Sunday, 24 September 2017

Nine days in Mexico

There's a great moment in Dead Poet's Society where Robin William's character tries to impress upon his students that it's important to see things from a new perspective in life. It's the bit where he gets up on a desk, and he obviously made quite an impression because, in the dramatic scene where his character is dismissed from the school for opening the students' minds to dangerous thoughts, every student jumps on their desks as an honour guard, quoting "Oh captain, my captain," by Walt Whitman.

Never seen the film? You are SERIOUSLY missing out. Go watch it NOW. It's timeless and powerful.

Anyhoo, change can be good for the soul, and as the saying almost goes, a holiday is as good as a change.  A couple of months back, Janet and I started talking about it being time for a holiday. Refresh our minds, refresh our spirits... that sort of thing.

We really love holidays, partly because we don't get many of them but part of the problem is that we're very good at finding reasons NOT to go (like money's a bit tight... which is true... but it's true for everyone and not a complete roadblock). So after bouncing the idea around for a bit, we decided to go... but where.

We're pretty familiar with the south coast, and have had holidays to Forster, Port Macquarie and Gold Coast... so Janet suggested we spin the compass around and head to Melbourne.

Nikki is a big fan of Melbourne and often (mistakenly) argues that it's a better place than Sydney, making the venue an easy sell. When I moved out of Sydney after spending six years I was glad to see the back of the place, but it's still MY capital... and I'm nothing if not parochial. Or stubborn. Or possibly blinkered at times.

I'd never been to Melbourne (yep, never in all my many, many years on the planet) so, what the hey... let's check out Australia's second best capital. And, to make even more of an adventure, let's squeeze as much of Victoria as we can into nine days and eight nights.

I've heard rave reviews about Lakes Entrance and the East Gippsland area so let's start there. Next, let's head to Melbourne. Can't check in until 2pm, though, so let's detour to Phillip Island for the morning, and then onto Melbourne. After three day there, off to Ballarat where we went (including Jamie) something like 10 years ago, before Bobby was born, and then have a final day/night in Echuca before coming back home.

Well that's the plan. A pretty over-ambitious plan, it might be argued... too much driving around... too many activities. I'm already having second thoughts, but it's done now. Monies have been exchanged. Debts have been committed. Turns out, I'm NOT the world's best negotiator so I ended up spending a packet on accommodation... plus another packet on activities and events, so right from the get go I've managed to pile on a whole lot of extra unnecessary anxiety and anticipation. But what's a holiday without that stuff, right?

Anyway, after ticking off the days, and then the hours,  the day came. Few of us, as it turned out, actually got anything like a full night's sleep before the alarm clock announced it was 4am, but hey, it's only a 6 hour drive. Who needs to be wide awake (and I was plenty awake, for the record). Time to get up and go.

DAY 1 (Saturday Sept 23):

Five o'clock, and we're in the car. We packed the night before, no-one's running late and we're on schedule (yep, I've got a schedule... got a problem with that?).

That was probably the perfect sweet spot for leaving, if not for sleeping. Sunrise spilled over the ranges on our left as we reached Lake George and by the time we hit Canberra's outskirts, it was fully light.

Here comes the sun.

The lighter it got, the more road kill you could see. Poor little skippies. And wombats. Mind you the cars they hit probably didn't feel that way, but I lost count at 30 before we even reached Bredbo.

By the time we reached Cooma, no-one was hungry enough to stop for Brekky yet, which I took as an endorsement for my musical/dramatic audio choices (and you better believe there was a schedule for that!) and so we pushed on to Bombala, and a quick snack at the Bombala Bakery. I wanted to give their chunky pie a crack, but had to settle for a plain pie. Should have stuck to my guns and said chunky or no pie at all. Thankfully, Bobby didn't finish his caramel eclair, hit the spot nicely.

So, we were well fed, but the same can't be said for the herd of cattle grabbing what feed they could find twenty minutes out of Bombala. Some drivers seem to struggle with the need to go slow for the (roughly) 2 km the cows were spread across. For me, I was thinking more about the poor farmer who was that desperate for stock feed he needed to take the herd on the road.


The paddocks were anything but lush all the way until about Cann River when the pale yellow started to get greener. I've never been to Cann River before, and no sooner had we got there then I excitedly said to Janet that one of the really great things about this trip is that, in places like Cann River and Lakes Entrance, we were heading to places that NONE of us had seen before.

"Hang on, I remember this place from that time Chris, Maddy, Aaron and I came through here on the way to Melbourne," says Nikki from the back.


Anyway, it's a nice town, Cann River. Might go back there some day.

First thing you know I'll be back in Cann River again.
We had a look at Orbost (nice little town) and a few other places on the way, and by 11.30am we were at Paradise Holiday Apartments in Lake Bunga to see when we could check-in.

We had until 12.30 so we grabbed some ice creams at Riviera Ice Cream Parlour. This place is incredible... they make their own ice cream and it's bloody fantastic.

Me with English Toffee/Anzac Bikky double scoop... Bobby with Blue Heaven.
The Ice Creams were a godsend as the temperature hit 35 degrees. It might have been a good idea to stay in the shade, but Bobby and I had some scores to settle. Putt Putt scores. Bobby has become a bit of a Putt Putt dominator on PS4 and I've been trying to tell him that it's a whole different story in the real world. To that effect, we're running the PGA tournament (Puttputt Golf Association) over the course of the week/ Time to teach Bobby a lesson.

Lakes Entrance has four (count them, four) separate putt putt/mini golf centres (but NONE in Goulburn... what's the story?). We chose one at random, the Black Ball & Basket. Long story short... my putter was crooked and my ball was wonky and, I dunno, there was a glitch in the matrix and SOMEHOW Bobby won the first tournament.

Round 1 to Bobby.
We picked up lunch... Fish and Chips from Fish-A-Fare. There's a stack of fish and chip shops in Lakes Entrance, as you'd expect, so I couldn't tell you which is best but the manager of the place where staying at gave it a good review and she was right, it was pretty bloody good. We all had blue grenadier and chips. I have to say I felt like I was demeaning myself to ask for "potato cakes" instead of scallops, but when in Mexico...

After lunch Janet, Bobby and I drove the five or six kilometres back in to town intending to get into the paddleboats. We crossed the footbridge across the inlet (?) to where the paddleboat place was but it had the big `closed' sign up. Very disappointing. Their website says they are opened weekends and school holidays. They might want to look into that.

