Wednesday 30 June 2010

How do you see colours

and describe them to other people?
There are times when this seems simple. The traffic lights are red...or amber...or green. They are A or B or C. Someone else gets a blue ribbon for first. Simple.
But, "well it was a sort of red colour" can mean anything at all from deepest, almost black, maroon through fire-engine red to something that begins to look orange or purple or something else.
The knitter and patchworker Kaffe Fassett says, "if you put enough colours together something will match". Maybe. He has a superb sense of colour. Other people will struggle to put two colours together. They do not see colour in the same way as he does. They do not see colour in the way I do either.
As I was heading for the bookshop yesterday I was stopped by someone I know. She was looking at a rack of reduced clothing outside one of the sort of shops that do not interest me. I am not terribly interested in clothes, I am even less interested in the sort of "in fashion" clothes sold by such shops, especially at their over-inflated prices.
"What do you think Cat?" she asked me, holding up a garment next to her face.
I wondered if she really wanted to know. Am I expected to really tell her or does she want me to confirm her view? The garment is pink - a colour I do not like. I never wear pink. My preference is for the other end of the spectrum. I am not sure that particular pink is her colour either - even if I liked the garment, which I do not.
Before I could say any more she said, "Isn't it a divine pink?"
"You're asking the wrong person. I don't like pink much - never wear it."
We are at least agreed that it is pink. She hauls out another garment. It is one of those not-quite shades of maybe-purple with a tinge of pink about it.
"Well this one, do you like this pink?"
"It's not pink."
"Of course it is."
"If you say so...look I have to go..."
I left her debating the merits of pink and may-be pink or may-be purple garments.
In the bookshop they were debating other colours, the new colour card from the Bendigo Woollen Mill to be precise. I left them to it and found a card for the member of the group who has just lost her son. They stopped debating colours and decided on a message for the card.
After that I was told that something which is more orange to me was actually red. I said nothing.
"Want to have a look Cat?" I was asked eventually and the colour card was passed over to me. All the colours are called "Wild...something." There is pink on the card they call Wild Orchid. I shudder at the candy pinkness of it. I am not sure why a pale blue is called Wild Opal but it is a definite improvement on the pink. At least the Wild Apple a little further down is green and there is Wild Ivy, another green of sorts. At the bottom there is a blue called "Wild Storm" - which about says it for colour and me yesterday.

Tuesday 29 June 2010

Is there any such thing as a traditional family

in the pages of children's literature? Of course there is - but I am hard put to think of a recently published book which has Dad in steady employment, Mum is at home looking after the kids (or, at most, employed part-time), and the kids are not in trouble because of an issue like drugs or sex or alcohol or some other 'nasty' in the 'realistic' books. Even the fantasy stuff seems to have turned really nasty lately. Yes, of course you need tension or there is no story. And yes, I do need to head back to the library shelves and do a bit more searching. All the same it is depressing.
There has to be a good reason to do the non-traditional thing. I do not want to give a child two mothers rather than a mother and a father simply because it is a 'modern issue' that a child needs to be 'confronted' by. The kids who are in that position already have their own issues with the situation - one way or another. If it is relevant to the story that is a different matter. What is the point of giving a character parents in a lesbian relationship unless it is part of the story? Including it merely because it is a 'social issue' is not, in my view, acceptable. The same goes for sexual abuse, drugs, racism and other social issues. If they are not relevant to the story then why should they get included?
"But these things are what sell books!" I was told yesterday, "Family stuff is old fashioned. You can't hope to get anything published if you don't write about these things. It's the sort of thing that kids need to know about."
What do children 'need to know' about? What is the point of a children's book? Is it to educate or to entertain? Can it be both? Who decides and why should reading for pleasure in childhood be treated any differently from reading for pleasure in adulthood? Is it really the case that children have so little time to read that they should not 'waste' it on books that entertain but do not educate about social issues?
Are families really old fashioned?

Monday 28 June 2010

We may already be living in a fantasy world

because strange things keep happening. They might be explained by a small paragraph in this morning's paper.
In that it said that the EU has told the UK that they can no longer sell people a dozen eggs. People will only be allowed to buy ten. Ten seems to be a remarkably inconvenient number - unless you happen to be a family of five. Families of three, four or six however undoubtedly outweigh families of five. Recipes rarely call for five eggs, more likely one, two, three, four or six - if you are feeling very extravagant.
There is apparently an issue with bread rolls as well. Instead of buying a bread roll, which is surely the thing you actually want, you will have to buy a certain weight of roll. Again this seems remarkably inconvenient. I can imagine myself standing at the counter of the bakery (if such things will continue to exist) and asking for 50gms of bread roll. The baker will take forever to serve me as he or she carefully weighs out exactly 50gms of bread roll. By the time bits have been sliced off - or glued on - it will not be a bread roll as I know it.
It is going to be even more difficult if you want to buy a carrot or a potato or an apple and they have to start chopping pieces off those. Imagine the mess with an orange or a plum or deciding on which pea to take out of pod. It will be difficult.
But, this should not be a problem you tell me. You live Downunder. There is no EU there. The rulings made by the EU do no affect you. Downunderites will be able to go on buying a bread roll or a banana. The bread may well be partially made and cooked in the United States (and no, I do not joke about this) and the banana may have been flown in from abroad although we grow them in Queensland. (We fly our bananas out to them for some unknown reason.) Sooner or later however the Dundee cake and the Robertson's fruit mince and the McVitie's biscuits will come in different, difficult sizes. We will be told that "less is actually more". Maybe.
None of that however will even begin to explain why our Downunder supermarket shelves now have one brand of eggs being sold in units of ten. No doubt everything else will follow - apart from the explanation.

Sunday 27 June 2010

Why can't they write instructions

in English?
We invested in a new television set a couple of days ago. This was done reluctantly but the old refuses to accept the need to enter the digital age. We debated a set-top box but my BIL, who knows about these things, pointed out that there were problems.
Now it is not as if we watch a lot of television. My own television watching tends to be confined to a programme called Global Village (excellent short documentaries on SBS when there is no sport if you happen to live Downunder), the news on SBS and the headlines on the ABC. I have not been able to get the foreign language news services since they went to the digital signal but have been guilty of watching those in part if there has been a major incident and someone has alerted me to a story they are reporting. Once in a while I might watch a documentary. We debated whether we even needed a television set and decided "yes".
The reason for the "yes" was because my brother, who is technically minded and creative, makes short films for the family. These are not your average home movie/DVD but properly edited little gems with music tracks etc etc. My father treasures each one.
So, we invest in a new television set. My BIL sets it up and assures us that we now only need one little 'point and click' control device to do everything. Simple.
"But download a manual from the internet Cat," he tells me as he disappears.
I downloaded a manual from the internet and pass it to my father. He cannot read it. I look at it and do not blame him. It is full of abbreviations that mean nothing to him and very little to me. I guess that HD is "high definition" but HDMI? There is a lot of that sort of thing in there. I struggle through it but there is no information at all about how to play a DVD. I go back to the internet. I search. I find some information. It is not the information we need. We have the DVD in the player. I have brought it up on the screen but it will not play. My brother wonders if there is something wrong with the DVD. "Try it on the computer Cat."
My father watches his great-granddaughter on my computer instead but he cannot hear it because he needs his ear-phones for that.
Yesyerday I borrowed a DVD from the library so we could test the theory that it might be my brother's DVD. No. I can bring the picture up on the screen. I cannot move it on. Dad has given up in disgust. I have tried all the combinations I can think of. My BIL did it so I must be doing something wrong. I need to teach Dad so I have to get it straight - if only so he can view his great-grandchild on a decent sized screen with delicious baby sounds attached.
All I want to know is why they cannot write simple, straightforward instructions in English. Then I could read them.

