Monthly Archives: December 2021

#aww2021 Challenge Completed

This is my round-up post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021, my eighth year of participation, and the final year of the challenge’s existence.

The challenge was established in 2012 to raise awareness of Australian women’s writing. I signed up for 2014, and I’ve recorded a total of 165 books read since then as part of the challenge. This year, I read 15 books by Australian women writers, well over my goal of ten. Here they are, with links to my blog posts:

6 books for children and young people

4 books of poetry

3 essays

1 historical novel

1 collection of essays edited by a woman

1 art book

The list doesn’t include journals or anthologies.

On a related topic, I’ve done a quick gender check on books I read this year. Counting comics, but not journals, anthologies or most picture books, I read:

  • 27 by women
  • 34 by men

I read 1 book in translation (from Homeric Greek), and 2 in their original French. I read two books by First Nations writers, and 10 by People of the Global Majority (a term I’m using at the recommendation of friends who prefer it to ‘People of Colour’). These stats make me realise that apart from anything else the journals I read are a great source of diverse voices.

I’ll do a separate post where the Emerging Artist and I pick our favourite books and movies of the year.

Ruby Reads 29: Gift

It’s the time of year when Ruby comes into possession of many new books, first for her birthday, and then for Christmas. This is one I gave her, and which she took time to enjoy in the midst of things. (I love it.)


Ursula Dubosarsky and Tohby Riddle, The March of the Ants (Book Trail 2021)

Full disclosure: Ursula Dubosarsky and Tohby Riddle are friends of mine.

They’re also both geniuses, who have collaborated on a number of books for children. This gorgeous picture book is the latest. The text was read by Ursula at her launch as Australian Children’s Laureate in February 2020. Neither she nor Tohby could have known that its message about the importance of story had a prophetic relevance for the two years that lay ahead.

A group of ants set out on an excursion. Every one of them carries something important for the enterprise. When one little ant shows up with just a book, there is much mockery. But the little ant persists. Later when all the others are tired from their exertions and the food and drink have run out, the little ant reads to the others, and they are revived by the story.

Tohby’s images are masterly, full of odd details without being at all crowded.

Here’s a video of a laurel-crowned Ursula reading the book, from the Australian Children’s Laureate Foundation webpage


The March of the Ants is the 15th and final book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Lemire Endings: Gideon Falls 6 and Ascender4

Among my welcome gifts of comics this Christmas are the final instalments of two series that have been going for a couple of years. Though they share a principal author, they evoked vastly different responses in me: I was just relieved that one of them was over at last, and the final pages of the other had me welling up.


Jeff Lemire (writer), Andrea Sorrentino (artist) and Dave Stewart (colorist), Gideon Falls, Volume 6: The End (Image Comics 2021, originally published as issue 27 of the comic)

This has been a brilliant piece of complex story telling, matched by superbly challenging art work. There’s a kind of zombie apocalypse with hideous grins, happening in at least three time periods but all in the same place. There’s endless confusion about which people and institutions are on the side of good, and which in thrall to evil. There’s a weird blend of scientism and the occult, and an abundance of surgical masks that belies the story’s pre-Covid-19 beginnings (and don’t make any obvious sense without the Covid–19 reference).

Horror is a genre whose appeal is lost on me. That, and the sense on page after page that I had to work hard just to figure out what was going on, means I was pretty cool about the series, and this final instalment didn’t warm me up. The occasional page is upside down, for a start, and to my eye at least the characters never take on clear individual qualities. Interestingly, among the included extras is the script of the original comic: reading it would be an ideal way of sorting out who everyone was, and what was happening on the pages where the images were indecipherable to me. I was tempted, but in the end I decided I’d rather live with being too stupid to follow the story than expend any more effort on it.


Jeff Lemire & Dustin Nguyen (storytellers), Steve Wands (lettering and design), Will Dennis (editor), and Tyler Jennes (assistant editor), Ascender Volume Four: Star Seed (Image Comics 2021, from issues 15–18 of the comic)

This volume brings an end to six years of space opera – the six-part Descender. and the the four-part Ascender. This also has been a brilliantly complex story-telling, whose visual complexity sometimes tipped over into incomprehensibility. Here too several distinct stories have occupied the same space in a vertigo-inducing manner.

But at the heart of this saga are two small children under threat, one of whom is a robot, so the reader has an emotional grounding. We know who to barrrack for when they flex their great powers (the robot), and who to fear for when the forces of empire and magic and machinery are out to destroy them (the flesh and blood girl).

