Category Archives: TRAVEL




On 6 June 1928, one hundred and fifty men gathered in London’s Goldsmiths Hall to celebrate the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The guests were men who had served the Dictionary for decades or months or not at all. They ate Saumon bouilli with sauce Hollandaise, and they drank 1907 Chateau Margaux.

Among the guests was Professor J.R.R. Tolkien. He had not yet written The Hobbit, but after serving in WWI he spent a couple of years in the Scriptorium (a grand name for the garden shed where the Dictionary was being compiled) defining words beginning with Wa. We can thank him for waggle and walrus and warlock. I’d like to think he was also consulted on wizard, but there is no evidence of this.

Gentlemen representing The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Manchester Guardian were also invited. As were scholars, editors, clerks, men of the cloth, knights of the realm and a humble school headmaster.

They poured into the Hall and found their places at three long tables arranged in front of another, higher, table. These were the lesser men, though some wore robes and most were in tuxedos. A bell rang and they turned to see the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, being chaperoned by the Prime Warden, Sir William Pope, to the high table. Other honoured guests followed and champagne glasses were filled with a 1917 Pommery & Greno.

I know what they ate because I’ve seen the menu. I know who was there because I have a copy of the seating plan. I also know that there were three people who did not have a seat at any of the tables, but history records their presence in the balcony that overlooks the Hall.

I have had to imagine so much to make sense of why these three were missing from the guest list, and how it might have felt to watch the celebration unfold.

So here I am, on the balcony looking down.

It is a concession to the rules of Goldsmiths Hall that I am here at all, so I should be grateful. I look to my right, and there are the three: Edith Thompson, Eleanor Bradley and Rosfrith Murray. These women have been working on the OED for decades. Few men in the Hall below can claim longer service. Rosfrith is the daughter of Sir James Murray, the first and most celebrated editor. She has been employed to serve the Dictionary since she was 17. I follow her gaze to the high table where her brothers, Oswyn and Harold, sit opposite the Prime Minister. As children, they all helped sort slips containing quotations, but it is Rosfrith who chose to dedicate her life to the project. I look to Eleanor, her wire-framed spectacles make her look more serious than she is. Eleanor is the daughter of Henry Bradley, the Dictionary’s second editor. She has been collating and defining words longer than Rosfrith. And then there’s Edith, my favourite. She is an old woman now and I imagine she is reflecting on the first words she contributed to the Dictionary. Her name can be found among the acknowledgements of volumes from A to Z.

The soup course is served – tortue claire. Perhaps the Prime Minister has a distaste for turtle. He chooses now to make a toast to the editors and staff of the Oxford English Dictionary. He taps his silver dessert spoon on an empty crystal glass. The chime rings loud and clear. The Hall falls silent.

‘Perhaps before I begin I may make a confession about the Dictionary. I have not read it. But if ever a work was destined for eternity, that is it.’

Mr Baldwin speaks for some time. My companions and I lean on the banister of the little balcony, straining to hear. The movement is a relief; the seats are hard and the space cramped.

‘The Oxford English Dictionary is the greatest enterprise of its kind in history, and I ask you therefore to drink to the health of its editors and staff.’

The Prime Minister raises his glass and every man in the Hall does the same. It is a symphony of crystal and there is a jubilant congratulating hum directed towards those who are known to have spent their time defining the words. There are 150 men in that hall and not one looks to the balcony.

I turn to the women. Do they feel this snub as I do? I mime the raising of a glass. They are surprised to see me, but happy to play along. We come together in a silent celebration of the contributions they have made to this great enterprise.

I wish I could tell them that the Prime Minister was right, that the Dictionary was destined for eternity. And I wish I could tell them, that nearly a century later, the women who continue their work have been given a place at the table.



It took seven years and one day for Shannon and me to make the decision to quit our jobs, take the boys out of school and fly to Italy.
For seven years we’d been trying to live the good life, the kind of life that Matthew Evans glides through on The Gourmet Farmer; the self-sustaining bliss of River Cottage. They make it look easy, but we were rubbish at it. We’d planted an orchard, dug a veggie patch and bought a few chooks, but seven years later the fruit was rotting on the ground, the chooks were dead and the sight of zucchini made me want to scream. We had no time for it.



When was the last time you used the word, Repose? When was the last time you even heard it?

Repose is one of those old-fashioned words, like eventide or winsome. It conjures an era when there was time in the day for restful contemplation.

Is that why we don’t hear it anymore? Because we’ve run out of time? Because we’re so busy doing all the things that make up our twenty-first century lives that the moments in between this, that and the other thing are just not long enough? Continue reading AN ITALIAN RECIPE FOR REPOSE


Echo of War in Dubrovnik’s Old Town

Old Dubrovnik is beautiful, but the scars of war remain.
War was not what we expected when we arrived in Dubrovnik’s Old Town.

