Saturday, 31 July 2010

My maternal grandfather had a Whippet

but not a whippet. He had the car, not a dog.
The family only ever had one dog. It belonged to my maternal grandmother and was apparently a small, noisy little thing that bit people. Thankfully I never met it.
I did meet the Whippet. My grandfather still had it when I was small. He was the sort of man who could do his own car maintenance so the car lasted for many years. It went to and from Melbourne many times. It went to Sydney once and all around South Australia and Victoria. My grandfather would probably have happily kept it for the rest of his life but my maternal grandmother wanted something more modern, more stylish, more comfortable. He bought a common brand of station wagon/estate car in maroon and cream. My grandmother was both happier and unhappier. She would have preferred a limousine. My grandfather always regretted the loss of the Whippet. The situation was a reflection of their married life.
Neither of my grandmothers could drive a car. My maternal grandmother could not even drive a horse and buggy. My paternal grandmother could. She could still have done it when I was a child. Her country childhood meant she could do many things, all of them once - and often still - useful. My maternal grandmother should have been able to do many of the same things but could not, or claimed not to be able to do them.
My other grandfather had a similar modern car. It was plain cream. He was not interested in what was under the bonnet. He had the car serviced regularly by someone for whom he made suits. My other grandmother was content with it. She saw my grandfather as the owner of the car and herself merely as the passenger. He was not a terribly good driver and it worried her but she never said anything. When he could no longer drive his car was bought by someone who was a fanatic about that particular model. I saw it some years later and the owner told me that it had come complete with the little card that said "Handbrake!" - a testimonial to my grandfather's driving. The new owner loves it with a passion. I occasionally see it in our area when he visits a friend.
This morning however I was reminded of the old Whippet. There was a photograph of another one in the morning paper. It looks old and battered but still quite sturdy. It is about to embark on another adventure to raise money for charity, something it has apparently done twice before. This time it will have company, a support team.
It made me wonder what happened to the old Whippet I knew. Did it go to a loving home? Did it have any more adventures?

Friday, 30 July 2010

Over on "An awfully big blog adventure"

Ellen Renner has relayed an interesting question asked of her on a school visit. "Do you ever tell the truth?" Her answer was apparently, "No, I don't."
I am sure Ellen is a truthful person and that her answer related to her writing. She was saying, "No, the story that I write is not real." In that sense the story is a lie - but it might also be the truth. It might actually need to be the truth.
I think good writing actually needs to be about the truth, even if the characters themselves are lying and deceiving themselves, each other and the reader I think there has to be some underlying truth there - or the writing will not be believable.
We can perhaps look on all creativity as a lie. When we create something we are saying something like "this is true", "this is what it feels like", "this is what it looks like", "this is the way it is or was or will be" but what it is like for us and what it is like for someone else can be two very different things. There will be two lies and two truths, or perhaps even more than that.
(When someone writes a piece of music there is what the composer hears in his mind, there is what is written on the page, there is the way it is interpreted when it is played, there is what is heard - and all those things are different and will go on differing.) The writer is writing from their experience of the world and that is unique, the reader is reading it from their experience and that is another uniqueness. If you are being read to (and this is probably why I do not like being read to) then there is also also the interpretation of that reader. It is why I find the film interpretation of any book so difficult - someone else's interpretation of the book comes between me and my understanding of it.
I think writing has to be about a special, legitimate form of lying and, more importantly, about telling the truth so that others can understand it.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

I am feeling curious because

I wrote a letter to our state newspaper some months ago. It was one of the rare occasions on which a letter I wrote was not published - or something from it used in an editorial. It did not bother me, after all I have no right to have my letters published. Some people would say I have far too many letters published. (For the record I write far fewer letters than some people have published.) The publication of this one keeps my strike rate well above my target point. It was over that anyway but it is nice to be comfortably over.
The original letter referred to an event that has long passed. It has been edited slightly to fit the present circumstances. Fair enough. Yes, I think it still applies to current circumstances too.
I am curious though. How did it happen?
Is there a home for elderly letters in the newspaper office? Do they sit mumbling and grumbling to themselves waiting for publication? Do they get jealous of one another? What happens after the newspaper editorial staff have gone home? Do the letters bounce out of their files and debate with one another? Do letters get lost and separated from other letters? Are they lonely when this happens?
All absolute nonsense of course but fun to imagination. I am curious though. How long do newspapers keep letters?

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Someone I know has just written

a piece about the "economics" of sheds. I have not read it, indeed I do not think it has been published yet. However I immediately thought of a particular book and a particular shed.
The book is Mark Thomson's "Blokes and Sheds". If you need to know about the importance of sheds to the male psyche then this is a must read book - especially for Australians. It explains the absolute necessity of owning a shed if you are a male. It explains what is kept in them - everything from the essential household hammer to the even more essential bar size (or bigger) 'fridge and every conceivable object inbetween. It explains the solitariness to be found in sheds and the mateship.
The sheds themselves vary from four walls and a roof which barely stand upright to sturdy, insulated beauties that are lovingly painted inside and out by their owners. My late acquaintance Jens owned one which took up most of the backyard. I do not know how (or if) he got planning permission. He used to hold political meetings in it - Labor Party one night, Monarchist another and Independent another. Jens was a political junkie and his shed was as essential to life as the next bottle of home-brew - also kept in the shed.
I have seen many other sheds. They have varied from sterile neatness to total chaos. Those of sterile neatness have also proved to be of little use, their owners tend to turn to the owners of total chaos for help.
My father owns a shed. It is sometimes referred to as "the chapel" - the last priest but one at the Anglican church he attends actually referred to it as such. He understood the importance of a shed. It was his eventual aim to own one in retirement.
My father's shed is one of those which should be labelled "total chaos". He will tell you otherwise. He says he knows where things are. Perhaps he does. Perhaps it is merely chaos, rather than total chaos. He has more timber out there than he could use in a lifetime - even if he started out again at 17 rather than 87. Much of it has been given to him or rescued over the years. He has tools, power tools, machinery, screws, nails, 'biscuits' (not edible), clamps, glue, paint and sandpaper in every possible grade - or so it seems.
When our new oven had to be fitted into the available space the electrician was able to find all the necessary tools in the shed. He likes my father's shed almost as much as my father does and as much as many other people do. They come with chairs and tables and other whatnots, with conjuring apparatus and children's toys and more whatnots - all in need of repair. They watch my father saw and buzz and sand and joint and glue their precious belongings back together again.
I am not sure about the 'economics' of sheds. I do not think an economist could justify shed ownership in monetary terms. That however would not seem to matter. A shed can be everything else - including the capacity to create and mend, an aid to mental health, companionship and solitude, and a sense of being needed. As such, sheds come cheaply.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

