Anzac Day 2018: wither our pride, Australia?

April 22, 2018

Anzac Day 2018: wither our pride, Australia? 

Anzac Day is one of those days that matters. It’s central to my being and even though I am far away, it’s a day, as is Australia Day, that causes me to pause and consider my home, my country, my nationality. I remember, as a child, attending Dawn Services at the Cenotaph on the Domain in Hobart, visiting the trees planted for the fallen of my family – handsome young men as you can see from the photos – who made the ultimate sacrifice on a foreign field far-far away.

As an Ozzie abroad you are more aware of your nationality than ever you are at home. You are defined by it: it makes you different, something of an outsider and so, to an extent, you cling to your Ozzie-ness even more. I think this is a common thing and might go a long way to explaining why exiles – be we self-exiled, or refugees or migrants – feel our nationalities more on foreign soil. To wit, I am more Australian here than ever I was at home.

And so, recent developments offend and upset me perhaps more than when I am at home because I feel a responsibility to be able to explain and, to an extent, excuse our behaviours, even though I am anything but connected to the idiocy that is our political land-scape, the callous treatment of the more vulnerable in our society, and the foolishness of our sportsmen. Actually, it’s because people here expect me to… I have become Australia– indeed my room at work is the warmest class-room around and was dubbed ‘a little bit of Australia’ by one of my wittier students.

And so as Anzac Day hoves into view I find I am quite angry. It’s not a matter of pride being an Australian abroad these days. It wasn’t under the embarrassment that was Tony Abbott but it isn’t any better with Turnball. I despair of the Greens and wonder about Bill Shorten too. I read about more tax breaks for big business, I read about big coal mines being subsidised, I read about the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. And of course the on-going stain that is Nauru and our reprehensible treatment of refugees.

Education is no better, health care is in decline. Home ownership is harder than ever; the under-privileged slip further behind, bullied by a vile Centrelink who pursue the poorest members of society over fake debt and bills. Young people have the invidious pleasure of huge debt if they go to university. Zero-hours contracts stalk the semi-skilled. Penalty rates are a thing of the past. We are one of the worst countries in the world in terms of standard of living for pensioners. And our Indigenous people moulder away in jail in numbers still hugely disproportionate to their numbers in society. The gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown inordinately.

What the fuck is happening Australia?

It may as well be England.

We are not the Lucky Country, we are no longer the land of the fair go. We have become a nasty country full of nasty people. A country that no longer cares for all, a country that is racist and sexist, and ageist and anti-youth as well. Indeed, how have we managed to be so anti-everything? So full of double standards and shut-you-down vitriol.

We used to be about fair-play, about having a go. We weren’t always about money and position and privilege. Or am I deluded? Am I remembering some imagined past that never really existed?

Yes, we’ve been an overtly macho society for years – the lone stoic stockman, the bronzed Ozzie surfer, the larrikin taking the piss out of everyone. It’s been a hard country for women, foreigners and the Indigenous inhabitants. But we were getting there. We were open to equality, to hard work and people being able to be who they wanted to be if they worked hard enough and long enough. Yes, our own American Dream. An ideal of equality, not of rank or status. Born of being a bunch of convicts I guess, a radical irreverence for position and rank – respect for the person not the title. (Something that certainly got me into trouble over here!!) And then hacking them down, because we don’t want no tall poppies here, mate.

So, because it is Anzac Day – a day that unites us, that reminds us of the debt we owe the past, we need to pause and consider what was fought for, what came out of that catastrophic slaughter over a hundred years ago so far away from home. Too many young men were sacrificed for the Empire, for an engagement that had no merit, that was certain death for those involved. Yes, members of my family travelled to Europe for the great adventure of war, but they didn’t come home. Yet, because we were in thrall to Mother England, to king and country, because we were young and naïve we signed up in droves and we died in droves too. Like thousands of other (mostly) young men: horrid deaths, many needless and then carrying home scars – external and internal – that were never healed. World War One was a brutal, pointless exercise, one that was meant only to last a few months and then to be the war to end all wars. Yes, we can laugh at that incredible irony now.

But out of the war, and especially out of what happened in Turkey in 1915, rose the Anzac spirit; the core of our character. We celebrate bravery and sacrifice; we thank those who laid down their lives for us, as we should. Those who fought and died, those who fought and survived, who protected us and make our country safe and fit for heroes. Our romanticism has it that Gallipoli was the event that turned us around: it was when we grew up, it was what made us into a nation. It was certainly a turning point. And it is right that we continue to acknowledge what happened, in that war and in the (too) many since.

But what has happened that we now are more like the England of WW1, when the gaps between the haves and have nots were appallingly wide and led to pointless sacrifices of young men who were mostly much further down the social ladder than those in charge, who remained at the back of the theatre of war, often not engaged in any sort fighting with bullets or gas or tanks? Why have we let ourselves become that sort of country? Why have we become callous and brutalised – uncaring of the suffering of others, unwilling to make a difference, unwilling to share the wealth of this great country.

Make no mistake about it, Australia is still a rich country, full of great things, good people trying to make a decent life: most of my friends and my darling daughter, her wonderful partner, and my gorgeous grandson are there. I count the days and months until I can go home. But I wonder, what am I coming back to, will I be horribly disappointed by what my country has become, will I regret coming home?

Consider the following:

*Why don’t big businesses care about their clients or employees; why is it all about profit?

*Why don’t the banks give a shit about their customers?

*Why do the politicians (on all sides, in all state, as well as Federally and locally) repeatedly sell out the population to the highest bidder?

*Why aren’t they, or government agencies, held accountable for their behaviour? Barnaby Joyce anyone?

*Why is it okay to hang sportsmen out to dry but not politicians, bureaucrats, CEO’s?

*Why is the media allowed to peddle lies and untruths and stir up hatred and division?

*Why are we not protecting our environment – the Great Barrier Reef, the old growth forests of Tasmania, etc?

*Why aren’t we investing in smart tech, looking at a clever future, dreaming big dreams, planning for a big future?

*Why are we accepting an increasing divide in our country between the haves and have-nots?

*Why do we pursue the under-dog so relentlessly and cheerfully keep on kicking him when he’s down – students, unemployed, pensioners, the disabled, refugees?

