remembering valerie lester

‘Do with your writing what you’re doing with your life,’ Val advised sagely. ‘Be brave.’

- from The Latte Years

Val and I on one of her friends’ boats in Annapolis, June 2007.

Val and I on one of her friends’ boats in Annapolis, June 2007.

My beloved friend, and the wonderful writer, translator and scholar, Valerie Lester passed away in June. How grateful I am that our paths crossed when she visited Hobart nearly 20 years ago. I owe her a great deal.

She was one of my greatest and most enthusiastic cheerleaders, set many wheels in motion for me and, as per the excerpt from my book above (which she loved), always encouraged me to be resilient and brave.

“I exhort you to keep writing,” she said in her last email to me.

Bloody Mary’s (I think!) in Annapolis, July 2007.

Bloody Mary’s (I think!) in Annapolis, July 2007.

A few weeks after Val’s passing, I learned I had been accepted into my PhD program, which I’ve now begun in earnest. I would have so loved to share that news with her. My PhD project was inspired by a tiny bit of research she asked me to do for her while she was writing her book about Phiz (Dickens’ principal illustrator), so it’s been nearly 15 years in the making. I hope I will do her proud. The project so far has been thrilling and I think it's going to be a real adventure. I'm so grateful to Val for leaving the first few crumbs on the trail for me.

What a talented, generous and fascinating person she was. I have so many happy memories of her and her husband Jim when I visited them in Annapolis in 2007. Most of them involve jazz music, poetry, and gin and tonics! They were both such dear friends and I miss them both very much.

With Val and Jim, Annapolis, July 2007.

With Val and Jim, Annapolis, July 2007.


Go well, dear Val. Until we meet again.  

women in media tasmania launch

Virginia Trioli and Caroline Jones, speakers at the event.  Image credit

Virginia Trioli and Caroline Jones, speakers at the event. Image credit

Women in Media (WiM) Australia is  a nationwide initiative for women working in all facets of the media – from journalists, creatives and media advisors to those working in public relations and corporate affairs. Their mission is simple but profound: to improve the working lives of women in media by addressing fundamental inequalities in the sector - in pay, conditions and opportunities - and to empower women to achieve their professional goals.

WiM now has chapters in every state and territory of Australia, with the launch of the Tasmanian chapter at the world-renowned Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart a few Sundays ago making the initiative truly national. I was delighted and honoured to attend the launch as the guest of the Launceston Freelance Festival and spent a wonderful afternoon meeting new people, making some valuable connections and being truly inspired by some of the stories shared.

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At a time when media freedom feels very shaky, it was a balm to be in a room bustling with energetic, passionate people who believe in the incredible power of storytelling, and the obligations we have to those who trust us with their stories to be brave and back ourselves.

The full room was testament to the generous spirit on which WiM was founded, supporting the wellbeing and advancement of women. “When I started in journalism, there was nothing like this. Women doing my job were very rare,” said Dr Caroline Jones, distinguished broadcaster, who gave the opening address. Caroline is probably best known for being the first woman to anchor the current affairs program Four Corners as well as presenting on ABC Radio National for many years. She is also one of my personal heroes!

Dr Caroline Jones

Dr Caroline Jones

“In my early years I would have loved a women in media group to belong to - to learn how to cope with information overload, how to stand my ground, how to avoid the dreaded imposter syndrome,” said Caroline as many heads nodded around the room.

And then there was the incredible Virginia Trioli, formerly of News Breakfast on the ABC and now host of Mornings of ABC Radio Melbourne, who gave a blistering, moving and powerful keynote address, sharing her experiences of being a ‘difficult’ woman in a very difficult industry. She spoke about the #metoo movement (“we keep men’s secrets, and we do it without even thinking”), about the need for support networks (or rather, escape hatches and safe rooms, as she put it) for women in journalism so it can be easier to stand up for ourselves when we have to, and about the need for truth in our stories, “even if it points out realities that might make you unpopular.”

Virginia Trioli

Virginia Trioli

I loved her honesty and courage and hung on every word (and live tweeted). “If we’re here for one thing it’s surely to be brave,” she concluded. “With others and with ourselves. In the end we can only ever make the calls we do, back ourselves and be brave...we have to be authentic and candid and let the cards fall where they may.”

Virginia Trioli’s wonderful speech was followed by a Q&A with her and Caroline Jones, and then we watched a wonderful short film from the ‘Women of the Island’ series by director Rebecca Thomson. “Everywhere you look, there is a woman with an interesting story,” Thomson said. So very true! Participating in this day really fired me up about storytelling and getting back into my own work, telling the stories I want to tell about the lives of women I’ve met through research, imagination, chance and circumstance.