I am getting tired of the phrase

"Australian working families". I do not know who first coined that phrase but I would happily strangle that person. Why do we need to be told that "this is being done for Australian working families"? Are there no other Australians worthy of mention?
I queried a politician of my acquaintance about this yesterday. He seemed surprised I should even question it. He told me the most important group of people in the community is the family unit. I agree. I do not have a problem with that.
Can we not just leave it at "families"? No. It has to be "Australian" (nothing else counts) and it has to be "working" (taxpayer) families. Oh and by "working" they mean both parents, not just one. One income families are apparently not considered "normal" or even desirable.
I know a number of one income families. Some have children with disabilities and have not been able to access the care they would need for both parents to work. Another needs to be available to care for her own parents and her husband's parents. Another feels her husband's income is more than adequate to cover household expenses so they agreed she would not do paid work. Two decided that bringing up the children with a stay-at-home Mum was more important. All of them do some voluntary work. They work at that. They contribute to the community. None of them are wealthy. They manage financially. Those with children who have disabilities are struggling financially but the others say they are 'comfortable enough' and that other things are more important. The phrase "Australian working families" irritates them too. They feel they are being ignored, that their contribution does not count, that they are somehow seen as 'not pulling their weight'.
I think that is wrong. They do contribute. I do not know what percentage of the local families are single income. It would be low. This is an area largely composed of older people on limited incomes and families on two incomes. It gets even more interesting when the number of older who people who still work get taken into consideration. They do not get paid for this work and they do not volunteer to do it. It is expected of them. Yes, they look after the children of the working parents. Ask them why they do it and they shrug. They have no choice. It is expected of them. Some do all day care, other do the school run and some even do both. They still run a car with all the associated costs. They feed the children and entertain them during school holidays. There is no retirement for them. They would like to pursue other activities but say they will have to wait until their grandchildren have grown up. It was not what they had planned but they accept it as inevitable.
If we are going to talk about "Australian working families" then I think we need to think about what the phrase really means. Who contributes? Who benefits?
One thing I am sure of is that it means much more than "the working Mum, working Dad and the kids" politicians would have us believe it means.

Monday, 26 July 2010

There was a debate last night,

one of those televised election 'debates' that have become part of the political scene over the past few years.
I did not watch the entire thing, just the short excerpt shown on the news services. Comments in the local press this morning are very muted. This may have something to do with the perceived performances of the candidates. I do not know. Not having seen it I cannot comment.
However, it reminded me of a 'tweet' that was passed on to me the other day. It came from Alain de Botton ("The consolations of philosophy") and is something I have been thinking about, "We dislike most people too much to do them the honour of arguing with them."
I still do not know what to make of this comment. It is a curious one. Do we only argue with people we like? Do we only argue with people we respect? Is it an honour to argue with someone - or have someone argue with us?
I think it might be much more complex than that. This was a 'tweet', not a full blown philosophical discussion, debate or argument.
It needs debate.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

"Isn't writing a waste of time?"

I was asked this in the library yesterday. Now, outside the library and from someone who does not read, I might understand the question - just. Inside the library and from someone who held several books in their hand I found it difficult.
The implication of course was that "you have never had anything published so why are you bothering?" Well, correction I have been published - and why shouldn't I bother? Is writing any more or less a waste of time than watching television, going to the footy, or having a beer with mates? (These being the three favoured occupations of the individual who asked the question.)
He was quite serious. Why did I bother? He was standing there with books in hand and he asked why did I bother? Admittedly he only has the books because they are going on holiday and he wants something to read. It is the only time he reads books. His wife, whom I know quite well, reads more than he does. He is, quite simply, not terribly interested in books. I note that the books he has chosen are non-fiction. It is a proud boast on his part that he has not read a novel since he left school.
I know someone else who boasts he has not read a book, fiction or non-fiction, since he left school. He watches television in the evenings. If it is fine he tinkers with a motor bike and does outside house maintenance during the day. If it is not he wanders up to the shopping centre to get a cup of coffee and find someone to talk with - or to - and then comes back to more television. The only newspaper he reads is the weekly free local paper.
I know there are many people who do very little reading. That is their choice but - writing a waste of time? Is is it any more a waste of time than watching footy?
Both these people have strong views on all manner of topics. Their information about them is gleaned from the commercial news services. These may be adequate. I do not know. Perhaps it is also easier to hold opinions if you are less well informed. Issues may appear to be more black and white.
I rarely see the commercial news services and find them a little too superficial for my purposes. I watch the news portion of one television news service and the headlines of another. I have been known to watch portions of various European news services when there has been a major crisis - simply so that I know what people are being told. (It often differs dramatically - and even more so from what is actually happening on the ground at the centre of the crisis.) I also tend to do something else while I am watching. Sitting there doing nothing else makes me fidgety.
I also read two newspapers on a regular basis. I still do not consider myself to be as well informed as I would like although, like everyone else, I have opinions about certain things that matter to me.
I do not think that is why I write. I do not write to waste time either. I write because I must.
I look at all the books on the shelves in the library. I have managed to learn a great deal from these, from fiction as well non-fiction. I do not consider learning anything to be a waste of time.
So no, writing is not a waste of time. Someone might learn something - and that someone might be me.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

I rather suspect that bloggers

need to be more careful. Anyone can read this. I am conscious of that. I also know that if I put in certain key words then someone in ASIO will be forced to read the entire post rather than leave it to the computer software that scans everything I write.
Our present government wants to put an internet filter in place. The idea, so they say, is that it would supposedly prevent certain nasties getting into our portion of cyberspace and that children would be protected. It sounds very reasonable - but it will not work. The depraved individuals who wish to access harmful, vicious material will still find ways of doing it. The rest of us will be left with the potential blocking of harmless material and material which criticises the government of the day.
All this would be of less concern if our media was a little more responsible. Much of the time media bias is irritating but not particularly harmful. It leaves us less well informed than we might be but things still jog along. Somewhere a columnist will write an opposing piece or some intrepid young journalist will risk their career and disagree with the line being taken or set the facts on a different course.
Right now however we have an election going on. We have had a week of electioneering. The media bias has been so blatant that yesterday I had no less than eight requests to "write a letter" about the issue. The requests came from all sides of the political paddock. I dictated two for people to tweak and send in under their own names. I made suggestions to other people. It is better that they do this themselves.
I did not write a letter under my own name. I will save my fire power for the moment. I am doing a little analysis you see. Yes, so far the bias is actually there. If it continues then it will be a serious abuse of media power. We already have problems brought on by geographical isolation from our cultural roots and a largely monolingual population.
If we added the proposed internet filter to the bias of the media then Australians will be very poorly served for information indeed.
The letters to the editor in this morning's state newspaper make interesting reading. Whether they will cause a change in editorial policy will be interesting. It will also be unlikely.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Furrustration, furrustration

