Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Is it really the last day

of 2014? According to the calendar it is...but where did the year go?
Every year I draw up a large sheet of light cardboard - days across the top, months down the side and all the dates in the middle. It is our wall calendar for the year.
My mother started it when she and the Senior Cat retired. They suddenly had no school diaries and there were other things that needed to be included in the calendar. Some things had to be planned ahead.
Her calendars were always done in beautiful "infant school" printing. My days and months are done on the computer, printed off, cut up and stuck on. The dates are legible - sort of. The birthdays go in, any known medical and dental appointments, any regular events or other important dates. Then, gradually, other things go in as well. I can look ahead and remind the Senior Cat - who sometimes forgets to look - about the birthday of a grandchild or great-grandchild or that he has an appointment. I add mine so that he knows - and put mine into the calendar on the computer as well. I also try to remember.
And, at the beginning of every year, the calendar will look quite empty. "It is going to be quieter this year," the Senior Cat tells me. It never is.
This time last year I was concerned about two very elderly friends and a younger one. One of the very elderly friends has bounced back after minor heart surgery. He's gardening again - gently - he's walking his elderly dog - slowly. The other has left for the great library in the sky and I miss talking books with her. She was a voracious reader until the last.
And the younger one has also died. I still find it strange that, this time last year, she was living in her own home - that I could knock and then call out and walk in. The place belongs to someone else now. I have no longer have the right to enter it.
It has made me think about "ownership" and "right of entry" and how these things change and - well, do they matter? They seem important at the time - but are they really? Friendship seems more important.
I have seen less of friends than I would like but leaving the Senior Cat for more than a few hours is no longer wise. My friends understand that. One of the joys of e-mail and social media is being able to keep in touch even when I cannot physically be there. Much has happened in their lives too.
And I wonder what will happen in the coming year. I am not making any resolutions. I have things I would like to do and I hope to do them but they will not be resolutions.
So, those of you who read this - please keep me at it. There are novels I still want to write - although I doubt publication more and more. Why do I bother? I don't know. There is the more serious book about weaving patterns for knitters. There are knitting patterns to write for my friend P.... There are too many books to read...and yes, a blog to write I suppose.
Whatever happens - Happy New Year to the rest of you.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

There were hot cross buns

in the other supermarket yesterday. Middle Cat reported this fact to me when she delivered some things for the Senior Cat from the hardware store.
Mostly we support the family owned independent supermarket. They will soon have their buns out too but they have the courtesy to wait until the twelve days of Christmas are actually over!
Christmas seems to begin in August. Easter begins after Christmas. There is "Halloween". Then there is "Mother's Day" and "Father's Day". There appear to be numerous other events which we are told require the expenditure of money.
A "sale" no longer excites me - if it ever did. There seem to be constant "sales". I know too much about them now.
I know someone who used to run a local "dress shop". It was a small but popular shop which sold the sort of thing that people actually wore on an everyday basis. Most of the clothing was brought in with that very thing in mind. If you wanted sensible clothing to wear to work or to do the supermarket run on Saturday that is where you went. Unfortunately it had to shift location when major changes were made to the shopping centre. The owner of the centre thought it was not sufficiently "upmarket" for his new look. He did not consider what people actually wanted.
But, I got to know the woman who ran it. She is a lively, intelligent Greek woman now retired. The shop was adjacent to the supermarket and I would sometimes "mind the shop" for a few minutes as she dashed upstairs or off to the bank". (She worked alone and the centre rules said the shop could not be closed.)  On the very rare occasions I needed to buy something I would tell her what I needed and she would tell me, "Not yet."
I knew to wait - and why. She would show me new stock.
"Look at these. The boss paid $5 for these."
The price on the label would be $95 or even $105. When they were "on sale" they might be $65 or $70. Once in a while they might be even lower than that. And I would get "staff discount" for minding the shop. 
"The boss" had met me and approved my "shop minding". She was demanding and of uncertain temper. She claimed constant poverty. I very much doubt she had any idea of how much her employee had told me about the "mark up" business.
But it taught me to not get excited by "sales" and to wait for them. Yes, I know about "overheads" and the expense of employing people - especially those in bricks and mortar shops. I do not, for a moment, think that being in that sort of business would be easy. It has, in many ways, to be harder than selling food. We need to eat. People buy food every day. They do not buy clothing every day. But we do not need to buy those hot cross buns early. We do not need to buy them at all. They are actually intended for just one day of the year.
I will not be buying hot cross buns.

Monday, 29 December 2014

A rather extraordinary woman

has died. Her death notice appears in the paper this morning.
It will go unnoticed by most people. Her funeral will be small.
She was ninety-eight. Her brother died long ago. Her sister some years ago.
She never married. Her sister did not marry. Her brother did and, if he is still alive, she has a nephew.
She was once our neighbour, when we lived in our previous house. Her "family" is the family that lived on the other side. They have cared for her all these years.
I did not see her once she moved into a nursing home on the other side of the city. Her "family" had moved to that side of the city and they wanted her close.
But, why was she extraordinary? She came from another era. She was private-school educated. I have seen photographs of her in her old-fashioned school tunic, hat and gloves. On leaving school she trained as a "secretary", an acceptable job for someone of her social status. But she was no ordinary secretary of course. She spoke fluent French and she was soon employed at the highest levels.
She wanted to travel - and she did. She earned good money, lived at home with her sister and her father after her mother died, and used her annual leave to travel.
When her employer died she went off to Uganda and worked for Idi Amin for two years. She detested the man but found Africa fascinating. It gave her the chance to travel in Africa. She came home with some wild tales - and just in time.
She and her sister went to China and Mongolia long before they became tourist destinations. They travelled the length of the Andes and the Rockies, crossed Canada, did the trans-Siberian trip, took themselves along the Silk Route, explored eastern Europe, north Africa and all the more usual European destinations.
Their travel was not about well-known monuments, museums, palaces or places to eat. It was about finding the unusual and different, about meeting local people - even if they had no common language - and coming home with stories to tell.
Her last "big trip" was eleven years ago. She went to New Zealand - a country she had not explored "properly". For her that meant trekking in the South Island and, while she was there, taking a flight to the Antarctic "because they say the scenery is spectacular".
After that she settled down - a bit. She did some leisurely travel across Australia by train and a short trip to Tasmania.
And then, for the last few years of her life she lived in a nursing home. She rarely travelled beyond her room and the dining room. She was surrounded by her travels, her photograph albums and her memories.
I often wonder what she thought of in those last few years. It is hard  to  know. Conversation was difficult as she was profoundly deaf but she read - often about other people's travels.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

