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.

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.”

 

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