The Tasmanian Women in Media committee getting some well-deserved applause!

The Tasmanian Women in Media committee getting some well-deserved applause!

It was a magnificent day - a testament to the power, talent and generosity of women in media - where I met so many interesting people and made lots of valuable connections. I even got to shake the hands of the two speakers and tell them how much their work and shining courageous examples have meant to me. “Just be yourself,” was Virginia’s Trioli’s parting advice to me as she left. Words I strive to remember every day, in my work and in life.

I can’t wait to see what the Tasmanian chapter of Women in Media does next!

I attended the day as the guest of the Launceston Freelance Festival and very much appreciate their support!

This weekend, Women in Media are holding their national conference at Bond University in Queensland.

keeping a promise

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I have wanted to do my PhD for a very long time. Apparently I even talked about it at school! In my last year of my BA I remember it being all-consuming, and being devastated when, convinced I was speeding merrily along that path, I reached a dead end after my Honours year. 

But life went on. As some things ended, I found new beginnings. I moved interstate, then overseas. This time last year, more than 15 years had passed since reaching that dead end. Tom and I were packing up our lives in London, our flights back to Australia booked, his visa safely approved. I was in a routine I’d been in for years, though admittedly at the tail end of it. The daily grind. Happy enough but wondering if this particular dream would ever see the light of day after the best part of two decades in a cupboard. 

If anyone had told me a year later I would be enrolled in my PhD and attending seminars at University of Technology Sydney, meeting my supervisor who is one of the most creative, motivating and intelligent women I’ve ever met, well....I would have wanted to believe it. But I still thought it was unlikely. 

I entered the UTS building last Thursday and thought I would explode with joy. I sat at tables with some of this country’s brightest minds, most respected historians and highly praised writers and thought.....I belong here. Not in an arrogant way, you understand. I am honoured and beyond grateful to be here, but I also know this is where I’m meant to be. These are my people. This is work I understand and want to do with all my heart.

But this isn’t happening because I was ready. I thought my PhD was still years away. I’m here and doing it because life decided I was ready. After all these years, the space suddenly opened and when it did, I didn’t question it. With encouragement from some wonderful people, I jumped. 

This feels like the biggest journey of my life. Bigger than the move to Melbourne or London, bigger than the quest to get fit and healthy, bigger than the marathon. This is the keeping of a promise to my younger self, my most essential self. I want to look back on my life and know that, despite taking the scenic route, I did not fail her. 

So if you’re reading this, wondering if your own dream - the biggest dream of your true, most authentic self - will ever happen, please take heart.

Trust yourself and the timing of life. 

And never, ever give up. 

silverbeet, ricotta and feta cannelloni

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This is vegetarian winter comfort food at its finest. Silverbeet (chard in the UK) is such a nutritious winter vegetable and can be bought readily and cheaply at this time of the year. It goes in everything - pasta sauces, stir-fries, soups, stews, pies, frittatas. This is eating seasonally at its best!

And if fussy eaters in your family sometimes eschew the silverbeet stalks, I promise they’ll barely notice them in this delicious dish. You can use a bechamel sauce to top the pasta rolls instead of passata if you prefer, but I love the acidity and brightness of a tomato-based sauce with this dish. It contrasts so nicely with the creaminess of the cheese and the filling.

This dish has become my standby for winter entertaining, and everyone I’ve served it to has exclaimed with pleasure on taking their first bite. I’m sure you’ll be the same!

It partners well with a rocket salad, steamed green beans, broccoli or any green vegetable on the side - just keep it simple. This dish is the soprano in the mid-week dinner opera.

Silverbeet, ricotta and feta cannelloni

Serves 4-6 depending on appetite

1 onion, finely chopped
3 large cloves garlic, crushed
2 bunches silverbeet (or you can use cavolo nero, kale, spring greens or chard, if you’re in the UK), washed and chopped reasonably finely (stalks and leaves)
Stock or wine, just in case it sticks
1 teaspoon dried mixed herbs or oregano OR a handful of fresh sage and rosemary, finely chopped
1 x 375g tub ricotta
100g (roughly 1/2 a packet) feta
Any other cheese you might have lying around you want to use up (blue cheese is especially good)
1 x 150g tub basil pesto (Coles does a good one)
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
A bit of freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of chilli flakes (optional)
1 x 375g pack fresh lasagna sheets (roughly 12 sheets)
1 x 690g jar tomato passata
1 x 220g tub cherry bocconcini (baby mozzarella balls)
A sprinkling of fresh parmesan (optional)
A little chopped fresh rosemary and oregano to sprinkle over the top
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 200 C. My oven needs to be on 220 to get it to this temperature - you want a hot oven basically!

