Category Archives: Life and things

The solstice is here.

Today, 22nd June 2019, is this year’s winter solstice here in the Southern Hemisphere. Our part of the Earth started moving North, back toward the Sun at 1:54am. In the UK, Europe, and the USA and Canada, it’s midsummer. The druids are arriving at Salisbury to watch the sun rise over the heel stone at Stonehenge and parties are gearing up everywhere. All these things are such a big deal in the North. The winter solstice is an even bigger deal, since it coincides with the blessed return of the sun. And Christmas, but that’s a later addition.

It’s not like that here in Australia. We celebrate the summer solstice because we have inherited the European traditions of Christmas but I’d bet that many Australians aren’t aware of the solstice, which is a few days before the 25th December. They just know it’s Summer holidays. Yay! The beach, presents, cricket!

Winter at Hervey Bay

Pelicans and people enjoying Winter at Hervey Bay

The winter solstice is even less of an event. But then, here in Hervey Bay sunrise was at 6:33, and sunset will be 17:07, giving us around ten and a half hours of daylight. That’s only three hours and nine minutes less than midsummer, so it’s not such a big deal. In comparison, London in midsummer gets sixteen hours and thirty-eight minutes of daylight. In winter, sunrise is at just after 8am, and sunset just before 4pm, around eight hours of daylight. And it’s usually cold and miserable all day. During June in Hervey Bay the maximum temperatures are usually in the low twenties – not a bad summer’s day in England.

Whatever the temperatures, going back not even one hundred years people needed to be interested in the change of the seasons. They needed to know when to plant crops, when particular food sources appeared, the patterns of animal behaviour and so on. All of them were astronomers, keeping an eye on the progression of the stars. And Australia has its own ‘Stonehenge’. Scientists have been investigating Wurdi Youang, large basalt rocks arranged in an egg shape, which can be used to observe the Summer and Winter solstices. The site could be as much as ten thousand years old, pre-dating Stonehenge. Here’s the story.

I remember the first time I went to Europe, to London and Amsterdam. It was November and especially coming from the bright, warm weatherof an Australian late Spring, arriving in the last throes of autumn was taxing. For a start it was cold, or, to put it another way, fucking freezing. Four degrees max? You’ve gotta be kidding me. For another, the sunlight was insipid when it was there, and it wasn’t there for long. The shadows were already lengthening at around 3pm and the sun was gone well before 5pm. After that was a long-drawn-out twilight. All that played havoc with my body clock. Twilight lasts for about five minutes in Australia. The sun goes down and that’s it, folks. Darkness is waiting in the wings to take the sun’s place.

So, although everywhere in the world gets a (roughly) twenty-four-hour day, and experiences two solstices and two equinoxes per annum, the experience isn’t the same everywhere. For those of you in the Northern Hemisphere, have a wonderful midsummer celebration. We in the South will shrug our shoulders and carry on.

 

 

The evolution of a swinging voter

1969 – student activist days Yes, that’s me. And for what it’s worth, the man behind me was a draft resistor.

I found an interesting article in the news the other day, talking about what appears to determine which party we vote for. The first words in the article are: ‘Many have tried guessing who first uttered this saying: “If you are not a liberal at 25, you have no heart. If you are not a conservative at 35, you have no brain”.’ That’s an age-based suggestion, that we change our voting patterns to become more conservative as we grow older. Maybe it’s a generational thing. The article is worth a read. Here’s the link.

I thought about how the way I vote has changed – because it has. In fact, I’ve thought about it a few times lately. I think there are a number of factors. Let’s start with social background.

I grew up in a working-class family. Of course my parents voted Labor, and so did I.

The Labor party was on our side, interested in the welfare of people like us, all about jobs and decent social services, health and education. Back when I was old enough to know anything about politics Robert Menzies, stalwart of the conservative establishment, finally retired in 1966 as the longest serving PM in Australia’s history. After him, in rapid succession, we had Harold Holt, who disappeared in the surf, then John McEwen who was deputy PM and had the top job for a few weeks until the Libs chose a new leader. That was John Gorton, who was eventually replaced by Billy McMahon, who faced the 1972 general election against a revitalised Labor party led by Gough Whitlam. In that tumultuous six years Harold Holt and John Gorton both won elections but the Prime Minister’s office had the same sort of revolving door we’ve seen in the years since 2007.

I went to university in the late sixties in the middle of the period of student activism all over the world. In Perth we protested against the French nuclear testing ground at Moruroa in the South Pacific. I attended marches against the war in Vietnam and against the conscription introduced in Australia at that time to provide troops for that conflict. Not everyone was called up. They called it a ‘birthday ballot‘, an event like a lottery draw that was shown on TV. Dates of birth were drawn and if your 20th birthday fell on one of those dates – you’re in the army, kid. If I’d been male, I would have been conscripted. It’s not a nice feeling.

So, it would be fair to say that, like many of my university mates, my political predilections were definitely socialist. When tall, eloquent, and charismatic Gough Whitlam finally replaced Arthur (Cocky) Callwell, bringing the Labor party into the post-war world, we were all delighted. Who could forget Gough’s famous ‘It’s Time’ election campaign? Up against a Liberal party in complete disarray with weak leadership and unpopular policies, Gough was a shoe-in. Labour won in a landslide. And he did some great things. Conscription was suspended, he introduced a new, free public health scheme known as Medicare, and he abolished university fees, among other things. Looking back, it’s remarkable how quickly the wheels fell off. Soon, the country was in debt to pay for the Government’s largesse. Gough forced an election to maintain his mandate – and was only just returned to power. It all ended in November 1975 when the Governor General dismissed the Government and forced a new general election. Gough’s brave new world had lasted about three years.

That unprecedented election was the first time I voted non-Labor and I found it difficult, hesitating with the pencil in my hand, reminding myself that Australia couldn’t go on like this.

Malcolm Fraser swept to power and immediately introduced austerity measures to pay for the debt. This was a difficult time for the country. There were many strikes, jobs were hard to find. It was almost like a class war, the workers versus the big end of town. It couldn’t go on.

