The one in which neighbours take pity on us…

Our house is a very, very, very fine house.

At last, we’re in our new home; and as you might imagine, the relief of finally securing a place and moving in was immense. It was left solely in Heather’s hands to find us a suitable property whilst I was in Japan on Olympics and Paralympics duty, and yet again – as with her canny choice of Cotton Lane for us in the UK – she absolutely came up trumps. Goodness only knows what the Real Estate agent made of me with my strange emails seeking clarification of this, that and the other, but with commendable patience, they helped us to secure the place. 

Of course, we celebrated in the traditional British way of marking any first night in a new house – we had an Indian takeaway… Chicken Saag for me, Butter Chicken for Heather, with pilau rice, a shared large coriander naan bread and the obligatory poppadoms and pickles. It’s our Birmingham Balti heritage coming out, which we’re rather proud of, and the local restaurant did us proud.

Already, we love the house and where it is situated. We have palm trees to gaze at and lemon and grapefruit trees are heavy with fruit in our garden. As I write this I’m sitting in dappled sunlight on our front porch; Honeyeater birds are all around me and unconcerned by my presence, as they busily seek out grubs and sing prettily in the trees and shrubs that shield us from the strong afternoon sun. I’m expecting to see Snow White appear at any moment, singing softly to herself whilst bluebirds gaily circle her overhead.

Inside however, we currently have very little in the way of furniture as our container is still yet to arrive from the UK; but nonetheless, here we happily are: in a four-bedroom, high-set (two-storey) detached house, set almost at the top of a hill, with a commanding view westward of sunsets and the suburb we’re a part of – Sinnamon Park – and beyond. With the occasional but substantial floods that go with the climate and geography of this part of Queensland, it is a thing of value to be in an elevated location; and the development our house is a part of is called ‘Sinnamon Heights’.  

Once, where we are now living was a steep section of farmland that formed part of the sizeable 19th century Wolstan Estate: rich, fertile agricultural land acquired by the Goggs family in the 1860s. This whole area supported 54 farms on 3,000 acres before it firstly became industrialised, and was then given over to housing, with four miles of the estate bounded by the Brisbane River. But three farms were sold at auction in 1901, and today that area is known as Sinnamon Park, named after the pioneers James and Margaret Sinnamon, who with their seven sons and three daughters (one born en-route) arrived in 1863 from Northern Ireland via Tasmania, seeking better prospects and religious freedom for their Protestant beliefs and Huguenot heritage. The home they built on the land they cultivated – Sinnamon Farm – is now a part of the Queensland Heritage Register.

The area that forms the Sinnamon Park housing development was annexed in 1989 from the neighbouring Seventeen Mile Rocks suburb; so-called because of a collection of rocks in the water that marked a distance of 17 miles from the mouth of the Brisbane River, as recorded in 1823 by the explorer and former Royal Navy surveyor John Oxley. Some of those rocks were removed in the 1860s to make the river more navigable, with the remainder being marked by beacons to warn shipping; but between 1960 and 1966, the remaining rocks were removed altogether to widen and allow better access for the boats that needed to utilise the further reaches of the river.

Sinnamon Park – Seventeen Mile Rocks map: (reproduced under the Creative Commons License)

Sinnamon Park is an area of just 3km² (1.2 sq. miles) bounded to the north by the Brisbane River, to the west by the Centenary Freeway, and to the east by Jindalee Creek, an area scientifically designated as a riparian zone: which means it is an area that interfaces between the land and a river and offers a habitat that is rich in the biodiversity of its flora and fauna.

Coming down from Sinnamon Heights to the valley floor provides us with convenient access to the Centenary Freeway, a major arterial route that largely runs north to south, and links the western suburbs of Chapel Hill, Fig Tree Pocket, Kenmore Hills and Bellbowrie, via the adjoining Western Freeway, to the Central Business District (CBD) of Brisbane. The Highway, as it was known when it was opened in 1959, was named to commemorate the centenary of Queensland as a state; but now it’s mainly a 6-lane Freeway and considerably wider and faster than the original 2 lanes each way allowed. For us, it’s a convenient 25 minute drive to the city at the busiest times of day.

