Monthly Blog

Blood, Sweat and Tears

There’s something about great construction works that stir the blood. Magnificent cathedrals, bridges that span vast rivers, castles and skyscrapers, they all stand as monuments to human achievement.  I remember watching the tragedy of the Notre Dame cathedral fire unfold and thinking how devastating the loss of such an iconic piece of history. Every time I see that great church I think of Charles Laughton swinging down from the bell tower to rescue his fair maiden, declaring sanctuary as the hunchback took refuge in the tower with his beautiful prize.

Notre Dame Cathedral fire

More recently, I watched Queen Elizabeth arriving at Windsor Castle for her own piece of sanctuary during the COVID-19 lockdown and marvelled at the resilient structure that has stood for 900 years and has protected kings and queens through the ages. Castles and palaces abound in Britain and having been born and raised in England, I still have a great sense of pride in these truly wonderful structures and the pageantry and history that surrounds them. I’m certain that most Brits feel the same way, just as the French must revere their cathedrals and chateaus, the Louvre and grand palaces like Versailles. Yet, as I got to thinking about this, I started to wonder how it is that such symbols of elite power could inspire pride in the hearts of the masses. Like most great monuments, they are built on the backs of the underprivileged and impoverished.

Photo by Dean Moriarty

Throughout history, people of wealth and power have exploited society’s weakest and used them to build ever more wealth and power, symbolised by great edifices and grand architecture. Absolute monarchies and military dictatorships had long ruled the world before modern democracies evolved to give some measure of control to the people. I say “some measure of control” because we are still largely at the mercy of the rich and powerful, and in many countries, just as oppressed as those who struggled through the middle ages. It took a revolution in France to place their palaces in the hands of the masses. A civil war in Britain eventually ended in a compromise, handing power to an elected parliament while leaving wealth with the aristocrats and the crown.

Photo by Mike’s photos

It wasn’t just kings, queens and emperors that manipulated the vulnerable to build their riches, churches acquired vast amounts of wealth and power and took a leading role in controlling the population. While the poor underclass lived without basic needs, they were taxed and stripped of meagre assets to fund grand churches, monasteries and temples of every faith throughout the world. It’s a story repeated; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Even today, churches are some of the world’s wealthiest organisations while parts of their flocks suffer great hardship.

Photo by Andrea Spallanzani

While the vast majority of the world’s population have at some time lived in poverty and ill health, the privileged classes have taken advantage, building extravagant constructions to immortalise themselves in time. Many of the most vulnerable paid the ultimate price. It has been estimated that the Great Wall of China was built at the expense of at least 500,000 lives, not to mention the cost in pain and misery. The great pyramids of Egypt would tell a similar story as would most of the world’s great wonders.

Photo by Pete Linforth

Great projects at the expense of lives are not confined to ancient history. Modern feats of extraordinary endeavour have continued to place a heavy toll on those tasked with their construction. Over 120,000 workers lost their lives building the Suez Canal. America’s Trans-Continental railway cost 1,200 lives, and while everyone knows of the death toll when the twin towers came down, building the World Trade Centre took 60 lives from the ranks of construction workers. Qatar’s 2022 world cup construction projects have so far claimed 34 lives, but independent estimates put the number at well over 1000 when cardiovascular deaths due to heat exhaustion are taken into account. Whichever way you want to put it, it’s too high a price for poor migrant workers to pay so the rich can play games.

So, why is it that we can look at a grand tomb or a palace built by a king and experience wonder and awe, pride in a heritage that surely left our ancestors begging on the streets and burying their dead? Surely we could be forgiven for tearing them down and leaving them in ruins.

Photo by Rick Lee

Surely we could be forgiven for tearing them down and leaving them in ruins!

Perhaps we recognise the human cost and want to let them stand as reminders. Or, maybe it’s simply our admiration for what human beings can achieve in the very worst of conditions, recognition of the blood, sweat and tears, the sacrifices made by ordinary men and women that stirs our love for such monuments.

Photo by Rashed Rana

What those in power sought to have built were tributes to themselves, legacies to immortalise them as great men and women. But, what they got instead are lasting memorials to the ingenuity, graft and sacrifice of those whose names are not written in stone. They are the men women and children who suffered to achieve their immortality, and it’s to them we pay tribute when we look on with awe and admire these extraordinary national treasures. 

The exploitation of the common man is far from ended; the rich and powerful still rule the world and those less fortunate continue to pay the price.

Photo by Rick Lee

We are still building monuments, modern monoliths of glass and steel that soar skyward to the heavens. The exploitation of the common man is far from ended; the rich and powerful still rule the world and those less fortunate continue to pay the price. The world’s richest 1% owns 44% of the world’s wealth. In 2018, 26 people owned as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the world’s population. But, that’s a story for next time.

To be continued…  

Boy in a Bubble

There’s an old one-liner in which a man says to his wife, “How can I miss you if you won’t leave?” But in these times of forced separation and isolation, missing people is an all too familiar effect of the current situation and it’s really no joke. It’s said that absence makes the heart grow fonder, you don’t realise what you’ve got until it’s gone. I think we all know by now just what we’ve lost and can’t wait for things to return to normal. Along with the coronavirus itself, these feelings of separation anxiety are in pandemic proportions right now. There are not many of us who’ve escaped such personal trauma. Life has been turned on its head and it’s like we’ve all been consigned to the confines of our own little bubbles.

