Anti-Discrimination at Dapto

From late 1978 to mid 1982 I worked at the Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW. It was an exciting place with committed Board members and staff. In those early days the ADB was an autonomous outlier of Premier’s Department. Refugees from South-East Asia and migrants from the Middle East were making New South Wales a more diverse society.

Initially the grounds for complaint under the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 were race, sex and marital status. By 1982, physical impairment and homosexuality had been added.

The tiny community relations team had the task of making five million citizens aware of their rights. We wrote leaflets and radio spots in many languages; we prepared TV infomercials, we started a newsletter and we travelled to many regional towns and cities. We ran conferences. We briefed the media on hearings before the Board. We ran seminars in schools, universities and many places of work. The Senior Sergeants of Police are particularly memorable. The convenor would greet me with, “There are more than 300 years of policing experience in this room.”

Community relations officer, ADB, 1980

Colleagues who were researching discrimination based on age, religion, political conviction, homosexuality and disability had expertise and wide contacts. Our Aboriginal project officer taught me a great deal. We worked with the Ethnic Affairs Commission on tackling racial vilification.

But not every day was a triumph.

Occasionally there was an outright disaster.

One autumn evening, leaving my husband and sons on their own, I drove south to Dapto – I’d been invited to speak at a service club. I reached my motel at dusk and was on time at the venue. The engineer who’d invited me seemed friendly, and so did the club president. The dinner went smoothly enough. Club formalities followed, with various jokes and fines from the Sergeant-at-Arms.

There were no wives at this event. A waitress and I were the only women in sight. There were about 45 men.

I was introduced.

This is the gist of what I said: Your right to a fair go. Discrimination complaints on the grounds of race, sex and marital status. Early cases before the Board. Equal opportunities for all. Increasing numbers of women in fire-fighting, policing and skilled trades.

The President thanked me and called on a man from the far side of the room to move the vote of thanks.

Mercifully I have no memory of what the man looked like. But his words will stay with me forever. “That would be the greatest load of crap I ever heard in my entire life.”

I was wearing a red woollen dress. I could feel my face reddening to match it.

While the engineer and the president were wondering how to make amends, two men dashed up to me.

“Terrific talk!” they said. “We aren’t members here – we’re visiting from the Fairy Meadow club, and we want you to know we never treat our guests like that at Fairy Meadow.”

I was grateful to those two kind men. Ever since, I’ve had a a special fondness for Fairy Meadow.

PENELOPE NELSON

March 2021

Tenderness/Tendresse in Paris

We were in a restaurant in Paris years ago, enjoying dinner. It was an up-market place with table cloths and waiters wearing bow-ties. Our table was in a booth lined with velvet, the booths forming a circle around a small fountain. We could clearly see the people in the booths on the other side of the fountain and wondered about them.

Photo by Nextvoyage on Pexels.com

There was an obviously rich old elegant couple, fawned over by attentive waiters. There was a family of two parents with two teenagers, and there was a beautiful young lady sitting all by herself, looking at her watch.

It was just after 8 o-clock and I commented that someone was running late. As the minutes ticked past, we became concerned for the young woman who was agitated and upset. At about 8.30 p.m. a tear rolled down her reddened cheek. The waiters could see that something was wrong and brought her a glass of water and a menu.

The rest of the restaurant was oblivious to the drama: there were peals of laughter and loud conversation coming from the other booths. The waiters were very busy and no one had time to comfort the now distressed mademoiselle. It was almost 9 o’clock and we were becoming distressed too. What should we do? Should we go over to comfort her, or would that make matters worse?

Suddenly the door opened and in rushed a rather harassed young man who looked around, spotted his date and ran over to her. There were hugs and floods of tears from both. It was such a tender moment that the much-relieved head waiter brought over two glasses of champagne. We continued to watch as the young man explained what had kept him so long. Without them ordering, food and wine started to arrive under the supervision of the headwaiter who had witnessed the drama.

We can remember that particular tender moment as if it was yesterday. It confirms to me that Paris is indeed “the city of love.”

Photo by Dimitri Kuliuk on Pexels.com

IAN FERRIE

March 2021

Discrimination – strange but true

As a slightly tinted chappie (I am partly Indian), it has been a source of amazement to me that in a long life (now 82) I must confess to never having been overtly discriminated against. Most of those years have been spent in largely white societies, now thankfully a thing of the past as we’ve all become much more multi-hued. Indeed, far from feeling left out, my working life has seen me floating nonchalantly through the upper reaches of the corporate world and the bureaucracy. I have even been given the keys to the executive washroom, not literally but that is code for a range of executive privileges.

