Christmas on an Australian farm: a tale about long drops and kangaroos


The farm near Taree, the blue-tinged mountains in the distance

We spent this Christmas on  a farm on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, not far from the town of Taree.

It is the farm of my sister-in-law and her husband. It is a beautiful piece of countryside – about 40 hectares – surrounded by lush green meadows and groves of trees with the flat-topped mountains of the Coorabakh National Park a hazy blue in the background.

The farmhouse is not yet finished meaning the toilet and shower facilities are outdoors.

The toilet is a long-drop raised up on a  wooden platform enclosed on three sides with a roof on top, affording the user with an unobstructed view of the meadows and blue-tinged hills in the distance.

The cursed long drop

The cursed long drop

I love the outdoors. The fresh smell in the air, the closeness to nature. Farm animals. Kookaburras and Rozellas in the trees. The general peace and quiet and distance from the mad rush of the city are all pleasing to my constitution.

But taking a crap in a make-shift loo in the great outdoors is not something I particularly enjoy.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a not  a prude and I am not one of those people who can only enjoy nature from the vantage point of a five-star lodge (though that would be nice).

But when it comes to sitting on a raised bucket with my pants down, my bowels go into lock down and the best I can manage is a couple of short blasts of the trumpet (if you’ll allow the metaphor).

Then I pull up my pants and exit stage left.

During my stay on the farm, this fruitless exercise was repeated a number of times, with me marching off to the wooden raised toilet, toilet paper roll in hand, only to return to the farmhouse a few minutes later with the same length of toilet paper in hand.

Well after two days of Christmas eating – and in keeping with tradition I over ate – the bare facts of physics dictated that something had to shift.

So I trundled up towards the ‘gallows’, climbed the wooden steps, dropped my pants and took my seat on the throne.

I won’t go into detailed descriptions of facial expressions or sounds, but it was an ultimately successful exercise and as I sat back to enjoy the moment I noticed, off in the distance, two kangaroos facing me at the edge of the meadow.

They appeared to be watching me intently, face on, with their ears perked up and front legs resting on their chests.kangaroos

I looked at the kangaroos.

They looked back at me.

We watched each other for a moment.

And then off they hopped, showing their distinctive body shapes in profile, their long tails curving upwards as they disappeared beyond the meadow, leaving me, pants still down at my ankles to enjoy the view entirely on my own.

Aah…the serenity.

My eight months without cinema: recollections and reflections of movie-going

Cinema watchingSo this weekend past I went to the cinema for the first time in eight months.

The last time I went to the movies was on Sunday, April 15. My wife was heavily pregnant at the time and about five days past her due date.

We went to the Nova on Lygon Street in Carlton and saw an exceptionally good French movie called “Le Havre” about an African refugee who is taken in by an old shoe-shine man, who helps him escape across the English channel.

In the cinema my wife started having light labour pains and a couple of days later – in the early hours of a Wednesday morning – Edith (Edie) was born.

She turned eight months old on Tuesday.

Fittingly, I broke my cinematic drought with another movie at the Nova.

11110702_logoI went to see “The Master” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, set just after the second world war and about a ex-navy man drifter called Freddy Quell (Phoenix) who falls under the spell of the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), an incarnation of Church of Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard. The film, directed by the much revered PT Anderson (Magnolia, Boogie Nights) is intense and interesting, brilliantly acted, but kind of leaves you wondering what the point was in the end. If you liked PT Anderson’s other agonising effort “There Will Be Blood” starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a brutal turn-of-the-century oil prospector, you will love “The Master”.

Still, it was something of an experience undertaking the ritual of going to the movies for the first time in so long.

Coke and popcorn purchased, I wandered into the cinema and found a seat. It was a small cinema – for some reason I had been given one of the double “love seats – and I stretched out, munching on my popcorn and sucking the fizzy ‘solo’ through a straw.

The cinema darkened, and just before the film began, a couple walked in and the guy next to me began tapping away on his iPhone.  Clearly he was ignoring the message that had just flashed on the screen: “Please turn off your phone?”

I whispered in his ear: “Can you turn your phone off?”
His reply: “It’s on silent.”

No shit, douche bag!

“Can you turn it off? The screen is bothering me.”
“OK, OK,” he muttered, as he slid the phone into his pocket.

Of course  I spent the first 10 minutes of the movie, wondering when next he was going to pull it out again and start tapping away. Thankfully, he never did, though I got the feeling he resented the crunchy sound I made as I munched my way through my jumbo-sized popcorn.

I kept munching anyway.

And half way through the movie, I stopped watching and looked around at all the people staring up, mesmerised by the screen. Have you ever done that? It’s like watching people who have been hypnotised.

