Friday, March 30, 2012

The Ghost of Malabar House

People generally scoff, if you ask them whether they believe in ghosts, yet as a child, the memory of the night a ghost entered my room lives vividly in my memory. I had no idea, that there was anything unusual about my bedroom, yet this night I experienced an unusual event. Although the house was not very old, most probably Edwardian, that my parents had extended, and named Malabar after a Burns Philp cargo freighter, my grandfather had captain in South-East Asia. Not, that I think for one moment that Indian mythology had anything to do with our resident ghost.

The night in question, occurred during the early war years, when we were subjected to continual bombing raids night after night, as the German air force tried to flatten the nearby RAF base a couple of miles outside the village. It occurred in the middle of the night, when else, when I awoke feeling a tremendous sense of cold come over the room. It was a though I had walked into a butcher's cold room, my teeth started to chatter. I was so scared, that I pulled the blankets over my head hopeing no one would know I was there, I was not game to  look . I felt the presence of someone standing next to the bed, in that way, many people feel someone is standing behind them.

Then, I heard a sewing machine working away under the window, someone drop an armful of wood near the fire place. Next, there was a piecing scream,  I too started  screaming , until my mother arrived to carm me down. During the rest of my childhood I refused to sleep in that room again. It was only in later life, that I learned that the previous owner's wife had been a dressmaker, and one night her husband had come in from chopping wood, and struck her on the head with an ax. My mother seemed to know quite a lot about the murder, which was why the house had sold cheaply.

I know a lot of my readers will believe I'm pulling their leg, but believe me the story is true. What brought this to mind was talking about the vandalism at the Royal Derwent Mental Hospital at New Norfolk yesterday,a complex with its own horrow stories, that had been subjected to some twelve fires over the last year. I used to hear some horrific stories from ex inmates, while living up at New Norfolk about their experiences. When the Tasmanian Government closed the hospital , they turned the patients out into cheap accommodation to fend for themselves. Many of these lost souls would walk up and down the street all day, often coming into the shop simply to find a person to talk to. Heather and I spent many hours trying to carm them down.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dreams turn to Ashs

The building with it"s new facade"!

J,F,Lee & Sons department store, New Norfolk.

This facade was covered up during the 1950s as some sort of modernisation exercise!
I have always had a soft spot for New Norfolk, and the recent fire that gutted an old property of mine,  was both sad and disappointing. Sad, in the sense, that all the hard work  Heather and I put into this building oversome six yearsor so, firstly in our attempt  to pay the mortgage, and secondly in an attempt to kick start businesses in the town. Disappointed, because despite all the wonderful potential of  New Norfolk, it seems one crises  after another are its constant companions. During these years we found the people both very kind, friendly, and always ready to help. Often when I was unloading the ute passers bye would just step forward and help. What they thought of us I have no idea. I would deliver furniture on an old IXL trolly up and down the High Street. The scene no doubt looked like something out of the 19th century, The fire that destroyed the old J,F,Lee & Sons building last week, destroyed one of the landmark  of the town. Any building that has stood for the best part of a hundred has a history that often parallels the town.

During the 90s, it became fashionable for commercial premises to be sold off, and leased back by banks, department stores on long term leases. This offered an opportunity for retirees like ourselves, to purchase a property with a national tenant, and hopefully a secure rental income. Unfortunately, Fitzgerald's were taken over after only four years into my lease, and the new owners did not intend renew. During this time New Norfolk's economy had been devastated,  the Royal Derwent Hospital had closed, the Boyer paper mill had up graded their machinery and reduced their work force, One department store had closed, and two banks had left town. Naturally the town had high unemployment, low moral, and the High Street had more empty shops than tenanted ones.

It seemed that our retirement plans were in tatters, At first I wrote to over fifty national companies, pointing out the advantages of setting up in New Norfolk, a historic town, thirty minutes from the capital. There was cheap housing, four schools, two swimming pools, face track, three hundred seat theatre, and more with a population base of around ten thousand. Our efforts in the end were rewarded, and the establishment of Bango's Bakery kick started the recovery.

