Tuesday, December 26

A Christmas wish for Candy

The festive season started too soon. A fortnight of mawkish seasonal songs pouring out of the radio and filling the shopping malls – bah humbug, even a saint would become grumpy.

However, I'm lifted by the quiet elation that follows a win over writer's block. I'm moving through the autobiography of the novelist Kylie Tennant, convinced hers is a story which would fascinate today's readers, and a good subject for one of the essays in a website I hope to develop.

About 1950, this country schoolteacher's wife lived in the inner Sydney slums with prostitutes to gather material for a novel, and managed to be jailed in Long Bay for a week, making friends of the mattress workers sharing her dormitory.

As I read Kylie Tennant's story, the ABC radio beside my desk says a man has been charged with the murders of five prostitutes in England. I reflect that the British media have depicted the victims as ordinary women, albeit driven by drug habits. Does that reflect a shift in public attitudes to sex workers?

I remember a young woman with whom I enjoyed a chat early this year. She crept up as I sipped a beer in my favorite pub, and asked for a few dollars. A good hard luck story. Her husband had emptied her bank account. I reached into my pocket.

Candy – that's not her name, but if you've seen the film you'll get the picture – looked from side to side, leaned forward, and said: “Actually, what I really need is forty dollars, and I could make it worth your while.”

I could only stammer: “I'm almost seventy – I couldn't ...”

The change in her demeanour startled me. No longer a beggar, she had become the artisan confident of her skill. “I can get you up,” she said.

But where would we go? “You've got your car?” Well, no, actually, I rode my bicycle up to the pub. Candy thought for a moment, then asked:

"You know those old tennis club buildings over in the park?”

It was time to explain to Candy that commercial sex was unlikely to turn me on – and certainly not in the filth of a derelict squat. I expected her to move on, but she stayed and we chatted, moving to another bar so she could scrounge a light.

She insisted she'd completed a methadone program and was now clean. What about those tracks? – I'd never seen a woman with such badly scarred arms. They're old, she said. What about those blue bruises above your elbows? My husband did that when he hit me. (Later, a friend tells me such bruising can result from injecting methadone, a syrup which needs to be pushed in with a horse needle.)

I enjoyed our chat, and the unexpected rapport which developed. I liked Candy. And yes, I did offer to lend her forty bucks. There's no fool like an old fool.

I thought I'd seen both Candy and my forty bucks for the last time. I was right about the forty bucks, but wrong about Candy. About two weeks later she came in, looking for me.

She looked jittery. High perhaps, or hanging out for the next deal. “I'm going into the city,” she said. “I'm working tonight. Know what I mean?”

Oh, Candy. You told me you weren't using any more. “I'm not, but I've got a lot of bills to pay.”

But what of the danger? What if you get bashed, or killed? “It's all right. My husband comes too, and he takes down the car number plates.” And what good will that do if you go off with a psycho? I leave the question unasked.

As she leaves, I wonder why Candy went out of her way to tell me of the night's plans, and I believe she saw me as a friend, someone non-judgmental in whom she could confide. It was flattering, but I believed she was still using drugs. That, sadly, is a compelling reason not to develop a friendship.

Q. How do you know a heroin addict is a true friend?
A. They post you the pawn ticket so you can get your valuables back.

A few months later, I learn Candy is in jail. Is she coping? Candy might have street smarts, but can she handle the heavies inside? I decide to send a Christmas card, but I'm too late. She's been released. I've lost contact.

But I thought of her yesterday, as my wife Merry and I joined our children and their partners, and our grandchildren, in a happy Christmas picnic beside Lake Macquarie.

How did Candy spend Christmas? Is she drug-free at last, attempting to reconcile with the family who had given up on her? Or was she still in that sad line of zombie dolls on the kerb, enslaved by a master which allows no holy days?

If I have a Christmas wish, it's that one day soon a confident and attractive young woman will walk up. “Hi, remember me?” “Of course, Candy, how are you travelling?” This time, she'll be able to tell me the truth.

