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Farewell little bro

I remember the night he was born – my new baby brother. I was nearly five years old at the time and the commotion in the house woke me up. “Go back to bed”, I was told, but I lay there awake until my dad came back in the morning to tell me I had another brother. “Oh no, another boy!” I thought, but he was very different to the first one, and I grew to enjoy his quiet, sensitive ways.

He had a little suitcase full of plastic toys – mostly tiny little cowboys and Indians, but some bigger horses too – and I loved the times we lay on the carpet together, galloping the horses around, clipping their bandy-legged riders on every time they fell off. He loved playing ‘Clock Patience’ too, though I admit I tired of dealing the cards out for him well before he’d had enough of the game.

He was never a boisterous, noisy child – rather a quiet, deep thinker, who proved to be very able academically when he started school, especially in mental arithmetic. And he devoured books! We were very similar in that way, never happier than sitting quietly in each other’s company, both totally absorbed in the magical worlds we were reading about.

Perry’s mathematical and logical abilities were spotted early by IBM and he was taken on straight from school as a young trainee. He excelled at his work, and eventually left New Zealand to spend some time in the UK. But over the years he lost his interest in IT and began to think more about the world and how he could contribute to make people’s lives better. He rejected any kind of work that would just make money for individuals or companies and was not aimed at benefitting society in general.

Perry developed an interest in many areas and started to write. He published articles on the Helium writers’ website, and made thoughtful contributions to a variety of forums. He made a submission to the New Zealand parliament on the transparency of lobbying groups and was very keen to ensure that animals receive adequate protection and care, both in captivity and in the wild. He supported Kiva and made contributions to Greenpeace, Avaaz, and various charities whenever he was financially able.

But he struggled with what he saw as an increasingly money-orientated, heartless world and, around this time last year, after many years of trying to live according to his ideals, he took his own life. Only a week ago we came to know the truth of what had happened to him, though it has seemed the most likely outcome for some time.

Perry was not afraid of death. When he had low times in the past we had long discussions on life and what might come after. He felt there were two options – nothing, in which case he would be oblivious; or some other kind of world, a different dimension perhaps. He saw death in much the same way as birth – a doorway into another existence, one that he felt had to be better than what he saw around him. I hope he has not been disappointed.

I am extremely appreciative of the support I have received while trying to find him. Numerous people unknown to me have shared his photo and details, and only because of that I’ve been contacted by the person who played a large part in finding him and I’ve heard of the circumstances of the discovery. His remains have received a Maori blessing and were treated with respect and consideration.

Haere ra, little bro.

Windows 10 by stealth?

I meant to take up Microsoft’s offer of a free upgrade to Windows 10 before the deadline ran out, I really did, but somehow life got in the way and I just didn’t get around to it.

So here I am still with Windows 7, but an interesting thing is happening. Since July 29th – the DEADLINE for the free upgrade – every single time I turn off my computer it applies an update and I get that “Do not switch of your computer” message. I’m used to Microsoft updates coming through with reasonable frequency, but EVERY time? That just seems a bit too much of a coincidence to me.

Has Microsoft decided not to take ‘No’ for an answer and just secretly upgrade me anyway? Will I one day soon switch on my computer and be welcomed to Windows 10? Watch this space!

A year of challenges

World HandsSo 2016 isn’t quite working out the way I had planned – not even remotely close!

On a personal level, I’ve had to deal with my brother disappearing off the face of the earth – 5 months now since anyone saw or heard anything of him – and a totally unexpected health issue of my own. I’m not out of the woods yet – several months of treatment still to come – but I’m feeling fit and positive and thinking about how I can best make use of my time while I’m not able to be out and about a lot.

And what do I love to do? Yes, learn languages – and I don’t need to be out and about for that, thanks to the amazing Internet. I just have to discipline myself to concentrate on one language and stop flitting from one to another like the proverbial Schmetterling  …. yes, Deutsch it is for now. I keep letting it slide, so no excuses! Time to ramp it up a notch and organise some over-the-internet conversations.

But on a non-personal level, what a mess 2016 is turning out to be.

As if the Brexit shambles weren’t enough, we now have the prospect of the government of one of the most powerful countries on the earth being headed by Donald Trump. I can’t really believe it could come to pass, that so many decent, intelligent human beings could vote for such an ignorant, bigoted man, but then I didn’t believe so many people here would want to turn their back on Europe either, and that happened.

