Wednesday 29 February 2012

Learning Russian has been

an interesting experience for a friend of mine. He works part time in the local indie bookshop. He is also a creative writing student at university. He already speaks French and has been to French Polynesia. He has just spent six weeks in Russia, in the city of Omsk.
Yesterday he was back in the bookshop and assured me he had indeed had a "marvellous" time. I have no doubt he did. He is the sort of person who makes the most of everything. Mind you he did end up being too busy enjoying the experience to keep up the blog so the rest of us were left wondering what it was like!
It is, we both agreed, the best way to learn something about a language and the people who speak it. You need to be involved.
I wonder how I would get on. My Russian is limited to about three words. It is not a language I have ever needed to know much about.
It is a bit the same with science. Science has a language, or languages, of its own. I know what might be called "Basic Science" but I do not know the specialist languages.  I used to have a low level capacity to speak "Statistics" but apart from a couple of very basic "phrases" the language has now advanced to a level where I would be lost. There is "Medicine" of course. We all speak some of that along with "Anatomy" and "Physiology". It is all a bit at the level of the traveller's phrase book - and, sometimes, about as useful.
And there are other everyday languages that I barely speak too. There is "Motor Car". My nephews speak fluent "Car". They know a specialised dialect there, "Go-Kart". My father speaks fluent "Gardening" and the more specialised "Organic-Gardening". He also speaks the arcane "Conjuring and Magic". I barely understand these things. There is "Sport". I can recognise some of the basic vocabulary but I cannot hold a conversation in "Sport".  Ah, "Music"? No. I know the almost Mediaeval version of "Music" they call "Baroque" but it is far from fluent.
There are so many other "languages" out there too. I really cannot claim to speak any of them. Yesterday though I was listening to another member of the bookshop knitting group explain to someone how to crochet.  She was patient and her instructions were clear. The person she was teaching looked up suddenly and said,  "It's like a whole new language." 
It is - and it is exciting.

Tuesday 28 February 2012

"His last school had

speech therapy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, the orthotics team, the psychologist and all sorts of other things. There were seven kids in his class and his teacher knew what she was doing Cat! Now we have to get him to therapy after school when he is tired. Anna was working from ten until two at the library three days a week but now she has to be ready to rush into school at any time. What's more he has not made any friends and this year is looking to be even worse than last."
I wish I had not asked. A friend had read yesterday's blog post and commented on it before a meeting we both had to attend. His profoundly physically disabled son was moved from his special school to the normal school system in the last term of last year. The move has not been a success.
There are the last vestiges of a school for children with physical disabilities in this state. It is perhaps more of an assessment centre than a school itself. The aim is to place the children into "normal" educational settings as soon as possible. There is a good reason for this. It saves money.
The argument goes quite differently of course. It is all about socialisation, integration, normality, best practice, the best educational opportunities etc etc.
The reality is that some children, perhaps a good many children, are not getting the help they need. The friend who was talking to me yesterday is aware that his child needs far more help than he is getting. His son has a rare medical condition which needs constant monitoring. He needs help with all the activities of daily living. Last week his class at school went on an outing. He was left behind because it was "too hot".
Nobody wants him on their team - not because they dislike him but because he cannot participate and the other children are competitive.  He "hates" school.
His parents think he has regressed physically and is not making the educational progress of which he is capable. I do not know about physical abilities but I did a brief psychological assessment. He is above average. He should be doing better than he is but he told me that sometimes the person who is supposed to help him is doing something else. Without help he cannot get a book. His i-pad like device on which he writes is sometimes not put in front of him because "it's something little and the teacher says I don't have to do it". It would take him longer than the teacher has time for - especially with twenty-one other children in the room.
The school rule is that the other children do not help. This seems odd to me but it was explained in terms of "they might do too much and we want these children to be as independent as possible". It seems the teacher does not even have time to say, "Andy, please give Ben his book."
My guess is that, despite what is being said, Ben is unwelcome there. He is a medical responsibility the school is uncomfortable with. Yes they know what to do if something goes wrong with the oxygen line but they do not want to be responsible for that. They do not want to be responsible even though there is supposed to be an aide available for Ben. She is being used elsewhere in the school.
Ben himself told me, "They don't want me."
An eight year old should not know that.

Monday 27 February 2012

As someone who does not have

children of my own I sometimes find endless chatter about other people's children a little irritating. Their children are, of course, perfect - apart from a few oddities such as untidiness. They are never rude. They never cause them any concerns. They are "good kids" - good kids who do as their parents want.
I am never too sure who these paragons of virtue are. We were not like that and the next generation of the clan was not like that. Their children will not be either. We all "had our moments" as they say. Despite that I think we ended up reasonably well.
The Whirlwind, the child around the corner who has no mother, has her moments too. Homework, which should have been finished on Saturday, was undone on Sunday and there was battle between her and her father. She stormed around to me - and then burst into tears because she hates upsetting her father. It was sorted out. Apologies were made. The homework was finished. She picked up some more peaches that had fallen on the ground and went home to make it up with her father. People would probably say "she's a good kid" - and she is.
But I do wonder about some of these other children. Of course you do not want to criticise your children to other people but is it fair to them to pretend they are something they are not?
Not every child is top of the class, scores the most runs at cricket or the most goals in football. The expectation they will be "the best" at something bothers me. The question always seems to be "What are you the best at?" If it is not that it is "What are you good at?"
I have friends who have a profoundly physically disabled child. She is also intellectually retarded. Nobody could suggest she was a pretty child or, now, a pretty woman. She can do nothing for herself. Her parents, now in their seventies, still have her living at home. She is still a much loved child, always immaculately dressed and well cared for. It is an increasing effort for her parents and, as always, the worry is what will happen when they really will have to pass the responsibility on to other people.
        "What on earth could you find positive to say about her?" someone asked me recently as he watched this girl being wheeled off by her father.
        "She can laugh at herself, " I told him. Her mother said that to me when her daughter was still in her early teens. It was said with a sense of real pride. This girl is aware of her limitations. I tried to help her on with a jacket one day and, for a moment, she spasmed to the point where it was going to be quite impossible. I have forgotten exactly what her mother said next but it had us both laughing. She relaxed and the jacket was slipped on quite easily.
She will never be "the best" at anything or even "good at" doing something.  Of course it matters that she can do nothing for herself  but her family have still found something she and they can have pride in. They found something she can be, a person who can laugh at herself.
It is who she is that matters, not what she is. For so many other children it seems to be "what" they are rather than "who" they are that matters to their parents.
I would rather know "who" you are than "what" you are.

Sunday 26 February 2012

Global Village is a

half hour television programme on our SBS television station in Australia. It usually consists of two short documentaries or one slightly longer one.
Apart from the news service it is almost the only television my father and I watch. Once in a while there may be another documentary which catches our attention but, more often than not, we would struggle to find time to watch it.
So, why do we watch Global Village? We know a number of people who have expressed surprise we should bother with it. One of them put it to us, "I watch television to be entertained, not educated."
My father and I watch it to be educated, not entertained.
The Whirlwind's father records the programme to watch later. He says it is a relaxing half hour while he eats a meal. He saves some of the programmes for the Whirlwind to watch. She is, for a child of her age, singularly disinterested in television. She gets impatient and says, "I want to DO something." Even when she is watching she is doing something else. Nevertheless she likes Global Village programmes.
We all know that part of the pleasure is because of the presenter, Silvio Rivier. He is also an outstandingly good narrator. He seeks out the documentaries, mostly from Europe and provides a translation. His voice is familiar. It is clear. He speaks several languages and has an extraordinary facility for getting his tongue around many others. He also has what appears to be a genuine enthusiasm for his work in his brief introductions to the segments.
      "But why do you bother to watch?" We have been asked this question more than once.
One part of the answer is simple. It gives us an opportunity to virtually experience many things we will never be able to travel and see. We will only experience the lives of a Chinese village doctor, an African shaman, a Chilean miner, a Cuban tobacco sorter, an Eskimo fisherman and many more by watching these things. We will only see religious and cultural festivals and (partly) understand their meaning by seeing them in a virtual way.
But there is something else as well. Someone I know in the northern hemisphere told me how looking out at the moon last night made her feel small and insignificant. Global Village does that too. It is a good way to feel sometimes. It is good to look out and think, "All those things and I know nothing about them."
If we can go on thinking that then surely it has to help us keep a childish capacity for wondering at the world?
Maybe that is not important for some people. It is important for me. I need it. I cannot write without it.

