Japan with Children (and Books)

Japan is one of our favourite, but all-too-rare, holiday destinations.  So smart, so polite and well-ordered, such care taken with everything from handing you a business card to presenting a plate of sushi as a work of art.  But I also love the quirky personality of Japan: its hidden bars, pop-rock-cutie fashion and dark crime novels.

We spent four days in Tokyo with Zoe (7) and George (5).  I took some Japanese books (aka ‘destination reading’) forgetting that chances to read when holidaying with children are pretty slim.  Some highlights below – bookish and otherwise!

 

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View from our room at the Prince Park Tower Hotel, which had long Murakami-esque corridors.

HARAJUKU

We loved Cat Street.  Had a great coffee and cronuts at The Roastery.  Also excellent burgers and salads at Golden Brown Burgers (recommended by Monocle).  Don’t be put off by the ‘burger’ aspect – these were nutritious, with wonderful fresh salads also on the menu.

Yoyogi Park was beautiful to walk through and we would love to see Tomigaya (the area just on the other side of the park from Harajuku), which sounded fun and Brooklyn-esque and was featured recently in New York Times.  I think I need to open a file “Things to Do When We Return to Tokyo sans kids”.

We had a sushi dinner at family-friendly Itamae Sushi – it was excellent.  There are various locations; our closest was near Shiba Park.

Books: Tokyo Precincts and Tokyo Style Guide have some beautiful ideas for neighbourhood walks.

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A Sunday stroll in Ginza

 

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We spent two hours shopping for stationery at Loft, then went next door to Muji for another suitcase. 😉

We adored Matsuya department store and could have spent longer.  Lunch tip: we bought bento boxes from the Food Hall and took them to eat on the rooftop (level R in the lift). Very relaxed.

Book: I could not help thinking of Out by Natsuo Kirino, which features factory workers who make bento boxes, and a grisly murder.

FISH MARKETS

We did a tour late morning – would be good to make the 4am commitment and see the tuna auction (another one for the file).  There is talk of moving the fish markets to a new location, so it might be one of the last chances to see the original.

A fabulous lunch at Tsukiji Edogin – it’s a five minute walk from the fish markets with excellent produce and space for 9 of us (we had met up with friends from Sydney), and they take bookings.  I highly recommend it if you have a group but want to go local.

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Winning lunch at Edogin with Penny, John and Gia

Our wonderful nanny minded the kids for us so we escaped with friends Penny and John for a fabulous dinner at Sushi Tsubaki (another Monocle recommendation) with a cool chef, wonderful traditional sushi, amazing fresh fish and flavours.

SHIMODA

Next stop, Shimoda on the Izu Peninsula.  Note to self: bring your international driver’s licence (Japan is strict on the paperwork) – a car is recommended.  Also, when renting a house, remember that coffee is number one priority!  We had to resort to the 7-11 down the hill, which had that filter style that tastes like someone has put coffee dregs into old dishwater.  Our wonderful host came to the rescue with some pods on the second day.

You need to seek out the cool spots in Shimoda and (ideally, with a car, which you will have because you’ve taken my advice) beyond.  (e.g. a surf shop on our way out which served fantastic coffee; Perry Road near the harbour).

I’m not sure we have quite nailed that area yet but Jason found it super chilled and relaxing so it’s a thumbs up!

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Iritahama Beach

Books:

Thanks to The Readers podcast – Simon and Thomas discussed Japanese books in one episode and the listeners had some great recommendations…

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

Beautiful and subtle, this was too oblique for me.   Slow-moving, with an unsympathetic protagonist and his lover, a tragic figure.  Nuanced writing, thoughtful and humane.  There is much to think about and space to read between the lines.  I would appreciate it more reading quietly on a train going through the snow country of the title (instead of at the beach with children!).

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe, translated by E. Dale Saunders

Contrary to the title, not a beach read!  A man is held captive in a woman’s house to help dig out the sand dunes that the house is buried in.  This had a nightmarish quality, both with his failure to escape, the heat and the sand (in his food, hair, clothes).  Interesting and poetic, with descriptions of thirst and being trapped by sand all too vivid.  I admired it.

Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino, translated by Alexander O. Smith

I really enjoyed this detective story set in Tokyo.  It has an interesting premise (a wife suspected of murdering her husband from afar) and engaging characters: the likeable but flawed Detective Kusanagi trying to solve the mystery with the help of his physicist friend Yukawa.  I loved The Devotion of Suspect X too, and am keen to read more by Keigo Hugashino.

Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb

I loved this novella about working at Yumimoto Corporation in Tokyo.  Amelie Nothomb has a wonderful, dry sense of humour but also a deep understanding of Japanese culture.  Her empathy for her Japanese colleagues and ability to laugh at herself make for terrific, laugh-out-loud comedy and an at times poignant study of the constraints of life in Japan working for ‘the company’.

Bullfight and The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue, translated by Michael Emmerich

I love Yaushi Inoue’s beautifully spare prose and the way he reveals characters slowly, leaving us to think about where our sympathies lie.  Small but perfectly formed, these are cut like crystal.  Highly recommended.

And I could do a whole post about Haruki Murakami (I read Wild Sheep Chase while I was away, and found the most beautiful little book called Haruki Murakami Goes to Meet Hayao Kawai – inspiring).

Do you like reading for holiday destinations?  I have another one coming up (Barcelona), which has me thinking about books in translation generally.  Maybe for another post!

Now back to Inifinite Jest….

Salt Creek and The Secret River

Let’s talk about confronting books.

Last month I read Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar and saw the stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River.  Both deal with English settlers in Australia and the treatment of Aboriginal people (and their land).  They were different experiences – the play more visceral, the book more reflective – but with many parallels.

The Secret River was an incredible production, staged in Anstey Hill Quarry, 20 minutes’ drive from the centre of Adelaide, as part of the Adelaide Festival.

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Pre- theatre drinks at The Secret River with my sister Madeleine

A young English family, the Thornhills, try to make a new life in Australia, too poor to travel back home.  They settle on the Hawkesbury River after hearing that land is ‘available’ there.  This land is inhabited by Aboriginal people, who are suspicious and baffled by the strangers.  Their clothes, English habits and attempts to tame the land are almost comical and this effect – how foreign Australia seemed to the English – is powerfully brought to life in the quarry setting.

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Nathaniel Dean and Ningali Lawford-Wolf, The Secret River.  Photo credit: Sydney Theatre Company

Each hopes the other group will move on.  The English family is sympathetically portrayed but there are some cruel and unhinged characters down the river.  On the other hand, we see the Aboriginal families hunting, at home on the land, and the children playing together with humour and innocence.

Tension builds as the two groups cannot communicate with each other or coexist.  The menace of the bullies downriver creates a dark undertone.

During the first half I found myself resisting the story.  I knew how it ended (shamefully for white Australians) and did not want to relive it.  But the climax was moving and powerful.  The effects used to show the violence, mixed with the chilling “London Bridge is Falling Down”, made for superb theatre: it showed in one scene a whole history of imperialism and bloodshed.

The narrator, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, said something at the end about ‘witnessing’ what happened, lest it be forgotten. She was speaking about a character in the play, but I took it as an answer to my question: why watch uncomfortable theatre?  Because we need to be witnesses to history.

Salt Creek tells the story of English settlers taking land on the Coorong, South Australia.  The setting, 129 miles from Adelaide, is isolated even today and was at the end of the earth then.  They try to cling to their old social mores and rules but the father’s ventures (cattle, then sheep) fail.  Worse, they ruin the plants and waterholes used by the Aboriginal custodians of the land for thousands of years.  Civil life disintegrates.

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Again we see the desire by the wife to return to England or at least to the city, and the husband dreaming of fortunes to be made.  We follow the story through Hester, their daughter, who is trapped there by circumstance.  Slowly they come unstuck and, despite good intentions, cannot live with the Aboriginal inhabitants.