Saturday 26 June 2010

I have opening sentence syndrome.

Where do you start the story - with waking up, with the weather, with a train journey, a departure or an arrival?
Emma Darwin has been talking about this, Nicola Morgan talked about it recently. I have been wondering about it for a very long time.
When I was a student I could never begin to write an essay, even a short primary school "composition" until I had my opening sentence. That always seemed to come to me at the point where I had done sufficient work to have a reasonable shot at writing the required piece. I never liked being given the opening sentence by my teachers. They never seemed to understand where the story should start for me.
I was also the sort of student who chose course work over examinations wherever possible.
"You're writing an essay instead of doing the exam?!" "Yes, it's easier." "You're doing Jurisprudence?!" "Yes, you only have to write essays." (Jurisprudence was actually one of the more interesting subjects in law school.)
My fellow students clearly thought I was a little more than slightly crazy. Exams were the easy option for them. They did not suffer from "opening sentence syndrome". I do.
I have just started to read Neil M Gunn's, "The Drinking Well", a book I somehow missed. I am never likely to even begin to reach the dizzying literary heights of my illustrious clansman. The book begins with "The morning light was clear behind the mountains." It is about the weather and he gets away with it. He gets away with it because it is good, very good. The writing might well be considered slightly old-fashioned now but it presents us with a believable picture of a rare good-weather morning in the highlands of Scotland, a contrast to the tension in the house.
There are a great many other books that begin with the weather, with waking up, with an arrival or a departure. They are natural starting points. It is the way these things are used which counts.
I suspect you can get away with almost anything as a writer - if you are good enough. I also suspect that a lot of it hinges on "opening sentence syndrome".

Friday 25 June 2010

I collect children's books - or perhaps "rescue"

them might be more accurate. We are in danger of losing a lot of children's literature. It is out of print. Even if it was in print there is no space on library shelves and no budget to buy it. There are still some old classics around of course but the books I read and then studied in my children's literature course are largely forgotten. They are even becoming more rare in secondhand bookshops.
Most younger library users will never come across John Verney, Philippa Pearce, Lucy M Boston, John Rowe Townsend, Geoffrey Trease, Elizabeth Goudge or Cynthia Harnett. If they are fortunate their parents might have kept the occasional Lorna Hill ballet book or one of Ivan Southall's Simon Black series. If they did read these authors I wonder what they would make of them. There are no computers, no mobile 'phones, and little mention of television. Even the Carnegie Medal winners from the past can appear dated. It really is a matter of the past being another country and doing things differently there.
There are children who do read these things of course. I see them occasionally. They borrow books from me and, no doubt, other people like me. I am anxious until the books are returned but if I do not loan them then they will not be read. There will be one less child who will experience the magic of a journey down a river or by horseback, one less child who will confront the issues behind "The Dolphin Crossing" or "The Silver Sword".
I came across a book on the 'sale' shelf of the local library yesterday. It is a reference book that never saw the library shelves. It remained on the staff shelves. It has been well thumbed. It is concerned with sequels from the Iliad onwards. I paid a couple of dollars for it.
There will be things I do not know about in this book. When I do know about them I will continue to hunt, to add to my collection. It is not just my collection though, it belongs to anyone who reads. It is our received memory and my duty to be a good custodian of it.

Thursday 24 June 2010

In an hour or so from now Australia could have

another world first - a female Prime Minister. As I type this the ALP is gathering in Canberra to vote on the leadership. Rudd, Gillard or someone else?
Australians went to the last election believing that the leaders of the respective parties would, if the parties were elected, be Prime Minister. That meant that, were he to be re-elected, John Howard would stay on as Prime Minister. If he lost the election then Kevin Rudd, as leader of the ALP, would be Prime Minister. That is the way the electorate believes the system works. It is the way they believe it should work and, on the whole, want it to work. Die hard voters on either side will of course say "Go with the person you believe will be the most likely to win the election." Those really in the know will say, "Go with the person in your party to whom the media is willing to give the most positive press."
Kevin Rudd had an extraordinarily long media honeymoon. Even when he did do wrong and it simply had to be reported the reports would end up buried somewhere in the middle of the news or after page three. Editorials said very little. Lately that has not been possible.
He was, according to the media, done for when he back-flipped on the Emissions Trading Scheme. I suspect he was done for when Aussies saw him trying to be a big boy on the world stage. We know our place in the scheme of things. We are not a major power but he was trying to behave as if we were one. That lessened rather than increased our potentially considerable influence in the Pacific and caused our influence in Asia to grow even less. It has all done a lot of damage. I rather doubt that a change of leadership at this point is going to mend relations quickly. It could take a long time.
The interesting thing this morning will be, who goes to the G20 meeting- anyone? It would, at very least, have made sense to wait until that was over.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Names can be dreadful things -

I do not mean in the sense of the African tribe who name their children the most dreadful things in the belief that it keeps the evil spirits away but in the sense that a name can mark you for life.
I started thinking about this because of a piece in yesterday's paper. It rather got in the way of my thinking about other, more important things yesterday. I intended to do some mental writing as I pedalled up the little hill yesterday morning but I went on thinking about names.
There is the chapter in "Sun on the Stubble" where Colin Thiele talks about Bruno's woes because of his names, "Bruno Untermeyer Gunther" aka as Bugsie. Untermeyer is a family name. The boy does not have a chance. He is Bugsie.
Then there was the man I once met who had been christened Sean. It is a fine Irish name - until you put it with Lamb. At that point it becomes ridiculous. When Sean reached his majority he changed his name by deed poll to something much less ridiculous. His parents did not get the inheritance they were hoping for. Rightly so too.
But the newspaper article was also disturbing. It was about the trend to give a child just one name - and to give that name an unusual spelling. It instantly reminded me of someone else I know. Her name is simply Sue. She is not even Susan. She has no second name. When she was born her mother chose Sue. Asked about it her mother simply says, "So what? I can't be bothered with names. That's all she needs - something to be called at school." Is it a reflection of the way she views her child as well? I know the child wishes for more. She thinks it is not even a "proper" name - that her mother simply did not care.
In his books about the Callendar family John Verney called two of the characters "Friday" and "February". They have apparently learned to live with the names but February does comment on them. Whether this would be so outside the pages of fiction I do not know. His choice of names helps to characterise the family and make the characters especially memorable.
When I write something the names of the characters sometimes choose themselves in that I may not particularly like the name or, indeed, like it at all. The name however will be right for that character. It appears on the page and it is the one that needs to be used. If I try to use something else it will not work. The character will change personality. I wonder how real authors, the sort who get real books published, choose the names of their characters? Does it just happen? Do they set out with a book of names? Is it something they like or dislike?
How do parents choose names that are not family names? How do they choose the spelling? There are thick books of advice out there. Dunkling's book on names makes fascinating reading but it does not explain 'how' although the 'why' sometimes gets hinted at. It can all make a great difference to a child and the sort of person they grow up to be. I do not think parents realise that, even when they think they do.
Do Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily and Peaches bless or curse their parents for their names? I suspect the latter.

