Lynch, who fell from a ferry; the pockets of his tattered raincoat chocked with beer bottles. As Lynch struck out for Milsons Point he vanished in the moonlight, “sucked away, in mud.” I watch the lines of longitudinal swells rippling towards the far shore and wonder where beneath is Joe, “long dead who lives between the bells.” Are his bones scattered among other antediluvian secrets in the sediment of this drowned river valley?

Kenneth Slessor's plaque on the Writers Walk at Circular Quay

Kenneth Slessor’s plaque on the Writers Walk at Circular Quay

The bell tolls for the end of interval and I turn with the human tide and return to my seat. Stretching the length of the facing wall is the panoramic depiction of the harbour’s underbelly in John Olsen’s water mural, Salute to Five Bells. It’s an ultramarine manuscript of shifting notations, its lyrical stave blobbed with psychedelic sea creatures descending with Joe Lynch, as he becomes part of the mythology of the bottom of the harbour.

Salute to Five Bells

Salute to Five Bells

Musings aside, I am back within the mellow light of the concert hall for the second half of the program. I’m again ensconced within this majestic ship’s ribs. Although anchored physically to Bennelong Point, as the orchestra crescendos, my imagination sets sail for foreign landscapes, with bowing strings, lilting flutes and floating bells.

Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow,  That I shall say good night till it be morrow. (Juliet to Romeo)

Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow. (Juliet to Romeo)

Japan: Samurais, Shrines and Sacred Forests

As much as I love the bustle of mega cities, like Tokyo, there’s something cathartic about delving into the opposite phenomena. A couple of hours north of Tokyo, and only an hour from Narita International Airpot, where you fly in, take the time to chill out in the Sacred Forest of Kashima Jingu.

There are English-speaking guides at the entrance who will give you a deep understanding of what this 70 hectares of ancient cedar, cypress and cherry trees is about, considering the Shinto shrines scattered throughout were built in 660 BC.

Welcome to Kashima Jingu

Welcome to Kashima Jingu

Firstly, we cleanse ourselves at the small pavilion called the temizuya where we scoop water into our left palms, rinse our mouths and wash our left palms again. Now we are ready to walk beneath the imposing vermillion Romon where my guide enthuses that I ‘feel the air change and sense the spiritual energy.’

Purifying ourselves

Purifying ourselves

As I walk along the winding gravel paths, fringed by ferns and moss-knuckled tree roots I look for the kami – the spirits – believed to inhabit the branches above me.

It’s a day of celebration at Kashima Jingua and there are families everywhere, dressed in exquisite kimonos. Children who are 3, 5 and 7 are being blessed to gain protection from the deities. The god of martial arts is the one enshrined here. His name is Takemikazuchi and his origins go back to the beginnings of sumo wrestling. Centuries ago, the samurais worshipped here to gain their energies from the sun goddess who appeared at dawn.

After the blessing

After the blessing

As well as a deer park, where the resident deers are said to be descendants of the ancient divine messengers, there are ponds and scatterings of haiku scribed on posts – as I found out the Father of Haiku, Matsuo Basho, came here to write almost 500 years ago. There’s a great little cafe where you can lunch on tempura seafood and vegetables along with freshly made soba noodles – and you can watch their making from scratch by Master Chef Mr Sasaki in his glass-walled kitchen.

One amazing place not to miss is the museum at the entrance of the Sacred Forest. It’s an opportunity to get up close and personal to samurai armour over 1000 years old. The armour is made of lacquered wood and leather and their saddles are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. There are helmets with full facial hair and shoes made of fur and feathers. Try and lift the replica 3-metre straight sword, the original is on display and was crafted in the 5th century. You appreciate how strong the samurais were to lift such hefty and unwieldy weapons.

Samurai armour not as big as you'd think

Samurai armour not as big as you’d think