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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

More Calliope tales (pt 4): Aunty Anne’s TV

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The coming of electricity changed a tiny village like Calliope in subtle but permanent ways, not all of them immediately apparent.

    For one thing, it altered sleeping patterns, as strong light was available for as long as the switch was turned on, which could be well into the night. Consequently, many people didn’t go to bed soon after the chooks and wake up with the rooster’s call any more. Gardens that might be attended to at dawn were neglected by those who chose sedentary occupations in the evenings over active ones, and dawn came way too soon.

    When we got electricity at Sunny Hills, we came to know surprising little things about our neighbours. For example, when Aunty Anne across the gully turned on her electric stove to cook her evening meal, our lights would dim, and remain so until she had finished cooking. It was the classic ‘brownout’ I used to see in India and Bangladesh at peak times much later in life, only Aunty Anne could manage it all on her own, just with one flick of the stove switch.

    We hoped she wasn’t cooking a roast, or that she wasn’t late starting the oven for her evening meal, so that the brownout was mainly in daylight. All the other electrical gadgets that we eventually acquired when we discovered their convenience also slowed down dramatically in their speed and power when the under-strength transformer on the pole at Aunty Anne’s was overloaded. What was supposed to give us 240 volts must have dropped way below par at times, so I suppose we can only be grateful home computers hadn’t been invented by then.

    They wouldn’t have survived the fluctuations or the lightning strikes on the wires during storms.

    Anyway, Aunty Anne’s cooking wasn’t what I wanted to talk about, but what happened when she got TV.

    I think TV finally came to central Queensland in 1961 or 1962, or at least that’s when Calliope could receive the signal from Rockhampton, roughly 100 kms away. There were two stations; the national public broadcaster, the ABC, and RTQ 7, the commercial one. They both closed transmission between 10 and 11 pm at night, and of course, both were in black and white mode. Australia didn’t get colour TV till the mid-70s – which, incidentally, was AFTER Bangladesh, where I first saw TV in colour.

    But TVs in the early 60s, even b&w ones, were very expensive. We didn’t have cheap Asian child and (virtual) slave Asian labour in those days to do the making of and component assembly for such items, so they were made here in Australia, mainly by men on white men’s family wages. The cheapest ones cost round 130 pounds, which would translate today into about $3,000 -  maybe more, in terms of purchasing power.

    We couldn’t afford one, or at least, Dad reckoned, like most of Calliope family heads, that we couldn’t. In Gladstone, people brought chairs and rugs to electrical shop windows to watch programmes, but there were no electrical stores in Calliope at all. You went to Gladstone to buy such exotic items or see them in shop windows.

    That didn’t stop Aunty Anne. She had been lonely since the passing of Uncle Dave, though visited very often by her daughter Elvie and her girls just across the railway line. She lashed out and bought her very own TV.

Aunty Anne and Uncle Dave, with grand-daughters Beth and Gay.
Uncle Dave had been gassed during fighting in France (WWI)
and this affeected his health for the rest of his life.

   In no time at all, Aunty Anne discovered that everyone wanted to drop in on her and say hello – kids in the afternoons, adults at night, sometimes seven nights a week! I would run across from our place and watch whatever there was time for till dinner was ready at home. Mum and Dad and forgotten friends and relatives came to watch Perry Mason or the Black and While Minstrel Show or a movie at least once a week.

    Aunty Anne quickly became the most popular person down our end of Calliope. She loved it, or said she did. She put up with it anyway. Let’s face it, she didn’t really have much choice.

    I remember the first time I saw a commercial news presentation on TV. We were used to the deliberate, sonorous, unruffled BBC-style of news presentation, whether TV or radio, that came on the ABC. The style on Channel 7 that I saw on Aunty Anne’s TV for the first time was loud, dramatic and spectacular by our standards. I was entirely unprepared for it.

    I thought the world was coming to an end, the way they were talking. I came rushing home on one occasion in huge excitement and said, ‘The Russians – they’re going to bomb America from Cuba!’ - and this was well before the real Cuban missile crisis.

    ‘Are they now?' said Mum, disappointingly unmoved by the impending end of civilisation as we knew it. ‘I doubt it.’

    ‘But it was ON THE CHANNEL 7 NEWS!’ I said. What was on the news in my admittedly limited experience, mainly ABC, was always gospel truth. So far in life it had been, as far as I could see (which was to the top of the hill in our back paddock).

    It didn’t happen. Astoundingly, Mum was right and the Channel 7 reporter was wrong. That troubled me a bit, but it took that other incident years later for the scales to fall off my eyes about how commercial network news was reported.

    Anyway, families in Calliope one by one bought TVs, and Aunty Anne’s friends drifted away. WE finally got TV, and that was incredibly exciting.

    Aunty Anne always said how sorry she was that her popularity had faded, but in truth, I am sure she was happy to get her nights back to herself, to make a cup of tea just for herself, and turn the damn thing off and go to bed exactly when she felt like it.

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Beating the odds: the amazing story of Arthur Miles

In 2005, the Armidale Express asked for true stories to commemorate ANZAC Day. There was a huge response. I sent this one in about my grandfather, and it was one of three published.

Beating the odds: the story of Arthur Miles

By DENIS WRIGHT, ARMIDALE

 I never knew my grandfather. He died before I was born, but my mother passed on to me his fascinating story about surviving the battlefields of France.

 His name was Arthur Alexander Miles, born 18 January 1878. I guess you'd say he was both lucky and unlucky. Unlucky he was so severely wounded that he was left for dead in no-man's land on the Somme, but lucky that, through a series of near-miraculous events, he survived.

