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.

Light up the sky

It’s approaching year-end and the subject of fireworks is back in the news. Should we? Shouldn’t we? With the pandemic still raging around the globe, we are asking the question if it’s appropriate to see in the New Year with a fireworks celebration. After all, what is there to celebrate except for the passing of a terrible year that has been marked by tragedy for so many?

Photo by Anthony Roberts

Fireworks have long been used to celebrate important events. Invented by the Chinese, they’ve been lighting up the sky since the Song Dynasty in 960 AD. To celebrate festivals such as the Chinese New Year, ordinary folks could purchase paper tubes filled with gunpowder, stringing them together to form clusters of explosions. Official firework displays were held to mark events using rockets to explode like flowers in the night sky. Over a thousand years later and we’re still doing the same. Fireworks are used for all kinds of celebrations in every part of the world. My family and I experienced our first truly spectacular display on the shores of Georgian Bay after emigrating to Canada. We had never seen such fireworks as we celebrated our first Canada Day in our new country. Years late after moving to Australia, we were blown away by the Sydney Harbour extravaganza. A far cry from the backyard pops and sizzles that my father set out in the days of my youth and before we left old England’s shores.

Festivities at Windsor Castle 1776

Earlier this month, the United Kingdom celebrated Guy Fawkes Night, sometimes known as Bonfire Night or simply Fireworks Night. It’s an occasion I remember fondly from my childhood. November 5th commemorates the attempted assassination of King James the First in a gunpowder plot designed to blow up the Houses of Parliament. After being discovered beneath the House of Lords with a cache of explosives, Guy Fawkes was arrested and sentenced to be hanged for his treason. In celebration, bonfires were lit across the country and the date marked on the annual calendar. Children built effigies of Guy Fawkes and took them door to door begging for money before burning them on the bonfires each year.

Photo by Nir Design

As the years passed, fireworks were added to the celebrations and the money raised by children went to buy a range of bangers and rockets, available freely at local stores for pennies. I recall with great pride how we cleared out the Girl Guides hut each year with a volley of crackers, running from the scene of the crime with giggles of satisfaction as girls screamed wildly from within. A penny would buy two small bangers while three pence would buy an impressive little Atom Bomb or a Rip Rap with multiple explosions.

Photo by Jeff Rivera

As a child, I was always looking for ways to push the boundaries. Bangers were great, but they were limited when it came to putting on a real show. I had always wanted a chemistry set but Mum, knowing what that could mean in the hands of a mischievous boy, was having nothing of it. It never stopped me from experimenting and I would purchase little tubes of chemicals from a shop in Liverpool where they had no qualms about selling to children. All in the name of education of course. I wanted an improved Guy Fawkes event, featuring a bang that would leave everyone singing my praises. How hard could it be to make a firework, right? I set to work using my vast scientific knowledge, gathering household ingredients along with my stock of regular chemicals, a bit of fertilizer here, some chlorine there. It’s amazing what you can find that could help with a big bang.

Photo by Thomas Staub

With firework night fast approaching, it was imperative to hold a dress rehearsal. After all, it would be so embarrassing to light the fuse with the whole neighbourhood watching only for it to fizz and fizzle in a puff of wimpy smoke. So, enlisting the help of my brother, Mike, we headed for the garden at nightfall. Mike held the torch while I carefully set my “Grand Boomer” on the ground and lit the fuse. Whoosh! In one incredible flash, I saw the light of my error, literally. Note to self: next time let Mike light the fuse. I staggered around the garden, hands outstretched before me, feeling the air like a zombie. It was a scene from the Return of the Living Dead. “Don’t tell Mum,” was all I could say as the skin peeled from my face. “What do you mean don’t tell Mum?” says Mike. “You have no eyebrows or hair and you’re blind. You don’t think she’ll notice?” Needless to say, she did notice. After some medical treatment and a short recovery, I was grounded, my chemical stores removed for safekeeping. Thankfully my sight slowly returned and so did my eyebrows. My venture into pyrotechnic production had ended in a flash. Pity there were no smartphones around to record what must have been a spectacular display. I certainly saw fireworks.

Next time let Mike light fuse

Back to the question of fireworks and the New Year’s Eve celebrations. Thankfully, (touch wood) we are in pretty good shape here in Australia and the virus is currently under control. People are free to get together for Christmas and New Year. Nevertheless, it just doesn’t seem right to be celebrating extravagantly while our friends and family around the world are in the thick of this awful battle. We had the same discussion last year when bushfires raged all around us, and there were arguments both for and against. They went ahead anyway and Sydney put on the usual magnificent display over the harbour, but for those of us who were impacted by the fires, it felt a little insensitive and only served to remind us that not everyone shared our pain.

