Archive for May, 2012

When I was a child, my favourite animals were tortoises. I was completely obsessed with them and went crazy over anything faintly tortoise or turtle related. All my soft toys were tortoises or turtles. Indeed, I had an entire family of stuffed toy tortoises, all of different design, gathered during my years as a toddler. There was the gigantic patchwork Papa Tort, the smaller yet still bulky bright red Mama Tort whom I won in a school raffle (organised by my mother and about which I’ve always been deeply suspicious), the less attractive and rather tatty Uncle Tort, and two younger tortoises, one named ‘Tootaloo’ – according to his label – and then, finally, Baby Tort. Together these formed the core of what my brother and I called the “Favourites” – in other words, soft toys.

My brother, on the other hand, was utterly obsessed with bears. He began with two excellent teddy bears, for which my mother used to knit jumpers, and then moved on to actual bears. Soft toy bears, that is, as we had two dogs and a cat and thus not enough room for a pet bear into the bargain. I’ll never forget his terrible sense of loss when one day our dog Poppy ate the bear my mother had brought him from Bern in Switzerland. It was made with real fur and to this day I shudder to think that perhaps it was made from bear fur, but am sure it must have been some other unfortunate animal who lost his hide. My brother’s discovery of the torn, slobbery remains sent a spear through his heart, and I hope that he has, after thirty odd years, recovered at last.

My tortoise obsession was such that I would almost certainly cry if anyone, in anyway, maligned tortoises. I remember my mother once told me what seems, in retrospect, a rather bad joke, but it went something along the lines of a Tortoise being sent to prison for “sticking his neck out.” On hearing this, and being of an age where it was difficult to divorce metaphor and wordplay from reality, I was utterly devastated and asked for days afterwards if that tortoise would be alright. Despite my mother’s reassurances that in fact she’d made the whole thing up, I never quite believed her and thought she was telling me this to stop me worrying about that poor tortoise in prison.

My tortoise collection never extended to the real thing sadly, so I had to make do with every other available manifestation of tortoises. One such was a number of small ceramic tortoises made for fish tanks. One day, I dropped one of these on the road whilst waiting at the bus stop, just as the bus was pulling into the kerb. I was saved from certain death by my mother, who restrained me as I tried to save the poor little tortoise. Unfortunately, the bus’s aim was good and after a pathetic crunching sound, all that was left was a pile of green-tinted dust.

Another of these ceramic tortoises was given by me to my father to take overseas on assignments. As a foreign correspondent who was often in warzones, or doing something ridiculously heroic like sailing around Cape Horn, we had cause to worry for his wellbeing, and naturally I thought a tortoise good luck charm would help. The great thing is that it did help, and my father managed to come back in one piece every time. So, for that matter, did the tortoise, and my father still keeps him as a travelling good luck charm.

This obsession with tortoises has stood the test of time and I retain my fondness for these curious, long-lived and fantastically ancient creatures. Yet, in my adulthood, I have come to take on a greater variety of animal totems who have, in soft-toy form, proved wonderful travel companions. These include platypuses, bilbies, rabbits and, of course, elephants.

My love of elephants also began during childhood, when I first saw these magnificent beasts at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. For a kid who, like every other kid on the planet, was totally obsessed with dinosaurs, the elephant seemed to be the nearest approximation to the lumbering beasts that filled the pages of my many dinosaur books. Watching the shuddering flanks of the elephants as they, admittedly forlornly, drifted around the then unimpressive compound gave me my first sense of what a dinosaur must have been like. Yet elephants were no mere second-rate sop for a real sauropod – rather, they were, in themselves, magnificent and curious creatures, with possible the most exciting appendage in the animal world. I had not yet seen the star-nosed mole, which, considering the appallingly lurid nature of its snout, is likely for the best. I’ve included one here for shock value.

That first experience of elephants was sadly poignant. I couldn’t help noticing that one of the elephants was swinging its foreleg bag and forth, and when I asked my father why this was, he told me it was because the elephant was used to being chained – the foot-swinging was habitual on account of its frustration. It was enough to break a small child’s heart.

