I heard Premier Denis Napthine tell ABC Radio last week we face rolling blackouts and should each do our bit to save electricity during the heatwave.

His comments almost made me throw the radio through a wall – no mean feat when you’re driving.

The sun and wind are increasing our demand for the power that our brown-coal-fired power stations can’t meet when they could be a major part of the solution.

Yet our state government has all but banned new wind farms and removed many of the incentives for people to install solar panels and deliver surplus energy to the electricity grid.

Of course, the government will feel pressure to meet increasing demands as heatwaves get longer and hotter.

Ironically, it will most probably want to do this by building another dirty coal-fired power station.

SPECIAL: Viv Benjamin | Life on the line

After the words “pens down” reverberated across VCE examination rooms throughout Victoria, the class of 2006 got down to the business of celebrating the end of their secondary education. Most headed straight for pubs and parties, some slept for a week, others conducted a ceremonial burning of index cards. It’s safe to say that only one got up the next morning to direct the biggest and most successful youth-run music event in Australian history.

Viv Benjamin was 17 when she organised the Make Poverty History concert. An enthusiastic crowd of 15,000 crammed into the Sidney Myer Music Bowl to see headliners Bono and Pearl Jam and send a pointed message to the leaders of the G20 – that extreme poverty is extremely preventable.

The event was staged under the auspices of the Oaktree Foundation, Australia’s largest youth-run movement to end global poverty, which Benjamin joined at 16. Today, at the ripe old age of 25, she is the organisation’s chief executive.

Benjamin has grown up with Oaktree over the past decade, and the organisation’s vision is intrinsically linked with her own.

“My personal commitment is that I want to see the end of extreme poverty in my lifetime,” she says, voice firm. “We have more than enough food in the world, we have more than enough money in the world, but the distribution of both is out of whack. We have the resources to end this, we just need to be the generation that says it’s not acceptable.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by the 180,000 Oaktree supporters from across Australia who donate their time to raise awareness of extreme poverty, raise money for projects in developing countries and campaign for policy change to increase Australia’s commitment to foreign aid. These initiatives are run entirely by unpaid volunteers aged 16-26.

With Benjamin at the helm, the organisation is gearing up for its fourth annual Live Below the Line campaign, calling upon thousands of Australians to feed themselves on just $2 a day for five days – the equivalent of the global extreme poverty line.

In 2013, Live Below the Line attracted 8500 participants and raised $2.1 million to support education projects in Cambodia and Papua New Guinea. Having personally completed the challenge every year since its inception, Benjamin says the money is fantastic, but the campaign’s real impact lies in the perspective-changing conversations it initiates.

What was it that shifted her perspective to the plight of those living hundreds of thousands of kilometres away? The answer may lie in the Philippines. Born to an Australian father and a Filipino mother, Benjamin and her older brother spent their school holidays visiting relatives on the north coast of the island of Panay.

“It’s this beautiful, tropical, amazing place with coconut trees and rice paddies and pigs and chickens,” she says of her family’s property outside the tiny village of Pook.

“I would go over there every summer as a kid and it was such a contrast from leafy, suburban Australia … we were surrounded by people who live ordinary lives but they live them on dirt floors without running water. These two worlds colliding was really formative for me; it gave me a very clear sense that the world is not this bubble of Melbourne.” Once she found herself face-to-face with a local girl, of similar age and appearance, sitting in the dust by the side of the road.

“I looked into the eyes of this girl and I realised I could be her. I realised that, through no deserving of my own, I was born in Australia and, through no deserving of her own, she was born into extreme poverty. I couldn’t ignore that, I couldn’t ignore the opportunities I’d been given – purely by chance – to right some of those imbalances.”

As a child she gained a broader perspective of the world than Australians four or five times her age, but Benjamin had the occasional problem close to home.

Back in leafy Balwyn North, she was dismayed to discover her time at tiny Belle Vue Primary School was fast coming to a close, and that her best friend Vicky had been enrolled at the prestigious Methodist Ladies’ College in Kew. After school that day she told her parents that she had to be with Vicky, therefore she would like to go “to this place called MLC”.

“They said, ‘Well, we’re very sorry but we can’t afford to send you there, you’ve picked just about the most expensive place to go’,” she says, laughing.

Never one to subscribe to the notion that some things are beyond our control, the tenacious eight-year-old spent the next three years studying and was rewarded with a full scholarship to MLC for her efforts. Ironically, Vicky ended up getting into another school.

