Saturday, 25 November 2017

Before the storm

I'm typing this in a car park at Riverside Shopping Centre.  It's been a good weekend of training for duties as a Red Cross Emergency Services volunteer.

It was good until about two hours ago, at least, when the Bureau of Meteorology issued a storm warning for my area.  The usual following a hot day: severe storms, hailstones and possible flash flooding.  And now I'm sitting here feeling like my stomach is trying to punch its way out of my body.

Why am I so tense? Why this sense of dread?  I've been to plenty of storm call outs before. I'm not duty officer tonight.  Have I spent too long with the stress of working at the Signmakers?  Too long as Controller with a massive target on my back?  Surely none of that's enough to be giving me nerves like these.

I don't know the answer to any of this.  But I know that right now I desperately want this weather system to pass without incident.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Making life better

Hi everyone,

I was on an SES callout from about 1000 this morning.  It's now 1400 and I'm about to go home.

Do you find that the Sunday blues kick your a**e too?  They seem to hook into me earlier and earlier every weekend.  Certainly at the moment I'm finding that I'm going back to the dark times I went through at other jobs.  At one stage at my first job as a lawyer I found the only part of the day I looked forward to was lunch, and that's basically my position now.  And at the job after that I dreaded the end of Sunday.  Not only was my marriage collapsing by then, but I'd go home every day feeling sick with worry and failure.  At a very black point it was a relief at the office to imagine the sense of a noose closing around my neck.

Unlike those other times, however, I'm doing something about it except waiting with that "deer in the headlights" look on my face.  I'm managing the blues themselves with medication as per usual.  And with the warmer weather I'm finding I can get a decent hit of endorphins regularly by running and exercising.  In particular I've also found that the ABC's Classic Flow yoga podcasts are something of an oasis of calm when things are tough.

A post shared by 🎹 Classic Flow 🎻 (@classicflow_yoga) on

I keep it together at work by thinking of groups of five things that I'm grateful for.  This really does help life my spirits.  More substantively I'm also looking for a new job.  This work is all very well, but the pay is low and the conditions dispiriting.  I can do so much more for the world than be a labourer and factory hand.

I'm not sure where life will end up, but I'm sure it'll be good when I get there.

Friday, 29 September 2017

When you stop supporting

Hi everyone,

I just finished writing a difficult letter.  For years I have supported the Royal District Nursing Service as much as my means permitted.  As I wrote a few weeks ago, they have undergone a change of name.

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A recent letter persuaded me that they have also changed their values.  So with regret, I've now sent them this letter -
Mr Stephen Muggleton
Bolton Clarke
Level 3
44 Musk Avenue
29 September 2017
Dear Mr Muggleton,
Cessation of Support
I refer to your letter dated September 2017 soliciting a donation of $970.00.  I was staggered to receive a request for a donation of that magnitude.
I was a longstanding supporter of the Royal District Nursing Service (RDNS) after witnessing the care its nurses gave to my grandmother in the mid-1990s.  The home visits she received, and the relief this gave to my family, was priceless.  I was also very proud to help fund work that provided nursing care to the homeless, isolated and disadvantaged.
The organization now called “Bolton Clarke” is not the service I was proud to support.  Based on its 2016 Annual Report, and on its Facebook activity, and indeed on your letter of September 2017, Bolton Clarke appears to be simply a provider of retirement living options.  Nursing appears to be little more than a fragment of its activity, preferably delivered over the internet.  Personal contact seems to be viewed as a luxury.  Care for the disadvantaged has apparently ceased altogether.
In the circumstances, a request for a donation which represents (for me) nearly two weeks’ wages is astonishing.  With very deep regret I advise that I will not be supporting your organization further.  I have instructed my solicitor to redraw my will to remove the clause making a bequest to the RDNS.  While my values have not changed, it appears that your organization’s have.
Yours faithfully,
Stephen Tuck
Has this happened to you?  Have you ever needed to give up supporting an organization because it stopped being something you could support?

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

[Book Review] Hanson, The Dreadful Judgement (2001)

Neil Hanson, The Dreadful Judgement (Doubleday: London 2001)

Nobody could accuse Neil Hanson of not writing a gripping story.  This account of the Great Fire of London fairly tears along, from the closing stages of the plague that preceeded it, to the condition of the poorer quarters of the town on the eve of the fire, to the disaster and its aftermath.  His gaze shifts rapidly from the highest levels of the court of King Charles II to the primitive relief camps outside London. 

The Dreadful Judgement
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Hanson takes issue with the traditional death toll of four people, although he seems to accept that these are the only deaths that are known with certainty to hsve occurred.  Knowing what we do after Black Saturday, it is hard to disagree with the assertion that the actual loss of life was hundreds or even thousands that number.  Intriguingly, he leaves open the possibility that the fire may in fact have been started deliberately by French or Dutch saboteurs.