Anyway, we kept going to the beach bit. Did I mention it was 35 degrees. Bobby had no dramas heading for the beach but it was AT LEAST 500 miles away, shimmering in the distance. As I trudged through the hot sand, sweat dripping off me, all I could think of was Dune, and Tattoine, and Lawrence of Arabia. Putting all that to one side, I heroically trudged on with my last ounce of strength, got to Bobby and Janet as he collected seashells, only to remember we had to trudge back.

Another long story short, we made it back and I hardly sooked or whinged at all. Much.

Bobby had been pretty keen for the paddle-boating so to cheer him up we took him to Griffith Sea Shell Museum. It's a quaint, friendly and quirky place and as it turned out, the highlight of the trip so far according to Bobby. There's a shop out the front, two lovely owners that make you feel at home and then a fairly eclectic museum out that back that includes a number of aquariums with a range of aquatic residents, thousands of sea related knick knacks, sea shells and gems AND even a massive model train set running out the back.

Lovin' it.
Dinner was burgers from Reggies Slipway and I found that sold Cookies Chicken (the same brand of fried chicken they used to sell at Isy's Takeaway in Bradfordille). Happy Belly. We picked up some more ice cream from the Riviera and watched some telly. can't tell you what was on... I was snoring by 8pm.

End of Day 1.

DAY 2 (Sunday Sept 24):

Start with a head count.

Four souls on board. No-one's killed each other and there's no signs of cabin fever. Yet. I'm taking that as a win.

Bit of a sleep-in today, then we're off to Bairnsdale for the Bairnsdale Fun Park and all the fun of the fair (plus the more serious stuff... the second leg of the PGA). When we get there, the closed sign is on the gate, and I had a bit of a Wally World moment.

But we were just early and at 10am we were right to go.

The Fun Park lives up to it's name and there's a bunch of great stuff to do. They've got archery, laser tag, kids go carts, bungee trampoline, mini golf, and a stack more. The crowd was down as we got there but we were advised that happens on windy days. It grows a bit while we're there but to be honest, the smallish crowd was more of a positive... no queues and quick access to anything we want.

We started with mini golf and, these being enlightened times, Bobby and I decided to allow a woman to join the Puttputt Golf Association.

The course was fine... probably a bit simpler and less elaborate that the one we'd played at Lakes Entrance, but maybe that was enough for the cream to rise to the top.

Running Total... one game each to me and Bobby (and yes, I know he's only 8 but I've got him in my sites, and if I get a chance, I will take him down to China Town. Belee Dat).

So where were we. Ah, Archery. Gotta say, hadn't done this since the old Vacation Camps at the old Telecom property or whatever it was called in Bishop Street. Green Arrow and Robin Hood have little to fear from me as it turns out but geez I enjoyed it. Bobby showed a bit of talent with the bow and arrow, but struggled a little with the patience side of things. Might be worth pursuing when we get home.

After that,it was the obligatory bouncing castle for Bob followed by the go karts, his favourite (twice). He had the track to himself, which was probably for the best, but he was pretty chuffed after his first crack at unassisted driving. Even parked the kart better than half the people at the back of Centro.

Then it was off to Bairnsdale for lunch. One of the guys at the Fun Park suggested we try George's Burgers in Bairnsdale and I'm a big fan of following local's tips, so George's Burgers it was. And not a bad feed.

On the way into Bairnsdale we saw a few kids parks that looked pretty good including one with the "biggest slippery dip in the world." That's Bobby's verdict, anyway, and who am I to disagree. Biggest or not, it was bloody big (and so were the stairs back up) so Bob just had the two goes.

Them slippery dips is thirsty work.
That, and he spotted a zipline/flying fox.

We were all very impressed about how well served Bairnsdale is for public spaces for kids. Bobby was like a kid at.... an all abilities playground when he spotted the Bairnsdale All Abilities Playground. My wife, who is much better informed on such matters than I, reckoned it was one of the best kids play areas she has ever seen and even I thought it was pretty amazing. We had a few more things to do yet and didn't linger all that long, but it left a lasting impression.

We headed over the Paynesville next and caught the ferry across to Raymond Island. I'd heard good things about the place.... you'll see kangaroos and koalas everywhere, that sort of thing... but we searched a hell of a lot of the island and found just the one koala. maybe you'll have more luck than we did. Either way, it's a cool drove around the island but mostly dirt roads.

Back across the ferry (it's only $12 per car for a return ride, so it's not cheap) and then back to the Griffiths Sea Shell Museum because apparently one visit isn't enough. Then more tucker and a little more sleep.2.

End of Day 2.

DAY 3 (Monday Sept 25):

We had plans to squeeze a lot into Day 3 and that meant another early start. Again, everyone was ready in time and it was off to Phillip Island, and then to Melbourne.

The drive becomes a bit of a blur. Trying to remember something unique or... memorable... about each town or city along the way for future reference is difficult. Stratford, Sale (had brekky at McDonalds and I think I saw a Performing Arts Centre?), Rosedale, Traralgon, Morwell, Mirboo North, Leongatha, Inverloch, Wonthaggi, San Remo and then we were in Phillip Island.

A couple of quick notes about driving in rural Victoria. Firstly, MANY of their roads are amazingly straight, and in many areas, the land is as flat as a tack. I also love their town names... not because they are better or worse than NSW but they're unfamiliar to me. Leongatha, Wonthaggi... disappointed I didn't get to see Nar Nar Good, Narre Warren and Koo Ree Rup.

One thing they might like to look at though... their flashing signs that indicate that you need to give way to pedestrians are worded "Give way to Peds." That would mean something different in NSW.

So we're in Phillip Island, and it's much bigger than I thought. Also it's much further away from the heart of Melbourne than I thought so the half dozen or so ideas I had for things to do will have to be whittled down to a couple and maybe we'll go back their some day.

The first place we went to was the Phillip Island Chocolate Factory, featuring "Panny's Amazing World of Chocolate." This is a great place to take kids, and still pretty ok just for adults. You wander around a smallish chocolate museum that features fun chocolate facts and some interactives. There are a bunch of games where you can win wooden balls that can be traded in for chocolate balls, you can design your own flavours, makes edible chocolate squiggles (and eat them) and once you're through to the end, the chocolate gift shop sits back and collects on all of the chocolate cravings they've spent the last hour not-so-subliminally building up. Ka-ching.