As a 14-year-old, Benjamin directed Bombs Begone, her first social justice campaign, raising money to clear landmines from a village in rural Cambodia. She organised battle-of-the-bands events, benefit concerts, and led 100 volunteers in speaking engagements nationwide.

“After that I got involved in basically every organisation I could get my hands on, from Amnesty International to United Nations Youth,” she says.

“When I stumbled across Oaktree in its really early stages, I thought, ‘Wow, this is the place that young people can really take hold and lead’. I felt like I was home.”

Founded in 2003 by university students Hugh Evans and Nic Mackay, Oaktree began with no office, no budget, and about 30 volunteers. Benjamin joined in 2005, beguiled by Oaktree’s philosophy that young people have the unique ability to make a real difference in the world.

“I think we can look back through history and see that young people have often been at the forefront of really historic social change,” she says.

“Young people have looked at the world and said, ‘No, it’s not OK that apartheid exists’, or ‘No, it’s not OK that slavery is legal’, in the same way that this generation has the opportunity to look at the world with fresh eyes and say that we don’t accept that a billion people in the world live in extreme poverty.”

Benjamin’s first major campaign with Oaktree was the inaugural Roadtrip to End Poverty, where she mobilised 200 students from across the country onto buses bound for the nation’s capital.

Nobody in the group had spoken to a politician or set foot in the ACT, but within two days the teenagers secured meetings with 70 federal MPs and senators to discuss Australia’s commitment to a pledge made by the world’s leaders to halve global poverty by 2015.

“They mostly met with us out of surprise that young people would go so far out of their way to speak about issues that weren’t about themselves,” she says. “They were so curious: ‘What is this generation? They’re meant to be looking at their phones and spending all their time on – well, at that stage – Myspace’.”

Oaktree capitalised on growing momentum for the anti-poverty effort by organising the Make Poverty History concert in late 2006 to coincide with the G20 summit in Melbourne.

As the campaign director, Benjamin describes the concert as a coming-of-age for the anti-poverty movement in Australia. Her own turning point came six months later, when she co-directed the ZeroSevenRoadtrip with Oaktree founder Hugh Evans.

Deferring a law degree to volunteer at Oaktree full-time, Benjamin co-ordinated a cast of 700 Oaktree members to make the journey back to Canberra, spreading the anti-poverty message along the way.

About two months before the 2007 federal election, then opposition leader Kevin Rudd used a ZeroSeven road trip rally in Sydney to announce that, if elected, Labor would increase foreign aid from 0.35 per cent to 0.5 per cent of gross national income by 2015. Rudd won the election and fulfilled his promise, marking the largest aid increase in Australia’s history.

“It was pretty mind blowing for me as an 18-year-old to have orchestrated this massive event … and then at the end of it to be able to say, ‘We’ve convinced a political leader to make one decision, and that one decision has gone on to save the lives of millions of people’,” she says.

“For the rest of my life that will continue to be something that blows my mind.”

The aid increase was bipartisan policy until two days before last year’s federal election, when then shadow treasurer Joe Hockey announced a $4.5 billion cut in foreign aid to balance the Liberal Party’s budget.

Oaktree isn’t politically affiliated, nor does it receive any government funding, but Benjamin remains understandably critical of the cuts, placing them among “some really disappointing decisions made recently” under the new Liberal government. Despite this, she told a 2013 episode of ABC’s Q&A that “you couldn’t pay me to join a political party”.

Opinionated yet composed among a panel of federal and state MPs – including a particularly boisterous Barnaby Joyce to her left – Benjamin presented as though she’d be a powerful asset to any political organisation, but she stands by the comment.

“Well done to the young people who are [members of a political party] – I would probably encourage more young people to get involved in democracy and political processes – but something I’ve definitely seen through Oaktree and through other youth movements is that young people aren’t disengaging from politics, they’re just engaging in different, non-traditional ways,” she says. “They’re running away from major political parties because they see them as disingenuous, they see them as only interested in building their own power rather than building social change.”

As a leader, Benjamin appears to embody the exact opposite. Unintimidated by the role of chief executive, which she has held since mid-2012, she says the importance of the movement and the message is far greater than any individual. “It’s not about the position, it’s about the impact you can make.”

She laughs off all the connotations that come with the title, but the reality is the job takes up most of her time. Any remaining hours in the week are devoted to finishing the final two subjects of a bachelor of law from Monash University.

Unlike other chief executives, however, Benjamin isn’t paid for her work. She receives a modest bursary from a trust set up to support young volunteers, and help from her parents, with whom she still lives.