There is a "Memory and Ageing"

study being conducted by one of our universities and the associated medical school. The purpose of the study is to try and develop a test of just nine questions which can be used to diagnose possible early Alzheimer's. It is one of those long term research projects which involves multiple researchers and subjects. I do not know what the cost is but it is probably fairly high.
My father, at the request of his former GP (now retired) is one of the subjects. He has been subjected to a range of psychological and physical tests over the past two years. Several weeks ago he was asked to perform another range of simple psychological tests. The following day the doctor 'phoned me with some questions.
My father is fine. He may be 87 but his memory is still good. He is still able to learn new things. He still reads widely. He still likes to teach young people -and they like to learn from him. The 'big questions' still interest him. I know I am very lucky. Things could be very different.
Yesterday the woman responsible for the overall running of the project 'phoned me with some more questions. I think my answers surprised her.
She began with a simple question, had we found the questions asked intrusive? No - but then we had agreed to take part in the study and indeed it is reassuring to know that someone else outside the family is taking an interest in my father.
After that however things became more interesting. There were things I raised that those who had set up the study had apparently not considered. We came to the issue of who should administer the test, a doctor or a nurse or someone else. My response was that it needs to be someone who knows the person to whom it is being administered. Why? Because it is possible that someone may succeed in passing on the test items but, if someone knows that person, then they will recognise that they are struggling to respond. We have friends who are under a great deal of stress at present. The husband mentioned that, at the moment, his short term memory is appalling. He simply does not remember simple things his wife asks him to do. He is functioning perfectly well in other areas and I suspect that the short term memory is more to do with stress than any early stages of Alzheimer's. A stranger unaware of the problems may see things very differently.
But there were also some other issues. There is the issue of the language you use. My sister's mother-in-law would almost certainly fail the test because her English is deteriorating. She rarely uses English. Remembering something for even a short time in English is not something she would find at all easy. Nevertheless, at present, she functions perfectly well within the limits of her own lifestyle. I suggested the need to consider this and, at very least, Greek and Italian versions of the test. "Hold on, I am writing all this down" I was told. It did not bother me too much. I suspect most able GPs are aware of whether English is the first or second language of their patients.
What was more interesting however was something also language related but quite different.
How long did the developers believe they would be able to use this test, I asked. Why? Because it may be fine for my father's generation and perhaps for a few years below that. When you reach my generation you get the beginnings of the use of calculators and then computers.
Most of my generation probably know their number facts, their 'times tables' even if they have forgotten how to use a logarithm or prove a theorem. Remembering telephone numbers is becoming less certain. They are stored in the mobile 'phone. There is no need to remember them.
And it is about there that things start to change quite dramatically. Memory needs are changing. The mobile 'phone, the computer, the little electronic notebooks of various sorts and all the other electronic devices designed to make lives 'easier' are actually changing the way we remember things, if we remember them at all.
The test being developed by the university researchers will not be able to be used for very long at all before it needs to be changed and redeveloped to account for technology. When, in a few short years, they reach the generation that sends a constant stream of brief text messages the test will need to be very different indeed.
I left the researcher to think about it. My conversation with her made me even more determined to remember things. So far I have been lucky - perhaps because of what some would think of as ill-luck. I find it difficult to physically write things down. I find it impossible to use the tiny keys on the 'mobile phone so I simply must remember things. Of course I forget things sometimes. We all do. Now, what was I saying...?

Monday 21 June 2010

If you lose your language

do you lose your identity?
It was World Refugee Day yesterday. Ms-Whirlwind-around-the-corner had a school project about refugees. I took her to meet one on Saturday.
In teacher training college I was taught by a refugee. He claimed to have fled Albania with his Bible and a gold cigarette case. There were some doubts about the story. He did not go to church and the cigarette case was not gold. His English was good but heavily accented. He claimed to be forgetting his mother tongue.
Unlike the many post-war 'migrants' from Europe he did not seem to be interested in trying to retain his cultural identity in any way.
The refugee we went to see on Saturday is a different story. He is Chilean. There is no doubt about his story. It is well documented. There are others, particularly the medical staff who saved his life, who saw the evidence at first hand. His mother tongue is Spanish. He writes poetry in Spanish, love poems for his Australian wife, sad poems about his past, hopeful poems about the future. His speech is heavily compromised by his injuries but his English is excellent.
Ms Whirlwind came away delighted that he had translated a simple poem and then given it to her. She had been pleased that she had, by listening carefully, been able to understand his speech.
"Why doesn't he just write the poems in English?" she asked as we rode back.
"Perhaps because he really is Spanish inside," I suggested.
She thought about that for a bit and then said,
"Maybe. It matters doesn't it. The bit about your language. It sort of makes you who you are."

Sunday 20 June 2010

There are stories you should not tell

unless they belong to you.
I was going to write something different this morning but Lucy Coats over on Scribble City Central has interviewed Nicola Morgan on the topic of myths and legends - the use thereof - and I put my paw in. Well I put both paws in and said that you need to be careful when using myths and legends because they could come back to bite you. Ms Coats, quite rightly, wanted to know what I meant by that. I left a brief message on her blog. Here is a little more...go away now if you are not interested in cat thoughts.
There are, I think, two ways to use a myth or legend. You can re-tell the story or you can use the story. No, these are not the same thing.
In the first instance you can set out to do something as blatant as re-tell the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. If you are a really good writer (and you need to be really good) then you can probably do it and make it sound fresh and interesting. You will set it in the proper time and you will do lots of research to make sure you do not have some impossible thing happening - like a satellite navigation system on the boat. Or you can re-tell the story and set it in another time or another place. You still need to know what you are doing. The story has to be consistent with the original. In other words you have to honour the story - and the culture it comes from. Greek myths and legends, Norse myths and legends, Celtic myths and legends are all part of our received culture. We can use them but we still need to honour the story. It is no good retelling the story and making Alexander the Great a weedy little man with asthma and a hearing loss. It simply would not be believable. We 'know' Alexander was 'not like that'. It cannot be done.
The story will come back to bite you.
Then there are great stories from other cultures - like the Ramayana. It is not part of my culture but it is an epic which is in the public arena. If I wished to do so I could perhaps use some of it. I would need to exercise great caution. It is not my story but there is the possibility that I could borrow it - but I need to honour it. I do not turn the Monkey God into another animal.
There are more familiar stories from other cultures, folk stories. Many of these are in the public arena. There are often stories so similar that we believe them to be the same story, stories of travellers, of eldest sons or youngest sons, of life, death and inheritance, of beautiful young women and ancient crones. We can re-tell those if we honour them as well.
Then there are stories we should not tell - unless they belong to us. There are African stories I have been told but I would not re-tell them because they belong to what I think of as deep African culture. They have their roots in a language I do not fully understand. They have almost certainly lost something in translation. There are indigenous Australian Dreamtime stories that I know exist but I will never be told because they are for indigenous ears only. To tell those would be to violate indigenous privacy and culture. You do not do it. I would never tell any Dreamtime story, even an "open" story. They are not mine.
Then there is the business of using a myth or legend from received culture to tell another story. That is using our culture, our received culture. It still requires skill. If we set out to do that then we have to work within the limits of the story but we can make it our own. We can alter things. Whether the alterations will work is up to our skill as story teller. Some things will be acceptable and others will not. We can make our Alexander a weedy little man with asthma and a hearing loss if we set it in the 21st C and give him the drugs and cochlear implant to overcome his problems but we have to make it believable.
A society without myths and legends is a society without a past and it is a society without a future. If we do not use myths and legends in an honourable fashion or if we ignore them then they will come back to bite us. They are part of our past. We have to use the past to understand the present and prepare ourselves for the future.

