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.

That book, that book…what was it?

The other day at work, some of the ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers were trying to think of the title of a great English-teaching text they remembered from the 1990s. It incorporated stick-figure drawings on flash card-like pages that were ring-bound.

There used to be a copy hanging round the old staff room, one said, but we had moved to a new building, and the little flash-card book had been forgotten (and had probably been thrown out). No one could remember the title or author.

It made me think of a book I had as a child to help me learn German. My father had visited Munich in Germany not long after the 1972 Olympics and had brought me back a poster for my wall. I was very young and thus didn’t know anything about the violence that had occurred there. But I had become entranced with teaching myself German (and went on to study it at high school and university).

The book I’m thinking of was a small paperback and it was part of a language series. It has long gone from my library, unfortunately. I also had a hardcover Berlitz book that I loved.

In my final year at school, I won a prize for German speaking from the Goethe Society. The prize was two lovely volumes of German fairy tales and songs. The song book was illustrated, with music, and I had it until recently. Now I can’t find it anywhere. I can only think that I must have given it away with a lot of others, in a fit of needing to make room in my bookcases. Why does it always seem that the book I give away is the very one I want not long after?

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 8.20.10 AMThere are websites that can help you identify books whose titles and authors you’ve forgotten. One is What Was that Book? Many of the postings on that are novels people read as children and half-remembered.

And what do you know? Today, I did a search for my German Through Pictures book and found it straight away! It was by I. A. Richards, I. Schmidt Mackey, W. F. Mackey and Christine Gibson. Itwas first published in 1953, though mine was a 1972 edition. Amazingly, I found a blog post  which reproduced some pages from German Through Pictures here. Thanks, Mary Caple from Montreal!

I could also buy the book via Amazon, priced from $7.92-$221.95, depending on quality and collectibility, if I wanted.

I think we should bring back the  series, as it’s so easy to learn from. There was also a French version—and perhaps there were other languages available, too.

Oh, and if anyone remembers the ring-bound English flash-card book with the stick-figure drawings, please let me know!

 

Book review: The Dressmaker’s Daughter, by Kate Llewellyn

GetPageImage.aspxIn a media-soaked world obsessed with lifestyles of the rich and famous, we are in danger of forgetting that the most intriguing stories are those of so-called “ordinary” people.

I believe that every life is extraordinary, but it takes a real story teller to write it down in a way that is exciting, yet which readers can identify with.

This is what Kate Llewellyn does in her autobiography The Dressmaker’s Daughter: a memoir (Pymble: Fourth Estate). From the beginning, I could hardly put this book down. And yet, I’ve had it since it was published in 2008, sitting in the bookcase, waiting for me. I bought it at a writer’s festival where Llewellyn was speaking, and I was so fascinated by her that I bought her book of memoirs. Then I forgot to read it.

In 2008, I didn’t have an ereader, but I’m glad I have the hard copy. For a start, it has a lovely tactile cover, like a piece of lace festooned with a maroon ribbon and dressmaker’s pins holding up old photographs on front and back.

On the back cover is an enticing quotation: “The feel of the cold steel of her scissors clipping around my armpits felt dangerous and lovely. The cloth fell in slivers around my socks”.

Llewellyn was born in 1936 at Tumby Bay, on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. She started her adult life as a nurse, then married and went into the art gallery business with her husband, Richard Llewellyn. That sounds interesting enough, but add to that the fact that her husband had been paralysed by polio as a young man and was in a wheelchair, and you know their life together must have had extraordinary challenges.

Intriguingly though, in her matter-of-fact style, Llewellyn shows that at its essence, it is the story of two people and the path of their relationship, regardless of whether they are disabled or able-bodied. First is romance, then disapproval from many around her who think she is making a mistake in her choice of partner. They marry anyway, then there are children and the trials of making a living, Llewellyn’s mental illness and recovery, and, ultimately, the sad breakdown of the marriage. It’s not what you might expect: Llewellyn’s husband fell in love with someone else and ended it.

That is not the end of the story, though. After they divorced in 1972, Llewellyn went to university, graduating in 1978 at the age of 42 with a BA. While still a student, she became a poet and went on to write about 20 books, including non-fiction works on gardening and travel. Her path to becoming a writer is inspiring and shows we don’t know how good we might be at something until we try it.