“This is definitely not the place to come if you want to make money,” she says, laughing when I inquire, rather incredulously, how she manages to stay solvent. “Most of our volunteers live in share houses and eat the sort of food you eat in Live Below the Line … it’s definitely a real student lifestyle but that’s fine for me.”

As for her own life away from Oaktree, Benjamin is suddenly circumspect. While she barely pauses for breath when talking about educational opportunities for young people in rural Cambodia, questions on her friends, hobbies and love life are met with a polite smile and the briefest of answers.

She says her spare time is spent doing “all the usual stuff” – dancing, hanging out with friends, scuba diving and time with boyfriend and Oaktree alum Nick Allardice, who is the managing director of online social activism platform Change.org in the Asia Pacific.

What about life after Oaktree? Volunteers are only accepted until the age of 26 and Benjamin is fast approaching “retirement” from the organisation that has been her life for the better part of a decade.

“I actually made a new year’s resolution that I wouldn’t think too much about the future and sort of discipline myself to be present in the now,” she says.

“We’ve got to raise millions of dollars and mobilise 100,000 people. We’ve got to take a movement to the G20 [leaders’ summit to be held in Brisbane in November], a meeting with the world’s most powerful people, so there’s a bit going on and I want to just focus on smashing those.”

When pressed, Benjamin admits she’s considering “plenty of directions” (and, with her résumé could pursue any of them successfully), but counts herself lucky to be someone that isn’t driven by money.

“You don’t have to think about job hunting and careers and all of that tiresome stuff, you can just be driven by … I guess, what’s going to allow you to make the greatest impact in the world.”

MUSIC: Grace Knight | On another note

When Grace Knight became a household name in her 20s as the frontwoman for Perth band the Eurogliders, it was thanks to two significant albums: 1984’s This Island and Absolutely, released a year later, which put the band on the world stage and kept them there for close to a decade.

Songs such as Heaven (Must Be There) and Can’t Wait to See You became a part of pop history, weaving their way into the Australian public’s psyche and parking their pop sensibility in the nostalgia lane ever since. They climbed the ARIA charts and the US Billboard charts, touring the US, UK, Europe and Japan.

At 58, and now based in the Yarra Valley (she was in Byron Bay for nearly 20 years), Knight looks back at those years with affection. But she says there was more going on than met the public gaze.

As a 20-year-old, Manchester-born Knight left England to travel before arriving in Perth to reunite with a sister who had migrated a few years earlier. She started singing in various bands and playing solo shows until she met fellow musician Bernie Lynch, who asked her to be the lead singer of his band Living Single.

They changed their name to Eurogliders in 1980 and became lovers, then husband and wife. They had a son together but the marriage didn’t last. Jackie, now 24, works in the film industry and, according to his mum, loves to ski with his father.

“The ’80s were a fantastic learning curve,” says Knight, who has continued to make music since the band split in the late ’80s. There was a momentary line-up revival in 2005 and a few albums recorded, but no more since then. Now Knight keeps busy recording as a jazz artist, touring solo or with Lynch.

“It was my apprenticeship, so to speak,” she says of the ’80s. “I learnt the rules of the trade and went to the school of hard knocks and survived. I am really fond of those memories and I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Chart success in Australia, the UK and America meant the band was in demand and constantly on the road. With that lifestyle came the regular availability of booze, drugs and late-night shenanigans.

“When things took off with the band and we started touring nationally and internationally, I would say I was at my most insecure,” admits Knight.

“I mean, let’s face it, you’re young and in the public eye. I was worried about what others thought of me. It was a very insecure time. These days when I record I don’t get half as panicky. As a 58-year-old I am not precious about hitting the perfect note or saying to myself I could have done better. It’s a case of get in the studio and enjoy yourself as you hit the record button. I have always been a strong-minded girl and stuck with what I loved. I got mixed up in the partying life but was as much involved in all that silliness as the next person.

“For me, when I fell pregnant with my son, it was the most wonderful thing that happened in my life. That gave me a real shake-up and fantastic focus.”

Playing shows five nights a week was nothing out of the ordinary for Knight. “It’s what you did. We had hit records and it meant playing very often. We didn’t know whether it was luck or being in the right moment. Whatever it was, we had to run with it; it was a fantastic opportunity,” she says.

Knight loves to perform. It’s all she’s done during her 35-plus year career. While chart success matters little these days, she is quite simply happy to head into the studio and make music, tour and live a quieter life an hour’s drive from Melbourne.

Her album Keep Cool Fool, nominated for best jazz album at the ARIA awards in 2012, was inspired by the ’60s era of Mad Men – where women and men strolled to a different beat and when etiquette and dress code were status-defining.

