Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Living Abroad Matters Five - Connecting

Friendships, Old and New

It is strange being in the city where my grandfather Matthew Robinson lived. I had visualised Newcastle-upon-Tyne as a tiny town in my limited imagination. In reality it is sprawling city. But the old redbrick buildings are just as they would have been in the thriving mining town of the 1920s when my grandfather drove a double decker bus here.

The story goes that young Matt accidentally hit and killed a child, and traumatised, at the age of 26, migrated to Australia and went bush, cutting off from his parents and four brothers, never to return to England. After a few months hunting rabbits in rural Victoria he headed for Melbourne and got work as a truck driver with International Harvester, a job he kept for 40 years.

Matt never spoke about the accident, carrying a secret burden of guilt his whole life. I am washed by a wave of compassion for the stern, unaffectionate old man I struggled to know as a teenager.

I must go out for a bite to eat. There’s a grinning drunk wandering the hotel corridor in his underwear. Friday night at dusk, the street is teeming with scraggy girls in mini skirts and boots, flaunting thunder thighs and bare midriffs. I dodge the rowdy lads swilling Happy Hour pints to enter the ristorante graced with impeccable Italian waiters. A feast of incongruous local culture.

I’m here for a weekend seminar in the Enneagram, the personality system I have been studying intently for seven years. In an inexplicable full circle I have discovered one of my consuming passions, knowledge that has been a key to understanding myself and others, alive and well in my grandfather’s hometown.

There are ten participants, all women, led by the serene, eloquent and wise Janette who guides us beautifully through an exploration of the traits, beliefs, fears, desires and higher qualities and gifts of the nine types.

In honest one-to-one sharing exercises we get in touch with how we express core issues in our lives; strength, avoidance, the Inner Critic, how we love, performing for approval, hanging onto the past, blocking mental clarity, ways we are supported and sources of real joy.

In the circle, eagerly sharing my knowledge of each personality types’ quirks and foibles, using many amusing anecdotes of people I know as examples, I am confronted with how I misuse the system to judge others, instead of the way it is meant to be used, as a tool for self awareness and growth. So I attempt the difficult task of empathy, entering into the hearts and minds of my family and seeing myself as they see me. Yikes! Not always pretty. I wonder what it was like for my sweet, gentle daughter growing up with a slightly mad mother!

Travelling back to London on the train, I immerse myself in the captivating novel Playing With the Grown-ups by Sophie Dahl, the grand-daughter of Roal Dahl, which plunges me further into the inner world of the sensitive young girl. I realise how much a daughter falls in love with her mother, worshipping her, adoring her, aching for her when she’s not there and how deep the wounds are when the mother inevitably crashes from her precarious pedestal and disappoints her. Sometimes she breaks her heart. I have faith in our ability to heal emotional wounds when we have the courage to unbandage them.

Rewind to the week prior to my weekend of epiphany. The mission: To meet up with Aussie friends Sheila and Kezia at the tail-end of on a nostalgic trip re-connecting with family and friends in the Home Country. The Place: Bond Street Station. Kezia heads off to see her young friend Kimberley and we weave through a narrow lane to the profusion of delightful cafes of St Christopher’s Place and opt for Middle Eastern delicacies while exchanging tourist tips. I catch a glimpse of Sheila’s heavy heart when she tells me about saying goodbye to her elderly dad.

Come Friday night I’m ready to tackle another hot spot listed in my trusty D & K Guide to London. Tonight it’s the Troubadour Coffee House in Earls Court, famous in the 60s for launching Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon but the basement music doesn’t start until 10 pm and that’s cocoa hour for this old folkie. I can barely stay awake for the rockabilly blues. We stagger off into the misty night.

We brave the vibrant Portobello markets in the drizzle and buy succulent cherries, dainty blueberries and plump strawberries, French cheese and crusty bread for tomorrow’s picnic. Regent’s Park is glorious with spring flowers. Sunday afternoon we’re meeting young Aussie friend Malise and new pals, Bea and Jan from Slovakia. They are my first friends from Eastern Europe and they open my mind to a whole other culture.

A quiet Tuesday night yields an unexpected treat. We take a train jaunt out of London east to Essex to meet up with our cherished longtime friend, legendary folk singer Danny Spooner who is performing at the Hoy at Anchor Folk Club at picturesque Leigh-On-Sea.

We wander through the historic seaside village set at the mouth of the Thames gazing at sturdy fishing boats moored in the shallows and devour a meal and a pint at the famous Crooked Billet next to a crackling fire, then head for the club to exchange warm hugs with Big Dan and his luverlie jovial Baby Brudder Mick.

Cockney Dan and Mick and their middle brother Terry grew up in the East End of London and the family, Danny tells me, would jump on the rattler and take a day trip to Leigh-On-Sea. The kids would play on the beach while the grown-ups feasted on cockles and jellied eels in the beer gardens. It is wonderful to see Danny in a place so dear to his heart; a place so replete with vivid childhood memories.

I marvel at how Danny’s unique voice is as rich and powerful as ever, how accomplished he is on guitar and squeeze box, how he spins an evocative story through the rollicking vehicle of a folk song, preserving history and bringing to life characters from the past. In honour of the Aussie blow-ins, Danny sings some ballads reminiscent of the glory days of shearing.

I am impressed and mystified as to how he remembers complicated lyrics. Back in 1985 I interviewed and wrote an in-depth feature on Danny and his beautiful wife Gael for the broadsheet newspaper The Geelong Advertiser. I remember him saying factually, without boasting, that he knew about 6000 songs. He has no doubt added to his phenomenal repertoire in the two decades since. I described him then as a National Treasure. Seeing him here in his home country I realise he belongs as much to England as Australia. In fact, Danny Spooner is a World Treasure, still sparkling, still shining and still going strong.

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