Photo by Lars Nissen

I watched the viral video clip of the Italian suitor who arrived at his girl’s house inside a large plastic bubble to ask her out on a date. It was all good fun and a bit of light-hearted entertainment during desperate times in Italy, yet it triggered a memory in me and brought a tinge of fear, causing my heart to beat faster and the hairs to stand on the back of my neck. The reason? When I was a small boy, I had a bad case of croup, a respiratory disease caused by a virus that causes swelling and narrowing of the airways. I well remember the terrifying struggle to breathe, the ambulance bells and the emergency dash to hospital where I spent days in a plastic oxygen tent in the intensive care unit. (Perhaps it was this experience that led to my extreme claustrophobia later in life.) As the days passed and I started to recover, it was the separation from my family that caused even more anxiety. Seeing the blurry faces of Mum and Dad outside my plastic bubble and not being able to touch them was not an easy thing for a sick child to deal with. Just as now, the hospital staff were brilliant and I was able to recover and leave in good health, but the trauma has stayed with me, and the thought of struggling to breathe while trapped inside a bubble is quite real.

Oxygen tent circa 1960

For a hugger like myself, social distancing is a real bummer and separation from family is for me, like most of us, the worst of this pandemic.

Photo by Alexandra Koch

Our kids practiced social distancing long before the term was coined. I recall the road trips for holidays across America, three boys in the back seat of our car who demanded their own personal space. “He’s touching me!” “Am not!” “Yes you are.” “Am not!” They would test each other to the limit by seeing how close they could place a hand while the other would cry foul. “He’s doing it on purpose!” “I’m not. He’s the one who’s touching me.” And so the battle would go for one weary mile after the other while we would threaten to turn right around and go home if they couldn’t just get along. Those were the good old days.

Don’t touch! Photo by Gerd Altmann

There have been times in my life when separation has been a consequence of the decisions I made. Like living away from home while training to build boats in Norfolk. Thankfully it was not too long before the family reunited and we moved to the Broads to be near the work. Then there was the big one, the move to Canada from England. In the words of Frank Sinatra: Regrets, I’ve had a few. Though I’ve never regretted our moves around the world, I do regret leaving family and friends behind, especially when we first moved from England. It’s one of those things that comes back to me when I watch our children live their lives and see our grandchildren grow, and I think of what it would be like if they left for the other side of the world. We were young and desperate for a better life for our children when we left England’s shores. I can’t imagine the terrible loss our parents must have felt when we left them behind. Of course, we too felt the loss of family.

“I do regret leaving family and friends behind when we moved to Canada.”

There was a short time after arriving in Canada when we seriously thought about turning right around and heading back to those we loved. But we didn’t and the rest is history. Our separation anxiety was increased in those days by the lack of communication options. Unlike today, we had few ways to stay in touch and it was usually by letter. We couldn’t afford a phone for a long time, and when we did eventually get one installed, the cost of calls to England were then quite prohibitive and a phone call became a big event. Each time we called home, we had to go through the operator who told us that all lines to England were busy. Sometimes we would try for hours to get through, and then the call lasted only minutes. At least now during lockdown we can see our family on FaceTime, What’s App and programs like Zoom and House Party. How I wish my parents had had that when we went away all those years ago.

Photo by Engin_Akyurt

I know I’m not alone in thinking that this terrible pandemic has made me re-think how we go about our lives. It’s highlighted just how important our contact with family and friends is to us. Life can sometimes get so busy that we find ourselves drifting through the days in isolated bubbles of self-imposed exile. Then when that isolation is suddenly forced on us, we realise too late that we’ve been taking our freedom to be together for granted. When this awful thing is over, and it will be over, I’ll be doing some serious hugging and popping some bubbles. They won’t be plastic either.

Photo by Digeman

Virus? Don’t make me laugh!

I need a laugh. I mean, really, really need a laugh. Not just a laugh but a belly laugh, a big old tummy shaker. Why? Well, it’s not even two months since the world looked on with sympathy as the bushfires ravaged Australia, and in particular, our villages of the Southern Highlands. Exhausted, we came out of it feeling thankful that we came through it, and grateful for such moral support from around the planet. Now there’s a new calamity to challenge us, but this time, all the world shares the same boat. Actually, we shouldn’t mention boats because our wonderful authorities have just let 3000 cruise ship passengers go their own way untested after disembarking in Sydney. Now they are chasing them down across the country and have so far confirmed 133 cases of the disease. It would be funny if it wasn’t so catastrophic. Nothing to laugh about, right? So what about that laugh?

Toilet paper humour

The current situation has got me to thinking about humour. There’s something about the worst of times that brings out the humour in us. Perhaps it’s a need to relieve the pressure and it’s released by having a good old laugh. Who could forget Monty Python singing, ‘Always look on the bright side of life’? Having a joke is something we need to do during a crisis, and the current one is no exception. There’s been loads of funny memes and one-liners about the virus, a great deal of which have focused on toilet paper, and that really gives me the shits. Sometimes it seems as if the jokes get funnier as the situation grows more serious. What would they have done during the great wars without a sense of humour? Sorry! Don’t mention the war. I think it’s probably essential for our sanity to find laughter in dark times.

