Jim Pribble

At 4:13 am on the 20th day of November 1942, the silence of the dark and stormy night was shattered by the scream of a newborn baby boy at the Coquille Valley Hospital in the County of Coos in the State of Oregon, USA. Named after this paternal grandfather, Howard, and his maternal grandfather, James, Howard James Pribble was launched on the world stage.

So they called him Jim.

The family was of modest means, being engaged in farming and the timber industry.  There was always food on the table and clothing on our back, but there wasn’t much left after expenses.  Luckily, southwest Oregon is blessed with an abundance of harvestable resources like venison, duck, salmon and other edibles; clams, crabs, oysters, mushrooms, berries etc., available at specific times of year.  Not all harvesting was done legally, but . . .

Intermixed with the edible items were animals not quite as savoury: bobcats, pumas, black bears, skunks, civet cats, timber rattlesnakes, scorpions and river otters, although these critters were rarely seen.  The most common were the Disney group – deer, squirrels, chipmunks, blue jays, robins and other cuddly creatures.

My early childhood was spent in a small township in the Siskiyou Mountains in the southwest corner of Oregon, on the banks of the Coquille River – named Powers after a local potentate from years gone by.  The town, a fly spot on the map of Oregon, boasted a postbellum population of about 1,500 people, the male component of which was engaged in timber harvest. At its peak, prior to World War II, the town would have had a population of about 3,000 people.  It was, and still is, a rough little community that refuses to die, with about six streets running North-South and about the same number running perpendicular to those streets.  Beer halls (taverns) outnumbered churches, of which there were eight of various denominations.  The town contained a “drug” store, hardware store, variety store (“Five and Dime”), barbershop, jail, post office, several gas (petrol) stations two grocery stores, a 1950’s ‘soda’ fountain and a movie theatre (25 cents/ two bits).

In the early days (late 40s and early 50s) the town had two schools, a high school (grades 8-12) and a grade school (grades 1-6).  There was no schooling prior to grade school; grade one pupils (usually six years old) were expected to read simple stories, add and subtract and have some semblance of penmanship.  Because of my birthdate, I was nearly seven when I started primary school and the late start proved to be a distinct advantage.  The total student body consisted of around 15-20 students per grade, so the total student population was about 200 young souls in the 12 grades. There was a room in the basketball hall that served as a repository for a pile of donated books, and was dignified by the name ‘library’.  I spent much time there.  Medical help, when required, could be found 21 miles downriver in a slightly larger community.

My brothers and I (as the stereotypical middle child), when not in school, spent our time roaming the hills and valleys surrounding Powers like savages on the loose.  The world was ours to use as we saw fit, and use it we did.  Magic!!!

Our household had two rules: Stay out of trouble and be home before dark – easy rules to remember, especially if they were transgressed.  Punishment was sharp and not soon forgotten.  We didn’t worry much about the first rule – the trick was to not get caught.   It worked most of the time, but in a small community, everyone knows what everyone is doing, or not doing, so it was tricky business.  Also there was some latitude provided because ‘boys will be boys’ and allowance was made for that truism because, beyond our comprehension, Dad tried to convince us he had once been a boy.

We moved from Powers in 1957 – to Coquille, a slightly larger community about 40 miles downriver, population around 4,500. Our home was about twelve miles outside the ‘city’ limits.  My older brother and I, now in high school (secondary), rode a school bus to Coquille to continue our education.  The education gained in the back seats of the school bus was as interesting, or more so, than the one received in the classrooms.

In the four years at Coquille High, I participated in all the activities expected of a red-blooded American youth.  My coursework centred on sciences, maths and other “hard” subjects because I had long before determined that University was a primary destination.  The only non-science subject, and one which has proved to be of major utility, was typing.  I wish now I had also taken shorthand, but . . .

During those four years, I was quarterback on the football team (gridiron), ran sprints in track and field, was inducted into the National Honour Society (scholastic achievement), was Student Body President in Senior year and continued my investigations first started in the back of the school bus.

In 1961, with a shiny high school diploma, I attacked the realm of higher education at Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon, about 180 miles North of Coquille, and 90 miles south of Portland. I did really well first year, had a really good time second year, then dropped out of full time study (with prompting from the University), worked in a grocery store, got married and, in Autumn of 1965, my wife Linda and I loaded ALL of our possessions into a VW microbus and drove over the Rocky Mountains to Chicago, where she was to undergo postgraduate training in physiotherapy.

Soon after settling in central Chicago, I received a ‘valentine’ from the local Draft Board saying that I had been inducted into the US Army and to report immediately, so I became a soldier stationed in Louisiana, then Texas, then back in the Chicago area. Thankfully I missed the rigours of Vietnam.

We were released from duty in January 1969 and started the journey back to Corvallis.  Our route was still named Route 66 and it lived up to its image. We saw the Painted Desert covered in snow (not very colourful), the Petrified Forest, The Grand Canyon – inaccessible owing to about 20 feet of snow, stood on the corner in Winslow, Arizona, scurried through Vegas, across Death Valley and into southern California.  Then we headed North up US 1 and US 101 along the coastline through Monterrey, San Francisco and the redwood forests of Northern California and farther North, back to Coquille. In all, a magnificent trip – I would recommend that trip to anyone.

When we got back to Corvallis, it was straight into the studies and I collected my Bachelor’s degree in 1970 (Radiation Biology and Zoology) and a Master’s (Biochemistry and Zoology) in 1972.  Jobs were few in the US in 1972, so apart from being a job seeker and a house husband (we had two sons by that time), I worked part time on research projects at Oregon State University.  I finally landed a job (pun intended) with the Research Division of Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department, working on, firstly, defining the habitat requirements of salmonid fishes, and later, an assessment of the construction and operation of a dam built on one of the last rivers in Oregon, protected as a wild and scenic river.  The whole episode was an oxymoron from the beginning.

One day in the office, while several people were talking about advancement and job opportunities, it was mentioned that there was ‘this job’ in Australia.  My ears perked up.  Being a biologist I had read about the curious animals in Australia, so I investigated it.  Seems the guy mentioning the job was a best friend of the Director of Fisheries in Victoria.  Through him, I applied for the job and, lo and behold, got a phone interview, then a job offer for a two-year contract to set up a project to eradicate European Carp from Victorian waterways.  That all sounded interesting, but it was curious that no one in Australia wanted the job. So in 1979 we packed up our household, sold our house and headed off for a new adventure half way around the world.

It turned out that the thrust of the position was political – the government needed to demonstrate that it was ‘doing something’ about the carp problem.  I knew before I arrived in Australia that eradication of the species was an impossible task because of the very biology of the beast.  The director acknowledged all this after I arrived, so the project took a different tack – study native fish with the intent of developing artificial propagation techniques to increase the numbers of native fish in the rivers and streams, rebuild the state-owned fish hatchery near Eildon and define the habitat requirements of native fish species.

Life was, and is, good in Australia.  I was offered a job that I couldn’t refuse in 1981 (retiring in 1998), and I am still here and happy to be so.  It is a fascinating country with a considerate and intelligent population, even though I am occasionally referred to as septic tank and challenged to explain Trump.

Sheila Quairney

I’m not Donald Trump’s greatest fan. But indirectly, thanks to him, my life has literally turned upside down in the past two years – and here’s why.

I’m from the UK originally. I was born in London and lived most of my adult life in the North of England, close to Sheffield – until I went on holiday to Albania in June 2018.

Albania is not the most popular tourist destination, but it is different. It has a reputation for lawlessness, maybe because it was a closed country for many decades. But it’s also renowned for its hospitality, history and beautiful mountain scenery.

So why Albania? Well, that’s where Mr Trump comes in.

I was happily semi retired, teaching yoga on a part time basis and adjusting to having lots more time on my hands after leaving a busy full time job in 2016. I was living next to open countryside, woods, fields and hills, with a handsome but demanding rescue cat, Rosie, for company. I had a close group of friends, was secretary of the local Choral Society and enjoyed walks, theatre trips and meals out – pretty much like life in Melbourne!

I had decided to go on a holiday on my own for the first time, and had paid a deposit on a trip to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. This was April 2018, when the Donald suddenly decided to bomb Syria, and then move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Suddenly the world seemed a little more dangerous, and the situation in my intended holiday destination more volatile. Who knew what Donald would do next? (Nothing as it happened, and the tension did fizzle out, but it wasn’t a very appealing holiday location any more).

So a week before my full holiday payment was due, and four weeks before I was due to leave, I decided to cancel the trip and look for somewhere else….and a trip to Albania popped up on my radar. It was a country I’d always been interested in, having taken many trips to the neighbouring countries of Croatia and Greece. It seemed to be a mysterious, scenic but little known place and therefore off the beaten track. All appealing reasons to go on an escorted tour! I rang the holiday company, Pegasus, and got the last place on the 16 person trip, bought the only available guide book (Bradt) and off I went.

Being new to the world of escorted tours, I’d assumed that all the group members would be from the UK. In fact, I met most of them at the airport but there were a few gaps in the numbers, who turned out to be people who’d travelled from elsewhere.

We assembled in the lobby of the hotel at teatime and sallied forth for a guided walk round the small but colourful capital city, Tirana. The guide asked us at the first stop if there were any questions. As I opened my mouth to speak, one of the group who I hadn’t met en route asked him “Why is this street named after George Bush?” My first reaction was: that’s the question I was going to ask. My second reaction was: he’s Australian!