Heat some olive oil in a large, non-stick pan (which has a lid) over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onion and garlic, and cook for a few minutes until starting to soften. Add the chopped silverbeet and continue to cook, stirring constantly, for a minute or so until it starts cooking. You can then reduce the heat slightly, put the lid on and leave for a few minutes for the stalks to cook and soften. Add some stock, water or wine to the pan if it starts to stick.

Once the silverbeet is cooked, turn off the heat and set the pan aside to cool slightly while you assemble the rest of the filling ingredients.

Add the herbs and ricotta, crumble in the feta, and grate or crumble in any other cheese you wish to use (I find making this is wonderful around Christmas too, when you’ve inevitably got lots of random bits of cheese in the house). The add the tub of pesto, lemon zest, nutmeg, chilli, any other herbs you might like or have lying around (parsley, thyme and basil are all good) and a good cracking of fresh black pepper and a smidge of salt (you won’t need much because of the feta). Mix everything together well.

Assemble a large baking dish (what you’d normally cook a lasagna in), buttering/oiling it if need be. Take each fresh lasagna sheet and place roughly two tablespoons (1/12th) of filling on top, spreading it slightly but keeping it mostly in the middle, then roll up loosely to enclose the filling. Place the rolled cannelloni, seam-side down, in the dish, taking care not to pack them in too tightly. Continue until all the lasagna sheets and filling are used.

Pour the jar of passata over the top, spreading the sauce out evenly. Place the cherry bocconcini evenly on top, to ensure equal cheesiness in each portion! You may not need all of them. Finally, sprinkle the top with a little fresh parmesan (if using) and the chopped fresh herbs.

Place in the hot oven and bake for around 35 minutes (if your oven is temperamental like mine, check after 25 minutes) until the dish is bubbling and the top is golden brown and looking irresistible.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before dishing out and enjoying, preferably with a glass of excellent red wine alongside. If a Barbaresco is easily available where you are, I highly recommend that. Otherwise, an Australian pinot noir or cab sav is delightful.

peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips and sea salt

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I don’t know what it is about the taste of peanut butter, but it has an almost Proustian effect on me.

As a child, I rejected every other sandwich filling for my school lunchbox. In fact, I rejected sandwiches most of the time - they were dull in taste and vomit-inducing in texture, the opposite of everything I wanted and believed food to be. So for most of primary school, my usual lunch was a bag of carrot sticks and peanut butter on crackers. Peanut butter became a familiar, quotidian taste and I found it far from exciting. Once I was old enough to make my own lunch for school, peanut butter was off the menu. I’d had enough to last a lifetime, or so I thought.

But as an adult, I’ve found tasting peanut butter again quite ambrosial. I love it on apple slices, on toast, in stir-fries, in smoothies or even by the spoonful.

Peanut butter also makes a divine and, with the addition of a sprinkle of sea salt, very adult biscuit. But the method is so simple a child could make them (with a little supervision). I find making biscuits such a faff that I was determined to make these in one bowl/pan. Success.

Be warned, these are incredibly addictive.

Peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips and sea salt

150g smooth peanut butter (I like Bega Just Nuts or Pic)
125g unsalted butter
65g rice malt syrup
125g brown sugar
1 egg
Splash of vanilla extract
100g dessicated coconut
270g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon bicarb soda
120g dark chocolate chips
Sea salt flakes, for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 180 C (fan-forced). Line two baking trays with baking paper.

Place the peanut butter, butter and rice malt syrup in a large saucepan (you will use this to make the whole mixture, so make sure it’s a big saucepan) over low heat. Stir occasionally until just melted. Turn off heat.

Add the brown sugar, egg and vanilla, and beat well until combined.

Add the coconut, flour and bicarb soda and stir to combine.

FInally, add the chocolate chips and stir until evenly distributed through the mixture.

Using a teaspoon and your hands, roll into balls of a size to your liking (just be consistent!) and place evenly spaced on the trays. Once all the mixture is used, use a fork to flatten the dough balls slightly.

Sprinkle the tops with a little sea salt (only a little - we’re not going for a hundreds and thousands look! Just a flake will do. Be restrained and judicious here). You could also put a few more choc chips on top (as I did).

Bake in the oven for roughly 8 minutes or until the biscuits are golden brown. For goodness sake set a timer, otherwise you’ll pull a groin muscle running to the oven to rescue them.

Allow to cool slightly on the trays, then transfer to a rack to cool completely. You can eat them warm(ish) but I think they’re at their best cool. They are “crisp yet fluffy”, as Tom described them.

Perfect with a cup of tea or (I imagine) crumbled over some vanilla ice cream.