I had planned to take us to A Maze 'N Things, which to no great surprise included a maze, and things like more putt putt, Puzzle Island, Magic Manor and Sky Trail's tree top rope bridges, but time was against us, so we drove down to the Phillip Island Racing Circuit and did a few things there. Incidentally, Phillip Island is huge. Did you guys already know that? I didn't. I only just learned it was connected to the mainland by a bridge a few months ago, and now I find out there are several towns on the island. What the hell was I doing in Geography classes at school?

There's a lot to do at the circuit, including go-karting and a great gift store. Having parted with some cash, it was back in the car and off to our apartment in Docklands. If I had my choices again, I'd try to make at least a day at Phillip island, maybe more. There's a bunch to do, lots of lookouts and sight seeing things, several wildlife parks and the penguin parade at nights, and a lot more. Anyway, it's all in the memory banks now. Maybe next time.

The major roads in and around Melbourne, to an outsider, are like someone has dropped a spoon full of noodles onto a plate and called it a map. It's not that they're bad, they're just unfamiliar to me. I place my life in the figurative hands of my SatNav and hope we get through unscathed. If you have an e-toll thingy for Sydney, it also works in Melbourne, so that's one less stressy phone call to be made.

Having survived the dodging and ducking of trams and roads I didn't know, we made it to just outside the apartments we're staying in, and that's where I blew a gasket (not the car... me).

The place has no office there so you're meant to message the guy who comes and gives you the keys to get into the car park and into you room. Thing is, there's no parking out the front so I ducked into the driveway of our underground parking. After pissing off several cars that I was blocking, and then some guy who didn't identify himself but told me I had to move along, I started doing laps until the guy came down, gave Janet the key, and we could park and access our room. The guy was great and really helpful, but the system of having to wait in your car when there's no car spots could definitely do with a tweak.

That being said, Harbour Escape Apartments are fantastic. We're on the 18th floor, so the views are great (including partial Docklands Harbour views). The amenities are nice, the rooms are large and we're in a great location. We're about 200m from the free tram network, 300m from Etihad Stadium and 500m from Harbour Town and the Melbourne Star. It's a very handy base of operations.

We hopped on a tram and headed into town. I hadn't eaten so food was number one on my mind, and belly. I grabbed the Lord of the Fries poutine near Flinders Street station (everyone else grabbed something else) and we ate it at Federation Square. I also found a place called Betty's Burgers and Concretes where I got a chocolate frozen custard thick shake (pretty good) and we MAY have dropped into All Star Comics. For Bobby.

Back to the apartment for a feed and a snooze, and then on to day 4.

DAY 4 (Tuesday Sept 25):

The plan for Tuesday was a bit on the busy side but unlike the previous day, we ticked off every box.

The first booked activity was to go to Legoland Discovery Centre in the Chadstone Shopping Centre, but a little bit of detective work showed me that The Block from the TV series of the same name was more or less on the way.

Have to say... was a bit concerned that some big, burly security guy might move us along. Or Scotty. Or big Keithy. Or Shelly Croft. But there was none of that. The houses are completed, which provided a bit of dissonance as we watch the show which is still showing what they were up to weeks/months ago.

There were a few tradie trucks in the street, no doubt addressing minor stuff, but no contestants, no Channel 9 crew and only local residents and a couple of other rubber necks like ourselves.

In a few weeks they'll have the open houses and there'll be no parking for blocks around. As it is there's not much access to rear parking through the narrow access points at either end but that's a problem for the impending buyers.

The scene they WON'T show you on The Block.
That completed it was over to the Chadstone Centre... a pretty big place that seems to fancy itself as a fashion centre. Funny I was unaware of that being the fashion plate that I am, but I digress.

The Legoland Discovery Centre is up several flights near the Hoyts Centre and it's everything a tiny brick builder could want. There are two fully functional rides inside, many lego displays, play centre/gym, activity and learning areas AND a 4D cinema showing a Ninjago movie complete with smoke, wind and rain effects. Watching Bob grasping at the things that appeared to stick out from the screen was a highlight for me. The 4D cinema alone is the sort of thing you'd expect to see at Movie World and I was pretty impressed with the quality of the whole shebang, especially for primary school aged kids.

Bobby trying to get his breakdance on, but Lego guy... he no play.

There's a special going at the moment where you can buy a combined ticket for Legoland and Melbourne Aquarium so we took advantage of that, and that pretty much dictated where we went next.

To avoid traffic snarls, we parked back at the apartment and took a tram. I have to say, I'm getting pretty hooked on trams (and will rave about them a b it later). One dropped us bang in front of the front door of the Aquarium and once inside you follow a very imaginative path up and down three or four levels, through different themes and logical areas.

The Aquarium is a high quality marine zoo, and they've put a lot of thought into their themes, colours and journey to make it appealing to kids and not at all annoying for parents.

It's all in there... small sea life you can put, sharks, a crocodile and all of Dory's mates in between.

There's a stack of activities, including many places where kids and smallish adults can stick their heads up into domes inside tanks.

Under the sea... everything's better, down where it's wetter... take it from me.
As with any good show, they save the best for last, although I don't know which of these two is the best (choose your own adventure).

There's a tribe/herd/flock/raft/waddle of penguins in a huge enclosure complete with a swimming pool and layers of fake snow. The little buggers dash through the water and all looked very chilled (pun intended) on "land", that is except for one tightly packed clump looking up at a fixed point where nothing was visible, possibly listening to some message from their penguin overlord. It was pretty freaky deaky, and if there's a mass escape any time soon... well, the signs were there.

Pengwings, as Benedict Cumberbatch calls them.
The other big finish to the tour is yet another 4D film, again with wind, rain, snow etc. This one was set in the Ice Age series with appearances by the major characters but focused on that Sabre Toothed Squirrel obsessed with chasing nuts. Obviously time travel is involved, but I don't want to spoil it beyond that.

I could sense no-one believed me when I said I'm a fashion plate. Who's laughing now?
I'd recommend Melbourne Aquarium highly. It's a solid hour and a half to two hours but you don't feel like rushing... and you could take longer if you wanted. ALMOST everything you would want to see in an Aquarium (no Great Whales, Krakens or Behemoths I noted, but space is at a premium and some things have to go for the good of the place).

