Spare the Rod

I watched a TV series recently that triggered some less than happy memories for me. The television drama was set in a post-war English village and the particular scene, a young boy and his teacher in a classroom drama. Growing up in the 50s and 60s, the incident shown reflected my own school experience.

At six years old, I had just started to learn ‘joined-up’ handwriting along with my class. I was progressing well when a change of teacher brought my development to a sudden and violent stop. It would have an impact on my entire education. Picture, if you will, a small boy intent on forming his letters on the lines of an exercise book, when he suddenly feels a sharp pain, accompanied by a loud crack. Startled, he looks up to see his teacher holding a twelve-inch ruler, the same one she has just used to crack across his little knuckles. Unable to understand his crime, the six-year-old fights tears in an attempt to be brave, but it’s an incident that will stay with him for life.

That was to be my first taste of physical punishment and it came because I was left-handed. It was quite common practice in those years to force children to use their right hands, even when they were natural lefties like me. It certainly wasn’t the last time I felt the ruler on my knuckles and I did not respond well to the campaign to change me. Persisting to fall back on my left hand, the fight became a battle of wills. My general schoolwork suffered as a result. In time, I knew what to expect and when the ruler fell, I was ready and braced for impact. As time went on, my resistance was interpreted as deliberate rebellion. I was a troublemaker and other teachers picked up on the label. I was expected to be a disturbance in class, even before a teacher had a chance to know me. As I moved through the years, the ruler became a cane and my school life became a battle to the very end when I was expelled, age fourteen.

It’s hard enough to imagine how an adult could use a ruler on a child, but that a full-grown man could take a metre-long piece of bamboo and use his full force to beat a child is now beyond belief. Before I was ten years old, I had become a regular victim of corporal punishment. The headmaster of my primary school had an umbrella stand with a variety of canes of different thickness. The worst were the thin ones that whipped through the air with a loud woosh before finding their mark. Welts would last for days, followed by bruising. I never told my parents when beaten. It just wasn’t done back then. It didn’t take long before I rose to my teacher’s expectations and gladly gave good reason for punishment. If they wanted trouble, I was, by then, happy to oblige. As I grew older, the canings were directed at hands rather than buttocks. I often wonder if the arthritis I now feel in mine is the result of the regular beatings. All these thrashings did little to change my ways, at least not in a good way. Trouble followed me always and I took pride in being able to take my punishment without giving the satisfaction of signs of pain.

I know I’m not alone in these experiences, and there are many of my generation who will say that it did them no harm. Some even say it’s what’s missing in schools and would be glad to see it returned. ‘It did me good.’ I’ve heard some say, looking back. Did it do me any good? I think it probably made me stronger as a result. A little headstrong maybe, willing to take risks because I never feared the consequences. After being expelled from high-school I spent a lifetime playing catch-up on my education. I certainly don’t see myself as a victim of my school years, but I’m sure that it shaped my life in ways I could do without and made things harder. And I could easily have continued on a path to destruction. But I’m thankful that after leaving school I had people around me that influenced me in positive ways. None more so than my wife, my family and friends, others that came along and showed me the way. These are the angels that guided me.

My wife, family and friends; these are the angels that guided me

Did the beatings work at all? Well, they did eventually succeed in making me right-handed, but even to this day I have a phobia about writing with pen or pencil. My awful script is an embarrassment and I develop an instant case of dyslexia if I have to write when someone is standing over me or looking on. In fact, any handwriting causes me to feel panic and a sense of dread. In other ways it set me back years, causing me to rebel in the first place. But in the end, I did come good, a responsible adult and productive member of society (I hope). Who do I have to thank for that? Well, I believe it was Mum and Dad, not my teachers, that taught me right from wrong. The strong influence they instilled in me, ultimately brought me back on track. As I write this blog, I’m thankful to them for their love, to word processors, and that I don’t have to write this in pencil.

Lost!

I had a dream last night. I was at an airport searching for my luggage and every case on the carousel looked identical. I frantically pulled each one from the conveyor belt and checked the label for mine, but they were all labelled in Arabic script. The dream probably came about after seeing news reports about the disasters being experienced across the world as a result of the post Covid dash for travel. I can really sympathise with travellers as flights are cancelled and luggage lost, not to mention the long, long queues at airports and below par service that’s being provided. As airlines and customers come to grips with a return to business, not everything is going to plan.

After a lifetime of travel for work and leisure, I dream a lot about planes, airports, hotels and cities. I’m usually lost in a labyrinth of hotel hallways or wandering up blind alleys looking for a way to the airport.  It’s not the first time I’ve dreamt about luggage either, and it usually ends just before the strip search at the hands of a belligerent customs officer. Thankfully that never happened in real life, but lost baggage was certainly a constant hazard of my travels. Most times I had my luggage back and delivered to my hotel within hours, but there were a few bags that never returned from the lost luggage black hole that it went down.

I recall one instance when I arrived for an important meeting in Bologna. I was to meet the directors of a large company with a view to a new business partnership. The airport was busy with excited passengers, anxious to get to their final destinations. There’s nothing worse than standing at the luggage carousel and watching others grab their bags and haul them from the conveyor, the crowd of passengers dwindling down to nothing as the last bags are taken from the belt. You can’t help thinking that the last passenger to leave the hall with their bags intact had a little giggle and a smirk as they left you standing alone, still waiting. Occasionally there’s one piece of luggage going around and around with no one to claim it, but it’s not yours and all hopes are in tatters. On this occasion, I eventually conceded defeat and registered my claim at the lost luggage office.

