46 Great Opening Lines: 12

I had never seen so many white coats in my little room.

Opening line of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, translated by Jeremy Leggatt

When Jean-Dominique Bauby wakes from a coma after a stroke, he’s surrounded by medical staff. He can’t move much of his body, just his head and one eye. By blinking it, he communicates with a speech therapist and dictates this book.

The diving bell represents his body confined and greatly restricted with Locked-in Syndrome. The butterfly is his mind taking flight, as it used to before the stroke when he was the chief editor of Elle, a French fashion magazine.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is amazing. Short and elegant, both the original and the translation. Highly recommended.

I thought about butterfly freedom this morning when I came across these two embracing beauties clinging to the fig branch in my garden. You see? Sometimes even a butterfly can be confined and restricted.

Orchard swallowtail butterflies, Papilio aegeus

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Changing Seasons: November

This weekend I went to a kind of food fair, a Taste of Braddon, a suburb that some are calling the hipster suburb of Canberra. A couple of streets that not long ago were the place to go if you wanted to buy or repair a car have now been transformed into the place to eat hip food all day, drink coffee in the mornings and anything else you’d like in the evenings.

A Taste of Braddon is happening because it’s November, it’s warm, and the foodies of the inner suburbs are happy to be out in the sunshine. The ice cream limousine is sure to attract a lot of customers, even if it’s just for a look.

I would have been more tempted to buy a cone full of gelato if I’d not just finished a large cappuccino made by Ben the barista (my son) from the Lonsdale Street Roasters stall. The colourful shop-in-a-limo attracted a lot of children (not that they could have bought an ice cream without a debit card…). But isn’t it a great idea? One thing was curious: the fridge was running on a generator sitting on the grass off to the right, but how did they transport it without it all melting?

Only one more month to go in Cardinal Guzman’s seasonal photo challenge. Check out his Norwegian Oktober.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 10

Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, where the right way was lost.

Opening line of Canto 1, “Hell”, The Divine Comedy, Dante, completed 1320, translated by Charles Eliot Norton.

 

Dante has lost the “right way” and hopes to find it before he grows old. But he begins his work “Midway upon the journey of our life”, that is, when he was about 43, though it was not midway for him; he died at 56.

Many of us live long past 56, though some old people seem to be still in the dark wood that comes with weariness and a tired mind, a thought that occurred to me this week in the National Gallery of Australia where thirteen old men in electric wheelchairs are rolling around a room aimlessly, dozing, sleeping, or staring into space. They’re not real. They’re an exhibit by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, “Old People’s Home”, part of the Hyper Real sculpture exhibition.

Unlike Dante I’m not in a dark wood turning over thoughts of hell, purgatory and heaven. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to purgatory, but I’m not so certain I won’t end up in its earthly counterpart as a model for the two Beijing artists when they create the female version of Old People’s Home.

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Changing Seasons: October

In October around Canberra there are fetes and fiestas and spring celebrations. This one is called Party at the Shops.

It’s on today. There are dancing schoolgirls, a big band and sausage sizzle, Thai food and a jumping castle. There’s also a home-made lemonade stand. Note that the signs don’t just offer lemonade. Let’s hope the preschoolers visiting their stand can’t read, or else they might ask for Carlton Dry or Iron Jack lager or rum or whisky or Vodka Cruiser.

The weather is superb, perfect for dancing outdoors. The girls danced to Michael Jackson (above) and Bollywood (below), and in between there was an umbrella dance to Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. Note the fairness of their skin, the result of being covered up for months during the long Canberra cold season. Quite a contrast to coastal skin which is, on most people in this country, tanned.

Thanks to Cardinal Guzman for the Changing Seasons inspiration.

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Changing Seasons: September

On 1st September the Australian spring officially sprang. While those north of Canberra may think it might as well still be called winter down here, the inhabitants of this capital can see the seasonal signs that temperatures are slowly slowly creeping up.

Before yesterday, before 6.12am yesterday, I could’ve said I’d lived in Canberra for 20 years and had never seen the sun rise over Lake Burley Griffin. Now I can say I have. I rose at 5 to get to the lake for the ephemeral moment of joy at 6.12. It wasn’t the cloudy, fiery sunrise of the previous morning (see Brand New Day), it wasn’t breathtaking like the dawn seen by rowers in winter fog. There were no orange clouds and no pastel mist; it was an absolutely clear sky giving me a brilliant start to the day. Sure, the temperatures were not springy. It was 3 degrees when I left home at 5.45, barely 1 degree down at the lake, then after an hour of sunrise-watching it had warmed up to 4, but back home it was down to 2.

Still, this post is about the signs of changing seasons. If the dawn temperature has improved little since winter, it’s evidently spring when the trees are slowly putting on their new clothes. Some even burst out in flower before leaf. A close look at the branches highlit by the new sun reveals tiny prunus bouquets here and there.