Fast forward two years and I’m now happily living in Port Melbourne with that selfsame Aussie, Brian.

Ironically, he had also changed his holiday plans at the last moment, having been booked to go to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – a trip we then booked together for this year but have had to cancel. So maybe fate was working in our favour….

After several subsequent joint trips to and from the UK and Canada, where my son George lives, I sold my house and my car in the UK last June. I packed the remains of my worldly goods onto two pallets for shipping and said my au revoirs to friends and family. A friend took Rosie the cat (in case anyone was worried about her fate!). And I then flew off to my new life in Australia with Brian  – quite a big step at the grand age of 65.

We’ve bought a house together and there’s now just  the minor matter of waiting for a temporary, then a permanent visa. There’s currently about 90,000 people waiting around 2 years for a partner visa. After 15 months in the queue, I reckon I may be at about number 35,000, but I try not to think about it! Ever the optimist, I’ve invested in a ten year Australian Drivers’ Licence as a sign of my faith in a happy future.

It’s a bit worrying that I can’t leave the country to visit my family until who knows when, as I wouldn’t be allowed back in because I’m not a permanent resident – yet. But hopefully life will return to normal in due course, whatever that looks like. Or maybe I’ll get my full visa sooner than that.

Meanwhile, I’m immersing myself in Victorian life, singing, walking, volunteering with the State Library (when they’re open again) and of course Zooming. Discovering U3A and all its amazing courses and tutors has been a real plus – I was vaguely aware of it in the UK but never investigated its potential. And, very importantly, there may be a successor to Rosie in due course – I’m working on it!

So thank you to two former US Presidents for bringing Brian and me together….it may well be the best thing that either of you will ever have done:-)

Brenda Richards

Order of Australia Recipient June 2021

It was the Fifties.  I couldn’t wait to leave school.  I wanted to be an adult.  I started working in the local cannery, and using this as a base, I then worked on the itinerant track as a teenager, roaming up and down the East Coast of Australia, and occasionally inland.

The jobs were menial, but at least I got paid (most of the time) while my general education continued in its own way, although I didn’t realise now much I was learning about life at the time.

I learnt that taipans only bite you if you annoy them, followed by information on how not to annoy them – don’t stand on them for starters.

As an 18 year old, while trying to talk a pregnant teenager down from a cliff where she was going to jump to a certain death, I learnt that we do not always have a choice between right and wrong.  Sometimes there is no right choice available, and we have to choose the least worse option.

Then, along with a girlfriend, I got a job with a squatter family on the Darling Downs.  This taught me to be wary of ‘nice’ people.  There were two positions available, one as a cook and one as a housekeeper.  As neither of us could be described as capable in a kitchen, and our housekeeping efforts at home had also been close to non-existent, despite how we might have described our qualifications on application, we arranged to share the jobs.

We were informed that the last servant had left as she had stolen two shillings and sixpence from Miss Elizabeth’s piggy bank.  “It’s not the money.  It’s the fact that she was a thief”.  We were also informed that we would eat our meals in the kitchen, after the family had been served.

We worked for nearly two months, seven days a week, including over the Queen’s Birthday long weekend, never leaving the property which was isolated out in the Darling Downs.  We were not allowed to be familiar with the children, themselves teenagers, so the only rational and/or fun conversations we had were with the family dog.

It was clearly time to return to civilisation.  We resigned, expecting to get a nice payout.  Wrong!  Our wages for the duration, were kept to pay for our keep, apart from enough to purchase a train ticket into Brisbane.  The oldest boy, Master Alex, would drive us to the station to catch the train into Toowoomba, where we could transfer to the train into Brisbane.

What station? Alex drove us to the railway line.  He gave us instructions to flag down the steam train from Jondaryan, which would arrive within the next two hours, then disappeared over the horizon.  Only the odd bird looked down as two teenagers, with a suitcase each, sat in the Queensland sun with barely a tree, or the occasional cow, to break the monopoly. Then the train came.  Climbing on this monster was not easy for two vertically challenged girls.  The driver helped us get on board.

I made one farewell gesture.  The train was like something our of a Wild West film, with a small observation deck at the back.  It was the time of the full starched petticoats.  Miss Elizabeth had one.  I had stolen it and now pulled it out of the suitcase.  I twirled it around over my head and launched it into the air.  That was one for all the previous servants who had been labelled thieves.

At Toowoomba, we caught the midnight special train from St Georges, and continued into Brisbane.  It was full of miners.  We partied all night, as they handed around the beer.  We joined them loudly singing country and western songs.

We had arrived safely into Brisbane but without any money to get a room for the night.  I rang the union to report receiving no wages for working long days over many weeks.  “We don’t cover domestics” a male voice told me.  My dad was an old union man.  He had told me about Jondaryan and how the shearers strike was precipitated from the woodshed there.  Frustrated, I yelled this information into the phone before slamming it down.

We then fronted up to the Salvation Army.  Yes, they would provide us with a roof over our head, but it came with a long lecture about how irresponsible we were for roaming the country without any funds.

Strangely, the behaviour of the two groups who should have helped us, hurt more than that of the squatters, who were clearly in the wrong.  The helpers had reinforced our lack of worth; they were pure – we were not.  It was in itself, a strong lesson.  Helpers good – receivers not.

Not long out of my teens, my itinerant life ended.  I stopped in St Kilda to help look after a young brother who was starting an apprenticeship.  We were staying in a rooming house and this rolling stone then gathered some moss.  I got pregnant and the father went on his own itinerant track.  I was in despair for a while, then moved to action.  I checked in at the hospital and, as an unmarried mother, had a compulsory visit with the social worker.

My track experience, reinforced by warnings from others in the rooming house that the help I may receive could lead to the baby being taken from me, had prepared me.  I told her that I didn’t need any help as the baby’s father was providing everything.  Then I got a job at six months pregnant; because I was small, it didn’t show as I wore the ubiquitous shirt that grew.  I worked until the week before she was born.

Baby Wendy, whom I had not been allowed to touch at birth or breast feed, was placed in intensive care.  I was discharged at one week and could come in every day to look at her through the window.  I was finally allowed to take her home when she was two weeks old; that was the first time I touched her.  They put me in a taxi and gave me a bottle of formula with details on how to make more.

The women at the boarding house supported me in many ways; when another girl got pregnant we share child care between us.  In a different hospital they told her if she loved her baby, she would not take her home as the baby was ‘entitled’ to two parents.  She was distraught.  We helped her and the new baby back to the boarding house where she and baby thrived.  The help we gave each other was reciprocal and not based on a helper and helped model.  Later I rented a house in Acland St – it became an open house in which everyone helped everyone else.

Then I met Rosemary West and became a founding member of Council for the Single Mother and Child (CSMC).  At last! Somewhere that provided help with dignity.  Previously, women who were divorced or separated could get pensions, but there was no pension available for moths of ex-nuptial children, as it was believed this might encourage them to have more, with “Illegitimate” stamped on the babies birth certificates.  Wonderfully, we eventually got this changed, and it also covered males who were bringing up a child on their own.  It was amazing, reinforcing the lessons learnt on the track.

Later, as Vice President of VCOSS, I was lucky enough to head the Committee of Self Help Groups.  The self-help model works both ways.  It not only helps those who, for whatever reason are in need, but, having someone who has experienced that situation, now being a helper, they can provide invaluable information to the organisation.

So a big thank you to all those who shared experiences on the track and for those continuing to do so in Port Phillip.  Those who’ve laughed with me and those who’ve cried.  You’ve taught me so much.

By Brenda Richards

In the 2021 Queen’s Birthday honours, long time U3APP Member Brenda Richards was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for service to the community through social welfare organisations.

Brenda has kindly written this story for us, detailing her journey from leaving school at a young age and taking up varied casual work along the east coast of Australia, through to settling in St Kilda where her daughters were born, then into a life of service helping those in need.  One thing she omits in her story is that after this adventurous start to “adulthood”, she completed high school and gained a degree at Monash university, before taking up a post as a Psychiatric Social Worker in the Children’s Court Clinic.  

Some of Brenda’s extensive service history includes:

  • Founding Member (since 1969) and inaugural treasurer of the Council of Single Mothers and their Children
  • Member (1976-1980s), former board member and Vice-President (1981) of the Victorian Council of Social Services
  • Board Member, Australian Council of Social Services, 1981.
  • Supporter, Victorian Adoption Network Information and Self Help Group (VANISH), 1990s.
  • Chair and Member, Project steering Committee (1977) Collective of Self Help Groups (VIC).
  • City of Port Phillip: former Member, Multicultural Committee/Forum & former Member, Seniors Festival Sub-Committee.
  • Senior Psychiatric Social Worker, 1977-2003, established, Step Family Program (for parents whose children were before the courts), 1985-1986 – Children’s Court Clinic

Brenda also includes in her busy life being an advocate for adoptee rights, a member and advocate of Veg Out Community Garden, Number One Ticket Holder, St Kilda City Football and Netball Club and Ambassador for Women, Labor Party of Australia.


Brenda Richards

Buskers: we walk past buskers every day.  Sometimes we step around them as if they are a nuisance in our busy lives.  Other times we pretend they are not there.  Occasionally we put a coin in a hat or a guitar case.  And sometimes we enjoy their music or whatever other entertainment they are offering us.

Unfortunately, we rarely see the person behind the performer.  This is our loss.