Back to the trams, and back home and you could be excused if you thought that was enough gallivanting for a day, but we had one more event up our sleeves... the Melbourne Star. It's like the London Eye, but closer. Cursed as I am with bad luck, I remembered at the last minute that I had something else to do and was not at ALL scared of heights, so Janet, Nikky and Bobby went up while I... searched for that other thing I'd forgotten to do.

The Melbourne Star takes about 30 minutes to do a full circuit, and never stops during opening hours so you board the thing while it's moving... ever so slowly. The views (I was reliably informed) are spectacular and very much worth the trip.

Nikky and Bobby... not the least bit scared. And neither was I, ok!!!
That done and it was back to the apartment, but first we had ANOTHER score to settle. It was back to the PGA. This time Bobby and I went to Glow Golf in Docklands which I liked, but didn't love. The holes and place mats aren't illuminated and it's a bit hard to navigate your way through. Some things (like the balls, some putters and my shirt) glow in the UV areas, but the course could do with some tinkering. On the positives, the ute they use for the 15th hole was very cool.

UNRELATED to that review, it was also the scene of another Bobby triumph. Running score: 2-1 to Bobby. The tournament continues in Ballarat.

Then home, some local pizza, and some local snoozing.

More to come.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Ten years later...

We lost dad 10 years ago today. In some ways, we lost him five days earlier when he went into the coma. That was the day we got the call to go to the hospital, when we gathered as they said last rites over him for the first time. It was a shock for all of us. You don’t die from a hip operation, right? But embolisms happen, and sometimes that’s how it goes.

It was a horrendous five days. Adjusting to the news, flipping between hoping it would all be ok while preparing for the worst. Our hopes bounced around like popcorn. And then, like everyone who has lost someone, we had to get on with life without him.

I have some baggage from dad’s death. If I hadn’t pushed and pushed to get him to have his hip operation early… in time for my wedding… who knows what would have happened. And on the day he died, after five days of sitting outside Intensive Care units in Goulburn and then Canberra, feeling like nothing was changing and wanting an hour of “normality”, I went to a rugby club meeting and turned my phone off for an hour and a half. That’s when he passed. While frantic phone calls from my mum and the social worker at the hospital were being made to me, when I was needed most, I had my phone off and was sitting talking about pre-season rugby or some other such bullshit.

Anyway, that’s some stuff I can’t change and can beat myself up over when the mood strikes. But there’s one bit of baggage I could do something about. It relates to a choice I made with regard to his burial. John Crooks, funeral director, told me that dad was eligible for an Australian flag as a Nasho who’d completed his service and earned an Australian Defence Medal. I didn’t take long to think about it and said no thanks. I know dad got embarrassed when anyone brought up nashos. For a start, dad never bragged. Ever. Okay, when Parra or NSW won, but that was pretty much it. He had never seen action, but had friends and family who had and didn’t think he’d done anything special. I remember things he’d said about some Nashos he felt made too big a deal of it.

So, I said no to the flag, and I was confident at the time, but since I’ve begun to think that the flag wasn’t for dad so much as for his loved ones. Over the years I’ve wondered if I let the family down in saying no, so I contacted John Crooks (who had done such a great job getting me through the funeral service ten years ago) to ask if it was too late to get the flag. Thanks to him, and the great guys at the RSL sub branch, I had the flag in a couple of days, along with a poignant chat with sub-branch president Gordon Wade about the significance of the nashos efforts. My dad wore the uniform, he said, and prepared to defend the country, and that’s no small thing.

So we got the flag, and he was entitled to it for his national service according to the Department of Defence, and who am I to argue with them.  But it strikes me he was entitled to it in so many other ways.

For a life time of working the farm against growing debt and mounting obstacles. For working six and sometimes seven days a week and holding second and third jobs at Gulsons brickworks, driving taxis, delivering milk and delivering bread to make sure we ate. For sacrificing holidays his entire work life in order to do all he could to hold on to the farm. For decades with the Tarlo bushfire brigade risking life and limb to help save I couldn’t guess how many properties and lives. For somehow bouncing back from the day the semi-trailer flew over the top of Gordon Vale hilland tore through the grazing flock, killing hundreds of head of sheep. For somehow, even though he knew he was fighting a losing battle with trying to keep the farm afloat, getting up out of bed every morning and working his arse off, somehow not succumbing to the depression that claimed the lives of two of his siblings and, driven by an intense sense of duty and responsibility, kept trying to provide for his family.

Flag? There should be a bloody medal.

We move on, the world keeps spinning, but I think of you every day and I know the loss for mum has been even more  painful. I remember you through the stories that I bore people to tears with from repetition. I still drive your car with your number plates on it and I still measure myself against your example. I don’t measure up yet but it’s a work in progress. Love you dad. That'll be all. Stand down, Private.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Fiddling as Goulburn burns

When I was a kid, my world was very small. Living at 91 Mundy Street, I kicked around with friends who lived nearby… like Sergio Vigone, Bob Adams and Chris Griffin (and when I was adventurous, some of the guys up the road in exotic locales like Kelso Street).

When I was young we played in our backyards or on the street which had a lot of dirt on it back then. And when I was a little older, we’d hop on our bikes and ride to City View Shops or Blue Hills to buy lollies and play pinnies, then back home for driveway cricket, cicada catching and Astro Boy on TV.

And across all of that time, St John’s Orphanage towered over the area like a castle. In fact that’s what I thought it was for years, something like the mysterious buildings I’d seen on Scooby Doo dominating the skyline like Colditz or Edinburgh Castle, providing a foreboding silhouette each night.

When I got to school I discovered that kids lived in it… that it was an orphanage. I didn’t fully understand the concept but I met and got to know many of those kids really well. They came from different places and different circumstances, but what they had in common for the most part was that they were young kids forced, through no fault of their own, to be living outside a family home environment. I can’t imagine how frightening that must have been.

Anyway, from getting to know many of the kids, I heard a few horror stories about the home, and also a lot of good stories. Knowing what we do about institutional care these days, I wouldn’t doubt there were some horrible mistreatments there over it’s long life but I also know of one nun in particular (whose name I forget) who took on caring for some of the kids in a cottage around the corner in Auburn Street. I’ve only ever heard stories about her spoken with absolute reverence, respect and love by the kids she looked after. She and others like her were an oasis at a pretty shitty time in their lives.