Saturday 25 February 2012

The reading of comics

was not banned in our house when I was a child but it was not encouraged either. I think my mother may have banned them altogether but my father could remember reading "Beano" and thought we should be allowed to read something of that sort.
He found the Eagle and Robin comics and, once or twice, the Girl. They all came from the same publisher. He did not buy them for us every week but they appeared in the house several times a year until I was ten. My brother and I devoured the adventures of Dan Dare in the Eagle and helped my younger sisters read about animals in the Robin. I cannot remember anything much about Girl because my mother disapproved of it or, at least, of me having it. My father must have given in to her over it.
On the rare occasions we visited houses with other children in them we devoured Rupert Bear and anything else which came to hand if we had the chance. We did not want to "play nicely". We wanted to read. People must have thought we were very unsociable children.
When we moved back to the country there was no question of getting a comic of any sort. The newspaper came on the train from Adelaide, a day's journey away. There were only two trains a week so my father would get the Saturday paper but get it on Tuesday. Most people did not bother to get a paper at all.
There were a small selection of comics in the local general store but we were not permitted to buy those. I remember my brother buying one once. My mother found it and made him feed it into the fire.
Then my father had to make a trip to Adelaide for some reason. I think he was going to a conference of some sort. While he was there he went into one of the two bookshops, now both closed, that sold books for schools. No doubt he had been given a small sum by the school committee to buy books for the school. He also came home with a present for us, a book.
It was "The Adventures of Tin Tin." With a wink at us he told our mother it was a "very high class comic book indeed, translated from the French". I think he enjoyed it as much as we did. My brother still has the book.
My nephews and their father are "Asterix" addicts. My father also thinks Asterix is very funny.  So do I.
Comics do get mentioned in books for children but it is rarely adults who are reading them. There is however a wonderful exception to this in Eileen Dunlop's book, "The house on the hill". In that Philip's great-aunt Jane, a feisty old woman who reads Advanced Nuclear Reactor Theory, tells him it is all his fault that their supper is not ready,
           "My fault?" said Philip, amazed, "How so?"
           "Well," said Jane, sloshing the beans hastily into a pan, and putting it on the stove, "I went upstairs at two o'clock to put in a clean towel for you , and spent most of the afternoon reading your Beanos. I don't know what happened to Eggo the Ostrich, but I'm relieved to see they still have Lord Snooty. It gives me a sense of security in a changing world. Lay the table for me, there's a good boy."
Yes, a sense of security in a changing world.

Friday 24 February 2012

The soap opera which is Australian

politics continued yesterday and looks like continuing for some time to come. I understand that Kevin Rudd has just given a press conference in Brisbane, still without announcing his intention to contest the leadership on Monday. Will he? Won't he? Does he have the numbers? (General opinion among those in the know is that he does not have the numbers.)
All this comes about because we do not vote for a Prime Minister. We vote for a local member of parliament. With rare exceptions the local member will belong to one of three parties, Labor (yes I am spelling that the way they spell it), Liberal or National.
The Liberals and the Nationals form "the Coalition", a long-standing Coalition that is understood and accepted. There are differences between them but they are, in the general scheme of things, small.
Those things are not a problem. The problems lie elsewhere, with things like the compulsory preferential voting - which means you can end up voting in someone you do not like and did not want to vote for - and the fact that we do not vote for the Prime Minister.  It is the same in the United Kingdom.
I actually believe it is a good thing we cannot vote for our Prime Minister. The people we elect have to be able to work under the leadership of someone they choose. The situation would be extremely difficult if the voters put in place someone who was popular but incapable of leading, someone who did not enjoy the trust or confidence of their fellow MPs. We do not want or need American presidential style campaigning in our electoral system.
That said, people believe they do elect the Prime Minister. This is very obvious at the moment. The voting public is apparently 83% behind the likely loser in Monday's leadership ballot - if the media is to be believed. I am always wary of the results of opinion polls but a margin like that does suggest a majority would like to see Rudd rather than Gillard.
Apparently a similar majority would also like to see something else rather more important than that. They would like another election. This is, naturally, opposed by die-hard Labor voters. They say the government should "run the full term" and "be allowed to get on with the job". That it is a minority government held in place by a few cross-benchers is, they say, beside the point. They have the right to be there.
In any other country I think there would be protests on the streets by now. People would be demanding another election. There would be rallies and petitions and vociferous debate in places other than the media. Here there seems to be a sort of apathy. There is a belief that nothing can be done. There is a belief that if the government will not listen then we just have to put up with it. Compulsory attendance at the ballot box helps to bring on this sort of inertia.
Our members of parliament are however there to represent us. Are they doing that or should we have the right to ask them to go?

Thursday 23 February 2012

There can be no winners

in the current political power play in Australian Federal politics.
Our Foreign Minister resigned yesterday.  He did not do this on home soil. He did it while he was in Washington. He called a press conference at 1:30am (yes, I do have that right) and announced that he felt he no longer had the support of the Prime Minister. It was the sort of dramatic gesture he likes.
I doubt he has ever had the support of the Prime Minister. She ousted him when he was Prime Minister. Part of the price she had to pay for getting the job as Prime Minister was to make sure he was given the role of Foreign Minister. It is still a high profile job. There would be a great deal of overseas travel. She encouraged that. When he was out of the country he could do less damage to her leadership, or so she believed. In all likelihood he has now struck the fatal blow.
The Prime Minister may retain her job for now. There are a number of reasons for this. The chief among these is that she is Prime Minister in name only. The real power lies with a Senator - Bob Brown of the Greens. He dictates from behind the scenes. Labor needs him. They cannot do without him. He has one of his team in the Lower House. Labor needs that vote. Brown controls the Senate. If his team votes with Labor they get legislation through. If it does not then legislation does not pass.
Then there are the other "independents". Two of them say that their arrangement is with the current Prime Minister. If she goes then they say that "all bets are off" and they will "reconsider their support for the government". Would they really pull support? An election will mean the almost certain loss of their jobs too. They are unlikely to get re-elected. At the moment they also hold a great deal of power, power far in excess of their electoral worth. Another independent claims he no longer supports the government but he too may lose his seat so his support for an opportunistic move by the Opposition to bring on an election is considered unlikely.
The Prime Minister however is a loser in all this too. It is clear that her party is divided. It is divided to a degree which suggests that, whatever she might try and do, she will not be able to pull them together into a cohesive team again. There will always be doubts about her leadership skills. She has lost a high profile Foreign Minister, a very high profile Foreign Minister with many useful contacts abroad. He may not be well liked but he is well known. That alone can get things done.
The Opposition is a loser in all this as well. It has not yet been able to oust an unpopular minority government.
The media likes to blame the present leader of the Opposition for this. The media does not like him. They make him out to be a bumbling fool at every opportunity. They do their best to set him up in situations, such as the Australia Day "riot", in order to try and make him squirm. His politics are unacceptable. His religious beliefs are unacceptable. He is portrayed as a "mad monk" and a "fitness freak" who "dabbles in good works".  The reality is rather different but whether he will be given an opportunity to show it is uncertain. What is certain is that the media will now try harder than ever to see him ousted. They would like to see the return of a suave, sophisticated man with the sort of wealth they can throw mud at.
Leadership tensions will remain until after the next election.
I think I can safely predict one thing - both major parties will go with the leader they believe will lose them the least seats.
Am I right or wrong?