*Why do we remain so anti-women, why do we persist in out-dated sexist behaviours, advocating bloke culture at the expense of genuine respect and equality?

Australia is not a powerful international player, despite what various PM’s and others like to believe – there is so little about Australia in the media over here you wouldn’t believe it – but that doesn’t mean we should be sacrificing our national identity on some foolish belief that to be more like the UK or the USA is somehow a good thing.

We have people living it large on the international stage – usually our sportsmen bring honour to us – playing hard but fair, punching above our weight. Remember it was Australia that broke the longest running sporting record in history when Allan Bond with Australia2 finally won the America’s Cup after 132 years (no, we won’t go into what happened to AB…) Our celebrities do us credit – people love Hugh Jackman, Chris Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, Kylie, Tim Minchin, Barry Humphries. We have world class creatives – Richard Flanagan, Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally, Clive James, Germaine Greer, Baz Luhrmann: AC-DC just keep on rolling. Our celebs are seen as grounded, good people, not part of the up-yourself-don’t-speak-to-me-now-I’m-famous lot. We can be proud of them; they bring credit to us.

So, Australia, on this Anzac Day, nearly 100 hundred years since the end of WW1, what do we stand for? How do we define our character now? Would the fallen of WW1 be proud to lay down their lives for what the country has become? How would those who died at Gallipoli feel if they could see us now?

Somehow, I doubt they’d feel their sacrifice had been worth it. (Images from Private Collection)

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Find Your Happy: be it at work or elsewhere…

April 14, 2018

Find Your Happy

I find myself, as the Easter holidays shuffle to their inevitable end, a happy person, despite the return to work – something I’m not as enamoured of as would be useful. I am happy because I have spent most of the holidays indulging my passion. Yes, I’ve been writing like a mad-woman, making up for lost time, living in my own strange worlds, playing with words, having a wonderful time. Actually achieving all the little writing tasks on my list.

I have, in no particular order; revised and submitted a poem for a competition; revised an old story down from over 4000 words to 3000 words for another competition; re-cast the opening of my PhD novel and had a lovely couple of days re-reading and lightly editing that – perhaps time to send it off into the harsh and brutal world of agents and small publishing houses again? And I’ve returned to my sequel to my murder-mystery – which could probably do with some revisions too. And written a couple of blogs – this being one.

In fact the original blog for this week was about being envious of people who love their work, who find their passion in their work, and wondering where mine went. But it wasn’t going well, it was turning into a big moan, an extended bit of self-indulgent self-pity. Not a good writing place to be. And, I have blogged on such things before.

Yes, I am envious of those who find joy in their job – it is the best way to be. But I am not without joy; in my life, or in my work. It’s just buried under a load of shit and cynicism from being in the job for too long. It’s better that people love their work, and especially those who work in my profession and my envy was about a former colleague (Rose, you wonder) who loves her work, who finds her passion in her job, which augurs well for a profession constantly under attack and struggling to attract newcomers.

If I think about it I can find joy in my work, and it’s important that you do too. Work matters: we spend an inordinate amount of time there; it pays the bills, keeps our world turning, gives shape to our days and brings a degree of self respect and self worth. Despite my frequent moaning about my job it has brought a great deal of satisfaction.

At the end of my career I will rest easy knowing I have actually done something positive with my working life: that I have added to the value of the world; that I have helped a great many young people along the way – either into books and the wonders of literature, or into becoming wonderful people. It is the best part of my job – young people becoming who they are, becoming good people, decent citizens: assets to the planet. Grades matter, but it’s all that other stuff that is more important, more rewarding. Just a shame that politicians and Ofsted don’t really get that bit about the wonder and importance of education…

And what if there isn’t enough joy at work – well you must find it or make it elsewhere.  Life isn’t just about bills, having things, and keeping your head above water, about paddling madly like the duck on the pond. But it isn’t about doing it alland having it all either. Despite the plethora of memes telling you to ditch the shit of life, most of us can’t just take off to the depths of the Brazilian rain forest, ride the trains and planes of the world living on beans and rice, or hide in some cabin in the woods for a year… Remember life isn’t a series of Face-book posts, memes or Instagram photos.

Joy comes from the small moments, the everyday things. You may be missing them being caught up in the drudge of your work or the nonsense of social media. Joy comes from family – you know that. Being with them, being in contact with them, having them in your lives. And friends too – just the same. And like me, hobbies or interests where your passion can thrive and keep you from going insane. Not to mention being outside. Get moving, be in the fresh air, feel alive.

Work is important, we can’t get away from that. And we need to give it some credit – it does pay the bills, it gives shape and meaning to our existence, it does reward us (even if not as much as we might like) it gives us friends (I’ve made some of my best friends at work, met my beloved there), it allows us to appreciate our holidays more, and it allows the rest of our life to happen.

But being happy matters too: it is not to be over-rated. Don’t subsume your whole life in a job that makes you miserable, don’t let the bastards grind you down, don’t let the ‘company’ own your very soul – once they’ve sucked everything from you and you have nothing left to give they willthrow you on the scrap heap. Most of us do have a sell buy date. But equally, don’t throw away a decent job on some vague belief that work doesn’t matter, that somehow it’s the other idiots you work with, that there is some magic perfection of a career somewhere, if only you could find it. Perhaps it’s you that’s the joy-sucker, not the job???

You know what to do: find a way to have both – a job that sustains you and a life that enriches you. You know it’s possible – it’s about being smart, about balance, about small joys every day. Go get it, find your happy. (Images from Private Collection)

The Magic and Relevance of Stories.

April 1, 2018

The Magic and Relevance of Stories: why they matter more than ever.

It seems fitting this Easter weekend to focus on stories, given we are commemorating one of the most famous stories of Western culture – the crucifixion – the death of Jesus. Whether you regard it as fact or fiction, it essentially a story (note how fixionsounds), one that has stood the test of time, and one that is simple but profound. A sacrifice for others, for the greater good. Lots of emotion, lots of suffering, lots of depth. But importantly a story that is told and re-told over the last 2000 odd years. Like the myths of the ancients, stories of Gods and heroes, monsters and quests, stories that have been told around fire-sides for aeons.

