Before it was called re-cycling

My mother was fond of saying ‘Waste not, want not’, and these became our ‘words to live by’ when I was growing up in 1950s Sydney.

Around that time, there was radio program called the SAWPAC Show: Save All Waste Paper and Cardboard. It was an afternoon quiz show that aired after one of my mother’s soap operas: ‘When A Girl Marries – dedicated to those in love and all those who can remember…’ (cue sappy music). As well as promoting recycling, with bundled WP and C collected from the kerb regularly, there was a quiz along the lines of ‘Name that tune.’ We once won a ‘mantel-model radio’ for being first to phone in with the right answer. Ironically, we had just bought one, so now we had the unprecedented luxury of two new working radios, one in the loungeroom and one in the bedroom.

As well as recycling newspapers, we kept some for other purposes, such as lining cupboard shelves, wrapping kitchen garbage, or starting fires. On another continent, decades later, I found 1931 Toronto newspapers used as insulation in the walls of our old wooden garage, proof that there were other creative recylers at work in other places, long ago.

Extending the life of a growing child’s clothing was one of my mother’s strengths. She made most of my clothes, but some, like school uniforms, had to be purchased. She bought me a larger size school tunic, hemmed it, and unpicked and resewed the hem as I grew taller. I think she would have made my tunic herself if the regulations about Kambala’s uniforms hadn’t been so strict, but she did knit my winter jumpers, a deviation that the principal kindly overlooked – and she didn’t overlook much! My peers were quick to spot the difference, of course, and not always in a kind way. When my longtime friend Penny left Kambala to go to Frensham, she kindly gave me her school tunic and blazer, both a lot newer than the ones I’d been wearing for many years.

When I became a professor and anticipated attending students’ convocations, I briefly toyed with the idea of making my own academic gown instead of renting one. Paper patterns were available, I discovered. As it turned out, I chose not to join the ‘procession of educated men’ (Virginia Woolf’s term), but sat in the audience wearing non-academic attire when my students graduated.

Readers of a certain age will recall how Sydney shoe shops offered x-ray machines so that mothers could see if shoes had sufficient room for a child’s growing feet. Alarmingly, kids could play on these fascinating (and potentially dangerous) machines until an adult intervened. True to form, my mother bought larger-sized shoes for me, and put cotton wool in the toes until I grew into them.

As a child, I had a Royal Stewart pleated tartan skirt that I loved. Instead of a waist band, it had a cotton bodice, allowing my mother to buy a bigger size, sew a horizontal pleat in the bodice to shorten it, and adjust it as I grew. (Apologies if dressmaking terminology isn’t your strength – Ms. Google will help you.)

The tartan skirt

Having grown up with a frugal widowed grandmother, my mother learned many household recycling tips. When the middle sections of sheets got worn, she cut them in half lengthwise, removed the worn parts, joined the outside edges using a flat seam, and hemmed the edges. A double bed sheet would then become a single. Leftover pieces went in the rag bag to be used as dusters or floor cloths, with good strips reserved for bandages. Similarly with bath towels: cut out the worn section, hem and use the remaining parts as hand towels or face cloths, or even as towels for my dolls.

There was a similar trick for men’s shirt collars – unpick the collar, turn it over so that the underneath was now on top, and reattach it. A few years ago, my favorite Ken Done shirt needed that treatment – a bit time-consuming but worthwhile, as I’ve extended its life by many years, and that particular vintage is no longer available.

My father had a workshop attached to the garage, and it was here that he practised his versions of recycling. I don’t think he ever threw out leftover wood. He either saved pieces ‘for a rainy day’, or split them into kindling for the fire. Bent nails were collected in an old jam tin, to be hammered back into shape and reused as needed. He even sharpened his large collections of saws himself, a time-consuming job usually done by a saw doctor. Did you know that if a crosscut saw is set properly, you can make a needle run down the entire length of the teeth? (Again, Google will explain.)

Needless to say, many of my parents’ recycling practices continue to influence me today – and I’m grateful for that.


April 2021

The people in my neighbourhood: 1950s Vaucluse

During my time at Sydney Kindergarten Teachers’ College, Waverley (1961-63), lecturers often mentioned the importance of teaching preschool children about ‘community helpers’, for example, the policeman, fireman, postman, and milkman..  And yes, that really was the terminology of the day.  Sesame Street of the 1970s was more inclusive, as captured in the catchy song about ‘the people in your neighbourhood’. Growing up in Vaucluse in the 1940s and 50s, I have fond memories of the people in our neighbourhood, some of whom remained dear family friends for many years. 