and something a little more. Purrhaps I am too cynical?
The problem. We were both out yesterday afternoon. We were also careful to be back by four o'clock as we had been told the carrier with the new oven would " 'phone between four and six to arrange a delivery time on Friday".
When I returned at 3:30pm I discovered a note stuck in the front door claiming "sorry we missed you" and saying that they had tried to deliver the oven at 2:45pm.
Now a delivery truck from the company went down our street at 9:00 am. I saw it as I was setting out. It may have been going somewhere else but I rather doubt it. There would be no need for them to turn into our street and, unlike the locals, they are not likely to take a detour along it. I strongly suspect that the oven was on the truck and they decided, for reasons known only to themselves, not to deliver it at that point. It would have been the work of five minutes. They do not have to install it.
So, I 'phone the carriers. They tell me they had no instructions about delivery times. I rather doubt this. They would at least be expecting to deliver on a specific day. The girl at the other end of the line tells me that it will now not be possible to deliver until sometime next week. Not good enough I tell her much too politely. Well they could try to deliver it tomorrow (now today) for an additional fee. I see. Their mistake and I am expected to pay a hefty re-delivery fee? Well it seems that I will have to pay a re-delivery fee anyway. Why? There was nobody at home. They have to come back. How could we be expected to be at home if we did not know it was coming? That, it seems, is our problem. I am not impressed.
We need the oven. I will pay the delivery fee. I am also going to put in a formal complaint and claim it back. I may be wrong but I rather suspect they are working the system. It could be a very lucrative little scam.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Three litres of soup, two loaves of bread

made into sandwiches, eleven bananas and six 'drumstick' icecreams later I found I had actually managed to feed eleven people without the aid of the oven. Yes, we were invaded by the six children again yesterday although the eldest of these is now almost an adult. He has his "P" plates as of the day before. He will not be permitted to drive anyone else until his father thinks he is ready.
Their mother brought more food with them. Throughout the course of the day they also managed to consume a chocolate cake (made by the eldest girl) and a batch of scones (made by their grandmother). I apologised for the lack of pizza bread. That does require an oven. Only the youngest (5) was puzzled by this. The rest know enough about cooking to realise it could not be done. The youngest and I went to visit the oven, now languishing outside and waiting for the scrap metal people to rescue it.
I wonder sometimes how this family eats. The children seem healthy enough. I know vegetarians can be healthy but healthy vegetarians also seem to eat things that these children do not know about. I wonder if there is sufficient protein in their diet. They do not eat a lot of meat, fish is expensive and does not fill six hungry children, cheese is expensive too. This is why I made 'fritz' (a sort of cheap German sausage I cannot swallow), corned beef, tuna, egg and cheese into various sorts of sandwich with tomato and lettuce and grated carrot. The eldest girl took keen note of my cream, celery and walnut version of a sandwich. That was intended to be a slightly more sophisticated version for the adults but the children devoured them. It is all right their grandfather has simple tastes. He prefers fritz and tomato to anything else.
Their grandparents are shortly leaving for Scotland (to see them perform in the Edinburgh Tattoo) and then Europe. Their grandmother is concerned. Her husband is a "meat and three veg" man - preferably chops or steak, potatoes, carrot and beans or peas. He will consider a pie or a pastie or the fritz and tomato sandwich. He will not eat pasta or rice or anything spicy. He really is not interested in anything else apart from the basics - and pavlova. She is, rightly, concerned about what they will eat while they are away because he will not try new things.
After they left I cooked an evening meal for the two of us. We had chicken cooked with garlic, rosemary and lemon juice. There were five different vegetables, just a small amount of each one.
I was lazy last night. We had icecream for dessert. It is a rare treat for both of us but had more to do with me not wanting to cut up more fruit. I was a bit fed up with the kitchen by then.
As we settled down to eat the first course however my father, who does enjoy different things, said of his cousin, "Doesn't he miss out on a lot?"
I rather suspect he does.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Learning to read was something

I accomplished at a very early age. Learning to read with comprehension took a little longer. After that I began to read the subtext with comprehension. A very long way after that I went to law school and learned to read the sub-text of the sub-text with some comprehension. I am sure there are more stages to go through but at least I have reached the point where I now look for certain things.
It is election time so we are now getting the inevitable pieces of 'electoral information' in the letter box. There were two pieces on Monday. Both were identical. One was addressed to me and one was addressed to the senior cat, my father.
Now, this is election time. One of the rules with election material is that it must clearly state which political party it comes from. At first glance however this material looked as if it might have come from the Australian Electoral Commission instead. The AEC is, of course, expected to be apolitical. They do not label material as coming from a political party.
The material concerned applications for postal votes. There was a form included. You can fill out the form if you need a postal vote. Then came the fine print "This material has been produced by "X" using his printing and communications entitlement." "X" is a senator. He belongs to a specific political party. He has included an envelope for the form to be returned to his party, not to the AEC. The envelope is addressed to him by name. It gives him, of a member of his staff, the legal right to open the envelope. They can take down the details you have supplied. Naturally they will. They will then, equally naturally, use it to form yet another data base to target the electorate. The telephone number included is also one for that party. It is not the number for the AEC.
Yesterday there was another communication of a similar nature. This time it quite clearly stated that it came from our sitting member. He is a member of the other major party. The purpose is the same but you are left in no doubt from whence the material comes. This is strictly in keeping with the AEC guidelines and, quite possibly, the Electoral Act. The material from "X" if not actually breaking the rules is sailing very close to the wind indeed.
I have problems with either side farming names in this way. They are both targetting a particularly vulnerable group. Many people who seek postal votes are unable to access a polling booth because of their age or a disability. By no means all of them are travelling businessmen or grey-haired nomads doing the extended tour around Australia by caravan.
I have however much greater problems with anyone failing to inform people to whom they are giving their personal details. Yes it can be argued that people should be careful about this but the material is also designed to deceive.
It also has to be said that many people still have to learn to read with comprehension.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Over on Seven Miles of Steel Thistles

Katherine Langrish is talking about "making" and, in the course of it, she mentioned "Blue Peter", a long running and excellent television programme for children, see
It reminded me of our Australian radio programme when I was a child. It was called "The Argonauts" and it was broadcast at 5pm on 5CL in our remote part of the world. Radio reception was patchy. We had a battery operated radio and my brother and I spent our very limited pocket money partly on batteries for the radio so that we could listen to the programme. It was used for just that and the news service, nothing else. (There was no point in getting a newspaper because they would arrive once a week on the weekly train that went through to points west.)
You could belong to the Argonauts 'club'. My mother was not keen on the idea of us belonging to anything but my father saw the advantages of children being encouraged to write anything so my brother and I became 'rowers in the good ship Persephone'. There were, I think, 50 or 60 rowers in each ship.
Once you were a member you could participate, mostly by writing letters, and aim to reach the giddy heights of "Golden Fleece and Bar". I remember one member on the ship Agememnon who was a prolific writer and often mentioned. I often wonder who he or she was and what they went on to be or do.
The programme itself had a core team, with people like 'Mac' and 'Jimmy'. There was also "The Muddle Headed Wombat" who would frequently complain "everything happens to me" and serialised versions of novels by writers like Nan Chauncy and Joan Phipson. There were regular weekly contributions by people "Linnaeus" (a nature/science segment) and an extraordinary book writing project led by John Gunn where various Argonauts contributed chapters and pictures. Looking back I suspect that there had to be a fair adult contribution in order to produce a readable story!
My brother and I were not permitted to contribute very often. My mother said it was a 'waste of stamps'. Perhaps it was. I know that on each occasion I contributed my letter was read on air - although I did not always hear it read. It never sounded as if it was written by me anyway. I was someone else when I wrote it.
There is, as far as I know, nothing like the Argonauts now. It was the "Blue Hills" for children I suppose. ("Blue Hills" was the Australian version of "The Archers".) I do not know how long it lasted after television became widespread. I suppose I grew out of it. I stopped being an official Argonaut. My brother stopped being an official one too.
But we did not really stop. We went on being Argonauts.

