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Friday, December 31, 2010

The Cycling Freak and the Parkour kids

This morning, about 7 am I guess it must have been, I was on a bicycle, as it went down the gentle slope from the house I grew up in towards the dairy.
   I was balancing on one hand – the left of course – on the bicycle seat, it must have been, extending my legs up in the air with good form and adjusting to keep my centre of gravity over my hand, my balance helped greatly by the compensatory movement of the bike.
   It was easy - much easier than the two-armed handstands I used to do as a National Fitness instructor when I was 17. I found that centre of gravity and enjoyed the ride.
   Freud THAT, my shamans!

I suspect some of this dream actually came from watching the DVD on Parkour that Christian got for his birthday two days ago.
   Parkour?
   OK, I don’t blame you if you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. A couple of months ago, I would have reacted the same way, with a blank stare.
   You can look it up on google (it’s worth it!) but let’s just go with the good ole Wikipedia explanation for the moment.
Parkour (sometimes abbreviated to PK), l'art du déplacement (English: the art of displacement) or sometimes freerunning, is the physical discipline of training to overcome any obstacle within one's path by adapting one's movements to the environment. It is a non-competitive, physical discipline of French origin in which participants run along a route, attempting to negotiate obstacles in the most efficient way possible, using only their bodies. Skills such as jumping, climbing, vaulting, rolling and swinging are employed. Parkour can be practiced anywhere, but areas dense with obstacles are preferable, and it is most commonly practiced in urban areas.
The term freerunning is sometimes used interchangeably with parkour. While parkour aims to enable the practitioner to be able to move quickly and efficiently past obstacles, freerunning has a greater emphasis on self-expression within the environment. Freerunning includes tricking moves such as aerial rotations and spins, while the purist definition of parkour founder David Belle would not consider these part of parkour because the moves are merely for show, not efficient, and do not help the participant to get from place to place. Although Sébastien Foucan is considered a co-founder of parkour, his philosophy differed and grew to become known as freerunning .
I must admit I smiled a little when watching the video, as the young practitioners of the art were explaining their craft as if they had discovered some brand-new philosophy of life, when they were unknowingly applying the principles of Taoism (Daoism) to life in an urban environment. ‘...overcome any obstacle within one's path by adapting one's movements to the environment‘ as the description of Parkour says. A perfect beginning point for an explanation of Daoism to first year university students, I was thinking.
   Of course, quite a few of the PK devotees would have said, indignantly, that it’s much more than that; that it’s a training for life; a discipline for tackling life’s challenges.... it’s the vibe (to steal the classic line from The Castle).... but that’s OK. Daoism itself teaches the value of letting people think they have discovered things for themselves without any outside help!
   My point is that Parkour can make quite a difference to people’s lives. If you had seen Christian not all that long ago, you would have seen a kid developing the classic shape of one who sits too long at a computer or video game controller.
   Now when you look at him, having just had his 18th birthday, the difference resulting from practising the first stages of PK are remarkable. He is much fitter and stronger and more confident. His friends have got interested in it as well and they go down to the park as a group to train and share what they are doing. It’s not competitive in the conventional sense and everything is tried at their own rate.
   I can see some big misunderstandings resulting from others’ lack of awareness of what they are doing, though. Some will look at them in the park and think they are up to no good. If they are jumping over benches or railings, they can be looked upon as hooligans, even though their own PK training is to be aware of and respect other people’s right to share the space, and not to get angry or cheeky if they are misunderstood. As they often are. 
   Even the police sometimes force Parkour practitioners to move on at times, thinking they might be vandals, yet these are the same young blokes who give up their time every week to train as SES volunteers, and who risk their lives in emergencies to save others.
   They’re not perfect. Their new-found skills could be put to evil uses, just as a gymnast’s skills would help a cat burglar. We don’t look down on gymnastics for that reason. We don't want to ban the PCYC for training kids how to box or press weights at the Police Youth Club gyms.
   You’ll often see the PK artists these days in movies, leaping across skylines and doing incredibly dangerous things - though these are really just the show-ponies of the discipline, and few reach that degree of skill or want to tackle that level of danger.
   But their intentions are honourable and good, and would you prefer them actually to be getting up to mischief? I wouldn’t. They deserve encouragement.  A Parkour park set up with the right sort of obstacles would be nice!
Parkour 'hooligan?'
  

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Devahuti and Damodar [Part 3]