Wednesday 22 February 2012

We are not going to the

polls yet. We are not due for an election for another eighteen months. Whether the minority government can hold on that long is another question.
It has managed so far, more by good luck than good management. The "independents" keep it there. There is nothing very "independent" about the "independents". At least some of them seem to be more concerned with preserving their own jobs than anything else. They know that, barring electoral miracles, they will not be returned at the next election.
I have no doubt that, for the electorates, electing them seemed a good idea at the time. Here was someone who was prepared to be "independent"? We do not need to vote for one of the major parties? Well, we will give you a chance.
Part of the problem with this however is that those elected did not look (or refused to look) at the voting patterns in their electorates. It would have told them more about what their electorate wanted if they did not win. After all, it was preferences that got them there. Some would say they had a duty to consider those.
Preferential voting is supposed to be "fairer". It is supposed to give electors a chance to say, "If I cannot have "A" candidate then I would like "B" candidate. The "first past the post" vote says "A and nothing but A".  Right.
There is another problem of course. Our electoral system has "compulsory preferential voting".  In order to make your first vote count then you must mark all the other boxes in order of preference. So if you happen to be pro-Wibble you can mark that with a one but if there is also an anti-Wibble candidate you need to mark your preference to that too in among the pro-and-anti-Wibble candidate, the extreme-anti-Wibble, the not-so-extreme-Wibble etc. 
It is all very confusing. Many people vote on personalities rather than policies. Someone "sounds nice" or sells themselves more effectively. Elections are not about selling policies but about selling personalities. Parties rely on past history or myths to gain support. The fine print of their policies is not read. If it is read then it is not understood. The policies may only stay in place long enough to gain power. Once there government is not accountable - at least until the next election and power allows you to manipulate policy anyway.
Elections, even our elections, can be manipulated - and they do get manipulated. Politics is about power, not about people. It is a very dirty business.
Yes, I am more than a little jaded this morning but, should you be reading this do tell me - is preferential voting preferable, or would you prefer first past the post?

Tuesday 21 February 2012

"He wants $5 billion

more for education?" the Senior Cat asked me. He was looking at the report about "The Gonski Report", the just released report into education funding in Australia.
The Senior Cat, my father, was a school principal before he retired. He could have gone further, much further, up the ladder of the Education Department but he had no time for the politics of the central office. He spent a year working there on a special project and it was enough to cure him of any desire for promotion beyond the large school in which he ended his long career.
My father left work just before the real changes came into the classroom. There were no computers in schools when he left. I think his secretary may have had a "word processor" but she most certainly did not have a computer. The older students still sat facing a blackboard. Although the younger students sometimes pushed their tables together for a group activities they too faced the front when being directly taught. The "Friday test" was still part of the school week although not everything was tested every week. Marks were kept recorded and the progress of each student was monitored.
There were a couple of experimental schools. My father's previous school had "an open space unit" in which three teachers supposedly worked together. They loathed it. The students loathed it. It might be right for some areas but it was wrong for that one. The central office was not happy when my father insisted it had to be disbanded. Another school was experimenting with "individual progression". The school (I visited it a number of times) was absolute chaos and I was always amazed that anyone was learning anything.
Now there are white boards and internet access at all times. Class sizes have dropped from thirty-four or thirty-six to twenty or twenty-two. (I once had nineteen profoundly disabled students in a "small" class!) There are no "Friday tests" - although there is the national testing programme NAPLAN.  The library has become a "resource centre" with computers but fewer books. Students sit in groups without facing the wall which has the screen.
All this suggests that standards should have risen, that education is now more "relevant" than it once was. It appears the reverse is true. Standards have apparently dropped and I doubt the claim to "relevance" too.
I have been told that "spelling and grammar do not matter as long as they get their ideas down" and that "there is no need to know your times tables as long as you understand the term multiplication". Really?
Surely one of the reasons to attend school is to obtain the common ground which allows us to communicate with other people and live in the world? Spelling does not have to be perfect. Grammar does not need to be always correct but yes you do need to know that six times seven equals forty-two and be able to express it in a way that others can understand what you are trying to say.
Like my father I very much doubt that spending another $5billion on education each year will change anything. What we first need to change is our ideas about what we are teaching, why we are teaching it and how we are doing it. Or doesn't communication matter any more?

Monday 20 February 2012

"There is enough wool to

start a shop!" the Senior Cat complained when he saw the four boxes which a friend brought in yesterday. My friend is going back to New Zealand to live and she had cleared out a great many odd balls of yarn. There is not enough of any one yarn to knit a garment in one colour with the exception of a salmon coloured wool that is years old but there are yarns which go together.
Some of them will make hats or mittens or gloves or socks. Others may go together and make garments for small children.  It is going to be my job to pass them on to people I think will use them. In return they will give me donations for a charitable cause in which I have a particular interest.
It is interesting to see what my friend has been knitting over the years. Her own colouring is quite different from mine. She had naturally "red" hair when younger.  Her colour choice would never be mine.
We do have many things in common however. Like me she prefers wool or another natural fibre. Although there might be a little artificial fibre mixed into the sock yarn anything else is natural and people will like it because of that. Natural fibres, it is generally agreed, are easier to knit.
There is one girl I know who knits almost nothing but hats. She experiments on these. She is always trying new patterns, new techniques, new colour combinations and new embellishments. They are a constant learning experience for her.  All sorts of people benefit from the hats she only ever gives away.
Another person I know also knits hats for charity but rarely ventures into anything new. Her hats are still welcomed and they make her feel wanted by other people.
Another friend knits socks. My father owns several pairs she has made for him. She also gives socks away, as well as vests and pullovers and cardigans. Her generosity on a pension is a lesson to everyone.
There will be other knitters I know who will benefit too. They all make different things. Some, indeed most, only follow a pattern but they still enjoy the process.
But, even more importantly, others will benefit too. Just before Christmas we raised some money for the same cause. The money went on mosquito nets to help reduce the risk of malaria in a camp for unaccompanied children in east Africa. We also helped to buy tyres for the lorry/truck which takes things in and out of the camp. 
I am wondering what this money will help to buy. Whatever it buys will have been bought one stitch at a time.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Darwin was bombed

