That’s what friends are for

Technology, it’s changed our lives completely, and it doesn’t look like slowing down anytime soon. It’s all designed to make life easier, right? Well, that’s the idea. Everything is digital, and there’s an app for everything, from counting your heartbeats to counting your money–not mine; that’s kept under my analogue mattress.

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Photo by Rawpixel

Embracing the digital age means making digital friends. Even if we never see them in person, we can communicate with friends and send our love and selfies to the far reaches of the world, the galaxy even–don’t laugh, there’s a little green alien been texting me lately, something to do with cleaning my carpets at half price; today only, conditions apply. When we’re not getting sold something special, we need our technological devices to keep in touch with our growing list of acquaintances, and just because we don’t have friends of our own, doesn’t mean we can’t join in the fun; there’s an app that allows us to invent them. Seriously! It’s available from the Apple store, and it’s called, I am important. Download the app, and you can create fake friends and have them send you messages and love to impress those non-friends who might be watching. It even has a phoney diary to arrange your busy schedule, lunch dates, parties and such, with all your fake friends. Wow! How good would that make you feel; important, right? Check it out if you need someone special in your life.

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I Am Important App

Social media apps don’t make our lives easier, but they do sometimes take over our existence. They’re like babies; they demand all our time. They change the way we think, communicate and interact with other human beings, especially real ones. Whatever the application, we’re drawn continuously to our smartphones, tablets and computer screens. We panic if they are not within reach. Go to the shops and realise you left your phone lying on the kitchen table, and it’s as if the sky has fallen in on you. You rush to phone home and check it’s still there on the table, then scream, because you don’t have your phone. It’s a nightmare. I can hear the modern day Lindy Chamberlain cry out, ‘Help, the dingo’s got my smartphone!’

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Dingoes photo courtesy of Perth Zoo

Help! The Dingo’s got my i-phone!

Without the means for instant communication, there’s a real sense of anxiety; we feel naked, cut adrift from the real world–it is the real world isn’t it, that cyber world of information and social media? We’ve developed a need to know who’s online and if they are talking about us, or to us. We need to know if they’ve seen our latest silly photo, and we need to know there’s someone out there in cyberspace waiting to hear from us. Go ahead and laugh, but to many, that is the real world. So are we escaping; are we bypassing reality and living a life of make-believe, or is this the new reality?

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When you forget your smartphone               Photo by Aaron Blanco-Tejedor

I myself am not addicted. I can go for minutes without looking at my phone. I once mistakenly allowed the battery to die completely and didn’t panic. I calmly put it on charge and fired up my i-pad; no harm done. Back-ups are so important for your hardware and software; it’s like having a friend you can count on when all your real friends are busy.

I wonder how many of us could go cold turkey and dump the smartphone and tablets altogether? Imagine using the phone only when you had to call someone to talk; now that would be different. But dropping out of the real world–the one where apps control the laws of nature–wouldn’t be so easy. If we did put the phone in the drawer and throw away the key, how would we know about all those cool things to purchase, things we never imagined we needed? Isn’t it funny how your phone knows when you need something? It’s as though they’re listening in through that tiny microphone. I broke wind the other day and an ad for air freshener popped up on my phone. And if we didn’t have smartphones, how would I let everyone know that I’ve put up my latest blog post? Enough said; I’m in it for the long-haul and my digital devices will tell me how long that will be–there’s an app called Heaven I might try.

 

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Photo by Pawel Czerwinski

Call me!

New Year, Time for Resolve

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Photo by Holger Link

It’s the end of another year, time once again to look back, evaluate, then turn our attention to the next twelve months. I must say I’m happy with the year just ending, but it’s flown by in the blink of an eye. I sometimes feel like I’m on a runaway train, heading for the end of the line and I’ve got so much I want to accomplish during what’s left of the journey. Time then for plans and resolutions.