I graduated from Kelvin Grove Teacher’s College at the end of 1965. My career there was very ordinary except for Distinctions in Art and English Literature. I was way more interested at that time in the Friday night dances and pretty girls than most of the subjects I was supposed to be studying, but if I think there’s an interesting enough story or two there I’ll tell them later.
   I was sent to Gladstone Central School for my first teaching post, and I lived at my mother’s house together with my youngest sister Kay. While teaching, I kept up my university undergraduate work, this time by External Studies from UQ. Once again, I stuck with advanced History rather than branching out into another discipline such as English.
   If you’re wondering what this has to do with Devahuti and Damodar, all I’ll say right now's that the explanation below becomes critical in the circumstances when we met again.
   This time, I ventured into East Asian history – again, one of a limited number of subjects offered by QU for external study – better known these days as Distance Education. The Modern Far East was the year-long subject’s name, reflecting the idiom of the times. These days no-one would ever call it that; it would be referred to and named as Modern East Asia. ‘Far East’ as a name went out of vogue when it was realised that China and Japan were only ‘Far’ from a place that didn’t matter half as much as it used to.
   As it was my first year teaching, I had to put in a lot of time preparing lessons for my Grade 4, so study time for my university work was limited, and interfered somewhat with my social life as well. My grades for essays were improving nevertheless, but hardly noteworthy. I was after all, simply collecting points towards my BA in order to gain more Brownie Points for enhancing my prospects for promotion in the State Education Department.
   So, as the end of year exams approached, I decided I better cut corners with my studies, and I prepared answers to three topics only. I had to answer three questions in three hours of furious writing, so if I blew it and the questions weren’t there, I was in for a rough trot.
   The exams came and went, and Christmas approached. Grades for university exams were always made known first in the newspaper, the Courier Mail, followed up by a letter containing the official transcript. It was often an anxious wait for these published results, and I had an early morning trip down to the newsagent to know whether the news was good or bad.
   So it was that I ventured down to buy a paper. The results were in. I scanned down till I found The Modern Far East. Firstly, I looked in the Pass category, knowing that unless I failed the subject, that was where it was almost certain to be. Fails weren’t recorded in the newspaper; the only concession to personal privacy that the 1960s would permit. If you weren’t listed somewhere, you’d flunked.
   It wasn’t there. My heart jumped a bit, but I thought maybe I had fluked a Credit, so scanned those. A name like ‘Wright’ is easy to find in a list, as it’s usually last, but it wasn’t there either. My heart sank, and I found myself regretting (a little!) those nights out with Suzie Breslin and other girls at the Drive-In movies or the Calliope dances.
   With the faintest of hopes, I looked at the Distinctions, and my heart really did miss a beat, because there was a ‘D Wright’. Right at the bottom. I looked at it over and over before I found it in my brain to believe it possible, then whooped with joy (as the Courier Mail never made a mistake, just like I said in other stories).
   How could it have happened? True, I had blundered on to one or two good sources for those three questions for which I had prepared answers, but most of it came straight out of the set texts and the lecture notes. I had written it all down, recorded these answers to this new-fangled thing called a tape recorder I had bought for a scandalous 35 pounds when I left Brisbane, and played it back over and over in the hope something would stick in my brain for the exams. It did stick, actually, and I wrote the full three hours straight, regurgitating my answers without even having to think much about it.
   Though I didn’t deserve the mark, I was of course pleased as Punch. The official letter confirming the result came. Yes, just as the newspaper had said. 
   But there’s more!
   Three weeks later another letter from the Exams section of Queensland University came – an Amended Result Notification. My heart really sank this time. The true worth of my study in modern Chinese and Japanese history must have been divined by the Lecturer. Had I failed?
   I was totally flabbergasted when it contained a letter to say that my mark had been amended from a Distinction to a High Distinction. No explanation, just a fact. End of story. And this being an official letter, there was no doubt about it.
   Now I am not telling you this to boast about a result, or even how lucky it was that I was someone who had done minimal work in a subject, and had been awarded its top honour. I have spent some time on this because that result was absolutely critical to the rest of my life. I wouldn't be writing this now if it weren't for this lucky break.
   Without it, I would never have gone back to university as a full time student, I would never have seen Devahuti and Damodar again, and I would probably have ended my professional career as a Headmaster, at best, at a primary school in some small town in Queensland. 
   No-one can say, of course, what might have happened, good or bad, but my life would certainly have taken a totally different path to this one.
[Part 4]

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Devahuti and Damodar [Part 2]

[continued from part 1]


1965. My second year of Teacher’s College and second year of evening units at the University of Queensland. The first year under Devahuti had taught me a great deal – mainly how NOT to do a university course, but I have always been a slow learner. When I learn, I do reach a take-off point, but it takes me a while to get there.
   I looked at the offerings for advanced units in History. Devahuti’s unit was a first year one, and passing it opened up the field a little, as I could now take Advanced Units in history. Still, nothing appealed a great deal. Then I saw this subject, Contemporary Southern Asia, and there was something about it that struck a chord. In reality, it was more contemporary political science than history, and the Course Coordinator, D P Singhal, was as much a political scientist as an historian. I hadn’t realised what a pivotal role India had played in world politics in the modern era, surrounded by great powers and interacting with them.
   I am not sure when I became aware that Damodar [pronounced ‘Da-MODE-ar’] was Devahuti’s husband, but it made sense of course. Universities in India were then, in 1965, as now, enmeshed in politics which wasted time and energy and could ruin careers. The trouble could come from the political right, or left, or both. When the UQ wisely decided to offer more courses in Asian history, Damodar and Devahuti decided to get out of the destructive politics in Indian universities and make a fresh start away from the subcontinent itself. Both of them had distinguished themselves at the University of London and UQ got itself an extraordinary bargain when they both applied for positions.
  So, I studied Damodar’s course in 1965. I was bowled over by his knowledge of the world’s history and the interlocking of cultural, historical and political forces. 1965 was still the Menzies era in Australia politics, and Vietnam was looming. War between India and Pakistan was also inevitable. The cold war was at its height (though was it ever NOT, until the Iron Curtain came tumbling down thirty years later?)
   Damodar's clarity of vision helped me make sense of what was happening in the world I was about to enter as an adult. I had grown up in the country, where a conservative political landscape was the norm, and Menzies had god-like status. Unions, by this view, were evil and by controlling the Labor Party would destroy the country if it ever fell into their hands.
   I never questioned any of this. Why would I? We had had conservative governments all my life so nothing was tested, challenged or even considered on a basis of balance or understanding. We tend to inherit our political views and it takes a bombshell to force us back from what we have inherited in that respect.
   Damodar's teaching challenged every preconception I had, though I was not then old enough to even appreciate how much the world was a far more complicated place than I had imagined. Devahuti gave me a chance to view life through oriental philosophies; Damodar gave me a different window to view everything that was happening around me. But I resisted much of this novelty because it would have shattered the illusions I had, and removed me too far from my comfort zone.
   In April of 1965, a few weeks before my 18th birthday, my father died. Another illusion shattered; that one’s parents will be there forever - that life will go on in other places exactly as before, and be picked up again on end of term visits home.
   Now that I look back, I didn’t realise at the time just how radically my world would be changed by the events of that year. Yet I would not see either Devahuti or Damodar for another couple of years, during which I would be teaching primary school children at Gladstone and Calliope. For that time, until 1968, they disappeared from my life entirely, or so I thought. But their influence did not wane, I now realise, and it would, from 1968 onwards, become far more powerful than I could ever have imagined.
[NOTE:  I would like to have been able to say that Damodar Singhal recognised me as some bright star on the horizon of academia as a result of my brilliance in his classes, but that is completely untrue. I was at that stage at least quite indistinguishable from the dozens of other students just wanting to get another two credit points towards my degree for the year-long course.] 