for the first time in World War II seventy years ago today. It was, I believe, bombed another sixty-four times after that.  Northern Australia was bombed from Broome to Townsville.
Few Australians know anything about it even now. My father tells me that there was a news blackout during the war. The government did not want people to know. Most Australians lived in ignorance of what was going on. They are still ignorant.
A friend of ours was interviewed on television last night. They have flown him to Darwin for the remembrance ceremony being held today.  He is 92 now. Back then he was a young serviceman on the beach in Darwin, a young man wondering if he would see and other ninety-two days. The experience affected the rest of his life and the lives of many other young men.
When I was in my early teens we moved to a "soldier settlement". My father was appointed the head of the school there. We met many more men who had experienced active service. Some had experienced the bombing of Darwin and other places. There were survivors from elsewhere in the Pacific and South East Asia. There were men who knew first hand about the Kokoda Track, Changi and the Burma Railway. We were not taught about these things in school but my brother and I learned about them on Anzac Day and Remembrance Day. In that community the school students attended the services held to remember the men and women who did not come back. Most of them were there to support their fathers.
In that community the families did not own Japanese cars. They avoided buying anything Japanese. If a Japanese had visited they would have been polite but they would not have made them welcome. Their children are still wary of things Japanese.
One of the universities I attended was the Australian National University in Canberra. There were a number of Japanese students there. We used to send them over to the War Memorial. It was probably not a kind thing to do. They were not taught about that war either. They knew about the bombing of Hiroshima and the dreadful things that were done to the Japanese but they knew literally nothing about their own country's role. Some tell me they still know very little.
Their reactions varied. Some came back saying that the War Memorial was a lie and their country was not responsible for anything like that. Others came back puzzled and uncertain. Some felt embarrassed, a particularly difficult emotion for them. Two girls came back and literally wept on my shoulder.
Australian students do tend to know about Hiroshima, not enough perhaps but they do know something. They still do not know what happened in northern Australia during WWII.  Japanese students now know more - but they are taught that this was a part of the war they "won".
If you win something by almost destroying it then perhaps they did but nobody really won anything. You can only win history by ignoring the facts. You can only win history by destroying the truth.
Today though we are going to remember people like our friend. We would not be here without him and all those who were there with him.

Saturday 18 February 2012

The sound of library books is

one of those odd little memories I have from childhood that other people do not seem to share.
There were some new books on the "new books" shelf in the library this week. (Sometimes we got older books recycled onto the same shelf.) There was nothing there I wanted to read apart from a book of interviews with some authors - which I promptly borrowed.
I left the library thinking about the new books in my childhood. Well, everything was new in one sense.  I had all those books which had already been written to read and, stretching into the future, there would be hundreds more that would be written and I would be able to read.
There was no local free library when I was a child. There was a small "circulating library". You paid an annual fee and borrowed a set number of books during the year. My paternal grandparents belonged to this. My grandfather had little time to read. He did not retire until he was 84. My grandmother had a little more time. She used to shake her head over the lack of books for children in that library. It catered strictly for adults.
My father was still completing a university degree - one subject at a time. It was a common way for determined teachers to get their degree back then. It was not until the late 1960's that a degree was considered to possibly be part of teacher training. Now of course it is essential.
But, it had an advantage for me. My father would go up to the university (there was only one then) in order to go to the weekly lecture and tutorial. He would also go to the Children's Library and borrow books for me and for my brother.
Those books always seemed brand new to me. There were no bright dustcovers then. There were no paperback books. Everything had a hardcover. This was "library binding". The library had its own bindery. We were allowed to look at people at work in there once. They bound the university theses as well. My father had to collect his thesis from that bindery.
Binding the books that way made them slightly stiff to open. There would be a small creaking sound as you opened the book, almost like a sigh of contentment from the book. Here was a reader.

Friday 17 February 2012

There was a walkout in Parliament

yesterday. The Leader of the National Party was thrown out for "interjecting" and his colleagues followed him in protest.
Interestingly little has been made of this in the media. Rather than being concerned by the lack of confidence being shown in the Speaker of the House the media seems to have found it mildly amusing.
I have mentioned the new Speaker before. He deserted his party in order to take on the position and, in doing so, has also deserted his electorate. Officially he is still their representative. Unofficially he will get nothing done. He is not even able to negotiate any "pork-barrelling" for his electorate because the government knows he will not be there after the next election.
His performance so far has been abysmal. The former Speaker was respected by both sides of politics. In  a tactical move he left the job so that the government could try and maintain their shaky grip on power by having one more vote on the floor of the house. In doing so they have damaged democracy, perhaps to the point where it is irreparable. The government now has a Speaker whom they control, not one who controls them.
All that may seem rather entertaining, particularly if you support the government. It is, no doubt, fun to see the Opposition in such strife. The problem is that debate is now being stifled. The government is aware that debate is dangerous. It desperately needs to get certain measures through. The measures are not about good governance but about covering up as much as they can before the next election. There should have been an outcry about the "pink batts scheme", "the BER scheme", "the NBN" and the "$700 set-top-box scheme". They even managed to stifle debate on the health insurance rebate and the carbon tax...both of which will (however fair they may seem on the surface) cost jobs and, in the end, taxpayers more than they do for the economy.
Parliament has always been rather unruly. The House of Commons always seems rather staid compared with our "mob of larrikins". It takes a strong personality to control them. The new Speaker does not have that. He does not have respect. Yesterday the National Party members (part of the Coalition which forms the Opposition) managed, with very little fuss, to indicate that. I have no doubt there will be payback for that today.
I wonder what would happen if the entire Opposition walked just long enough to show their lack of support?

Thursday 16 February 2012

Nicola Morgan was talking about

blogging yesterday. (There are some excellent ideas there over on Help I need a Publisher - do go and look.)
It also made me think, yet again, about the newspaper columnists in our state and national newspapers.
They are "bloggers". The venue is different. The audience is different. Nevertheless they are still bloggers.
Some of them are, of course, journalists. It is their business to research and to write. One or two of them do this very well, most of them do it rather badly.
They will tell you this is not their fault. There are time restraints. A news story breaks and they have to concentrate on getting that out, not on writing a column about something else. Reporting is not an exact science. It is subjective. Writing a column is also subjective. (This blog is too.)
The English teacher I had in my last year at high school also taught language skills to the journalists at the state newspapers we had back then. There are still at least two members of the current staff who were taught by her. They were mere "cub" reporters in those days but she taught them to use language. It shows. The other staff do not write in the same way. After three years under her tutelage these people were able to write - and write rapidly. They were not aiming to turn out literature but they were aiming to turn out something that could be read.
Editorial policy changed again some little while back. My father now complains that the paper is difficult to read. He is right. The language sounds stilted. It does not flow. It is more difficult to take the information in.
Moving from the news items to the columns there is a difference in language style. There is a journalist taught by my old English teacher. His columns flow. I rarely agree with what he has to say but I can read him. He taught another staff member who is, more often than not, readable. There is a highly controversial columnist who writes extremely well. People who loathe him will read his columns. There are two former politicians. One is much older than the other. The older one writes extremely well. The language flows. The younger one writes well enough but the language does not flow in the same way. There is a university professor with a regular political column. His language reflects his academic background. He sounds as if he is talking to his students.
All these people write differently. I wonder if I could pick them out if they were all asked to write two hundred words on the same subject? And I wonder,  what I would sound like to them?

