Friday, 31 December 2010

I do not like birthdays,

or at least my birthday.
If other people want to celebrate theirs then let them. I know some people actually like them. They like the fuss, the presents, being the centre of attention at some points in the day, having people say "Happy Birthday". I do not. Birthdays make me want to hibernate. I will come back after it is all over.
In our family five out of the six of us had our birthdays in the summer. My mother was first and the rest of us followed. Add Christmas and New Year and there were just too many things to be celebrated. My birthday was almost always given very little consideration. I never got used to the idea of having one.
If I am honest I have to say that not much was ever done about celebrating anyone's birthday. My mother never "had time" for that sort of thing. We did not have parties, indeed most of the time we were not even all in the same place. My parents would have come to the city from wherever they were teaching. One parent and two children would be with one set of grandparents and one parent and two children would be with the other set of grandparents. If I was lucky I would be with my paternal grandparents and that would mean going down for an early morning swim and icecream later in the day. They would not have dared to make too much fuss. If I was unlucky I would be with my maternal grandparents.
Our summer "holidays" were taken up with trips to the dentist, buying school supplies, my father visiting the university and other essentials. One year we did go on a camping trip to Canberra - so my father could go to a conference. My parents turned the trip into one long geography and history lesson. New Year's Eve was spent in an incredibly noisy caravan park with so much drunken and unruly behaviour in one part that the police were called in and my parents did not even remember it was my birthday they were so concerned for our safety. My father remembered the following day but my mother said it was "too late" to do anything about it. I was so glad to be away from that caravan park I no longer cared.
My birthdays have gone on being a bit like that caravan park year. Because it is New Year's Eve people who do know it is my birthday make the assumption that I will be going out, living it up - DOING something. I let them think that. It is easier that way. I do not want to head out into the heat and mix with drunken revellers to "see the New Year in".
My father and I have nothing planned for today apart from trying to keep cool and hydrated.
If I am still awake at midnight then what I will do is sit and look at the sky and think how lucky I am that I have had another year. The world is a very big place and there is still a lot of it to explore.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

We no longer own a car because

my father made the wise decision to cease driving. He was 85 when he made this decision. By then he had also invested in a "gopher", one of those small motorised golf-buggy type vehicles now so popular with the elderly.
He had actually been to get the medical certificate to go on driving but he had gone on his gopher. He passed the medical. He had recently had a few refresher driving lessons. He passed a new test. I was still anxious when he went out because he was too cautious...and that can cause an accident just as easily as lack of caution. I said nothing because the car meant independence for him.
"I passed my licence in," he told me when he came home, "I just don't want the responsibility any more."
Three years later I am still glad that he made that decision for himself rather than being forced into it by someone else.
My spatial perception capacities are not good. I have never learned to drive. I use pedal power to go anywhere. In very wet or very hot weather this is not pleasant. I put up with it because I must.
There are however ways of making this more pleasant. It requires organisation. It is the reason that this blog post is late this morning. I went shopping first because today is going to be unpleasantly hot.
Our local supermarket opens at seven in the morning. I was not there at seven but I was there a few minutes before eight. The ride up there was remarkably pleasant. It was still cool enough. It was very, very quiet. Most people in this district will not go back to work until Tuesday. This meant there was almost no vehicular traffic on the back streets I use. That was pleasant enough in itself. I could pedal along almost silently.
I spoke to the Devon Rex cat in the next street and the Siamese around the corner from that. The black cat was snoozing on the brick wall and did not bother to open an eye but a light flick of the tail acknowledged my presence. The humans they own were nowhere to be seen.
A woman who has a severely psychotic son was watering her geranium hedge. I stop to ask if she needed anything and she handed me two letters to post "if you will". We both know it is going to be a difficult day for her.
There were three couples out walking their dogs. I know the dogs better than the humans but the humans greeted me with "Happy New Year" anyway. There were other walkers but only one jogger. The fox that lives by the railway line gave me a dirty look and almost slid under the big olive hedge which is, I think, his home.
The shopping centre was quiet. Most of the shops were not yet open. I knew the supermarket would be. I knew the greengrocer would be by eight. I did not need to go anywhere else. Pushing a trolley around was easier than usual. There were people in there of course, some with the same idea as myself and others who always shop before going to work. There were however not nearly so many people.
The girl at the checkout told me that her sister had her baby on Christmas Day - "a boy and he's beautiful if you are allowed to say boys are beautiful".
In the greengrocer the boys putting out the day's produce told me, "Anything you want we have not put out yet just let us know Cat - oh and the biscuits were great. Thanks."
I did not make them Christmas biscuits expecting extra consideration but it was nice of them to offer.
Some staff were getting coffee before starting their day. The girl from the chain that does light meals brought breakfast over for the boys in the greengrocer as I was leaving. They have been up since 4am this morning.
I rode back carefully. It was getting busier. It was getting warmer. It was good to get home and into the relative cool of our house.
My father could have kept his licence. We could have gone shopping in the air-conditioned comfort of a car. It would have been less effort. I would also have missed out on all that.
Oh it was so quiet, it was all so quiet. The world is a different place at that hour.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

"You should only write

what you know about. I keep telling you that. I mean it's a waste of time writing fiction anyway. Nobody is going to read it. You will never get anything published. Why don't you just give up and do something useful?"
Only what I know about? Yes, you do keep telling me that. Writing fiction is a waste of time? It is my time. Nobody is going to read it? I am never going to get anything published?Something useful?
I was told all this firmly, indeed very firmly, yesterday. The person telling me sat there, as she had sat there for the past hour, and said all this and then added, "I am only telling you this for your own good Cat. You really should give up on the idea. It is not going to happen. You are just wasting your time. I know you always wanted to write but you have to face facts. You are never going to get anything published. Writers don't make money. You are much too old anyway."
The person handing out all this unwelcome advice claims to be a friend. It has always been a very one-sided "friendship". I do nothing to encourage it. She turns up occasionally and wastes my time by sitting for an hour or more telling me about her children, in whom I have no interest. They are not interesting children - or not when she talks about them.
This individual has "no time to read". She is too busy making sure her children "do things" - things that she has organised. The children do not read much either.
All this does not prevent her from offering me advice. It is not the first time she has offered such advice. She is not the only person who has offered me such advice. None of these people actually write anything themselves. None of them do much reading apart from a newspaper - if that.
It is only politeness that stops me from yelling, "Get out and don't come back."
I doubt that even that would do any good however. She knows she has upset me. It is her intention. She really does believe that she is telling me this for my own good and that upsetting me is the only way she is going to get me to stop "wasting time".
"What do you mean by 'something useful'?" I ask.
"Oh, I don't know take up a hobby of some sort."
"I have hobbies...reading..."
"That's not a hobby. You only do that if you have to. It's not productive."
"So it has to be productive?"
"Yes. Your knitting might qualify - although that is pretty slow. We really will have to find you something else to do. Then you won't waste so much time."
"Oh right. Well I was up at 4:30 this morning to talk to someone on the 'net. I have made breakfast, done some housework, answered thirty-seven work related e-mails, read the next chapter of someone's doctoral thesis and sent comments back, proof-read a submission for someone else and prepared lunch while you were talking to me..."
"And I may appear to be home all day but I do work from here. I have more than enough to occupy my time. If I want to spend my free time reading and writing then I will do that."
"No Cat, you just don't understand do you? You are wasting time. We have to get you out of the house and doing something. Never mind. I'll think of something. I must go. I have to pick the kids up from their swimming class."
She sails off without waiting for a further answer. A few minutes later my father peers cautiously around the door and asks, "Has she gone? That woman wastes so much time!"

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

They closed another hospital

on Christmas Eve in South Australia. It was the hospital up the hill from us. It was supposedly a "private" hospital. All that really meant was that it was not run by the state government.
It was one of those useful places where local people could go to have their babies at one end of life and where they could die at the other. In between they would do their best to help you put yourself together again.
I have been to see people there over the years. It was off the main road. It was surrounded by quiet gardens. It was not too big but big enough to have many of the facilities needed by all but the most critically ill.
But, it was losing money - as hospitals are inclined to do. It was not getting taxpayer support because of the "private" listing. The government actually wanted to see it closed. The impact on the local community will be far greater than the government admits. That does not matter. It will boost the case for building a monument to the present government on the banks of the River Torrens.
They are closing another rural hospital too. The impact on that local community and the surrounding area will be even greater. The people in that community will not have to travel thirty or forty minutes by car to see a doctor but three or four hours - or even more. Seeing a doctor will become a major undertaking.
It is all about saving money of course. The money is needed for things like the oval upgrade so that the cricket ground can be used for football matches. (I have been told I really do not understand how important that is.)
The government closed the centre for people who needed permanent or long term nursing facilities some years ago. The people who lived there were sent home or to houses "in the community" with supposedly "in community care". The reality is that those who have survived are now more isolated than before and we have more young people living in aged care facilities than ever before. Now we will have the elderly people housed in the rural hospital more hours away from family and friends. We will have the residents in the hills behind us having to make emergency journeys on minor twisting roads to another hospital some distance away.
There is no public transport between the two.
If the government really cared they would keep the rural hospital open. Yes it costs but the surrounding area grows food for people in the city to consume. That alone is reason enough to keep it open so that people will remain there and pursue the essential task.
They would keep the semi-urban hospital open too. They could transfer some of the young people out of aged care facilities into the hospital. It would be no more expensive to care for them there. They could offer them pleasant surroundings and some company their own age. That however would be admitting that something akin to "an institution" is necessary for some people. It would be politically incorrect to acknowledge this and so the young people will remain hidden. They will die before their time having experienced almost nothing of life.
The cricketers are happy enough with the way things are at the oval - although not perhaps the results of matches. We do not need the oval upgrade. It might be nice to have a new hospital on the river bank in the middle of the city but one of the most outspoken supporters of it has privately admitted that we could manage without it.
Can we manage without caring about the consequences of the closures? I am certain of one thing. It will make us a lesser community.