Sunday, December 24

Cassandra or Pollyanna

I've re-read last Saturday's post carefully, because I'm worried that a friend I trust feels I've become too negative (you may read her comments at the end of Saturday's post). I showed it to my wife Merry, too, and she agreed with my friend.

They have a point, when you count my relentless mockery of Prime Minister John Howard. Generally, I'll stand by what I wrote last time, although I do admit some of it was over the top, a little was mean-spirited, and worst of all, there was too much of it.

But hey, I'm talking about politicians. Robust disputation is part of their trade. They dish it out, and they expect to cop it.

I'm still sceptical about Malcolm Turnbull's claim that “the whole climate change phenomenon has informed and underpinned the policies of the Australian Government for more than a decade,” but in fairness, here's a link to an article he wrote for the Daily Telegraph on the matter.

Did I go over the top when I brought in a reference to 1984's Ministry of Truth? Of course, but this is a blog, not an academic treatise. Think of it as the text equivalent of a newspaper cartoon.

Nor do I think I'm unfair with my comments about Howard's laggardly conversion on climate change, and his parliamentary stumble on Tuesday did not surprise me. I believe political editor Peter Harcher's comments in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday back up my comments.

I guess I over-did it when I went on to mock Howard's ultimatum to George Dubya to charge David Hicks or release him. A more sober approach would be to analyse his commitment to the rule of law, given that Hicks is likely to have suffered more than six years of near-torture before he faces a military tribunal of dubious competence on dubious charges.

Oh dear, I'm still a bit negative. I promise to try harder. Shorter blogs, more wit, and some generosity.

Actually, I thought I'd been doing reasonably well, ending my last post about making fig jam, and before that a piece suggesting we should celebrate Orgy Day on February 6 instead of Australia Day on January 26, more about my fig tree, and a yarn about my encounter with a junkie prostitute whom I liked.

Should I be Pollyanna, the child in a 1913 novel who brought gladness wherever she went? Or should I continue to delude myself that I'm Cassandra from Greek mythology, with the gift of foreseeing the future, but also the curse that no-one will believe me?

Saturday, December 23

Thoughts while building a boat

Designer's sketch of sailing boat I'm building

Just colour the sails tan, and you'll know what to look out for in a few months on Brisbane Water, Broken Bay or Lake Macquarie. A designer's sketch of my boat.
A grab-bag of jottings today, thoughts I saved as I worked in my hot shed trying to complete a boat that's been years in the building. And it's not that big either. A largish dinghy, really, at 4.47 metres (or 14ft 8in for we oldtimers).

Old fashioned too, with a big standing lug mains'l and a triangular mizzen hanging out over the stern. With both sails tan coloured, it's going to attract attention wherever it's launched.

Cap't Flint is a stock design by Hobart naval architect Murray Isles, designed as an “adventure cruiser” for voyages in more open water. Looks safe for an old guy, even when single-handed. Younger fellows may even enjoy camping in it, as Murray intended.

I've already built one of Murray Isles's designs, a delightfully nippy sailing dinghy, but at 9ft 7in it gave me moments of terror when a stiff breeze swept across Lake Macquarie.
Building boats is fun, but Cap't Flint will be my last. My Scottish skin is becoming too allergic to the chemicals you mix to make epoxy resin.

Alas, it doesn't take long for a respected journalist, lawyer and merchant banker to sink into political life when he's elected to the Federal Parliament. Take Malcolm Turnbull, our new Environment Minister, quoted in this morning's Weekend Australian: “The whole climate change phenomenon has informed and underpinned the policies of the Australian Government for more than a decade.”

The truth, as Malcolm must well know, is that Prime Minister John Howard has denied evidence of climate change for a decade. A stubborn man who overestimates his own intellectual abilities, he listened only to those scientists who had the Quadrant Seal of Approval.

The result: We lost 10 years in which we could have been looking for ways to deal with the crisis.
Now we're looking at such measures as clean coal technologies, including geosequestration to bury carbon gases deep into the soil. The trouble is, there's at least eight to ten years' research before the technologies could be found to be viable. And we, thanks to John Howard, are just starting.

