Monday 31 December 2012

I was given a

"gadget" today. My sister found it. She is, as she puts it, "into that sort of stuff". I am not.
I am unlikely to use it. I rarely use "gadgets", those complicated objects which have replaced the simpler things which work well.
My maternal grandmother collected gadgets. She had all manner of them for the kitchen. They supposedly sliced, scooped, grated, cut, curled, poured, sprinkled, mixed and whizzed. Perhaps they did  other thngs as well. I do not know. My mother inherited all these things. Her brother did not want any of them.
As my parents were transferred from rural to city schools some months after my grandmother's death they moved into the house she had been living in. Everything was still there. My mother just added to the collection, even keeping some of the duplicates. She gave some to my brother when he left home. My sisters also got more duplicates when they left home. I escaped overseas for a while so I did not get any of them. 
This gadget arrived in a box. There is a note on the lid "similar as to seen on TV".  It is, of course, "made in China". Perhaps my sister did see it on television. She watches far more television than I do. I can understand the attraction for her. It is the sort of thing which would appeal to her quirky sense of humour.
From the picture on the box this gadget has three legs which come together at the top rather like a triangular Eiffel Tower. There is a black tube of some sort into which you apparently put four AA batteries.
Batteries? The need for batteries worries me. I am used to manually powered or mains powered gadgets. The grater is manually powered, so is the old rotary beater. Even the Senior Cat (who leaves the kitchen department to me) can use these things.
So, the batteries go in and, presumably, you switch the thing in. It wiggles and jiggles and (perhaps) jumps.
         "So what is it supposed to do?" the Senior Cat asked me.
         "I think it is supposed to stir things," I told him.
He looked at it some more and then asked,
         "Can't you just use a spoon or something?"

Sunday 30 December 2012

"I was wondering if you are

distantly related to me?"
I was asked this question yesterday as I was about to leave the library. I have often seen this woman sitting at one of the computers available there. Apparently she is an enthusiastic researcher of her family history.
Not content with immediate family she has apparently explored every branch she can find and then the spouses and their siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and more. I am sure you know the sort of thing.
I could not imagine we were related - and we are not as she had actually discovered for herself. In her searching however she had come across two people with the same name. One of them is her relation and one of them is my maternal grandfather.
The name is not that common but there was a much smaller group of given names used here in that era so the two men had the same name.
It was not that however which was so curious. I had actually been aware of both men. The local council historian had come across both of them when researching the dairy business owned by the other man.
No, what was interesting was this woman's discovery about my maternal grandmother. My maternal grandmother was not a nice person. She was, to put it mildly, a difficult one. Part of the problem, we believe, was the fact that at about the age of two she was given to an aunt and uncle who then cared for her - she claimed it was for some years. It is something she deeply resented all her life. She claimed it was because her mother "could not afford" to keep all the children and "just gave" my grandmother away.
But yesterday I made a rather interesting discovery. We always believed that my grandmother had one brother (with whom she never had contact) and two sisters. Of those two sisters she really only had contact with one but we were, vaguely, aware that there was a second sister.
Yesterday I discovered she had a second brother, a younger brother. He was never mentioned. I doubt my mother knew she had a second brother. My mother's brother almost certainly never knew either. If they had cousins on the maternal side of their family then they never knew of them. They never knew their uncles and only knew one of their aunts. Both my grandmother and their aunt kept the knowledge of the younger brother to themselves.
My guess now is that my grandmother's mother was ill, perhaps bedridden, during the pregnancy and that all the children were given to relatives for the duration of the pregnancy. They were returned once the baby was born and their mother had recovered. I may be wrong but it seems very likely.
So, the story my mother was told and the story we were told is, in all possibility, quite wrong. My mother had an uncle she almost certainly knew nothing about. It is a strange, sad piece of family history.
It makes me very glad that my father had a very close relationship with both his father's family and his mother's family. His father's family is particularly close even now. Much of it has to do with the long letters my maternal great-grandmother wrote to all the family - so that they would know what each was doing.
The letter writers of the past did us a service in more ways than one.

Saturday 29 December 2012

"What are you going to

knit next?" my friend asks me.
She is folding the shawl I made her cousin. Her cousin is in hospital at present and has indicated she is feeling cold. They can put it around her shoulders rather than try to dress her. 
The shawls has been designed to stay on the shoulders without slipping off. It is not my idea but the clever idea of women who lived long ago in the Faroese islands. They needed something they could continue to work in. Cardigans were not really known then. Most women wore shawls - sometimes more than one shawl. They wore shawls with linings for double the warmth. The outer layer would be hard wearing heavier wool and the inner layer would be finer wool. There would be shaping at the shoulders and then long "wings" that could be tied behind their backs.
I doubt that these things were as comfortable or warm as a modern pullover but they were what was worn and they have progressed to being used by others as well. Some of them are beautiful. I have a pattern (given to me) for a beautiful shawl designed to look like a garden. I have never made it because I do not, normally, knit patterns designed by other people. My excuse is that I am too lazy.
Nevertheless it is a lovely pattern.
But I do make shawls. They are useful gifts to people like the woman now in hospital. I once made one for a man who had to spend weeks in hospital. People said "he won't wear that!" but he did because he could not get dressed. After a bit though he was well enough to go out into the hospital grounds and sit for a while.
I made his a sturdy, dull brown. It was plain apart from the border where I put a row of "fish hooks".  He still has it. He still uses it when reading in the evenings.
I have a list of things I want to knit this year. My goddaughter will be going to university. She needs a couple of garments. A friend needs a new cardigan with deep armholes to make it easy for her to dress. My father needs a new "gardening" jumper made from the leftovers. I actually need to make something for myself having reknitted the cuffs on two garments last year so that they will last a little longer.
But, I might just make another shawl or two. They are useful for people. I like to be able to think of them wrapping themselves in warmth when they need it.

Friday 28 December 2012

Our Equal Opportunity Commission

has just ordered the Bowls Association (or whatever the call themselves) to stop running single sex matches and make arrangements for all games to be mixed. Apparently one person complained because she was not allowed to compete in the competition reserved for men. She has taken the matter up with the EOC and won. There has been an outcry over this.
I know a good many older (and indeed old) people who play bowls. It is not something I would want to do but they enjoy it. It gets them out of the house. They exercise (in a gentle sort of way). They socialise. Some of them play in competitions, others do not.
One of my maiden great-aunts played competition bowls almost until her death at something over 90 years of age. (She gave up competition tennis at 78 and competition golf at 80.)  One of the pleasure of bowls for her was the fact that it was "just women".  They could, apparently, relax in the company of other women. Other women have said the same thing to me. Men tell me, "It's a good way to get away from the women".
I have no doubt at all that the single sex social side of bowls has been much of the attraction for some people. There have been "mixed" matches at weekends for those who want to play that way. I believe it attracts some younger people - perhaps those who are still working during the week.
But, the EOC says this simple pleasure must stop. It is a breach of the Act as they read it.
I remember when I was on the Equal Opportunity Tribunal a similar issue came up. There were "golf camps" provided for boys but not girls. Someone put in a complaint that the girls were being discriminated against. Perhaps they were but the "camps" (sessions to teach young male teens the beginnings ofr that arcane game) were serving other purpses as well. There were also men willing to take on the role of teaching and mentoring boys.
The camps stopped because they could not, especially in the case of a residential weekend camp, safely provide for both boys and girls. Healthy exercise was curtailed because of a strict reading of the Act.  I know the judge who made the decision was not personally happy with it but that was the law.
I also know what will happen now. There will be people who simply stop playing bowls. They will not feel comfortable playing with the other sex. Some, like my great-aunt, will not feel comfortable socialising with the other sex.
There will be people who will say, "Too bad. That's up to them. They should learn to mix."
I do not believe it is as simple as that. The person who put in the complaint could have played in a mixed team - but perhaps not at a time of her choosing. As a result of her decision to take action the law has interfered in the way people can spend their leisure time. I do not understand the ins and outs but apparently the decision could end up doing even greater harm because, at national and international level, bowls is played largely on a single sex basis. (Yes, I know, some people will say "well, it is time that changed too".)
I think the real question however is, "How far should the law be able to interfere in the way we choose to spend our leisure time and with whom we spend it?"

