Introducing The Crayon Files

I’m Caron Eastgate Dann, a writer, journalist and academic based in Melbourne, Australia. This blog investigates rediscovery, from old books to childhood hobbies, from discussing favourite recipes to travelling back to favourite destinations. It’s not a nostalgic trip down a clichéd memory lane, however: rather, it will discuss how aspects of the past can be very much part of the present and can be integrated with new media and 21st-century ideas. I started thinking about this a few years ago when a technician was doing some work on my computer system. I asked if I needed a new modem, because the one I had was quite old. “Actually, it’s fine,” he said. “Not everything old has to be thrown away”.

If you’d like to know where the title The Crayon Files comes from, find out here.

What are you doing on the weekend?

My office away from home: making the most of travel time on the train, thanks to new technology.  Picture: Caron Eastgate Dann 2014

My office away from home: making the most of travel time on the train, thanks to new technology.
Picture: Caron Eastgate Dann 2014

Remember when you’d say goodbye to your colleagues on Friday, secure in the knowledge that two days of rest stretched before you and that you wouldn’t have to do any work until Monday, or even think about it?
It certainly seems, through the rose-coloured glasses of the present, that that was the way.
It’s not quite true. In my first journalism job as a reporter on a daily country newspaper, I was rostered on every second weekend to take sports photos for the Monday edition. While it wasn’t a full day’s work each day, it was a couple of hours, and meant that whatever else I had to do was limited. And I often had my camera with me, in case anything newsworthy happened while I was out and about.
Later, when I worked at a big city daily, shifts were more defined, though we had to read the day’s papers BEFORE work (and to that end, they gave us free delivery of the city papers).
Still later, when I was an entertainment reporter for a weekly magazine, there were many evening functions we were expected to attend. During the week, that is. Weekends were still largely our own. That was in the 1990s, and even when I left the magazine in 1997, my employer wouldn’t have contacted me after hours or on weekends, unless it was an emergency.
My mother, a research scientist, more often than not had to go into the office on weekends or work from home. My dad, a dentist with a small business, often had to do his paperwork at home. He also worked as a university researcher for a few years – but after-hours work then was more about passion than necessity. In his later career, he worked as a 24-hour on-call dentist, so work could be any time at all, though naturally he had to actually go in to his surgery to do his work.
Still, in most jobs, there did seem to be a line between what was work time and what was home time.
My first real inkling that that had changed in some significant way was when I was working at a women’s magazine as Melbourne Editor in 2003. Unfortunately, our excellent news editor left and, while I happened to be on leave, a replacement news editor was brought in to head office in Sydney. Before I returned to work, she sent me an email. She asked me if I could send her a list and description of the stories I was planning to do when I returned from my vacation. Not send the list when I returned, but compile and send the list while I was on leave.
I should have ignored it, but meekly, I acquiesced. Bad mistake! She was constantly micro-managing me for the rest of my employment there. A colleague from the Sydney office said she used to be a good person, but that the power of her position had changed her. She made me do laborious and pointless jobs you’d hardly ask even a cadet to do, like taking notes from radio news and sending them unfiltered to her to judge their importance. In the end, she was one of the reasons I left. She was, quite simply, a bully and a control freak. (If you read this, B—–a, I really would like to give you an earful now that I’m older and wiser). It’s the only job I’ve ever had in which I’ve been made to feel incompetent (though I clearly wasn’t).
Thankfully, work bullies I have come across have been rare. More worrying for me these days is the way work has practically taken over my life. In addition, work modes have become less secure and there are cutbacks everywhere.
This year, I’ve had an extraordinary amount of work that has kept me busy seven days a week. Since I have no choice but to work on what’s called, euphemistically, a ‘sessional’ contract basis (casual, in other words, for what is clearly not a casual job), I have taken on as much work as I possibly can. It’s not available at one institution all year, though now that I work at two institutions, the gaps are closing. I’m lucky to have so much work: otherwise, I would be beholden to my partner for my living, which I am part of the time anyway, to my horror.
With preparation and marking, I haven’t had a day off since late February, except for a couple of days after Easter, when we moved house. Moving house is hardly a break.
One of my secret weapons is that, thanks to my tablet computer, I can now work on the train and make use of travel time to and from work. In fact, I’m writing this blog post on the train.  I can get loads of extra work done, and I like it particularly when the train’s not too full, so I can work quietly with plenty of elbow room. Sometimes, though, I rebel, and read a novel instead…for the whole journey.
I was thrilled this year to win a Dean’s award for teaching excellence. Among the goods I bought with my University Bookshop voucher prize was the philosopher Alain de Botton’s excellent volume on modern toil, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. I realised the irony only later…