One of my favourite parts of the book comes at the beginning, and is the evocative description of a hot summer at Tumby Bay in 1941, when “day after day it was forty degrees”:

“There were no angles except where the jetties joined the beach. Everything was curved and everything was bright. The light went on all day and the sun bore down, peeling our noses, bleaching our hair and, when we played in the sea in our bathers, turning the tops of our shoulders red. My brothers seldom wore shoes and everybody learnt to swim without being taught. One day, we could dog-paddle and the next we could swim.” (Llewellym 2008: 4).

This book is 427 pages, but when it ended, I wished it were twice as long. I think it’s because Llewellyn never gets bogged down in details. It is, rather, scenes from a life both ordinary and extraordinary, told in a simple, honest style. Llewellyn doesn’t big-note herself, but nor does she put on a self-deprecating or insincerely humble manner.

I highly recommend this book, particularly to those who are trying to write their own memoirs.

 

I would read anything you wrote…

FullSizeRenderUsually, when I’m looking for a new novel to read, I go by topic, setting and storyline. I might read some reviews from trusted sources, though they don’t necessarily sway me.

But there are just a few authors whose work I will read regardless of its plot. Just the byline is enough to get me in.

Here, in no particular order, is a list of some of my favourite authors right now, who have me at the mention of their name, and why I love their work:

Geraldine Brooks

This US-based Australian journalist-turned novelist and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize writes extraordinarily beautiful prose, meticulously researched but never slow or boring in its detail. She’s one of those writers who makes me sigh to myself and mutter, ‘Why would I ever bother to write’?

I can recommend March (2005), her story of the US Civil War experience of Mr March from the classic American children’s novel Little Women; and Year of Wonders (2001) set in the UK in 1666 during the bubonic plague.

Keith Donohue

When I read Donohue’s riveting novel The Stolen Child (2006), a modern take on the ancient tale of the changeling, I was astounded. For me, it was one of the most imaginative novels I had ever read. The story transports you to a parallel world where two realities can exist side by side.

His follow-up novel, Angels of Destruction (2009) is also intriguing, concerning the case of a child who turns up at a woman’s door claiming to be her daughter who went missing nine years before.

Angela Savage

OK, here’s a disclaimer: Savage is a friend of mine. But that’s not why I read her books. She and I got to know each other only after I started reading her novels and determined that I would read everything she wrote.

I’ve read and can recommend all three in her crime series featuring Jayne Keeny, PI, Behind the Night Bizarre (2006), The Half-Child (2010), and The Dying Beach (2013). If you like gritty crime thrillers with integrity, set in the fascinating culture of Thailand, these novels are for you.

Savage lived in South-East Asia herself for many years before returning to Australia, and this shows in her authentic descriptions. Her books are set in the near past, around the same time I was living in Thailand, so they’re of interest beyond their engaging plots, as well.

Paddy Richardson

I’ve discovered Richardson’s books this year, thanks to my blogosphere friend Margot Kinberg at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. Richardson comes from the same part of New Zealand’s South Island as I do (Dunedin), which is what first peaked my interest. Once you start one of her crime novels, I assure you that it is very difficult to put it down or to think of much else.

I can recommend her fabulous series with TV journalist Rebecca Thorne as the protagonist, the latest of which is Cross Fingers (2013). While set in the present, the book has Thorne researching a cold case during the tumultuous events in NZ during the 1981 tour of the South African rugby team, the Springboks. This writer has an uncanny ability to put pace into her narrative, and to take the reader to the scene.

Incidentally, you won’t find a picture of Richardson’s book cover above, because I’ve read her books on my Kindle. But such is her skill, the medium on which you are reading is immaterial, because you are soon immersed in the story.

Mitch Albom

I resisted reading Albom’s books for ages, because everyone was reading them and raving about them. But they were right. When I finally took the plunge, I found them to be real page-turners. The Five People You Meet in Heaven (1997) didn’t even sound like my sort of book, being a sort-of modern day twist on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. But it’s fabulous, believe me—just read it.

What I like also about Albom’s books is that they’re short and easy to read. You can finish one within a few nights of bedtime reading. Tuesdays with Morrie (2003), about a young man who has the opportunity to glean the wisdom of his former professor as he is dying, is extraordinarily wonderful, too.

Kate Morton

The big, meaty, atmospheric historical novels by this Australian novelist are set in the UK among the castles, ruins and family secrets of bygone eras. She manages to get me in from the very first page of each of her novels.