Monday, 19 July 2010

I have never tried to smoke

a cigarette. I have never wanted to try. When I was a child my father smoked cigarettes for a while. It was the done thing back then. There was still no realisation of how potentially dangerous smoking was for one's own health and the health of those around you. Fortunately for us my father had a very bad cold which led to pneumonia and he quit. At the same time we children ceased to feel "car-sick" to the same degree. I still suffer from motion sickness in certain situations but I can normally travel in reasonable comfort.
I did not get away from cigarette smoke of course. Other people still smoked. I have spent far too many hours of my life in rooms filled with other people's cigarette smoke. I have come out of staff meetings (especially at universities) stinking of second-hand cigarette smoke.
Nobody in my immediate family smokes. My brother had one "to find out" and did not manage to finish it. He still remembers it as 'disgusting'. His children do not smoke. I have one sister who is a rabid anti-smoker. The other has flirted with it but never in the presence of any of us. She would not dare.
Dad has a couple of cousins who smoked. One of them gave up after a heart attack. The other has really struggled. It took the support of everyone he knew. At first he tried to do it without telling anyone except his wife. That did not work. Then he tried again and a few more people knew. Again it did not work - and again, and again. Then his wife told everyone he knew that he was trying again. We all worked on supporting him. We rewarded him with words of encouragment and eventually a small but very meaningful token of encouragement. He still wants to smoke and he probably always will. We need to go on supporting him.
I thought of all this when I read that the recent, quite hefty increase in the price of cigarettes had not done much to help people quit. I suspect that the psychology is wrong. Cigarettes are still freely available in places like supermarkets. They may now be 'hidden' rather than 'on display' but they are still there. They are available. People will buy them if they believe they gain 'pleasure' from smoking them.
If we really want people to cease smoking and not take the habit up at all then we are probably not going about it the right way. There are probably much more radical measures that need to be tried. Cigarettes should perhaps only be available through chemist shops on a doctor's prescription and for the same price. It does not make tobacco illegal but it would help to further restrict access. It would make it much more difficult for young people to take up the habit - and one of the most depressing sights has to be a child smoking while in school uniform. If prescriptions were dependent on people attending compulsory anti-smoking classes that would be another step forward too.
There would still be a trade in illegal tobacco but I think it is likely that there would be a reduction in tobacco consumption. Why? Because more people would know and would be there to encourage the smoker to quit. The prescription like price would help to pay for the treatment. The smoker would have to give up free time to attend a class - a powerful incentive to cease if it disrupted social life and the capacity to move freely. It would provide support to kick the habit too.
I do not think it is likely to happen. Immediate revenue from tobacco is still too high - that it costs in the long term is not a consideration to a present day government of any persuasion. That cost is in the future.
It seems that there is really only one best way to stop - and that is never to start.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Travelling with a baby

meant we had a later start than intended yesterday. My nephew and his wife are here until about noon today. They brought their first born over to 'meet' her great-grandfather. My father has had three blissful days of "baby who can be handed back when in need of feeding, changing or just getting a little grizzly".
I have to admit that, as babies go, she has been incredibly well behaved. We have only had one real problem all the time she has been here - and I have to concur with her views on that subject.
But, we eventually got moving yesterday at about 10:30am. By that time she had settled down for a little snooze in her baby capsule. We all headed west and then north. The idea was a visit to the go-kart track to see my two nephews here perform high speed manouvres before heading off to the Barossa Valley for something a little more civilised.
None of us had actually been to the track before but I knew it would be very noisy and windy and rather chilly. It was. The Little Princess hated it. She screamed. I do not blame her. I did not care for it myself. My father was not impressed either. He does not like noise or speed and the sight of his precious grandsons in those machines really bothered him. We left quickly.
The Barossa Valley is a different story. For those of you who have never been here it is the premier grape growing region in South Australia. It has wineries - and more wineries. There are small towns (villages to you residents of the UK) with names like Kapunda, Tanunda, Nuriootpa, Eudunda, Bethany and Angaston. There are hamlets of wineries with names like Yalumba, Seppeltsfield, Wolf Blass, Saltram, Simpatico, Penfold's and Jacob's Creek - to name just a few of the more than fifty wineries in the region. It is also home to Maggie Beer's establishment.
I do not drink alcohol. It brings me out in an uncomfortable rash. All this fuss about the finer points of wine is lost on me. My brother enjoys it, so does my Sydney nephew. They do not over indulge but they do appreciate - or so they tell me. I leave them to it. We ended up at Peter Lehmann's for lunch. Dad and I are happy with that. The surroundings are magnificent there even if we had to eat indoors because it was a bit chilly. There was a nice wood fire burning. My father and the Little Princess were happy to take advantage of that. I wandered off to look at the art while the others investigated tiny quantities of wine with a view to taking some back to Sydney. We had a sort of Ploughman's lunch. (Very pleasant - I naughtily risked a teaspoon of excellent beetroot relish...and the vinegar in it made me feel only faintly itchy afterwards.)
It was well after two before we finished but we went still further afield.
This is where such journeys get interesting for me. I would like to have stopped to explore old graveyards (mostly Lutheran) and some of the older buildings. There was a lovely dry stone wall that we all liked. I would have liked to veer off and visit Collingrove - originally home of the pioneering Angas family. I will be forever curious about the lone and lonely gravestone in the corner of a field and continue to wonder who built the ruined house. What happened to them?
South Australia's settled history does not extend that far back but it does have some interesting moments. It has many sad moments too.
We all sit cosily in the car. My brother, used to Sydney traffic, finds the driving a pleasure. We are able to watch the countryside and wish we had more time. And, all the time, I am conscious of the Little Princess. She has yet to discover all this.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

"Is this a Dad invention?"

The electrician is standing there looking at the oven. He arrived, in his lunch break, to look at it. My father made the cupboard it sits in. There is a flap at the top that you pull down to get out the baking trays etc. I keep the baking trays in the oven.
There are two reasons for this. One is that I am too short to reach the space easily. (Okay 5' AND half an inch for those of you who must know.) The other is that the flap kept banging down and hitting me on the head. It almost hit the electrician in the face when he pulled the oven out to investigate. His question indicates he knows my father quite well. My father "invents" things. He designs things. They frequently need to be redesigned. He is, after all, a magician. Magicians lead unnecessarily complex lives. I do not do magic.
So, I stand there and hold the flap up and the electrician investigates. It seems that the oven is inter-dependent on the clock. The clock has disintegrated inside. No new clocks are available.
He can by pass the clock so that I can heat things "but you really can't cook anything in it" because "the thermostat is a bit wonky and I can't get one of those either". He also had to take the door off to get at the control panel and the spring on one side hashad it.
"You know," he tells me, "I really think you need a new oven."
Oh. Well, he tried. I give him a jar of marmalade and remind him that we would like to have his bill this time. Last time my father ended up ringing his wife and saying, "Isn't it time he sent us a bill?"
After he had gone I still managed to produce food for eleven adults. When the others returned from their very nice day out we transported over to my sister's place and used her oven to heat things. She has a lot more space for entertaining anyway.
Now, if anyone has thoughts on ovens I will be interested.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Anything that can go wrong...

