I recently asked a guest whether she'd had a 'normal childhood.'
I was quoting something she'd said herself in a documentary.
People will often tell me they've had a 'normal' childhood.
Or they dispute that their childhood was normal.
But what is normal?
Is it nothing out of the ordinary?
What exactly is ordinary?
Apparently, normal is something between 'typical' and 'ideal'.
I would have said my childhood, growing up in colonial Hong Kong was normal. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing to see here.
Yet when I was a child, there were violent protests by Mao's sympathiser's blocking the city centre. Several bombs were set off to cause damage to the colonial government and its officials. Later I remember an apartment building collapsed after days of heavy rain, killing dozens of people and injuring others whom my family knew. The morning newspaper was filled with headlines of people fleeing China across a waterway and getting bitten by sharks in the process.
Or there was the day when I was convinced people on television could look through the TV set and actually see me, so I applied to be part of a children's TV show so that I could be sure of this incredibly phenomenon.
Maybe my childhood wasn't so normal?
I made a note not to ask that question again. But then again, very little seems normal at the moment. Perhaps that in itself is a good conversation starter.
Here's a podcast of a recent panel discussion I took part in on long-form interviewing. The discussion took place as part of the New News Conference 2016 at the Wheeler Centre in October. Excellent moderation by Andrew Dodd and thoughtful answers from Philip Chubb and Ramona Koval.
I first met George Gittoes in Beijing in 1998. He had an artist's residency. I was the resident correspondent. He wanted to paint people and life. He disappeared for a little while. Then the day before he left, he turned up looking like a pizza delivery guy. Like a waiter, he held two small oil paintings up near his shoulders. They were my farewell gift and they had been freshly painted. as a gift.
This one is the Journey:
This is the little Chinese Gymnast.
George and I drifted apart. I was doing my war reporting in relative safety. He was living life large in the most dangerous places you could nominate.
Then his name popped up when he won the 2015 Sydney Peace Prize.
I discovered he'd been making documentaries and taking incredible photos to add to his incredible body of artwork.
Then in May, I interviewed him at the South Coast home he shares with his partner musician Hellen Rose (and their dogs).
He is delighted to see the little oil paintings he gave me once again and he offers to clean them.
But it was his notebooks that captured my imagination.
They are the works of art that the public isn't likely to see, yet they imprint the essence of his travels. They lasso his emotions and thoughts that then bleed into his grander canvases.
For six months a year, the beach is mine. This is how it looks when it belongs to me; just like this.
The hoards are gone. They mistakenly populate the beach at the least nice time of the year and vacate at the very best time of the year. But perhaps I won’t mention it to the hoards who don't know this.
I was about to enter a stupidly expensive ‘Delicatessen’ when a woman in a tracksuit, sitting on a bench outside, spoke to.
“Can I have some money to buy a coffee at Gusto’s?” she asked.
My brain was misfiring with the following dot-points:
The woman in the tracksuit knows the coffee shop well enough to name it
She did not look like a drug abuser, although that is impossible to tell these days
I do not like giving people on the street money except The Big Issue sellers, the Friday charity days or a few private causes, because I worry the money will be spent on drugs.
The lady in the tracksuit was very polite and I liked her
I said, “No, sorry.” That’s what I usually say.
But I really did want her to have a coffee at Gusto’s so I found $5 in coins and went outside again.
“This is for coffee,” I said smiling sternly, “not for anything else.”
“Oh don’t you worry, that’s what I’m going to get. Thank-you so much darling.”
I went into the stupidly expensive Delicatessen and bought one tin of beetroot, two raw carrots and three bread rolls.
When I came out, the woman in the tracksuit was still there. I looked surprised.
“Don’t worry Miss, I’m going to get a coffee over at Gusto’s, but if I get another $6 I can get a bagel as well!”
I smiled. She’s just wants everyone else to pay for her breakfast.
“I don’t drink and I don’t smoke. I gave up smoking a month and a half ago,” she said.
I wanted to say, “What about drugs?” but I didn’t. She didn’t seem like a drug abuser, although as I’ve said it’s impossible to tell these days. People might think that about me.
I headed home past my beach, thinking about Lily Brett. I met her this week. I got to interview her and spoke with her afterwards about writing.
She thinks journalists can be very hard on themselves when it comes to writing. She was never trained as a journalist. She just started to write.
So I am going home to write and think about Lily Brett.
I took a bunch of old stuff to the Salvo's the other day.
As usual, the store was overflowing. There were bags of old stuff literally spilling out of the shop. One of the volunteers tried to move some of the goods out of the rain which had just started. She looked down at my offering and quick as a flash said:
We don't take encyclopedias.
"No worries," I replied cheerily, lugging the basket of all but one of the 24 volume Mammals of the New Illustrated Animal Kingdom back to the car.
Last week, my Dad was told something similar. Someone came to his house and gave him $40 to take away 20 books. But the book dealer shook his head at the offer of a complete set of 1986 Encyclopedia Britannica's.
The only place for those is in the bin, he said.
For anyone who grew up in the era of printed books, there is something almost sacred about a set of bound books acquired gradually until you have the complete. Books were, quite simply, knowledge.
For people like Olympic Diver Matthew Mitcham, encyclopaedia's were a lifeline.
He told me once that as a kid, he read them on the toilet because it was a silent past-time that wouldn't disturb his Mum, who suffered from chronic fatigue.
It was through reading an encyclopedia that he first heard of 'aversion therapy'. He was ten and thought about boys rather than girls. After that, he kept a rubber band around his wrist and every time he had a gay thought, he snapped the rubber band against his wrist to associate pain with that thought.
Thankfully, aversion therapy didn't work.
And now it seems, neither do encyclopedias.
Mammals Of the New Illustrated Animal Kingdom was published in the fifties and sixties in the United States. There were twenty-four volumes of which I have twenty-three, picked up from a neighbour's front yard (I must add, with permission) during a clean-up. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Something for my daughter for when she got a bit older.
And there's the problem. So much of what we call knowledge, changes. Even to find out about the origin of the Mammals series, I went to Google. When in doubt, ask Google. Google isn't always right, but these days we're prepared to sacrifice accuracy for speed, because it's there at our fingertips. And does anyone really want to search through twenty-four volumes of animal facts? Perhaps a budding vet.
So now I have plenty of old books about animals and there are nice drawings in them too. I cannot bring myself to put them in the recycle bin. So I'm trying to turn them into something; wrapping paper, greetings cards, bookmarks, craft... I'm open to ideas.
Once, ripping up an old book would have seemed like desecration. Now, it's about preservation.
The drawings really would look pretty on cards. You're welcome to take a couple. Go on, how about a few more?