I wonder what other people do when they’re feeling unsettled? I usually go for a ride on my bicycle, peddling away any pent up angst or uncertainties, the wind in my hair and – with luck – no bugs in my teeth. Even a short ride usually leaves me feeling cheerful and more able to cope with whatever it was that sent me out on the road in the first place.

But winter in Perth can really put a spanner in the works as far as that goes. Days of drizzle and cold winds tend not to inspire me to gear up and head out – and somehow the exercise bike sitting in the corner of my games room doesn’t have much appeal as an alternative. Staring at the wall or the pool table while I pedal and the dog tries to chew my feet simply doesn’t compare to the open road.

So last unsettled week I just kept busy with work, chores and errands – until I found myself pulling in at a local cafe en route home one day. It being that time of day, I ordered something to eat, although I was slightly bemused to find myself out for lunch – alone and on a rainy afternoon. Neither of these things is my idiom – I tend to enjoy lunching out al fresco – which indicates warmer weather – and usually in company.

To add to my bemusement, my spontaneous solo-lunch venue selection was the South African shop a couple of kilometres from my house. This is not somewhere I’d lunched before, although I had been in for coffee and cake with friends a few times. So why here? Why now? And why did I feel so relaxed and comfortable about being there? Probably just a surge of nostalgia at the end of what feels like an endlessly long week, I thought.

Whatever it was, sitting there surrounded by sounds and smells from my childhood felt safe and comfortable. The background chitchat in a combination of English and Afrikaans was relaxing and the vetkoek smelled wonderful – and tasted even better. I’ve never tried making it, but vetkoek is essentially deep fried bread dough, drained and filled with some or other tasty filling. It may not sound too appealing, but I can assure you that it’s remarkably moreish, real comfort food. The outside is crisp and not at all oily and the inside is soft and fluffy, like hot bread. I chose a curried lamb mince filling (traditional) and enjoyed every finger-licking morsel of it.

The serious business of eating dealt with, I sat back with my latte and thought about how I was feeling. I’d arrived tired and slightly directionless and had ended up feeling as though I’d been wrapped in a warm snuggly blanket, looked after and cared about – even though, in reality, none of those things had actually occurred. The staff had made me welcome, certainly, and the service had been efficient and pleasant – but that was all. Nevertheless it was, well, nice to sit there – surrounded by hints from my past.

taste of nostalgia_august14I love Australia and wouldn’t swap my life here for quids, but tiredness and stress do strange things to people. No doubt I was experiencing no more than a sentimental connection to the simplicity of my childhood and to Africa, which is part of my core identity. But sitting there, with a taste of Africa still on my lips I felt at ease. As I gazed absently at the chalkboard  and started reading the names of places I’ve been to and through in the past, the words I-AM-FROM-AFRICA made me smile. Yes, I thought, yes I am.

 

mobile-phone-police-surveillance-feature-largeRather a long time ago a chap called John Stuart Mill asserted that there are some areas where governments/rulers appear to consider it best to mislead the public. These, he said, include “…the political religion of the country, its political institutions, and the conduct and character of its rulers.” He made this point back in 1867 and it’s abundantly clear that the political machine hasn’t moved on a great deal since then. There’s no doubt that it’s become increasingly media savvy to keep pace with technology, but it appears no more inclined to truthfulness – or what is nowadays referred to as transparency. One wouldn’t want to encourage informed debate and rock the political boat, after all.

Then, as now, governments simply don’t seem to believe that they can’t trust the public to make the right decisions on issues – unless, of course, they’ve been provided with the right information on the subject – by the right people… aka the government or someone who, in effect, speaks for the government. The sticking point here is, of course, that when governments choose what opinions their citizens will hold, they are, in effect, silencing the population and quashing the core principles of democracy.

JSM adds that rulers (governments) often inflict punishment upon those who criticize or who censure the conduct of government, which brings me to a film I watched today. The War You Don’t See is an indictment, not only of governments, but also of reporters and media conglomerates who collude with governments in programmes of public misinformation. Whether they do so actively (knowingly) or unwittingly (passively) makes little difference to the outcome.

Perhaps we need a JSM today, someone to remind us that we have a choice. Someone who will call attention to the need for active engagement in the world around us with words like these: “Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing. He is not a good man who, without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name, and with the means which he helps to supply, because he will not trouble himself to use his mind on the subject.