There was too much food

on Christmas Day. There usually is. It always bothers me. I hate to see food wasted and I know some of that would have been wasted.
The Senior Cat is not a big eater. Few people, if any, are at his age. I weigh more than I should but I genuinely do not eat big meals. A plate piled high with food is bound to make me feel less like eating.
I try to feed the two of us sensibly and within a budget.
But I do wonder about other people.
We have some lovely neighbours across the way. There were five adults and two children for Christmas lunch. The children are, to put it mildly, fussy eaters. On Christmas Day they had gingerbread (the Wise Men we had decorated the other day) and "dessert". They were surrounded by turkey, ham, roast vegetables and all the trimmings. They were not interested. All the effort was wasted on them.
As children we were expected to eat what was put in front of us. We had to sit at the table until we had finished our main course. Dessert, if we had it at all, was a treat. More often we were given a piece of fruit and told to eat it outside. I assume it gave my harassed parents an opportunity to talk without us. (It did not take my brother and I long to work out the meaning of that "Latin" conversation!)
And chicken was a Christmas treat. My maternal grandmother kept hens. She would kill, clean and cook what was really a fowl. We children would get a small piece each. It was supplemented with my maternal grandfather's indulgence, larger portions of ham straight from the bone. He would carve this and the fowl in front of us. I would keep my eyes firmly on my plate. My brother would wriggle - but not in anticipation.
My paternal grandmother did not keep hens. She would order a pair "roasting hens" from the butcher. The meat would be carved in the kitchen and delivered through the "serving hatch" into the dining room. My paternal grandmother also understood about sprouts. It was Christmas. There would be half a sprout (the smallest she could find) and it would be surrounded by peas we had podded. We could dip the sprout into the excellent gravy she made and get rid of the sprout first and then enjoy the rest of the meal. But yes, we were still expected to eat it. I quite like sprouts now - if they are properly cooked.
My maternal grandmother insisted on Christmas pudding. She had small trinkets that she would add to this and you had to be careful not to bite into one. She made brandy sauce for the adults and custard for the children. It did not matter how hot it was we had the full roast meal and pudding - and all the washing up that went with it.
My paternal grandmother would provide the roast because it was expected by most people back then but my paternal grandfather had other ideas about the second course. It was an occasion for fruit salad, jelly and ice cream. The ice cream came shaped like a brick and would be sliced up into squares. We children thought it was marvellous stuff.  All that was probably rather less work for my grandmother on the day. Afterwards my grandfather would wash up and we children were expected to wipe. We never minded too much because he would tell us about Christmas when he was a boy. It was one of the few times he would talk about his childhood. My father and his brother would help by clearing the table and putting the best cutlery and crockery back in the sideboard. It was, I suppose, all over fairly rapidly.
My grandmother would see to one thing. Putting any leftover meat into the fridge ready for the following day. She would try to have just enough for the two of them to have another meal.
Our neighbour came over yesterday and asked if we would like some ham and turkey. They still have too much in the fridge. I thanked her, accepted the offer - and put what I had planned to cook into the freezer. It will keep. We won't waste the other food.  She brought over a generous plateful - enough for us for two meals. "There's plenty more," she assured me.
It is very kind of her and I do appreciate the gesture - but it bothers me that people should have so much food in the first place. My grandmothers would be back on plain fare by now.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Forty years ago yesterday

our phone rang at just on six in the morning. As the only one up I answered it wondering what else was wrong. We had gone to bed knowing that Darwin had been devastated by a cyclone. Concerned though we were we knew nobody living there or even on holiday in that part of the world.
"Cat it's Sorry to ring so early but I thought you'd be up. Is there any chance you and your parents could be at Centennial Hall by eight? We need some help."
My parents had come sleepily out of their bedroom by then to find out what was wrong. I relayed the message. We all knew why help was needed. They nodded.
The old Centennial Hall building was then the largest in the show grounds. It has since been demolished but, by the time we arrived, the Red Cross was moving in and organising things. B...came hurrying up and sent the Senior Cat off with her husband to organise. She told my mother what she wanted her to organise. She introduced me to someone who said, "You're awfully young but B...says you have some communication skills we might need. Do you think you can handle some very distressed people?"
"I'll try," I told her.
The government was trying to make sure everyone was accounted for and I spent very long hours for the rest of what should have been the school holidays interviewing people. Most of them were nice, reasonable, grateful to be getting some help - even while they were frightened and worried and bewildered.  Most of them spoke English but sometimes the other interviewers would pass people to me because their English was limited or because they were deaf and used sign language or they had some other problem which meant they needed a little extra time.
I remember the profoundly deaf mother of nine children. I was taking down the names and ages of the children. We got to the end of the list and I checked. There were eight children on the list. I showed her and signed "eight not nine". She burst into tears. In the chaos one of her children was missing. (They found him safe later.)
I wonder what happened to all of them.
I remember the very old man, almost blind, who was only worried about his dog. I don't think the dog was ever found but I passed him on to someone who took him for a cup of tea while I phoned his granddaughter in an outer suburb to say he was there. She burst into tears and said she was coming to get him immediately.
I remember the car loads of families coming in. Some of the cars were, quite literally, tied together with garden twine and pieces of rope - and they were the cars the police had allowed through at the checkpoint up north.
I remember the indigenous family who looked totally bewildered. The mother had a six day old baby in her arms. I phoned my indigenous friend R... They spent the next eight weeks living with her and her family.
And I remember the family with two profoundly disabled children who had been left with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. There was a residential section in the school I was then working in and I rang the Matron. She sent one of the school buses over to pick them up so they could stay until somewhere was found for them.
Yesterday the sister of one of those children, now both sadly deceased, phoned me. She was just eight at the time.
       "I don't remember much," she told me, "But Mum had kept your name and I looked up the phone book. I just wanted to say thanks to someone for the help we were given."
I asked her where she was working now. She's a nurse.
"I wanted to do something where I could be kind. The way people were to us."

Friday, 26 December 2014

In a moment of slight insanity I made

apricot jam yesterday. Yes, I know it was Christmas Day. I also made bread...and put the topping on the cheesecake.
I had planned to make bread so that was fine. I had planned to put the topping on the cheesecake (fruit) so that was fine. But...the apricot jam?
Well, the Senior Cat had picked a bucket of apricots. As he is 91, almost 92 (and thinks he is about half that age at the very most) I had to admire the effort involved and do something about it.
It meant a last minute, unplanned trip to the supermarket to buy the sugar. It involved finding the jam jars. It involved cutting and weighing and all the other things.
I did it. We have apricot jam nestling alongside the marmalade. The Senior Cat is feeling very pleased with himself.
The rest of yesterday was taken up with family, food and a friend of Middle Cat, a young Vietnamese student who would have been on his own for Christmas Day. He looked a bit hesitant to start with but my nephews and their cousins, who are about his age, hauled him off to do energetic things and he wasn't given a chance not to be part of the group. When his hostess, sister-in-law to Middle Cat, was being given farewell hugs and kisses by the nephews he shyly lined up to shake hands and then shyly hugged her instead when she reached out to hug him.
"I had a wonderful time," he told her.
"Good. We didn't want you to be on your own," she told him.
And they would not. The Senior Cat and I know that. We have always been included too.
My nephews and their cousins have been brought up to accept people of all races and faiths and the mothers will hug all the children - because they see them as their children too.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

How the Cathedral cats did it.

Oh yes, Christmas…

the Cathedral Cat thought he could tell them a thing or two about Christmas.

He wouldn’t of course. It would be impolite. The position of Cathedral Cat was an important one but he had never let it twitch his whiskers. It was too much of an honour for that.

There was a service at midnight of course. The Cathedral was crowded. The Cathedral Cat wondered when most of the people had last been to visit. It had probably been the Christmas before – or perhaps Easter Sunday.

But, by 2am the Cathedral was empty again. There was just one small light on, a light over the manger – a light to show the way for the baby. It might be a nice bed for the night – if the hay did not tickle his nose too much.

He jumped in and settled down but had barely put his paw over his eyes when he heard the noise. A kitten mewing? Surely not. His sister had those kittens of hers well under control in the Bishop’s Palace.

The noise came again. No, definitely not a kitten, or mice. He had heard that noise before.  A human kitten. No. Impossible. Maybe. Yes. It had to be. It was outside too.  Cold. What was a human kitten doing outside in the cold?

He jumped down from the cosy straw with a sigh and padded down to the Little Door and let himself out. He went past the Transept Door and up the path as silent as the moon overhead. The human kitten was crying properly now. He turned the corner and saw a pale coloured bundle on the steps. Oh. He went a little closer. It was a very small human kitten, even smaller than most of those who got water on their heads from the little stone pond at the front.