Monday, 27 December 2010

There was a Christmas tree

in the atrium of our shopping centre. It had tags on it suggesting gifts for people in need. There were things like "lunch" at the adjacent coffee shop, a ticket to a film at the cinema, a gift from the toiletries at the chemist, a toy from the wonderful toyshop a bit further down the mall.

The Christmas tree was also adjacent to the local bookshop but nowhere on the tree did it suggest buying a book. The volunteer sitting by the tree kept telling people that they did not recommend books.
The owner of the bookshop heard of this and 'phoned the charity in question. Why were they saying this? Well "the people we are trying to help don't read". Her response was, "Well they might if they had a book."
How true! There is an assumption that those in need of charitable assistance do not read or will not treasure a book.
My late friend Margaret was given a book as a child. It was one of the few presents she received as a child. The book was a copy of "A child's garden of verses". Margaret was not a reader. She found it physically difficult to read but she treasured that book. It was a present. It had pictures. She had memorised the poems. She had no idea who had chosen the book for her, a child with a severe disability and a ward of the state does not get given many presents by individual adults. This came from "Father Christmas" at a party - and she loved it.
Margaret was an unlikely recipient for a book - and that made it all the more important to give her one.
As she grew up and I came to know her I would give her books. I chose things I thought she could use or just enjoy. I did not give her books which required prolonged concentration or which were beyond her reading abilities. I gave her knitting books or photographic books of animals. The print had to be good and clear. Her reading ability never progressed much beyond that of a nine year old. She would still put a finger under each word. When she used a knitting pattern I would enlarge it by as much as 200% and a chart by even more than that.
Other people never considered giving her books. "Oh Margaret is not a reader."
And yet Margaret loved and treasured the books she had. One year we went from the hospital in which we lived to the nearby shopping mall and I took her into a bookshop there. She was almost overwhelmed. At her request I showed her the section which sold a few knitting books as well as where to find the animal books and, for the first time in her life, she chose two books for herself and paid for them with the book voucher she had been given.
For weeks afterwards she talked about her trip to the bookshop. Margaret still did not "read books" in the sense that she read a novel or a work of non-fiction from end to end. She did not use the hospital's library trolley.
The charity in the shopping centre would never have considered giving Margaret a book. They simply do not understand what it means to "read a book". There are many ways to read a book.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

There was far too much food

as usual. The Greeks we know have a tendency to over-cater. They are very generous people. My father and I do not eat large quantities of food at one sitting. (It annoys me that I still weigh far more than I should because I do not over eat.)
This year my brother-in-law, at his father's insistence, put an entire lamb on a spit. Merely the sight of that much meat was enough to put me off. There was however very little of it by the end of the day. It had been consumed by hungry hordes of teenagers and adult Greek males. There were also prawns for a starter, little Greek sausages and chicken shashliks. I cannot tolerate shellfish of any kind and I am not very keen on large quantities of meat so I ignored most of this.
But there were also huge bowls of salad...scrumptious, luscious salad. I am happy eating lettuce, tomato, cucumber, avocado and the like - just don't put vinegar in the dressing and I am happy. My sister knows this so there was plenty of salad for me and for my father. He has similar tastes.
Later, when the lamb was not much more than a sad heap of bones, there was the usual ritual of "Father Christmas". My sister's FIL was well enough to resume his role as the venerable gentleman this year. The ritual is conducted in Greek. My father does not understand a word of Greek. In context I can manage perhaps one word in ten - and I recognise the names. It must be the one time of the year when the youngest generation get called by the Greek version of their names.
Their Greek is also limited. My nephews were sent to Greek school. They understand their grandparents up to a point. They reply in English, as do their cousins.
Every year I wonder at this Father Christmas ritual. The year my sister's FIL was not well enough to do it one of my nephews did it instead. He conducted it all in English. He played the role well, as anyone who has had acting training should do. It was fun for the participants but it was also different.
There will come a point where the ritual will not occur at all. It will die out when my sister's FIL dies. It happens because of him. There are no very small children at these events any more. Some time in the future there might be small children again but I doubt that there will be a Greek speaking Father Christmas. I hope there will still be a Father Christmas.

Friday, 24 December 2010

We are going to a surprise party

for a friend's 80th birthday today. I am not sure how he will react. He lost a son not so long ago and he said he did not want a party. His daughter went ahead and arranged one anyway.
My father does not want to go either - but he will because this is his closest friend.
My father had an 80th birthday some years ago now. He decided it could not be "one of those parties where a lot of old people just sit around and talk". A magician friend of his came along and provided entertainment. Someone else he knows provided musical back up. My father would like to repeat the experience for his 90th. It will not be possible to do it in quite the same way. The magician is now deceased. The person who provided the musical back up is retired. Too many of the people who were at the party are no longer with us either. My father is remembering it like it was and not considering the way it will be.
I think we can find a magician but the musical back up will have to be different. I personally do not like "magic" much. Having grown up in the household of one who has played with conjuring tricks all his competent life perhaps I know too much about how they are done. If that is what my father wants though then that is what he will have.
I am not at all sure that our friend wants a party. He is normally a very gregarious person but, just now, he needs a little space.
I have made him a birthday card. It deliberately does not say "Happy Birthday". It just says "80 thoughts for your birthday". I have typed up 80 quotations, cut them out and stuck them randomly onto card. It is not artistic. I do not think that matters. I have chosen 80 quiet quotations. I hope that, when the noise of the party and Christmas is over, he can sit on his deck and look out at his garden and read the card and find a little bit of space.
And, for everyone else here too - I hope you find a little bit of space.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Every year since my mother

died Christmas has been a much more low key affair in our house. It was my mother who put up and decorated the small artificial tree which had belonged to her mother. It was my mother who put out the nativity set. It was my mother who wrote the seemingly endless Christmas cards. It was my mother who went off to Christmas lunch with her church Guild, her Probus group, her sewing class, her two lunch groups etc.
My father would retreat to the shed and finish making Christmas presents. He would make sure the front garden stayed reasonably tidy whilst also watching over his tomatoes etc in the back garden.
Mum liked Christmas. It was another excuse to socialise. She would even do a little baking so as to have biscuits to exchange with friends and neighbours.
My father and I do very little of that. I do not know where the tree is. The nativity set is now at my sister's place. It is a family heirloom but I am not going to have children so she uses it for her now grown up children who may one day have children of their own.
My father and I respond to Christmas cards if they are sent to us and I send a very few to people I care about who live abroad. I avoid Christmas lunches, Christmas "drink" parties etc.
As I have neither a licence to drive or a car and the taxi service is unreliable at best (and often non-existent) I just quietly excuse myself if invited.
But I do head into the kitchen and do some Christmas baking. I make shortbread and gingerbread biscuits. I make mince pies for my father and Christmas cake for my sister - who does no baking at all. I make "honey crackles" for the children to eat one cornflake at a time.
I am hopeless at icing cakes or decorating biscuits.
The biscuits get done up in cellophane bags printed with holly and tied with curling ribbon. I get pleasure in gradually giving away these to people who have helped us during the year.
And, every year since my mother died, we get a Christmas cake given to us. Our friend Polly arrives with "the friendship cake". It is delicious. It is iced to perfection. She is an artist. She also makes her own cards. This year's card was navy blue with silver stars and greeting. It is a work of art, as is the cake.
We will not cut it before the New Year. For my father part of the pleasure is to look at it, snow white icing, red writing. It is much more than the physical cake that gives him pleasure. It is the unspoken message "you matter to me".
I feel the same way about the biscuits. I could go out and buy shortbread or chocolates or some other item. I could go off to lunches and drinks. It would not be the same. I want to make things and, in doing so, tell people they matter.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Why are they cancelling Christmas

at child-care centres and Centrelink and other assorted places?
"It might offend" we are told. What is offensive about it?
We have a national television station here - the "SBS" (Special Broadcasting Service). It is supposed to be a multicultural television station. The news service concentrates on international news. They also broadcast foreign language news services in a wide variety of languages. They also broadcast some excellent documentaries. "Global Village" has to be one of the best television series ever produced - short segments on people and places and events around the world.
SBS will mention a wide range of religious events around the world. Nobody appears to be offended by this. Why should they be offended?
I admit that Christmas is much too commercial for my liking. Our family does not overdo the present giving. We keep it pretty simple. We tend to exchange books, something we have made, or garden related items with one another. All we are doing is acknowledging the fact that we care about one another.
I know that many people go much further than this. They spend more than they can afford. They forget what Christmas is really about. Even if you are not Christian, have no religious beliefs, do not attend church etc Christmas should still have some significance. It should be a day in your cultural and/or religious tradition or in somebody else's cultural and/or religious tradition that you allow and respect. The same should go for anyone else's religious holidays. You do not have to celebrate them but you should at least allow them to occur and respect their occurrence.
Many of our newest migrants have come from cultures where there is no religious freedom. By not openly celebrating Christmas we are sending them an even worse message than the messages of the regime they have left. We are telling them that we must be tolerant of other cultures and beliefs but not our own.
I find that intolerable.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Faster is better