Moments before sunrise,  facing the moon
Sunrise, Lake Burley Griffin. Two long shadows, one is a tree, one is me.

That moment when the ball of fire that is our sun appears in full over the horizon is always a head-turner. It’s hard to believe I didn’t feel the earth move even though it did.

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The Changing Seasons photo challenge comes from Cardinal Guzman.

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If you’d like to receive a notice about my new posts, add your email address to the subscription box on the right. In the real world I don’t like being followed, but in the blogging world it’s generally a very good thing. So follow me.

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Brand New Day

This is the first post on my new blog, soundslikewish the sequel.

I had a good start to the day when I woke at 6am and saw the white curtains glowing pale orange over the east-facing window. I zipped out to the back yard to see a fiery sunrise. Of course I had a camera in my hand…

It’s also a day when I’m beginning a new translation requested by a publisher, though I’ve just this minute received a warning from the Australian Society of Authors about the offer. Has the publisher provided me with a contract? No. Well then, proceed with extreme caution. That’s the advice I’m heeding as I cautiously take the French story about Pierrot and Polichinelle down to the local café, translate it, drink a cappuccino and eat a croissant.

Later today I’ll think about asking for a contract. Unless there’s a brilliant sunset and I’m drawn away from the tedious details of life to admire the beauty of the sun that will rise and set no matter what we humans do.

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James Burley

I have often thought that many a youngster when he was hit out there on the Passchendaele heights … and he knew that the end had come – must have thought to himself: “well at least they’ll remember me in Australia”. C.E.W. Bean

We all have ancestors but not all of us study their lives. I do, but I don’t know whether I’d recommend it. Many of my ancestors died young, which means I’m a descendant of the few survivors. And every young loss has a tragic story behind his or her death.

Two brothers who enlisted in the army together, numbers 5046 and 5047, James and Frederick Burley, were my great-grandmother’s cousins. Both of their lives ended in France in 1917. Frederick was never found.

But James was wounded in one of the horrific battles in Passchendaele near Ypres in Belgium, died in hospital in Rouen, France, and is buried there. This week, news articles are appearing about the commemorations of the hundred years that have passed since the Ypres battles. By coincidence, James Burley had his name projected onto the Australian War Memorial last night. I was there to see it for the 30 seconds it was shining on the facade of the building.

Like many Australians, I have descended from a convict ancestor, Joseph Burley, who was transported to New South Wales for trying to sell a stolen watch. Seven years he got. Pretty harsh penalty for a pretty petty crime.

Frederick and James Burley were his grandsons.

James was wounded on 20th October when his battalion was fighting near Zonnebeke in the region of Ypres, where 30 mm of rain had fallen two weeks earlier. Not only was the ground wet from heavy rain, but parts of the battlefield were swamp or reclaimed swamp, and digging and shelling only produced more water.

View of the swamps of Zonnebeke on the day of the First Battle of Passchendaele. Ruins of Zonnebeke church in background. Photo from Australian War Memorial taken on 12th October 1917.

Note from War diary for James’ 47th battalion, 12th October 1917: Country almost impassable being very boggy and shell holes full of water… Weather very bad, cold, raining… Men’s feet very sore owing to continually standing in shell holes full of water…

James died seven days after he was wounded. He was 32 and had got married the year before.

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This is the last of my relatives’ names to be projected onto the War Memorial. Five in all.

I have so little to complain about.

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Nervous

We arrived at the ruins of the burnt-out observatory at Mount Stromlo before the sun set yesterday, excited about the performance we were about to see: “Nervous” by the Australian Dance Party, an hour of contemporary dance, music and lighting.

At eight o’clock, inside the structure in the light of the early evening, four dancers began their interpretation of the inner turmoil of nervousness, while the audience waited outside in anticipation, peeking in through the doorway. At last we were invited into the space to find a chair or floor cushion to settle into for the performance as the dancers slowly and aimlessly walked about the circular centre of the floor, confronting each other and almost colliding, wondering about the thing that was making them nervous.

And then they seemed to come together in harmony and moved as one.

Once the audience was comfortably seated, the dancers picked up speed, and the idea moved from wondering to worrying. The nerves were back in control, and we soon learnt why, through the dialogue of the blonde dancer: “Hey, there’s something I really need to talk to you about.” We heard it over and over in different phrasings, as she talked to herself or moved up to the audience and addressed them directly. Hello, there’s something…. No. Hey, how are you? There’s something I… No. Ahhhh, there’s something I really… No. Ughhh, just act natural… Why is this so hard?…

And as she practised her speech, the other three were her conscience, the angels and devils telling her she was doing it right and doing it wrong and she was hopeless at this but had to do it anyway. The four became one conscience and approached the audience, and again the blonde spoke, Hey, there’s something I really…, while a second dancer held her breath, another writhed and the fourth groaned painfully. All of that stuff that goes on inside us while we’re trying to appear calm and in control.