Monday, December 27, 2010

Avastin: conflicting information

It's really hard to find reliable information about drugs that are comparatively new, especially when you start to review what people like me, who aren't experts in the field, say about their experiences.
   For example, I just wanted to know for sure whether or not Avastin had been approved for cancers apart from bowel cancers in Australia in the latest round [November] of the approval committee's proceedings - the Pharmaceuticals Administration Board I think it is - and I can't find a definitive statement about it. Maybe I'm just tired but I would have thought there would be something around online about that. I THINK I heard on the radio that it was not approved for anything but its current use on the PBS. 
   Not that that would have helped me anyway, as it has already been paid for in my case, but its denial to others is sad, because it's only affordable for people with other types of tumours if you have money and/or the wonderful friends and family I have.
   Still, I would like to know exactly what the decision was. I know I can get the information from Nicola Roxon's office but it must be out there somewhere!
   As to conflicting information, you come across plenty. For example, regarding green tea, one person with significant experience wrote in a forum:
   With the advantage of hindsight, if I was in her situation there are a few things that I would do: 

  1. Buy some vitamin D3 supplements and get her to spend 15-20 mins in the sun as many days as there is sunlight; without sunscreen. 
  2. Purchase the book "Anticancer" by David Servan-Schreiber, a brain cancer survivor himself. 
  3. Eat more fish and take fish oil tablets. 
  4. Eat 9-11 servings of fresh fruit and veges a day minimum. 
  5. Drink green tea and take green tea extract. 
  6. Exercise daily and try meditation or deep breathing.
Pretty good advice, I think. Then you find this, admittedly in an article about lung cancer and not brain tumours:

Next, the concerning news. Components present in green tea may block the anticancer effects of a category of drugs known as "boronic acid-based proteasome inhibitors." This category includes medications such as bevacizumab (Avastin).
See what I mean?


You really need to work out a lot based on your own experience and instinct!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas musings

Earlier this year, February I think it was, Alice, Sylvia and I were sitting in the big iMax Theatre in the centre of Melbourne, waiting to see the 3D version of Avatar. We had to plan this early afternoon adventure very carefully around my medications, appointments, food, even toilet breaks! So when the big screen lit up right on schedule, we were happy, sitting there in a completely full theatre with our 3D glasses on.
   Then the screen went blank. Finally, after nearly an hour during which attempts were made to get the movie going, management declared itself defeated, told everyone to queue for their money back, and come again another time.
   Can you imagine how long it takes to get your money back in queues from a full theatre? It was my first and last chance to see this movie in one of the best 3D movie houses in Australia. Gone.
   It’s just one of those things, just like having the brain tumour that brought us to Melbourne at that time in the first place, really. You accept it and move on.
   I did get to see it as a ‘normal’ movie a few months later – on our TV and not in a theatre. The story line had its strong points, ramming home the message of the plight of indigenous people across the earth and their ties to the land, and the relentless pursuit of profit by the ruthless baddies backed by brute force.
   Yet there was something about it that annoyed me, and I guess it was the naked truth that the victory of the indigenes in the movie would be as entirely pyrrhic as they have been everywhere in the world, whether in the Americas, Australia, Africa, Southeast Asia, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, or western China. However feelgood the movie might have made us, as the beneficiaries of the plundering of the lands of the people whose way of life was and is tied to that land, we still buy the things that are the result of the plundering. The bad guys do always win, though Avatar seems to imply otherwise.
   For Christmas yesterday, Christian and Tracey gave me a high quality copy of Avatar – the one with the extra footage and with a short documentary from the director of Avatar. We do have a nice big TV, which was useful when we were reviewing footage we had shot for our filming business, and I must say the quality of Avatar on that screen was beautiful.
   We then looked at the docco explaining why the movie was made. This was quite revealing, as the director, James Cameron, had been involved heavily in the fight by the Amazonian tribes to save their lands from the developers, the dam builders and the ‘progressive’ forces in Brazil and elsewhere aimed at extracting the riches of the rainforest and leaving it in a pitiful state of destruction.
   Having seen that, I realised my annoyance with the movie was probably misplaced. It wasn’t its fault that the baddies do always win when it comes to these things. And they DO. Regardless of the little battles that are sometimes won, the real war is lost, and you only have to see the politics (and polemics) of the climate change ‘debate’ to be aware of that.
   I guess Avatar is pretty much passé now. It would be nice to think it has had some positive effect, though I am sceptical. Used any maranti lately? It’s a rose-coloured soft wood timber that’s often cheaper than pine. It comes from tearing down rainforest, often illegally, and ending up on the shelves of your local building supplier’s wood stocks.
   Our ignorance does as much damage in the world as wilful destruction. I think of my computing gear, that big TV, medications, travel costs, power use… and can’t claim any special superiority. On the contrary.
   I daresay most of us are hypocrites in the end. At least, give us the grace to feel bad about it and try to do better by thinking about our resources and who really pays for them. If you think it's us, you're wrong. The people who really pay are the ones who can least afford to.
   Here endeth the lesson.
   

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Devahuti and Damodar

‘Looking around, I can see some very young faces here.’
   She looked straight at me and smiled.
   February 1964. First year at Teacher’s College, just a couple of weeks into my training. But here was I, at Queensland University, Main Building – the straight line of the D that made up the beautiful cloistered sandstone complex that was just about all there was of QU at the time.

Main Building, University of Queensland

   History Department, First Floor Lecture Room. 6 pm, Monday evening. Wooden chairs, each with its right arm the width of a lecture pad. It looked like this in shape, only not made out of plastic – just plain wood with your bottom shape shallowly gouged out of the timber, which surely tests your backside padding by the time you’ve finished a non-stop two-hour lecture. 

