The U3APP COVID-19 Working Group

In the beginning

On Friday the 13th of March 2020, members of the U3APP Committee of Management drafted a plan to manage the risk of COVID-19 within our U3A and to prepare for any potential shutdown of operations.

The virus moved fast and within 3 days, the CoM had decided to suspend all face-to-face courses and to close our office.  On Monday the 16thof March, the Ides of March, CoM met, for the last time face-to-face as it eventuated, and agreed to set up a Working Group to manage our Coronavirus Plan.  Pam Caven, Jim Pribble and Diane Boyle were appointed to the Working Group.  At the meeting a trial of remote classes using Zoom and the purchase of one Zoom account was also approved.

And now –

Over half a year later and the Working Group has been working continuously managing the strategy and the day to day decisions needed to allow our U3A to continue its operations.  And we have not just one Zoom account for our remote (or online as we now call them) classes but six!

And it is the same 3 people on the Working Group, who not only have overseen all the tremendous work put in by all aspects of the organisation, but have also come to enjoy each other’s company and become friends.

How do they manage? 

Respect for each other’s skills, a “can-do” attitude and a sense of humour all contribute.  Meeting at least weekly, by Zoom of course, there is a good sense of camaraderie and focus on new initiatives, issue resolution and communications.  In between meetings, they keep in touch with updates on their agreed actions.

Who are they?  Here’s some more info about each of them:

Pam Caven, Deputy President and Events and Functions team

U3APP has been a good fit for me. My career has always been in education as a teacher, lecturer, curriculum writer and author of textbooks.

The power of good teachers. My history teacher in Matric urged me to study History Honours at University. The academic environment was a revelation to me. I loved it.

Reality hit when I was posted to Mildura High School, a cultural shock for someone who had grown up three miles from the Melbourne GPO, although over the course of a year I did come to appreciate the town and its surrounding countryside. From Mildura to Carlton where I lectured in British History at the Secondary Teachers College.

Europe beckoned. I was well prepared for teaching the Industrial Revolution in a London comprehensive secondary school. The undoubted highlight of my time in Europe was the six months I spent in Italy. Three months learning the language at the Universita per Stranieri in Perugia. Bellissimo! My time there left me with a lifelong love of all things Italian.

On returning to Australia via South America I entered the world of TAFE and there I stayed until I retired experiencing wonderful and varied times as a teacher, writer, and an executive in state and federal governments.

I have been on several not for profit boards, including being President of the School Council, when our son was at Melbourne High School,

Following my retirement, I joined U3A Port Phillip and I became an active participant in a variety of U3A courses, too numerous to list and joined the Committee of Management.

I have loved the U3APP experience.

Jim Pribble, member of Committee of Management & Course Coordination team – Tutor Support

I am an American (Yankee)-Australian, born, reared and educated in smallish towns in Southwestern Oregon. I excelled academically and was soon off to University immediately after graduation in 1961.

I graduated from Oregon State University with a BSc and MSc, having spent some years prior to that getting married and serving in the US Army. I entered the workforce in 1974 as a Research Biologist for the Oregon Department of Fisheries, (Research Division) and spent my professional career either as a research biologist or a manager of biological research teams – in the USA and in Victoria.

I first became involved in U3APP in 2009, enrolling for the first time in Shirley Armstrong’s Art Class on Friday mornings. That was my only involvement with U3A until 2017 when I retired from a second, non-scientifically based career, to take a course lead by Geoffrey Levy. I so enjoyed the course that I decided that I would give facilitating a go. Since 2018, I have facilitated/tutored courses, presenting 1 or 2 courses each term.  I really enjoy the experience, especially now that we are delivering the courses on-line.

The COVID-19 Working Group has provided formidable challenges to the intellect and stamina of the participants. The complexity of issues is sometimes daunting, with no apparent solution to the issue at hand.  Owing to the organizational skills and experiences of the group members we have managed to conceptualise, compartmentalise and solve the challenges impinging on U3APP since lockdown in a timely manner.  I believe that the Working Group has served the Committee and membership well. I wouldn’t have missed working with Pam and Diane for quids!!

Diane Boyle, member of Committee of Management and IT Team

I am a Canadian-Australian who has lived in Melbourne more than half my life.  I grew up not far from Toronto, in London, Ontario (a very cold and snow-covered place in winter), and obtained one of the inaugural Computer Science degrees from the University of Waterloo.  My working life was spent in IT, in software development. After taking up scuba diving just prior to retirement, I worked after retirement on a casual basis for a dive safety organisation, Divers Alert Network.

I joined U3APP in 2012 as I was interested in Colin Jones’ Tales of the Sea course.  And when the IT team was formed in 2014, I joined the team as a way to contribute to the organisation.

Bala Thuraisingam

Bala Thuraisingam is a Mechanical Engineer, his expertise being in water pumps. Having retired about 3 years ago, Bala continues to do some consulting work and is a member of the Fire Protection Association Australia (FPAA) and also represents the Association, on the technical committee of Australian Standards for Fire Protection Water Pumpsets.

Bala joined U3APP, seeking an alternate activity following his retirement. “So, I took up Scrabble, as it keeps my mind ticking.” Pre Covid, Bala was a regular member of the Friday Film group.

Bala was born in Malaysia, he was 20 years old when he migrated to Australia, having first obtained a place at Monash University. Changes within the political system in Malaysia led to him making the decision to move to Australia.

During his early childhood years, Bala observes that “Malaysia was really good, in the sense that all religions and races were equal.” The Malays, Chinese and Indians had the same opportunities, there was little discrimination. At that time, the population consisted of 60% Malays, 30% Chinese and 5% Indians, plus other nationalities. They had equal opportunities more generally, also in respect to education. However, this all changed when “the crazy man”, Bala laughs, Mahathir Mohamad became Prime Minister in July 1981. Politics, “became entangled with religion.”

When Bala sought to do a Higher Certificate of Education (HCE), he was unable to do this, due to a quota system being applied in respect to different races. 70% of university placements were given to Malays, “everybody else was struggling to obtain a place.”

Students were required to have obtained a credit grade or rating in the Bahasa Malaysia language.

However at school, this was a 2nd language, single lesson per week class, so together with the low quota of acceptance for non–Malaysian students, Bala failed to gain entrance to university, despite “scoring very good grades in all other subjects. It was very upsetting.”

Bala’s parents were from Sri Lanka, so he was in the bottom 5%. His parents were Tamils and “ran away from Sri Lanka”, due to religious discrimination and violence. They migrated to Malaysia, to “escape persecution.” When Bala was unable to obtain entrance to university, an uncle who lived in Malaysia, “put his hand up” and paid for and supported his migration to Australia. Bala was required to complete a matriculation course, which he did through Taylor’s College in Malaysia. He was accepted into Monash University where he completed a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering degree.

On his arrival in Australia, Bala had nowhere to stay, he had obtained his visa, “had everything sorted out”, but no accommodation in the vicinity of Monash University. One of his schoolmates had a brother who lived in Glen Iris and had given him his address. “So, I just landed here at 6am, took a cab to his house and knocked on the door. It was opened by a man in his pyjamas. I introduced myself, ‘come in, come in’, he says. Then he gives me breakfast and drives me to Monash University.” After some “chit chat”, they organised accommodation with a family, later finding him a place to stay with other students.

This experience of being cared for, along with other students, without discrimination, having his meals cooked by the woman providing homestay accommodation, “was so good, she even packed our lunches.” Bala adds, “I had also never heard a horse go up the road carting milk. I used to hear this clip, clip, clop on the road, wondering what was going on here. All these things were so new to me.”

Bala recalls feeling “very lucky, as Gough Whitlam, was Prime Minister at that time and we all got a free education.” University “was fabulous.” It provided a new lifestyle he had not experienced before. “It was wonderful, I failed one year, having too much fun!” But of course, “then I buckled down, and finished the course.”