I got a pretty good look at the place over the later primary school years, riding past St John's on my three-gear Malvern Star Dragster (complete with sissy bar) to and from basketball at the Recreation Area, and got an even closer inspection when I visited a few times with some of the kids as time went by. I saw some boxing and karate classes as a guest of some of the residents, went to some fetes, and the premises was more awe-inspiring than I’d imagined. Possibly not so much if you lived there, but as an outsider it was like a mansion or some stately manor.

All of these memories and others have been swirling around since the series of fires at St John's orphanage in the last few days, weeks and months.

The people who lived there, who experienced the place first hand, will have their own memories of the place. Maybe some of them would be happy to see St John’s burned down. And for those who suffered in their time there, I don’t blame them for thinking that at all.

For mine, I was strictly an observer, an outsider.  To be honest, I didn’t/haven’t given it a lot of thought over the years but it never occurred to me that it wouldn’t be there one day. But the recent fires have reminded me of what a grand old building it is, of the potential it had and maybe, by some small miracle, still has.

As a town, we have a lot to answer for. We sold our Odeon and our Hoyts. We sold the Lilac Time Hall and we let some beautiful old buildings become run down to the point of demolition. Whether or not St John’s is salvageable or not, there are other great buildings… huge, great edifices of times gone by… that can be saved, or let deteriorate.

I don’t know what needs to be done to ensure our great buildings of heritage significance are saved. I don't know what we need to do, but I’m certain what we do next is important.

Do we give a crap and find a way to preserve these buildings, or just shrug.

History is watching.

As we fiddle.

As Goulburn burns.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Cinderella Reds make history


Dirty Reds captain and co-coach Mikael Webber holds aloft the ACT 1st division 1st grade trophy.

It was a story sixty years in the making when the Goulburn Dirty Reds won their first ever premiership in a full ACT competition, defeating favourites Gungahlin in a nail-biting 18-17 victory.

Trailing by six points with around five minutes on the clock, scrum half and man of the match Jackson Reardon broke through the Gungahlin line for the match sealing try which, when converted by Mikael Webber, gave the Reds the slender one-point lead.

With just minutes remaining, Gungahlin threw the kitchen sink at the Reds, camped just metres out from the Goulburn try-line, but Goulburn’s resolute defence held the determined Eagles out for the final whistle and the historic win.

Webber, who has played in six premiership-winning Goulburn sides, rated this among the best of them.

“That was by far the toughest game we’ve had all year and one of the toughest ever,” Webber said.

“To come from where we were, just scrape into third and finish like that, it’s really good to be a part of.”

Boyd Newby darted across for a try that put the Reds up 11-5 midway through the second half.

While the premiership marked a “threepeat” for the club (three back to back premierships), it seemed anything but likely throughout the season.

In the previous two seasons the Dirty Reds had rolled through the old Monaro competition like a behemoth, knocking over oppositions and with record scores consistently.

But from the very beginning of season 2016 it was clear this year they’d be underdogs.
In the first round, as luck would have it on the very same Vikings Park, the club could only scrape together 19 players to play two full games of rugby against Tuggeranong with most players backing up.

Player departures and retirements had depleted player numbers significantly in the off season and then a horror mid-season injury toll to that ruled out key players like Webber, Boyd Newby and Wayde Elford among others again required many players to back up week in, week out.

Then, having made the semis, the Reds faced three weeks of sudden death knockouts, the last of those against minor premiers Gungahlin.

Life Member Terry Tilden, flanked by Boyd Newby (left) and Mikael WSebber (right) had waited sixty seasons, from playing in the very first game for Goulburn's inaugural team in an ACT competition in 1957, to see a Goulburn ACT premiership.
But digging deep, the Reds pulled out all stops for a gutsy, disciplined effort and the club’s first ever premiership in a full ACT competition.

The Reds started the match with a serious concussion to rangy front rower Sam Tabner that pulled up play for five minutes.

Although rattled by the injury, the Reds set to the job at hand and put together a six-nil lead from two Webber penalty goals, before Gungahlin narrowed the lead to one point with a try just before half time.

A try to Boyd Newby pushed Goulburn ahead 11-5 but Gungahlin responded in kind to be 11-10 down midway through the second half.

Attacking the Eagles line, Webber threw a rare misjudged pass that was intercepted by Gungahlin for a length of the field try against the run of play.

When converted, Gungahlin went in front (17-11) for the first time in the match with just 10 minutes remaining in play, before Reardon’s try and Webber’s conversion sealed the result.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Salvaging something from St Patrick's Day

Today is St Patrick’s Day.

Around the world, the green beer will be flowing, corny jokes will be told and ridiculously tall, gravity-defying leprechaun hats will be worn.

It’s a day of silliness, froth and frivolity that has transcended its religious origins, and that’s not a bad thing. Fun is good.

But there are places where St Patrick’s Day has taken on a very different significance.

One of those places is Ballarat. Another is Goulburn.

Growing up, I always looked forward to St Pat’s Day. I didn’t know then what I know now.

A student at St Pat’s Primary for four years, and a further six at St Pat’s College, the day always started with a mass at St Peter and Paul’s Cathedral. Around six hundred kids from the college and another couple of hundred from the primary school crammed into the cavernous church along with the teachers, staff and a number of parents.

The cathedral is an awe-inspiring piece of architecture, no risk, but it’s more than just what you can see.

When all of those voices would combine and sing “Hail glorious St Patrick” and a series of other hymns, it was real shivers-down-the-spine material. I haven’t been to the former Cardiff Arms Park when the Welsh sing "Land of our Fathers", or Murrayfield when the Scots belt out "O Flower of Scotland"… but I imagine it’s a bit like that.

When Mass was done and dusted, the College students headed back up the hill to celebrate the feast day. And St Pat’s Day offered a lot to appeal to any student… casual clothes, no classes, silly events… it was like a sanctioned muck up day.

On top of the obligatory Irish Joke telling competition, there was a game of something called “Kiwi Rules” football… which I think the school invented. It was a bit like Gaelic Football, using a soccer ball and standard rugby goal posts and hardly any rules.

Essentially a student team would play against a team of teachers and the result was usually mayhem, with a few get-squares thrown in for good measure.

