Wednesday 31 March 2010

"She thought she'd like to do some aid work -

that it might be good fun to spend a year in a place that needs a bit of help. I said I'd ask you what she should do about it."
The mother in front of me is someone I do not know well. I know one of her neighbours, an older woman with a great deal more sense. I rather suspect that it is Dorothy who has suggested they talk to me. Dorothy is a very practical person, a widow of many years. Dorothy is rarely home in her small unit. When she stopped paid employment she went over to Meals on Wheels, the women's group at her church, her local charity shop, a book group at the library, and any number of other things. Dorothy does not talk about these things. She just does them. "I like to be busy and it's good to be useful" will be written into the trees Dorothy wants planted when she dies.
Dorothy knows as well as I do that starry-eyed 18 yr old girls with no skills to speak of and who come from comfortable middle-class homes do not make good aid workers. Most people do not make good aid workers, even those who stay the required length of time. If you want to do aid work you have to be able to put in far more than you take out.
"What sort of aid work?" I ask.
"I don't know...helping in a refugee camp or something?"
I think of my friend Claire in Zambia and wonder if this 18yr old would last a day with her. I doubt it. It is not an option anyway. Claire's organisation only takes local workers. It is simply too dangerous for anyone else.
"Or maybe she could do some teaching?"
Er, no. You do actually need to be trained for that. I say this as kindly as I can. She does not look convinced.
Then I say, "You know aid work is not fun. It is often very dangerous. It is very, very hard work. Living conditions are likely to be lousy. The food is likely to be appalling. "
"Oh, it's not all like that! You can go to places like the Pacific. We went to Fiji for a holiday. It was perfectly safe."
I want to point out that a tourist resort in Fiji is not like Samoa after a hurricane. Instead I say,
"Well, ask Katie to contact me and we will have a talk about it."
I wonder if Katie will.

Tuesday 30 March 2010

So, how many languages do you speak?

Apparently the number of students doing a language at Year 11 level has dropped yet again, this time even more dramatically than before.
The powers that be have only themselves to blame. The new SACE (South Australian Certificate of Education) requires one less subject. There is "greater flexibility" of subject choice.
Good students will be encouraged to do what are known as "the suicidal five", English, a double unit of mathematics, physics, chemistry and another science. It is a subject choice aimed at turning out scientists. A language is not likely to be the fifth choice.
Part of the problem has to be the languages which are taught. My nephews attended a school where Chinese is compulsory. This is in keeping with the government policy that schools should teach languages like Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian "because we live in the Asian region".
My nephews, like many other Australian children, have grandparents who do not speak English as a first language. These grandparents however do not speak Chinese, Japanese or Indonesian. They speak Greek.
At the end of year 10, when my nephews were able to choose subjects, they simply stopped doing Chinese. They have almost completely forgotten all they were taught.
If their grandparents speak to them in Greek, as they sometimes do, they can usually understand but they will almost always reply in a mixture of Greek and English. As their own father will also use a mixture of Greek and English with his parents this is not surprising. My nephews cannot read or write Greek but they do know more Greek than Chinese.
Government policy however dictates we teach "Asian languages". Learning them is said to take many more hours than it takes to reach the same level of (in)competence in an European language but we only devote the same number of classroom hours.
I did three years of Latin at school. It was an additional subject and I had to do it by correspondence lessons. No languages were taught at all in the rural schools I attended. Everything else I know about languages other than English I have taught myself. My working life involves many other languages. I have managed to learn about these things because I need them. My nephews have managed to learn some Greek for the same reason.
Is our failure to successfully teach Asian languages something to do with the fact that we do not see a need for them? Does it mean that when young Australians are asked by their Asian and European counterparts, "So, how many languages do you speak?", that the answer will be "Only one."?

Monday 29 March 2010

The mystery of the multiple votes

may never be solved.
I am still puzzling over the headlines in the 'Tiser on Saturday. These suggested that one family had managed to vote 159 times. (The information apparently went in an anonymous letter to the Electoral Commission.)
My first reaction was that I had the date wrong. It was already April 1st. It was not. My second reaction was that the journalist meant something else. I read the article. He did not. My third reaction was that this would not be possible. It had to be a hoax.
I am now less sure it is a hoax. I put the question of how it might be done to a couple of politically savvy teenagers. (They belong to the youth wing of a political party.)
"Easy," they assured me and proceeeded to explain.
I will not be irresponsible enough to provide their explanation here. I do not agree that it would be easy. Possible? Yes.
The whole thing of course swings around the fact that you do not need ID to vote. You just turn up and vote. It is a major flaw in the electoral system. Although not stated the Easy Voting Cards provided at this election were perhaps intended to try and reduce the problem. If so, they failed dismally because the cards were not taken from the voters. I saw one lying on the ground outside the polling booth I attended. Later I saw two more outside the library. I disposed of all three in the nearest rubbish containers. Had I been criminally minded (and brave enough) I could perhaps have attempted to use them again...and again.
I was discussing this with Ms Whirlwind's father. There is likely to be more than one inquiry into the conduct of the election. It will keep the Electoral Commission, the Crown Solicitor's Office and others busy for quite a while. Whether the final outcome was influenced or not the election results have been tainted. The Opposition may well be the real winners in the end.
Ms Whirlwind however was puzzled. "Why would anyone want to vote more than once?" Her father explained. "But that's not fair. What if you got more votes than anyone else?" It's a good question.

Sunday 28 March 2010

Having a conversation with a baby

is not, to my mind, a matter of talking nonsense to them. Babies require serious respect. They know and understand far more than we give them credit for. Three babies make for very serious conversation indeed, especially when the twins are six weeks older than their friend. Yesterday's visit was fraught with diplomatic difficulties. There were three VIPs all demanding an equal share of the available attention. Fortunately an audience of eight adults made matters a little easier.
The twins are the result of IVF treatment and therefore not identical. It is easy, even at this age to tell them apart. This is just as well. They do know their own names. At seven and a half months they are hitching themselves around. Be careful where you place your feet. Yes, shoe-laces (mine) are interesting but it is better not to chew them. Sit on the floor so we can talk to you? Certainly.
We get down to really serious conversation then. We talk about pink (the colour of their leggings) and the flowers on their tops. A toy is presented. We talk about faces, hair, ears, and the green tongue on the strange purple animal.
The six month old friend reaches out for the strange animal. The twins look at each other and both hold on. It is ours. Yes, it is yours but could she hold it for just a moment? They look at one another again -and pass it over. The threatened tears disappear as quickly as they arrived. Do you want something else to talk about?
Their mother holds up two more soft toys. They both look at the one in her left hand so she passes it over to me and I hand it on. We go back to serious conversation about colour, size and other matters. Milk time arrives. I suggest to the six month old that she returns the toy she has been exploring. She exchanges it happily enough for the offer of her mother's breast. The twins pass their toys over to me and look hopefully at their mother. Lunchtime milk is a bottle because she cannot produce enough milk to breast feed them all the time. They lie on the floor and their mother supervises the bottles but they keep eyeing me off. They seem to be saying something.
Yes, of course we will get back to conversation after lunch...if you two can stay awake!