will go wrong in the kitchen department.
The family arrived on time yesterday...something of a miracle given that they were flying with a cut price airline and had the newest member of the clan and all her essentials. Babies do seem to need a lot of things these days. (She is, for anyone interested, utterly delightful. My father fell instantly and irretrievably in love with her - and she with him. They spent the rest of her waking hours 'talking' to one another.)
All that was fine. I did have the soup finished and I scrambled to make sandwiches while they unpacked items of baby related luggage. We ate. I cleared away the mess with some help from my sister-in-law - a truly wonderful woman who never minds helping when needed.
My brother however is the cook in their household. He is rather good at it. He and I set to work on what should be tonight's meal as we planned to be out today. (I know, wicked. I was going to take a day off.)
I turned the oven on. Nothing happened. My brother (technically savvy about many things) took a look. Nothing happened.
Now, we need the oven. We needed the oven not just yesterday but we really need it today. We need it next Tuesday and Wednesday too. On Monday the oven-cleaning service is also supposed to be coming. They will expect a working oven.
My father 'phones the electrician. Can it wait until morning? We decide to take everything over to my sister's place and add to the chaos there. Yes, it can wait until tomorrow. That is today. I have to stay at home and wait for the electrician to arrive while the others go off and enjoy themselves. We know this is the sensible thing, the only possible solution. After all I am not going to ask my father to stay behind and not enjoy the company of his new love in life. He has been looking forward to an entire day with her - and another tomorrow and Sunday morning as well.
All the same my tail is drooping. My whiskers are drooping. I am not purring. I wanted to go too.
I know I can do some essential work. The electrician says I am to ring him again if he has not arrived by lunchtime. He is a nice man. We know him quite well.
He had better turn up!

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Your resident Catdownunder

has not had time to groom herself or arrange the cat hairs this morning. Please do not go away. I will be back shortly. I had to make an extra batch of marmalade (no, Orlando it was not for you!), casserole, pasties, soup etc etc. The senior cat is endeavouring to help with the housework (purr) and everything should be under control shortly!

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

One of our local authors

had a "childhood" piece in the weekend paper. You know the sort of thing I mean. He talked about who his parents were and where he was born and what a precocious reader he was. It was all very well done because he is a very good writer. The little details were fascinating - they had a kerosene heater for bath water. (We only had a woodchip heater.)
Yes, the little details. Nothing terribly exciting happened to him as a child but he still managed to make it interesting. We shared similar but different experiences. I could relate to what he said.
That set me thinking about the historical novels I read as a child. I think it was the little details that I liked.
The Children's Country Lending Service, that marvellous and long since gone service which sent books to children who had no access to a real library, sent me Rosemary Sutcliff's books and Cynthia Harnett's books. Both those writers had a marvellous capacity for writing about ordinary people, ordinary lives and ordinary comforts and discomforts. My knowledge of Roman Britain came almost entirely from Rosemary Sutcliff's books. I did no Roman history at school, in fact I did nothing but Australian history until my last year at school. By then I was bored rigid with tales of Australian explorers in the outback, the convict past of the eastern states and the way that Colonel Light planned Adelaide. My great-uncle may have lived in Sturt's cottage but it was just a house to me - and remains so. But Roman Britain was something different. It really was different. It came alive for me because, instead of dry historical facts unimaginatively taught, here was a story that told me how cold the winters were, how uncomfortable the conditions were. I was told how harsh the discipline was and how terrible the food was. There were all the personal as well as the public conflicts. It was marvellous material, especially for a lonely child in remote Australian bush. I wrote to Rosemary Sutcliff and told her that. She replied, even though I asked her not to, because she said that the idea of someone sitting under a gum tree reading about Roman Britain fascinated her. I think it did too but she would have been less fascinated with the way I was taught history.
Cynthia Harnett's books are, if anything, even more domestic. The wealth of detail in those is probably not for every child. The Whirlwind loves them and has read and re-read each one but other local children have just said they are "okay", "pretty good" and "not bad". They are not enthusiastic. History has no real meaning for them. They still seem to get a bit of what I got in school. There is occasionally even a bit of other history thrown in but the sense of history is not there for them in the way it was for me. Cynthia Harnett's description of the earliest pressure cooker (Italian and an instrument of the devil) is fascinating to me but many children have never seen a pressure cooker. Their mothers use microwaves and slow cookers. Equally many city children have no first hand knowledge of modern shearing so the description of how things were done in "The Woolpack" is often of no interest to them. Often they do not even own a woollen garment. Microfleece is the order of the day - because their mothers can fling that in the washing machine.
I know the world is a different place for them, a different country altogether. I just wish they could know my country too.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Library, library, library

and then more library! Even our state newspaper was extolling the virtues of our local libraries this morning. It would not have been because I was extolling the virtue of our local library to a complete stranger yesterday.
I was stopped in the street on my way back from a depressing bill paying session at the bank and a pleasant young man with a student backpack asked me for the location of the nearest internet cafe. There is no internet cafe in the immediate vicinity. I explained this. He was, I think, a little surprised. Then I explained that, if he cared to do so, he could go to our local library. Once there he would find free internet access and, if he was really desperate, a cup of tea or coffee.
I pedalled over with him striding it out next to me and he kept asking questions about this remarkable service. It is remarkable. We locals tend to take it for granted. The library is just there. It provides the usual services, books to borrow, audio-books, DVDs, CDs, magazines, videos (rapidly going out of date), the internet, Wi-Fi connection, meeting spaces, meetings, talks by authors, workshops (on everything from gardening to knitting, to bookbinding), book groups, story-telling, craft sessions for kids, a clothes exchange for teenagers, the occasional parcel delivery and message centre, the results of the World Cup, cricket during an important match and staff who are generally pleasant, friendly and helpful - even if they are inclined to say, "Wait a minute, here's Cat. She might know."
There is a section for adults, a section for young adults and a section for children and a section for smaller children. The non-fiction is organised by Dewey Decimal Classification, the fiction alphabetically - except for the picture books. We gave up with that on day one. Picture books do not take kindly to being organised. (I am at home enough in the library to put books away in the right place if I see them in the wrong place and to put my paws around the staff room door to talk to someone. )
Our libraries need more money spent on them. The staff would like to be able to have more say in the books we get. Most books are bought centrally and distributed throughout the state. It may be cheaper that way but what suits one area may not suit others.
But, internet access suits everyone. The eight terminals are constantly busy. I told the young man he would probably have to wait. That was fine he told me. After all, he now had a whole library to look at. "We don't have anything like this back home."
No, and it will be a long time coming. I left him sending a message back to Uganda.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Do they learn poetry