or is it? I am wondering about the supposed benefits of the "National Broadband Network". The NBN is supposed to deliver "faster" downloads for the computer network...for 93% of the country.
We are being told that it will have benefits for medicine and education. Mmm...maybe. I can see some potential benefits there - but not enough to justify giving everyone access.
Business? Well they will like it of course - but what will it do to employment levels? My father bought something last week from a company that has its headquarters in another state. The whole business is computerised. Three people are employed here to do the actual physical handling etc. There used to be seven people. Four people are now out of work because of computerisation. Faster computer networks will see more people out of work. Inevitable? Progress?
Then there is the issue of being able to "download movies to watch". Is that really progress?
As a family we do not, apart from my youngest sister, watch much television. We never have. We all prefer to read and do other things. It is unlikely that we will watch movies via our computer screens.
And there is something else as well. Television changed social habits. The NBN will change them still further. With television there was some chance you were at least watching the screen with another member of the household in which you lived. Personal computers mean that you could easily end up watching alone. Is that mentally healthy? I doubt it.
We already have more people "working from home". Is that good? I doubt it.
I do work from home and I make the conscious effort to get out and talk to people. My father and I engage in quite intellectual debate over the meal table. But, I do not get the opportunity to participate in the social interaction of the work situation. Working as a team member over the internet is not the same thing at all.
There is quite enough social isolation and mental illness caused by such things now. I cannot help wondering whether the benefits of the NBN are really going to outweigh the potential problems?

Monday, 20 December 2010

I have a small brown bear sitting on my bed

at present. He spent the night with me.
Now I do not usually spend the night with stuffed toys but I had to make an exception for this one. He was "lonely".
He was accidentally left behind yesterday. His owner was in tears, awash with tears.
"I left Bear at your place!" the wail down the 'phone line was as full of misery as it is possible to be at the age of three.
"Yes, I know. It's all right. "
"I want him right now."
There was no way that could be arranged short of sending him in a taxi by himself. I explained this. He is not big enough to go by himself. He would not be able to pay the taxi driver. I promised I would look after him.
"What does he like to eat?" I asked. Silence apart from the sobbing. I suggest a "honey crackle" because "bears like honey". Yes, that will do.
"Is he allowed to watch television?"
"A little bit."
"And what time does he have to go to bed?"
"After his bath but he just watches me do that!" The tears threaten again,
"Well I will make sure he goes to bed at the right time."
"You absolutely promise?"
"I promise."
So I went to bed with a bear.
I have to look this child in the eye this morning and say, "Yes I went to bed with your bear. I looked after your bear properly."
I could have lied but I am not going to. Children know the difference.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

It does not snow Downunder in December,

or rather we do not expect it to snow. All too often there is a heat wave and the temperature rises to a point where foolish people drink far too much alcohol and then attempt to do stupid things. This year, despite wild and woolly weather today, the temperature is still forecast to be about 33'C. It is a little too warm for me but most people will not mind too much.
One glorious year however it actually snowed. My mother was not in the least but impressed by this but my father and all four children were delighted. We were going to have the sort of Christmas you see on Christmas cards!
Well, not quite. There was very little snow of course. My brother and I watched it anxiously. Would there be enough? Would it still be there in the morning? Mum would not let us go out while it was "snowing". It was "too cold". This was for a mere dusting of snow on the ground!
We went to bed thinking about snow, not presents. Presents were not important. We had something to do outside.
It was daylight very early of course. This was the middle of the summer. I was awake a little after five. Yes, the snow was still there! There was not much of it. There were bare patches of ground everywhere but there was still some precious snow in sheltered places and, joy of joys, there was another fine layer settling as I watched.
By five-thirty that morning my brother and I were outside. We collected snow. We collected it in our beach buckets and made a heap. We made a smaller heap on top. Our hands were blue and red with cold. We ignored that. An hour later we had our snow man. He was only about knee high to us. That did not matter.
We stood there looking at it and at each other. A real snow man!
Christmas Day or not Mum was cross. We were scolded for being outside "inadequately dressed" and for "bringing in all that water". It was worth it. We had our snow man.
We headed off to church. Nobody else had made a snow man. Nobody else had thought to make a snow man. Would he still be there when we returned home?
He was.
Our grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins arrived from the city. We proudly displayed our snow man. The cousins were impressed. My paternal grandfather actually collected some snow from a place we had been unable to reach and added some security to the snow man's head. My paternal grandmother sneaked out a piece of carrot for a nose. My maternal grandparents stayed inside and said it was ridiculous to encourage us. We did not care.
All through Christmas Day we kept looking out at our very own snow man. We knew he would not last but we wanted to have him for a least one day.
And stay there he did. He was a little smaller by evening but he was still there. Finally his head drooped a little to one side, as if he was tired. We waved to him through the windows and finally settled down to the serious of business of working out how to make the crystal set my brother had been given as his Christmas present that year.
The snow man was gone next morning. We have never had another "white" Christmas. If we did I think I might sneak out and make another snow man.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

I should not have bought

that book of "politically incorrect" jokes for my father. He likes jokes. He has a fair collection of joke books. He is getting another one from me as a Christmas present. I will have to endure the retelling of many of them to his friends.
This is not the Christmas present. This was a book from the charity shop. I do not, on the whole, approve of buying books that are still in print. It is not fair on the authors. I will make an exception for a collection of jokes. They are gathered together from any number of sources and you can be darn sure the compiler has not paid the person who thought of the original joke.
So, I bought the book.
It is full of jokes by, for and against nationalities, racial and physical types etc etc. My father does not mind telling jokes against himself, his Scots ancestors (he makes that clear) or Australians. He will not tell jokes that may offend other people. He is also adept at changing a joke so that it suits the circumstances. Like all "magicians" he has a store of these even though he no longer pulls "rabbits" (never a real one) out of hats.
I do not know what makes a joke funny and neither does he. Humour is elusive. We both know that jokes with a "kick in the tail" are the sort that seem to be the most humorous. We also know that "slapstick" humour is not our style.
The jokes in the politically incorrect joke book vary. Some are genuinely funny. Other are not.
Humour can get lost in translation too. A doctor friend once told me some Spanish jokes. The jokes which depended on puns cannot be translated. You have to understand the language.
I think all good jokes may be something like that. You need to understand the language in order to see something as funny. The language can be words, gestures or pictures but you have to understand it in order for it to be funny.
When it comes to the politically incorrect jokes it is clear that I have a very poor understanding of some of the language involved.

Friday, 17 December 2010

I might try to be a little less

serious between now and Christmas but I would like to deal with one serious issue first.
I hope that, if nothing else, the appalling tragedy at Flying Fish cove on Christmas Island with the deaths of so many people will cause the government to rethink policy. I am not going to hold my breath.
I am also well aware, from direct sources, that "migration agents" are informing people that they only need to get to a detention centre and then tell the right story in order to be allowed permanent entry. One family went so far as to scar the body of the son they wanted to send. The scars would "prove" torture. Once he was in Australia he could arrange for his family to come. Yes. It happens. He died of an unrelated illness before he could reach Australia. His family still has to pay the "migration agent" for the journey he never completed.
Temporary Protection Visas have been criticised because of the uncertainty surrounding them. An individual on a TPV never knows when he or she will be sent home. Any reduction in limits to family following the original residence seeker is also criticised.
Those who speak out on these issues are heard loudly and clearly in the media. Those who disagree are labelled as racist and lacking in compassion.
Now, oddly enough, many refugees want to go 'home'. A TPV would suit them very well and, while they may want their family, they do not expect themselves or their family to be allowed to stay forever. They want to go home eventually because home is where things are familiar and they are understood. However welcome we make them our place is not the same and we do things differently.
We may well be giving refugees something they do not necessarily want. It is residence seekers who are looking for what we have to offer - but on their terms and not ours. We confuse the two.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

"Can you add on ten?"