 Not only that, he returned to Australia, aged 37: hair thinning, one-legged and nearly penniless - and then he married my grandmother, a girl of 20. And if it were not for that happy event, I wouldn't be telling this story now.

 Arthur Miles was one of the few World War 1 soldiers who put his age DOWN in order to enlist. Many youths of 16 or so had put their ages up, but he was in his 30s when war broke out. Within months, he found himself in the mud and lice and freezing misery of the trenches in France, having to make suicidal charges over the top from time to time. He had done that more than once, but fortunately had managed to get back to the relative safety of the trenches after each sortie, more or less intact.

 His luck ran out during a major offensive near the very end of the war, the battle of Mericourt-sur-Somme, when, on 9 August 1918, he was caught in no-man's land by shrapnel from a shell that exploded nearby, shattering his foot and lower leg. He lay there for hours, drifting in and out of consciousness, trying to endure the pain and shock and staunch the flow of blood as best he could.

 During a lull in the battle, stretcher-bearers came out to rescue wounded men they thought had a reasonable chance of survival. Arthur Miles was not one of them. He had lost a lot of blood and there were other injured men who had better claims. Like many others, he was left for dead.

 This might have been the end of his story, had not fate intervened on his behalf. His cousin Bob was a stretcher-bearer who had only recently been posted to the Somme. He had made several trips in the course of this engagement returning with wounded men, and during the lull in the fighting was now out in no-mans-land again. He noticed that this man they had passed by several times was still alive, though barely, and turned him face up. ‘Good god, it's Arthur.’ He turned to the other stretcher-bearer. ‘We're taking him back.’

 I don't know the reaction of the other ambulance officer to making the effort for a man likely to die at any minute, but they brought him in.

 In the field hospital, Arthur's leg was amputated just below the knee, but he was in a bad way. He'd lost a lot of blood and the wounds were severely infected. He hovered between life and death, and then gangrene set in. The surgeon decided that his only chance was to amputate again, this time above the knee. There was no choice. In his weakened state, he had little resistance to infection, and the leg once again became gangrenous. Days later, he had to endure another amputation, this time at the hip.

 If the effect of three major operations in any army field hospital were not enough, he now faced an even more critical threat to his survival. Within hours of the third operation, he developed tetanus (lockjaw). The doctor took one look at him and said quietly to his companion, "That man won't live the night." Arthur said to him, apparently with much more conviction than was warranted under the circumstances, "Yes, I will!”

 He did. Against the odds, he survived the tetanus infection, and the wound did not become gangrenous this time - which is just as well, as there's not much further you can go cutting bits off people than Arthur had endured.

 He returned to Australia on a hospital ship, along with men who had worse battle scars than he - men with lungs nearly destroyed by mustard gas, hideous internal injuries and severe war psychoses such as shellshock. He learned to use crutches with great skill, and to overcome the many difficulties faced by returned injured service men and women re-entering civilian life.

 His first-born son was called Robert, after the cousin who has saved his life. Uncle Bob, I am happy to say, is still very much alive, and a tough old octogenarian. He has researched his father's life and has much of the documentation for this story. My own middle name is Arthur, in memory of my grandfather Miles.

 No doubt there are countless tales from the battlefields that are much like this, but the courage and will to survive by men like my grandfather deserve to be recorded, so that their sacrifices will never be forgotten.

Posted Monday, 25 April 2011 ANZAC DAY.


Wednesday, April 27, 2005- PAGE 14 - Armidale Express

Arthur and Edith Miles

Sunday, April 24, 2011

More Calliope tales (pt 3): the ape-men

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I was lying there reading, snug in my bed on the verandah, as a storm approached in the distance. It was one of those storms with only the occasional flash of lightning, and in the far distance I could hear the faint boom of the thunder each time. The absolute novelty of the electric light above my head had worn off, as it does with kids soon enough, but its permanent benefit remained. I could read well into the night.

   The book I was devouring came from a pile salvaged from the old kitchen that was all that remained from the Toohey house on our property. It was a strange collection. There were a lot of Westerns, especially Zane Grey yarns that I loved (“So long, pards, I'm slidin' to Hell,” gasped Smokey, his chest bleeding profusely from the bullet that had ricocheted into the cave.... You know, stuff like that.) But the one I was reading this time had a motley red worm-eaten cover, and was called Terror Island.

   It was aptly named. It was inhabited by these greyish-white half-men-half-gorillas, who terrorised the group of blokes who had come to study the mysterious place because of the reports of strange things that went on there. Given its inhabitants, that was hardly surprising. In the night, these ghostly sub-humans would occasionally enter the tents of the scientists, silently, and all that you might know of their presence was their warm breath on the cheek or a slight rumble in the chest, as they kidnapped their victims one by one, and all you heard of them later was horrific screams....

   Frankly, I suspect now that whoever wrote this novel had serious personal problems, but at the time I was reading it, it was just the terrible screams of those poor scientists that made me feel queasy. I had the heebie-jeebies good and proper on that night. Not the sort of thing you want to go to sleep on.

   Still, I didn't want to read on in that mood. Who knows what I might have discovered the ape-like men would do next? The night was sultry and the breeze warm and spooky. Like the breath of an ape-man, I thought. There was no moon.

   I switched off my light, using my newly invented string pull device described earlier. My substitute for the modern remote for the TV it was, except it was for the light. It wasn't failsafe, by the way, as sometimes the looped string slipped off the notch when I  pulled it, and I'd have to hop out of bed and turn it off manually.