Thursday 27 December 2012

There is a lovely (true) story

by Liz Lovick about a Christmas stranger over on Northern Lace. tells of how a young South African man experienced Christmas in England.
The story gave me "goose-bumps" because I can, just, remember something similar although I did not know the details until much later.
On Christmas Eve one year my grandfather had taken his car to the garage for some reason. He also needed to go into the city (probably for the Christmas shopping he always did at the very last moment!) He took the train.
At the main railway station in the city he was stopped by a young man who looked quite unlike anyone else. In those days anyone who was not white or aboriginal really stood out. Australia still had the appalling "white Australia" policy and, although we did not practice "apartheid" or make people from other cultures unwelcome it was unusual to see them.
But, the young man stopped him and asked for the correct platform for a train to a place which did not exist. He showed my grandfather the address he had been given. It was for a place that did not exist. It was supposed to be a boarding house where the young man could stay for several days. Nobody knew it.
My grandfather shook his head and told the young man to wait. He went to the bank of telephones that existed back then, 'phoned my grandmother and asked if he could bring the stranger home for a meal. He was a Bible student from Tonga. My grandfather would then find somewhere for him to stay. My grandmother promptly said she would put extra food on the table.
Being Christmas my grandmother already had a house full of people. There was no room for the stranger but my grandparents knew they would find something.  My grandfather was an elder in the local Presbyterian church. He knew there would be someone who would know of a bed somewhere.
The young man ate with my grandparents. My grandfather made another telephone call and the young man had a bed for the nights he needed it but the family was not able to take them with him for Christmas lunch. No, my grandfather said, he is coming to us for Christmas lunch - and tea.
So we had a stranger among us. I have, as a not quite two year old, a memory of a very big man swinging me up on his shoulders and carrying me. My grandmother told me later that he was "handy with a tea towel".
The relationship was maintained until his death via letters and cards. He worked as a missionary and a teacher. He came back to Australia once when I was twelve, too big to be swung on his shoulders but not too big to feel pride in knowing him.
My grandparents had not told us he was coming, keeping it as a surpise. I was told to take something into the kitchen and there he was doing something.
       "You remember?" he asked and hugged me.
Oh yes, how could I forget?

Wednesday 26 December 2012

"1951", he says and looks around

at the gathering.
It is the year my sister's father in law came to Australia from Cyprus. He was sixteen and spoke no English. He travelled with a cousin not much older than himself. They were the advance party.
His first task was to find a job. His second was to learn English. After that he worked hard. He brought out his wife. He brought out each of his siblings. He helped to bring out his wife's siblings and, last of all, he brought out his parents.
There are four children. My sister is married to the engineer. His brother is a forensic chemist. One of the girls is an accountant and the other works in the court system. Their children, his grandchildren, have gone further still.
Papou, as the grandchildren call him, finished school at the end of primary school. His wife had three years of school. She cannot read or write English and her Greek is limited, becoming more so as Alzheimer's gains a greater hold on her mind. Their story is not uncommon, they did not have the same opportunities to continue their education but they made the most of their opportunities anyway. They were not given all the assistance migrants are given now.
Papou had surgery recently. He is much younger than my father but his body is almost as old. He is, quite simply, worn out. He has not, like many other men in his position, taken care of his health. You go to the doctor only if you feel really, really ill. Other than that he would still prefer to rely on the folk type medicine he was brought up to believe in. He does not really understand the Alzheimer's that is taking his wife from him - but does anyone really understand that?
But, despite all that, yesterday he was happy. He was happy to be where he was. He was happy to have his children and his grandchildren there. The last grandchild finished school this year.
Papou insisted on being Father Christmas. The cheap red outfit the family bought more than twenty years ago is growing threadbare in places. This year there was a new "beard" of cottonwool.  Adults and children alike posed "sitting" on his knee (actually on the arm of the chair). He handed out their gifts. There were cheers, laughter and demands of "wait" as multiple cameras caught the various moments.
Everyone is "much too old" for Father Christmas but - it's tradition.

Tuesday 25 December 2012

The Harpcottle Carol

Years before there had been a group of carol singers in Harpcottle. They were students. As is the way with students they had made their way not from one house to another but from one public house to another. By the time they reached the last hostelry they were not really able to sing at all and they had been sent on their way across the road and along the river.

Of course one of them had fallen in. The others had rescued him. Nobody had drowned or died of pneumonia and it was generally considered they had been "lucky". It was not until the next day that anyone realised that the Harpcottle Carol had been lost, probably in the icy water of the Harpcottle River.

Ever since then people had searched for the carol but nobody had found it. The whole tune had simply disappeared. The old people remembered it existed but they did not remember the tune. The young people thought it was just the imaginings of the old people until....

It was Mouse who found the little music note just outside the cat flap. It was there when he went out into the first thin sliver of daylight. He knew instantly what it was. He had seen one before. The family of robins who lived in the Harpcottle Oak had told him what the first one was. That note had been bright and shiny like a newly whitewashed cottage with a black door. This one was different. It was lying on the step, barely there at all. Mouse could not do anything to help except wait for Lizzie to notice it. She might not notice it of course and, even if she did, she might not know what it was but Lizzie knew about music so Mouse was hopeful.

Mouse thought of a picture of Lizzie. He thought of a picture of Lizzie picking the note up. He thought of a picture of Lizzie singing to the note. It was very cold sitting on the back door step but he waited. Cats are patient.

At last he heard Lizzie in the kitchen and started making small, distressed mewling sounds. They had to be loud enough for Lizzie to hear and quiet enough not to distress the little note.

"Mouse! You silly cat! For goodness' sake, come back inside!"

Lizzie tried to open the back door to pick Mouse up. He just sat firmly in place and refused to move. All the while he kept mewling softly and anxiously as he looked down at his left paw.

No cat sits outside in the snow when they can be inside in the warm Lizzie thought to herself. Mouse had not even had his breakfast! By then her heart was beating a little too rapidly to feel comfortable. Surely Mouse could not be ill or injured?

Still in just her blue checked pyjamas, Lizzie let herself out the front door of the cottage and rushed as fast as the snow allowed around to the back door. Perhaps, she thought to herself, I can pick Mouse up that way or shoo him inside.

He was still waiting there and, if a cat could look relieved, Lizzie thought Mouse did. She stopped. She did not want to swoop on him if he was injured. She did not want to send him skittering across the garden. It was too cold for that. Lizzie thought it would snow soon.

Lizzie approached cautiously. Mouse looked down at his left paw again.

Lizzie looked carefully. There did not seem to be anything wrong with his paw. He appeared to be resting on it normally. She bent down to pick him up and, just as she did, the first faint gleam of sunshine reached the top step.

That was when she saw the little note of music. At first she did not believe it. There was a note of music, an actual note of music, leaning against Mouse's left paw?

It was a pale, almost translucent, pearl grey colour and, although faded, it seemed to be in the shape of a minim.

Lizzie stared at it. She had never seen anything quite like it before. She was not even sure what it was, just that the idea of "note" had come into her head. Mouse clearly knew it was something in need of help. All Lizzie could think was that they all needed get inside as quickly as possible.

"So that's why you were waiting - but how will I get it inside?"

Lizzie had no idea. She was sure it would just break if she tried to pick it up. Mouse did not shift, apart from a slight twitch of his whiskers.

It was so cold LIzzie's ears stung and her nose wanted to drip - if it did not ice up first. Her usually warm pyjamas felt like a sheet of ice across her back.

The little note of music had not moved. She was not sure it was even alive. Losing even a single note of music would be a dreadful thing! Mouse twitched one whisker in an encouraging sort of way. For some reason that made Lizzie think of sneezing and sneezing made her think of a paper tissue. She pulled the clean one from her pyjama pocket and knelt down.

The step felt colder than Artic ice. Lizzie thought she would have frostbite at very least. All this for a single note of music? She must be very foolish indeed.

She put the paper tissue on the palm of her hand and then, holding it level with the step, she very, very cautiously turned the note of music on its side. It fell slowly and softly onto the paper tissue. Lizzie wondered if she was imagining it or whether she heard the faintest of faint musical sighs.

"Trying to save yourself you poor little thing," Lizzie murmured.

It weighed so little she could not feel it.

Mouse gave an anxious miaou and rushed through the cat flap. Lizzie followed through the door and took the note of music into the kitchen.

"What do I do next?" she asked Mouse. He was shivering violently now. Lizzie hoped he would not be ill, "I'll get you some warm milk just as soon as I have done something with this."

Mouse just looked at her. He knew just what had to be done next but humans simply do not understand Feline. There was just one more thing Mouse could do right then. Mouse thought of a picture of Tom.

Tom, who was first harpist in the world renowned Harpcottle Orchestra, was still asleep. The Harpcottle Orchestra had been playing at the Royal Albert Hall the night before and they had been home very late.

Mouse thought of a picture of Tom getting out of bed, of Tom coming into the kitchen. He ran into Tom's room and pulled at the bedclothes.

"Oh go away Mouse!" Tom tried to turn over and pull the bedclothes up again.

No, it was too important for that. Mouse jumped up and pushed him.

"Go and ask Lizzie..."

Mouse sat on the pillow and licked Tom's ear. Tom sat up. He was really very fond of Mouse. Mouse did not usually do anything like this.

"Are you trying to tell me something?"

Mouse flicked his tail briskly, jumped from the bed and looked back at Tom. Tom sighed and got out of bed. It was much too early! Something must be wrong.


Lizzie did not answer. She was still wondering what to do next. How do you save a little note of music which is almost not there at all?

Tom could not hear Lizzie in the kitchen. Had she gone outside and fallen in the snow? Was that what Mouse had been trying to tell him? He rushed out. No, there she was.

"I thought you must have...where did you get that?" he asked. The little note of music was lying on the bench, as close to the Aga as Lizzie had dared to put it. It was still barely there. Lizzie was looking as if she might cry.

"It was outside. Mouse was trying to keep it warm...I don't know what to do next..." Lizzie sounded as if she might cry too.

Tom looked at it. He was not properly awake. He wanted a cup of tea, well several cups of tea. He did not think you could feed tea to the thing Mouse and Lizzie had found.

"I think it's a note of music," Lizzie said.