The Shifting Fog (2006) is set in two time zones, 1999 and 1924, which is a plot device that always intrigues me. The story concerns a film director who is making a film about the suicide of a poet at a manor house in 1924, and who discovers that a housemaid from the time is still alive. So the film maker travels from the US to the UK to interview the 98-year-old. The plot involves a perfect Edwardian summer, a shocking secret and its revelation.

Equally riveting is The Forgotten Garden (2008), concerning a young woman who inherits a cottage with a secret garden on the Cornish coast, and discovers a mystery concerning a missing girl from nearly a century before.

Alexander McCall Smith

One of the world’s most prolific authors, I first came across McCall Smith when I read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998), set in Gabarone, Botswana. There are now at least 15 in the series, of which I’ve read 12, and they are all delightful, particularly for their wonderful titles, including The Kalahari Typing School for Men and Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (a bit of an in-joke for readers). The series concerns the wonderful Precious Ramotswe, who sets up a PI agency with a small inheritance from her father.

The stories have been called ‘gentle’ and ‘delightful’, and that they are. However, I think they are deceptively simple: McCall Smith deals with some of the harshest and most difficult problems affecting the world today, and his novels always make me think. I’ve also read and loved several of his other series, including the Isabel Dalhousie, Professor Dr von Igelfeld and 44 Scotland St series (of which The Importance of Being Seven, pictured, is one), and have enjoyed them all. But No. 1 is his best.

How thrilled I was to discover that Ursula Bischoff, the writer who translated my own novel The Occidentals into German, was also McCall Smith’s translator for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

 

I have to read a lot for work, so for recreational reading, I have time for only about 20 books a year (sometimes more, depending on my workload). So, everything I read has to engage me, because reading time is so precious.

Trick question: What is Coca-Cola?

'Dear Mr Job Thank you for applying to be a burger flipper at our restaurant chain. The standard of applicants was very high and, unfortunately, you have been unsuccessful at this time. However, we will keep your details on file and contact you should a suitable position arise.'

‘Dear Mr Job
Thank you for applying to be a burger flipper at our restaurant chain. The standard of applicants was very high and, unfortunately, you have been unsuccessful at this time. However, we will keep your details on file and contact you should a suitable position arise.’

You know when you go to a job interview, and the interviewer asks you a seemingly simple question, but it turns out the correct answer is not the obvious one?

I read such a story on one of my favourite news websites, RocketNews24, the other day that inspired this blog post.

The story was about an applicant for a job at McDonald’s. During the interview, the teenager was asked, ‘What kind of place do you think McDonald’s is?’.

He answered, ‘It’s a place where people eat hamburgers’.

He knew he’d made a major error when the interviewer looked at him witheringly and replied, ‘It’s a place where people are raised’.

The interview was over and, needless to say, he didn’t get the job.

Now, knowing how tough it is out there to get a job these days, I thought I’d help out by doing some research and providing the right answers to similar questions should you find yourself applying at one of the following top companies.

I’ve taken the answers for these hypothetical interviewers’ questions from advertising, blurbs and mission statements on the companies’ own websites. Good luck with your search!

Interview at Coca-Cola Amatil

Interviewer: What is Coca-Cola?

Applicant: A high-sugar fizzy drink or an artificially sweetened fizzy drink, depending on which type you buy.

Interviewer: No! At Coca-Cola, we’re in the business of spreading smiles and opening happiness every day all across the world.

 

Interview at PepsiCo

Interviewer: What is Gatorade?

Applicant: A high-sugar energy-boosting drink.

Interviewer: NO! It fuels the best and the best of the future. It is a product that will help you work harder, for longer; scientifically proven since 1965.

 

Interview at Google Inc

Interviewer: What is Google?

Applicant: A search engine.

Interviewer: No! Google is a company that understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.

 

Interview at Cadbury Ltd

Interviewer: What is Cadbury?

Applicant: A brand of chocolate, most famously dairy milk chocolate.

Interviewer: No! chocolate means different things to different people at different times, but most importantly, Chocolate is Cadbury, with a passionate commitment to making everyone feel happy.

 

Interview at Yum! Brands Inc

Interviewer: What is KFC?

Applicant: A place where people go to eat fried chicken.