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Photo by Pawel Czerwinski

I’ve always felt a strong sense of new beginnings come January first. Time to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. It’s a long tradition to use the opportunity to set goals and resolve to do the difficult things. I think the best New Year’s resolution I ever made– and kept– was to give up smoking. It wasn’t the first time I tried, but that one was successful. That was forty years ago now, and I’ll be forever thankful for the decision to give the cough-sticks the flick. I gave up alcohol around the same time and was also successful– until the next night. I do moderate my intake these days, but a nice glass of red is my reward for getting things done. There have been plenty of fails, when it comes to good intentions, but also lots of successes.

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Photo by Roman Fox

2018 saw me reach several important goals. Along with my partner, Chris, I’ve been riding my bike and exercising at least twice per week to get fit. It takes a fair bit of doing when you want to get other things accomplished, the days are too hot, or too cold; there are plenty of other excuses too, but we are both better for the effort and are now enjoying our time outdoors as a priority.

New book in the works

During the year I managed to get Alexander Bottom & the Dreamweaver’s Daughter published, and I’ve experienced some reasonable success with it across several countries. Thanks to everyone who bought it; I really do appreciate your support. I learned a lot from the experience. I’m pleased to say that I’ve now written, and am just applying the final touches to my new adult fiction novel, Black Bones, Red Earth. Set predominately in the Australian outback, the story follows the life of Katherine, a world war two orphan, sent to Australia as a child migrant during the early fifties. I’ll be letting you know more very soon, and my goal is to be published by mid-year at the latest.

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New Novel, by Lee Richie

Many thanks to everyone for reading my blog each month. I look forward to sharing my thoughts throughout 2019 and take this opportunity to wish everyone a Healthy, Wealthy and Happy New Year.

 

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Photo by Nordwood Themes

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Who the Hell are You?

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Photo by Jonathan Farber

I’ve been working on our family history and got to thinking about inherited traits. What characteristics of those long forgotten ancestors are still evident in me? Our family line can be traced accurately back three hundred years, at which point the evidence gets harder to find, and three hundred years is not long in the scheme of things. That’s where DNA comes in. For a few hundred dollars, a simple test returns the makeup of your ancestry, and while interesting, for most, it’s usually not going to reveal any earth-shattering information about your past; at least, that’s what people think.

Too much Spanish wine

I’d guess that like most Anglo-Saxons, I’ve got a bit of Viking in me somewhere, probably Celt; a little German or French perhaps. My optometrist reckons I’ve got Iberian genes; he can tell from looking in my eyes, he says. Perhaps I just eat too much paella and drink too much Spanish wine, or maybe I have some Spanish explorer’s blood, and that’s where I get the need to travel. With the popularity of DNA testing and the cheap costs that go along with it, it’s inevitable that some surprises are going to come along, and some real shocks too.

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Photo by Liam Welch

 

Who you think you are and where you come from is not always as clear as you may think. A close friend of mine– let’s call her Dot for the sake of anonymity– had her world shattered in the most bizarre circumstances when her father died. She had not been getting along with her mother for some years at the time, but with her father’s passing, she put her feelings aside and came to her ageing mother’s support. As is so often the case with elderly people needing care, it was a thankless task for Dot. As her mother’s health declined, she became abusive towards her carer. One day, to spite Dot, she revealed that Dot’s deceased father was not her real dad. Of course, this news was devastating, and Dot’s mother refused to reveal who the real father was. A few years later, Dot’s mother passed away. Dot went to her house to clean it out and found her (Dot’s) birth certificate, which stated clearly that Dot’s father was, in fact, her real father after all, but in an extraordinary twist, her mother was not her real mother. Dot’s father had brought a child of his own to the marriage and never revealed the truth to Dot. Subsequently, Dot tracked down her real mother, who was still alive, and Dot found she was one of twelve children. She thought she was an only child but now has eleven brothers and sisters. Wow! All those Christmas presents.

Buyer beware!

With DNA tests, it’s a case of buyer beware. Are you sure you want to know? Had Dot had her DNA tested, it would certainly have revealed the truth, and it seems that this kind of revelation is becoming quite common, given the availability of tests. Secret liaisons and casual affairs can lead to some interesting lines of ancestry. Who would guess before taking that swab of saliva, that they came from a long line of milkmen? What isn’t always known is that after taking the test, results are compared to anyone else on the database. So suddenly finding you have sisters and brother, fathers and mothers, that you didn’t know about, can be a very real consequence.