"A note of music? Of course it's a note of music! It's a minim!" Tom was suddenly wide awake. Notes of music were a huge responsibility. Tom had to look after thousands of them every day.

He sang a middle C very softly. The little thing quivered very slightly, so slightly they were not sure whether it moved or note.

"You try too," Tom said.

They both sang a Middle C very softly. Yes, the little thing definitely quivered. It was alive.

"It needs to be fed music," Tom told Lizzie.

He turned on the radio but Lizzie hastily told him to turn it off again. The little thing had tried to scrunch itself up. Somehow Lizzie knew the radio was not right.

"Maybe it needs something else as well," Tom said. He went off to think about it while he put something more than his pyjamas on.

Lizzie sang Middle C again. Mouse twitched his whiskers approvingly but Lizzie did not notice. She could not see any difference this time. She hoped they had not killed it by turning the radio on. Perhaps the little thing had just gone to sleep?

Mouse ate breakfast. Tom and Lizzie ate breakfast. Every so often Mouse broke off to offer a little purr of encouragement to the minim. Tom and Lizze each tried singing Middle C in between bites of toast.

All during the day, while Tom was at orchestra practice and she was planning the orchestra's trip to Mongolia, Lizzie watched the little note of music. Sometimes it seemed to move a little - or was it just her imagination?

She did not know. She sang Middle C sometimes. She tried Bach and Mozart and the Beatles (but softly). The little note barely stirred. The Maranoa Lullaby (which Tom had brought back from Australia) seemed to soothe it and so did the Schubert Lullaby. It jiggled a little to Boccherini and Vivaldi. She tried humming a theme from Telemann's Water Music but that obviously upset the little note - so much so that Lizzie thought she had almost killed it again and was in tears herself.

Mouse tried to help by sitting there and purring to the little note. He purred so much his throat hurt.

Lizzie went back to lullabies and nursery rhymes. Perhaps it was just a baby?

She tried a High Andean folk song and a string of German, French and Italian folksongs. When Tom came home he brought his folk harp into the kitchen and played tunes by O'Carolan and some Gaelic lullabies. The little note slept, twitching slightly as if it was dreaming.

"It looks a little bit stronger," Tom said with relief.

This went on all week and Lizzie saw that the little note really was stronger. She talked to it and, when she could talk and sing no longer, she played Handel (but not his Water Music because that upset it too), Charpentier, more Mozart, all the Beethoven apart from the Requiem, folk songs from Africa and Russia, Wales and Samoa.

Tom kept disappearing all through the week. Mouse kept disappearing too. Lizzie wondered what was wrong with them. The weather was not really bad but it was not good either. Tom looked exhausted. Mouse would come back looking almost too tired to eat his favourite fresh fish. At night he would not sleep on the end of Lizzie's bed or on the end of Tom's bed. He just curled up next to the little note.

On the Saturday afternoon before Christmas the Harpcottle Orchestra was performing in the main shopping mall. Lizzie was singing in the choir.

(Mouse was staying home. He hated the shopping mall at any time and it was always worse at Christmas.)

"You can look after the minim Mouse," Lizzie told him.

Perhaps. I might, Mouse thought to himself, just have a cat-nap. The minim could look after itself. Mouse knew what was going to happen.

The area around the big Christmas tree in the atrium of the mall was always busy and nobody took much notice when Tom set his harp up by the tree. Nobody took much notice of the double bass player either.

Tom played a few notes, adjusted one string and then played a rippling wave of notes. The double bass player brushed some more notes carefully into the air and then there was the sound of flutes, of violins, violas, cellos, clarinets, oboes, the French horns and trumpets, blowing and brushing their notes into the air. A cloth was whisked off the percussion instruments and those players took up their place. Their notes bounced up and down as if on a trampoline.

The orchestra's conductor walked out from the bookshop and looked around. All the orchestra seemed to be in place.  People were beginning to notice. The conductor raised his baton and then brought it down in one gentle, graceful swoop gathering all the notes, scattering and catching them again.

People stopped. A crying baby quietened. An arguing couple shrugged and turned to look. Small children wriggled out of the grasp of their parents and went to stand by Tom and the double bass player. Three more young children stopped and then stood ready to "conduct".

Lizzie and her friend Anne had been sitting at the Harpcottle Cafe. Now they rose and, along with the other members of the choir, began to sing.

More people stopped. The orchestra went from one joyful piece to another, the opening of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, Lizzie sang her Mozart solo.

It was as they finished that Lizzie noticed something poking out of Tom's pocket. She was not quite sure at first but then it moved a little further. The orchestra was playing the final notes of Beethoven's great Ode to Joy.

And Lizzie knew it was an even greater Ode to Joy than ever before. She knew what Tom and Mouse had been doing. They must have walked down every street in Harpcottle, right along the Harpcottle River, around Harpcottle Bay and anywhere else they could think of. They had found all the other lost notes of the Harpcottle Carol. She was sure she was right. Yes!

The little note was definitely there. It climbed up Tom's shirt and on to his shoulder. It seemed to be looking around. Lizzie looked around too. There was another little note, and another, and another. They were climbing from pockets, hats, collars, from under a scarf and along a red ribbon. There was an entire row of them now jigging around the children who were pretending to conduct.

She looked at Tom. He was smiling. She did not know how he had done it.

The orchestra had stopped. There was a roar of applause but the conductor held up his hand for silence.

"Our harpist Tom has been very busy. The very oldest of you will remember this."

Tom played the rippling notes on his harp and then picked out a tune. There was a gasp from somewhere and then, somewhere at the side, Henry Cottleton aged 103, began to sing. His voice was barely there.

"It's the Harpcottle Carol!" someone whispered.

"The Harpcottle Carol....the Harpcottle Carol..." Right around the mall the words echoed softly.

"Help him someone!" another voice said softly.

This time some members of the orchestra joined in. The choir hummed the tune in the second verse. The old people sang the half-remembered words. The television crew hidden on the upper level ignored the warning from their producer that they would be late for the evening carol service in the cathedral. They recorded it all. A young court reported took down the words and transcribed them and then rushed into the advertising room and threw them up onto the advertising screen so everyone could read them.

They sang it again - and again. The children danced to it. The little notes jigged. Lizzie was sure the little minim was grinning.

But, she was not sure anyone else except Tom, herself and Mouse could see it.

Monday 24 December 2012

"So what are you

giving everyone for Christmas?" my sister asked, "I don't know what to get anyone."
This was Saturday and she still had not, or so she claimed, done anything about it. I suspect she has done something but probably has one or two "problems".
         "Books," I told her.
         "Yes, but what books?"
She did not look in the least bit surprised. We do not go in for lavish gifts in this family. We usually do exchange books or make something for one another. This year has been a particularly busy one for me so people are getting books.
I am giving my father a biography I know he wants to read. My brother is getting a copy of Jen Campbell's "Weird things customers say in bookshops". It is funny and has the added advantage that it was light to post. The sister who asked is getting a book about herbs. I know she wanted that too. Other family are getting other books.  There is nothing lavish about any of these things. We all feel that this is not what Christmas is about.
Only my youngest sister does not want books. She rarely reads books. Even flipping through a magazine is unusual for her. She watches television if she is not outside with three dogs and whatever other animals she is caring for. I found something else small and light to post to her. We all agree, even her, that she is the most difficult person to buy a present for.
I look around at all the suggestions for Christmas gifts. The latest "gadget" seems to be some sort of coffee machine. It is, I believe, supposed to make a cappucino type coffee. It would be absolutely wasted on any of us.  We drink coffee but not in great quantities. (We do not drink tea in great quantities either.) The machine is, I believe, quite compact but it would take up precious space in our small kitchen.
No, I am not one who appreciates such things. It would be wasted on me. So would most other "gadgets".
I suspect there are many such presents which will be given to people this Christmas. They will be used once or twice and then put to one side.
I know the books I give will be read by the recipient and then passed around the family for others to read. The same will happen with the ones they give. It is a mini library each year - and something we all appreciate.

Sunday 23 December 2012

I am going to be unusually

serious for the Sunday before Christmas.
Our national newspaper carried a major front page article about literacy and literacy levels yesterday. Most of it was predictable. It really said nothing new, certainly nothing my father and I are not already aware of.
I went off to do some essential shopping I had planned to do on Monday. (Monday morning will, with luck, be taken up with a visit to the dentist to get a filling replaced!)
The shopping centre was crowded and, being the festive season, there was some "entertainment". This time it was in the form of two "electronic pianos". I assume those playing them were chosen students. One was a small Chinese boy, aged perhaps nine or ten. He played a number of Christmas carols very competently and very seriously. His mother was standing at a distance watching him.  People walked backwards and forwards. Were they really aware of him. I doubt most of them were - or gave any thought to the hours of work that must have gone into the performance.
I wondered what else he did and whether he had time to read - or rather, whether he had time to read for pleasure.
He is probably intelligent. He probably reads well but I would not be surprised to find he does not read fiction.
My own godson is not keen on fiction. He would rather play the latest "Angry Birds" game. His mother has tried to get him to read. I have tried. He is "not interested". He is distracted by screen games. I suspect many other children are distracted by screen games too.
Later a friend called in here and I mentioned it to her. As a former teacher of the deaf she is very aware of literacy issues. We both agreed that some, perhaps many, children are "time poor". They do not make time to read and, sometimes, do not have the time. It is said that as many as a quarter of Australian students cannot read at the desired level for their age but there is more to reading than that. I suspect there are many others who could do well on a "literacy test" but they are not really literate. There is a vast difference between being able to read a short piece, often factual in content, and answer questions about it and being able to read an entire book. Reading a work of fiction is about more than reading the words on the page.
I wonder if some of those "competent" readers are in fact not really good readers at all and whether we should not be worrying just as much about them as those who have not reached the level educators have set.
The little pianist can read music but can he read a book about someone who plays music?