Saturday 19 June 2010

I am having a little trouble

with the laying of blame for the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Now please do not misunderstand me. It is an environmental catastrophe. Yes, it might well be that it could have been avoided too.
Just who is responsible however? Yes, in one sense it is BP. They were doing the actual drilling. They should have had all possible safety measures in place.
When you are working on something like that then everything that can be done to ensure safety and reduce the risk of an oil spill should be done. I do not think there would be anyone who would argue with that.
But then there comes something that President Obama has mentioned in passing but nobody else seems to be too concerned about - a dependence on fossil fuel. I am probably being much too simplistic here but it seems to me that far too many people have been, and still are, happy to go on using vast amounts of fossil fuel without giving any real thought about where it comes from. They complain about the cost of the fuel but they do not consider how it reaches them. They use their vehicles and all the services supplied by the use of other vehicles without considering the ever increasing dangers and difficulties of getting that fuel. They are happy for deep sea drilling to take place as long as nothing untoward happens, as long as it does not affect them. All they want is the fuel.
These same people complain about the site of a wind-farm or a wave-farm or the view of solar panels. They did not complain when electric cars were recalled and destroyed indeed all too often their view of electric cars is that they do not go far enough or fast enough and will always be inferior to those which consume copious amounts of fossil fuel.
So, back to the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Where was the US government as well as BP in all of this? Why did they both not have someone constantly checking? What about the states most affected? Why did they not have people checking?
It is easy to say it should not have happened. It is easy to say that BP is to blame. It is easy to demand that BP pay for the clean up and for the massive compensation package.
Australia is no better. We drill in Bass Strait. We drill in the Timor Sea. We want that fuel. We have already had a serious spill. It is probably only time before we have another. We will still want the fuel. We will still oppose nuclear power plants (but happily use nuclear medicine) and we will still oppose alternative forms of energy on the grounds of expense, of job losses (especially in the coal industry) and of their effect on the visual environment.
I am using fuel writing this...because I am using comes from a coal fired power plant.
I am as responsible for environmental damage as BP is.

Friday 18 June 2010

The imagination of parking inspectors

has just hit new depths. I do not think I would have believed the story but someone actually captured a photograph of the deed.
There is a car. It was originally legally parked. There is a car. All four wheels are missing. The wheels have been stolen overnight while the owner is at work. The police have been informed. Action is being taken to have four wheels fitted so that the car can be moved.
Along comes the parking inspector. He reads the notice "Police have been informed". He proceeds to write a ticket. Two hours later he comes by and writes another ticket. And then, yes, two hours later he comes by and writes another ticket. By now the council knows what the situation is. Have they told the inspector? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if they have not it is surely clear that there is perhaps just a small problem? He is photographed writing yet another ticket and it does not seem to bother him at all.

I do not know how many more tickets were written. The car was not in anyone's way. It was merely taking up a space that might have been used by someone else, indeed would have been used by someone else as the owner works nights and would, no doubt, have preferred to drive home in comfort.
Parking inspectors, like tax inspectors, generally have a bad name. They do an unpopular job.
They appear to believe they do not have any discretion. More than once I have watched them stop and wait for a meter to run out and start writing out a ticket as the owner rushes up to the car.
"Sorry mate your late and I have to finish writing it now." The inspector is not sorry. The owner is not a mate and there is a single letter on the ticket. They are there to raise revenue.
A neighbour once had a flat tyre, pulled into a legal 10 minute parking space - the sort intended for dropping something off - and was then booked for overstaying while still tightening the wheel nuts. The inspector stood there and watched him do it and then began writing the ticket as soon as the 10 minutes were up. The neighbour ended up paying the fine because he could not prove his story without the expense of going to court.
This time there is a photograph. It is clear the vehicle cannot be moved unless it is hoisted on to a tow truck. The owner might have welcomed the assistance. He will not welcome the parking tickets.

Thursday 17 June 2010

Coffee, tea or....

something else?
I am not sure about this coffee thing...or the tea thing either. I will drink both - and I can happily go without either, especially the strong coffee fix. I think I prefer tea.
I had a meeting to attend yesterday afternoon. Coffee was provided. I had decaffienated coffee because I know that, after about midday, real coffee will keep me awake far into the night. Am I allergic to the stuff? I do not think so but I do not like the effect it has on me. Tea does not have the same effect.
As a family we do not drink endless cups of tea or coffee. I have a coffee plunger. It gets used once in a blue moon and then only if we have guests who prefer coffee to tea and real coffee to good quality instant. Oh yes, good quality instant please. We do not use enough of it to worry about the extra cost. I have an acquaintance who can drink six or eight cups of the cheapest variety in a day. She has withdrawal symptoms with out it. I would prefer one cup (or mug in my case) of relatively decent liquid thankyou.
Tea does not seem to come in quite the same way. We do not seem to have the Japanese equivalent of the Tea Ceremony. Coffee is now a "multiplicity of choices and made by a barista" event for many. I wonder whether it really tastes any better. Perhaps someone reading this (if anyone does) can enlighten me?
I am aware of quite distinct differences in varieties of tea. My father prefers China to India in respect of tea and does not care for the fancy varieties. If I am going to drink it then plain English Breakfast is fine - not too strong, add some milk but no sugar thankyou. The deep orange variety beloved of the secretary in the faculty at the university is, in my view, undrinkable. She informs me that nothing else is actually tea and that what she makes is good for me. I doubt it. She sighs and waters it down - just a little. This is where not being able to carry your own mug of tea has even greater disadvantages. At least she does not load it with sugar.
But, yesterday was coffee day. There were cups and saucers. The cups had those handles that you can only fit one finger through. I hate those. My paws are not built for handling them. I cannot do it. The coffee was almost cold too. I do not want it scalding hot but if it is supposed to be warm then it should be warm not barely luke-warm and almost cold before you reach the bottom of the cup - and then only if you drink it with unseemly haste. What's the point?
We did get some work done. It was quite a satisfactory meeting for once. Things were decided. Tasks were given out. Some progress was made. Coffee was drunk. People found they had to leave.
I noted side trips to the "male" and "female" facilities on departure. Is this what coffee does? Does it actually serve a meeting-shortening purpose?