Unfortunately, as it always seems to be with catastrophes, it happened to be the weekend – Sunday to be exact – and Sunday in Italy is still very much a rest day for everyone. So, as you might guess, finding a shop to buy emergency clothing proved to be an impossible task. With no other option available, I prayed that by morning I would have my suitcase and hoped I could still look my best for an introduction to what I hoped would be a long and fruitful association.

I stunk like an old dog blanket

Monday morning came and with it no sign of the luggage. With my meeting scheduled for 9am, I still had time to rush out and buy some suitable attire. Not so. Everywhere I went, the signs read: Chiuso! aperto alle dieci. 10am opening. This was a disaster. I’d spent 36 hours travelling from Sydney to Rome and then on to Bologna. My tee-shirt looked like old rags, jeans had red wine stains and I’d already turned my undies and socks inside out as a refresher. And, though I’d been able to shower, it seemed to me that I still stunk like an old dog blanket.

After a frantic search, I came across a sports shop where I begged the arriving owner to open up early and help save my trip. The clock was against me, but after some quick selections I was able to don fresh clothes and head swiftly for my negotiations. I wasn’t sure what was said exactly but the interpreter who had been called in to facilitate the meeting was able to explain to the immaculately dressed Italians in their Brunello Cucinelli, Giorgio Armani and other finely tailored Milanese fashions, why I’d shown up in track pants and a bright new Nike tee-shirt that read: BIRTH-SOCCER-DEATH across the chest. (I couldn’t resist it.) At least I had clean undies and my new collegues had a good laugh.

Lost bags aren’t the only luggage disasters in my catalogue of travel adventures. My wife and I were in Osaka when calamity struck. We had arrived in the city after driving a rental car from the north of Japan (an adventure for another blog) and had dropped the car off at the train station from where we would take the train across the city to our hotel. Unfortunately, we had arrived just in time for rush hour. Anyone who’s taken a train in a Japanese city at rush hour knows that it’s not for the faint hearted.

We’d boarded the packed train and were taking deep breaths so as not to panic over the crush, when our largest suitcase, packed to bursting, did exactly that; it burst completely. The zipper decided to let go under force, like a Jack-in-the-box, shooting the contents of our case into the air and spilling it around the feet of bemused commuters who tried to dodge the fallout. We tried to appear unfazed, in that embarrassed sort of nonchalant way in which we English tend to act when disaster strikes. Don’t panic!

Remaining calm and composed, we gathered our belongings from the floor, even as they became tangled under foot in the stampede for the exit. “Sumimasen! Excuse me, sir, you’re standing on my knickers.” Now, while Japanese people are wonderfully polite and accommodating folk, they tend to be more single-minded during rush hour in the city. No one felt obliged to come to our aid as we scrambled for our things, and when the doors opened, we were lucky to get out in one piece. To this day, I’m sure I saw some guy getting off the train carrying a briefcase and wearing Christine’s nightie.  

Sumimasen! Excuse me, sir, you’re standing on my knickers

After millions of kilometres (yep, 2.4 million by my calculation) of travel since leaving England in 1982, it’s no wonder I dream about it. There’ve been a few nightmares, but all in all I’ll take them along with the wonderful experiences. May there be many more dreams to come, but I might wait a little longer until they sort out the luggage problems.

May there be more dreams to come

A Matter of Choice

I remember someone telling me, “You always have a choice.” I’m sure it was probably after I’d done something wrong and had made an unwise decision that had gotten me into trouble, and it was probably my mum who said it. It’s true to some degree. We’re faced with choices every minute of every day from the moment we wake. Get out of bed or sleep a little longer, skip breakfast or bacon and eggs, pancakes perhaps? Bus or take the train? And so it goes throughout the day. Some psychologists estimate that the average adult makes upwards of 35,000 conscious choices per day.

Photo by Edward Lich

Some decisions are easier than others and some are so important that they’re life-changing. Decisions are usually behind those sliding door moments when our lives take a turn that we didn’t envision, like deciding to take a lunch break at the exact time a leggy blonde passes the door to the shop in which we work, saying hello and asking her out on a date. The choices we make can have consequences throughout our lives; they accumulate so that the impact has a knock-on effect, causing further decisions to be made as a result. They inevitably affect others and their choices. Sometimes we don’t even realise that we’ve made a monumental choice until later, and the next thing we know is we’re standing in front of the registrar with that same leggy blonde saying, “I do.” (50 years on and it’s still the best decision of my life)

Photo by Michael Bußmann

We weren’t always faced with such a vast number of decisions each day. Life in medieval times would certainly have been far simpler when it came to choices. I can imagine a Monty Python like scene: “What will we eat today, dear? How about oats? Or should we live dangerously and have some turnip broth? And what shall I wear to the pillaging, sheepskin or sackcloth? I think the sackcloth makes me look slimmer, don’t you?” Perhaps a return to simple would be easier on our anxiety levels, though our dress sense may suffer. Just choosing a coffee now comes with a certain degree of mental gymnastics. Flat white, latte, short black, mocha, cappuccino, skimmed or full-cream, sugar, sweetener or a sprinkling of cocoa? And would you like a donut with your coffee? Krispy Kreme has 25 varieties to choose from. It’s easy to see how decisions become so overwhelming because of the sheer number of choices we face during our modern daily routines. 