Getting so far in a discrimination-free zone, and now finding myself in 2021 the victim of discrimination…..well, it all seems decidedly bizarre…. but more of that later.

Sure, I was once on the receiving end of a racial slur, when at the age of eight in south London I was on the way to school. I passed by a house where in the front garden stood an enormous boy, probably about twelve. As I walked past he called me a nasty word, usually reserved for people of Far-Eastern appearance. As he was much bigger than me, I quickly walked b y and next day chose a different route to school. Oh! I forgot to mention! He was an Afro-Caribbean boy, probably son of a couple who had come over to make sure the Brits were adequately provided with transport and health care. Looking back, I bear no ill will to that boy. Probably in that era on the receiving end of the N word, he had at last found someone he could racially abuse, even if he got the races slightly mixed up.

Apart from my encounter with my (probably) Jamaican friend, I had not really experienced racial insensitivity until I arrived in Australia over forty years ago. Soon after joining my company, I joined colleagues for after-work drinks in a local pub. It was a hot day and one of them said his throat was so parched “it was as dry as a Pommy’s bath towel”. As I was the new chum, recently arrived from the old dart, it was a mortifying experience and I felt I had to do something to restore English pride. So next April 23 I organised an office picnic to celebrate St George’s Day. The notice which went up on all office noticeboards invited all staff of English origin to celebrate our national day. This led to a visit from a very embarrassed guy from Personnel to inform me I was guilty of discrimination, probably illegally.. The happy outcome was that all were made welcome and St George’s Day went on to be an annual excuse for everyone to get out of the office for a long wet lunch lasting several hours.

…..and now to 2021. Recently my wife and I decided to celebrate our wedding anniversary with a week on a part of the NSW South Coast which we had not visited before. We duly booked an apartment with the international hotel booking agency we had used many times before. Twenty four hours before we were due to arrive we were asked to provide a photo ID, which I satisfied with my driving licence which of course contains my date of birth. Not long after I received an email from the booking agency saying the reservation had been cancelled on age grounds as this particular accommodation had an age limit of seventy five.

I immediately contacted the villas and spoke by phone to the owner who remained intransigent to all my pleas. I used all the arguments. “We were in Italy last year and stayed in a place in Sicily where we had to climb five flights of stairs to get to our room”. No effect. “We go to the gym three times a week”. No effect. ” I bushwalk up to ten km at a time”. No effect on the unmoved owner. Finally in desperation I pulled out the big gun. “We play croquet”. To my immense surprise this had no impact whatever on the obstinate owner who said the accommodation (ground floor and stair free) would not be suitable for someone my age. I retired to lick my wounds and find alternative accommodation.

A week later we returned to our croquet club where advance word had got around about our treatment. It must be something about the predominant demographic of our club, but several members were so incensed about our treatment that I thought they were in acute danger of spontaneous combustion.

So I decided to go to war, not just for me but for all those lovely angry people.

My battlefield turned out to be Anti-Discrimination NSW who were on to the case with amazing speed. As an ex-member of the NSW public service myself I must say I had never been aware that its bureaucracy could move so fast. I had to conclude that Anti-Discrimination NSW were either grossly overstaffed and were desperate to find something to do or had been trained in rapid-response by the Riot Squad or the NSW Fire Brigade. Within minutes I was told I had been age-discriminated, that this was illegal and that I should put in a formal complaint which they would deal with.

To cut to the quick. Within a week I had received a written apology from the property owner, an assurance that henceforth there would be no age restriction in the house rules, and a reimbursement of the extra cost of booking elsewhere.

You may like to see the letter I sent to the property owner:

” Dear Madam,

Thank you for your apology and for reimbursing the extra costs of alternative accommodation.

I am glad you are amending your house rules and will no longer be at risk of legal action against you.

Most of my friends , who are over the age of seventy five or soon to be so, were incensed when I told them of your last-minute rejection of my booking.

I too was disappointed not only at having to bear the stress of finding alternative accommodation at little notice, but because your villas looked so comfortable and eminently suitable for seniors.

So you will be pleased to know that at every opportunity I will be recommending your villas to my enormous circle of friends throughout Sydney, most of them well over seventy five and some of them a sprightly ninety.

Get ready to welcome them.”