Lecture chair - not great for left-handers!
Not useful for left-handers like me though. Left-handers had to stop anyone sitting on their left side, and commandeer the right arm of that empty chair so they could take notes in relative comfort.
   I had decided that I was going to begin a university degree by night studies while starting my two-year course at Teacher’s College. I’m not sure why, but I think Mum put the idea into my head. Maybe it was partially in atonement for that sinful night journey on the Rocky Mail that I signed up for the year-long university subject by evening study.
   Rubbish! It was that I did want to do better in the State Education system than be a mere class teacher, and university studies were the quickest route to that goal.
   I looked at the night offerings for a BA Degree. They were slight. By rights I should have been doing English Language or Literature, as those came very easily to me, but the narrow choices offered by evening lectures meant that nothing appealed in that line.
   So, I cast my eye down the evening course offerings in History, my next strongest suite. European history…. I was bored to the teeth with the French Revolution, the 1848 Revolution, what the Prussians did to the French in the 1870s and the folly of the so-called Great War, which kicked off with such sadly misplaced enthusiasm in 1914.
   Nope.
   Then I saw this subject for first year students – Cultural History of India. India had a culture? If it did, I knew nothing about it except for those terrible things the Indians did to their British masters at the Black Hole of Calcutta in 1757, and again in another stoush in 1857 with the Mutiny. At least they were considerate enough to do these things exactly a hundred years apart, making the dates easy to remember.
   Anyway, without much enthusiasm, I ran my eye over the course content. This subject didn’t even come up to the British period at all! What was there to talk about then?
   Turns out there were heaps of things to talk about, especially the religions and philosophies and their moulding of Indian history – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism…. Jainism??? What the hell was that? I’d never heard about it. Islam…. Aryans coming to India 3.5 millennia ago at least. The Harappan civilisation 5000 years ago. They had double brick houses and a sewerage system in large orderly cities at that time? Great ancient empires two thousand years later??
   Wow. This stuff could be interesting. It certainly was different. Who was the lecturer in charge of this?
   The name was Dr Devahuti.  An Indian bloke obviously. I could work that much out.
   As it turned out, even that I got half wrong. Not having the faintest clue that an Indian name ending in an ‘i’ would probably be a woman, it was something of a surprise to me that the lecturer with the beautiful smile would turn out to be a softly spoken sari-clad Indian lady of about 40 or so – five-foot-nothing tall and unable to use the lectern on the desk because she could barely see over the top of it. Nothing of it quite fitted in with my early 60s male chauvinist world view, but I liked what I saw on that first evening.
   As I said, she was looking straight at me when she accused some of us of an unreasonable tendency towards youth. She was right. I was 16 and probably looked even younger, though I would turn 17 in May.
   I fell in love with her immediately. I found this old piece of negative I’ve had for forty or more years, inverted the image in Photoshop and here she is, as I remember seeing her first. It’s very grainy, but you get the idea.
Devahuti
   If you look closely, you’ll see she has one characteristic that sets her apart from most Indian women of the era. Yes, the short hair. By Indian standards, that was pretty revolutionary. She was one of the original, truly genuine feminists before the term was ever applied to the 1960s, and in her quiet way over the years to follow, made me understand what that was all about. Maybe I’ll come back to that later as it doesn’t fit with the story here.
   But I will say that her name was just Devahuti. Not Something Devahuti, or Devahuti Something; she had just one name and it was solely hers. Imagine the fun she had getting a passport with just one name…. but she had her way. She always did. She would have a reasoned argument and put the case firmly and clearly, and there was no gainsaying it.
   Her Ph D was from the University of London. She was there at the same time as her friend, the Grand Dame of Indian history, Romila Thapar. Friends, yes; academic rivals, definitely. Once again, that’s another story.
    So, I plunged head first into Indian cultural history, without a life jacket of any description, except for Devahuti’s mercy upon a youth with not the faintest knowledge of how to write a university essay for history. Her compassion for me made me create one unbreakable rule when I started teaching at any level. Forgive a mistake made once and be kindly, that time at least. Without Devahuti’s application of that rule, I don’t think I would have got far in my university career.
   As it was, my very first essay on the Indus Civilisation, handwritten as they were in those days in my schoolboy scrawl, based on three books from our long textbook list, can barely have passed muster. I still remember the grade: ‘Credit Minus’. And in brackets, ‘liberal mark’, followed by: ‘I can see some spark of analytical astuteness in your essay. I will discuss technique with you following the tutorial.’
   Tutorials, incidentally, where we were supposed to actually debate themes we had studied with the group and the lecturer, followed straight on from the two-hour lecture – three hours in total. You had to have stamina for university work in those days. And you needed to remember to eat something solid from the Student Union Refectory before you went into the lecture!
   I could tell you how the lectures on Hindu philosophy went over my head most of the time (I mean, monotheism and polytheism I could grasp, but to add monism, anthropomorphism and henotheism to the mix and be told that Hinduism could be atheistic – and be all of those at once! … that left me fumbling in the dark). But I really must press on. Let’s just say I scraped through Cultural History of India after the six hour examination with a bare Pass, and was grateful for that.
   Two out of 18 points towards the degree granted. What to do the next year? I studied the guide to Evening Units once again, with similar lack of enthusiasm for the offerings.
   That was how I came to meet Dr Damodar Prasad Singhal.
[continued part 2]

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Making life better for someone else: a picture

A picture tells the story better than a thousand words. It's so true!
This picture relates to the posting I made a couple of weeks ago. Here is the young lady who received the scholarship. A good friend in Bangladesh, Tahsinah, [pictured here] was responsible for much of the organising at the Bangladesh end. BODHI, especially through BODHI director Susan Butler, was the sponsor of this initiative.