I grew up with stories – being read to, reading voraciously, loving certain things on the telly and movies too, which we now recognise clearly as belonging to the broad church that is story-telling. I went onto evolve that love of stories and writing – if not actually orally telling them – into my life. I trade in stories – it is my work, my hobby: my passion and it started at home, when I was very young. I grew up on Pooh and Paddington, the Magic Pudding, Anne of Green Gables, Katie Did, Little Women. Indeed, I wanted to be Jo. After all, I had the same sort of nonsense name – too long, too many syllables but usefully shortened to a boy’s name.

Mum used to tell me stories of the Tudor monarchs as we washed up before Bellbird was on the ABC at 6:40 every evening, just before the news. Now I didn’t care about the news but I loved Bellbird (about which I had long discussions with my Nan) and Mum’s stories enkindled a love and passion for history that took me through HSC and almost into university, and remains with me still. The first story of mine that reached an audience was an historical story set at the court of Elizabeth 1, based on time-travel staring myself and my then boyfriend. My English teacher, (Diane Patricia Peacock) God love her, took it upon herself to read it out loud, in instalments, to the rest of the class. I was allowed to absent myself from the event, so hived off to the sewing rooms where I explored my other great love, sewing, and made my first pair of stretch shiny jersey bikinis. But I have remained a writer and a lover of that period of time. If you love the Tudors, you must read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Halland Bringing up the Bodies– brilliant.

As a person of a certain age and a teacher, we deplore the diminishing reading activity of the young – most notably the teenage young. The stats on how much they fall away from reading when they hit secondary school is worrying and damaging to their success (and enjoyment) in English. Yes, reading does all sorts of wonderful things to the mind, the vocab, written and verbal expression; the empathy one develops.

But stories – reading, viewing or telling remain currency. Even if the young aren’t so aware of it. We all tell stories every day. It isn’t just Homer around the fire at the end of battle telling tales of the heroic and God-like, it is us too. We tell stories to make sense of our world, to know who we are.

How many of you sit around the dinner table at the end of the day and share your day? Not as many as should, and this, as we know, leads to problems with diet and obesity, with problems with socialisation, with the inability to interact effectively with others, to be able to socialise. How do you know about those close to you if you don’t talk, if you don’t share the stories of your day, of your life? These stories let us share our lives, be they simple accounts of the events of the day, or a funny incident well told. We learn about what is important, if there is a problem, if there is something to be celebrated.

When we tell stories we shape our experiences to make sense of them – we leave things out, we emphasize certain aspects, we show ourselves in different lights, sometimes we are the fool, sometimes we are the hero. We shape our experiences to suit our audience, to suit our purposes, to test the waters. We watch their faces, gauge their reactions and adjust our telling. And so we learn how to interact with people – how to communicate. We learn about others. And so telling stories is as important as reading stories.

Last year when I asked my year 13s what had been the high-light of their year several of them made much of my stories, my asides – especially the one about how I (along with select members of my family) had drowned a protected species with some glee after catching it in a possum trap, the same evil creature who had brutally and ruthlessly killed nearly all of our chickens and then started in on the turkeys too. My class laughed about how that was not what I had meant (where was their connection to A Streetcar Named Desire,Carol Ann Duffy’s amazing collections – Feminine Gospels?) and then had great fun tracking the connections from what we were meant to be talking about to drowning a protected species. It reminded us all that stories are everywhere and connections take us to odd, bizarre and sometimes amazing places.

We learn to tell stories from others. From books being read to us and stories being told to us. So as parents we must not forgo the responsibility and huge pleasure of reading to our children. And, more than ever, of reading ourselves, so they see us read and ape what we do and become readers, not just passive receivers of all sorts of messages. Stories are important because of the human factor. Stories are about characters – people usually – doing human things, regardless of the time or place. Stories of fictional people matter just as much as stories of real people. All imagined characters have a connection to someone’s real life, to the experience of the writer, even if not directly to her/him. Those experiences connect with us, explain things, help us solve problems, give us examples of how to prevail; help us to know ourselves and others better.

I am very pleased that all three of my children remain readers, despite their busy lives and interests that don’t necessarily allow for the, now, luxury of reading. I always buy books for my boy for Christmas and birthdays. Recently both girls were reading Animal Farm,while I was teaching it. We all had interesting conversations about the wickedness of those pigs and the wretched ending of poor old Boxer. See, stories connect us too. Do you wonder why book clubs are so popular? People like to share stories and to share their experience of stories.

You shouldn’t be surprised by the timelessness of Shakespeare, you shouldn’t wonder why he remains performed across the world and a staple on school curriculums. His stories are rammed full of human frailties, our weaknesses as humans, as well as our better parts. Witness Macbeth and his ambition over-whelming him; Lady Macbeth’s love that drives her to plan and execute murder of a king; Iago who is burned by jealousy and wreaks havoc on those around him; King Lear who is so full of himself that he doesn’t see where love and loyalty are until it is too late; or Petruchio and Kate who really know how to mess with each other’s heads in the pursuit of love; and wouldn’t we all love to feel the intensity of the madness of Romeo and Juliet’s tragic love?

We love the Myths and Legends of old too for the same reason: so much tragedy, so many fools doing dangerous and fatal things – for love, for honour, for revenge. It’s good to read stories from other cultures too, it reminds us how much we have in common – so many stories echo each other – Pandora opening that silly box, defying her husband and ruining the world is just Eve taking the apple and being thrown out of Eden. The Phoenix can be found across the world of mythical beasts and there’s always a Dragon somewhere too; be it a dangerous Western dragon or a lucky Eastern one.

We are all story-tellers, every day we tell a story about something to do with ourselves. If we watch TV we watch stories. Even if we play computer games we are involved in stories. Young people may not read books as much anymore, or even go to the movies like they did, but they are involved in stories. We need to make sure they are involved in the right sort of stories, are accessing stories that help them make the right decisions about their lives and are not attracted by the dark stories out there that can so easily tempt them and take them to a violent and terrible future – one without stories of striving and struggle, of triumph and success.

Whatever you do make sure you are telling good stories, you are reading to your children, you are sharing good books with young minds. It matters, it really does. In these dark days of fake news and false facts one of the best places to find the truth and make good connections is in fiction, even if it is your own. (Images from Private Collection)

The Importance of Things: The Joy of Possessions.