ROBIN SEN

Sydney , March 2021

The many moods of the sky

By my desk I have a copy of the Bureau of Meterology’s Weather Calendar. The picture for March features “cloud streets”. I’ve never seen those long parallel lines, but did see one cloud highway from the balcony.

Cloud street over Coogee

What a lifetime of joy the sky provides. Sunsets, sunrises, the sun, the moon and the stars – and a zillion unanswered questions about the galaxies far out of sight.

At dusk the clouds can form a barrier on the horizon:

Jagged clouds on horizon

Sometimes there’s a balmy rainbow:

Rainbow over misty sea

Sunsets are so routinely beautiful that we risk taking them for granted:

Balcony plants with sunset

So let’s hear it for the sky – up there, ever changing, infinite in its variety, and always ready to offer a new look at existence.

PENELOPE NELSON

March 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 (balconyfever.com/2020/10/15/reading-writing-being/) 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…

A very Australian plague

Most people have heard of locust plagues, cane toad plagues or rabbit plagues. Rural Australia is sometimes overwhelmed with another sort of plague, little known, and rarely experienced first-hand by city folk.

One Easter time a few years ago we arrived late in the evening at a sheep and wheat property in the Central West of NSW. We were tired after a six-hour drive from Sydney. As soon as we had consumed a welcoming nightcap with our hosts, we went to bed. We placed several chocolate Easter eggs on the shelf behind the bed, intending to distribute them to our cousins the next morning.

Almost as soon as we had turned off the bedside lamp we heard a rustling noise behind us and the sound of multiple egg wrappers being torn simultaneously. On turning on the light we caught sight of several disappearing tails and inspected the damaged, nibbled and now written-off chocolate eggs.

We didn’t get lot of sleep that night.

Our arrival had coincided with the advance guard of a great Australian mouse plague.

Over the next couple of days we came to experience the full dimensions of the plague.

Mouse plagues break out in some of the grain growing areas of Australia every few years, usually after a bumper harvest. At the age of two months, a female mouse can give birth typically to five to seven young and go on doing so every three weeks; so in ideal conditions (for mice) their population grows exponentially.

The next morning mice seemed to be everywhere. Open the door of a room and they would scatter in all directions. I recalled that the previous evening, during the last few kms driving towards the property in the rain, I had noticed in the headlights an unusual number of small frogs jumping around in the puddles. I now realized these “frogs” were mice.

During the daytime the family gathered in the large lounge room where our numbers discouraged all but a few mice from seeking our company. It was a different story in the adjacent kitchen. The teenage boys in the family had set a number of traps out there and raced out every time they heard a click. The unfortunate mice were taken outside and fed directly to the waiting farm dogs.

Eventually the dogs lost interest in eating more mice, generally after consuming thirty or forty.

Dog before and after consuming a banquet of mice. Illustration: Eleni Sen

As to our food, there were only two places safe from the mice – the oven and fridge, fortunately a very large country one.

A couple of older teenage girls in our group had decided to sit on the hearth (it was a warm day and the fire was unlit). Suddenly they leapt up with screams. The boys, no longer able to feed the mice to the dogs, had climbed on the roof with handfuls of mice and dropped them down the chimney. Of course, they had no idea the girls were sitting on the hearth!

Ilustration: Eleni Sen

During the evening I walked up to the machinery shed. This was a large steel building housing tractors, headers, trucks and other machinery. Usually the big concrete floor is pretty clean with just a few bits of grass and the odd pile of waste grain lying about. On turning on the light I was amazed to see that it was carpeted throughout in grey — and that the carpet was moving. There must have been thousands of mice jostling for position and a chance to nibble some wheat grains. Looking at the amazing moving mass, one could almost imagine looking at the surface of the ocean on a dull day.

Having spent my childhood in an old part of south London, I thought I was used to mice……………..but Aussie mice in their batallions were another story.

In fact these plague mice were British immigrants just like bunnies, foxes, cats and people. Native marsupial mice look similar but don’t go rogue.

The first mice would have arrived in 1788 with the First Fleet and then continued to stream in with every ship. Plagues break out somewhere in the grain growing areas on average every four years or so. With up to three thousand mice plaguing a single hectare, they do colossal damage to crops, chew electric cables, wreck farm vehicles, cars and buildings.

While such plagues usually occur in the country, Melbourne is known to have had a mouse plague a few years back.