Helen experimenting in backyard, late 1940s

My childhood home near the junction of New South Head and Old South Head Roads was close to two small rows of shops, and a short walk from a bigger centre at Pipers Loop..  Our shops included a pharmacy, a flower shop, two grocers, a ‘greengrocer’ (fruit and vegetables), a butcher, a ladies’ hairdresser, and a private lending library.  All the buildings have been renovated and gentrified to the point of being unrecognizable today.

The first chemist whom I remember from childhood was a rather cranky man. One day, my mother and I overheard him snap at his small son, who had fallen over,‘You can pick yourself up’.  Strange that I remember that, and not more important episodes in my childhood.  He was succeeded by the wonderful Mr. and Mrs. B, both qualified pharmacists.  No request was too difficult for them, even to the point of taking the tram or bus to the nearest after-hours pharmacy to get medication for my mother during her many years of ill health. 

On the topic of health, doctors, of course, made house calls in those days – sensible, given that if you were sick enough to need a doctor, you were too sick (and/or too contagious) to travel to their surgery. Our Dr. P at Rose Bay came to our house frequently, especially when my father was in his 90s and had heart problems. Dr. P pronounced that brandy or whisky were good heart stimulants, and then contrived to make his house calls just before dinner, so that he could join my dad for a drink – and a good time was had by all. 

A different Mr. and Mrs. B, immigrants from Italy, were our greengrocers. Typical of the times, but inexcusable, most of their customers didn’t bother to learn their full 4-syllable surname, but shortened it to two syllables. I recently found out that Mr. B. was an opera fan, had a lovely singing voice, and used to go to the opera with the other Mr. B, the chemist.

The operator of the small flower shop near the 333 bus stop was Mr. S., who, it was rumoured, ran a side line as a bookie, using a nearby public telephone. Apparently using a public phone for placing bets was legal, or perhaps less illegal than using a private one. The block of flats on Old South Head Road had two other shops: a ladies’ hairdresser and a grocer. A small, dark ground floor flat with windows facing a brick wall was where my (honorary) Auntie Ada lived. As well as being my mother’s friend for many years, she was influential in introducing me to books, as I’ve described in a previous Balcony Fever post ( Miss L, the hairdresser, rented a room from Auntie Ada, and my mother was a regular customer for a cut, or a cut-and-set (which was not the same as a ‘permanent wave’). When I decided I wanted my long curly hair cut, at about age 13, Miss L. was not willing to take that on, but recommended a very good (male) hairdresser at David Jones. 

The grocer’s shop, in the era before ‘cash & carry’, displayed all the products behind the long wooden counter.  If you asked for half a pound of sugar, the grocer filled a brown paper bag, weighed it, grabbed the corners, and twirled it in the air to seal it, a process I found quite riveting but could not replicate at home. 

My mother’s friends Mr. and Mrs P lived in the house beside the flats, and Mr. P and his employees built caravans in the large workshop at the back. They were the first and only vegetarians whom I knew as a child (‘food cranks’ was my father’s term), and Mr. P was famous for his invention of a folding caravan.

Both the milkman and the baker did their deliveries by horse-and-cart, and one milkman trained his horse to keep up with him as he went down the street on foot.  My father’s morning ritual included checking for manure. If it was within a certain distance of our back gate (not so far that neighbours would see him), he’d collect it with a shovel and apply it to the vegetable garden. In case you were wondering, he didn’t grow leafy vegies, just beans and potatoes. I was instructed to shake the milk bottle before opening so that the cream was evenly distributed (before homogenised milk was a thing) but I often cheated. Same with bread – I was told not to break off bits of warm crust en route from the front door to the kitchen, but I did. 

The private lending library is an outdated concept, but one operated for a few years in our neighbourhood. For a small fee, my mother would borrow books from the ‘Romance’ shelf, some of which I read as well as a teenager. They were more explicit than any book in Kambala’s library, but quite mainstream for the 50s. 

A memorable shop at Pipers Loop was Doyle’s takeaway fish and chips. I was often sent on a Friday to get three pieces of fish and a shilling’s worth of chips – all delicious, despite my father’s routine grumbling that it was probably shark (it wasn’t).  Alice Doyle was a relative of our neighbours, and I recall a visit, when I was about 5, to her mother’s little teashop on the beach at Watson’s Bay, the site that is now the famous Doyle’s flagship restaurant. 