I was reading a statement by Stephen Hawking earlier this week, that the attitude that Brexit exemplifies could lead to the end of the humanity. A bit drastic, you might think, but I get where he’s coming from. Brexit and Trump supporters are not dissimilar in their “I’m all right, Jack” attitude. Neighbouring countries are having problems? Well, let’s just pull up the drawbridge, or build a wall, and pretend they are nothing to do with us.

The world is facing global issues on a scale it has never faced before. Human beings are changing the environment to such an extent that we are slowly making our planet uninhabitable. Selfish, bigoted, “I’m right and the rest of you are all wrong” attitudes are dominating in many places of the world.

The inward-looking attitudes we see portrayed by Brexit and Trump are reflections of what is happening on a more violent scale in many other places, leading to a global refugee problem. In the past countries like the US and the UK were seen as safe havens, places where traumatized families could start again and work hard to build their lives and contribute to their new country. Not any more. Sadly, too many doors are being shut in their faces. Where are they to go?

We can only solve global issues by working together. We need to be cooperating, communicating, supporting each other, finding solutions together. If we don’t, Stephen Hawking’s prediction could well come true, and it may be the only way that the world will be saved. Human beings may no longer be around to see it, and it might take a very long while for the nuclear radiation to die down, but eventually the planet will recover. It just might not have any people on it.



The refugee crisis

As the newspapers lurch from vilifying refugees and wanting to pull up the drawbridge one week to sensationalist, heartrending emotional wailing the next, where do we stand as human beings? What are we supposed to think? And more importantly, what can we do?

Because from where I sit, nothing doesn’t seem to be an option.

I was encouraged by Leanne Wood’s call for Wales to have its own quota of Syrian refugees, but it’s frustrating to think that it has to come through Westminster. David Cameron has to be convinced first.

Iceland, with its population of 330,000, has seen 12,000 people pledge to open their homes to Syrian refugees and provide them with safe haven. We have 3 million people in Wales, nearly 10 times as many! How many could we take in?

At the same time as we see this crisis of people needing somewhere safe to start to pick up the pieces of their lives, we have reports of chapels and churches closing across Wales. Everywhere you go, you see empty buildings, often two or three in the same town. They are left to fall into disrepair, become a target for vandals, and symbolise a loss of what was once a hub in the community.

What if they could become a hub once more, a hub of compassion and nurturing – a safe haven for refugee families to get back on their feet?

What would it take for a community to come together, donate time and materials, and work on renovating an old building like a chapel, turning it into basic accommodation to provide shelter for a family in need?

Could we see a Wales where every community opens its arms to a refugee family and surrounds them with warmth and emotional support as they begin their journey back to normality?

Would it be that hard?

Penfriends for 35 years

The Polyglot Gathering was only the beginning of my trip to Germany. What came next was an extremely special and emotional meeting that I will never forget.

How it all began

In 1980 I was attending a German nightclass in Sydney, Australia. I was very keen to have contact with someone actually living in Germany, so when I got hold of a German magazine I wrote to the Editor and requested a penfriend. I had no idea what was to come!

Literally hundreds of letters started arriving – 52 on one single day! Evidently the idea of having a penfriend in Australia was very appealing to a lot of Germans. At first they were overwhelmingly from West Germany, but then a trickle started to come through from the East – behind the Iron Curtain. A lot of the letters were very similar, but one stood out in particular. I don’t know what it was, but Traudi’s letter seemed different – somehow more personal – and I was keen to write to her.

I selected a few, mainly from the East like Traudi, and took the rest to local secondary schools that taught German. There was NO WAY I could handle that many letters!

Gradually the other correspondence dwindled and stopped, but Traudi and I kept writing. It was fascinating comparing our lives and sharing our experiences as new mothers living in completely different circumstances. We exchanged photos and talked about our hopes for the future.

A phonecall in the night

Then came a letter with a surprise. Traudi had organised a 17-digit phone number which I could use to call her. She wasn’t able to call out, but she could receive a call. I worked out the time difference and saw that it would be good to call when I was up in the night feeding my young baby girl.

I had to make the call through an International Operator in Brisbane, who sounded half asleep and was very surprised that I was trying to call East Germany. “I hope YOU can speak German when they answer on the other end, as I can’t!” but he was keen to help.

We got through, but that first time Traudi wasn’t home. Jürgen, her husband, asked if I could call again at the same time the following night and he would make sure she was there. The following night I contacted the Operator again and we went through the procedure again.

This time Traudi answered. I don’t think we said a lot: it was mainly laughing, crying and exclamations of joy, but it opened a small chink in the Wall.