Long-ago interviews No. 3: David Soul and the difficult question

My TV Week story from August 6, 1994.

My TV Week story from August 6, 1994.

When I was a child in the 1970s, one of the cool American shows we all loved was Starsky and Hutch, starring Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul as Southern Californian detectives who were an unbeatable team.
I always liked Kenneth “Hutch” Hutchinson (Soul) best, though Starsky was the more stylish of the two with his chunky belted cardigan.
Starsky was the envy of young men everywhere, as was his Ford Gran Torino: one of my friends even bought a car painted like Starsky’s car, bright red with a white vector stripe along each side.
Anyway, many years later, when I was a reporter at TV Week magazine in Australia, I had the opportunity to interview one of my idols: Hutch—actor David Soul—was coming to town.
It was 1994 and Soul was no longer a big TV star, though he was still acting in films, still singing and writing. He had moved into directing, with episodes of Miami Vice, Hill Street Blues and China Beach to his credit.
Multi-skilled Soul had also gone into stage work, and at the time I interviewed him, was touring Australia and New Zealand with the play Blood Brothers.
Anyway, to me, he was still the star of Starsky and Hutch, so for the TV Week interview and photo shoot, I had a problem: though our amazing photographers always somehow made the stars look glamorous, our “studio” was a dreary, makeshift garage with a roller-door, in a back street behind our building’s car park.
There was no fridge, so you could only make instant black coffee or tea, though there was a shop over the road (which meant we then had to pay for refreshments ourselves).
The studio was cold and uninviting, and the door to the bathroom didn’t close.
Anyway, I had been told Soul and his PR person would meet us at the studio at the appointed time. I wondered if they’d find it, so, in case they came to the front of the building, I alerted the security guard at reception.
“If a guy comes in here looking for me, he’s an actor I’m interviewing and we’re round in the studio, so could you please direct him round there?” I said.
“Sure,” he said. “What’s his name?”
“David Soul.”
He laughed. “Well that’s a name I won’t forget,” he said. “What a coincidence. Like the Starsky and Hutch guy.”
“Not only that—he really is that David Soul!” I said. The security guard saw all the stars come and go and was usually nonplussed, but he was suitably impressed by this name.
Anyway, at the time Soul was due to arrive, I was back in the studio as the photographer set up for the shoot. The hair and makeup artist also awaited his arrival.
I thought I’d duck out the roller door to see if he was coming.
He was. In true Hutch style, he was strolling down the street in a black shirt and blue jeans, jacket slung over his shoulder, sunglasses on, and smoking a large cigar.
Yes, this was certainly a bit of Hollywood in West Melbourne.
I was quaking in my high heels a bit, as I knew I had to ask him some difficult questions about his history of alcohol abuse and violence (he had been ordered by the court to stop drinking and undertake two years’ therapy in the 1980s for assaulting his then-wife Patti Sherman).
I asked that the room be cleared while I conducted the interview. So it was just him and me.
What I found was a personable being who answered all my questions openly and candidly. It was and is quite unusual, for a start, for a big-name actor to agree to an interview without a minder being present.
Anyway, I asked him about alcohol and his violence, and what he had done to change his ways.
“The problem was never really alcohol,” he told me. “It was anger, hurt, loneliness, being misunderstood. Alcohol never dominated my life, but it is a mind-altering substance. I think I can honestly say I’ve become much more circumspect and much less desperate a man. With that, the problems themselves become easier to deal with.”
Then aged 50, Soul had four ex-wives and six children aged six to 30. He has since married for a fifth time, in 2010 to Helen Snell, whom he met in 2002 while working on another play, Death Trap, in the UK. I can’t find anything much about her, so I’m presuming she’s not an actor. Soul emigrated to England not long after I interviewed him and became a British citizen in 2004. Hilariously, he and Glaser returned to the screen in cameo roles parodying themselves in the 2004 adaptation of Starsky and Hutch as a feature film starring Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson.
But back to my interview with Soul in 1994. He had some interesting observations about fame, which he had experienced not only as an actor, but as a singer of mega-hits in the late 1970s such as Silver Lady and Don’t Give Up On Us.
“Celebrity is a bunch of crap, because it keeps you from seeing who you are as a person,” he told me.