Dustin Nguyen’s watercolour paintings, which I didn’t care for at all at first, turn out to serve the story beautifully. The scenes of violence are just as chaotic as anyone could wish. The bad guys, rather than being softened by the pastel colours, take on a kind of deliquescent vileness. And the children stay softly vulnerable throughout.

Among tying off of narrative threads, there’s a twist in the final moments that got to me. It takes real genius to set up a narrative tension that the reader is barely aware of, to let it simmer for years (years in the telling, and decades in the story itself), to lay careful last-minute groundwork for a resolution that the reader (this one anyway) sees as pure decoration, and then spring the resolution in just a single frame. I hope that’s abstract enough to leave the story unspoiled should you choose to read it.

Given my own widely divergent responses to these two series, I hesitate to recommend either of them without qualification. But if I was running a comic shop and you walked in off the street asking for recommendations, Jeff Lemire’s name would spring to my lips.

Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman

Bernadine Evaristo, Mr Loverman (Penguin 2013)

Bernadine Evaristo won the 2019 Booker Prize for her novel Girl, Woman, Other. Mr Loverman doesn’t have such a weighty status, but it’s wonderful. The narrator, Barrington Jedidiah Walker is seventy-four (same age as me, which may be why the book was insistently recommended to me), living unhappily married in London. It’s 2010 and he has been in love with his friend Morris since they were children, and having an active, clandestine sexual relationship with him.

He’s a great character, and the story of his coming out – a term he dislikes – is told with enormous charm and energy, in language inflected with the rhythms of his native Antigua and filled with sparkling wordplay.

While our sympathies are firmly with Barry, the book doesn’t let us forget how badly his deception has affected his wife and daughters. The ending is almost Shakespearean in the way it ties off everything in neat bows. Speaking of Shakespeare, the largely self-educated Barry loves to quote the Bard, to terrific effect and in my case a serendipitous similarity to the last novel I read, also by an English of African heritage.


No reflection on the books, but my blog posts for the next couple of weeks will be short and – hopefully – to the point. I don’t imagine an explanation is needed but it’s summer-time, my extended family are in Christmas–New Year mode, the Emerging Artist and I will soon be crossing state borders to spend a couple of weeks away, and on top of all that I’ve got a very painful hamstring (don’t ask!) and a non-Covid coronavirus infection.

Lech Blaine’s Top Blokes

Lech Blaine, Top Blokes: The larrikin myth, class and power (Quarterly Essay 83, 2021)
– plus correspondence in Quarterly Essay 84

About the time this Quarterly Essay was published (13 September 2021), two other books appeared on Scott Morrison: The Accidental Prime Minister (15 September 2021), a biography by Annika Smethurst; and The Game (1 November 2021) by Sean Kelly. Given that Quarterly Essay 79, The End of Certainty (September 2020) by Katharine Murphy, was in part a portrait of Morrison, no one could say Scott Morrison has avoided scrutiny. Judith Brett has a brief, elegant piece in the November issue of Australian Book Review discussing all four publications. It features on the ABR podcast, at this link.

The main thrust of this essay, as I read it, is that whereas in earlier times the ALP and unions were powerful voices to defend and promote the rights of working class people, they no longer serve that function, and working class voices in Australia – the voices of people involved in direct production and basic service work – have been marginalised. Instead, members of the political class take on cultural signifiers of working-class culture: there’s symbolic representation rather than participation. Memorably, the essay describes Matt Canavan’s selfies in soot-covered face and yellow jacket as the class equivalent of blackface. The argument is important, and urgent in its implications for the resistance to climate change action among mine workers: people who have the most at stake in the short term are unlikely to be persuaded by high moral argument, or even arguments about intergenerational justice, from people whose livelihoods and lifestyles aren’t obviously at immediate risk.

That argument is graphically presented in a history of the politics since Howard, interspersed with commentary from Blaine’s unreconstructed working-class friends and family on both sides of politics.

The issue is muddied by the whole larrikin thing. It’s one thing to describes Scott Morrison’s construction of an artificial persona that would appeal to a certain part of the electorate: ditching his love of Rugby Union and becoming a League fan, having his photo taken with a meat pie and a beer, etc. It’s quite another to say that this is larrikinism: on the contrary, the ‘daggy dad’, ‘ordinary bloke’ persona smacks of suburban conformity rather than nose-thumbing disruptiveness, which I would have thought was a defining feature of larrikinism.