Enter Bob Hawke, president of the ACTU and respected across the country. He’d been in parliament for about three years when he was elected leader of the Labor party. At the next election, he won handsomely and of course I voted for Labor. The first thing he did was negotiate an accord with the union movement – something he was uniquely positioned to do. Bob and his treasurer, Paul Keating, understood that workers won’t have jobs if business is not encouraged. The strikes stopped. The one exception was the airline pilots’ strike. Bob refused to cave to their demands and found other ways of keeping planes flying. He also de-registered the Builder’s Labourers Federation (BLF), one of the most militant unions. Everybody knew he meant business.

But he was always a pragmatist. While Medicare was retained, the Government introduced a special levy to pay for health services, and eventually university course fees returned. The pie-in-the-sky notion that abolishing fees would increase the number of able students who could attend university proved untenable. When I went to uni (on a scholarship) a very small percentage of working-class kids attended, let alone passed a course. Numbers passing a course didn’t change much when fees were abolished. There’s much more to success at university than paying course fees. But free courses were not sustainable.  Hawke and Keating introduced the Higher Education Contributions Scheme (HECS) which was effectively a student loan.

Meanwhile, we went through the ‘recession Australia had to have’ as Paul Keating famously explained. He took over as PM and while he won one election, lost the second to John Howard, who had been in and out of the Liberal party’s leadership job several times. I never liked Howard much but there’s no doubt he presided over a period of peace and stability, all the while clawing back the national debt so that for the first time in an age, Australia’s books were balanced and we had a surplus.

John Howard became the second-longest serving PM, eclipsing Bob Hawke’s run. During that time Kevin Rudd had become leader of the opposition and Australia had started to think it was time for new blood in the Lodge.

I thought Rudd would be okay. That was silly, wasn’t it?

Kevin 07 (he was elected in 2007) had obviously been watching what Hawke had done. He tried his own grandiose vision of an accord, inviting people from all walks of life to an elaborate talk fest that cost a heap of money and achieved nothing. He and one of his ministers ‘designed’ a national broadband network (NBN) on the back of a coaster in an aeroplane and decreed that the NBN would be built, so subsequent Governments were stuck with it. It was hardly a surprise that the estimated costs rose exponentially while at the same time the original approach – fibre optics to every household – was quickly eroded to a solution we could actually afford.

Then the global financial crisis happened. Australia was actually in a very strong position in comparison to other countries and we came through the GFC relatively unscathed. But the Labor party panicked and put in its own hare-brained ideas, like the $900 paid to most people to stimulate the economy. But you only got the money if you put in a tax return that year, so pensioners missed out. I’ll admit to being a cynic. I reckon the money would have been spent on the mortgage, or maybe on a big telly, which would benefit China.

Labor introduced other initiatives, like the ‘pink batts scheme’. Pink batts are glass wool material put into roof spaces to help insulate houses. It was supposed to help reduce power bills. The proposal was rushed through without proper controls and four young men died while installing the stuff. And there was a school buildings fund, where the Government paid grossly inflated prices for a school hall or a library. (Somehow, if buildings are publicly funded the cost seems to go up. Rather a lot.) Apart from that, though, while some schools received welcome additions, halls were built for schools about to be closed and libraries were built with no provision for books – just to name a couple of examples.

In short, they were all knee-jerk, reactionary activities designed to look like the Government was doing something. There was no proper planning, no cost/benefit analysis and certainly in the case of the pink batts scheme, cautionary advice from experts was completely ignored. The surplus nest egg that Howard and Costello had left behind when the Government changed hands was frittered away and the country was up to its eyeballs in debt.

Mister Rudd was very soon on the nose with the electorate. Seeing this, the men who ran the Labor party factions decided it was time for Rudd to go, replaced by Australia’s first female PM, Julia Gillard. No, I wasn’t impressed, even when she won a closely-fought election. She had been responsible for the school buildings fiasco and her famous quote was, “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.” Hamstrung with a minority government, Gillard soon became almost as unpopular as Rudd had been. But things were looking bad for Labor with an election looming. The boys running the factions decided that maybe they should have kept Rudd. It seemed the voters were not impressed with ‘faceless men’ getting rid of a sitting PM. Gillard would have to go. The same men who ‘executed’ Rudd now engineered Gillard’s downfall and the return of Rudd.

That episode might be seen to have set the tone of Australian politics but that’s not actually true. Go back to the late sixties when Menzies stepped down and note the turnstile in the PM’s office. Be that as it may, the Australian public had had enough and Labor lost the election. In fact, the Austrlian public had had about enough of both major parties. Quite a few turned to the smaller parties and independents, a trend which would prove costly.

In retrospect, the Liberals weren’t yet ready to return to government. The party was still in disarray after the departure of Howard, Costello, and a few of the stalwarts. Tony Abbott had been great in opposition but turned out to be not the greatest PM. For me, his most cringe-worthy moment was when he made a “captain’s call” to reinstate knighthoods in Australia and handed one of the first to Prince Phillip! Yes, that one, who’s married to Queen Elizabeth.  Abbott was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull, a move I heartily endorsed.

I had high hopes for Turnbull but he ended up being a disappointment.

After poncing about at the helm for some time, Turnbull called a double dissolution, where all the seats in the Senate and the House of Reps are declared vacant [1]. The issue causing the spill was the refusal of the Senate to pass legislation to reinstate the Australian Building and Construction Commission to oversee construction contracts in Australia. This move was the result of a Royal Commission into the thuggish behaviour of trade unions, particularly in the building sector. The BLF hadn’t really gone away, its members had just become part of the enormous Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). There had also been a number of instances highlighting corruption within the union hierarchies, with union officials rorting their members. But during the whole election campaign Turnbull never referenced the findings of the royal commission, never asked Labor the hard questions about union behaviour in the workplace. He won the election – just. But once again, the PM had lost the respect of the people. As Turnbull’s popularity slumped and the next election loomed, it was inevitable that there would be yet another internal coup.