Dave & his Dog

A Busker with his dog

Rosie lay beside the open guitar case, pretending not to notice the people passing by, but the flicker in her eyes notifies that she never misses a trick.  Dave, with his mop of unruly dark hair under a battered bushman’s hat, sings his songs with meaning, his soft blue eyes also watching.  Just another busker?  His voice and guitar skills hint of more.

Dave was born in Maffra, near the Dargo High Plains.  One of five boys, he taught himself to play the guitar when he was young.  At 15, Dave was working in the saw mills.  No easy job for a youngster, but he is a survivor and it was not long before an adventurous spirit saw him on the move.

He arrived in the city, working in factories in Fishermans Bend.  From there he graduated to working as a Flyman/Mechanist, which is a highly skilled job carried out in the wings behind the scenes in theatre productions.  It’s not by accident that complicated scene changes occur precisely and silently.

In the theatre world, Dave met a wider slice of humanity than had rubbed shoulders with him in the mountains.  He worked on such varied workds as the “Holiday on Ice” show and a selection of operas, as well as some complicated ancient Japanese productions, involving the Noh and Kabuki traditional works.  Some of the masks used here are up to 800 years old.  Handle with care.

A smattering of French comes out now and again in his conversation, hinting at adventures further afield.  I get a strong suspicion that there is a learned man underneath the rough exterior.  And not surprisingly,  find there is a lost love somewhere in the mix.

When the “Holiday on Ice” show moved on, Dave followed his dreams with a one way ticket to Paris, via Tokyo, where one of the top ice skaters in a show had danced into his life, and into his heart.  His eyes light up with memories as he recalls the unique Scottish border accent of his skating ballerina.  The boy was now a man.

But there was no happy ending.  The show moved on.  Dave discovered that dreams can be elusive.  Sometimes they dance out of our lives when we need them the most.  But the memory of the dream is never erased.  Nor should it be.

Alfred Lord Tennyson said it in 1850, referring to the death of his beloved friend, Arthur Henry Hallam:

‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’

When I first met Dave, he was singing “Me and Bobbie McGee”, as I trudged up the ramp from the Safeway car park.  I stopped for a chat.  We exchanged itinerant stories.  After his dream died, some of his jobs were picking fruit in France.  I told him of my fruit picking days and other itinerant work further afield.  As my friend Barbara and I hitch hiked around the country moving from job to job, we were known by our nicknames, ‘Bobbie’ and ‘Billie’.  And in between we danced.  Yes there were hard times, but we survived, and the good times provided a balance.

Acland St, St Kilda

Eventually we grew up and settled down, but we carried the spirit of ‘Bobbie’ and ‘Billie’ with us into adult land.  We both started families, which saw us living in different states.

Then one day, Bobbie didn’t survive.  She disappeared, believed murdered.  How and where has never been solved.  Where she lies is believed unknown.  But somebody must know.  There is no closure in these cases, but the wonderful memories remain, mixed with grief.

Somehow, “Me and Bobbie McGee” is ointment on the wound.  As I told Dave my story, his expressive eyes filled with tears.  He told me his story and we cried together.  Whenever he sees me coming, he sings our song – and he calls be ‘Billie’.  Through our tears, the world becomes a brighter place.

People walk past buskers, sometimes noticing an unkempt appearance and clothes that have seen better days.  Most have no understanding of the paths that these entertainers may have trod, the despair they may have known, or how easily someone can fall off the rails.  But that is their loss.  Hiding under the ragged clothes you might find a gem like Dave if you stop to look.

Rosie understands.  She has also known sadness.  Rosie is a rescue dog.  Just like a child that has been abused, Rosie is wary of strangers who rush towards her, not sure of their intentions.  Dave finds a sunny spot for her to sit.  Wherever he is, she is home.

As Dave sings, Rosie’s terrors fade, and the world is a better place.  For all of us.

Busking in Acland St, St Kilda

Written by Brenda for ‘Port Phillip Writes’ 2015

Minuk Richards

Morphing into a Uke Tutor

How does a classical violin teacher become a ukulele tutor? That idea wouldn’t have occurred to me during the first phase of my musical identity. Some of my classical music friends laugh at my being a ukulele tutor, some think it’s a bit of a betrayal. It’s not, really.

When I was a violin teacher, I wasn’t really satisfied. Surrounded by other string teachers who were passionate about correcting violin students’ playing techniques, I felt like a fraud. What I was doing was mimicking what I was taught during my university studies at the Elder Conservatorium at Adelaide Uni, a place where I never really felt comfortable.

It probably was the two-year stint as a journalist in Indonesia in the early 80’s that made me restless. I landed a job at a news magazine called Tempo (not a music magazine, but a weekly publication based on the Time magazine model). There I saw the world away from the confines of a music teaching institution, where priorities aren’t based on how well a child plays for an exam. I really enjoyed being an observer of people and seeing how they reacted to events.

However, life circumstances (marriage to a non-Indonesian speaking Aussie) brought me back to Australia and the reality of earning a living brought me back to music teaching. It’s not that I didn’t find my perfect school. I got a teaching position at a very nice girls’ school. I remember the first day I stepped into the school, I saw girls sitting under a tree, reading books during their lunch break. I thought: This is the place for me! I wasn’t wrong. I ended up teaching there until my retirement, thirty-two years later.

Thinking back to the reaction I got from friends, some Adelaide friends laughed at me when I told them I was going to Indonesia to be a journalist. I wasn’t pushy enough, they said. Two years later, my journalist friends in Indonesia laughed when I told them I was going back to Australia to teach. I wasn’t pushy enough, they said. I seem to have this habit of making people laugh at my life choices.

Back to my music teaching, the restlessness grew. After more than a decade becoming quite good at teaching violin techniques and getting kids through examinations, I had this niggling urge to do something different. I wanted something more ‘real’, something more central to people’s needs, but I didn’t want to leave the security of the lovely school. And there was the mortgage to pay off. I looked in the mirror to see how I could ‘market ‘myself, and I saw it clearly: an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher.

I did the TESOL course at Deakin while still working full time as a music teacher and subsequently taught ESL at my school. It was the best career move. I was finally in a job where I didn’t feel like a fraud. By teaching my students English and cross-cultural skills, I allowed them to overcome the barriers to their needs. I felt I was finally making a real difference to the lives of others. I was also encouraged to express myself creatively in my teaching – to think outside the box when needed. My husband commented that I was working so much harder teaching ESL than when music teaching, but I was clearly happier.

But I didn’t abandon my love of music. Once I no longer spent my days teaching violin, I got back into violin playing by joining the Victorian Amateur Chamber Music Society, where I found a subculture of people who organise themselves into trios and quartets, enjoying music making in each other’s homes. I currently have 5 different chamber groups running. There’s no financial incentive for paid gigs when we play. There’s just joy in playing together, in belonging to groups where real musical connections happen. Playing together can be exhilarating and you develop real friendships as a bonus.

And where does the ukulele fit in? I was inspired to learn the ukulele after a colleague showed me a YouTube clip of Jake Shimabukuro. This was no plinky-plinky instrument – this has real power! I bought myself a uke the same size as Jake’s and trawled YouTube for tutorials. I soon realised that although I would never get to Jake’s virtuosic level of playing (I’m a realist – I was already in my 40s then), I enjoyed strumming chords to improvise a backing for vocals. I started to learn how to think like a folk/pop musician, who isn’t reliant on detailed sheet music to play. This was liberating.

Now I’m not a properly trained singer, but I enjoy singing. I used to enjoy singing with the kids at school during assemblies, but I wouldn’t be confident enough to sing a pop song out loud. But put a uke in my hands and suddenly I’m a pop singer — in my head, anyway! Strumming the ukulele gives you confidence.

I joined a local community ukulele group and discovered that, unlike community orchestras who are led by the professionally able conductors, you don’t need to be an expert to start a community uke group. A solid intermediate player with good organisational skills could lead a group.

So the year after I joined U3APP – I enrolled in life drawing and watercolour classes – I volunteered to tutor a ukulele group. This group, which eventually named itself Beaut Ukes, started off as a real mix of total beginners and people with varying levels of experience. It probably had an identity crisis of whether it was a class to learn basic uke skills or a community singing group, but this didn’t matter. It was a happy group filled with great members who were keen to learn.

Beaut Ukes wasn’t even fazed by the pandemic. Throughout the lockdowns, this class continued on Zoom – a platform that isn’t suitable for group playing because it only allows one sound source to be heard at a time. We had a system of taking turns being heard: members unmuted and re-muted themselves when it was their turn to perform different verses; others strum along while muted. It was brave of people to do this. We got to know each other better through our Zoom sessions. There were also plenty of opportunities to chat socially between songs during this time. So Zoom was OK, but there is nothing like getting back together after the lockdown ended.

Beaut Ukes is now one of three ukulele classes offered at U3APP. New Ukes is for beginners who want to learn the basics of playing. Fun Ukes is for those who want to learn more songs using just basic techniques, learning songs at a relaxed pace. Beaut Ukes allows members to be more adventurous and learn more complex songs. My role is now more of a moderator of this more advanced group. I encourage this group to develop independence in musical thinking, with members suggesting new songs or alternatives in ways to perform the songs. Some members will take on the role of leading the group in the song of their choice. Above all, we enjoy strumming and singing together. I get a great buzz from our shared music making.