I ask. I am standing in the supermarket aisle. There is a frustrated father (always a bad thing in a supermarket) and a boy of about ten. His father is trying to teach him basic household economics. The boy needs to add 15 and 8 together. There is a problem. He cannot do it. He is not at school. This is the supermarket. He is surrounded by distraction and, worse still, there is NO CALCULATOR. You do not do sums "like that in your head". You do them on a calculator.
His father had just given me a look of utter despair.
The teacher in me took over and I said, "There is a trick to doing it - makes it easy-peasy. Want to know?"
The kid looks at me and nods warily.
"Can you add on ten."
Yes. He can do that.
"Can you take off two?"
Yes. He can do that.
"And ten take away two is...?"
Yeah. Right. Eight. We go through it all again. If you need to add on eight and you are not sure how to do it then add on ten and take away two.
It would be easier to learn to add on eight. It would be faster. The problem is that he has never been taught to do it, not really taught. He does not know his number facts. He is not alone. When his father was at school there was still some emphasis on these things. Now there is very little emphasis at the local schools. Even seven year old children have calculators in the classroom.
When the Whirlwind was in the junior most sections of school I would grill her on number facts at unexpected moments. It used to infuriate her. I also taught her all the tricks I could think of. Those were more fun. Now she is glad I have done it. Mathematics is not her favourite subject by any means but she at least does well at it.
There must be many other children, like the ten year old, who struggle through each lesson simply because they do not know their number facts and cannot use them with confidence.
I think I would ban calculators until secondary school - and then limit their use.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

As a regular writer of

Letters to the Editor I was asked to express my views on the predicament in which Julian Assange finds himself. It is something I had been avoiding because I felt I did not know enough. I am still not sure I know enough. I am not going to comment on the specific rights or wrongs of what he has done or might have done either.
However there are some general issues that I do have strong views about. I would like to know what other people think too.
I believe everyone is entitled to a presumption of innocence.
If you wish to prosecute someone for wrong doing then the case against them must be strong enough to hold some reasonable prospect of conviction. Charges should not be able to be laid and then dropped and then reinstated - except in the most exceptional of circumstances.
Detention cannot be for a purpose other than the charges which have been laid.
Until someone has been tried, convicted and sentenced they should have a right to free access to their defence team.
Anyone reading this will see where it is headed. The charges of sexual assault against Julian Assange are serious. He is entitled to a presumption of innocence. The charges were laid and then dropped and then reinstated. Questions can rightly be asked about why this was done and whether it should have been done. Were there exceptional circumstances that related to the charges being laid? Is he being detained because of the charges laid or for some other reason?
Is he being given the same access to his defence team as any other person in the same circumstances?
The answers to those questions will come in time.
Wikileaks is a different story and it must be treated as such. Whistleblowers are generally unpopular but Julian Assange is just one such person. There are others involved, even with Wikileaks. The media is also involved. Silencing Assange will probably not silence the leaks.
Assange may end up achieving the opposite of what he intended. The flow of information to the media will be reduced. The media will be more cautious about what it publishes. Those in high places will be more cautious about what they say and to whom they say it. They may also revert to using paper more often.
What all this means for the idea of "free speech" will depend largely on what all those involved do next.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Leadhills Miners' Library

was built in 1741 and it is the oldest subscription library in Britain. I found that information quite by accident in a book yesterday and checked it a short while ago.
Now if anyone doubts the importance and influence of libraries they should be sent straight to that fact. The men who used that library were miners. They spent their shifts underground or in the smelting works in appallingly unsafe conditions and then returned to the surface or from the furnaces determined to read. They must have been physically exhausted but their determination to "better themselves" are recorded for anyone to see. Only the minister and the schoolmaster were not miners or smelting workers. I have little doubt that they "guided" the reading of the other men and perhaps chose the books placed on the shelves but it was a library and, in a small mining community, it must have been a treasured resource.
It was a subscription library too. It was not "free". Money would have been incredibly short. To actually pay to read a book showed even greater determination.
I wonder what would happen if all libraries were subscription libraries. It is perhaps tempting to suggest that people would simply cease to use libraries, that they would use the internet and watch television instead of read. But would they?
I do not think people would cease to use libraries. I may be wrong but I believe the need to read is so strong in some people that they would forego a great deal in order to go on reading. That said I still believe we should have free public libraries and that they should be part of the services we receive for paying taxes or serving the community in other ways.
Libraries are an essential part of our existence. The internet is not enough. Being able to buy books in one form or another is not enough.
In libraries we read what our family, friends and neighbours are reading. Libraries allow us to make sense of the world around us. We will not read everything in the library. Some people will read much. Others will read little or even not at all. There will however be enough people who read and read in common that society can continue to exist and move forward. Libraries are about our shared culture - and about being aware of that through reading what each other is reading.

Monday, 13 December 2010

If you belong to a club or a group,

society or organisation it is usually assumed that you hold the same beliefs or values or interests as the other members.
That is almost certainly the reasoning behind our state government's attempts to bring in legislation to "outlaw bikie gangs". They are trying to tell us that being the member of a bikie gang is a bad thing. If you belong to one you must be a bad person - or you will become a bad person. If, they are trying to tell us, you make bikie gangs illegal and do not allow members of those groups to associate with one another then you will cut down on crime. The government has tried to get one lot of legislation up and failed. In a rare show of cooperation the bikie gangs got together and went to the High Court to oppose the legislation. They won.
I am glad they won because the legislation went far beyond bikie gangs. It was written in such a way that it potentially affected any club or group from Rotary to Rose Growing and Robotics and everything in between.
I belong to a knitting guild. The members do have one thing in common, an interest in knitting. Some of them are beginners. Others might be called expert. Knitting is a wide ranging and diverse craft. There are different ways of knitting and many different types of knitting. Some people do it just for pleasure. Others do it to earn a little money on the side. Some do it because it presents a challenge and they want to try new ideas. Some enjoy creating. For a few it "just something to do while I watch the telly". There are some for whom the group is a support group. Within the group there are smaller groups. There are long standing friendships. People meet outside meeting times. A few have even been away on holidays together. Their political interests range from actual membership of a far left political group to "I don't know anything about politics". Their religious affiliation is from fundamentalist Christian to atheist via Judaism, Islam and Hindu.
Politics and religion rarely get mentioned. Everyone gets along with everyone else most of the time. If someone is ill or in other need then someone in the group or a group within the group will do something to help. It is just part of belonging to the group.
The legislation the government proposed had the potential to prevent all that. It even had the potential to stop the group from meeting or the members from associating with one another. It was no good the government saying "That is not what we intended. That is not the sort of group we were targetting." The potential was there. It could have been used. I have no doubt in fact that, given the right set of circumstances, it would have been used.
What would then have happened? Yes, the group would have gone underground. People would still have associated but they would have done so furtively and secretly.
I also know other people who belong to motorcycle clubs. They are not "bikie gangs" at all, just groups of people who have an interest in a particular type of motor bike. They ride together occasionally. One group includes a former headmaster, an engineer and a surgeon. To call them members of a "criminal organisation" would be ridiculous and probably slanderous.
Most people need support groups. They may think they can manage alone but, when things go wrong, support can be vital. Take yesterday on Twitter. Someone I have never physically met but "follow", whose on-line company I enjoy and who also "follows" me was anxiously waiting at a hospital because her partner had been taken in with a "TIA" (trans-ischaemic attack). She had "tweeted" someone about this and soon we all knew. She could get information and, most important of all, she knew that other people were thinking of her. We could send messages of support even if we could not physically be there. Her appreciation of that, via more "tweeting" was obvious.
Now, what if the government tried to shut down something like "Twitter"? Support when she needed it most would not have been there.
Trying to close down any social network is probably almost impossible. It may also be a very bad idea.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

My father had to write a

thankyou note yesterday, or felt the need to. He snaffled a card from the store in the shoebox on top of the bookshelf first.
"I am wondering what to say," he told me. He is an English graduate. He still reads a lot. He also knows he uses "too many words" when he writes something.
"Well write out something first and then read it to me," I suggested. He sat down at the kitchen table and I went on peeling potatoes. I made him a pot of tea as well. He scribbled for a bit.
Then he read it out to me. It was far too long. It would not have fitted into the space available on the card. The language would have been better suited to a maiden aunt in the late 1800's.
I tried to keep a straight face. I bit my lips together. He looked up and then we both burst out laughing.
When he finally managed to speak again he said, "I can't write that sort of thing. What do I say?"
I dictated something short and sensible which I thought sounded like him. He wrote it and went off to deliver it by hand into the relevant letter box.
I finished getting our meal and put it on to cook. All the time I was doing it though I thought of my father's words, "I can't write that sort of thing. What do I say?"
My father can write. For years he wrote something called "patter". Patter is used by conjurers or magicians when they are performing tricks. Patter is used to mislead and misdirect and it uses a great many words for that reason. My father wrote patter for himself, for other magicians and, until they had the confidence to write their own, for his conjuring students. It is a different way of using language. I could not write it. I simply do not know enough about it.
I know I change my writing style. I write this blog one way. I use another style for my professional life. I use another for writing letters to the editor. My creative writing style is different again.
I am not conscious of this when I am writing. It just happens. I still worry about my creative writing style. Has it been too influenced by all the things I have had to write over the years?
I know I need to be flexible.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