To his surprise, I suspect, Scott Morrison got the mantle as PM. The next election was months away, and most people in Australia, including me, thought Labor would win easily. No, that notion did not please me. The Labor leader, Bill Shorten, had been one of the faction bosses who deposed Rudd, then deposed Gillard. There were a few other factors relating to his union activities that led me to distrust the man. I also had little faith in the party’s sitting members. It seemed hardly any of them had ever had a real job. They went from university to working for the unions and then into parliament. The union movement had been bleeding membership for years. In quite a few cases union organisers had proved to be corrupt, fleecing members for their own benefit.In contrast to the Hawke Accord days, the president of the ACTU, Sally McManus, declared it was okay to break ‘unjust’ industrial laws. [2] I felt the unions had far too much power in the political party.

I didn’t much like the idea of Shifty Shorten and his Union thugs running the country.

As the election approached, Labor, cock-sure of itself, made some stupid, arrogant errors. In response to concerns from shareholders (many of them pensioners) about the removal of franking credits [3], Chris Bowen, the opposition treasury spokesman, declared, ‘if you don’t like it, don’t vote for us’. Shorten was asked about the economic impact of his proposed climate change initiatives, such as ensuring half the cars sold in Australia by 2030 would be electric. He couldn’t answer. Shades of Labor past, yet another Great Idea with no analysis of the impact.

It seems to me that Labor has lost the plot. The party used to be about low-income workers, jobs, and security. I understand their concerns about climate change. It’s a huge concern in the community. The party’s current policy of shutting down coal-fired power stations (while still selling the stuff to China and India) has already driven up power prices, deterring business investment and sending businesses overseas. The state of South Australia is an object lesson in how well those policies work. Those that suffer are always the poor. Pensioners, single income families, people earning minimum wages, small businesses trying to make a go of it, farmers. And for what? Uncosted fairyland schemes which will do nothing to change the climate. Sure, encourage renewable energy. Start with maybe changing the building code so that all new buildings MUST have solar panels and solar hot water systems. What about legislation to phase out plastic made from oil, replacing it with biodegradables? Put electric car recharging stations in the big cities by all means. Set up targets that can be achieved over time. But just right now, when the Government has once again clawed back some of Labor’s national debt, we can’t afford to splash out on hypotheticals. One of the biggest mistakes Shorten made, to my mind, was summoning the ghost of Gough Whitlam in his appeal to the Australian people. He was channelling “it’s time” – but people like me were channelling Gough’s disastrous three years in office. No thanks, been there, done that.

So you see, I’ve changed the way I vote because of history. I remember Gough’s excesses, Hawke’s pragmatic brilliance, Howard’s stewardship, Rudd’s spendthrift egomania. Morrison strikes me as a decent, ordinary family man who genuinely wants to make a difference. I can’t say the same about Malcolm Turnbull, or Kevin Rudd – or Bill Shorten. They just wanted the crown.

I voted for Scott Morrison to give him a chance to steady the ship of state and do something to help the battlers who are already doing it tough. If a Labor leader comes along who can actually create something like Hawke’s Accord, I might shift my position. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

If you’re still here, thanks for reading. These are my thoughts, my opinions and I know not everybody will agree with me. That’s okay. I believe in freedom of speech.

Here, have a picture of a kitten.

 

Crocodiles and coastal scenery

For our penultimate day at Cairns we hired a car so we could do some touring in our own time. Just the drive from Cairns up towards Port Douglas is worthwhile. The mountains rise up virtually from the ocean, with only a narrow strip of flat ground before the beach. The road is commensurately narrow, snaking around the coastline and affording wonderful views up the coast.

We were on our way for a visit to  Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, a crocodile farm and zoo for a close-up look at Australia’s greatest predator.

Looks peaceful – but there are 21 crocs in that lagoon

Salt water crocodiles are ancient, clever, sneaky, and as far as they’re concerned, humans are just another sort of meat. Crocodile hunting was banned in the 1970’s because their numbers were so low. They were an easy target and their skins were worth a fortune – so much of a fortune that they were nearly wiped out. Since then, they’ve re-established themselves with a vengeance and become a tourist drawcard. So we went to look at crocs, as you do. This link will give you detailed information about the species. For Americans, alligators are similar in appearance to salties, but they don’t get as big. Here’s a comparison between alligators and salties. A four-metre alligator is big, a saltie has a way to go. According to the rangers, alligators are also not as nasty.

In Australia we call the salt water, or estuarine, crocodiles salties. The name is misleading because ‘salt water’ crocodiles can live very happily in fresh water, as well as in the ocean. In the wild they can become very large, and a danger to people and livestock. A big croc will take a cow, let alone a dog, a kangaroo, or a man. Farmers can’t shoot them anymore, but rangers will trap them and relocate them to a croc farm, where the big boys will live out their years making baby crocs. You might think it would be enough to relocate the big males to a different, uninhabited part of the world but scientists have discovered that crocs will find their way home just like birds and other animals. Here’s an interesting article about a croc relocated from on side of Cape Yorke Peninsula to the other and went home, swimming 400 kilomteres around the Cape to get there.

Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures used to have one male (Ted) who was over five metres long – the second largest croc in captivity. They reckon he was around one hundred and three years old. He’d lost all but one of his teeth and one eye, and the eye he did have was blind. He died of natural causes several months ago. Last time we came here we were told about a four and half metre male called Snappy Tom, which was caught on the golf links at Port Douglas, where it had taken to lunging at golfers. The ranger also told us about one big male (Spartacus) who had been placed into solitary confinement after he’d bitten off one female’s leg. Bottom line: crocs are not nice. Every big saltie has bits missing – tail, claws, teeth. They fight for females and territory, the females fight to protect their nests. They grow up ornery. They’ve also evolved to handle injury. The female croc which had her leg bitten off is just fine without any need for antibiotics or bandages. And then there was Douglas. He was captured at Port Douglas. The thing about him is he has no teeth. We were told crocs will go through forty sets of teeth and more in the course of their lives but Douglas doesn’t have any. They don’t know why his teeth haven’t grown – but it doesn’t seem to have set him back,

Crocs are harvested when they reach 1.8m (6 ft)

We were taken to see the croc farm where salties are raised for leather used for handbags, belts, and the like. There’s a demand in Asia for top quality hides to be made into handbags that sell for as much as $38,000. (Pass) The meat is used, too, and any leftovers are ground down for fertiliser, so there’s no wastage. Our guide told us it’s the same as running a beef property, or a chicken farm. The animals are raised as a commodity.