There were no other humans there. The Cathedral Cat thought about this. It seemed wrong. A human kitten was like a cat kitten. It couldn’t look after itself. It needed to be somewhere warm and safe. This was not safe. Something needed to be done.

The Cathedral Cat padded briskly across the lawn, climbed the tree next to the wall of the Bishop’s palace and let himself down. He went up to the Cat Door. It was open. Good. He let himself in and went to the laundry. That door was open too.  

His sister looked sleepily at him. What a time to come visiting! He meowed - very softly so as not to wake the tight jumble of sleeping kittens – and explained.

Oh. Typical male. No idea how to handle an emergency. No they would not wake the Bishop. He had to be up early for the next service. The poor man was only going to get about five hours sleep. The Bishop’s cat  extricated herself very carefully from the basket. She jumped over the kitten-fence and, tail in the air, told him to follow her. Up the vine, onto the top of the fence, down the tree, across the lawn and up the steps. Mmm…yes a very small human kitten.

The Cathedral Cat looked at her. She looked at him.

It was too big to carry by the scruff of the neck – even if a human kitten had the right sort of fur for that. Human kittens did not seem to have fur at all. How they kept warm was a mystery. It must be all those strange things they wrapped themselves in, those things you could not lick clean. It was terribly inefficient.

But, perhaps they could use those things now. The Bishop’s Cat put a paw on the now screaming bundle and patted it gently. It quietened a little.  She looked at her brother and suggested they needed the Cloister Cats. There were two of those – if he could find them.

He padded off. No, not there or there. Not in there or up there. He called. No not behind there either. He found them at last, tucked cosily in among the choir robes. He sighed. More work for him in the morning but he needed their help. He explained.

They looked at each other and, aware of his unspoken displeasure at their cat hair being on the snow white elegance of the choir robes, they followed him out through the Little Door.

The Bishop’s Cat had quietened the human kitten again but the little thing was not completely calm. Right boys one corner each in your teeth and one in mine she purred quietly at them. Ready?

And, very carefully, they took the bundle of human kitten down the steps, down the path, around the flying buttresses, past the Transept Door and in through the Little Door. It was all quiet inside but the light was on waiting to welcome the baby.

Getting the human-kitten into the manger? How were they going to do that? The Bishop’s Cat waited, padding gently to keep the human kitten calm. The Cathedral Cat thought about this. No it would not be a problem. He and the Cloister Cats pushed against some of the cushions the human cats used for their odd shaped knees. There. Now they could carry the human kitten up the cushions and into the manger.

The Bishop’s Cat pulled back the straw and they put the baby in. It would go back to sleep now.  She gave it a final paw pat and went back to her own kittens. The Cloister Cats settled on the cushion steps. The Cathedral Cat settled at the end of the manger. They slept.

On Christmas morning the Bishop’s phone rang. A present for you on the Cathedral steps. It can’t be left in the cold any longer. Please take care of it!

He hurried across, fearful of what he might find. There was nothing there but what was that noise inside? He let himself in through the Transept Door and looked to where the manger was. There were the Cloister Cats sitting on each side of the manger. He went to shoo them away but they didn’t shift. He came closer and they still didn’t shift. What were they looking at?

The Bishop reached them. And then stopped. There was the Cathedral Cat playing with a baby. He looked at the figures of Mary and Joseph and at the shepherds. They could tell him nothing of course. He looked at the baby. He reached out his hand to the Cathedral Cat and was given an affectionate bunt.

“How did you do that?” he asked and the Cathedral Cat looked at the Cloister Cats and they smiled and went off in search of their Christmas breakfast.  


Wednesday, 24 December 2014

"I'm just going to give the kids

some money and they can do what they like with it," someone told me yesterday. She was about to go and have coffee with a friend on her first day of leave.
I kept my mouth shut but I wanted to say, "Your two children are still in primary school. They are going to expect something you have chosen."
This woman works full time. So does her husband. Her children are cared for both before and after school by their grandparents. Their grandparents look after them during the school holidays as well because their parents are at work. They are nice children. Their grandparents are bringing them up properly.
There is plenty of money for presents. Their father earns a very high income and I suspect their mother does too. They are both professionals at the top of their fields.
A little later, as I was passing the coffee place, I saw her sitting waiting for her friend. Unbelievably she was sitting opposite the toy shop in our shopping centre. It is a particularly good toy shop with a very good reputation.
I went on to the bookshop to pick up a book the Senior Cat had ordered some time ago. In there I saw the friend she was to have coffee with.
I couldn't stop myself. I told her what the situation was. She closed her eyes for a moment and muttered something unrepeatable and then said, "We'll see about that. If I have to drag her in here or there her kids are getting presents."
I hope it happened because, as I left the shopping centre about ten minutes later, the fire alarm started to ring and everyone was evacuated.
I know that, as a kid, I would rather have a book or a science kit or a puzzle or just about anything other than some money in an envelope. It would say, "I cared enough to choose this for you."

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

My youngest nephew

had to do his internship with a law firm earlier this year. It is something that all law students have to do in order to get their registration with the Supreme Court.
Unlike many other students he did not get a great variety of rather unsatisfactory "experience". Instead he was given the task of reading all the evidence and all the court documents and the transcript for a criminal trial with a view to making a case for appeal. 
It was weeks of painstaking work. He had to look at and consider every detail, particularly the issues surrounding the autopsy. He worked very long hours. He was under a lot of pressure because there is a group of supporters of the accused who have been agitating for the man's release and another trial for a long time. An appeal was only possible because legislation changed allowing for a retrial where there was "new and compelling" evidence - and, in this case, that had to come about because science has advanced and the conclusions from the autopsy are now being questioned.
Last week the media announced that the appeal had been successful. Yesterday the man was released on bail. He has served almost twenty years. He would have been very close to being eligible for parole.
      "It makes you wonder how many other perhaps innocent people are behind bars," someone said to me yesterday. I agree. I don't think there would be too many but the possibility exists. There is obviously sufficient compelling evidence to raise doubts in this case.
A retrial, if one occurs, will present many problems - not least because of the lapse of time. No matter how good you believe your memory to be trying to genuinely and clearly recall events of more than twenty years ago is difficult, if not impossible. There are problems ahead and everyone involved knows it.
I don't know whether the man in question is innocent or guilty. That is something he alone knows. But, there is something else we all need to consider...
If we still had the death penalty this man might have been hung. He could be innocent.

Monday, 22 December 2014

How long is it going to

take for me to catch up with my neighbour?
"Come and see the stable Cat," she invited late on Saturday afternoon.
The phone rang so we agreed, "Later."
And the phone rang again. And then it was time to deal with the Senior Cat's snack and, when I looked, the neighbour had visitors.
Right. I did not interrupt.
Sunday. One does not go to visit neighbours too early on Sundays. They might still be in bed or at church or somewhere else. I was going to prowl over just after lunch but the Senior Cat was late home. I saw their car leave when I was putting the newspapers in the bin. Oh.
In the middle of the afternoon they were back and I was about to leave the house to try again when we had an unexpected visitor. By the time he left it was that awkward "get meal ready" time. I did not go over and, as I was doing the meal preparation, the phone rang. 
Our friend Polly wanted to bring us the Christmas cake she had made for the Senior Cat. I had made her a gingerbread Christmas tree. There would be no prowling off to the neighbour.
So, today, I will try again. The stable has been constructed. I have to see this. It might start to feel a bit like Christmas then.
We haven't put a tree up - we never do. We haven't put the Christmas cards out. (They are sitting in a pile.) We haven't put the Christmas wreath on the door. (My fault. I can't find it - or did the Senior Cat "put it somewhere that we will be able to find it"?)
I have wrapped the books. Everyone is getting books from me - and the Senior Cat is also getting some fiendishly difficult wooden puzzles. Hopefully this will keep his mind and paws occupied and, if I find the Christmas decorations, I will hide them where I can find them for next year.
And, if the phone doesn't ring and we don't have visitors then I will go and see the stable - purrhaps?