Saturday 27 March 2010

Our Chinese neighbours are

nice people. They are not particularly noisy. They smile at us. We smile at them. We talk to the husband, whose spoken English is excellent. We try to talk to his wife who, having come here a few short years ago, speaks less English and is rather shy.
Occasionally when the husband is talking to us he will hesitate for a word or ask how something should be said. This rarely happens. His spoken English is good enough for him to be an interpreter at the hospital and in the courts.
His written English is another story altogether. He writes very, very formally and awkwardly. When he has to write something to someone in authority he will write something down and then come in and ask for help. I make corrections and explain why I am making them. He goes away and, presumably, rewrites the corrected letter and sends it off.
It was yesterday's letter that alerted me to the fact that, not unexpectedly, he owns property elsewhere. The council in that area wants to grant planning permission for a brothel near the property he owns. He is incensed. He was even more incensed to discover that licensed brothels are legal in that state. They are not legal in this state. I had to explain this unsavoury fact and the fact that the law is not the same for any number of things right across Australia. We have a mere twenty-three million people - about the same as New York state - and we have more legal jurisdictions than I can count on one hand. It makes a lot of work for lawyers.
He gives me the letter he has written. I read it and make some further suggestions that will strengthen his arguments, including one with respect to the dangers to the young girls in the family which rents the property. We put them into the letter. We go through it all sentence by sentence. I do not hold out a lot of hope his objections will be given much consideration. There are other complaints going in from other residents. It will make more work for lawyers.

Friday 26 March 2010

The Knit-gang is getting together

on Saturday. It has been a while. We normally meet once over the summer but it did not happen this year. The oldest member of the group (85) was in hospital with a cracked vertebrae in her neck. The youngest member of the group (27) was still getting used to life with twin girls in the house.
This little group began by accident. A couple of people got together one day. The next time they met a couple of other people joined them. The group somehow doubled in size. I was invited at that point. One of the first people left the group, another went back to her country of origin. (We still miss her although it has been several years now.) We do not meet on a regular basis - just a few times a year when our busy schedules allow.
Four members of the group are 'retired' but they lead busy lives helping others. The rest of us work - the mother of the twins works part time from home. All we have in common is an interest in knitting. I am now the only member of the group with a university degree but another has secretarial skills of the highest level. Only one member of the group does not have English as her mother tongue although four are migrants. Our political and religious beliefs are diverse. Our musical and artistic tastes are even more diverse.
People wonder what makes us come together. Why do we get on so well?
I think the answer to that is that we do have shared values. We believe in the value of creativity. We all have different skills and different abilities. We do not mind sharing these with each other.
We do share common interests in food - of the everday, feed the family on a budget kind - and in knitting - which ranges from the ultra fine to the heavy duty. (My father has socks that one member of the group knits for him - earnest, serious grey socks that he loves to wear.)
When the 85 yr old was in hospital we all but one of us went to visit. When the 27yr old had her twins we all but one of us gave the babies small gifts for the future. We have met in the homes of all but one of us. It is always the same one.
But, apart from that one, we are - despite all our differences - there for each other. We have somehow knitted ourselves together.

Thursday 25 March 2010

I am somewhat puzzled

by the Professor's comments this morning. Dean Jaensch is Professor of Politics at Flinders University. He is a knowledgeable man and I have, over the years, managed to learn a good deal from his regular column in the 'Tiser - as our state newspaper is sometimes known.
This morning he has written about the conduct of the election. In it he mentions the "constitutional guarantee of one person, one vote, one value". I have to disagree.
It should be the case but, while we are entitled to vote and each person is given one vote, that vote does not have equal value. This is because, in order to have a valid vote, we are compelled to vote in order of preference. Put simply, some candidates get two bites at the cherry - and they steal the second bite, or even a third, fourth or fifth bite. It depends on how many candidates there are on the ballot paper.
Say there are three candidates on the ballot - A, B and C. The voter votes for A because s/he violently disagrees with B and C. But, A is a minor party candidate and gets 10% of the vote. In order for the vote to be valid however the voter has been forced to 'preference' B and C. The vote they have given A is given to B or C despite the voter not wishing to vote for either B or C.
I imagine that this was a dilemma for thinking voters from minor parties. Major party voters do not have this problem - and perhaps that is precisely what the system is designed to do.
The problem increases with the number of candidates and when there are 74 candidates as there were in the Upper House Elections there is the quite ridiculous situation of candidates who are diametrically opposed potentially benefitting from the votes of the other side as the preferences flow on up the line.
Whatever we may think of the system I do not believe the good Professor is right to say that one vote has one clearly has many values indeed.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Compulsion, coercion...

A UK friend asked if I thought people should be compelled to vote. I am not sure I have answered him terribly well. It is a difficult question to answer but, on balance, my answer would be "No".
I do think people should have the right to vote. There will always have to be some exceptions to that. If people do not understand what they are doing then they should not be participating - because someone else will be doing it for them. If people are incarcerated then they have, in my view, lost the right to vote because of their actions against society.
I also believe that people should be strongly encouraged to vote. It is part of living in a democracy. We have a duty to inform ourselves of the issues that affect us and others and the society in which we live and then make a decision about the way in which they should be handled and those whom are best able to handle them. We then have the responsibility to put these people in the position to handle the issues - if they can.
Requiring people to 'vote' - or at least attend the ballot box - makes for both complacency and laziness. The vast majority of Australians never change the way they vote. Politicians concentrate on the small group of swinging voters rather than on getting everyone to the polling booth. Most Australians instinctively know this and believe that they cannot make a change so, why bother? (I do wonder whether Bloggers are a different community. Do they take a greater interest in these things?)
My sister has a Greek MIL. She's a lovely person but illiterate in both Greek and English. It is not her fault. She had just a couple of years schooling before being sent to work. She votes as her husband tells her to vote. She knows nothing at all about politics. Given the choice she probably would not vote and it would be a relief to her not to be required to do so.
One of my former students votes. He barely understands the concept of choice. He has no understanding of political process or what a member of parliament does. He could not name a politician, party or platform. He gets a vote - or rather his carer gets his vote. Someone applied for a vote on his behalf when he could have been excused on grounds of mental incapacity. He will keep that vote for as long as someone else is prepared to use it - and they do.
Another of my former students can read both English and Greek but he can only communicate by eye-gaze. He does not have a vote because he was deemed incapable of indicating his wishes.
If voting were not compulsory the first person would almost certainly never have obtained a vote. The second person might have because politicians would want the numbers.
I would rather see the second person have the vote. He knows just what he wants.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