Photo by Nico Bhlr

So, what happens when we can’t choose, when the choices we face are too overwhelming? How do we cope when the decisions we’re about to make are so critical they’ll have an impact on our entire future? Choosing a career, a house, a move to a foreign country, these and others like them are complex choices and can’t be taken lightly, but they’re the type of choices we all confront at sometime in our lives. The experts tell us there are decision making strategies like writing out a list of pros and cons. Imagining and evaluating the consequences of each choice is also recommended by some as a decision making strategy, or looking at the problem more objectively in the third person in order to get a better perspective. Sounds easy enough in theory, but I reckon anxiety over choice comes from our emotional instincts rather than rationality; mostly we’re afraid of making the wrong choices.

Photo by Jan Vasek

I’ve always had an issue with choices; I’m cursed with liking everything (A bit of an exaggeration) and I don’t want to have to choose between stuff I like. It comes from a need to experience as many different things as I can possibly cram into my life while time allows. Take my career as an example. When I was young I wanted to be a vet, then a chef, then a merchant seaman or an artist; I’d have been happy with any of them had they materialized. Instead I’ve played at being a butcher, a civil engineer’s labourer, a fashion designer, a boatbuilder, a salesman and a company director to name just a few. There’s a huge gulf between designing women’s fashion and manning a jackhammer deep in a muddy underground shaft, but I enjoyed each job as much as the next. The same eclectic alternatives apply to other aspects of my life. I like modern houses, log houses, thatched cottages, old barn conversions; I’d live near the beach or high in the mountains; I could live on a boat or a farm. We’ve moved houses and countries so many times that home is where I hang my hat and I’ve loved every one. 

Photo by Alexas Photos

How do I make my choices then? Well, I don’t so much choose as go with the moment and the opportunities; I let the choice choose me. The point is, I find that I can’t easily rationalise my choices because, often, there’s not a clear-cut favorite to choose from. I go with my gut and roll the dice when it comes to making decisions. You’d think that this trait would make me indecisive but I find it has quite the opposite effect. I’ve always been quick to make decisions (some might say too quick) because most times I don’t see the downside. I’m not saying I always get it right, but I never look back with regret, except to say I’d change any decisions that might have hurt others. 

Photo by Esa Riutta

Despite my mum’s words, there’s not always a choice. We don’t choose where we’re born nor the environment in which we grow. Spare a thought for those born in conflict zones, children who face hunger and poverty, those born to abuse. In the end, choice is a privilege, one we should never take for granted. We all make good choices and bad ones, but ultimately we’re shaped by them. They define us, and as we grow older, we each become the sum of the choices we’ve made throughout our lives.

we each become the sum of the choices we’ve made throughout our lives

Alone with my thoughts

Isolation, it’s a word we’ve all come to recognise a little too well of late. Covid has forced us all to understand what it means and has tested our ability to deal with being isolated from friends, family and the world at large. It’s not until we’re faced with the loss of freedom that we realise what we’ve taken for granted. It’s not that we necessarily use our liberty to the full when it’s available, but the loss of it stirs a strong reaction that can manifest in feelings of deep deprivation.

Photo by C Salem

It’s human nature to want what we can’t have; it’s a principal that drives our consumer economies. We’ve been programmed to strive for things beyond our reach. So, when we’re deprived of basic human rights, like freedom of movement, freedom to socialise in person, we’ll often fight tooth and nail to get it back, especially when that loss of liberty has been enforced by law. Most of us, however, believe in the greater good and are prepared to sacrifice part of our freedom for the larger society in which we live. I tend to rationalise that my sacrifice is still my choice as a member of a democratic and free community and so I retain some power over my own freedom by opting to obey the rules for the sake of everyone.  

Photo by Fernando Zhiminaicela

If these last years of intermittent isolation have taught me anything, it’s that not everyone has the same liberty to lose. It made me reflect on those who live without freedom of movement, populations governed by despots and dictators, authoritarian regimes that run roughshod over people by force. They use violence and intimidation to control the masses. In these places, it’s dangerous to have even freedom of thought. Despite the Covid restrictions, I’m grateful that I live with the kind of liberty some can only dream of.  

Photo by Efes

There are others who also suffer from isolation and lack any freedom of movement and they are more prevalent than we’d sometimes be prepared to admit. I’m thinking of those among us who are isolated through age, mental and physical disabilities, or just plain loneliness. For many, isolation comes out of fear, fear of meeting people, fear of not being able to cope, fear of not fitting in or of failure.  

…just plain loneliness

Photo by Steven Hwg

Loneliness and social isolation often come with age. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly a quarter of adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated. As we get older, we can find ourselves living alone, we lose family and friends for all kinds of reasons and we are more prone to sickness and chronic ill health. And we don’t necessarily need to be isolated to feel lonely, it’s common for loneliness to be felt even in the midst of a crowd.  

Image by Graehawk

I have to admit that I’ve never felt lonely; alone yes, but never lonely. I’ve had wonderful, loving family and friends around me all my life and never had time to feel lonely. Isolation is a different matter, I think everyone feels alone or isolated at some time in their life, when those we care about are not around to confide in, or when decisions are to be made that can only be made alone. And being alone or isolated can be a deliberate choice; everyone needs space to meditate occasionally, to take stock. When I look back at my working life, at times it’s been too hectic a ride. Time alone was always at a premium. Now I have the time to pursue the things I love to do, I find that they’re often lone pursuits like writing, painting and photography. I enjoy immersing myself in those activities but I have to remind myself to emerge from my studio every so often or my wife will come looking. Friends find it funny that I have a door bell hooked up from the house to the studio so Christine can buzz me when it’s time to eat. I think I’d starve if she didn’t. 