A change of strategy

Unfortunately I didn’t keep my German up, moving to Weipa where there was no nightschool and then starting to learn Spanish instead. Gradually I wrote shorter and shorter letters as it took longer and longer for me to write in German.

I didn’t want to stop writing though, so Traudi suggested that I write in English and she would get help to translate it, and she would continue to write in German which I could manage to read with the help of a dictionary.

This worked well, and although we dropped down to only once or twice a year, we kept the communication up.

The end of the Wall

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 Traudi’s life began to change. At first it wasn’t for the better in terms of job security. She and Jürgen both lost their jobs and with a young child wondered what to do. Keen environmentalists they decided to become as self-sufficient as possible, and established Haselnusshof – a traditional German country house with enough land around to grow all kinds of vegetables and fruits, raise chickens, and generally live off the land.

And it was to Haselnusshof that I made my way from Berlin.

Meeting after 35 years

Traudi and her son, Christian, who is now a husband and father of a delightful 2-year old, met me at Wittenberge station and it was truly as if we’d known each other all our lives. We couldn’t stop hugging each other, delighted that we had finally met. Even the fact that my German was decidedly rusty (despite cramming from an old textbook during the 1.5 hour train ride) didn’t detract from the emotion of the meeting.

Meeting in Wittenberge

I stayed for 2 nights, sleeping in a little Swedish style guest cottage in the garden, and finding out all about Traudi’s life. She explained how lucky she was to get that original magazine, sent to her from the West by a relative. Often such items were removed by the East German officials, but with it being a busy time just before Christmas somehow the magazine had made it through in a parcel. Traudi wasn’t sure if her first letter would reach me or if she would be able to get a reply, so it was amazing that we were able to correspond all that time.

With Jürgen we visited Das Grüne Band at Wirlspitze, near Arendsee. This is the site of the dividing fence between East and West which has been preserved in its entirety as a long nature strip. Jürgen often leads groups here to learn about the history, and pointed out some of the key features – remains of casings of landmines, a post with rusted barbed wire pinned to it where the old fence used to stand – then he took Traudi and me by the hand and together we walked symbolically from the old East part into the West.

Das Grüne Band

It was an incredible feeling, knowing how very different that spot would have been when we started corresponding.

It was hard to leave on the third day, but it was time for me to head home to Wales. Now I’m determined to get my German back to a reasonable level of fluency so I can write more often and perhaps we can even Skype! And of course, I look forward to welcoming Traudi to Wales when she’s ready to make a return visit.

It definitely won’t be another 35 years before we meet again!

Tragedy in the Mediterranean

Here in Wales we don’t get boatloads of desperate people drowning while trying reach our shores. We don’t even have a particularly high rate of migration, apart from people moving here from England. But the tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean must surely touch us all.

Some people try to claim these aren’t REAL asylum seekers. They call them economic migrants as if trying to avoid watching your children starve to death because you don’t have the money to feed them somehow means you are less deserving of assistance than those fleeing violence.

I cannot believe that anyone would risk their lives making such a treacherous journey just because they weren’t completely satisfied with their conditions and wanted something a bit better. These people are desperate. No one in their right mind would attempt that crossing if they weren’t.

UKIP wants to drastically reduce the foreign aid that the UK gives to improve conditions for people in their homelands. What affect would that have? It would increase the numbers of people forced to search for a way to sustain their families elsewhere. There would be MORE people needing to leave their homes and struggling to reach a place of safety.

If we really want a solution we need to find ways to help people have safe and satisfying lives in their own countries. We need more of the quiet heroes like Wil Morus Jones who started BanglaCymru, a Welsh organisation that performs free surgery for the extremely poor in Bangladesh, giving a new lease of life to those suffering from cleft palate deformities.

The world has the capacity to feed and nuture all its people, but everything is out of balance. There are governments and leaders across the world that are more concerned with protecting the welfare of a few at the top than improving the standard of living and providing hope to the many at the bottom. While we still have such an imbalance, people will become desperate and do anything to give a better life to their children. While we still have that, I fear we will see more of the tragedies that occurred this week.

Read more from The Conversation

RIP Terry Pratchett

When my children were growing up we had a nightly visitor to our home. Snuggled up on the sofa with my daughter on one side and my son on the other we dived into a world of fantasy, humour and wit – a magical and treasured time of my life.

I’ll never forget the pleasure Terry Pratchett gave to our lives – from the early days of The Carpet People through to the amazing Discworld novels.

This world will miss you, but those other worlds will live forever.