Saturday 22 December 2012

The phone rang after 9pm

last night. I had spoken to my sister who lives nearby earlier in the evening. My brother and other sister would only ring that late if it was an emergency as it is even later for them.
I knew it would not be good news. It was not. A friend said, "Is it too late to ring? R had a stroke today."
Oh. The news was not in itself that surprising. R is 85 and in poor health. She lives with a cousin who is twenty years younger - each is the only family the other has. We are "substitute family" for them and have been for many years. They would collect my nephews from school. They took my parents to medical appointments when they were not able to drive for medical reasons. My parents reciprocated. My father put up shelves for them.
Over the past few years R's health has been increasingly uncertain. Her younger cousin and I have been watching. Lately R's behaviour has been somewhat erratic and uncertain. The towels have not been hung on the line "the right way". "That is not "X" street. It is "Y" street. I don't care what it says. They have it wrong." "You can't get a paper now. The shop isn't open." (It was 10am on a Thursday morning.)
She phoned me recently and told me I "must not wash my hair in anything other than goat's milk".
Her younger cousin has been coping with this for a considerable time now. R seemed to "behave" in the presence of her GP. He has been having difficulty getting the information he told her cousin he needed - although he sensed there was a problem. He is also my GP and, knowing this, the last time I saw him I mentioned I had just seen her and that she had made the comment about buying the newspaper. He, rightly, did not discuss her state of health with me but he brought her notes up and added one of his own with a "thanks for that information". There was no need for either of us to say more. I knew it would add to the overall picture. That was all he needed.
So, yesterday morning she "felt dizzy" while she was showering. She managed to call out to her younger cousin before collapsing. An ambulance came quickly. They called a second ambulance.
Hours later her younger cousin left the hospital and phoned us when she arrived home. She had nothing but praise for the ambulance staff and I could reassure her about the way the hospital was handling things. The unit has an excellent reputation.
We all know the outcome is uncertain. If the phone rang again now I would not be surprised.
When last night's conversation was over however my father said to me,
     "I'm so glad she felt she could ring us. Family is just so important."

Friday 21 December 2012

It is supposed to be the

"end of the world" today. You know what I mean. The Mayans set up a calendar and today is supposed to be the end of the world. If it is then none of us can do anything about it.
But, if we get another chance, what's on your "bucket list"...that list of things you would like to do before you die?
There is a page three picture in our state newspaper this morning of an 89yr old grandmother on the back of a jet-ski. It was something she wanted to do. Good for her.
My sister-in-law went sky diving. Her family gave it to her as a present one year because they knew she wanted to do it. My brother (who loves her dearly) was both terrified for her and proud of her for doing it.
My brother has been up in a balloon. He only told our father after he had done it.
The Senior Cat made some conjuring apparatus for one of the wold's most outstanding magicians. They met at a conference and the magician described something he wanted to be able to do when he found out the Senior Cat "made things". Seeing the item in use on stage was something the Senior Cat described as a "bucket list" moment.
One of my sisters, much more adventurous in the food department than me, has eaten snake. (I still feel ill at the very thought.)
My other sister went to Egypt. It surprised all of us but it was something on her bucket list.
I know other people who have done other "bucket list" things - one went off to a famous knitting camp in the United States, one flew to the Antarctic and back, another gained his "matriculation" at the age of 83 and a couple set up a small French restaurant - after they had "retired"!
We were discussing this before a meeting yesterday and people were mentioning things they would like to do. Most involved travel - trips around Australia in a caravan being the most popular.
Nobody asked me. When I said this someone said, "But you have already achieved yours!"
No, I have not. Oh I knew what they meant but there should always be something you want to do.
I have some big items on my list...I want to see a million trees planted, have some books published, pedal around the UK, knit a proper Shetland shawl...oh those things are just a start.
Life should be about bucket lists. What's on yours?

Thursday 20 December 2012

I was hugged by

a stranger yesterday. He did it in full view of a lot of other people in our local shopping centre.
        At the beginning of this year a teacher at one of the local schools asked if I could give one of the year 12 students some help. She told me he was "very motivated but he is having some problems".
I agreed cautiously to meet the boy. He was very quiet but also very polite and yes, very motivated.
It took a while but (and I am saying this with his permission) I eventually discovered that he was motivated for a reason. His mother had been 42 when she had him. His father had been even older. His father died when he was just nine. His mother was not expected to live more than a few months. He desperately wanted to at least finish year 12 but he also had a part-time job because they needed the extra income.
Doing year 12 is tough enough without the need to do a part-time job and care for a very sick parent.
I helped him reorganise his study time-table. The Senior Cat, who has long been interested in how people learn, gave some extra suggestions with respect to study skills. Through the year I read his written work and suggested ways it could be improved. It did not take a lot of time.
Occasionally I would offer him "a bit of extra baking" or some garden produce. I tried to do it in a way that would not make him feel as if he was accepting charity.
His mother died in late August and I wondered if he would go to pieces.
He could have gone to live with his grandparents in another state at that point. No, he was going to finish Year 12 for his mother. He had promised her he would do it. His school was supportive and managed to get him some social welfare assistance.  He stayed on in the house alone. One of the neighbours provided his evening meal and kept an eye on him.
I saw him yesterday. He introduced a very elderly man as his grandfather.  I found myself being hugged.
          "Good results then?" I asked
          "Yes, I left you a message with your Dad - 98.5," he told me.
          "The lad's going to the university next year," his grandfather told me, "We'll manage it somehow."
I am sure they will. He is going to make a very good doctor.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Examination results for the

Year 12 students come out today. They can access them by computer and i-phone or wait for the postman to deliver them in an envelope. There are no longer "public examinations" at the end of year 10 (Intermediate) and Year 11 (Leaving) and even parts of Year 12 are internally assessed.
I remember waiting for my "Intermediate" results. They did not come out until two days after Christmas. Christmas was not to be enjoyed that year but to be endured. My mother saw to that. I think she believed she was being perfectly fair and reasonable.
On Christmas morning I was told what my present would be - if I passed. Right around me everyone else unwrapped parcels. Presents to me from my grandparents, aunts and uncles, were put to one side. I would be given them when the results came out.
I know my father would have remonstrated with my mother in private. He never argued with her in front of us. She would have been adamant. No presents unless I passed. Failure would be a public humiliation for her as well as me.
My mother kept reminding me the results would be coming and how she would feel if I did not meet her expectations. My father did not mention them.
Of course my father had to worry about everyone's examination results - years 10, 11 and those few year 12 students who had been working largely alone in the big country school my father was responsible for looking after. The day the results came out he would be fielding phone calls and visits from parents who would demand to know why their child had not done better, whether their child should return to school, repeat, do different subjects, change streams etc etc. The results were a reflection on his staff as well as his students.
No, my mother told me that she was the one who had to "worry" about our results. My brother, younger than me, had already been castigated for not getting full marks in his maths exam. He ignored her. He had still managed to get more marks than anyone else.
By the night before the results came out I was quite literally sick with worry.
They were printed in the newspaper in those days. Your surname and initials, your number and your results were there for the entire world to see. It was a cruel system.
Students would head off to the printing door of the state newspaper and wait for the first edition to come off the presses. The newspaper was sympathetic. They would produce the results as rapidly as they could - inevitably there were errors on occasions but they did their best
Even if we had been staying with my grandparents in the city there was no way I would ever have been allowed to join the throng at the printing door. As it was I had to wait for the paper to arrive. I had to wait until my father opened the paper and read the results.
Fortunately my father was as anxious as I was. The van that delivered the newspapers to places as far as the coast was as early as it could be. It was just after five in the morning when the paper landed with that ominous thud in the front yard.  My father was up as soon as he heard it. I stood there chewing my knuckles as he went out the door.
        "Cat, get my glasses!" Oh yes, he was every bit as anxious as I was. 
I did far better than I had expected I would do. I ate breakfast without being sick. My mother said I "must have recovered from that stomach bug".
My father spent the day in his headmaster's office talking to parents.
I opened my Christmas presents from my relatives. I wrote them "thankyou" notes the same day and posted them with all the other thankyou notes from my siblings. Local people congratulated me on my results. I congratulated some of my classmates who were gathered outside the general store. They were admiring a new racing bike one of them had been given as a Christmas present. He had barely passed but his parents seemed pleased he had passed at all.
I never did get a Christmas present. I had known I would not. It was "saved" for my birthday a few days later. My presents were always "for Christmas and birthday".