Photo by Pexels

There’s plenty to make us giggle these days, but am I the only one who wonders what happened to the belly laugh? We grew up roaring with laughter. As a child, I remember sitting down to watch the Sunday feature film, which was often a comedy. The whole family would settle down to the matinee after a big Sunday roast lunch, and once the dishes had been washed, Mum, Dad and the family would be able to relax and enjoy our favourite comedy stars in glorious black and white. Favourites like Gerry Lewis, Bob Hope and George Formby. Tears would roll, and so would a belly full of lunch. Sometimes we would laugh more at Mum and Dad laughing than we would be watching the movie, just like the virus, laughs are infectious. What a satisfying way it was to relax before the Monday morning blues and the return of the workweek. Wind the clock forward a few years and we had the likes of Peter Sellers and Lucile Ball, hilarious fools to make us weep with joy. In those days, comedy was full of visual content and slapstick seemed essential for a good laugh. We didn’t have to think about it to get the joke, it was there in all its silly simplicity.

Classic John Cleese

As the years rolled by, new stars emerged who could still make us roar. Who could forget classic comedies like John Cleese’s Faulty Towers, or the Airplane movies with the late Leslie Nielson, both finding humour in disasters and chaos and both almost too much to bear they were so funny. I can’t recall how many times I’ve watched the re-runs, but it’s a lot, and still, they make me laugh. There are also segments of movies or television shows that stick in the memory as classic moments of comedy. The zipper scene in Something About Mary, the bear scene in the Great Outdoors, Clark Griswold’s sandwich scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation, all spring to mind.

Can’t help a chuckle when some poor male gets clobbered in the goolies

To be honest, some of yesterday’s humour would not go down well today. What was acceptable then and what is acceptable now are often worlds apart. In the past, comedy was very often generated by poking fun at someone’s expense or someone’s misfortunes. That’s ok when the clowns are mocking themselves but I’m not a huge fan of the numerous videos that show people coming a cropper and hurting themselves. Having said that, I think everyone would have to admit that they can’t help a chuckle when some poor male gets clobbered in the goolies. You feel the pain but just can’t help but smile. The German word is schadenfreude. Schaden-harm, freude-joy; it means taking pleasure from someone else’s distress. It’s in our nature apparently. Some scientists say it’s a throw-back to early man, that we, as prey, are happy to stand by and watch in safety when someone else gets caught and eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger, just grateful that it wasn’t us. Go save him? Must be joking!

How about a fit of the giggles? Now that makes me laugh. I remember being invited to a neighbourhood pot-luck supper not long after migrating to Canada. The idea was that everyone would take a main dish and a dessert dish to the gathering. Being English, my dear wife thought it would be nice to make an English trifle for dessert. On arriving at the venue, we introduced ourselves, handed our dishes to a lovely lady at the door and took our seats at a long banquet table, new faces all round, so we were a bit shy and self-conscious. The call went out to help ourselves and everyone got up and formed an orderly line, taking a little of everything from the varied dishes spread out on the buffet. On returning to our seats, we looked down the table with horror, everyone had taken a scoop of trifle and dolloped it onto their roasts, cabbage rolls and potatoes. Being newcomers and a little wary, we didn’t speak up to say that our dessert had ended up on the wrong table, but watched in silent embarrassment as our new friends tucked into roast beef, gravy and custard with strawberries and cream. That’s when the giggles started. And, of course, the more we tried to stifle the chuckles, the more they increased, until we were crying, choking on our food and dribbling gravy through our nostrils while trying to suppress the laughter. Undoubtedly, our new neighbours thought we were idiots and we were never invited back again, but the story lives on and makes us smile all these years later. Sorry, lovely neighbours.

Comedy has changed since the days of my youth. It’s supposed to be more sophisticated, subtle and clever, but it never really gets my juices flowing to the point where I lose all self-composure. It makes me titter rather than break out in hysterics. Don’t get me wrong, I like modern humour, but as far as therapeutic release is concerned, there’s no substitute for the slapstick of old. Maybe our capacity to laugh hard has diminished as life has become more stressful. Too much on our minds to let go and have a good laugh, we run from here to there and don’t stop to have a good giggle. But it seems to me that it’s in times of stress that we need laughter most. Having a good laugh promotes hormones and triggers the release of endorphins. Similarly, tears will do the same. They release hormones that make us feel better. So it makes complete sense to laugh until we cry. Double the benefits, right? I’m going to do my best to find a belly laugh and share it. Let’s all take some time to find some, after all, time is something we’re going to have a lot of for a while. Pick out a funny video, a movie or television classic and give ourselves permission to let the belly roll and with it the tears. Play a game of nude Twister; get one of the kids to pull your finger and fart; there has to be a good chuckle somewhere. God knows we could do with a laugh. Just make sure to laugh into your elbow.