Sunday, 21 December 2014

I was invited to "A Holiday Party"

recently and I declined the invitation.
There were two reasons for this, the first was that I do not like standing around listening to people I barely know while they are talking about things I know nothing about and am not interested in. (Office gossip.)
The second however was the more serious reason. I object to the term "Holiday Party" when it is used as a "politically correct" term. This would once have been a "Christmas Party".
     "We're not allowed to call it that now," the person who invited me told me.
Not allowed?
     "Oh and when you come in please don't say "Merry Christmas" to anyone. We're not allowed to do that anymore."
Hold it right there. Nobody tells me I can't do that. This is political correctness gone mad.
I do not wish my Jewish, Muslim, Hindu etc. friends "Merry Christmas". I have no reason to do that - although they sometimes tell me, "I hope you have a nice Christmas Day Cat" and I have said similar sentiments about their holidays.
But is there any reason not to wish other people a "Merry Christmas", especially when I know they celebrate it in a much more vigorous fashion than I do?
There is nothing "multi-cultural" or "respectful" about ignoring our own traditions simply because other people have different traditions. It merely suggests to others that our traditions are of so little importance that we will just give them up. It encourages extremists to believe they are winning their war against all things western and Christian. It denies people the right to express a sentiment that is as much part of our cultural tradition as Hanukah or Eid is part of other cultural traditions.
I was in the supermarket yesterday and saw a friend I had not seen for some weeks. We stopped to talk for a moment. Several people walked past we both knew. They said things like "Merry Christmas" and "have a great Christmas" to me. They did not say it to her because she was wearing a hijab. But a couple of times my friend also responded with things like, "Hope you have a good Christmas" and the response would be something "Thanks, have a good New Year."
We need to get over the ridiculous nonsense that we can't have our traditions simply for fear of upsetting somebody else,  If we can't respect ourselves then we can't respect them either.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

I would like to introduce you to

four great teens - with their permission.
For the past six years I have been keeping an eye on them. They were learning to knit under the watchful eyes of my late friend Margaret. She was teaching them while they were in and out of hospital. She introduced them to each other so that they could each encourage the others.
They all needed to have a creative but quiet and not physically demanding activity. Knitting was perfect for all of them - two boys and two girls. (There is a third boy who is a long term member of the group but he is a year younger.)
When Margaret died suddenly "Margaret's Mob", as they called themselves, were devastated. The mother of one of them turned to me and asked if I would take over helping with the knitting. I did. It turned into something much more. The little group became a study group as well. Two of the fathers did some tutoring. I did some tutoring. They all caught up with and then passed their peers.
On the knitting front they had more encouragement from the late Sue Nelson, technical editor of Knitters' Magazine. She kept sending them yarn and e-mails. When she died the four of them were invited to write one of the eulogies for her funeral - and what they wrote was an amazing piece filled with love and determination.
Over the years there have been some rough patches. We all expected those. This year, year 12, was the toughest of all. There is a seemingly endless grind to year 12 - especially when you are aiming very high. In the middle of it Nicola Morgan's book, "The teenage guide to stress" came out. One Saturday afternoon we got together and looked at the book. We talked about the issues in it. They read it for themselves over the next few weeks. We had another brief chat about it one afternoon when we met for some other work. All of them say they would recommend the book to other teens.
We worked on. The Colourmart people in England sent them some yarn so that they could go on making more chemo-caps for kids...with weird and wonderful designs. It was the creative outlet they needed. It was knitting that could be picked up and put down easily. The projects were small enough to be able to be finished even during periods of hard study. They have done a lot of other knitting too. My own knowledge has been tested to the limits by their questions.
They received their results on Thursday - outstandingly good results. All of them will get into their chosen courses at university. And yes, they plan to go on meeting and supporting each other. They are also teaching other young ones to knit - and live life with disabilities.
Their parents are proud of them, they are proud of each other. And I am proud of them too.

Friday, 19 December 2014


food grade markers...tick...bases....tick...the cutters...tick... and so it went on...
Eventually I had everything I thought we might need. I put it in a sturdy cardboard box and prowled across the road. There were two excited kittens waiting at the front door. They had their "cooking aprons" on and yelled down the passage to their grandmother, "Cat's here and she's got a whole box..." They are three and five years of age. They have never decorated gingerbread before.
We did it at "Grandma's house" because they have sturdy step stools there, just the right height to reach then bench top.
They took everything very carefully out of the carton and then stared silently (blissful silence for just a moment) at the picture on the box.
"Will it look like that?" asked Older Kitten
"No," said Younger Kitten.
"A bit like that," their grandmother said.
We put the pieces in order. They kneaded the ready to roll icing. They rolled out a little of it...enough to cover the sheep. With intense concentration Younger Kitten put the biscuit cutter on it, pressed down hard and then pulled away the excess icing oh so gently. She picked it up and placed it gently on the gingerbread shape. (Dotted with glycerine to keep the icing in place - but Grandma did that.) She managed to put it "zackerly" (exactly) on top too.
And so we went on. We coloured some of the icing. Mary has the traditional blue, the kings have darker blue, red, green. There is a "gold" box for one of the kings. They have beards. Joseph has a beard and so do the shepherds. The baby Jesus has a blanket - forget the "swaddling" cloth ("that would not be comfortable" Older Kitten informed us). There is a camel and a donkey with their features carefully marked.
The only problem is the stable and trying to get the star on top but "That's going to be Grandpa's job."
Their mother came to pick them up. They stood there consuming spare gingerbread and milk and telling her about how they had done it.
We waved them off and cleared up the mess. I just hope Grandpa has managed to do the building of the stable.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Year 12 exam results

come out today. (For Upoverites these are the final year of secondary school results.)
The results come out on line from 8:30am - an hour from when I am writing this. They are also delivered by post. You need a personal number to get your results on line - if the computer doesn't crash from overload.
And, of course, nobody else should open mail addressed to you without your permission.
There will be parents who have demanded the personal number and others who will be waiting by the letter box to snatch the mail from the postie and open the letter themselves. They will also believe they have every right to do it.
In the next street there is a lovely girl who lost her mother to cancer last year. She struggled through each school day during her mother's time in a hospice and then would rush off to spend time with her mother. Sometimes she would miss a lesson as people believed that her mother was about to leave them. It was emotionally and physically exhausting. She was in year 11 then. This year she has done year 12. It's been another struggle as the family has adjusted to life without Mum. Throughout it all she has worked to the best of her ability but I know, and her father knows, that she will not do as well as she could have done.
Her father is a teacher. He has not demanded her personal number. He will not be standing by the letter box. He has told her that, no matter what, he supports her and her mail is hers to open.
These are the exams that mark the divide between school and the rest of your life - your adult life. They are the results that determine how you will set about the rest of your life - but not what you do with it.
My nephews chose to share their numbers with their parents. They wanted their mother to open the envelope and double check. It no doubt helped that they were fairly confident they had done well. (They had in fact done exceptionally well.) But, if you aren't confident or you don't enjoy that kind of relationship with your parents then surely you at least have the right to know before them?
Back in the dim, distant past our results were published in the paper. They were there for everyone to see. It was an appalling system which caused a lot of distress.
This one is better - or it should be. It won't be the end of the world if you haven't done as well as you hoped to do but you have the right to know first.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