To the northwest of Sinnamon Park, on the other side of the valley and on the west side of the Centenary Freeway, stands Mount Ommaney, a hill 82 metres (269 feet) above sea level. Locally it is described as a mountain, but whilst there is no clear definition of the minimum height for a mountain, most geographers use a height of 300 metres as the benchmark. But whether it’s a hill or a mountain, we can agree that the tump is named after John Ommaney who met an unfortunate death in 1856 at the tender age of 20. He was thrown from his horse whilst riding out from Wolstan House, the home of his uncle Stephen Simpson, who at that time was the Commissioner for Crown Lands in these parts, and whose pile was set on the aforementioned Wolstan Estate. John’s riderless horse returned to the house and a search was immediately undertaken in the surrounding hinterland, and although John was found alive, his condition was described as ‘insensible’; and despite medical attention, he died from his injuries. His body was taken by steamer along the river, and he is buried in Paddington, today an inner-city suburb of Brisbane.

With a little help from my friends.

The kindness of friends, and the charity of the Australians that we’ve met, has been nothing short of amazing. We’re currently sleeping on a wonderful, blow-up double bed provided by our dear friends Mary and Paul, who, having re-settled themselves from South Africa via New Zealand with three small children, know only too well what it is like to move countries and arrive with no possessions to speak of. There’s a label on the bed that says ‘this is not a life-saving device’, but I beg to disagree.

Heather spotted some second-hand dining chairs on Facebook Marketplace and bought them immediately, cleverly fitting them into her newly purchased 2007-but-pristine-Peugeot-207 (‘one lady owner, never raced or rallied’). Then we acquired two bedside cabinets from a charity shop and an old café table that was lurking in the undercroft of daughter Nicola’s 1920s raised Queensland cottage, and finally we completed the furniture inventory with three borrowed camping chairs that sat like art installation pieces in our otherwise empty lounge.

We managed like this for about two weeks, before I had occasion to ask if I could borrow my neighbour’s drill to put water holes into some new plant pots that Heather had bought from our local Bunnings store (the company that own Homebase in the UK). I explained to Simon-next-door that our stuff wasn’t due to arrive until the middle of November, and then there would be a further two weeks for customs to go through everything. ‘So, what do you sit on at night when you need to relax?’ he asked; and I explained that we would either go to our comfy inflatable bed at 7:30pm and watch Apple TV on the iPad, or we’d sit and chat together in the camping chairs. At this, Simon, now joined by Louise-next-door, immediately insisted that we take the sofa out of their den… And not only would they not take no for an answer, before we knew it Simon-next-door and Louise-next-door were carrying the sofa down their drive and making their way up ours. Given that our drive is reminiscent of the North face of the Eiger, it was my turn to be insistent, and I replaced Louise-next-door in carrying the sofa into the house. Their kindness and generosity were spontaneous, and it continued further by them asking what else they could provide us with, at least until we got ourselves settled in properly. The openness and friendliness of the Australians is well-known, but the kindness and welcome we have been shown by the people we have met since we’ve been here, is nothing short of incredible.

I want my MTV.

Two weeks ago we went big-ticket, white goods shopping: we bought a fridge-freezer (what we chose seemed as big as a wardrobe to me, but to my amazement it slotted perfectly into its designated place) and a microwave, a washing machine and a tumble dryer also found homes in the laundry area of the large utility room we now have (that for some reason also boasts a sizeable shower enclosure). But if truth be told, the only thing I felt I contributed at all to, was the selecting of a new television.

It’s been a long-standing joke in our house that the television we owned was older than my adult children… It was a huge CRT model (and I mean the kind of huge that requires three people to lift it) that in its day, was the finest telly on the market: the legendary Sony Trinitron; and for each year that passed I vowed that I would not scrap such a pristine picture box, or buy another TV, until that one broke (confident in the belief that the Sony’s build quality would probably outlast me). One thing’s for sure, we never worried about burglars making off with it.  

Well, you’ll no doubt be relieved to learn that unlike the fireplace, the Sony, whilst still working perfectly, didn’t make the cut and find a place in the removalist’s van (but several burly removals guys did put it on the front lawn for us, though), and sure enough like everything else we’d ever put out for scrap, re-cycling or up-cycling, within an hour, it went to a highly-delighted eastern European couple who loaded it into the back of their ancient people carrier. They quickly drove off with the back suspension bouncing on and off the bump stops all the way down Cotton Lane, with me shouting and chasing after them with the remote control in my hand. In vain, considerably hampered by the payload in the back, the driver tried to accelerate away from me; but eventually seeing the remote in my hand, to our mutual relief he stopped and gingerly received it from me, easing down his window just far enough for me to post it through the slot to him.