                                                              Monday 19th March.2012.

The first three year were very difficulty, often we would camp on the upper floor for nights on end in order to avoid the two and half round trip drive from home. Often, our nights were broken with smashed windows  [five shop front windows in two & half years], The culprit claimed he had argued with his mum when asked why he had walked down the street smashing seven windows. One break in , and youths who seemed to take delight dancing on the flat roof at the back of the shop. My wife and I established several business in these premise during this time,  discount groceries, pet and stock feed, second hard furniture and antiques. No one could claim we were not trying. Eventually Banjo's Bakery after nearly six months were  convinced that an outlet would be financially successful in the town. There was a catch, we would have to part fund  their franchisee, plus redevelop our space , with all the necessary toilets etc., that seem to go with this sort of thing.

Every morning, I would go for  long walks through Willow Court [Royal Derwent Hospital], often drawing the wonderful collection of building the site has to offer. There are Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, Art Deco, and 1950s modern all in one place. What a great pity this historic treasure has been vandalised, burnt, and defaced beyond belief. Willow Court has structures as old as Port Arthur and should be developed as a prime tourist site. It could have been a museum, on how not to treat the mentally ill. The council shortsightedly sold off all the furniture and fittings, to the locals no doubt this was a good thing, but just imagine, if you or I, could walk into a complete mental hospital from say the 18th or 19th century totally intact.

Now it seems that the Fitzgerald's building has to be demolished. The cause of the fire seems to be unknown, all any one seems to know is that the fire started in the end shop and went up the stairs, into the roof and curtain call. Why the sprinkler system wasn't working is any one guess, Sadly the building has to go, bring to an end one of the landmark buildings of the town.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the New Norfolk High School students, who' painted the mural  on the side wall. I know at the time, they were very pleased with their effort, and looked forward to viewing their handy work in later life. The flames on one side of the work seem to have some prophetic insight into the future.

                                                  Students and their mural , 10th July 2002

                                                           Mural on the left. [ tree not shown above]

Monday, March 19, 2012

Okra & The Mafia Drug Trade.

Okra plant.

During my hunt for profitable vegetable crops, I purchased a very handy growers book, it contained everything anyone would need to know about growing commercial crops. There were sections on days to maturity, pest and disease control, water and seed requirements, and even how to store your harvest successfully. Naturally, as I was always on the lookout for exotic product, why bother with the ordonery when you could have something different. In my reseach, I came across a section on the growing of okra. The French call it "ladies fingures", no doubt because the pods have a certain courtians look. I felt I would be hard pressed to find anything more exotic.

My interest in okra, went back to my time in Greece were it was served with lamb or goat in a goulish type dish with tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and herbs. I must confess I have become quite besoted with various okra dishes over the years. This vegitable is also used in Indian curries and Cafun cooking. Most Australian cookery book suggest a pod size of 10cm, but personally I think half that is a far better in taste, flavour and texture. The Americans grow the crop in the Mississippi  Valley called gumbo for Campbell Soup.

But to return to my story, if you have a close look at the photo of okra, you will  realise that it looks very much like a popular smoking substance. This was why my growing the crop became rather amusing.In government controlled irrigation, certain large area farms were allocated a rice acreage, and to insure no one was cheating, the irrigation authority would fly over the area taking photoes to make sure no farmer had planted a larger area than their allowed 50 acres. It appeared, that my okra appeared to look like a banned substance back at police headquarters. The area I was farming had a very active Mafia connection in the drug trade, no doubt due to the large Italian community in this part of Australia.

About mid morning, while going about my normal business, I heard a lot of sireons comming down the highway. Our farm was fairly isolated, about sevenity miles to the nearest town Griffith. The country being flat, sound carried a long way.  Suddenly, a number of police cars carrered into the yard, while policemen started running everwhere. The scene resembled a movie set, although I seemed to have been cast into the main part. The next thing I knew was that I was pinned up agnist the machinery shed wall,  my arms above my head, as I was searched. By now, other police had run out into the okra paddock to collect evidence, taking samples, smelling the leaves, and so on. The best part was the look on their faces when they realised their trophy was not as expected.