There are more than 100 stories

in the book "100 Stories for Haiti".
It may not appear that way at first glance. There are 100 stories there of course but, behind that, there are 100 writers and each of them has a story to tell about themselves as well as the story they wrote. There is also the story of how the book came to be. And, behind all that, there is the story of the reason the book came to be.
For anyone who has not yet caught up with this book hereis a link to the Facebook page for Greg McQueen. It was Greg's idea and, to get an idea of the work involved, it is worth looking at.!/gregmcqueen
Greg wanted to writers to get together and produce a positive, hopeful book as a fundraiser for the International Red Cross. It has been published by Bridge House Publishing as a print on demand book and, at last count, it has already raised more than £2000. The book is now being translated into Portuguese for the Brazilian market. (Anyone interested in doing a Spanish edition and getting to 20% of the world's market and thus helping Chile's earthquake victims please let Greg know!)
Some writers gave stories they had already written. Others wrote a story for the book. Not all the contributions could be used.
An aid worker for Red Cross told me about the project. I also saw it talked about in two writing blogs. My own contribution was more accidental than planned. It was written in twenty minutes on the Sunday evening before the deadline. I was almost drowning in a landslide of requests for communication assistance from Haiti and elsewhere at the time. I had not slept properly for days but Iwas at home working on the aid effort. I did have somewhere to lie down when I got the chance. I could get a drink of water whenever I needed one. I could eat - and eat reasonably well. I was so, so lucky. Somewhere out of all that came the story of, as a friend's young daughter put it, "everyone coming together". It still puzzles me how I came to write it. I do not write short stories. My only regret is that, with a bit of work, it might have been made into something else and I could have used that to raise more desperately needed funds.
But, what turned out to be so important was the way in which so many people came together. Writing is solitary work. Writers do not cooperate easily with one another. They already occupy at least two worlds, the one in which they live while working and the one in which they physically reside the rest of the time. Adjusting takes time and acknowledging that others need to do the same thing can be difficult to say the least.
The end result was more than worth it on this occasion. There is a book out there for which writers came together. It showed the rest of the world what can be done when people do cooperate. It was a way of giving more than the little cash most of us could afford. It was a way of giving part of ourselves - forever.

Monday 22 March 2010

Party or party?

The election results look like being typical for our part of the world. The major party with the smaller number of votes will end up taking office because of our preferential voting system. Now some people will say this is quite fair. If you do not get your first choice you should be able to get your second choice or your third choice or, if things go drastically wrong, your fourth choice - and so on. The only thing wrong with this argument is that you may not wish to make a second, third or fourth choice. You may in fact violently disagree with their policies but, if you want your first choice to count, you must choose a second, third or fourth or however many people appear on the ballot paper.
We have not yet reached the point in lower house elections where you have the option of putting one number above the line or all the numbers below the line. There were, after all, only four candidates for the local seat. At least one has policies I very strongly oppose, another has policies I oppose, another I believe has unrealistic policies and the last is not much better. If I have to vote at all then there is one I morally object to having to vote for at all but I must if I want my first choice to count. I am not sure where it leaves me in the moral stakes.
I did my own thing in the Upper House election even though it meant spending an age marking the ballot paper from one to seventy-something on a sheet of paper the size of which was more suited to a third world election campaign. The little pictures were absent on the assumption that all Australian voters can read. (I would not be too sure about that.) Again I object to having to put a number against a party or person I am morally opposed to but it is do it or don't have your vote counted.
I slouched off to another sort of party yesterday in no mood for partying at all. It was a double 70th birthday party and my father and I were invited to the Polly half. Most of the people there were relatives and since the two birthday people were cousins many of the relatives were also related to one another. We were not related to either person.
I am not a party sort of person. I prefer to see my friends in smaller groups. I do not like noise etc etc. I am not much good at small talk to complete strangers either. But, not everyone there was a complete stranger. There were, despite it being a 70th, a large contingent of young and very young. There were nuns and priests - some of them relatives - but unrecognisable in everyday garb. Most people present would have shared their faith to some degree or other but there were others with very different backgrounds and beliefs.
Polly's uncle, also the former Archbishop of her faith, was there. He had insisted on wearing a name tag like everyone else, although everyone would have known him. As the oldest of ten children he has had more experience than most people in handling children. They clearly like him, rushing up to tell him things and then racing away again. He goes by his Christian name at such functions with the prefix of 'uncle' only for the youngest.
As I left to pedal home I could not help thinking that party political politics might have learned something from that gathering. Nobody was asked to make morally impossible choices. Nobody imposed their beliefs on anyone else.

Sunday 21 March 2010

Electoral fraud does exist

in Australia.
Remember those lovely "Easy Voting Cards" that were supposed to make voting faster? They did not. Most people around me at the polling station could not see any point in them at all. You still lined up like sheep. You were herded to an electoral official. S/he took the 'card' and looked your name up. You were then asked to give your name and your address. It was ruled off and the card was returned to you along with the ballot papers.
You could of course be anybody at all. You just need to be able to recite the name and address on the card. If you forgot the card you just had to recite a name and address. Easy. The only thing you need to ensure is that you do not give the name and address of someone who has had their name ruled off by that particular electoral official.
How often this happens is impossible to know. The Electoral Commission will probably say it does not occur. Why would anyone else want to vote in your name? The answers to that are apparently obvious to everyone except the Electoral Commission. Perhaps it does not occur very often but it occurred at least once yesterday.
The conversation went something like this,
"Have you voted yet?"
"Did it just after they opened."
"What about Mum and Dad?"
"Jan and I voted for them."
"Voted for them?!"
"It was easy. We just took those cards with us. We voted at the school and then we went down to the church hall and did theirs. Saved a lot of hassle."
As simple as that. I wish I had been in possession of a spy like video-recorder to record what was going on behind me. Their actions probably did not influence the outcome of the election but the casualness with which this law breaking was announced left me feeling more than a little uneasy.
It also made me very aware of just how easy it would be to manipulate the results if you were determined enough.