in school any more? I am not sure. The Whirlwind seems to be taught some - of a sort. It is almost all what I would call "verse without poetry" or " mere doggerel". It is written specifically "for children". On top of that there are a few Australian ballads thrown in. That seems to be all. Keats, Browning, Yeats, Masefield and others do not get a mention. Wright, Neilsen, Murray, Hope and other Australians do not get a mention.
I know you cannot teach everything and that there is more and more to teach but there do seem to be things that are missing from the literary diet of the modern child. My father can still recite entire poems he had to learn at school. I can remember lines that thrilled me at the time.
My father and I had a simple meal last night - soup and toast. He was spreading honey on his second slice of toast when he looked up at me and asked, "Stands the Church clock at ten to three? And is there honey still for tea?" The Old Vicarage, Grantchester may not be the greatest poetry in the English language or Rupert Brooke the greatest poet but my father associates the taste of honey with the last two lines of a poem. How many modern children can do that?
I occasionally give the Whirlwind a poem to read. She does not always understand them but that does not matter. I want her to feel the language of poetry. I want her to be able to enjoy and remember at least fragments, phrases that will come back to her when she needs them. Her need for poetry is greater than that of most children. It helps to mother her when she lacks a mother.
The Whirlwind is not going to enjoy my good fortune and personally meet many of last century's great Australian writers as well as some great names from abroad. I was fortunate in being nurtured by Judith Wright who saw to it that I met these people and was challenged by them. Many of them are no longer alive. The nature of the Writers' Weeks at which I met them has changed too. Writers are now isolated from the audience. Writers' Weeks are now the venue for publishers to launch books. It has become a marketing exercise.
So it is my responsibility to introduce the Whirlwind to poetry. She wants to know. I am not forcing it on her. She tells me she likes poetry and has even tried to write some. Her talent lies more in the field of visual art rather than verbal art. She observes and often sees things from a new angle. It is good. Her school encourages her and that is even better.
But some days ago I gave her Margaret Storey's "Pauline" to read. I thought she was now old enough to appreciate it and that she would empathise with Pauline. They have a good deal in common. Yesterday she bounced in with it and told me it was "fantastic" but "there is some poetry in it. Here. Is there any more like that?"
It is from Housman, "A Shropshire Lad"
"From far, from eve and morning,
And yon twelve winded sky
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither; here am I..."
Oh yes, there is more like that.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Do you need parents

when writing for children? Anne Cassidy wrote about getting rid of the adults on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure the other day and I have been thinking about this off and on ever since, more specifically about parents than adults.
In Margaret Storey's "Pauline", Pauline has no parents but she lives with cousins. She calls them "uncle" and "aunt" because they are so much older and they are insensitive enough to suggest she substitute her dead parents for them. There is not a great deal said about her grief for her father. He has been living in Jamaica and she obviously has not seen much of him but, when dressing for an evening meal, she chooses the pendant he has given. It is a quiet act of defiance, perhaps one that not even the author was aware of when she wrote it. Pauline needs her parents.
Catherine Storr's Vicky is a slightly different story. She has been adopted at birth. Her mother has died. It is only when her adoptive mother dies that Vicky goes searching but she is searching for information about her natural mother rather than anything else. When she does meet her grandmother there is no welcome, rather shock at the appearance of an unknown grandchild and Vicky chooses to leave rather than confront her natural father. It is a dreadful moment. Her adoptive father is not a demonstrative man and, until that moment, the reader cannot even be sure he really cares for his adopted daughter. How much he cares is still uncertain. It is likely that the police officer who helps her in her search cares more. Vicky is still going to have problems. There really is no happy ending. The adults in her life have let her down. And, although there is a reunion in Ann Holm's "I am David", there is a lingering doubt there about how well the two are going to get on.
On the other hand the Callendar children in John Verney's books do have parents, if slightly eccentric parents. Their parents are there and available and so are other adults. It does not stop the Callendars getting on and doing things but their parents are acknowledged.
Parents are also present in books like L'Engles, "The young unicorns". They are a restraining influence but their presence does not prevent the action from taking place. The same is true in Paul Berna's "A hundred million francs". The children may take risks playing with the old pram in the street but they still have to answer to adults when things go wrong.
I rather suspect however that it is easier to get rid of the parents, indeed to get rid of the adults. It is what most children believe they want, to be rid of the restraining influence of adults who do not permit them to do just as they want. Children have not yet come to realise the potential awfulness of this, Golding's "Lord of the flies" does not exist for them.
Even unseen adults can be an influence on the proceedings however - and perhaps it is better that way.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

We had a very long power outage

last night. Power was finally restored about forty minutes ago. We slept through most of it.
When I surfaced there was enough natural light for me to make out the time - my usual rising time. I padded out to get the two weekend papers from the front although there was insufficient light to read them. (I saw no point in allowing them to get any wetter.) The flip lid of the rubbish bin had blown open at some point and there was a considerable quantity of water in it. I tipped that out as well.
All around me though everything was much darker than usual. There were no street lights and no lights in any of the houses. The natural light was just a faint misty grey. It was quiet too. The power units providing heating to at least three neighbouring houses were not working. The pump on the swimming pool at the end of the street was silent. Our house is also silent.
Inside there was no faint hum from the refrigerator. There was no small green light to tell me the freezer unit was working as it should. The clock on the microwave oven was no longer there. The tiny red dot of the standby mode on the television set was not there. I could see well enough by then to put the breakfast things out.
I lit a match. It flared and then settled into a glow. I lit the gas. My mother insisted on a gas cook top although we have an electric oven. It was, she said, unlikely that both the gas and the electricity would go down at the same time.
I warmed milk the old way, in a saucepan instead of the microwave oven. I ate my breakfast slowly in semi-darkness. Then I wrapped my paws around my warm mug and contemplated life without electricity. It would be quieter, but less convenient.

Friday, 9 July 2010

I am almost asleep at the pedals

this morning. No, for once I did not need to sit up working most of the night. I was kept awake by two people having a conversation out in the street, then an alarm somewhere nearby.
I am puzzled by both these things.
First of all why would anyone want to have a conversation out in the cold in the wee small hours of the morning? It makes no sense to me. Are conversations not better conducted in relative warmth and comfort? The two involved seemed friendly enough if the loud laughter was anything to go by. Perhaps they were drunk. I felt too intimidated to investigate...and it really was cold out there.
The alarm might have come from anywhere. Presumably someone had tried to break in to one of the alarmed premises around here. It was almost certainly not a domestic alarm. Neighbourhood Watch has at least made most people aware and able to handle such situations for their neighbours. The only thing I can say is that it would have been much worse for the people in the immediate vicinity.
Come sunrise and the smallest honey eaters were having a conference outside my window. I can handle that. They are a delight to watch. One of them was playing a wonderful "game" of dancing from one power line to another. In between he was doing helicopter like twirls. There was no apparent purpose in all this. It was just being done for the sheer fun of it. There were other birds in the dawn chorus as well. They do not bother me. I am annoyed by the alarm.
Now we have our neighbour at the back hard at it again. He is a nice enough man but he is building an extension to his house. It involves the use of a lot of noisy tools and the radio turned to one of those stations where there is incessant, mindless chatter interspersed with the sort of "music" I cannot tolerate. In order to hear it at all our builder has it turned up loud enough for everyone to hear it.
Am I being unreasonable? Do I just need ear plugs?