Interviewer: Most definitely not! It’s a place that knows its responsibility goes beyond ensuring great-tasting, high-quality food. It is a place that aims to make a positive difference to the communities where it works, the wider environment and, of course, to the lives of its employees.

 

Interview at Wesfarmers

Interviewer: What is Coles?

Applicant: A place where people go to buy groceries.

Interviewer: No! It’s a place that is dedicated to giving Aussie families the products they need for a happy, healthy home life, at prices they can afford.

The selfie you make yourself

"Selfie in oil pastels", by Caron Eastgate Dann

“Selfie in oil pastels”, by Caron Eastgate Dann

Taking a photo of oneself used to be a) difficult and b) considered distastefully vain (à la that great Aussie saying, “she’s got tickets on herself”).

These days, however, it’s a selfie world.

I don’t paint many portraits, but my new oil pastels seemed to be crying out for a face to settle themselves upon and become just that. So who better to sit for me than… me?

Actually, I used a photo as a reference. Isn’t it strange how we know ourselves better than anyone else in the world, have looked at ourselves in the mirror virtually every day for *ahem* years, and yet…few of us could paint ourselves from memory.

So it’s a bit like painting a stranger, in a way. There’s the temptation, too, to fix things—make the eyes a little bigger, the face a little thinner, the skin a little smoother.
But then, I wouldn’t want to be accused of vanity. In fact, earlier in the painting my husband commented that I was making my face “a bit too fat”. Happy to sort that out, I was!

Chocolate and the Guilty Secret

ChocI’ve never been much of a chocolate eater in adulthood. The odd Cadbury’s Milk Tray soft centre at Christmas or chocolate egg at Easter would pass my lips, but that was about it, unless it was my lifelong favourite, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, which until recently, I could buy only when I visited the US.
Lately, however, I’ve taken to having a couple of squares of chocolate with my nightly cup of tea, last thing when I’m reading in bed.
Wow, has chocolate come on in the last couple of decades! Who knew? Everyone except me, it seems.
I’ve had crème brûlée flavour, cookies and cream, dark chocolate with cocoa nibs, dark chocolate with sea salt, milk chocolate with salted caramel, dark chocolate with ginger and dark chocolate with lime and chili. The choices are endless.
Chocolate has become so exotic. In my childhood, the most exotic it got was the family-size block of Cadbury’s milk chocolate that my parents occasionally bought as a treat to be shared among the family after dinner, probably on a Saturday night. This block cost the enormous sum of 50c (five times my weekly pocket money in the 1970s).
We shared the chocolate evenly between the four of us, and I would infuriate my brother by making mine last all evening, or even having some left, in its silver wrapping, for next day. He and my dad would scoff their shares immediately and then be looking for more, and I’m sure Mum lost half of hers. But I jealously guarded mine, loving the feeling of envious eyes on chocolate they would never get.
My late dad was a dentist, so we weren’t allowed to eat much candy. But chocolate wasn’t too bad, he said, as long as you cleaned your teeth after eating it.
Dad wouldn’t be too happy if he knew the guilty secret I’m about to confide: sometimes, these days, I don’t clean my teeth after drinking my tea and eating my chocolate in bed at night!

You don’t see this too often

eggThe other morning, I decided to have a fried egg for breakfast. I heated the pan, cracked the shell of a fresh, free-range organic egg, and…out popped a beautiful double yolk.
I’ve seen this only once or twice before in all the thousands of eggs I’ve eaten, including the truly free-range farm eggs I used to buy in rural Thailand in the early 1990s, they of the bright orange yolks and rich flavour.
It got me thinking about other natural phenomena we love to see: there’s something about them that makes you feel lucky all day.
I’ve seen several shooting stars. They’re usually something you see out of the corner of your eye and realise only after that that’s what it was. The most memorable was in Bangkok in the late 1990s. My then-husband and I used sometimes on a Saturday night to go up to the roof of our apartment building where the pool was and lie on the deck chairs, looking up at the sky.
Unbelievably, given the pollution, you could still see stars. One night, we saw what we thought was a bright shooting star go right across the sky. I’m calling it a shooting star, but this is my name for anything I see in the sky like that: it may well have been some other phenomenon.
I’ve never seen a five-leaf clover, but I have a friend who goes running every day, and she has seen quite a few.
But then, you have to be looking for these things to see them.

