Goldilocks – not recommended for children

It begins innocently enough with a small girl skipping merrily through the woods. Questions arise right from the start.. Did she go with parental approval or did she slip out without their consent? Either way this appears to be a case of parental neglect, bordering on child abuse. If she slipped out, why was the gate not locked.? How irresponsible of the parents to let a small child go off into the dangerous woods -and alone! Hopefully a nosey neighbour will dob them in to Child Welfare.

Did her parents never warn her about “stranger danger” and the risks inherent in going into other people’s houses? It is hard to restrain a horrified shudder as we learn of her barging into an unoccupied house.

Nor are the occupants of this house entirely blameless. Not only have they carelessly forgotten to lock the front door – and in an isolated location with no Neighbourhood Watch- but they have set off on an exhausting forest trek with a small infant before ensuring his nutritional needs have been met. So the porridge is too hot. Don’t they have any cold milk and Cocopops to sustain the little fellow? Child Welfare is going to have a busy time in this dysfunctional neck of the woods.

It gets worse. The story descends into a panegyric of theft ( she nicks the porridge) but also of vandalism ( she wrecks the joint). And where is the personal hygiene? Before tucking in she neither hand sanitises nor gives the utensils a wipe.

Finally this awful story degenerates into a celebration of failing to take responsibility for one’s behaviour, as Goldilocks does a bunk out of the window – silly girl was lucky not to break her neck – before facing up to merited punishment. The opportunity is missed to show the bears in a compassionate light. How morally uplifting to see Daddy Bear forgiving Goldilocks and escorting her home, chaperoned of course by Mummy Bear, safely to her parents.

This is a dreadful tale devoid of any morality. And what about the racial overtones? The flaxen-haired Teutonic girl and the ‘other’ whom we must assume are black or brown or a least tinted (there are no snowy polar bears in the woods, though global warming may change that).. All the bears seem able to do is ask stupid questions “Who’s been sitting in my chair?” and rolling their eyes.

Far safer to sing to your kids something like “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic”, a song which eschews social distancing – the bears’ parents are not stupid enough to let them into the woods alone but are happy to see them trot off in a tight cohort of their chums (no hint of any inter-species conflict here). And what a helpful conclusion to the day as the teddies go off willingly to a six o’clock bedtime. What a useful model!


Sydney, September 2021

Can craft change the world?

The 2020 election debates in the USA were terrifying. In the first, Donald Trump barely let Joe Biden say a word. Before the second, I was terrified. Would Trump trample all over Biden again?

What can you do about terror? People take pills, I know, but they don’t have immediate effect. Getting drunk? I didn’t want the hangover.

Magic? Getting closer. Maybe old crafts have a mysterious power.

I turned to home sewing. The day before the debate, I cut out 12 pieces of fabric, 6 for a long, linen summer skirt and 6 pieces of cotton to line it. That meant I would have 10 long, straightish seams to sew.

The debate began. I whirred down the first seam. The candidates made opening statements, more civilly than in the first debate.

A bit of debate. Whirr-rr. Whirr-rr. A lot of Trump. A bit of Biden. Whirr-rr. Whirr-rr. My skirt was coming together.

I took a break to make coffee. Amazingly, Biden made a few points without interruption or insult from his opponent.

Whirr-rr, whirr-rr. Before too long, the skirt had come together. Then the lining. Whirr-rrrr…..

By the end of the debate, only the zipper, hem and waist needed to be done. Later I made a belt and put my art deco nurse’s buckle on it.

My magical anti-Trump skirt

Can I really claim that a bit of home sewing had any effect on the US election result? Perhaps not, but who can say it didn’t?

There are scholars who think craft, ordinary home sewing, knitting and other folksy skills can help make a better world. Dr Amy Twigger Holroyd, Associate Professor at Nottingham Trent University, researches the intersection of fashion, making, design and sustainability. She has written a book called Folk Fashion, Understanding Homemade Clothes.