There is something rather therapeutic about

Christmas baking I suppose...well at least there was something therapeutic about making the gingerbread dough yesterday. (The Senior  Cat is still demanding I make mince pies but I will ignore that for the moment.)
I was not going to make gingerbread - until the neighbour across the street offered to do the decorating. My paws can manage the mixing, the rolling, the cutting - but not the decorating. At least, not the sort of decorating that needs to be done.
The gingerbread will, I hope, be turned into a Nativity scene - or rather, two Nativity scenes. I have the biscuit cutters. They came as a kit. A friend in the United States (who happens to be Jewish) sent the kit to me. She saw it in a shop and thought I might like it "because it looks simple enough". Mmm...maybe. I'll try anyway.
The stable is just two, roughly triangular pieces. It is not like one of those gingerbread houses you see that need to be constructed with both walls and roof. Maybe. Maybe not. We will see.
There is more to it than that of course but I will cut the shapes out and see what happens. The Very Young Kittens across the road want to help of course. I plan to have biscuits ready for them to decorate. Their paws are not strong enough to roll out the dough but they can cut out some shepherds and use some of that "ready to roll" icing beloved of people who like to decorate cakes.
But, it was making the dough which was such a surprisingly peaceful and therapeutic exercise. I don't do a lot of baking. The Senior Cat is not given to eating morning or afternoon tea. He is not, and never has been, terribly interested in cake. He will, if he is offered while out, politely accept a slice of sponge cake. He likes the sort we call "ginger fluff" (sponge cake with ginger in it) and he likes (in small quantities) rich Christmas fruit cake. But forget other cake. He is not interested.
From my point of view this is a Good Thing. It means I do not have to make it. I am not tempted to eat it - although, like him, I am not terribly interested in cake.
But yesterday I weighed out ingredients - in a double quantity - and melted butter and sugar and honey slowly and I stirred with a wooden spoon. Eventually I kneaded the dough to a smooth consistency.
Yes, perhaps it was that. It was the kneading. It is not quite like kneading bread. Kneading gingerbread dough is quieter and much more soothing than that. I finished. I put the dough in the fridge ready to be used today. I cleaned up and washed up and, somehow, I felt better. I needed to do it.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

I spent an anxious day

yesterday trying to keep news of the siege in Sydney from the Senior Cat - at least until Brother Cat had called in to say he was safe. The outcome has not been what any of us hoped for. Two people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are dead and so is the gunman.
My brother works in a building close to Martin Place. He uses the Martin Place train station. I also have colleagues who work in Martin Place. I knew my brother was most unlikely to have used the Lindt café but there was every possibility that other people I knew might.  
I also knew Brother Cat would check in when he could and was safe - and he did. He phoned as he walked in the door of his home.
Since then one of my colleagues has let me know that yes, the people I know there are safe too. One of them had actually been in the café about twenty minutes before the gunman walked in. All of them stayed well out of the way.
They were not any of those hundreds of people hanging around in Martin Place making the situation even more difficult for the police. I would not expect them to be. They all know far too much about the dangers such situations pose.
There is nothing "exciting" about such situations. They are, quite simply, terrifying - in the true sense of the word - for those involved. I know. I was once caught up, in a very small way, in a related situation. There was an armed hold up at the post office in Marchmont St in London. Another student and I were going in - just as two men in balaclavas with guns in their hands ran out. I was knocked over. The other student, much faster on her feet, was knocked aside. We were, perhaps, never in any great danger but it seemed so at the time. Those inside the post office at the time were in much greater danger. The incident still left us both shaken.
I did not tell my parents about the incident in my letter home that week. For days afterwards noises startled me. I did not eat well. I did not sleep well. I could not concentrate on my work. The other student admitted she felt much the same.
If we felt that way then how do people in much more dangerous situations feel? That "post traumatic stress disorder" has to be real, especially for people who are suddenly and unexpectedly caught up in a truly dangerous situation.
If I had been in Sydney yesterday I know my reaction would have been to follow police orders and stay indoors, stay well away from windows. The last thing I would have wanted to do would be join a crowd of people in Martin Place. My brother did not want to be there. He stayed in the office at lunchtime. My colleagues did not want to be there. It was all too close for their comfort.
And yet other people went to look. I don't understand that.
I just wish the outcome had been different.

Monday, 15 December 2014

I saw a curious little chart

the other day. It indicated that the country which spends the most (per capita) on welfare is the United States, followed by Canada, Sweden and then Australia.
On the assumption that the chart was correct then I wonder what Australia has to show for this expenditure? And I do not wonder that the present government is trying to find ways of reducing the cost of welfare. I also do not wonder that a row has erupted over the suggestion that a card should be introduced.  The idea would be to ensure that welfare payments are spent on essentials and that at least some people should be required to work for their welfare payments.
I know people on welfare payments. I know people on disability support pensions. I know people on unemployment benefits. It would be fair to say that the majority of them don't want to be. They would prefer to be in work. As someone who has not had a regular income for years I can appreciate that desire to be in regular, paid employment.
I also know that, contrary to what others are saying, at least some of them would welcome a system which ensured that the rent and the utilities were paid before they received whatever money was coming to them. We have discussed this. The idea that, no matter what, the rent was paid so that they were not going to end up on the street appeals to them. The idea that, no matter what, there would still be water and electricity also appeals.
Then there are ideas about food vouchers and transport cards.
Those who argue against these ideas say it is demeaning and that it would be too expensive to implement. They also say that people should be free to spend their welfare money on whatever they choose.
Personally I like the idea of a system which ensures people have a roof over their heads and electricity to watch the telly with while drinking the tea made with the water available.  Apparently the problem with this system is that you can't have a beer instead. Is that really demeaning - or just a luxury you need to do without?
Our public transport system is such that nobody needs to know if you are on welfare when you swipe your card. I suspect that is true of any the many systems in the country. Apparently the problem with this is that you should still be able to drive your car (if you have one) whenever you please. I sympathise if you live in a rural area but if the bus goes past your door? Is it really demeaning to use public transport - or just inconvenient? 
I don't think we need food vouchers. If it isn't possible for the technical wizards to come up with a system which allows a normal debit card to be used to buy food but not alcohol or cigarettes then there is something wrong. It isn't going to stop the most determined people from finding a way around the system but why would anyone else need to know unless you try to buy either? If you have a bit of cash to hand then you can get those things if you want them.
It is of course easier to say "people should be able to spend their welfare money on whatever they want. They are adults and we shouldn't be telling them how to run their lives." The other side of the argument is that "people are being paid welfare out of the taxes of others - and what they may have earned in the past - so we need to be sure they spend it on essentials. That way they won't go to charities for more."
That is over simplifying the situation dreadfully. I have absolutely no idea what the answers are - or which side is right. I do sympathise with those who would genuinely like the system to step in and ensure the rent was paid and there was water and electricity so that they could make that cup of tea.
Is that wrong of me? Wouldn't it mean everyone was better off in the end? Or is it just demeaning? I wish I knew.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

