Thursday, October 31, 2013


All four of us are pretty constant readers. We all read at breakfast, occasionally at lunch and once in a while someone asks "Can this be a reading dinner?" and we even read through that.

I have three history books on the go at the moment. Suspect History by Humphrey McQueen is a defence of historian Manning Clark. It’s actually a bit of a giggle because it deals with a time not that long ago when Australian academics were deeply and seriously ideological, and accusations flew around of this one or that one being in the pay of the KGB or CIA. The whole book is essentially dealing with an allegation that Clark once wore an Order of Lenin medal to a party.

The heaviest is Civilization by Niall Ferguson. A study of the big question, why did Western civilisation win out so completely after 1412? Jared Diamond puts it down to things like Eurasia’s fortune in having useful indigenous grasses and mammals. Ferg thinks northern Europeans were just better at organising, and his six ‘killer applications’ include property rights and the work ethic. Good book but I really hate his attempt at co-opting IT jargon to make his book seem funky and with-it.

The other book is Curtin’s Gift by John Edwards. Turns out that we have been lauding John Curtin (Australian wartime Prime Minister) for the wrong things all this time. Edwards says that many of his wartime achievements are over-estimated and misunderstood, whereas what he really did was set-up Australia’s postwar success. Conventional wisdom says he brought Australian troops back from the Middle East to defend the homeland against Churchill’s wishes, and moved Australia into the US orbit by inviting MacArthur to take command of all forces in the Pacific. Edwards says Churchill suggested the first and was a supporter of the second. The really big achievements are all in economic policy such as getting control of the banks, taking income taxation rights away from the states, and establishing full employment as government policy. “His enduring achievement was not saving Australia from Japan but in creating modern, postwar Australia.” 

With the nation at war, he was in a position to ring the changes with minimal interference, as all of these reforms were declared to be essential for the war effort. Even so, he was a masterful manipulator of his party and the parliament, especially considering he was leading a minority government from 1941 to 1943. He died in office just six weeks before victory over Japan.

This morning when I got up to the breakfast table, my Curtin book had an extra bookmark in it. I was astonished that Elf has been reading it (she loathes politics) but it turned out that it was Marcus! I said he had probably found it boring, but he said in fact he had read the first dozen or so pages and thought it was OK. He and Michael are addicts of the Horrible History books and TV series, so they have absorbed a lot of background knowledge that gives them a leg up when they are consuming history in a less fun-packed format.

So yeah - 11 Year Old Reads Serious History Book Shock. Oh, and Marcus thinks John Curtin looks like Kochie off Sunrise.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Tasmanian Interschool Chess Finals

We went up Launceston last Monday for the State chess finals.Our team was Marcus, Tom, Fergus, Joe and Izzy. None of the other parents could make it, so Elf came along to share the driving and supervising/encouraging duties. And that meant Michael had to come along too, and he fell into his accustomed low-key support role combined with some puppety bouncing around. The school paid for us to hire a people-mover for the day, which was really good of them.

We started brilliantly. Our captain Marcus won his first 4 games, and everyone had some points after round 4 (one point for a win, half for a draw). Our newest player Izzy had 2 wins, and some of the boys started to get nervous they might miss out on medals. Team score is based on your 4 highest scorers, and if the team places, only those 4 get the medals - always a tricky situation. The team as a whole were doing so well that medal allocation seemed like a problem we may well be dealing with by the end of the day.

Marcus was still unbeaten after 6 games and in equal 3rd. His 6th game was a superb win against a quality player rated well above Marcus. Marcus knew the other boy sometimes ran into time problems (each player has a 15 minute limit) and so he just kept setting up awkward situations where his opponent had to spend time deciding what to do. One rushed poor decision put him into an unwinnable position, and he resigned.

Meanwhile Joe who had a slow start was winning and not worrying so much about medals. Izzy plateau'd after her early success then won, and won again. Fergus had 5 points after 7 rounds and looked like a million dollars. Tom won his first 2 then lost 4 on the trot, and was starting to think about missing medals again.