In a recent interview on ABC radio, she reflected that wearing something your Mum had made was once a source of shame. “It looks like something from a store” was a compliment. These days, however, home sewing is less an act of frugal necessity, more like an enjoyable leisure activity or a type of self-expression. It is also one small bulwark against the throwaway fast fashion that clogs our world with waste.

I looked up this fascinating scholar’s website: and sent her an email with a picture of my anti-Trump skirt. She replied at once:

What a great story! I love the way that textiles can carry these invisible and personal meanings. Whenever you wear it I’m sure you’ll remember the experience… and the worldwide sigh of relief at the eventual election result.

I wore the skirt a few times last summer, but now that spring’s arriving, I intend to wear it again this year, and perhaps for years to come.


September 2021

Cultivating my garden

Nightmares on the television. Gun-toting Taliban victors with disconcerting smiles. Ever-rising Covid cases in New South Wales.

So I retreat to cultivate the garden.

Once, not so long ago, I really had a garden. My garden notebook says IN BLOOM AUGUST 2009: jasmine, magnolia, pink and red camellia, clivia, alyssum, geraniums, maybush, a few bits of bougainvillea and a couple of jonquils.

Then we sold the house. Crowded tropical planting is not the fashion. In March 2012 I was silly enough to walk past. I wrote on the inside page of the notebook GONE! Margaret’s avocado tree, the frangipani, all the coast rosemary, all the ivy, geraniums, tree ferns, wisteria and its arbour, all the monstera deliciosa, jonquils, narcissus, bilbergias, alyssum, seaside daisies. In their place were a very large garage and a few lines of well disciplined greenery.

Now I have a balcony. In the planter we have a long line of liriope, a reedy lily turf with small purple flowers in summer, and a couple of tree ferns. In pots we have frangipanis and agaves. I also planted some giveaway seeds from Woolworths, the star being this pansy:

What could be more optimistic than planting a seed? What a colour combination! Eat your heart out, Monet!

One of the consolations of lockdown has been a long run of sunny winter days. The liriope thinks it’s growing season, so I have been out with the watering can and the Seasol, fertilising.

There’s a rank, dead-fish scent to it, but miracles are happening down in the soil. Gardens really do lift the spirits.


August 2021

Convict women defied authority

Australia’s female convicts are often depicted as sluts and thieves. They stole, certainly, but usually from desperation. Their privileged contemporaries deplored sexual behaviour that did conform to middle class codes. But what were convict women really like?

Babette Smith’s new book, Defiant Voices, celebrates the defiance and resilience of the 25,000 women transported to Australia. It took courage to stand up to the power of the courts, which could rip prisoners away from family, children and homeland, and send them to the far side of the globe. Smith finds many stories of women who swore, shouted, mocked and sang in the face of judges, prison guards, naval officers and employers.

The prisoners saw no shame in their crimes when the alternative would have been starvation. Their refusal to show repentance in court angered and bewildered authorities:

When the judge pronounced a sentence of transportation,the two women were…extremely insolent to him and … ‘in vulgar language.. told him, “We have plenty of law but little justice.” Two other women joined in. …As they were about to leave the dock, they ‘jumped and capered about and laughing at the judge said, “Thank you my lord.”‘

page 29, Defiant Voices

The average age of female convicts was 25, but many were teenagers and a few were as young as 12. They banded together on board ships, at Female Factories and in workplaces, always ready to call out anything they considered unfair. In later life they often proved to be valuable employees, and many escaped their convict status through marriage. Noisy rebels often grew into respectable workers, wives and mothers. Some lived much longer, healthier lives that they could have hoped for in England or Ireland. Mary Reibey (page 111) became a successful trader who helped found the Bank of New South Wales. Catherine Mangan (page 146) , who left four children in Ireland, was often in trouble for drunkenness, but had another six children with her ex-convict husband and died at the age of 87. Sarah Leadbetter, (page 79), a pretty 19-year-old thief, met William Lawson of the New South Wales Corps on Norfolk Island. In 1812 they married and by the 1820s Sarah was the mistress of Veteran Hall at Prospect, arranging piano lessons for her daughters. Susannah Watson (page 233), Babette Smith’s forebear, left four children in England that she never saw again. The baby who came to Sydney with her died at the age of three. Susannah had a further two children in Australia, and in a letter to her daughter in England, described her new home as a “plentiful, extravagant” country. Except for the loss of her English children, she regarded transportation as the best thing that happened to her.