Wednesday 16 June 2010

We went out to lunch yesterday

with friends who simply do not understand that if I go out to lunch I have to make up my work time in the morning or in the evening. This puzzles me.
More and more people work from home for at least part of their working week. Some of them do so out of choice, others because it seems like the easy option and some out of necessity. I come into the latter category for two reasons. The first is that I am also my father's carer. At 87 he is still mentally agile but he is unsteady on his feet and, although perfectly able to remember things, more likely to get side-tracked in the way that single-minded men sometimes do. He needs someone to watch out for him. That is the first reason. The second is that the people I work with live all over the world. They are not tidily in one place so we never meet. I will never physically meet 99% of the people I work with and they will never meet each other.
That does not bother me but it does tend to mean that other people believe I do not work. It is even more difficult to explain that things can go along with nothing more than minor ups and downs most of the time and then something will happen and a deluge occurs. The deluge may last a few days, a few weeks or months. The nature of the deluge can change too. It can start with a small shower of rain and end up as a blizzard or it can be a sudden downpour of Noah's Ark floodlike proportions which begins and ends suddenly.
The people we had lunch with yesterday do not understand this at all. They mean well and they are perfectly pleasant. My father gets on very well with the husband so the effort is worth it. We usually go to a cheap and cheerful cafe like establishment and have pasta or pizza or fish and chips - and I take my knitting with me. Why not?
Yesterday we were sitting waiting for our meal. I was knitting and chatting to the wife when a man from an adjoining table stood up and came over to me, "Can't you stop that?"
He indicated my knitting.
"Well I could but why should I?" I asked
"Because it's bloody annoying watching you."
I looked at him. There was an uncomfortable silence and then he clapped me cheerfully on the shoulder and said,
"My wife forgot show her what you are doing."

Tuesday 15 June 2010

The student I have been co-supervising

has reached the point where she is heartily sick of the whole thing, wondering whatever possessed her to even start and why she was less than ultra careful with ALL her references. I did warn her. I lost a reference once. It took me two days to find it again. As a VIP (Very Important Point) hung on it I was getting a little anxious.
When she had finished having a little weep on my (virtual) shoulder I told her to take the weekend off.
"But I only have until the 30th!" she wailed.
"That's fine. You have the conclusion to finish and the references to check - just do another back up before you leave and then go off and do something entirely different."
There was e-mail silence. I wondered if she had actually taken my advice. It has been a long hard road for both of us. There were problems not of her making, two changes in university supervisors - supervisors with very different ideas - and the usual problems which arise when working with children.
I can remember myself at the same point. My internal supervisor offered no such advice. My external supervisor offered no advice at all. Computers were still those strange machines somewhere on the far side of the university. I knew nothing about them. I typed my own thesis. I had to. Even if I had been able to afford a typist a typist could not have read my writing.
Three friends turned up three weeks before I was due to submit my thesis.
"We are going out," one of them announced, "And so are you."
"I can't!"
"Yes you can. It's all arranged. Forget that."
We went to an exhibition we all wanted to see. We had icecream at Marine Ices in North London. The next day we went to a concert with Karajan conducting and had Greek food at the usual student haunt.
I managed to get my thesis in with a day to spare. I am not sure I would have done it without my friends.
This morning there was an e-mail from my student. There were no words at all - just a smiley face. I hope her friends did something like that for her.

Monday 14 June 2010

The usual suspects appeared on the

Queen's Birthday Honours list this morning. I have nothing against the Honours list, in fact I think it is a good idea - that gets abused. I rather think that the Queen, being an eminently sensible woman, would like to acknowledge those who, like her, have given a life-time of service.
I also think that the Queen must sometimes wonder at those who are given such acknowledgments.
Why should we further acknowledge people who have risen to positions of power and authority and are paid accordingly? If they are doing their job, being paid for it and thanked in the usual way, then that should be it. If they are doing something extra then that might be different. If a sports person has succeeded in winning a match, breaking a record or some other physical feat then that should be sufficient. The most successful often get huge sums in sponsorship. They should not need an additional medal. Giving a highly paid popular musician with a dubious life style a gong for "services to the music industry" also seems a little odd to me.
It was good to see that a 92 yr old who has worked as a volunteer in her local library for more than fifty years got a gong - but she is the exception rather than the rule.
There is, quite apart from the Honours List, a newspaper initiative called "The Pride of Australia Awards"...for "unsung" heroes. This was supposed to overcome the problem with the Honours List - but it has problems of its own. There is no place in the categories for some of the people I think deserve the local "retired" vet who still cares for native injured animals, the woman who takes on puppies for pre-training as potential Guide Dogs, the man around the corner who collects the left over bread and then goes out with Fred's van to feed the homeless men in the city, those who have worked for our radio station for the print-handicapped and the volunteers in the local charity shop. They are not seen as doing enough, or for long enough, or for their efforts to be interesting enough. They are however the very people without whom society would not manage to stay together.
It is time to visit these people and drop off marmalade and tell them that they are appreciated.

Sunday 13 June 2010

There was an author at WWKIP Day

yesterday. For the uninitiated among you WWKIP is WorldWide Knit in Public Day - locally - an important event on the knitters' calendar.
I do not doubt that WWKIP Day is a much friendlier event in the northern hemisphere. At this time of the year it tends to be warmer rather than cooler in Upover. Here in Downunder it can be quite chilly. We were sitting outside the bookshop yesterday. Normally we sit cosily inside the shop and people look in on us a bit as if we are animals in the zoo. At least we were undercover. I had wondered how to add some interest to the event this year and, being outside a bookshop, managed to add - an author.
The author was Janeen Brian and she brought Lambert, a toy lamb who appears in "Shirl and the Wollomby Show" (Scholastic). Janeen had been at the bookshop the previous Saturday to promote her book but agreed to come again. We knitted. Janeen knitted and, in between rows of Lambert's scarf, signed books.
"Shirl and the Wollomby Show" is a picture book. It is intended for small children. Small children do not normally buy books. The adults in their lives buy books for them.
There was one small boy who came past with his mother. They stopped to look. He was fascinated by the knitting going on - and puzzled by the concept that the author was there with the book she had written. His mother bought a copy and Janeen signed it, printing the message in it carefully before signing her name. He thanked her politely and went away clutching it. He looked pleased in a rather solemn and bewildered way.
We had all been watching, while trying not to look as if we were watching. When he had gone there was general agreement that he had been "a nice little boy" and "a bit quiet".
I rather suspect though that he had been working out a very big idea. Books do not just appear. Somebody has to make them.

Saturday 12 June 2010

There is a truly gigantic gum tree

in the local playground. A red gum, it sits right in the very middle of the diagonal pathway. It is a lovely tree - but it is also a very dangerous one. We were very, very fortunate nobody was underneath when it lost a limb yesterday.
The limb itself was the size of a big tree, far bigger than any of the surrounding street trees. It was lying there when I went past first thing in the morning. Returning later in the day I saw the council men at work clearing it away. The very fact that they had moved so rapidly was an indication of the potential danger.
The men were wearing ear muffs and safety goggles. They were using a chain saw and one of those gigantic mulching machines. Both make so much noise that I sped fast as fast as I could - but not before I noticed a man and two small children playing on the climbing frame in the corner of the playground.
Now, I am sorry but the playground should have been closed for a short period. It simply was not safe to be in there. The noise alone was too great. There were also woodchips flying everywhere. I also noticed another branch hanging, probably brought down by the bigger one falling.
The tree is probably older than any of the buildings in the area - and the church up the hill is almost as old as the state itself, so are some of the other buildings. There will be calls to have it removed soon.
What should have happened however was the removal of the children. The potential damage to their hearing was as immense as the potential danger to their overall safety. I am quite certain they would not have been there with a mother.