“Fame is a fleeting thing. It can be here today and gone tomorrow. I’m still around.”
And that dreary photographic studio-garage I was worried about? He liked it! “I’ve been working in the theatre for years,” he said. “There’s certainly no glamour in the theatre and I don’t expect or want it.”

Long ago interviews #2: the celebrity who cared

 

There's my interview with Tim Ferguson for Don't Forget Your Toothbrush. You can just see it on the upper left of this collage of stories I did for TV Week in the 1990s

There’s my interview with Tim Ferguson for Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush. You can just see it on the upper left of this collage of stories I did for TV Week in the 1990s

You know when you’re miserable with a cold, but you either can’t take the day off work, or you have something so important to do, you couldn’t possibly stay home unless you were unconscious?

Through much of the 1990s, I worked as a journalist for TV Week magazine, which was then Australia’s highest selling entertainment weekly. One day, I had an interview scheduled with Tim Ferguson, a comedy star who had been part of the very famous and edgy group The Doug Anthony All Stars, which had toured nationally and internationally and had appeared regularly on TV.

DAAS had broken up, but Ferguson now had his own quirky game show series, Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush. Modeled on the hit British show of the same name, it involved cheesy games and random travel destinations. Here’s a picture from the very kitsch launch party at Channel 9. I’m the one in the middle. Ferguson, smart man, does not appear in this photo.

Toothbrush-1995Anyway, in conjunction with the launch of this show, on another day I was to do an interview with Ferguson. This particular day, I had a heavy head cold, but we needed the interview for the next edition, and I couldn’t really get out of it. So I struggled on.

The interview was difficult: the cold was at its peak, and I had to keep leaving the room to blow my nose and cough. This was mortifying for me, such is the vanity of youth. I was rarely ill and saw it as a failing on my part. If only I’d known then what I know now about what Ferguson himself was going through privately.

Now, most celebrities, if you turn up with a cold, will look horrified, because they don’t want to catch it themselves. Witness the reaction of Katy Perry to Australian interviewer Jackie Frank when Frank reveals she has a cold (“Are you *gulp* contagious?”):

Ferguson, however, was different. “You poor thing,” he said. “I think you need Lemsip.”

He couldn’t believe I had no idea what this was. For the record, it’s a concoction of lemon-flavoured medication you add hot water to and drink. (This is not product placement, by the way, but it still does exist!).

Anyway, later that day, a package arrived for me: it was a packet of Lemsip and a cartoon by Ferguson that I still have, of me trying to do an interview with a cold. Well, I know I still have it somewhere. Unfortunately, with our recent move, lots of things whose whereabouts I thought I knew are not where I thought they were. Well, if I find it, I will update this post.

Little did I know back in 1995 that just the year before, Ferguson had been diagnosed with MS (multiple sclerosis), and of course had a huge upheaval in his life at the time because of it, including having to break up the fabulous group DAAS, because their touring and stage performances were too physically demanding. Beside what he was going through, my silly little cold seems just an embarrassment.