I’ve been very lucky at finding U3APP. I’ve attended so many interesting courses (including classes in Spanish, Feldenkreis, understanding the stock market and a number of lecture series on science topics). I’ve enjoyed being in the U3APP both as a tutor and as a student. I see U3APP as a community of life-long learners who understand the fun in learning; and we are fortunate to have members who are happy to share their knowledge and skills with each other. It’s great to be a member of this tribe!

Written by Minuk Richards

David Robinson

The new editor of the U3APP E‑Bulletin is David Robinson. Here is an interview with him conducted in May 2022.

How did you become involved in U3A?

Years ago I joined U3A Melbourne because I heard they had a very good film group and they utilised a small theatre at The Docks Library. The tutor who ran it had 2,500 DVDs. He wouldn’t tell you what the film was in advance; you’d come in, tick your name off and sit down, and then you’d see the film of the day. I really enjoyed the first few – older films, but the fact that he never told you what they were going to be sometimes came unstuck. We had to score them at the end, out of ten. And we were all itching to say something about the film; our insight into what the story was about, the cinematography, that sort of thing. After a few years I started borrowing DVDs from libraries and learning how to assess them. There is an international movie database (IMDb.com), which gives insights, and there’s Rotten Tomatoes (RottenTomatoes.com), which gives you thousands of people’s opinions and scores.

I soon got the feel for what was a good film for the participating demographic, and started my own group here at U3APP – probably eight years ago. Just a face-to-face class to show the film, but I did send out an email naming the film and I’d teach people about the International Movie Data Base and Rotten Tomatoes. Yes it was about more than the film. A lot of people go just to be entertained and that is good, nothing wrong with that, but others go for some sort of enlightenment. I used to run two streams, one on a Monday, a documentary, and the one on Friday, a movie-film. It’s harder to find a good documentary because the documentaries always seem to be about something that has gone wrong in the world. A filmmaker sees that thing and tries to expose that wrong to the world. Port Phillip Library and the Melbourne City Library have as many documentaries as they have films. Between the two libraries there are like 10,000 DVDs, always lined up on the shelves. You type the name into IMDb and if it gets a seven-point-five it might be okay. Anything above eight is usually really good. Occasionally there will be a nine or ten where the filmmaker has probably encouraged his friends to vote for it! The trouble is, if it is a genuine nine everyone will have already seen it. Genuine eights, even. If they’re good and haven’t been around for 20 years, people don’t mind seeing them again. You have to pick ones that haven’t had a release in Australia or are in a foreign language. That’s what got me into films.

I went to other classes at U3A Melbourne and U3A Port Phillip, such as Current Affairs and Economics. I try to keep my activities to one thing a day. As soon as I am doing two things a day it gets a bit much. Once you are looking after grandchildren for two days a week it gets busy. You have to pace yourself.

You are obviously full-time retired now…

Yes I have been fully retired since I was 60. I spent my career in IT; so just about every day since 1968 I have been using a computer for something. Initially it was mainframes and then it became PCs in the 80’s. Now, when my wife asks how many hours I spend on my computer, I reply I’m reading things. I don’t read books. I tend to read articles, news feeds, and things like that. You can spend a whole day doing that. You get onto YouTube and you spend the whole day looking at videos of all sorts and all the ones I look at tend to be interesting. But that also depends on the weather and other things that need to be done around the house. I am fairly skilled at using a computer and I enjoy it. That’s one reason why I volunteered in this area at U3A. It’s like a little work group in a company. I am editor and a member of the IT team and there are seven of us headed by Helen Vorrath. The IT system here at Port Phillip with its website is quite mind boggling, you know.

I bet any company would kill to have an IT team like U3APP!

Yes, yes, exactly. There are a lot of skills and it’s all done gratis, but it’s good fun. You are here with people who, when you go ‘blah blah blah’ about something really technical, they understand it – LOL. You are working with a group of people who have had a similar work life, just maybe a different emphasis.

I was interested in the E-Bulletin and when the opportunity came up (to edit it) I thought I had better not tell my wife, but when she found out she said oh, good on you! Lots of men like to fiddle around with engines. I don’t like getting my hands dirty, but I like to tinker around with computer application packages. In the case of the E-Bulletin newsletter we use a package called Mailchimp. I started my career in 1970 supporting technical applications big companies would use in a computer service bureau.

The usual thing I experienced at work was you’re now the support person for structural engineering. Now, what did I know about structural engineering? Nothing! But there was the manual – about an inch thick. I remember once having a questionnaire analysis package that advertising companies used. There was a course on it in Sydney and I thought I might go and learn something. But then the boss said well you had better get up to speed because the guy that was going to give the course has left and you’re giving the course now. I was to be the teacher! So I had four days to get to grips with this application package. I just had to get my head around subjects like structural engineering, transport planning, questionnaire analysis and mine planning. I was working for a company called Control Data that dealt with a variety of technical applications and I really loved that.

Back in the late 1960s I applied to BHP to be in their intake of new graduates. They gave a programming aptitude test and I wasn’t in the top 10%. So I was not offered a job by BHP. However, within a month of working for Control Data there I was, teaching the BHP graduate intake about linear programming – one of the programs they use for cutting up steel. I always thought that was great: I was standing out in front of all the ones who had been selected, and there I was teaching them something. So I started developing teaching skills and I enjoyed that.

That’s one reason why I applied for this (editing role) – it has revived the challenge I enjoyed in my early working life. I am starting to get interested in virtual reality at the moment. I like to learn new things. One day in the not too distant future virtual reality will be how a lot of people “travel”. Ideas like this are discussed after the two film groups I now tutor.

And I’m in the climate change course, which I know a bit about, having been an activist since 2007. I think. I went to see Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and you walk out and think oh my god, we’re done for, and you’d better do something about it. So then with a friend I started a climate change action group called “LIVE.org.au” It’s still going, and now I am involved in another local climate change group called “PECAN.org.au” (Port Phillip Emergency Climate Action Network). We recently had a live-streamed forum with the Liberals, Labor and Greens in St Kilda Town Hall. In the past I would have been organising the video streaming. But now I believe it’s best if the younger people in their thirties and forties look after the group, rather than me doing everything, which I tend to do when I start out. Younger people – even some in their twenties – are quite active. You need to give young people responsibilities.

I like my new role as the E-Bulletin editor I feel useful. A lot of things in my life are interesting to me but not very useful to anyone else. At U3APP I work with colleagues and an audience. I have control over what the E-Bulletin looks like and I have presented it, as I like to see it. And I do appreciate any feedback coming in from the bottom of the newsletter. Every newsletter I will try something new.

I like to hit the refresh button whenever I can.

Pat Ryan

I was a little bit sad.  My 80th birthday party celebrations had been cancelled.  My three Interstate daughters and their families cancelled their flights, and nothing could be done about it.

On the morning, I gave myself breakfast in bed and bemoaned the fact that it would probably be a slow, quiet day.  The sun was shining through my bedroom window as the first calls and text began to ‘ping’ on my phone.  I wasn’t forgotten after all.

Suddenly the doorbell rings.  I am still in my satin pink PJs, so I grab my housecoat smooth my hair, check I have my teeth in and make sure I am decent.  All good.  I rush to open the front door and there a lovely, handsome young man presents me with a beautiful floral arrangement which needs both hands.

At that moment the satin tie of the PJs lets me down, and my pants fall to the floor.  I laugh and laugh, but the young man, with a startled  look on his face, turned on his heels and ran.

I laughed all day after that.  In fact, when I repeat this little tale, I still laugh as I realise, I couldn’t have scripted it better.

‘Flasher at 80.’

p.s. I did have my knickers on

David Sharples

I was born in a stable (but that’s another story) in Preston, in the County Palatine of Lancashire in England.

Only six weeks earlier Princess Elizabeth, on holiday in Africa, had learned of her father’s death and of her accession to the throne. I went to school in Preston, studied both banking and law at the university there, and lived for over 50 years, in 10 different houses, all within a 10 mile radius of Preston city centre. I then moved to and settled in Melbourne in 2009 having visited Australia a few times previously.

Preston sits on the River Ribble, half-way between London and Glasgow on the West Coast main railway line. It has been the administrative heart of the County of Lancashire for well over 1000 years, which until 1974 also included Manchester and Liverpool. It was a major settlement for the Anglo Saxons, the Romans, and two of the knights following William the Conqueror. It was a refuge for Bonny Prince Charlie, and a catholic and royalist stronghold which held out for years against and repelled the onslaughts of Cromwell and the Roundhead armies. Preston was the major seagoing port on the west coast after Bristol until the development of the port of Liverpool in the late 1800s, and has the largest dock in the country.

The Preston Guild is a city-wide celebration lasting for one week which takes place every 20 years. The Guild celebrations first came about in 1179 after King Henry II awarded Preston with its first royal charter along with the right to have a Guild Merchant. I have been personally present at four Preston Guilds, and I hope to see at least one more in due course. This event has given rise to the common expression in the UK, “Once every Preston Guild” which means “rarely”.

It was also the birthplace of Arkwright’s Spinning Jenny, and the T’Total (Temperance) movement. As well as Richard Arkwright, it is also the home of many famous names including Sir Robert Peel (twice Prime Minister), Andrew (Freddie) Flintoff, (England Cricket Captain), and Nick Park, (the creator of Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep). (co-incidentally Nick’s mother and mine were good friends and used to sit together in church on Sundays).