Friday 11 June 2010

My great-grandmother

was, by all accounts, a rather alarming person. Her grandchildren were a little frightened of her - or so my father says. I also have the distinct impression that he is still very proud of her. She was born in 1858 and migrated from Mey, Scotland to Port Adelaide, South Australia in 1882.
She was already betrothed to my great-grandfather, a ship's pilot and marine cartographer, and married him a week later. They had nine children.
My great-grandmother was a social worker, although it is doubtful that the profession even existed back then. She was however seen as being responsible for the health and welfare of many people in the maritime area in which they lived. She was something of an entrepeneur and managed the household finances so well that there was assistance available to those in need.
My father remembers her as always wearing black and, even just before her death in 1944, she still wore the long, full skirts she wore on her arrival from Scotland.
She also wore an apron at home.It had a large pocket in the front and she kept her knitting in that. My father remembers her knitting socks. He wore some of the socks. So did her male children and her other male grandchildren. The female children and grandchildren were expected to make their own as soon as they were able. Her daughters-in-law were also expected to be skilled in the art of knitting.
Socks were not only the thing knitted of course. There were undergarments and there were ganseys - jerseys or pullovers or (now) jumpers. Hers were always navy. The body was knitted in the round on five needles to the arm hole. There it would be split into back and front with an underarm gusset for a better fit. The upper portion would then be knitted before the stitches were picked up and the sleeves knitted downwards. She kept the sleeves rather short - salt water and wet wool does not do nice things to the skin. Knitting them from the top down also allowed the cuffs to be replaced easily when necessary.
My father still had one of these ganseys when I was small. It was made out of extremely hard wearing wool. I can remember it being darned in a number of places. Later I wore it and then my brother wore it. After that I suspect my mother decided that enough was enough and she no doubt cut it up and used it as a dusting cloth. I rather wish we still had it. It might not be wearable but it was a traditional garment, constructed in the traditional way.
My paternal grandmother taught me to knit this way. I have since knitted other garments in other ways but I am most comfortable designing my own and constructing them in this fashion. For me it may have more to do with the fact that there is little or no finishing off required. You get to the end of the knitting and you have something you can wear. There is no need to sew it together. I do not sew things together. I can manage knitting needles but sewing needles defeat me.
I wonder at my great-grandmother though. She could certainly sew and sew well. It suggests that there was something more than the elegance of design in her method of gansey knitting. It was practical. It is the traditional method for such things. I have some yarn for a garment. It may not be enough. I will start the sleeves from the top down and make them as long as the yarn allows. I can do this because of my great-grandmother passing the skill on and it being passed on to me. It suggests that tradition can still be a good thing.

Wednesday 9 June 2010

We have visitors coming

for lunch today. A friend is over from Melbourne for a few days. She is staying with her sister so both of them are coming. Her sister is an insulin dependent diabetic so I have given the menu even more thought than usual. She has been before and I have eaten there so it is not as difficult as it might be but I am glad I do not need to feed her all the time.
Indeed, I am rather glad we do not often have visitors. My father is not a "have visitors" sort of person and I do not suppose I am either. We would prefer people just called in and had a cup of tea. (I am happy to make endless cups of tea.) We feel the same way about going visiting.
I do not mind my little knitting group coming. They know where everything is in the kitchen. They make their own tea and coffee and bring interesting things to eat. We visit one another in this way. When they are here I can knit in between making sure everyone has what they need. My father enjoys their company but knows that they do not expect him to be there all the time. He can retire to the shed or for his post-prandial nap without any guilt feelings.
We had a neighbour when we first came here who went to endless trouble when she had guests. She spent days planning the menu, setting the table, shopping for, and then preparing the food.
Her dinner parties were formal affairs with candles, shining silver cutlery, crystal glasses and elegant crockery. Ours tend to be very informal. The cutlery is Scandinavian stainless steel, the glassware is not crystal and the crockery pleasant but not of that standard of elegance. I try to cook things I think people will feel comfortable with rather than try anything extraordinary.
I am not sure why we are like this. I think my mother enjoyed entertaining more than we do. She sometimes complained that my father did not like it. His parents did not like it very much.
Family was different. They had relatives in and out all the time. People outside the family were always made genuinely welcome but rarely invited for meals.
I suspect that it had something to do with a long period of poverty for many people in the district in which they lived. My paternal grandparents knew a great many people who simply could not have afforded to return the favour of a meal. They could accept a cup of tea without embarrassment. My grandmother could send them on their way with a jar of marmalade or jam or some fruit from one of the trees. All that was acceptable.
We moved from place to place and did not develop the sort of friendships that involved meals in other people's houses. Now we do not even have a spare bed for guests. Perhaps that is not a good thing but my father is set in his ways. He is not going to change.
That said I know I always need to be prepared because he will always ask about cups of tea and, should it be meal preparation time, I am happy to add extra vegetables to the pot. Entertaining in this way is much more satisfying. It is more like saying, "Nice to see you. Stop for a bit and be part of our family."

Tuesday 8 June 2010

A fire has been lit in the Tax Office

and they find this one a little difficult to put out. They have ruled that the our volunteer fire fighters are not there to "relieve suffering, distress, misfortune or helplessness". Naturally this has consequences in favour of the Tax Office.
It is getting more and more difficult to volunteer for anything. It is no longer a simple matter of rolling up and doing the job. These days you have to train to do the job. There are all sorts of health and safety regulations. You do not just put the rubbish bins out in the place marked rubbish bins. The rubbish has to be sorted into separate bins for recycling and they have to be placed exactly on the marks on the ground. You do not get a quick lesson in how to work the till in the charity store but you need to do a three day course in "customer relations". If you volunteer for tea duty at an event open to the paying public you also have to do a course - oh and pay a hefty sum in public liability insurance.
Now, if you are a volunteer fire fighter or a member of the State Emergency Service you do need to do some training. What these fire-fighting volunteers do is often extremely dangerous. They really do risk their lives for the benefit of other people. I would have thought their whole purpose was to relieve suffering, distress, misfortune or helplessness. They do hours of training every year and they continue to train and do the practice sessions. It is a big commitment.
As the little trailer on our ABC says of the SES, "It's nice to know that the guy at the other end of the rope knows how to tie a knot properly." Well, it is nice to know that the guy at the other end of the hose knows how to use it properly.
It seems pretty clear that nobody in the Tax Office lives in a bushfire prone area.