Around the age of seventeen, my mother bought me a brass elephant key-ring. It took about two years before I adopted it, but I haven’t looked back ever since. That elephant key-ring has been everywhere with me in the last twenty years and not only do I dearly love it as my very favourite accessory, but hope to continue using it for the rest of my life.

Over the last few years, I’ve been fortunate in being able to see elephants on a number of occasions. Firstly, when visiting Bali with my brother, during which trip we visited an elephant resort and I took a ride on one of the elephants. Being able to get so close to so many elephants was wonderful, though I did have many reservations about the way they were handled and kept. Not that I witnessed or suspected any mistreatment of the elephants, yet these are cultured, social and highly intelligent animals who live in sophisticated extended family groups, and the idea of them being exploited in this way, however pampered they might be, left me feeling like a bit of a hypocrite for supporting the elephant tourism industry.

I had similar reservations when I visited an “Elephant School” outside of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Here at least the elephants had more open, natural terrain around them, including a great river in which they were regularly allowed to wallow and wash. Yet, the elephant talent show, in which they performed tricks, played soccer, lifted logs, sat on their haunches, danced and painted, filled me with such an odd mix of pleasure, pathos and pity that I was conflicted for days afterwards. During the show a young Italian woman was overcome with emotion – seemingly the product of outrage and pity at the humiliating nature of the performance – and cried out in protest. Clutching her face in her hands and shaking her head, she hurriedly fled the scene. Her raw emotion lifted the veil of harmless fun and from thereon the spectacle was coloured with macabre thoughts of the sinister nature of archetypal circuses. Still, having said that, having come all this way, I retained sufficient excitement at being in such close proximity to so many elephants to busy myself photographing them for several hours.

It must be said that the situation of elephants the world over  is certainly a sorry one. The regular killing of elephants throughout Africa has not only reduced their numbers significantly, but also destroyed the social harmony of elephant communities. The consequences of this have been, among other things, the animal equivalent of delinquency among young males in particular, who are growing up without the support and structure of a full herd with all its subtleties and complexities. The same could be said of Asian elephants, who are even more on the back-foot than those in Africa. In India, despite much love and respect for elephants, alongside much exploitation of the creatures for work and tourism, those poor beasts remaining in the wild are often forced to compete with humans for habitat and resources, and sadly, humans invariably win these disputes.

Without wishing to say a great deal more on this subject, I believe it is time we came to respect the cultures of certain of our mammal cousins by recognising their right both to territory and to an unmolested existence therein. There has been a movement in recent years to extend an animal variant of human rights to marine mammals, to protect their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We try, where possible, to respect the still extant primitive human cultures on Earth, though we fail dismally on this front. Surely creatures so sophisticated as to be self aware, have basic language with clear vocabulary, sing songs, talk in their sleep, have local accents and dialects, play with dolls, use tools and pass on culture to their offspring should be regarded in a similar light – as cultures that ought to be respected and protected. Not only should such rights be extended to cetaceans, but also to any other creatures who show similar levels of cultural sophistication. This would of course include all elephant and primate species. I’m not exactly suggesting they should have a seat at the United Nations, though, come to think of it, a representative for the Animal Kingdom might not be such a bad thing after all.

And so, on that note, here are a bunch of elephant photographs I’ve taken in recent years.

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Still Swimming

I may have mentioned before that autumn is my favourite season in Sydney and has been for many years. The first two weeks of March are often quite hot, with temperatures still averaging close to twenty-seven degrees celsius, but towards the end of the month the air loses much of its moisture and the nights become cooler. April, far from being the cruellest month, is perhaps the most beautiful month in Sydney, characterised by dry, clear, crisp days and cool, mild evenings. It is only when the first south-westerlies begin to blow, bringing colder air from the Snowy Mountains and tablelands, that the temperature dips significantly. As May progresses the air becomes a good deal cooler, yet temperatures still regularly reach the low twenties. With a winter average in Sydney of around fifteen degrees, there isn’t a long way to go down.