A connecting thread in the story is the experience of the baker, Thomas Farriner, whose shop is traditionally thought to be the cause of the fire.  He shifts between details which seem to have been drawn from contemporary accounts to narrative which seems to be a mix of inference, conjecture and speculation.  This is the unsettling part of the book: it is difficult to tell precisely where the history ends and the imagination begins.  This makes it hard to trust his commentary on (say) the likely cause of the fire.  The situation is not helped by inexcusably poor footnoting. For example, claiming Samuel Pepys' colossal diary as a source is useless when the reference simply refers to "Samuel Pepys, Diary" or "Samuel Pepys, op. cit.".  A first-year Arts student would not be allowed this sort of scholarly sleight of hand, and Hanson's editor should not have permitted it either.

This book is a good yarn, and perhaps a good place to start researching London of the 1660s, but it would be a poor place to stop.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

[Book Review] Antonia White: Diaries 1926-1957 (1991)

Antonia White, Diaries 1926-1957 [vol. 1], ed. Susan Chitty (Constable & Co: London, 1991)

I don't read a great deal of fiction, and until I saw this book in an op shop I'd never heard of Antonia White.  However, I love reading diaries or letters by artists (one of my desert island books is the Letters of Bruce Chatwin).

Diaries 1926-1957: Volume I
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White's diaries did not disappoint.  More than anything else, she was a writer's writer.  Clive James' memorable description of Turgenev could equally have applied to her -
The temptation is to call Tolstoy a stylist. But in Russian, Turgenev was the stylist. Turgenev was the one who cared about repeating a word too soon. Tolstoy hardly cared at all.

In the later stages of the diaries, especially as they stretch into the 1950s, you get a real sense of the life of a professional writer: the difficulty meeting editors' deadlines, self doubt, and becoming bored with one's characters or subject.  You also get a sense of the black hole into which prose stylists can fall, as she writes and rewrites the first chapter of an ultimately unpublished book (one thinks of Joseph Grand in Camus' La Peste, only without the hint of comedy).

Real life keeps breaking through, especially in the years up to 1950, as White chronicles a string of failed marriages and questionable relationships.  Susan Chitty - her daughter and editor - deserves praise here: White frequently writes about her own quite-active sex life and editing this material can't have been fun.

Antonia White was too singular a person for her diaries to be a time capsule of her age, either of the big- or small-picture type.  However, they do have the same crystal-clear quality of George Orwell and Earnest Hemingway without the former's bitterness or the latter's irony.  They may not be everyone's taste, but they should be on the list of every aspiring writer.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Rosie and Me

I have a job!  Three weeks ago I applied for a job as a metal fabricator at a local signmaker.  I was completely straight with them about my skills: I learned to do my welding on-farm and most of my practical talents are what I learned in the same place and with the State Emergency Service.  A few days later they offered me the job: there had been better candidates, but they “liked my attitude”.  I started the next day.

The work is hard: a great deal of it involves lifting and moving items made out of aluminium and acrylic.  My first few days were spent either installing signs at Benalla and Shepparton and Melbourne and polishing letters which will form part of a sign halfway up a building.  The start time varies from 0500hrs to 0730hrs.


There was a “you are here” moment when going out to a sign-repair in Melbourne.  The sign belonged to a medical practice from which I used to request medical records and repeats.  This proved something, but I’m not sure what.

For the last few days I’ve been working blisteringly hard cutting lengths of aluminium for welding into frames for signs.  The client is a very valuable one and each cut must be accurate to within half a millimetre.  The target is enough material for 134 signs; as at 1730hrs on Friday I had completed 116.  The most satisfying thing in the world is working hard at something worthwhile.  I found myself wondering if this work truly is worthwhile.  It was hard not to wish I was putting this much energy into serving the Red Cross or the SES, or that the army hadn't knocked me back.  This led me to thinking about the “Rosie the Riveter” women who went from being housewives and secretaries and shop assistants to being welders and bomb assemblers during the last World War (it was the closest analogue I could think of for my own change in circumstances).

Image from here

At first I thought: that was worthwhile work.  But then I remembered that the reality as lived by the people was probably closer to the munitions factory setting in Foyle's War: the work was worthwhile, but done in a setting which was venal, bullying and unrewarding.

This was a salutary reminder not to expect the world to be what it isn’t.  The same thought has been on my mind since I received paperwork last week advising that one of my favourite charities – the Royal District Nursing Service – has changed its name to Bolton Clarke.  Allegedly this is to reflect its expanded range of services.  The cynic in me suspects that this is an initial step to becoming a for-profit enterprise (less likely) or sold as a going concern (more likely – the public would be outraged to hear that Royal District Nursing Service assets are being sold, but will barely notice when the assets belonging to what sounds like a firm of accountants are sold).  It saddens me to think that a charity I love may be acting like a low-grade bait-and-switch.

I’m not sure I know what to do with any of this.  I don’t know if I’m over-naïve or over-jaded.  Simple economics dictates that I have to keep working.  But I wish I was doing something that made the world a better place.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Review: Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi (2005)

Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi (Paulines Publishing House: Manila, 2005)

Like most papal documents, Paul VI's exhortation on evangelization is deceptively easy to read.  It is supremely quotable and textually dense.