Saturday 20 March 2010

V day has arrived

and this means voting for some.
Since two elderly acquaintances moved into nursing homes I have not seen as much of the other elderly residents in their group of Elderly Citizens Housing units or their friends. I was therefore unaware of the concerns being raised about the Easy Voting Cards. Two people stopped me yesterday and asked if they could just give the cards to other people to vote for them as these people knew what they wanted. NO!
I then made some inquiries and it is clear that the purpose of these cards is unclear to most voters. Nobody seems to know how they will be used but the claim is that it will be faster to vote this way. As more than $600,000 will have been spent on postage alone there should be some benefit to the taxpayer but it is difficult to see what the benefit is apart from, perhaps, saving a few minutes.
There would also appear to be an even greater potential for fraud - although I feel certain that this is designed with the opposite purpose in mind. It is possible to vote without being in possession of a card. They tell you this and just say it will take longer. Right. We now have a situation where you can turn up with the card and vote and then head off to another polling booth and vote again without the card. When the Electoral Commission wises up to two votes in your name it is a matter of , "I lost the card. Someone else must have used it."
There are also many other potential variations on this theme. They are more than ever likely to be tried at this election because the result is likely to be very close.
As there is clearly widespread confusion about the Easy Voting Card I did what I believed to be the responsible thing. I contacted the Electoral Commission by e-mail and explained the problem. I had a telephone call from an highly obnoxious young man who told me that there would always be a small minority of people who attempted to use votes fraudulently. When I tried to explain that I knew this and it was not the purpose of my call rather I was requesting they get on the airwaves and explain purpose of the Easy Voting Card and how it would be used he slammed the 'phone down. Clearly we are not permitted to know these things.
The media has long since decided the incumbents will remain in office. The Electoral Commission has decided that we do not need to know about how to cast a vote.
I wonder why we need to vote at all. Surely it would just be simpler if the Revered State Leader was allowed to continue unto death? It would save a lot of money. On the other hand....

Friday 19 March 2010

What is a newspaper for?

I am puzzling over this again today. Our local newspaper ("The Advertiser" should you be interested) is a decidedly parochial affair which takes more interest in who kicked the goals in the local (AFL) footy match and what was served for afternoon tea. I do not exaggerate.
Even during an election campaign sport has taken precedence - in the form of a car race held on a street circuit which causes major disruption and inconvenience.
The extra-marital affairs of the Premier (he was not married at the time but the female was) and the mental health of his deputy have been given a good airing. The Premier has been portrayed as both villian and victim and his deputy sympathised with but criticised for airing the problem.
The lack of experience of the Opposition leader has been minutely examined and not too gentle hints that she does not have the support of the party have also been made. The absence (through illness serious enough to hospitalise) of the shadow minister for health has been commented upon in negative rather than positive manner.
And so it goes on. Much of the debate has been about whether a hospital should be built on an entirely new site or rebuilt on the old one. The debate has not moved anywhere for months but has nevertheless been passionate. A desalination plant and a tramline to nowhere have also caused debate. Land tax has caused a minor earthquake but the media quickly papered it over.
What has been lacking is any really serious debate about the future direction of the state. Apparently we do not need it. We know where we are going. There is no need to plan. Providing we leave the current government in power - and this morning's editorial makes it quite clear that we must do that - all will be well.
There really is no need at all for an election. Why are we spending the money on one? Why did the newspaper not tell us all this weeks ago. We could have gone back to who kicked the footy through the goal posts and what flavour jam was available with the scones.

Thursday 18 March 2010

More envelopes

arrived yesterday. I am wondering how many trees they had to cut down for this election. Too many.
There were three from the present government, one from the opposition and two from 'independent' candidates. One of the 'independent' candidates is sending his preferences to the government and is, more than likely, actually a government candidate. (His policies are identical but he emphasises one issue.) The other independent candidate is a bit of a puzzle but at least is leaving it up to his voters to decide where to put their preferences.
There are no female candidates.
One of the missives from the present government is addressed to my father and another is addressed to someone who would appear to be married to my father but who bears my name. I am of a mind to re-address the envelope and send it back saying that this person does not exist. Instead I sent an e-mail telling the candidate that attention to details was essential if they wish to succeed as a politician. It will do no good but it relieved my frustration just a little.
At least there can be no more political advertising on live media until after the election is over. That means no more tax-payer funds can be used for the moment. Business will resume as usual immediately the election is over - or that, I am reliably informed, is the plan. The government sees a loss as inconceivable. Perhaps.
We might end up with a change of government but the pundits say this is unlikely. There is the possibility of a hung parliament. That might be interesting but awkward with the fixed term.
I wonder if anything would have changed if, like Rip Van Winkle, I slept for 20 years?

Wednesday 17 March 2010

There were two envelopes

in the post yesterday. Both of them were from the Electoral Commission. (My father misread the address for a split second and said, "Electrical Commission".) One was addressed to my father and one was addressed to me. Inside there were sheets of paper with something called an "easy voting card" printed in the corner.
Apparently it is going to be easier to vote with this card. I am not sure how. Does it magically read minds?
Since this is something new I will assume that, instead of lining up and getting your name manually crossed off the role, the production of the "easy voting card" means it will be taken from you in return for the ballot papers. It will be 'proof' of your attendance at the ballot box.
It may be designed to reduce election fraud - or it may be designed to increase it.
Election fraud does exist in Australia. I once had to appear in front of a Senae Committee and explain the problems with respect to people with disabilities. It was clear that they were not impressed as I explained how easy it is to vote for someone else, to vote multiple times or use the vote of a person who should not be on the electoral roll because they do not have the capacity to vote. We do not have identity cards in Australia - yet. We do not require people to dip a finger into indelible ink.
In the course of my own inquiries into the difficulties some people have with our electoral system I came across a care worker who had voted no less than sixteen times - on behalf of the clients in his care. Had he asked them and abided by their choices? No. He had simply used their vote to further the candidate of his choice. I came across illiterate migrants who had permitted union representatives to vote for them. They believed they had to do that and that they did not have the right to vote for the candidate of their choice. I came across people with intellectual disabilities who did not understand the process at all and whose concept of 'choice' was so limited that there was some quesiton as to whether they should have been permitted to participate in the process at all.
You do not need the 'easy voting card' in order to vote. No doubt this is so people cannot say, "I did not get one." If you hand the card in, as I assume you must, then there is still nothing at all to stop you voting again or someone else voting in your name. Yes, there may be a cross check of the electoral roll but it will not solve the problems which will arise.
Given the 'compulsory' nature of voting - the demand we attend the ballot box - then we need better safeguards, much better safeguards. We could start by demanding that those who do not have their 'easy voting cards' produce photo ID of some form. We could even use indelible ink.
The fraud perpetuated may or may not make a difference to the final outcome but it is still fraud and it still needs to be eliminated as far as possible. We do, after all, claim to be a democracy.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

A degree in what?