   It worked as designed this time. I was plunged into darkness at the speed of 192,000 miles per second.

   I slipped into an uneasy slumber. The warm breeze, the rare lightning flash and the low rumble of thunder far away were not conducive to sleep.

   Something moved at the other end of the verandah. It was tall and grey-white. It DID move. I saw it. And the direction of its movement was due north. That was straight for me. Not a large movement, mind... but visible. I was NOT asleep. I even pinched myself, hard. It hurt.

   I would have been happier if I knew I was in a dream. How come pinches in dreams don't hurt, by the way? Hmmm.

   It moved again. The sensation of warm breaths on my cheek increased. My skin was crawling. And yet again, coming directly and inexorably toward me, stopping and starting. I was being stalked by something even taller than my Dad. I was human prey. And I had left it too late to make a run for the internal door, as the apparition was now level with it, and soon would be between the door and me.

   All too soon it was. My father was asleep in the bedroom next to my wall. No-one ever woke him when he was sleeping - that was the unwritten rule - even if being attacked by a monstrous being that carried people off, never to be heard of again apart from their dying screams. My mother would be in the kitchen washing dishes. No matter what I did, it would be too late.

   The other part of my failsafe remote switching that I had neglected on account of it was too hard for a 10 year old brain to solve was that there was no remote ON button. Once I'd turned the light off, that was it. If I could actually see what I was up against, however fearsome, however huge and ape-like, that would have been preferable to not having the faintest idea what this shadowy form was.

   It was now at the end of the bed, right in the centre between the bedposts. I was in the centre also of this double bed, but as far up on the pillow as I could go. The warm breaths increased. My escape was pretty much blocked.

   There was a flash of lightning and I saw in that instant how tall the figure was. Its arm moved. There was a peal of thunder like the roll of a drum.

   That was it. I leapt from the bed, down the narrow space beside it, hurtling past the looming figure, and raced frantically for the door that would take me inside. It was almost never locked. I flew, rather than ran inside, past the bedroom door where my father was sleeping blissfully, and dived into the dining room.

   My mother was there, calmly reading a book. One look at my face told her I had confronted something fearsome and dreadful.

   'What's wrong?' she demanded with some urgency, putting a hugely comforting arm around me.

   'It's ... out there!'

   'What's out there?'

   'I don't know!' I wailed. 'It came all the way down the verandah to get me.'

   'You must be having a bad dream. I'm going to look.'

   'It WASN'T a dream. It was REAL! It was tall and grey and it was.... '

   'I'm going to look. You wait here. Or do you want to go into the girls' bedroom?'

   She knew I had had a bad scare. An ashen face on a kid who isn't obviously sick tends to give that away to mothers. I don't know if she thought there really was something or someone out there, but she took the old walking stick near Grannie's rocking chair just in case. Grannie had passed on years before, but the stick remained in the corner.

   There was one thing I knew for sure. I wasn't waiting there on my own, and my sisters would be asleep. My mother could deal with anything. I wasn't letting her out of my sight right then.

   Not surprisingly, I had left the verandah door open as I raced inside to find a saviour. Mum walked in front clutching the stick, went smartly through the door and snapped on the verandah light.

   'There's your monster,' she said. Her faint but sympathetic laughter was tinged with relief. There was indeed something tall and light coloured now looming right above where I had been lying.

   You see, there was a single washing line that ran from the centre of the southern end of the verandah to the northern end. It was a strong steel plastic coated cable with a turnbuckle at one end, so it could be made nice and tight, and was used to dry off essential items in inclement weather. What had happened was that Mum had put her dressing gown on a hanger on the line at the southern end, just hanging and not pegged down, and the approaching storm with its breaths of warm air gradually pushed the garment on the hanger along the line up the verandah, right to where I was supposed to be sleeping.

   I told Mum about Terror Island, and the ape-men, one of which or whom had so nearly carried me off.

   'Do you want me to get rid of the book?' she asked, knowing well how my vivid imagination worked.

   'NO!' I responded quickly. 'I want to know what happened.'

   The storm was passing over and I wouldn't be sleeping for a while anyway.

   'I want to finish it now.'

   'You better wait till daytime,' she said.

   It was a good plan. Things never look the same in the bright light of day, and I wasn't sure how the story would end.

   As it tuned out, they solved the problem of the ape-men in the usual post-Victorian way. The remaining scientists wiped them out; I don't remember how, to be truthful, but it's a time-honoured tradition in the old colonial and post-colonial world when dealing with what you don't understand. No meme in the storyline about one group of anthropologists who wanted them kept alive and the others who didn't. Even scientists dealing with what was obviously a unique and amazing species didn't stand for that nonsense in them days. Stuff 'em and put 'em in a museum. That's the safest way.

   At the time, I'm pretty sure I would have agreed. So would you if one was stalking you.

   Oh yes you would. You're all bravado and righteous indignation right now, but just wait till it happens to you!

pt 1 | pt 2 | pt 3 <<you are here | pt 4 |more stories from my past | home

Saturday, April 23, 2011

More Calliope tales (pt 2): Sunny Hills lights

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So, we got electricity on the virgin territory of Sunny Hills. Oh, the paperwork! Did you know that the State Electricity Commission had to buy each bit of the ground where they put the poles - an area each the size of a sunhat?


   It's not as silly as it sounds. If they purchased the land then they had legal right of access to it, which meant they could come across our land at any time, cutting fences if necessary to deal with a problem concerning that pole or the wires it carried. 