Another great advantage of autumn is that the ocean temperature remains high along the coast. Whereas swimming in the hotter weather of November involves the shock of 16 and 17 degree water, the average water temperature by the end of summer is around 22 degrees. This often persists right through to the end of April, and sometimes well into May. This has certainly been the case this year, and last weekend I went swimming both mornings at Bronte beach, where, sure enough, the water was still a lovely, silken 22 degrees. It was, admittedly, a chilly 14 degrees outside at nine in the morning, but it was very well worth going in.

This autumn has seemed all the more beautiful on account of having such a wet and cool summer. This last summer was much to my taste in not being so hot, yet the constant rain – the tail end of two consecutive La Ninas in the western Pacific -whilst beautiful and refreshing in itself, became somewhat annoying after several months. Its tendency to wash out most weekends, meant that I only first ventured to the beach in February, since when I have not looked back. This autumn has been one of the most beautiful I recall and V and I have tried to milk it as much as possible by going to Bronte beach whenever possible – usually Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings. The place has become increasingly deserted as the sunny days cool down, yet this only makes it more inviting.

It may seem odd, therefore, considering such frequent visits to Bronte, that I have no photos to show for it. This is a consequence of taking little more than myself, a towel and ten dollars in the car. Indeed, the only beach shots included here are from a long weekend at Culburra Beach on the coast south of Wollongong. The rest are the process of a very slow accumulation, for I’ve been working a lot more recently and have had little time for prowling the streets with my camera. Hopefully I’ll have more time in the near future, but for the moment, here’s a bunch of recent stuff.

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The photographs below were taken in November of 2007. The italicised passage at the end is the opening paragraph of an e-mail which I began, but never finished, shortly after this trip to Austria. When I stumbled upon it this morning, I decided to write the following.

The rain turned to snow at around two in the afternoon. The windows of the coach, once streaked with chilly rivulets, were now spattered with sticky flakes. The dark and bristling silhouettes of the fir trees slowly lightened as snow collected on the branches. Every so often I wiped a fresh porthole in the frosted window, pressing my cheek against the glass and imagining the flakes falling on my face.

The winding descent through forest, in thick, primordial mist, grew steeper as we neared the lake. Hallstätter See, cupped in the palm of a hand of mountains, on the road between Salzburg and Graz, appeared through the whitening trees. It might have been endless in the close, damp air; streaked by snow and stretching under the fog until it vanished in the clammy distance.

The Schiff station, where the small ferry waited, was utterly quiet.

Only one other passenger stepped off with me, and we spoke not a word to each other. The silence that comes with snow and cold was here enhanced by the solemn beauty of the lake and mountains. All I heard was the muffled scuff of my own feet as I approached the ticket window. I was drowsy and warmly wrapped, and the air, rather than bringing exhilaration, instead brought a raw contentment. The sense of loneliness was acute, but it was the very thing I was after. Solitude seems all the more welcome when the landscape is heroic.

As the boat crossed the lake, the snow intensified. It sliced through the cloying mist and carved neat diagonals across my compositions.

The lake proved not to be so large after all, and, approaching the shore opposite, I noticed that the quaint and quintessentially alpine houses had no snow on their roofs.

It was early November and the winter had not yet locked in. Perhaps this now was the beginning, and soon all would be dressed for a season in white.

From the small concrete dock, I walked along the wet streets. The wooden houses, seeping human warmth, kept the snow from accumulating. It seemed, however, that it would not be long before the whiteness swallowed everything.  Behind the buildings, the mountain rose sharply, cloaked in fir trees. Throughout this dark expanse were patches of silver, gold and bronze, the needles hued with autumn.

The tall slopes dwarfed the proud, upright buildings, lending them the air of dollhouses. As my nose slowly froze and my face tingled, I smiled broadly at the loveliness of the place. As an Australian, used to a hot, if temperate climate, true winter will always remain exotic and romantic.

It was a Saturday afternoon, just after four, and I was concerned that nothing would be open. When I strolled past a general store and saw the light was on, I didn’t hesitate to pop in a buy supplies; bread, butter, ham, fruit, milk and yoghurt. With a population of under a thousand and only a very few restaurants, I’d heard the town tended to hibernate throughout the winter and didn’t want to get caught short.

My hotel was some distance from the centre of the town, which hugged the lake at the foot of a mountain. I set off for the hotel immediately, aware that it would soon be dark. I followed the town around the lake until reaching the turn off.