The Old School Tie

Remember how much you hated your school uniform? The uniform at St Cuthbert’s College in Auckland, New Zealand, at which I spent about half my schooling, was Black Watch tartan, with hats and gloves required whenever we left school grounds (though hats could be removed after 6pm).

My old school tie, slightly the worse for wear now, with some of my favourite books from childhood, saved (luckily) for decades by my mother.

My old school tie, slightly the worse for wear now, with some of my favourite books from childhood, saved (luckily) for decades by my mother.

In summer, we had a tartan pleated skirt and a sailor-top with the tie built in, but with a lowish neck at the front that would sometimes be embarrassing. In winter, we had itchy woollen gym frocks, belted at the waist, with white shirts and a man-style tie. There were cardigans, blazers and green felt hats in winter, and white straw boaters in summer that would turn yellow in the sun.

I hated wearing long socks, because we were supposed to wear elastic garters to hold them up, but I found garters unbearably annoying, so my socks constantly fell down and I was always being told off for it.
We had dreadful sports gear: black rompers like something out of 19th-century England for younger girls, and an equally bad all-in-one black watch tartan romper suit for older girls. Both had puffy legs with elastic at mid-thigh level. We felt and looked ridiculous in them, and we had to do long distance running in the streets in these outfits, too. Young men and boys would laugh at us as we passed by.
Learning to knot our ties was a rite of passage, but I cursed the silly things every day. I’d always end up with one short end and one long.
I had forgotten all about my school tie until, recently, my mother returned it to me, having kept it all these years. I’m so glad she did. The hated thing is now reinvented in my mind as nostalgic memorabilia of happy school years with my best friend, Yvette—who is still my dear friend today.
These memories have come flooding back to me because we recently moved house  and we are next to a big school with extensive grounds like the one I went to. Their winter uniforms, even these several decades later, are similar in format, though different in colour and material. They have much better sports gear, though.
The other day, I happened to be walking home from the train as school was coming out. Students were milling round, some being picked up by mothers or fathers, some by grandparents. “So what did you do today?” “Mum, I have to tell you about Chrissie–”; “I need the money for the excursion, Mum, there’s a note about it in my bag…” “Dad, can we go to the park?” “No, no homework at all’; “So much homework.”
In the midst of all this, with cars drawing up to pick up kids and others pulling away, full of tired but still exuberant students, a white mini-bus pulled up to the curb. A mother waiting by the curb clapped her hands together in joy as the doors opened. “Hello, sweetheart!” she called. Her son jumped off into her welcoming arms. There must be a school for kids with special needs around here too, I realised. “Did you have a good day?” she said as she took his bag and bundled him toward the car.
I went to quite a few schools, in three countries, but it is always St Cuthbert’s College that stands out most in my mind. It was like Hogwarts in some ways, though they didn’t teach us to do magic, unfortunately. Our ‘headmistress’, as they were called then, Miss Holland, wore to morning assembly her academic gown, a fearsome black number that billowed round her sensible figure and reminded us that there would be no nonsense here.
One morning, I was in a particularly joyful mood, and I leapt up the stairs two at a time. Standing at the top of the stairs, was Miss Holland in her black gown, looking like thunder. “Go back down those stairs immediately and come up one at a time like a lady!” she exclaimed.
Miss Holland was dour and fearsome when I was at school. But about six years later, when I was a journalist, I met her and another teacher at a function. Miss Holland was friendly, smiling and personable. “Do call me Joan,” she said over a glass of wine. “Oh I couldn’t,” I replied, and she laughed delightfully. “We’re ever so proud of all our girls in their exciting careers,” she said, or something similar. Miss Holland, who held her position from 1969-1989, lived in a house within the school grounds, and had never married, so we had all naturally assumed that the school was her entire life, and perhaps it was. But I realised that day that she was actually a person, not just an intimidating school principal.

Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work we go…

The tools of my trade: mobile and casual

The tools of my trade: mobile and casual

Do you have the sort of job that is secure, full-time and that pays you holiday (vacation) leave and sick pay? Is it a job that encourages you to strive to achieve your best and that offers a career path and promotion? Do you feel valued and appreciated, thus making you a more loyal and committed employee?

If you answer yes to these questions, you are in the minority—at least in Australia and, as far as I can tell, in other Western countries such as NZ, the US and the UK. And even if you do have a ‘proper’ job, you’re often treated appallingly as an employee. For example, read about my blogosphere friend Goldfish’s treatment in the US this week: http://fishofgold.net/2014/08/03/when-2-hours-feels-like-5/

The appealing idea of being happy in our work is now only in the realms of Disney films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, she who whistled while she worked and they who sang merrily as they marched off to work in the mines.