Photo by Caroline Hernandez

God knows we could do with a laugh

Great reviews for Black Bones, Red Earth

I’m delighted to see some great reviews for Black Bones, Red Earth from various sources. It’s always good to get some feedback from readers. I’m told there’s been a massive discrepency in delivery times. Some readers have the book within days of order, others it seems they had to wait weeks. I’m sorry for any delays. I assume it’s due to the current situation and working conditions for the printers and delivery couriers. Please be patient if you haven’t received your copy yet.

A Novel View of the World

This has been a big month for me as my new novel, Black Bones, Red Earth, finally goes live and is available through bookstores and online worldwide. The book comes in three formats: hardcover, paperback and e-book. Personally, I like to read from a printed copy and it’s nice to get the real thing in my hands after so long working on it; the hardcover looks particularly great. I’ve already received some fantastic advance reviews from NetGalley, Readers’ Favorite, and Goodreads. Hopefully they’ll spread the word and the momentum will grow. Don’t forget to give me some feedback if you get the chance to read it. Good, bad or indifferent, I’d like to hear from you.

Photo by Lubos Houska

With the buzz around the book launch, I’m already getting asked: what’s next? I had thought I would give it a bit of a rest; writing a novel is one of those activities that occupies your thoughts day and night until finished. I could do with a distraction that does not consume me 24/7. Having said that, I do have a couple of things started, like the sequel to Alexander Bottom and there’s a couple of thrillers already on the go. To be honest, the ideas come so thick and fast that I would have to live to a ripe old age to get them all down and develop them. I might try some short stories for a change but it’s hard to control just how far a story will take you once it’s started. They take on a life of their own and there’s no stopping it once it’s started. I’d probably end up with War and Peace anyway.

Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.

Franz Kafka

Another question often asked is: what makes you want to write? This is harder to explain. What makes anyone want to write? It’s a tough slog and for the most part a lone pursuit. I think maybe it’s the need to write rather than the want. Not even that. It’s a need to express yourself. It doesn’t have to be writing novels; it could be painting, sculpting, writing music or any creative activity that allows you to relate your feelings. We often describe certain people as creative types. We say it’s in the genes and runs in families. How often do you hear that someone “gets it from their father or mother”? There may be some truth in that. My mum loved to write and she did so beautifully. My brother is an incredibly talented musician and songwriter, as are my sons. My sister is a successful artist and paints wonderful miniatures from her little bedroom studio in the Lake District. And the same could be said for nieces, nephews and grandchildren, there’s plenty of creative talent within the family.

Mum loved to write

I do believe the world is filled with creative people. I know so many personally that I’m sure it’s just a basic human trait. While there may be an artist in everyone, sadly it’s often lost when childhood dreams are set aside for the real world. But for those who feel compelled to pursue their art throughout life, it’s just not possible to set it aside for long. Ask any of them why they do it and they’ll more than likely tell you it’s just something they feel the need to do.

Photo by Gerd Altmann

I’ve written and painted and had the urge to be creative all my life. I once dreamed of a career as an artist but life took over and my career path went in a very different direction. As most of us know, when mouths are to be fed, we do what we have to and it’s not always possible to follow the path we intended to tread. Having said that, the creative mind doesn’t stop just because you can’t find the time to express yourself. It keeps churning out ideas and locking them away for a chance to get back to them when time is available. There’s an upside of course, life’s reality, hard lessons and dramas provide a treasure trove of ideas and experiences to share when we do get the time, that’s particularly for a writer.

Photo by Bodobe

I find that creative people tend to be more open to ideas and are always ready to explore possibilities. They look for details rather than broad views, see things from other peoples’ perspective and feel a lot of empathy when they listen to others speak. They see the world from all angles, which helps a writer, as it allows them to take different points of view, get into characters’ heads and imagine how they would react or feel in any given circumstances.

Photo by Fathromi Ramdlon

There’s something else that drives me personally to want to write or paint and it could be that other creatives feel the same. I believe it’s partially to do with wanting to reveal one’s self, wanting people to know and understand the real me and doing it through art and writing is the best way I know how. I want to tell of my struggles, my joys and my heartaches. I want to tell my story, even though it may be hidden within the words of a novel, the paint on a canvas or the notes of a melody. Perhaps we all have a basic need to share ourselves with the wider world, to express ourselves through any means available. For me it’s through writing.  

Out of the ashes

I’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year, but I’m a bit late and January is almost behind us. Nevertheless, I hope 2020 is a safe and healthy one for us all and the year brings great happiness. I can’t say I’m sorry to see December and January go, it’s been a horrific time for Australians this bushfire season, and quite traumatic for us here in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. We’re grateful for the rain that brought some respite to parts of the country, including our own backyard. We received good falls of the wonderful stuff. The fires here are mostly under control as a result, but there are still many burning and we have a lot of hot weather still to come. We can only pray for more rain.

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Photo by Geetanjal Khanna

The memory of our local fires is still raw and I have to admit that I get quite emotional when I see others going through the same drama in other parts of the country. Our family was lucky. We didn’t lose property or suffer any injuries or loss of life like some of our neighbours, but the weeks of mental strain have taken its toll, and we are dealing with the aftermath. We get very twitchy and nervous every time there’s talk of a new flare-up or see news from others who are still in the thick of it.