Time in my studio; a welcome kind of isolation

There’s another aspect of self-isolation that comes with age. I think we sometimes chose to be more isolated as part of a decluttering of our lives as we get older. We appreciate a simplification of our once busy lifestyles and do this by limiting our interaction with others to the extent we have in the past. We choose instead to spend time with those we really care about and less time with people we have no interest in and doing things that don’t matter. Time is more precious as we age, and while I long for a time when isolation is once again a choice and not a requirement, I do appreciate my time alone with my thoughts, and to just watch the world go by. 

Photo by Raymond Revaldi

Alone with my thoughts, and just to watch the world go by

The Gifts of Christmas Past

Christmas is nearly upon us (again) and it’s got me thinking about gifts. It’s never easy to pick out gifts for those we love, and, to make it more difficult, people tend to treat themselves throughout the year. No one wants to wait for Christmas anymore in the hope they’ll get what they want under the tree. How do you come up with something for someone who has already everything? Perhaps there’s more disposable income to spend on little luxuries for ourselves whenever we feel the urge to splurge; it leaves little in the way of ideas at Christmas.

Disposable income wasn’t a thing my parents enjoyed when I was growing up with my three brothers and one sister in a council house in Liverpool. Having said that, my parents never let us down when it came to Christmas; we always felt well looked after. That was down in part to my mum putting little things away for Christmas, starting earlier in the year, whenever she could find a spare few pence to spend, and dad working two jobs in the months leading up to Christmas. He’d finish a full day at the office before taking the night shift at the post office sorting depot. Even then with his extra income, there was never an excess of money to spend on festive cheer. Overdue bills had to be paid first, so Dad would supplement the Christmas surprises by making toys in the secrecy of his shed. Always pushed to finish the projects before the holiday deadline, we’d often wake on Christmas day to find toys with a note saying: “Father Christmas says the paint is still wet.”

Mum and Dad always put a lot of thought into our presents. As a young boy with an enquiring mind, I had longed and begged for a chemistry set. I saw myself in a white lab coat, surrounded by test tubes and Bunsen burners, about to discover the cure for Covid. Okay, we never heard of Covid back then, but I’d have discovered a cure if it had been. Sadly, after my exploits with a homemade firework the previous Bonfire Night, a box of hazardous chemicals was not an option that Christmas.

Not wanting to discourage the young scientist in me while keeping me (and the family) safe, my parents surprised me with a microscope. Instead of being disappointed, I thought the substitute was truly the most wonderful gift I had ever received. This little treasure was everything I could have wished for and more. Mum and Dad knew I would love it. I spent the rest of Christmas taking blood from squeamish family members, dissecting flies, exploring pond water, searching for worm’s eyeballs (I was sure they must have some) and anything else that would look cool under magnification. Sixty years on and I still have that little microscope and it rates as one of the best gifts ever.

My little microscope, I was thrilled

There were many wonderful gifts over the years, and as I grew older, I came to appreciate the sacrifices my parents had made to make our childhood Christmases so special. It wasn’t Santa who’d been splashing out to make Christmas so merry, it was Mum and Dad, no magic involved, just love for their kids and a determination to do their best for us. 

If I had to single out just one Christmas gift that meant more than all the others it would be the one I received early one year. The year was 1981 and it was three weeks before Christmas to be exact. My wife and I had taken the monumental decision to emigrate to either the U.S.A. or Canada. Things had been bad in the UK for a couple of years and the economy was dismal. The country was in a recession with high unemployment, my industry of boat building had taken a particularly hard hit. To make matters worse, we had not long taken out our first mortgage before interest rates jumped to 21% from the 11% we began with. We were in imminent danger of losing our home when, as a last resort, we put it up for sale and by a miracle, sold it in twelve days. Houses had generally been on the market for months if not years at the time. With the proceeds of the sale, we paid off the bank and had enough funds to purchase a plane ticket for me to go find a job. We had then just the exact amount to get us and our three small children across the Atlantic, assuming I was successful in finding work. 

Where does Christmas gift giving come into this story, I hear you ask. Well, I’m getting there but I just wanted to set the scene. So, three weeks until Christmas, I’m set to catch my very first flight in the morning, when my gorgeous wife, Christine, hands me a small package wrapped in gold Christmas paper and a bright red ribbon. She explained that it wouldn’t wait until after my return on the day before Christmas Eve. Inside the tiny package I discovered a small gold Saint Christopher necklace. Being the patron saint of travelers, Christine told me that the hard working saint would bring me safely home to my family.

I flew the next day to Florida and after a fruitless search for employment, on to Toronto, Canada. A bus trip to Owen Sound in the north brought success and the offer of a job building boats on the picturesque shores of Georgian Bay. I returned home safely to Liverpool just in time for Christmas. Exactly forty years later, I’m sitting here writing this story, not in Canada, but in my Australian home on the other side of the world and the Saint Christopher necklace is hanging around my neck. In those years it has taken me and my family safely across three continents and God only knows how many towns and cities to live. After years of travelling for work and play, I sat down one day and calculated that since 1981 I’ve travelled the equivalent of 58 times around the equator, visited 30 different countries at least once, some, into high double digits, and Saint Chris has been with me every inch of the way.  

I’m not a particularly superstitious person, but if I was to reach for my necklace while sitting on the tarmac at an airport and found it to be missing, I might just freak out. I’ve worn this wonderful, thoughtful gift every day of my life since that Christmas of 1981. Despite Saint Christopher, I suspect it’s the love with which the gift was given that has kept me safe until now. Like everyone else, our recent travel plans have been on hold. Nevertheless, we’re looking forward to a time when adventures will soon return. And, when they do, my best Christmas gift ever will be with me along for the ride. 