My formal involvement with music began through school and church choirs when I was seven years old. I later took up the violin in Grammar School but after 2 years conceded that my fingers were too big and switched to the double bass. Throughout school I sang lead roles in the choir and played the double bass in the school orchestra. After leaving school, I became a member of several Musical and Choral Societies. I was a member of the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM). I progressed with the double bass to the Lancashire Youth Orchestra and also played with the Preston Symphony Orchestra for several years.

My musical involvement all but stopped for about 15 years. Four young children will do that! There was also the pressure of a developing career in banking, industrial relations and the law. I did stay in touch with church choirs and at one point sang with all four children in same church choir.

In the early 1990s I was invited to take a role in a local Gilbert and Sullivan production, Pirates of Penzance. This re-launched my involvement with singing. I became an active member of two Gilbert and Sullivan Societies and the Musical Comedy Society. I also decided that, after a number of year’s relative inactivity, I needed to polish up my vocal skills, and so received professional operatic training for several years. This enabled me to take a more prominent part in a range of operettas and stage musicals.

During this period I was an officer of the English Law Society, and I also produced the music for the annual Law Society Pantomime in London. For 10 years I wrote songs for and performed in these shows which highlighted the major ‘goings-on’ and issues of the legal and political year. I enjoyed taking principle baritone solo roles (and dressing up – especially as a pantomime Dame).

Professional links with the media created opportunities to get involved with co-hosting music and discussion programmes on BBC Regional Radio. This extended to presenting regular radio programmes on local independent and community radio stations.

My activity in radio and musical variety shows led to an opportunity to produce and stage a musical fund-raising event. This fund-raising work continued, and over fifteen years, raised many thousands of pounds in support of a number of charities. One such event was as the host for an annual wedding-dress fashion show, where pre-loved dresses were sold to raise funds in support of the St Catherine’s Hospice.

The River (Ribble) Dance

Such activities launched my side-line career as a DJ and entertainer. This began with the spontaneous request at one event to provide music for a 50th birthday party. This resulted immediately in further bookings, and soon I was employed nearly every weekend to sing at weddings and then provide the dance music for the receptions. So much so that, even after moving to Melbourne, I still had to travel back to England to fulfil bookings made several years in advance.

Since my move to Melbourne I have continued to sing, including a number of years with the Gilbert and Sullivan Society and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus, where I had the pleasure of singing the soundtrack from The Lord of the Rings, and perform alongside the Cybermen and the Daleks in a concert of music from Dr Who.

I have presented a number of Soul music programmes for PBS Radio, and additionally, I have provided music as a DJ and Singer for a range of different events. I’m currently a member of PPCA, Music Victoria, PBS Radio (as a performer member), Victorian Jazz Club and I provide music services under the registered ABN business name, “Soul DJ”.

In 2019 I started the French in Songs course at U3A. In June the same year, I unexpectedly “inherited” the U3A choir on the retirement of the previous long standing choir leader, Serena Carmel. I also became a member of the U3A Jazz Group. 2020 has brought some challenges but the year began well with the French Songs class and the Choir enjoying growing numbers. The Jazz Band was also in full swing. Since mid-March, none of these groups has been able to meet in the flesh, but members have continued to get together via the internet using video conferencing. Term 2, for these singing classes, kicks off (online) on Wednesday 15th April, and hopefully we’ll all be back in real contact and in full voice before long.

Some links to David’s many music passions:-

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala Eddie Perfect, Tripod & The MSO Chorus  https://youtu.be/dR893TUM73A

Melbourne Symphony & Chorus Dr Who Spectacular  https://youtu.be/ZqfF5FZytBw

David Sharples recordings and Radio programs  https://www.mixcloud.com/DKSoulDJ/

DK Soul DJ website  http://www.souldj.com.au

José Simsa – Part 1

Excerpts from José’s Blog – Part 1

How amazing to have an outlet for those thoughts that would normally lay dormant in the thinking process and never be uttered.  ‘Musings’ can ponder on life’s happenings, reactions and responses.

In this part of life the mind is paramount – it is a daily companion that affirms or disagrees with thoughts.  It is pleasing to note that confidence in the mind and its processes still rank high.  I still trust the mind and revel in exchanges with others.

In my life I have an escape in the form of two music groups of which I am a member.  One is called AllSorts (probably best described as a world music group), while the other – a fledgling jazz group – still remains to be named.  I play a keyboard and, for a few hours every week, I become an invincible being that transcends this life of an ageing person with mobility issues.   Jazz is my forte – since I discovered syncopation at the age where I should have been embarking on a classical career.  How fortunate that in the Third Age I found a group of musos who’ve been together now for 14+ years.

26 Sep 2019

This morning I opened up my blog to the outside world.

It’s quite scary to go public, as blogging isn’t necessarily all froth and bubble.  Some posts lay bare my real feelings on specific issues.  I console myself with the fact that most people know I have strong opinions with a political bent!  I’m bracing myself for their comments.  It’s a glorious day today.  One of those days when you look out at your immediate environment and a smile grows on your face.  Even Sophy Wu, my old, demented dog is running up and down the back garden with an idiotic look of joy on her face.

I’m reading The Lost Man by Jane Harper.  It evokes memories of a wonderful time way back when I was governess on Mt Willoughby cattle station in middle Oz.  It was 3000 sq miles and ran 6,000 head of cattle.  Nearest neighbours 45 miles east, 60 miles north, and nothing west until you hit WA.  Nearest town (?) was Oodnadatta, used for trucking cattle down south.  Oodna (as it was called) had a pub, store, an AIM health outpost with 2 nurses, and a one-teacher school.  Most of the stations in the area had a house (previously RAAF buildings from WW2) in Oodna.  We’d go in when the stockmen were trucking and there would be a film and a dance put on in the Hall.   All stations had their own flying strip to facilitate the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and communication was conducted by radio.  I was there for three years (1954, ’55, & ’56) until the youngest child was old enough to go to boarding school in Adelaide.  That period of my life still ranks highly in my memory.

27 Sep 2019

Yesterday I was wandering down memory lane and it has led me on to other periods in my life.

I recall very clearly when Gough Whitlam not only made tertiary education more or less free, but encouraged mature-aged people to apply.  A friend and I decided to embark on this together.  Our previous matriculation qualifications were considered out-of-date, but we could upgrade by doing three subjects at Year 12 level.

We approached the Principal of one of the local High Schools and he was somewhat thrown by our request to join Year 12 classes.  However, he soon came on-side when he realised it would bring good publicity and kudos to the school by being the first to accept mature-age students under the Whitlam education program.

In consultation, we chose English Lit., History, and Biology as our three subjects and we were duly enrolled.  The Principal said he wouldn’t ask us to wear uniform – this had never entered our minds and we thought he may be joking, but one look at his face told us he was not only serious, but also granting us a huge concession.  To this day, I often ask myself if I would have gone on had it been mandatory to wear uniform at 39!

We survived the year and passed with flying colours despite having full-time work and family commitments.  In the beginning of the new year we were invited to sit an entrance exam to university.  This hurdle too was jumped and we enrolled at Flinders University in SA – my friend in an English/Drama degree, while I enrolled in Sociology and Politics.

We had the good fortune to be studying in the 70s with Don Dunstan as Premier of SA and Gough Whitlam in Canberra.  Campuses were alive with luminaries on teaching staff and active students who went on to become luminaries in their own right later.  It was heady, exciting and the best atmosphere in which to soak up knowledge. In the refectory was an enormous mural of Don Dunstan as Superman, and Daddy Cool entertained us in the quad.  Halcyon days!

1 Oct 2019

Today my eldest grandson flies out to Iran and that has triggered memories of when I went to Iran way back in 1991.

To begin this story I must return to another significant part of my fortunate life.  In 1985 I joined the Overseas Service Bureau (OSB) as a Field Officer.  OSB, or the Bureau as it was more commonly known, ran a program, Australian Volunteers Abroad, where Australians with specific skills were matched to developing countries that needed those skills.

As a Field Officer, I was initially responsible for the program in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan, Botswana and Zimbabwe.  The job entailed receiving and researching requests from both the government and non-government sectors while in ‘my’ countries.  Upon return to Australia I, along with the other FOs, would participate in interviewing applicants in every state and, when final numbers had been selected, begin to match their skills to the requests.  It was a huge and demanding job, but it never ceased to delight and/or dismay (depending on the success of placements).  It was a job that gave the highest work satisfaction, and the one where I stayed the longest (seven years).

In Pakistan, a large percentage of my work centred on the Afghan refugees in the camps of the North West Frontier and Quetta during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.  On one occasion, I had time off while in-country and I popped over to Iran for a week in Isfahan.  After the harrowing and hectic times in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Isfahan was a haven of peace, culture and beauty!

At the time I was at the Bureau (1985-92) there was a stunning group of people on staff.  We undertook and managed a mammoth program in countries of the Pacific, South-East Asia, South Asia, Southern Africa and Central and South America.  These days we meet rarely but when it happens it’s like the intervening years never existed and we all agree that it was a period of great impact in our lives.

There are funny stories too and I’ll share some of those later . . .

5 Oct 2019

It’s Saturday already and a promising spring day is ahead.  Sunshine is such a tonic – I drop 20 years as I bask in its glory!