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Photo by Dion Georgopoulos

Part of the emotional response we now feel comes from having witnessed the selfless efforts of volunteers who battled to keep our community safe. So when we hear of more tragedies involving these heroes, it’s hard not to choke up and grieve. Day after day we watched the brave aircrews passing over our house with water and fire retardant, keeping the fire front at bay. DC10, C-130 and gigantic air-cranes flew so low over the rooftops you could almost see the pilots faces. The American C-130 air-tanker that crashed, killing all three of the American crew, was amongst them. We watched in awe as it flew above the treetops and over our villages. Sadly, they were not the first casualties. Two local firefighters gave their lives just a few kilometres from here; they came to Hill Top to protect our lives and property, instead, they lost their own lives. These losses feel very personal.

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The American air-tanker over Hill Top                                                              Photo by Rick Lee

There have been 33 lost lives so far. Whether they were protecting their properties or helping others protect theirs, every loss is deeply felt. But out of catastrophe come stories that give hope, that make one proud. People come together in the face of adversity, differences are put aside while attention is focused on the common goal, the common enemy. Community comes to the forefront and true colours are evident everywhere in the fighting spirit. The groundswell of support for those in need only goes to prove that we quickly open our arms and hearts to each other when our backs are against the wall.

Every loss is deeply felt

Australians are famous for coming together when needed, but in truth, I believe it’s true of all people. There is inbuilt compassion in all of us, empathy for those in need of help and an urge to run to their aid. This was evident in the many who came from all over Australia to lend a hand, all those who gave up their holidays and came from across the world, Canada, America, New Zealand to stand and fight. Donations have poured in from around the globe, offers of assistance and disaster relief have been overwhelming.

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Photo by Rick Lee

Devastatingly, our wildlife has suffered incredible loss, and if anything can break our hearts it’s the sight of these helpless creatures caught up in the tragedy. It’s estimated that 1.25 billion native animals have perished. Yes, that’s billion with a ‘B’. Some will be pushed to the edge of extinction. Once again, offers of assistance have flooded into organisations that can help. The sad truth is, there’s nothing can be done about the massive losses, but the sight of volunteers coming forward to care for injured wildlife is one to warm the heart. Now we must help regenerate and protect habitat so that our remaining wildlife can survive.

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Photo by Pexels

We’ll get over this crisis and settle back into the routines of life, people always do, but for those who were caught up in the disaster, nothing will ever be quite the same. When I get emotional about what’s happened, I also give thanks, after all, we were some of the lucky ones. When I look around with time to reflect, I recognise that part of my emotional response is not just about the trauma, not just about emerging from a battleground unscathed, but is a sense of pride from seeing the community spirit that emerged, the feeling that we were, are, not alone. Cause enough to choke up and shed tears.

Black Bones, Red Earth set for release February 24th

Life does go on and I’m delighted to say that everything is on track for the release of my new novel, Black Bones, Red Earth. It should already be available for Pre-Order through bookstores in some parts of the world, though it can be slow getting into some catalogues. Look out for it!

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Words are not enough…

Thank-you. Thanks. Thanks a lot. Thank you very much. Words are funny things. There’s estimated to be between 175,000 and 500,000 words in the English language, not including slang and jargon, yet when it comes to expressing our thanks to the people who’ve put their lives at risk to protect us and our property, a simple thank-you hardly seems adequate.

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Photo by Skeeze

The Australian bushfire season has arrived in catastrophic fashion. Catastrophic! Now that’s a word that demands attention. Last weekend, the warning went out to our little community of Hill Top, and surrounding NSW villages, for catastrophic conditions. Temperatures, they predicted, would be in the mid 40c range, and winds would be gusting up to 70kph. The Wattle Creek fire near us had been burning on several fronts for almost a month, and now gathered on our doorstep like the terrifying horsemen of the apocalypse. Apocalypse. Another powerful word, conveying what was to come for the neighbouring village of Balmoral, a village struck only days before, as a fire moved in from the surrounding valleys. The loss of firefighters: Geoffrey Keaton and Andrew O’Dwyer, later that day, was a body blow to those left to defend the village and one that would shatter our close-knit communities.

Like the Horsemen of the Apocolypse

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Photo by Erkut2

Planning was everything, they told us, as the weekend approached. We must plan to stay and defend our properties, or plan to leave. There could be no change of mind once the fire front was upon us and the roads in and out of our villages would be closed. The narrow cutting through which the road passes out of town would be a death trap if the fire engulfed it. Each had to assess their situation and make the decision early.

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Hill Top village                      Photo by Rick Lee

A critical morning came at the weekend, and with it, an eerie stillness, as firefighters gathered in the village to receive their instructions. Smoke filled the air like a London fog. Had we made the right decision to stay and defend? Perhaps we were stupid not to go, only time would tell. But I couldn’t help feeling, watching these volunteers disperse, that it was the least we could do for ourselves when others were about to risk everything to protect our community.