I suspect it’s the love with which the gift was given that has kept me safe

Seeing as this is my last blog for 2021, I’ll take this opportunity to thank my readers  for all your support, especially those who have bought and read Black Bones, Red Earth this year. I hope you enjoyed it. I’ll be back in the New Year with tales and thoughts to share. So, until then, I’ll wish you all a wonderfully magical Christmas and a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year.

Man’s great shame

I recently watched a Jane Goodall video that featured Koko the gorilla and a little kitten the gorilla had adopted. Touched by Koko’s gentle care of the kitten, it occurred to me that some humans could learn a thing or two when it comes to caring for their young. Shortly after seeing this video I was out for a walk and watched amused as a mother duck guided fifteen or sixteen chicks across the road, making sure that she waited for the last one to pass safely. Her large brood had obviously included at least one other duck family. Adopted broods are actually quite common in the animal kingdom, and communal care of the young runs across many species. Witness the protective instincts of an elephant herd or a troop of chimpanzees and you’ll see what I mean. So how is it that we humans seem to fail our children so often and in so many ways?

Photo by Gerd Maiss

In my novel, Black Bones, Red Earth, the plight of children and their treatment by an unjust society is central to the narrative. Firstly, with the central character who is transported to Australia as part of the British child migration program, and secondly, with the Aboriginal characters who have suffered cruelly, separated from parents and siblings, abused by those entrusted with their care. In researching the background for the book, I was horrified by the many true stories and total disregard for the children’s welfare. Often treated like goods to be traded, these children endured traumas that have left them scarred for life. We’re not talking ancient history here, these policies were being practiced into the 1960s.

Group of Aboriginal children in the early 1900s. Kay- Aussie~Mobs. Public domain

Recent events in Canada have exposed even greater abuse of care. Hundreds of hidden graves have been discovered in the grounds of compulsory schools for Indigenous children, schools that have been operated by churches and government well into the 1980s. Like their Australian equivalents, these mission schools were set up to integrate the indigenous children into society. In reality, they were set up to extinguish the traditions and culture of the native inhabitants of conquered lands. Similar missions, reserves and schools were established across North America and in other colonial settlements, many in the name of religious indoctrination. Systemic abuse of children has been well documented under the cover of governments and religions around the world.

Photo credit: D B Marsh/Library and archives Canada

It’s not just institutionalised mistreatment of vulnerable children that flourish unchecked. Every conflict and war generates a new flood of child victims. Always caught in the middle, they suffer most because they have no power over their lives during these conflicts. Collateral damage, they count for little in decisions made by military leaders. In parts of Africa, children are conscripted into fighting with armed militia at 10 years of age and even younger. Forced to kill or be killed, they are traumatised for life, even if they do live to be adults. Child trafficking is rife around the world. According to World Vision, an estimated 6 million children are being trafficked today. Children suffer daily from violence, sexual abuse, malnutrition, neglect and mental trauma, yet the efforts to protect them is and always has been pitiful at best. 

Photo by Jane B 13

In a statement about the discoveries in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “terribly saddened” by the discovery. He said it was “a shameful reminder of the systemic racism, discrimination, and injustice that Indigenous peoples have faced”. Shameful is an understatement. Maybe we should all be ashamed that in this age of so-called “civilization”, we can’t, as a species, protect our most vulnerable. I’ve heard it said that those who commit crimes against children are animals. I beg to differ, animals don’t treat their children with such cruelty.

I beg to differ, animals don’t treat there children with such cruelty

The world around us

I’ve always felt the need to be close to nature. It’s a gift passed on to me by my parents, both of whom had a great love for the outdoors. As children, my brothers and sister were taught to observe the natural world around us. Digging around under rocks or up to the rims of our wellies in ponds and streams, we were encouraged to look deeper for the wonders of nature. We’d go on endless walks in the countryside and holiday in the mountains, camping beneath the stars in farm fields and pastures. During my years in business, there were limited opportunities to fully commune with nature, to get down and dirty with the bugs.

Photo by Rick Lee

Long days in the office, airports and distant hotels, left little time for family commitments, let alone a walk in the grass. Fortunately, for me, that all changed when I retired from the rat-race and a life where the only digging was in delving into the details of a spreadsheet analysis. I quickly rediscovered the leisurely pace of a life without goals and deadlines. I was now able to set my own schedule for writing at a desk in the home office, riding a bike, tending the garden, or walking in the park. It gave me a chance to re-imagine the world of nature and to open my eyes to life’s rich facets.

Photo by Rick Lee

As the pandemic took hold last year, I was reminded how important it was to maintain this newfound flexibility and my connection with the great outdoors. But, while frustrated by the restrictions, I realized that I had more than enough still to discover in my own backyard. I could enjoy nature right here where I lived. With this in mind, I decided to build a creative studio overlooking the garden where my workspace could spill seamlessly into nature and inspire me. Finished last summer, it’s not a huge space but it’s filled with light, encouraging me to try out some painting and photography along with my writing.

My creative studio in the garden

With the doors wide open, it’s like working in the wild and I’m constantly drawn to appreciate something that’s caught my eye, a flower emerging from the leaves, a bee in flight or a bird bathing in the pond.

Photo by Rick Lee

As I’m enticed to step out and look closer, I get absorbed by the sheer volume and diversity of life around me. It’s not a huge garden, but with a camera in hand, it’s like going on a miniature safari every time I venture beyond my door.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

What I find is a parallel world of drama, an alien landscape full of creatures in constant motion. Look closer and I’m quickly absorbed into a life without Covid, lockdowns fade from my thoughts and, for a while at least, I’m transported to an alternative reality. There’s a world to discover, an escape we can all make in these trying times. We just have to dig deeper to find it.