   We duly got a cheque in the mail for the sale of these hat-sized bits of land. It was for one shilling. We laughed about it, and showed it to neighbours.  

   No, we never cashed it, even though you would have got a good meat pie for a shilling. These days it would have gone straight to the poolroom, framed neatly above the cue rack. But there was no poolroom at Sunny Hills, nor ever likely to be one.

   At a painfully slow rate of progress, the long hardwood poles were embedded deep in the ground. An electrician was called in from Gladstone to wire the house. As there was no cavity in the walls, silvery-grey steel clips were simply hammered where required on to the face of the wall, and the black electric cable clamped by those down to the switch and across the ceiling (where ceilings existed in our house, and that wasn't everwhere.)

   It was about as elegant as wiring for a decrepit garden shed, but it was strong and safe, no doubt about that. The light switches were each mounted on a bevelled wooden square; big bakelite black switches they were, and it required some effort to turn them on and off.

   Probably no more than three power points were wired into the system for the whole house at that time, as there were so few appliances, and most of those we had, such as the fridge, were so fixed that they were directly wired in on a heavier circuit. In the bedroom? Why? What use could a power point possibly be in a bedroom?

   And nothing sissy like power boards; they hadn't been invented yet, as far as we knew. We had no use for them. What? Electric shavers? Hair dryers? Why would anyone need those? Do you imagine the cows cared whether the hair was curled or not? In any case, Elvie permed Mum's hair with clips and little paper bits and strange smelling chemicals, and Mum did hers. It was a great chance for them to catch up on things. Waste of money, hair dryers. No extension cords even. What the blazes do you think would be plugged into them? Vacuum cleaner? Get real. That wasn't how housework was done on a farm.

   A huge 240 watt street lamp had been wired in under the house, our house being on stilts like any respectable Queensland dwelling, so you had an underneath space the size of the house three metres high to store things, where kids could play 'beamy' in wet weather and where you might get relief from the heat on a summer afternoon. (And, of course, to hold concerts, like this one I've already written about.)

   Anyway, the wiring was done and we played with the switches, and waited for the glorious moment that flicking on the switch would actually produce the magic of light. We cared not about appliances; just the light. In a dimly lit house where homework was done under the kero lamp and you got buzzed constantly by moths and Christmas beetles, the luxury of brilliant light was what we coveted above all else. Romantic it wasn't, but it saved carrying a kero lamp or candles to the bedroom. AND less chance or burning the house down.

   It finally happened, as things do. The extortionate guarantee that we'd use enough power per quarter to light up the entire city of Brisbane was paid.

   It was ON.

   I came home from school, rushed halfway down the back stairs where the switch was, and TURNED ON the huge bulb under the house. LIGHT! Even in broad daylight it lit up the bench below it where the guns and tools were kept. I turned the switch to OFF. NO LIGHT! I switched it on and off quickly a dozen times until I got scolded because the light might blow.

   (In fact, that 240-watt bulb NEVER blew in all the years we lived there, during the countless times it was turned on to guide someone home at night across the gully and up the hill. Never.)

   It was magic. We swooned. Citysville, eat your heart out. We had power. But I'm not going to tell you the other things we did under the spell of novelty of electric lighting, or you'll start to think we were unsophisticated in such matters.

   AND I had a switch and a light out on the verandah where I slept. I could read till late and not go blind, as we were always warned we would if reading for hours by the dim yellow light of the kero lamp.

   My bed on the verandah was up at the closed-in end and the switch was way down near the door to go inside the house. This had the advantage that I could switch on the light over the bed from near the door when I first came out there in the dark.

   The disadvantage was that I had to get out of my snug, safe bed when I had finished reading, go right down to the internal door, turn off the light and find my way back to bed in the dark.

   I wasn't fond of the dark, as a kid, on that verandah. It could be a bit creepy, and the dark on a moonless night was... well... very dark!

   Oh - that reminds me of another story directly related to all this - a terrifying one that will have you on the edge of your ergonomic office chair - but I better finish this one first.

   Being a resourceful child, I hammered a few nails into the wall from above the light switch and along to the top end of my bed on the verandah. I performed this delicate operation while Mum and Dad were milking, as the project might have been vetoed by a parent had they known I was belting three inch nails into the wall, and the points of the nails were coming out the other side - which happened to be in their bedroom.

   Then, I looped a piece of twine around the light switch and ran the rest of the cord across the nails back to the place where, lying in my bed, I could reach out, give the twine a strong tug, and it would turn the switch off. 

   It worked a treat. Aesthetically, it was a disaster, but I think Mum was so impressed by the ingenuity that she allowed me to keep it, on the condition that I filed off the sharp points of the nails sticking out in their bedroom. 

   I thought that she might some time in the future regret making me do that, as one or two might have been, fortuitously, in a good position to hang a picture or something in their bedroom. However, I decided against attracting any more attention to the nail holes by emphasizing the many potential advantages of the status quo. I just filed them off and shut up.

   Now, that terrifying story. Oh, leave 'em hanging on.... Scheherazade had the right idea. Just wait. You've had your quota for now and so have I.



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Friday, April 22, 2011

More Calliope tales (pt 1): electrifying events

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 .
In a tiny country town in central Queensland in the 1950s and 60s, there are a million stories to tell. In fact, there are stories everywhere in the world. They just need a narrator and an audience interested enough to want to hear or read them. Come, come along with me - I want to tell you another little one, apart from all those others I've already told; a tale that leads on seamlessly to yet more yarns.