Ferguson kept the condition to himself and didn’t reveal it publicly until about 2010. But in his typical way, he has made the best of it, writing, lecturing and speaking, and even making light of his condition, performing a one-man show about life with MS called Carry A Big Stick. You can read more about his inspiring story here.

So thanks, Tim Ferguson: besides your talent and tenacity, you are officially the nicest, most empathetic celebrity I ever interviewed.

Felix, that wonderful cat with his bag of tricks

There are some animated characters that stay with you all your life. I was never much of a Mickey Mouse fan. My favourite character was always Felix the Cat.

The cartoons were very old when I was a child, being made in the 1920s, long before even my mother was born, but great animation always remains so. The song was what got me, too, and the idea of having a bag of tricks that you could reach into whenever you got “in a fix”.

I went to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) at Melbourne’s Federation Square recently. Having an interest in the history of film and TV, I kept meaning to go, and never quite got there. Fortuitously, this outing was part of a class trip I had to take some students on.

ACM’s permanent exhibition, Screen Worlds, is free, and it is packed with films, sound, interactive opportunities and memorabilia. How delighted I was to come across this little fella, then. Yes, it’s Felix, and it reminded me that it was an Australian cartoonist and silent film maker, Pat Sullivan, who was one of the originators of Felix.

Felix

This is controversial: although Sullivan (c1887-1933) was the owner of the character and the producer, he always said he had originated Felix.  US critics have usually credited his American employee, Otto Messmer as the original animator, but an Australian Broadcasting Corporation show, Rewind, in 2004 seems to have confirmed Sullivan as the originator. Whatever, Messmer and Sullivan drew the comic strip, which started in 1923, with another American animator, Joe Oriolo, later replacing Messmer. It was Oriolo who gave Felix his famous bag of tricks.

Felix started out as a character in the silent film short Feline Follies (1919), before being adapted for print and syndicated in hundreds of newspapers. He was around long before Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse. Ironically, a mouse often being the target of a cat, it was the popularity of Mickey Mouse that led to Felix’s demise in the 1930s, before he was reinvigorated by Oriolo for US TV in the 1950s and given that magic bag of tricks.

Some trivia: the original voice of Felix in the 1930s was performed by Mae Kwestel (1908-1998), who also did the voices of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl. She appears to be the only woman to have voiced Felix, with at least eight male actors to have played Felix over the decades.

Interestingly, DreamWorks Animation acquired the rights to the character this month (June 2014), with CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg quoted as saying his company will make Felix into ‘one of the most desired fashion brands in the world.” Oh no! I was hoping for a new Felix cartoon series also starring Felix’s nephews Inky and Winky.

For the record, Felix the Cat was ranked number 28 in TV Guide’s list of the “50 greatest cartoon characters of all time” in 2002. Well, Felix is still number one for me.

 

Sources:

ABC http://www.abc.net.au/tv/rewind/txt/s1229985.htm

ACMI http://www.acmi.net.au/screen_worlds.aspx

Felix the Cat official website http://www.felixthecat.com/history.html

The Wrap http://www.thewrap.com/dreamworks-animation-acquires-felix-the-cat/

Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felix_the_Cat

Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat_Sullivan_%28film_producer%29

 

It’s a cat’s life

Sometimes, I wish I were a cat. Well, I wish I were my cat, Lucy Locket. She has a charmed life, though in her typical cat’s way, she would probably dispute that, saying she has only what she deserves, as princess cat of the world.

Anyway, this is what I mean. While I was making a start yesterday afternoon on marking 92 exams of 1800 words each, this is what she did. I will let Lucy Locket tell the story herself:

“Started the afternoon with a nice nap in my upstairs bed, but was woken by Mama phaffing around with some papers.”

Lu 1

“Since I had been rudely awakened, it was time for a stretch.”

Lu2

“And a wash. My owners have been putting some vile stuff on one of my claws lately, on orders of my doctor. Really! Hmmm, did I hear a bird out that window?””