Since then, I’ve been reflecting on childhood memories of movie going.

One of my first memories of the cinema, was going to see ‘The Wizard of Oz’. I remember it was somewhere in town (Johannesburg) and must have been the late 1970s – I would have been six or so.

It terrified me. I have memories of the strawman being set on fire (this I’ve checked does happen in the movie) and the tin man being stuck inside a giant sandwich-maker – but maybe I imagined that bit, because I can’t find any reference to it – I’ll have to watch the film again.

My best friend growing up was Jonathan. We were friends since babies and lived on the same street in Germiston – a city about 20 minutes from Johannesburg and site of the world’s biggest gold refinery (and not much else).

The 20th Century Cinema in Germiston

The 20th Century Cinema in Germiston

After synagogue on a Saturday, we used to walk into town and like good jewish boys, go to the movies. It was a large imposing building on Main Street, now I believe knocked down, called the 20th Century Cinema, with an art-deco sign and built in 1939. It had an old-fashioned ticket booth at the entrance and an imposing, cavernous lobby. The cinema could hold over 1,400 people (though it was never full when we went) with an upstairs section and a space for an orchestra to play in the pit in front of the screen. There was always a Bugs Bunny cartoon before the film started.

They don’t make cinemas like that anymore – at least not in the Western world.

The art deco Eros in Mumbai

The art deco Eros in Mumbai

In India we saw a movie in an enormous art-deco cinema called the Eros in Mumbai, where people got up to dance alongside the characters on screen, mobile phones rang, the ticket cost a few dollars and popcorn about 50 cents. Ironically it was a musical about Indians who move to Melbourne and then find themselves being racially abused along with songs and dancing and bad Australian accents.

But back to Germiston and the 20th Century cinema. I recall the great excitement Jonathan and I experienced going to see our first movie on our own.

It was ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’, which came out in 1984 when we would have been 11.Temple-of-Doom1

I distinctly remember being terrified at the scenes where the evil sorcerer tears out the heart of his victims amidst the chanting and the lava, and of course the banquet with its monkey brain soup and enormous snake, which is cut open and all the baby snakes slither out.

What I also remember through the haze of time was the Ster Kinekor movie club, where you joined, got a special card and paid only one rand a movie. That would have been about 50 Australian cents in those days.

One rand for a movie. One large silver coin for two hours of escape, excitement and adventure.

My other distinct movie-going memory is heading into town (the centre of Jo’burg) when we were teenagers with Jonathan’s mom and some other friends and going to the cinema, while she went to work. It was very quiet (must have been the school holidays) and we’d buy one movie ticket and as the cinemas were all upstairs, we’d watch one movie and then sneak into another cinema and watch another movie for free and sometimes one more.  We thought we were pretty rebellious!

Apart from those early memories, I confess (with much embarrassment) that I recall crying bitterly in my seat when I went to watch E.T. at the Bedfordview Nu-Metro in 1982. I would have been nine years-old. I think it was when they had found E.T. and had him in the quarantined zone and everyone was walking around in plastic suits.

So what did it cost me to go the cinema this weekend?

One admission to The Master at Cinema Nova, Lygon Street: $18
Coke and popcorn combo: $10.50
Parking: $6.60
Hamburger at Gr’lled for dinner: $12
One Corona: $7

Total cost (excluding petrol, toll road): $54.10

Or around 481 Rand at current exchange rate – that would have bought a lot of movies back when I was a kid!

Dodgy operators and scam artists: Seven tips to avoid getting ripped off this Xmas

sam.gifIt’s the festive season, we’re all spending money, buying things, and perhaps – in the spirit of the moment – being a little bit reckless about how we spend it.

As a property and financial journalist I have written about a  fair number of sharks, charlatans and scheisters and come across a few in person too.

It’s amazing what people try to get away with – there’s this story about a mortgage broker who conned clients out a $1.1 million and this story about a former professional rugby league player who allegedly pocketed $60,000 meant for his elderly clients,which he received by mistake.

I’ve written about unscrupulous mortgage brokers, dodgy estate agents, greedy financial advisers, but these sorts of people operate at all levels of business from the guy selling you a TV to the charity mugger on the corner of the street.

So here’s some tips to avoid getting into trouble:

  • If it sounds too good to be true, it is – run!

If someone is offering to double your money in six months or promises a very high rate of return on your investment, chances are they’re up to no good. They’re acting out of greed and playing on your desire for a quick return. If you want  a quick return, buy a lottery ticket (and pray) or go to the casino and put an amount you are happy to lose on black or red – that could double your stake in a flash, but at least you know the odds and the risks.