   All in good time - hold your horses! I  can only write so much in a couple of hours, you know.

   Calliope in the early 50s could have been set in the 1930s rather than the 1950s, and that applied particularly to our farm, Sunny Hills.

   Sunny Hills. We kids named it that. You'd never have guessed we'd come up with something quite so sophisticated as a title, would you, but it was a perfect match for our place, and the name stuck. The hills were definitely sunny. No-one could argue with that. Often they were way too sunny, in drought times, but we thought sunny and grassy and tree dotted, not the bad bits. Life for us kids was good. Think Hobbitsville from LOTR. That was us, right down to a few Bilbo Bagginses.

"Sunny Hills"
The eastern boundary ran along that farthest hill in the distance
   There were things we didn't have early in the 50s so fundamental to existence now that life must be next to unimaginable without them. Chief amongst these was electricity. In spite of the fact that we were sitting on billions of years and millions of tons of coal just up the Boyne Valley, no-one had thought to build a power station close enough to Calliope to light up our life.

   But progress happens. The day came when the township was fully wired and ready to go. Ice-chests would give way to fridges. Custard and jelly, which could be kept alive in a Coolgardie safe, would yield to freezer-based ice-cream, home-made. Wood stoves would be hurled out of kitchens and replaced by electric ones. Flat-irons on the woodstoves for electric irons; some whoo-hoo steam and dry models! Electric mantle radios would see off the last of the car-battery-driven console wirelesses you could hear from 50 metres away. Eventually, TV would come, but it would take several more years. I guess you shouldn't have too much of a good thing all at once.

   Everyone would receive electricity bills for the first time in their lives. No-one enjoyed that bit.

   There was a ceremony in the centre of town to mark the Turning On of the Lights. Oh, go on, snigger all you want at our formerly primitive existence - this was HUGE for Calliope. We all put on good clothes one evening and went down to the Diggers Arms Hall where lights had been strung across to the Diggers Arms Hotel. Nowhere else could have been more central to our social existence than that spot, for reasons I've described in wondrous detail elsewhere.

   The Shire Council President made a speech about Progress that he deliberately extended in order to increase the dramatic tension, to ensure the evening would be dark enough, and guarantee that people would appreciate to the fullest the role of the Council in bringing real artificial light to our starlit evenings. The switch was thrown and we clapped in glee as the lights all came on simultaneously, not one of them missing their cue.

   We could now start to catch up with Gladstone, which had several neon signs. Some of them flashed on and off.

   But for us at dear old Sunny Hills, there was an ache deep in our hearts. Should I wait till next time I get round to writing to tell you what it is?

   No, that would be too cruel. You'll die of curiosity or go off in a huff, so I'll tell you.

   Electricity would be denied to us on our kero-lamp property for more than a year. Why? Because we were the End of the Line. For us to be electrified, several new poles would be needed to straddle our property. A swathe of tree cutting would be required to create a clear pathway for the electric wires.

   A large amount of money would be demanded to get those wires across the gully to our house from the former end of the line at Aunty Anne's. The booster transformer there would need upgrading. Legal requirements had to be met. We would have to guarantee to use a minimum amount of electric power for the next 500 years or so. Well, maybe not quite that long.
Sunny Hills in relation to modern day Calliope. Our house is indicated.
The End of the Electricity Line in 1955! Thanks, Google Maps.

   But it would all cost money - thousands of pounds. We found it somehow, eventually.




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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Do YOU have a brain tumour?

Yes, you. The last thing you want to think about or know? Oooo-er.... maybe I don’t want to read this, you say. I might give this a miss.

   Don’t.

   Statistically, the chances that you do have a brain tumour are small, so don’t get too agitated. Small, yes, insignificant, no. The stats do show that brain tumour detection is increasing in our society, right across the age spectrum. I hate to say this, but children are getting them too, at an increasing rate.

   It just may be that some of the things I say here might strike a chord with you, and save your life - or if not your life, that of someone close to you, so it’s worth thinking about. If there is a problem, the earlier you know about it, the better chance you have to fight it.

   Just this morning, I was woken by a fairly strong tremor in my right arm. This wasn’t a seizure, just a tremor. It was painless (as they always are), but odd-feeling, just as everyone gets once in a while when they’ve overdone some exercise, or sat in one position too long, or for no apparent reason at all.

   It wasn’t the first time it’s happened to me lately, but it reminded me of something that meant little to me at the time, and looms rather larger now. I’m talking about early signals that mischief is brewing for you.

   The first real indication that something might be amiss for me came not from anything I was aware of, but from Tracey’s observations. Sometimes in the night, she would be woken by a tremor or vibration in my right leg. As she put it, rather unattractively but accurately, it was a bit like you see when a dog is sleeping and having a dream, and its leg starts to kick.

   It could go on for some time – minutes, and started to increase in strength and frequency as well. That was months before I got that first violent seizure in the right arm while pruning the hedge that told me I was in trouble.

   It never occurred to me when Tracey mentioned these leg tremors that this might be a sign of irregular brain activity. And even if it had, I doubt I would have thought it could be life threatening.

   Even before that, maybe a year or more earlier, I had a permanent sensation that the surface or skin across the whole band of muscle across the top of my right leg felt numb. It never interfered with sport, or walking or anything like that as far as I am aware; just that it was like it had been coated with anaesthetic.

   I still have it, though the sensation is much milder since what could be removed of the tumour was destroyed 17 months ago. This change of feeling in those muscles might have absolutely nothing to do with my present condition; I’m just throwing it out there.

