Monday 28 February 2011

The Oscars do not

usually interest me in the slightest. I am not actually a great film fan. We do not go often. I do enjoy the occasional one but I am not one of those people who "must see" the latest film. I doubt I will see "The Social Network", "Inception" or "The Black Swan" but I did see "The King's Speech". I am pleased it did as well as it did. It deserved those Oscars - and not just because the film was good and the acting was good.

It deserved it because it did something more. It helped to bring stuttering to people's attention. I am fortunate. I do not stutter. There are many people out there who do. I know people who do stutter. It is emotionally and physically distressing for those who do - and for those around them.

I know many, many other people with severe speech defects, some so severe that they are unintelligible. I also know other people who are unable to speak at all. The intellectual ability of all these people ranges from minimal to highly intelligent. Every single one of them has some capacity to communicate. One is a mathematician, another runs a business that employs more than forty people, yet another ran the accounts department in a firm that employed more than a thousand people. One, once considered to be profoundly intellectually retarded, can read two languages and another, who does have limited intelligence, has a wonderful and wicked sense of humour.

It can take a little extra time and effort to listen to someone who has a severe speech defect, or who lacks any speech. It requires a little patience, the ability to listen a little more carefully and to ask the right sort of questions at the right times. It requires the self-discipline to bite your own tongue and not take over or make assumptions about what the other person wants to say.
It is not easy.

Most of all it is not easy for the person with the speech defect. I can remember one speech pathologist saying to me "I am always surprised at how hard they try to communicate."
It does not surprise me at all. The capacity to communicate is the thing which makes us human; it is perhaps the most important thing of all.

The ability to speak in public is a magnificent gift. There are people who are natural orators, who can move entire nations into action with simple messages delivered in a dramatic style. They often end up many times on the pages of books of quotations. If they combine words with action they can do great good - or great evil.

Churchill had an enviable ability to use the English language. He used it well and often, especially during the war - some would possibly say too often. He had a country to run.

The King had an ability to use the English language too. He used it well and perhaps even more wisely. It cost him far more effort but he had a country to keep and a Commonwealth to care for.

So, for once, I will salute the Oscars - but possibly not in the way those who award them will have thought about.

It is World Book Night on

March 5th. If you want to know more about it then there are plenty of references to it on the internet. One of the references I like the most comes from my friend Nicola Morgan - here . I know all sorts of people who will be pleased if you do what she suggests.
I have reservations about World Book Night. The books that were chosen are not the sort that disappear rapidly off the new book shelf at our local library. Perhaps they do in other places? I do not know. What I do know is that here they often end up not disappearing from the new book shelf at all. The librarians are more likely to heave a sigh of exasperation, shelve them in among the main collection and hope that someone eventually borrows them.
They will eventually be borrowed by keen readers and by people who believe that they should be reading these books because they have been mentioned in newspaper book reviews or discussed in glowing terms in a radio or television interview. Look carefully at such books and you sometimes discover another little oddity. The first chapter or so is well thumbed. The rest of the book looks almost pristine. In other words people have read some of it but not all of it. They have tried to read the book because it has been recommended in reviews or because "real readers" have read it.
"Real readers"? That is the way that some of those who read literary fiction see themselves. I have looked at a couple of books lately, on the recommendation of "real readers". I"rough read" one - meaning I skimmed it. It did not grab me the way it grabbed her but I could see merit in it. The other bored me silly after just a few pages. I did not bother with the rest of it. I felt it was pretentious and self-serving - and was interested to discover that an entire book group, bar the person who chose it, felt the same way.
For me, life is too short to read books just because they are literary fiction that a few critics happened to like. If my attention is grabbed I will read it. If it is not then I will move on.
So I have a suggestion to add to Nicola Morgan's suggestion. If you go out and buy a book to pass on to someone else then choose something you would like to read or something that you enjoyed reading. If it was something that challenged you a little then good but consider whether a new reader will feel overwhelmed by it. What I would not do (and will not do) is choose a work of literary fiction just because a reviewer says it is good.
If you want to capture a new reader they are much more likely to pick up another book if they enjoyed the previous book.

Sunday 27 February 2011

A friend of ours has a serious case of

SABLE. This is the knitting acronym for "stash advancement beyond life expectancy". There are also the patchwork supplies, the dressmaking supplies, the card-making supplies, the spinning and felting supplies etc. She has a "work room" which is filled with such supplies along with her sewing machine, over-locker, knitting machines (2) and spinning wheels (4).
What was once the spare bedroom is stacked to the ceiling with plastic boxes crammed with all sorts of "supplies".
She 'phoned me last week.
"Cat, I am sorting some stuff out. I know you won't use it but do you know anyone who could use..."
What? She is going to relinquish some of her "supplies"?
"Some of this stuff belonged to my mother. She has been gone twenty-eight years. It really is time I got rid of it. I am not going to use it."
I suggest her church's Thursday Craft group or the local charity shop which is run by her church.
Yes, good ideas.
I mentioned what she was doing to my father. We both wonder whether the friend in question will actually part with anything. She has said this sort of thing before. Her daughters, who do none of these thing, despair of her. There was a "major clear out" a couple of years ago. She reorganised the spare room and gave a small cardboard box of materials to the local school.
This friend is by no means selfish. She makes wonderful quilts for her family and charity. She knits AIDS jumpers, beanies, blankets etc for other charities. Her handmade birthday cards are a delight to all who receive them.
But somehow her stash never seems to get any smaller. I think I can understand why this is so.
She 'phoned me again last night asking me whether I had any patterns for a certain type of yarn."You see Cat someone has just given me..."

Saturday 26 February 2011

One of the local high schools

'phoned me yesterday. Could I possibly do them a huge favour and come over? They will send someone to get me. There has been an "incident" involving one of the disabled students and he is asking for me because his parents are away. He is staying with his grandparents this week and does not want to worry them immediately.
"What sort of incident?" I ask cautiously.
"Bullying. He's still very upset and this time it is too serious to ignore."
What? This time? Any bullying is too serious to ignore.
I tell them I will pedal over - be there in about 15 minutes because I would rather be independent with respect to transport. I do not welcome the idea of walking all the way from their carpark to the office. It is faster to ride and park my tricycle outside the door. Right.

Kid in question is in his first year there. He was bailed up in the toilet block. They knocked him around, took his crutches and left him to crawl out. He does not know the names of the boys involved and nobody else is saying anything.
The kid looks a mess. His shirt is torn and his trousers are filthy. There is a bruise coming up on his face and, when I get there, he finally admits to a few other bruises as well.
"Cat, I hate it here!" he mutters to me through clenched teeth as the school's first aid officer finishes physically sorting him out. I am sure he does.
Of course the head and the deputy head and a teacher and the teacher who was on duty all want to know what he did to bring it on.
"Nothing. They just don't like me."
"But there must be a reason."
Kid and I look at one another. Yes, there is a reason. It is not one he can do anything about. It is simple. He is different. He knows I understand that but we both doubt the staff do - if they did they would not be asking the question.
The school staff think they have educated the students. There is an anti-bullying programme in place. That may reduce the problem but it will not stop it, indeed it will only cause some of it to go even further underground. This was far more blatant than usual.
I can understand the staff not wanting to admit they have failed but placing the blame back on the kid, telling him he must have done something, is not going to help. I doubt he is at fault. He will certainly not have answered back. He is just there. He is available. He is a target for the frustrations and inadequacies of the others involved.
He has made no friends to date although "some of the kids are okay". What he means is that they leave him alone. He would rather be left alone and lonely. He is worried, indeed more than worried about what his parents are going to say.
"They think I have made it Big Time just being here Cat!" he whispers to me as the head tries to deal with another issue as well.
He thinks he is a failure. We both know he is not. He has overcome huge odds just to get this far. He is in the top third academically but all that could change if the circumstances do not change.
We discuss all this. Inevitably we leave the situation unresolved. When his parents get back there will be another conference. He wants me to be there for that too. I might be old enough to be his grandmother but he believes I understand better than his parents or any of his teachers.
As I leave he says,
"Thanks heaps for coming Cat. Sorry it got too much for me."
He is apologising to me? Will they apologise to him? I doubt it.