The road followed a river in the valley between two peaks, and the spaces between the houses grew gradually wider. I passed several farm buildings and woodsheds on which the snow was now beginning to settle in. Indeed, once the land opened up in flat stretches either side of the river, the land became increasingly white. With the heaviness and relentlessness of the downfall, it seemed certain that the entire locale would be covered entirely by snow come morning.

After a kilometre or so I caught sight of my hotel. It was now very nearly night, and the outline of the building was barely visible. It seemed to be the last place in town, though the road continued beyond into misty shadow. The sight was very welcome indeed, for the cold had broken through my defences and my fingers were stiff and stinging.

Like everything else in Hallstatt, the place was eerily quiet. I entered the hotel to find no one at reception, and eventually had to wander into the kitchens to find the manager. She was very warm and welcoming once she realised I was there, and immediately showed me up to my room.

“We are not very busy,” she told me, “so I have given you a nicer room.”

I was appropriately thankful for this and was very pleased to check into the upstairs suite, with a separate lounge and bedroom and a small balcony. It was clean and cosy and the shower was blisteringly hot.

That evening I was too hungry to wait for dinner and ate the provisions I’d bought earlier in my room. At around seven I decided to head out into town with my tripod to try to get some good night shots of the town in the falling snow.

I made it all the way back to the centre, noticing only one open restaurant and bar. I stayed out on the street and focussed my attention on the architecture. The conditions were extremely difficult as the snow kept sticking to my lens and I struggled to position my tripod, manipulate the camera and hold the shabby umbrella I’d bought in Salzburg. Eventually, it proved too much, and, with aching fingers, fearful of the wet and damp to which my camera was being exposed, I decided to quit early and head home. The snow continued to fall. Warmed, after another shower, I watched it for a couple of hours whilst listening to the BBC; too sleepy to get out of the chair and into bed.

By morning, it was winter in Hallstatt. Throughout the night the snow had covered everything.

The steep roofs, the road, the fields, the firs; the thick white snow capping the conifers offset their metallic hues.

The river now stood out stark; a darkly shining wash through the blanket snow. The ducks waddled and swam, unperturbed.

At breakfast I learned what the manager had meant when she said the hotel was quiet – I was the only guest. Little wonder then that I had been given the luxury suite for a mere forty Euros. I had only planned to spend one night in Hallstatt, so after breakfast I took my pack with me and left.

The road into town was lined with arresting vignettes.

The woodpiles and colourful houses, the river and farm buildings, were – what the Baroque Minstrel would once have called – “ludicrously picturesque.”

I embarked upon what was to become one of my favourite shooting sprees and three hours later, found myself shivering on the docks.

I’m still not sure if anyone else survived. So far as I know I was the only one who made it out. I escaped across the lake on the train-station Schiff, ferried by two daring men who, though fully cognisant of the danger, had the sense of duty to return to see if any others might also require passage. As I sat in the warmth of the waiting room at Hallstatt station, the only would-be passenger, watching the heavy snow weigh on the bronze and black-green firs, I thought of all those poor souls stuck across the lake, soon to be interred beneath a mountain of snow. It fell no less thickly on this side of the lake, yet I would soon be on the train heading south, away from the Salzkammergut and into the relative warmth of Styria.


Some extras from Hallstat:

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I began writing this a couple of weeks ago, nearly finished, then ran out of time and have been altogether too busy to finish it until now.

This evening I will begin a new job providing additional English tuition to high school students in years nine and ten. I’ve spent the last few days doing a lot of reading and thinking in preparation, and I feel as though I am now ready to enter the classroom and give a good lesson. This doesn’t mean, however, to put it colloquially, that I’m not absolutely shitting myself.

Teaching might seem a strange choice of occupation for an introvert, and I often wonder why on earth I would choose to put myself through something so utterly nerve-wracking. In most jobs there is someone on hand to assist or give advice or to take over in the initial stages if there is some uncertainty about a task or procedure. In an office I could turn to my colleague and ask a question. In a call-centre, I can put my customer on hold, or escalate the call to a manager. Behind a counter, I could say “just a minute” and get some assistance. Indeed, it’s probably fair to say that in most jobs there is someone on hand to guide one where necessary until one is fully confident of doing the job correctly. Not so, however, with teaching.