I am not good at wrapping

parcels. I have never been good at wrapping parcels. I am not even good at wrapping the simple book shape - and, mostly, that is all I need to do.
I have just one aunt, not that much older than me, who is a brilliant wrapper. Her parcels come with beautiful paper and ribbons and bows and a card that matches or compliments the parcel - and does it to perfection.
I have a friend, interested in Japanese art, who presents her gifts with intricate paper-folded perfection.
My youngest sister can also paper-fold flowers and other items and has been known to wrap and decorate. Middle Cat will do fancy bows and finds amazing cards.
My brother just wraps (or, I suspect, his wife does) and leaves it at that.
The Senior Cat is absolutely hopeless. I am actually better than he is.
The Senior Cat reminds me of his father. On Christmas Eve my grandfather would shut himself in the dining room and wrap the presents he had bought. My grandfather was a tailor. He should have been neat-fingered and able. He was not, at least with respect to parcels. There would be mutterings and the crackling of paper and string (he used string) and heavy breathing as he wrote the labels. He never swore in English but he could swear in Gaelic and did - quietly and in the fond belief that nobody knew what he was doing.
The Senior Cat does not swear but he will appeal for help. I am the one who has to give it. Our paws cross paths. I never ask him for help. It is better to struggle on alone with scissors, paper, tape and labels. I never worry about ribbon or bows. My paws get tangled in the tape, the paper is crooked and not as firmly wrapped around the book as I would wish and then - the tape does not stick! 
And yet, I like parcels - for other people. I like to see them wrapped. I love giving them to other people. There is that heart-stopping moment when they open it of course. Will they like it? Have they already read it?
Or, if I have made it, will it fit? Is the colour right?
And then you clean up the torn paper and wonder why you took the trouble - until you see someone smiling at you because there was that little bit extra, that hug of paper around the parcel that says "I care about you."
Oh yes, parcels.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

"Is it a liveable city?"

someone asked me in a brief e-mail.
He was asking me about an article in the Guardian. I glanced at the article. It seems to be talking about whether Canberra is really a good city to live in. It is designated as being one of the best places in the world to live.
I spent four years living in Canberra. I also spent seven years living in London. Canberra is, supposedly, way ahead on the "liveability" stakes. London is right down the list.
If I had the right to live in London I would return in a heartbeat. I don't care if I never put a paw down in Canberra again.
I was at university in Canberra. The Australian National University was then considered to have the best law school in the country. You were taught by the people who had written the text books. They were people the High Court judges consulted. The students won the Jessup Moot competition while I was there. Some of my fellow students have gone on to great things. I was fortunate enough to win a prestigious scholarship while I was there and I am sure that my attendance at ANU was a contributing factor to my being awarded it.
At the time I was there the Senior Cat had cousins who were senior  figures in the diplomatic service. That also helped me. They were very kind to me and made sure I was invited to their homes and to other events. I met people I would never otherwise have met. Some of them were interesting and even pretended to be interested in me. Others were not.
People spent their weekends mowing their lawns, bushwalking, playing sport and, if something was going on, going to the Art Gallery or the annual folk festival.
So, I was fortunate I suppose. I had the opportunity to see two sides of life in Canberra when most students were only seeing one. And yes, I met some very nice people.
As is the way with life some of the people who taught me and some of my fellow students are, sadly, no longer alive. The Senior Cat's cousins are no longer alive. I remain in touch with just one of my fellow students - the mother of my godchildren. They do not live in Canberra and, like me, they would not want to.
Canberra is a sterile place. There are distinct divisions between the parliament and the people, town and gown, diplomats and other people. I crossed between the university and the diplomatic world only because of the Senior Cat's cousins and a very senior literary figure who was a family friend. If it had not been for them I would have met very few people, if any, outside the university. It was the same for most other students.
I was also fortunate enough to go to university in London. It was a totally different experience. Yes, I was again taught by people who had written text books. Again some of them could teach well and others could not. The institution I attended was focussed on research too. On the surface things should have been much the same as they were in Canberra.
But things were also different. London was an entirely different city to live in. Yes, university staff and students tended to mix with university staff and students but they also led their own lives. Yes, they did the sorts of things you would expect intelligent intellectually minded people to do like go to the theatre or a concert or an exhibition but they also went to the football, played tennis and squash. They went to the gym and some of them would take the train to the end of the tube line and walk in the country at weekends.
They could also spend a weekend in Cornwall or the Lake District, go to Cambridge or Manchester for a conference and go to Glasgow for a meeting. Holidays were spent in Wales or the Hebrides, in Paris or walking in Tuscany.
Not everyone did these things of course but there was always the sense of more than enough to choose from. Londoners were also friendly - and more than willing to help and make a small cat feel at home. You would turn a corner and come across a piece of history and someone would stop and point out another blue plaque or suggest you look around the next corner "because"...
London was often dirty. It was, for me, dangerous when it snowed and then melted and froze again so that the ground was slippery. I didn't like the traffic much either. It was expensive but there was plenty to do which was "free". It was full of tourists but they could be avoided.
And yes, I think it could be a very lonely place to live. Big cities are often lonely places to live. It would however be no more lonely than Canberra was for many of my fellow students and is for many of the people who live there. The public places there are often empty when the public places in London on a similar day would be full.
I think much of it has to do with the fact that, in London, people do not use their cars (if they own one) as much. They use public transport and walk more. They don't isolate themselves in cars. If people are out and about outside of cars there is more interaction.
You have the chance to observe other people and, perhaps, be more aware of them.
I might be wrong. London may be very different now. It was a long time since I was there. But, given the choice, I would still choose the less "liveable" city because London seems so much more alive than Canberra.

Friday, 12 December 2014

"I am going to the Post Office and

I may be away some time," I told the Senior Cat. He gave a smug purr and headed off for the post-lunch contemplation of the eyelids. I took the parcel for my godchildren off to the Post Office.
I fully expected a queue out the door. It is not uncommon at this time of the year.
But there were just three people and a dog ahead of me. I grabbed the smallest box I could find in which to pack shortbread, cake, books and postcards. The box was bigger than I needed but there were no smaller boxes left on the help yourself shelves. It would have to do. I waited. 
When I reached the counter the assistant shook her head. "You need a smaller box."
"There were none left."
"Hang on."
She went and got one from the back. It was just a little bit too small.
"Hang on."
She went and found another box. It was not a post office box but it looked just as sturdy.
"Just about right - and you won't need to pay for this one."
She packed the items in. There was a little bit of space.
"Hang on."
She found some bubble wrap.
"It came around something else so you needn't pay for it."
She cut it up and folded it in around the sides while I wrote my name and address on the essential form. (I had already printed off the address.) She taped the box together, taped the address on.
"Hang on...we could have put this in a padded would have been 65c less."
I looked at her and said, "No. I will happily pay the extra 65c more after all the work you put in."
She laughed and took the money I gave her.
Here was someone whose workload is heavy at this time of the year but she was still cheerful and more than obliging.
Yes, they know me in the Post Office and yes it was oddly quiet but she did not have to do those things. The staff in there don't mind helping the Senior Cat either. The youngest one once showed me how to recharge my rarely used mobile phone.
I am going to make the last batch of shortbread today. Some of it will go to them I think.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Could we please get

the facts straight?
I have long since given up on expecting the media to get the facts straight on any story at all. They just don't seem able to do it. That means the rest of the population which depends on the media for the story won't get the facts straight either.
But there are people who should get their facts straight and won't or don't do it for their own purposes.
I was talking to a politician yesterday. I have to talk to these people occasionally. Most of them irritate me. I am as aware as they are that, whatever the general population might think, getting things done is not easy. Even if you happen to have control of both houses of parliament it is not easy because there is always the public servant who is determined to make things difficult. ("Yes Minister" was a good deal more accurate than many people realise.) When you do not have control of both houses of parliament then the situation can be very difficult.
In circumstances like that there is a special need to get the facts right - unless of course you happen to be in opposition and it will stop the government implementing the policies they were elected to implement. Or perhaps you can say "we did that" when in actual fact your side of politics did no such thing. Of course you only ever say that about popular measures.
The politician I was talking to was full of these things. He was gleeful about the way his party had managed to stymie so much legislation (always on the grounds that it was "bad"). He took pride in telling me how many good things his own party had done and how much better it would be when they were returned to government. All expected talk from any politician perhaps.
I listened. I did not argue. There is no point in arguing with someone like this. It happens on both sides of politics.
But then he got on to a topic about which I do know something. I was personally involved. The odious man I was talking to tried to claim the credit for his side of politics.
I stopped him in his verbal tracks and, smiling sweetly at him, I said, "That's very odd. I put a lot of research into that. I was on the working party. It was headed by..... and it was the..... government which passed the relevant legislation."
Did he believe me? No. I was there. He wasn't. Therefore I have to be wrong. Could we please get the facts straight?
I don't think it is going to happen.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