We were taken for a boat ride on the lagoon. It’s shady and dirty, perfect for the twenty-one crocodiles who live in there. They behave as they would in the wild, and any eggs the females lay are collected for the farm, where they are incubated at 33 degrees. Our boat guide told us that most of the babies are male, but the incubation temperature is more about getting healthy crocs. Half a degree either way makes a difference.

Crocodile at Cairns

Our guide brought along food (chicken heads and wings) so the reptiles would actually show up. They are usually stealth hunters, sneaking up and lunging. But they can move very fast, and jump quite high. And of course, they knew to expect a meal. They’re smart. Up in Northern Australia the bushmen will tell you never to go fishing at the same spot three nights in a row. If you go back that third time, there’ll be a croc waiting for you.

After the boat trip the rangers showed us salties in a different setting where we could get a better feel for their size and speed. That’s a female croc, and she’s not especially big. Quite often the guide would lure a croc in, then whip the food away before it could be taken. It might sound horrid, like Lucy lifting up the football when Charlie Brown takes a kick, but crocs, being poikilothermic, don’t need a lot of food. A chicken a week is plenty for a large male. It’s more about keeping the animals active and alleviating boredom in a captive environment.

Douglas – note no teeth

The jaws are very powerful. They kill by grabbing hold of the prey and drowning it, rolling over in the water.

After a quick look around some of the other animals in Hartley’s zoo, we drove down to Palm Cove so John and Sue could see the magnificent paperbarks growing up through the buildings. We grabbed a sandwich for lunch, then drove back towards Cairns, stopping off at the intriguingly named Yorkeys Knob. It turned out to be a beach suburb with a prominent headland. ‘Yorkeys Knob, or “The Knob”, as it is affectionately called, receives its name from both a natural topographical feature and a British immigrant from Yorkshire, named George Lawson, who lived in the area in the late 1800s. Because of his Yorkshire origins, locals gave Lawson the nickname “Yorkey”.’ [1] There’s some very expensive real estate on that headland with some amazing views.

That night we had dinner at C’est Bon, a French restaurant not far from our hotel. It was nice, but we all agreed the wonderful dinner we had at Dundee’s, on Cairn’s waterfront, the previous evening was better. Tomorrow we’d all be going home.

 

A mini-break at Cairns

The waterfront at Cairns

It was supposed to be an all-girls chill-out – just my best friend and me, but the boys decided they wanted to come, too, so we booked flights and headed off to meet in Cairns, FNQ (Far North Queensland). Pete and I left on a respectable 10am flight. We had a slight scramble at Brisbane when we discovered our flight to Cairns was in ‘final boarding’ pretty much as soon as we got off our flight from Hervey Bay. We made it – but our luggage didn’t. This was all about mis-communication – the flight had been changed but we presented the piece of paper with the original flight, imagining that Qantas’s flight system would have had the correct details. Oh well. Luggage was delivered to the hotel in due course.

Sue and John had a rather longer flight from Perth, up at 3am to catch the plane to Sydney, wait for several hours, then fly to Cairns, arriving around 5pm. Dinner that night was pizza.

One of the fun things to do in Cairns is to take a ride up into the tablelands on a the historic railway, and come back down again on a Skyrail cable car after you’ve pottered around at the quaint little town of Kuranda. (or vice versa – here’s all the info) Kuranda is one of those very touristy places, with cafes and restaurants, and markets filled with didgeridoos, T shirts, postcards, artwork, tea towels, stuffed kangaroos… you get the picture. But it also has some other attractions, such as a bird sanctuary, a butterfly house, and a wildlife exhibition where you can get your picture taken holding a koala (for a price, of course). Here’s the Kuranda website.

On a warm humid day we caught the train up to Kuranda. It’s an old train with antique carriages where the air conditioning is you opening the windows. The train laboured up the steep gradients, passing through hand-dug tunnels and over bridges spanning deep gullies, the track curving so much several times we could see the end of the train from where we sat in carriage three.

Cairns from the train

We crept past Stoney Creek Falls thundering down the mountainside to the Barron River far below.

We also stopped for ten minutes at Barron Falls, which was just as disappointing this time as it had been on the other occasions I’ve been here. I think those waterfalls from close-up would be pretty spectacular, but they’re dwarfed by that mighty chasm. I expect that after heavy rain when the whole gorge is full of churning, roaring water, anyone standing on that viewing platform would get wet. All the way, we learned about how this railway line had been built in the 1880’s, opening in 1891. Here’s a little of the history. OH&S hadn’t been invented then. All the tunnels (there are fifteen) were dug by hand after initial blasting, and the workers were expected to bring their own tools. Many men died of disease, snake bite and accidents.

A close-up of part of Barron Falls

After we reached Kuranda we pottered around the markets for a while, then Sue and I headed for the bird sanctuary, a large, free-fly aviary with an assortment of native and exotic birds, many of them very friendly, especially if you brought in food (sold by the sanctuary). We were warned before we went in that the birds would be attracted to jewellery, buttons on caps and the like.

Here’s a selection of pictures.

Female eclectus parrot

After the bird park Sue and I wandered through the butterfly house. The enclosure is warm and very humid, the setting a beautiful tropical garden surrounding several pools. It was worth the admission just to enjoy the garden. Butterflies flittered around, sometimes settling on a leaf or a person, sometimes performing graceful duets in the air.

I’m pretty sure that’s a Cairns bird wing, largest butterfly in Australia

Later we found the boys (or they found us)  and we took the Skyrail cable car back down to sea level. There are several places on the way down where people can get off and look over the rain forest. It’s interesting comparing what you see going up in the train with the very different views from the cable cars and the board walks over the forest.