An acquaintance of mine has a degree in 'rhetoric', a doctorate no less. I believe the art of effective communication is something everyone should have the opportunity to study. However my acquaintance assures me that 'rhetoric', as she knows it, is not even taught in Australian universities.
I have not checked this. I do not know whether she has either. I rather suspect it is taught somewhere, perhaps under a different heading. I know logic is taught as part of philosophy. It would seem likely that rhetoric is also taught there, if not in other places.
It should probably be taught in schools as a separate subject. Bits of it must be flung into other subjects although I also rather suspect that many teachers could not define 'rhetoric'.
Rhetoric is, along with a degree in philosophy, logic, history, English literature, French or Latin and ancient Greek, regarded as being 'useless'. People ask, "What are you going to do with it?" They then say that it would be much more 'useful' to do a degree in one of the sciences (but not pure mathematics please, only applied) or something like business, accounting or environmental protection and climate change.
I am a firm believer in people being able to study apparently "useless" things. The study of such things can end up being very useful, especially in helping us to understand ourselves. Oddly my acquaintance with the doctorate in rhetoric does not agree. For her rhetoric is a subject only for the elite, the very best of the best. Degrees in such 'useless' things as the poetry of Pablo Neruda, canoe construction and culture in Melanesia, irrigation systems in the Han dynasty and the tapestry weaving industry in France are of no interest to her. They are useless.
I am not so sure. I do not want to make a canoe but the study might help other people make canoes, I do not want to put in an irrigation system but it might help someone build a better one, I do not want to weave tapestry but many are beautiful and someone might want to recreate one. As for Neruda's poetry perhaps we need the silence of which he sometimes speaks.
I wonder if there is room for a degree in silence.

Monday 15 March 2010

"Compulsory" voting.

South Australians go to the polls to elect a new state government next Saturday.

I am required to attend the ballot box on Saturday. I object strongly to this. I would vote if it was not compulsory but I do not believe that anyone should be compelled to attend the ballot box. I do believe they should be educated about the need to do so and that they should be strongly encouraged to attend - and vote.

There is no requirement to actually vote. You must attend the ballot box, accept the papers and place them in the ballot box. You do not have to mark the ballot papers.

If you do want to participate then you must mark the ballot papers according to the instructions. It is not enough to put an "X" next to the name of the candidate you wish to represent you. There is a need to indicate your preferences all the way down the line. If your first choice does not win then your second choice might. If you put one in the box for the party above the line then you will vote according to their preferences. The alternative is to put a number in each box below the line. That could be rather a lot of numbers.

There is a great deal wrong with this system. It is far from democratic. One of the major problems is that people do not understand that they need not vote if they feel they are unable to support any of the candidates. This may be unwise. It may well be better to choose the least of all evils but it should be known as an option. There are many people who will always unthinkingly vote for the same party, even some who believe they 'must' and that there are ways of finding out for whom they voted. There are others who have no idea what they are voting for. They do not know the party platform or the candidate. Still others will think that someone 'looks nice' or 'looks untrustworthy' and will vote accordingly, still with no idea what the party platform is. It is scarcely informed voting - even if we could trust politicians.

There also comes a point where we should be able to say. "I will vote for X or Y to represent me but I do not wish to vote for any other candidate." I should not have to place any preferences for those who wish to extend the duck hunting season or legalise "pot" even if it is highly unlikely that those preferences will make a difference to the outcome of the election.

I will vote on Saturday and I will make my vote count - but I will not vote according to the instructions of any political party. I will vote according to my own wishes. It may not make a difference but I can at least put the the worst of the raving lunatics last.

Sunday 14 March 2010

Favourite heroes?

Elsewhere in the blogging world Lucy Coats has been asking for people to name ten of the best heroes in children's fiction - five female and five male. This was in response to her own reaction to a list apparently put up by the Guardian in the UK.
It set me thinking about - and I still cannot quite work it out - why I like what I like.
There is Maria Merryweather in Elizabeth Goudge's book "The little white horse" for instance. I would have no desire to be Maria but she is an admirable girl, both courageous and loyal. There is however much more to her than that. Social justice matters to Maria. Maria also manipulates. She is a very complex character. As a Carnegie Medal winner the book is still well known, as it should be.
There is also Kit Haverard whom we first meet in "The Lark in the Morn". The sequel, "The Lark on the Wing" also won a Carnegie Medal. Kit is another complex character. She has a lot of growing up to do. She needs, but does not have, a mother. At the same time it is not having a mother which makes her what she is. She is uncertain but determined. Her music does not come easily but it is all the better for it.
Cynthia Harnett won the Carnegie Medal for "The Woolpack" but Nicholas does not have the same depth of character. I think I prefer Bendy in her "The Load of Unicorn". Ivan Southall's "Josh" has more depth but it is an introspective book that does not appeal to many children. His "Let the Balloon Go" is probably a better book for children and there is as much to John as there is to Josh. Ivan once said he found both books equally difficult to write.
But there are other books that have not won medals and yet they have remarkable characters. One of my favourites is "Pauline" by Margaret Storey. Pauline has to be one of the best drawn characters in children's literature. She is scholarship material but even at the end of the book you are left wondering whether she will get the education she clearly needs and deserves. Another is M L'Engle's Vicky, especially in "The Moon by Night". Vicky does not quite fit into her family. She is growing up but it is more than just growing up. Like all creative people she will have to learn to live with being slightly apart from the world. KM Peyton's Pennington is even more difficult to live with but he has complexity and depth.

There are, of course, many other characters. I like, Tonino in Diana Wynne Jones' "The Magicians of Caprona" and Sophie in "Howl's Moving Castle". Roald Dahl's Matilda, Joan Aiken's Dido Twite and Felix in "Go saddle the sea" are also not quite ordinary. I like the Callendar family in John Verney's books but they seem to have been lost to modern children's literature.

I was in the local indie bookshop looking for a gift for my goddaughter last week. The assistant, someone I know well, waved her hand at the shelves for younger readers and said, "So much of this is dark and depressing." That may be a clue. It may be why I still like what I liked as a child - that tiny bit of hope for the future.

Saturday 13 March 2010

There is a new member of the clan!

My father says he feels as old as Methuselah. He is now a great-grandfather. His first great-grandchild made a grand entrance at 9:40 yesterday morning. Without even having seen her he is, of course, convinced that she is the most beautiful baby in the universe. We all breathed a sigh of relief at her safe arrival. I am delighted for my nephew and his wife. I think they will make very good parents, probably rather traditional parents.
I am, if anything, even more delighted for my father. He was feeling anxious. He was also impatient to become a "great-grand". We are all aware that he has become much closer to his grandchildren since the death of my mother. A little strangely she never took any great interest in them, not even bothering to acknowledge their birthdays. "Grandpa" on the other hand loves to make things for them and this one will be given building blocks and a doll's cradle and other items if he is still up to making them. There will be no shop bought plastic for this little one and that is as it should be.
If this little one lives to the age my father is now she will be looking towards a new century. I have no doubt that the world will be a very different place. It was a very different place when my father was born. It was a very different place when I was born and when my brother, her grandfather, was born. I am not sure whether it is worse or better. I think I would have to say both better and worse.
What I cannot help wondering is whether she will still have the building blocks so that her great-grandchildren can play with them and what they will think they are if they do.