Monday 7 June 2010

My Zambian friend

who runs the "refugee camp"., now more like a permanent settlement, for children sent me an e-mail this morning. She can do this about once a month when she makes a regular trip "into town". It keeps me up to date with what is going on there, how she and the several hundred children in her care are getting on.
They share a teacher with the local village. There are three classes, all of which have around one hundred students in each. There is no room for misbehaviour. The children know they have to help one another and this is their big chance. If they can learn to read and write and pass from one level to the next there is at least a remote chance of secondary school and something beyond that if they are well enough to continue.
This morning my friend was letting me know that the money we had deposited in her bank account had arrived safely - and that it would be paying for three of the children to finish secondary school. They are expected to do well. Two of them plan to go nursing - on scholarships provided by a church organisation. The other is going to support himself as a housemaster in a school while he trains as a teacher. All three of them will return the support given to them by giving a year of their time after training. This has happened several times over the years I have worked with my friend.
Many of the children in her care do not survive. They have AIDS or malaria or other conditions. Those that do survive often train locally. Going on to even the secondary level of education is rare. Finances just do not allow it. There have been only eleven children out of more than three thousand over the years who have reached successfully for tertiary education.
Here our media is raising questions about how the national testing procedures and the national website of school by school results is affecting education. There are concerns that children are being trained to pass the test rather than taught and that schools are trying to pick and choose students.
No such concerns reach my friend or the children in her care. They wonder if there will be enough money to pay the one teacher his limited salary and how long he will be prepared to work under the difficult conditions. They wonder if there will be enough money for everyone to have one exercise book into which the very best of their work, drawn on the ground, can be copied. They share reading books, one between ten or twelve. There are no computers and the sports equipment consists of some old soccer balls and home made rope. Everyone knows there are things they need much more than this - like food and a change of clothes, medicine and the litres of disinfectant that are used to try and keep infections from spreading.
I wonder about the priorities in our education system and the waste of money that has occurred in the Building Education Revolution programme. It seems 1% of that money alone could have educated many thousands of Zambian primary students for a year. I feel it might have been better spent there.

Sunday 6 June 2010

Okay, so where do you get

your ideas from? I am not going to attempt to answer that question from the writer's point of view but, unfortunately for my pocket money, someone came along to our knitters' group yesterday with - some books for sale.
Now, let's be reasonable. I do not need knitting books. I do not use knitting patterns. I design my own. This has more to do with necessity than anything else. Most of my knitting is done with yarn given to me by nice people who know I knit and believe that I need yarn...mostly yarn they have decided they do not need or because a relative has headed for a nursing home and left behind a little stash or...well something.
I am a yarn snob. I refuse to knit cheap acrylic. I would rather not knit than knit cheap acrylic.
I did look at the books yesterday because I am the librarian. Was there anything there the library needed? We still have a little money left. I discussed options with the President and we invested in one book for the library.
There was also a "bargain box" however and I could not resist a poke around in that...which is where I came across a knitting magazine. It was labelled $4. The newsagent recently had a copy of the same magazine for $17.95. (He knows how to charge, especially for the imported magazines.) My paw went out, hesitated and then closed over it. I had peeked insided it at the newsagent and there is one small graph in there that I rather like.
Now, I do not like the garment in question but I do like the graph. When I saw it I thought, "I could do something with that." Now I can do something with it. When I have done something with it someone is going to ask, "Where did you get the pattern?" and I will have to explain. No doubt they will, as they often do, look slightly bemused. Why would you bother? I can see them thinking that. Ideas however are like that. You have to bother about them.

Saturday 5 June 2010

I am fairly certain that the term "abandon blood"

was intended to refer to abandoning war. It is not a bad idea. Unfortunately other people see the term as meaning something different. In the case of one religious sect it has been taken to mean that you refuse blood transfusions - and that you also refuse to allow your children to have them.
Courts around the world are gradually coming around to over ruling parents who make a decision which would deny their children life on these and other grounds.
When we moved to this house our neighbours were an elderly couple. One of their three daughters had taken up with this religious sect. Her husband became ill, needed a transfusion but refused one and died. He was an adult and it was said he made the decision. I never met him and would not have asked.
Some time later the grandson also became ill. He was fourteen at the time. He needed transfusions in order to survive the only treatment which would have allowed him to live. The prospects of a full recovery were put as high as 90%. His mother refused treatment and, two years later, the boy died in agony. She claimed that was the proper outcome. It broke the family apart.
This morning's paper has the story of a ten year old who needs a transfusion. His parents opposed it and have been over ruled by the courts. The child himself is said to oppose it on the grounds that taking someone else's blood is taking someone else's life and that he will no longer be himself. Somewhere along the line the message that someone is giving him the greatest gift of all has been twisted.
If the child survives the treatment for a fairly rare osteo-sarcoma and grows to adulthood I wonder what he will then believe. If faced with the same decision would he give or withold?
My mother always wanted to deny us all any medical treatment. It was part of her religious upbringing. My father, brought up in the more robust and practical Presbyterian tradition, managed to over rule her in such matters as immunisation. It was, however, always a source of tension between them. None of us ever needed a life-saving transfusion but I believe she would have been over ruled had it been necessary.
I wonder though at parents, particularly mothers, who can deny their children life-saving medical treatment. Why is it that even the most intelligent of humans can allow emotion to overtake reason - and what sort of emotion allows people to choose death over life?

Friday 4 June 2010

An author is looking for answers

over on the Fidra Bookshop blog. Do go and take a look. I have answered all but the last one.

The first, can a centaur fit in a tent, is obvious. Yes, if the tent is big enough. It depends on the size of the centaur and the size of the tent. I do not know much about centaurs but I have always assumed them to be about the size of a horse. Perhaps I had better go back and check in Diana Wynne Jones "Tough Guide to Fantasyland."

Then there is the question about what fairies pack for a camping holiday. That answer is obvious too - fairy cakes and fairy dust. The first to sustain them and the latter is magical stuff that should provide anything else they need....but I wonder if it includes the tent for the centaur?

Now, the next question was a little more difficult, what do selkies eat at feasts? Well yes I do know what a selkie paternal grandfather made sure I knew that at a very early age - after all some selkies did migrate Downunder. Vanessa mentions fishcakes and I am equally certain that seaweed would appear on the menu. There would be seaweed soup, seaweed parcels and seaweed bread. All of this would help them to keep slim and healthy. There will be no sushi however. I am convinced selkies are, like me, allergic to vinegar.
Harvesting seaweed would not be a problem. Selkies cannot breathe under water - but they can hold their breath for an extraordinary length of time.

That left all but the last question answered. That concerned the names for two ocean powers whose battles cause the storms to rise at sea. I am still puzzled by this. The answer has to be in Gaelic and Norse mythology...something I know less about than I should. There are storm kelpies and seonaidh but they are not, as far as I know, storm raising powers. I still do not know whether there are two ocean powers in Gaelic and Norse mythology but there are names that might suit, Murcadh (sea warrior) and Moray (also a sea warrior). There is also Kedehern (battle lord) but he may be more of a land man, there is Badb (god of fury) and there is the real life Somerled...
I do not know the answers but the names fascinate me....I might just go back to Fidra and add the first two. Does anyone have more suggestions?