As the day progressed, we monitored the situation live, receiving updates on scanner radio, watching those in the air make their sweeps across the skyline, helicopters and planes in a bid to control the blaze. Plumes of smoke rose into the stratosphere, bubbling and boiling on the thermal columns of air. Sparks and embers travelled kilometres on the hot winds, causing spot fires to burst out and flare. We waited in trepidation. Trepidation: a word lacking the power to describe our anxiety as the front moved in closer. Then the text message came on our phones: NSWRFS EMERGENCY WARNING – Hill Top – Immediate danger. Seek shelter now as the fire approaches. It is too late to leave.

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Photo by Patricio Hurtado

As it eventuated, we Hill Topians stayed safe, thanks to the efforts of those who came to our aid. The fire front was halted, for then at least, at the village border. Our neighbours were not so lucky. All in all, the village of Balmoral took several massive hits as the fire came at the community from different directions, the winds swirling in across the hills, devastating the small village. The efforts of those fighting the inferno are nothing short of heroic. Heroic; that’s another word that hardly seems to encapsulate the courage of these selfless people. Volunteers, these courageous men and women have come from near and far to help. Having foregone wages, while away from their work and businesses, their families will struggle to get by as a result. Some will take out loans to get over the loss of income.

I have a couple of other words to consider. How about: ironic. Isn’t it bloody ironic that as these heroes go without while protecting us from fire, our government sends millions of dollars’ worth of fireworks up in smoke during a few minutes of New Year’s Eve opulence? How cruel the irony that they can’t find it in their hearts to compensate our wonderful services, but can find multi-millions of dollars for the firey exhibition. They will spend $6.5 million on Sydney’s fireworks alone.

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Photo by Tom Hill

Here’s another word to consider: Arseholes. A perfect description for the Prime Minister who says that the firefighters actually want to be there fighting fires, as if it’s like a weekend getaway to Hawaii, and the politicians who spend their days in parliament like children. No, I take that back. Children don’t spend their entire workday trading catcalls and insults, sneering and belittling each other, finding fault and blame. No, children spend their time learning and being creative, finding solutions to problems instead of causing them. Our politicians have seen this catastrophe coming; they’ve known what to expect for years. So why does so much of our country rely on community volunteers to deal with this annual crisis? Where are the funds for such critical services, and why haven’t they given our incredible heroes the resources they need to do the job of mitigating these fires before they can reach a critical condition?

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Photo by Skeeze

Perhaps someone can create a new word to express our appreciation for the heroes that serve. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious comes to mind. But no, it wouldn’t be right to cheapen our feelings of gratitude with something so glib. Maybe a humble, thank-you, in all its simplicity, is all we can say that truly comes from the heart. Thank-you, each and every one.

Thank-you

Tempus Fugit

What is it about the passing of time that makes it so variable? Yes, I know there are instruments that measure time quite accurately– they’re called clocks– and that every minute that passes is the same duration as the last. Same with weeks, months and years, right? Then why the hell do the years pass so quickly now compared to the days of my youth?

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Photo by Gerd Altmann

When I was a boy, I went on a school trip to Chester where we visited the cathedral among other places of interest. I don’t think I was more than nine or ten years old at the time. On touring the historic church, I was intrigued by the words on a plate affixed to a clock-case in the transept. It read:

When as a child I laughed and wept,
Time crept.
When as a youth I waxed more bold,
Time strolled.
When I became a full-grown man,
Time RAN.
When older still I daily grew,
Time FLEW.
Soon I shall find, in passing on,
Time gone.
O Christ! wilt Thou have saved me then?

Amen.

The poem was called Time’s Paces, by Henry Twells, and I felt oddly affected by the words, as though the message was meant for me personally. It gave me goosebumps and I didn’t know why. The words have stayed with me all these years and the older I get, the more they resonate with me. I’m not sure why the rhyme had such an impact on one so young– a nine-year-old doesn’t normally take in such profound sentiments– and why I’d think of it now all these years later and remember each line. Perhaps through time I’ve found a psychic link with myself, a wormhole through the ages, and it’s actually me, now, that’s sending a chill up the younger me’s spine as I stand before the clock in Chester. Oooo… I’ll have to think about that one; it could be a whole other blog.

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Photo by Gerd Altmann

The way time passes is surely a matter of perception, and depends on all kinds of influences, both physical and mental. The same final two minutes of a football match can be perceived in extremely different ways, depending on your point of view. If your team’s winning (mine usually is these days) by a solitary goal and the opposition is pressing hard for an equaliser, two minutes is an agonisingly long time to hold out. I mean, how can two minutes be enough time to score not one but two goals after playing ninety minutes of football? It happens despite the improbability, and those two minutes expand to a ridiculous amount of time. And if you’re supporting the team that’s losing by a goal (I’ll resist a clever dig at my brothers here), well, it’s like trying to hold water in a sieve, the time goes so fast it may as well not have existed in the first place.

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Champions

When it comes to time passing quickly as we get older, they say it’s because we measure time against our experience, a percentage of the life we’ve already lived. That’s why when we look back at our childhood, summer days were so long and school just wouldn’t end. A year in the life of a two-year-old is half a lifetime. Imagine having to wait half a lifetime for next Christmas, or your next birthday. The time in between those events would seem an eternity. While for those of us who’ve been around awhile, birthdays come by far too often, and it always seems like we just had Christmas. If a year is 50% of a two-year-old’s life, and time accelerates as a percentage of time lived… Sorry, I’ll let you do the maths on that.