“I loved the clothes and hairdos and I get my own inspiration from that time. That’s what prompted me to delve into that era of music this time around,” she says.

In Keep Cool Fool, Knight takes on the cocktail hour, luring us with her jazz sway. Songs such as Sentimental Journey (made famous by Doris Day) and I’m a Woman (sung by Peggy Lee) as well as Your Cheatin’ Heart (by Hank Williams) and Down by the Salley Gardens (a William Yeats poem of the same name) all appear here with Knight’s own seductive allure.

“I have always considered myself a storyteller rather than a jazz or pop singer,” says Knight. “I like telling other people’s stories. It’s a chance to share something that I can relate to and something I recognise in myself. Whether it’s lust, love or heartbreak, I know the listener will also relate to it and know we’re all affected by the same thing.”

In 2010, Knight decided it was time to delve into her past and confront her demons. They had nothing to do with rock’n’roll, but a lot to do with family. She named her book Pink Suit for a Blue Day – after the Eurogliders’ debut album – and here she delved into a topic she had long held close, being sexually abused by her father from the age of five.

“Sometimes it does bother me that I have exposed myself,” says Knight, who is now open about the topic. “When I say bothered me, only from the point of view that if I met someone new, I would wonder how much this person knows about me. They may know more about me than I do about them. Other than that, I am really proud of the number of people I have helped by writing this book.”

Knight admits you can’t keep everybody happy when you write about personal experiences. She reconciled with her father (he had remarried and moved to Greece) and dealt with the situation as best she could.

“In terms of how it affects me now, well, you know my family are not at all happy that I have exposed that part of our life,” she says. “Some feel quite insulted, but I did not write about anyone specifically. It was my story, what I saw. The conclusion I came to was, although I was going to be uncomfortable with it, I thought my discomfort was a small price to pay. In terms of exposing what happened in my family, it was important to help people who suffered like I had.”

BOOKS: Alpine architecture could work here too

At first glance, the traditional European mountain chalet might appear to have little in common with the lifestyles and domestic needs of 21st-century Melburnians.

Made of logs and with sloping rooflines designed to cope with heavy snowfalls, the original alpine chalets were used only during the summer as herdsmen’s huts. Abandoned in winter, these buildings had to be simple in design, practical and resilient.

In their new book, Chalets: Trendsetting Mountain Treasures, architecture writers Michelle Galindo and Sophie Steybe recall the development of the chalet from herdsmen’s hut to alpine institution.

“Jean-Jacques Rousseau used the word ‘chalet’ in the mid-18th century,’’ they write in their preface.

“It was at this time that his theories regarding a simple, sublime life in connection with nature were of particular importance.

“The gentry built romantic huts in landscape gardens, and around the end of the 18th century this building type became typical of wild-romantic, picturesque mountain architecture.’’

Chalet architecture found a new fan base during the mid-19th century when alpine travel became the rage, particularly among English walking groups.

“The bourgeoisie built themselves villas in chalet style,” wite Galindo and Steybe. “These had little in common with herdsmen’s huts, only the building outline, with a shallow sloping roof and large roof overhangs, and the materials used, remained true to the original form.”

Chalets presents some of the world’s most stylish mountain residences. Each project reflects either a remodelled old chalet, or a new development built to reflect the chalet style and honour its design attributes.

With 500 colour images, floor plans and brief introductions of around 200 words, readers are introduced to an unfamiliar, yet highly appealing, architectural genre. Having devoured this book, I can see many links between good chalet architecture and the things we value in our own Australian domestic spaces.

Natural light and big windows that bring the outdoors inside; balconies and terraces that catch the sun; extensive use of natural materials such as stone and timber; fittings and furnishings that create intimate and cosy environments.

Take, for example, the TimotheéGeorgis Architects-designed chalet in Switzerland’s Leysin area. This simple timber construction is an example of the kind of dwelling I wish we’d see more frequently in the hillier, less densely populated suburbs of Melbourne’s east and north-east. It is elegant, it feels roomy (despite its small 67-square-metre footprint) and it allows for comfortable living.

Even in a built-up inner suburb such as Richmond or South Melbourne, its design principles could easily be adapted to create a very special domestic environment.

The Norwegian winter cabin created by Oslo design team Christian’s & Hennie is another example of what we might recreate in, say, a South Yarra townhouse, a St Kilda Road apartment, or Fitzroy warehouse conversion.

Large windows allow the light to beam in, while the neutral walls and floors give a spacious feeling to each room.