Wednesday 15 February 2012

My friend the Stroppy Author

has a blog post up people really need to read, well two blog posts - one on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure and the other on Stroppy Author's Guide to Publishing. (Prowl into the sites on the right hand side of this page. Both sites make good reading.) The posts are about piracy.
I sympathise with what she has to say. I would sympathise at any time but I sympathise even more after yesterday. A rather senior public servant from a rather important department contacted me and asked if I would do "a little job" for them.  My answer was no.
I am well qualified, perhaps uniquely qualified, to do the job but my answer was still no. Why? They were not intending to pay me.
It is not the first time this has happened and, I have no doubt, it will not be the last. The conversation went something like this:
         "But Cat you don't go to work. You have plenty of time to help."
         "But I work from home. I put in almost seventy hours last week. That does not include the time I put in caring for my father which is the primary reason I do not work elsewhere."
         "But you don't get paid for that work..."
         "No and that is all the more reason why you should pay me. The people I help are volunteering their services. You get paid. Everyone in the department gets paid. I should be employed as a consultant like anyone else."
         "But there's no money..."
         "If you want me, find the money."
         "And they get paid..."
         "Not for giving up their annual leave, paying their own airfares and accommodation and taking their own supplies..."
It is an old argument. I will help people who are genuinely volunteering help for other people. That was the agreement from the start. Yes, they may earn a good sum in their paid employment but giving up 20-30% of your income and your time and expertise to help others is something I am prepared to help you do.
I will not help a well funded government department that wastes money in all sorts of ways, which has the resources within its own boundaries but fails to use them effectively. I will not help people who expect to obtain my expertise and knowledge for nothing. I worked hard, very hard, to develop those skills. I should not be expected to pass them on for nothing to those who are being paid and can afford to pay.
Writers are the same. They should not be expected to work for nothing. If their work is worth publishing then they should be paid a proper sum for it. If their work is worth copying for use in schools or anywhere else then they should be paid a proper sum for it. If it is borrowed from libraries then they should be paid. They should be paid well. Teachers get paid. Librarians get paid. Why do writers not get paid?
We have to value all forms of creativity. My nephews get paid more for doing an evening's gig than some writers get as an advance for months of work - that the money goes straight to charity is beside the point. They expect people to pay. Writers expect people to pay too - but people do not expect to have to pay them.
Modern technology has made it easy to "steal" from writers. Yes, it is theft just as asking me to work for nothing is like asking me, "We would like to steal from you. Will you let us?"  The answer is no.
If you read this please go and tell Stroppy Author and friends that you will support them.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

"This Charles Dickens

person, why is he important?" my Chinese neighbour asked.
Our Chinese neighbour speaks excellent and often quite colloquial English. He is an accredited interpreter. All the same he does not think twice about coming to ask us if he believes he needs to know something about the English language or, in this case, books.
My father was showing him the Claire Tomalin biography of Dickens I bought him for his birthday. He is enjoying it. I keep being told things about the book - always a good sign that he is involved.
We "did" Dickens at school of course. In the old "Intermediate" (sub "O" level) one of the set texts was David Copperfield. The book did not make a great impact on country kids who really did help to milk the cows before they came to school. They thought it was long winded and rather ridiculous. I think only two or three of us got much from it. I was required to read more Dickens later. I did not read it by choice. Later still, in Law School, we were told we should read Bleak House.  I think most of the students did not bother.
Some may have started but fewer of them would not have finished it.
All the same we knew something about Dickens - and Shakespeare and any number of other writers who go to make up our literary heritage. Even the students from Asia knew about Dickens and Shakespeare although their knowledge of both writeers might be minimal.
And yes, my neighbour knows who Dickens is - but why is he important? It is a different question is it not?
My father and I did the best we could. We tried to explain the concept of cultural literacy, that common knowledge base by which we know about things even if we do not actually know the things themselves.
         "Like knowing Handel and Mozart are composers even if you do not know and like their music," my father told him.  Yes, that made a little sense.
And then I suddenly thought of something
         "Have you read the Chinese classic "A dream of red mansions"?" I asked him.
He was shocked. Of course he knew about it. Everyone knew about it. It is an important book. He had to read it at school.  His wife, who taught Chinese literature, knew a lot about it.
Then he stopped for a moment. Oh yes, he thought he understood now. Knowing about this Dickens person is like knowing about that.
As he went to leave though he looked at me and asked, "You know about "A dream of red mansions"? How? Have you read it?"
No, I do not know much about it. I have heard it mentioned. I have never read it. All the same knowing about it is part of the cultural literacy of the world. That alone makes it important.  If I was well educated I would have read it as well as Dickens. I am not well educated.

Monday 13 February 2012

Things went wrong

with the computer yesterday. I am surprised I am writing this and even though I am I suspect it may be necessary to seek some professional help.
Without any assistance from me the computer changed some settings. I had not been searching any suspicious sites - unless government sites are suspicious. They probably are but they should not cause my computer to sulk. I was merely downloading some forms to pass on to the sister of the friend I was talking about yesterday. We are going to try and set up various powers of attorney so that things can happen here as well as interstate. It should not have been a problem.
I had printed off several and the printer stopped working. I had not changed anything. There was paper. There was ink. There was a connection. Eventually I worked out it was the wrong question. All sorts of settings had suddenly changed without any help from me.
Then Tweetdeck disappeared. Download Google Chrome it told me. I have been avoiding this. I like to keep things the way they are if they work for me. I tried that. Download Adobe Air....well I thought I had that but I did it again. I eventually got into a new version of Tweetdeck. It is virtually unreadable being printed on black and it would not run without me telling it to "run" this file.  I rebooted the computer and tried all over again. Nothing happened apart from the need to reload the programmes with the same result. There are similar problems this morning.
I can go to the Twitter site but it is terribly slow and it is not set up the way I want it to be set up.
What I want to know is, why do they change things when they already work efficiently? Grrrrrrrrr

Sunday 12 February 2012

The silence was

worrying me.
I have a close friend in the next state. She is a little older than me but looks much older than that because of her almost albino colouring and her severe arthritis.
Whenever we have lived in close physical proximity - London, Canberra and Melbourne - I have been conscious of the fact that there were likely to be problems ahead. The problems at first were minor but, over the last few years, they have become major.
My friend has a doctorate. She has taught at university level. She is intellectually capable of dealing with the twenty-first century. She is not capable of dealing with the real world. By her own admission she is "not practical".
We have been in the habit of talking on the 'phone about once a month. Her sister lives not far from us and I catch up on any other news if I happen to see her.
This last year my friend has been in and out of hospital on numerous occasions. On one occasions she fell and cracked her pelvis. It could have been much worse. It should have been a warning but, like any of us, my friend did not want to admit that she could not cope alone.
Her sister went to visit for Christmas.  At the end of December we had our usual long chat. Then there was silence. Her sister, who also lives alone, was not home. I assumed she was with my friend. The 'phone was not answered. My friend's e-mail bounced.
A week ago the 'phone was cut off. I had still heard nothing. Her sister was still not home. The note I had left had not been touched. A neighbour in the same block of units thought she was away.
Just before lunch yesterday her sister 'phoned me. Yes, back in hospital. This time she would not be going home. Here was the number. She was sorry she had not contacted me as my friend had requested but she really did not know what to do next. She is no more practical than her sister.
This bothers me. They are both highly intelligent but they cannot handle daily life at all. I know I am not good at handling all aspects of daily life - nobody is - but I hope I am better than they are.
My friend has decided she needs to come back to this state. Her sister is her only immediate relative but she has a cousin here - and she has me.
         "You know how to do things," she told me when I 'phoned the hospital. I am not sure I do know. I certainly do not know all I need to know.
What I do know though is to ask questions when I do not know.