Reading Bob Woodward’s ‘FEAR’ – on Trump in the White House.  When a significant period of your life has been spent in many other countries and you can recall the wonderful people and their cultures whom you have had the good fortune to get to know and to live amongst, then you treasure this time to reflect and realise how you have received the ultimate gift and how it has enriched your life.  This is what I’d rather think about – not the consequences of erratic actions and decisions emanating from madmen around the globe.

10 Oct 2019

Seniors Festival has begun and there are two weeks of events in the City of Port Phillip.  Last Monday was the opening Spectacular and AllSorts opened the program.  It was a mixture of dancing and musical items, accompanied by an abundant afternoon tea. Both AllSorts and Jazz Tomorrow have further gigs during the Festival.

I recall participating in a festival of a far different nature in the wilds of Sabah when I was a field officer for OSB.

I was visiting John Kelly, a forester, whom I’d placed in a reafforestation project in Sabah.  To get there, I went by car to a river in the west of Sabah, then by motorised dinghy to the other side, where a local Iban took me on the back of a motor bike to the camp where John lived and worked.  It was a very isolated location but John had familiarised himself with his surroundings and, during the week I was there, I not only saw the project and its workings, but John also took me to his friends in a Long House some miles away from the camp.   A Long House is traditional community living accommodating many families, usually along the banks of a river.  As couples marry, another room is built on and they share the communal cooking and washing facilities.

We attended a wedding and welcome ceremony, a very formal but festive occasion.   The local brew was very potent and the music mesmerising.  The Headman made us very welcome and it was obvious John was a special visitor.

On Saturday night John said “Righto FO (me) put on your glad rags we’re going out”.  I thought he was joking, but we went for miles on the motorbike until we reached a building, literally in the middle of nowhere!  It was a grocery and haberdashery shop run by a Chinese couple, and although there were no obvious settlements around, it was well stocked.  We were ushered into a back room where meals and alcohol were served.  We were the only customers and again John was well-known and welcomed.

My admiration for the Australians we placed in developing countries knew no bounds.  John would stay and work in the project camp for months on end before going into KK for some R&R.  Yet he had created a social life and become a welcome visitor to the scattered communities that he met.

16 Oct 2019

I’m looking forward to Saturday.  Mr Thanh who was on the community health team of my staff in Vietnam is in Australia with his wife, settling their daughter (who gained a scholarship) into a school in Sydney. They are travelling to Melbourne as we speak and we will have the day together.  I last saw them in 2017 when I was in Vietnam for our 20-year reunion.  The project was centred on ethnic minorities in the mountains of Binh Thuan Province and was based in Phan Thiet where I lived on the South China Sea.  I, plus a Frenchman, were the only foreigners in the whole province.  I was there for 14 months and it stays forever in my heart, mainly due to the wonderful & dedicated Vietnamese with whom I worked.

22 Oct 2019

One of my old staff in Vietnam – Vo Thi Hong – phoned today and said Thanh and his wife (who visited me last Saturday) had told her that I lived alone and she felt very sad.  It is interesting how people see life so differently.  Hong lives with her husband and son in the same compound as her parents and siblings with their families.  Besides being an accountant in a travel agency, Hong has a small shop in her locality in Saigon that is run by her mother and one sister.  The whole family support each other in all their endeavours and raise each other’s families as needed.  Despite Vietnam modernising at a prodigious rate, the clan system still reigns supreme, and long may it do so.

I, on the other hand, enjoy the lifestyle chosen for my old age.  I have an apartment where I am alone when I choose and in company when I want.   A garden to potter and enjoy breakfast in, and the beach a block away.  The location in the City of Port Phillip is the envy of a lot of my friends while the accessibility to all services, cinema, and shopping is very close.

Two very different lifestyles but both Hong & I are content.

26 Oct 2019

Ah Melbourne – hot one day and freezing the next!  Capricious in the extreme – pounding heat yesterday and a storm today with thunder, gale winds, and rain.  Melbourne will tantalise us with its fickle weather and hay fever – yet it ranks highly among ‘the most liveable cities’. When it’s stormy, memories are evoked of other cataclysmic events.

I was in the Maldives, travelling to one of the northern islands where I would visit an Australian medical science technologist.  She was based there to establish a laboratory for blood testing under the OSB program.  On board the dhow (local sea craft) was the son of the chief whose island we were heading towards.  Accompanying him was his wife who was heavily pregnant with their first child, and one other local man.  The captain (who steered the craft by standing with his back to the tiller and controlling it with his toes) had one crewman, whose main duty was to bale.  The day was sunny (naturally) and appeared to be balmy.

Out of nowhere, a monsoonal storm struck.  The friendly sea became the most terrifying monster whipping up huge walls of seawater that we climbed up and dropped down the other side, only to be confronted by yet another seawall!  The wind literally shrieked all around our craft, the most frightening noise encircling us.  The crewman indicated a pole I should hold; I clung to it and prayed to every deity that is and was.

Then above the noise of the storm, I heard the young woman screaming.  I wondered if she had gone into precipitate labour – and then I realised I was the only other woman on the boat and I would be expected to help if she was in labour!!   She was in the covered area while I was out on deck.  I thought “if they expect me to assist her then they’ll have to unclench my hands from MY pole and drag me across the deck”!

In the midst of all the monsoon could throw at us, the captain remained completely unruffled.  The only concession he made was to use the tiller with his hands as he rode the seawalls one after the other.  When he looked my way, he would give a reassuring smile and then returned to looking straight ahead.  It was obvious that he had done this many times before.

After some thirty minutes of seeing nothing but water and hearing only the cacophony of wind, the captain looked at me and pointed ahead.  I could see nothing but he knew the island was looming.  With a last vicious swipe, the sea picked up the dhow and spewed us on to the island where we sat like Noah’s Ark on the sand.  People appeared and helped us, our luggage and the supplies out of the boat.  The young couple moved off.  She was not screaming and fortunately for me (and her!) she had not been in labour but very scared.

The next morning the Chief visited me where I was staying.  He came to thank me for my assistance to his son and his wife!   I felt such a fraud because I knew that I had had no sympathy for, and no skills to offer the young woman.  But I thanked him in return for his courtesy as we engaged in diplomatic small talk.  All’s well that ends well – that Lab technologist was one of my outstanding successes.  She learned the language and took to the life like the proverbial duck.  The laboratory was well set-up and well used by a cluster of islands in the north of the atoll.

Not all turned out that way, but that’s for another time.

2 Nov 2019

When I first joined the Bureau in 1985, I said I wasn’t good on water – “that’s okay we won’t give you any of the Pacific countries”.

Initially, I was made responsible for developing the program in Malaysia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Republic of the Maldives.  The first three were entities, but the Maldives??  To top it all, my first field trip was to Pulau Bidong, an island off the coast of Kuala Trengganu, where Malaysia had a detention camp for Vietnamese refugees.  The sea was subject to swells and the wharf on Pulau Bidong was ridiculously high above the water.  Old hands waited for the appropriate swell and jumped, until I was the last one left on the ship (I had no idea how to jump upwards) – they all called encouragingly and promised to catch me (with the best will in the world I couldn’t imagine how the lightly-built Malays and Vietnamese could do that!)  After a nightmare wait, a good swell came that almost allowed me to walk onto the wharf.  Such relief!

Pulau Bidong was a hellhole where rats outnumbered the camp inmates by many hundreds.  The Malaysian military paid the Vietnamese so much per rat killed and provided them with a pole in which a long, thick, sharp-pointed nail was embedded as a weapon.  The island was not large and had beautiful beaches but the Vietnamese were not allowed on the beaches in case they took the risk of swimming away.

The accommodation for the refugees was open-sided large sheds with three layers of wooden bunks.  Staff was housed in long buildings of small rooms that were very hot.  While I was there, I slept with the light on and sweated off a couple of kilos while watching for rats.  I observed the education and medical programs where we had teaching and health workers.  It was obvious the Australians with their friendly professional manner were popular with the refugees.  At night we’d walk to a spot where the Vietnamese had ingeniously set up a very basic ice cream making venture and had the most delicious durian ice cream.

The Australians came back with me to Kuala Trengganu for an in-country meeting.  I was sharing a room with one of the teachers and, looking out the window at the stunning view, I brought her attention to the beautiful scene.  She was revelling in the luxury of soft, laundered sheets and towels and enjoying the room service.  She looked out and commented ‘Just another tropical island . . .’ Priceless!

13 Nov 2019

Today is Remembrance Day – and I honour all service personnel who have participated in theatres of war over the history of colonisation in Australia.  While I deplore war as the most primitive form of failed diplomacy, I respect the women and men who are in the defence forces.  Part of that is due to my early history as an anti-war activist in the Vietnam years and then being confronted with the dreadful attitude that was meted out to the returning Viet Vets.  A shameful part of our history.

On a couple of occasions, I’ve had cause to be at close quarters with the ADF.  In the early 90s I was working with Mozambican refugees in five camps along the border of Mozambique and Zimbabwe.  I was quite friendly with our Deputy High Commissioner and I accompanied her on an official visit to Rwanda following the dreadful internal strife and massacres.  We were billeted with the ADF and it was very apparent that the ADF members were very respectful and supportive to the local population.

The second occasion was in 1999-2000 when I was in East Timor following the departure of the Indonesians.  The ADF under the command of Peter Cosgrove were the peacekeeping force while the UN prepared to reinstate the governance of the East Timor.  The whole country had been devastated by the retreating Indonesian army, so there were no utilities, no food, very bad roads and no infrastructure.  We found a building that wasn’t too badly damaged and the ADF threw cables across from their camp so we could get power.  East Timor looked like a moonscape it was so damaged, but the ADF just quietly helped in bringing back some semblance of civil life while maintaining peace.