Also at Pipers Loop was my mother’s preferred butcher, run by (old) Mr. W. She would make a point of waiting for him, rather than his sons or offsiders, because she thought he’d give her better meat.  Typical of the time, the floor was sprinkled with sawdust to catch the drips, the butchers wore blue striped aprons and belts with pouches for their knives, and they tended to call female customers ‘darling’. 

Writing this, I’m reminded of an essay I read a long time ago. The author suggested that, to the extent that our memories of childhood are positive, being young in and of itself is responsible for this phenomenon. Having had a mostly happy childhood, mine are mostly good memories.  Adolescence, I must admit, was a different story…

My Country?

‘I love a sunburnt country’, sunning on the beach, regardless of the risk. Beaches offer sculpture exhibits, ‘race riots’, and peaceful protests: something for everyone.

A land of sweeping plains’, consumed by cash crops, draining precious water, leaving a legacy of dead fish.

Of ragged mountain ranges’, left scarred by logging and mining.

Of droughts and flooding rains’, while climate change deniers cite MacKellar’s 1908 poem as scientific evidence: No climate change here.

I love her far horizons’ that grow closer every year, fogged by pollution and bushfire smoke. This year, with reduced road traffic, the media reported with some astonishment that the Blue Mountains were visible from Sydney – as they were 60 years ago.

I love her emerald sea’, the bleached and dying coral reefs, the floating plastic and Styrofoam beads.

Her beauty and her terror’ Beauty? Yes. Terror? Yes, the forces of nature and climate change are formidable. Terrorist attacks and the pandemic: two new sources of terror.

Uluru – painting by HJL

The wide brown land for me’ And for me, the granddaughter of a Scottish settler, and great-granddaughter of a convict from Yorkshire? I love and embrace this land as my birthplace, but it’s not mine to claim.


October 2020

Reading, Writing, Being

How does a child learn how to read? As far as I can remember the process, I couldn’t read until, one day,  I could.  Written words and spoken words suddenly matched each other, and when that happened, it was magic.  One clear memory that I treasure involved carefully copying words and stories from a book, probably a school reader, into an exercise book, and I can still feel the excitement and satisfaction of seeing that unfold.  I was sitting at a child-sized table in a patch of sunshine at the front of our house during a Sydney winter, writing out the story word for word.

As I think about this now, I’m reminded of a similar process, but not a happy one, involving a university colleague who suffered a severe stroke in the prime of life. He had written two ground-breaking books based on the work of French philosophers, and, as part of his personal project of rehabilitation, he began copying the original text on his laptop, in the hope of making sense of what he had written a few years earlier.

Returning to my own story, I recall the first ‘real’ book that I read – Enid Blyton’s Shadow the Sheepdog. A family friend had given me a copy, and I was thrilled to be able to read it by myself – that is, until I got to the word ‘determined’, somewhere in the first few chapters. I always had to ask my mother how to pronounce that word, apparently because it was important to me to hear it correctly in my head; I routinely put the stress on the first syllable instead of the second.  I still have the book in my collection, not for its literary value (yes, I’m aware of all the critiques of Blyton’s biases, including racism), but because it was a landmark in my childhood.

Book-lovers and authors often say they grew up in a house full of books. This was not my experience. As I recall, my mother had a copy of Pears Cyclopaedia, mainly for its health advice, and bought the Women’s Weekly quite regularly, while my father read the Sydney Morning Herald and had a small collection of Zane Grey’s paperback westerns.  Author Frank Dalby Davison was an acquaintance of my father’s, and we had a copy of Man-Shy. My brother, 12 years older than me, had a small collection of books, including one called The Theory of Flight that I read when I was older and loved books about flying.  In short, my family were readers, but I would not say that I was surrounded by books.

A neighbour and friend, Ada Smith, was the mother of Thelma Clune and mother-in-law of Frank Clune, both patrons of the arts.  Through Frank’s connections to the publishing industry, Auntie Ada (as I called her), was the recipient of several remaindered books that she passed on to me. I think Shadow the Sheepdog and other children’s books came through her, as did a number of coffee-table books, some about Australia and others about the Royal Family. And yes, I still have most of these books, too, 70 years later.