Lu3

 

 

“No, no, it was thataway. Better investigate.”

Lu 4

*Makes a flying leap on to desk and sidles behind computer to look out the second-storey window*

Lu15

“All quiet on the western front.”

Lu5

“Hmmm, think I’ll just sit here for a bit. Nice change of scene.”

Lu6

“Well, that was a hard day’s work. Think I’ll go back to bed, and the afternoon is…”

 

Lu9

 

 

“…just about…

Lu10

“Done.”

Lu12

 

 

What price a newspaper?

newsI saw a pile of local newspapers when I was at the supermarket on Saturday. They weren’t free: they wanted 40c for a copy, the cover announced.

As I’m new to the area, I thought perhaps the local rag or ‘two-minute silence’ as we used to call such publications, would be a good source of community information.

Then when I saw the price, I hummed and hahed, and finally decided not to buy one. As I walked away, I realised how ridiculous that was. It was only 40 cents! I pay 10 times that for a coffee without baulking (well, I do baulk at it, actually, but that’s what you have to pay).

Today, I went back to the supermarket to buy the Berwick News. As a former print-media journalist, my profession for more than 20 years, I feel I should support old-fashioned newspapers, even in their dying days.

Unfortunately, there were no copies left. And the joke’s on me: the assistant informed me that those copies were going free, because they were left over from earlier in the week, when they were sold at the nearby news agent. Today I went to the news agent and got one: also free, though I’d happily have paid.

I know most community newspapers are run by big media chains, but they’re still important. The other night, in my street, there was some sort of emergency, with sirens and evacuation loud speakers, after midnight. I asked on the newspaper’s website if anyone knew what had happened. Someone from the paper has replied and is looking into it.

I met an old friend at a party recently who used to work with me on a national magazine in the 1990s. The magazine moved interstate, then she was out of the workforce for a few years as a full-time mother. Then, about seven years ago, she started looking for a job again. She found one as a sub-editor at a local paper, and loves it.

“I think we make a real difference in the community,” she says. “Everyone in the office cares about the paper, and it’s so nice working in the same suburb I live in.” She’s been promoted, too, and is now chief sub-editor.

It was a heart-warming story. Here’s cheers to all the journos I know who have reinvented themselves, retrained, or found work on a different sort of publication than they once imagined themselves working on. It’s a difficult terrain out there for our profession at the moment. You have to take what you can get: but sometimes, what you get turns out to be surprisingly OK.

Oh, and if you see a local paper for just a few cents, do buy one.

Where are they now? Aussie stars of 1994

Through much of the 1990s, except for four years in Thailand, I worked for TV Week, which was then Australia’s biggest selling entertainment magazine (more than 500,000 copies a week). We also ran the TV Week Logie Awards (“the Logies”), which were, and still are, screened on Channel 9.

The Logies—named after the Scottish inventor of the TV set, John Logie Baird—were a big deal in those days, akin to the Emmys in the US. The televised live event was always one of the highest-rating shows of the year.

Of course, it is an invitation-only event, and in those days, we TV Week reporters received our own invitation and entered via the red carpet like anyone else. (Unlike the stars, however, we had to return to the office about midnight and write our stories. Later though, we were able to return to the all-night parties, and we got a hotel room each thrown in).

Logies

When I moved house recently, I found my invitation to the 1994 Logies, pictured above. It’s poster sized, came in a tube (which I still store it in) and featured illustrations of some of the top stars of the day.

It’s interesting, 20 years on, to see their younger selves and to reflect on the industry. Some of them are, sadly, no longer with us, including the irreplaceable actor Ruth Cracknell (left, next to my name), who I had the pleasure of interviewing about that time and who won the peer-voted award that year for Most Outstanding Actress. She died in 2002, aged 76.

