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Random memories of living in Mexico City

Not many people know that I spent two years living in Mexico City, 1957-59. I was three when I went and five when I returned so my memories of this period are very vague. Looking back I now wish I’d pumped my parents for information but it’s now too late. Here’s a summary of the little that that I do know and remember:

  • We went to Mexico because my dad was posted to the British Embassy as Labour Attache, one of six diplomats working under Sir Andrew Noble, Ambassador.
  • We went as a family (dad, mum, my younger sister and me) on the Cunard RMS Media, sailing from Liverpool to New York, then getting the train from NYC to Mexico. The Media (not that I remember it) was an interesting ship, the first built for Cunard after WWII. She entered service in 1947 and was a combination 250-passenger/cargo ship.
  • My dad was not a total stranger to diplomatic life as he’d worked in the British Embassy in Venezula in the late 1940s (he and my mum met through a penpal club – the immediate postwar version of internet dating!), but for my mum, coming from a working class background, it was an enormous challenge, but one she rose to. Not only was she expected to accompany my dad to diplomatic functions, but was expected to host them too.
  • Our home in Mexico City

    Our home in Mexico City

    We lived in two embassy-provided houses. I don’t remember the first, but would instantly recognise the second if taken there – looking from the road, at the right hand size there was a steeply dropping drive down to a double garage. To the left of this was the house, entered from the street by walking across a ‘bridge’ – the principal entertaining rooms were at first floor level. At the bottom of the garden, over the fence, was some sort of stream or small river.

  • We also had an embassy car (a Ford Consul or Zephyr Mk.1) and driver, Augustus. It was in Mexico that  my mum learned to drive.
  • My sister and me with our maids

    My sister and me with our maids

    We were assigned two Mexican maids, Dolores and Mercedes. Apparently I quickly became a fluent Spanish speaker but lost this just as quickly on returning to UK.

  • I went to an English-speaking nursery school run by one Mrs Bone. I remember nothing of it unfortunately.
  • Our best friends were the Wade family: David Wade was a Shell executive so presumably met my dad via the embassy. We and their two (at the time) children were good friends and maintained contact for years after we returned to Twickenham and Sidcup respectively.
  • Dad was awarded an MBE in the 1957 birthday honours list. He was presented with it when Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent visited Mexico in 1959.
  • We returned to UK in 1959. To get my dad back to work in London asap, they put him on a plane (then the more expensive option), leaving my mum to cope with two small children on the long train journey back to NYC, then the transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary – not half as enjoyable as it might have been for her with two small children to look after and no spouse to share the load.

Postcript

  • Queen Mary at Long Beach 2010

    Queen Mary at Long Beach 2010

    In July 2010 after visiting Dallas for a software conference I took a stopover in LA so I could finally achieve one of my great ambitions, revisiting the Queen Mary. I booked a three night stay and in special requests put ‘returning passenger’. When I checked in, I was given a room upgrade! See Two Queens and me

In hospital – some random thoughts

The theme of my 60th birthday speech a few years back was ‘Life’s not fair’. I noted that I had enjoyed far more of life’s good things than most people, including good health and the extraordinary ‘achievement’ of having reached 60 without a single night in hospital (before you ask, I wasn’t born in one). But I’ve made up for this since, starting with a stay in the public Royal Melbourne Hospital in 2014.

Last month I spent two weeks in hospital, a week in Melbourne Private Hospital, then a week in rehab at Epworth Camberwell. How did this compare to my limited experience (as a visitor only) of English hospitals?

Firstly the UK and Australia have different attitudes to private health insurance. In UK private health insurance is generally offered as a perk by employers; few individuals buy it. Around 10% of the population are covered according to the Telegraph web site. Premiums are subject to 12% insurance premium tax and if your employer pays the premium, this is taxable as a fringe benefit .

Here in Australia it’s the opposite – roughly half the population have private health insurance^ even though they’re covered by our NHS-like Medicare. The private system is seen as taking load off the public system so if you don’t have private health insurance you may have to pay additional income tax (Medicare Levy Surcharge 1-1.5%). In addition the government pays part (33% in my case) of your premium as a rebate. Interestingly insurance companies are not allowed to cherry pick – e.g. All 63 year olds taking out the same policy with a particular insurer must be charged the same premium regardless of their medical history.

Bed space at Epworth Camberwell

Bed space at Epworth Camberwell

So staying in a private hospital is nothing exceptional in Australia. My rooms in each hospital, twin occupancy, weren’t that special, though TV and wifi were free. I could not fault the treatment I received. Without exception, the staff were excellent. As in UK hospitals, a good few of them were from overseas, working on contract.

But, unlike UK hospitals which in my limited experience are overheated during the winter, my rooms were cold and I had to ask for an extra blanket!

