Saturday, December 12, 2009

A writer retreats

It is April and I am on an Amtrak train speeding along the east bank of the Hudson River towards the town of Hudson, Columbia County, in New York state about two hours north of New York City.

Four hundred years before me, in 1609, the British explorer Henry Hudson became the first European to sail up the 500km river on a quest for the Dutch East India Company. Even though he failed to return to Holland with the spices he sought, his name has forever been associated with the wide river, the city and the beautiful valley that contains it. It is something of a shock, so close to the big city, to sway past wetlands dotted with ibis and the romantic ruin of a fairytale castle on an island just off shore.

Thanks to a grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council, I am headed for a residency at Ledig House, a writers' colony set on 121ha of park and woodland about a 20-minute drive from Hudson. I am to be given free bed and board and perfect peace to work on my latest novel, thanks to the non-profit organisation that runs the colony... read more about my adventures at Ledig House here.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Sarah Murdoch

My article on Sarah Murdoch in this month's Australian Women's Weekly is causing lots of comment. Sarah told me she'd like to go un-Photoshopped and the resultant cover - smile lines and all - is getting mostly positive, sometimes ecstatic, mail from readers. A few comments along the lines of 'she's young and rich and beautiful anyway so what's the fuss?' have lobbed onto the Weekly's website but generally people are relieved that one magazine has taken a stand against the plastication of beauty. I call it Death by Photoshop - the digital technicians seem hell bent on erasing a subject's whole personality and individuality along with the wrinkles and 'flaws'. It is a kind of death. And it makes the photographers lazy. No one, it seems, knows how to light anymore.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A cruise to somewhere past the bridge to nowhere

Way before any of us had heard of Mooselini, I took a cruise to Alaska on the magnificent Silver Shadow and wrote about it for Wish magazine published in The Australian newspaper on October 3. Here's the first paragraph. For the remainder of the story go here.

"It is approaching midnight off the coast of Alaska and the sun has not yet quite set. Less than a kilometre away, the coastline is a torn loaf of bread, spilling small, densely forested islands, like broken-off crumbs into the sea. I lean on the railing of my midship terrace, breathing in the crystal air, mesmerised by the waves that ripple away from the ship as it glides along. I have just consumed a five-course meal with matching wines, but if ever an occasion calls for another glass of champagne, it’s this one."

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Fey Mrs Palin

Pity poor Hillary. (Sort of). Like most female politicians she has struggled over the years to look crisp and serious in the way she dresses for public appearances. Hence those pants suits - businesslike whilst not being butch, and ever-so-slightly suggesting the female form in sky blues and yellows that aren't gender-specific. It's a tricky act to pull off, especially as the scrutiny is blistering, in a way that it still isn't for her male colleagues (unless they're handsome black men). Look too feminine, the argument goes, and you'll be taken as soft. And then comes along Sarah Palin, flashing shapely legs and a tousled, come-hither hairdo, and suddenly paens are being written to her gorgeousness. And, the first heady week, at least, she's being taken seriously! The pit bull with lipstick! The Barbie with balls!

Here's the thing. Sarah Palin's style is pitch-perfect for a female politician. Modern but retro; instanly recognisable as her own. I'm frankly sick to death of those pants suits, on Hillary or anyone else. One might argue that sex appeal has no place in the political chamber. But I disagree. Politicians spend an inordinant amount of time regulating our sexual and procreational behaviour, so why should women kit up as if they're entering a nunnery? If you've ever sat in on a parliamentary or congressional session, you'll note how much it is about pumped-up, testosterone-stimulating male posturing. A few female hormones released into the air is simply redressing the balance. Unsex me now, said Lady Macbeth and, sadly, female politicans, with a couple of notable exceptions (Cicciolina comes to mind) have been taking her advice ever since.

In Australia, we have Julie Bishop, Deputy Opposition Leader, a tiny-waisted blonde with enormous cross-eyed baby blues and a penchant for florals, who is the wet dream of every right-leaning male in the country. It seems to me no one has taken her to task for the occassional glimpse of expensive lingerie peaking out from her substantial cleavage or the excessive attention to getting the flip of her frosted locks immaculately correct. (And why should they?) And yet, our Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has copped a regular serve, as they say, about the perigrinations of her own flamboyant red hairdo.