The other who has gone is Graeme “Shirley” Strachan (bottom, third from right), lead singer of the 1970s group Skyhooks, who had become a lifestyle-show host. He was killed in 2001 at the aged of 49 when the helicopter he was flying crashed on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

There are many in this poster whose careers kicked on and who are still involved in the media or entertainment industries, I’m pleased to say: Garry McDonald, (Most Outstanding Actor), John Farnham, Georgie Parker, Wendy Harmer, Andrew Denton, Ian “Molly” Meldrum, Gary Sweet and Sonia Todd (Most Popular Actor and Actress, respectively, for Police Rescue), Red Symons, Melissa George (Most Popular New Talent), Libbi Gorr (as Elle McFeast), Ernie Dingo, Rob Sitch, Natalie Imbruglia. Cricketer Shane Warne, then aged 25, is there in his hey-day, too.

Ray Martin (centre right) not only hosted the show, he won statuettes for Most Popular Light Entertainment Personality and the big one, the Gold Logie for Most Popular Personality on Australian Television. He won many Logies, but he once told me every single one of them was precious to him and he loved winning them.

At centre left is Daryl Somers, host of the long-running show Hey Hey It’s Saturday, which ran for 27 years before being cancelled in 1999. Somers and the show made a short-lived comeback in 2010.

There are others there who we thought were big stars at the time but who perform only occasionally now or who have gone on to other things: Kimberley Davies, Dieter Brummer, Bruce Samazan, Scott Michaelson.

There are a few glaring omissions: It’s extraordinary that Bert Newton isn’t pictured. One of the best known Australian entertainers, then as now, he had hosted the show 18 times, including the year before.

The other omission is the great actor Bud Tingwall (1923-2009), who was inducted into the TV Week Logies Hall of Fame that year.

What I saw written on the bathroom wall

The women’s facilities near one of the classrooms where I teach have been annoying all year because of their leaky taps.
As we all know, a dripping tap wastes a huge amount of water, which is expensive for the institution, and environmentally irresponsible, particularly in a water-challenged country such as Australia.
Anyway, recently, two identical notices went up in this bathroom, one on each wall. This is what they said:
Tap1
One of them was directly above the worst tap, which now runs, rather than drips, and which is nearly impossible to turn completely off, even if you twist it as hard as you can. Here is a picture of how much it runs (a few weeks ago, it only dripped):

Tap2
A few days after these notices went up, some bright spark added in pen to the notice above that constantly running tap, “Or…you could fix the tap”.
Well maintenance would be a fine thing, but it seems to be at a minimum these days. The maintenance staff simply don’t have time to fix everything.

And it seems sarcastic comments are not appreciated, either (even when they tell the truth).
Yesterday, I found that the notice with the graffiti had been taken down, leaving the other unannotated notice, on the other side to the faulty tap. However, by mid-morning, this had happened to that remaining notice:
Tap3
Same message, worded slightly differently. I wonder if anyone will actually get the message, or will it too be removed?
By the way, at least three of the six taps in that washroom drip. I wonder how much water is wasted across the entire university because there are no longer enough maintenance staff. In some bathrooms, there is a notice with a number to ring to report faulty equipment, but not in this one.
I might add that in another building, there is a faulty toilet cubicle door that hasn’t closed properly for 10 years…

A hotch potch: pink frothy tea, stir-fried cucumber and an accidental recipe

 

Have a nice cup of (pink and white frothy) tea, why don’t you?

Here is what I tried this week: a “geisha green tea latte”… that was not green at all, but looked like a strawberry and vanilla milkshake, only hot.

latteI read a lot of inventive things on blogs such as RocketNews24, which has articles about the weird and wonderful flavours of food products in Japan, mainly (chocolate-covered squid, anyone?).

So, what did a geisha green tea latte taste like? It actually tasted like green tea…with rose-flavoured milk froth. It was pricy at $5.20.

Would I have it again? Probably. I like milk shakes, and I like rose-flavoured herbal tea, so a hot green tea milk shake tastes pretty good to me.