March 18, 2018

The Importance of Things: The Joy of Possessions.

There’s a lot of emphasis in our world on consuming, on buying things – either being exhorted to buy more and more, or to eschew the whole thing entirely and go for experiences and a life well lived; not basing our meaning or reason for being or status on having things, increasingly expensive and pointless things.

Anyone who looks at land-fill and visits charity shops on our high streets or is sickened by the amount of plastic in our oceans cannot help but be appalled by our greedy consumer based society. Indeed, there are endless memes about how we wish to be remembered, for the person we were but not for our fabulous collection of shoes – Imelda Marcos, anyone???

But we all consume, we all buy things, useless things, expensive things when cheaper ones will do. Is our rampant consumerism about status, about greed, about a selfish need to have more and more?

There’s nothing wrong with liking sparkly shiny things. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to surround yourself with beautiful things. What’s wrong is making the acquisition of possessions the focus and thrust of your life. It’s not good to compete or keep up with the Joneses; it makes for a life of empty soul destroying avarice. You’ll never win, you’ll always be behind, second best: a loser. You’ll end up in a stupid amount of debt, in a house that is devoid of love and the rough and tumble of life, in a suburb full of people you actually despise, driving a car that costs too much to insure, that loses value the moment you set foot in it and isn’t really the car you actually wanted.

Now, consider for a moment the possessions you hold dear. There is probably a reason why an object or collection of objects means something to you.

I have several things that have travelled the world with me; things from my childhood, things that have not been destroyed by fire (1967, Hobart), cyclone (NT x 4) or floods or snow-storms or smashed or lost by various removal firms. Yes, they are toys – my panda bear who at the time he was given to me was almost as big as me, a gift from my grandparents, who knew how much I wanted it; my Paddington Bear, the last gift from my mum that I still have. Yes, I have her WW cook-book (as mentioned last week) and a few items of jewellery but the only thing left that she gave me is Paddington.

For the last Christmas before she died she gave me a glomesh wallet. Do you remember those? Quite sophisticated items at the time. It was my first wallet, a step up from my cheap Indonesian leather purse. It had all sorts of compartments, as well as a coin purse and a place to keep your notes without folding them origami like to fit inside your small purse. I loved it but it became more important when she died – the last item, the last gift, the last connection.

You know what happened, don’t you? It got stolen. Twice actually – once from the Uni Rowing sheds in Newtown Bay, but recovered from the rivulet whence it had been abandoned. And then again many years later in Darwin after we’d moved back from Alice. This time it was never found. The lost was deep and compounded by the fact that inside the cream lining I had secreted the plastic hospital baby-tags belonging to the Dragon and Phoenix. I lost a couple of hundred dollars too – right before Christmas – but the loss, the heart-breaking loss was that of things that cannot be replaced: gifts from a dead parent, and once only identification tags, irreplaceable mementoes of birth. Thus Paddington can never be abandoned or given up as something from childhood that should have been put away years ago.

But now I have another special wallet that has a story with it. It is beautiful, functional and makes me happy every time I use it. I smile when I look at it, remembering the agonising I did over buying it. I have struggled to buy things for myself over the years, especially if it is a tad on the expensive side. And so this pink leather wallet on sale in an up market department store near our hotel in Barcelona caused a great deal of anguish. Which shade of pink, which style – this one at this knock down price or this one – more originally expensive, or this not quite as nice but more reasonably priced one? I looked, contemplated, went away, spent the day at the various beautiful attractions that Barcelona has to offer and then went back with Pallas to agonise again. Finally, as all good children do, she made me choose and ‘allowed’ me to buy myself something lovely. It was a bargain and we all love a bargain; it’s why all the discount web-sites thrive – we all think we’ve got a steal of a deal and it makes us feel better. We have made good purchases at a more than reasonable price. You can never knowingly over-spend ever again!!

People rush into burning buildings to collect possessions – photos and other trinkets, worthless things that seem like junk to the wider world but are worth a fortune to the possessor. Yes, because they are full of all that stuff that is beyond measure, beyond any rationale calculable worth. During the Tropical Years in Darwin I had our photos boxed up and wrapped in heavy plastic ready to grab should we need to head for shelter during a cyclone. My box of writing over the years was similarly readied for emergency matters. I knew what was impossible to replace; I knew what I needed to keep and yes, all of those things are with me still.

Of course, people and relationships matter more. Of course, possessions are not more important than the living. But when the living are gone or far away it is fair and reasonable to keep things from them, or related to, them close by. The other precious things in my life are to do with my children – photos of them across the years, things made by them (yes, Pal – your Garfield and penguin will be with me until the end of time); cards and gifts from them (yes, Phu your ‘Zanzibar’ and polar bear and elephant watch over me as I sleep); and I wear the heart necklaces (one rose quartz, one Murano glass) from the Dragon every day. Sentimental things, lovely things that when you use them, wear them, look at them, fill you with love and warmth.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to own nice things. Why shouldn’t you have a good set of cast iron pans, or an extensive collection of scarfs? Why shouldn’t you have a nice car, that Jaguar F-Pace, if you want and you can afford it? Why shouldn’t you expand your collection of vinyl, rare books, elephants? Life isn’t about being frugal or mean, or without pleasure.

The point is that materialism, rampant consumerism, isn’t doing the planet or your well being much good. Buying things to be in fashion, to keep up with some sort of imagined standard is pointless. Buying things instead of putting time into relationships or doing things, traveling, having experiences, is counter-productive – what are you doing with your life? Amassing a load of rubbish for others to just throw out when you’ve popped your clogs?

But buying things keeps a whole range of people in work – especially if you buy lovely original items – a range of artists able to keep on working, adding beauty to the world and your living room. Buying a new kitchen is reward for your efforts and keeps a whole retinue of people gainfully employed. Buying things when we travel brings the story with it, recreates that experience (hence the pink purse from Barcelona). Buying something expensive or simply something that you just love that you’ve worked hard for and saved for brings a feeling of accomplishment too: I earned this, here is a testament to my efforts. It makes the grinding and sometimes unrewarding realm of work worthwhile. Why shouldn’t you have a crushed velvet Chesterfield sofa? It’ll probably last a life-time and be beautiful as well as functional.