Friday 25 February 2011

Tweet, tweet, tweet

and Twitter.
When I started out on this crazy job of mine we communicated by letter, fax and (in extreme situations) telephone. At least telegrams were pretty much a thing of the past. Now we have the internet and, with it, things like Twitter and Facebook and blogs etc. (There is also Skype but we will not go there. I refuse to need to appear fully clothed at any hour of the day.)
I have two Twitter accounts. One for work and the other for a little light relief. I need the light relief. Modern Technology means that I am now required to be more, rather than less, available.
If I was a really good, caring and dedicated individual I would learn to send text messages on a mobile 'phone and carry it with me twenty-four hours a day. Obviously I am not. Sometimes I do actually get some sleep. I occasionally do other things as well. I also plan to retire properly one day.
Twitter however is - well, useful. The early Twitter account allowed you to send a message of up to 140 characters/spaces in length. It is now possible to send longer messages but the discipline of using just 140 has to be a good one. It is good to learn to say things succinctly. It is possible to ask a question or give an answer in that amount of space.
I hear people say that "Twitter is a waste of time and space. What's the point of hearing about what people are eating for their supper or the shoes they are wearing?" These same people are the ones who will happily gossip about who said what to whom.
Twitter can also be a support group. Someone wanted to know something about souffle the other day, a writer wanted some names for Spanish males, someone else was anxious about their synopsis and a mother wanted suggestions on how to help her 11yr old handle the experience of having an MRI scan. In each case other people came up with help and advice. Several of the news feeds I subscribe to are also on Twitter. Twitter is a quick alert to things I often need to be aware of.
Twitter is there in the background for me. I do not let it take over my life. I "purrowl" in my cat personality, join in the strange conversations a little and scatter some "cat hairs" along the tweet lines. Most of the people I "know" there I do not know at all. We could pass one another in the street and have no idea that we were doing so. I will almost certainly never meet most of them. I may not meet any of them.
Does it matter? Perhaps. I think it would matter more if, in a world where people are at risk of becoming increasingly isolated, I did not join in a little virtual fun now and then.

Thursday 24 February 2011

"Why doesn't the United Nations

do something about it?"
Iwas asked this question yesterday. "It" was the situation in Libya but it might just as well have been the situation anywhere in the region.
"It" might also be an earthquake, tsunami, flooding, a volcano erupting or any other disaster. There still seems to be a perception that this is the sort of situation that the United Nations deals with. It does not. Even UN "peacekeepers" are not what they appear to be.
The United Nations has no power at all. Only the member states have power. They can get together and do things but even then the United Nations has no power.
The United Nations Security Council and the "resolutions" which come from it are not worth anything at all unless the members who have voted for those things take action. Given that the permanent members of the Security Council can veto action as well it provides another excuse for people to do nothing.
Of course meddling in the internal affairs of another country is rarely to be recommended. In places where it perhaps should happen, like Somalia, the United Nations has proved remarkably ineffectual - and likely to remain so. Sending in peacekeepers from a disparate group of countries who have not worked together and who only have the right to fire in self-defence will do little to sort out the problems of any country in a state of chaos. United Nations peacekeepers can often scarcely keep the peace between themselves, let alone assist others to attain it. As a peacekeeping organisation the United Nations is in fact fairly useless.
There are member countries of the United Nations who also owe vast sums of money to the organisation. It wastes billions of dollars. It is corrupt.
Some of the International Years have raised awareness of issues like disability, water and literacy - to name a few. Education and health have benefitted - although not as much as they might have. There has been some excellent work done in preserving the "at-risk" culture and heritage of the world.
The United Nations can recommend sanctions against Libya but it cannot enforce them. It cannot prevent Iranian ships sailing through the Suez for so-called military exercises with Syria. It could not prevent the Taliban destroying thousand year old statues in Afghanistan. It cannot prevent human rights abuses in countless countries.
As an organisation it is of very little use and very little value but it is there and many people feel that the world is safer because of it. It may well do some good for that reason. Just do not expect it to do too much.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

They say it is the noise of an earthquake

that people will remember first.
There was a very minor incident here about fifteen years ago and I remember a "crack". Our last cat had been sitting on the windowsill. He jumped into my arms and quivered. It made me wonder what animals understand about such things.
The city of Adelaide is built on a fault line that extends into the north of the state. There was an earthquake which did some damage when I was still a pre-schooler. I can remember waking, probably because of the noise, and seeing the small wardrobe in my bedroom swaying backwards and forwards before my father rushed into the bedroom and carried me out into the night. Nothing else happened but the memory remains.
Since that time we have had a number of minor incidents which have caused minor damage. We have been told that one day there may well be a much bigger incident. Our present house was built so that it rests on the foundations. This is supposed to help.
Most people here are not concerned. Why should they be? They believe that such an event is unlikely. The ground beneath their feet seems solid.
I have no doubt that, despite the events of last year, most people in Christchurch felt the same way. We do not want to believe that anything like that could happen to us. We do not live in the developing world where those sort of disasters are almost commonplace.
There will be very little work, if any, for me as a result of the Christchurch incident. Almost everyone there will speak English. Interpreters will not be needed in the same way. Communication difficulties (and there will be many) will be of a technological nature. I am grateful for that but I know that there will still be people who will be required to do the same sort of work as they do in any disaster zone. Public health, disease control, treating the injured, burying the dead, clearing the rubble etc is just a start. Then there is reliving it all through inquiries and getting your life back into some sort of order. That can take years. Somewhere like Haiti will not recover for generations.
It is all too easy when we see disasters unfold on the news services or, as in my case, they come in through a news feed, to distance ourselves. It does not seem "real". There is a psychological mechanism which allows us to "switch off". It seems we need to protect ourselves, as TS Eliot says, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality."
They say it is the noise of an earthquake but I wonder whether it is the silence beneath that noise.