Pope Paul VI
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The text spans the need for evangelization in the world of 1975, when it was first released.  It remains a necessary text today for many of the blocks of opinion which the church encounters in- and outside itself.  Chapter 3 demonstrates the point well.  This chapter seems to be a rebuff to Liberation Theology as an error, or at any rate as a sufficient form of church practice.  The Church's role in ending suffering and systemic injustice is accepted (¶30) -
It is well known in what terms numerous bishops from all the continents spoke of this [liberation] at the last Synod, especially the bishops from the Third World, with a pastoral accent resonant with the voice of the millions of sons and daughters of the Church who make up those peoples. Peoples, as we know, engaged with all their energy in the effort and struggle to overcome everything which condemns them to remain on the margin of life: famine, chronic disease, illiteracy, poverty, injustices in international relations and especially in commercial exchanges, situations of economic and cultural neo-colonialism sometimes as cruel as the old political colonialism. The Church ... has the duty to proclaim the liberation of millions of human beings, many of whom are her own children- the duty of assisting the birth of this liberation, of giving witness to it, of ensuring that it is complete. This is not foreign to evangelization.

However, readers are cautioned, this is not the end of the work: "in order that God's kingdom should come it is not enough to establish liberation and to create well-being and development" (¶35).

Two parts of this discussion are equally resonant today.  Commentators who view the church as tolerable only to the extent that it perform's socially useful services are cautioned that this limit is not acceptable (¶32):
[M]any, even generous Christians who are sensitive to the dramatic questions involved in the problem of liberation, in their wish to commit the Church to the liberation effort are frequently tempted to reduce her mission to the dimensions of a simply temporal project. They would reduce her aims to a man-centered goal; the salvation of which she is the messenger would be reduced to material well-being. Her activity, forgetful of all spiritual and religious preoccupation, would become initiatives of the political or social order. But if this were so, the Church would lose her fundamental meaning. Her message of liberation would no longer have any originality and would easily be open to monopolization and manipulation by ideological systems and political parties. She would have no more authority to proclaim freedom as in the name of God.

There is an equally stern rebuke to the modern writers who talk gleefully about 'Elijah house-clearing with a shotgun': "The Church cannot accept violence, especially the force of arms - which is uncontrollable once it is let loose - and indiscriminate death as the path to liberation, because she knows that violence always provokes violence and irresistibly engenders new forms of oppression and enslavement which are often harder to bear than those from which they claimed to bring freedom" (¶37).

The discussion of responses to non-Christian religions bears re-reading when Evangelical belief has shrunk to a crude rejection of encounters with other faiths as 'fellowship with Baal'.

Without conceding to a vague 'kumbaya', the significance of other faiths is firmly announced (¶53):
The Church respects and esteems ... non Christian religions because they are the living expression of the soul of vast groups of people. They carry within them the echo of thousands of years of searching for God, a quest which is incomplete but often made with great sincerity and righteousness of heart. They possess an impressive patrimony of deeply religious texts. They have taught generations of people how to pray. [However,] ... neither respect and esteem for these religions nor the complexity of the questions raised is an invitation to the Church to withhold from these non-Christians the proclamation of Jesus Christ. On the contrary the Church holds that these multitudes have the right to know the riches of the mystery of Christ - riches in which we believe that the whole of humanity can find, in unsuspected fullness, everything that it is gropingly searching for concerning God, man and his destiny, life and death, and truth. Even in the face of natural religious expressions most worthy of esteem, the Church finds support in the fact that the religion of Jesus, which she proclaims through evangelization, objectively places man in relation with the plan of God, with His living presence and with His action; she thus causes an encounter with the mystery of divine paternity that bends over towards humanity. In other words, our religion effectively establishes with God an authentic and living relationship which the other religions do not succeed in doing, even though they have, as it were, their arms stretched out towards heaven.
Chapter 6 covers the role to be played by members of the church in advancing evangelization, from the episcopate to the laity.  The merit in the monastic life is firmly restated: Monks and nuns "embody the Church in her desire to give herself completely to the radical demands of the beatitudes. By their lives they are a sign of total availability to God, the Church and the brethren" (¶69).  This bears repeating in the light of a hostility that seems to have begun in the Reformation and never quite ended:

Chapter 7 follows up with a reminder to the various Christian denominations that internal squabbles are deeply unhealthy for evangelization.  Polemicists from Catholic, Protestant, Mormon and Orthodox traditions will probably all feel a little stung by the criticism in ¶77:
The power of evangelization will find itself considerably diminished if those who proclaim the Gospel are divided among themselves in all sorts of ways. Is this not perhaps one of the great sicknesses of evangelization today? Indeed, if the Gospel that we proclaim is seen to be rent by doctrinal disputes, ideological polarizations or mutual condemnations among Christians, at the mercy of the latter's differing views on Christ and the Church and even because of their different concepts of society and human institutions, how can those to whom we address our preaching fail to be disturbed, disoriented, even scandalized?

Most of the points His Holiness made in 1975 were strong than.  Many have become even stronger in the intervening 40 years.  Evangelii Nuntiandi should be read by anyone of a religious persuasion who wants to share their faith with the world.