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Photo by Louis Reed

There are other serious implications concerning these tests; some offer medical information on a genetic level. While some would rather not know the results, there is potentially lifesaving repercussions in knowing that you carry certain genes.

So does having this knowledge get us any nearer to discovering where we got that artistic streak, or that athletic prowess, why some are good with numbers or have a head for science? Maybe, and as the development of DNA analysis continues, who knows what may be revealed in the future with a simple spit. Didn’t witches do that once, look in your spittle and tell your fortune? I’m not sure if I want mine tested; I’m fairly confident about my own ancestry, although I do have a hankering for a bottle of milk now and again.

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Photo by Monika Grabkowska

Beyond the Razor Wire

It’s a daunting prospect when the steel doors clang shut behind you, and you look up to the high prison walls that separate you from freedom. Razor wire, armed guards in watchtowers, CCTV cameras watching your every move, it’s enough to make one appreciate life on the outside and the liberty we take for granted. Once inside Goulburn’s infamous maximum security prison, getting out is top of my priorities. I’m confident that any of the five hundred inmates feel the same way. Home to some of Australia’s most notorious criminals, Goulburn is a formidable prison fortress.

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Goulburn Maximum Security Prison

I came to Goulburn prison, to conduct interviews, and to research prisoner work programs for a magazine assignment. I wanted to know what role employment within the prison system had in the rehabilitation of criminals once released, and their employability within specific industries. After passing through metal detectors, body scans– thankfully no strip searches– and identity checks, I am accompanied to the workshops, deep within the prison. Visitors are issued with duress alarms before entry. If needed, the push of a button brings everyone running, but I’m not worried. A door locks securely behind me, another is unlocked ahead, and I make my way even further into the facility. I’m immediately struck by the normality of the scene when I reach the work area. It could be any of the thousands of woodworking shops I have seen over my years in the business. Except that the guy operating the router could be serving life for murder, the one on the saw dealing drugs and weapons. They’re all normal, everyday guys of course, or could be if life had led them on different paths. Prisoner Joe gives me a nod and a smile. He’s either friendly or marking me down for his girlfriend. Joking aside, everyone seems relaxed and cooperative with my questions.

Thankfully, no strip search

On the face of it, life inside seems to follow the typical pattern of working hours. I visit the furniture workshop, the textile plant and extensive kitchens. It seems bizarre that I’m standing next to prisoners carrying butcher’s knives and power tools. “It’s a trust thing,” says the prison officer. “but we account for everything before they go back to their cells.” He goes on to admit there are incidents; people do get hurt when things go awry. Work programs are partially designed to keep prisoners occupied. Goulburn’s prison Governor tells me that idle hands do the devil’s work; it’s his priority to keep everyone safe and compliant, and keeping them busy is a huge part of that task, though he acknowledges the importance of preparing prisoners for life on the outside. Prisoners will push the limits and try to get away with as much as they can. Contraband is a big problem, and inmates are subjected to random strip searches on a regular basis. Cells are searched routinely, but still, the illegal items find their way inside. Phones and drugs are high on the wanted list, and they will find any means to brew alcohol. “They’re quite ingenious,” the guard tells me.

It’s a trust thing

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Prisoners share small cells. My guide says they try for two to a cell, but growing numbers mean three is not uncommon. Self-harm is another risk that officers have to deal with. Cells are moulded with no hanging points, “but where there’s a will there’s a way,” he says. Clothes are tear proof, and there are no belts or shoelaces, but the guard goes on to describe how a prisoner used his underpants to kill himself. “They all have to wear paper undies now,” he tells me, a little too casually.

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Cells are modular and carefully designed

I’m told by those in charge, that socio-economic conditions are by far the most significant factor when it comes to why people offend, and why they inevitably return to prison. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to understand that fact. Many of the inmates I saw have never had a job. They come from broken homes and families; their parents never had jobs. Often abused as children, they learn to follow in the same steps and become clones of their parents. They turn to crime because it offers the easiest path. Work and training programs while inside are essential opportunities for prisoners to learn an alternative way, and can help turn lives around. Finding employment is vital if those freed are to contribute and integrate back into society, without returning to crime.