Tuesday 22 February 2011

The Fringe Festival

is taking place at the moment. It began almost as an alternative to the main Adelaide Festival of Arts which has been held oncer every two years since the sixties.
Unlike the Festival, which brings in big ticket items like ballet, opera and big theatre productions, the Fringe is designed to display smaller and more intimate entertainment. It is also the home to street performers.
There is usually someone performing something in the Rundle Mall (think the Oxford Street of Adelaide) and the quality varies. The Adelaide City Council does demand an audition but the criteria for a licence to busk is fairly low. Performers at Fringe time tend to be of a much higher standard.
My father had to go into the city yesterday. I also had to go in to attend a meeting and collect a book. We arranged to meet for lunch and then he intended to spend a book voucher he was given for his birthday.
I had been aware that the Fringe was on but had not remembered that the Mall would be crowded because there would be street performers working there. This sort of thing fascinates my father. His own background as a retired schoolmaster/conjurer etc makes him far more aware of the skill involved in some of the performances.
When I arrived he had just been watching a young man balancing on a deliberately wobbly board while he juggled three axes, two large and one small. It is not the sort of thing you would want to encourage a child to do.
There was a conjurer, someone my father knew. The conjurer was performing a trick that has been performed since the days of Pharaohs. (I kid you not - the "cups and ball" trick has been around that long.) It still fools people.
And there was a "strong lady". My father and I watched her from above the crowd as we ate lunch. We could not hear her "patter" as we were on the first floor of one of the surrounding buildings. I think it is perhaps just as well we could not hear her.
She was not particularly tall. I have noted that weightlifters tend to be shorter and broader rather than taller and thinner. Her muscle development was obvious. (I wondered about steriods.) She was quite scantily clad, wrestling boots, shorts, a brief top and a cape - all red and black. There was a large red satin rose in her hair. It looked quite out of place and yet not unexpected.
Is it just me or is there something strange about a woman who body builds, weight lifts and wrestles? Is there something strange about a man doing it too?
Here was someone apparently bending iron bars around her neck (and others against her bust), tearing a perfectly good paperback book in halves, lifting two men together (on either end of a pole) etc.
I know that these things take strength, skill and certain techniques. It takes years to acquire the ability. I also have no doubt that many people admired the performance. It certainly collected a large crowd.
I do not expect women to dress in pink and frills or even to look "feminine". I do not dress that way myself. I do not actually own a dress. I suspect I do not look particularly feminine. I know many other people the same.
There is however something strange to me about "body building", male or female. I do not find it attractive.

Monday 21 February 2011

I did not get enough

sleep last night. The younger child next door was screaming his head off for what seeemed like most of the night. He is now soundly sleeping - I think. His parents may have strangled him. I am not brave enough to inquire.
You will get today's blog post tomorrow.

Sunday 20 February 2011

I was talking to a 'retired' politician

yesterday. I am not sure that politicians ever retire. They always seem to try and proselytise for whichever party they supported. Their views, even when they do have time to read and reflect, appear to be firmly set in concrete. They have long since been brainwashed by their own parties.
I try not to talk politics with this person. She is perfectly pleasant but I am always aware that our views on many things are not the same.
Nevertheless yesterday we did discuss the demise of Borders and Angus & Robertson as well as the predicament of booksellers in general.
I was surprised to discover that she was apparently unaware that one of the reasons for retaining PIR (parallel import restrictions) had been to save the jobs of about 260 workers in a printing business in Victoria. The union movement had demanded that those jobs be saved. The Federal government, with an eye on a state government election, agreed they should be saved.
I am sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.
That move has now cost at least 2500 jobs in the bookselling trade. It has kept the price of books in Australia artificially high. It has restricted access to a wider range of books in shops and libraries. There has not been any significant increase in Australian publishing or new Australian writing.
A survey recently reported by the UK Guardian showed that James Patterson, Lee Child, Dan Brown, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, Maeve Binchy etc headed the list.
I look carefully at the books on the "returned" books on the trolleys in the local libraries. It is useful to know what other people are reading. The same well borrowed books appear there as well.
I asked the ex-politician what she had been reading lately. It was not Australian. It never seems to be Australian.
There is no evidence that PIR actually encourages people to read more Australian literature, not even those who put the policy in place.

Saturday 19 February 2011

The Haggis Chronicles

are to be found in any number of places on the internet. To the best of my knowledge they have not yet appeared in book form, although they may well do so one day.
They are however a record of the species haggii, much beloved by many Scots and those of Scots ancestry. We treat haggii with respect, great respect.
There was a long (and highly academic) discussion about them on a clan list to which I belong. Sightings of haggii have now been made around the world. Dates are set for an annual "haggis hunt" - weather permitting this usually occurs around 25th January. (Should you not be familiar with this date in the Scottish Calendar, it is Burns Night.)
During the course of the early academic debate about haggii it became clear that there existed a little known Australian animal which was descended from it. The name gives no apparent clue unless you know the story.
In the early days of convict settlement a haggis was sentenced to transportation. His crime was nothing more than the fact he was a haggis but he was sentenced and sent off Downunder. All the way to Downunder he plotted and planned and, on arrival, he escaped. He dived into a small watercourse to avoid detection.
There he found another small, quivering animal. It was an odd looking creature but clearly harmless, at least to haggii. The haggis inquired politely what the creature was.
"I'm a plat."
"A plat?"
"I think so. I heard someone saying, 'plat' and then they started chasing me so I hid here. When they say 'plat' they attack you and kill you. There are not many of us left."
"I think they might mean 'please attack'. Some of them are very polite even when they are being violent."
"Oh, well I don't like it so I am going to go on hiding. What are you?"
"I'm a haggis. I lived in Scotland. The English did not like me so I was transported out here."
"Oh. Do you want some help? I do know the countryside a little."
"I was going to ask if you would like some help. I think I am big enough to help protect you."
The plat look at the haggis and the haggis looked at the plat. Then they both said, "Yes please" at exactly the same moment and it came out sounding more like "yp".
"Plat-yp-us - definitely," the haggis said.
And thus Downunder has a strange animal called a "platypus".
If you have a better explanation or something to add to the Haggis Chronicles please do. A young friend is doing research into them.

Friday 18 February 2011

The news that Borders and Angus & Robertson

are in receivership should come as no surprise but it should make Australians angry. Australians pay high prices for books - unless they import them.
If we do the right thing and buy locally we can end up paying much more. I needed (not wanted but needed) a language text recently. I inquired at a major bookseller associated with an academic institution. Yes, they could get it for me. It would cost $48.95 and would probably take about eight weeks to get here. Then the assistant (who knows me) said quietly, "But Cat you could get it from the Book Depository."
Yes, I could. I did. It cost me $23.95. I had it in five days. I feel guilty. I am not supporting local business. At the same time I cannot afford to spend another $25 and wait weeks.
Recently I was given a copy of "Puffin by Design" by Phil Baines. This is a look at 70 years of publication of Puffin Books - the children's department of Penguin. Inside there are many illustrations of book covers. I am familiar with a lot of them. I own quite a number of them. Others I have seen in bookshops or on library shelves over the years.
There are others however that I do not know at all. I am familiar with some of the books through reading about them but I have not read the books. They have never been available in Australia. I have not been able to pick them up and say, "That looks good. I will choose it."
At this point anyone reading this who lives elsewhere in the world will probably be saying, "Well I know a bookshop cannot stock everything but what is going on? This is a major publisher and the titles are part of their list?"
Yes, that's right. The problem is we have what are known as "parallel import laws". These allow publishers who have representation in Australia to decide what we will read. When a book is published by them overseas they have 30 days in which to decide whether they will produce an Australian edition. If they do decide to do that (and it often depends on how well something is selling overseas) then booksellers cannot import it into the country. They must wait for the Australian edition. When the book does reach the shelves it will almost certainly be at least double the price it would be if it was imported. Sometimes it will be more than that.
All this was once supposed to protect Australian authors and Australian publishers. The reality is that many Australian authors, usually those who are known internationally, are now published by international publishers. Many small Australian publishers have long since been swallowed up by larger ones who, in turn, have been taken over by the international publishers.
Parallel import restrictions also mean that there are other books Australians will never see. Central buying regulations for libraries mean that they are supposed to access Australian material first. Understandable yes but it costs more and that means fewer books on shelves and other books that will never be on the shelves.
All this is supposed to save jobs in Australia publishing and printing. (We will ignore the fact that almost nothing gets physically printed here.) It is supposed to make it easier for Australian authors to get published.
I did what I supposed was the right thing. I sent my precious children's book ms off to an Australian publisher recently. Now I rather wish I had sent it to an overseas agent instead. The reality is that, if it is good enough to be published, I want a much wider audience than the small Australian one. The book business is international, not local - at least I think it is.