Defiant Voices has illustrations on nearly every page, many drawn from the National Library’s convict era material.

Young and defiant convict lass

Babette Smith dedicates the book to “the thousands of family and academic historians whose research into women convicts has produced such riches.” A few decades ago, in deference to widespread shame about our convict ancestors, archives and libraries made it difficult to access information about them. Now convict ancestors are celebrated rather than obscured, and many archivists, librarians and university lecturers owe their jobs to the widespread thirst for information about our past.

Defiant Voices brings a vast array of material on the convict system together with dozens of lively vignettes of individual convict women. This compelling book combines scholarship with original insights.


July 2021

Babette Smith, Defiant Voices, How Australia’s Female Convicts Challenged Authority, National Library of Australia Publishing, 288 pages, $49.99 – available from the NLA bookstore online, and other online outlets

Sport, sport and sport

With apologies to Lord Alfred Tennyson: Better to have played and lost than never to have played before. (1)

Every year Australians get excited about tennis, epecially around the performances at Wimbledon, and every four years about a range of sports, some of which (e.g. artistic swimming, snchronised diving) only excite the nation, or are even heard of, at the Olympics. This year Stewart McSweyn has been selected in the Australian team for the Tokyo Olympics in the 1500, 5000 and 10,000m track and field events. An outstanding achievement. But we all know that there are only two sports that matter, even to Stewart’s mum. Stewart has a twin brother Angus. In an alarming interview on the ABC 7.30 program his mother, in a Ripley’s ‘believe it or not’ moment, actually said, ‘Angus is the more gifted of the two boys. He could easily do things when playing cricket and football.’

Here follow my confessions. I was no good at either football or cricket, yet despite my inabilities I enjoy both as spectator sports. I look back on three great moments in my sporting life (football, cricket and tennis), with a sense of pleasure, largely because of the enjoyment shared with my extended family.

AFL Football

I gradually came to accept that ‘forward pocket’ was a place where they hid the school house team captain’s younger brother. I happily accepted that position. My expectations, and I suspect those of my teammates were low and happily I was able to meet them.

Several years ago at a family gathering a football appeared, a regular event on such occasions, and the assorted siblings, in-laws and nieces and nephews began a game of kick to kick. For those not familiar with this termiology Wikipedia has the following entry: ‘a pastime and well-known tradition of Australian Rules football fans, and a recognised Australian term for kick and catch type games. It is a casual version of Australian Rules.’ Anyone can join in, with an opportunity for showing off both kicking and marking skills. A favourite nephew, not known for his sporting prowess, kicked the ball which dribbled off his foot and caused much hilarity, punctuated by a comment from another favourite nephew (all nephews are favourites) who observed loudly: “Don’t worry. We regard you as the Robert of our generation.” Both of us took this to be a great compliment.


The apogee of my adolescent cricketing was the award of a trophy for “most improved C2” mounted on a plinth of brown bakelite (polyoxybezylmethylenglycolanhydrate). Was this for encouragement, consolation or perseverance, or the obviously well-deserved recognition of a brilliant display when I’d made 8 not out in the final match of the season? My brother regularly found the opportunity to mention this at Christmas family gatherings when the collected nieces and nephews played cricket, even if only tippity run, ‘a form of backyard cricket; the defining rule of the form, which requires the batsman to run if they hit the ball.’