  • Always get a second opinion

If you think you’re on to a good thing, then present the idea to someone you trust and ask them for their opinion. It can be a professional in the same industry, a help line, a friend, a family member, just so long as its someone who can give you an objective point of view and has nothing to gain by doing so.

  • Do a Google/internet search

You can find out a great deal of information about someone simply by searching online. Type in the name of the person trying to sell you something and/or the company name and see what results come up. Certainly if your broker or adviser has gotten into professional trouble, you should find some mention of it online. But even if they haven’t you can find out a great deal about someone from online recommendations, their Facebook page, what they say on Twitter, from their blog and their previous roles via their LinkedIn profile etc.

  • Don’t rush into any decision

Whether you are buying a car, a house or a new TV, you should never feel pressured into making your purchase. Remember, there is no shortage of most things and even if it’s a house or collectible car you really like, if the person selling it to you is pressuring you, you should be suspicious.

  • Consider at least one or two alternatives products or services

The other day I was shopping for tea (yes just tea) and there must have been about a 100 varieties to choose from. I spent five minutes just locating the type I was after (Rooibos). This is also the case with most things you purchase these days – maybe not a 100 choices but usually a dozen alternatives. Particularly if it’s an expensive item or where the financial commitment is great, you should consider at least one or two alternative products, which may be better and cheaper or have more suitable features. You can do this without even walking into a store, by using a comparison website. Just make sure its a reputable website with a big range of products and full disclosure of how they compare items. ASIC is currently clamping down on dodgy comparison websites.

  • Ask lots of questions of the salesperson

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, including ones you think may sound silly such as questions about basic information. A good salesman should be happy to answer all of them. Also, by asking a lot of questions you will become better acquainted with the product and the person selling it.

  • Consider the personality, appearance and attitude of the salesperson

Think about the person who is selling to you. Are they likeable? Do you trust them? Do they have a pleasant manner? It’s amazing how often, after someone has sold you something, they lose complete interest in you, which is OK if you’re buying a shirt, but not so good if you’re buying a new car and it breaks down after a week. Trust your instincts. Avoid dealing with slick, fast-talking sales people who sound like second-hand car dealers (apologies to all honest second-hand car dealers). Buy from someone you like and trust. Why give business to a dick-head?

Happy shopping and spending over the festive season!

A public service initiative from freshlyworded.

Grovelling 2Day FM radio DJs deserve little sympathy after TV apology stunt

964677-australia-britain-royals-mediaThere seems to be this perception in Australia, that to be truly absolved of anything you regret or are ashamed of in life, all you have to do is make an appearance on Channel 7’s Today Tonight or Channel 9’s A Current Affair – two of the most watched programs on Australian television.

This particularly applies to the sheltered world of Australian celebrities or media personalities, who see grovelling on prime-time TV as the equivalent of Catholic confession (often a paid Catholic confession at that!).

You tell a Current Affair’s Tracey Grimshaw you’re sorry and all is forgiven.

And it’s great because for one thing, you know you’re not going to be asked any real tough questions – all you have to do is shed a tear or two and you can get on with your life.

I am not a fan of right-wing UK tabloid The Daily Mail, but I think their columnist Richard Littlejohn was right on the money when he called Michael Christian and Mel Greig interview’s on these two shows “a self-indulgent, self-justifying sobfest”: that was “utterly nauseating”.

Just consider for a moment how both interviews begin.

Channel 7’s Today Tonight interview begins with the host Clare Brady, asking Mel and Michael if they feel up to doing the interview.

Immediately, we are expected to feel sorry for them (which is fair enough) but what about the poor woman who has killed herself and her family.

In both shows, you can count on one hand the number of times Jacintha Saldanha’s name is mentioned.

Yes Mel and Michael feel terrible about a prank that went horribly wrong, but Brady is happy to let them pass the buck when it comes to accepting some responsibility for their actions.

On both shows they are allowed to get away with claiming that the prank was a “team” decision when clearly it was someone’s idea and also someone’s decision higher up the food chain at radio station owner Austereo to allow the prank to be broadcast.

But no names are mentioned and no further questions are asked.

Tracey Grimshaw begins her expose by telling viewers that this interview is ‘unpaid” which tells you a lot about the credibility of the show before the interview has even begun.

Tracey also begins by telling us of an emotional Mel Greig before she’s even uttered a word.

The message is clear: “Come on Australia, get your tissues ready!”

She begins the interview exactly in the same manner as Clare Brady, asking the pair if they feel up to doing the interview.

And just like rival show Today Tonight, she then asks them whose idea it was to make the prank call –  and so the interview progresses.