Thursday 17 February 2011

If you had the choice between an author

or a footballer visiting your school which would you choose? I would want the author but I fear the footballer would win every time.
There is something decidedly wrong with this. (At this point Nicola Morgan will say I am being assertive, probably aggressively so, and most people will probably stop reading.) I know football is football and, as such, is incredibly important to some people. Football, particularly the Australian Rules version, takes up an enormous amount of air-time and newsprint in South Australia. It seems everyone has an opinion on the subject. My father and I share the same view - we do not wish to be bothered with football.
It seems however that football clubs are about to send more of their players out into schools so that their adoring young fans can meet them. While there the footballers are supposed to provide lessons in "life skills", a job to which most of them are uniquely unsuited. Footballers are apparently good at kicking footballs. It does not necessarily follow that they are good at other things, certainly not the moral instruction of the young. Indeed, the majority of footballers I have heard are remarkably inarticulate. I would no more trust them with the moral instruction of the young than I would any other sports person, celebrity, religious leader or a good many other people.
On the other hand there are many writers I would trust. No, not all - William Mayne was an unfortunate exception and there may well be others that have never been discovered. Nevertheless most writers have been through a rigorous screening process. Most have an agent who has first seen their work. Then there will be those who publish their work. There will, possibly, be people who will review their work in the press. In the case of books intended for children adults will also have read the book.
It is surely difficult in these circumstances to write something morally sound and not be of sound moral character oneself? It could happen but, when we write something, part of our character surely goes on display as well?
I know that people will go on admiring the physical skills of the footballer or other sportsperson. They will remain heroes to young children who will be in awe of their ball skills and perhaps, at least for a short time, wish to emulate them. That may be no bad thing.
But I do wonder what would happen if we introduced more children to authors. I think it would be a good thing.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

In among the letters to

the editor yesterday was one about "multi-culturalism" which stated "Australians must have the worst track record in the world for speaking another language".
That may be true. I do not know. We do have a lot of migrants who speak another language. By no means all of them read and write it. They would not be considered literate and I suspect the writer of the letter was actually concerned with literacy.
I know however that Australians are generally viewed as "mono-lingual". I also know that the retention rate for languages other than English is considered to be low. Further there has been a policy which emphasises Asian rather than European languages in schools.
From my reading, discussion with those who work in the area, and my observations I would say that languages are not generally well taught in Australian schools, nor are they taken seriously. You cannot teach young children Japanese by devoting an hour a week to it. If you were serious about it then it would require an hour a day. There would be children's television in Japanese without subtitles. Japanese would be heard frequently in the community.
If you doubt this then look at the way the Scandinavians teach English. English teaching starts with Playschool from the BBC. There is at least a daily lesson in it. It is compulsory for all students right across the country, even those requiring "special educational assistance". English is often heard. People grow up believing there is some point in learning it and at least one other language as well.
It is not like that in Australia. I occasionally hear Japanese spoken - by groups of tourists being led around by a Japanese speaking guide. When I did greet a Japanese in their own language he did not even bother to respond. He looked shocked that I, a female, had dared to speak to him.
Mind you I only know a half a dozen words of Japanese but I was trying to be polite.
I would probably have got the same reaction if I had tried to use a Chinese, Indonesian, Thai, Cambodian or Vietnamese greeting. Apparently you do not do it. On the other hand if I had used French, Spanish, Italian or Greek I would almost certainly at least have been given what I consider to be a culturally polite response. Quite possibly it would have been even more than that.
It is politics not preferences that has led to the emphasis on Asian languages in Australian schools. One of the world's major languages, Spanish, is rarely taught in school here. A major African language, Swahili, is not taught either. We do not teach the languages of the Indian sub-continent and it is only in the last few years that a version of Arabic has been taught - and that mostly at Islamic schools. We cannot teach everything but it seems the time available for language teaching is often wasted because of the political demands being made..
I am also wondering whether the cultural gap between some languages is one of the things that discourages Australians from being bilingual and multilingual. We are making assumptions about how others feel about us trying to speak their language. They may not necessarily regard it as a compliment. They may prefer to use English. Perhaps we should be asking them.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

David Cameron's speech about

the failure of "multi-culturalism" has been making waves here in Australia. Columnist Andrew Bolt stirred the pot a little further. I wrote a letter - on request - which appeared as the lead letter in a newspaper yesterday.
I know that so-called "multi-culturalism" is a very sensitive subject so I was very careful about what I said. I did however point out that people normally find it impossible to hold opposing sets of beliefs.
You cannot believe in "A" and not believe in "A" at the same time. There is also the "in between" state of not knowing whether you believe or not. In religious terms people would be described as "believers", "atheists" or "agnostics". "Agnosticism" is not a state of belief or disbelief. It is a state of not-knowing what you believe.
"Multi-culturalism" surely has to be the cultural equivalent of "agnosticism".

Monday 14 February 2011

We studied the supposedly didactic nature of

Victorian children's literature when I was doing my teacher training.
"School Librarianship One" effectively disguised that the subject was really about children's literature. Very few people did it. I was the only person in my year who did the subject and I had to attend a different college in order to do it. Even if they had said "Children's Literature" I doubt there would have been many takers. My fellow students showed little, if any, interest in children's books. After all they were going to be teachers of primary school children. Books were something children read for pleasure, in their spare time. It was not something you needed to know about. I often wonder how they managed to teach English.
But School Librarianship One was the subject I enjoyed the most. There was a good deal of reading involved but I was already familiar with most of the books, even the Victorian era books. I knew Stalky & Co, Tom Brown's Schooldays and At the Back of the North Wind. I knew my Carroll, my Sewell and my Twain. My father read Rosetti to me before I went to school and my paternal grandparents gave me Tom and the Water Babies for my fifth birthday.
I was supposed to look at these books in a different way now that I was "studying" them. I was supposed to see many of them as didactic. I was supposed to appreciate their religious, moral and social lessons or commentary. Reading them as a child however I had read them as stories. I know I felt sorry for Tom but it was a story. It was not a social commentary.
I read Eve Garnett's "The family from One End Street" and John Rowe Townsend's "Gumble's Yard" in the same way. They were stories first. I came to the social commentary later.
I have been more conscious of the "social commentary" in some of the more recent children's books I have read. In the 1980's and 1990's there were a rash of books about AIDS and other "social issues". Homosexuality, long a taboo issue even for adults, has been explored. Issues about race, religion and refugees have been explored.
There is nothing wrong with doing this but it seems to have been done very self-consciously. Some writers have sat down to write a book about "death" or "divorce" or "religious intolerance" or the "refugee issue". They have not sat down to write a story.
In School Librarianship One some of the early children's literature we read was criticised for being didactic. It has largely disappeared from the library shelves. "Black Beauty" is still on library shelves. So are some of the other early works I read.
I think it is the story which counts for children, not the social commentary.