Several years ago I decided to present the trophy to m brother for a Christmas present, since over the years he’d obviously drawn more pleasure from it than I had. At that stage he was playing in Victoria in a State representative seniors’ team. In the end common sense and dignity prevailed and the trophy must still be in the house somewhere, though we don’t have a pool room. That very same Christmas my brother gave me a surprise present. He had been to the local historical society, located the records of the South Warrandyte Cricket Club, and especially copied for me the minutes of the meeting at which it was determined that the most improved player in the Club should be me.


Lest anyone think my life was blighted only by football and cricket I recount one other magic moment. It was my mother’s 75th birthday I believe when we all celebrated at a friend’s home. There we all played tennis, but uncharacteristically my mother announced to the family that she would no longer be playing singles tennis against any of us. When asked why, she gave an unequivocal answer: “I’ve never been beaten by Robert and I’m not going to give him a chance at this stage of my life.”

I now play Croquet and there are several aspects that delight me about the game. It is cerebral; the desire to win is not paramount (or is at least subservient to the intention to make an opponent lose); and in the most recent COVID shutdown croquet was recognised not as a community sport but rather as an opportunity to exercise. And I can beat my brother at croquet.

Great sporting moments in my life may be tinged with both bathos andpathos, but I suffer no psychological injury, and futhermore a consequence of not taking sport at all seriously means I am perhaps the only family member not to suffer long-term cosnequences of any sporting injuries.

Best to be a good sport rather than good at sport, though if like Ashleigh Barty you can be both then life is even better than best.


(1) There is no record that Lord Alfred Tennyson ever palyed sport and his sole reference to sport in his writings indicates that he knew little of cricket. His gene pool ultimately gained respect when his grandson captained the English cricket team.


July 2021

Women and masks

I fell in love with a woman wearing a mask.

Not once, buy twice.

The first time was with English actress Margaret Lockwood starring in the film The Wicked Lady.(1945) as an aristocrat by day and a highwaywoman by night. She was the most gorgeous creature I had ever seen in all my seven years. The film also had a hanging scene in which hawkers were selling model scaffolds and victims to kids in the crowd. How I longed for one of those scaffolds but none were to be found in my searches through the town’s toyshops. I must have been a horrid little boy.

Which reminds me of another precocious little brat aged about ten who had a hit in the charts in the 1970s. He was even prepared to mask up to win the heart of his woman: “I’ll be your long-haired lover from Liverpool, I’ll do anything you ask. I’ll be your clown, your puppet, your April fool, I’ll even wear a mask”. Maybe the songwriter could not find anything to rhyme with ”ask’.

Long before the present pandemic, women in masks had become commonplace in Western cities. It wasn’t always so. Writing in The Times in 1869, William Russell on a visit to Egypt with the Prince of Wales, typified the idea of exotic, feminine Eastern promise when he wrote: ” If eyes can be an index to the character of the rest of the face, many of the ladies must have been very beautiful”. Then he went and spoiled it by adding ” but some showed the ravages of ophthalmia, which the artifice of blackened eyebrows only made more evident”..

It is ironic to reflect that in many Western countries masks have made the fastest trajectory in history from being illegal (for concealing identity for whatever reason) to becoming compulsory (to protect us and others from infection).

Best mask joke seen so far: “Puppy: ‘Mum,. why are humans wearing muzzles?’ Mother dog: ‘ Because they won’t learn to sit and stay.'”

Who, you may ask, was the second masked woman I fell in love with? She of course is my wife, Helen, though she was not wearing a mask when we first met. That has come much later in response to the current pandemic. Which brings us to Bondi Beach where the ABC TV News made us poster material (without the usual bikini and board shorts) while recently taking a Sunday afternoon stroll along the promenade enjoying the opportunity for permitted outdoor exercise.

In our masks at Bondi on a lockdown Sunday


Sydney, June 2021

Cryptic joys of a minor lunacy

My grandfather was addicted to cryptic crosswords. My mother also attacked one every morning, finishing her last on the day she died.

Can the addiction be inherited? I am also in the grip of this strange affliction, which my grandfather called “one of the minor lunacies.”

This week I’ve had a triumph. Believe it or not, I got out the entire David Astle Sydney Morning Herald Friday cryptic crossword.