Eventually mouse plagues seem to work themselves out. Country people claim that the mice quite suddenly disappear. Most plagues end in winter when the weather turns cold with food increasingly scarce. Apparently as food runs short the mice start trying to eat one another, often successfully. This leads to lots of bites and infections, which spread rapidly through the massive populations. I like to imagine that the more successful predator mice grow fatter and fatter on a yummy diet of their fellows, until they die of obesity. More likely the mice die of disease and starvation in their nests under the ground.

Sometimes farmers plough the soil, just to destroy the nests. At other times, normal tilling has the same effect. Now for sound environmental and economic reasons, some farmers are switching to ‘no-till cropping’ , retaining the stubble from a previous crop and planting seeds in the untilled soil. This captures carbon, improves the soil and helps prevent soil loss through wind erosion. Perversely this allows the mice to remain undisturbed in their burrows. Grain growing areas of NSW are once again suffering from a mouse plague brought on by mild weather and an increase in no-till cropping.

According to Wikipedia- so it must be right- Australia and China are the only two places where mouse plagues are known. Maybe by stressing our common mousy heritage we could go some way to repairing the current frosty relations between our two countries. Just so long as we avoid limp jokes about Mao’s plagues.

ROBIN SEN

Sydney, February 2021

Our authors challenge stereotypes

Two of balconyfever.com’s authors challenge steretypes in their new publications. The National Library of Australia will soon publish Babette Smith’s Defiant Voices, a lively account of how female convicts challenged authority. In her novel Capriccio, Dina Davis brings fresh eyes to the “other woman” in a famous literary scandal.

Defiant Voices

25,000 women convicts were transported to Australia between 1788 and 1868. They are traditionally portrayed by their “betters” as depraved, foul-mouthed and promiscuous, but Babette Smith looks for evidence of their humanity and individuality. She discovers widespread instances of heroic defiance. Despite being convicted, transported, separated from homeland and family, they showed solidarity with other convicts and resistance to authority. They used their voices – in song, swearing and challenging remarks – to defy officials, on board ship, in court and at work. Smith argues that their resistance to authority contributed significantly to the broader Australian culture.

A young woman with an insult on the tip of her tongue

Smith’s subjects include thieves, rioters, insurance fraudsters, arsonists and murderers. They range from mothers of six to 12-year-old girls. They were not all “the most abandoned prostitutes”, but their sexual mores differed fromthe observers who labelled them. The women of Defiant Voices fought like tigers and drove men to breaking point with their collective voices, their lewd songs and “disorderly shouting”. Whenever they were confined together, they shared “war stories” of encounters with the law and punishment, and laughed in delight at each others’ tactics for getting back at the people in charge.

Babette Smith is the author of groud-breaking books of convict history, including A Cargo of Women and Australia’s Birthstain. Her new study, with its many illustrations, brings to life the resistance of thousands of convict women.

Capriccio: A Novel

Capriccio: A Novel, by our contributor Dina Davis, reimagines the notorious love triangle of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill. The novel challenges the stereotype of Assia as the ruthless seductress, blamed for the death of Sylvia Plath.

Thomas Keneally says of Capriccio: “I think this is a fine evocation with barely a false note. I was fascinated by this work and its crisp style. Let me reiterate: I believe you have a world-wide engaging book here. I think you’ll ring a bell.”

In 2020, Capriccio was shortlisted for the fiction prize in the NT Chief Minister’s book awards. It is available from all online booksellers, or in a new hardcopy edition from Harry Hartog’s bookshop, Bondi Junction.


Other talented contributors to this site will have new posts up soon. Keep checking!

PENELOPE NELSON

February 2020

A MAGIC CARPET FOR RAVI SHANKAR

“We can’t sit on that” said Ravi Shankar as we looked down on the unvarnished and splintery floor boards on the stage

Alla Rakha on tabla, Prodyut Sen on tamboura and Ravi Shankar on sitar.

My elation at having secured a visit from Ravi Shankar and his group was rapidly evaporating. We were in the Holywell Music Room in Oxford. It was 1958 and Ravi Shankar was already an international star and the leading player of Indian classical music throughout the world. He had composed the music for Satjit Ray’s internationally acclaimed film “Pather Panchali” and was well known for his performances throughout the USA, Europe and India. He was well on the way to super stardom, with performances to come in the 1960s with George Harrison, Yehudi Menuhin and at Woodstock.

I was president of the Oxford Majlis, a University club specialising in Asian politics and culture. I had been somewhat surprised when Ravi Shankar had accepted my invitation and considered it very gracious of him. And now, having dined him and his group at the Oxford Union, we had taken a taxi the short distance to the Holywell Music Room, the oldest custom-built concert hall in Europe, opening in1748.