I found this slow to start, but ended up enjoying it.  The thoughtful writing, immersion in the desolate landscape and determination of Hester kept me reading.  The isolation, and the cruelty of the settlers depressed me – the father in particular was extremely unlikeable.  But the journey of Hester is interesting and her conscience about what happened to the Aboriginal people (many died or became ill from imported diseases, their children removed and sent to missions, sacred sites ruined) is something to reflect on.  It was not her fault exactly but there is a sense of wrongdoing.

I read Salt Creek as part of the Read Harder challenge: a book set within 100 miles of your location (near enough, I hope!).  We spend our summers at Goolwa Beach, where the Coorong starts, so the location did resonate with me.  Goolwa was famously the setting for Storm Boy, a classic book by Colin Thiele and 1976 movie (now being remade).

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Goolwa Beach

What are your favourite confronting books?

Read Harder

I’m doing Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge 2017 for the first time this year, with some of the (always-inspiring) London Book Clubbers.

We have 24 tasks to complete, so it equates to two per month (although one book can cover  more than one task).  Like DiverseAThon, it’s great way to expand my reading.  Fantasy and comics will be new to me, and Roxanne Gay has set a task to read a book published by a micropress, which will be fun to seek out.

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Read Harder Challenge 2017 tasks

Here is my progress so far…

Read a debut novel:  several of my 2017 reads have been debuts: Shelter, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, The Nix and The Dry by Jane Harper

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Reading The Dry at Adelaide Airport

I really enjoyed The Dry, a thriller set in rural Australia.  A smart protagonist and some realistic local characters, with a strong, well-paced story.  Harper does a wonderful job of creating the atmosphere of a small country town, both the landscape and a community on edge.  Recommended.

Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative: both The Good Immigrant and Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue qualify – I reviewed The Good Immigrant (excellent selection of essays) in an earlier DiversAThon post.

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Behold the Dreamers is a warm, engaging story about Cameroon immigrants to New York.  The characters are sympathetic and Mbue does not shy away from the difficulties they face, the stress of job insecurity and the strain this puts on a marriage.  For me, it lacked dramatic tension, as we know what happened to Lehman Brothers, and it was a little too earnest, but I liked having Jende and Neni’s perspectives.  Thought-provoking and good, honest writing.

Read a book published between 1900 and 1950: Fantastic Night by Stefan Zweig.

A wonderful collection of Stefan Zweig’s stories.  His writing is elegant, philosophical and humane.  Zweig was extremely erudite but wore his knowledge lightly.  He conjures up beautiful turn-of-the-century European settings and a time when people travelled, for leisure and then necessity.  The bittersweetness of past loves, the fears of war and a reverence for forgotten greats (a bibliophile, an actor) drive these tales, told with warmth and style.

Read a YA or middle-grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+.  I have to thank Jamie Klingler of the London Book Club for this one: the audiobook of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, read by Lin Manual Miranda.

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An excellent book – poignant, true and funny. I laughed, I cried and absolutely loved Miranda as a narrator.  A winner!

Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel: Nightwood by Djuna Barnes.  I’ve had this on my TBR for years, ever since I read about Djuna Barnes in a biography of Peggy Guggenheim, so in between the 1,000+ pages of Infinite Jest I thought I’d do this as a ‘quick’ read and tick it off my list.  Wrong!  Only 208 pages but oh so dense!  My review below…

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Sublime but elusive, the story of the doomed love between two women, told in vivid prose.  Paris is seedy, the characters flawed and Gothic.  Barnes’ writing gleams: her poetic wordplay and wit reminded me of Shakespeare; the confessional tone pre-dates Camus’ The Fall, and the Woolf comparisons are apt too.  Strong, dense, it refuses to be matter-of-fact, but feels searingly honest.

Read a book where all point of view characters are people of colour.  I have something quite different for this one.  Our Adelaide Book Club is going to Hong Kong in June, so in preparation this month we have read Crazy Rich Asians (about to be made into a movie).