But I digress… Back to buying a new telly. If Sony’s Trinitron ruled the airwaves in the 1980s and 1990s (which it did; until the patent on their wonderful implementation of CRT technology ran out in 1996), then the 2020s technology of choice must be the LG OLED. Equally eye-wateringly expensive as the Sony was in its day, I felt justified in splashing out on the best set we could afford given that a) we hadn’t had a new television all the time Heather and I had been together (15 years) and b) in the first place, it was given to me by a pal who earned far too much money and constantly refreshed his audio-visual hardware! So, I felt we’d paid our dues and had earned the right to splash out a bit on ourselves, albeit in a ridiculously reckless manner. Which we did, and we now own a 4k, 55-inch, stereo television set that is as thin as an After Eight mint. My mates on social media were rather cruel I thought, refusing to believe that I’d actually bought a new set, such was my resolve to tough it out back in the UK; but over here, I don’t know, everything has a brighter, crisper, backlit, 5.1 feel about it. Well, it does now in our lounge, anyway.

Hot dog, jumping frog.

Is there another developed country – anywhere – where the native species present such a constant ‘clear and present danger’ as Australia? Maybe there are bushmen in the Amazon rainforest who wrestle Anacondas for sport, or other hardy souls in the South American or African jungles who laugh in the face of a Tarantula’s threat; but I’ve thought about this – a lot, I can tell you – visualising the encounters and situations that I might plausibly find myself in, going out and about (or even staying at home minding my own business) and I am cautious. Very cautious. I justify this reticence to fully embrace the great outdoors (and our marvellous indoors) here by asking this simple question: where else on earth might you be sitting on a beautiful beach with your wife and children, decide to finish your Wall’s Magnum (it would be a Streets Magnum here, though) and take a dip in the sea, without the possibility of standing on a Stonefish, being assailed by a box jellyfish, a sea snake, a saltwater crocodile, a shark or possibly all five… (Oh, and whilst you are swimming, watch out for that frequent tourist killer, the Rip Tide, too.) In summary, my understanding is that almost every native species here wants to either poison you, bite you, squeeze you or sting you. To death, preferably.

Of course, I control the internal dialogue in my head by telling myself I’m over-exaggerating the situation, and Mrs. H is keen to support this viewpoint, having spent – as she frequently tells me – ‘nine largely snake-free years here before’. It’s the largely bit that bothers me.

Once, staying at friend’s house for a few weeks, I borrowed her car for the day and then put it back in the garage, and locked it safely away. It had been baking hot and so I didn’t close the sunroof; which next morning, when I came to drive her to work so that I might again have use of the car, she explained precisely why I must close the doors, windows and sunroof, without fail. One morning she had been driving to work when a snake appeared on her windscreen, somehow wriggling its way out of the engine. Thankfully, the snake was outside of the passenger compartment, but it needed dealing with… Trapped in her car, she had to phone her husband (a totally un-flappable Rhodesian who had spent the years of his National Service in the African jungle) to come and put the snake in a sack and safely release it back in the wild. This man is not only my good friend, he is my all-time action hero; and he revels in the response I involuntarily give when he tells me the stories of his close calls with Mambas and Vipers, and other delightful reptiles. I’m not kidding, this man makes Indiana Jones seem like Bridget Jones; and makes me feel like the Cowardly Lion.

But maybe I’m being too hasty to judge myself; because redemption may be at hand and my courage may be climbing. So far, I have single-handedly caught cockroaches ‘as big as a Buick’ (as Woody Allen described in the movie Annie Hall), scooped up a (harmless) juvenile Huntsman spider (not yet as big as a dinner plate) and between us, we’ve trapped and dispatched to the ‘green’ bin, two butt-ugly Cane Toads. We have a Gecko in the patio canopy (they’re rather endearing little things) and I know from indentations around the bushes in the borders, and the presence of their small poos, that we have a Possum around. Which is a good sign for me (snakes eat Possums, so my logic is: if there’s a Possum around, it must surely indicate that there are no venomous snakes lurking), but it’s less good news for Heather (because Possums eat anything and everything you might want to grow in a herb garden).

Talking with Simon-next-door and Louise-next-door, I mentioned how Heather had strategically chosen us a house on higher ground and away from bush and parkland; all great measures to stay snake-free and an integral part of the reasoning behind where we live. ‘Oh yes’, says Simon-next-door, ‘you should be safe from any venomous snakes here’ (before going on to tell me how incredibly fast and incredibly venomous the Eastern Brown snakes found here in Queensland are). Apparently, I just need to keep an eye out for the 6 to 10 feet long Green Tree Pythons that have been known to sun themselves on the tops of garden fences. Small mercies I suppose.