The day rats would go home, the boarders went back to their dorms, and that was St Pat’s Day.

It seemed like fun.

There was a lot that I enjoyed about St Pats and, for the most part, I benefitted from my time there. I assumed most others did too. It took me many years to discover how drastically some other students’ experiences differed from mine.

Back in the day

My experience of the school was fairly benign. I got the strap a hell of a lot in the earlier years (for being a loudmouth and a smart arse mostly… imagine that). I had problems with a couple of teachers, experienced a bit of bullying occasionally (but not so much that it was ongoing or that I dreaded going to school), but mine was a fairly unexceptional experience.

My class started their time at St Pat’s back in 1978, and for those who stayed the whole six years, finished in 1983.

The boarders, something like a third of the students at any given time, came from across the length and breadth of Southern NSW. From the South Coast, the Snowy Mountains, the Riverina and the Central West, kids were loaded onto the Southern Aurora and the Inter Capital Daylight Express to be picked up at the Goulburn Railway Station by the College’s mechanically challenged bus… the “Titanic,” or arrived in their parents Land Rovers, utes, BMWs, Toranas, paddock bashers…  you name it.

It was a real melting pot. For every politician, captain of industry or member of the landed gentry that sent their kids there, there was someone else with the arse out of their pants scraping together the school fees in the belief that they might be giving their children a good, comprehensive religious education.

It wasn’t that the school was expensive by comparison with comparable Sydney based schools, but it did involve considerable financial sacrifice for some people all the same, my parents included.

Some parents sent their kids to St Pat’s because of word of mouth or as a result of the roll call of former students. Some had gone to the college themselves. In my case, my dad didn't have the opportunity to go there as he took over the family farm from an early age, but four of his brothers went to the College.

For whatever reason they were there, all St Pat’s students found themselves making their way up the same front drive for their first day at school.

For some, entirely unknowingly, they were being delivered into the hands of a calculating pedophile like lambs to the slaughter. Like sacrificial lambs of God.

The horrors endured by these kids is not my story to tell. I didn’t experience it, and didn’t even know about it at the time. I’ve heard some accounts in detail and many others I haven’t heard at all, and the stories are horrifying.

These kids experienced tortures and betrayals that could undo grown adults and in time, some of those stories may be told.

And now, as grown men, many of them stood tall recently, ready to recount their absolute worst memories… retelling the stories they’ve rarely told to anyone and would love never to tell again… eye to eye with the bastard responsible.

Tears in their eyes. Lumps in their throats.

Nobody's Children

Recently, a Christian Brother pleaded guilty to multiple charges of child abuse and some time soon he will be sentenced. I don’t know how that conviction affected the victims of abuse but it was a very emotional moment for many people, even on the outer periphery.

Further charges have been laid against other Christian Brothers and those cases will take their course.

But for now, the victims of St Patrick’s College child abuse feel cast adrift. There is no longer a college to apologise to them and take responsibility. St Pat’s Old Boys look to the buildings and sporting fields they know and remember so well, but they now bear another name.

Their world has moved on. Their past has been redacted.

Trinity Catholic College is now the name on the signs. It had no involvement with these events, and it isn’t their place to apologise or make amends, although a public statement of sympathy to victims who shared those same buildings, those same environs, wouldn’t go astray.

But from the Catholic Church locally… silence.

The world has washed its hands of the Old Boys of St Pats.

Just last week an Institute for Professional Standards and Safeguarding was launched by the Canberra Goulburn archdiocese, tasked with responding to complaints of child abuse. This new Institute says it will start with a presumption in favour of the complainant – in stark contrast to the treatment received by many victims historically.

It’s something, but still… where’s the apology from the church?

There are literally thousands of former students, many of them Catholics, or former Catholics, whose faith is hanging by a thread. For many, the thread has snapped. That number increases massively when you include their wives and families and friends.

For the survivors, and for the classmates of survivors, to buy the narrative that these instances of child abuse were isolated and intolerable to the church, they need to hear more anger from church officials that there are child abusers amongst their ranks, and they need to see more action from the church to route them out.

While this new investigating body is a positive step, it falls woefully short of a commitment to oust all perpetrators and those who assisted them.

From my discussions with classmates, there are two things the church NEEDS to say, and the first one is a simple motherhood statement that would cost them nothing:

“We abhor these violent and disgusting acts committed by people the children trusted to protect them, and apologise profusely to those who suffered at the hands of members of the church.”

Why there hasn’t been a local statement of apology mystifies me. It better not be fear of payouts… the church – any church – is meant to put people ahead of money and you only have to watch Kevin Rudd’s apologies to the Stolen generation to witness some of the healing properties of a heartfelt apology..

The second statement that’s needed, however, is much more important… and it needs to be something like this:

“The Catholic Church is committed to not only finding those who committed these acts, but also removing from the Church anyone who assisted in silencing and covering up these acts.”

A statement like that is crucial. It’s impossible to believe anything has changed or that the church can be trusted while ANY of those who turned a blind eye to these acts are allowed to retain their positions. And not just for the faithful. Those who never believed in the church, and those who have lost faith, deserve an apology and commitment to remove the guilty.

Standing up

I said before that this isn't my story to tell, but this next bit is. This is the reason I felt a need to write something.

From a fairly early age I was a fairly devout Catholic. For reasons of my own, I sought solace in my faith in my younger years and it helped me through tough times. I was an altar boy for many years and had a lot of interactions with brothers and priests, both in and outside of schools, and didn’t experience any abuse at their hands.

I didn’t hear any accounts of abuse during my school years, aside from comments about this brother being a bit strange or that brother being a bit pervy.

When I left school I remained a cheerleader for the church, for the Brothers and the school.

I didn’t realise how callous that must have felt to those who’d suffered during their time up there, to hear someone singing the praises of their abusers and the institution in which it happened.

I didn't realise how much I'd let my classmates down.

One former classmate, who is no fan of mine, accused me of being a large part of the problem for continually praising an institution in which abuse flourished, and for defending a church that took no action against abusers and those that allowed the abuse.

The guy also said a lot stuff about me that I strongly disagree with, but in that first respect he was right.

If I remain in the Catholic Church and don’t demand action, then I am a type of conspirator. And bear in mind, I’m a VERY lazy Catholic.