Friday 12 March 2010

By carefully removing words

from their context the present state government has managed to make it appear as if the leader of the opposition supports dangerous criminals wandering the streets and an equally dangerous nuclear waste dump in South Australia.
What the leader of the opposition actually said is, of course, something quite different. Her comments in respect of criminals were to do with the fact that she was giving an undertaking not to interfere in the workings of the courts, in particular the Parole Board and that she felt nuclear waste should be stored outside the metropolitan area rather than in the CBD.
There are, I think, very few people who would argue that the doctrine of separation of powers is essential to democracy as we know it. The Rann government has, notably, interfered on a number of occasions. It may be a popular decision to continue to keep someone behind bars when they have served their minimum sentence and even to say that person should never be released but that is something for the courts to decide. It is not something for the government of the day to decide.
As for the nuclear waste dump the answer is surely that, if we are to have the benefits of nuclear medicine then we will have nuclear waste. It will have to go somewhere. It would seem to make sense to store it away from areas of high population density. What is more we mine uranium and sell it to others. We can hardly argue about the need to provide facilities to store the waste.
But, taken out of context, these are powerful and emotive issues. It is the way politics works.
All that may however pale into insignificance. I had it confirmed beyond doubt yesterday that the current transport minister had, quite deliberately, been delaying signing off on the access taxi vouchers essential for two election candidates with disabilities to get to meetings and out on the hustings. What he has effectively been doing is denying them the right to campaign. The leader of that tiny political party had a massive stroke on Saturday night. He died on Tuesday night. His last day alive was spent trying to get a minister to obey the law he is supposed to uphold and the minister was holding back. In a democracy that is absolutely unacceptable - and no, I am not taking anything out of context.

Thursday 11 March 2010

Is it a multiplication of mathematicians or a division?

I have been thinking about this since the reports that Australia is apparently not training enough mathematicians.
The reports came along with the inevitable "Mathematics and science need to be fun" type remarks. They came with the usual claims that students are losing interest because these subjects are not seen as "exciting", rather they are seen as irrelevant.
It seems that school has to be constantly "exciting". If it is not then the student's interest will not be engaged. The child will not learn. School should not actually be about work. You are there to be entertained and enjoy yourself.
Now, that may be the problem. Work is often repetitious and - let's face it - boring. There may be parts which are exciting but, for the vast majority of the population, work is something you do in order to get paid. If you are lucky payment gets you the other necessities of life and a bit over for a bit of fun. There may be parts you enjoy but there will be other parts you will do because they have to be done.
It is my considered opinion that school should be viewed as the childhood form of work. There should be no expectation that it be constantly exciting or that it should be seen as a form of entertainment. That is not to say that the working environment of a school should be unpleasant, far from it. There are, after all, certain occupational health and safety considerations as well psychological health and safety considerations. Even in the workplace there is room for some entertainment andenjoyment.
But, there is also the need for some hard slog, boring repetition, rote learning. I believe this is possibly one reason we could be failing to encourage a multiplication of mathematicians. Too many students simply do not have the 'number facts' at their finger tips. There is no point in understanding set theory if you cannot add, take, multiply and divide with confidence and without the use of a calculator. Learning number facts is only done with hard slog, boring repetition and by rote learning - however we might try to dress it up with 'games'. If you cannot add 2+5 with confidence then it will come between you and an understanding of a more complex procedure.
Much the same can be said about spelling, punctuation, grammar and vocabulary development. It also may be why we fail to teach well languages other than English. It may be why students have only a superficial and, all too often, inaccurate understanding of so many other issues.
If we want to train a multiplication of mathematicians then we will need to work at the basic number facts - and the basics of everything else.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

"You have to listen to us talking to us

and not just to you" my young friend informed me this morning.
Nicola Morgan and I have been at cross purposes again. I think we are actually talking about the same thing but Nicola thinks I have the wrong end of the stick - and I think she has misunderstood me.
We were talking about writing for young people. Now, let me say:
(1) I think it is difficult
(2) I do not think we need to try and sound like them. That would be a mistake, a big mistake. It would be talking down to them. It would also date so rapidly that the book would be out of date before you finished writing it.
(3) I do think that we have to listen to the intended audience. By listening I do not mean listening to vocabulary however 'cool' it might sound or sentence structure 'Yeah, right' or grammar - the plural of 'you' is not 'yous'. That is the surface language. Surface language changes with circumstances. So do topics of conversation. I do not discuss politics with a two year old or use repetitive language with a normal adult.
(4) We have to understand the underlying language being used. This can change with audience and circumstances. The underlying language used by a young person with other young people will also vary according to the activity - school, sport, other recreation, mating and dating etc.
The underlying language they use will be different again when they are talking to adults and, within that, according to the adult or adults with whom they are talking.
(5) It is all very subtle and will be conveyed in all sorts of ways. Writing well means getting the underlying language across by using words.
(6) It is damned difficult...and I probably have not explained this well...
Nicola probably will not read this but does anyone else understand what I am talking about? Am I really that far off the mark?

Tuesday 9 March 2010

I sometimes wonder at my ability to communicate

because it seems to be all too easy to be misunderstood, especially in the virtual world.
It is almost certainly because the other visual and auditory cues are missing but hey, I am supposed to be a writer! I should be able to communicate without the need for extra cues.
I should be able to take into account the fact that other people will read comments hastily and assume they have read them correctly. I should be able to take into account the fact that other people will think that a comment is directed at them even if it is not intended that way. Somehow I always seem to forget these things. I need to be more careful. I am in too much of a hurry to respond. (N, if you are reading this, humble apologies...I was not having a go at you but at the idiots you were talking about.)
Reading comprehension depends on both writer and reader. We are all egotistical. If we were not we would not survive. Misunderstandings arise because of those things, especially if we are sensitive about the issues in question. Most of us learn to acknowledge that we are egotistical and, in doing so, we are also able to acknowledge and understand other people's egotistical outlook as well. We can empathise and be simpatico.
Of course politicians exploit this business of miscommunication to the nth degree. They thrive and survive on miscommunication and misunderstandings. I do not want to be a politician.
Perhaps it is a case of, "I know you think you understood what I said, but I am not sure you realise that what you heard or, in this case, read is not what I meant."
Now - you do not understand?