Rikki don’t lose that number.

Since returning to Australia from the Olympics and Paralympics in Japan, which was full of its own existential challenges, it’s all felt a bit unreal, like being on holiday; but I know I’m not, nor am I anywhere near retirement (not that I want to be, either). But obviously the 14-day quarantine slowed my momentum from the Olympics down somewhat, just at a time when I was raring to get going on the next part of our new life together.

I obviously tried to keep myself busy during my enforced lockdown: a daily call with Marcus, who is running the day-to-day operations at The Audio Suite in the UK, and attending to the associated email traffic the studios generate from clients sharing and needing information from us, obviously helped; and I had accepted two speaking engagements whilst I was away at the Olympics which required me to write and prepare content – one for a Webinar conference company hosted in Denmark, but with a world-wide audience; and one for the Audio Engineering Society in Los Angeles. I usefully used my time to create original and bespoke material.

The time difference played a role in both gigs, too: to fit in with the programme of speakers on the webinar, delivering my own session and then being available for questions and answers at the end of a two-hour segment, meant delivering my talk either side of midnight local time, and then staying on the line until 2am to fit-in with the mid-afternoon seminar spot in Europe. Not that I have any concerns about working at odd hours of the day – but I was thankful that it would mean making my contribution during the middle of the night when the amount of internet traffic in my area would be at its lowest.

Australia is renown for its patchy internet coverage and the hotel broadband was simply impossible to rely on, so I ordered a huge data package on a SIM card from Telstra – the largest Australian telecoms company – and had it posted to my room. But that too failed to inspire any confidence in the ‘guaranteed signal’ I was supposed to receive via a mobile phone. My frustration was compounded by the fact that even though I was way up on the 10th floor, and had a huge picture window in my room looking into the centre of Australia’s third largest city, the 5G signal my handset could process – and the coverage map and online tech team promised me – barely tickled the end stop of the phone’s signal meter. At times I couldn’t even get a 3G signal. Not good. After some frustrating hours with two online help operators, I concluded it was probably a faulty SIM card, and Heather kindly bought another one from a Telstra shop locally and had the hotel staff leave it outside my door. It did improve things, but not by much, and I was on tenterhooks all through my webcam-videocall presentation. It would be mightily embarrassing to be discussing the principles of what it takes to deliver a seamless service to 3.5 billion Olympic television viewers world-wide, if I couldn’t hold the equivalent of an uninterrupted Zoom call to Denmark.

‘Calling Copenhagen, come in Copenhagen…’

But the communication gods smiled on me, and the signal held. It was all smoke and mirrors of course; the moody lighting and carefully framed picture of me in front of the webcam didn’t show what was behind and around it: thick, drape curtains pulled across the window, pillows from the bed carefully placed around the mic on the webcam and a deep, plush towel on the desktop to reduce any unwanted reverberation of my voice in the room. In the good old days, a foreign correspondent working for a news outlet would record their commentary for the pictures that were sent back to their home station on a tape recorder, and then they would connect the output of their tape recorder to the hotel telephone: unscrewing the mouthpiece cover and attaching the tape machine’s speaker wires to the connectors of the telephone’s mic with croc clips. Tethering the laptop to my mobile phone, to send my content to the outside world, was simply me operating Windows 10 and ‘croc clips version 2.0’.

I knew I’d been lucky and got away unscathed linking to Denmark via my mobile phone. But my next talk, which was after I’d left hotel quarantine, could not be left to chance. First of all, it was just me talking for 90 minutes – there was no other speaker to cut to; secondly, it was for the Audio Engineering Society in Los Angeles – if there’s one place that you want to maintain a ‘clean and green’ signal for, it’s the Audio Engineering Society, especially at an event in the backyard of our industry; and thirdly, the 17 hour time difference between Brisbane and LA meant that I would be speaking during the middle of my day – a time of potentially maximum internet traffic, particularly with so many folk working from home these days.

As it happens, I’d been in discussions on other audio-related business matters with a post-production company in Brisbane and we’d agreed to meet by me going into their down-town premises. Cheekily, I asked if we might combine our meeting with me then taking advantage of a room somewhere in their studios with cabled, fast broadband. As with all the other helpful people we’ve met here, they were only too happy to accommodate me – and I promised that my hold screen at the end of my presentation would prominently display their name and logo: quite an advertising coup whilst in the ‘belly of the beast’, which Hollywood has been described as.

Broadcasting to LA in a Dolby kind of atmosphere.