We hopped off the cable car at Red Peak, the journey’s highest point, and took a walk along a board walk through the top of the rain forest. Tour guides take groups along and explain the ecology, and you can admire the view for as long as you like before you jump back into a car to continue the journey to the viewing platform for Barron Falls.  I’d seen some pictures online from just a few weeks before, showing the falls thundering down into its gorge. It wasn’t doing that now. Still, there’s a weir at the top and the water is used for hydroelectricity, so not all the water comes down in normal circumstances.

Barron gorge. That’s the train on the opposite side to give context.

It had been a fairly long day for tired people. That night we relaxed over a few drinks,

 

Notre Dame will rise again

When I first saw the news about the fire destroying the spire of Notre Dame de Paris I was sickened, appalled, and ultimately grief-stricken. My post on Facebook said it all – “Notre Dame. Oh no, oh no, how tragic”.

Although I was raised in a Christian (Protestant) household, I have been for many years an atheist, so my response might seem a little odd, so let me explain.

I had always been interested in history when I was at high school, but the history teacher inflicted upon my class in my final year did his level best to beat that out of me. Even so, when I enrolled for my first year at Uni, I decided to take one unit of history, in an area we hardly learned anything about in school – Medieval Europe. That is, the period from the fall of the Roman Empire to the rise of the Renaissance. The lecturer was one of those rare academics who could make the subject come alive. It wasn’t just a string of dates and dynasties, she talked about the people and their lives in those very different times. The world was divided into nobles, artisans, and peasants. Jobs and skills were handed on from father to son, mother to daughter. The only tall structures were castles – and they weren’t very tall, either, once you’d walked up the hill on which they were built. Everybody believed in God and the Devil, and the Catholic church, having survived some turbulent times, was wealthy and powerful. It was in this context that the great Gothic cathedrals were built.

I was entranced. Our lecturer showed as slides of the great cathedrals, the soaring vaults, the wonderful flying buttresses to keeps those walls upright, the wonderful gargoyles spilling rainwater from the roof to the ground, the statues of saints and nobles carved into the stone above the entrances, the magnificent carvings around the pulpit, the choir, the organ. And the statues of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, the Apostles, all decorated with gold leaf and bright paint. Just being inside these places with their towering arches three and four storeys tall is a humbling experience, even to a non-believer like me.

Notre Dame is much more than ‘just’ a Catholic cathedral, it’s a monument to the ingenuity of mankind.

It was built by humans equipped with nothing but hand tools, building on the foundations of structures that had stood there before, combining two earlier basilicas into one. Think about it. The two bell towers are sixty-eight metres tall, and the roof is thirty-five metres high. The work was carried out without cranes or hydraulic lifts, each stone and oak beam put into place by hand. And it’s not just a matter of placing blocks of stone on top of each other. Figures are carved into doorways and windows – saints and kings and characters from the scriptures. The incredible rose windows were put in place high above the ground, each piece lovingly created before it was fitted into the whole. Women wove tapestries. Artists painted murals and paintings. Generations of craftsmen worked on this project. Some of their skills we’ve never been able to reproduce – at least not the way they did things then.

I’ve been to Notre Dame many decades ago when cameras had film. I’m sure the pictures are somewhere, but it’s easy enough to find photos of this French icon, as I’ve shown on the post. However, I recall the wonderful rose windows which still (and thankfully even now) have their 13th century glass. We’ve lost the art, you see. Crafts were handed down from father to son. Nothing was written down. And when many of the lower windows of the cathedral were damaged during the French Revolution and the 20th century wars, they were replaced with modern glass. Compared to the original glass, the new glass lacks… something. An inner glow, a lustre.

Now, a few days after the fire, we know the organ has survived relatively intact, as have the irreplaceable rose windows. The main structure has survived and many of the statues and holy relics were removed to keep them safe while the main spire was renovated. So there’s much that has been saved.

I have no doubt that Notre Dame will rise again. After world war II many buildings in Europe were resurrected, including cathedrals. That was because the people thought they were worth the effort. The ruins of the Frauenkirche in Dresden – not much more than one wall and a pile of rubble – were carefully guarded by the citizens of Dresden until after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when they could finally rebuild.

There are those who point fingers at wealthy firms and billionaires who pledged hundreds of millions to a restoration fund within days of the fire, asking why the money didn’t go to feeding the hungry and other worthy causes. This IS a worthy cause. The cathedral is part of the soul of Paris. And remember, those donations will pay artisans, purchase raw materials, put factories to work. Those donations will make their way through the city, the country, all of Europe – and bring a community closer together. And that has to be good.

 

 

Why I’m not giving up on Facebook

Everybody who uses the internet has heard about how Facebook collects private information and uses it to target advertising. Nobody likes it, especially when email addresses and telephone numbers are sold off to other parties. I’m with you – something needs to be done to prevent this abuse but if it’s a choice between giving up some of my privacy and giving up Facebook (FB) – I’ll stick with FB.

My Facebook profile provides as little personal information about me as I can get away with. Facebook’s goblins know my date of birth (although I could have fudged that) and nothing else. No address, no phone number, no interests, no religious views etc. I use FB Purity to remove sponsored posts and advertising. This doesn’t mean FB knows nothing about me. Of course they know I’m an author and an amateur photographer, and that I’m interested in science. I’m okay with that. The system collects data from what I post and my reaction to what others post. For instance, I mentioned that Billy Dee Williams is to appear in the next Star Wars movie, so he’s listed as somebody I’m interested in. Frank Oz is another – because I quite often refer to Australia as ‘Oz’ so the goblins got that wrong. You can find all this stuff by digging through your FB settings and clear it if you wish. They use it to target ads. Before I got onto FB Purity I used to get ads for older men wanting to meet women, weight-loss options, beauty treatments and the like. Everything an elderly woman might want from life.