The quiet backgrounds also allow contemporary furniture pieces, vases, lightshades, candles and the like to become the heroes of each room.

Properties such as the Dornbirn house in Austria, or Casa Prè De Sura in Badia, Italy, could easily fit in to the beach landscapes of the Great Ocean Road, or Blairgowrie back beach.

Braun Publishing has a well-deserved reputation for producing quality themed architecture books.

We congratulate the authors on this carefully curated and well-researched volume.


Chalets: Trendsetting Mountain Treasures 

by Michelle Galindo and Sophie Steybe » $120 (Braun)


By Julie Carlson » $49.95 (Artisan)

Seriously, another blog-becomes-interiors book project? 
Don’t yawn. Remodelista is one of the best we’ve seen in recent months and is certainly worth the purchase.

SPECIAL: Good old Italian wheys | Gallery

It’s a ritual that’s been played out for centuries … across the hillside villages of Sicily, people troop to the door of the local farmer-cheesemaker to collect fresh-cooked hot ricotta for lunch.

The scene repeats itself in a somewhat surprising location, with Italians from all over Melbourne flocking to the city’s industrial heartland every Sunday for an authentic taste of the old country.

PICTURE GALLERY: Click through the carousel above for our gallery

Men, women and children armed with an array of saucepans, bowls and buckets line up at the Alba Cheese factory shop in Tullamarine waiting for the next batch of ricotta to “flower”.

As the proteins rise to the top of the simmering whey and clump together they are scooped steaming into receptacles customers have brought from home.

“It’s a tradition – first church for Mass and then here for cheese,” says Gina Agliozzo, of Avondale Heights, as she joins a cheerful, chatty queue.

The story of Alba Cheese begins in Sortino, a Sicilian village with a population of just 9000 people. It was there on a dairy farm owned by their father that brothers Mario and Gaetano Bongiorno first learned to make fine Italian cheese.

They discovered on migrating to Australia in the 1960s that this was not a terribly useful skill in a country where Kraft processed cheese dominated the household market.

Like many new migrants they first found employment as labourers, before being able to return to their craft in one of the first Italian cheese-making companies established in Melbourne.

By the late 1970s, the two men were ready to strike out on their own and they bought three lots in Assembly Drive, Tullamarine.

Their factory opened in 1982: the obvious name for the business founded by the Brothers Good Morning – as Bongiorno translates – was Alba, meaning dawn.

And true to the business name, for the next 30 years Mario and Gaetano would be at work well before the first light broke, getting up at 2am to be at work by 3am and often working until 7pm – seven days a week.

“I brought up our three boys by myself and there were times I felt like a widow,” says Gaetano’s wife, Lena, who is also Alba’s office manager.

But the work has paid off. Today Alba Cheese occupies five lots and produces 30 award-winning cheese products, from the finest ricotta and feta to stretch curd cheeses like bocconcini, mozzarella and haloumi through to matured pecorino and parmesan.

“The point of difference between this company and, say, one like Bonlac is that here things are still done manually,” Lena says.

“Nothing is done by machinery. It’s still made the old-fashioned way.”

“We have our own farms as well. We have a truck that picks up milk from the farms each day, carries it down, puts it in our tank. We take it out of the tank and produce cheese out of it.

“We don’t take cream out of it, we don’t separate cream and water, so it all goes into our cheese.”

Alba Cheese churns through 60,000 litres of milk a day, enough to make 5-6 tonnes of mozzarella and 2.5 tonnes of ricotta – the much-loved by-product of the cheese-making process.

Some of the products like the dried salt-crusted ricotta salata actually have a waiting list of customers.

As Lena explains: “We simply cannot make enough of that because it has to be made from ricotta that is left over. And, well, we never have ricotta left over. So sometimes – because people are so demanding of it – we actually do a whole ricotta production just to make that product.” And it’s not just for the local market. Increasingly, Alba is making its name abroad.

Production has increased by almost one third in the past 18 months, thanks largely to a growing Asian appetite for dairy products in general.

During the recent (March 2014) International Food and Beverage Trade Week almost one third of the South East Asian delegates elected to visit Alba Cheese and that’s already translated into new business.

“Four years ago they didn’t know what bocconcini was, now they can’t get enough of it,” Lena says with a laugh.

But the success of Alba goes way beyond this factory and its 66 permanent employees.

A whole community of Italian wholesale businesses has grown up around the cheese factory, turning Assembly Drive into one of the best food and grocery shopping destinations in Melbourne.

Blessed, indeed, are the cheese-makers.