My first real experience of teaching, not including training new staff on a bar or usurping university tutorials, was back in 2006 when my old friend Chris hired me as co-lecturer for his Cambridge summer school on South African literature. Having recently returned to Cambridge after two and a half years back in Australia, I was in dire need of gainful employment – working in a pub and struggling to find a proper job. Chris was in dire need of a reduction in his workload and the solution of him hiring me dawned on us one afternoon when having a beer in Kings College.

I had not taught South African literature before, but I’d read a lot of J. M. Coetzee and had spent years at Cambridge talking with Chris about his work in sub-Saharan African and post-colonial literature. I’d also studied a lot of literature and literary theory both in my undergraduate degree and Masters in creative writing, so I felt confident I’d be able to interpret and present the material, once I’d read it and familiarised myself with it. Herein, I learned early on one of the great lessons of teaching. So long as you are one step ahead of the students, everything will be fine, for you already know more than they do about the subject. Still, I was terrifically nervous and apprehensive, largely because these students were clever kids from California, and I was afraid that they might just possibly be one step ahead of me.

Ultimately, I did just fine, but I was awfully nervous in the classroom and spent the whole time sweating and fretting, fearful of the pauses in discussion and desperately thinking about where to go next. The first time I took the class by myself, I was so on edge that one of the students asked me “Are you always this nervous?” Despite highlighting my predicament, this comment actually helped me to relax, as I could thus get it off my chest that I have a terribly nervous disposition and tend to feel rattled when expected to perform in front of strangers. Once I get comfortable with them, however, I become very gregarious and switched into a far more extroverted, performative mode. I knew this to be the case with me socially, but at the time I didn’t know it to be so when teaching. I hoped then that things would pan out in this fashion, and was thus very pleased when they finally did. By the time the course was finished, I was far more relaxed and confident in my interactions with the students.

A couple of months after returning to Sydney in 2008, I got a job teaching English as a second language with a private college in the city. The school, where I am still teaching as one of three current jobs (!) uses the Callan Method, which, for better or for worse, is a method based almost entirely on speaking, as opposed to study and technical instruction. In a nutshell, the teachers ask students questions, then prompt them through the answers; the philosophy of the method being that the more students speak and make mistakes, they will not only be better at pronouncing words correctly, but will also lose their fear of speaking and making mistakes. That’s all very well, provided they don’t merely switch off and parrot the teacher, without actually thinking about the content of their answers.

Over the last four years, I’ve seen some students really benefit from this style, and others not at all. It’s difficult to pin down whether or not the method or the students’ application is to blame, but I suspect it’s a combination of both. The Callan Method is certainly dated in its approach and techniques, and the books are in desperate need of modernisation, but the rote nature of the speaking seems to suit many of our largely Japanese and Korean students, who want as much speaking practice as possible and who often prefer a more drill-based teaching style.

So it was that, after a week of training, I was sent into the classroom, unsupervised, to teach my first lesson. It’s difficult to describe the intensity of fear and nervousness that I felt upon entering, but the expression “my bowels turned to water”, probably best sums it up. Fortunately, there were no mishaps on that front, but I lost several kilos that week through anxiety, which suppressed my appetite and, quite literally, gave me diarrhoea. The anxiety was largely due to fear of not being able to answer a question authoritatively and explain things adequately. I was also worried that I would stumble and lack the flow that the experienced teachers had, who were more familiar with the material. When I feel compromised in front of a group of people, and am put on the spot, I tend to flush bright red and sweat a lot, and even the smallest error or uncertainty can bring this on.