Saturday 11 February 2012

Once upon a time

Enid Blyton was banned from the libraries in this state. Her work was considered to be the childish equivalent of "bodice rippers" and "westerns" for adults. It was deemed poorly written. Noddy was considered "homosexual" and the "golliwogs" were "racist". The "Fanous Five" were "out of control" and "Fatty" in the "Secret Seven" was guilty of answering back to adults. There were other faults too, a stilted style,  impossible scenarios, lack of realism and limited vocabulary were just some of the faults levelled at the highly popular author.
There are Enid Blyton books back in libraries now. It is possible to buy Enid Blyton books again. Some of them may be bought by adults nostalgic for childhood but she is still read by children.
I read Enid Blyton books as a child. I read them before they were removed from libraries. I can remember there were several books of short stories in the school library, some of the Famous Five and some of the Adventure series. There was a book of re-told Bible Stories and some "nature" stories in a sort of compendium. I borrowed the school stories and the Faraway tree books from a girl who lived down the road. How she came by them I do not know but I know she had an entire shelf of Enid Blyton.
I do not believe I ever thought she was "super" or "fantastic" or "stupendous" but I enjoyed them a bit the way I enjoyed the rare Saturday sweets my paternal grandfather would slip us - nice while they lasted but not approved of by my mother.
Enid Blyton is probably the cheap icecream and cheap chocolate of the literary world. The sort of thing a child enjoys before they discover the icecream made with real dairy products. The other is not particularly good for you but, as long as you eat (or read) a balanced diet then it will not do any real harm. Indeed, sometimes it might be just what you need.
I have some Enid Blyton on my shelves. Two are books I saved from childhood. The others I picked up for ten cents a book in a jumble sale. My nephews were not terribly interested in them. The Whirlwind read them. Like me she read them at an early age and soon graduated to other things.
A reluctant reader reluctantly borrowed one from me recently. When she returned it she asked, "Actually it was all right. Have you got any more like that?"
I have given her another Enid Blyton. We will move slowly, very slowly into getting her to read other things.
It is for this sort of reader that I will keep the Enid Blyton books. If her work develops a taste for reading then she has done a great service.

Friday 10 February 2012

Health Insurance is

one of those things you do not dare be without - or do you? Our family has had health insurance for years. It has, unfortunately, been entirely necessary. The Senior Cat is the Re-made Man. He has two artificial knees (one of them twice) and two artificial shoulder joints as well as a range of non-structural problems which have needed attention.  I have had knee surgery etc.
My sister here has had two children and, of recent years, more hospital admissions than I care to think about.
My other sister has had numerous short admissions to hospital. Even my brother has been hospitalised on a couple of occasions.
We do not however consider ourselves to be a family particularly troubled by ill health.
The only exception to that would have been my mother's last illness. My mother's illness would have bankrupted us and left us homeless. As it was health insurance at least gave her care in hospital when neither my father and I could have physically coped.
When I mention this and health insurance to people who have none their response is often, "But she would have been cared for in a public hospital."
The answer to that is that, "No, she would not have been. There would have been no bed available for her in a public hospital. We would have been expected to cope at home. We would not even have been eligible for the district nursing service apart from a once a week shower (which she would not have been able to have)." My other sister would have been considered to have sufficient medical training to come over and give pain killing injections.
We could have bought other services - and we would have - but we were not eligible for them because my parents had superannuation rather than a pension. Of course they paid into the superannuation fund all their working lives and they paid (and still pay) tax on their superannuation.
Now the Federal government wants to cut the rebate they give on health insurance. They are making the usual "the rich can pay" argument and "it is unfair that the poor should subsidise the rich". It sounds perfectly fair and reasonable put like that.
The problem is that, this time, they have the economics wrong. People like my father already pay the "medicare levy" at the same rate as anyone else with an income. They also pay health insurance  for the sort of reasons I outlined above.
There are also pensioners and families or individuals where there is chronic illness where health insurance is the first bill to be paid. It is essential to their economic as well as their physical well being. Health insurance costs less than what they might otherwise need to spend. Nevertheless it is a struggle to pay for it.
If the government cuts the rebate as planned then there will be people who no longer pay health insurance. Some of these will be healthy people who now decide that the extra money no longer makes it worth paying. As they leave their health funds those left behind will be those who use the fund more. This will raise the premiums. More people will drop out.  Some will be eligible for government services but they will find themselves on the end of the waiting lists. Others will find that, despite paying their taxes, they will not be eligible for the services they need and could once have paid for.
In the end the government move, designed to bring the budget into surplus, will end up costing everyone more.  Indeed the cost could be very high indeed.

Thursday 9 February 2012

A marshmallow launcher

is apparently the latest weapon of choice in the White House. There is a rather nice picture in this morning's paper of  the inventor and the President of the United States using it.
I do not like weapons but I could, almost, approve of this one. Mind you the diet police may not...there is sugar involved (but no fat). Right.
I was talking to a friend last night. She has been losing weight for no discernible reason and is now unhealthily thin - a mere 43.4kg. She actually weighs less than the overweight hound who came to visit my father yesterday.
We discussed what she was eating. If this is correct it all sounds very healthy. I said, "Perhaps you should break out and have some chocolate occasionally."
She laughed and said, "You know I am seriously considering having a "rubbish" day once a week...chocolate, a very large icecream, a dollop of cream, a glass of wine. Do you suppose it will matter?"
As she is over eighty I cannot see it matters at all.
My father has the occasional piece of chocolate. I keep a small supply of his favourite sort of individual icecreams in the freezer. On rare occasions I will buy cream. We do not drink alcohol but he likes the occasional glass of ginger beer or lemonade in very hot weather.  Oh yes, these things are full of sugar or fat or both - or something else which is "bad" for you. Does it matter? I cannot see it does. My father is certainly not fat. He has, as some people do, lost weight in older age too - but not to the extent my friend has.
I suspect there is something seriously wrong with her but four specialists have not managed to work out what it is. "Healthy eating" is not helping her. Yes, I know she is not cooking her main meal for herself any more but the meals she buys were praised for their nutritional value. They come from a small Italian company which prides itself on "healthy eating" options. She has one of these each day. Her bread is wholemeal, not white. She always has fruit in the house - and eats it. She was told to have "low fat milk" and "not too much cheese". Why? Surely whole milk and a snack of cheese would help? Does it really matter if her cholesterol level is a little on high side?
It seems to me that a marshmallow launcher would be a good idea too. She could sit and read. At the end of each page she could press a button and let a marshmallow land in her lap, eat it and then continue reading. Yes, I know the diet police would not like this but would it be such a bad thing?
I know many of us are overweight. We eat the wrong things. Our cholesterol levels are "higher than we would like". We sometimes snack between meals. We indulge in chocolate and cheese and chips. We...well yes we do not always eat the healthy option. But my friend may need the unhealthy options occasionally - just to stay alive a little longer.Surely the diet police realise this?