The zebra’s arse

We’re in lockdown again and I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll ever get the chance to travel again, to venture beyond our shores. I’ve always thought myself lucky to have had the opportunities to travel, it’s a privilege I’ve never taken for granted. If the borders were to stay closed forever, I could hardly complain, having seen so many places, met so many wonderfully diverse people and experienced so many inspiring cultures. The memories I have are precious. They serve to give me comfort during these trying times, and once again I find myself going through old photos on my virtual travels, reliving the moments that have brought me such pleasure in years gone by. 

Hilltop Camp, Hluhluwe–Umfolozi.

Seventeen years ago, I realised a childhood dream when my wife, Christine, and I travelled to KwaZulu-Natal to visit Africa’s very first nationally protected nature reserve at Hluhluwe–Umfolozi. Established in 1895, the reserve covers a wilderness area of almost one thousand square kilometers, rolling hills and heavily wooded valleys along the Imfolozi River. I could barely contain my excitement to have finally arrived at the very summit of my bucket list as we drove from Durban to Hilltop Camp at the heart of the reserve. My lifelong quest to see Africa’s spectacular wilderness had started on my first day at school. (Just a few years prior) Along with other wide-eyed four-year-olds, we gathered cross-legged on the floor of the library to listen to a student teacher regale us with stories of her summer vacation, a trip to the dark and mysterious continent of Africa.

Photo by Rick Lee

She showed photographs of her safari and continued the African theme later in the day with tales of those early explorers, Livingston and Stanley. Her descriptions of exotic wildlife had me enthralled while kids around me lost interest and fidgeted absently, more interested in their new school mates than the wilds of Africa to which I had been transported. She was a stand-in teacher and I never saw her again, but her tales were the seeds that would lead me to roam around the world as I grew older. I sometimes wish I could tell her how much she had inspired me. 

Photo by Rick Lee

After bringing an end to hunting in the region, the reserve at Hluhluwe–Umfolozi became famous throughout the world when in the 1950’s Operation Rhino was instrumental in bringing the white rhino back from the brink of extinction. Today’s animals thrive under the reserve’s protection and the program has replenished the rhino breeding stock across the continent. A true success story.

I sometimes wish I could tell her how much she had inspired me.

We stayed at Hilltop Camp, established in the 1930’s, and were taken by guides tracking lions on their night hunt, though — thankfully perhaps — the large male we followed did not make a kill and so we were spared the trauma of watching.

Photo by Rick Lee

We watched zebras grazing alongside wildebeest, rhinos wallowing in mud pools, and elephants and giraffes stripping leaves from the trees under the heat of a mid-day sun. Our guide took us up the river to watch crocs basking on the riverside, while villagers washed their clothes and bathed in the same river within sight of the four metre giants. It seems incredible that people can and do live in close harmony with wildlife, even when it poses a danger to life itself. It’s hard to imagine that having crocs in the bath, and lions in the pantry could be seen as a normal and daily occurrence. Normal it may be, but we couldn’t help feeling anxious for the little boy we saw playing on the riverbank nearby.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

The dangers are not to be underestimated but it’s easy to relax in such beautiful surroundings. I’m now thinking back and laughing at the day we joined a 10km dawn hike. The ramble started well before daylight and our guide, let’s call him Bob, had instructed us to wear something warm as the nights could dip down to single digits and mornings were cold. Sleepy-eyed, we woke to the sound of eerie and unidentified animal cries. 

Photo by Rick Lee

We dressed quickly, donned our warm jackets and headed to the Land Rover to be greeted by Bob. We drove to our start-out point as the sky took on that silvery pink morning glow just before sunrise. Other than the obvious excitement and anticipation at what we might see, we hadn’t really given too much thought to the implications of our undertaking. It was only when Bob began his pre-hike safety talk that the reality hit home. We were going to be on foot, exposed to the predators and big game animals that kill for a living and could hurt us if they should choose. Oh yeah, hadn’t thought of that!

Photo by Alexas Photos

It’s quite sobering to know that there’s nothing between you and a hungry pack of hyenas, no fence to stop a charging buffalo or angry elephant. “If we are charged by any of a dozen possible wild beasts,” said Bob, “don’t run.” Don’t run? I looked at Christine’s white face, drained of all blood and enthusiasm. Don’t worry, I tell her. They have to say that stuff to keep the lawyers happy. Bob continued. “Keep your eyes locked on their eyes and back away slowly. Trust me. Whatever you do, do not run,” he repeated emphatically. Our group was a small one made up of two other couples. “Can they smell fear,” one of the guys chirped in. “Only if you poop your pants,” said our guide cheerfully. Christine was not amused by his humour.

Photo by Albrecht Fietz

In for a penny, in for a pound, we put our fears aside and followed our intrepid leader into the wild. We walked in a single line with Christine immediately behind Bob and me following at the rear of the line. Ten kilometres is a long way in the African bush. The terrain, sometimes challenging, took us through dense thickets of acacia, across dried up creek beds and through waist high grasslands.

It’s quite sobering to think that there’s nothing between you and a pack of hungry hyenas

It was during one of these long grass sortees that I became a little nervous. Lion territory. We had seen them the previous night from the safety of a Land Rover, as they stalked through the tall grass. Now, here we were traipsing through that very same terrain. Bob was a stout enough fellow, but he hardly looked capable of fending off the various attacks he had so painstakingly warned us about. He carried a bolt action rifle, for emergencies and only to be used as a last resort. Fine, I thought, but I wondered what his criteria was for last resort. 