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This has been called Dynasty on steroids and the next 50 Shades of Grey.  If you’re a fan, you’ll love it.  Some of the praise is overblown (it’s no Pride and Prejudice or Evelyn Waugh), but Kwan meticulously describes the lives of the super-rich in Asia, and the materialism and prejudices of those places, with accuracy and humour.  One-dimensional characters, every luxury brand name-checked.  A bit superficial for me, but very good for what it is.

And here is my Read Harder TBR stack!  I’ll leave you to guess what tasks these relate to.  Next, I’ll be immersing myself in Japanese books for our trip to Tokyo in April. Yay!  Sayonara for now…

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Mad March

Here is a snapshot of life in Adelaide – I had the pleasure of a friend from London Book Club visiting last weekend, so was able to share with her all the craziness that is Mad March!

Adelaide Writers’ Week is one of my favourite events – it’s free, held in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens among the trees, and attracts big-name authors and new (to me) discoveries.  It is part of the Adelaide Festival – this year’s highlight for me will be Neil Armfield’s The Secret River, adapted from Kate Grenville’s book and staged in a quarry.  At the same time we have the Fringe (the world’s second-largest annual arts festival).  Then there’s the Adelaide 500 V8 supercar race (don’t mention the road closures) and this weekend is Womadelaide. Whew!

On Saturday I ducked into Writers’ Week to hear Nathan Hill discussing his fabulous novel The Nix.  I’m thrilled to hear that it’s being made into a movie with Meryl Streep. He was super engaging and I love the book so far – funny, with a sense of playfulness that reminds me of (but is easier than) David Foster Wallace.

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Nathan Hill and Steven Gale

We were lucky enough to have a dinner booking at Peel St – having been away last year, I’ve so missed their blend of casual atmosphere and exceptional, fresh food. Heaven!  Then onto the Riverbank Parc Palais for a larger-than-expected frosé.

 

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Cimone, me and Alex on the riverbank (Adelaide Oval behind us).

Sunday and back to Writers’ Week for stories based on true crime, with Graeme Macrae Burnet discussing the Booker-shortlisted His Bloody Project and Hannah Kent with the follow-up to her outstanding debut Burial Rites, The Good People.  Entertaining and articulate, definitely worth the early start (two macchiatos later!).  Graeme Macrae Burnet was signing his book with a fingerprint, so of course I had to break my book ban and buy a copy.

Next up, the Art Gallery of South Australia for the incredible Versus Rodin exhibition.  Leigh Robb has done a beautiful job with her first major exhibition in her new role as Contemporary Curator.  She has juxtaposed the Rodin works with modern paintings and sculpture – by artists such as Sarah Lucas, Antony Gormley and Louise Bourgeouis – on the theme of the human body.  It’s on until 2 July – come and see it!

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‘Finger Churches’ by Dennis Oppenheim

Next up was 2KW for a rooftop drink and tapas (= Sol Sessions).

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2KW Sol Sessions

Then onto a Fringe Show, the fabulous, talented and funny Hugh Sheridan with the California Crooners.  So, so good!  I have been spoilt with live music in the past and some artists cannot be compared (Bruce Springsteen) , but the Crooners gave us such a fun, relaxed night of entertainment – a wonderful show.  We were too busy dancing so my photos are all blurry – but here is the pretty setting on the Torrens, looking back to the Riverbank Palais (see earlier frosé).

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River Torrens, looking south from Adelaide Oval. 

Monday and time to meet another author – the wonderful and engaging Jessie Burton, discussing The Muse – one of my favourite books of 2016.  More coffee needed…

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Alex was departing Monday night so how to fit in all of South Australia’s famous wineries?  Luckily, 10 minutes from the city is Magill Estate, home of one of our most iconic winemakers, Penfolds.  We did a tasting, followed by lunch at the Kitchen – absolutely superb and the Express Lunch is amazing value at $35 for 2 courses plus a glass of wine.  We had duck bao for entree, perfectly roasted, crispy duck leg with pumpkin for main and a chocolate dessert… Mondayitis begone!

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Not my usual Monday lunch: the chocolate dessert at Magill Estate Kitchen, before we demolished it.