I use FB because it gives me a whole new, real and vibrant, social world. I wasn’t an early user. I guess I started using the app regularly after the writer website Authonomy became a snake pit. Quite a few of us retired hurt and joined up again on Facebook, so it’s no surprise to know that many of my friends are fellow scribes. Pretty soon I connected with family members I hadn’t seen for years, old friends from the Palaeolithic I’d lost touch with decades ago, people I worked with in Perth and Melbourne and a few (a very few) locals. They were joined by extended family in the Netherlands and then, over time, people we met on holiday.

I don’t accept every ‘friend’ request I get. For a while I got a whole slew of American military officers (generals and such) and medical doctors. They were all older gents, either widowed or divorced. I was flattered, of course I was, but none of them had any other friends (poor souls) or if they did, they seemed to be either all women, or African. Somehow I wasn’t convinced they were genuinely interested in ME.

In some cases I met people before we became FB friends. In others, I got to meet FB friends in real life. In each of the latter cases, it was as though we already knew each other – because we did – through Facebook.

Through FB I learned what it was like for people affected by the floods in Townsville and cyclone Veronica which hit the Karratha area, or the effects of the Californian fires and the American floods and hurricanes. I’m hearing all about Brexit from the people who will be impacted, and from both sides. I hear opinions about Trump, Bernie Sanders, Pence, Mitch McConnell (and in the past Obama et al). I discuss writing and publishing with my author groups and recipes and cooking with quite a few, especially those getting great results from the keto diet.

And just like any other community, I hear about births, deaths, and marriages. I’m sure MM Bennetts, who was invaluable to me when I was writing To Die a Dry Death, was ill for a long time but that was never shared with the FB community until she died. The outpouring of grief when we heard of her passing was remarkable. At the moment we’ve all been watching one of our colleagues as he undergoes a heart transplant. This very healthy man in his late fifties had a pacemaker fitted a year ago. When it failed about a month ago doctors diagnosed him with a very rare, incurable heart condition. His only option was a transplant – although, this being America, his name wasn’t added to the transplant list until his insurance company undertook to pay the bills. He was lucky he had insurance. Many Americans don’t. He discussed his situation with humour, sharing the tribulations of being in an intensive care unit as he waited for a donor. He endured endless tests, IV tubes, providing stool samples, blood samples etc at all hours of the day and night. A suitable donor heart became available remarkably quickly and our patient shared the ordeal of waiting for surgery. Then his wife took over and kept us up to date while she sat in a waiting room for hours on end. The doctors had him sitting in a chair not much more than a few hours after the transplant. And we’re all thinking of him – and the nineteen-year-old whose heart is now beating in another chest.

Some people died suddenly, or without fanfare. I knew two ladies who were struck down with cancer and blogged about their treatment. They both used FB as a place to connect with people and share their stories. At the end, surrounded by family, one of them shared posts with her online friends (I guess one of the family did the actual typing). The other woman was someone I met online because of a shared interest in gardening. At the time she lived in Victoria but by then we had moved to Queensland. She later moved to Maryborough, 40km from Hervey Bay, so we finally got to meet. After she was diagnosed with cancer and sent home for the last stages, I visited her in Hervey Bay hospital. She wrote a last blog post, which her husband posted to FB after her death.

I hear about new pets and the loss of much-loved pets. I see pictures of people when they were young and fit. One lady’s husband passed away, another lost her daughter, aged in her late twenties, to cancer. I’ve known three men who decided to become women, had the operation and everything. They’re still the same nice people they were before. I’m friends with men who are married to other men and women in relationships with women. I know people suffering from depression, anxiety, and fibromyalgia among others, and know people who have Asperger’s or who are autistic.

Sure, I’ve removed a few ‘friends’ who turned out to be not the sort of people I want to share my thoughts with but not very many. And I’ve run the occasional ‘purge’ where I removed people whose names I don’t recognize because I’ve had nothing to do with them.

But all in all, for a confirmed introvert Facebook has been a great way of staying out in the people world. In fact, that incredible mix of people from all walks of life would be impossible for me in the real world.

So I won’t be giving up Facebook anytime soon.

 

Baby Boomer Bashing

It seems it’s baby boomer bashing time again. Apparently us old farts are increasingly a drain on the national purse. We don’t pay tax and we want pensions and healthcare. All those poor young people earning wages and paying tax right now are forking out for us. We’re an undeserving burden. And we shouldn’t come out with all that rubbish about how hard it was for us. These days it costs half a million to a million to buy a decent house in a reasonable location. Both parents have to work to pay the mortgage, too.

Look, I get it. I feel sorry for young people saddling up to a mortgage with eye-watering numbers like $650,000, even with interest rates at an all-time low. And if both parents work and they have children, half their income goes on childcare. For many, they’re better off if the wife doesn’t work. And then, if you went to university you’ll have to pay back your HEX debt as well.

But let’s get all this into perspective.

My first fulltime job was as a graduate clerk in Canberra where I worked in the Archives office. It’s one of the few salaries I actually remember because it seemed like such a lot of money to a kid from a poor family. It was a little over $5,000pa, around one hundred bucks a week. Back in Perth a few years later, as a clerk in the public service I earned a bit over $8,000, which was around the median wage of the day. [1] Most married women didn’t work. Although women were no longer obliged to resign from Public Service jobs when they married, that was a recent change.[3] Around the same time (1976) the median house price in Perth was $33,000, which was roughly four times the median salary.[2] Sounds cheap, doesn’t it?

Let’s look at what that house was. Around then 7-800 sqm blocks were common. The house would have been fibro or increasingly, double brick because that’s what they build in Perth. It would have had two or three bedrooms, one bathroom, a laundry, kitchen, lounge, maybe a family area. No games room, ensuite, reverse cycle air conditioning, outdoor kitchen, theatre room, swimming pool etc etc. Maybe not even a garage or car port. And a new house would be out in the sticks with no gardens, no schools, and very little public transport. These days those little houses which used to be out in the sticks are coveted inner city properties worth near on a million because of their location. In Manning, where I grew up in the fifties’ and sixties in a little State Housing Commission (these days Homes West) house, home units are being sold for $700k and up. Home units!