Bala’s first employment was as an estimator with Ajax Pumps, he worked in marketing for about 8 years. “But I could see myself not going anywhere, so I decided to start my own business.” He and two partners worked from a small office. “We had two phones each, so 6 phones.” Bala recalls with some amusement, juggling the phones and calls, as they built up their connections with the building industry in respect to manufacturing water pumps.

What exactly is a water pump? “Good question!” Bala laughs and explains, “most households don’t require a water pump as the water that comes into your house is already pressurised, right?” Right! “The pressure reduces as you get higher, so once you get to a certain height, you need a pump to boost the pressure. So, you can think about that concept. You may have a pit full of water, but you can’t get the water out. You need a pump.” Bala laughs at the obvious simplicity of this concept. But in a building, you also have wastewater that needs to be gotten rid of, also fire protection as in sprinklers, which are mandatory once the building reaches a certain height.

Bala and his colleagues came up with the idea of “building packages.” These consisted of a pump, a driver, a control panel and also pipe work, put together as a package. “So, it became a 3 meter by 3 meter skid, complete with all the bits and pieces. All the plumber needed to do was to purchase the skid which is then plugged/connected to Water In, Water Out and Power Supply in a pump room. Our aim was to make it plug and play for the customer.”

Where were the pumps and products made? “We actually pushed all Australian products. The pumps were manufactured by Southern Cross, in Toowoomba.” Diesel engines were made locally, also the control panel. “We would coordinate these products. One year after we started this business, we built our own products in our own factory from 1988.”

Over the years, the company named BKB Pumps and Tanks was responsible for fitting out 101 Collins Street with fire pumps, also the Rialto Tower, the Melbourne Casino and more. They also designed flat packs of metal sheeting, enabling the construction of water tanks. A crew would then assemble it on site. The company started out with “3 of us. 5 years later 15, then about 30 workers’’. The company was sold a few years ago (2013) to a Danish Company.

Bala acknowledges that he feels, “very proud, it was a lot of hard work. When I left Ajax the only funds that I had were $8,000 in superannuation. So, I cashed it in, my partner equalled that and that’s how we started, not taking wages for about 6 months. We struggled so much in that first year, I am thinking, this is madness, initially not realising that having cash flow was a big issue, but somehow, we managed.”

Currently, Bala is of the view that building regulations are more lax, “I would not buy an apartment in Melbourne.” Buildings are, “cheaper and cheaper. The pumping systems are not the best … it’s really very sad, it has become self-certification, in a sense. Councils walk away, rubber stamps.” Bala provided further information in respect to current issues within the building industry, which the government and industry are trying to rectify, noting also that products are now made overseas. Southern Cross in Toowoomba closed their factory and now imports their products.

Bala will assist via FPAA to rewrite the standards, the last being written in 2013, despite this being required every four years, staff shortages being one reason for this.

Bala met his wife at a Monash University party, she was a nurse, but is currently working at St Vincent’s Hospital in administration doing coding relating to identification numbers of respective surgeries/procedures for insurance or funding purposes. They have 2 daughters and 3 grandchildren, one daughter has moved to Queensland. “We go and help them out with babysitting, when we can.”

Bala’s youngest daughter is a biomedical statistician, currently in Canada (Calgary), as part of a research team from St Vincent’s Hospital. They are continuing to analyse data on knee surgery, the conclusion seeming to be so far, that “if you can get rid of your problem by doing exercises and maintain your knee rather than surgery, this is preferable.”

Bala’s other interests include golf and darts. He enjoys playing scrabble at U3APP and he and tutor Sunny Acreman have achieved an admirable score of 300. “It is also strategic, because you are looking at where you can slide in and double up and maximise your points. You get their points and yours!” Bala “loves movies” and attended Friday Films prior to Covid. He enjoyed sitting in the big hall, (back then) watching a “very good choice” of movies. He hopes to return when his Friday commitments ease.

Bala has a continuing interest in politics, “I love my politics,” He listens to the radio, ABC/SBS TV, reads the Guardian newspaper, subscribes to Crikey. He refers to himself as being a “swinging voter”, preferring not to have long terms of any particular party, as this encourages corruption.

Subsequent to the violent disputes between the Singhalese and the Tamils in Sri Lanka in 2013, Bala decided to visit Sri Lanka, “just to see for myself how people lived and how they were treated.” What he found was “so sad.” He hired a driver who took him from the south where Singhalese is the main language, to the north, where the majority population speak Tamil. When the driver spoke to the Tamils, “it was very belittling, aggressive, very, you know, upsetting.” Leaving his driver to wait alone for his return, Bala toured the area together with some local, very friendly and helpful Tamils, who took him to interesting places where tourists generally do not visit.

Bala repeats, “it is so sad that people cannot get along. Both Hinduism and Buddhism preach tolerance.” Tamils are Hindus, Singhalese are Buddhists. Whilst in Sri Lanka, “ I found out that it is the religious monks who are very militant, they make a lot of money!” Bala comments with cynical humour.

Bala and his wife are travelling to Canada, to meet up with their daughter. They will also go on a train trip in Alaska. They plan to visit some of Bala’s siblings, who live in America, (Phoenix, Arizona) and will be away for a couple of months.

Bala provided interesting details on current building issues, fire risks and much more than can be recorded in this interview. His wider knowledge, expertise, and aptitude for making concepts into reality is impressive. Bala is appreciative of the opportunities to “keep his mind ticking”, not just in Scrabble! But, by ensuring that past discrimination, religious and political, has not prevented him from attaining and then contributing to these achievements, here in Australia.

Felicity May interviewed Bala Thuraisingam

Helen Vorrath

Music and Me
(Picture: Then and Now – Helen playing 50 years apart)

I am the ultimate dilettante.  I failed Art at school and I’m not going back there, but I’ll give almost anything else a go, from software to Shakespeare.  And underpinning it all is a love of music.

There is music in the family.  I still have my great-grandmother’s music books, with the dreadfully sentimental Victorian popular songs that she played for weddings and parties.  And her volumes of Mozart and Chopin.  Sadly she didn’t pass down her skills to my grandmother or mother, but my great-aunt’s house was fitted with the piano that all upwardly mobile homes aspired to.  When she died her two children were in places distant from Melbourne (South Africa and Tasmania) so my mother purchased the piano from her estate.  I was the youngest and therefore got the most out of this acquisition as I started learning at about 8 years old.  By modern standards that’s still a bit late.

I progressed fairly steadily to Grade 5, but then decided to copy my brother who’d decided to play the clarinet.  I thought then, and still do, that it is the instrument with the most beautiful sound.  It’s also versatile as I’m now proving in my later years.

I went to a school where music was much more important than sport, which was great for me as I was a bit of a dud at anything that involved interacting with a moving object.  Swimming and gym were OK, anything else, not.  But I was happily singing in the choir, playing in the orchestra, continuing with lessons on piano as well as clarinet, and learning theory as well.  By the time I left school I’d completed grade 5 in all three subjects.

This is where the story takes a turn for the worse.  By the time I left school I was over it, dying to move on to University.  I dropped everything that was related to school.  Copying my brother again, I bought a guitar, learnt the basic 3 chords and joined the folk singing society (embarrassing, but true).  I acquired a boyfriend who scorned folk singing and introduced me to modern jazz, and I began the gradual slide from player to listener.  By the time I started work I wasn’t doing much of either.