A year in the life of a two-year-old is half a lifetime

There is a less depressing theory on the passage of time, other than the one where time shortens as we’re hurtling at light speed to the end of the line. It’s said that our perception of time is shaped by our exposure to new experiences and changes of environment. In other words, time passes more slowly when we are learning new things, taking on new challenges, or going where we’ve never ventured before. Our brains perceive the passing of time according to stimulating activity. When it has new information to process, time goes by slowly. This also explains why time passes slowly for kids, and fast for adults. Kids are constantly learning, and almost every experience is new and exciting. Whereas the older one gets, the less we see and do that we’ve never done before. So, according to this theory, familiarity not only breeds contempt, but it speeds up time.

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Photo by Adina Voicu

As we get older, we generally feel the need to slow down and enjoy life. We’ve earned it after all. But if slowing down to relax means speeding up the later years, perhaps it’s time to rethink how we go about it. We need to fill the days with new stimulation, take up new hobbies, challenges, travel. And next time we slow down to smell the roses, let’s make sure it’s a new variety. Maybe include some freesias and frangipanis, or go visit a botanic garden and learn something new about nature’s gifts. How about a trip across continents to see the great gardens of the world? The point is, if challenging the brain is said to slow down time, then bring on the challenges, I say.

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Photo by Rick Lee

Whichever way you choose to look at it, our lives are short and we have to make the most of every minute. For me, I’ll take new and exciting any day of the week if it helps extend my time on earth. But then again, maybe I can find that wormhole and it will take me back full circle, a loop in time, and I’ll start all over again. I’ll find myself standing in front of the clock in Chester with its verse by Twells, and think: where have I seen that before, as the shivers stand the hairs on my neck, and my skin turns to gooseflesh. Oh, and by the way, it’s nearly Christmas again.

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Image courtesy of PIRO4D and Rick lee

Waifs & Strays

There are pansters and plotters. As a panster, I begin my novels by taking the germ of an idea, a starting point, and just start writing, allowing the story to develop naturally as I go (writing by the seat of my pants). I never quite know where the journey might take me, or what characters I’ll meet along the way. My new novel – Black Bones, Red Earth – started in this way, with just the hint of an interesting tale.

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I never quite know where the journey will take me

The seed from which my new book grew, was, in fact, a part of my mum’s own life story. Mum stunned everyone when well into her eighties, she revealed that she had been brought up in an orphanage, a secret she had kept for over 80 years. Apparently, my maternal grandmother had died of TB when Mum was just four years old. Mum and her sisters, aged two and seven, were sent away to an orphanage on the Cumbria coast, by my grandfather. He was serving in the army at the time, and it just wasn’t done for men to raise little girls. This was the thinking at the time.

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Mum (right) and her sisters, little orphans

It’s hard to imagine how traumatic it must have been for the three little ones to be uprooted, packed away after only just losing their mother, thinking their father didn’t want them anymore, and finding themselves amongst strangers. The orphanage in Whitehaven was run by the Waifs and Strays Society, later to become the Church of England Children’s Society.

But why had my mum hidden her past for so many years, and why had she invented a different childhood that omitted the orphanage altogether? She told us that she had been too ashamed to tell the truth. The stigma of being an orphan in a small English town had been difficult to bear, especially during school years, when children at the local school would make fun of the orphan kids who lived in the home for strays. I can only guess at the cruel taunts from those children. But Mum was a fighter, and she quickly learned to look after herself and her sisters.

Ashamed of being an orphan

Mum survived her time in the strict establishment, where children rose between three and four in the morning to begin chores before school. The home’s overriding mission was to prepare children for employment, and so they were put to work with a lengthy list of daily duties. Mum said she was never mistreated, but that life was hard for the little girls in care. On her thirteenth birthday, Mum had to leave the home and was sent into service, shipped off in the goods department on a train to the coastal town of Hythe in Kent. “I had a name tag hanging around my neck, like a piece of baggage,” Mum told us. There she became the parlour maid for a doctor and his family, and was again singled out as ‘the orphan kid’. Mum vowed from then on that no one would ever know about her past. She joined the army when she was eighteen, her father’s regiment, the Green Howards, and served throughout the Second World War. Mum said she made peace with her father, but I’m not sure she ever forgave him.

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Irene Lee (Mum) 1918 – 2015

Mum’s revelation explained a lot about her character. At five-foot-one, she was as tough as they come. She took no-nonsense and would stand up for, and to, anyone. It also explained why she was so passionate about kids who needed help, working tirelessly for many years raising funds for children’s causes, especially the Church of England Children’s Society, and overseas charities, all while raising five kids of her own.

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British child migrants, courtesy Molong Historical Society

The idea for my book started with an English woman, like Mum, in the twilight of her years, her secret orphaned childhood revealed. That’s about where the similarities end, but it set me on a path that eventually led me to explore the traumas of child migrants, orphaned children shipped to Australia after the war. During this line of research, I also discovered the hardships suffered, under the name of child protection, by Aboriginal children – The Stolen Generation – who were separated from their families and placed in mission homes. These two stories came together to form the backbone of my novel.