David Astle cryptic, 25 June 2021

My mother died more than thirty years ago, but when I’m doing a crossword, her voice is insistently audible. “Did you try an anagram?” she asks me. Or in a more exasperated tone – “It’s an anagram, you fool!”

I did start off with an anagram. 17 ACROSS: “Awfully shy clique I left, making a sucking sound (8)“. Once I wrote down SHY CL – QUE (the I had to be left out), SQUELCHY leapt out.

Then I had a bit of luck. 25 ACROSS, 22 DOWN. “Nod to positive discrimination? (11, 6)” AFFIRMATIVE ACTION, what else?

I solved a few more, let my brain work on a couple as I went off to play croquet, and came back to the task later. Amazingly I found more and more solutions. Most Fridays I have to be content with a dozen. I really liked some clues in this puzzle. There is a real gasp of delight when a clue is funny, apt and decipherable. My favourite from this Friday is 19 ACROSS: “Increase delighted parasite (6)”. The answer? UPTICK.

I ACROSS is also pretty good. “Criticise what only A-list actors can do (4,5)”. The answer is PICK APART.

My father, who never learned the art of cryptic crosswords, failed to empathise with addicts. “How many hours of your life have you wasted on those things?” he would demand of my mother. She’d give a brief, unrepentant smile. Minor lunacies do not rate a major marital dispute.

My own husband is not bad at cryptics and has been known to help me out with a scientific or engineering term. This time, though, I found PLUTONIUM without resource to his authority.

I do use other autorities, a well-thumbed crossword dictionary, the Macquarie Dictionary online thesaurus, and when absolutely desperate, Dan’s word, a crossword-helper site. However, I solved this one without Dan. I was told about that site by three men who sit in a cafe in Glebe Point Road, opposite the library, every morning, solving the Herald crossword together.

There are worse ways to start a day. A couple of mates, a cup of coffee, a nice fresh pastry, and a cryptic crossword. Wouldn’t my grandfather have loved it!


June 2021

Crime and punishment, Oxford-style

OXFORD 1950s

Devotees of the British TV cop show, Inspector Morse and his younger self “Endeavour”, set in mid-last century Oxford, are probably unaware that there was a rival constabulary in that university city.

Oxford University had its own police force but like most things in Oxford in the 1950s, it was imbued with archaic eccentricity. The purpose of the police force was to discipline the student body, particularly the undergraduates.

The chief of police was called the Proctor. There were two of them – a Senior Proctor and a Junior Proctor. They were supported by forty constables of the Oxford University Police called Bulldogs. These were usually local men chosen for their bulky frame and their desire to restrain unruly undergraduates. The Bulldog uniform was a dark suit, complete with collar and tie, and topped off with a bowler hat. They looked less like cops – more like butlers on their day off. The Proctors were also dark-suited, topped with academic gowns and mortar boards.

The Bulldogs had full powers of arrest within the University and within 6 km of any University building. Formed in 1829, they were amongst the oldest police forces in the UK, having been set up in the same year as Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police. They predated Inspector Morse’s Oxford City Police by about thirty years.

Towards midnight (curfew time) the Bulldogs could be seen roaming the city streets on the lookout for curfew breakers. On Guy Fawkes Night ( 5 November) they could be seen helping the local constabulary keep undergrads from storming the Randolph Hotel – an annual tradition.

One morning I entered my college, Wadham, by the gatehouse and looked as usual in my pigeonhole for any mail. This is where post from the outside world was placed, together with invites to clubs, notes from tutors ,etc.

On this occasion I pulled out a plain envelope which, on opening, contained a sheet of paper headed: SUMMONS. It required my attendance to meet the Junior Proctor in his office at a specified time in the Sheldonian Theatre. This is a magnificent neoclassical building designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1669. It is used for graduation and other ceremonies.

No reason for the Summons was given. I was left to speculate on the nature of my crime. I think the Summons was written in mediaeval Latin but maybe my memory is playing tricks.