Monday 8 March 2010


and more books. Our visitor yesterday is obviously not 'a reader'. He stood there in the middle of our living area and announced with some pride, "I have not read a book since I left school." He had already indicated, using a delicate four letter word or two, that he did not like our choice of interior decoration - bookshelves. "You two should get a life," he told me in disgust, "You spend far too much time reading."
"What should we do instead?" I asked as mildly as I could.
"What the I know. Try watching a bit of telly for a change...or go to the footy...or go down to the pub and have a few beers. It would loosen you up. You might learn a thing or two."
"Well we do watch a little television..."
"Some ABC rubbish I suppose?"
"And SBS" (Our Special Broadcasting Service which concentrates on international and multi-cultural programmes.)
"There's some bloody good stuff on the other channels. You should be watching those instead and when did you last go to the pub for a few beers?"
"You know I am allergic to alcohol. It brings me out in a rash."
"You should learn to be not allergic. I reckon you could if you tried. The trouble is you just don't want to be sociable. I'll take you down the pub tonight."
"No thankyou."
"There you are. I told you - you just don't want to be sociable."
"Not like that thanks."
My father comes in from outside. Our visitor wants a couple of screws for something that is falling apart at his place. They disappear out to the shed.
A few minutes later they come inside and I hear them in the room my father uses as his study. It is also lined with books. I hear my father telling him,
"Now take a look at that. It will show you just how to do the job."
"Yeah, right. Thanks."
They come out. Our visitor has a book in his hand. I cannot resist it.
"Books do have their uses."

Sunday 7 March 2010

The road toll nearly rose

again yesterday - twice. I blame the Clipsal 500 car race on the Adelaide Street Circuit. Ordinary car drivers seem to believe that they can behave in the same way as the hoons whose antics are legalised and condoned by a government which likes to believe that such stupidity is good for the state's tourist reputation.
I do not think motor racing is 'sport'. It is environmental vandalism. It also encourages hoon behaviour by other idiots on the road - many of them idiots who should probably never be permitted behind the wheel of a car.
On the first occasion yesterday I ended up in a hedge when the driver actually came off the road and onto a footpath. The driver was trying to pass another car in a rather narrow street. I had seen the manouvre from some distance away and swerved up onto the footpath. Until now I have used the roads rather than the footpath in the back streets. I think it will be the footpaths in future.
On the second occasion the driver simply failed to give way both left and right and caused several vehicles to brake rapidly. One car hit another in the rear - very fortunately with only a minor bump. The offending driver sailed straight on without as much as stopping - and nobody got the number. Horns were blown and road rage seemed likely to spill over but commonsense prevailed as people realised it could all have been far more serious and none of them were to blame for the stupidity of the offending driver.
With a heart beat far too rapid for comfort I waited for a very long clear space in the traffic to cross the road and continue pedalling on. Is it any wonder I never cross a road on foot?

Saturday 6 March 2010

In the same place at the same time and

not expected - it's the coincidence thing. An author I know has just said she was 300 miles from home on business and ended up staying in the same hotel as her husband who was also on business. She did not expect to see him there. Coincidence.
A cousin of my father's likes to tell the story of how another cousin almost got run over in Oxford Street running to the other side to catch up with him. Neither knew the other was in London. Coincidence.
Book plots can revolve around a coincidence - often 'not trusted' in a crime novel. The author's experience however made me wonder again about coincidences. Was it really that surprising? How likely was it that her husband's business would take him to the place in question? Did he know she would be visiting the same place - or even that she might be? Had either of them stayed in the same hotel before? Is the hotel part of a chain they often stay in? They are, after all, married. If they are happily married, and I assume they are, then their values are likely to be much the same and they will seek out similar locations.
My father's cousin was in London just after the war. Like his cousin he was waiting to go back to Australia. Most Australian visitors go to London and most of those who go to London go to Oxford Street. They both had just a couple of days there. The probability of them meeting becomes much higher when the situation is analysed in this way.
If we analyse a coincidence it would seem that it has to be rooted in probability. There have to be things that make contact or convergence likely. It is surely what makes coincidence in a good plot believable?

Friday 5 March 2010

The Post Office people

'phoned me yesterday. I had, after some hesitation, put in a complaint about our parcel delivery person. He has not being doing the job properly. The situation was made more difficult by the fact that his English is very poor.
Parcels are supposed to be delivered to the door. If they can be placed in a letter box they will come as 'letter mail' rather than 'parcel mail'.
Unlike many people we have a good sized letter box because we still get not only snail mail but large snail mail envelopes from time to time. The problem is that the letter box is almost large enough to fit a small book parcel into as well - please not 'almost'. The parcel will have to sit upright with the lid of the letter box wide open to the elements and the potential for theft. This has happened several times.
I caught the parcel delivery person on one occasion and asked him politely not to do this. I explained about parcels getting wet. I explained about the potential for theft. He did not - or pretended not to - understand. While I was explaining this I also politely pointed out that he does not have the legal right to drive down the wrong side of the street. He argued with me over that. According to him the postal delivery van has every right to drive down the wrong side of the street.
Safety first demanded that I speak to his supervisors. I left a message on line. I made no mention of his (in)ability to use English. My message was very carefully worded. It took three weeks to get a reply. They left a message telling me they would speak to him. The telephone call yesterday was to say that they were in the process of 'counselling' him. . My guess is that the situation will remain the same or we will get a new delivery person.
What we would really like is our previous delivery person to return. We knew her quite well, well enough for her to arrive on a very hot day with her empty water bottle and a request to be allowed to refill it from our tank. The problem is that she was so good at her job they have moved her own to higher duties. I have a nasty feeling she may be the person who will have to try and retrain the present person. I wish her well. It is clear that he does not like taking orders from the opposite sex.

Thursday 4 March 2010

The planned takeover

of our hospitals by the Federal government bothers me a little. There is more, much more, to health care than hospitals.
So, why just take over hospitals? Why not take over the lot and provide a national health care system the way they plan a national curriculum?
I suspect the answer is that taking over the hospitals is the easy bit. All they plan to do is take over the funding of hospitals. The states will give up some of their GST revenue in return for the Federal funding of hospitals. Local boards will continue to run each hospital. In other words, the government is not going to take any responsibility for the actual running of the hospitals, just the funding of them. Funding will depend on the number of patients they treat.
I foresee all sorts of problems ahead, particularly where the aged and those with chronic illnesses are concerned. There will be increased pressure to get people in and out of hospital as rapidly as possible. Hospital staff, while apparently liking the idea in principle, admit that some people will be sent home before they should be discharged. That could end up being a very expensive option indeed - just ask any lawyer.
We will say nothing about the extra layer of bureaucracy required to run the hospitals because no government is going to hand over money without demands about the way in which it can be spent. State governments will still want a say in services.
My other guess is that there will be a cut to other services or that these will be 'outsourced' in ways that requires the state government to pay for them. Out patient services will be greatly reduced. Anything that did not first require, at very least, some sort of day surgery will be farmed out to already overworked GPs or some sort of community clinic. These will need to be funded by the state government - and they will say that the money they have foregone will not allow them to fully fund enough of these services. The user will pay. Some people will not attend. The problem may reach the point where the individual needs more rather than less.
We may avoid all of this if the government gives the hospitals sufficient funds and flexible guidelines. We may avoid it if the states and Canberra can agree on fair funding. Of course that will mean the states voting in governments of the same persuasion as Canberra.
It might all work and something needs to change. I am just not sure that this is the change that will make it work.