Sunday 13 February 2011

Apparently Martin Amis's

father Kingsley was once nudged off a list of literary greats by the late, great Rosemary Sutcliff.
It does not surprise me. Rosemary Sutcliff knew how to write. Reading her books about Roman Britain is rather like being there.
Reading Cynthia Harnett is also rather like being in the Cotswolds of old or Caxton's London too.
You can almost smell the smells and feel the discomfort of these places. There are descriptions of food and you suddenly realise there are no potatoes or tomatoes in Britain at that time. The barber is also the dentist and the modern technology of the time (in this case an early printing press) threatens the employment of others.
The journeys undertaken by Barbara Leonie Picard's characters are full of the dangers and discomforts of the times. There are also the Victorian discomforts and restraints on Gillian Avery's characters. These things are an integral part of the plots. The books could not have been written without them.
I was talking to someone yesterday who said, "It must be much easier to write a children's book now than it was a few years ago."
When I asked why she said, "Well now you can give them computers and mobile phones and so on. You don't have to work out ways for them to get information and talk to one another behind the backs of adults."
To me that makes it much more difficult. I do not necessarily want my characters to have the ease of communicating by mobile 'phone. Indeed, if they can communicate in such a way there might be no need for a story at all. If they can just look up information on the internet it may spoil the story line completely.
Of course there are writers who handle mobile 'phones and computers and other modern technology as essential parts of the story. There are many detectives who use computers - and there are others who do not.
Recently there has been a rash of books set in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. The person I was talking to saw this as a serious restriction on the writer's ability to plot a story.
I am not wildly keen on the writing of new "Sherlock Holmes" novels or another book about Jane Austen's "Mr Darcy" but I can understand the attraction of doing it. I can understand the attraction of returning to an earlier time.
Modern technology can restrict the plot just as much as it can enhance it. I am certain Rosemary Sutcliff wanted the freedom to explore issues that would not - for her - have been possible if she had set the books in her day and age. Other writers can handle those issues set in the computer age.
I was told "you have to keep up with the times because kids these days won't want to read about anything set in history. Remember children do not get taught history in school any more."
I do not agree. History is important. Children can find it fascinating. They do get taught some, although probably not the right sort or nearly enough.
I also think children will, just like adults, be happy with something set in another era as long as it talks to them. It is the writing that matters.

Saturday 12 February 2011

World Book Night is causing some

arguments. If you want to know more about it then please go and read Vanessa Robertson's here and the piece in the Guardian here.
You will find some comments by yours truly in the comments section of the Guardian piece but I am going to repeat them here.
When I set out on the International Literacy Year road I wanted to raise awareness of literacy issues. It is an enormous area and my personal interest was and has remained children's literacy.
It is probably far too simple-minded of me but I believe that if we teach children to read, teach them to want to read, to love reading then we may hook them on reading for life. That way we will have children who, to a large degree, will be able to educate themselves. They will not be confined to what they are given in school.
I know I was given very little of my education in school. From my very first day in school I was told not to expect to be taught too much. I was given that pile of books, put in a corner out of harm's way, and told, "Here dear, read." I read. I was lucky. I could read.
Some children arrive at school having some reading skills, others have none. Few children can already read in the sense that they are independent readers. Teaching them to read is the most important thing teachers in the early school years do. Almost everything else that happens in school is influenced by the ability to read.
This is one reason why I find World Book Night so strange. It appears to have nothing to do with children, those coming up the Reading Ladder. Why would you want to hand out novels to adults who are not hooked on reading? Looking at the list I hardly think the novels which have been chosen will encourage non-reading adults to read. They are certainly not books which are likely to hook them on reading. A well written, fast paced crime novel might - if given to a "non-reader" prior to their departure on holiday.
Now if the £9m apparently being used to support World Book Night had been given over to putting books into schools and the children's sections of libraries it might have hooked some young readers. If it had been done with the exhortation, "Buy a child you know a book" then it might have done even more. Adults, even non-reading adults, are largely aware of the importance of being able to read. They want their children to read, even if it is only so they can be sure they are getting whatever benefits the government is reluctantly handing out.
Turning children into readers has educational, social, psychological and economic benefits. That £9m could have been better spent - and it might have had positive consequences for writers, publishers and booksellers if it had been better spent.

Friday 11 February 2011

Katie Fforde sent me an interesting

"tweet" yesterday in which she observed that technology was taking away opportunities to talk to people. She pointed out that, in England, you could buy train tickets on line and that you can now do your own check out at the supermarket.
There is at least one supermarket here in Adelaide where you can check out the items yourself. I have been there. I went through the checkout with a person. I had to. I had old-fashioned money in my hand to pay for a $1.99 purchase. (It cost me $2.00 of course.)
When I did the usual larger Thursday supermarkert shop yesterday and asked for a home delivery I passed my ID over to the student who works there on Thursdays. She wrote all the necessary information down and we then proceeded to talk about the essay she had asked me to read. As I left I heard the person behind me asking her what she was studying.
The boy who delivered the order is doing some sort of computer programming. He was having problems with essay writing last year. I pulled a few essays to pieces for him because one of the other students who works part-time had suggested to him that he approached me.
I am not the only one who does this. There are several people who will give these students a helping hand. They do not see their lecturers or tutors as much as they used to. The supermarket has a policy of employing students part-time. It is a good idea. It gives the students much needed part-time work and work experience. For the most part they are intelligent and able and they get valuable experience in mixing with a much wider variety of people. It gives the students human contact and the opportunity to learn "people skills".
If the supermarket went self-checkout some people would be delighted. They are the sort who rush in and rush out and have no desire to talk to anyone.
Others, such as the elderly, would be completely lost. It would not just be the technology that would cause them to be lost but the lack of human contact.
I have recently been responsible for one elderly woman in this district while her daughter has been away. The community bus picks her up on Thursdays and takes her to the shopping centre. Apart from that she is not mobile enough to go anywhere except by taxi. I called in about three on Tuesday and she said, "How nice to see you dear. You know I don't think I haven't spoken to anyone since Saturday. I found myself talking to the television set. Ridiculous. I am looking forward to Thursday."
She was quite cheerful about it but I sensed that, underneath the cheerfulness, she craved some human contact.
I have come across that sort of problem with the elderly before. It is why some of them eventually head for a nursing home. They want daily contact. It is comforting. It makes them feel safe and secure. They do not really want to live in an institution but it is preferable to living entirely alone.
Katie Fforde's "tweet" therefore alarmed me. I realised how true it is. There are people who, like me, work from home. They have little or no contact with other people during the working day. They convince themselves that they have "no time", that they are constantly "busy". They may believe they have large circles of "friends" but they really know very little about these people. They watch television in the evenings and then head to the pub at the end of the week. There they meet more casual acquaintances whom they call "friends. They will tell you that they do "talk to people". Yes they do but they do less of it than they used to.
They talk but they do not communicate.