In fact the interviews are so similar, you’d think they’d colluded on the questions before-hand.

Both presenters put on their best sympathetic, yet stern motherly faces, but avoids any tough questions.

Everything appears stage-managed, deliberate and designed to tug at the heart-strings.

I am sure both Mel and Michael feel genuine remorse, but even the tears shed on the shows have an air of staged theatricality, with the dramatic pauses and contrived helpless expressions.

And then there’s Mel’s response to Tracey’s question about when she heard the call.

“It was the worse call I ever got” is her reply and you can just hear the show’s producer saying to himself – “that’s the bit we’ll run in the promo”.

But there to comfort them in their time of trauma and need – as she has done with so many others in the past – is the mother figure of Tracey Grimshaw, the high priestess of television absolution.

Because let’s face it, if Mel and Michael really wanted to deliver a heart-felt apology, they would have penned a meaningful apology to Jacintha Saldanha’s family and not sought the prime time TV limelight.

But that would be un-Australian – instead we prefer: “Lights, camera, action…Tracey Grimshaw”.

The junkie in literature: A review of “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” by Thomas De Quincey

confessons of an english opium eaterConfessions of an English Opium-Eater” written by Thomas De Quincey in 1821 is the third book I have read as part of my mini-project examining the portrayal of the junky in literature.

The first book I read was “Monkey Grip” by Australian writer Helen Garner, about a single mother in love with a heroin junkie and writer/artist set in Melbourne in the 1970s.

The second was “Junky” by William S. Burroughs, an autobiographical tale of his life as a heroin addict in New York, New Orleans and Mexico City in the 1940s.

“Confessions of an English Opium Eater” takes place in London, Manchester and the remote English countryside of the early 19th century.

It’s a remarkable novella – only about a 100 pages in length – not the least because it gives a glimpse into the life of a drug addict nearly 200 years ago in a very prudish age, at a time when the idea of an English gentlemen meant that you never speak of such abhorrent things.

The book is not just an investigation and illustration of opium use and its effects on the mind and body, but also social commentary on what it means to be a bright, sensitive outsider in an English society of order, privilege and class.

In fact a lot of the book is not about opium at all, but about the events leading up to De Quincey’s addiction including a period of eight years when he took opium in controlled amounts and which enriches his experience of the world:

“Here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed; happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket; portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint bottle and piece of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail coach.”

The book also serves as a 19th century guide about what opium is, what it does to you and also to dispel some of the myths and there is the familiar warning that comes with all tales of addiction.

Apart from affirming that opium is a “dusky brown in colour”, De Quincey says:

“If you eat a good deal of it, most probably you must do what is particularly disagreeable to any man of regular habits, viz., die.”

Throughout the book, De Quincey comes across as a man both ahead of his time and out-of-place.

Ahead of his time, because he is willing to take the reader on his journey into opium addiction and out-of-place, because though an intelligent, educated man, with a seemingly bright future, he shuns his place in society and chooses to tramp around England and Wales. He is as comfortable speaking in Greek as he is in the company of a prostitute.

De Quincey is sometimes an infuriating storyteller – he constantly apologises for what is about to tell and frequently tells the reader that he must spare the full details of his pain and suffering because it would not be proper (one must constantly bear in mind the epoch the book was written in).

As for the true pain of opium, you have to wait until you’re about three-quarters of the way through the book to reach the part where a stomach ailment forces him into “eating” high dosages of opium.

At first though his opium use is controlled giving him a sense of “halcyon calm, a tranquility that seemed no product of inertia”.

He later remarks:

“I ought to be ill, I never was better in my life than in the spring of 1812; and I hope sincerely that the quantity of claret, port…which in all probability you, good reader, have taken…may as little disorder your health as mine was disorded by the opium I had taken for eight years between 1804 and 1812.”

But then in a state of “unutterable irritation of the stomach” he becomes a heavy and daily user of opium, when it starts having a “palsying (paralysing) effect” on his intellectual faculties.

This the most fascinating part of the book, because De Quincey experiences an unusual form of suffering though his dreams and nightmares, which take on a surreal and bizarre quality that would not be out-of-place in painting by Salvador Dali.

This is where does his best writing, describing his dreams with their strange juxtapositions:

“I wa buried for a thousand years in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the hear of eternal pyramids. I was kissed by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.”

His “oriental dreams” (the oriental man is one feared at the time for his strangeness) are “monstrous” and fill him with “hatred and abomination” with the main agents being “ugly birds, or snakes or crocodiles”.

The crocodile is a recurring image in his dreams:

“The cursed crocodile became to me the object of more horror than almost all the rest. I was compelled to live with him for centuries.”