Photo by David Julien

Our Premier has decided that this year’s show will go ahead as usual, but this year it will be muted. There will be a short event at midnight, an official show of thanks to our front-line workers who have helped us through this traumatic year. I like to think that the fireworks will be an exhibition of hope and optimism, a turning point in our fortunes as the world looks to the future and light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. When we look to the skies, we’ll take a break for a few minutes from the emotional strain and see the prospect of a new day, a brighter New Year, and we’ll think of those less fortunate and wish them well.

Many thanks to all those who have bought Black Bones, Red Earth. It’s now available for those who haven’t from Amazon as well as bookstores worldwide. Give it as a gift this Christmas.

A Special Kind Of Lady

When Gundungurra Aboriginal Elder, Aunty Val Mulcahy, describes her life growing up on a mission reserve, she’s not complaining, she’s merely telling it how it was. And neither will you find her feeling sorry for herself; she’s a fiercely independent and proud Australian woman.

Velma (Aunty Val) Mulcahy at the Order of Australia Awards

I first met Aunty Val after seeking help with the cultural aspects of my new novel, Black Bones, Red Earth. Set in 1950s rural Australia, the story follows the life of Katherine, an English child migrant and her relationships with Aboriginal station hands. I never intended this novel to be about black Australia; it is, after all, the story of an English orphan. But I soon found similarities between Katherine’s story and those of the Aboriginal stolen generation, and that led me to learn more. As the writing progressed and characters emerged, I found it impossible to overlook the hardships suffered by Aboriginals as a result of government policies. As a result, the novel delves into a traumatic period in the lives of First Australians who were taken from their families and separated from their ancestral homes by British and Australian governments.

Aunty Val and Family
Aunty Val (right) with family at La Perouse mission

Eighty-four-year-old Aunty Val was born and raised under protection law on the Aboriginal mission at La Perouse, south of Sydney. After being taken to live on the mission, the Protection Board separated Aunty Val’s mother, Ida, and her children from her husband, Reg. He was arrested and beaten every time he tried to see his family. Val saw her brother ejected from the mission when he reached 18 years of age. Life on the mission was difficult, and racial prejudice rampant when the residents strayed beyond the reserve.

207-La Perouse Reserve 1930s.lightbox
La Perouse mission reserve south of Sydney

‘We had different rules to white Australians,’ Aunty Val told me. ‘We didn’t have freedom of movement. We didn’t have a vote. We weren’t allowed to go to see a doctor or go to the hospital until Thursday. If you were very sick and it wasn’t Thursday, you died.’

If you were sick and it wasn’t Thursday, you died

Aunty Val says that babies died in numbers on the reserve because of gastroenteritis. ‘Women were not allowed to breast-feed on the mission. Instead, they were given bottles of milk to feed their babies. But they didn’t teach them how to sterilise the bottles, so babies got sick and died. Schooling was inadequate. We got to paint pictures, listen to bible stories, and sing hymns. There was no reading or writing, and we were not allowed to talk our own language or talk about traditional ways.’

Aunty Val’s parents Ida Amatto and Reginald Russell in the 1930s.

Aunty Val had no idea why she and her family had to live on the mission. ‘My mum told me we had to stay because we were special. It was only when I was older that I learned the truth and that we had been forced onto the mission. I was sent out to work when I was thirteen, and that’s when I discovered we were treated differently to white kids. Even at work, we had different rules; we had to give all our wages to the mission, and they gave us sixpence back.’

An early photo of the La Perouse mission house

Despite coming out of the mission, ill-equipped for the world, Aunty Val vowed to gain a university education. She was fifty years old when she achieved her dream, studying at the University of Sydney for her degree. Aunty Val worked in Aboriginal health and services and is passionate about educating others. ‘Education is the key for our people if they are going to thrive. If you’re not getting children educated, they will always be disadvantaged.’ Aunty Val has seen too many kids coming out of school, unable to read or write. ‘They need jobs, but they don’t stand a chance if they’re not getting educated.’

My mum said I was special

Aunty Val was awarded the Order of Australia for her work in the community, but she says there’s so much more to be done. I asked her if she was bitter about the treatment she and other First Australians have suffered. ‘I’m not bitter,’ she says. ‘but I get angry at governments that refuse to move the country forward. We can’t change the past; what’s done is done. We’re not stupid; we know we can’t turn the clock back. But Australia needs to recognise the truth and admit what happened in the past. This land was not empty when the whitefellas came. It was our country and had been for thousands of years. What happened was an invasion, followed by genocidal attacks on our race, segregation and outright discrimination. The protection laws were brought in to breed out our Aboriginal blood. Until Australian history recognises what really happened, and until we start teaching it in schools, we can’t move on, and our people will continue to suffer. We need a treaty, and we need to be recognised in the constitution. Then, maybe, we can have a chance at reconciliation and start to heal.’

Having a yarn with Aunty Val at the community centre she helped create

Aunty Val would be the first to say her story is unremarkable; she’ll tell you that every Indigenous Australian has a story to pass on and that there were a lot worse off than her. But after listening to her tales, and learning of her past and her accomplishments, I can say without a doubt that her mother was right, Aunty Val is indeed very special.