If it came to a legal case, there would be very little physical evidence to convict me of being a Catholic, and aside from Christmas and funerals you probably have a better chance of finding me in a health food store or a gym than a church these days.

But the Church isn’t just the buildings and the office holders, it’s the community of people that belong to it, and that includes poor practitioners like myself.

That community needs to defend those who have suffered and needs to remove from its number all who offended and allowed these acts, or we are ALL guilty of turning a blind eye.

Funnily enough, the champion of the piece has been a guy about the same age as my classmates, but who didn't even go to St Pat’s.

This guy, who I won’t name in case it interferes with his work, played a prominent role in Strike Force Charish. Along with his police colleagues, he has worked doggedly and diligently to bring justice for the victims who have all expressed a great sense of gratitude to him. It's meant a lot to them that someone in a position of authority finally had their back.

But for some even that support is too little and way too late.

Ripple effect

So where does that leave the former students of the former college?

For those who were abused, there are painful memories they wish they could forget. For those who weren’t abused, our memories have been built on ignorance and more than a few falsehoods.

What can we hold on to? What remains real?

Much of what will happen next is at least partially outside of our control.

There are more legal proceedings yet to come, and they will pan out how they will.

The church may or may not make a comment or take action. We can (and should) campaign for the church to become proactive, of course, but in the end that too is in the hands of others.

What we control is ourselves.

And in a strange way, what starts with Brothers, ends with ... brothers.

Since the building isn’t ours any more, and the organisation no longer exists, our school is the people who went through the place, and the guys either side of us are our brothers.

The kids you mucked up with and wagged with, the ones you had duster fights with, the ones you branded on the handball court and crowpecked in the back row of the choir in Eisteddfod practice. The kids you liked and the ones you couldn’t stand. The guys who experienced the same things you did, and the guys who didn’t. These are our brothers.

We’ve grown older and fatter but it’s just been an eye blink since we were the goofy teens that did the stupid, sometimes dangerous, often hilarious things we did.

It’s ok to remember good times and good friends without denying or forgetting these horrific abuses.

We can hang on to the bits that we enjoyed or that made us proud.

We can look up to the people we still believe in and reach out to the ones we still trust.

For those in a position to, they can follow through the legal procedures still pending.

And for those out in the periphery, we can just be there for a chat.

St Patrick’s College is gone, but we remain.

And maybe that’s a victory of a kind.

Today is St Patrick's Day.


Originally published online on the Goulburn Post website.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Game on

At long last (and boy, it's taken a long time), the Geeks have inherited the Earth.

Actually, that's a big call. We haven't inherited anything. We're still laughed at, socially shunned and often excluded but some of our practices are now more widely tolerated, so, you know, take your wins where you can get them.

And just what practices might these be, I pretend that you ask.


More specifically, Tabletop Games... which include board games, card games, role playing games... pretty much any game you can play (you guessed it) at a table.

AND without a screen.

No TVs, no tablets, no computer monitors and no phones.

Just a group of people sitting around, actually communicating and having fun around a game.

Tabletop games are undergoing a massive resurgence. Shops are springing up all over the place. In Canberra, where a couple of years ago there was one specialty games store (not including Games Workshop stores where they sell miniatures for war-gaming), there are now three as well as a board gamers restaurant. 

Unsurprisingly there are dozens of games shops in Sydney. Here in Goulburn, in addition to shops like Kmart, Target and Morton Brothers that have always had a games section, other shops like Revolution CD, The Pool Room and EB Games now stock a range of board games and the local library is now holding regular board game sessions.

There's probably a couple of main reasons for this upsurge in gaming.

A casual glance at the cinemas (and TV for that matter) shows the popularity of fantasy, science fiction and super heroes are at an all time high. Many of the board and card games available cover related areas and so it's probably no surprise that they share some of the same fans.

The other key reasons, I suspect... without so much as a scrap of evidence ... is a reaction to the impact and intrusions screen have in our lives.

Tabletop gaming requires a screen-free experience. It requires interaction, communication and simple plain old fashioned fun.

Games, of course, are not necessarily old-fashioned. Sure you can still get Scrabble, Yahtzee, Cluedo and Monopoly (NOTE: Beware of Monopoly... more on that later), but even those old stalwarts have gone through some changes. There are literally hundreds of variations of Monopoly, dozens of versions of Cluedo and Risk (each themed after a TV show, movie or some other pop culture connection), and even the Game of Life, Operation, Trouble and Guess Who provide new themed versions.

Even card games that were once limited to standard card decks and games like Euchre, 500, Canasta and Bridge now include clever purpose built card games like Uno (again with over 100 variations), SkipBo, Five Crowns and Rage.

The old favourites still exist, many with modifications, but there's a whole world of new games out there. From the quick and simple, to the complex and engaging. Many of those are totally suited to a family night of PG entertainment. Then again there's Cards against Humanity and a suite of similar games that may make it uncomfortable to look at some of your friends and family in the same light again.

Games nights are now becoming a real thing. Some people regularly get together with friends or families on a designated night of the week or month for some disconnected (ie no screens) fun and laughs around a table. There are even online "TV shows" that play, sample and review games (very helpful if you're keen to have a look before you part with your dollars) like the hugely popular Wil Wheaton's Tabletop.

For once, we're way ahead of the curve. We've had a games night almost every Saturday for over two years now, with points adding up towards the prestigious Gorbell Cup (made up from our two family names - Gordon and Campbell). So far... no deaths, no injuries and only a few rows. 

Our experience of our own particular version of games night has made me somewhat evangelical about Tabletop Gaming. It brings the family together once a week, we have some genuine interaction and fun, and we have a chance to get our geek on. But you don't even have to be a geek. There are many non geeky games on the market too. Don't get me wrong, I'm not implying we are a perfect family or have all the answers but it's something positive that we still all enjoy and look forward to.

So give it a bash. Get busy gaming. Want some tips? Check out the youtube gaming shows (like the one I linked above, or even contact me.. happy to pass on any knowledge or info I have). If you live in Goulburn, drop into Goulburn Tabletop Gamers Facebook page and say Hi. You might also like to read this article "10 steps to convert your friends to Tabletop Gaming."