I now have a collection of 57 elephants. They come in all shapes, sizes and materials. They are quite lovely and give me a great sense of pleasure. When I clean and dust them I think about who gave them to me (being a collector of things helps others in the gift-giving dilemma; thank you, Dear), or where I was when I got that one, and where will I put them all when I eventually get home again!

Possessions for the sake of possessions is pointless. Possessions that mean something, that have an emotional richness, that bring you pleasure and comfort are important. Don’t feel guilty about spending money on yourself or others. But make sure that what you buy is worth it, that doesn’t add to our throw-away, mindless, avaricious society. Buy things, own things but buy wisely and well.

Possessions should be about connections and stories, utility and beauty – they shouldn’t be about competition or expense or acquisition for the sake of it. Remember that and you’ll not make foolish or wasteful purchases, and you’ll have things that are worth having. (Images from Private Collection)

Comfort Food – for when you need something to make you feel better.

March 11, 2018

Comfort Food.

In the midst of the snow last week and being (sadly and oh so reluctantly) forced to stay at home instead of going to work I had a sudden odd yearning to make scones – fruit scones to be exact. And so I did. Hunting out my mother’s old, battered, world travelled Women’s Weekly Cookbook I made scones. It was a bit of a challenge, given it is years since I’ve made scones and given the age of the cook-book it was all imperial measures, so some time was spent converting with the help of the internet – oh, helpful & wonderful thing that it can be.

 

My first batch were more like rock-cakes: the mixture rolled too thin with old SR flour, still they tasted fine enough. The second batch were a marvel and a delight. And it set me to wondering what is it about scones that is so comforting, indeed it set off a whole train of thought on comfort food. Which, as I publish on Mothering Sunday here in the UK, seems entirely appropriate.

Scones are things connected to my mum and nans – ladies who belonged to the CWA (Country Women’s Association) for whom baking was a part of life. Mum was only a so-so sort of cook but still she could manage a decent batch of scones and a few basic cakes; so making my scones, using her book made me feel close to her again and it was a comfort to me – even now, after all these years it’s nice to feel close to her.

 

Perhaps this cosy feeling we have from baking – either baking ourselves or receiving the fruits of the baking – explains the run away success of the Great British Bake Off, and many other cookery shows. Indeed Nigella springs to mind.

Home make food is a comfort. I am of an age when a home-cooked meal was the norm, and for my own family it was too. We associate home-cooking with love, care; with home and feeling safe. We are comforted by home-cooking, by the smell of baking, by the aroma and taste of freshly cooked meals. Who doesn’t love the smell of baking bread, of roasting lamb, of pumpkin soup? Even the simple smell of brewed coffee and toast – who doesn’t feel better with those aromas in the vicinity?

Food has become an area of danger and politics, of fashion and trends, and obesity is the newest disease and every day some new study warns us about sugar, or fat or bacon. Governments set out healthy eating advice, legislate against sugar and fat and push for honest labelling. We can’t escape food – be we thin, fat, poor or rich.

We all have our own comfort food – our go-to bit of nourishment when we feel crook, or unhappy or tired, or even for celebrations. Comfort food is exactly what it says it is – food that comforts you, that makes you feel better, that lifts your mood, or makes you feel a bit less wretched about yourself or the world.

When I’m sick I want tomatoes on toast, with lots of butter and salt and pepper. I have no idea why, but every time a cold sweeps in, even post-migraine, I want fresh fat red tomatoes on toast. It’s wonderful. And every time I do feel better afterwards. It puzzles me as I am not usually a great tomato eater … clearly my body knows something my brain doesn’t!

 

Comfort food is simple, plain honest food. It’s easy and quick to prepare. It hits the spot in moments and so you feel better in minutes.

I have a list of things that make me feel better… the afore-mentioned tomatoes on toast, scones, fresh and warm with melting butter or jam and cream; peanut butter on toast, vegemite and toast, jam and toast (there’s a theme here!), melted cheese on toast, ham and cheese toasties, sardines on toast; soup – chicken noodle, tomato pumpkin: packet, tin or homemade; plain Cadbury dairy milk chocolate; eggs and bacon, egg and bacon pie; cold lamb sandwiches with tomato, and sausages – especially thin beef Australian sausages (although I just love the simplicity and honesty of sausages, be they English French or Australian), barbecued and in a slice of white bread with tomato sauce. Actually there is a lot of tomato in a range of guises herein…

 

Mostly this is winter stuff – I guess that’s when we get sick the most and the need the most comfort – snuggled up in bed, or by a roaring fire, feeling sorry for ourselves, needing lovely simple food stuffs to make us feel better. But in Summer there’s nothing more comforting on a stinking hot day than an icy glass of coke, a chilled slice of watermelon, a lemonade icy pole – the cheap ones! And, of course, the most comforting drink of all – champagne, because it comforts and celebrates and is good with so many food stuffs, especially the wantonly naughty and comforting KFC and pizza (homemade or take-away – thank you Pizza Hut) and at any time of the year. Stick a frozen strawberry or raspberry in your bubbles and you have an utterly blissfully comforting drink for all occasions.

So, have a think, what is your go-to comfort food – is there only one? (Images from Private Collection)

 

Don’t bring your difference to my table: a poem.

January 27, 2018

Perhaps something suitable for Australia Day, but for many other days and places too. A poem to help us consider and reflect on much of the nonsense of our world.

Don’t bring your difference to my table

Don’t bring your otherness into my room, don’t bring it to my door, into my home, my country

Don’t bring your arrogant aged, patronising wisdom

Don’t bring your cocky youthful ignorance

Don’t bring your God of war and hate and intolerance

Don’t bring your colour, your gender, your fatness, your beauty, your out-dated misogyny, your vitriolic feminism

Don’t bring your pointless, damaging shit to me

Be silent when I speak

Listen with your heart

So you hear the sameness

 

Look into my eyes, beyond the blue, the brown

Peer beyond my skin, whatever hue

Ignore my hair – whatever colour or texture it be

Ignore my external appearance, the distracting packaging

Instead

Gaze deep inside, into my soul, my heart

Is it not the same as yours?