Eventually the nervousness conquered its victims and they could do no more than lie on the cold concrete floor in the purple light of defeat…

Over all of this movement was the intense electronic music composed by Ben Worth (my son), pulsating and vibrating and making us physically vibrate with it. It was loud and soft and occasionally absent but it always returned. And there was Robbie, the lighting guy up there on the platform with Ben, playing his lights over the dancers as darkness descended. Robbie’s light show became one of the players playing with the dancers’ nerves.

Ben, left, and Robbie, right, on the platform behind one of the old concrete arms that supported the telescope in the past.

By nine o’clock, the sky above the roofless structure was black and starry with a crescent moon and nearby Venus growing brighter by the minute. Some cords from the floor became a prop that lit up and tangled about them, winding around and wrapping them up. The music stopped, the darkness was almost complete. Someone began clapping, and we realised this was the end.

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Flâneuse

A flâneur? In a 19th-century dictionary he’s a loiterer, a lounger, an indolent man spending his time idly. In contemporary dictionaries he’s a loafer, an idler, a stroller, a dawdler, an ambler, a laggard.

So many options to describe a man who has no timetable, no destination. Doing nothing, going nowhere. Apparently.

Yes, a flâneur in French is a man. But a woman, too, can loiter and lag. She’s the flâneuse.

Strolling the streets of my city, observant, detached, armed with a small camera, watching for someone who’s not like the others, I occasionally play the part of the flâneuse, capturing a few colourful characters in this city. But their colours can distract. Here I’ve removed them.

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I love hair. My trigger finger itched when I saw this man who hasn’t seen a barber for some time. I stopped and loitered as flâneuses do. It was lunchtime and his eye was on a small charity barbecue stand while my eye was on his hair. I bet he’s an interesting bloke.

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Within minutes I came across another one who avoids the barber. With his long white hair and beard and his black scarf and coat, he loses nothing in a conversion to black and white. He’d been to the sausage-sizzle stand and was sitting down for a lunch break.

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Not far away I spotted another long male ponytail, plaited. Whatever he was saying, it amused his companions, the woman handing out The Big Issue free magazine and the bloke with a can of Mother and an attitude.

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On my way home my ears were tickled by a busking guitarist who plays here frequently and brilliantly. A busker with a ponytail. His head was bent low over his guitar, eyes fixed on the strings, but when a passer-by threw a few coins into the guitar case and stopped to watch, the guitarist looked up and sort of smiled, as tickled by his one-man audience as I was by his music. I dropped some money into the guitar case. He had earned it.

The Daily Post challenged us this week to become flâneurs. As I ambled and wandered – not aimlessly nor idly – observing people in front of me, across the street, under a tree, against a wall, I concluded that not all of us are forgettable.

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Weekly photo challenge: Look up

Friday was grim, grey, an on and off drizzly day. My latest translation had been rejected. My weekly gathering of friends had been cancelled and no one told me. I was more than half-way through The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and had to escape from that dark story.

So, grabbing my umbrella, the one made by Pep’s in Paris when I was a brief neighbour of the small business, I walked out into the great outdoors. I’ve rarely used my Parisian umbrella in this city of more sun than rain. But this winter, it’s wet.

I looked up and saw this spidery mesh of branches.

Wet wintry walk, CanberraIt didn’t make me feel better. But I kept walking, my gloom burning off with each step. As I turned down a bush track, I looked up again and saw this Sulphur-crested cockatoo flying up to the branch above my head. I felt a little love for the world. Even gratefulness for the rain.

Sulphur-crested cockatoo in gum treeBack home, I had to prepare a lesson for a student for the next morning. It was to be poetry, something not too deep, not too obscure, something which might have meaning for her. I selected The World by William Brighty Rands, a poem I’d never read, by a poet I’d never heard of. After Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde had earlier dragged me down, I was pleasantly relieved to read about The World according to Rands. His poem lifted me, and things began to look up.

Great, wide, beautiful, wonderful World,
With the wonderful water round you curled,
And the wonderful grass upon your breast –
World, you are beautifully drest.

The wonderful air is over me,
And the wonderful wind is shaking the tree,
It walks on the water, and whirls the mills,
And talks to itself on the tops of the hills.

You friendly Earth, how far do you go,
With the wheatfields that nod and the rivers that flow,
With cities and gardens, and cliffs, and isles,
And people upon you for thousands of miles?

Ah, you are so great, and I am so small,
I tremble to think of you, World, at all;
And yet, when I said my prayers today,
A whisper inside me seemed to say,
“You are more than the Earth, though you are such a dot:
You can love and think, and the Earth cannot.”

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Thanks WordPress for the Look up photo prompt.

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