Photo by Rick Lee Our guide Bob

The sun had risen now and with it the temperatures rose quickly. Bob set a brisk pace, making us sweat at the exertion. I took a moment to strip my jacket and tie it around my waist. As I did so, my imagination began to wander. I could see lions lurking in the sway of the grass, leopards waiting to pounce on the straggler of the group. Every movement in the breeze, every shadow seemed to signal an imminent attack. I hurried to rejoin the end of the line and it was then that the horrible thought hit me. When grabbing something to wear in the darkened hut, I had unthinkingly chosen a striped tee-shirt. I looked down at my garb and gasped. Zebra’s arse! I must have looked like a zebra’s arse, waddling through the undergrowth at the end of the line. All I needed was a long black ponytail and the disguise would have been complete. I looked up and saw Christine had stripped off her own coat and was now resplendent in fluorescent pink. I imagined the wildlife laughing at us. Two clowns in the bush, what an appetiser!

Photo by Katja

I’m here to write this little memoir so I obviously survived to tell the tale. It’s one of those stories that gets told every so often and we have a good laugh about it. However, and on a more serious note, on our return to camp that day we were informed about the death of a guide in the months prior to our visit. While conducting a similar hike within the reserve, he was charged by an angry male elephant. Like Bob, he had had his rifle but chose not to use it on the elephant. It seems his idea of a last resort was for the benefit of the wildlife he served to protect.

Photo by Rick Lee

Our time in Africa was an amazing experience and one we shall never forget. We saw an incredible diversity of wildlife just as it’s meant to be seen, in its natural environment without bars and cages, thriving alongside local communities who have long since learned to coexist. As if to demonstrate that closeness between the people of Africa and the nature that surrounds them, and with our stay at an end, we had left camp before daylight and were driving the three hour road to Durban. We had a flight to catch down to Cape Town. The sun had not yet risen when we saw two cats walking down the middle of the road. Okay, you guessed it! I’m not talking stray tabbies here, these were the real deal. Mesmerised, we watched two majestic male lions sauntering along the road as if nothing could be more natural than to take a stroll before the morning traffic.

Photo by Rick Lee

We watched for several minutes and caught a few grainy photos in the breaking light until they peeled off into bushland. The encounter was thrilling. Minutes later we passed three local men walking along the same road; perhaps they were on their way to work. I’m reminded that such habitats, as those in Africa, are under great pressure around the globe. As humans expand their domain, that of the natural world shrinks in equal measure. But I’m given hope by what I saw in Africa. Life can coexist in close proximity, man and beast, each just going about their daily routines, each respected for their place in the world.

Anyone can make an ass of themselves but it only takes a silly mistake to become the zebra’s arse.

Lee

Cold comfort

I’m looking out to the garden from my little work studio and can’t help being struck by the stark beauty of trees devoid of leaves. It’s winter here in the southern hemisphere. A yellow sun, rising low in the eastern sky, sends long shadows that emphasise the architectural forms of branches. Amongst the twisted bows, I can see a single maple leaf clinging stubbornly against the elements and a pair of currawongs (large Australian birds in the crow family) chase each other in and out the bare limbs. Perhaps they already have ideas of a spring romance which is just around the corner.

If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

Shelley, Ode to the west wind

Daffodils are well advanced now and some have flower buds. We have one more month of winter before the blooms unfold. Seasons follow a distinct pattern here in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, unlike Sydney and the coastal fringes where there’s little to mark the changing months. Australia’s high country can experience extremes throughout the year. Summer temperatures reach up into the forties, while winter snow storms see temperatures plummet below zero. Frosts are common and further south the mountains disappear under blankets of thick white powder, perfect conditions for the ski fields that dot the region.

In the natural world, seasons represent the ever changing cycle of life. They remind us of the relentless march of time, the inevitable nature of our fleeting existence. It’s an irony that the one constant in life is change. There is no stopping winter from becoming spring, spring becoming summer and the certain truth that summer will give way to autumn before winter returns. Of all the seasons, winter can be the hardest for life to encounter, but it’s not the bleak landscape it might appear on the surface. Hidden from sight, roots continue to strengthen, sap begins to rise and spring bulbs are sprouting. The earth is cleansed by the frosts and ice, diseases brought into check by winter’s chill. Those flora and fauna that survive through winter are stronger for it. 

Photo by Denys Nevozhai

Like hibernating bears, there are those of us who dread the coming of winter. They hide away, longing for the days of spring, shrinking from the cold and cursing the dark nights, only to emerge from their dens when the temperature soars. Age plays a part in our resilience to the cold months and how we approach them. In my youth, winter brought dreams of snow, ice and fun. It brought thoughts of Christmas joy, hot drinks, blazing fires. During our years in Canada, winter, for my family, meant digging out the skis and the skates (and digging out the driveway). Out came the toboggan, the boots and snow suits, the gloves and beanies. Canadian winters were long and often severe, longer still if you didn’t embrace them. Our experience of the northern winter was truly magical and our fond memories of Canada’s cold months will last a lifetime.

Photo by Hannah Pemberton

Just as we anticipated the season’s first floating flakes of snowfall, by the time spring arrived — after months of short days and early nights —  we were ready for the change, a new start for spring. I would often get out the garden hose and wash away the last remnants of snow, those dirty remains of compacted ice that flanked the drive and defied the warm sun. By the end of winter I was always eager to turn the page to a new season and hoped there would be no late snowfall to spoil the change. Spring promoted a feeling of optimism, enthusiasm for the year ahead.