But if you're thinking about bringing gaming into your lives, here are a few tips:

1. NO MONOPOLY. Ok, it's more of a guideline than a rule. The biggest problem with Monopoly is it's Nuclear Half Life. When you finally get to the point when all of the properties are owned, you are typically only a third of the way through it, and even after a few people get knocked out, it can still be a long torturous wait until the end. The pity is, Monopoly is actually a cool game, so IF you really want to play it, put in place some rules to keep the game short... maybe a time limit... or a rule that you each get no more than 10 laps of the board after all the properties are sold. OR.. there are now some versions of the game, like the newest Star Wars version, that not only limits the game to only about an hour (when you buy a property, that's it... no extra houses or motels, just bought or not bought) but it also introduces some unique star wars game play with it's Force cards. But if you're willing to risk family dysfunction and divorces, by all means, play old school Monopoly.

2. If it's going to be a semi regular occurrence, have a rotation as to who picks the game. There's nothing worse than not getting a say or being continuously outvoted. You may also want to keep a running tally of points across the year. Which leads to the next point...

3. There's no shame in trying to win. In fact, games nights are no fun unless everyone is trying to win, or help their team win (unless it's a co-operative game with no winners). If people are just favouring their best friend or other half it spoils it for everyone else. Enlightened self interest makes it fun. It doesn't mean you have to play like it's for sheep stations (unless you're playing Squatter... which IS for sheep stations). You can still be nice and laugh a lot while you wheel and deal and try to win.

4. If someone in your group is good at interpreting game rules (they're probably the same person that assembles flatpacks when you go to Ikea), trust them to do that job. It's a special skill, so give them advance notice of any new games you might want to play and remove one more of the landmines that can cause fighting on games night.

5. HAVE FUN. That's the whole point after all. Enjoy a few hours of escapism where the biggest thing you need to worry about is playing your cards right.

So go. Give it a bash. Why are you still here? You could be gaming. Just go.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Roosters come home to roost

I wouldn't want to be Mitchell Pearce just now. And that's not just because he plays for the Roosters (although that's part of it).

Imagine the most embarrassing thing you've ever done... or perhaps that should read "remember the most embarrassing thing you've ever done."

How many people knew about what you did?

Even if it got plastered all over social media, how far and wide did it spread?

Because from now on, Mitchell's got a few nicknames that are going to stick with him for life... and one of them will start with the word dog.

He follows in that growing tradition of sports people and celebrities who become notorious for one reason or another and get stuck with a great big scarlet letter on their foreheads.

Like I said... I really, REALLY, wouldn't want to be Mitchell Pearce just now.

Notice I DIDN'T say, poor Mitchell Pearce. He is the architect of his current situation. The repercussions he is experiencing are the consequences of his own actions.

Pearce went way beyond acceptable limits in his behaviour with the woman in the video, who, amazingly enough, was not attracted to his ability to wet his pants, and her couch, and simulate sex with her dog.

There is no defence that can be (apologies in advance for this next word) mounted for his behaviour towards her.

But I have to say the rest of it... the wetting of pants, even the pretending to have sex with the dog... I've seen or heard of that and worse many times before. And no I'm not excusing it, I'm making another point entirely.

In the rush to outrage, many sports writers have forgotten to mention the stories I imagine they've all heard, and some of the antics they've witnessed first hand, by sports people (and that's almost exclusively by sportsMEN) in local sporting clubs around the nation.

Sports clubs... particularly team sports clubs ... particularly men's footy clubs of all codes... are one of the last bastions where boys can be boys, where "being boys" means to feel free and even encouraged to continually outdo each other by setting new standards in "you'll never believe what thing-a-me just did."

As a previous sports journo and a bloke who's been around a few sporting clubs, I have to say the public wetting of pants ISN'T all that extreme. Some years ago, primarily at B&S balls, it wasn't uncommon for some guys to try and outdo each other by doing "the rash" in which they'd watch to see who's self-urination left the broadest stain on their daks. Renaissance men, they were. And that story is in no way the worst I could tell.

But I don't include that account to embarrass anyone, only to say that dopey, boorish and socially unacceptable behaviour is not new to sporting teams, and is definitely not limited to those at the elite level. I need to point out that disrespecting and mistreating women is a whole separate category again from just being a jerk.

But just with regards to stupid, outlandish and you might even say disgusting behaviour, I won't feign outrage because I used to laugh myself silly at some of the ridiculous things I heard of guys doing. I even egged some guys on to do a few ridiculous things, and the only reason I didn't do a lot of them myself is probably that I'm a a bit boring, bland and vanilla... and besides my toilet training as a kid took so long I didn't want to undo all that good work.

Some have suggested that grog is a problem for Pearce and for some other players that get into trouble. No schiesse, herr Sherlock. But so what. If drink is a problem and you are earning big dollars, then make the decision which you prefer... continuing to get the dollars or continuing to get on the drink.

But the grog's not the real issue. And neither is social media, which I haven';t mentioned until now because it's like air... it's everywhere and just assume that it will always be there. Perhaps the bigger problem is that many elite players don't make the connection between the amount they get and what is then required of them.

When D grade footy players from Uppercumbuckta West do something outrageous (and again, I'm not talking about anything that harms another person) then the damage they do will be to their own reputation, and potentially that of the club. If he's lucky he may pick up a few hundred dollars in match payments in a winning game, and maybe he might be fined some of that, but it's unlikely.

At the top level, an NRL footy player earning upwards of $700,000 gets that money for a lot of reasons, and talent is only one of those. A great player helps sides win matches, and success is good for a club.

But a successful club wants to have people love the club. Bad publicity leads to less bums on seats, less people buying merchandise, less sponsors wanting to be associated with the club. There are many hard working people, struggling with a mortgage and all of the other assorted costs of living, who earn a tenth (or less) of what these guys are earning. And should some of those guys stuff up, there are usually repercussions too although the publicity is on far less a scale.

When a top level sports person receives the big bucks, someone should draw them  a pie chart and explain that THIS much relates to your skill and THIS much relates to not being a dickhead. If you drop off a little in form, you may get a contract somewhere else for a bit less. But if you do something that makes you a pariah, you may lose THE LOT.

Sport is filled with the stories of both those that have a huge public stuff up that leads them to a "Road to Damascus" realisation and reform, and those that just continue to think their ability  alone is enough and that the big bucks don't come with an expectation of an amazing amount of attention and conditions.

Time will tell which group Mitchell Pearce belongs to.