How you ask a question

can affect the answer you will get. I tried to explain that in yesterday's post.
Now questions will sometimes be deliberately designed to give you the "wrong" answer - or the answer that the person asking the question wants you to hear. These are "leading" questions. Barristers try to get away with them in court - and succeed more often than they should.
Researchers are even worse. The really big public opinion research organisations are excellent at asking these sort of questions - Gallup, Mori, Morgan, Galaxy etc. Analyse the questions they ask. Analyse the statistics.
The Gallup people (we assume it really was them) 'phoned us before the last election. They wanted to know which way we intended to vote. My father and I never give that sort of information to other people, particularly not to people who 'phone. When the results appeared in the paper several days later there was something very interesting about them. Nowhere in the statistics was there any indication of how many people declined to answer their questions.
I also know people who reply but always give a false answer. That also affects the results. The end result is that, while public opinion polls may give you a guide to the way people are thinking, they are not very accurate and may be quite wrong. Other statistics can be used the same way.
Now you have been told that "statistics show that the number of people using the Book Street Library has dropped". This is hardly helpful if you want to keep the library open.
Now wait a minute, where did those statistics come from? How were they obtained? What do they really mean?
Are these statistics about (a) the number of books borrowed, (b) the number of people who borrowed them, (c) the number of people who have a library card for Book Street, (d) the number of people who came through the door? Were these statistics obtained through an actual count, a general observation, or by some other means? What do they actually mean?
Some time ago our local council tried to claim that numbers were down at our library. Any time I had been in there it seemed busier than ever. I queried the senior librarian as to what was going on and got the answer I suspected, "You can guess Cat. The book budget was cut right back this year. Borrowing is down because we put in the new computer terminals." Right. There was no new material for people to borrow. They borrowed less because they had read the available fiction they wanted to read. Interestingly though non-fiction borrowing was up because people could search the new on-line catalogue for themselves. The local council claim did not take into consideration what had happened. It was not in their interest to do that.
So, what is going on at Book Street? Much the same sort of thing. The place appears to be busy, indeed very busy. Yes, they have cut back on the book budget for three years in a row now. The number of books being borrowed is down. This may be why they are saying user numbers are down. But are user numbers really down? Definitely not according to the library staff. The number of card holders has increased. Attendance at all the groups which meet in the library has doubled and sometimes more than doubled for everything except the garden club and that has remained steady. The photocopying machine has been working overtime as people use it to copy documents to make job applications. There have to be restrictions on the time spent at the computer terminals so that all job searchers get a chance to use them. Library hours were also changed. The library is no longer open on Saturdays and it closes at 3pm on Mondays and Wednesdays. This means that parents who want to take their school age children must do so on Tuesdays, Thursdays or Fridays.
Now you can do something with all of this. You can use these things to show that, although the number of books being borrowed was down, there was a good reason and that more people are using the library, not less. They are also doing so despite the inconvenient hours and the lack of new stock.
These are the things you need to put in your letter. You need to emphasise the positive aspects of keeping the library open.
Make a list of what you need to find out and who you can find out from. Make a list of the positive points you want to emphasise.
Now, some of the information you feel you need may not be available. Do not despair. Sometimes it is a good idea to toss the ball into the other court. "Discussion with the library staff and my own observations suggest that..." and then ask, "Are you able to provide me with the following information...." Be reasonable about what you are asking for. If those who want to close the library cannot come up with the answers then you have another weapon to use - later.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Asking the right question

in order to get the information you need is not necessarily simple. You thought you could "just ask a question"?
Let me start with a story. When I started out on my post-graduate work I had what my supervisor and I thought was a simple plan for the preliminary work. It involved testing children to find three different groups with which to work.
There was a large body of knowledge surrounding the sort of testing I was required to do. There were also set procedures for doing the testing. A great deal had been written about all this. It was so standard that it formed part of the undergraduate work for all students. It was accepted. This was right. It was not something you questioned. You could safely cite it and base more work on it.
Once you knew the results then you could move on to the next step. What is more you knew the results were going to be within certain parameters. All past testing had shown this.
Things started to go wrong when I realised that I could not test some of my target group. They had always been excluded from previous studies but assumptions had been made about them. It all seemed perfectly reasonable when you considered the problems they seemed to have.
I needed to include them now. It also meant I needed to conduct the test in a way which would allow them to participate. If I could not do this then the whole project would need to be abandoned. We "knew" that my target group was going to have the most problems.
After a lot of thought and a couple of experiments on "normal" subjects I came up with a means my supervisor approved of because the "normal" subjects had the expected results. I then went ahead and tested my subjects.
The results I came up with were so unexpected that nobody believed me. I had to be wrong. I had not conducted the test properly. Doing it "like that" was the wrong way. There was an uproar. I was told to keep my mouth shut while things were sorted out. I was told I might have to start again. The subjects were now contaminated. I might need to find new subjects. Oh the fuss.
In the end I was proved right. It was an accident. It was not something I had set out to find. It made me highly unpopular. I had ruined years of research, risked the reputations of well respected academics, and put all sorts of projects (and funding) at risk. I was very unpopular indeed.
Now my point here is that I had asked a question. I had asked a question to which we all thought we knew the answer. What had happened however was that I had asked the question in a different way - and I came up with a slightly different answer. It had unexpected results.
If you are going to be an activist how you ask the question can be as important as which question you ask. The answer can also have unexpected results.
Tomorrow we will look at some ways to ask a question.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Now I have been blogging about

how to be an activist and I have made the point about the need to be well informed.
How you become well informed is, of course, entirely up to you.
In my particular job it means reading a lot and from a wide variety of resources. For other people it can mean a combination of reading and learning to do something or research other than reading. It might mean listening to other people or observing them at work or a combination of those things.
Being well informed involves receiving information.
It is not however sufficient just to take that information in. The Book Street Library is going to be closed? It is easy to panic when you hear something like that. First of all though you need to know whether there really is a plan to close the library. Do you believe it because Jo Reader from next door (who tends to sensationalise news) has told you? Do you believe it because the local paper has said that the library is going to close? Do you believe it because the senior librarian tells you there has been a meeting and it looks likely to happen?
The least reliable source is likely to be Jo Reader. Do not act on that. Do some research.
The local paper may not be a very reliable source either. It depends on the paper but newspapers are in the business of selling you news (even if the paper is the local "free" paper).
Treat the information with caution. Do some research.
The senior librarian is a different story. He or she has good reason to tell you. It is probably his or her employment on the line as well. You are almost certainly being told because there is some truth in the story. Do some research.
Jo Reader is a tertiary source of information, the least reliable there is in many cases. Jo Reader can be useful. Jo Reader may alert you to a problem or the fact that a rumour has moved on to a stage where some action has been taken.
The newspaper is a secondary source of information. There is usually something in the story. A journalist will have been sent to inquire. If it is a really big issue, such as the closure of the entire Book County Library Service, then there wil be information coming from other sources as well. There will be radio and television coverage. There will be official meetings etc. Keep alert.
The senior librarian is a primary source of information. The libraian will be involved although he or she may not know all they need to know or would like to know. It is also possible that someone in this position will not be able to share all the information they have. Some of it may be confidential.
Ask questions. Listen to the answers. Inform yourself. Start sorting out the arguments for both sides. Be firm but do not make a nuisance of yourself. If someone says they do not have time to help ask when they will have time or how you can get the information in another way. Ask for an appointment. Go with a list of questions. Do not allow yourself to be sidetracked or for the person you are questioning to take over the interview. You need to be assertive without being rude.
My last cat hair of advice this morning? If you are given confidential information - DO NOT leak it. You are not Julian Assange. If you leak confidential information, however great the temptation, then your career as an activist is over. Nobody will trust you - and that includes your own side. There are times when it is necessary to be more silent than a Trappist monk.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

How to be an activist and what not

to do.
This post seems particularly necessary to me at the moment with Julian Assange being much in the news. If you have been completely out of the loop - Mr Assange is the individual behind "Wikileaks". You can go and look that up for yourselves.

However let me say this about advocacy (which is not quite what Mr Assange is on about) because it is important. There are laws about advocacy.

The first law of advocacy is that your opponents will try to make you out to be an ill-informed fool who does not understand what they are talking about.
The second law of advocacy is your opponents will harass you and endeavour to have you ostracised.
The third law of advocacy is that your opponents will talk about you and spread rumours about you. What they say will rarely be kind and the rumours will be false.
The fourth law of advocacy is that, if you have a job, you may lose it. If you do not have a job you may find you are not able to get one. People who are responsible for employing other people do not like people who speak out.
The fifth law of advocacy is that it costs - both time and money.

You still want to go ahead? Fine. You might well find that, if the cause is a worthy one, you will find you have supporters as well. Just be aware that some of them may be radicals who do the cause more harm than good.

It is for that reason that I will now offer you a list of rules about things you should not do if you want to be an activist:

Rule 1: Break the law.
This is more important than anything else. You do not want a criminal record. It gets you nowhere in the end. No, nothing is worth getting arrested. Find another way to protest but do not break the law.
Rule 2: Do not state opinions as if they were facts.
This is one of the fastest ways of stopping the people who matter from listening to you. Your job is not about getting the public on side but about getting your opponents on side. Mobilise the public with facts so that when your opponents attack them they are armed with the right sort of weapons.
Rule 3: Do not lie.
You will get caught and you will have given your opponents a powerful weapon.
Rule 4: Do not be rude.
It might capture media attention but nobody will respect you for it, not even your supporters.
Rule 5: Make sure of your facts.
Your opponents are out to catch you out. If you have your facts wrong then they are going to use that against you.
Rule 6: Do not ignore the facts.
If there are facts that do not support your stance then admit them - and then find a way to reduce their impact.
Rule 7: Do not write long letters.
Nobody is going to read them.
Rule 8: Make sure you know your opponents.
Your opponents are the enemy. You need to know them in order to do battle with them.
Rule 9: Do not waste your energy talking to the wrong people.
Engage your opponents in conversation, not your supporters
Rule 10: Do not allow your opponents to set the rules or the boundaries.
This does not mean you may not negotiate but, when you do, make sure you are getting something and not just giving.
Rule 11: Do not give up too soon.
Make sure your opponents are publicly committed. If they fail to honour an agreement you can come back to them.
Rule 12: Know when to give up.
You may not get what you want, or all you want. Do not find reach a point where you find yourself in court.