Kohinur Akhter

Tahsinah commented:
"She was just overwhelmed with joy and gratitude, Denis. She gave a wonderful speech thanking you and BODHI. We'll have it translated and sent to you.  It was overwhelming for me too, and unlike Kohinur Akhter, I was stammering in my speech. We have the event recorded and will send you the CD."
The smile on this young lady's face makes my day. Look at her - brimming with life and intelligence and wanting little more at this stage than to commence training as a nurse - a profession to help others. Without a little help -  little by our standards - she would be destined to clean pots in a kitchen or sweep courtyards - if she could find a job at all.
    The only problem is... there are just 39,999,999 like her in Bangladesh alone, all just needing a chance to be educated, and who would take that chance with both hands, instead of complaining bitterly about having to go to school.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Julie Lake's Christmas Story

For something a little different - Julie sent me this some time ago. I liked it so much I asked her if I could publish it here, and she agreed. At this time of the year it's appropriate. 
   Julie Lake was a former student of mine. We are about the same vintage, i.e., not quite doddery but edging towards it! (Oh, OK, she does cycling and kayaking etc and I don't....) Quite by chance, she was also a friend of my sister Kay, for they were well known horticultural experts and used to judge gardening competitions around the country, in tandem as it were. Here's a Christmas story from her, in her own inimitable style. 

Julie and Bob Lake


CHILDHOOD CHRISTMASES ON MY GRANDMOTHER’S FARM IN KENYA – taken from my book The Builder’s Daughter
  
Christmas at the farm was always a very musical occasion and we spent it there every year of my childhood.  My mother would have much preferred to spend it among her own friends, at the coast, but never dared quite oppose Flora on this.  Especially as Flora had my father’s support, for he believed strongly in the family nature of Christmas, despite being an atheist.  
   We would drive up there the day before Christmas Eve, the boot of the car (a Morris Oxford, now, bought spanking new to replace the old Ford and to celebrate my father’s first major promotion) filled with packages.  On the roof rack was strapped a huge wooden trunk, wrapped in sacking against the dust, that contained all our clothes.  Most of them my mother’s, for she liked to dress well and change frequently, even in the country.  
   The rest of us made do with shorts and tee-shirts.  Throughout the long, hot, drive that took about six hours if the road was dry we sang carols or played games devised by my father to keep us quiet.  There was no room in the car for our ayah, Amelie, who was given Christmas off to visit her own family.  This left my mother to cope, for once, with the needs of her children until we could be handed into the care of Saina, wife of my grandmother’s head houseboy.    
   The most popular pastime, better even than Twenty Questions, was game spotting for money.  My father paid us a certain amount for each animal sighting; ground squirrel or mongoose was worth ten cents (there were ten cents to the Kenya shilling), baboon or zebra or common antelope were all worth fifty cents, elephant was worth a shilling.  Payment was for each separate sighting; he did not, quite reasonably, pay for numbers and so in a single sighting a herd of Thompson’s gazelle counted as one.  
   The biggest game of all were lion, leopard and cheetah, which were worth a whopping five shillings a sighting.  He was cunning, my father, for there was little game to be seen along the road for the first part of the journey up from the coast through the fertile and well-inhabited hill country.  Then followed the dull, flat expanse of the almost waterless nyika that so taxed the early settlers who made the trip on foot before there was either road or railway.  Rhino, buffalo and lion were all plentiful in this type of country, but kept themselves well away from the road and out of sight in the thick, thorny scrub.  It was possible to score, here, but not likely.  
   By the time we reached the higher country and the great plains of the Athi, where game of all kinds could be easily seen, we children were usually asleep, bored and worn out.  On the way back, it was my father’s practice to start long before dawn so that we would be well into the nyika, and animal oblivion, before it was light enough to see.
   Still, there were memorable moments.  Such as the time we saw four cheetah just at daylight, on a slight rise near the side of the road, poised and alert and looking straight at us. And the time we came round a corner and found a large bull elephant blocking the road, stirring up the red dust in anger so that my father had to back up to a safe distance.  Large herds of elephant were quite a common sight along some stretches of the road and the damage of their passing could be seen all around.  
   Where this occurred my mother would not let us stop, not even if one of us was carsick or desperate for a pee.  There were few amenities along the Mombasa-Nairobi road in those days; a hotel at Voi where we sometimes stopped for refreshment and a clean up on the way home, a roadhouse at Mtito Andei which was roughly halfway.  Mostly we carried food with us and a thermos flask for tea, and orange juice that was always warm from the sun and slightly fermented, stopping at the side of the road where, very occasionally, another car would pass by in a thick cloud of red dust. 
   However fretful or tired we felt by the end of the journey, this would all change the moment we turned into the farm road that led up the hill to Matu Maini.  There at the end of the long drive of eucalyptus trees was the house that held all our memories of Christmas past, as well as our hope of Christmas present. 
   Though neither ancient nor noble it had by then acquired the grace of a true country house, the grey stones and white trim speaking of comfort within. From the spreading cape chestnuts and other trees behind the house to the vast sweep of lawn and flower-filled beds that surrounded the other three sides, everything was in startling, yet pleasing contrast to the harsh and dusty landscape through which we had passed. We could not wait to clamber from the car and throw ourselves on to that soft grass; to run down the scented paths and bury ourselves in the whole wondrous greenness of it all.  
   I was a child of Africa and very much alive to its beauties, yet the cultivated charm of my grandmother’s garden ravished my soul. Because of it, I came to see horticulture as the highest and most civilising of the arts, and I still hold that view.
   By this time we children were in a state of frenzied excitement that would last all through the next day, when the whole farmhouse would be in a flurry of preparation.  On Christmas Eve we would gather round the tree – a large pine trucked down from a plantation in the cooler hill country north of Nariobi -  and then the African children would arrive, to sing carols outside the door.  They sang some of these in English but Flora had translated others into Kamba and Swahili; and thanks to German Richard they could also sing O Tanenbaum quite creditably in that language.  
   It would then be the job of my brother, my sister and myself to distribute small presents to the children.  The weather was always very hot but this did not stop us pursuing all the traditions of an English Christmas.  There would be stockings at the end of our beds when we woke up and then the opening of the “big” presents around the tree before breakfast and then we would be free to play until the Christmas luncheon, which was only for the family and perhaps one or two select friends such as Lady J.   
   There was always a turkey, flown out from England, along with a great hamper of luxuries from Fortnum and Mason – smoked salmon, stilton and other cheeses that we couldn’t buy in Kenya, and whisky-flavoured Scottish marmalade and chocolate biscuits.  There was a great ham, too from one of the farm’s own pigs, and Christmas pudding with five-cent pieces in it for the children.  
   In the early years of my childhood there was always a shoot on Boxing Day, with all the hunters up and gone by dawn leaving my mother alone to sleep in.  My father would go out with the guns but rarely fired one himself, preferring to drive a vehicle and take photographs.  The quarry was usually antelope but larger game was also taken.   I was allowed to take part in these hunts from the age of twelve and could hardly wait for it, though the practice was stopped shortly after that time as no longer appropriate, or permitted without adequate licenses.  My ambition, then, was to shoot a lion but I never did so.  Lion on the farm were protected by Flora, unless they took to killing cattle.  Leopard, too, were no longer shot or trapped or poisoned.  There were fewer of them now and Flora valued those that remained, even if they still made occasional forays against the chickens or the pigs, or took an occasional calf.
   The Boxing Day meal was as large and sumptuous as the Christmas dinner, except that it was served cold and out of doors and all the European staff and their families attended.  As well as several neighbours.  The African workers had started the tradition of holding their own feast in the labour lines where most of them lived, with sheep and goats roasted over open fires and a bullock donated by Flora.  We white farm children would wander freely between both feasts, munching as happily on roasted mealies as we did on cold potato salad and ham. 
   And of course there was music; more carols and excerpts from the Messiah or one of the Passions, well rehearsed beforehand by Flora and the rest.  And then a general singsong of old and new…my father would always get us going with You Are My Sunshine and Have You Ever Been Lonely and the rest of us would do our party pieces.  One of mine was The Little Match Girl sung with appropriate pathos. German Richard always gave his rendition of the Klein Zack song from Tales of Hoffman.  Aldo predictably and enthusiastically gave us both Santa Lucia and Return to Sorrento, proving afresh each Christmas that not all Italians can sing.  The Hungarians and Poles sang incomprehensible songs in their own languages. 
   The English accountant and my father would get together like a couple of crooners and do numbers by Bing Crosby and Perry Como; sometimes they could persuade the accountant’s wife to join them and she could do very good impressions of the female singers of the day – Rosemary Clooney, Ruby Murray, Alma Cogan.  I can see her up there now, blond, slightly tipsy, singing a Jo Stafford number with her husband and my father making the “boo-boo-boo-boom” sounds in the background.  
   Inspired by the applause this earned her, the year I turned twelve I gave what I thought was a rather professional rendering of Fever that I had been rehearsing in front of the mirror for days.  It was not well received; my father thought it far too explicit for my years and Flora said it was a shame to waste my talents when I could sing Linden Lee so nicely. 
   The real star of these Christmas shows was always Flora and the pleasure they gave her warms my memory now.  I can see her, constantly smiling, constantly on the move, making sure that everyone was having a good time.  It was what she loved most, to have the house filled with music and her friends and family all about her.  Though there must have been sadder moments because looking through the diaries for that time I do find an entry, probably written late one Christmas night after we had all gone to bed, saying simply: “How Alex would have enjoyed the singing. I can’t help thinking of him every year at this time and that it is so sad (sic) he is not part of our little international community.”
   Music was not confined to Matu Maini’s small number of Europeans.  The Kamba would celebrate Christmas not only with their usual feast but also with a tribal dance.  These ngomas were fine affairs, attracting people from the farm’s own squatter population and from villages further afield in the reserve.  Ngomas were held not only at Christmas but also at several points throughout the year, to mark a significant wedding or some major external event, or for what seemed to be no apparent reason except the desire to gather together and dance. 
   There would be much excitement among the servants and farm staff for several days beforehand and on the dance day – or night – the crowd would gather on a piece of flat ground about a mile from the house, not far from the squatters’ huts. Beads, skins, feathers and other finery would be put on.  Instruments would be warmed up, especially the drums for the traditional kilumi songs and dances, which were left all day in the sun before use. 
  Preliminary stampings and whirlings would take place among those planning to perform.  Old men would gather in one part, old women in another, to cackle and urge the dancers on, or else assess the individual performances.  Sometimes they would join in, intoxicated by the rhythm and the increasingly frenzied drumming.  But mostly dancing was for the young, as it is everywhere.  For that brief time of the dance the young men would be warriors again, as they had been before the British imposed peace on the land, and the maidens would release themselves in the dancing before submitting forever to a life of servitude and drudgery.  
   There were different dances for different occasions: the nduli where circumcised youths and maidens chose their mates; the kisanga danced at Matu Maini when there was a good maize harvest. Though as it involved an animal sacrifice – usually a goat – we children were never allowed to watch.