 

Don’t look for differences

Don’t proclaim your otherness before all else

Don’t make enemies where there are none

 

Wherever we come from

Whatever we believe in

Whatever we eat

Whomever we pray to

Whomever we love

Whatever we speak

 

We are the same

We are human

We are sisters and brothers

We originate from the same one mother

Stop judging

Stop hating

The old, the young, the fat, the rich, the poor, the stupid, the black, the clever, the informed, the wise, the dumb, the hopeless, the sick, the homeless, the immigrant, the refugee, the victim, the lesbian, the homosexual, the transsexual, the foolish

Stop

 

Don’t bring your differences to me

I only want to know how we are the same

How we care about the same things

 

How together we can make a difference (Images from Private Collection)

Life is Precious: Honouring Ferida.

January 14, 2018

Life is Precious: Honouring Ferida Tasholi.

This is not the blog I had prepared for today but I need to honour one of my friends, one of my former students; someone who was responsible for keeping me writing my blog, to whom I felt honour bound to write something for her to read on a Saturday morning as she had her coffee. I’ve let her down over the last few months and now she’ll not be there to keep me honest in my renewed quest to post regularly again.

Vale Ferida Tasholi, whom I taught in the very first year of my teaching career, who latterly became a dear friend. I am saddened beyond belief. My heart breaks for your family, for your beloved boys and husband. I am angry with a world that takes the likes of you and leaves behind so much rubbish, so many people who do no good, who cause so much damage and pain, who do not add to the planet. You added to the planet: you did that, as a mother, wife, teacher and friend: you were a force for good, you had a positive effect on many people, you made our world a better place. Your death is one of the cruel ironies of life – where once there was joy and sunshine, now there is pain and loss.

I will miss your responses to my blogs, the interactions that ensued; your intelligence, humour and engagement; our recent FB chat about the loveliness of flowers, my orchids that I am managing not to kill! I will miss you nagging me when I miss a week or month. But most of all I will miss having you in my head, as I write, wondering: what will Ferida think of this, will she find this interesting, will she like this? I feel quite bereft and can only imagine how those who were so much closer to you feel. Yes, I have some inkling how your boys are: my mother died too soon as well. You were the same age.

It is cruel. A death like this – sudden, unexpected, unnatural – is hard to take. I sometimes think a lingering death, the struggle with disease, with the likes of cancer is somehow easier: you have the chance to get used to the passing of your loved one. You are preparing for it and when there is a great deal of suffering, as there often is at the end of such diseases, there is also relief at their passing: the suffering is over.

But the death of those before their time is always hard, no matter the cause. Death stalks us all. It is the single common denominator of everything – we are born and we die.

 

So, here’s the thing, the thing we need to remember as we travel through this life. Some things matter more than others. Let Ferida’s death cause us to pause and remember the things in life that are most important:

*Family matters more than work.

*Friends matter more than money.

*Love matters more than anything.

So, take the time to be with those you love, to tell them how much they mean to you, to be kind and patient, to answer that text, to keep in touch, to forgive and make up before it’s too late.

Make sure you look after your own health. Have the check up; lose that bit of weight, keep moving, stay active; don’t ignore that nagging cough, that lump, that persistent pain. Look after yourself in the world – drive carefully, walk carefully, get off your phone, be alert to the dangers of others; keep your mind active: don’t die when you don’t need to. Don’t die before your time. Don’t leave a hole that will never be filled.

And don’t forget that those who are gone, those we really love, are always with us. They live in our hearts, we see them in our children; we remember them when a song is played; when a smell unlocks a memory; when we hear ourselves speaking their words, intoning their wisdom, wondering what they might have done in this situation. And if we’re lucky, they’re watching over us, loving us still.

While we should ‘show our friendship for a man when he is alive’, as Meyer Wolfshiem advised Nick in The Great Gatsby, we should also honour the dead, as the ancient story tellers like Homer did, through stories and songs told over and over again at the fireside, repeated and retold forever. Tell your own stories of those you have loved and lost so others know them too, so they are not forgotten, like Achilles and Hector and Odysseus, the heroes of Troy.

So tell your stories of Ferida; mourn her, honour her and do not forget her. My orchids are for you, Ferida, one last time. (Images from Private Collection)

2018: More and Less for the New Year

December 31, 2017

2018: More and Less

I am making a blogging come-back in time for a New Year – and have some thoughts about how to make it a better year for me. Perhaps my non-Resolutions approach will help you too. I have found over many years that lists of what to do – whether seemingly practical or noble seem doomed to fail, so for many years I have eschewed the idea of New Year anything… But this year I feel it might be time to try again, to re-focus my energies in a way that might work for me. So, welcome to my More and Less lists for 2018. After all, most of us love a good list!

MORE

Writing

It’s time to return to regular blogging as I’ve paid for another year’s worth of platform, as writing regularly is good practice, and as I really do have a lot to say on most things!

I’m also going to be more regular in the fiction realm too: make sure I write for several hours at least once a week; Sundays most probably – to regain the habit of writing there too, of setting a regular time and place and letting habit bring the Muse to the surface sooner rather than later, and therefore allow the next murder-mystery novel to move at a more productive pace.

Movement

Winter slows me, swaddles me in layers and keeps me in the car and inside but it is anything but good for my knees or my health, so I will move more – try to walk every day, try to get some level of acceptable fitness back into my existence. Small steps, modest goals, but more movement will lead to improved fitness and a move away from obesity and declining health!

Reading

I mean for pleasure, just for me. I read a shit-load of stuff every day – mostly less than erudite essays and stories from the great unwilling teen-age beast, but also works of fiction that need to be read and re-visited for work, for the afore-mentioned teen-age beasty. So, I want to read more for me, read something current, something good, something classic that should be re-visited – perhaps a bit of Moby Dick; can I finally get to The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (bought last summer) or get through Eleanor Catton’s Booker winning The Luminaries (started three times)?

Kindness and Tolerance

I advocate kindness all the time: it is one of those seriously under-rated human attributes, something we need a whole lot more of. And if I expect it from others I should practice it more myself. I need to be kinder, more patient with those I love, those I work with, those to whom I am meant to make a difference. I shall work on smiling more genuinely and less ironically at my charges and think seventeen thousand times before opening my mouth and speaking. I like the idea of the THINK steps before you speak…

T – is it True?

H – is it Helpful?

I – is it Inspiring?

N – is it Necessary?

K – is it Kind?