Black Bones, Red Earth, is in the final stages of editing and should be released before Christmas.

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Sweet Sorrow

I remember sitting with my young son once, watching a movie, a sad movie about a dog. I knew the scene was having an effect on him because it had a similar one on me. I watched him for a moment, feeling for him as the tears began to flow. When he realised I was watching, he turned and said he had an onion in his eye. It’s an excuse I’ve used myself since then.

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Photo by Steve Buissinne

Sometimes, emotions get the better of us, even when we try to control them. They set the tone for each of us in our daily lives. We wake in an emotional state, be it happy, sad, stressed, angry or relaxed, and head out into our day, reacting to the world and coping with our many moods. But these feelings can change in an instant. You awake to the sun shining through your window; the birds are singing; life is good. But then you glance at the alarm. Why didn’t it go off after you set it? You’ve overslept for crying out loud, and now you’ve missed the bus to work. Disaster has struck, and all because you lay there thinking happy thoughts. We’ve all been there. A letter in the mail to say you owe back-taxes just after getting a pay rise. A bump in your brand new car even though you never got a scratch on the old one. Emotions have a way of swinging with the breeze and with the events surrounding us. And, of course, they can play out in the opposite direction; you start off irritable but the day keeps getting better. By evening your floating on air. Bring on that bottle of wine before dinner; life is great. (might not be in the morning when you regret the second bottle of wine) Emotions play a significant part in our decision making; they affect everything from impulse buying to picking a partner, job decisions to which shoes you should wear. It’s impossible to go through life without experiencing an emotional response to everything in it.

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Photo by Gino Crescoli

There are generally recognised lists of emotions that include all the usual suspects. Anger, joy, sadness, fear, disgust, surprise. There are others like embarrassment, shame and pride. And what’s clear is that we can experience different, even opposing emotions simultaneously. The anxiety we feel on the first day of work, for instance, is usually accompanied by excitement, perhaps even pride, along with terror at the thought of failure. Scientists have all manner of explanations to tell us what, how and why emotions evolved in humans, and why they play such an essential role in daily life. Many of those explanations go back to basic survival instincts, like fight-or-flight, getting pleasure from eating certain foods, or the need to jealously protect your mate from intruders. Science can explain the physiological responses by talking about neurotransmitters and chemical stimulation. They’ll highlight the importance of hormones like cortisol, adrenalin, and melatonin. These all play a part in our emotional state. To most of us, however, it’s merely a question of how we feel at any one moment and how we interpret the emotions. We also need to react to the feelings of those around us.

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Photo by John Hain

Understanding body language is vital in our interactions with others. How we express our emotional state helps us communicate our state of mind. A smile can bring instant ease when confronted with a stranger. But subtle changes in that same smile can turn it from a greeting to a smirk, and in an instant to an aggressive warning of contempt or bravado. Tears are a display of pain, but also a way of saying to others that we may need help. We learn these cues from birth.

Sometimes we cry for no reason at all

Of all the physiological responses to emotions, tears are perhaps the most telling, but once again, they can be the result of very different emotions that can run side-by-side. We cry for many reasons, and in recent years, we’ve been encouraged to use tears freely as a vent for our emotions, especially when it comes to men. There are still those alpha-males who think tears are for the girls, but more and more men feel free to express their feelings by letting the tears flow. It’s long been known to have a therapeutic effect, a powerful way to get past grief. Sometimes laughter brings us to tears, and again, this brings conflicting emotions into close relationships. We cry when we are overwhelmed by emotions at either end of the scale; joy vs pain, despair vs happiness. We cry at weddings and funerals, at winning and losing, and we sometimes cry for no reason at all. I recall a moment when driving alone one day. I switched on the radio just in time to hear a boy chorister singing a requiem at Westminster Abbey, the sound so pure, I felt suddenly overwhelmed and brought to tears. I’ve heard of such instances before, but to be affected to such extreme emotion, purely by the beauty of sound, was indeed something I’ll never forget. I’ve been reduced to blubbering many times in my life, times when nothing could hold back the need to weep, though I’ve often felt the need to hide it. Perhaps the younger generations will feel less inhibited, but I’ve a feeling they’ll have a lot more to cry about.

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Photo by Cheryl Holt

Loss is a common reason people tear up and bawl. Like most people, I’ve lost family, friends and loved ones who’ve passed away, and, my family and I have said goodbye many times when we’ve migrated around the world, leaving behind those we hold dear. But the loss of those close to us is when those darned emotions start playing tricks again. Our tears are full of mixed feelings, and sadness is tinged with the happy memories we’ve shared. In grieving a loss, we experience all manner of emotions, and they are often at odds with one another. This is because you can’t have grief without knowing the joy of love, and if you never had love, you can never know the real tragedy of grief. That’s why parting is such sweet sorrow.

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Photo courtesy of S. Hermann & F. Richter

 

That’s why parting is such sweet sorrow

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.’

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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.’

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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.’

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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.