Melbourne Private Hospital chicken salad

Melbourne Private Hospital chicken salad

The food was good too (not a comment often heard from UK hospital patients), excellent at MPH, though surprisingly I struggled to find low-fat options on the menu. Useful hint for anyone under orders to lie flat on their back (for 48 hours in my case): pick toast for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch and dinner – you can eat them lying down without help!

But of course the best thing that happens in hospital is being told that you’re now ready to be discharged. In my case this was on my birthday, a great birthday present!

The final journey – by rail

hearse car

Restored hearse car

Today I went on our Railway History Society‘s June 2018 outing, taking in the Craigieburn and Upfield lines. After a good lunch we finished up at Fawkner Cemetery where a restored hearse car is on display.

From the early 1890s new cemeteries were needed in Melbourne. A Northern Suburbs Cemetery Conference, held in 1902, suggested a 284 acre site which included Fawkner Railway Station, and this was adopted. The first funeral, that of four year old Dorothy Knapp, was held on 10th December 1906.

Hearse car information

Hearse car information

From the outset the new cemetery was linked to the city by a dedicated rail service. One service per day ran from Flinders Street Station platform 10 east, the mortuary platform, and this ran as an ordinary passenger service with additional hearse cars attached. Each hearse car could take twenty coffins.

The regular funeral train service was discontinued in 1939 though occasional trains would be run until 1952. The hearse cars were sold for scrap and assumed to be lost,  before three were found on a farm in 1990. After restoration this one is now on display next to Fawkner station.

FAWKNER MEMORIAL PARK Conservation Management Plan

 

A bus trip to Yea

Habitat Yea 31 May 2018

Habitat for Humanity Yea 31 May 2018

As many of you know, I’ve been a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity for eight years and have spent the last six years working on our Yea (125km/75mi NE of Melbourne) project, putting in a day or two most weeks.

Following surgery last month I’m temporarily not allowed to drive or build. I did though take the chance today to ride the V/Line bus from Southern Cross to Yea and back, which gave me a couple of hours to see what’s happened in my absence (lots) and catch up with my building friends.

The bus ride: About 2:15 each way (driving takes 90 minutes). Until its closure in 1978 Yea was a key stop on the Tallarook – Mansfield branch line. Lance Adams’ history of the line is well worth a read.

New Idea – No idea?

At the outset I must state that I don’t read women’s magazines but you can’t help seeing their front covers in the supermarket or library. Quite the most outrageous is New Idea. I thought I’d snap a couple of covers to see how accurate their inside knowledge was.

Jan 2018

New Idea Jan 8th 2018

New Idea Jan 8th 2018

It’s identical twin girls’ the front cover tells us, as confirmed by the New Idea website.

‘It’s official! Prince William and Duchess Kate are expecting twins – and it’s a boy and a girl!

It’s been confirmed that Kensington Palace is alive with double joy celebrations, as the UK royal family prepare to welcome their first twins in more than 700 years.

‘The duke and duchess are absolutely having twins,’ says a trusted high-ranking palace aide. ‘The duchess is having regular ultrasounds due to her chronic morning sickness, and it’s been confirmed that they’re set to welcome two babies.

Feb 2018

New Idea Feb 26th 2018

New Idea Feb 26th 2018

One of the twins is no more though no one seems very upset. Thanks again to the website

It’s a girl! That’s the word from Buckingham Palace as Prince William and Duchess Kate prepare for the arrival of their new baby princess ‘any day now.’

Royal sources confirm that Kate is ‘much further along than anyone thought’, with some believing that she could even go into labour this week….

‘Wills and Kate’s little girl could be here any day now, that’s the absolute reality,’ a palace source tells New Idea. …

‘Many believed she was due in April, but it seems Kate and Wills have managed to sneak under the radar a little and, in fact, her due date is a lot sooner – she’s a lot further along than anyone thought.

April 2018

New Idea May 7th 2018

New Idea May 7th 2018

Prince Louis (Louis, not Louise) is born on April 23rd. Looking at the cover, perhaps New Idea had it made up before the birth as they’ve given up reporting on the baby’s sex.


Fake news? Definitely!

 

House building Thai style

First a disclaimer: This isn’t an in-depth treatise of Thai house building, rather what I noted seeing some detached houses under construction in Chiang Mai.  What’s interesting though, is that what I saw is quite unlike what I’ve seen in the UK, USA and here in Australia.

Most houses are detached. As is the case here in Australia on new estates, most houses are IMO too large for their plots. It appears that Thais do not particularly value gardens.

Frame

Chiang Mai house frame

Chiang Mai house frame

The house structure is carried by a concrete frame with columns supported by bearing pads. The ground and upper floors are concrete with a concrete staircase. Floors are generally tiled. Of course in UK or cooler parts of Australia this would all be a thermal disaster, but in the warm Thai climate having all this thermal mass is a positive.

