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Neighbourly relations


Generally Colin and I played happily together.  We ran a single wire telephone between our bedrooms, in our respective houses, and spent happy hours perfecting the arrangement of bells, buzzers and switches for ringing each other. 

One school holidays we thought it would be nice to have a swimming pool.  Colin insisted the pool should be in his place so we marked out a large rectangle on their lower lawn.  Michael McDonald, our mutual neighbour of similar age was an excellent digger.  He had some good digging tools including his plumber father’s mattock, pick and digging bar.  So we set to work.  

The lower lawn was hidden from the house by a long flower bed and no adult noticed our efforts for several days.  Although how they didn't notice that we were dirtier than usual, I don’t know.  Maybe we were always that dirty.

It was a lot of work to go very deep as we had marked out an optimistically large area.  We wanted to swim laps.  We were accumulating several very impressive mountains of dirt; mixed with a lot of grass but hadn't managed to make our big hole more than about a foot deep; maybe a few feet in places where the digging was easier.

Then one evening I got bitten by something that might have been a funnel-web spider (but wasn't).  My worried father asked me to show him where it had happened.  

My god’ he reported to my mother, ‘the kids have dug up Spencer’s lawn!‘   She was left to break the news to her friend Verna Spencer; who then had the task of restraining John Spencer from something close to murdering Colin. 

Not long afterwards Peter, who had built one of his many cubby houses against the adjoining fence, let his little cooking fire smoulder, so that in the night it burnt down a section of the fence.  We thought John Spencer would suffer apoplexy!  

But that was just a preliminary trial to his blood pressure.  I’ve mentioned the marble holes in his kerro drums elsewhere. 

The idea of digging a swimming pool did not go away.  Later we dug a more compact eight-foot-deep, six foot square, hole in the lower part of our property; in the old sheep pen. We gave up when we hit hard shale. It was initially used as yet another fort by Peter; who roofed it over with old corrugated iron and said it was the beginning of a tunnel to... somewhere.  When discovered it was filled in, partly with old paint tins and other metallic junk, by our parents and John Spencer; worried that a Spencer child would be buried alive with Peter.

A year or so later I decided to swap my air rifle for something Peter had – I’ve long forgotten what that was.

To celebrate his new acquisition we hung up a target in the milk hatch – a little cupboard at the end of our long narrow laundry with two doors an inner wire mesh one and an outer solid wood one. 

This was where the milkman delivered our milk; initially into our milk billy from a measuring jug, filled from a tap at the back of the horse drawn milk-cart; but later in glass bottles capped with aluminium foil.  The bread was delivered there too; still warm from the oven.

We opened both doors.  By lying on the kitchen floor we had a good view of our target all the way through the laundry.  Just as we were getting some good groupings in our second or third paper target, the back door burst open and an enraged John Spencer appeared; in time to see Peter taking aim again.  ‘Why are you shooting at my budgies?’ he demanded.  Peter was outraged.

Of course we weren’t shooting at his birds; the aviary just happened, stupidly in Peter's opinion, to be in the general line of fire.  Peter claimed the slugs later found peppering his veranda were actually dropped there by Ian Spencer; Peter’s younger apprentice at the time. 

But we were in trouble.  

To appease John and as a lesson about sensible gun use our father, Stephen, broke Peter’s newly acquired air rifle over his knee. 

As a result of these incidents there was a cold war between Peter and John Spencer for long after; punctuated by various bangs; one so loud that John claimed to have been almost blown off his feet. 

So, many years later, when we in our late teens, and John was watching the cricket on TV, he assumed that the spark-plug that suddenly shattered his big picture window and skidded to a halt at his feet, amid a shower of glass, was yet another attack by Peter.   No one expects a spark-plug (it’s even more unlikely than the Spanish Inquisition); and it was the sort of bizarre calling-card Peter might devise.  No doubt it had been fired deliberately at him using some sort of new-fangled spark-plug gun.

In fact it was a total accident.  Peter was innocently mowing the grass where he had previously been working on his car.  The lawn mower did what four-stoke rotary lawn mowers do; when no grass catcher is fitted.

Another of the Spencer windows bore a perfectly circular half inch hole that Colin, by that time developing his artistic side, refused to have replaced as it was so perfect.  This was the serendipitous result of a very oblique glancing blow from a glass marble that I had fired from my catapult (slingshot).  Again it was a total accident.  The marble had ricocheted off a tree when I was attempting, unsuccessfully, to scare off the multitude of very noisy cicadas that were disturbing my studies.

Despite these occasional holes in things the Spencers were among our closest friends; and this included members of their extended family.   Although we moved to a new house two suburbs away in 1965 my mother and Verna remained close until Verna’s death.   By then we children had become adults; all married and dispersed to places distant.  After Verna’s death John remarried and some essential glue had gone.

Now even the sites of those distant events, the land and the houses, have been cleared.  They have made way for a dozen closely packed double-storey dwellings; and quite different lives within.   Twelve houses have replaced three.

It has become a Christian enclave.  The Methodist church in now Uniting apparently with some very large extensions and has moved nearer; consuming the Walker's house and land.  No more Bodgies there.   The Anglican church, one property in the other direction, has become Greek orthodox.  No more doubters there.  In 'street view' one of the houses on the old sheep's paddock even displays a large sign proclaiming Jesus.

The village of Thornleigh that I remember with its two lane road; the School of Arts; Barnes’ Bakery; Trace’s Produce; the Astra Cinema; and the horse trough is no more.  Our old primary school is replaced in part by a giant McDonald's.  Some changes are enough to make one cry. 




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In the seventies I spent some time travelling around Denmark visiting geographically diverse relatives but in a couple of days there was no time to repeat that, so this was to be a quick trip to two places that I remembered as standing out in 1970's: Copenhagen and Roskilde.

An increasing number of Danes are my progressively distant cousins by virtue of my great aunt marrying a Dane, thus contributing my mother's grandparent's DNA to the extended family in Denmark.  As a result, these Danes are my children's cousins too.

Denmark is a relatively small but wealthy country in which people share a common language and thus similar values, like an enthusiasm for subsidising wind power and shunning nuclear energy, except as an import from Germany, Sweden and France. 

They also like all things cultural and historical and to judge by the museums and cultural activities many take pride in the Danish Vikings who were amongst those who contributed to my aforementioned DNA, way back.  My Danish great uncle liked to listen to Geordies on the buses in Newcastle speaking Tyneside, as he discovered many words in common with Danish thanks to those Danes who had settled in the Tyne valley.

Nevertheless, compared to Australia or the US or even many other European countries, Denmark is remarkably monocultural. A social scientist I listened to last year made the point that the sense of community, that a single language and culture confers, creates a sense of extended family.  This allows the Scandinavian countries to maintain very generous social welfare, supported by some of the highest tax rates in the world, yet to be sufficiently productive and hence consumptive per capita, to maintain among the highest material standards of living in the world. 

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Thinking back, I realise that she was not much older than I was, maybe fifteen years.  Who knows?

Her greatest gift to me was English. 

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I have commented on his theories and his worries before.

I know no more than you do about his worries; except to say that in his shoes I would be worried too.  

But I take issue with his unqualified crusade to reveal the World’s secrets.  I disagree that secrets are always a bad thing.

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