Thursday 10 February 2011

Writing for children

is not "easier than writing for adults". Writing well for children is much, much more difficult. There is a discussion going on over on "An Awfully Big Blog Adventure" (Martin Amis: A response from a children's author - Lucy Coats). It makes good reading, very good reading.
(There were many things that bothered me about the Amis piece, especially the comment by Amis "If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book." There is so much wrong with that statement. It is highly insulting to any number of people, including myself. Why did the BBC actually let that comment go through? I hope someone on BBC Ouch! picks it up and does something about it. I feel tempted to write to the man myself but he might think I am writing him a fan letter.)
My father is a retired school principal. He has always believed that the younger the child the more skilled the teaching needs to be. He has always said that the best and most skilled teachers need to be available in the earliest years of schooling. It has always puzzled him that these teachers have often been paid the least.
He holds exactly the same opinion about writing. He read English at university and, if anything, it sharpened his love of children's literature. Even now he will read the occasional children's book because, at 88, "there is still much to be learnt from any good literature".
That may well be why my father is still so open minded and tolerant about so many things. He likes new ideas. He will "chew them over". He spits some out. He swallows others.
I know adults who have not read a book since they left school and were no longer compelled to read anything. I know others who do read but would never dream of reading a children's book. I know still others who would only consider reading a picture book to a child.
There are very few adults I know, even teachers, who actually read children's fiction. The very suggestion that they should is met with puzzlement. Why would an adult want to read something written for a child?
The idea that there might be outstandingly good writing in a book for children and that the writing should be relished for its own sake is something with which they cannot come to terms. All too often their ideas about children's books come from what is popular rather than what is well written. The winner of the Carnegie Medal is not likely to catch their eye, nor are many other well written books. They will not even see a review in a newspaper - and how many adults actually read the book reviews? By no means everyone reads those.
Perhaps what is needed is much better marketing. Perhaps we all need to take the business of writing for children and reading what is written for children a great deal more seriously than we do. Adults might actually learn something.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

There is a story in

our state newspaper this morning about a one-eyed driver who has had eleven accidents. One of those accidents resulted in the death of another person. Despite that he has been allowed to keep his licence to drive. Admittedly it has now been restricted to driving during daylight hours and he is, at last, back on a probationary licence but he still has his licence. His occupation is, unbelievably, that of a courier-van driver.
Now I have problems with this. As someone else with a disability I am all for people with disabilities "doing things" if they can. I do not think people should be restricted simply because they have a disability. That is obviously wrong but there may be times when, for the good of everyone, you need to restrict your activities or ask someone else for assistance.
I remember another person of my acquaintance with severe eye-sight problems. Even after he had been declared legally "blind" he continued to ride a motor-bike. I rather suspect he was riding without a licence. In the end one of his children, on a visit from interstate, found out and removed the motorbike. Fortunately he did it before his father actually had a serious accident and killed someone. It caused a severe rift between father and child.
Another friend of mine with a very severe speech impediment due to cerebral palsy was invited to accept an important award on one occasion. It necessitated the giving of a speech as well. He knew full well that he was not going to be understood so he did the sensible thing. He accepted the award, thanked the audience and then got his wife to read what he had written. His aim was to have the audience hear what he had to say. Some disabled members of the audience were strongly disapproving of this. They said he should have delivered the speech himself and made people listen harder. I disagree and I am not even going to be respectful about the way in which I do it.
I know this attitude once lost me a job. I was asked at an interview whether I thought a person with a "severe visual impairment" should be accepted as a soldier-in-training. I said "no" and, among other reasons, pointed out that such a person could put his or her fellow soldiers at risk. It was apparently the wrong answer. I was supposed to say yes. I still think no was the responsible answer.
There are limits and my friend who accepted the award knew his limits. I hope I know my limits and that, while I still want to explore the boundaries, I will not fall over the cliff by taking unnecessary risks. That puts other people at risk too. They may need to rescue me. It may prevent another person with a disability exploring their boundaries. I have to be responsible not just to myself but to other people as well.
I think all of life might be a bit like that - for everyone.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

How would you build

a house in an area prone to flooding, or cyclones or bushfires or severe snowstorms? How would you supply power to them?
I have been pondering this of late, not because I plan to build a house but because it seems to me that other people should be thinking about these things.
There was, at last, one letter in this morning's paper about the possible wisdom of putting power lines underground instead of having them strung on poles overhead. Now that seems like a very sensible idea. I can only assume that it was assumed to be cheaper to put them overhead rather than underground. That would seem to be a false economy now that so many of them need replacing. True you cannot get to them underground in a flood - but it seems you cannot get to them overground either.
Bushfires have started because of overheard power lines. That seems like another good reason. Then there is the issue of what South Australians call "stobie" poles. These are the concrete and steel poles used to carry the power lines - designed to overcome the problem with white ants eating the wooden poles. Stobie poles have been a blessing and a curse - people claim they are the cause of accidents. What they mean of course is that someone has hit one because it happens to be there.
So power is a problem but it would seem to be one that could be relatively easily solved. If we are to have a National Broadband Network then it seems that the two things should be done together. That would be too logical.
The other problem however seems to be the way we build houses. My father wonders constantly at the number of new houses built without eaves. He asked a builder about this and was told that "this is what people want". In our climate it would seem sensible to at least have eaves. It would surely be cooler in summer? There are also basics like insulation and perhaps double glazing.
These things also assume that we go on building houses as we have been, with angular walls and a slanting roof. They are not cyclone proof or flood proof and they do little to combat the heat of summer.
So I have been wondering if we should build houses a different shape altogether? What if we built houses in the shape of an umbrella but without the handle or a mushroom without the stalk? Imagine a curved surface over which the force of a cyclone flows rather than a flat wall which it hits. Would it work?
I do not know enough about physics. I know nothing about architecture or design but I keep wondering whether we could design very different houses and learn to live comfortably in them.