Tuesday 18 December 2012

"I am not writing any

Christmas cards," the Senior Cat informed me.
       "No father dearest I do not expect you to do that," I told him.
He has reached the stage where he hates writing anything, even signing his name is a chore.  He grips the pen he is using as if it is going to run away from him. My sister has tried to show him how to relax and, if not enjoy, at least feel comfortable about the physical act of writing. Nothing changes him. He has always been a tense writer.
I can remember watching him write things on the blackboard when he taught me at school. (I am old enough to remember real blackboards and real chalk.) His fingers would grip the chalk so tightly that his fingers would be white with the effort. So, no the Senior Cat does not write Christmas cards.
He never did. My mother did. She kept the "Christmas card list" in a book with a red and black cover.. In it she noted whether she had sent a card, whether a reply had been received and in what year. The list grew and then faded over the years as she lost touch with people. Names would be crossed off due to death or, less often, because people had moved on. Sometimes names would be added or would be there for just one year but many of them were there for decades.
Whatever happened my mother was organised about this. She would write lengthy letters to some, shorter notes to others. My godmother always rated at least six pages, many others three or four. My mother's hand flowed apparently effortlessly across the page. We left the card writing to her apart from a few friends of our own until we grew up and left home.
"The List" has now decreased. Many of the people my mother corresponded with were women of her generation. Card writing was seen as their task. Very few of the men wrote cards, some did not even sign the cards. All was left to their wives.
After my mother died my father said he felt he should reply if people sent cards but he was not going to initiate the process.
That seemed fair enough. I did not know all the people on "the List" and neither did he so it grew much shorter. Since then it has grown shorter still.  It is an inevitable part of old age.
I write cards for friends overseas - at least for the friends who celebrate Christmas. After all, I do not see them from one year to the next. Even if we have been in touch during the year it is nice to send them something which says, "I am thinking of you."
Some of my friends are Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu so I do not send Christmas cards. We stay in touch anyway.
Local friends increasingly say "don't send a card" and we don't. It makes me wonder whether people will eventually stop sending cards at all. I am not sure how I feel about this. Will it still be Christmas without any cards?

Monday 17 December 2012

"Arts Council Grants?"

someone asked me after hearing about yesterday's blog post, "They should be thrown out. We shouldn't be wasting taxpayer money on anything like that. If people want those things they can pay for them themselves."
He was adamant. There should be no funding for anything that was even vaguely "cultural".
       "What about literary prizes?" his wife asked.
No, none of those either.
His proud claim is that he does not read novels. He only reads non-fiction. He believes that libraries should stock only non-fiction. They should be "places where you can find things out" - nothing more. Reading fiction, he told us, "does not help you to find out about the world."
He went off to play cricket. His wife said, "Nothing will change him."
At that time I had not read Chris's comments or thought about the issue of sport.
We do spend a lot of money on sport in Australia. It is supposed to be one of the national passions. A lot of taxpayer money goes into funding sport, providing facilities for sport,  supporting sportspeople and training them etc etc.
There is a "National Institute for Sport" - "students" can live and work there on scholarships. There are cricket, football and golf "schools". There are secondary schools which have a special emphasis on sport.
Those who excel at sport are referred to as "heroes". There are street parades for medal and Grand Final winners. Some of them get paid obscene sums of money. Admittedly they have had to work at acquiring skills and the length of their careers is limited but $500,000 is not bad for an inexperienced footballer of no particular talent who has not yet managed to kick a goal.
Compared with the money to be had in sport then Arts Council Grants are very small. The adulation given the artist, musician, actor or writer is much less - with very rare exceptions.
So, I have another do we justify spending more on sportspeople? As Chris points out in yesterday's comment these people are not doing it for the general good. Other people do not benefit from their individual performance. They do not all win medals. Is it really any different?

Sunday 16 December 2012

The Stroppy Author has been

stirring the pot on her blog again.  "I don't approve of Arts Council grants to writers" she wrote "The public purse should not - as a rule - fund the personal ambition of people who want to write fiction, poetry or non-fiction".
I can, I think, understand where she is coming from because she goes on to say,
"I see no problem in funding where the intended beneficiary is the public. A community might need a theatre or art gallery, or subsidised tickets to performances but arts funding should be targeted to the general good and not at individual authors in need of money."
I splashed my paws vigorously in the Stroppy Author's pot because, although I do not violently disagree with what she had to say, I think there are some issues there. Writers have always been the poor relations in the arts. They are likely to go on being the poor relations too.
This is because writing is not usually seen as being "work". It is supposed to be "easy". Writers will tell you otherwise but that is the perception that non-writers have, even when they tell you they think it must be "very difficult" to write a book. After all, you just sit there and put the words on the page (or the screen) and then send it off and it gets printed and sold in a bookshop or put on the library shelves. That's all there is to it - or so "they" would have us believe.
Musicians, ballet dancers and actors on the other hand clearly need to practice (although I doubt many people realise how much work goes into that) and artists need paint and canvas and a gallery in which to hang their work. An artist produces something unique too. There is a belief that makes it much more valuable than words in a book which can be reproduced over and over again.
The problem with the Stroppy Author's argument however is that by subsidising the theatre tickets for the general good (or indeed the library) then you are supporting some playwrights and authors over others. By keeping an art gallery open for the general good you are supporting some artists over others. By providing a grant for "experimental theatre", an "art installation" or some other arts related event you are still supporting one form of art over another. They may well be "important" and of "general benefit" to the community but they are still someone's personal dream and they are normally produced at a loss to the taxpayer.
Without taxpayer funds there would be almost no symphony orchestras. Operas and ballet would not be produced. Many popular music festivals depend on some taxpayer input. Open air art shows often rely on the use of public space. Our local council has a foyer gallery where artists can show their work for sale. If they sell anything the council gets a small fee but the space is otherwise free. There are many similar arrangements for artists and craftspeople in other places. There are almost no such arrangements for writers.
But the Stroppy Author argues that publishing is a business. If one book fails to sell then you can go to the library and borrow another. It is almost as if "it doesn't really matter".
I will splash the pot even more vigorously with my paws and ask, "Does it matter?"

Saturday 15 December 2012

"Nobody who 'wants' a

gun should have one" my elderly writer friend said to me in an e-mail.  She is an American and she lives in Connecticut. The e-mail came to assure me, "Nobody in the family is directly involved but we are all shaken to the very core of our collective being". I knew she lives some distance away but it was a relief to hear from her. Her usually fine English prose sounded stilted. There were errors. Her distress poured from the page.
        "It is easier to accept an accident through human error or a natural disaster but this should not have been able to happen."
No, it should not have been able to happen. She has long opposed the "gun lobby", the National Rifle Association and anyone else who believes in "the right to bear arms". She believes there is no such right.
I can barely imagine the unspeakable tragedy. Communities do not recover from that sort of tragedy. They move on because they must but it will always be there at the back of their collective consciousness.
It puzzles me that the airline industry has now gone to extraordinary lengths to try and prevent passengers but the United States is apparently unable to deal with the problem of gun ownership. The "right to bear arms" is apparently enshrined in their constitution. There is no doubt they saw it as necessary when the founding fathers wrote their constitution. It is a right people do not want to give up - even if others have to die because of it. I am profoundly grateful that there is no such "right" in the Australian Constitution - and that the United Kingdom has seen fit to try and reduce the use of all weapons.
My father is strongly opposed to guns and any sort of gun culture. He is almost a pacifist, although he says that he would defend his family. We grew up in the country where farmers owned guns. "Going roo-ing" or "going spotlighting" (the killing of kangaroos at night under spotlights on vehicles) was a popular pastime in some places but the vast majority of farmers saw their guns as essential tools to put an animal out of misery as quickly and humanely as possible. Guns were not "toys". They were not there for "recreational" use. Farmers did not "want" them in that sense. They needed them.
Of course we are not immune to mass shooting. Australia has the Port Arthur incident. The shooter will never be released. He is not sane. We still do not have the sort of gun culture or ownership levels that the United States has.  I hope we never have it. Our Prime Minister at the time of the Port Arthur massacre was John Howard. He had no constitutional right to bring in gun ownership laws but, leading by example and force of personality, he succeeded in getting the states to do something about the situation. Since then we have had no mass shootings although, sadly, we have not managed to eradicate all gun related deaths. The UK has similar legislation in response to the unspeakable tragedy at Dunblane. Gun control works.
I know one person who owns a pistol in the metropolitan area. She is a Paralympic medallist. Her chosen sport has allowed her to attend events around the world. She would not have got to any of those places without being a pistol shooter. I also know she would have foregone all that experience if it could have prevented the most recent tragedy.
Nobody who wants a gun needs one.

