Sentimental inspiration for a novelist

Are you the sentimental type? I’m not. Birthday cards are binned one week later, anniversaries come and go without comment, and a friend once accused me of being cold-hearted when I failed to shed a tear moving from the house in which my first son was born. But the one thing that drives me to weep tears of sentiment are the cars I have owned.

The first that came into my possession was a 1974 Renault 12. My parents bought it for me as a surprise for my seventeenth birthday. It cost $500. At that price it needed some work, which my mechanically minded father saw to in secrecy in the months preceding my birthday. When the car was presented to me I sobbed with wonder and joy. In my eyes she was the most beautiful vehicle I’d ever seen. Neither her striking hue (bright orange), nor her age (old), nor her dents (many) bothered me. I named her ‘Brigitte’ after Brigitte Bardot.

Throughout my senior year at high school and my four years at university, Brigitte stood by me faithfully. When I took my first teaching placement in the western suburbs of Sydney I realised Brigitte, although still beautiful, was not a young woman any more. To ask her to ferry me many kilometres each day would be cruel.

When I reluctantly sold her it was to a seventeen-year-old girl for $600. My only comfort came when I handed the new owner the keys and she began to cry, just as I had six years earlier. She told me she planned to name her ‘Ginger’. To the young, female owner before me, she had been ‘Pumpkin’.

I am reminded of Brigitte each time I visit the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. On display is a bright yellow 1923 Citroën 5CV which belonged to Nevill Westwood, a Seventh Day Adventist Missionary. He had nicknamed his second-hand purchase ‘Bubsie’. In 1925, at the age of twenty-two, the evangelist adventurer departed Perth and headed north in Bubsie with the aim of carrying out missionary work in isolated, Top End communities.

1923 Citroen 5CV - Monty's car of choice!
On a whim Westwood wound up travelling clockwise around the country. When he and Bubsie arrived back in Perth one hundred and forty eight days later they had clocked up 17,200 kilometres. The two-seater, boat-tail tourer became the first car driven around Australia. For more info about Westwood’s epic journey click here.

Westwood in his Citroen
Photo: National Museum of Australia

Brigitte and I may never have embarked on such a daring expedition, but each time I see Bubsie I whimsically recall my beloved, sunny-coloured, French-made automobile.

In the five years I have lived in the ACT I have grown increasingly attached to Westwood’s ‘Little Lemon’, as the model later became known. So much so that I used her as my inspiration for Monty Chapel’s car in The President’s Lunch. When Monty and Iris steal away from Hyde Park after a tense and emotional Thanksgiving Eve dinner, it is in Bubsie that they escape.

What do you get sentimental about?

A mid-winter night's dream

I love a good holiday. A day or two where an entire country goes a little crazy in celebration is restorative and liberating. Australia doesn’t have many truly great, festive days. Australia Day is controversial, the Queens’ birthday makes no sense and ANZAC Day can’t be deemed a celebration. Apart from religious holidays, what’s left?

This year, Friday, June 20 marks Midsummer’s Eve, also known throughout the northern hemisphere as the 'summer solstice'. Midsummer is a highpoint on Europe’s festive calendar, especially in Sweden. For a population that spends much of the year in the bitter darkness, the arrival of summer is a national invitation to party.

Lena Granefelt/

Originally a pagan tradition, midsummer typically falls somewhere between June 19 and 26. As this date happens to coincide with St John’s Feast Day, midsummer has taken on a religious aspect in many countries. However, the Swedes have been reluctant to jettison their pagan ways. Eat, drink and be merry is definitely the catchphrase of this particular celebration. For further information about midsummer in Sweden - click here

Sara Ingman/

Due to its pagan associations, the holiday also possesses a mystical quality for the Swedish people. It is a time when the forces of nature take control, when anything is possible and passions burn freely. 

It is during midsummer that Anna Charlier, the heroine of my novel Perfect North, lays flowers under her pillow in the hope of dreaming of her future husband – a midsummer night’s dream, indeed! Likewise, Erik Strindberg falls head over heels (not literally) on the dance floor when the charming Anna, decked out in her midsummer finery, catches his eye. Coincidentally (or not), births in Sweden in the month of March are higher than at any other time of the year!

Carolina Romare/

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if a summer solstice celebration took off in Australia? But until that happens, I’ll just have to be content with Easter. Hot cross buns, autumnal colours and the prospect of a bunny bringing me chocolate marks this as my favourite holiday.

What’s your favourite annual celebration?

Death of a kitchen calamity

June 16, 2014, commemorates the fifty-one-year anniversary of the death of the White House's most infamously terrible cook, a wonderfully strong and wilful woman who inspired my second novel, The President's Lunch (releases end of July). Her name was Henrietta Nesbitt.

Henrietta Nesbitt at the White House (photo: Duluth Public Library)

I first read about Henrietta in an article titled 'FDR’s Anti-epicurean White House' (see it here) on the Gourmet magazine website. The feature, written by Laura Shapiro, told the story of the twelve-year war America’s 32nd President Franklin Delano Roosevelt waged with his housekeeper. In the eyes of the foodie President, who navigated the United States through the Great Depression and World War Two, she was almost as formidable as the Führer himself, Adolf Hitler.

Dictatorial in her manner and wretched in her cooking know-how, the hapless housekeeper bombarded the President’s dining room with the worst meals the White House has ever seen. So notorious were her skills (or lack of…) as a chef, writer Ernest Hemingway advised dinner guests to grab a sandwich before dining at the White House. I have cooked a few of Mrs Nesbitt’s recipes and I must say that Hemingway’s advice was worth listening to.

The obvious thought that came to me when I read the story was why didn’t FDR simply fire Mrs Nesbitt?

Apparently, Eleanor Roosevelt was an extremely reluctant First Lady. To soften the move into the White House, Franklin offered Eleanor complete control over the housekeeping staff.

Henrietta Nesbitt (left) & Eleanor Roosevelt (photo: Library of Congress)

Mrs Nesbitt, who had no formal training as a housekeeper or a cook, was hired by the First Lady who was an old friend and wanted to help Henrietta and her husband Henry (I know!), who had fallen on hard times during the Depression.

Consequently, if anybody was going to sack Mrs Nesbitt, it would have to be Eleanor. But Eleanor was not a great admirer of the culinary arts and viewed food as fuel rather than something that could also give great pleasure.

I own this cookbook and I can tell you, Henrietta is not exactly Jamie Oliver!

So essentially Henrietta Nesbitt was the woman behind the woman behind the man.

If you have an appetite for more info about Henrietta, click hereIn the meantime, what’s the most disappointing meal you’ve ever cooked or eaten?