Thursday, 8 July 2010

I must be writing sense or

my followers have given up following me. I rather suspect the latter. The comments have been very quiet lately, although I did get a couple of rude ones in the e-mail. Thanks guys. I always knew you loved me.
I managed to write one half of a chapter yesterday while pedalling to a meeting. On the way home I had other things to think about - mostly unprintable things about the idiocy of government policy and the stupidity of ultra political correctness which gets in the way of essential services being delivered to those who need it most. Do not get me started. My Argentinian refugee friend was present at the meeting. His English is excellent but words failed him...Spain had better win the World Cup. He likened one thing to the worst excesses of a certain military regime. I can only concur.
The problem is that I came home and wrote the half a chapter I had written, that is I put it into the current work - and this morning I had to discard it. It sounds as if I was angry. It sounds as if my mind was not on the job. I need a certain degree of calm and contemplation to write.
This morning I need to go to the bank. It is a twenty minute tricycle ride each way. I can get some writing done.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The Indian Ocean or the Pacific Ocean solution or

something else?
I will not get into the entire debate about "boat people" and the "solution" the present government has now offered as a pre-election sweetener. It is unlikely to happen.
But, I would like to ask the question, "What is so bad about 'temporary protection visas' or TPVs?"
It seems to me that they may have something very positive to offer everyone. Let's take the case of a professional I know. He fled his country after his brother was arrested, tortured and then killed for political activities that were not in keeping with the philosophy of the regime concerned. He is now here in Australia. He is not working at his profession because his qualifications are not acceptable here and his English is not good enough. Now the sensible thing surely is to say, "Yes, you can stay in Australia until the situation changes in your home country and it is safe for you to return. While you are here you we will ask you to attend an intensive English course and then spend some time learning more about your profession or working in a position we provide for you. That way you can go back to your country at the right time with extra skills and qualifications and help with the rebuilding of it."
If you are a young, fit and healthy man without any qualifications then why do we not take someone in and say, "We will teach you English and how to lay bricks or repair an engine or dig a well or something else of value to your country. When the situation changes you can return and impart those skills to other people."
Of course anything like this is going to be very expensive but it could be seen as part of our aid to developing countries. It requires a mutual obligation. It tells people that, if they come here, then they will be required to make an effort and that they will not be able to stay if the situation changes.
Yes, I recognise that it is uncertain and that, above all, some people need certainty in their lives but using "refugee" status as a means of migrating is not acceptable. It means that some countries are losing their most skilled citizens and/or potentially able citizens. They are going to need those people if and when a situation changes. We could easily take in all the doctors and engineers from Afghanistan - and leave the country with nobody able to provide medical services or the roads for medical staff to travel on.
I think we need to look at it both ways. TPVs do have something to offer. What matters is the way we set them up, the reasons for doing it and whether we are prepared to make the effort.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

In response to Nicola Morgan's request

for useful resources for writers in various genres all I could think of was some useful sorts of books. I will leave internet resources up to other people. There are plenty out there. They change all the time. They come and go - like blogs - and often do not get updated. I suspect people feel great enthusiasm for a project in the beginning and then they get waylaid by other things or the work in keeping a site updated just proves to be too much.
Books are a different matter. I own rather a lot of books and rather a lot of them are reference books. I use them in my day job. A lot of them are dictionaries but there are other useful books as well.
With Nicola in mind I surveyed my shelves for books that might be useful to writers. I am not sure that these help with any particular genre but I find these books useful and interesting. I have a world atlas. Think your geography is good? Spend some time with an atlas. I also have road maps of Australia, the UK and Europe and a number of other 'useful' maps of more remote places. I have never travelled far, certainly not as far as I would like, but I need to know where things actually are, not just where I think they are.
I have books of names and place names. The books of names are particularly useful. It is good to know whether I am dealing with a male or a female and sometimes nice to know what their names mean. If you are writing a book that can be essential. It is also useful to know that names like "Wendy" are a modern creation (JM Barrie) and not something you can give to a girl in Roman Britain.
I have a book about medicinal herbs - often grown and used when no other medicine is available and, of course, used before the pharmaceutical companies took over. If I wanted to write historical fiction I am sure that would help if my characters were ill.
I have a book about islands and another about French manor houses, a book about the development of modern medicine, books about psychology, statistics, Celtic mythology, Irish literature. There are books about Gaelic verbs, Hebrew, Swahili, Maori, Urdu, Chinese and other assorted languages. There are books about music, art, religion, philosophy and linguistics. There are books about nursery rhymes as well as of nursery rhymes. Reference books about children's literature, reading and literature are also on the shelves. All of them are potentially useful for writers and I have used all of them at one time or another.
Many of them are books I have rescued from library book sales. It would be better for the authors if I could buy the books new but at least this way they do not make landfill.
I may have too many books. I know there are a number of people who think that. They claim they are "not readers". One of them claims not to have read a book since he left school. He is now 70.
I could not live that way. If you are a writer you must also be a reader.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Nicola Morgan has suggested that one of the

questions authors should ask their characters is "Do people understand you?" - and then if no, what do they not understand about you?
Should characters be understood? Probably not. It makes for tension. Tension, properly handled, makes for a good story. It is what I want as a reader. Do we understand people in real life? No, we misunderstand them all the time. I have probably misunderstood Nicola so many times she wishes that I would stop leaving cat hairs scattered across her pages and just keep my writing to myself.
Now one of my questions of characters would have been, indeed is, "Do people understand you?" and then "why do they not understand you?" - is it you or is it them or is it a combination of both?
As human beings I believe we tend to think of the world in stereotypes. It allows us to categorise large amounts of information into meaningful chunks. If we do not do that then we are in danger of getting what might be called "information overload". I remember an occasion years ago when I was talking to the two daughters of a blind man. Their father was not in the least bit musical. He was, to all intents and purposes, "tone-deaf". Despite this they still persisted in the belief that blind people tend to be exceptionally musical. It was their father who was the aberration.
There is, of course, the same range of musical ability among people with visual impairments as there is in the rest of the community.
If we want to use a person with a visual impairment in a piece of writing then, as authors, we need to confront that stereotype. Does it hold good for the character? If so, why? If not, why not? How do we make it believable. Who holds the responsibility for the way in which the character is viewed in what we are writing? Is it the character by their actions or the character who is interacting and responding to those actions? Why does it matter to the story?
I doubt I do all that consciously. There are things I do not know about my characters and there are things I know that surprise me. There are things I want to know that elude me but I have come to recognise that these are often sheer curiosity on my part. They are not essential to the story so why should they let me know?
For me the "why" is as important as the "what", perhaps more so. Why are you the way you are? Why do people react the way they do?
I need to confront stereotypes.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