After one year working in Australia I left for England, where I fell in love with a French horn player.  This was a plus and a minus.  He was a very talented musician, would have been a professional if working as a computer person hadn’t been more lucrative.  With him I rediscovered classical music as we went to hear all the great orchestras in London, see opera at Glyndebourne.  He was into early music, so I learned about that too.  He played in semi-professional orchestras and chamber groups, and I dutifully went along to all the concerts, even a music camp where they played Wagner opera.  So what was the problem?  He was such a good player that anything I did seemed very second rate.  Even after returning to Australia and reclaiming the family piano, I still didn’t play.  My school clarinet gathered dust until I discovered, much later in life, that the significant other of the time had pawned it.

I continued to be an active concert goer.  I subscribed to the ABC concerts in Geelong, where I lived when I first returned to Australia.  I subscribed to Musica Viva concerts and have done so continuously for over 40 years.  After my marriage to the horn player broke up, I returned to Melbourne.  There I went to the opera with my parents, and various relatives and friends joined me as MSO subscribers from time to time, including the man who’s now my husband.

He encouraged me in a dream that I had: when I retired I would take up the clarinet again.  He promised that he would buy one for me.  It remained a promise until I started getting more actively involved in the chamber music scene in Melbourne.  First I got a gig as the Jury Manager for the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition (aka MICMC).  This meant I spent a week shut up with some of the world’s best musicians, and with them listened to dozens of brilliant young ensembles as they competed.  MICMC was a four-yearly event, but in between there was an Asia Pacific competition.  I managed to do a good enough job to retain my position as Jury Manager through several competitions, and after one of these I decided I just had to start playing again.  A week or so later, I shared this decision with a childhood friend I met at a concert, and then thought, “Right, I have to do it now.”  On the way home from the concert I stopped off at the Music Place in Clarendon Street to try out instruments, which ended with my phoning my husband to ask him to bring his credit card.

Have clarinet, need teacher.  Ask Google.  Here I was extraordinarily lucky.  From the web I selected a clarinettist who lived in St Kilda and was studying at ANAM in South Melbourne.  I figured it wouldn’t be difficult for him to stop by and give me lessons on his way to and from ANAM.  It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  He is a great teacher, now the Associate Principal clarinet with Orchestra Victoria, and through him I’ve become a supporter of his Melbourne Chamber Players group.  And then a year or so ago I got a phone call out of the blue from a friend of my sister-in-law who was drumming up support for her daughter’s ensemble, Genesis Baroque.  Long story short, I’m now the secretary of Genesis Baroque Inc and the keeper of their website.  Somewhere along the line in the last decade I’ve also been recruited on to the Musica Viva Victorian Committee.

Much more exciting and important than any of that is the story that began in the days when I wrote the e-bulletin (in the era BK (before Kate) when it was just a boring fact sheet).  José Simsa contacted me to ask if I would advertise for players to join the Allsorts.  I put my own hand up instantly, and rediscovered the joy of playing with others.  Fortunately they had had a clarinettist in the group before, so there were already parts for me hand-written by Zoe Hogg, but in those early days I also did a lot of sight-transposing (that’s sight-reading and transposing at the same time), very good for the ageing brain.  And then I bravely, or foolishly, decided that it would be fun to try playing more jazz, and so the U3APP jazz group was formed.  I had always thought of myself as someone who could only play with the notes in front of them, as I’ve never been able to play from memory, but to my surprise and pleasure, I am learning to improvise.  One day, if (no WHEN) we get out of lockdown, you’ll be able to hear the results.

Lockdown has been a desperate period for us musicians, as you really can’t play together on Zoom.  So I needed another music-related project.  In last year’s lockdown I organised an on-line trivia quiz as a fund-raiser for Musica Viva, which some of you participated in.  This year I started something much more ambitious: I founded a new organisation to support chamber music in Victoria, called Continuo Community.  Unsurprisingly, given the current circumstances and my predilections, it’s main activity at the moment is a website.  If you’re curious and want to see more, go to  I’d love to have some more members.

Helen Vorrath

Dear younger self

So you’ve decided to become an IT professional when you grow up? Good choice! You’ve already discovered the satisfaction of getting a program to work – that will continue to excite you for the rest of your life. You’ll also find that debugging the things that don’t work is equally rewarding.

What you don’t yet know is how much more exciting it is when a whole new system goes live, and all the parts function together as planned. Even better and more important is when the users of the system tell you how great it is. By the way, if that’s not happening, you need to try harder. The first priority for a system is that it is fit for purpose, does the job, but the second is that it is easy to learn and use. If it isn’t, it will suffer from misuse or disuse. When you’re designing or building systems, step into the users’ shoes, understand how they work now and why. If you can see that IT can make their job easier and more effective if the existing processes change, be prepared to sell your ideas for improvement, because everyone is resistant to change, some more than others. Design flexibly: anticipate the way that needs may change in the future.

Helen (on right) at Alcoa on International Women’s Day mid 1970s

I know you’ve thought about other professions from time to time. One of the great things about IT is that it is a service industry. It has now invaded every other industry and profession, from health to hospitality, from finance to film production, from manufacturing to the law. This means you can combine an interest in IT with any other industry or profession, or you can work in a lot of other industries and occupations, constantly learning about the way they operate. For me that has ranged from making aluminium products through to managing mobile phone billing, from selling wine and beer to controlling water and sewage, from selling shoes to superannuation.

Whatever route you take, you’ll be learning constantly anyway. The world of IT is like the world Alice found behind the looking-glass: you have to run very fast every now and then just to stay in the same place. The things I’m doing daily as an ageing IT person you would find almost unimaginable. In 50 plus years I’ve used dozens of computers, learnt dozens of languages, systems, methodologies… Just as the building industry has changed from hand-crafting doors and windows to assembling pre-built modules, so my time these days is spent linking apps, plugins, extensions together to build the systems I need, providing immense functionality quickly and cheaply. And it all happens in this amazing thing called “the cloud”, which means I can work on my projects from anywhere in the world, including on a yacht in Tasmania.

Hey look, now we have PCs – in the 1980s

As IT invades our world, the social impact is increasing, opening up new areas to work in, and giving you the opportunity to really make a difference. IT can give greater access to information, or to misinformation. Big data can be used to make life better or worse. The industry needs people who are passionate about using IT to make life better, while protecting human rights.

IT is breaking down barriers of distance, of access to services. But if IT is going to support communities in need, there is work to be done in building digital literacy. I know you have a hankering to teach, and you’ll find plenty of opportunity in explaining, training, mentoring. Helping older people to come to grips with technology is an on-going source of satisfaction for me.

Here are the lessons I’ve learned:

  • Be agile – keep learning
  • Small is beautiful – the bigger the project, the bigger the team, the greater the chance of failure
  • Build and implement systems incrementally if you can so that change is gradual
  • Women make really good team leaders and project managers
  • “Imagination is greater than Knowledge” (Albert Einstein)

Good luck!
Your older self

Postscript: This piece was written for Ada Lovelace Day in 2020, to inspire young women to go into IT.

James Walter

James Walter is Emeritus Professor at Monash University. ‘He has published widely on leadership, biography and political ideas. Volume two of his history of the Australian prime ministership (with Paul Strangio and Paul ‘t Hart) The Pivot of Power (Miegunyah Press) was published in 2017.’ (Monash Website)

This is only a very brief synopsis of the many published books, articles and reviews written by James. James is a familiar face on U3APP Saturday Seminars, the most recent being ‘Prospects for the Albanese prime ministership.’

James was born in Hamilton, Western Victoria, where he lived together with his sisters until Form 3 when he became a boarder at Wesley College Melbourne. His English teacher at Wesley College encouraged his writing skills. His family would read widely but did not discuss politics more than “other interests, including music, they shared.”