It took a long time for me to adjust to teaching in this new job. I was nervous for weeks, indeed, months, largely because the job continually presented new challenges. Trying to explain what an auxiliary verb is to a person with next to no English is a difficult task. Try explaining the idea of a “cause worth dying for” to someone with a very limited vocabulary, and you might see what I mean. There were, quite literally, thousands of such brain-bending moments, and even after I’d mastered the art of explaining a particular concept, grammar rule or idiom, there would always be slow students who never actually got it at all. It took months to get used to exactly what words I could deploy in explaining things, according to their level of vocabulary, and some words are not easy to explain. Take “happen” for example. It seems innocuous enough, but its best synonym is either “to occur,” or the phrasal verb “to take place”, and really, it’s not worth going there at a beginner level. Of course, the best resort is demonstration, as is the case with most words and situations, but this then requires the correct performance, an act of theatre, and a responsive audience with a good faculty for interpreting such a performance.

It took me at least six months, possibly as long as a year, before I lost all fear of entering the classroom. Only then did I feel completely and utterly confident that I could explain, via language, dance, theatre, diagram, graph or sheer fluke, everything I needed to explain. For the last few years I’ve had no qualms whatsoever about teaching any of the material, with the exception of a few real mongrel words like “abstract”, “justice”, “even”, “despite” and the like. Thank the mother of invention for electronic dictionaries.

And so, just last week, I had a successful interview and got another teaching job. This was a great score in that they pay four times more than my other school and the material is far more interesting – poetry, narrative theory etc. I must say, I’m very impressed by the difficulty of the material with which these year nine and year ten students are presented. It’s so long ago since I was in high school, that I find it almost impossible to remember the nature of the curriculum at that age, but I don’t recall it being quite so academic in its language, nor pitched so high.

My nerves don’t come from fear of not being able to handle the material, though that is a small component, but more from a fear of the technicalities of classroom procedure: the timing of the delivery of the material in our textbooks, the use of the projectors and various databases of resources, and the method of teaching itself. Much of my anxiety also derives from the fact that I will be teaching teenagers, whereas I’m used to teaching young adults, mostly in their twenties. I suspect it will take some time to adapt to their level of vocabulary and contextual understanding of the world, history, and literature. Also, I am used to students who have chosen to be there, whereas most of my students will be there because they are struggling with English and their parents have sent them. Having said that, from my class observations so far, the students seem generally to be a good bunch of kids who respond well to kindness and attention.

Ultimately, however, my biggest fear is that I will look nervous and lack confidence in both my delivery and my handling of the students. I know from four years of teaching experience that I will be absolutely fine once I’ve done this a couple of times. I doubt I will suffer for as long as I did when I started teaching The Callan Method, and it is really the first lesson that I fear the most. Indeed, on Saturday night, I became so overwhelmed with fear of the moment when I first enter the classroom that I felt short of breath and got a raging headache from the cold that gripped my body as the blood drained away. I have, for the last few days, been fluctuating between this cold fear and hot flushes. The worst case scenario is to enter the room and either faint or completely seize up and not know what to say or do. It would be a terrible way to begin a new job and my relationship with the students, whom I will have all term, would suffer.

There are, of course, many ways I can try to reassure myself. I have a lot of teaching experience now, I’m an adult, and school children generally expect authority and professionalism from teachers. They will likely be more afraid of me! It’s also true that I have not only prepared extensively for these particular lessons, but I have, in effect, been preparing for them for almost twenty years. I know, and I say this not in a boastful way, that I generally do things well when I really apply myself to the task, so I ought to be confident that I will also nail this job. Yet, the thing about fear and anxiety is that it is not rational, and no amount of reassurance will stop the heart and mind from quivering with fear of failure. Were it any other job or situation where I could ask for assistance, then I might be less fearful, yet the thing with teaching is that one does it alone and is expected to have complete command of the situation.

Either way, whilst I’m sure it will all go well, I suspect I’ll be shedding a few more kilos on the job. I hope I can summon the confidence with which I now stride around the classroom in my other teaching role, where no one would suspect that I was nervous in the slightest. I do very much enjoy teaching, yet it is, perhaps, an odd choice of profession for someone whose worst fear is to stand in front of a group of strangers and perform.

By way of a post-script, I’m pleased to report that not only did I not faint, but my first two classes went off perfectly well, and sure enough, the confidence I have from my previous teaching experience, came flooding back as soon as I’d gotten through the first, slightly awkward five minutes. After my second week, I now have no fear of teaching these classes at all and am both enjoying the job and looking forward to presenting the material in the courses. Woot!

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