 

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There are no easy answers when it comes to reducing prisoner numbers and addressing the causes behind their incarceration. I look back on my life and feel lucky to have had parents with values, values that prevailed during those crossroad moments when life could have taken me down a very different road. I stand within the prison walls and wonder if that could be me over there, with the ponytail and the gang tattoos serving life? If I’d had the same upbringing as him, quite possibly. “I came from a large, low-income family, but that didn’t make me turn to crime.” It’s a line we’ve all used at some time or other, and it definitely applies to me, but then again, I was never abused as a child; I didn’t have parents who stole or committed acts of violence. They weren’t drunks and didn’t hang out with drug addicts and violent criminals. I had an education, unlike many who are left to roam the streets looking for mischief, those first steps to a life of crime. I had prospects of work, they have almost none. I’m not excusing anyone for their sins; I’m just stating the facts.

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The environment is a factor in a life of crime

Goulburn supermax prison holds Australia’s very worst offenders. Men like serial killer, Ivan Milat, mass murderer Malcolm Baker; there are convicted terrorist and gang leaders: there’s no hope of rehabilitating people like these and I’m not sure we want to. For some, the term, lock-em-up and throw away the key, seems appropriate. But with prison populations growing, we do need to find solutions that stop released prisoners reoffending and even better, from offending in the first case. Learning work skills and the disciplines of daily work is a small step in the right direction, but it’s akin to closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. We need to concentrate our efforts on children who are vulnerable to bad influences. We need measures to identify those at risk and catch them before they take the wrong path. Easier said than done, I know, and it takes money and resources.

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We need to concentrate our efforts on children

It’s with some relief that I gain my release. My belongings, phone, wallet, keys, belt, are returned, and I step through the doors to freedom, I hear the clang of steel behind me, and I’m kind of glad I managed to keep my life on the straight and narrow, and grateful for parents who cared. It’s a reminder that life is pretty good on the outside, and once again, the love of a family is everything.

 

Life is pretty good on the outside

Lord of the Ring – My Precious!

 

This is an amazing story about luck; it’s entirely true.

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Photo by Dylan Nolte

I watched one of those Facebook videos where they show near misses, the ones where people escape car crashes by milliseconds and millimetres, and it got me to thinking about luck. Some say we make our own luck, but this is only true to a point. We all need a bit of dumb luck in our lives. You see it all the time in sports. Take football for instance. You can have the best team in the world, multi-million dollar players who for the most part create their own luck by practising hard all their lives to be the best. Do they still need luck? Of course they do. We see it week in week out, the odd bounce of the ball, a deflection, a referee’s poor decision or an unfortunate injury, these are the sort of things they have no control over, no matter how hard they train. And life is like that for all of us; we all get the unlucky bounce from time to time.

Luck plays a part in our health, even down to which genes we inherit, the bugs we breathe and the unfortunate accidents in life. Then there are the sliding door moments, where luck plays a part in timing. A few seconds here or there and we either find or miss a partner for life. Most of us need a bit of luck. We buy lotto tickets and scratchies in the hope of the big win, against impossible odds, yet still we buy them in the hope we’ll be lucky. But where does luck end and divine intervention begin?

Where does luck end and divine intervention begin?

Sometimes in life, the odds against us seem impossible. We look at the mountain facing us and fold at the wayside before we even begin. If the mountain is Everest, we need a special kind of belief if we’re going to reach the summit. It takes a lot to have faith in the impossible because we see the odds stacked so heavily against us, we often don’t even try. One such moment occurred in my life.

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Photo by Jeremy Bishop

First, you have to imagine the scene. I’m with my better-half, Chris, two hours out to sea, anchored off a remote reef on the Great Barrier Reef. There’s nothing above water level– no islands, just ocean– and there’s a heavy chop on the surface with ocean currents. We are with a group of about twenty, snorkelling over an area the size of a football field. The reef below us is thick with colourful corals and exotic fish and varies in depth from ten to fifty feet, and in some places, we stare even further into the depths of the abyss.