"I can't find my

socks," my father informs me. He is standing there in bare feet on the linoleum in the passage way. It must be decidedly chilly.
"On the clotheshorse," I tell him, knowing that he means a particular pair of socks. They were made for him by a friend of ours and he loves them with a passion he reserves for no other clothes.
"Are they dry?"
"They should be by now. I'll get them."
"I can do it."
"I know you can but I do not want you walking around in bare feet."
"It is a bit cold."
The socks, fortunately, are dry. These are definitely the wear-to-church and special-places pair. Most of the time he does not even seem to notice. He complains his feet are cold. I produce heavy woollen socks, the pairs I bought in Bendigo two or three winters back and suggest he might wear them.
"I forgot I had those," he tells me. I wonder why. He does not really have a lot of clothes, or rather he has a lot of old clothes. He hates throwing anything out. He does not have many good clothes any more. He does not need them. I have to check before he leaves the house or he will go off wearing a disreputable pair of old grey trousers rather than the new trousers he thought he needed to buy last year. Why? And why does he not wear those thick warm socks when he agrees that yes, they are comfortable and they do keep his feet warm.
The woollen pullover he has been wearing in the shed the last few days is a disgrace. There is a large hole in the sleeve. Some yarn has pulled elsewhere. I have not been permitted to rescue it and mend it - yet. I say nothing. He is happy. He is wearing a second woollen garment underneath to stay warm. I say nothing about that either. I trust the outer one is protecting the inner one which is a better garment.
But the socks are a different story. They were made especially for him. They fit perfectly. They are a nice sober subtle navy blue tweed. They do not fall down around his skinny ankles. They feel good inside his shoes. They are, above all, warm and comfortable and an act of friendship.
We can both understand why Pablo Neruda once wrote an ode to his own socks. These socks are sheer poetry.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

I have never been to a graduation ceremony -

or rather, not to one that actually meant anything.
We did have a sort of graduation ceremony in teacher training college but none of us felt it was the real thing. That was the year the college principal decreed that only staff with university degrees could sit on the dusty stage. The staff, rightly, refused to attend.
Students were told that, if they failed to attend, they would not be granted their diplomas - and that meant we could not be teachers. We attended but the president of the student body refused to give an address. He just gave a brief statement saying why he was not giving the traditional speech. Only the guest speaker was given any applause. He clearly felt very uncomfortable.
There was no handrail on the steps up on to the stage so my diploma was passed down to me by a staff member. "You were lucky Cat!" someone told me. I probably was. I did not have to shake hands with the Principal.
There was supposed to be a graduation dinner but nobody organised one. This was because of the principal's edict; it was customary to invite him free of charge. A few of the students probably went to the pub but most of us were not yet 21 - the age at which you were legally able to imbibe alcohol. I just went home.
I went from teacher training college to university on the other side of the world, one of just two students to actually go to university at all. By the time the graduation ceremony came around I was back on this side of the world. I went to university in two more places, both of them interstate. The expense of getting there and staying there just to listen to some speeches and be given a piece of paper seemed ridiculous - even if I could have found the time. I stayed home. Most of the mature age students who did not live nearby did the same. Who can blame them?
There are no photographs of me looking ridiculous in an academic hat and gown. I do not even possess all the pieces of paper. I might collect them one day, if I ever go to those places. I have been told I can. Would that feel like a graduation ceremony?
Probably not. They do not do parchment any more.

Friday, 2 July 2010

According to the Federal Minister for Health

the Coalition plan to spend $1.5bn on mental health - should they win the election - is "crazy". According to the opinion polls and the political pundits the Coalition has no hope of winning the election so cynics might even say that the plan is meaningless and that the Coalition is only saying it because they know they will not have to implement it.
Even if that is the case however it says a great deal about what the ALP believes is important. Why? Because they would prefer to spend the same money on setting up an electronic record of everyone's medical records. What it will amount to is a de-facto identity card - which is something the government would very much like to have.
Using medical records to obtain something like this is not just stupid, it is downright dangerous.
Doctor-patient confidentiality is already compromised by a range of reporting requirements, not all of them related to public safety. Any electronic record keeping is liable to be accessed by others. There is no computer in the world which is safe from hackers and there are many people out there who would find the medical records of others were of great commercial value.
There would also be nothing to prevent the government opening up, or partially opening up, the records on the grounds of making budget decisions or deciding future strategies. I have no doubt it would be made to sound perfectly reasonable and that the reasons given would sound quite plausible along with the promises of confidentiality. All of that is utter nonsense of course.
Our health records will simply become public property.
So then there would be two more issues, the first is that a doctor will not feel free to say precisely what he or she thinks in case notes. I have no doubt mine probably say something like "obstreperous cat who dislikes taking her medicine and does not listen to my advice". Will my nice GP even feel he can say "difficult patient"? What if it becomes public and I sue for defamation? Is he going to be protected? What if I am a high profile figure and I want to keep a medical condition quiet? Will the doctor feel able to write about that knowing that someone will be all too keen to hack into records and dig up the dirt on me? Of course it can still happen but electronic records are just going to make it easier. All that assumes that an individual actually goes to see a doctor and that the doctor keeps an accurate record of what occurs between them.
What of those who do not?
It is difficult enough trying to help those with serious mental health issues, the homeless and those who wander from one place to another. There are already far too many of them and they need help but the new system will add another group as well. These are the people who delay seeing a doctor for any number of reasons but often because they do not want anyone else to know there is anything wrong or they fear authority of any sort. This is particularly true of some migrants who have come from less stable countries or countries where some medical issues are culturally taboo. If they already fear the consequences of going to a doctor then the notion that their medical records will be able to be accessed by someone other than the doctor is going to make them even less likely to go.
In the end it seems that what will happen is that there will be a greater rather than lesser number of people who should have sought help earlier. It will cost but the government will have access to our most personal details. The power that will allow them to have over us is potentially enormous and that is why they want to do it. It would be "crazy" for them not to do it. Who needs to spend money on mental health when they have a means of controlling the entire population?
I await my micro-chip.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

My father is a magician which means

he knows how to pull a rabbit out of a hat. He knows but he does not do it. He says it is cruel to the rabbit. I agree. He knows how to saw a lady in half too - and put her back together again. He won't do that either. He says it is dangerous. I agree. I really am not sure about this "magic" thing.
I have been around my father and some of his fellow magicians long enough to know about some of these things. Illusions. I know they are not "real" and that David Copperfield does not really make elephants or jumbo jets appear and disappear and then appear again.
My father does not do much magic work these days. He never did a lot. It is not good for a schoolmaster to have a reputation as a magician. He has made magic apparatus for himself and other magicians in the past. He will still repair the occasional piece of apparatus for someone. Occasionally fellow magicians will turn up with a little problem. I am required to "magic up" the cups of tea as they try to work out "how" to use their mirrors, their secret compartments, their sliding this and their revolving that.
No, you do not want to know. The man who shows you how it is done on the telly is not doing you any favours. He is trying to take a little magic out of the world.
Adults take magic out of the world for children all the time. There is the moment in Margaret Storey's book "Pauline" where the youngest child has been singing in the bath about "fifteen men on a dead man's chest". Her father explains that these are bottles on a box rather than real men on a human chest - and she stops singing. That small scene says a great deal about the father.
There was a similar incident in the post office yesterday. There was a small boy "playing" with the automatic doors. His father, no doubt annoyed by the draughts of cold air which kept coming and going, stopped him and proceeded to explain how the doors worked. It was not what the child wanted at all. He stopped playing. I am certain he did not understand the explanation. It was sufficient that it had been explained that it what he was doing that caused the doors to open. All the magic had gone for him.