Wednesday 8 February 2012

I went to a

funeral yesterday. It was for a woman of eighty-two. Eighty-two is a good age but not, now, a great age. My father is seven years older. I know many more people older still.
This woman was not well. I had seen her in the nursing home where she was living about ten days previously. She was distressed then because she had just had "a small accident" as she described it. The young girl helping her was kind and caring but it was still acutely embarrassing for her.
          "I hate being like this," she told me, "I cause so much work. And I need you to do something too dear."
I promised her husband I would care for her until her daughter moved back to the city. Her daughter's husband is a teacher and I knew he would, in the usual scheme of things, be given a city appointment next. Until then I did the little bits of shopping, dealt with the mail and the bills and her tax return and all the other things that she had never done. I wrote her new will, a simple affair leaving everything equally divided between her two children. The neighbours witnessed it for her.
I arranged a Power of Attorney to be jointly held by her son-in-law and myself in his absence and then, when he returned, by him alone. She was not my family and I had no desire to be more involved than necessary but I was involved.
She really had almost nobody else. There was one friend from childhood. They might see one another twice a year. There was a cousin who sometimes made a trip to the city. There was really nobody else. The nursing home staff told me I was her only visitor apart from her daughter's family. Her son lived on the other side of the country.
I knitted socks for her. She had a heart condition and her feet were constantly cold. Even on the hottest of summer days she wore woollen socks and a cardigan as well. I never saw her dressed in anything other than slacks. Clothes were of no great interest to her. Books were. She read, graduating to large print as her eyesight grew worse. I went with her when she got the hearing aids she needed to hear anything other than a single voice.
When she still lived alone it was a challenge to make her eat. Food did not interest her. She liked yoghurt and dark chocolate, bananas and the soups I made. It was difficult to tempt her with anything else. The staff talked to me about what she liked to eat and did their best. She would try to please them but told me,
          "I never feel hungry."
The last time I saw her we talked about her grandchildren but she could not remember their names. She could not remember being with them on Christmas Day or the name of their dog. Oh yes, she knew me. She told the other staff member who came in while I was there,
         "This is my other daughter."
She was not confused about that. It was what she always called me.
When I left she said, "You will come soon?"
Yes, I told her - but I never went again. She went to sleep and did not wake up. It was a good way to go in the end. There will be no more once a week visits with the flower from the garden or the small block of chocolate or the funny story or just the hug and the kiss. I am not her daughter anymore. I never was but, if it made her happy to believe that, then I was happy to let her think that way.
Her funeral was a very quiet affair. There were her blood relatives, four neighbours from the street in which she had lived, two members of staff representing the nursing home, her old school friend and me. As she had no religious beliefs there was a celebrant who struggled to find enough to say.
I could have told them a little more. She had asked me to return her two library books and find some more from the quite well stocked library in the nursing home. Oh yes, she liked to read. She loved what she called "real adventures".
        "You know Cat," she would tell me, "It might have been great fun to do some of those things."
She never did.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

My godfather is

coming today. He usually comes on the days his wife has a "bridge party". Our house is a haven of peace and quiet compared with "all those wretched women gossiping away". He is easy to entertain. If my father is in the middle of glueing something together in the shed my godfather will come inside and talk to me while the water in the kettle boils. I make sure I have kitchen things to do so he does not feel as if he is interrupting me.
If I do need to do something else he will read the paper and has been known to make the tea.
My godfather is not a blood relative but he is close enough to the clan to have been included in clan reunions. He never did a lot of godfatherly sort of things. I doubt he can remember when my birthday is and he never took me to the zoo. He has been there in other ways though. 
        "Cat, if you need me to do something you only have to ask."
I doubt I will ask he is almost as old as my father.
I had two godmothers. One of them died when I was still a child. I do not remember her. She went interstate to work when I was only a year old and I never saw her again. My surviving godmother is even older than my godfather and my father. She is 92, almost 93. She also lives interstate.
For a long time she lived in Sydney. Her husband was transferred there by his employers when I was at the end of primary school. After that I only saw her when she came to Adelaide to see her mother. We never went to visit her.
My godmother has two adopted children. Her son has children and grand-children. He has recently moved his parents to be much closer to him so that he can care for them now that they can no longer care for themselves. He lives in a remote area of New South Wales only accessible by car. I know I am not likely to see my godmother again. She will make no more trips here and, short of hiring a very long-distance taxi, I am not going to see her.
We write letters occasionally. She is not computer-literate. She has read voraciously all her life but her letters are full of spelling errors. Her writing is getting harder to read. Her letters to me are full of things I know little about, a family I do not know. She always remembers my birthday and I remember hers.
I know it will not be too many more years until neither of my surviving godparents are here with me. I will miss them both.

Monday 6 February 2012

Even Fidel Castro

knew when it was time to leave. Of course he merely passed the baton on to his brother but it was done with a minimum of public fuss. If Cubans were (and are) not happy with the situation they did not make a media fuss about it. You cannot do that sort of thing in Cuba if you value your freedom.
Here in Downunder it is a different story. There are more rumblings about a possible change of leadership in the government.
Downunderites will remember we once had Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister.  He is now Foreign Minister.  The current Prime Minister, who challenged him and won, saw this as the best way of getting him out of the country at frequent intervals - and thus out of her hair.  Mr Rudd enjoys Foreign Travel. He enjoys being Foreign Minister - or so he tells us. The thing that clinched the election he won was a speech given in Mandarin. The native Mandarin speaker who lives next door to us tells me the Chinese were being kind when they applauded Mr Rudd's ability to speak Chinese. Whether that is true or not I do not know. In this state at least we were bombarded by the media telling us what a good thing it would be to have a Mandarin speaking Asia-centric Prime Minister.
The problem was that this particular Prime Minister was not a team player. His style was autocratic. Eventually his party decided they could take it no longer. He was stabbed in the back and we got Julia Gillard. She did not win the election but she did get enough seats to negotiate dubious deals with the "independents" and take government. The fact that at least two of the independents ignored the wishes of their electorates and sided with her for personal gain has been largely ignored by the media. The deal was done. It was time to get on with the business of government.
There have been problems ever since. This was inevitable. The Prime Minister has made many errors. The most recent of these was to back out of her deal with an independent on the issue of "poker machines". The demands of the independent had wide public support but the government believed that they were vulnerable in marginal electorates and, blaming the Opposition for government inaction, they have done nothing.
Now there are new and growing rumblings about the leadership. These are, naturally, being fuelled by media speculation. Will Mr Rudd make another run for the leadership? Will Mr Rudd do nothing? Perhaps someone else will try to get the numbers? Who? Is it wise to change the leader mid-term due to sinking popularity in the polls? Will this put them back in a winning position? The speculation is endless. It makes interesting reading.
I do not know enough to speculate - although I suspect it will take more than a change of leadership to boost the poll ratings to the desired level. This government has wasted opportunities. Their failure to do anything on the poker machine issue (and they blame the Opposition for this) has caused extreme disquiet among many social welfare advocates. No government should be this dependent on gambling for income, for votes, and for the number of people it employs.
Will they, won't they gamble on a change of leadership as well?

Sunday 5 February 2012

I have just given the Senior Cat

his birthday present from me, Claire Tomalin's biography of Charles Dickens. My brother gave him another biography about Mawson, the Antarctic explorer. Last year he read, among many other things, a biography of Roald Dahl.
He also reads theology, psychology, gardening, woodworking, conjuring,  "crime yarns" and "anything genuinely funny". He likes authors like Alexander McCall-Smith and Ian Rankin too. There are also other things my father might read, if he had time. He confines his reading mostly to the evenings. There are too many other things to do in daylight hours. The shed and the garden always beckon.
Occasionally he will go back to a "classic". He went back to a volume of Dickens last year but put it aside. Nevertheless he mentioned it would be interesting to know more about him. The book's publication was one of the serendipitious things which was not to be ignored.
Recently he re-read one of the books written by a very distant relative. When he had finished it he told me,  "I enjoyed that far more now than I did when young. I think I have grown into it."
Yes, I think you can grow into books that way. My paternal grandfather had an entire set of that author and would re-read them occasionally. I used to wonder if he read them because of who the author was rather than what the author was but now I believe that, like my father, he had grown into the books and felt comfortable with them.
My father likes to have two books "on the go". There will be one that is non-fiction, an autobiography or an intellectual issue or problem of some sort, and another which is fiction. Fiction is, in his view, something there to be enjoyed. He does not read prize-winning literature simply because it is prize-winning literature. If it does not interest him, and more often than not it does not, then he will put it aside and read something he does want to read. There are, he says, too many books he wants to read to waste time on books he does not want to read. He likes to feel comfortable with what he is reading. At the age of 89 that is his right.
I have no doubt he wants to read the biography of Dickens. He has not eaten breakfast yet. He is still immersed in the beginnings of the book.