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Photo by Alexandra Rose

So here we are, miles from land, our initial fear of open ocean has dissipated, and we are enjoying the magnificent view below the surface. The water is cold however, and while we spot some large turtles swimming, I know one little turtle that has disappeared almost entirely into its shell in the frigid water. My fingers also shrink, and I watch in horror as my wedding ring floats off my finger and dances to the depths of the reef like a puppet on a string, except there’s no string. I try to dive after it, but I’m not the strongest of swimmers, and the salt water keeps me quite buoyant. I can’t get down the twenty feet needed to recover the ring, even if I could see where it landed. A drop in the ocean, needle in a haystack comes to mind. Chris seems to think I’m showing off and starts to take photographs of my deep water aquatics with her waterproof camera, as I dive for the bottom.

The ring
My Precious!

I finally surface and tell of my misfortune. When I put my face back in the water, we’ve already drifted from the spot, the corals are too thick, and the ring has disappeared forever. Chris swims back to the boat and asks one of the professional divers to see if he can help. It’s ridiculous I tell him when he arrives ten minutes later. Did I mention we are in the middle of the ocean? Let’s try, says Flipper (not his real name). I laugh at his enthusiasm and eventually give in and agree to swim back and forth across our football field size reef, in a grid pattern no less. This is how the cops do it when looking for clues, though I’ve never seen them do it in the ocean. Did I mention we’re in the middle of the ocean?

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Photo by Jan Traid

Twenty minutes later, feeling cold and stupid for even trying, I see a tiny glint of gold on the seabed. Flipper, (not his real name) does his best impression of Golem, and dives for the bottom. He returns minutes later with my wedding ring, my precious!  I guess, just like in Lord of the Rings, a power higher than I, decided my wedding ring and I should be reunited against all the odds.

I see a tiny glint of gold

There’s probably a moral here, though I’m not sure what it is. Don’t give up, maybe. Someone once said, ‘difficult always takes a while, impossible takes a little longer.’ Perhaps it’s a lesson in belief; anything is possible with a bit of dumb luck.

Too Poor To Buy Cheap

My dad used to say, ‘Buy once and buy the best, we’re too poor to buy cheap.’ It always sounded a bit contradictory, but I knew what he meant. If you buy rubbish you end up having to buy again, costing you more in the long run. Dad gave a lot of other advice that I didn’t always take, like, ‘don’t play leapfrog with a unicorn,’ I hurt more than his feelings by not taking that advice. Seriously though, his words of wisdom stayed with me when it came to buying stuff. It’s a curse, of course, every time I need to make a purchase, I find myself analyzing, comparing and thoroughly doing my homework until I invariably need to spend on the most expensive product in the range. The trouble is, I want stuff that lasts and it costs the most. The answer to that problem is in the other part of Dad’s advice, ‘If you can’t afford it, wait until you can, don’t buy for the sake of it and don’t get into debt.’

Don’t play leapfrog with a unicorn

This train of thought got me to thinking about the quality and longevity of the things we buy and the need to buy new stuff. It’s increasingly difficult to buy only once, as everything we get these days seems to have a built-in life expectancy, inbuilt obsolescence. Products are guaranteed, of course, it’s just that they’re guaranteed to fail just after the warranty has run out. Gone are the days when things could last a lifetime and you could fix them yourself if you were anywhere near handy. I fondly remember many years ago, buying myself a Haynes workshop manual for my Mini Clubman so that I could repair it without the need for a mechanic. Following the step-by-step instructions, I removed the motor completely from the car, stripped it down on the kitchen table, reground the valves, reset the tappets, rebuilt the carburettor and put it all back together with a new set of gaskets. Surprise! The car ran like a dream. Proud of myself? You bet. Now, this may sound an easy job to you car buffs who work on cars all the time, and it probably is, but to a mechanically illiterate dummy like me, this was a great accomplishment, made possible by the inherent simplicity of combustion motors at that point in time. Try looking under the hood of today’s modern motors and working from a book, I dare you!

