helen hayward

life writing

Month: October, 2015

On being danish


A few days ago, walking passed the window of a favourite shop, a small wooden elephant caught my eye. Going back to take a closer look I saw that it was beautifully designed and made. And yet there was nothing special about this elephant. Its beauty was as much an effect of what the designer had left out, as included. And in so doing the essence of elephant had been captured. The owner of the shop quickly confirmed my hunch, the wooden toy was Danish. And the price tag? $280, a toy collectors item, the owner added with a laugh.

Before I left the shop I told the owner, who I know a little, that in my second life, my real life, I’m going to be Danish. While this is a fantasy, in my mind this makes it more not less real. It’s not that I want to be part of the EU. I don’t long to experience long northern winters. Rather I want to express a certain style in all things, a style that I recognise as Danish – choice of pen, heavy linens, strident paint colours, backlit interiors. Being Danish is shorthand for my longing for good design and such a deep sense of style that it’s not selfconscious. Nor is it a sign of wealth or status. It’s closer to common sense. A sense of style so embedded, so understated, that it just is.

We’re all familiar with friends who have come out sexually, surprising only themselves. Having identified this one true thing, and hugging it to themselves for years, they announce it to the world, like opening up their hands to free a bird within them. The development of our sense of style is a bit like this. Although I was brought up Australian, this never really spoke to the things that, on growing up, I found beautiful. This was something that I discovered for myself. I had to mouse around for quite a while before I stumbled on my own sense of style in my mid-twenties.

I lived in the UK for a long time, and still feel drawn to London, and to friends who lived there at the same time as I did. But I’ve never fantasised about being British. Perhaps this is because it’s too familiar to fantasise about. Perhaps it’s because a lot of tat goes with being British. But really it’s that British design doesn’t touch my soul in the way that Danish Design does. It speaks to me but it doesn’t touch me.

A couple of years ago a Danish town planner came to Hobart, the city where I now live, and gave his vision for its transformation. The City Council opened their doors to the town planner and his team, paying generously for their plans. However the planner’s vision never caught on. What was glaringly obvious to the Danish planner and his team – getting the cars off the waterfront, creating pockets of urban beauty in laneways, increasing the density of inner city living – was too difficult for the harried Councillors, fearful of losing retailers’ votes at the next election.

My fantasy that Danish style might be shared will probably remain just that. A longing, a blog, a fantasy. Which is a pretty good place to start.

eye test



Two weeks ago my daughter and I sat with my aunt who, nearly blind, kept us spellbound with her stories for three hours straight two days in a row during our trip to Adelaide. Reminiscing sounds duller than what she was doing. She sprang from story to story, bringing her farm life alive as if yesterday. She was singing. The sharks lined up offshore, forcing them to swim in the dam to cool off. The pine trees she planted and watered as windbreaks down the drive. The unreliable farm hands who couldn’t be trusted to measure fertiliser.

My aunt is meant to be grieving, my uncle having died six months ago following a fifty-year marriage. And yet she seems lighter – slimmer and more buoyant. Phone numbers in thick black texta sit propped on cards by the phone in the kitchen, with crosses over the days that have past on an old-fashioned calendar. The other night, cold in bed, she tells us that she saw her husband come into the sitting room pushing a wheelbarrow of mallee roots for the wood fire they’d had on their farm. ‘I could have touched him’, she tells us.

For years my aunt has avoided cooking. Instead she eats canned salmon and salad for every meal. And grape nuts for breakfast. ‘It’s so easy’, she laughs, ‘I’m never hungry and now that I’m off all but my stroke pills I’ve never felt better’.

*     *     *

For months I’d been putting off having an eye test. I’ll just wait until I get this manuscript off, I kept telling myself, and then let my eyes recover from staring at the screen. But last week my eyes got irritated in a way that made me realise I was being silly, and I made an appointment for the following day.

An Indian optician took me into his office. A female student, notebook in her lap, sat in. Three years ago, the time of my last eye test, I didn’t have to guess any of the black capital letters on the bottom of the chart. Today I do. Next it’s time for the green circles and the red circles. ‘The first one’, I say. ‘The second one’, I say, when the red circle looks clearer than the green.

‘I’ll just take you next door where we have a new camera that can photograph the back of your eye. You’ll have to pay $40 out of pocket, but I do recommend it. ‘Fine’, I say unthinkingly. The light that shines into my eye flashes the brightest light green light possible. Back in his office the optician stares at the screen. ‘Do you see here’, he says, ‘in each eye there is a tiny yellow spot. These are the beginnings of macular degeneration’. ‘Oh’, I say, ‘is that bad?’ ‘No, they are so small that I wouldn’t worry about them yet. Though I will get you back in another year to monitor them. And in the meantime I’m giving you a mild prescription for close reading, and I advise dark glasses against the sun.’

The student sitting in registers the worry on my face. Is this what she is writing in her notebook? All I can think of is my aunt sitting on her chair close to the television, unable to read the phone numbers propped by the phone without putting the card up to her face.

My daughter is unimpressed by my fears. ‘But the optician said not to worry. And besides, they can treat that can’t they?’ ‘Sort of’, I return, trying to be positive. I remember my mother’s goggly glasses towards the end of her life. I also remember sitting next to my father’s hospital bed in my school uniform, when he must have been around the age I am now, reading aloud the stock market report from the newspaper, as he recovered from a cataract operation that is now done as day surgery.

But really it’s anger that I feel. Do I really need another risk factor to cart around inside of me – like a shark sighting offshore – for those days when fear outweighs hope? If the optician hadn’t wanted me to worry about my eyesight shrinking to that of my aunt’s, did he actually have to point out those tiny white spots? Besides, what is all this testing really for, apart from leading me to fear rather than look forward to old age, and adding bilberry supplements to my nightly routine?

*     *     *

Last night I sat up late, far too late, drawn into the vortex that is facebook. It was the plight of the Syrian refugees that drew me in. Appalled at the snaking lines of slow-moving migrants, that our lack of commercial television has spared me witness of, I watch clip after clip of people wearing black bin bags against thin driving rain, united in their subdued desperation. Feeling helpless, I donate euros to a crowd-funding program, and wait for ages for the money to go through, hoping my money will be spent on something more than bin bags.

Leaving the screen after midnight I read a book upstairs to console myself. What do my lost mobile phone and scratchy eyes matter against those slow moving lines of migrants with no real sense of where they are going?

The next morning I pick up my son’s Modern World History book that sits on the window sill in the kitchen. As I flick through to the back I imagine an even fatter revised edition, with a section on the new face of Europe, swollen by refugees, ready for my daughter’s final exams in a couple of years’ time. The print is tiny, or so it seems to me, reminding me that soon my new glasses will be ready to be picked up.

EPILOGUE The week after my glasses arrived I returned to the optician. This time I saw the optician who gave me my last but one eye test three years ago. I said that I’d been worried about the macular degeneration diagnosis from the younger optician at my recent eye test. The more senior optician got my photos out and brought them up on the screen. ‘No’, he said, ‘I don’t think it’s macular degeneration. I think it’s areas of debris, normal in someone of your age’. ‘Oh’, I replied, ‘what a relief’. All the same I now wear sunglasses most places…