Interest rates in the mid-seventies were around 9%, soaring in the eighties to over 18%. [4] Actually getting a loan was hard, and near on impossible if you were a single woman. And a lot of things today’s generation take for granted didn’t exist. For instance the only financial assistance the Government offered families was a tax deduction for a child.

The ageing workforce is not something we’ve only just recognised. Paul Keating as treasurer in the Hawke government saw the writing on the wall. He introduced a compulsory superannuation scheme for all tax-payers, with contributions taken from their salary. The rhetoric said the employer paid but at the end of the day it was part of employee remuneration. Keating intended that as far as possible, tax payers would pay for their own retirement. We tax payers were encouraged to contribute extra to our super fund and many of us did just that because there were tax breaks. In fact, we were encouraged to retire to make room for the next generation needing jobs. My mum didn’t want to retire at 65 but she had to. Those were the rules. In the mid-nineties a lady I knew at Australia Post went to the tribunal because she didn’t want to retire at 65. Like most women, she didn’t have much superannuation so she would have had to survive on the old age pension. Nevertheless. She was forced to give up her job. Those were the rules. As an aside, women aged over 55 are the fastest growing group among the homeless in Australia.

Australia’s big super funds are very, very wealthy. The Government has been eyeing off these riches and trying to devise ways of getting access to some of that money. Bear in mind that the super funds derive income from tax payers (our money) and then invest those funds to grow the profits for us. The super funds pay tax on monies earned. Some people with private funds derive income from dividends paid by companies in which they own shares. Some of these are franked credits which can be used to offset tax payable – because the company has already paid the tax.

Because the big funds expect significant fees from their members, people were allowed to set up their own, self-managed super funds (SMSF). There were rules and regulations that had to be followed, of course, like any other business, and at first it was a great idea. I had my own fund, associated with my consulting business.

Pete and I made our plans, worked out how much we’d need to have on retirement day to enjoy a reasonable lifestyle, and put those plans into action.

And then the Government started moving the goal posts.

Pensions in Australia are means tested. If you’ve accumulated too much wealth, you don’t get a pension although you are entitled to medical benefits (so far, anyway). The Government has (so far) refused to include the family home as part of the asset test. But there’s pressure on to change that. The argument is that a couple of old farts living in a house in Manning or Morley that’s now worth a million bucks should sell up and use the proceeds to fund their retirement. It’s the same little house they bought back then, maybe with an extension and an air conditioner. They’d have to leave the neighbourhood they know and relocate – somewhere. A nursing home? Some place on the outskirts of town a cut lunch and a compass from anywhere? If that’s brought in, just about anybody who saved enough to buy a house will be struggling to be entitled to any pension. There’s also pressure on to tax franking credits, because it’s income. But if it’s taxed, what it really means is the government will be receiving tax twice at the expense of retired people generating an income from those funds.

Over time the rules governing SMSFs became more and more draconian and the costs of maintaining a SMSF were such that it wasn’t finacially viable unless you had a LOT of money. It actually cost more to pay for accounting, reporting, and auditing than the profits generated from the investments.

When we first retired, Peter and I received a miniscule pension from the Government. But because of that, we were entitled to claim for discounts for council rates and car registration. Then the Government changed the way the asset test was calculated and reduced the amount above which claimants were not entitled to a pension. Since we no longer qualified for a pension, we  lost the other benefits. The financial impact of the change was much larger than anybody had anticipated. As usual, the bureaucrats had a good idea but didn’t carry out any proper analysis. (Some of those benefits have now been widened to cover all retirees.)

What’s so unfair about these changes is that they are effectively retrospective. The plans we made in the past no longer fit because the rules we worked under no longer apply.

There are considerable financial pressures on the Government to provide benefits for many people. Payments to help families pay for qualified childcare so mothers can work, payments for disabled people, increasing health care costs etc etc. And us old farts live so much longer these days. Instead of encouraging people to retire early, now the age at which people will be able to claim a pension has been raised and we’re all encouraged to work longer. Needless to say, the cost of living goes up for retirees as it does for everyone. The difference is we have a fixed income and even if we wanted to find work, if you think being over fifty is a disincentive to potential employers, try being over sixty-five.

I’ll admit I wouldn’t like to be saddled up with a half a million dollar home loan to go on top of HEX repayments to pay back the thousands I might owe the Government for financing my education. But then again, young couples don’t need to buy a first home at City Beach or Peppermint Grove. House and land packages on the edge of cities or (heaven forbid) in larger towns outside the main capitals are much more affordable. Visit the display homes at new housing estates on the fringes of the big capitals and you’ll find two-storey houses with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a theatre room, a family room, and an outdoor kitchen on a tiny block. What’s wrong with a small, older-style house until you can raise enough equity for something grander? Or perhaps move elsewhere, where there’s more room and less traffic. Here in Hervey Bay you can buy decent-sized homes for $300k+. All you need is a skill for a job so you can get work. Trades people are always welcome. That’s what we had to do back in the day.

I’m too old to expect ‘fair’. But we Baby Boomers worked and planned for a comfortable retirement – paying tax all the way. Hang in for another decade or so and we’ll have shuffled off. Then you can all look forward to getting similar complaints from your own offspring.

 

The rain has (finally) come

I’m delighted to be able to report that we have been rained upon – nice, gentle, soaking rain which can continue on for longer if it wants. Encouraged by the 30mm or so we’d had before, I planted a cutting that I’d had under shelter, developing roots. The plant had a good root ball – but the ground where I planted it was only damp for about 3mm. The water had simply run off. I was surprised but that’s what you get after a prolonged dry period. I’m hopeful this time will be better.

All the plants in all the gardens in town have heaved a huge sigh of relief and started to develop new growth. This was, of course, particularly true of the weeds, which always take advantage of any opportunity. The big task now is to keep the weeds under control and give the grass a chance. The callistemons (see above) are flush with new growth and even flowers, which have pleased the resident honey eaters. The one at the top is an Australian noisy miner feasting on a flower. That’s great to see.