We had come to walk the medieval ramparts, gaze at the sapphire blue of the Adriatic Sea, and stroll narrow lanes and the wide thoroughfare of the Stradun, stopping for ice-cream whenever the whim took us.

The war that tore apart the Croatian city nearly 25 years ago was definitely not on our itinerary. But war leaves a trace in the fabric of a place, in its people and in its architecture, and while time and international aid have restored the beauty of Old Dubrovnik, scars – faint but permanent – are everywhere.

Luža Square marks the end of the Stradun and is a vision from a fairytale. Watched over by Maro and Baro, two life-sized brass bell ringers in the city’s bell tower, the Square welcomes up to 10,000 visitors a day during peak season, almost all of them day trippers from the many cruise ships making their rounds.

If cruising is not your thing and you are lucky enough to have checked into one of the few hotels, or rented a local’s apartment, as we have (a wardrobe full of clothes and drawers full of knick-knacks included), you will welcome the twilight transformation of the Old Town as the cruisers leave through the Pile Gate to return to their ships.

The centre of Dubrovnik’s Old Town. Photo: Jonathan Cohen/flickr
The centre of Dubrovnik’s Old Town. Photo: Jonathan Cohen/flickr

The centre of Dubrovnik’s Old Town. Photo: Jonathan Cohen/flickr
We are surprisingly few, us over-nighters, and it feels like an enormous privilege to be left behind with all this beauty. The wide limestone paving of the Stradun is worn smooth and shining by tourist footfall (no cars are allowed inside the city walls), and this evening it reflects a gathering storm.

We have planned to walk the wall then find a laneway restaurant for dinner, but when the rain starts we are forced to change our plans. We shelter under the colonnade skirting the Sponza Palace and notice a small sign advertising an exhibit of war photos.

The photos were taken during the Siege of Dubrovnik, in 1991. This history has been asking us to recognise it ever since we arrived. All around the city walls there are large boards recalling the Croatian War of Independence and the destruction of Dubrovnik. If they didn’t exist, you might never know there had been a war here – the city walls have been repaired, the burned buildings have been rebuilt with bright terracotta tiles replacing their shattered roofs, and tourists fill the shining town in even greater numbers than they did before the conflict.

The only reminders are pockmarks from bullets and shrapnel, and sombre plaques of remembrance on unremarkable houses in almost every street inside the thick, but not-so-protective, walls of the town.

 Sponza Palace
Sponza Palace

The photographs line both sides of a narrow stone room in the basement of Sponza Palace. We take our time; the images demand it.

There is one in particular. It is black and white: three men and a dog taking shelter on a stairway between thick stone walls. Where the stairs end it is black, perhaps a door is closed to them; no light comes from it; it offers nothing but its stoop. The men are not related, not even friends, as far as I can tell. There is no connection between them, no eye contact, no reassuring gestures. An old man stands on the top stair. He’s wearing a suit-jacket and tie, and what looks like a black beret over thin hair. His face reveals nothing of his state of mind, but he presses his back against the wall, like a child having his height measured. He wants to flatten himself, sink into the wall’s protective façade, and disappear.

Crouched in front of him is a middle-aged man, though it is only his dark hair beneath a cloth cap, and his ordinary clothes, that hint at age. He bends his head toward his knees, his face is hidden and he is holding his hands over his ears. I can hear the echo of bombs, but they don’t make my heart pound, or twist my bowel like they do his – anyone would recognise his terror.

Then, on the bottom step closest to the corner of the wall protecting them, is a man in polished shoes. His left hand, the only blurred image of the photo, is stroking the flank of an old dog. With his right arm he holds the animal around the head, muffling the fearful sounds. His expression is that of a father soothing a child, pretending calm.

The photographer, Pavo Urban, was 22 when he took these images. He must have stood in the street to capture these men in their fear – except for the soothing hand, the photograph is crisp; time has been taken to focus and achieve depth. He took a risk.

I look back at the other photographs – he took many risks to document the destruction of his beloved city, and to honour the experience of its people. Between two buildings a group stand waiting – is that what war is about? Waiting for something to happen, good or bad?

The ground is carpeted in debris, and dark stains make me think of blood. A woman, not young or old, with a white scarf around her head, leans against the edge of a building – she is peeking around its corner. With the group so far behind her it is as if she drew the short straw. They are all waiting until it is safe to go out into the street – the street where Pavo Urban must be standing.
The evidence is everywhere now. I look from one photograph to another and I can see people cowering or waiting, frightened or resigned, all relatively safe between buildings. The main thoroughfare of the Stradun is empty; not a person, not a dog, just a shroud of smoke or an explosion of fire. And yet, these photographs exist. It was not empty. A young man stood with his camera, shooting roll after roll of film, propping up what was being torn apart.