Structure complete

Chiang Mai house

Chiang Mai house

This picture shows the structure nearing completion Note the bamboo scaffolding. The brick infill and brick surrounding the front piers is non structural. It will all be rendered.

Roof

Chiang Mai house roof detail

Chiang Mai house roof detail

This picture shows part of the roof. Note that steel trusses and tile battens are used. Termites are apparently a problem, thus the use of wood-free construction.

Finished house

Chiang Mai house

Chiang Mai house

And here’s a typical occupied house. A house of this size and standard in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs would probably sell for A$1.5m-2m (£800K-£1.1m). In Chiang Mai you’d be paying around THB4m, say A$170K, £90K!

Visiting the McKean Rehabilitation Center, Chiang Mai

I’ve been a supporter of the Leprosy Mission (TLM) for something like 20 years and I’ve made an annual visit to family in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand each year since 2013.This year I made the connection and was able to visit the McKean Rehabilitation Center in Chiang Mai, one of TLM’s associates. Many thanks to TLM Australia for arranging my visit and to Ling for showing us round.

Statue of James McKean

Statue of James McKean

The centre is named for Dr James McKean (1860-1949), an American missionary. With his second wife, Laura Bell, he arrived in Chiang Mai in 1889 to join another American missionary. With a Thai assistant they set up a dispensary which became known as the American Hospital.

Helping those suffering from leprosy, then untreatable, was one priority. In 1905, Dr McKean gained the support of local dignitaries to create a home for lepers on Koh Klang, a river island off Chiang Mai. By 1908, there was an embryonic leprosarium, consisting of three cottages and six adults. Over the next twenty years, under the care of McKean and his team this fledging operation would grow dramatically.

A bio records:

… Dr McKean retired from the mission in Chiang Mai on March 10, 1931. At By the end of his career McKean had made substantial contributions to public health in Chiang Mail. He had helped to build up the American Hospital (and directed it for 24 years). He had also established a vaccine laboratory and the leprosy asylum, as well as 4 churches and over 45 leprosy villages. the leprosarium, there were more than 500 inhabitants, including 350 leprosy patients, in 143 buildings, including 116 cottages, 9 dormitories, a church, an impressive administration building, recreation center, a road for most of the island, a school, sewing factory, tool and furniture factory, and a form of self-government^.

McKean Center resident's cottage

Residents cottage

After WW2 effective drug treatments for leprosy became available and it is now all but extinct in Thailand, though periodically cases are detected in those who have come from neighbouring countries. McKean continues to treat such cases.

By the early 1970s more than 5,000 patients had been treated in McKean, nearly 1,000 still living there.  The emphasis shifted to making it possible for residents to return to their former homes. For some this is not possible, and McKean will be their permanent home. McKean extended its remit to supporting all disabled people both at the centre and through community outreach.

Church

Church

Our ninety minute tour took in the museum, cottages, the two churches, the outside of the 1993 hospital, hostels for those who cannot look after themselves and, of course, the beautiful grounds. All a great testament to James McKean and others who, inspired by their Christian faith, gave (and continue to give) their lives to serve others.

Leprosy Mission Australia   CityLife Chiang Mai visit to McKean

 

Riding the Overland

History

Overland crest

Overland crest

From the beginning both South Australia and Victoria used broad (Irish) gauge (1600mm) for their main lines, so providing an inter-capital connecting service was just a question of joining the lines. The Melbourne-Adelaide train has operated since 1887 when South Australia’s Adelaide-Wolseley line was extended to meet Victoria’s broad gauge line at Serviceton. The service was given its current name, The Overland, in 1926. Diesel locos took over in 1953.

In 1995 the line was converted to standard gauge, finally enabling through running between all the mainland state capitals.

Today

The Overland ready to leave Adelaide

The Overland ready to leave Adelaide

The Overland now operates a twice weekly daytime in each direction, the journey taking about eleven and a half hours.

The train departs at 0745 with passengers asked to check in from 0645. Checking in is more like airline checking in, though thankfully without security scanning. Checked baggage travels in a baggage van and is collected at the journey’s end.

Enjoying the Overland experience

Enjoying the Overland experience

Most  passengers travel in standard class carriages, 15 rows of seats with 2+2 seats per row. I paid the $100 extra for a Red Premium seat – these seats are in a separate carriage, arranged as 12 rows of 2+1 seating, each seat having a retractable tray table. The additional fare also includes meal service at your seat – breakfast, morning coffee, lunch and afternoon tea. For lunch I opted for camel curry and it was very acceptable.

Look below the seat armrest and you’ll see a small foot pedal. This lets the seat be turned round to face the direction of travel, or you can set two rows to face each other as you can see behind me.