   Since the first treatment of Avastin last September, we’ve had good control over the seizures that have done so much damage to motor skills down my right side. My fears always were that exercise set off seizures, because so often I had done some form of exercise just before a seizure happened.

   So potent was this fear for much of last year that I allowed the strength of the muscles on that side of my body to deteriorate, to the point where the right arm and hand became worse than useless – they were a hindrance. Though the oncologist doesn’t think there’s any relationship between physical activity and seizures, I still do, but the difference is that the seizures are pretty much under control now, when they weren’t before the use of Avastin. Now I can exercise strongly with only minor fear of precipitating a seizure.

   Why I mention this here and now is that with the exercise I have been doing to restore the arm’s usefulness, the tremors may actually be due to the fact that I have regained the strength to have the tremor in the arm. You don’t get tremors in a paralysed limb.

   You’d think that the tremors I’m now experiencing might be because of increase tumour activity recently, rather than this more innocent explanation. Either or both might be true. Maybe neither, but from my experience I don’t think you can discount one or the other.

   The thing is, everyone is so different. The moment you start making brain tumour rules, they tend to fall apart. Something happens to defy them and you have to think again.

   The only reason I got these sorts of warnings that something was going awry was that the tumour was located in the left motor centre of my brain. If it had been elsewhere, the indicators would have been different. Somewhere else may have given earlier warning, or much later, when the tumour was out of control already.

Indications

   The early indicators are often benign. Painless. That’s the case with a lot of different types of cancers in the early stages, and that’s both a curse and a blessing. A curse for detection, a blessing that there’s no immediate pain. With brain cancers, the added difficulty in detection is that the brain doesn’t have pain receptors in the way other parts of our bodies do. Were it not for the fact that the cranium has to be opened to perform brain operations, you could probably have brain surgery while conscious and not feel a thing.

   I feel a bit queasy about that!

   We only get the warning that something is amiss when other factors come into play. If, e.g., the tumour starts doing damage in the cranium then there will be inflammation, and pain and/or seizures may develop.

   In other words, it’s the secondary symptoms that often give us the clue, not something primary. If you get something out of the ordinary starting to happen to you or a member of your family, anywhere in the body, think about it and get it checked out if possible. Your GP is the starting point. Document these odd events by time and date and symptoms. At some stage, this recording of symptoms over time might prove to be crucial to the survival of the person affected.

   Just don’t ignore it (he said, believing at the time that, as he had had no real medical problems in over six decades, such signals meant nothing worth worrying about!)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Dhaka: Diary of Conflict 1996 (FINAL)

For earlier parts of this diary, view here
March 22, 1996 4:30 PM
Dust!

No matter how many times I’ve been here, Bangladesh continues to amaze me. I can hardly believe what happened today. After lunch, I lay down, as everyone does, for an afternoon nap (a great institution!) and when I awoke it was dark.

I couldn't believe that I had slept that long, so checked my watch and found it was only 4.00 pm. When I looked at the sky, it was pitch black - very heavy clouds. It was oppressively hot, of course. Then there was a little thunder and lightning, and a huge wind blew up. I thought it was a great sheet of rain coming, but discovered (about a minute too late) that it was the thickest graniest dust you could ever see, rolling in across the city. Unbelievable! But then there has been no rain here for many months. So I battened down the hatches as quickly as possible (but not before the dust came in everywhere) and waited for it to blow over. Luckily, the electricity was still on that that time.

Rain!

Then the rain started - great drops that stirred up the dust even more, until it fell in sheets and brought all the dirt down to the ground. The power went off, of course, and I am typing this by candlelight, for although I have thrown open every window to drive out the hot air from the room and replace it with cool from outside, it is still very dark.

The muezzin calls, as he must, and the crows are in crow's heaven, fluffing their feathers as rivulets of rain pour off the cement roofs and patios through the drains, and create a personal shower for every crow. You can almost see them reaching for the shampoo. Or maybe it's the underarm deodorant, which they surely need after picking the innards out of a dead rat - their staple diet as far as fresh meat is concerned.

All the keys of the computer are dusty now, and I'll have to try to give it a cleanout when the lights come back on.

Tomorrow will be a bright clear day (I hope!) - given that the rains will have laid the dust of several months and that there are still only a few vehicles running. And it will be cooler, I'm sure.

Yuk! Everything is grainy to the touch.

But I have for the first time in years in Dhaka experienced the coming of the rains. If you wonder what the fuss is about, they don't ever expect any rain at all round these parts for a while longer. Unless it's a cyclone. When I saw the wind in the date palms, I thought of hurricanes. They do get them at this time of the year - I'd forgotten!

I won't wax so eloquent about it if I have to make a run for the airport by rickshaw in pouring rain.... (But if it is, then maybe we can use the car or auto-rickshaw, because Bangladeshis, even cocktail-throwers, don't like getting wet.) But this sort of storm tends to be sharp , heavy and quickly over.

The sun is out again now, and the air is cool and sweet. Enjoy it, Bangladesh, because it may be a long time before you have the same experience, without the regular air pollution.

Tejgaon fire

As a postscript to the bit I was writing about the shantytown at Tejgaon, the whole thing went up in smoke late last night - the second such incident in 24 hours. My friend the reporter from the Daily Star had to cover it, and he said it was pretty scary, because there was huge confusion and electric wires everywhere - and then the power was cut completely to stop more people being electrocuted, and they were in absolute pitch blackness except for the fires themselves. It could have been started by accident, which is the most likely explanation, but of course if the contractors want the squatters out, it's marvellous what a bit of well timed and directed petrol can do.