With some amusement James recalls that he planned to enrol in English and history at Melbourne University. However, following an enrolment interview by prominent philosopher, Lauchlan Chipman, and feeling rather “bewildered,” he decided to enrol in English and philosophy. This perspective over subsequent years has shaped James’ interest in the underlying philosophical aspects of politics, particularly Australian politics. After completing 3 years of English and philosophy, James transferred into politics, completing an honours degree in politics at Melbourne University. He comments, “I was much influenced by two people, Alan Davies and Graham Little, I met in the Politics Department at Melbourne University.”

James’ various academic qualifications, leading to important positions in a number of universities, are significant and impressive, too many to list here. They include Professor of Australian Studies at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at the University of London. Also, a more instrumental role in management at Griffith University, Queensland, over a number of years. James felt there was a need to combine the social sciences and humanities, to look at political sciences and sociology from a specifically Australian perspective.

James wrote a case study on student radicals in the early 1970s for his master’s degree in politics, at La Trobe University. It dealt with the different interpretations motivating protest action, and reaction of right wing students. While there, he also tutored in philosophy.

James makes particular reference to his PhD. This was intended to be a “sort of history of Australian prime ministers, but it ended up being a psychobiography of Gough Whitlam”. This psychobiography “being built in some ways on psychological theory. It was umm … quite controversial.” When published, it received a lot of attention; some commenting it was an innovative approach, others viewed it as overly critical. However, this then led to James receiving an Australian Parliamentary Fellowship.

In respect to James’ interest in psychology, “well, it was about … you know, why … what influences people to make the decision to go into politics? It is quite unusual when you think about it.” Research in the US shows that less than 1% of people ever consider going into politics.

James’s book, ‘The Ministers’ Minders’, was the first book about “what we now call ministerial minders,” giving an historical perspective as well as looking at their potential influence on policy making.

Reflecting further on his interest in studies on Australian perspectives, James found that working overseas at the Menzies Centre, London and also for a period at Princeton University, in the US, “it becomes necessary to think comparatively about what’s happening in your own country.”

After a number of extended years as Pro-Vice Chancellor at Griffith University, James became concerned that he was “losing academic currency. I had to decide whether I am just going to be a manager.” He applied for a large research grant, as a sort of “gamble … a long shot”, but he received the grant which fortuitously coincided with an academic position at Monash University.

Pursuing the theme of “what drives you? Is it a more purely intellectual interest, what of social issues?” James refers to themes that had been “sort of germinating,” leading to a number of publications, one being The Citizens Bargain. This is about ”what does citizenship mean, who gets included, who gets marginalised. Questions about immigration, refugees.’’ When asked, do you have an end point? James laughs – Well, “the end point was, we have to understand that … the bargain is that if you accept shared responsibilities, you get certain entitlements, such as state protection and support.” That is how it works. As a writer you would like to think, “this is a problem, how can it be fixed? You may offer solutions, but they hardly go anywhere.” James believes that his work on political advisers and leadership has had some influence on how those roles are understood.

Is there any politician you think has really made a difference, in recent history? “Gough Whitlam, despite some chaotic years, made some major social initiatives, some lasting changes.” Hawke, Keating, made “an enormous difference to the economy and understood the way it worked.” Howard too made a difference though he did it by running a prime ministerial government, not a cabinet government. However successive prime ministers have felt that they have to do everything themselves, when in fact the most successful ones have always been collaborative. Even competitive Hawke let people get on with their own jobs. The most egregious example was Scott Morrison, thinking “I am going to do everything.”

Policy activist politicians often say ”only we can… make decisions… we have information that nobody else can have, so only we can make these big decisions. This leads to a sort of “group think” trap. These are the sort of issues I am interested in.”

James is currently writing a book on the period between 1940 and the present. What’s changed? What are the patterns? “I look at three areas. 1. Immigration because this is a settlement society -leading to our economic growth. 2. Indigenous policy. Our secular society has marginalised First Australians, we now have to face up to this and deal with it. 3. Housing. Policy on social housing was more prominent in 1940 then slowly was whittled away, now we have this huge problem that is simply not being addressed.”

Moving the topic away from politics, James loves reading and music in particular. He used to be a member of a choir as a boy, but now medical issues restrict him from singing. But not from whistling! James plays the ukulele and is a member of Minuk Richards’ class. He has a good ear for music and will often whistle an introduction for a new piece, “I’m fairly proficient at it, cool chord changes, I can usually do virtually anything she puts up – she’s a great teacher”.

Also, petanque is “fun”. James and his wife Robyn, a well-known member and office volunteer at U3APP, join a group of other U3APP players. Afterwards they go to the pub for dinner. Making comment on U3A, “I would recommend it as a new way of social networking for people who have left professional lives behind.”

James has a long standing interest in films and at one stage earlier in his academic pursuits, while in London, he applied to the Slade School of Fine Arts’ film program, still toying at that time with “this fantasy of being a literary writer.” He submitted a couple of short films. It was only some time later that he received a letter confirming that he had been admitted. However, he had by then commenced his long career in political writing. James’ favourite film is ‘Notorious’. He likes Humphrey Bogart, Billy Wilder, “my interests are fairly scattered.”

At home James and Robyn are kept busy looking after their grandchildren. They have four adult children and six grandchildren, all living currently in Melbourne. The youngest two grandchildren who are at preschool stay with them at least one day a week. These duties are juggled with James’ other responsibilities and finishing off his book.

In November, James will be hosting a documentary on Julia Gillard, ‘Strong Female Lead’, for the U3APP Friday Films class. Whilst anticipating this may evoke robust discussion from several aspects, U3APP encourages and provides a ‘safe’ place to air opposing views.

James ends with an amusing reflection. He used to play to his Honours students a video of Ry Cooder playing Chuck Berry’s song, ‘The 13 Question Method (is the one to use).’ His students would ask “why, why?” James would respond, “That’s what the search is all about, the question, rather than the destination.” A more eloquent version of the true meaning of Chuck Berry’s song!

The Australian political scene has gained much from the tireless and ongoing work of James Walter, asking important and discerning questions.

James Walter was interviewed for “Spotlight On” by Felicity May.

Joanna White

For many of us, turning sixty means slowing down just a little, spending more time with family, perhaps enjoying grandchildren, travelling the world, playing more sport or simply socializing and enjoying a relaxed lifestyle – and rightly so.

Few of us decide to make a total life changing decision at this age, but Joanna White, longtime U3APP member, is one of those who did.

At sixty, the combination of a serious health scare, unexplained depression and a subsequent seven day transformative retreat, allowed Joanna to fully come to terms with her life and led to her following her childhood dream of creating music, in particular writing music and lyrics.  Despite a total lack of theatrical and musical knowledge, the overwhelming urge to write a stage musical took hold.

Joanna set about the difficult task of learning how to write music; she’d always ‘heard’ music in her brain and had songs yearning to escape from inside her head. Now was the time to put this, along with lyrics, down on paper, eventually to be performed.   She was extremely fortunate, and Joanna may say “lucky”, to meet up with two people who could assist her; one a woman she met on a tram who was able to translate her rough handwritten music into a gorgeous piano score, and another, a fabulous barefoot pub singer, after which the musical “The Time Pilgrims” was born.

Over the ensuing twenty years Joanna continued to focus her musical talents, and wrote forty songs, all professionally recorded, many of them included in the two musicals she’s written; one titled “Pink” which has been performed, the other “The Time Pilgrims”, waiting in the wings, perhaps to be turned into an educational, interactive computer game; nothing is out of the question where Joanna is concerned.

In 2000 another touch of fate saw Joanna meeting Sir Tim Rice at the Arts Centre in Melbourne.  After an amusing exchange, he invited her to send him her first three songs, and liked them enough to invite her to his London base, by which time she’d written and recorded four more CD tracks.