The dream imagery is astonishing given we are a hundred years before Freud’s theories about dreams and the unconscious, and no doubt Freud would have enjoyed analysing De Quincey’s dreams and his state of mind.

The horror and terror of nightly visions culminates in his declaration:

And I awoke in struggles, and cried aloud – “I will sleep no more.”

As with the moment in “Junky” when William S. Burroughs looks in the mirror and realises he is hooked on heroin, De Quincey reaches a point where he cannot give up, though he wishes to and knows that the drug will kill him.

Somehow he devises a way to succeed – he comes up with a method of reducing his usage of opium (the dosages are recorded in the appendix) though he also suffers relapses.

Outside of the book, I read that De Quincey, having overcome his addictions, got married and fathering eight children, though only three daughters survived him.

He is remembered principally for this book, but also as an essayist and social commentator.

“Confessions of an English Opium Eater” beautifully and horribly conveys the journey into addiction and suffering at a time when such things were not discussed in a very prudish, conservative age.

But many modern-day junkies I suspect would wholly identify with his nightmares and sufferings.

Mixed emotions surely for Mickey Arthur as Australia lose to South Africa

Mickey Arthur with JP Duminy

Mickey Arthur, photographed when coach of South Africa in 2009.

I cannot help but wonder how Australian coach Mickey Arthur felt after South Africa beat Australia in the final test match to lose the series and their shot at toppling the South Africans as the No. 1 ranked test side in world cricket.

Arthur of course is a South African and about as South African as they come. He’s a ‘Vaalie’ – born on the highlands of the old Transvaal – and played all his provincial cricket in South Africa for the Free State and Griqualand West.

He was appointed coach of the South African team in 2005 and the last time he visited Australia (in a professional sense) just four years ago he coached them to arguably their greatest ever test series win – and their first ever series victory against Australia – since being re-admitted into world cricket in 1991.

Having fallen out with the South African cricket authorities in 2010, he coached Western Australia for a season and was then appointed Australia’s first foreign-born coach in November last year.

Now I am not for one moment suggesting that Arthur is not a thorough professional and has not given it his all as Australian coach – and let’s be honest they  outplayed South Africa in the first two tests and could easily have been No.1 in the world at the end of this series had it not been for FaF Du Plessis’s heroics in the second test – but I find it hard to imagine that Mickey Arthur did not take some pleasure in watching his old team and the players he coached just a few season ago win against the odds against the country of his birth’s greatest sporting rivals.

I have lived in Australia for over eight years, my daughter is Australian and my wife holds and Australian passport and yet I cannot bring myself to support the Australian cricket team or the Wallabies.

In fact I am sure they will put on my grave one day – “He died a Bok fan.”

You see the thing is this, when you grow up in South Africa, beating Australia in any sport (even lawn bowls and darts) is considered the ultimate victory.

Rivalries run very deep between the two sporting nations, and not least because there is a great deal of respect for Australia’s sporting prowess.

South Africans consider Australia one of the great sporting nations – especially when it comes to cricket – and while we have managed to beat all the other teams on a regular basis, beating the Baggy Greens has been tough – this win is only our second ever Test series triumph since re-admission.11187061_24c0790592

I found these two comments on the Supersport website (the equivalent of Fox Sports in South Africa) at the bottom of a story about the latest series win:

“South Africa clobbered Australia. It was so easy, it was scary!”

“Amazing always good to thrash the ozzies.”

Personally, I remember waking up in the early hours of the morning or watching through the night games played against Australia through the 1990s – mostly on the losing side, occasionally a much-savoured win.

The truth is being a South African cricket fan is being the ultimate sporting tragic.

A lot of times it’s been an exercise in heartache – primarily when it comes to World Cups, when we have conjured up defeats from the jaws of victory, and must live with the scars of the 1999 World Cup semi-final tie that will go down as the greatest choke in our rich sporting history, plus the sad saga of Hansie Cronje.

There are many South African expats living in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne who say they support the Australian cricket team and the Wallabies, but I have yet to meet any that I believed with any conviction.

Equally there are South Africans who have lived here many decades who still support the Proteas and Springboks and that I suspect will be me too.

It’s not that I have some deep-seated animosity to the Baggy Greens or the Wallabies, it’s just in my blood.

And it’s also surely in the blood of Mickey Arthur – who is more South African than me.

And though he will surely deny it, I am sure he did take some pleasure out of watching the team he coached to their greatest win four years ago win again this week.

After all, he’s only human!

(And the same I am sure can be said for Robbie Deans, New Zealand-born and raised coach of the Wallabies).