 

Time doing the things you want to do –

This isn’t doesn’t need to be that hard and covers a multitude of sins: spend time doing what you love, what brings you joy – be that your own creative pursuits, being outside in the wonders of nature, being with those you love. Don’t ignore the importance of doing more of what you want to do, what fills your heart – don’t be afraid to be happy, even – especially – in small moments. Don’t fill your days with work and grind and have to, make sure you do somethings for yourself, that make you appreciate the joy and wonder of your life and makes you a better person.

 

LESS

 

Time Wasting on FB, etc

I don’t need it, it’s mostly rubbish and it eats my time in a passive-aggressive sort of way. Yes, I love seeing what my friends and family are up to, I love the cute dog pix, I love the quizzes, I love the interesting articles, I love that it keeps me connected to so many parts of my life, but I don’t need it open all the time, distracting me from more productive pursuits… and neither do you!

On-line Shopping –

This is hard too – I love a good trawl through Groupon, Kaleidoscope, BonPrix, Amazon, Wayfair, Tesco’s but oh, it too is just sucking time from my life. I shall restrict myself to certain times of the year and limit the spending (which was okay until Xmas!!) and exercise more self-control in such matters – do I really need it, where will it go, how can I get it back home (when that finally happens)?

TV –

Yes, this is taking over my life again – once during the PhD years there was no TV, now it seems to be slowly but surely taking up too much time again. I shall simply watch the programs I really like (The Chase, Victoria, Feud, Dr Who, University Challenge, Only Connect, Death in Paradise, Father Brown, The Durrells – oh, see how the list swells and grows…) and walk away from the couch the rest of the time and go and read or write. I shall be more discerning and less zomboid in this matter.

Diets that don’t work

Time to simply adopt a lifestyle change that gets me into some sort of reasonable weight range, allows my knee to have less bulk to deal with, allows wine and cheese but gets me stronger, and prolongs my life. This has to happen NOW – 5:2 anyone?

Being Angry, Frustrated, Feeling Negative –

It’s so easy to be over-whelmed by the negative of life, to wallow in the bad, the evil, the nastiness out there and closer to home. Too much time spent engaging with politics and economics and the cult of the rich and famous does us mere mortals no good at all. So keep away from things that make you frustrated, let the anger go quickly, do not brood on injustices – real or imagined. Accept that it is fine to feel angry, to get upset about things but the key is not to wallow in the negativity of life, not to sulk or brood about life’s many and varied injustices. All you do is hurt yourself, so don’t indulge. Feel the pain, the annoyance, the bile rising within, and then, let it go… You will feel better for it. This is the wisdom about knowing what you can change in your life and what you can’t affect. Negative feelings hurt us, not anyone else, so don’t spend the year hurting yourself unnecessarily.

 

And a Final Bit of More…

Pink, more elephants, more joy and more love – you can never have too many of these things

 

Can I manage this? I think so – less of some things will get me places, more of others will help too. But note this is not an eliminations list, not an all-or-nothing ambition for 2018, and to that end it should be achievable. Is that not the reason most resolutions fail – because they ask too much of us, doom us to failure before we start? We need less doom, less failure, more kindness, more attainable goals in our lives, more small things that will lead to big changes.

Think about how well you know yourself and make your plans for 2018 in line with that self-knowledge, then you will be a winner. Make your 2018 a successful year on your terms. Happy New Year, dear friends. (Images from Private Collection)

 

 

Music Soothes the Soul and Inspires the Mind.

April 9, 2017

Music Soothes the Soul and Inspires the Mind.

What is your favourite song? Can you name just one? No, probably not – it would have to be a personal top ten, maybe a top twenty. I’d struggle to keep to twenty, wouldn’t you?

On Friday driving home from Tesco’s in the bright Spring sunshine the radio played something cheerful and rhythmic – can’t recall the tune but it made me tap my fingers and wobble my head as I waited for the lights to go green and it reminded me how important music is to most of us. That it soothes and inspires, brightens and saddens, and without it we are lesser beings.

And then my mind jumps to the lunacy of an Education system that doesn’t value music or drama or Art or anything creative; ignoring the fact that Britain, London especially, thrives on culture. There are galleries all over London; the West End is full of tourists and locals going to shows; literary festivals populate the country: music festivals sell out fast wherever they are (Glastonbury) and the O2 and other concert halls remain in constant use.

What sort of madness is it that says Music and the arts don’t matter? How short sighted is it to side-line these subjects in school?

Music is for the soul and the heart – it can make you feel better, it can make you feel worse; it can transport you to different times, different places: a different life. It doesn’t matter if you can’t play or sing, you can enjoy music on your own terms wherever you are.

Art and stories make you think, challenge your views of the world, broaden your understanding and give you beauty – of an image, of words. Images and words are incredibly powerful things.

Stories can tell the truth when no other medium can. Art makes us face who we are. Music makes us feel things and rouses our emotions and makes us feel connected. Is this why the powers that be want to shut down the Arts in schools; why they blissfully ignore the plethora of evidence that shows how important music is for learning, for healing, for being human?

 Plugged in- zoned out!

I like the diversity of all the art forms but Music is the one that lives with me every day – yes, even more than writing, believe it or not! The first thing I do every morning is turn on the radio. In the car there is music – radio or CD (is that terribly old fashioned now?). When I am writing there is music – ah the joy of iTunes and a personalized selection on Youtube. I play certain music for certain pieces of writing – stuff to sooth and block out the extraneous rubbish in my brain, or stuff to cheer me up, or take me to a specific time or place – hello Australian Crawl, Split Enz, The Police!

Music can be devastatingly simple or awesomely complex – the Beatles love you, yeh, yeh, yeh and a simple but devastating hook that infects your brain. And then we have the complexity of Stairway to Heaven and Bohemian Rhapsody – in lyrics and musical movements. We have the grunt of AC-DC’s Highway to Hell (even sung by John Farnham – it’s brilliant, find it on Youtube), the madness of Florence and the Machines’ Dog Days are Over and the joy of John Paul Young’s Love is in the Air. Whenever I hear Christina Anu sing My Island Home I well up and suffer terrible longing pangs for my own island home, thousands of miles away.