I couldn’t have received better treatment or a better service from the post-production company – their impressive mixing theatre was put at my disposal and there was certainly no problem with the acoustics in that room. Once again it seemed I was operating a home-spun affair, sitting alongside a feature film sound mixing console but using a webcam to communicate with, but it worked. Beautifully. The feedback was good after the session, too, which was comforting, because even though you know that a hundred people have signed-up to watch and listen to you, you have no real way of knowing as a presenter whether some have gone to make coffee, some are sifting through emails or maybe they have all logged off. Add in the apprehension of presenting concepts from your own work to experts in the same field and it comes as a relief to be saying ‘thank you and goodnight’. My talk involved discussing my most recent book on sound and it’s influence on human emotions. I think I ran them all that day.

You are the sunshine of my life.

But it is true to say that I have purposely spent a couple of weeks with my foot off the gas, and used it as time to recharge my batteries: in the next week or so, I know that work commitments are going to ramp back up again; so this has been a period of settling in to the new house, getting to know our kind neighbours, exploring the neighbourhood and checking-out the local places to eat (with a special mention for Just Poppy’s home-made gourmet burgers).

This week, just because we could on a Tuesday afternoon, we drove for 45 minutes to get to a beach town called Redcliffe. You might know it as the home of the Bee Gees, and it has the wonderful Bee Gees Way – an open arcade dedicated to their careers and populated with excellent photographs and a large screen audio-visual presentation showing old and not-so-old archive footage that, thankfully, has crystal clear sound. The arcade is off a long parade of shops and restaurants that for the most part, due to the consequences of Covid measures, have been shut for some considerable time, and these dark shop fronts give off the depressed air of a northern English seaside resort in the winter.

Redcliffe Jetty, on a spring afternoon; and it’s only 45 minutes from home…

But whilst it was a cloudy day, it was also warm with a fresh sea breeze blowing on our faces, and we looked out to sea from Redcliffe Jetty then walked along the beach towards Scarborough; fantasy house-hunting the beach-front properties and most of all, still simply enjoying being in each other’s company after my almost three months away. Unfortunately, the one house that we both set our hearts on – and googled – recently exchanged hands for an undisclosed sum, but believed to be around the $10 million mark… Which we reluctantly agreed was probably a little out of our price range. Before we headed home, I couldn’t resist sampling the fried Calamari on offer at Yabbey Road: a Beatle’s-themed café that has been voted by readers of The Courier Mail as Brisbane’s number 1 fish and chip shop; and I’m pleased to say that neither the food, nor the quirky surroundings, disappointed us.

Some years ago, in fact not long after I became a man on a mission with my UK audio post-production company The Audio Suite, my business coach Dave Holland explained to me the importance of visualizing some kind of end point: ‘You need to keep a picture in your mind of the time when you’ll be walking hand-in-hand, with exactly the right person, at peace, along a beautiful beach.’ Almost exactly twenty hard years on from starting the company, with much personal and professional upheaval along the way, here I was walking on a beautiful beach, hand-in-hand with exactly the right person, on a work-day afternoon in the southern hemisphere’s Spring.

But the most exciting thing is that we’re not at an end point just yet; instead, we’re just at the beginning of the next phase of The Audio Suite’s development: an Australian Audio Suite studio, ready to support the work of the Birmingham studio, but also generating and serving clients in its own right, right here in Brisbane. To paraphrase the famous words of a great leader, for us it means that: ‘This is not the end. This is not the beginning of the end; but it is the end of the beginning.’

In the next episode…

The Audio Suite goes international by becoming an officially registered business in both the UK and Australia; we find a studio in Brisbane to base the operation in; and I get approached to go to work as a Supervising Sound Editor on a new, high-end television drama series. What could possibly go wrong?

Cover picture: Heather outside our new home in Sinnamon Park. [All pictures © Neil Hillman 2021]

I live and work on the lands of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and I recognise them as the Traditional Custodians of this country.

Neil Life

4 Replies

    1. Hey John boy –

      Ha! I dunno, it seems like things just sort of happen to us, and we trust that it will all be for the best (which amazingly, it generally is) – and in any case, if life really is ‘what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans’, it’s probably a waste of time working out a Plan B instead of concentrating on your Plan A… The story is still unfolding!

      As ever, lots of love to you and May!

      NHX

  1. Running down the road, waving a remote control at slightly startled, somewhat sheepish Eastern Europeans…..

    Only you Neil. Only you. 🤦‍♀️

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