And that’s all for one weekend!  Next up: more Festival reports, and why today’s book haul had a Japan theme….

Flash Fiction: The Collection


“There are rules,” he said.

“Rules?” asked the storekeeper. 

They stood in an army disposal store that sold all manner of things. Together they inspected the old printer’s tray.  

“For the collection. They must be found on the beach, for example.”

“A shell collection!”

He frowned.

“Every item must be different. Netting, driftwood, a coin.”

“Found objects.”  The storekeeper was proud of this term, something he had heard an artist say once. 

The man allowed it. 

“I have seventeen. But my wife wants the kitchen table back.”

The storekeeper counted. “This has eighteen spaces.”

“Another rule: never finish the collection.”

*

This is Friday Flash Fiction. Picture supplied by Claire Fuller. 

 
 

Escapist Books

The last time I looked at the news, there was an earthquake in central Italy and women being stripped on the beach in France.  And my son asking “who is that little boy?” (the 5 year-old devastated Syrian bombing victim).  Even some of the books I’ve read lately have taken an unflinching (brave, and beautifully written) look at war and oppression – I’m looking at you Girl at War and Do Not Say We Have Nothing.  Agh!  We need to escape sometimes: VEEP and Lillehammer are my television souffles, but I do like a good book.  Simon and Thomas of The Readers podcast have read my mind and discussed escapist reads recently.  I was inspired to make a list …

Two rules are at play: 1) it can be as light as light as can be, but must be well-written.  I want to feel inspired by an author smarter than me, not cringe at cliches or clunky phrasing: No 50 Shades of Gray. 2) nothing too challenging. No War and Peace or Narrow Road to the Deep North (both excellent though).

It’s a tricky balance – I have huge respect for authors who manage it. On the other hand, I agree with Thomas – any book that draws you in and entertains you can be a good escape.

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  1. P.G. Wodehouse: fail-safe, timeless, always lifts my spirits.  In the words of Evelyn Waugh, his “idyllic world can never stale”.  Harmless but genius writing.  This article in the New Yorker explains some of the appeal. We visited Sydenham Hill Wood recently and the guide map said “The Pond .. supports dragonflies and newts” – just the word newt made me laugh, conjuring up Gussie Fink-Nottle.  You must read his speech at Market Snodsbury Grammar School, in Right Ho, Jeeves.
  2. Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy): escape to outer space, brilliantly conceived. Funny, masterful, another genius.
  3. A good detective story: Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers for classic English crime.  Recently I’ve discovered Judith Flanders, who does a great a great crime caper (Murder of Magpies).  Boris Akunin has been compared with Sherlock Holmes but has a comic Russian element.  And Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series (starting with Death at La Fenice) blends crime, Venice and food – what’s not to love?  A good setting can be key.  By good I mean not war-torn; ideally a grand hotel by the sea, a bucolic village or a cultural European capital.
  4. Another recent discovery: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner.  I felt like I was holidaying in a resort by the lake (funny, that), breathing crisp mountain air and Edith was in my ear whispering her observations about the guests.  There is some depth and sadness, but it’s treated with a light touch.  The quality of the writing is absorbing enough to block out the read world.
  5. Speaking of mittel-Europe, Stefan Zweig – he wrote during troubling times but he illuminates small incidents, details and characters with a humane sensibility and a reassuring tone – as if someone is simply confiding a story. My favourite is The Royal Game, a novella that takes place on a cruise: short in length, an escapist setting, tick, tick!
  6. 41NEReoBC6L._SX304_BO1,204,203,200_The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjoberg.  Sjoberg collects hoverflies on a remote island in Sweden. Somehow this is one of the most comforting, wise books I have read. I highly recommend it.
  7. Which brings us to Scandinavia: Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book is everything.
  8. Another means of escape is a sweeping story to immerse yourself in.  Some of my favourites are: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (so excited for her next book The Good People due in October); The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. All have a strong sense of place too, so you really can enter into another world. Bliss!
  9. Actual travel, anyone? I love the travel writing of Dickens, and the slim volume On Travel is full of insights and funny scenes, with his sense of theatre and comedy. Edith Wharton’s Cruise of the Vanadis is a beautiful book and cover.jpg.rendition.460.707leisurely escape – relax with a coffee and enjoy the Meditterranean islands and Wharton’s eye for detail. Bill Bryson’s early travel writing is clever and entertaining. And for 1970s New York, the The Andy Warhol Diaries are a revelation: fun and name-droppy to dip in and out of, or a full literature experience with Warhol as the protagonist.
  10. Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: John Wood’s memoir about starting Room to Read is an antidote to the ‘world problems are overwhelming’ blues.  Wood – a self-confessed library nerd and avid reader – is funny, engaging and optimistic. The message: world change starts with educated children.  The good news?  He is on it.