All these things can really be said in just two words "Act Responsibly".

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

How to be an activist - the content of the letter

is important. Why, you ask, should I state something so obvious? The answer is simple. Many people fail to think about. They think they can "just sit down and write a letter".

No. Campaign letters have to be thought about.

Why? Because you only get one chance. Your letter has to hit the target. If it fails to hit the target you do not get a second chance. At this point if you do not already read Nicola Morgan's "Help I need a publisher", Jane Smith's "How publishing really works" or Lynn Price's "The Behler Blog" I would suggest you do. Writing campaign letters is, I have discovered from reading them, like writing a letter to an agent or publisher asking them to consider your work.

Yes, really it is like that. You have to stand out in the crowd.

Fortunately it is not quite as difficult as breaking into print but there are some basic rules.

(1) Write to the correct person. At the very top of the tree you do not write to someone like HRH Queen Elizabeth at all. You write to her Secretary. (If you really think you need to write to someone like that consult Debrett's. There are rules and you need to follow them.)

Below that level however ask yourself, "Who is the best person to contact?" It is always tempting to send a letter to the Prime Minister but the reality is that it will almost always be read by a junior office person and passed on to the appropriate department.

(2) Address the person in the letter in the proper manner. If you are not sure how the person you are writing to should be addressed then find out. The search term "forms of address" will help. If you are still not certain ask someone in the office of the person concerned.

When I first started teaching any letter teachers wrote to the Education Department had to be addressed to the Minister of Education, even though he (it was always he) never read them. They then had to begin "Sir", not "Dear Sir" and had to end with (of all things) "I have the honour to be your obedient servant." Needless to say that is no longer the case but there are still formalities that have to be addressed - and that also includes addressing the envelope in the correct manner.

(3) State what you are writing about. This is sometimes done by writing something like "Re: the proposed closure of Book Street Library" (formal) or "I am writing to express my very serious concern..." (semi-formal) or "I am disgusted by.... (informal).

I suggest you use the first or second and not the third.

(4) State what the problem is. Stating that the library is going to be closed is not stating the problem. You have to say why closing the library is a problem. Who is affected by the issue and why? It is no good saying something like "the library is going to be closed and I won't be able to borrow books any more". That is bound to get a pro-forma answer - if you get an answer at all.
If you say something like, "fourteen community groups, two of which assist the mentally ill, three the unemployed and another single mothers, will not have anywhere to meet" then you are going to suggest that this is a community problem.

(5) If you have already done some work on the problem or conducted some research say so here.

(6) State what you believe the solution is. Here you want to say "Keep the library open" but you need more than that. If you can suggest something like "Change the opening hours to such and such because this will increase use" so much the better.

(7) Ask for specific action. At this point you can ask for the recipient of the letter to do something, attend a meeting, send a delegate, write a letter on behalf of the local community, bring the matter up in parliament or at a council meeting, meet you for further discussion etc.

(8) Conclude your letter by asking for a response within a reasonable time frame. The amount of time will depend on the nature and urgency of the problem.

(9) Thank the person for the action they will take. By doing this you show them that you are assuming they will do as you ask.

Now all that needs to go on one page. Yes, that is difficult. It can be done. However if you are very experienced (and why are you bothering to read this if you are) then you can add a second page. That is the research page. It is a precise and concise summary of the facts. Say you have user figures for Book Street Library, borrower numbers, outgoings etc. Include it. Politicians love statistics, even though they frequently abuse them.

Finally, read your letter through very carefully before you send it.

Tomorrow we will talk about what not to do.

Monday, 6 December 2010

How to be an activist - letters

If you have not already read my post from yesterday then please do so now. This will make more sense if you do.
Today we tackle the issue of letter writing. Why? Because, as I pointed out yesterday, it is the most effective way of informing people who matter of what you think. Yes, even now the old fashioned snail-mail letter is the best means of communicating. You may get a face-to-face interview but you can be pretty sure it is going to come after you have written a letter or multiple letters.
There are rules for writing these letters. Let me explain why. Politicians, even unimportant local members who sit on the back bench, get thousands of letters every year. I once had to spend six weeks in the office of a politician and I saw evidence of this.
Like a letter to an agent or a publisher your letter has to stand out. If you want it to be noticed then there are rules you must follow.
Rule 1: Be polite.
Rule 2: Be concise.
Rule 3: Be clear.
Rule 4: Be sensible.
Rule 5: Be sensitive.
Rule 6: Be sincere.
Rule 7: Do not compromise.
Rule 8: State your goals.
Rule 9: Be dogmatic.
Rule 10: Be certain of your facts.
Rule 11: State your sources.
Rule 12: Keep a copy.

Yes, it is all pretty obvious - and most people ignore it.

There is also absolutely essential information you must include in your letter.

(1) Your given name and your surname
(2) Your full postal address
(3) Your telephone number
(4) The correct title and address of the recipient
(5) A subject line - say what the letter is about
(6) If there is a file number or previous correspondence say so
(7) Include the date of any previous correspondence
(8) Do NOT be tempted to add "URGENT" or "IMPORTANT"
(9) Ask for specific action
(10) State what action you intend to take - if this is appropriate
(11) Ask for a response by a certain date - but give the recipient reasonable time to respond
(12) If you are sending copies of the letter to anyone else then indicate this. (cc)
(13) Check your spelling and your grammar.
(14) Do not send a letter in your own handwriting - however legible it might be.
(15) SIGN your letter.

Now you need to do all of that in not more than one page - unless you are a very skilled campaigner. If there are facts that simply must be included then they can be added as one additional sheet in point form. That way the recipient will, if the secretary passes it on, get three things. One is your letter, two is the page with the facts and three is advice about what might be done and what action, if any, has already been taken.

If you write a letter to the Prime Minister it is most unlikely that the Prime Minister will actually read it. It is more likely to be a very junior member of staff. We will look at that tomorrow.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

How to be an activist

was the title of a workshop I once ran for a group of people with disabilities. The intention was to teach them the basics of speaking up for themselves. One of them, who is also a regular reader of this blog, left me an e-mail and suggested that I put up some of the information for people who want to join in the campaign against library closures in the UK but are not sure how to go about it.
If you already think you know what you are doing then go away and do it. If you think I am wrong then tell me - so that everyone else can learn.

Successful activists are very well informed people. They have a lot of information at their fingertips. They use it. They know where to find more information and they keep themselves informed.

Information costs time to gather. Ask yourself what is more important to you - the football match or the issue, the television programme or the meeting you might need to attend? If the football match or the television programme is more important then do not bother to read any further. Ask yourself, what am I prepared to give up to achieve my goal? Yes, you will have to give up something.

Information is not the same thing as an opinion. Information is knowing that your local library is under threat of closure because it is on the agenda for discussion at a council meeting. Opinion is believing that it should not be closed.

By gathering information you will know who to contact. Contact is very important. (We will get to networking in a moment.) Contact is what makes it possible to be heard.

Now, ask yourself. What's the problem? (Yes, I know you think you know that but you need to define it precisely so that you can start to talk about it.)
Who is in charge of the problem? - or where can you find out? Is there a local representative?
Is there an organisation? How are they handling it? Has the issue been in the media? How was it reported?
This is the beginning of the networking process. Networking takes place both inside and outside groups. Networking is about getting and giving information. Networking is about listening as well as talking. Networking is about being ahead on the facts and having the advantage.
With respect to the library issue specifically, ask yourself "Who runs the local library?" They are your primary target, especially any locally elected officials who hold the purse strings. I know it is tempting to blame the Prime Minister. Do not. He is actually not directly responsible. Find out who can actually do something about the problem at the local level. Target them.

There are two more things I will cover briefly today.

MONEY. (1) Do not be tempted to give money to protest groups.
(2)Use the money you might have donated to write your own protest letters.
(3) Do not spend more money than you can afford - there is a world of difference between a book of stamps and bankruptcy.
(4) While not spending more than you can afford are you also prepared to go without to get what you want?

(1) Not all means of protest are equally effective
(2) The LEAST EFFECTIVE means of protest are rallies and demonstrations. They are also the most expensive.
(3) The MOST EFFECTIVE means of protest is the old fashioned "snail mail" letter.
(4) Somewhere in between - and can be used to advantage - faxes, telephone calls and e-mails.