All of the above leaves me quite conflicted in my opinion of war and the military and I guess it always will.

Sometimes memories are triggered by casual comments.  Last Monday, a group of us had gathered in the foyer of St Kilda Town Hall waiting to be escorted to the meeting room on the 1st floor for the OPCC (Older Persons Consultative Committee to the City of Port Phillip) monthly meeting.  One of our number is not long back from a trip in Europe and UK and commented how she was really impressed by the apparently comfortable integration of the population in Portugal.  Ouch! Back flew my mind to the three years I spent in Zimbabwe working in five refugee camps along the border of Zimbabwe and Mozambique.  I remembered how the Portuguese had been quite vindictive when it became clear they had to leave their colonial lifestyle in Mozambique.  They poisoned water sources and destroyed infrastructure as they left and covertly fostered the internal strife that erupted into Civil War that led to many thousands of people being displaced.  Hence the refugee camps.

Then I recalled the most rewarding and successful program that our organisation undertook during those three years.  UNHCR approached IPA (International People’s Aid) where I was the head honcho and asked if we could devise and run a program of landmine awareness in all five camps before repatriation as Mozambique was riddled with landmines.  Five Engineers from the Zimbabwean Army would be seconded to IPA and training for them, and me, would be provided by the Norwegian Refugee Council.  I made only one stipulation, the engineers must be in civilian dress as the Mozambican refugees had been terrorised by military uniforms before their escape.

The biggest obstacle was illiteracy as the majority of the refugees had never been to a school, so we had to plan a program that didn’t rely on the printed word.  Those Engineers were brilliant!  They built mock minefields in each camp and ran programs with groups of refugees, while refugee artists designed posters depicting risks, what to look for, and taking that information to the mine clearing agencies.  We had fantastic gatherings where leading refugees would role-play finding landmines on the smallholdings of villagers.  To reinforce the messages, we had competitions for the best posters and best storytelling.

The visiting UNHCR senior manager was taken through one of the mock minefields and commented that she was sweating during the exercise due to its realism.  On returning to Geneva our program of Landmine Awareness Training was cited as the flagship in all UNHCR supported programs.  Princess Diana also visited the camps and did a walk through a ‘minefield’.

I was still there when repatriation took place, and as far as I know, there were no fatalities among the returning Mozambicans.  I visited many rural villages and was very proud to see that many of the posters had been replicated and placed in prominent points of the village.

A lovely PS:  when I was finally leaving Zimbabwe, those five Army Engineers came to me and said if I ever had to run a Landmine Awareness Training program in any other country they would leave the army and come with me.

To be continued . . .

Jose Simsa – Part 2

Excerpts from Jose’s Blog – Part 2

25 Nov 2019

There are many instances of families being decimated through wars and natural disasters.  None more so than in Sudan, where, prior to dividing into two countries, whole villages would be wiped out causing massive displacement of people.  The two major population groups were Arab and African.  There was an unstated position of Arab dominance in the government and the commercial sectors.  The African communities were mainly found in the rural areas and in the south of the country.  The displaced South Sudanese gradually made their way to Darfur where large refugee camps grew and the people were looked after by a large international NGO Sector.

I was a HoM (operations) for an agency that represented all the Caritas, CAFOD and NCR.  The program had its main site of operations in Nyala, Darfur.  The major refugee camps were quite nearby, but we were getting news of groups of people moving in from other centres.  It was decided that we would investigate to see if we could find these people and bring them in to relative safety.  The CPO (Child Protection Officer), Senior Logistician, and myself set out with an interpreter and driver.

About three hours into the journey, we came upon a guarded outpost that was manned by members of the SLA (Sudanese Liberation Army).  We needed their agreement to go further, and also any information they may have on the moving groups of refugees.  With the interpreter’s help, I began to negotiate.  The SLA had seen and spoken to some groups of people who had been chased out of their villages by Janjaweed (government militia).   International NGOs had good standing with the SLA and they were quite happy to share this information plus directions to where we would find the displaced people, but they needed permission from their superiors.

While we waited, we were offered tea.  The senior SLA rebel took my hand and we walked (hand-in-hand as was the custom) to their shelter.  In such situations, I tend to blend and accept what to outsiders might appear to be unbelievable.  And so I sipped tea while holding hands with a heavily armed SLA rebel soldier and thought nothing of it!  We found the walking groups and sent trucks to collect them the following day.

2 Dec 2019

A week of mixed emotions – my dear old girl, Sophy, went to doggy heaven on Monday 25 Nov.  It was peaceful for her and hard for me.  Hope there are a million smells for her to sniff and nice corners to have a doze.

Our two music groups – AllSorts and Jam Tomorrow played at two CASPA sites, and Jam Tomorrow participated in the Bay St Festival.  These occasions lifted my spirits considerably – there is a feeling that is hard to describe when you are playing music and so enjoying it.

Africa is a huge continent, full of music with distinctive sounds and beats.  There were many occasions in different African countries where the music impacted my life.

Botswana 1986 – I was in Gaborone (the capital and of ‘First Lady Detective Agency’ fame).  I was told Hugh Masekela would be playing at the stadium – I’m a big fan – so I went along with all the population of Gaborone!  Concert began at 8.30 with local artists and groups who were really talented and got the crowd going.  As the hours went by I wondered if I was at wrong venue, but it was the only place in town to accommodate the crowd.  Everyone reassured me Hugh Masekela would ‘be on next’. By 2.00am, I was beginning to question my sanity when the great man arrived along with his fabulous group. He’d had a gig in South Africa and just drove up to Botswana after!!  He blew that trumpet and sang with a group for three hours and the crowd woke up and went wild (including me).  That was my introduction to African time, and love of music, and I was in seventh heaven!

Zimbabwe 1995 – We were repatriating the refugees back to Mozambique.  They had been in five camps along the border for many years.  It was the occasion of our first group to be repatriated; buses were lined up and people milled with their few possessions.  Those who were waiting for future convoys began singing in farewell as the buses filled and slowly departed.  Then a few scratchy guitars, drums and steel instruments with a sound like xylophone joined in.  The music became more animated, people formed circles around the musicians and swayed to the sounds.  If you wanted to dance, you pointed your foot to the bandleader and when he nodded you went into the centre of the circle and danced.  Several people urged me on but it was another hour before I pointed my foot and went to the centre.  It is hard to describe how freeing such an action is – I danced for the allotted minutes and it felt like flying.  After, one of the women said ‘You are the right structure but the wrong colour’!!

16 Jan 2020

I remember crossing the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and having to change to the local currency at the border station.  Having come through a war of self-determination with Portugal followed by a prolonged civil war, Mozambique’s currency had lost a lot of value.  On the advice of my driver, Arnold, I took a capacious bag to hold the money.  When I paid for our first meal inside Mozambique, I couldn’t believe the pile of notes needed to pay for our modest fare!  In fact, after paying for our first evening’s accommodation, I was concerned that the pile was not enough to get us to the capital, Maputo, two days drive away.  Mozambique was so devastated that Maputo was the only place with banking services at the time (1993-4).  We barely managed and while in Maputo, I made certain that I exchanged enough dollars to get us home again.  Poor, long-suffering Arnold was so happy when we crossed the border back into Zimbabwe because he would get sadza with his meals again.  All the chasing after fuel and having to negotiate the roads in a foreign and damaged city were nothing compared to the lack of sadza.  I had really enjoyed the potatoes in Mozambique but to Arnold a meal wasn’t a meal unless it had a liberal helping of sadza!

(Ed. note – Sadza is a thickened porridge made out of any number of pulverised grains. The most common form is made with white maize)

27 Jan2020

Eleven days since my last post – the self-nagging begins in earnest when I’ve passed the seven day mark – I question the benefit of ‘must’ and ‘have to’.  It would be too easy to give up with some self-concocted ‘feel good’ excuse but when the muse kicks in it’s energising and fun!

In Pakistan, the more north you travel the more conservative it becomes.  The northern reaches are the most beautiful, with stunning and dramatic scenery, but narrower in attitude.  I was in the habit of always wearing the shalwar kameez even though in parts of Lahore and Karachi, modest western style was accepted.  I learned to cover up more as we (Wakheel my driver and I) pushed through North Western Frontier Province.  It was hard going as the roads became more difficult but Wakheel could coax another mile from any vehicle.

It was a seesaw time – on the one hand as a westerner, I could be invited to events where women are not usually found – e.g., a game of bushkhazi – on the other hand I would be expected to be with the women in seclusion.  This last was actually very invigorating.  Those women in their own walled areas knew how to enjoy themselves!  There would be singing and dancing and many naughty stories being related.  To me, it was the best of both worlds because, of course, no male could be invited not even their family members.  They were the occasions that provided me with welcome relaxation from the rigours of staying firm but modest in my negotiations in the male-dominated public sphere.  Those occasions preserved my sanity and sense of fun.   I often remember those women and wonder how they fare.

21 Feb 2020

Sri Lanka in the 80s and 90s was in the throes of an undeclared civil war where death and disappearances were commonplace.  In some ways, it hardened, or perhaps built barriers, in people, so that the atrocities became part of the norm.  Driving along the canals and seeing floating bodies; watching the large ships moored at sea and knowing they were the holding pens of interrogation and torture; travelling in the north between the opposing sides with a white flag tied to the jeep; trying to find relatives of people in the south to take messages of hope and support; noticing what seemed to be the extreme youth of armed groups and hoping nothing would startle them while passing; and curfews dominating life.