Friday 14 December 2012

I have promised to

do an hour "collecting" for the Christmas Bowl Appeal this afternoon. I am, as always, doing this with mixed feelings. Yes, it is a worthy cause and most of the money collected will go where it is intended it should go. All the same I dislike the idea of standing there "asking" for money.
Fortunately I do not actually need to "ask". You just sit or stand there, smile nicely and hope that people will feel they want to contribute something. Yes, we have been told by the organiser not to approach people, especially at this particular location.
I would not approach people anyway. It is my belief that nobody should feel they are required to donate money to any cause at all. It should be left up to them.
I will never try and sell books of raffle tickets for the same reason. I cannot make myself approach my friends, neighbours and acquaintances and ask them to part with money in the hope of winning a car or a case of wine or some other "donated" goody. There are no raffle tickets involved this time, just a straightforward donation - if people want to give.
I know charities are constantly trying to come up with new ways to raise money. The "prizes" for "donating" have become even bigger. There are at least two local charities which raffle off houses each year. Cars, boats and caravans are now commonplace.
Someone I am vaguely acquainted with won a trailer filled with gardening equipment, electrical goods and toys. He lives in a city apartment, does not drive or have a garden. He has all the electrical goods he needs and no children. He gave the lot away with a shrug and perhaps it did more good that way. He had bought the ticket under pressure from a work colleague.
But I have other problems with charitable organisations. I know that far too much of the money gets wasted on administration and on the public face of the charity. I know that some of them replicate the work of other, similar charities and that administration is duplicated, as is money spent on the public face. I know that there are all sorts of issues inside charities. I know they struggle to get funds and volunteers and that many smaller charities are simply not able to compete.
I also know that they should supplement the work which should be done by government paid for by our taxes. They should not be a substitute - but all too often they are.

Thursday 13 December 2012

Reading fiction at school

is apparently a thing of the past - well, almost. Our national newspaper had reports yesterday which stated that fourth year students were ranked twenty-seventh in the world with respect to reading skills.
I am not sure what that really means. I am always nervous around such "statistics" because there are so many variables that they can be meaningless. All the same it is fair to say that many children are reading less, much less. They are reading less than they should be if we want them to be fluent readers.
As a child I read long before I went to school at all. As I grew up I read before I set off for the day at school. I read at school - often getting into strife for reading a book when I should have been doing something else. I read after school and in the evenings. I read at weekends.
I admit I did not have the competing interests of sport, ballet, music, drama class or any of the other things which are now considered essential. I was not in before and after school care the way many children are. My siblings and the other children of my generation did not have those things either. We most certainly did not have computers or mobile phones or any sort of "screen games" or even television to take from reading time. We read because it was a major way of entertaining ourselves. Even children who were "not great readers" tended to read.
Now there are many other things competing against what was once "reading time". Some children are actually time-poor. They have music practice to do or an extra cricket or football training session. At after-school care they may do their "homework" but they will then be encouraged to "be active" rather than read.
Parents and even some teachers then mistake "reading" a computer screen or activities like sending text messages as being the equivalent of reading a book. They are not. They are quite different sort of activities which require other skills.
Of course children still read but what they are reading and the purposes for which they are reading are often very different. They read computer screens. There will often be images and sound. They read them to obtain information, usually factual information related to some classroom activity.
They will read the material which is set as part of the learning experience at school. Some of that will be fiction but much of it will be non-fiction. "Reading" can now include watching a film, looking at a poster or comic. Yes, they are forms of reading.
They are not however like reading a novel.
It is reading novels which counts in my book. Reading a novel should mean being able to experience someone else's world for a short time. We should be able to identify, empathise and sympathise with characters who were strangers when we first met them. The characters should grow in our minds as we use our imagination to fill in details that are not actually stated but just hinted at.
Reading a book, especially a novel, is not in the least bit like "reading" (watching) a film. The film does almost all the work for you. It shows you what the characters look like, how they sound and how they behave. It leaves little, if anything, to the imagination. When a film does require us to use imagination much more of the work has already been done for us. We are being given much more direction about how we should think.
School library services are being cut back. Some schools no longer have libraries. There is "no time" to visit the library at weekends - and "no time" to read in between. There are even educators who say this does not matter, as long as the child "can read to obtain the necessary information" - forgetting that there is a difference between obtaining information and using the information you obtain. That requires imagination, imagination that comes with reading fiction for pleasure.
All this bothers me. It has implications for writers as well as readers.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Yesterday there was a table of books outside

the newsagent's temporary Christmas "shop" in our shopping centre. I suspect most of them are "reps" copies. There was only one copy of each book and they were all marked down in price. There was even a copy of Bring Up The Bodies at about half the price I would pay in the bookshop at the other end of the pedestrian walkway. I did not buy it.
Next to it though was a small, slim volume with a French title. Anything in a foreign language will catch my eye. It is unusual to see anything like that here. We once had a foreign language bookshop but it closed. I used to buy bilingual picture books for my nephews and my godchildren in it.
My paw went out and I picked up "Les tres riches heures de Mrs Mole" by Ronald Searle. It is a gem. Oh yes, I bought it. I did not hesitate. I may need to eat table scraps for the rest of the week but it will be worth it. It was one of those rare finds. The sub-title to the book reads, "Forty-seven drawings made for his wife, Monica, each time she underwent chemotherapy."
Searle's wife had been diagnosed with a rare and virulent form of breast cancer. She was not expected to live, indeed the advice was to put here somewhere and let her die comfortably. But that did not suit the Searles. They had just bought a cottage in France. It needed to be renovated. That was Monica's job. She went for chemotherapy. Each time she had it Searle would give her another "Mrs Mole" picture. He knew of no other way to so well express his love for his wife - and that love shines through. "Mrs Mole" lived another forty years.
I have in my possession a letter my father wrote to my mother when she was dying. The hospital staff gave it to me along with a few other possessions. I have not told my father or any other member of the family that I have it. I have not read it. It is not mine to read but it seems wrong to simply destroy it while my father is still alive. My mother was not an easy person in many ways but my father loved her, still loves her and still misses her twelve years later.
I gave my father the book. He looked slowly through it as he drank his morning tea. There was a small smile on his face. I have no doubt he was remembering his Mrs Mole.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Putting your name on the

electoral roll is compulsory in Australia.
I have forgotten the precise sections of the various Electoral Acts (Commonwealth and State) which require you to do this but the law says you must do it.
You must do it when you reach the age of eighteen. Indeed you can do it a little before that in order to ensure that you are on it by the age of eighteen. You must also inform them if you change your address.
It is also possible to have your name removed from the electoral roll if you are going to be out of the country for an extended period of time - but preferably only if you are going to be somewhere which will make it difficult, if not impossible, to vote in the event of an election.
Now the government has decided that they will "automatically enrol" people and also keep the roll up-to-date by relying on information from third parties, like the motor vehicles registry. They have enacted legislation to do this.
I have no doubt at all that this was done in the belief that 18 to 39 year old people, the most mobile and least likely to go on the roll, will vote Labor. The present government sees this as an advantage to them.
It says far more about our system of compulsory attendance at the ballot box than it does about democracy. There is the clear belief that many people will simply vote mindlessly for Labor. It is a way of obtaining many votes at no expense or effort. It leaves the party free to concentrate on winning over the "swinging" voter.
I have said elsewhere in this blog that voting is a right and a duty. It should not however be something that people are coerced into doing by legislation put in place by lazy governments.
There are also serious problems with the legislation in question. It is wide open to fraudulent practices. There was an instance in this state where someone made a claim that his or her family managed to vote multiple times in a state election. I do not know what he or she did, whether it was possible, or whether it really happened. It is worth noting though that the Electoral Commissioner apparently admitted in a newspaper interview that what was claimed to have been done could have been done. I am also aware that our electoral system is far from being free of fraud and corruption. It can, according to a former acquaintance of mine who was a very senior member of the Electoral Commission, be manipulated in all sorts of ways.
It will soon be compulsory to teach all secondary students in Australia something about the Holocaust and how it has helped to shape our modern western democracies. Few people would argue that students need to know about such things. While that is to be taught the very basics of our own "democracy" are not being taught. The compulsion to attend the ballot box is not explained or debated. The potential manipulation of the system is not acknowledged or recognised.  Why?
There can only be one answer to that. Our system could not bear too much scrutiny. It might be found to be less democratic than we wish to believe.

Monday 10 December 2012

I am breakfastless

this "breakfastless" a word? I am not sure. Yes, I am having one of those "fasting" blood tests this morning. It is something most of us seem to have these days. Doctors, probably rightly, insist on them.
I had to mention this to someone last night when I declined to try some of their baking - but I was given a tiny bit to take with me for today.  We also discussed what she and other people we knew ate for breakfast.
My father has exactly the same breakfast every day. Muesli (which I make), a slice of toast with marmalade and instant coffee in a mug of milk. It never varies. He does not appear to be bored with this. I doubt he is really aware of eating it. He is reading the paper while he eats.
Other people seem to do things differently.
        "Oh, I had cold pizza this morning," the baker told me.
Cold pizza? She is not the first person who has told me this and she probably will not be the last. I cannot imagine eating that for breakfast. I am not particularly fond of pizza (mostly because they tend to be rather horrid) and I think it needs to be hot - not cold.
I know my sister's boys and their friends will do this - or eat leftover Chinese. My nephews are also known to make things like pancakes (from packet mix) and French toast for breakfast. They are not alone.
Other people have "smoothies" or "breakfast bars" or "breakfast on the go" packs. I know one person who has a banana sandwich every day.
There are many people, especially older people, who have tea or coffee and toast.
And some of us usually have porridge - or cereal when it gets too hot to consider making porridge....there is something about porridge...
So, this is short this morning .... i have to head off without porridge to meet the vampire nurse...and I must mind my manners and smile nicely when she asks,
       "Have you been fasting?"