The first part of the journey leaving Adelaide includes some demanding climbs, the rationale for Shea’s ‘big engines’ but after this it’s through open country, with grain stores giving way to sheep country. The last section of the journey is arguably the most interesting to rail enthusiasts, the standard gauge line following the broad gauge line from North Geelong to Newport, then diverting round the Sunshine freight line and back through the Footscray Bunbury Street tunnel to arrive at South Cross platform 2.

All in all a very pleasant trip and one I’d do again.

Two days in Adelaide

Work in progress

This visit to Adelaide, my third, held a special interest. Since 2014 I’ve been a volunteer at our Newport Railway Museum in Melbourne which had given me a special interest in visiting the National Railway Museum in Port Adelaide.

Saturday

Off the Golden Princess at 0700, train to the city to dump my stuff, then train back to Port Adelaide to visit the Railway Museum, then the Maritime Museum – the Aviation Museum will have to wait for my next visit.

NRL Class 500 loco

NRL Class 500 loco

As I’d anticipated, the NRL is a much larger operation than Newport. It’s open seven days a week, has a small paid staff and most of the exhibits are contained in three large buildings. Our Newport locos and carriages have stood outside for fifty five years (a few getting roofed over last year) and show it. The undercover NRL exhibits are in showroom condition.

Just before my visit I read Kings of the Iron Horse, the biographies of Alf Smith (1868-1951), Chief Mechanical Engineer of Victorian Railways, and his protege Fred Shea (1891-1970). By the early 1920s SAR was on the point of collapse and a Canadian, W.A.Webb, was brought in to turn them round and Fred Shea was recommended to him by VR for the post of CME. Shea’s principal achievement was the acquisition of a fleet of ‘big engines’, some of the most powerful ever seen in Australia.

Sunday

Art Gallery of South Australia

Art Gallery of South Australia

I started the day at Flinders Street Baptist Church, one of Adelaide’s oldest, then spent most of the afternoon exploring city centre attractions, principally the Adelaide Museum and the Art Gallery of South Australia.

As it was a fine afternoon, I took the tram (Adelaide currently has just one tram route) to Glenelg, a seaside suburb about 30 minutes away.

Finally, back to the city for an early night as I needed to be at the Overland terminal by 0645.

 

Golden Princess mini cruise March 2018

Year by year my calendar seems to get fuller. When I came to Australia in 2008 the one fixed point was my promise to go back and see family and friends once a year – always, for obvious reasons, during the British summer so as to escape a few weeks of our winter. An annual visit to Thailand to catch up with my brother and family was added in 2014, then a post-Christmas mini-break to somewhere new in Australia, and from 2017 a short cruise.

The Golden Princess at Port Melbourne

The Golden Princess at Port Melbourne

This year’s cruise couldn’t have been more mini – just two nights/one day sailing from Melbourne to Adelaide on the Golden Princess. At 109,000 tons she is a large ship, though not the largest by a long way.

Thursday – embarcation

Boarding took a little while with 800 new passengers joining the ship. Once on board I made for the Horizon Court buffet restaurant for a late lunch and was then on deck for our 4.00p.m. departure (most cruise ships leave at 6.00). At that point I realised that we’d be sailing through Port Phillip Heads (the narrow gap that separates the Southern Ocean from the bay) in daylight … but I’d opted for early dining so would probably be eating when we passed through the Heads.

Port Lonsdale lighthouse

Port Lonsdale lighthouse

I made my excuses to my table companions, skipped dessert, and made it on deck as we just passed through the heads, passing Point Lonsdale lighthouse, somewhere I’d visited on land a number of times. Being tired I didn’t stay up for the late night entertainment.

Friday – at sea

Before breakfast I joined an informal Bible Study group – six of us, three from Melbourne, one each from UK, Sweden and Switzerland. As with a number of other affinity group meetings, the crew has no part in this – a venue is nominated and it’s up to those who turn up to decide what they do. Then – putting diet aside – a full cooked breakfast in the Horizon Court. In my defence I always used the lifts and on Friday, according to my phone, smashed my 6,000 steps a day target, managing 11,046 steps. A good talk by a retired Federal police officer on scams, then lunch, then afternoon tea.

Music
Starlight string trio

Starlight string trio

Before dinner I enjoyed listening to the Starlight Trio. Tonight’s excellent dinner was unhurried, then into a packed theatre for the production show.

More music
Colin Salter, entertainer

Colin Salter, entertainer

My intention was to have another early night but I was attracted by one Colin Salter singing while accompanying himself on the piano. “Just one more,” I told myself, then another and another.

Saturday – back on land

I was awake at six to see us docking at Adelaide’s Outer Harbour. Time for another Horizon Court breakfast, then off the ship for my weekend in Adelaide.