When I first came to Australia in 1988 as a young but experienced journalist, things here were pretty good. Back in NZ, we still got ‘Christmas bonuses’—an extra week’s pay in December. That didn’t happen in Australia, and I had to take a pay cut, but there were other benefits. Rent, food and wine were cheaper in Australia, we got more holiday leave and—I can hardly believe I’m saying this now—we got a “leave loading”, that is, more pay when on leave than not. As a journalist, I worked most public holidays, but I also got six weeks and three days of paid holiday leave a year. We were all full-time employees with permanent positions.

Even in the early 2000s, when I worked for a magazine owned by the media mogul Kerry Packer, we all got enormous holiday hampers in December. These were worth several hundred dollars each, and included pretty much everything you needed for your celebration, including a choice of turkey, ham or salmon in a special fridge pack, wine, luxurious chocolates and much more. All company employees got the same type of hamper, from the lowliest office junior to the CEO.

Mr Packer is dead now, and so is that sort of magnanimity. Nowadays, you’re lucky if you don’t get laid off right before the holiday season.

I changed careers from journalism to tertiary education in 2008. In the tertiary education sector, latest statistics (2012) from the Commonwealth Department of Education paint a disturbing picture: 84% of all academic staff have insecure jobs; 80.3% of people employed in teaching-only positions are casual and a further 10.2% are on short-term contracts; and note that these are full-time equivalent numbers, each of which equates to four actual workers. These figures were reported in the July 2014 edition of Connect, the magazine for casual academic staff run by Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU, of which I am a delegate).

In her article ‘University work becoming more precarious’, NTEU president Jeannie Rea says that  there has been no comment on the statistics from any university, and that the NTEU is the only tertiary entity to have published them, apart from the government department.

I have been working as what is euphemistically called a “sessional” (really a casual) since 2008. Luckily, I have had enough work nearly every semester. But there is still that dreadful time from November to March when there is little or no work (I’m trying to rectify that now by working at another institution as well that has a summer trimester). At a time of year when the weather is warm and people in my industry should be relaxing or on vacation, I’m counting pennies and worrying about how much work I will get next semester so I can start paying off the inevitable credit card debt.

It’s not all bad though. I have time to write and to paint, time to recover from 60-hour weeks at the end of the year and so on.

But in my experience, nothing beats a secure full-time job. I believe the country is the poorer for treating many of its most highly educated, smartest and ablest workers, in fields from journalism to education to anything else you might name, as expendable commodities.

It’s a worker’s right to expect security and decent pay and conditions. In return, it is an employer’s right to expect that employee to work hard, to be loyal, honest and committed, to take sick leave only when they are sick, and to be respectful of the company and their co-workers.

Casual employment is a lose-lose situation for both employees and employers. When are they going to realise it? I predict that things will, eventually, change for the better. One day, some bright spark in HR will come up with the amazing idea that employees who feel secure and valued do better work, enabling the company to make more profit.

But I don’t think this will be in my working lifetime. I predict it will take a generation or more for this to happen. Hopefully, it will be in our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

A foot is not an almond or, If the shoe fits…

My almond-toed boots: always uncomfortable but on trend.

My almond-toed boots: on trend, but always uncomfortable

When I see some of the lengths fashion-conscious women of the past went to to look à la mode—tightly laced corsets, skirts so wide they couldn’t sit on a chair and so on—I wonder how (and even why) they did it. I’m glad we’re now emancipated from such follies.

But there’s a fashion item women still wear every day that’s every bit as ridiculous, restricts movement, results in chronic lifelong pain and causes crippling injuries that sometimes have to be operated on.

It’s the shoe.

Look at your shoes right now. Chances are, if you’re a woman, the shape of your shoe is nothing like that of your natural foot. For example, feet don’t extend to a point with the longest toe being in the middle (a shoe shape marketed as “almond toed”); the inside of your foot is actually straight (or should be, if you haven’t damaged it with faulty footwear), then curves down and round to the small toe; your heels are not 5cm or 10cm higher than the ball of your foot.

While we can make some allowances for fashion – some padding and rouging and other trickery – shoes are taking it beyond the extreme.