Sunday 9 December 2012

The washing machine

had a little hiccup yesterday.
I save the washing water in the laundry sink to use for a second load. The pump did not work properly for some reason and, instead of remaining in the sink, the water flowed back into the machine. It took with it all the dirt from the filter and left dirty marks all over the clothes. Start again. Paws crossed. Will it work properly this time? It did.
A moment ago the computer did something strange and I have, seemingly, managed to fix the problem by re-booting it. Nevertheless I am conscious that, like the washing machine, this computer is probably reaching the "use-by" date.
It annoys me.
When our refrigerator broke down several years ago we had it repaired. The refrigeration mechanic who looked at it said something like, "I can repair it or you can buy a new one. If I repair it then it will probably last longer than a new one. They are not built to last any more." We have not had a problem with it since it was repaired. A new one would have been out of warranty some time ago.
I can understand that, from the manufacturer's point of view, this "need a new one" culture is a good thing. It means you will buy a new item. From my point of view however it is not a good thing. I do not necessarily have the money to buy a new item. The old one may have been adpated in certain ways to suit me. However even those things are of little importance. The real issue is that needing to buy a new one uses more of the world's resources. Repairing one would take much less.
With all the talk of "global warming" this is yet another issue that the climate "experts" do not seem to be prepared to address. They are apparently unwilling to acknowledge that putting a "use-by" date on things that should not need a use-by date is just adding to the problem.
Oh yes, I understand it provides employment for millions. It keeps economies going. It allows a (too) high standard of living for some.
I could, just, wash by hand. It would be difficult - especially without a way of wringing dripping wet clothes.
I cannot work without a computer. It is time to talk to nephews about these things because my brother-in-law, like me, belongs to the generation where you fix things if you can - and, sometimes, they are not fixable.
Yesterday though I saw a postcard of the back view of two elderly people. How was it, one was asking the other, that they had managed to stay together for so long? The answer from the other was because they belonged to the generation that did not throw things away. They fixed the problem.

Saturday 8 December 2012

I think I am lost

for words this morning. When I wrote yesterday's post there was no hint of the tragedy which was about to unfold.
It genuinely saddens me that anyone should lose their life over a stupid, unnecessary and not-funny "prank" but the nurse at the centre of the hospital prank has, apparently, committed suicide. Perhaps the prank was just "the last straw". We may never know. It makes no difference.
Despite that there is no hint - as yet - that the equally stupid and childish "prank" being played by our Prime Minister will be withdrawn. Indeed one of our senior most political commentators, Laurie Oakes, has gone so far as to praise her for doing it in a column on "The Punch". 
Someone else commented elsewhere that it was "marvellous she can show herself to be a larrikin". Really?
That any of this is going on right now surprises me. I would have thought that journalists, DJs and media commentators of any sort would have been keeping their heads down and being very cautious. I would have thought they would have been very careful to show they were responsible citizens.
Instead it is almost as if they had a death wish for themselves, for the media and for free speech. They are giving those who would like to see constraints on the media and "freedom of speech" the best possible ammunition.
It may not be adverse political commentary which brings the end to the sort of press freedoms we now have. Instead it will be stupid, childish pranks.

Friday 7 December 2012

"It was supposed to be

funny - and it wasn't," someone told me yesterday.
He was commenting on the radio station personality who had pretended to be Queen Elizabeth and fooled the person at the switchboard in a hospital in London.  The person commenting to me is one of the young students working in our local supermarket. We were chatting as he was scanning my lengthy grocery shop.
I confess I was surprised but he said,
       "There are some people you should never do that sort of thing to. They can't retaliate, I mean they may not want to but they can't even if they do want to."
I could understand what he was trying to say.
Later in the day someone else sent me a link to our Prime Minister solemnly informing us that the world will end on the 21st December - a misunderstood reference to a Mayan calendar date which has been given much undue publicity. This was supposed to be a joke too. Again, it was not funny, indeed it was silly. 
Some people will always take such things seriously and the consequences could be dangerous. When someone like our Prime Minister participates in such "jokes" it is muxh more likely to be taken seriously. The "digital age" allows such things to be refined and taken out of context. Show it to a gullible group of people and someone could easily feel compelled to do something very foolish indeed - and yes, those people do exist.
The other thing that bothers me is that they were making fun of the ancient culture of another country. If the group who obtained the cooperation of the Prime Minister had asked her to participate in a similar stunt involving the culture of the Aboriginal Dreamtime she would, rightly, have refused. The group would also have found itself in deep trouble with any number of groups. It would have been considered highly offensive.
My father loves jokes. He has a row of books containing jokes. If I ever see a new one I will buy it for him. I am giving my godson a book of jokes for Christmas. His sister had some at the same age.
My father loves telling jokes too. It drives me mad at times. He will tell Australian jokes and Scottish jokes - he was born here and his ancestors were Scottish. He will not make fun of other groups. He is happy for them to tell jokes against themselves but he does not believe he should. He is almost ninety and he still has a seemingly endless supply of jokes. He does not need to poke fun at other people in order to try and raise a laugh.
I know those things were supposed to be funny. I know people will disagree with me when I say I understand that they were supposed to be funny but I do not find them particularly amusing. 
Perhaps I really do just lack a sense of humour?

Thursday 6 December 2012

I wonder what it would be like to be

more than a hundred years old? Recently, the "world's oldest person" was reported as having died at the age of 116. I am not sure how you can still be the world's oldest person if you are dead or how they know that the person in question was the world's oldest person but never mind, that is how it was reported.
This morning our state newspaper was full of the news that Dame Elisabeth Murdoch has died at the age of 103. Unlike her son, Rupert Murdoch, I had some time for the feisty old lady. She did a great deal of good in her life, particularly in relation to hospitals and like places. She used her position for good. She will be missed by many..
But I wonder how many people of 103 or more would be missed by more than their immediate families? Who is left to mourn them?
My godmother's mother lived to 103. When she died there were very few people at her funeral. By then my godmother had been living interstate for years and would come on an annual visit to see her mother in a nursing home. In between she would make a twice weekly 'phone call and send letters and photographs, doing her best to keep in touch with her mother. My godmother's brother and sister also kept in touch but not as regularly. They were both in "supported accommodation" by the time their mother died and did not come for the funeral although their children did.
I went. My parents went because my godmother had been my mother's friend since early childhood. There were some staff from the nursing home and a "much younger" friend, in her early nineties. I do not remember anyone else being there.
Who could be there?
Another 103 year old of my acquaintance died recently. There were a handful of people at her funeral too. If she had died at 93 the church would have been full but in the intervening ten years she would often say things like,
         "Another two funerals this week dear."
Her friends and acquaintances kept dying around her.
Most people of 103 have few, if any, friends of a similar age left. They have outlived them. My paternal grandfather once told me he had "lived too long". His friends had died around him. There was nobody to share childhood memories with. It was even difficult to find people who shared memories of his early adult life. It was not that he wanted to live in the past. He did not. He was always looking to the future. My father is the same.
Do people of that great age find it reassuring to look at the past though? Perhaps it allows them to say, "Yes, I have achieved something."

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Applying for university is

very different now.
When I applied to enter teacher training college I filled out the forms for the course I wanted to do, went for the medical (knowing I would fail) and was told that because I had the necessary examination passes they could not refuse to take me but I would have to pay to go. The fee was minimal. I worked as a "junior housemistress" in a boarding school for girls and went to college at the same time. I probably worked a great deal harder than most students...after all I had to both support myself and prove to the world I could do the course.
Now, if they failed me on the medical, I could take them to the Equal Opportunity Tribunal and the authorities would be roasted for discrimination. Although it was awful at the time I think I am glad I did not have to go the second route.
My goddaughter on the other hand is about to head off to Oxford for interviews - three days of interviews. She wants to do bio-medical science there. Her second choice of university is one in the United States.
Her mother has been e-mailing me. (They live in Singapore.) "These days it is all about the subject area."  That's her view. She believes that all her child's other achievements and interests will be ignored.
My view is that the subject area is very important but the interview panels are also going to look beyond that. If all that mattered was the subject area and your results then they might not bother to interview. They might assume, well you managed to get this far so you probably have the personality and the study skills to continue. It is what they assumed when I went to teacher training college. They did not recognise most students were not passionate about teaching. It was a way of getting a tertiary education and being paid for doing it. Being "bonded" for three years afterwards was considered the price you paid.
Now I think they will not only want to know why you want to do your chosen course (I certainly would) but whether you really might have the personality to take up an expensive place and succeed. Do you have the necessary organisation and study skills? What will you contribute to the course? How will you mix with your fellow students? What are you likely to do in your limited free time and how will that help you? Will it reflect well or badly on your chosen college and the university as a whole? What do you see as being your career options? Why here, why not somewhere else?
I had an "interview" of sorts before I went to law school. I happened to be in hospital (post knee surgery) and a member of staff rang me there.  "Why here, why not where you are now?" I explained they concentrated on two areas of law I felt I needed. "Why do you need to study those things in particular?"
I explained about the way my present work was developing. There was silence at the other end of the phone and then he said, "We'll see you when university starts."
I wonder if it would be that easy now? I doubt it. I know that even then the younger students had rigorous interviews and that the staff were interested in much more than "I want to be a lawyer".
So subject choice will not be everything for my goddaughter. They just might, even if they do not tell her, be interested in the fact that she can put a string on her cello and defend it with a judo throw against a thief.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