Sir Tim Rice provided the encouragement for Joanna to continue with her long suppressed dream, and they remain good friends today.  After he read her short story, “Miracle in Pink”, published by Penguin Books in the anthology “There’s so Much More to Life than Sex and Money”, he suggested this would be a wonderful idea for her second musical.  She subsequently wrote and produced “Pink” which has won various workshops and showcases.  Some of you may remember that a DVD of the two-hour performance was shown at Mary Kehoe Centre in mid 2018.

In February 2009, the devastating Black Saturday bushfires engulfed the town of Marysville, destroying almost everything in its path.  Joanna and her partner have a farm in Taggerty, where the fire was eventually contained.  She joined the team of volunteers at the CFA hub where local cooks had set up a temporary kitchen.  While she was cutting sandwiches for the continuous line of exhausted firefighters, a poignant tune came into her head along with one line of verse.

When she found a few spare minutes, she quickly put pen to paper, but that’s all she could bear to write at that very emotional time.  In the coming months and years this one line continued to gather dust and was almost forgotten until this year, the tenth anniversary of those dreadful fires.

Early in 2019 Joanna heard about a Regional Arts Victoria Grant, in conjunction with the new Marysville Gallery (MIRA), for artists who had pictures reflecting the ten years since the Bushfires.  After making enquiries as to whether this abandoned and unfinished song might qualify as background music, and despite only having three days before submissions closed, it brought that one line of music out of the dust and into the daylight to be completed.

Pressed for time as well as the support needed to complete the song in time to enter the competition, Joanna went to great lengths, both metaphorically and literally, to ensure the song was ready, followed by a tortuous submission writing process, and finally tendering “Paradise Lost” just a minute before the deadline.   Some of these lengths included a wild car ride, writing lyrics as her partner drove her from Whitfield, over Tolmie Mountain, through Mansfield and up to Eildon’s Skyline Rd to a house perched precariously on a sheer cliff near the fire lookout.  But the achievement of one page of ‘real’ sheet music, computerized by the local musician she found at the end of this drive, made the escapade more than worthwhile, and it gave her enough to submit as a grant proposal.

Ten days later a delighted Joanna received a congratulatory call to advise that she had won the grant, with sufficient funds to finish this, along with another previously written composition, “The Dance of Life”.  By changing two of its verses, it became a song of reverence for nature, respect for the planet as well as our own duty of care.

But things didn’t end there; the song had to be ready for the official opening of the Marysville Art Gallery in just a few weeks time, which meant another busy flurry of activity for Joanna on this exciting journey.

“Paradise Lost” had an astounding effect on some visitors when it was finally played during the bushfire-related exhibitions at the Marysville Gallery; some wept openly, grateful for ‘permission to cry’ and ‘not be brave anymore’. “The Dance of Life” was performed at the closing of this event on 4 April, a fitting song of hope and renewal for all those who had lived through those disastrous times and come out the other end with newfound strength and resilience.


One would imagine the adventure might now be over with this success under her belt; but Joanna went on to introduce “Paradise Lost” to the U3A Port Phillip choir and it has now become part of the choir’s repertoire.  To coincide with this, Joanna heard that Jonathon Welch, of ‘Choir of Hard Knocks’ fame, would be visiting Marysville to run a community-building choir workshop and contacted him as she felt this very relevant number would be an ideal one to be included in the workshop.

The reply from Jonathon was more than Joanna could have hoped for; she was invited to sing her song – solo – at the concert on 7 April, after which his choir of eighty would perform.  After ingesting copious amounts of pineapple juice (good for the voice) and trembling in her boots, Joanna sang “Paradise Lost” to a large local audience in Alexandra Town Hall and received thunderous applause, after which Jonathon interviewed her and endorsed her dream that it would be wonderful for the song to now travel to other choirs, perhaps via the U3A network and other community groups.

The feedback from members of this audience was not lost on Joanna, with many thanking her afterwards for the ‘gift’ she had given them, especially allowing them to open up and cry after ten years of bottling up the tears of grief – men and women alike.  One woman who had managed to save only herself, her cat and her dog, had never shed a tear, until now when Joanna hugged her and allowed those tears to flow freely on her shoulder.  Joanna, understandably, refers to this as the “the most moving moment in my life”.

And where to now for Joanna?  Naturally she is not sitting back resting on her laurels any time soon!  She’s keen to find a way to perform some of her work through mediums such as podcasting, or perhaps her dream of turning the musical “Pink” into a serialised radio musical.

She would love to meet and have a chat with people who are audio-savvy radio enthusiasts, sound recording editors, music buffs, writers, musicians, computer notation programmers, etc.  In short people who’d like to spend a bit of time brainstorming ideas for producing interesting, broadcast quality material.

If you feel like you have something to share with Joanna, or can offer some advice, she would love to chat with you.  Send an email to and we’ll put you in touch.

Sue Wilks – part 1

A contralto amongst the cricketers


Recently, following the death of the matriarch Mrs Ian Johnson, wife of the test cricketer, the Johnson house in Page Street, Middle Park was sold. In a mad scramble to get everything out, books, photos, trophies and trinkets were hastily thrown into boxes by her sons and grandchildren. Many of these boxes ended up in my garage (daughter-in-law) and were not looked at, or perhaps even forgotten.

Thanks to the COVID19 lock down I decided to tidy my garage and put the Johnson memorabilia into plastic boxes to preserve it. This was no ordinary memorabilia. My father-in-law, Ian, had been an Australian Test Cricketer and his father (William James 1888- 1941) before him, a Test Selector. The bottom of a ‘downstairs’ cupboard at the Johnson house which had been in the family for two generations was the source, and it seemed as though the contents had been untouched for 70 years.

A diary

Amongst the trophies and souvenirs was a diary, a large, Australian Commercial Diary for 1911 published in Melbourne by Sands and McDougall Ltd. It had two days on a page. The first 24 pages had miscellaneous information like postal money and telegraphic information, customs tariffs, and directions for making a will. However, no commercial use had been made of it.  Following the early pages there were hundreds of newspaper clippings, photos (some people are named in pencil), menus, and postcards. But who had done this?

Due to dates and content of photos and newspaper clippings I gathered it was Ian Johnson’s mother, Edith (nee Geddes 1882-1949) who had later used this diary as an album. I didn’t know her name until I saw a birth notice of Wilma in January 1917 to William and Edith Johnson. This then made sense of a photo of a Geddes wedding (undated) in Moonee Ponds pasted inside the front cover with first bridesmaid Edith Geddes. Just below the birth notice was the death notice of little 9 month old Wilma in 1916. I had never heard of this daughter who preceded Ian (1917) and his younger brother Colin who both lived in Page Street until they died.

As would many a proud wife and mother, Edith kept numerous newspaper articles, postcards, menus and photos about William’s 1930 tour of England (and Europe) as Selector with the Test team.  Then there was a gap before the same had been done for Ian’s 1948 Test tour of England as Captain.

I imagine Mrs W. J. Johnson used the diary because it was largely empty and the few diary entries were of no interest to her. I surmise the un-used diary could have belonged to Mr Johnson, as he was described in a death notice as a prominent businessman.

Someone else had used the diary

As I turned over the pages, I could see, under a newspaper photo of “King George V and Queen Mary with Johnson, Woodfull, Kelly and Richardson”, what looked like a young person’s diary entry. Just a few words were visible – e.g. “helped” “afternoon” and “sight”. The news clipping was stuck down over the Sunday 15 January, 1911 entry.

The next handwritten entry showed it to be the dairy of a young girl making entries that were all similar and described events typical of a young person’s life. (I only discovered her name and age – she was 14 – later in the diary). Below is a typical entry. (I have not changed any of the entries – I quote it by adding punctuation or fixing spelling.)