This race of gentle, courteous people whom you have grown to love – how can they be responsible for what you see?

Nowadays, there is peace of a sort, but the underlying tensions have not altered much.  Tourists can enjoy the beautiful island without being touched by, or aware of, its cruel and recent history.  A new era of colonialism has emerged in the form of villas for expatriates being built along the stunning coastline, and the growing economy is, as usual, in favour of the ‘haves’, while politics is dominated by the same names.

Nevertheless, Sri Lanka is a jewel in the ocean and its breathtaking scenery keeps on giving.  You never forget its beauty, the spices, the tea, and above all, its gentle, warm people.

6 Mar2020

Rain and lots of it!  Garden looks lush and there is a smell of cleansed earth.  Good for the soul.  We are in my favourite season – autumn.  Sunny days and cool nights. It’s the time to savour the outside before the cold winter descends.

I’ll only mention Covid-19 because it’s here, along with many other countries worldwide.  On the flip side, the world of comedy is having a field day with the panic buying and storing – particularly with the resulting rationing of loo-paper!

In the early days of my work in Zimbabwe, (mid-’80s), there were shortages due to the sanctions that had been imposed.  My first visit was like re-entering the ’50s with the fashions (lots of crimplene), the old models of cars (Peugeots were, and are, big in African countries), NO plastic bags, and the roughest loo-paper!

When in Harare, I made certain to visit the leading hotel (frequented by expatriates and white Rhodies).  After coffee, I’d head to the rest room and luxuriate in the feel of the toilet tissue.  In time, I became quite adept at ‘appropriating’ 2/3 rolls to take home.

In that period, it was not unusual for people to ask you to bring plastic bags on your next field trip.  But despite the sanctions, food was readily available.  In those days, before the big drought, Zimbabwe was the bread-basket for Southern Africa.  Everything on the table was produced locally and tasted delicious.  If people dropped by, the custom was to serve tea and jam sandwiches.  All locally grown and/or manufactured – tea, coffee, bread, butter, jam, milk and sugar.  Beef was the main meat eaten, and vegies were often cooked in a delicious peanut sauce.  Freshwater fish from the lakes and rivers, and a variety of crops on the farms.  There was even an emerging wine industry.

I didn’t return to Zimbabwe until the early ’90s.  By that time, the drought was at its height and it wasn’t uncommon to see empty shelves in the shops.  The five refugee camps along the border with Mozambique were at capacity and basic rations were being trucked in from other countries.  To me, it was astonishing as my memories were of ample, nutritious foodstuffs.  Zimbabweans had come out of a long war of independence and only wanted peace, but the new struggle was to scavenge for enough food to put on the table.  AND plastic bags had found their way there.

24 Mar 2020

It would be good, at this stage, to list the positives in my life as it has evolved since retirement:

  • As I sit here typing, I can see out the large full glass sliding door into the lush garden I have created since moving into this small retirement complex in 2005
  • I can look around the compact one-bedroom unit and see the memories of a rich, full working life mainly in the developing countries of Asia and Africa and latterly, in remote indigenous communities
  • My email and phone contact lists contain the contacts of many of the people I have worked, lived, and loved with, and learned so much from, in far-flung countries
  • I enjoy good health with small limitations
  • I play (keyboard) in two combos – world music and jazz – a real buzz
  • I am part of a very large extended (very loud and noisy) family. Joy!
  • I have loving memories of life with my partner of 47 years and treasure the memories of our grandson who was taken from us, and hold close to the friendship with our daughter and her son
  • And last, but definitely not least, I have enjoyed the unstinting love and company of four rescue dogs in their ‘senior’ years!
  • There that’s perked me up no end and despite the current situation and its restrictions I’m once again feeling very satisfied with, and looking forward to the next chapters of ‘my fortunate life’.

28 Mar 2020

The last time I had involuntarily allowed my hair to grow was in Sudan in 2003-4.  I was based in Nyala, Darfur where services for women were non-existent.

At first, I was so busy establishing shelter with a multi-faceted accompanying program (food, health, education, landmine awareness training) for the many refugees thronging into the nearby areas, that I didn’t have time to look at my hair.  A chance comment from an American community health nurse, who was confined to base waiting for the establishment of a camp, made me aware: in a distinct Southern drawl she said; ‘well yoall I won’t get bored, I’ll simply watch your hair grow!’

Now 16 years later, I’m the one watching my hair grow.  I can blame it on the restrictions of the virus (even though hairdressers have the blessing from ScoMo).  It will be an experiment that will go on for the life of COVID-19, and provide some sort of a yardstick e.g., lockdown lasted for — and in (?) weeks my hair grew (?) inches!

I remember going into Khartoum for R&R after three months stint in the camps of Darfur.  One of the staff in the central office had enquired from family and discovered a discreet ‘Beauty Parlour for Ladies’ in a secluded section of town.  Off I trotted – how can I ever forget the looks on those statuesque, tall, beautiful Sudanese women as I arrived with the appearance of a wild woman from Borneo!  I was whisked away and for the next three hours I was scrubbed, pummeled, oiled, de-haired completely, painted and coiffured, and emerged transformed!  When I returned to Darfur my Sudanese staff thoroughly approved, while the few expatriate staff looked as though I’d lost my mind.  There’s no such thing as ‘keeping up appearances’ in emergency relief work!

8 Apr 2020

I was speaking with a musical friend earlier today and made reference to a particular piece of music saying it’s been over 60 years since I’d last played it.  In retrospect, I realise it’s over 70 years!  That’s a substantial period of time – I can’t believe I’ve experienced life for so long – and even more.  I recall my 30th birthday and my joy at being able to say (with credibility) ‘twenty years ago’ – such a goal to attain!

The enforced conditions of physical distancing during the pandemic are so strange.  I’m blessed with friends who take my scrap of a dog for a long walk (he’s about 3kgs, 10 inches high) and goes for close to 2 kilometres.  Now, instead of sitting and having a chat post walk, we space ourselves in the foyer of the building where I live and have a rather loud but much shorter conversation.

It brings to mind when I managed an emergency relief program in Timor l’Este post occupation in 2000.  The program was supported by all the Oxfam agencies globally and staff hailed from a variety of countries.  One of the engineers, a Brit, was a real wag and delighted in sending up our group and often heated meetings.  It was a wonderful feeling to be able to laugh while jostling with the never-ending obstructional problems that impeded our program.  If I missed a comment from a logistician and said ‘Pardon?’ (probably not the only time during our animated discussions)  he’d put on a loud and avuncular voice saying “now dearie don’t you worry, we are here to help in any way we can” while patting me on the arm in a calming down manner.  He was so good at conjuring up characters, many of which we’d probably all encountered at some stage.

He was also a very resourceful fellow and he managed to get me a permit pass to the docks much to the horror of the Harbourmaster who’d assumed from my name I was male.   From then on, I could access the cargo lists and have a better understanding and control over our supplies, the suppliers and transportation.  The country had been completely devastated and literally everything had to be shipped in.  In time, the Harbourmaster came to accept my weekly visit.  My biggest triumph was being invited to drink coffee with him!

17 Apr 2020

Indoor confinement is still the norm and it’s paid dividends in the larger picture.  Australia is managing well in comparison to other countries and I feel optimistic about the future.

Today I shall do some market shopping – a treat I look forward to each week.  No domestic activity is a chore any more, but rather a very welcome distraction.

The only task I haven’t tackled is sorting through musical scores for the two music groups I play with.  It simply terrifies me when I see the piles in the cupboard.  Every time I open the cupboard door I swear the piles have grown to double their normal size!  I find myself avoiding the doors but to no avail – it is a very large storage cupboard and I’m bound to need an item or two each day.  Oh for a magic wand, a fairy Godmother, or seven little people!

During my working life, one of my goals would be to obtain ‘the full cupboard of life’.  In other words, chasing the funding and support to maintain the aid and emergency relief programs I was responsible for in countries of Africa, S-E Asia, and Southern Asia.  One of the donor agencies operating in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan was the Aga Khan Foundation.  It was a standout agency, in that it had staff who would travel with you to the remote areas where the programs were operating.  They would work alongside you for a period of time and also share your living space.  In this manner, they gained the best knowledge to support your application.  I was never refused by the AKF because of this process of becoming intimately informed about the projects.

I recall being accompanied to a very remote village in the Hindu Kush area near the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan where a program training women in small business and micro-credit was established.  The women had built a co-operative program of raising chickens and selling eggs.  Bear in mind, these women were totally illiterate and lived in a very remote area.  The program trained the women in all aspects of chicken raising, keeping them disease-free, understanding and developing the life and productive cycles of their livestock, how to market their produce, and how to keep the books and remain solvent.  After two years, the collective had become a smooth and well-run business.  The women had also branched out to providing training and expertise to other remote villages in the region.  Their request of AKF was to build a road so they could access market outlets more easily.  Until then, the women had climbed and trekked many miles with their produce to larger towns where markets operated regularly.   They had become leaders in their community and further afield.  One of their main objectives was to build similar collectives in other communities.

Needless to say, these magnificent women got their road and remained leaders in their field!

To be continued . . . ?

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