What are your favourite escapist books?

Books and Small Museums

I blame Orhan Pamuk for my love of small museums.  (Of course, I didn’t say that when I had the honour of meeting him last year).

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Meeting Orhan Pamuk, September 2015

Specifically, The Museum of Innocence – a rich, intricate story to immerse yourself in, with textures of Istanbul, layering of details and the human flaws and obsessions of Kemal.  This was my first Pamuk and I’ve since gone back to read all of his books – My Name is Red is another favourite.  It features beautiful works of art in miniature – Pamuk as a former artist and architecture student describes these with intelligence and sincerity, without being over-bearing.

A part of The Museum of Innocence which always resonated was Kemal’s odyssey to find private museums: collections built by individuals and reflecting their idiosyncracies.  These often give an insight into lives on a human scale, rather than seeing objects held by large government institutions.  Pamuk conceived of the novel and a museum (of Kemal’s collection) simultaneously, and has opened the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul.  I saw some exhibits from it at Somerset House this year and dream of visiting it and the city.

So now I think of Orhan Pamuk whenever I visit small museums.  Sir John Soane’s Museum is mentioned in the book and blew me away when I went recently.  It was the house of Sir John Soane, architect, and is meticulous, surprising and a beautifully designed space with a reverence for architecture, Rome, sculptures and the absurd (he had a Monk’s Parlour where he would take guests after dinner, to sit amongst the skulls).

In the Frick Collection in New York, you can wander through Henry Frick’s home and chance upon Hans Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell which, after reading Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel, is like spotting a celebrity.

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In Melbourne I love the Heide Museum of Modern Art, preserved as it was when John and Sunday Reed hosted artists there in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, and with a superb collection of Australian art.  It is wonderful to see the works of Charles Blackman, Joy Hester and Sidney Nolan (to name just a few) in the setting where they were conceived or created.  Emily Bitto’s The Strays (2015 Stella award winner) is inspired by this period; it’s on my shelf at home and high on my must-read list (= the never-ending TBR).

In Denmark in 2014 we took the wrong ferry – yes, we actually drove onto a ferry and discovered at sea 40 minutes later that we were lost – and a catastrophe ensued which was only redeemed by a visit to Finn Juhl’s House just north of Copenhagen.  It is as cosy or hygge as you would imagine and inspiring for any designer or indeed anyone with no design capability (like me) but who wants to live simply and well.

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Lost at sea, 2014

This week as part of our school holiday activities, we visited Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath, recommended by the excellent Richard the Third of London Walks.  It’s rather large for a family home, but houses the private art collection of William Murray (later Lord Mansfield) and is glorious.  All rooms have volunteer guides with interesting tidbits of history – like the time the house was nearly burnt down because of Lord Mansfield’s Catholic background a local publican waylaid the would-be arsonists with drinks.

I have library envy:

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Library at Kenwood House

The ceilings are by Antonio Zucchi.  There are also some works in the next room by Angelica Kauffmann, who was his wife.  In another room I came across The Guitar Player by Vermeer, a Turner hung casually on another wall and watching over them was a Rembrandt self-portrait.

The kids dressed up in the Orangerie and Zoe declared she could happily live there.  That makes two of us!

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Sir George and Lady Zoe

Do you have a favourite small museum?