(As far as electricity is concerned, what people do in the bustees is simply locate a power wire somewhere and start attaching electric cable. Free power, if you don't kill yourself. That's why we have so many blackouts, because half the city is wired into the grid illegally.)

Tidying up

I went over and did my last bit of writing of emails at the Daily Star office. Debapriya has returned from Japan and has some scheme to get me to the airport. I don't doubt that he will. He is one of the most resourceful men in Dhaka.

Ah! that breeze is so fresh! (The lights are flicking on and off every second - must be marvellous for electronic equipment. I'm using this under its own power, so no problem.)

A moth! A little white moth just flew onto my shirt. The first one I have seen in Bangladesh. The gecko will be pleased.

The maid just brought some tea. The water tastes awful - worse than Armidale when the blue-green algae is on.... (I hate to think what the rain has stirred up!) And not an hour since the end of the rain, and a big demonstration has just gone by, with lots of waving and chanting. The police are leading it, so it must be a government one. Looks like back to bombing and shooting tonight.

Back to politics

Incidentally, the army has been keeping a low profile - very little evidence of it on the streets, and I notice that those who are, are armed only with ancient bolt action rifles like the 303s we sometimes used on the farm. If this is what they are taking into battle against the goons at night in the suburbs, then they are going to find things tough and scary.

Don't bother reading the part below if you aren't interested in Bangladesh politics in 1996.

=============

The political situation is this. The government has been sworn in, thus giving it constitutional validity, in spite of the fact that the opposition parties refuse to accept the validity of the election result. Therefore, the government is legal on paper, but morally unacceptable probably to the majority of the people BUT what they want most of all right now is to get back to work before the economy collapses and before people at the bottom end of the system starve to death.

Because it has now legal status, (i.e., it was sworn in by the president) the government went ahead with fulfilling the major opposition demands for a neutral caretaker government to take office before the next elections. But if the Opposition accepts this, then it will also have to accept the validity of the present government and the recent elections, which it will not do, because it allows the government to go on legitimately, and if the government chooses, it may at a later date decide to postpone the promised elections.

That's the trap the government has laid for the Opposition, and they're not buying it. In that sense, the government is one step ahead of its opponents right now, because it has constitutional authority for what it is doing, and gives the opposition no choice but to accept its validity or to reject everything that has happened since the election.

The Opposition says that it is an illegal government because the elections were not held in accordance with the constitution. Thus anything the government does is illegal, even the mechanism to hold the fresh elections. The only choice for the Opposition is to continue to maintain the hartal, or at least to continue to deny the validity of the present government. This means that they regard themselves as morally right in taking whatever action they believe is necessary to bring down the government. Since they do not regard it as a legal government, they may decide to set up an alternative government, or start armed action against it. This would inevitably bring it into a collision course with the army, unless the army splits along party lines, which I don't think it will do.

International opinion is against the government, for good reasons - even Australia boycotted the opening of the parliament. But at the same time, the US assessment is probably that they will accept the legitimacy of the present BNP government, because they have never liked the Awami League and have constantly tried to bring it down in the past. No-one believes that the Awami League would be any better than the government in electoral politics, but the minorities and the secularists or socialists believe that the Awami League is their best ally in a world where the rich and the powerful can do whatever they like.

So there is no going forward without force being used by the government to maintain its control. And there is now no going back, because the government has been installed. It's an absolute bloody mess!

============

March 23, 1996 8:48 AM

Leaving town

I leave tomorrow, if all goes to plan. Last night was completely free of bombs and gunfire, or at least, I didn't hear any. I hope that augurs well for my departure. It is clear and sunny now and will probably be the most pleasant morning - weatherwise at least - that Dhaka residents will have enjoyed for a long time. The mango leaves are shiny and the small mangoes are swelling.

Exemptions have been made to the hartal, though they won't help me. Auto-rickshaws can now run after 4.00 pm. They will really hit the streets tonight. It's been a drought for them. Most people who are getting killed on the streets are now being run over by tempos and trucks and buses escaping from people with bombs in their hands.

I make one last half-hearted attempt to contact Mahbub and Tahsinah – a poor attempt because I am now convinced that they must be elsewhere and not in Dhaka. The number I have, when it rings, is answered only in Bengali, and I quickly reach the limit of mine. They are going to be upset with me if they are actually here, but these are unusual times. I am sad too. I could have no better friends.

Otherwise, nothing to report.

March 24, 1996 9:55 AM

Getting to the  airport

I have packed and hopefully will leave in about an hour. I don't know exactly what Deb's plan is, but we'll see. I suspect it is to get the rickshaw to Mohakhali and a baby taxi from there. Could be interesting....

Although last night seemed quieter (apart from a long cat-fight!) there was a lot of bombing going on in town last night - lots of people hurt in 7 major bombings, but I didn't hear any of them. But then I don't always hear the muezzin calling either, at 5.30 am, though it makes a great racket.

I think I made a slight miscalculation. I gave the maid who's done most of the work some money as a farewell gift. She must have skited to all the others, because within 15 minutes I had my floor mopped over, bathroom cleaned, bed done - by a few part-timers here who normally haven't been the lightest bit interested in me - all looking hopefully at me expecting manna to fall from heaven. Well, it won't, because as usual, I have no small bills that I could give them, and it would be a grevious insult to the maid to give the floor cleaner the same amount as she got - and I gave it to her because the maid didn't ask for it and didn't expect it. I say "Ami Bangla jani na" and look particularly stupid. Eventually they go away, deeply disappointed in my apparent inability to understand that they have an immediate use for any taka I want to dispense with.