Why anyone, with a ounce of common sence, would grow an illegal crop out in the open I have never been able to figure out. The Mafie as far as i knew grew crops in sheds, out of sight.  I had purchased the seed from America, brought it through customs and qurantine, so there had been no clandstine activity at all. The most annoying aspect, apart from the way I was treated, was the lack of any apology, but that's life!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What creates all these Chinese musicians?

Heather's wall scutpture.

I have often wondered as to why the world seems to keep producing ,so many wonderful Chinese musicians. Is it language, discipline, or simply hard work, or all three? I believe Chinese children learn their language at a tender age through singing. This makes sense, when you consider Chinese requires exact tonal pitch to establish meaning. Such a requirement is unknown in most European languages.

Last Sunday, the monthly CRAG concert was held at Kettering,  introduced to our local community, another superb Chinese violinist in the form of Yue-hong Cha.She turned in a wonderful performance in her rending of Dvorak's 'Piano Trio No4 in E minor. A collection of Slavic ballads with that sense of the gypsy, and the steppes pulsing just below the surface. Fortunately for Hobart ,Yue-hong is now playing with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, so we may look forward to heading her play on a regular bases.

Still, this Chinese thing puzzles me, why the constant flow of talented musicians? If any reader has any idea, please let me know.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Sustainable Food Supply, the Murray/Darling Irrigation Dedate.

Crop preparation in the irrigation area.

There is a certain degree of irony in the current Murray/Darling River irrigation debate. Here we are with wide spread flooding across N.S.W., while the irrigation centre of Griffith is in the middle of a flood crises, while the debate goes on over the size of irrigation water rights cuts. I don't see myself in any way hostile to environmental issues, but the dramatic suggested cuts 37%  to irrigation water for Australia's food bowl, needs far closer examination from  both the Federal Government and the  conservation movement. Every thing in this world can not necessarily be reduced to black and white.

As an original pioneer settler in the Coleambally Irrigation Area, I feel obliged to to a certain extent the deep concerns of irrigation farmers. The debate seems to be following the usual blinkered course of the conservation movement, all farmers are villains, and the current state of the Murray River is due to farmers taking out too much water. It is all very well for arm chair urban critics, to point the finger at irrigation farming, but we are not talking about over watering the lawn, but Australia food bowl. Most of the criticism is both ill informed and even insulting to the farmers concerned. Most farmers,I have known over some fifty years, consider themselves as custodian of their land, land to be passed on from one generation to the next.

The suggested cuts of some 37%  to water allocation borders on the unbelievable. We are talking about cuts to the areas that supply some 40% of this country's food. Do we intend to import all our food from China, along with everything else? The Coleambally Irrigation Area of which I have personal experience, was developed by a group very hard working Australians. People who were prepared to go and live in this remote part of the country, hundreds of miles from any city in central N.S.W.  Many lived and brought up their families in an enclosed section of  machinery sheds, often for many years. Nearly ever month, some one would be killed in a farm accident, generally due to fatigue from their 16 to 18 hour working days. I doubt many of our urban critics would put up with such conditions for one moment.

Recent improved irrigation techniques have been introduced over the years, from trickle irrigation to laser grading of land for rice cultivation. The Australian Conservation Foundation uses grossly incorrect date about water usage in the Murray-Darling farming areas. Rather than cutting blindly, a study should be carried out to protect the most fertile and productive areas of our farmland, like any property certain sections grow better crops than other parts of the same property. Why would you cull the most productive farmland in Australia. We need to restucture our farming industry, most people don't seem to realize or don't care about the fact, that over the last ten years, Australia has reduced its productive agricultural land by some 25%, due to urban sprawl. This is an urgent matter, of concern to everyone who calls this country home.  It is up to us to make sure that this country remains self sufficient as a  food producer. There is no hard position in the matters our existence, comprise is required from all interested parties.