Monthly Blog

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.

Living the high life

There’s something magical about mountains. They’ve inspired authors, poets and painters for centuries, been a place of pilgrimage for some, escape for others. It’s no wonder that in many cultures they are worshiped as living beings, such is their power to elicit emotional responses. It’s just a natural reflex when we say that the very sight of them takes our breath away.

Photo by Rick Lee

My own love affair with high ranges began as a child, rooted in the passion shared by my parents. Mum and Dad had long been devoted mountaineers and fell walkers. They met during WWII in an army camp where they were both stationed in Northern Ireland. Such was their love for the mountains that they spent their honeymoon on leave climbing the mountains of the English Lake District and dreaming of a place amongst them to call home. Once they had a family, they took every opportunity to head north from our home in Liverpool to the mountains. The mountaineering genes soon took root in me, my sister and three brothers. Mum and Dad even named my older brother, Michael Mallory, after one of Dad’s mountaineering heroes, George Mallory, an English climber who died while trying to conquer Mount Everest.

Photo by Denis Lee circa 1963

Times were hard in those early years, but camping was an affordable option for a large family. Every summer we’d travel to Cumbria on the bus, each child carrying their own sleeping bag and camping paraphernalia. We would share a large canvas tent – it weighed about 70lbs – and Dad would lug it on his back along with his rucksack and cooking gear. We’d endure the English summer rains – Cumbria has the highest rainfall in the country – for a chance to don the hiking boots and head for the summits. Undeterred by weather, we trod a path through the high country, seven ducks in a row, and learned to enjoy the simple pleasures derived from overcoming the challenges these high mountains set before us.

Photo by Irene Lee

In my youth the pull of mountains continued. I’d hitch-hike with friends to camp amongst the peaks, sometimes pitching our tent high in the mountains, waking in the early dawn to find our campsite shrouded in mist, washing our faces in the icy mountain streams. It’s a feeling of isolation and tranquility I’ll never forget. Of take-your-breath-away moments in the mountains, I have many memories. One such experience occurred while climbing with a friend on Glyda Fawr in Snowdonia, Wales. Conditions were treacherous with freezing rain and mist. A thick layer of shiny ice covered every rock and boulder; we really should have aborted the climb and retired to a warm pub in safety. Nevertheless, challenged by the harsh conditions, we pressed on to the summit, knowing full well that there would be no panoramic views of the Welsh countryside, only the satisfaction of reaching the top in difficult circumstances.

It was like stepping into Heaven from the cold abyss

Fifty feet from the apex we emerged from the mist. ‘Topping out’ they call it, a halleluiah moment of revelation. It was like stepping into Heaven from the cold abyss, popping our heads through a trapdoor to see a new world emerge in all its glory. Stretched before me, a carpet of fluffy white cloud spread to every horizon beneath a pure blue sky. Only the summit of Snowdon – Wales’ highest mountain – poked through the clouds like an island in some fantasy world of cotton wool seas. At the time I had yet to fly in an aircraft and it’s a view I’ve since observed in the comfort of an air-conditioned cabin many times, but on that day with the rocks of the earth firmly beneath my feet, it was a sight that left me speechless and has stuck with me as a vivid memory ever since. 

Topping out! Photo by Gianni Crestani

My wife and I followed in Mum and Dad’s footsteps, spending our honeymoon hiking the fells of the Lake District. My own children were raised climbing those same mountains. We too spent our family vacations camping and hiking the high country. My wife shares that same love and we have had the good fortune to climb in the American Adirondacks, the Canadian Rockies, the Swiss and German Alps and volcanoes in the Pacific among others.

Photo by Rick Lee

It’s easy to understand just why mountain analogies are used to describe life’s challenges. It’s all about conquering things much bigger than ourselves. We set ourselves a challenge and slog away until we beat it. Like some of the physical peaks I’ve climbed, there have been many daunting challenges in my life. There were times I thought of giving up on some before refocusing and forging on to the top. Sir Edmund Hillary – another of Dad’s heroes – once said: “It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” Testing ourselves is something unique to humans. It’s in our character to strive and overcome. When ever the going gets too hard, I look to others for inspiration. I see those who face daily battles of immense proportions fighting back from terrible injury or illness, hardship and loss; these are the true heroes and it always brings back perspective to my own life with its peaks and valleys.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

It’s in the blood this passion I have for the ranges. Mum and Dad achieved their dream, their own private mountain conquered when they retired to a cottage in their beloved Lake District. Dad rests in a little church yard looking up to the fells. Mum was still climbing those high peaks well into her eighties and passed on aged 96. Her ashes are scattered on the mountains she loved so dearly.