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Monday, December 20, 2010

Two hands!

Quite exciting! 
   This afternoon I did something I haven't been able to do for six months - I switched the wireless mouse from the left back to the right side of my computer and was able to move it about and click with it - poorly and inaccurately, but do-able. 
   This is a big achievement for me as it would have set off a seizure in the past (before Avastin). I can do it for only a couple of minutes at a time, though, as it makes me feel a weird sort of mental discomfort after a while. With time and patience I may be able to increase this mobility. I have to think hard about how to click and even harder how to use the scroll button.
   The major drawback I have discovered is that there are not enough signals getting through to/from the brain to be able to really lift the mouse, meaning I run out of room on the mousepad like the first time ever you might have used a computer mouse. It feels as if it weighs about three kilos to lift with that hand. If you find that odd, imagine how it feels to me!
   The only solution is practice. Painfully slow, frustrating but repetitive attempts to do what a two-year old can learn to do in two minutes.
   There is not a chance yet that I can use the right hand again for the keyboard as it can barely hold up its own weight and all the fingers drag over all the keys on the keyboard. But let me try:
   Merry Criistmas, everyyone!
   That wasn't so bad, though I have to admit I used the left hand for the left hand keys, so that half of the keyboard was covered.... and it took ages for the right hand keys. Let's try something more ambitious:
   Now is the time for a,ll god me to come to the aid of the party.
   The quick brown fox umps  over te lazy dog.
   I'm quite proud of that!
   I promise to work on it. This is probably great therapy. It may even reduce the 'weight' of the mouse.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My wicked start to life in Brisbane [Final Part]