The show was going to be a sell-out with all two hundred or so of the tickets already sold. Fortunately we had half an hour to go before the performance was due to start.

I assured Ravi that I would sort something out but I was not sure that he looked all that convinced. I sent one of my committee members to search through the props boxes of the stage and after a few moments he came back triumphantly with an armful of blankets. Blessed relief. The show would go on. However euphoria rapidly turned to despair as we shook out the blankets in a cloud of choking dust and discovered they had been eaten to shreds by rats.

Ravi did not look happy.

I had to do something and assured him I would find a solution and that he and his group would be comfortably seated. I explained that this would take about five minutes.

Ravi looked sceptical.

Fortunately my college, Wadham, was a two minute dash round the corner. I raced in through the gatehouse and entered the first room in the corner of the quadrangle. All doors in those days were unlocked and luckily there was no sign of the undergraduate who resided there. I grabbed all the blankets off the bed plus a small rug off the floor and raced past the porter in the gatehouse, round the corner and into the Music Room, pushing past the audience who were beginning to turn up.

Ravi asked no questions, happily settled down on the pirated blankets and rug and went on to delight the audience with a magnificent sitar recital.

Close to a quarter of a century later I took my son Rodney and his friend Sean to a Ravi Shankar performance in the Sydney Opera House. As I looked at Ravi on the stage and around at the sell-out audience of two thousand or so, I had a moment of quiet satisfaction at knowing I had played a small and totally irrelevant role in his career.

ROBIN SEN

Sydney, January 2021

Super-duper 2021

Tidying up my Christmas cards, I found one that hadn’t been opened. It was deep in a cardboard container for a wine bottle.

“Have a super-duper Christmas”, my brother wrote.

Super-duper.

It’s a long time since anyone wished me a super-duper anything. It brought a happy grin to my scowling dial.

I looked it up in the Macquarie Dictionary. There it was:

super-duper adjective, Colloquial — extremely fine, great, pleasing, etc. [dissimilated replication of SUPER]

I looked up dissimilate. To change a speech sound so it is less like a neighbouring syllable.

Enough of this lexicography!

It’s not as if super-duper was a mystery.

It’s just a happy phrase. How many other cheery phrases from the past have slipped out of use?

Pink frangipani on the balcony

In the midst of a very grey, cloudy, overcast start to the year, and more news about masks, statistics, border closures etc., came a brief moment of bright blue sky. I took my camera on to the balcony to capture it before it vanished.

So here’s to a super-duper 2021 for everyone, may the year bring blue skies, the scent of frangipanis, easier contact with our friends and family, and whatever else you may wish for.

I also look forward to more contributions to this shared blog from our talented team.

PENELOPE NELSON

January 2021

Santa’s cover blown

A cold Sussex evening in December 1977. A group of us were doing a door knock collecting gifts of food for the poor of the town. We belonged to the East Grinstead Round Table (akin to Australian Apex). We found the most generous people (rushing indoors to contribute Christmas puddings, cakes, tins of fruit, chocolate and lollies, etc) were usually the poor and elderly themselves. The young, I suppose, were going flat strap trying to pay their mortgages in this attractive, highly desirable town about fifty km south of London….. and had little charity to spare.

We had our own Santa – local veterinarian Euan, a quiet-spoken Scot and thoroughly decent fellow, well-known and respected in the town. A few months earlier we had watched his look of horror as a visiting group of French Round Tablers presented the president of our club with a large, white and very French cockerel. They had smuggled it through H.M. Customs at Newhaven after crossing on the ferry from Dieppe and, with Gallic insouciance and the characteristic French shoulder shrug, ignored British biosecurity rules. It is reliably known that later that evening Euan volunteered to take care of the cockerel, after wresting it from the club president who probably had had ideas for Sunday lunch. The bird was not seen again but it is pretty sure that our conscientious vet did the right thing.

Now in December, our evening of collecting had begun well. Santa’s sack was already brimming with reverse Christmas gifts. Local vet Euan, disguised as Santa, was clad in his red robe, with hood drawn close to his face and wearing a long white beard. So far nobody, adults or kids, had recognised him in about twenty or so door knocks.

We came to the door of a little cottage on the outskirts of the town. Santa knocked on the door and a small boy opened it.

“You’re not Santa”, said the boy. “You killed my cat!”

Illustration: Eleni Sen

SEASONS GREETINGS FROM ROBIN SEN, Sydney, December 2020.