Shoemakers are stuck: if they made lasts that truly followed the shape of the human foot, perhaps not many people would buy the resulting product. This is because of the influence of media and popular culture: everywhere, there is reinforcing “evidence” that assures us that all women are obsessed with shoes (Carrie Bradshaw and the Sex And the City crowd have a lot to answer for); that high heels and pointy toes are attractive, feminine and make you look slimmer; that “sensible” shoes are for nanas and they age you before your time.

I’ll tell you what’s ageing: aching feet all day that make you purse your lips and frown.

Yes, I went through my teens, 20s and 30s addicted to fashion, poring over high-fashion magazines, and spending all my spare cash on clothes and shoes. I wore high heels every day, even to the beach.

But I saw the light some time ago. Still, I have some footwear that I shouldn’t have bought.

In this area, men generally make better choices than women. Ironically, pointy-toed high heeled shoes were a male fashion in the 17th century (starting earlier as riding shoes), but somehow changed sexes along the way (cuban heels and cowboy boots excepted). Now men generally make much better choices on footwear than women do.

I was waiting on the train platform the other day with about a hundred other commuters, and I took a look at the shoes people were wearing.

I know men sometimes wear pointy shoes, or shoes that are too small, narrow or ill cut. However, the vast majority of men on that train platform were wearing shoes they could, at least, walk in—run in, if they had to—that wouldn’t put them in danger of falling over, twisting an ankle or developing bunions.

That night, not many of those men would have aching feet because of their shoes, I mused. And they looked good: cool sneakers, chunky workmanlike boots, suede slip-ons, even black patent leather shoes to go with a big-city job.

And what were the women wearing? Some, granted, were in comfortable shoes, even some of the younger women: I’ve read that flatties are in again. But most were in high heels, some so high and thin they could barely walk; and pointed toes; and toes that curved upwards slightly; and enormous stacked heels that made them look like something out of a 1980s glam rock band (though I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing—I loved those bands).

There wouldn’t be a high-heel wearer alive who hadn’t got her heel caught in lawn, or a drain, or other trap multiple times, and tripped, fallen or had to remove the shoe to extract it.

Our own former Prime Minister had two well documented and highly embarrassing shoe moments, both of which would not have happened if she were wearing better equipped footwear. One was on a visit to India, when the PM’s heel became lodged in the lawn and she actually tumbled right over in front of the cameras. I cringe for her every time I see the clip.

As Gillard explained it at the following press conference, “For men who get to wear flat shoes all day every day: if you wear a heel, it can get embedded in soft grass, then when you pull your foot out, the rest of it doesn’t come, and the rest of it is as you saw.”

She also lost a shoe when she was extracted (in a ridiculous manner, I thought) from a situation involving Australia Day protesters in 2012 that her security team had deemed dangerous. In this case, she wasn’t even able to retrieve her shoe and had to leave it behind. It ended up with the Aboriginal tent embassy of long-term protesters in Canberra (they’ve been there 40 years). Check out the sensationalised report from the time:

Such is the power of this fashion “statement”, that even a deeply committed feminist and pioneer such as Gillard (our first female PM) couldn’t bring herself to defy its dictates.

It’s hard to buy women’s shoes that are truly comfortable and never hurt no matter how much you walk in them. My own workaday comfortable shoes have been wonderful, though they were so soft they offered little support. Anyway, they have worn out and I need to buy new ones. We have recently moved and I was delighted to see that there was a specialist shoe shop in our village with row upon row of comfortable but attractive-looking shoes.

They’re expensive, but I don’t mind paying extra for shoes that look good but won’t hurt me.

Well, I tried on every pair of shoes in my size in that shop, much to the exasperation of the assistant. Nothing came close to comfortable. She assured me they would “give” and that I would wear them in. But in my experience, shoes that pinch when you buy them still pinch in the same places when you’ve worn them in.

I noticed that one brand that purports to be a wide and comfortable fitting had those pointy toes that are “on trend” at the moment. The UK online site I used to buy my shoes from calls them “almond toes” and has put them on all its ankle boots.

I questioned the assistant about the “almond toe”, saying, but isn’t this brand supposed to be health-conscious? Do they have any round toes?”

She shook her head, “No, their boots are all pointed this year.”

Well, Mr or Ms Shoemaker, this is what I have to say to you: “A foot is not an almond.”