Right, enough for today. Tomorrow we will tackle the letter writing business - and the rules thereof.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Australia has just wasted $45m

on a failed attempt to "win" the right to host the World Cup at some far distant time in the future. There was never any chance we would succeed and I am angry, very angry. The bid was arrogant and an embarrassment that should never have seen the light of day.
That money could have been spent on other, much more necessary things. If it had to be spent on sports related activities even then there are far more worthwhile things that it could have been spent on. We are, I believe, still going to waste an incredible some of money on "upgrading" the Adelaide Oval, home of cricket (in which I have some faint interest). The amount apparently required keeps rising, the last I heard it was heading well over the $700m mark and climbing. The locals do not want it but the Premier thinks he will be around to open the new stadium and that is all that matters.
Now, I know sport is important to many people and that public money will be spent on it. The problem, as I see it, is that more people use public libraries. Libraries are also important to people - and we spend less money on them. There are plans to spend even less money in the future. Nicola Morgan over on "Help I need a publisher" and others are, quite rightly, getting worked up about the potential closure of some libraries in the UK. You do NOT close libraries. They are the lifeblood of the community. Where the churches were once the (weekly) gathering place libraries have become a similar place for many non-church goers.
Libraries are no longer merely places where books are held captive on shelves and readers are reluctantly permitted to borrow them from a grim faced, bespectacled and elderly librarian who glared and put a finger to her lips to ensure silence.
I have talked about our local library on this blog before and I will no doubt do so again. It is worth reiterating, our library is the hub of the community. There are books (and large print books), magazines, newspapers, DVDs, CDs, talking books, computers, the inevitable photocopying machine, a Justice of the Peace service on Tuesdays, storytelling for small children and songs for babies, a parent group, a teen group, a gardening club, a knitting group and at least five "book groups". There are school term activities and holiday activities. Recently they hosted a book repair workshop. Our library is a busy place.
I am worried however by what appears on our new bookshelves. Over the past few years we have relied more heavily on "donations". Many of these are unwanted presents or books that having been read by one reader are passed on because they do not wish to keep them. Other books are clearly cheap "remainders". We get some of the standard popular fiction on the best-seller lists and we get some of the prize-winners. It can take time. We used to get a great deal more mainstream fiction, especially crime fiction. Money for that has long since been reduced to a trickle.
What is more the local library does not choose most of what is put on the shelves. That is done by a process known as "central buying". Libraries in South Australia are required to get books through a process whereby books are chosen and distributed by a central committee. There are restrictions on what they can buy. Some books will never reach library shelves in South Australia because of these restrictions. I was told recently that one book, already published in the UK, was "not going to be published". What the librarian meant was that the book was not going to be published in Australia - and therefore it would be unavailable in our library system.
If you ask why you will be told that this is designed to protect the Australian publishing industry and Australian writers. The reality is that it does not protect either group. It merely makes books (on which we already pay a tax when bought here) more expensive. Is it any wonder that more Australians are buying books from the Book Depository, Fishpond and Amazon - at the expense of our independent bookshops.
Having had a little rant about that I will now get back to the business of wasting $45m. At the price that libraries can buy books that is about four million books. That does not even translate into one book for each Australian. If the government and others who put that money into the failed bid were asked to spend another $45m on libraries they would shake their heads and say we cannot afford it. We can spend $700m plus dollars "upgrading" an oval for a very small percentage of the population to use but we "need to reduce" the money spent on libraries.
This makes no sense to me.

Friday, 3 December 2010

There was no electricity

connected to the first house in which I lived. I can remember the house although I cannot remember living there. We left when I was about five or six months old. The house itself was a galvanised iron "shack" on top of a hill just outside a small country town. It had four rooms and a dirt floor. It was also the only accommodation available at the time.
I am not sure what it was like for my parents. I am told that, even then, I had problems with the heat. My parents were then required to rent a fibro-asbestos house in the town itself. There were four of these (they are still there) built in a row. They were later backed by another four. They were occupied by government employees, teachers, electricity and water supply workers.
We had power and running water! My mother must have revelled in it - although we still relied on a Metters no 5 woodburning stove for cooking. The "no 5" referred to the size.
We moved from there to the city where power was taken pretty much for granted by those around us.
Then we moved again. My parents, who both taught, were compulsorily moved around the country many times. The power supply varied. There was no power at all in one place. My parents were bringing up four children under the age of ten as well as teaching full time and studying by lamplight at night. Most people in the district simply went to bed and perhaps listened to battery operated radios with uncertain reception for a bit.
We had 240volt (standard in Australia) in a couple of places but 32volt personal generators were the norm in others. My father wrestled with those things, with "invertors", with batteries going flat at crucial times - or dying altogether. The refrigerator was "kerosene" and once leaked all over the floor. My mother used flat irons heated on the woodburning stove and was the envy of all the women in one district because she had a gas cooktop powered by bottled gas. (That she was working out of the house all day did not cut any ice with them. They coveted that cooking arrangement, especially in summer.) There was no television and radio reception was very poor. It faded to almost nothing at dusk. We did not leave lights on a moment longer than was necessary!
I thought of all this again yesterday when Jane over on How Publishing Really Works was talking about how her husband (marvellous man) was wrestling with their power supply in a remote area of England. Yes, there are remote areas of England. There are still remote areas of Australia too. The remote areas may not be quite as remote as they once were but they are still remote. Jane's family is snowed in at present. We have never been snowed in but I can remember it being far too hot to venture out of doors - and the "cold" water being too hot to put your hands under the tap.
I wish I could send Jane some of that heat right now!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

There are times when I feel completely outside

the inner circle. I was sitting there minding my own business yesterday while everyone around me was talking about a television programme they had seen. It was some apparently popular show on commercial television.
Eventually the inevitable happened.
"What did you think of it Cat?"
"I didn't see it."
"You didn't see it? Oh you had to go out did you?"
"No, I just didn't see it."
"You mean you were watching something else?"
"No, I was doing some work."
"At that time?"
"Yes but I would not have watched it anyway. We don't watch much television."
"What do you do if you don't watch television?"
"Work, read, write, knit..."
"Oh, for goodness' sake Cat chill out a bit sometimes."
The group resumed the very earnest conversation about someone doing something and someone else's reaction. This is all apparently as important to them as it would be in real life. I am bored by it. There is no depth to the characters and their actions are predictable.
If an author approached a reputable agent with this they would be rejected. If an agent approached a publisher then word would go out that their judgment was questionable. According to the people I was sitting with the programme is "just like real life". I hope real life is not the way they were describing it. If it is then I live somewhere else altogether.
I do wonder about television however. A lot of it does seem trite and superficial to me. It irritates me. I cannot be bothered. I am thankful for the 'mute' button so that I do not have to listen to the advertisements on SBS. So far the ABC (Australian) has minimal advertising - of their own products. I suppose advertising will come as a way of paying for the service.
I like reading books. I like writing. I like knitting. My working life is frustrating but often rewarding. There are other things I enjoy.
I do not need television so why does it does leave me outside the conversation?

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Last month of the year and the calendar

is now showing a picture of Mumbles Lighthouse in Swansea Bay. I am not sure why we have a Welsh calendar this year. We usually have a Scottish calendar. Wales has been nice but I suspect we will "return" to Scotland in the New Year. That is the calendar in the 'loo - something pleasant to look at while sitting on the throne.
I also need to draw up the real working calendar. My mother started this years ago. It is a necessary but loathsome task. The calendars have always been drawn up on an A2 sheet of coloured card - days of the week across the top, months down the side. The daily space is not large but we supplement with the "pin-up" board - the refrigerator with an assortment of magnets where the actual appointment cards etc are kept. It is not terribly tidy to look at but it does mean that we rarely forget anything.
My mother always printed the entire thing. She was trained as a teacher of infant school children - the five to eight year old group. My mother had outstandingly good handwriting skills. Nobody else in the family is remotely legible - or so she used to tell us.
I print off the days and the months and paste them in. I have standard abbreviations for the regular events. My father and I understand it and that is all that matters.
At the beginning of each year the calendar always looks a little bare. I put in all the regular meetings, the birthdays and any appointments that have already been made. As the year proceeds the calendar begins to look messy and crowded. By the end of the year it is almost always full.
Looking at this past year I realise there is slightly less for my father. He dropped one regular activity. He rarely goes out at night - and only if someone picks him up. Once he would have been out two or three or more times in a week. I rarely go out at night either - because it worries him too much, even if friends pick me up. I know things are changing and it saddens me.
But, the lighthouse is there on the calendar and it seems to be saying something about the future. There is another year coming up. We are still here. The world has not been annihilated by nuclear war even if Haiti and elsewhere are still a mess. We still have a future.
This year the calendar will be pale blue cardboard. My father has just gone into the shed to get the long steel carpenter's rule that makes drawing it up somewhat easier.
I will make a start on it when I have posted the necessary Christmas mail. The Whirlwind 'phoned me from school this morning to remind me - in case I forgot to look at the calendar.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Why do eating places insist