John Denver has just come on the radio: back I go to sunny days in Tasmania and to thoughts of my father who loved him (we had a dog named Calypso for the song) and to my step-mother struggling to cope with her estrangement from my father and then his sudden death, and playing John Denver as we had our own farewell ceremony after the funeral.

My mother was musical – she could play the piano and I recall a reasonable singing voice. I was useless, only managing the opening of the First Noel on our piano. But all of my children can play – clarinet, flute, saxophone and cello. My mother’s despair over my lack of musical ability would have been salved by the fact that her grandchildren had all acquired her musical skills, unlike her dullard daughter. I like to think she’d have been enormously proud of them, coming to concerts and soirees all the years they were in school bands and orchestras. There you go, a little musical sadness, that she never saw them play, never saw her musical genes living on.

Chris Rea has a special resonance for my beloved and me. The Macarena will always be the song for my big girl; memories of her teaching the moves to girls in Shanghai when we were there on exchange. My baby girl is Shiny Shiny by Hazee Fantasee; a Romantics CD on constant play when she was young that made her sing along and bubble and smile. My boy is forever Sting’s Fields of Gold from when he was in all sorts of musical ensembles at school and sang this.

And my favourite song of all time? Is there such a beast? Can I choose from Bowie, Queen, Zeppelin, Oz Crawl? Yes: it is the wonderful and obscure Echo Beach by Martha and the Muffins. It has the most marvelous beat and brilliant sax. It is my ring tone and it must be played at my funeral as the fires consume me.

We take music for granted; few of us can play a musical instrument, but like Fran from Black Books, we must be musical because we have hundreds of CDs, or tunes on our various machines: we take music with us wherever we go. It is part of our soul, our being, our lives. Don’t let anyone tell you the Arts don’t matter, that music is pointless. Got to a live performance of any sort and you will be transplanted to another place, deeper feelings, and an appreciation of the wonders of the world. (Images from Private Collection)

Be Nice: It’s More Important than Ever.

March 26, 2017

Be Nice: It’s More Important than Ever.

There is an epidemic of nastiness in our world. It was evident in this week’s London attack at Westminster when an innocent Muslim woman who walked by the injured/dead pedestrian on Westminster Bridge was trolled for being callous and indifferent to the suffering around her. She wasn’t being anything of the sort but the immediate and vile on-line spewing of vitriol was as ever a knee jerk reaction to an image that suggested a great many things, but was positioned as something to react negatively to. And so people did.

Why are we so happy to take the nasty position? To attack instead of saying nothing? Why do we prefer to be unpleasant instead of kind? Is it simply the anonymity of the cyber-world or is there something deeper and blacker lurking in us all?

What is disturbing from my point of view is that this epidemic is becoming more evident in the young beasties I interact with every day. There seems to be something in the air that is infecting them too. Yes, students have always had a robust relationship with each other: bullying is not a new problem, there have always been cliques, the cool kids, those on the outer. But there seems to be an increasingly callous nastiness to each other: interactions that go beyond teasing, beyond banter. There’s an edge to how they interact at the moment. A harsh disregard for the hurt that is being inflicted on others – be it physical or verbal. If I say something they look at me as if I am mad – it’s okay Miss they know I don’t mean it.

Is this true? Am I missing something here? Is it okay?

If it is okay then we are in a terrible way. Young people who don’t know how to treat each other, who think being casually rude or unkind is acceptable, who don’t actually care about someone else’s feelings, even if it is a friend. But it’s not just young people at school, it is people of all ages, from all over the place. You’re on-line, you read the articles and the comments sections. You know how rude and aggressive people have become. It’s almost expected, isn’t it – get on-line and make as outlandish a comment as possible and wait for the responses so you can get even more outraged. We saw this at its worst (best?) during the recent US election when the comments about Hilary especially were completely beyond the pale. We know of women on Twitter and other places who are trolled with comments wishing they were raped or their children killed.

When did we become some vile, so reprehensible?

The anonymity and comments boards have unleashed a monster that is now utterly out of control. The lack of accountability of these people is clear. Yes, some get prosecuted but the vast majority does not. Freedom of speech is a two edged sword and we have allowed the dark side to over-take us. We seem to have forgotten that being free to speak does not equate with being free to abuse all and sundry.

What should we be doing about this?

Parents must be more responsible for their children’s moral education, for making them into decent citizens, who know right from wrong and the importance of thinking before speaking or acting. Parents need to monitor and restrict their child’s on-line interactions. Not just because it is dangerous out there, but because it is de-humanizing them. The more time a child spends on-line, the less they are able to interact effectively with others – they lose the ability to read and understand emotions. They lose the ability to converse effectively, to listen, to share, to understand that the world does not revolve around them.

Those who run the various social media platforms need to do a great deal more about how they police and punish what is posted on-line. Hate-crimes are all very well, but the everyday hatred that is spewed on various platforms needs greater attention. I’m not sure why Zuckerberg etc don’t get it, why they obsess about breast feeding mothers and turn a blind eye to the myriad other vile and abusive images and messages on their platforms. They need to step up and exercise more moral integrity and not just concern themselves with getting richer at the expense of the moral and ethical decline of the population.

We, ourselves, need to be more vigilant. Challenge young people about their behaviour. Make them read. Yes, I know you are not surprised by this coming from me, but there is a huge amount of research that links reading fiction with being more empathetic and better at getting on with people, and more successful in life. Reading matters more than ever. As a parent take that iPad out of their hands and put a book there. You could even read along with them. Perhaps you need to read more too, more fiction not just shit articles on line that do nothing for your neurons either.

We need to turn away from the noise of hatred ourselves. We need not to support it – call it our where we see it. Not engage in on-line battles; not accept the bias of the media.

We need to be nice – a terrible soft pastel word, much under-rated but incredibly important now. We mustn’t just think that we are, as many people do, but act as if we are. Indulge in acts of kindness, for strangers, but especially for those you love. Say something thoughtful, something kind.

Be positive, see the good in the world as much as you can. (Yes, I know it’s hard but it’s worth trying.) Smile, believe that things will get better, actively work towards making things better; grow things, encourage others, read more; be fully informed, don’t make snap judgments.

If we don’t do something to stem the tide of nastiness, of hatred and vitriol then the world will drown in violence and fear and that’s not a world I want anyone I love about to live in. (Images from Private Collection)