So, here's the other thing. Feminine and sexy is a strength if you're on the right side of the House, but if you're on the left, it's a weakness. Somewhere in there lies the hoary (or whore-y) old chestnut about strong women being unfeminine - as if you can't be pretty and a feminist too (or right-wing and a feminist for that matter). But maybe the glass ceiling is in fact a glass mirror. I'm sure the inner girl in Hillary would love to wear a figure-flattering frock sometimes, but she's been put on the Pants Suit Express by her stylists and there's no getting off.

Rather than being a sexist issue, I think it's an intra-sex issue. Women are making these judgements about each other as much as men are. It works against men too. Obama is getting flack for being too elegant, too body and health-conscious, vain even. Cranky and crumpled McCain was trumpeted as the Alpha Dog after the first debate. Not because he spent the debate talking over the top of Obama, but because Barry was calm and unruffled and piss elegant. A bit suspiciously poofy, don't you think? And poofy equates to weak.

If more female politicans had frocked up, Sarah Palin would not have seen so unusually attractive to John McCain and the Republican Viagra-chomping set. McCain wouldsn't have exposed himself as desperate and we wouldn't have had Tina Fey... OK, I take it back.

Footnote: This just in from Joan Walsh at "(there is) a recent outbreak of misplaced Palin pity among liberals – the New York Times' Judith Warner, the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, the New Republic's Christopher Orr have all expressed sympathy for the sinking VP nominee. I'm with Traister; I'm not feeling it. Palin "didn't blink" when McCain asked her to join the ticket, didn't think twice, because she's a supremely self-confident woman with a limited worldview, impressed with her own greatness and not terribly curious about anyone else. She reaps what she sows. I'm with conservative Kathleen Parker and Zakaria: I believe Palin would be a menace as commander in chief, and she's got to get off the GOP ticket."

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Duck a la horreur

SO pleased to see Paul Collins' appreciation of Vincent Price's cookbook A Treasury of Great Recipes in today's Slate. I have had the great pleasure of owning a copy of this book for years. Not quite since 1965, when it first was published, but probably since some time in the '80s, when I suppose I picked it up from one of those street hawkers at Cooper Union in New York's East Village. It's a gem and suggest you trawl online second hand booksellers for your very own copy. While Vincent and his wife Mary were true gourmands and the book is a very serious encyclopaedia of recipes from the world's best restaurants, there is a sense of the sardonic running through the pages. Here is part of the chef's own recipe for pressed duck at Paris' famous Tour d'Argent: "The duck used for this recipe must be very young (8 weeks), fattened the last 15 days. They kill this bird by suffocation (strangling) in order to keep all it's blood. (Author's note: This begins to sound as though the Tour d'Argent chef writes my movie scripts!)"

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

More lobbying

I wrote about my fascination for hotel lobbies for Australian Gourmet Traveller in June:

Wish you were here – but not too many of you, as there’s not much room on this brocade couch. I’m sitting in the lobby of the Hotel de Crillon in Paris, researching my new novel, The Woman in the Lobby, which is the dark, erotic story of an Australian woman who finds herself stranded in Paris and survives by picking up rich men in hotel lobbies. During the course of writing this book, I found it necessary to travel the world to check out locations and observe the kinds of things that go on in the lobbies of luxury hotels, which are not only places of transition but often the marketplace for subtle social and sexual liaisons. The research led me to New York, LA, Biarritz, San Sebastian, Monte Carlo, St-Tropez, Cannes, the Maldives, Hong Kong, Beijing, Bucharest, Dubai – and Paris, where I am now, sitting in my favourite lobby, which is not only exquisitely elegant but full of intriguing people.

I’ve always loved hotel lobbies, ever since the time, as young teenager, I waited for hours in the lobby of the Southern Cross in Melbourne for a glimpse of Cat Stevens. I learnt then that patience is a virtue and that sitting still in places where people come and go often reaps the most interesting rewards – even if it is the two-second thrill of seeing the pop star you are in love with as a pair of elevator doors swallow him up. A friend of mine struck up a friendship with Robert Redford in a Monte Carlo lobby and I know an attractive Sydney woman who, recently holidaying in St-Tropez with a girlfriend, was approached by two Qatari sheiks in the lobby of her hotel in St-Tropez and invited to go to Egypt for a party – on the brothers’ private jet. This kind of thing has never happened to me, although I have had a few hopeful teas at the Ritz in London.