After all this time I can’t properly work out the protocols and diplomacy involved in dealing with servants.

March 25, 1996 2:20 PM

A hectic journey

High on the ninth floor of the Allson Hotel, overlooking the smart city of Singapore. And I have had... cheese on crackers! coffee! grapes! what luxury! And you can give people money and they have change to give you back. Is this not sophistication?

But let's conclude the Bangladesh chapter, which was pretty climactic. Deb arrived at about 11.00 am, and waited for his driver and another employee to come. The game plan was that we would take two rickshaws, one with my big case and a littler Bangladeshi than I, and the other with me and a second guard, and then to change from rickshaw to auto at Moakhali.

Change of plans

But the two others came over by autorickshaw and declared that it was safe enough to make a run for the airport direct from Wari in the autorickshaw. It’s a long way under present circumstances.

It was a risk but worth taking, because we could stick one man riding shotgun with the driver, me on the kerb side because most attacks come from the middle of the road rather than the left, and the suitcase etc in the middle, while the strongest and most experienced of my bodyguards was on the right at the back. Then off we went for the airport. The trick is for the auto-rickshaw driver not to make any mistakes (like running over people or hitting a rickshaw), to drive fast but without too many risks (if he runs over someone then we are in deep shaving cream) and for the lookouts to watch for any odd movement in the crowd that would signify someone running toward our vehicle, and to look out for any trouble up ahead that will trap us in a crowd.

A hitch

All goes well till we get to Moakhali crossing, which is the railway where everyone has to stop. This is where most attacks on baby taxis and tempos occur. We cross without trouble and head onward. There is an open road ahead of us, but the driver slows to a crawl. I don't understand this till I look ahead and see that there is a crowd blocking the road. The driver is now very anxious and hisses orders to the lookouts. This sort of situation is just what he doesn’t want. His vehicle and his life are on the line.

A tempo has for some reason run into the embankment, at an army bunker. This gives it some protection from torching, but we are the only other autorickshaw around, which makes us extra vulnerable.

We can't proceed or we'll have to stop at the accident. So the driver does a U-turn - on a divided road, this means running back against the traffic, not that that is any novelty for Bangladeshis - in fact, if you are at a roundabout and your exit is at 270 degrees, you simply go against the traffic for 90 degrees instead.

Safely there

Anyway, we got through that part and back onto the right side of the road eventually, but we had to go back over the crossing and through a new bottleneck at a different spot so we could get to the airport from another direction, and we made it, finally, with no trouble. The pace was pretty crazy, though, and the only thing that concerned me was that we might have an accident. Mind you, I had two tough troubleshooters with me - the best that Deb could provide.

I am sure this sounds like an overdramatisation. It must. But like Russian roulette, there is absolutely no danger if you pull the trigger on the five empty chambers out of six. The chances of being one of the seven or eight daily in Dhaka that get bombed with lethal results are low. Having seen the photos of burn victims from cocktail bombings, no ratio is small enough for comfort. I can tell you, it concentrates the mind wonderfully as you fly through the streets, scanning every face for a sign that they have a weapon, or looking far enough ahead so that if a gang is shooting it out with another, you aren't the one that gets hit in the crossfire.

Most of the chances of being hurt are as an innocent bystander.

Anyway, I have three hours to kill at Zia international airport. I fend off requests from a smartly dressed employee of the duty free area to buy some whiskey on his behalf with money provided by him in order to take it into town and sell it for five times (at least) the duty free value. I talk to an American woman who had been teaching English at the American school in trendy Gulshan (a posh suburb of Dhaka) for three years and had never been to the real Dhaka (what blackouts? what fighting? what problems?) What planet are you on, lady? Don’t you read the local papers?

I don’t ask but I know she doesn’t.

We finally get aboard the airbus half an hour late that started from Kathmandu, Nepal, full of miserable, exhausted looking young Himalayan trekkers from the US, and headed for Singapore.

Wouldn't have missed the experience of living in Wari for the world. Great place to visit, especially during a massive political crisis - but for outsiders, it would take quite some time to adapt.

FOOTNOTE: reading back through this and having been to Dhaka since, it still seems way too melodramatic. After all, what happened to me? Nothing bad. But things were different then. Very different to before or after, except when the liberation war was on, and when Sheikh Mujib was assassinated along with much of his family except for his daughter, the current Prime Minister. And when Zia was assassinated and his (putative) killers put on trial, and when Ershad (still in Bangladesh parliament!) came to power, and when he was overthrown by popular rebellion twenty years ago....

Politics, you see, can be very lively – and deadly – in Bangladesh; not to mention India and Pakistan.

Denis Wright and Sheikk Hasina
(current Bangladesh PM) Dhaka 1989
One last point on this: I am fairly certain that I am the only Australian (perhaps the only foreigner) to have met and interviewed every leader (President or Prime Minister) of Bangladesh in its entire history – now forty years - with one exception. I never met Ershad, and after what happened in 1989 when I was there, I don’t want to, even now.

Bangladesh is unique in world politics to have been ruled for the last twenty years by either of two women – Sheikh Hasina and Khalida Zia.

There’s so much more I could write on Bangladesh, but that’s not going to happen. The world has changed. Bangladesh has changed. What hasn’t changed is the number of great friendships I have had over forty years with Bangladeshi friends.

That will never change. You know who you are!