Pavo Urban was born in Dubrovnik in 1968. In September 1991, he enrolled in a film course at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb, but within weeks Dubrovnik was under attack. Pavo returned home to became a war photographer for the Croatian Ministry of information.

The Siege of Dubrovnik began on October 1, 1991, when the city was attacked by the Yugoslav People’s Army. It lasted seven months, but the heaviest artillery attack was on December 6.
That was the day Pavo Urban took photographs of a smoke-filled Stradun. It was also the day he photographed the plaza in front of Sponza Palace. I look at that photograph now. It is ghostly; a pall of smoke obscures everything. In the centre is Orlando’s Column – we admired it on our way into the Palace. Orlando is the legendary liberator of Dubrovnik, but in the photograph he is protected behind board; like the city’s walls, his sword and shield were useless against bombs and bullets. But the flag of liberty stills flies above it, intact. To me it looks hopeful, but I wonder how it looked to Urban, through his lens.

It is the last photograph he took; the last thing he saw. A moment later he was hit by a shell fragment, and he died at the city gate.
It is almost dark when we emerge from the Palace. The rain has stopped but lightning illuminates the darkening sky above the Stradun. It is an extraordinary sight, and all around us people have their cameras out ready to capture the next explosion of light for their holiday albums.

Our camera remains capped; our mood is solemn.

Through his photographs, Pavo Urban has shown us more of Dubrovnik, its people and emotional heart than we ever would have discovered alone. We stand, for just a moment, in remembrance.
Then we walk away from Luža Square and into the city’s network of tight lanes, grateful for the peace they now enjoy.

Dubrovnik, 1991, by Pavo Urban
Dubrovnik, 1991, by Pavo Urban

Getting there

Major airlines, including Qantas, fly regularly to Dubrovnik from Sydney, Melbourne, and other Australian cities.
Jadrolinija  operates an overnight ferry service from Bari in Italy to Dubrovnik from $75 per person.

History abounds in Dubrovnik. Photo: Jodie Vidakovic
History abounds in Dubrovnik. Photo: Jodie Vidakovic

Places to stay

There are few hotels in Dubrovnik’s Old Town, but plenty of apartments.
At the top end, St Joseph’s is a boutique-style hotel in a beautifully renovated 16th-century house. Rooms start from around $250 per night.
An apartment or B&B is the cheapest option if travelling as a family or in a group and has plenty of options inside and outside the Old Town walls.
The Dubrovnik Youth Hostel is a 15-minute walk from the Old Town and a dorm bed will cost around $25 per night.


The Dubrovnik Card will save you time and money if you plan to see a number of Dubrovnik’s main attractions, including the city walls, the Rectors Palace and various galleries and museums.
Sponza Palace is open daily and, while there is a small cost to see some parts of the Palace, the photographic exhibition of the Defenders of Dubrovnik is free.

Published in In Daily, 16 June, 2015


The Sweet Smell of Poverty

I love trains. Inside and out they reveal so much about a place and its people.

The train from Rome to Naples is hot and crowded, a far cry from the air conditioned comfort of our journeys north. Before we even start moving, scents of life begin wafting through the carriage. Italy is suddenly more interesting (and a little smellier). As the train idles a man makes his way through the carriage leaving notes written in English on the window sill of each seat.

He leaves the flowery scent of expensive eau de cologne in his wake, so I am surprised to read his note and learn that he cannot find work and needs money to feed his three children. I dig around in my bag for change.

Then it occurs to me that this beggar might be playing us tourists for fools. How many people on the poverty line can afford expensive eau de cologne?

When he passes through the carriage the second time, I look away like everyone else. Only the pleasure centres of my brain register his existence as the sweet scent of jasmine cuts through the train’s assorted odours.

An hour later the open windows have brought a breeze and the drift of acacia blossom to clear my mind. I recall a recent visit to a perfume shop where I pretended to browse the shelves with the intention to buy.

I sprayed the tester of Chanel No. 5 liberally on my wrists, neck, the full length of my scarf. I wanted this sweet smell to override all other smells that were being harboured in my clothes and skin. I hoped it would last for days, I prayed it would last for weeks, I fantasised it would impregnate my back pack. Alas, hope, prayer and fantasy are no substitute for a real bottle of perfume. After a day the magic had worn off.

On the train, it occurs to me that the beggar may have entered a parfumerie and used a tester. So perhaps he does deserve a little loose change for his hungry children. I’m beginning to realise that a clear conscience in Italy is no more than the price of an espresso.

Published in The Australian, June 30, 2012