Ask anyone you know, and they will have a story to tell about a hotel lobby. Why? Because it can be a stage where you play out your fantasies – or you collide with strangers playing out theirs. As one of my characters says of hotels, “It’s as if we give them a key, not to a room, but to another life altogether. ” The lobby is the first act.

Even if I’m not staying in the swishest of accommodations, I like to dress up and find a suitably interesting lobby to while away a few hours, to “borrow” its glamour for a bit. I prefer the slightly decadent ambience of the European hotels, although the Peninsula in Hong Kong gives them all a good run for their money. I like a comfortable chair and attendants who are unconcerned if you stay all day. They’re very sweet in the Crillon and the crowd that stays here is arty and diverse. I never tire of the little dramas that materialise all day. And if I do, this is Paris. There’s always the George V or the Plaza Athénée.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Spah Spah Spah

My final column in the (sydney) and (melbourne) magazines appeared in April. Here is an edited exerpt:

At the new Chi spa village in the Shangri-La resort at Yanuca, Fiji Islands, they offer a “Dusk till Dawn” spa ritual, where you are guided gently, like a small child, to an ocean front villa, bathed, scrubbed, polished, massaged, fed sushi and chocolates, put into a king-sized bed with the TV remote control (or your partner, as the treatment is available for couples) and then woken at sunrise with breakfast and a facial. As spa experiences go, this is one of the best. But for years, this popular resort offered only basic massages in simple huts on the beach, which was considered the height of bliss. Trouble is, these days, we’re all so darn spoiled that bliss is not enough.

As I was wallowing in my warm bath at the Chi village, watching the sunset, peeling myself a grape, with frangipani blossoms floating all around me, I wondered about this spa thing. Where once hotels attracted clientele with state-of-the-art gyms and heated swimming pools, now they need to build a whole village on a Cecil B. DeMille scale, complete with open air showers and spa pools, fragrant steam rooms, ocean views, lush gardens, therapists trained in the latest Asian healing philosophies, relaxation pavilions, water features, temple-like ambience and products made from plants plucked from the highest reaches of the Himalayas.

A venerable hotel like the Peninsula in Hong Kong devotes a floor of prime real estate to its new Espa, which includes a waiting room where Chinese tea ceremonies are performed, a crystal steam room where lavender-infused air hisses like dragon’s breath from a giant chunk of pink crystal, treatment suites with magnificent views over the harbour and a shower that deluges you with rainforest-temperature water under changing mood lights. Australian Tom McLoughlin, owner of the intimate Huvafen Fushi resort in the Maldives, spends a small fortune sinking his treatment rooms into the coral reef, requiring a mad-genius feat of engineering, so that the experience is like lying in an aquarium, only the fish are swimming around you. The stakes are high. Not having a completely gorgeous spa in a luxury hotel is now as bad as not having clean towels.

Spa. Spa. Spa. We even demand spas in airports these days. And the concept of the “day spa,” an American term for what is basically a beauty parlour with “wet” rooms to allow for scrubs, wraps, Vichy showers and the like, has taken hold here. There are day spas everywhere, full of women (and men) lying on tables slathered in algae, wrapped in foil blankets like roasting chickens or squirming under a sheet of hot rocks heated up in a crock-pot. When you think about it, it’s quite absurd how far we all go to indulge our senses, relax our bodies or neutralise our worries. Is the world outside, beyond the reaches of the Enya soundtrack, so terrible?

It must be, if you consider how busy these places are. For a surprising number of women an appointment at the spa – for a facial or a spray-tan or perhaps a pedicure - is as regular as putting the garbage out. The big travel trend is for girlfriends to holiday together in wellness retreats, such as Chiva-Som in Thailand, for a few days of detoxing. No one really needs any of this, although I’m the first to argue for the benefits of regular massage. The culture tells us we “deserve” to be pampered. Fair enough. But what happens to our spa habit when the economy goes south? Back to egg white facemasks in the bathroom at home? Begging a neck rub from the boyfriend while he watches TV? Or will we live on air and pedicures?

Just asking.