I was invited to have

"coffee" with someone yesterday. You know the sort of thing I mean. You sit in a place which serves coffee and food and talk to each other.
In this case she talked to me. I knew this was going to happen when she asked. I knew this person had invited me for the express purpose of having someone to talk to. She needs to talk.
I could have said no, especially as it was time I did not really have. I actually got up even earlier than usual so I would have time to listen.
I pedalled off and I did listen. I said yes and no in, hopefully, the right places. I asked, hopefully, the right questions. Hopefully, I looked interested.
It's not what I wanted to do at all but I needed to do it.
And I am glad I did it because, as she finished her coffee the real reason for her invitation became clear. She had a cancerous lump removed from her skin last week. It is the second time this has happened and she is frightened.
This woman comes from overseas. She is divorced from the man she married here - although she assures me they are "still friends". He lives in a remote area. She was very lonely there. 
She has one child but does not seem to see much of him. She is, I think, still intensely lonely despite her volunteer work.
And she needed someone to talk to, someone to share her fear.
I hope I did and said the right things because I am trying to work out how I would feel in her place. I think I would be frightened too because loneliness is frightening.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

I think there may be something wrong

with us. There has been a rather more than slight contretemps in England recently because a mother was breastfeeding her infant in a certain up-market hotel. Other mothers, quite rightly, protested outside by breastfeeding their infants.
As I remarked elsewhere, I would much prefer a contented infant than one who is screaming from hunger. Of the two, the former is much less intrusive. 
Breastfeeding is natural.
And then there have been demands that children no longer, even under the supervision of a parent, be allowed to sit on Santa's lap -  because it "sends the wrong message". I gave up believing in Santa before I went to school...if I ever really believed in him. I also know that, for many children of my generation, a visit to "the Magic Cave"  where you could "visit Santa" and get a cardboard and net stocking filled with rubbishy "toys", was the highlight of the pre-Christmas holiday period. I was never interested in telling anyone what I wanted for Christmas. I knew I was never going to get it and I certainly wasn't going to get it from a stranger dressed in a rather-too-warm red costume.
Other children still like it. It's a bit of harmless fun for many children, their parents and grandparents. But the protection police are out on this one too. Santa is potentially dangerous and so is the message even if an adult you know is there.
The problem, as I see it, is that putting a halt to these things does not teach children to discriminate. If they get told that it is not all right for Mummy to breastfeed their baby brother or sister in public then they are never going to learn what is appropriate with respect to natural functions.
Similarly if they are not permitted to sit on Santa's lap but are allowed to stand next to him - all while Mummy or Daddy is watching - isn't the message about "strangers" confusing?
Oh and then there are the messages they get about things like paying tax (only something the rich should have to do) and getting benefits (it's our right because we pay taxes) and all politicians are corrupt (unless they happen to be on the team you voted for) but you still have to respect them (unless they are not on team you voted for) because this is the way we are governed.
Children are getting mixed messages all the time.  
Isn't it time we told children that breastfeeding is natural and the way in which babies have been fed ever since there were babies? Isn't it time we told them that, yes you need to be aware of "stranger danger" but when Mummy and Daddy are standing and watching in a public place it is appropriate to talk to a stranger and perhaps sit on his/her lap if you want to do it? Just ask Mummy and Daddy first?
Isn't it time to tell them we all need to contribute and take some responsibility for ourselves and that politicians are people the "adults" voted in to take the decisions which affect everyone?
I see the Mr Miliband wants to give 16 and 17 year old children the right to vote in the UK.  My personal view is that they are not nearly old enough.
I would actually delay the right to vote until people are about 25 or 30. By then they might have managed to learn to read the mixed messages.

Monday, 8 December 2014

So you want to know about

food banks and the need for food banks here?
Yesterday someone tweeted a request for people to share his blog post about food banks in England - and the need to donate to them if you could.
It was not a political post at all. It was just a request to share the information and consider donating.
We have food banks here Downunder too. They have been around for a long time. Some of the people who use them would surprise others - and some would not surprise you at all.
Let me start years back. My mother was the principal of a "difficult" school in a "socially depressed" area. Well over half the children came from households where the father was absent. If the father was present then it was unlikely he was working. People lived, and still live, on social welfare benefits. There were problems with drugs and alcohol but there were also problems with ill-health, mental illness and other social issues such as gambling.
A good many of the children came to school without breakfast or sometimes even lunch. (There are no "school dinners" here.)
On coming into the school for the first time my mother was alerted to this, and many other problems, by the woman who was the school secretary. She had brought up four boys on her own - and done it extremely well. She knew that most of the parents she met did not have her skills, her ability or even her determination to do the best for their children.
It took a while but they, and other similar schools, started  Breakfast Clubs. The kids got cereal and bread with something on it and milk to drink. Behaviour improved and so did learning. That was thirty years ago.
The need for Breakfast Clubs has grown since then. At least most of the youngest children are getting something to eat in the  mornings. The problem is that many of the older children are not.
They are expected to fend for themselves.
A friend of ours works at a food bank here. It's a volunteer position which has become almost full-time. Recently they had a child of about ten turn up.  He was looking for milk for himself and his three siblings. His mother had been there once before and he had found his way back.
His father is in hospital - and not going to come out. His mother had a migraine headache and had been too ill to lift her head from the pillow for two days. There is money, although very little. The problem was that it was in the form of a credit card - and the child could not use it. He had nothing with which to buy milk for the cereal so they had eaten it dry and drunk water for breakfast. He didn't know what to feed the others on during the day but thought he could find something but please could he have some milk?
They needed a little short term help from the food bank - and yes, he was given some milk and someone checked on them and provided an emergency pack of food that did not need to be cooked so the child could manage. The mother was well enough to come and thank them a couple of days later.
People can need to use a food bank for all sorts of reasons. Of course there will be those who spend their money on drugs and alcohol and cigarettes and gambling and then expect others to feed them. But there will also be families like the one of the child who wanted some milk who also need help - because of happenings over which they have no control.
Our friend assures me that someone will keep a watch out for this family. They will make sure the children, who are about to lose their father, will get a Christmas present.
So yes, as the writer of the English blog post said, someone needs you.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Do we expect too much

from other people?
I went to see an elderly friend yesterday. It was her birthday. She now lives in a nursing home.
When I arrived her cousin, with whom she used to live, was there. Two other people had been in during the morning. Nobody else was expected and nobody else came.
This woman once did much to help other people. She didn't, as the saying goes, "suffer fools gladly" but she was always ready to help someone in need. Her car was always available to take someone to an appointment.
She was one of those women who always wore trousers, changed the light bulbs, replaced the washers, cleaned the gutters and so on herself. No she was not a lesbian, just intensely practical. She could fly a plane and knew a great deal about the engine. In her working life she was an architect.
Conversation with her was always interesting. A stroke has made that much more difficult - but not impossible.
And so, nobody really goes to visit any more. I know part of it is embarrassment at the difficulty of having a conversation but people will not even "pop in" for a moment - even when visiting other people in the same nursing home. Even just stopping at the door and saying, "Hello R..... I'm on my way to see Mum" would help. But people won't do it. It seems they are too embarrassed or can't be bothered - although they were quick enough to once ask her for help.
So yesterday was her birthday. There was a card from her cousin and a card from the two people who had called in briefly during the morning and a card from me and another from my sister who sent a message to say she was at the hospital with her father-in-law and will call in today instead.  And that was it. I took some of her favourite chocolate as well.
She is not well enough to go out so people need to go to her.
While I was there her cousin left the room to speak to one of the staff. While she was gone R.... managed, with difficulty, to tell me, "Don't want another birthday."
No, perhaps she doesn't. Why bother with life if nobody visits?