Monday 7 February 2011

Failing to save libraries will be

a false economy in the end. What is "saved" on libraries will be swallowed up in such things as "graffiti response" and "mental health services" and "early retirement due to stress and burnout". Worse still it might add to the work of the police and the law courts.
One death on the roads can cost our state around a million dollars. It sounds an enormous sum of money and I can see some people saying "you must be wrong" but, by the time you count in all the chaos, the confusion, the police time, the forensic time, the coroner's time, the time given by the other emergency services involved etc etc, it soon adds up. That does not even begin to include the emotional and financial impact on the family of the victim - who may also be victims themselves.
Nobody knows how many people choose to kill themselves by driving full speed into a tree. It happens.
Avoiding just one of those deaths by increasing library expenditure is surely worth it. Of course the problem is that you cannot actually say to the government, "If you spend a million here then
Jo or Josie Bloggs will not commit suicide and will become a taxpaying citizen." It simply does not work like that. It is quite possible that Jo or Josie may not use the library themselves - but the flow on effect will be such that they benefit.
And, of course, public libraries do cater for the mentally ill, the mentally unstable, the unemployed, the lonely and for people of all income levels and from every conceivable background. Even other libraries assist in this way. Our Guild library caters for this range of people too. The only differences between that library and the big public one are membership of the group and an interest in a much narrower range of topics - oh and perhaps availability as opening hours are, inevitably, rather limited. Still, it caters for a very diverse group of people and that matters.
Libraries are great levellers. In the television series, "Keeping Up Appearances" one of the characters, Onslow, is portrayed as rough, uncouth, badly dressed (usually in a workman's singlet) and generally low-class. He has good qualities however, one is a certain kindness and another is that he reads. At one point he is shown as reading a book on nuclear physics. Unlikely though this may seem I have also seen just such a real life character, a gardener with the local council, reading a similar book as he ate his lunch and saying enthusiastically to the person next to him, "Hey, listen to this. It says here..." He then proceeded to read a portion. The book was a library book.
Without a library I doubt he would have been reading the book. He could just have sat there, as so many of the supermarket employees do, and just stared into space smoking yet another cigarette.
What people choose to do of course is up to them. I happen to believe that reading is better than staring into space and smoking cigarettes. If libraries are not there however it is less likely that some people will read. Not everyone has the money to spend on books. If I had to rely on my own finances to read then I would read far less than I do. I would like to buy all the books I read and then perhaps pass on those I did not wish to keep. The reality however is that I cannot afford to do that. Most people cannot afford to do that. That is why we need libraries and why authors must be paid according to library borrowings as well as other sales.
Other people would never buy a book at all and that would mean they would never read. The television set, once bought, costs a few cents or pence for hours of "entertainment". The book is not going to be cost effective for the individual.
For society however books may well be the most cost effective means of caring for the community - and governments have to be made to understand that.

Sunday 6 February 2011

Saving any library is

important. It is very important. It may also be hard work.
There are lots of tiny specialist libraries that most people remain quite unaware of unless they happen to have a special interest in the subject matter. I once applied for a position as a librarian at a mining company. It was only a small library. The position was very much part time but the library was important to those people who worked there. Now they probably have all the information on line.
Universities tend to have specialist libraries. The Australian National University has a number of libraries. I frequented some and not others. I always sat in the same seat in the Law School library. This was by request of both staff and students. They wanted to know where to find me. I was the student who sorted out linguistic problems. I knew about the mysteries of the "bell curve" and other oddities. I had discovered the inner workings of the library before the first class in "Legal Writing and Research" and I was perhaps the only student in my year who realised that LW&R was actually the most important subject we did and not, as most students seemed to think, a waste of time. It was the subject that taught students how to use the library. If you could do that then you could find any information you needed to find. Now of course most of the material is "on-line". It was going "on-line" when I left. My youngest nephew has most of his legal materials "on-line".
I look after a small and highly specialised library as well. It is the library of our Handknitters' Guild. When I took it over it was a collection of secondhand books that had been donated. Occasionally the committee would agree to actually buy a book. People would borrow the new books. The rest were left to gather dust. Nobody seemed to be too sure what was there. There was no catalogue. A little - well a lot - of work has remedied that. I argued for money, supported by some of the younger and newer members. Now there is a regular sum set aside for the purchase of books and I choose what we need in consultation with the members who, like me, read the reviews. The library is now used. It is very well used. Instead of talk of closing it altogether there is talk of how we can rearrange the two steel cupboards to make more room for books. People have joined the group simply in order to have access to the library.
I think this all says a great deal about all libraries. Libraries need new materials the way humans need oxygen and plants need water.
Tiny specialist libraries like ours, like the one belonging to the Embroiderers' Guild, the one belonging to the Handspinners and Weavers', a music society, a gardening club, an engineering society and a genealogy society, all need to preserve some old materials and to gather new materials. It costs time and it costs money but what these libraries are saving is information. The received information of the members is important but, in an increasingly busy and time poor society, information also needs to be located where it can be accessed by as many people as possible.
If we start to lose libraries then we will lose information. It is not, as it once would have been, going to be passed on by word of mouth. By no means all the information needed is available on the internet.
We may not even know we need the information until we read it in a book. We need to save libraries to save ourselves.

Saturday 5 February 2011

It is "Save Our Libraries" Day

in the United Kingdom.
Now, to me, this is a no brainer. Why would you even need a "Save Our Libraries" Day? Surely any modern democratic society is aware of the value of libraries?
I recently had cause to read the Annual Report of our local council and, in particular, the section which dealt with the library. Our local library service (two libraries, a mobile and a home-delivery service to the elderly) dealt with ninety-six people on average ever opening hour. That did not include the school groups that came in or the people who just wandered in and out again. These were people borrowing books, using the computer terminals, making inquiries etc. Books, magazines, CDs, DVDs, audio-books etc went out in their hundreds of thousands.
All this happened despite less money being spent on the library. The staff are less knowledgeable than they once were. They tend to be casuals who can issue books and find the basics but more complex inquiries have to be referred - or they hope that someone like me will perhaps be around to help. I try not to mind too much because I think it is more important for a library user to have a positive experience.
Our "new books" shelf often looks pretty sparse too. At one time we knew that the beginning of the month would see a row of new fiction, a row of non-fiction and a row of children's material. The new fiction would include at least some of the books reviewed in the press, some crime and a variety of other titles designed to suit an equal variety of readers. The non-fiction would reflect the interests of the local community. The children's books would include any award winners but would also include local authors and a healthy variety of other writing.
Now it is very different. Central buying has gone from bad to worse. The aim appears to be to try and fill the shelves with quantity not quality. We will still get the Booker Prize winner on the shelf but, next to it, there will be pulp fiction which has been bought at remainder prices. The non-fiction is clearly remainder. Some of it may be lovely but it does not represent the the interests of library readers.
Children's selections suffer most of all. They are almost entirely paperback. There is some local content but much of it is cheap and second-rate.
Those responsible for central buying know they can get away with all this. Why?Because people want to read.
We are suffering from cut backs that are being disguised. Our libraries do need to be saved just as British libraries need to be saved. There libraries are under threat of closure. No library should ever face closure. Libraries should only suffer from lack of space, a need to expand, and more books on the shelves. Publishers should only suffer from excess profits due to the volume of sales.
Cutting back on libraries or even just library services is about the most foolish move any government can make. It is the child who reads a book that fires his or her imagination who is going to produce the next life-saving drug or build a more efficient power system, not the child who can play a computer game or who has been trained to kick a soccer ball to within an inch of his or her life. Oh yes, the last two things have their place but, in the overall scheme of things, they are less important than the power of imagination.
Just imagine a world without libraries. I think I might just head off and help save mine by using it.