He’d just got back with fresh supplies when the conductor turned up.
   Game over, I thought, but far from it. 
   ‘Have a beer.’ Jack opened one, still nice and cold from the dining car fridge, and offered it to him. On a hot January night it was irresistible. He looked up and down the corridor and it was all quiet, and accepted with alacrity. He would have been up for a game as well, but he couldn’t afford to go that far, especially with a full train to keep an eye on. He had a friendly yarn and then disappeared, saying, ‘Keep the noise down and close the corridor blind, that’s all. There are full compartments on both sides of you.’
   So the real game started. Jack oozed confidence and Peter played hesitatingly, continuing on with his practice of minimal bluff and betting only when he had good cards. They drank a lot more of Jack’s beer and smoked themselves silly with his cigarettes, though Peter was more careful than Jack about his grog intake. Then he started to win, changing his strategy to more aggressive play and shaking the other’s confidence. They did get a bit rowdy and there were minor arguments as they got drunker.
   The conductor came back, as it was getting late in the evening, and told them to wrap the game up shortly. Interestingly, he said to Peter quietly as he left, ‘We don’t want what happened halfway through last year, do we?’
   So, Peter put the pressure on Jack, who now played perfectly into his hands. What was happening was clear as a bell to me, as I had been watching them both on and off for hours by this time, and I could always see what was in Peter’s hand. He let Jack have a few good wins by deliberately losing a series of bluffs or throwing in his hand, and then waited to strike.
   We could both tell now by Jack’s body language when he had strong cards and when he was bluffing, especially now he was getting drunker, and then Peter came up with the hand he needed against what Jack thought was a winner. The bidding on the hand went on till both were totally committed, and Jack called Peter to show his cards, fairly confident that he was trying to bluff his way through yet again. Fatal error that time.
   Peter cleaned up with the win on that last hand – about thirty quid profit in all, which was a good night’s work. It was four times my new weekly allowance from the Department of Education, and that was quite a bit of purchasing power to start the new term, even at Nudgee College. He whooped and hollered joyously a bit, and it brought the conductor back in, after knocking loudly on the compartment door.
   ‘That’s it, boys. Pack it in now. Right now.’
   Jack took the remnants of his beer and smokes and left quickly. Conductors had been known to put people off trains at the next station if they became disagreeable, and that was a pretty sobering thought. Bundaberg was a good place for rum, but not the place to be late at night on a deserted railway platform, shared only with mosquitoes swarming out of the sugar cane fields that produced the raw material for Bundy's most famous product.
   ‘Here,’ said Peter to the conductor once Jack was gone. He folded and poked a five quid note into the top pocket of his uniform. ‘That’s for the boys when you get into a shout with them at the bar. Give them a round of drinks on me.’
   The conductor pushed the five pound note deeper into his pocket, bid us goodnight and moved on.
   Peter was happy with it all. I was tired out. It had been a long day.
   ‘You made a racket after winning that last hand,’ I said.
   ‘Of course.’ He grinned, lighting up for the final time that night. ‘I knew it would bring the conductor in. That way when I sting the other bloke, he can’t accuse me of anything or get snakey. He just has to get out if the conductor’s standing there. That’s why I always slip him a fiver.’
   ‘It wasn't a sting. You just outfoxed him. But how did the conductor know to be around at the right time?’
   Peter turned the face of his rather nice looking wrist watch towards me. ‘What’s the time now?’ It was not long past twelve. ‘Midnight’s a good time to finish a game, don’t you reckon?’
   ‘How long have you been doing this?’
   ‘Doing what? Playing cards on the train? A few times last year. I have six, sometimes eight trips a year, and you get to know people running these trains. When it was Laurie who clipped our tickets at Miriam Vale, I knew I was in like Flynn if I could just find the right type of blokes in the dining car. I’m not always this lucky.'
   He was drunk with success and Fourex, and became expansive.
   'It couldn’t have worked better than this time. It's always best on your own turf. In your own compartment. And it didn't hurt to have you here for backup. I saw you fight Tommy Little when you were in Sub-Senior the last year I was at Gladstone High. Remember?’
   Did I remember? How could I ever forget that Matter of Honour? My one and only fight at High School against a school bully who would have done Ripping Yarns proud.... We each got four cuts for that, Tommy Little and I; the penalty for fighting at school. It would have been six except I had broken his arm in the fight, and the Principal thought that four cuts with the cane on his good hand was enough before he was sent off to the hospital to get the other arm set in plaster. But that's another story.... and the last thing I wanted or expected to be on that night was Peter Moloney's backup in a gambling brawl.
   'So what happened last year?'
   He opened another stubbie. ‘Just a bit of a punchup when a bloke got nasty and reckoned I was cheating. It turned out OK. That's where it pays to have the conductor on side. You sure you don’t want a nightcap?’
   Oh my poor dear mother. Here I was just hours out of Calliope, fresh from the cowyard, a total innocent sharing a compartment with that nice Nudgee College boy; but in the eyes of the law, an illicit user of drugs and alcohol, a party to illegal gambling and, though I didn't know it till after the event, a bodyguard for a very slick con artist. 
   I could have been placed on the next train home, destined to milk cows for the rest of my life….
   After all, what sort of teacher could possibly begin their career with a murky start like that?!