Saturday, 6 December 2014

"What sort of education

do you want for your child?"
Okay, old question - very old. Apart from the obvious answer ("good" or "excellent") most people would say things like "the basics" (meaning reading and mathematical skills) and perhaps something like "the sort that is going to get them a job when the time comes".  
Our Prime Minister, whom I believe to be genuinely interested in the affairs of indigenous Australians, was criticised yesterday for saying that he thought one of the priorities for indigenous Australians should be education. His comments were made in the context of the number of indigenous Australians in jail - compared with the number of other Australians. The media, ever ready to criticise any politician, found other people who were all too ready to say that was not the answer to the present problems.
I disagree. The literacy levels of people in jail tend to be much, much lower than literacy levels in the community. They are lowest of all among indigenous inmates.
Indigenous literacy rates overall are much lower than they are in the wider community. I don't have figures to hand - and would doubt their accuracy. I do remember the many people who came to my indigenous friend Rosie for help with filling out forms. They go to her son now. Nothing much has changed in the past twenty years.
"They are wasting so much money!" Rosie would cry in despair at the "indigenous education" programmes.
I talked to many indigenous Australians when Rosie was alive. All of them wanted their children to have a "good" education. Almost all of them wanted their children to have an education "like white kids get".
I talked to them about retaining their own culture but the reality was that they did not speak an indigenous language fluently, if they spoke one at all - and most of them did not. They knew there are vast English language resources that are not available in indigenous languages. They wanted their children to have computer skills, good number skills, good language skills. They wanted their children to be able to read well - something they almost always could not do themselves. The people I talked to were intelligent, inquiring, caring human beings who had not had a good education.
Their children are not getting it either.
The "politically correct" thinking which demands that indigenous Australians are educated within their own cultures and languages may (although this is doubtful) be ensuring that these traditions are kept alive but they are not providing the education or skills young indigenous Australians need to successfully integrate, get and retain employment.
I do not, as someone I was discussing this with said, want to see their cultures and languages lost. If we lose those things we will lose a vast, rich and wonderfully varied history and way of thinking. It is important we try to keep it alive. What we can't do is keep it alive at the expense of the right of all children to the best possible education, an education which stretches their abilities and their imagination and prepares them for adulthood and employment.
I have heard all sorts of arguments about how it is "better" for young indigenous Australians to be taught in their "first" (indigenous) language. I tried some of these arguments out on a newly qualified teacher who is going back to teach in her indigenous community. She disagreed - and she speaks the language of her community. Her view was that children need an English language based education and that, without that, their own culture and language will not survive. It's not the politically correct view or the fierce defence of her language and culture that I expected.
But I think she may be right. I think that our Prime Minister may also be right. But it is not a popular way of thinking about things. It is not politically correct. There are too many people with vested interests.
What worries me is that we might actually lose cultures and languages to inflexible beliefs about what is "right" and how children should be educated.
Rant over.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Could someone please explain

why internet service providers, computer programmers, technicians, boffins, geeks and sundry other individuals believe you need to "upgrade" an operating system which works well and is not bringing in any new device or adaptation? Please? Please?
I could not get the e-mail function to work yesterday. (I am on Office 2010 in case anyone is interested.)
Now e-mail is important to me. My work comes in through e-mail and I work from home. I download the mail first thing and then work my way through it during the day. A few more items might come in during the day but the bulk of it is there first thing and I can start work when I am ready - often at about 5:30am. I can usually deal with the most urgent things then. I fit the household tasks in around dealing with the rest of the list during the day.
It is a system which works fairly well - provided that the computer is working and the e-mail is functioning as it should.
Yesterday my ISP people decided that something needed to be changed. I don't understand the technicalities. The old system was working very well but this was an "upgrade". The e-mail went down. Nothing I could do - even a couple of "tweets" for help to the ISP people - worked. The web-mail (that is the mail through the ISP site) was working so I tried reloading the programme again thinking that had to be the problem. It wasn't.
I downloaded another e-mail programme which is not my preferred way of doing things as there might be security issues I am unaware of - important in my line of work. That worked.
I thought it had to be a major problem with Office. Sigh... it had taken me a couple of precious hours to try and sort the situation out. (Yes, I know other people would do this without any problem but I am NOT a computer geek.)
I eventually gave up trying to do anything except finish my work for the day in a rather more awkward way.
This morning, not very hopefully, I clicked on Office - and it came up. It seems to be working perfectly well. (And yes, I had earlier tried turning the computer off and on again - more than once.) So, what happened?
There is only one explanation for all this - somewhere at the other end of the system one of those ISP technicians found the plea I sent and realised that the problem really was at their end after all. They have fixed it but they will never admit that they failed to catch the ball and had to run to the outfield, pick it up from a ditch filled with mud and wipe it clean before throwing it back.
I hope the ball stays clean!

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Oh "caveat emptor"!

We went out to lunch yesterday. It is a traditional December outing with friends. They come and pick us up as we don't own a car and take us somewhere quiet, simple and cheap. This year J.... chose a place they had eaten at a number of times.
It is a tiny place - just eighteen seats at the side of a gift shop. The shop has a Parisian theme from an early part of last century. It is on the corner of a very busy road and a quiet side street.
The new owners have had the shop for only two months. The old owners had it for some years.
It is the sort of shop that J.... feels quite at home in. It is filled with all the sorts of fussy, frilly knick-knackery that some people love and others loathe. There are cushions and candles, boxes and bears, tablecloths and towels. There are clocks, beads and bangles, crockery and more. Soap, hand cream and pot-pourri give the place a pleasant, clean smell.
It is a good place to walk into - even the Senior Cat agreed with that. You do not have to like the sort of thing sold there to appreciate that, for some people, it is filled with "lovely" things.
But there is a problem in this small paradise.
Put simply, the new owners were conned. They bought it believing that the business was booming. The figures they were shown suggested that it was. They were shown stock and told there was more like that, along with furniture, in storage.
"You'll need a shed to store the stock," the old owners told them and indicated, all too quickly, a shed on their own property apparently filled with stock.
There were lists and all the paperwork seemed to be detailed. They signed the contract.
They signed the contract and discovered that yes, the stock existed but the description of it did not match the items. This was stock they had not chosen well, that they had not been able to shift. It was, quite simply, rubbish. The books had been "cooked" in other ways too. There was nothing major but it was just enough to make the business look much better than it really was. It was all very, very cleverly done and yes it would have taken a very alert accountant to pick it all up. Nobody did.
And so, two people have bought a business that they now know will be very hard to keep. They have been advised they have a case against the previous owners but the previous owners have the money to fight it and, in the end, the new owners are likely to lose not the case but the value of any compensation they might receive. It will do more damage to them than it will to the previous owners. J...ran a small business for many years. It was a hobby for her. They needed to break even (and occasionally made a small profit) but did not need to make a living from it. J's... husband is a former accountant. He knows about cash flows and other things. He has talked with the new owners at length.
If the business can be saved the new owners will do it through excessively hard work and long hours and with free advice from a man who has pulled more than one business back from the brink of bankruptcy.
Meanwhile the old owners are "retired" and apparently enjoying life. They have apparently just shrugged and smiled and said "You knew what you were buying."
Oh yes, "Caveat emptor" - and how do you say, "And how do you sleep at night?"