When I began undergraduate studies in 1972, I used to write term papers in longhand, then type them.  As an early adopter of a computer in 1979 (a primitive contraption that used audiotapes for data storage), I began composing on-screen, a big step towards writing more quickly and efficiently. It’s hard to imagine how we wrote back in the day, without the benefit of computers. It also seems like a different era (although it was only about 12 years ago) when I had to print final drafts and send them by courier to my American publisher, rather than simply email them as attachments. However, I was certainly not an early adopter of online books, having only graduated to doing so this year, out of necessity, when Toronto public libraries were closed for several months because of the pandemic.  

Yes, reading and writing: things that sustain us (to borrow from Julia Baird, with great admiration!)

Shadow the Sheep-Dog, by Enid Blyton


Random Thoughts on News and Weather

‘Before all this’, as we’ve been saying in our house for several months, I used to check online news every morning. During Australia’s bushfire season 2019-20, I’d start with ABC and Sydney Morning Herald, and, depending on the news, message family and friends in NSW to see how they were coping.  Canadian news – CBC and the Toronto Star – was next on my list, and news of the virus was gradually making headlines. 

By February, with the pandemic threatening, and my planned May flight to Sydney in question, I got a bit obsessive around online news, most of which was frighteningly bad.  Opinion pieces and social media were the worst, and I had to stop reading them. Then on March 16 Canada went into lockdown, and I spent the first two weeks wondering if I had the virus, having been on crowded buses and in a busy restaurant just days earlier.

Early in ‘all this’, I was concerned about Australia’s seemingly slow start to enforce restrictions, while Canada appeared to be dealing with the crisis relatively effectively, with a fairly sane and sensible prime minister.  Sadly, that situation was soon reversed, and Toronto is still in Stage 2 of a three-stage plan to reopening, averaging about 30 new cases daily. 

Obviously, I’m not on holiday at Manly this year.

Like many regular swimmers, I despaired of finding a substitute when Toronto’s indoor pools closed. Jogging kept me fit, but offered none of the joys of water, as Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence and Roger Deakin’s Waterlogged eloquently describe.  Toronto is on the shores of Lake Ontario, the 13th largest lake in the world, but in March, the water is close to freezing. At the end of May, after a lot of online research about size and thickness, I ordered a heavy-weight wetsuit on Amazon.  By then, water at Toronto beaches was about 10 C.  Swimming in a 5mm wetsuit is a challenge  – one swimmer on my Facebook swim group aptly calls his a sausage suit.  It kept me warm but was not a tight fit and bulged in strange places. It seems that I should have paid twice as much for a suit designed for swimming, with thinner material on the arms and legs. The plan is to buy one now that stores are open, so that I can have a longer open water swimming season this year.

Wearing the thick wetsuit in the lake

It’s possible that most Australians reading this will not know anyone who caught the virus. I personally know of only a few. Two of my UK colleagues at Emerald Publishing were quite ill in April, as well as two young Toronto women, friends of my son and daughter-in-law, and one university colleague.  

My generation tended to self-isolate, and retired University of Toronto faculty have stayed in touch through weekly Zoom ‘coffee times’ and regular online presentations replacing the monthly in-person talks.  Weekly online meetings of a group called Oasis (a secular community, see  <>)  also nurture my mind and spirit.  Cyclists have benefitted, with Toronto creating new cycle lanes throughout the city, and closing the major lakeshore highway to cars every weekend.  The so-called ‘new normal’ might not be as bad as it seems.


Life Since the Ides of March


  • Being an introvert has some advantages.
  • Jogging can replace swimming for endorphins, but not for the pure pleasure of water.
  • If you bake a lot of cakes, you feel compelled to eat them.
  • Making yogurt in a slow cooker is effortless, magic, and cheap.
  • Some people are kinder and friendlier to each other now, some people are not.
  • Twitter brings out the best and the worst in humans – but always the best in dogs and cats.
  • Everyone out on the street seems to have a dog – who knew? Where were they hiding them before now?
  • Twitter posts can be depressing.
  • It’s easy to zone out of Zoom meetings, and you can have snacks and washroom breaks unobserved.
  • I still don’t know what TikTok is, and I really don’t care.
  • “A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!” Our “fringed pool” has stagnant water, needs to be drained, but.
  • Indoor plants grow faster when I water them regularly.
  • Routine events like garbage pickup and mail delivery are strangely reassuring.
  • And so to bed.