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Fiona Graham-Mackay



  • Writer's pictureFiona Graham-Mackay

Australia 2018

I've not long returned from a trip down and under our planet, our beautiful home.

Australia is indeed a long way away and my visit has been the hugest surprise.

I love Sydney. Let me repeat this. I love Sydney.

At the age of 18, my brother went to Sydney on assisted passage. Ten bucks found him boarding the midnight train at Waverly Station, leaving his elder brother and younger sister sobbing. No internet those days, we relied on letters and the occasional phone call. Colin loved it, but eventually the pull of homeland proved too strong for his wife so 25 years later they returned to the North of Scotland. Still, he says, Sydney is his second home.

This January I went there for work, but mainly or 'Manly' as an excuse to visit my newly married son, Alexander, and the lovely Claire.

Sydney is accessible. It's brash, modern, but historical too, above all it bursts with a vital energy. Anything is possible. It is a place for the young and not necessarily in years.

The very, very, very best is the water that surrounds the city and suburbs. Travelling by ferry is efficient and it creates a holiday atmosphere. We are going to work? The city is spotless, the air steeped in ozone and unlike most cities I felt clean. Travelling as a single female I felt safe, comfortable, welcomed.

Not much evidence of folks on the streets smoking or munching snacks, in contrast, plenty sitting on benches, or beach, under trees on lunch breaks or after school with a take away or picnic.

In Sydney eating is not something you do whilst doing something else.

Fitness, an obsession?

I truly, truly hate nylon.

I am in joggers, T's and trainers squaring up. (All nylon darling) Young mums and jogging prams, yoga morning salutations, OAP's pounding the waves enjoying the confidence of 50 years living by, and in, the ocean.

Oh Dear. Waves, sharks, too much for me, a quick dip in the sea pools alongside the Mamas is fine, then a 20 minute ferry ride to the very centre of Sydney and SO ready to start my working day. Ahhh, not bad.

I love everybody.

We visit Hunter Valley and love the drive. Great rivers, Pelicans, forests and bush. Back of beyond cafes and "They LOVE Avo...put it on the menu will ya?" and getting jolly merry on truly excellent wines and food. The food.

Everything in Oz twice the size including me by home-time.

But then a week travelling to Eden, stopping at Canberra and a visit to Parliament House and Questions and Answers with the PM. Well worth a visit is the City Library. We sat on squidgy chairs listening to recordings of Aborigines savagely removed from their families in the 1950\s, re-homed in white communities, never to be reunited with their roots. Lost.

It's hard to find anything that really informs or helps you grasp the Aboriginal culture.

Aborigini knowledge is passed down through word of mouth, never written, which is why names are unpronounceable. Names are sounds.

The roads were good and we travelled the bush for hours. Trees, trees all trees, twisted, busy, ridiculously intwined like Christmas cracker puzzles to be undone, tall, leopard skin legs, motel and textured, join the dots and guess the picture.

Bright reds and orange, or smooth creamy flesh, dippy, dappled patterns in greys and beige, the perfect camouflage. Bark sheds itself in great slithers, scrapings of wood on the forest floor.

Cockatoos swooping, screeching. Plunging one side of the valley to the other. Thrilled to be in their kingdom, not ours. Flying dinosaurs? I'm sure I saw one.

And the many small towns we passed through. A single row of house either side of the road and nowhere for a coffee.

Names to be spoken not written.








We rented a house with the best views of the Pacific, and watched a pod of dolphins swim along the edge of the beach early on morning.

Then we wind our way back to Sydney but visit the blue lagoon (don't tell anyone) then camp at Pebbly beach, wild, wild, wilderness, crashing, roaring sea, mist, salt and sand a mixing, blurring the edges of land we cannot see but taste on the tip of our tongues.

Australians take campaign seriously. Great stores dedicated to the art of camping. Fridges to cooking systems, bathrooms to bottle openers. Pods, on top of Four Wheel Drives and luxury accommodation at the flip of a switch! Camper van envy exists.

This is the great outdoor life, the freedom that is Australia and all it stands for and what to aspire to.

Still, come the night, I'm apprehensive. My bones don't appreciate discomfort and oh, the snakes, the stingers and all that wildlife but, no worries! The tent is erected in a flash of kangaroo poop, and there is a bed and a baseball cap with two light beams from the visor, glowing eyes to challenge any lurking reptile.

A family of Roos wedge themselves between our tents and I watch a Wallaby slide down the side probably the same little bastard the tight-roped along our drying line, grasping my knickers on his way to plunder our food store.

We build a fire, eat like kings then take our torches to sit by the edge of the roaring Pacific to gaze at the starry, starry night.

Never has a night sky been so three-dimensional.

This sky, a landscape, has a fore, mid and background. On and on, deeper, deeper, all around, possibly even inside us.

Golds, sliver, white and greys. Yellows to reds, purples, indigo, the deepest indigo.

Colour and tone, sharpest light to unimaginable darkest dark. Shooting stars and wishes made.

Now here's the thing. We are camping in the middle of this great outdoors, the vast beaches with more wild life than London Zoo, yet four hours later finds us swept up big, enjoying a performance at the Sydney Opera House. Where else could you do that?

I'm back in the studio now in Sussex.

First light sees me walking HH up the lane. I gaze into the English winter sky, eyes smarting with wind and frost, snow clouds scudding above my head the briefest glimpse of watery blue, I remind myself those starry stars are still there even as we go about our days.

My suitcase lies upstairs still unpacked. Clothes can wait but I need to look through my materials to check they have survived the journey. More to the point I am itching to look at my sketchbooks.

This is where it all starts to make sense. I remember things I did not know I had seen. I relish them, am excited, a little nervous. Part of me wants to get cracking immediately but knows it pays to slow down a bit.

I don't want any intrusion on thoughts, things have not fully formed yet and I need to go along with the process of looking, allow myself to be taken somewhere.

I do not show anybody my work nor must it be spoken about as experience tells me it will loose its potency and then my interest.

When I travel, I enjoy the odd chat with folks but the quest is to be invisible. This gives me freedom, I can be detached, respond to what is in front of me without upsetting people or being judged myself. It's a nice area to operate in.

I usually work in a hard backed A2 sketchbook, strong quality cartridge paper with a selection of B pencils, starting with HB, graphite, charcoal and Unison pastels, startling colours and minimal effort.

I work quickly, freely, tracking notes alongside, never judging what I put down until back in the studio where I go over and over what I have done.

Drawing is seeing. Some images I connect to immediately, otherwise take time to marinate. One image leads to another and what seems attractive at first often falls by the wayside to another that unveils itself in its quietness. It is all part of a familiar process of working which has evolved through experience.

Although working in this way gives me excellent memory recall I cannot leave it too long, for a picture to have life I need to remember the smell of the air.

I keep it simple and let the line work its magic and there is plenty of that to be found here.

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