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Photo by Fancycrave

I recently watched a documentary on Cuba, and the story of my home-style mechanics came back to me. For almost sixty years, the country has lived with an embargo imposed by the United States of America. As a result, the country is like a time capsule. A blockade has largely prevented the import of goods from the outside world, leaving the residents with no alternative but to use what they already have; this includes motorcars and just about everything else we take for granted in the modern world. Now you would think this would leave Cuba on its knees, after all, how can anyone live without new stuff, right? But low and behold, they actually do! Take a drive down the streets of Havana, and you’re likely driving a nineteen–fifties or sixties model something. Could it be that these vehicles actually get people from A to B? Yep, they sure do, and have done for over fifty years.

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Photo by Augustin de Montesquiou

Rather than scrap things in Cuba, they are fixed, re-invented or recycled. Nothing goes to waste. Yet the sky hasn’t fallen and life hasn’t ground to a halt. (Maybe slowed a little, but is that a bad thing?) We in “advanced western countries,” turn over cars like we do everything else, we are brainwashed into wanting more, bigger, faster, newer, we couldn’t even contemplate a world where we spend only what’s necessary; what would we do without the latest model? I’m one of them, I’m not preaching here. But it does make you question, why? Why it is we feel the need for motor cars that travel three hundred kilometres an hour, with souped-up this and that, when our roads are so clogged with traffic, we rarely get out of second gear and speed limits restrict us to a crawl? We’ve been conditioned to want the latest of everything, and it feeds our consumption based world of excess. We are driven by want instead of need and it’s causing us to strip our world of precious resources, while we pollute the planet for generations to come.

The automobile industry is just one example of the world big business and their marketing psychologists have created for us. Politicians have been brainwashed too; they believe in perpetual growth that can only be sustained by consumerism. How about we live within our means, build what we need and save for a rainy day? Now there’s a thought!

How about we live within our means, build what we need and save for a rainy day?

We Lived In’t Shoebox

In my last blog, I talked about moments that define our lives, turning points where decisions are made that impact us forever. One such moment came back to me while watching good old Monty Python, the episode where the old guys compete to see who had the toughest upbringing. You know the one, right? ‘When I were a lad, we lived in’t shoebox at side o’t road.’ Then the response. ‘Luxury, pure luxury!’ When I finished laughing, I thought about how every generation must compare their early lives to those of their children’s. We all like to think we had it tougher.

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Photo by Ida Kammerloch

After emigrating to Canada, three small children in tow, and just the clothes on our backs, we found that the only accommodation we could afford was a tiny room above a strip bar with live music in the venue below. Our ‘shoebox’ measured around three metres by two metres and we shared a bathroom down the hall with other seedy looking hotel patrons. We had a kettle in the room but that was the extent of our kitchen facilities. Music shook our room, literally, until one o’clock during the work week and three a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. We were blessed with a respite on Sunday when the bar closed at midnight. This was not what we had in mind when we gambled our lives on a new life in Canada.

Live rock & roll until 3a.m.

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Photo by Edward Cisneros

It would be an understatement to say that we thought we had made a huge mistake. With heavy hearts, we looked at our young family and wondered what in the world we had done. I felt like crying. It would have been easy then, to admit our error, pack up and return to England, where I have no doubt we would have stayed, lesson learned, for the rest of our lives. But we didn’t and fortune favours the brave. We endured the hardship and before long had managed to get enough money to rent a house. We furnished our new abode lavishly with three single mattresses and one double (no bases), an old sofa someone gave us for free, and a rusting Hibachi grill. We managed to buy a cooker and fridge, and with the addition of various second-hand kitchen items, our home began to take shape, the world suddenly seemed brighter, and we were on our way.

Looking back now, these were pivotal moments, when life could have taken us far from our destiny. Did we have it tough? A little maybe, but certainly not as tough as some, and these are the treasured memories our lives are built on, stories to pass down with pride to the next generation, who will no doubt think we’re full of it.

We lived in’t shoe box o’t top of a strip club, luxury, pure luxury!