Saturday 4 February 2012

Joyce Lankester Brisley

loomed large in my childhood. I think my father brought the first "Milly-Molly-Mandy" book home from school. He probably read it to me. By age four however I could read the stories to myself.
If you have never read the stories they are about a little girl - we never learn quite how old she is - in an English village. She is probably around about five years of age as are her friends, "Little-friend-Susan" and "Billy-Blunt". They are a resourceful trio.
The first stories were published as single episodes in "The Christian Science Monitor" but a collection of them appeared in 1928 and several more volumes followed. My mother's parents were "Christian Scientists" and she was brought up the same way. The "church" they attended would have subscribed to the Monitor and I have no doubt my mother was aware of the stories from her own childhood.
My father remembers the books from his early teaching days. A copy of "Milly-Molly-Mandy" stories was apparently one of the very few books available in the little one-teacher school he worked in before marrying my mother. They probably went down well with the entirely unsophisticated country children he was teaching. They could have related to many of the incidents in the stories. So could I.
It was rather like reading about the place we lived in at the time. It was called a "town" but, by British standards, it was a small village.
My equivalent of "Little-friend-Susan" lived over the back fence. Unlike me she could not read so I read the stories to her. "Billy Blunt" and my brother and I used to ride our tricycles through the huge pipes waiting to be laid for some water scheme. We would also ride a little distance down the road and watch "Mr Rudge-the-Blacksmith". Yes, there was still a blacksmith where we lived. He was probably the only blacksmith for miles around and I know now that most of his work involved mending farm machinery but he could shoe a horse. We watched him do it.
Of course we had a village shop - but no village pond or village green - and the all important village bakery. The bakery was tiny. It provided bread, white or brown, bread rolls and currant buns. As children the currant buns were by far the most important thing. At Easter time the baker would make them into "hot-cross-buns" and each child would be given one. We would sit in a long row along the fence and eat them very slowly. It is just the sort of thing Milly-Molly-Mandy and her friends would have done.
Brisley wrote other books as well. I know I read them too. There was "Marigold in Godmother's House", "The Dawn Shops" and at least two books about "Bunchy".  My godmother showed me how to fold and cut the paper in order to make a string of little girls the way Bunchy did. The day the Whirlwind's mother died I did the same thing to keep her occupied. She still has one string from that day. Paper, pencil and scissors are the only things required.
Perhaps that is what these books are really about and why they are still read. Yes, the library copies are rarely on the shelves. The books are gentle, sentimental, "twee" and lacking in any real excitement. They are not particularly well written but they are comfortable and comforting, somehow "familiar" - and they make us feel secure.

Friday 3 February 2012

I have been procrastinating

quite long enough. Today I must make time to start the long and painful process of writing the final draft/editing/doing something to the latest attempt. My young hero needs to come back from his "holiday" and be pulled into shape.
I am not looking forward to this. I know it will mean cutting bits of the book I like but which really do not need to be there. It will mean finding all the "typos", the apparent spelling errors, the actual spelling errors, the grammatical errors, the repetitions, the plot holes, the... well any writers reading this will know what I mean. Is the book any good at all? Will anyone actually want to read it? Why am I doing this? It is painful and deliberately putting myself in this situation makes as much sense as banging my head on the wall. It might feel good if I could stop - but I cannot stop.
Of course, as a complete masochist, I am banging the front of my head with this one and the back of my head with the one sitting patiently out there awaiting the attention of several agents. This only makes matters worse.
I sometimes wonder why I torture myself like this. What makes anyone want to write? What makes me want to write? I know about the "I like words" bit and the "I like to use my imagination" bit and the other "bits" that go into writing but none of them explain the "must".  It is almost as if the "must" is external to me. There is something out there that insists I must do this. There is some unseen law that says I have no choice.
So, today I will start - after all, I have more books I "must" write.

Thursday 2 February 2012

A traditional Shetland

shawl, if well designed and well made, is a work of art. Yes, a work of art.
I am looking forward to seeing just such a work of art today. A friend is now the caretaker of one she thinks was made in about 1812 and not later than 1814. It has not, she tells me, been well preserved.  Two hundred year old linen thread is fragile.
My friend, an expert embroiderer and teacher of embroidery, can knit and certainly knows something about knitting but she wants me to have a look as well. We are going to see if we can, with extreme care, open out some of this shawl from the roll it is in and photograph it so that we can try and work out the pattern.
I have never done anything quite like this before so it is going to be a challenge but, should we succeed, then my friend will be able to make a replica of it.
Something like this has been done before by other people. If you Google the term "Queen Susan Shawl" you will come up with the references to the fascinating story of how a group of knitters on the internet developed another pattern from the photograph of a shawl in a Shetland museum. Even for a non-knitter this is a fascinating account.
The very finest Shetland shawls, the shawls known as "wedding ring" shawls are made with "cobweb" weight yarn as fine as sewing thread. They are lace, knitting patterned on both sides. Traditional shawls were constructed by first knitting an edging (which predetermined the size), then knitting a border before knitting the central square section. They were made this way because the first knitters did not have access to modern circular needles which, because they can accommodate vast numbers of stitches, can be used to knit shawls from the centre out. There are purists, knitting police, who demand they still be made this way but the reality is that many (if not all) the good women of Shetland who made them would have welcomed the circular needles.
Not everyone could make them of course. Crofting women had many other responsibilities. Their hands were work roughened and using such fine yarn required smooth hands and hours of time. Most crofting women who knitted in order to bring in a few extra shillings each year produced heavier items. They knitted at every opportunity, even while they were walking. We have a photograph of my paternal great-grandmother knitting socks. She always wore an apron with a "knitting pocket" around the house and garden.
The women made "hap" shawls (everyday shawls) for themselves. The fancier shawls were made for the export trade to England. The finest shawls of all were often made to order and the task would be given to a woman who was not able to do heavy crofting work. I was once shown an unfinished shawl begun by a girl who died of some unstated disease. She had been confined to her bed but she was still expected to be useful.
Today I will endeavour to be useful too. I will take some time out and see whether it might be possible to reproduce the work once done by a woman far away - but not in a foreign country for my ancestors come from nearby and knitting speaks all languages.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

When I arrived at the bookshop

yesterday afternoon the staff member on duty had forgotten to get the chairs from the store room. The chairs were needed for the knitting group.
         "Oh Cat! It's Tuesday isn't it? I have been thinking it was Monday all day. Mind the shop! I will go and get them now."
She rushed off with a shopping trolley in which to carry the chairs and I stood behind the counter hoping the 'phone would not ring, hoping nobody would want to buy anything or ask a question I could not answer.
This "selling books" bit is frightening, especially if you know nothing about the "selling" bit. It is not the first time I have done it - there was that famous occasion when someone wanted to know if I knew anything about books. What would they want to know today?
Of course someone wanted something almost immediately. "The book you ordered? What was it called? Yes, it is here on the special orders shelf."
          "The programme for Writers' Week? Yes, that's it."
          "Oh Cat, hello - I'm looking for the sequel to...."
          "I want a birthday present bought that? Then I can't. What else do you think he might like to read?"
         "What's the name of that book...?"
         "Where will I find...?"
Oh come on! Hurry up with those chairs!
         "Cat, can you tell...?
         "Cat, who wrote..."
         "Which one should I get...?
         "Holding the fort Cat? Can you tell me...?"
I have managed to answer everything and, wonder of wonders, the 'phone has not rung.
          "Ooh, a new assistant... I am looking for this book with the pink striped cover and..."
The last comment comes from behind a trolley piled with a stack of chairs. I take careful aim and hit her with an unattached ball of wool - just as the 'phone rings.
If I could reach the bolt on the top of the store room door then I could go and get the chairs!