When I was a young adult in New Zealand in the 1980s, cafes offered coffee or tea, and that was it. If you ordered coffee, it was usually a spoon of Nescafe stirred into just-boiled water; if tea, you still usually got actual tea leaves in a tea pot. But there was no, “Will that be English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, Earl Grey, Lady Grey, Orange Pekoe or decaf, with skinny or whole milk?” The only choices were black and white, sugar or none. My great-grandmother was disturbed when she discovered I didn’t take sugar. “A girl needs sugar in her tea – it’s good for you,” she maintained. (She also felt it highly disturbing that I washed my hair in the morning before heading off to uni. I would, she said, catch my death of cold, one of these days).

But back to choice. So great are the choices these days that what we finish up with often doesn’t resemble the original product at all. My husband recently ordered a “low-fat decaf latte, no sugar”. The waiter retorted, “Why bother?” and we all laughed.

When I first came back to Australia in 1993 from my first two-and-a-half-year stint in Thailand, I was appalled by the amount of choice in the supermarkets of Melbourne. Who needed 50 different types of breakfast cereals? I would stand in the aisles, just staring at the burgeoning shelves. I hate breakfast cereal anyway. My favourite breakfast is congee with chilli, fish sauce and chicken, the way they do it in Thailand. Or reheated left-over rice, with a raw egg stirred through. But toast and marmite or toast and tahine will do if I have to have a western breakfast.

In Thailand in the early 1990s, supermarkets were evolving but they were still not the most usual way Thais shopped, except for canned goods and other packaged products such as instant noodles. They mostly went to markets with fresh unpackaged and unprocessed produce.

Supermarkets had a limited choice (unless you wanted hair-care products), but always great were the lean chicken, truly free-range eggs with the yellowest yolks, delicate quail’s eggs, and luscious prawns ($1 worth was plenty for the two of us for dinner). In the vegetable aisle, we soon learnt to choose Thai vegetables, because such things as potatoes and carrots were pitiful, if available at all. Straw mushrooms, aubergines of all sizes down to the bitter pea-size ones for green curry, red capsicum, snake beans, snow peas, baby corn, spring onions. The best buys were the pre-packaged vegetables and herbs for recipes, just enough to add to your tom ka gai, tom yum or gaeng keow wan that night. A packet, which cost just a few baht, would contain, for example, kaffir lime leaves, a couple of sticks of lemon grass, garlic, chillies, a lime, and so on.

Now, of course, supermarkets in Bangkok are huge, swish and unrecognisable from what they used to be. I’m pleased to see, though, that they retain their “Thainess” among all the expensive imports, and that you can still buy those little packets of herbs and vegetables.

When I first went to Thailand in 1990, you couldn’t buy a cappuccino, really. Some restaurants had what they called cappuccino, but it was regular coffee with whipped cream on the top.

No matter – I used always to order nam manao (Thai lime-ade) when I was out, anyway: lime juice, soda water, salt and a little sugar syrup, the most thirst-quenching drink ever.

Sometimes, mistakes end up being the best recipes. I remember one time, we decided to have dinner with some friends who lived in the same apartment building in Mung Thong Thani (Nonthaburi province), which was then a small village but is now a satellite city. Here was what the village and its supermarket looked like in 1991:

Muang Thong Thani Village, Nonthaburi, Thailand, 1991. Picture © Caron Eastgate Dann

Muang Thong Thani Village, Nonthaburi, Thailand, 1991, about 1km from the apartment building where I lived.                                  Picture © Caron Eastgate Dann

You wouldn’t recognise it today.

Anyway, we were just to bring over to our friends’ place what we had planned to have for dinner, they would add theirs, and we would all share.

I had been planning to have prawns and stir-fried zucchini – wonder of wonders, since I hadn’t seen a zucchini before in a Thai supermarket and had found one that morning.

Or so I thought.

When I went to cut up the “zucchini”, I found that it was, in fact, a cucumber. There was nothing for it  but to put it in with the prawns, anyway. I cut it into long crunchy ribbons and added it just before serving over rice. I also used garlic, chilli, lime, thinly sliced capsicum, fish sauce and a touch of oyster sauce. It came out so clean and fresh-tasting, and I still make that recipe today.