There is a street named after

my paternal great-grandfather. It is in the area by the "river" on which he spent much of his adult life. The "river" is actually a long arm of the sea. He mapped the area (which requires constant dredging) and acted as one of two ship's pilots.
Where he managed to learn marine cartography and how he obtained his pilot's licence are a mystery. We think he must have been outstandingly good at his job. The port authorities were still using his work as the basis for all the river maps up until computers took over the job over a century later. He earned the honour of having a street named after him.
     But, how do streets get their names? This last weekend the Whirlwind asked if I knew the answer to that. She is in the middle of end-of-year exams and a maths problem had apparently been given some unusual street names.
      Oddly I did know something about it. I remembered reading a newspaper article about two men who have been responsible for naming many of the streets in the new outer suburbs. The answer was not really at all exciting. They "just do it". They have taken the names of their children, of people who appear in the news, trees, flowers, cars, musicians, writers and anything else they happen to think might work. Occasionally the government steps in and makes a special effort with things like the Anzac Highway but most things "just get names".
       The Whirlwind expressed disappointment.
       "But names are very important!" she told me - and I have to agree. Names are important.
       I think names were also more important to the early settlers than they are now. We have names like Largs, Glenelg, Malvern, Brighton and Hove for suburbs. There is an adjacent suburb where there are a series of streets named after English rivers. I suspect those places did not "just get names". They were a deliberate reminder of what people had left behind. Those responsible would never have called a road, as we now have, "the Southern Expressway", the Main South Road" or "the Lower North East Road".
       "Did people just run out of ideas - or couldn't they be bothered?" the Whirlwind wanted to know.
       I doubt they ran out of ideas. Those responsible probably thought they were describing something - or perhaps they were not very interested in doing anything creative. They stopped honouring people at the same time and, as the Whirlwind put it before she went back to her revision,
        "They forgot the magic of names."

Monday 3 December 2012

Now why would you want to

control the media?
You have been doing the wrong thing? Too bad. The world needs to know.
You are being criticised? Too bad. We all get criticised.
You want to hide something? Why?
You are about to break a promise you made? What, you have already broken it?
You want to get a message across? No other way to do it?
You want to silence the opposition? It's their job to oppose you.
The media is just being nasty to you? Really?
The media is stirring up a riot and you are in danger of losing control? Why are they stirring up a riot?
No doubt you can think of some more.
I had a look at a petition asking for more media control but I wonder if that is really what people want?  If I look at my little list then I think most people want the media to be free to inform people when someone of genuine public interest, such as an elected politician, has done the wrong thing. After all, we elect them. They are there to serve us. If they do the wrong thing then we need to know so that we will not re-elect them (if we are wise).  What we do not need to know is when their kid gets caught for speeding - and gets the heaviest possible penalty because of being "X's son or daughter" when another kid would get the minimum. It adds to the punishment of the child in order to embarrass the parent. That's wrong. 
In public life you have to expect criticism. It goes with the territory. The media has, on the whole, been very kind to our present government but why shouldn't they investigate wrongdoing? Why shouldn't the media inform the public about the misappropriation of union funds or company finances? Don't we need to know these things?
Break a promise? We elected you to do one thing, not the opposite thing. If there are good reasons not to do something we need to know - and that still does not excuse you for doing the opposite. If you want to do the opposite then go back and get yourselves elected on the opposite platform - if you can.
There are plenty of ways to get the message out there these days - as any savvy marketer can tell you. My youngest nephew can offer advice if you are still confused. His first degree is in economics and marketing.
Oh but really you do want to silence the opposition? That means they must be getting something right. No, they do not have to introduce their policies now. You would not introduce yours. You want them to put their policies up so you can "borrow" the bits you like and criticise the rest - thus deflecting discussion of your own.
The media is being nasty to you? Now that is not true, if anything they have been highly critical of the opposition in an effort to support you. You have had a dream run - and yes, I do understand you would like it to continue.
So the media is stirring up a riot is it? We have our own version of Tahrir Square? There has been a spate of car bombs? People are marching in their hundreds of thousands after church on Sundays? Hardly.
I don't think our media needs to be controlled by legislation. They need to obey other laws - like everyone else.  They need to be told there IS a difference between IN the public interest and OF public interest. The first is acceptable but the unwarranted intrusion into private lives which often forms the latter is not. That is all we need.
I suspect that, unpopular though that may be, it makes Leveson and our Finkelstein wrong and Cameron right - but the media will have to accept the difference between IN and OF and respect that difference.

Sunday 2 December 2012

The unemployment rate among

young people in Europe is apparently about "one in four". "Unemployed" apparently means those who are not working and/or studying. I do not know whether, like Australia, anyone with even just a few hours work each week is considered to be "employed".
If so, it would mean a great many more people are "under-employed". Do we really consider someone doing just ten hours a week to be a full-time employee?
If the statistics were known then Australia would probably have almost as many "unemployed" young people as Europe.
But if young people are not studying and not employed what are they doing all day?
My nephews have had part-time employment right through university. It has mostly been "promotional" work. They are registered with a company that provides personnel for places that need people to do things like demonstrate how a coffee machine works or hand out free chocolates in shopping centres. They must be good at it (I suspect they are as they have had acting training) as the company calls them when they are needed. They have had all the work they needed.
My youngest nephew is currently in charge of a team of ten others - all demonstrating the latest video games in our city shopping mall. It is "good fun for a little while" but he has other plans for his post-student days. He also says that many of those who have wandered in to the area to look are "kids with nothing else to do".
We discussed this and came to the conclusion that if we were dictators we would find things for them to do - and not just as "work for the dole". We came to the conclusion that you need to start way back, when they are at school.
You have to get them into the habit of reading for pleasure. That's a given. You also have to get them into the habit of making things. Neither of these things is now taken seriously in school.
Oh reading is taught, of course it is taught. It is still central to the learning process but reading for pleasure is not given the prominence it once was. There  are "too many other things" to do apparently. Three primary school teachers have told me this on separate occasions in the past week. 
As for making anything. Well apparently there are all sorts of restrictions on what can and cannot be done and "creativity" connected with computers is more likely to feature than scissors, glue or paintbrushes.
Recently my father showed a child how to fold a simple origami style "box". The boy had never done anything like that before. My father brought out one of the books he has filled with such things and showed the child what could be done with a simple square of paper. "Awe" and "disbelief" would not begin to describe the look on the child's face.
     "Well, if you can read, you can find out how to make them yourself," my father told him.
Sadly, I am not sure the child really believed him. The idea that you might read to find out how to make something for the sheer pleasure of it was foreign to him. No wonder there are so many "kids with nothing to do"...and I suspect it contributes to the unemployment rate.

Saturday 1 December 2012

The Leveson Inquiry

was matched here by not one but two inquiries. Unlike the Leveson Inquiry however they were not prompted by hacking  but politics. The Australian Federal Government saw the Leveson Inquiry as a chance to have its own "inquries".
There was of course, as with most government "inquiries" an ulterior motive. Our present government in particular has been very anxious to curtail press freedom - despite having strong media support.
Yes, our government does have strong media support. The Press Gallery in Canberra is Labor (as they spell it) supporting almost to a (wo)man. It always has been. One journalist told me that getting information, press releases, interviews etc depended on their support for "the party" and "it's the way these things work". I do not really doubt his word. I do not doubt the "other side" would like to work the same way. It is nice to have the media on side, very nice.
Curtailing press freedom, curbing scrutiny and critical commentary, getting the government's message out and all that free "advertising" are also powerful incentives for endeavouring to control the media through legislation and penalties.
Our present government would like to go even further. They have social media, including bloggers, in their sights. There are already bloggers, with a large number of followers, who have been the target of politically motivated litigation.
I wonder though if the proposed legislation would work. Our state government introduced (and passed) a law requiring anyone who wanted to comment on election issues to publish their full name and address - even on blogs, discussion sites and social media like Twitter. The Governor never signed it into law. The government was told, behind the scenes, that the legislation simply would not work.
They still want it to work of course but the reality is they cannot have that degree of control over the media or social networking without bringing in the sort of draconian measures that exist in places like North Korea.
So where do we go from here? I think there could be much more serious penalties for "unauthorised access" (hacking) and intrusion into the private lives of other people. What would happen if a newspaper or television station had to close for a week (or more) because they were found guilty of such an offence? The loss of advertising revenue alone would surely make them think twice. If it was our ABC a similar fine would also have major consequences.
Our current defamation laws could also do with review. The present test for defamation is that it brings someone into "hatred, ridicule or contempt". For that to occur you pretty much have to be a public figure or have a political purpose. You have to have the resources and the time to go to court. The aim is usually court costs and a fairly hefty financial payout. In a general way the media knows just how far it can go (and who with) before it will be hit with a defamation action. Making it easier to bring a defamation action might also help, particularly if a public retraction and apology and a hefty fine (without damages paid to the individual) were the consequences.
I don't think we could or should control the freedom of the press. What we need to control is illegal activity and unwarranted intrusion into people's lives - and that is something very different.