Thursday 3 June 2010

The true awfulness of my various school uniforms

has almost certainly upset my dress sense for life.
There was no uniform in the infants section of my first school but my mother made one for me anyway. I do not know where she obtained the material. My paternal grandfather was a tailor but he would not have given her the piece of men's suiting my mother turned into a pleated skirt with cross over straps. All the other little girls wore tartan or grey skirts with bodice tops over which you put your school shirts and cardigans. To add insult to injury my mother also made me two grey dustcoat like garments "to keep your nice skirt clean". She borrowed the pattern for these from a mother a couple of doors down. The kids in that family went to the Catholic school and I endured hell at school because of those dustcoats. "I'm sorry dear but your mother says you have to wear it," the teachers told me. I think they felt sorry for me too.
By third grade you were expected to wear uniform. In winter you were supposed to wear a grey box-pleated tunic affair if you were a girl. It was the sort of garment you can see in illustrations from the school stories of the 1920's and, although I may be in my ninth life as a cat, I am not that old. Even then however I was marked out. I had grown enough that the pleated skirt no longer fitted. (It was always on the skimpy side.) My grandfather would willingly have made me a tunic. We could have bought a secondhand tunic. Instead my mother obtained a piece of dark brown wool from somewhere and made a tunic. It was the wrong colour and it was not well made. I had to wear it anyway. What is more I wore it with the navy and grey tie that was part of the real uniform. The tunic was too big to begin with, too big and too long. I was supposed to 'grow into it'. I hated it but I wore it because there was nothing else to wear. I was still supposed to wear the dustcoats too. In summer I wore one of two checked dresses, also made by my mother. I am certain she could have bought the right colour check but mine were different.
When we moved to the bush even my mother could no longer pretend that the brown tunic fitted. The new school had grey tunics for winter and nylon shirt-waist dresses for the summer.
My mother found a secondhand grey tunic for me and my sisters and I wore the vile nylon in the summer. My brother had to wear nylon shirts. In temperatures that often soared to the old 115'F nylon was hot and gradually rotted. It is just as well we did not stay in that location too long.
After that I had a succession of school uniforms that were, more or less, what everyone else was wearing. My mother could no longer get away with dressing me differently because my father was now the school principal. That is, until my last school. Rural schools finished at the British equivalent of the third form. If you wanted to go on you had to go away to school and away I was sent, so was my brother and (eventually) one of my sisters. At my last school there was a uniform list. I was back to a secondhand brown tunic. The blouses were mustard yellow. My house tie was brown. All of that was vaguely bearable because everyone else had to wear the same. along with brown check shirt-waist dresses in summer and white garbadine shirt-waists on Sundays if you had not been confirmed in that particular faith - those who had been confirmed wore white robia spot voile dresses.
There was however something on the uniform list that caught my mother's eye. It was the gym costume. Now I knew I would not be doing gym whatever my mother said but she insisted that I would be. The uniform list said, "Gym bloomers, brown. Pattern to be obtained from school."
My mother asked for the pattern. I think she was almost certainly told that these were no longer worn. The uniform list had not changed in twenty years at least, possibly longer. The pattern obtained she went ahead and made me a pair of gym bloomers. They were, quite literally, knee length bloomers like some elderly women still wore back then. My maternal grandmother wore them. My paternal grandmother had long since graduated to something more comfortable.
I went to school with these things packed in my case. The gym teacher took one look when I showed her and said, "You most certainly do not have to wear those things. Give them to me. Now, take yourself off for a walk or ride your tricycle around the block or something while the rest of us are busy."
I pedalled off gratefully. My sister attended the same school two years later. My mother made no mention of bloomers. My sister, never backward about coming forward and considerably more interested in clothing than I was, redesigned the school uniform. Bloomers did not appear on the list - and neither did box pleated tunics.

Wednesday 2 June 2010

My distant friend Randolph Stow

died on Sunday. He was 74. We had not seen one another for years and rarely corresponded. He, like other writers of my acquaintance, had retreated to England. He did that back in 1969. I was still in teacher training college. He was busy being uncomfortable about being a writer.
Judith Wright had introduced him, as she introduced so many other writers. On this occasion however it was with the exasperated words, "Cat, for goodness' sake take this idiot boy off my hands and tell him people DO want to hear what he has to say."
I was left with a man who looked more like three than thirty. He was standing there trembling with fear because he had to talk to a group of assembled writers and readers. His face, the sort that never quite grew up, was pale and he just made it to the ground under the nearest tree where he sat cross legged, hugging his arms around his knees and saying, through gritted teeth, "I really, really don't think I can do this."
I said, "Stop thinking of yourself as Midnite and start thinking of yourself as Khat."
"Oh God! You've read it. What did she call you, Khat?"
"Cat...but I am particularly fond of Siamese. I live with two."
"Tell me about them."
So I sat there and talked about Siamese cats to a man I had never met before until he was taken away to perform. Once he was standing in front of the audience he did not do a bad job but he hated every minute of it. The moment it was over he came straight back to where I was still sitting and said,
"Can we get out of here now?"
I indicated that there was a book signing to get through.
"Oh, come and talk to me there. Nobody is going to want to buy mine."
That was 1968 and the book was Midnite. It ended up selling very well indeed. It is still one of the most popular books on literature courses in Australian schools.
What I remember most though is his genuine fear of getting up and talking about his writing. He was an intensely private person. There is a dark side to his writing, even to Midnite.
There was a book he felt he needed to write. It eluded him for years and caused a huge gap, one of almost twelve years, in publications. When he did publish something new it was still not what he really wanted to write. Visitants came eventually but he always doubted it.
I have no doubt though that he understood the writing process. There is a short exchange in Midnite where Midnite asks, "What is a typewriter?"
And Khat, who is a very wise Siamese cat, answers, "It is a machine for writing books. One hundred years from now people will be preposterously lazy."
In the context of the book it is a very funny little exchange. In real life it showed that the author understood just how difficult it is to write. It is much easier to be preposterously lazy.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

I have reverted to Imperial rather than Metric

this morning. It is that time of the year when it is necessary to do what my paternal grandmother referred to as "a boiling". In other words I am making marmalade.
Stephen, who comes once in a while to help with the heavy garden jobs, was here yesterday. He picked the fruit for me because it involves clambering across a garden bed and then between a rainwater tank and the fence. He will get paid in marmalade, indeed offered to go and get extra sugar if needed because he prefers home made to shop bought marmalade.
The recipe I follow is old, very old. It refers to pounds and quarts. When I was contemplating this exercise on Sunday and telling Ms Whirlwind about it she was puzzled. Ms Whirlwind knew about pounds but had never heard of a quart. I hastened to educate her. I believe her father continued the exercise on the way home. She now knows about pints and gills and chains and links as well. (He is, I suspect, better at this than I am.)
My paternal grandmother used to slice the fruit by hand. She had a small and exceedingly sharp knife she kept for the purpose of cutting fruit. Her marmalade was characterised by extremely fine shreds - Oxford thick cut for her. I do not attempt to emulate this. I use a nifty bright orange Swiss designed cutter. It does the same job in about a tenth of the time.
So, this morning the kitchen has a steamy perfume of cooking grapefruit about it. There are four pounds of fruit and four quarts of water in the big preserving pan. They had been sitting there all night. I lit the gas under them early this morning and brought it to the boil. I added twelve pounds of sugar a short while ago. Now it is cooking with the gentle surging and rolling of a contented volcanic pool ready to release an explosion of flavour on toast at some distant point in the future.
It all seems very old somehow. I wonder when marmalade was first made. Who had the idea? In which kitchen was it first made? Did they do it in Imperial or Metric? Or was it, and I suspect it was, just done until it seemed "about right"?