Photo by Christine Lee

I retain an old canvas haversack from my teenage years and we’ve carted it around the world for decades. My wife has tried to throw it out many times and each time I’ve rescued it from the dustbin. She says she will bury me in it and that’s ok with me. When the time comes, I’d like my ashes to be packed in the old bag (not talking about the wife here) and carried to the summit of my favorite mountain where it should be buried for eternity amongst the peaks that have inspired my life.   

Escape to the Country

It’s been a while since my last blog. My computer crashed and had to go to computer hospital. Thankfully, my friend is a doctor and though my faithful Dell showed no evidence of a virus, the poor PC had to undergo radical reconstruction surgery. Like me, it’s getting on a bit and needs these regular updates to keep it going, but thanks to Doctor Whizz, my ageing Dell is now running like a spritely newborn and performing its duties with ease.

Photo by Annca

Speaking of viruses, I for one have had enough already. So far this year we’ve had devastating fires and pestilence; thankfully we live on a hill because it’s been raining nonstop for two days and floods are now imminent. I’m waiting for a plague of locusts to descend on the Southern Highlands and eat all our veggies from the garden plot. It’s a year of biblical events and I need to escape!  If only we could just fly away to some paradise, far from the Covid crowd and just chill. “You’re a writer,” I hear you say. “Just use your imagination and you’re on an exotic isle somewhere.” True, but I’m after the real thing, a warm breeze tickling the hairs on my skin, the fragrance of frangipani wafting in the night air, the rhythmic crash of waves against the rocks as a full moon rises. I want to sip on a tequila sunrise and watch the stars twinkle above the ocean, a steel band playing Kokomo at the beach bar in the background. D’oh! You’ve got me doing it, haven’t you; that imagination thing?

Photo by Rick Lee

Imagination is a powerful mode of transport. With travel options at a premium right now, I like to look back on times when we were able to venture far afield and to savour the precious memories I’ve accumulated. It’s a good time to take out the old photos and videos and relive the adventures of years gone by, and to dream of journeys to come when better times return. They will return.

Photo by Rick Lee

For now, we have to make the most of what we’ve got and memories can serve up a vivid escape from the day-to-day reality of this awful pandemic. I’m looking through my thousands of photos, one and a half terabytes of priceless moments, thankful once again to Doctor Whizz for making sure I had backups before Dell went down.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

A snap of local children takes me back to a village in Vanuatu, a stark moonscape image brings me to the rim of a volcano on Tanna. When I see the sky reflected in rice paddies, I’m transported back to Bali or the world heritage village of Shirakawago in remote Japan. A short video of a cigar maker takes me back to a steamy night in New Orleans, listening to live Jazz until dawn in the French Quarter. I can smell the cigar smoke in the humid night air as I enjoy it over again and pledge to return one day.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

Red sands glow in the United Arab Emirates, while the sight of rolling hills in Tuscany brings back the smell of pecorino cheese in the village of Pienza, pizza and red wine at a trattoria in Florence. These captured moments can be as real now as they were at the time. It’s that imagination thing again.

Photo by Rick Lee

There are other ways to escape confinement. Think local. There’s more than we imagine right on our doorstep. Unless you’re unfortunate enough to be confined to quarantine, in lock-down or isolation, a walk in the park can be just as therapeutic, a walk in the country even better. There’s something about nature that automatically provides an escape. It’s hard not to live in the moment when surrounded by such beauty. Even a garden can provide a myriad of distractions, there in every detail observed at close quarters. The veins on a leaf, the petals of a flower. The iridescence of an insect’s wing.

Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee
Photo by Rick Lee

It’s deep into winter here in the highlands. I’m watching trees thrashing in the wind and raindrops hanging like tears from empty branches; not the best time to go for a walk. But, from the window of my cosy office, I can see the first daffodils are splashing their brilliance on a miserable grey day, a show of hope, a sign of brighter times to come. A Crimson Rosella is fighting the wind to cling on to a branch and a Kookaburra, fluffed up in a ball of feathers, is waiting for a worm or a lizard to stir in the leaf litter. Spring is a month away but there’s a promise of better times in the air, times when we can emerge from isolation and travel this wonderful earth once again. Until then, I’ll open up the album and use my imagination to escape to the country. Any country will do.

Photo by Rick Lee

    

Any country will do

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 another time.

 

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