Saturday 6 May 1911. Got up at about 8 o’clock had breakfast had my practice went into shop had dinner and cleared away the table washed up and wiped went out and skipped then went to the Milkman’s with Alice also to Flemington bridge station for a parcel came back again and put it in then went out skipping came in to my tea set a a few things on table and had my tea after I done my lessons read for a while and went to bed.

Entries for Monday May 8, Tuesday May 9 and Wednesday May 10 1911 all begin with “Got up, had practice”. I assumed this was piano practice, but May 10 revealed that was not so when she wrote:

“Mr Don came for tea after tea set phonograph going … then sung for Mr Don. He thought I was Soprano, done my lesson read and went to bed.”

So she was not practicing piano but was practicing her singing.

The May 11 was her birthday and, unlike what she may have received as a young girl in 2020, she “got two postcards, 3 books serviette ring bottle of scent”.

I assume she was somehow connected with the Johnsons because her entries contained references to Kensington and North Melbourne. A newspaper clipping noting William Johnson’s death referred to his being a prominent businessman in North Melbourne and Kensington. She mentioned “the shop” on May 6 and the Johnson’s business was a grocer’s shop. The fact that most entries included setting the table, washing and wiping up, point to her having light household duties. But I can find no other evidence of a connection.

There are no more entries until June 18, 1911 when, in very untidy writing (looks like she is struggling to use nib pen and ink) the young girl talks about meeting friends (Hilda, Alvie, Annie, Marion, Alex, Colin) a baby and auntie. On July 15 she writes about going to town and then on tram to Prahran with Mrs Stubbs where they walked around Big store (was the Maples?) and then had lunch.

A big surprise!!

Then suddenly, an entry for 24 October, in a mature hand: “Sang for Melba. Turn to back page”. This entry shocked me but it reminded me of an entry of May 5 in the same hand that originally had made no sense “Miss Cullen thought I was soprano” and then on 16 November, “Sang for Fritz Hart at Conservatorium”. What was going on? The back page held the answer. (See below ***).

17 November  1911. Young hand talks about a Mrs Ross and Miss Stubbs. Whilst on a station she described an interesting historical event: “watched a lady on a stretcher getting carried in[to] Guard Van. Train steamed out of station”.

November 24, 2011. (Young hand.) I wonder who Auntie and Uncle are?

“Mrs Cook, Auntie and Uncle and I went to hear Melb. (Melba) Grand Opera Romeo and Julliet. In first act she had a lovely dress of spangles. She acted and sung beautifully in second balcony scene. Had ice cream and lemon juice in interval. She was beautiful in 2 last acts when on tomb in a trance she lay very still. After each act she came out and bowed. She had a white dress on ? last act which looked very pretty. She was done up beautifully on the stage, rather stout for Julliet but still nothing to be noticed. A lovely opera all together. Romeo was lovely also.”

(This is accurate re Melba at Her Majesty’s Theatre Melbourne on this date. Source

Saturday 23 December, 1911 (young hand). Talks about making preparation for going to Colac and leaving by train for Colac (quarter to 6 train). Arrived in Colac at 10.

“Had a ride home in a cab with a whole lot of luggage.” “Had supper at about 12, sat around talking and went to bed at about 1 o’clock.”

In the next entries – Saturday 22 and Sunday 24 December 1911 – something strange has happened in the diary. It seems that 19 year old Eileen (Identified by the writing on the back page which is a mature version of the young hand) has written in her old diary after 6 years.

Sunday 24, December 1911 (young hand). Stayed home and helped Mrs Johnson. (This is the first time a relationship with a Mrs Johnson is mentioned.)

As well, Sunday 24 December is crossed out and replaced by the mature hand to December 23 1917.

“Went to Evelyn Scotney’s to sing. Met Mr White and Mrs Scotney. They said I had  … [see] back page.”

On the opposite page to these December entries is something I missed first time through. Eileen Kerwin is written clearly with Eileen scribbled a couple of other times.

Christmas Day December 25, 1911.

Young hand describes walking to Tulloh meeting Jack and Rene and catching a train that took 2 hours to “get down there”. Talks about shelling peas, having dinner, and “Ella Morgan on the table giving us a bit of amusement”. At 12 o’clock they sang Auld Lang Syne.

December 26, 1911 (young hand) talks of helping with girls. After a tiring walk the girls went back to “Elliminite” [sic].

29 December, 1911. Went to Colac for Regatta. After that she had tea on the lawn at Sittlingtons

“very nice and then went to concert @ night enjoyed ourselves we got home at 10 o’clock”.

There is a lot of scribble on the opposite page to this last entry with ”Parkinson” and “fearfully” and other illegible words written variously.

All (nearly) is revealed!

*** At the top of the last page of the diary is written “Eileen Kerwin 1917 Age 19 yrs”.

Here the following is written:

“Sang for Melba very nervous said I had sort of contralto voice. It was the farewell and we were introduced afterwards by the pupils of the Conservatorium Mr Hughes (PM?) and Italian Consul were both present including other noted people. Melba was presented with a black satin cushion as a parting gift.

Sang for Fritz Hart he was very nice and told me I had a noble voice and it was a voice in a thousand.

Annie was with me. He wished me every success and was pleased to have heard me.

I have verified the facts about Melba and Fritz Hart being at the Conservatorium at this time through a website that listed a dateline of all Melba’s activities.

Later on same page Eileen writes:

“Sang for Evelyn Scotney and Howard White both exceedingly nice and told me I possessed the voice people were wanting – liquid tone (twig that). She had heard so many sing that she thought all Australians must sing or compose ??? she liked best because I did not screech. They both wished me best of success and wanted to hear me on their return (May 1919).

Have also sang for Pauline and Mr Prudelt /Pruidley(?) at different times.

Evelyn Scotney was a Melbourne soprano and Howard White was an operatic basso and cellist. They had returned from Boston in 1916.  (Ballarat Courier, 22 July 1916)

Once I discovered the writer was Eileen Kerwin a contralto I found reference to her singing. For example on the ABC (3AR).

1.14pm Eileen Kerwin (contralto)

Songs: My Dear Soul (Sanderson) and The Lonely Caravan (Woodford-Finden).

(p.22 The Wireless Weekly: the hundred percent Australian Radio Journal. Vol. 10. No 21 (16 Sept 1927).


Dr Sue Wilks

Sue Wilks – part 2

More from the Kerwin Diary

Sue Wilks enthralled us with her revelations from the Kerwin Diary.  Now her friend, Colleen Abbott, when asked if she could make any sense of the loose news cuttings about cricket, has written the following, as Sue puts it “valuable social history”.

Cricket Tours 1938 to 1948 – Colleen Abbott

This is a personal response to my reading of the newspaper articles in the “1911” diary Sue Wilks lent me in July 2020. While the story of the diary could be a novel in itself, my interest was mainly in the newspaper articles about cricket.

Most of the names of cricketers in the articles are very familiar to me. I grew up in country New South Wales, about 800 kilometres north-west of Sydney, south of the Queensland town of Goondiwindi, where my extended family was part of a cricket team that played on a cricket ground on my grandparent’s property in local competitions from the 1920s to the late 1950s. Everyone played cricket apart from the stockmen and jockeys, everyone listened to it on the radio and read about it in the papers when we got them.

In the period covered by the articles it was clear that cricket was much more than a game. The only thing resembling cricket’s position of importance in the national psyche today would be Aussie Rules in Victoria. Knowledge of and interest in cricket linked men and women together across the social gaps created by age, wealth, occupation and education. I noticed this type of cross pollination of social interaction when we came to Melbourne in the 1980s, in overheard discussions about Aussie Rules, the warmth of tone as an ancient Greek grandmother and the local bigwig shared their love and opinions about their favourite team in the local fruit shop. Women went to watch cricket as they did Aussie Rules in a way that usually did not happen in other sporting codes.