The weather has had other consequences. Pete and I, like quite a few other people in town, have contracted a kind of fluey virus that makes us lethargic, hot and sweaty, and achy. The doctor has assured us we’ll get the runny nose and coughs in due course. Something to look forward to.

I’ve been amusing myself by re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books. In the first one, Wee Free Men, Tiffany is nine years old. It won an award for children’s books and I suppose an older child could read it. But I was nine about… let’s see… sixty years ago and I’ve enjoyed the book several times already. Like all Terry’s stories, it’s a mix of hilarity, mythology, and life lessons. Oh, and it breaks that Rule of Writing that states you should use dialect sparingly in novels, just enough to get the flavour. The Wee Free Men are Feegles, fairy folk six inches tall who could easily be mistaken for Scots, right down to the kilts, the swords, and the wode. They speak in broad Scottish accents. All the time. Here’s a wee example. “Rob Anybody looked offended.  ‘We ne’er get lost!’ he said.  ‘We always ken where we are!  It’s just sometimes mebbe we aren’t sure where everything else is, but it’s no’ our fault if everything else gets lost! The Nac Mac Feegle are never lost!’ ”

If you’re bored with Brexit or Orange Don, have a look. Wee Free Men.

Apart from that, I’ve had some fun creating posters for my books in Photoshop. Here are a few examples.

To find out more about the books just click on the picture.

Autumn has arrived

Autumn in the botanic gardens in Christchurch, I haven of serenity in this beleaguered city

The world’s been a pretty awful place lately, what with drought, floods, and terrorism. But I’ve said enough about that stuff, so I thought I’d talk about the weather.

Here in Australia our weather woes are continuing. Two large cyclones are active in the northern parts of the continent – TC Veronica on the west coast and TC Trevor on the east coast. Veronica is set to hit Whim Creek, between Karratha and Port Hedland. Trevor has crossed Cape York into the Gulf of Carpentaria, and is going to make landfall in the Northern Territory. Both storms will wreak havoc – and bring much-needed rain to the interior. If we’re lucky, Trevor will start to move south-east and we might get something from its tail. We have had some rain here, enough to revitalise our garden, but we’d like a bit more.

Majestically ignoring the concerns of its inhabitants, the world has continued its dance around the sun. The equinox has passed, so now the days in Australia are becoming shorter. Autumn, or Fall as many call it, is my favourite time of the year. In cooler climates the trees put on a spectacular show. In warmer places like ours the temperatures are warm and calm. So here are some of my favourite Autumn photos taken over the years.

I’ll start with the botanic garden at Christchurch, a beautiful haven in that beleaguered  city.

I took this in Christchurch’s botanic garden when I visited the city last year

One of my favourite Autmn photos. Autumn finery reflected in the Rhine

Autumn in the Wachau Valley October 2015

Autumn colours and sunrise tints at Durnstein on the Danube

Autumn from the deck at our house in Greendale. The evergreen eucalyptus forest is behind our exotic deciduous trees

Silver birches preparing for the winter chill at Greendale

Golden light and calm seas are what Autumn’s all about

The sun’s just up and the rupples sparkle like silver paper

Calm seas, clear skies, bright ripples

Just a little bit blue

I wrote this post before we heard about what happened in Christchurch, New Zealand, yesterday. People were murdered while worshipping at mosques.Once again, it was a white supremacist male picking a soft target to vent his hatred. Gunning people down at any place of worship is particularly gutless and ugly, every bit as gutless and ugly as the white supremacist who gunned down people in a synagogue in the USA, and the white supremacist who gunned down black Christain worshippers in a church in the USA.

I despair, I really do, that there are so many people on this planet who think slaughtering innocent people just because they’re not the same as you is a way to manage the problems of this world.

And now I’ll get back to the things I talked about before I learned of this latest horrific mass murder. These other matters seem trifling in comparison. But life goes on and to some extent the pathological hatred expressed by these individuals is fuelled by events in the greater environment. Who knows? Perhaps these killers fume in impotent rage, blaming Muslims, Jews, Christians, Blacks, gays, kids who play loud music… until something snaps.

So… let’s ptetend it’s Friday morning and Christchurch is still a New Zealand city most famous for the devastating earthquakes in 2011…

I’ll admit to feeling a bit blue of late.  Brexit to the left of me, Trump to the right and here we are, stuck in the middle with only a few months to go before we have a Shorten Labor government.

I have some concerns about the jury system in the courts, with parallels with the Lindy Chamberlain case coming to mind. While we in the West are above the spectacle of physical public excutions we’re happy to participate in the virtual kind.

Pete and I went for a walk on the beach the other day and noticed two girls in their early teens kind of standing around for quite a long time. When we got closer we saw that both of them were intent on their phones, not even noticing the ocean, the birds, the sand. Sad.

It seems kids are being allowed to take time off school to protest about burning fossils fuels on account of wanting to stop climate change. I wonder what the turn-out would be if they switched the march to Saturday or Sunday? That way, the kids wouldn’t have to interrupt their education. And hey! Here’s a thought. Maybe they can get their knickers in a knot about something humans can actually change, like the amount of plastic packaging used for every bloody thing. After the supermarket chains sanctimoniously patted themselves on the back for ceasing the provision of one-use plastic bags, now they’re selling bananas in plastic boxes. Bananas. Which come in their own bio-degradable disposable packaging. The hypocrisy is simply overwhelming.

Call me a cycnic, but I reckon it would be nice if teachers got back to teaching kids how to read, write (or type), and add up. Then maybe how to carry out research and think for themselves. You know, like the olden days.

On a brighter note I was pleased to see the Crime and Corruption Commission in WA has caught yet another individual living high on the public purse. This one lived it up in Japan for seventeen years. I do have to wonder why his activities weren’t picked up sooner. I hope there are a few people quaking in their boots at the possibility of being caught, in WA, anyway. I’ve not heard much about any other state carrying out such thorough investigations.

 

Apart from that, here are a few Moods of Hervey Bay.

Low lide and cloud cover

Unusual sunset with fingers of sunlight probing the clouds

Misty morning at the beach

The Torquay pier

Ibis at sunset

Beachfront reflections