Wednesday 3 March 2010


I am old enought for AC/DC to be about electricity not a pop group - in other words, very old indeed. The group performed last night. The noise, and there was no other word for it, could be heard some kilometres away and it went on for a very long time.
Why does 'pop music' have to be played at such extreme decibel levels? It seems to me that the noise level reaches a point where it is no longer possible to hear what is going on - or is that the point?
I have a friend who, at the tender age of 24, was told to avoid all noisy environments because her hearing had been damaged by being a drummer in a rock band. Do other performers perform with ear plugs? How do they preserve their hearing if they do not? I know there is an entire generation who are thought to be at risk because of their addiction to loud music and their intense use of personal music devices. They are seemingly unworried by this. The here and now is what matters.
There are also other people I know who have the radio on from the time they get up in the morning until they go to bed at night. One person I know actually sleeps with the radio turned on low. Others turn the television set on 'for company'. The radio almost never gets turned on in our house. Most people watch far more television than we do.
We had an extended power failure on Sunday. We were without power for over four hours. As we are on the same grid as two hospitals this was unusual. My father and I got on and did things that did not require power. I was frustrated at not being able to use the computer but it was not the end of the world for me. We did not need radio or television or some other mains operated electronic gadget to entertain us. We did not need the accompanying noise made by these things.
One of our neighbours was pacing in frustration. Another bemoaned the fact that the air conditioning was not working at her place and her children could not watch a television programme. Her children were happily riding their bikes up and down the street.
I prefer the 'silence' of children riding bikes.

Tuesday 2 March 2010

Perhaps they should be labelled

"The National Cringe Guidelines" rather than "The National Curriculum Guidelines". They are most certainly not "The National Curiosity Guidelines" which is, IMHO, what they should be.
I searched and found them on the 'net yesterday. I wanted to read them for myself before coming to any conclusion about their potential. I did not want to reach the already widely held view that these are designed to inculcate politically correct beliefs and values. These are, after all, the guidelines that will be imposed on schools across the country. They are designed to allow a child to move from school to school and state to state and still learn the basics. It is a good idea in our increasingly mobile society where jobs are no longer for life and families do move around.
The problems are that it does not allow for the same flexibility in the eduation system and it makes it easier to indoctrinate children with the beliefs of those who set up the curriculum.
In this case those who set it up were handpicked to provide a certain view of Australian history and Australia's place in the world.
There is a heavy emphasis on Australian indigenous 'history' and 'culture'. There is a heavy emphasis on other Australian history and Australia's place in the Asian region. Other history is given an airing - but ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome can be replaced by ancient Asia - or should I say East and South East Asia. The Indian sub-continent is not highly regarded. Africa gets mentioned in the context of apartheid but, apart from that Africa barely rates a mention. South America does not rate a mention.
Instead children are going to be taught a view of history and the world that I believe to be highly inaccurate and politically motivated. Yes, there were appalling actions taken in the past but, put in context, they are not the major part of our history and there is more than one way of telling the story. The new curriculum guidelines do not acknowledge that. They take a view which asks children to feel guilty for the presumed actions of people in history over whom they had no control. They do it at ages where children will accept what they are told rather than question alternatives - whatever the guidelines say about teaching them to question.
Successive governments have yearned for us to 'become part of the Asian region'. We are not.
We will never be that. Asia does not see us that way. We would do better to concentrate on being the bridge between Asia and the rest of the world. It would make for better understanding of one another and better foreign policy.

Monday 1 March 2010

Thomas Keneally says we are a mad, mad lot

and I might, for once, agree with him. As a person Tom irritates me. I met him the first time he came to a Writers' Week back in the middle of last century. He claims he was a newly minted, lacking in confidence author back then. He might have been newly minted but he did not lack self-confidence. According to Tom, Tom had written a good book and he was going to go on writing books. The self-confidence was no act.
Tom had no trouble engaging Patrick White in conversation. He argued loudly with Colin Thiele over some minor matter. Patrick White and Colin Thiele are dead but Tom seems set to go on forever at Writers' Weeks.
Writers' Weeks have changed. I have not had the time to attend more than a session or two for the past few festivals. This time I wonder if I will get there at all. I also wonder if it will matter.
Writers' Weeks used to be for writers. Now they are for readers. Many people will say that is a good thing. They will say that the two big tents on the parade grounds by the Torrens River are the way to go. The writers get up and talk. The audience asks questions. The writer endeavours to answer. Some people - the pushy sort - manage to nobble the writer afterwards. They can tell the wonderful how much they like - or hate - their work. There is another big tent a bit further away where there are piles of Festival author books for sale and the author will dutifully sit and sign their way into RSI - not a recognised work related injury.
All this is fine in a way. Readers do get to meet writers at a superficial level. The writers however get to meet only briefly - if at all. They are hurled into a maelstrom of school visits and other required activities. They are here to work for their publishers - who will, of course, say they are working for the authors. Writers' Week is good for publishers.
There is however something missing from the modern Writers' Week. As a young kitten, a very young kitten, I had the opportunity to meet some outstanding writers. This was because Writers' Week was not the commercial event it is now. It gave established writers a chance to meet and talk about issues of concern - much the same issues that are still of concern today - and it gave serious would be writers the chance to meet and talk with established writers in a relaxed environment. I had a poem accepted for publication while I was sitting on the steps of the old State Library Lecture Theatre talking to Les Murray. I did not submit it. Someone else had given it to him because they had liked it. "Can I have this by the way?" "Yes, if you want it." I doubt that would happen now.
The old was not, of course, that good either. It tended to be rather exclusive. You were lucky to be invited...only now do I really how lucky I was. I fervently wish other events had not intervened and that I had written more then. I wanted to but I did not...and no, sometimes however hard you try, things do not work out the way you wish.
I think we need a balance. We need the established authors to be able to talk more with those who are still trying to break into print. We need established authors to be more than vending machines for the publishers.
Writers' Weeks should be about writing. There can be no readers without writing.