Australian cricketers were household names, but for reasons which may be different to the way sports people’s names are well known to day. Then again, when I was a kid, grownups did not gossip in front of you. They would discuss a sportsman’s ability or lack of it, but few personal details. I suspect they did not know the very personal details we do today.

The cricket world was totally dominated by New South Wales and Victoria. State rivalries were maybe even stronger than they are today. Cricket management was done by the professional class.

Having a good character, and being a ‘character’ was almost as important as skill. Good sportsmanship was essential.  You shouldn’t be representing the country if you were a bad sport. You could be uneducated, a bit rough around the edges but not ill-mannered!

The booklet ‘The Listener In Test Cricket Book’ that was tucked into the diary encapsulates the above. It was compiled and edited by Rohan Rivett, a very well-known ABC broadcaster, journalist, newspaper editor and survivor of the Burma Railway. People who wrote about cricket were also expected to be of good character and properly literate. Even the ad for ‘Richmond Pilsner’ on the inside of the front cover is written in full complex sentences, sentences containing more than one clause!

Rohan Rivett

On the matter of the writing, much of what I browsed was telling the story of the game with little criticism of the players, just statements of how the skilled opposition had got the better of them. The articles are from several different papers: The Record, The Globe, The Sun, The Sun News Pictorial (A A P.) The Melbourne Herald and The Times. Some articles have no identification and some are written in a literary style with the odd classical reference.

For many people newspaper articles would be read some time after the game so the radio was the main source of information. People were used to waiting for news and detailed explanations. Newspaper reading was done in leisure time, in many homes not till after work.

Things worth remembering. These games were just before the war and shortly afterwards. There was international tension and then devastation of places and people. It is surprising that countries, especially England, could field a team in 1946. In light of Covid we might reflect on the importance of sport in helping us get through tough times. People need heroes.

One thing that struck me about the articles was how many games a touring side played against the English Counties. I counted at least eight plus a couple of other games. I assume these were three day games. No wonder the touring teams were away for so long.

I noticed the use of the word “barracked” as we would use heckled. Lindsay Hassett was “barracked” by the English crowd because a ball hit a batsman and he fell.  But not as badly “barracked as in Australia”!

Lindsay Hassett

Ian Johnson was offered a thousand pounds to play for Lancashire for a year but he did not accept the offer. I wondered about the financial situation of the touring men. How many came back to secure jobs?

Character was as important as skill. You didn’t have to be educated but you had to be a decent person. The public (as I knew it!) had high expectations of decency and good sportsmanship. They also formed quite strong opinions about the players. The following opinions have stayed with me since childhood. They may not be reliable.

  • Bradman was a wonderful player, a good man but a bit mean, lacked warmth and didn’t like to drink!
  • Hassett was a gentleman. Arthur Morris a tough nut. Harvey a young spark.
  • Miller was a hero because of the war and then because of his social antics. “Turning up to play a game still in his tux after a night out with Princess Margaret”. Also because he refused Bradman’s order to bowl fast at some county tail-enders because he had flown with them in the war.
  • O’Reilly was outspoken and didn’t get on with Bradman who didn’t like Catholics!

And so on.  People did not know anything much about wives, or families, let alone what sort of car someone drove or where they dined.

Rick McCosker / Bob Willis

I have a second cousin, Rick McCosker, (on my mother’s side) who opened the batting for Australia. We thought he was ok, a bit boring as a player.  In the Centenary Test his jaw was broken but he went back out to bat and he became a hero and we all claimed him.

For all the differences in the times we can still see some threads hold strong.

Kit Wong

I joined the Port Phillip U3A this year and am enrolled in the Chinese ink painting  as well as the French Beginners class.
I wanted to use ink painting as a meditative activity and French to challenge my brain.
I started learning watercolour painting in my 40s and fell in love with it. This hobby has persisted all through the years even when I didn’t find time to paint. So, retirement has its advantages! Covid19 isolation has too! 
During the lockdown period, I was able to tidy up my storage areas and found alot of art supplies hidden away.
I try to keep a routine of online exercising, writing, cooking, doing my French homework and lots of colouring. I also managed to sew some cotton face masks and scrub gowns for a homeless youth clinic.
I hope everyone’s doing well staying indoors. If anyone is feeling restless or bored, why not try colouring. I find it calming.

Greg Woodford

Greg Woodford is a U3APP tutor for Spanish Beginners/Intermediate, Dancing on Fridays and “What is Earth” (2021/2).

I am intrigued by the diversity of subject areas you are involved with at U3APP, namely, Spanish language, dance, and science. What profession did you retire from?

“Well, I retired inadvertently about ten years ago. I have worked in everything relating to business consulting and project management, including Real-Time control systems”, which relates to computer controlled machinery used in financial and data processing and engineering.

Greg spent his early childhood in Charters Towers, a gold mining town in North Queensland. “I actually grew up 50 metres from a mine on the other side of the fence.” He recalls having “lots of adventures in the block next door, despite being forbidden to go there” with his 7 siblings, (later 9). Greg was 10 years old when the family moved to Brisbane.

As a 14 year old, Greg was very interested in physics, chemistry, geology, and astronomy. “I absorbed just about every book in the local library, absolutely loved it. I used to get my star map and go into the back garden in the dark, with my little torch and look at the sky.”

Did you know that you had an aptitude for math? “No not particularly.” Following an Aptitude Test in Year 11, Greg was told, “you can do anything you want.” He recalls feeling a bit disappointed, seeking more specific guidance at that time.

Greg obtained a classical applied mathematics degree at Queensland University, St Lucia, and subsequently a PhD from ANU in Mathematics, “Numerical Mathematics, actually.” Greg translates, while smiling, “it’s how to do big sums using computers.”

Greg reflects that after graduating in the early 70s, “it was a marvellous time. ANU was right up there with Stanford University, MIT and others, which were really the centre, in the western world, for computing development. The world was moving towards computers. So, I completed a PhD in big sums. When I first went to ANU, I knew nothing about computers. The result has stood me in good stead,” in respect to future employment opportunities.

Subsequent to obtaining his PhD at ANU, Greg worked there for six months as a computer programmer. Wishing to expand his travel experience, he moved to the UK having obtained employment at Dundee University in Scotland, also enjoying the opportunity “to see a bit of the world.”

Greg spent 3 years at Dundee University. He was offered a job at Cambridge but joined Shell Research for 3 years instead. Then he moved to Shell International in London, working in logistics and with Shell UK in merchant banking. In total Greg spent 12 years in the UK.

Greg holds strong views in relation to academic research. ”My experience of academic life is that it is full of hypocrisy and dishonesty … so I moved to industrial research.”

Explaining his views further, Greg maintains that intellectual dishonesty relates to his view that it seemed to be more of an issue as to who did the research, than whether it was meaningful research. “Publish or perish encourages that. I did not want to be part of that rat race, so I moved into industrial research.” With some amusement Greg explained however that this environment was even more difficult. Not only were you required to investigate the problems, “you had to get an answer, no mercy was shown.”

Was there any particular area of industrial research that you were focused on? “I was the mathematician assisting various technology people to get their results. I was working with research engineers and research scientists. There is some brilliant stuff being done in the industrial research labs. But the thing is, you don’t have time to write it up because someone has to pay for your research.”

Greg explains further that the research labs were paid for the work the customer wanted but this same customer was not particularly interested in “paying for your glory to publish your paper. It’s a pity as that same process happens in many industrial research labs.”

“There’s a huge knowledge base, which just never gets written up and never sees the light of day. Maybe 5, 10, 20 years later, it finally gets around to being researched in a university environment and maybe comes good.” On a personal level however, “it was fine, I had a great time.”