Friday 4 February 2011

It took me a long term to learn

I had friends. Does that sound strange?
Do most people just assume that people they know and like are friends? I have never assumed any such thing. Why should I?
As a small child I had very little opportunity to mix with other children. Certainly I never remember playing with anyone other than a child over the back fence - and that was only on the occasions my mother was childminding. I never went to play there.
My brother and I played in our backyard or rode our tricycles up and down the lane at the side. There were some huge concrete pipes there for a long time. We could stand upright in them and rode up and down them listening to the echoes bounce off the sides. The echoes were our companions.
When we moved and I started school I was definitely the odd one out. I read a lot. The other children could not yet read. I found friends in books. We kept on moving. I kept on reading. My mother did not allow us to invite children home to play or us to go to their homes (because that would mean inviting them back).
I never felt comfortable in anyone else's house. I was much too self conscious. I still feel that way. Perhaps you need to grow up going in and out of other houses to learn to feel comfortable about visiting other people. Does it help you grow less self conscious as well?
Even when I left school I did not believe I had friends. Circumstances were such that I did not have an opportunity to mix with my fellow teacher training students on a social basis.
I do not drive. I have never owned a car. That also limits social life style. You do not "hop in the car" and head off to socialise.
So friendships came slowly to me and they are still slightly awkward affairs. I envy those people who feel they can just 'phone someone and suggest they meet for coffee, go out to a film, drop in for a cup of tea etc. On the other hand when someone 'phoned and asked if I would like a ride to somewhere we both needed to be on a very hot Saturday afternoon I was perhaps unduly pleased. It was unexpected. I was pleased that someone should actually bother to think about me. I made very sure I said thankyou too. Yes, she has to be a friend. That is the sort of thing friends do - or I think it is.
I think it might be why I have not actively gone seeking "friends" and "followers" on the internet. I would rather people found me and thought "might be interesting". I follow others I think "might be interesting" - and most of them are very interesting. I think I might like them if I met them.
What I want to know though is when does liking someone you meet become friendship? When do they remain acquaintances? How in the heck do I know if I am welcome? There are no answers to any of that but I also wonder if other people feel the same way.
What I do know is that everyone needs a social support network.

Thursday 3 February 2011

Cyclone Yasi hit the Queensland coast

last night but the full extent of the damage will not be known for days.
I woke before dawn so I could watch the sky grow from dark to grey and then grey-pink as the sun rose. Then there were pale pink wisps of cloud fading into paler grey. Now the sky has tbe palest of pale pink feathery clouds and faint grey cotton wool clouds and even fainter patches of blue behind them. It is going to be hot and uncomfortably humid.
We are thousands of kilometres from the eye of the cyclone but these clouds are, unbelievably, the outermost reaches of it. It is difficult to conceive the size of it.
Last night our international news service tried to explain by super-imposing the weather pictures over a map. The map was not, as one might expect, of Australia but of the United States. The cyclone was so wide that it covered almost the entire area of the United States. They then showed the area of Australia which was likely to be affected. It was a vast area.
Cyclones bring rain. Some of that rain will have fallen on areas that are already so waterlogged there is nowhere for it to go. There will be more flooding. More homes will have been destroyed. Roofing has been ripped away. Trees and power lines have fallen. Banana crops and other crops have been lost - and not just for this year.
Down here we have power. Up there the power of the cyclone was enough to provide the entire planet with power for a year but they have no power.
I do not believe that these events are due to man made "global warming". This is nature. It is even within expected statistical variation. That does not make it good. It is a disaster of terrifying proportions for those living through it. It is a disaster for the national economy and it will be made even worse if the Prime Minister and her Cabinet continue to refuse to listen to the advice they are being given.
But I wonder if good could come of it. Is there an architect or engineer out there who might come up with an affordable means of constructing cyclone proof, flood proof housing? That alone might turn this tragedy into a positive.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

There is the small matter of keys

or more than one key. No, I have not lost my keys. I know I might. It is always possible.
I keep my keys on a lanyard around my neck when I am out and about in a general way. The lanyard was given to me by the Whirlwind. It is black and decorated with yellow smiley faces. I rather like it. Other people like it as well.
I keep my tricycle lock key, my house key and several other keys that I am likely to use on that lanyard. One of them is a key to my sister's house. It is there for a very good reason. There is another key to her house in the key collection at our place. There is a very good reason for that as well.
My sister is inclined to lose things like that. It is often a temporary loss. She forgets where she has put the keys.
Yesterday she drove her husband into work. He normally rides a bicycle but 42'C is a little too warm for that sort of exercise, especially if you need to arrive looking fit to attend a meeting and not as if you have just come from a work out at a gym.
My sister's household is one of those with more than one car. On her return to their house my sister realises that she has the "wrong" keys because she has driven the "wrong" car. In other words this set of car keys does not have a house key. She has effectively locked herself out.
That means first a short trip to our house. There is nobody home but she can let herself in here because we have a key stored outside - and not, I hasten to add, under a flowerpot. She cannot find the key here. I suspect that by then she was impatient and irritated and did not look as carefully as she should have.
That meant a trip back into the city to get a key from her husband at work. By then irritation was really showing.
We then had a telephone call, "Where was the key?" My father says that one is on my lanyard.
It should not, she tells us, be there. It should be in the cupboard where she can find it. I am certain there is another one. I have since found it. In the meantime I endure a dressing down because the key is on my lanyard. It is, apparently, extremely thoughtless of me. Perhaps it is. Apparently all I need to do if I need to get into her house when she is out is to 'phone her on her mobile and she will come home. We will ignore the occasion she landed in hospital and needed me to get in urgently.
However it would make more sense to have a house key on both sets of car keys would it not?

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Aros stone thirty-one

Is there an end to everything?
Does a beginning mean an end?
What of the project abandoned incomplete?

Fifty-two percent of parents do not read

a bedtime story to their children - or so the little paragraph in the paper this morning informed me. I will ignore the "statistics". I do not know enough about the way in which the research was conducted to have any idea whether the statistics quoted are accurate. It does not matter. What does matter is that there are children who do not get a bedtime story.
Bedtime stories were a ritual in our house. It was my father who told them, not my mother. My mother was an infants' teacher but bedtime stories were not part of her repertoire. She probably believed they were important but she always claimed not to have time even before she went back teaching the year I turned ten.
I was expected to read my own bedtime stories from the time I started school. This coincided with the time my father returned part-time to university to resume his own studies. As I was a thoroughly independent reader by then I am sure that my parents thought it did not matter - as long as I was reading.
It did matter of course. I missed out on the interaction between parent and child. It is not just hearing the bedtime story that matters. What also matters is the time spent together, the time to discuss the story and the words used. Even parents who believe they are "just reading a story" can do this without realising it.
I could ask what a word was of course. The answer to that was often "work it yourself" with, perhaps, a brief clue thrown at me. I could ask what a word meant. A dictionary would be put in front of me, first a picture dictionary, then a child's dictionary and then the Shorter Oxford. I was using the Shorter Oxford at the age of eight. My father had two copies. He had bought one when he began his degree and was then given another one that was almost falling to pieces. I used the latter one.
The message I got was "do it yourself". (In later years my mother criticised me for being "too independent".) All the same I was reading and that is important. I did have the utter joy of the bedtime story until I began school. There were evenings on which it did not occur but they were rare. My father and I shared many books, some of them were probably rather above my head although I do remember being read the full version of Alice, Tom and the Water Babies and Gulliver's Travels. It may be that my father needed to read (or re-read) these things. It did not matter. I was getting my bedtime story.
My father and I can still talk books. His light reading is currently Ian Rankin, his heavy reading a book about cult psychology. He is also reading a book on water-wise gardening. He will not read any of them to me but we can share the ideas in them because he read to me as a child.
I feel for the children whose parents do not read to them on a regular basis. Having my own computer and my own flat-screen television, my i-pad and all the other electronic toys would not make up for having a bedtime story.