On the appointed day I turned up at the Sheldonian Theatre (just a stone’s throw from my college), wearing the required sub-fusc ( Lat. Sub Fuscus = Dark Brown).. This involved putting on a dark suit, white shirt, white bow tie and an academic gown. Mine was an anaemic half gown with black ribbons hanging off the side. This told everyone that I was only a Commoner and had not been smart enough to qualify for a college scholarship and proper Scholar’s full gown.

The Junior Proctor was sitting behind a large desk, wearing his Junior Proctor’s rig. He looked very young and I later found out that that Junior Proctors were chosen from amongst the youngest college fellows and accepted the post out of a sense of duty or to help with promotion prospects. The position was for twelve months and involved admin. tasks as well as policing. It was a job, in other words, that nobody willingly wanted. This probably explained why this Junior Proctor looked rather bored as he read out the charge sheet.

I should explain that all undergraduates owning a motor vehicle had to register it with the Proctors and then had to ensure that said vehicle was carrying a green lamp. I had such a green lamp fixed on my Lambretta motor scooter.

My offence was that the Bulldogs had seen my scooter leaving my college at ten minutes after the midnight curfew. Most evenings would pass very quickly talking with a group of friends in the room of someone fortunate enough still to be living in college.. I confessed to having been the driver and said I was on my way to my digs in Cowley, a few km away.

The Proctor then adopted a curious, pained expression and sat looking at me for some time, presumably mulling over an appropriate punishment to fit the crime. Or maybe he was registering his disdain for the whole process. I recall that at my matriculation ceremony a year or so earlier, when I stood in the same Sheldonian Theatre with several hundred other undergrads all clad in sub fusc, a Junior Proctor had initiated the proceedings by declaring: “This farce will be over in a few minutes”.

I nervously stood awaiting my sentence.

Suddenly the Junior Proctor looked up , summoned up his most serious face and said: “I m going to have to admonish you”..

This made me rather nervous as, widely-read as I was, I had never heard the word “admonish”. An embarrassed silence ensued for several minutes. I imagined all sorts of dire punishments from being held in a downstairs dungeon to incurring an unaffordable fine or, worse still, having to memorize a lengthy apologia in Latin, ancient or mediaeval. Or perhaps he was just going to tweak my ears.

Eventually the Junior Proctor said: “I admonish you”.

A further silence ensued while I took in the enormity of my punishment.

I stood there stupidly until eventually the Junior Proctor, with a dismissive wave of his arm, made it clear my punishment was over. I had done my time – it must have lasted all of two minutes.

I walked out a free man.

Postscript: The Bulldogs were disbanded in 2003 after public criticism they were exercising unauthorized authority over the citizenry of Oxford. Apparently they had gone around arresting too many people who were not members of the University. This had also upset the local constabulary, The Thames Valley Police, who had succeeded the upstart Oxford City Police in 1968.

Inspector Morse would surely have been pleased to see the back of the Bulldogs whom he would undoubtedly have written off as a comic but irritating rival force.


Sydney, June 2021.

A golden castle in the sky

2021 seems to be the Year of Clouds.

My May calendar (thanks again, Bureau of Meterology) has a remarkable photo of Kelvin-Heimholtz clouds. I’ve never actually seen them, but I was sufficiently intrigued by the picture to look them up. They are fairly rare, most likely to occur in mountain regions. When there is cool air underneath a cloud mass and warm air above it, the warm stream moves faster, causing the tops to curve like breaking waves.

photo by Steven Sandner Photography

Closer to home, I saw a golden castle over the sea this week, putting the local 1980s highrise to shame with its elegance and sheen:

A golden castle in the air

The image doesn’t do justice to its magical allure. I could see why sailors in old tales set off on quests for El Dorado. It’s there, hovering over the Pacific, not far from Coogee…. All aboard…

I could look it up on one of those cloud-identification sites. I’m sure a meterologist could explain it.

But for now I’ll just go on basking in the glow.


May 2021