FOOTNOTE: Sadly, I had to change the name of my Nudgee pal to protect the guilty, which is a huge pity, because he shares his real surname with one of the most notorious crim families in modern Australian history. 
   I can tell you for a fact that there is no family relationship between the two. Calliope people of my vintage will know why I changed it to 'Moloney', and have a bit of a chuckle. 
   'Peter' was simply acting in the compartment in exactly the same way as he would in a Nudgee College dormitory. A private school education does that for you. That's why so many of them are either spectacularly successful lawyers and politicians, or such glorious failures. Either way, the Old Boy network will never fail them.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

My wicked start to life in Brisbane [Part 3]

   Wrong again. Be patient.
   ‘Let’s eat,’ he said, opening another stubbie for himself. I was dragging the chain sadly in the drinking department and still had half of mine to go.
   ‘What’s up? Are you OK?’ he looked at me a little dubiously.
   ‘I’m fine!’ I really was OK. ‘Mum’s given me enough food for an army here.’ Which she had.
   ‘Mine too. She always does. But I’ve converted her to tradables.’
   ‘Tradables?’
   ‘Yes. Stuff you can keep for weeks or months, like chocolate bars. Not sandwiches and biscuits like you’ve got that you’ll have to throw away if you don’t eat them by the time we get to Brisbane. Mum's given me stuff I can eat later, or use to trade in the dorm for things I want. If I can get them past the screws…’ he grinned. ‘Which I can, anytime. I haf my vayz…’ He imitated something akin to Gestapo-speak. I did not doubt that for a moment that he did.
   I was curious about those ‘vayz’ but, as he said no more, I didn’t press the matter. Instead, I got out the pile of beautiful sandwiches my dear mother had lovingly prepared, and offered them to my new criminal partner. If Mum had seen where half of her lovingly prepared sandwiches were going she would have… honestly, I don’t know what she would have done…. but it would certainly have destroyed my cred with Mr Moloney, whatever it was.
   What she didn’t know didn’t hurt her, I figured…. Or me, fortunately. On both those counts I was probably right, as long as the long arm of the law didn’t step into the compartment doorway. In this situation we could neither run nor hide.
   ‘These are great,’ he said, hoeing into a second chicken sandwich. ‘Want another beer? There’s still a couple left. I know how we can get more later.’ I really wasn’t that keen on more-later but I simply said I was right with what I had left. ‘Want another smoke?’ He knew by now that, as I hadn’t smoked any more since he left, I couldn’t have been carrying any, which meant I was just an OP smoker at best. OP? Someone who cadges smokes off Other People and doesn’t buy them. I thought everyone knew that…. Not that I was one anyway.
   ‘Nah. I’m right.’ He didn’t care whether I did smoke or didn’t, which was fine by me.
   ‘Well, if you change your mind, I’ve got plenty. I can’t believe we’ve been lucky enough to share this compartment and no-one else is in the middle berth.’ He was right. At least it was dead lucky for him, but he was clearly the sort of bloke that things mostly fall his way. 
   ‘NOW…. Here’s the plan.’
   We had a plan? I didn’t know that. But I soon would, that was apparent.
   ‘At about 8, a couple of blokes are coming in here, for a game of cards. Do you want in?’
   Even I, naïve as a baby, understood that this wasn’t Snap, or Euchre, Bridge or 500 we were discussing. We were talking Poker, most likely, or Pontoon (Blackjack), and we wouldn’t be playing for matchsticks like at home. Real money was involved, and I didn’t have a great deal of it in my pocket. Mum had set me up with a bank account I could use in Brisbane, and precious pounds had been put in it, but I knew that me playing poker against comparative pros would be a lamb to the slaughter. I drew the line at that, cred or no cred. Those pounds had been too hard earned to be lost in a game of poker.
   ‘Poker? I’m useless at it. I couldn’t bluff my way out of…. a wet paper bag,’ I said, mixing my metaphors hopelessly. Well, using a pitiful one at least. But he knew what I meant.
    ‘No problem. There’s not really room for four in these little spaces. We’ll just play three-handed. Me and these two others I rounded up. Cut-throat.’
  I wasn’t aware that you could play anything but Cut-throat in Poker. 500, yes, or Euchre. But it seemed a very good opportunity to shut up, so I did. And he was right. The pull-down wash-basin was smack in the road of any fourth player to sit down. 
   Clearly, this was not his first on-line game of poker. On-train-line, that is. Hah hah.
   Round 8 pm, two blokes I thought were aged about 30 came in. Peter had chosen well. These were clearly not state plain-clothes gaming cops. They didn’t have that fishy, sneaky look about them. They stood and talked like bored shearers.
   They had each brought a stool with them from the dining car - the sort that lock down with a wing nut so they didn't move around while the train was in motion. Don’t ask me how they did it, but I guess it wouldn’t be that hard to smuggle them out. In fact, the best way would be to just walk out with them, bold as brass. Or, maybe, they'd just asked to borrow them.
   ‘I’ll sit on the bottom bunk,’ said Peter.
   ‘Too bloody right you will,’ said the less friendly of the two. ‘I’m not having your mate [meaning me] looking over my shoulder from the top berth.’
   I must have looked slightly injured at the impugning of my honour, but Peter grinned and said, ‘Damn! You got us there, mate. Now you’ll have my dough off me in half an hour.’ The other bloke half-smiled. No doubt about it, Peter Moloney could charm the legs off a cobra. Maybe that’s how they lost them in the first place, though there’s nothing in Indian mythology about Peter Moloney.
   I quite liked the top berth in the second class sleeping compartments. You had more headroom and it was less claustrophobic than the lower two. To go to the toilet you did have to struggle a bit to get down and up, but that wasn’t hard for a teenager as fit as I was. You could see more out of the windows too, especially the high one at the very top, and get more air – necessary in a closed compartment with three boozing smokers playing cards and doing their best to recreate a London smog. 


Illustration by Watto


   I WAS interested in the game and how Peter was playing it as I watched over his shoulder. I did understand poker, by the way. I just knew I didn't have a poker face. In that respect I was like my mother. There's a kids' game called 'Cheat' - you may have played it. The person who can lie most convincingly wins the game every time. Mum tried to play it against us kids and looked so guilty when she had to lie that she was useless at it. 
   I would have been like that in a real poker game. But not Peter Moloney.
   He was good. Once he’d worked out that one of them was a lot better than the other (which took him all of three minutes), he played the ends against to middle and let one of them take out the other, while he lay low and watched the better player’s style. The weaker player dropped out after a couple of hours, no doubt having reached his limit, and left - some ten quid poorer. The stronger player, happy with the way things were going, agreed to go and buy more beer and smokes from the dining car. I’ll call him Jack just to make it easier, though I can’t remember what his name was. Maybe I never knew it in the first place.
   He’d just come back with fresh supplies when the conductor turned up.


[Final part coming up!]