Instead of JSM, however, we have the Internet. We have Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. We have WikiLeaks and Assange and Snowden. We have choice, a voice and the ability to share information locally and internationally. But for how long – particularly if we remain passive?

And so we come to what is being promoted by the Australian government as a necessary evil in a world stalked by threats of terrorism, namely data retention – and all that goes with it. Politicians at best loosely conversant with the Internet have been waving their hands and trotting out confusing and, quite simply, embarrassing poorly informed explanations on the issue all week. They’ve wriggled out of answering questions that look too closely at what is, without a doubt, an orchestrated breach of personal (individual) security.

Why is this information so essential to government agencies – and why are they out-sourcing the retention of the data to commercial entities (telecom companies)?  Radio National was asking these questions today too.

It looks overwhelmingly like a government trying desperately to reel in an unruly public – a public that is independently seeking (and gaining) information on a wide range of topics without that information being adequately mediated by the right people to ensure that the right opinions are formed… and the right people stay in government. The media is once again being utilised to manipulate and promote public fears, to link terrorism and data retention with ‘watch lists’ – using innuendo as an implicit threat to silence the tweets, discredit the whistle blowers, shut down the curious. The manipulation is overt, but the impact is insidious.

But I leave the last words to John Stuart Mill. “…an ignorant man … has at least a chance of being sometimes in the right. But he who adopts every opinion which rulers choose to dictate, is always in the wrong, when it is their interest that he should be so…”

Books and stories seem to have always been part of my mental landscape. I’ve spent countless hours immersed in story worlds of adventure/mystery/action/history and can’t actually remember a pre-reading stage. I do remember being read stories by my parents well past when I was already in primary school, however. It was just one of those things we did as a family – my brother and I would sit or lie around of an evening whilst Mum/Dad read us a chapter from The Jungle Book or some other favourite tale. They would do all the voices of the characters and it was like our own personal radio play right there in the lounge room.Hippo with bird

Perhaps being read and told stories in this way as a child is what embedded the lure of story worlds in my psyche, making it such an intrinsic part of who I am. This connection resulted in books being read by me anywhere and everywhere. I’ve read in, on and – at times – under my bed, on the couch, on the floor, up a tree, in cars, trains, buses and aeroplanes, at bus stops and train stops, on an inflatable lilo, in a canoe, walking to and from school, in doctors/dentists/other surgeries, in hospital, at parties, on picnics, in a tent by lamp light, at the beach, and whilst knitting and eating (although not simultaneously).

I confess that this reading habit has resulted in a few awkward moments over the years. I’ve stumbled over kerbs and almost gone sprawling in a heap, missed my bus stop and had to bus back,  had library books confiscated by annoyed maths/science/biology/French teachers – and then had to find ways to ransom them back in order not to face paying library fines, glanced up to find people staring at me – waiting for an answer to a question I’ve completely blanked. I’ve missed meals, missed trains, lost hours – but gained so much more.

It was a logical extension of of all this to take to reading in the pool. In summer I use our backyard pool to do an hour of exercises most days. This involves 30 minutes of walking up and down (and reading) in the water, followed by 30 minutes of an aquarobics programme. Reading relieves the tedium of doing the exercises, makes the time pass surprisingly quickly and gives my arm muscles a minor workout holding the book clear of the water – it’s a win all round and a very effective use of my time.

As our pool is unheated – and not under cover – I use the local indoor pool in the winter months and have been doing so for about the past 10 years. But reading in the indoor pool inevitably generates a (surprisingly) large number of virtually identical comments from other pool users. Even though I try to avoid the comments by taking care not to make eye contact (after all, I’m reading and walking and in a pool – that’s quite enough, thank you!), there appears to be a compulsive need for people try to provoke some sort of response from me.

It doesn’t seem to matter what time of day I go or how crowded the pool is, it’s generally variations on the same theme: that must be a good book / what a good idea / how do you read at the same time as walk? / I don’t think I could do that /  goodness, when did they invent waterproof books? On average I get one question or comment per exercise session. That’s a lot of comments across 10 winters – from people who are seemingly endlessly entertained by the novelty of it all.

Funnily enough no-one commented during the period when I used an mp3 player to listen to audio books instead. Sadly my skill set wasn’t up to that level of technology for long, so peace was short-lived. I managed to kill the player by getting it wet, something I’ve never done to a book. I might stick to what I know and just start wearing a pair of  cheap earphones tucked into the spine of the book as props. 🙂