on offering you far more than you can possibly eat? It seems a dreadful waste of food. I will not say a waste of good food because I sometimes wonder at the quality as well.
We do not eat out very often. We may do it twice a year with my aunt. At that time we will go to simple, cheap and cheerful places that she occasionally uses when she cannot be bothered to go home and cook for herself between whatever she is doing. (My aunt is not much older than I am and still leads a very busy life.)
Then we occasionally go out with a couple who prefer not to entertain at home. Again we try not to go to places which are too expensive and will sometimes return to a place we have been to before. I dread such occasions and my father also feels uncomfortable as neighter of us are "big eaters". The sight of a huge plate of food dampens our appetites rather than enhances them. Over the years we have tried a range of places with this couple. The nicest of these was the small French restaurant which has now closed because the owner has retired. It really was small. The menu was limited but it was superbly cooked and presented - and cheap with it. Josephine was exceptional.
Yesterday we tried another new place. It was recommended to us by friends. They said the food was good and that it was not too expensive. I always wonder about such recommendations. Most people I know spend far more eating out than we do. They "stop for a coffee" and that will mean a slice of cake or a scone as well. They know all the local eateries well. We rarely enter them.
I therefore wondered whether the place we went to would live up to reports of what it was like. It is an organic greengrocer and grocery that has gradually developed a small restaurant on the side. The food is, naturally, organic and largely vegetarian. The place is popular enough that it is necessary to book.
The menu is limited but, within that, quite varied. Having managed to learn something from experience we inquired about portion sizes....and received a surprise.
The little waitress smiled at us and said, "We are more than happy to split anything on the menu between two."
My father and I smiled at the waitress and asked for a split serve of the vegetable burger on sourdough rye bread with salad. It was delicious - and just the right quantity.
I wish more places did that sort of thing.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Bicycles are not permitted

to be carried on buses or trams in Adelaide. They may be carried on trains with some exceptions. Baby prams/pushers/strollers, gophers, walkers and wheelchairs may be carried on trains.
Access to the train is made by the driver leaving his cabin, unlocking a container, taking out a "ramp" and putting it in place. Once the ramp has been used it is removed, relocked in the container and the driver returns to his cabin to resume the journey. Delays and late arrivals and missed connections are common.
Some buses and trams will take baby prams/pushers/strollers. They will take "mobility aids" such as wheelchairs and gophers providing that the individual (or someone travelling with them) can manouvre themselves up and down the ramp that slides out. Not all buses have this ramp. Buses and trams were not designed to take bicycles and larger gophers cannot fit on a bus.
Adelaide also has "access" taxis - van like vehicles designed to take a wheelchair or gopher. There are not enough of these.
The situation is no different from the situation in other parts of the world where any thought has been given to transport needs. In other words, if you have the need for a mobility aid, public transport may or may not be accessible and you may or may not be able to go where you are going. We worry about buildings being accessible and sometimes put in ridiculously expensive alterations to ensure they are - but there is little point in this unless you can get to the building in the first place.
On days like Christmas Day the situation becomes critical. There is very limited public transport and "access" taxis need to be booked several months in advance. I know of at least five people who book their Christmas Day transport in June; others arrange that family comes to them instead. Even if you have booked the transport that is no guarantee that it is going to arrive on time, or even arrive at all.
All this has, of course, been discussed for years by those who need to use the transport system. Some progress has been made. A friend of mine, now deceased, spent years arguing for accessible buses. The first one appeared after her death. Future buses are supposed to be accessible, so are the trams.
And of course I need to be different. My tricycle, definitely a mobility aid, is classed as a "bicycle". I am permitted to take it on the train and I can do so even when bicycles are not permitted (such as at the time of the Royal Show) but I still cannot take it on a bus or a tram. I do not know if I could call an access cab and ask them to take me somewhere. I have never tried.
This thought occurred to me when I had to avoid a scattering of deliberately smashed beer bottle in the underpass at a railway station last week.
This morning's paper has an article about the transport needs of people on Christmas Day. I happen to know that the couple interviewed have an accessible van of their own. They are fortunate but they will still continue the fight for universally accessible public transport.
I am fortunate too. On Christmas Day I will pedal over to my sister's place. My father will ride his gopher.
I will however continue the fight for universally accessible public transport. After all, my friends are getting older. More of them will need gophers one day.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

We have a fussy eater

coming for lunch today. There are four people coming for lunch, two cousins of my father and their wives.
One couple, of whom we are very fond, live in another state so we rarely see them. To the best of my knowledge they eat most things.
We eat most things. I have genuine allergies to vinegar, alcohol and shell fish. Those things really do not matter. I merely avoid them when I am out. I let my hosts know as a matter of courtesy - and nobody has ever tried to get me to eat something which will make me feel ill. I try to eat other things even if I do not like them. I do not, like someone I know, turn up and then tell them "hey, I am vegetarian". Ouch.
The other cousin however is different. He is one of the nicest possible "do anything for anyone" people you could hope to meet. At the same time he has not grown up with respect to food. He is stuck in childhood. He does not like new and different foods. There is a long list of things he will not eat. He would happily eat lamb chops and three vegetables or fish and chips at any meal.
I like to be accommodating however so I have discussed the proposed menu with his wife.
Chicken legs - plain roasted. Sausages - but not the gourmet sort for him. Then plain boiled potato. A tossed salad his wife will bring - no dressing for him and no vinegar in the dressing for her or me. Then I will put on the table for the rest of us some rather nice gourmet sausages from a local butcher who makes his own and add a choice of "mushroom sauce" or "tomato and onion sauce" for the rest of us.
I plan fruit salad and icecream for dessert. Now, how can I go wrong with that? I wonder if he will eat anything other than vanilla flavoured icecream? Will he eat mango? I might just offer him a banana. There will be more mango for the rest of us.
My father is still interested in trying out new things. It is so much easier to provide food for people who like to try new things.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Vanessa Gebbie is talking about

imagination over on Nicola Morgan's blog .
It reminded me, yet again, of something I was told when I was in my teens. My English teacher at the time told me that I would never really be able to write anything because I would never experience the world the way that everyone experiences it. "You might think you can imagine it but you won't be able to so you might as well get used to it now." The same teacher never gave me more than a "D" (a bare pass) for any work I handed in. She also taught me History and I was given the same "D" for any work I handed in there too.
Until then I had been given credit for what I had assumed was "using my imagination". I was used to getting "A+" rather than a "D" for what I wrote. That year however was the year we did our first "public examinations", a sort of sub-O-level in British terms - something we called the "Intermediate Certificate". The teacher made no secret of her dislike of me but I also assumed that it was because I really was stupid and incompetent and should not be there among all the obviously highly intelligent students in the "A" stream.
"She doesn't like you" was something my new classmates also kept telling me. I was living away from home for the first time in my life and this just made me more miserable than ever. The harder I tried the more I would be criticised. By the end of the year my self-esteem was almost non-existent. I assumed that this new teacher was being honest and that my previous teachers had just been kind.
I know now that the teacher in question probably should not have been a teacher at all. She was certainly not a good teacher and her attitude towards me was so abusive that she should have been reprimanded and counselled. It never happened. The only student she behaved even more badly towards was the girl who was eventually diagnosed with a brain tumour. Even to the rest of us it was obvious that this girl was ill but she would ridicule her as well.
For years afterwards however, even when writers I admired said they liked my work, I kept wondering whether this teacher was right. Could I imagine what I had not experienced? I decided that these people were being nice to me, that they just did not want to upset me by being honest.
I went to a children's literature in education conference and heard Jill Paton Walsh being severely criticised for writing about "wartime". People were saying she had not experienced it and should not be writing about it. (Apparently it was "all right" to write about "it" if you had experienced "it" or you were writing about a time or experience that nobody alive had experienced.) I listened. I said nothing and went on wondering whether the teacher had been right. These were professionals and they were saying what my teacher had said.
Of course you can write about something you have not experienced. You can observe. You can inquire. It is called research. You can also use your imagination. Without it we would not have fiction.

Friday, 26 November 2010

It has recently been my misfortune

to have to read a number of student essays, university student essays.
As I write this there are also ongoing student protests in the United Kingdom over the need to pay university fees and the likelihood that these fees are set to rise. A university education in the UK and Australia is now seen as a right rather than a privilege - regardless of ability.
In Australia there is now an unspoken assumption that all school students will aim for university.
The overall curriculum and structure of the education system is designed with this in mind. There are earnest debates about ensuring that "disadvantaged" students are not disadvantaged.
Students from schools which perform well find their overall marks reduced so that students from schools which do not perform as well will not be disadvantaged. Universities are required to take into consideration a range of other factors when accepting students into some courses.
It is all done in the name of ensuring that all students are given an "equal" opportunity.
There are fees, the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, other schemes, grants, special assistance etc etc. All these things are supposed to ensure that no student misses out.
The reality is rather different. There are able, indeed very able students who do miss out because of quotas in courses. There are students whose apparent family income is taken into account and who therefore fail to obtain grants. There are other students who come from backgrounds which are given "special consideration". They can obtain places in preference to more able students simply because university funding depends on this. There are students from overseas who pay full fees which help to fill university coffers.
My own view is that primary education is a right. Some form of secondary education is also a right but there should be a greater diversity available. I know there are arguments about "everyone has the right" and "students that age do not have the maturity to make a decision and might regret making the wrong choice" etc. There will be a few who make the "wrong decision" but the vast majority will make the decision they feel is "right" for them.
Tertiary education is not a right. It should depend on genuine ability. Truly able students who are not able to pay should also be provided with financial assistance. We should take in limited numbers of the very best students, students who genuinely want to be there and who are both willing to do the work required and reach the desired standard.
The essays I read were from "borderline" students. They are struggling. They should not be at university, indeed do not really want to be there. The spelling is poor. The grammar is poor. The arguments are lacking. There is an overall failure to understand the material that has been presented. These students will however get a passing grade - just. They will further erode the value of an undergraduate degree.
I do not believe the "right" approach to tertiary education is doing anyone any favours.