Photo by Thomas Lipke

Our lives have a way of mirroring nature. There are emotional seasons, dark days of winter when things don’t go well. We sometimes struggle through these times with little hope they’ll end. Unlike the natural calendar, our personal seasons are unpredictable and follow no regular pattern. Trials and troubles can appear suddenly out of the blue, challenges can seem insurmountable and we spend our days resenting our luck rather than counting our blessings. Of course, it’s easier to find the positives in a chilly few months of weather — even finding ways to enjoy them — than it is to find the bright side of ill health, job loss or or countless other personal traumas.

There are emotional seasons, dark days of winter when things don’t go well.

It’s not always the major ordeals that test us. For some it can be as simple as we’ve allowed ourselves to sink into depression for no apparent reason, for others it’s just been a time to withdraw and rethink our lives. I’ve had my share of difficult seasons and they didn’t always have a clear explanation. But, no matter what the cause of my emotional winters, I always found comfort in knowing that the season would change. Just like the four seasons of nature, none lasts forever and a period of renewal always seems to follow. Bright skies will return and my faith in the future will be rewarded. Winters can make us or break us. They’ll make us stronger if we roll with them and acknowledge that they form the natural cycle of life, a necessary period designed to regenerate, to restore our roots. We can emerge with renewed vigour because of them, refreshed by the promise of a change in the seasons. After all, without the darkness of winter, how can we truly know the light of spring? 

Photo by Rick Lee

Mixed Race

I have a problem with The Americans, and The Chinese too. I also take issue with The Jews, The Arabs and The Russians, The Blacks and The Whites give me the same cause for irritation and I positively hate The English.

Photo by Reimund Bertrams

Just to be clear, it’s the term I have a problem with. The Arabs, The English with the emphasis on ‘The’. It’s as though being born into one group with the same geographic or ethnic origin means we’re all clones of that demographic. In reality, we humans are a hugely diverse lot. We come in all shapes and sizes, colours and temperaments, and no two are identical, even as twins.

Photo by Karen Warfel

We hear a lot about race and racial prejudice, yet we tend to feed those same prejudices by clumping people together based on country of origin or racial characteristics such as skin colour, facial features or religious beliefs. Even our occupations come in for the same stereotypical labels. The Police being a current example of all being tarred with the same brush. It’s a fact that human beings come in a bewildering variety of physical and mental specimens, but strip us of our skins and it becomes a whole lot harder to tell us apart. Without our physical identifiers, our differences come down to psychological attributes, most of which are learned rather than inherited. When a child is born, they emerge into the world with none of the bias, none of the prejudices that blight our societies. 

Photo by Rick Lee

Whenever we attribute a collective label to people, we discard everything that makes us unique as individuals. It’s quite ridiculous to think that two people born in the same place must somehow be bound to think, act and live the same lives. They can be influenced by the same environment but how they respond to it can be, and often is, totally different.

Strip us of our skins and it becomes a whole lot harder to tell us apart

There’s a school of thought that thinks the human race is fundamentally good and is only corrupted by the societies in which we live. I tend to think there’s an element of Ying and Yang in the make-up of humans, a balance that’s self-regulating but always in a state of flux. We as humans are good and bad and everything in between. Our environment and interactions with each other has a huge influence on which side of the divide we fall. It’s up to each of us to fight our moral battles, to follow our conscience and decide how to live.

Photo by Jonathan Harrison

It seems to me that the labelling of people in this way is a critical factor in the way we reconcile and deal with grievances. By lumping everyone together under the same label we trigger defensive responses that immediately negate all hope of understanding. Sides of the arguments retreat to their defensive positions and agreement is often impossible to find. It’s particularly true of long standing conflicts between ethnic groups. How can we reach understanding when we lump everyone together with the same mindset, hold everyone responsible for what happened in the past because we see them as one like-minded entity?

Photo by Ganoshi

In truth, it’s individuals who start conflicts and lead us into wars. It’s individuals with self interests who create animosity, stir unrest and provoke clashes of culture. They bring out the worst in others, influencing any who will listen to their messages of hate and discrimination. They slowly contaminate enough individuals to sway the balance and silence the opposition. History is filled with men and women (mostly men) who have caused death and destruction, heartache and pain for millions. Their legacy is in the labels that lump us together to be judged by history, to promote the idea that we are of one mind and bear a collective blame for the past.

Photo by Laurent Verdier

Living for almost thirty years in Australia, ten years in Canada before that, I hear a lot about ‘The English’, some of it quite hostile. It generates that defensive response in me. I was born in England and I’m proud of that fact. I’m proud of my origins, my roots, my upbringing. I love the beauty of Britain, my football team (YNWA), fish and chips, and Yorkshire pud. I love my English family, my heritage of mill workers, farmers, labourers and sailors. That doesn’t mean I’m proud of everything attributed to the English state. Colonial history is full of examples that bring shame to those who plundered the world for their riches.

Photo by Spencer

It’s important to tell these stories and accept the dark episodes of our past and learn from them. But, I’m not ‘The English’. I’m not ‘The Whites’, just as those around me are not The Australians, The Aboriginals, The Blacks. We are all individuals who have our opinions, our faults and prejudices born of our experiences, our environment and our interactions with those we meet along the way. Would I want to be friends with every Englishman? No. I’ve met many a pom I’d wish to avoid. Nor would I want to be mates with every indigenous Australian, every Arab or American. I’m lucky to have met such wonderful people, individuals from all over the world. I’ve Aboriginal friends, Japanese, German and Italian. English, Irish, Scottish. I count Canadians, Americans, Russians and Indians as good, close friends and loved ones. Labels aside, they’re all, like me, individuals, citizens of this very mixed human race.

Photo by Truthseeker 08

I’m not The English