just between friends


The tricky thing about the last column of the year is whether you should reflect on what was or look forward.

Regular readers will know that this year has been something of a trial for my family.

But should I bury it like the awful, rotten thing it seemed at times?

Would I have it wiped off the calendar as the year we didn’t have?

If someone had posed those questions four, five months ago I’d almost certainly have said yes.

But that’s the great thing about the passing of time: faced with a new reality, it shows you how to live it.

2013 will go down as the year I discovered friends.

They’ve always been there – at every stage of my life – but I’d never valued them near enough.

It’s partly a consequence of a childhood spent on the move to far-flung satellite and cable station towns where my father was deployed.

Unlike my shy, serious brother who suffered these frequent upheavals, I was highly adaptable and made friends easily … at the drop of a hat in fact.

And that, of course, was my own peculiar problem.

You couldn’t pack friends in a removalist’s truck – so you’d love ’em and leave ’em, with nary a backward glance and start again.

It probably didn’t help going into a profession where that was what you did to every one, every single day: crashing into people’s lives in the aftermath of disasters or violent crime, or picking at the threads of scandal until some sorry saga unravelled.

Encouraging people – in the midst of the most extreme circumstances – to open up, to talk to you and then lighting out when the next story came along was the job.

So much so that I once remarked to a friend who thought enough of me to invite me to a dinner party as one of the best friends she had made for each of the five decades of her life – a list of five people and their partners: “I don’t take prisoners.”

I know, I know. Shoot me now!

It’s actually quite hard to now be on the brink of 50 and suddenly to realise you have spent the best part of half a century being absolutely insufferable.

What changed? Well, truthfully, probably not me!

But, in 2013 I actually needed people and they were there … without once asking.

They flew in from interstate, they called on the phone, they minded the dog, they sent DVDs, CDs, books, emails, texts, wrote note cards, they invited me for meals, they offered trees under which I could safely park the campervan and plug into their mains, they wore masks, gowns and gloves to keep my husband safe and they cut me some slack at work.

But the craziest thing is that they would have done more … if we’d let them.

So, while my husband, who physically endured the awful, rotten things in 2013, may not yet be quite ready to agree, it was also a year of discovery and blessings.

Dionne Warwick so got it right.

That’s what friends are for.




good signs ahead

Roadside Haiku 2

This week started with a lovely email from a reader who wanted to share her delight at the Big West Festival’s roadside haiku project.

The use of oversized traffic management signs to flash the poetic shorthand thoughts of Footscray residents to an audience held captive by construction work snarls was one of the great hits of the ninth biennial community arts festival.

With only the NBN roll-out proceeding more slowly than motorists around Footscray these days, Big West artistic director Marcia Ferguson saw an opportunity in the banked-up lines of traffic.

After putting out a call for pithy poems based on traditional Japanese haiku style, Ferguson was inundated.

Some popular offerings included:

clutching                      Quixotic                       a yam sits                   steel sewn

paper bag                     poet seeks                  on steps                      & threaded

courage                        same                            smiling                         west skies

Reader Lizz summed up the feelings of many residents.

It was a brilliant idea with messages that made me laugh. It’s those unexpected little things that blow me away.”

It’s amazing how a little humour can take the edge off a stressful commute or just a plain bad morning.

Maybe VicRoads, Metro trains, the tunnel operators and even the folk in the Centrelink office could take a lesson from the success of the roadside haiku.

No more “lengthy delays expected”, but “stay cool, ice-creams ahead”. Under-employed tenors could be put to work holding stop signs, and the flashing numbers in Medicare claims replaced by karaoke systems.

Well, maybe not!

But as far back as the 17th century, Thomas Sydenham, the father of English medicine, promoted the value of laughter, observing: “The arrival of a good clown exercises more beneficial influence upon the health of a town than twenty asses laden with drugs.”

And, funnily enough, when you are on the look out for good humour you can find flashes of it everywhere.

Travelling back to the city along the Northern Highway yesterday we zipped past a side road sign suspended with a pair of brightly painted board-shorts: Short’s Lane.

On the road from Mt Franklin to Hepburn, a sharp-eyed motorist might be lucky enough to spot one of several teddies suspended from trees. You got it. Drop Bears!

Sitting on the verandah at the Glen Lyon General Store, look to the base of the big tree and you will see a tiny set of wooden steps leading to a knot door complete with handle, little front window and mailbox.

In the inner city, no matter how ordinary a day he might be having, my lovely brother couldn’t go past the graffiti Beware The Poodles of Doom without a smile.

He was quite gutted when it was painted over.

But he still smiles whenever he sees a poodle.

Heading for Christmas with the kids off school and the attendant festive frenzy we can all do with a smile as we go about the business of being.

Know of one you care to share?

quiet carriage


So, apropos of nothing, I was waiting for a train.

It had been a while since I’d taken a V/Line trip.

The train glided into the station pretty much on time and, being off peak, there were plenty of vacant seats in all three carriages.

Yet for some reason a knot of young passengers completely eschewed the last carriage although it was nearest them.

I wondered at first if it was that ridiculous first class and economy thing that still exists on some Victorian country trains – some of which indeed look like they’ve hailed from the last days of the Raj.

But no. It was one of the sleek new VLocity trains which does not discriminate against different ticket holders.

Upon taking a seat it became clear why the students had opted to move along the train.

This was a “quiet carriage”.

A sign advised: “The quiet carriage concept is based on courtesy and respect for others. To keep it quiet and peaceful please refrain from loud conversations and from using mobiles phones or electronic devices that can be heard by others.

To help keep the peace please turn down electronic devices, switch your mobile phone to silent. Speak quietly.”

So it was for the best part of two hours only the gentlest murmur of conversation could be heard above ambient swoosh along the rails.

And it was bliss.

People snoozed, heads against windows; many read or tapped away at tablets.

The concept recently quietly introduced to 35 VLocity trains following a successful trial earlier this year has proved a hit with commuters, and V/Line – the recipient of so many brickbats – is thoroughly deserving of a bouquet.

When you think about it, just when was the last time you spent two hours in any public place without hearing a phone ring or at least ping a message.

The cellular menace occurs in restaurants, theatres, lifts. It seems no event is sacred – not weddings, nor even funerals – from that unthinking plonker who leaves his or her phone on.

And it’s small wonder we’re hearing continuous ring tones in our ears.

UN agency The International Telcoms Union predicts there will be more mobile subscriptions than people in the world by the end of next year.

The world is almost at tipping point already with 6.8 billion subscriptions and 7.1 billion people.

But here in Australia mobile subscription has already outstripped population by almost four million thanks to a large number of people holding multiple phones or SIM cards.

That’s pretty incredible market penetration when you consider the first ever public mobile phone call was made just 40 years ago.

Hand-held mobiles were not even introduced to Australia until 1987 when then Communications Minister Michael Duffy received the first official call using an brick-like analogue phone which retailed at more than $4000.

What Telecom Australia managing director Mel Ward said to the politician as he stood on the steps of the Sydney Opera House during an event hosted by the ABC’s Dr Karl Kruszelnicki has been lost in the mist of a zillion banal conversations that have transpired since.

For profundity it couldn’t possibly compare to the first telegram sent by Samuel Morse 170 years ago: What has God wrought?

But in the quiet carriage we can at least once again hear ourselves to ask the question.