At one point the team were equal-3rd. In the run home Marcus lost two in a row. He felt they were opponents he should have beaten, but he didn't make mistakes - he was just outplayed. Joe ended up winning his last five straight! Tom bounced back and won his last three. The sky had seemed the limit for Fergus but he lost his last 2 matches. The scores we finished with were Marcus and Joe 6.5, Fergus 5, Tom 5 and Izzy 4.

We were a little disappointed to have slipped in the placings - at some stage I think each of us had started to dream of getting a podium finish. As we sat and waited for the tallying to be completed, Marcus was a little emotional. Michael made us very proud by comforting him, and said quietly to Elf "I think when you are very good at something it must be hard when you don't do so well".

We finished in equal 5th, but 6th on countback. As the top 5 qualify for an invitation to the National Interschool Finals, I thought we had just missed out. Some of the kids thought it was announced that we had qualified, but when nothing came in the email during the subsequent week I told everyone that I didn't think so. And in fact I was a bit relieved because I (and I'm sure some other parents) didn't fancy finding money for flights and accommodation at short notice.

Then to my surprise, an email came yesterday, 8 days after the finals, with some details about the Nationals - which are in just 4 short weeks. I got in touch to clarify, and it turned out that if teams are equal 5th, they are all invited and countback is ignored. So we were in! I dutifully emailed the school and said I was prepared to go with the team, but we had better get fundraising pronto if we are going to get a team over there. I imagined parents thinking, like me, that it's lovely to earn an invitation but it's just money we don't have to spare.

Lo and behold the school, the school association and our sensational ex-principal have all today said they are so delighted the school chess team has achieved this, that they are going to contribute what's required to get us over there. There may have been school sports teams travel interstate before during our 8 year-long involvement, but I can't actually remember any. This is quite a big deal, and I am blown away that everyone is recognising that.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Backyard cricket season 2013-14 commences

I just vanquished a very old and stubborn blackberry plant. Finally got out the huge root ball after years of giving up and chopping the vine off somewhere above. To celebrate, Marcus and I had a quick backyard test match on the deck.

He is 11 now, quite big, and there is officially no longer any such thing as "bowling too fast" at him. In any case the stiffness in my shoulder doesn’t really let me whip my arm over the way I once would have. Michael was hopping around like a sparrow as our sole fielder - with no interest in personally batting or bowling (or catching) he was more of a dedicated fetcher and general pep-merchant.

I batted first and made a solid start, bapping the tennis ball back past the bowler (hollow plastic bat) for a couple of lovely straight driven 4s. Then I was caught at silly mid on by the wheelie bin for 11. Marcus took time to find the right line as my wily variations came at him from anywhere. Then I slipped in a slowie and he spooned it back to me, for 2.

We played 4 innings each. As I went in for my last bat I led by 16 and stated my intention to bat until sundown. I was out caught behind (by the railings) 2nd ball, wafting at one well outside the corridor of uncertainty, that I should have left alone.

Marcus came in chasing 17 to win, and carted me into (but not over) the back fence for 5. Then I gave him a half volley and he lifted it over my head into the neighbours yard for the classic 6-and-out. So a satisfying win for the Goodies Generation, as we now move to the 2nd Test.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Big questions, bad timing

I was trying to explain to someone the other day how kids will always ask a huge question just at the worst possible time. I made up a crummy example on the spot. But a true classic example came along this morning.

SCENE: I am reading while finishing my breakfast, but nagged by two things. One, a dog, who also wants breakfast. Two - which I don’t even realise until I am organising dog and cat food, is that I am busting to go to the toilet.

MY INNER MONOLOGUE: Just need to get this meat in the bowl, OK, now, the biscuits, OK, I’ll run hot water into the mucky dog food tin, OK, put the bowls down, nearly there, just put away the cat food ... 

MARCUS: Dad - what is communism?

Sunday, October 06, 2013


I put a bunch of Ian Rankin short stories on Marcus’s iPod to listen to while I mowed the lawn. But thanks to ‘gapless playback’ it smoothly fades the start of the next story in over the end of the previous one. 

"So in fact Inspector it turns out that the murdere ... Mrs Phipps fed the cat and took out the garbage. It was a lovely day..."