Returning to Brisbane, Greg asserts that “Shell Australia didn’t want me. I was a bit too senior for their hierarchy, so I started up a video game business.” In the late 80’s, interest in computer games was escalating. “It was all about the game machine down at the local store, cutting edge stuff really.”

Together with his brother and a colleague they started up a terrazzo business however after 18 months, Greg decided that masonry “was not my future” and commenced consulting at the interface between business and IT.

Greg moved to Melbourne 1992, with his family and worked mainly as a business consultant, “which I did until I was a grey-haired grandad.” However younger recruiters thought that “being grey haired I didn’t/couldn’t know anything, so I retired. I quickly found other interesting things to do. I’d recommend it to anyone, in fact.”

What led you to write your book, ‘What is Earth’ that underpinned your Zoom course last year? Greg recalls that he commenced writing during the Covid-19 lockdown period. For some time, he had “toyed” with the idea of writing a book about the story of the earth. He wrote it in about 4 weeks, drawing on his existing knowledge and available resources. The book is completed, and he is thinking about self-publishing.

Greg has ideas for another book, relating to the size of the universe, and what is in it. He admits, “I am a bit of a rebel”, for instance, referring to current theories that the universe is expanding, “well, that’s the theory. I do not accept all the current paradigms in science.” Greg expounded his views further, “if you work in academic circles, you certainly risk your career if you step away from the paradigm.” However, mathematical foundations and some current physical rationale and observations are incompatible. Greg acknowledges, “but you have to start somewhere so that you can go on to somewhere else.” He surmises, “I started my journey with science when I was about 14, and I have never stopped.”

Moving away from science, what led to your interest in Spanish? About 12 years ago, Greg and his partner Judy commenced tango classes. ”Being inquisitive”, this led to his interest in the Spanish language. Greg subsequently attended Spanish classes at U3A in Bayside and Glen Eira, finally attending Victorino Rodriguez’ class at U3APP. However, following Victorino spending a period of time overseas and subsequent serious health issues, fellow students suggested that Greg take over the class.

In what way do you think U3A adds value to learning a language for instance? Greg summarised, “first off, it is a vehicle for people to meet each other, to socialise, to have some fun. If they learn anything, it is a complete bonus. That is the way I treat the Spanish class, there is no exam, basically a group of friends learning together, in a semi-serious way, but with no pressure.”

And ballroom dancing? Greg first started dancing when he attended an all-boys school. ”I can remember when we were in Year 11, there were 4 of us in the playground complaining that we never met any girls.” A teacher asked them what their “deep and meaningful conversation” was about. “Unbeknown to us, he was actually a ballroom dance teacher in his private life.” He organised for the local girls’ school bus to bring the girls over to join the new dance classes. “It was brilliant.”

Greg is interested in the “geometry of the movements, which together with the partner, is quite complicated.” Explaining further, “one of the things about dancing is that you may think you know how to dance really well, but a moment’s inattention and you stuff up. So, you really need to be on the ball mentally, even when you are dancing. If you do a lot, you get physically fit. After you dance for two or three hours, you can get a bit sweaty.”

Greg developed a passion for ‘freestyle dancing’. He explained, “this is when you walk onto the floor with a partner, you have no idea what is going to happen. There is just the two of you and the music, then something happens. It’s terrifying, in a way, but a lot of fun.”

Elaborating further, “it is an alternative to sequence dancing, which is a prearranged choreographed pattern of steps.” You learn the patterns such as Alpha Waltz or the Balmoral Blues, “When a whole room does the same dance, it looks fantastic.”

Greg teaches freestyle dancing with U3APP at the South Melbourne Community Centre. However, he comments, “there are not enough men… they think dancing is not a man’s thing. If only they knew that it is such a physical thing, sweat on the brow!”

It is also very intellectual, as the dancer needs to train their brain to make movements without having to think about them. “One of the things about dancing is that you meet a lot of very nice people. They all want to have fun and exercise.”

Greg and his partner Judy continue to attend tango classes, “Argentine tango is very subtle, it is not a style of dance, rather it teaches you how to move to music. You move as a couple, not just individually, it is actually very complicated to learn that process.” Greg also enjoys ‘rock and roll’, swing and related dance moves. Having danced in this way for the past fourteen years or so, “I’d like to say, I’m quite reasonable at it.” And there is more, Greg has a black belt in Karate!

Returning to the future, given your work history with Shell, what is your view of where the fuel resource industries are heading? Greg believes that the future of the oil and gas industry is secure, “probably for the next 40 or 50 years, to be quite honest. That is not because I think we shouldn’t move to renewable fuels because they really make more sense. But the reality is that the world currently depends on fossil fuels for its energy supply. It is an immense industry.” The availability of raw materials is a problem. Also, batteries are not sophisticated enough as yet but they’ll improve. Referring to the inequity, in respect to the western world being privileged, “3 billion people get their energy from burning cow dung. We have to somehow bring that half of the global community up from poverty to a reasonable standard of living.” However, “I am optimistic about it actually, overall.”

Greg has 3 children, also 7 grandchildren. He and his partner Judy have separate families and they both enjoy sharing time with them all, including interstate visits as he has a daughter in Sydney. “We all enjoy each other’s company.” Greg has no plans to travel overseas at this time.

Looking back, Greg reflects that his mother perhaps had “the biggest influence on my life overall.” She came from a large family “but the key characteristic from this perspective is that she was a great supporter of education…to give you opportunities to get through life.”

How would you sum up what U3A has meant to you and others over these past years? “I think it is an amazing facility for all, but for older people especially. I retired a bit early, inadvertently.” Finishing up his last contract, Greg spent 9 months looking for other opportunities, “mentally I was not prepared to retire.” His partner Judy suggested that he “give it a break.” Through their love of dance, they were introduced to U3A and subsequently to other activities. Since then, “neither of us has looked back.”

Interestingly, Greg’s diverse and eclectic interests, in math, computing, science, languages, and dance, seem to coalesce. Each discipline perhaps influences the other, as in the mental prowess needed for complex synchronicity with a dance partner, the construct of languages, scrutinising the universe.

Greg acknowledges he has been a bit of a “rebel”, in respect to conforming to the expected norms in some intellectual and industrial environments. This in no way has hampered his enthusiasm to keep on learning. “You have got to keep learning, keep progressing, and not give up.” These same attributes underpin the value of U3As worldwide.

Greg Woodford was interviewed by Felicity May


How to Enrol

On-line: after bookings have opened

On-line enrolments are preferred as this significantly reduces the amount of back-office work for our volunteers.

  • Login to the website.
  • Go to the Courses & Enrolling page.
  • Scroll down to find the course that you are interested in.
  • Does the course have spaces available?
    • Click on the course name to go to the booking page.
    • Click on “Book for this course or event”.
    • You will receive a confirmation email.  Please check your Junk/Spam folders as these automatically-generated emails often finish up there.
  • OR is the course shown as FULL?
    • Click on WAITLIST.

Paper Enrolment Form: before bookings open for First Semester

  • Obtain a paper Enrolment Form either from the Office or by printing an online copy available here.
  • Complete the paper Enrolment Form and submit it to the Office.

The start date for acceptance of paper Enrolment Forms for first semester is published on the U3APP website and in the e-Bulletin. Enrolment Forms received before this date are treated as though they had been received on the start date (ie there is no advantage to be gained by submitting early). On the start date and thereafter, paper Enrolment Forms are numbered in order of receipt.  Paper Enrolment forms are processed by U3APP volunteers on the same day as on-line bookings.

If your enrolment is successful, you will receive a confirmation email.  Please check your Junk/Spam folders as these automatically-generated emails often finish up there.

If your enrolment is unsuccessful,  you will receive an email telling you that you have been waitlisted.

Via the Office: after bookings have opened

  • Contact the office in person, or by email or phone.