I think John Howard is in trouble with this in an election year. Even those dear old blue rinse ladies who still vote for that nice Mr Menzies are going to think twice about voting for a man who has helped leave a damaged world for their grandchildren.

Howard knows the danger, and as a taxpayer you may expect that millions of dollars of public funds will be expropriated for Liberal Party spin doctoring that Howard has been on top of the global warming issue right from the start. George Orwell's Ministry of Truth still in action, more than two decades after 1984.

It's a pity to see Malcolm Turnbull getting down to their level with such misinformation.

But then, he's the Republican who once wrote of Howard: "Whatever else he achieves, history will remember him for only one thing. He was the prime minister who broke a nation's heart. He was the man who made Australia keep a foreign queen."

A politician, unlike a leopard, must change spots to survive in the jungle. But surely, one can stop short of telling porkies.
Sorry Malcolm, you've lost me. Once I thought you'd be a great prime minister.

For some reason, the people in my household rolled about laughing and hooting tonight when John Howard came on TV to say: “I'm delighted to say that the charges have been laid and that the deadline I set has been met.”

Howard giving an ultimatum to the United States? “I demand you charge David Hicks or release him by February.” And the simpleton who happens to be the leader of the free world responding, “Of course, Old Buddy, I'll see to it right away. When was that election, again?”
Oh, pass the tissues. The comedy is just too much.

Sorry folks, more mockery of our beloved Prime Minister. “The tyranny of incrementalism and the lowest common denominator must end.” Goodness! What does that mean? Prime Minister John Howard's words to the National Press Club show he's got something momentous on his mind, like winning this year's election.

Still, there is merit in his plan for the Australian Government to take over management of the waters of the Murray Darling Basin, promising $10 billion to improve water efficiency and address the over-allocation of water in rural Australia. Provided it's not a non-core promise.

I don't suppose we can do anything about using taxpayers' money to buy back over-allocations of water from irrigation farmers. I've heard enough rumours over the years to suspect National Party ministers overruled public servants who advised against the over-allocations.

Perhaps we could send the buyback bill to the Nationals. Some hope!

And for those who heard the National Press Club speech, there was a real treat – you had to listen carefully, but John Howard came closer than ever before to admitting he'd been wrong in the past. Take a look at his speech, find the sentence “I regard myself as a climate change realist,” and read on. You'll have to read carefully, because this is a masterpiece of the spin doctor's art.

On Newcastle's NBN3 news, I watched NSW Opposition Leader Peter Whatzizname present the Liberals' $132 million plan to save the Central Coast from its desperate water crisis. And, as you'd expect, Whatzizname bitterly attacked the State Labor government for the mess we Central Coast residents find ourselves in.

But hey, surely much of the blame for the mess attaches to the Gosford City Council and the Wyong Shire Council, which jointly ran the Central Coast water supply as its dams dropped to around 13 per cent full.
It's been months since Central Coast residents have been able to use town water for any outdoor use – gardens, car-washing, pools, anything.

Perhaps that's why I didn't spot Liberal candidate Chris Holstein on the TV at Whatzizname's water policy launch. A prominent member of Gosford City Council, he might have faced some interesting questions.

Gosford Council members appear to have put more effort into resisting fluoridation than they did in making sure we actually had a water supply.
The fig tree saga continued as hot days brought on a bucketful of ripening figs at once. So it's out with my mother's old Golden Wattle cookbook, published way back between the wars as a textbook for WA schoolgirls and "to set before those taking up life in rural districts of the State simple directions for bread-making, jam and jelly making and fruit preserving, which will secure success at the outset." Simple enough even for me.
Later editions, from 1973, are a bit disappointing. They omit old recipes like cow heel jelly, and my childhood favorite, celery soup. But they've still got fig jam, and the result is marvellously thick, chunky and spreadable.
I'll email the recipe to anyone interested.