Sometimes the combinations you make by accident are the best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Australians: lazy and overpaid? I think not

The bakery—good business but hard work. Picture ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2014

All stocked for a busy day at the bakery—good business but hard work. Picture ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2014

Everyone I know is working harder, in every industry—and I know a lot of people. Let me tell you about the manager of a bakery/lunch bar from which I buy a sandwich and a coffee three days a week. She commented to me on Tuesday that I had an early start that day, when I uncharacteristically bought a chai latte at 8.30am.

I said, “But you had a much earlier start.”

“Yes,” she said. “I start at 7am every day.”

“And what time do you finish?” I asked.

“7pm,” she said.

Turns out she works 7am-7pm from Monday to Friday, but she also starts at 7am on Saturdays and Sundays.

“And what time do you finish on weekends?’

“Oh, finish early – 5.30pm,” she said.

So she works 81 hours a week, and there’s travel time to and from work on top of that. I thought I was doing it hard at 65-70 hours, much of which I can do from the comfort of my own home.

“It’s a good business though, isn’t it?” I said. There are loads of customers at all hours at the bakery, because the food is ultra-fresh and tasty, the service fast and always with a smile.

“Yes, but we just keep afloat,” she said, adding that she should earn more money than she does.

Ironically—or perhaps just coincidentally—this conversation happened on Budget Day.

As I said, every Australian worker I know, including me, is toiling harder than ever before, many of them for less pay than they received previously. So I took it as a personal insult when Dr Sharman Stone, a Member of Parliament (Murray) in the current federal government, inferred on Monday on the ABC TV panel show Q and A, that Australian workers were lazy and overpaid.

Dr Stone did this by claiming that Australia had one of the lowest productivity rates of any workers in “developed” nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and in the next breath noting that Australians had one of the highest minimum wage rates in the world (she said that like it’s a bad thing).

Dr Stone, a former Minister for Workplace Participation (2006-7),  has a PhD in economics and business, but it seems here that she’s letting her politics get in the way of her education; she’s manipulating statistics to frame her agenda.

This is what she said, from the transcript to the show on the ABC website: “Australia has some of the lowest productivity per worker in the developed world and it has been going down over the last 10 years. We have about the highest, I have to say, minimum wage as well in the developed world…

“If we have a very high minimum wage and we have very low productivity, when we have a highly regulated work force, so there’s very little flexibility…” (http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s3985872.htm)

The Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, this year criticised the ABC for not supporting Australia. So how is it that one of the most long-standing MPs in his party felt it was OK on national television to put down every Australian worker?

For a start, her use of OECD productivity figures ( http://stats.oecd.org/index.aspx?queryid=32480#) is misleading. Our productivity as estimated by the OECD is above that of Japan, New Zealand, the UK, Canada, Finland, Italy and Spain, amongst others. But more importantly, her assertion that Australians are not pulling their weight is offensive.

If you read the OECD statistics, you realise they are not suitable for application to a judgement on whether individuals or groups work hard or not and whether they are thus overpaid. To use them as such is a logical fallacy. They are a macro-type guide for big business, exporters and so on. The OECD itself has a disclaimer on its website, saying that the statistics as “[e]stimates of productivity levels are more uncertain than estimates of productivity growth; therefore, some caution may be warranted when interpreting those measures.”

Meanwhile, Dr Stone seems to think that cutting people’s wages will result in them working harder. So, my message to Dr Stone is this: look around you and see that people are already working hard, many for so little that they can barely afford to put a roof over their heads, such are our exorbitant housing prices in Australia.

And, crucially, this: You don’t get more productivity by paying people less, including cutting the minimum wage, though in the (very) short-term, some statistics might make it appear so. In the medium and long term, you get better productivity by paying people fairly, by providing good working conditions, job security and ongoing training.

That would seem obvious but, apparently, it’s not.