I went back through the essay looking for Blaine’s definition of the term. I found this:

In the beginning, larrikins sinned on the streets of Australian cities. They lusted not after power but for moral condemnation from coppers. The capitalist class was trolled for sport. That didn’t mean the larrikin was impervious to the seduction of money and media spectacle. Life revolved around get-rich-quick schemes and dreams of widespread notoriety. ‘The term “larrikin” was used as a handy way for journalists and the authorities to label any apparently lowborn young person … who engaged in uncouth behaviour,’ wrote Melissa Ballanta in Larrikins: A History. ‘At all times larrikinism had a profound connection to unskilled labour.’

(page 13)

That seems clear enough, but once the essay moves away from definitions, the word seems to be applied to any person, usually a man, who is solidly working class, and possibly raised in poverty. The essay discusses a wide range of individuals as exemplifying aspects of the larrikin, real and fake, including: Melissa Lucashenko’s father, an itinerant Russian migrant who was ‘extremely violent’; John Willey, who grew up in an orphanage, fought in World War II, was a solid unionist and helped build the Railways Rugby League Club in Ipswich; Anthony Albanese, at least in his early life, who was raised in public housing by a single mother a disability pension; Bruce, a FIFO electrician on a gas mine; movie-star and tax evader Paul Hogan; First Nations senator Lidia Thorpe; poet Omar Sakr; artist Abdul Abdullah; Indigenous All Stars captain Joel Thompson. The term becomes wide enough to embrace anyone who is anti-authoritarian: Grace Tame, Behrouz Boochani and Adam Goodes. That is to say, the word becomes close to mea,

The muddled larrikinism discussion aside, the essay offers important insights into the One-Nation-voting working people who feel themselves, with justice, to be ignored and silenced by the mainstream media and politicians.


Six of the eight correspondents in Quarterly Essay 84 – Jess Hill’s The Reckoning – are women.

Rachel Nolan, a former Queensland MP, notes that Lech Blaine identifies strongly with his family’s Ipswich connections, and she gives a brief, fascinating political history of the town.

Bri Lee amplifies the essay’s description of the way people with university degrees condescend to those who don’t, the way some people on the left believe in ‘the stupidity and wholesale inferiority of the right’.

Economist Alison Pennington does a sterling job of outlining the origins of larrikinism in the success of enormous struggles by working people, and having done some of the work that was missing from the essay, she gives credit where it’s due, calling it ‘one of the most engaging analyses I’ve read of Australian contemporary class relations’.

Literary critic Shannon Burns offers some fascinating reflections on ‘authenticity’, and somehow includes a description of Bogan Bingo, an entertainment in which white-collar workers have fun pretending to be ‘bogans’. She draws attention to an element of larrikinism that is missing from Blaine’s account: ‘He knows how to have fun and invites you along for the ride. A larrikin is playful when she is serious and serious when she is playful.’

Of the men, historian David Hunt challenges the essay’s identification of solid unionists with larrikins – historically the two groups have loathed each other.

Lech Blaine’s response to the correspondence is brilliantly un-defensive – a textbook example of how to respond to disagreement and criticism. He writes:

Flicking someone flippantly between historical scenes was meant to convey the mess of Australian national identity, and the way we frequently use the same descriptions and categories for people who are spiritually and politically opposed. I definitely should have provided a more succinct definition of what it means to be a larrikin, then and now, especially in a positive sense

(Quarterly Essay 84, page 106)

The Marrickville Mattress Poet again

It’s almost a year since I saw any of Marrickville Mattress Poet C.L’s work (last sighting here), but she’s still going, and I saw this this morning. It looks as if she’s feeling the strain of living with a climate-action-delaying bloviator as Prime Minister.

500 people: Week 44

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge, and also my post on Joe Keohane’s The Power of Strangers for an ex-post-facto rationale.

1. Saturday 11 December. I’m not sure if this counts as a warm encounter. I was waiting on the platform at Town Hall Station when I saw a young man in the train about to leave the station throw a piece of rubbish on the floor of his carriage. I somehow caught his eye and gestured my dismay. Beneath my mask, I muttered, ‘Pick it up, you little [expletive],’ but he couldn’t hear or even read my lips. He gave me the finger, removed his mask, took a puff on his vape and blew it in my general direction. I made a number of gestures in his direction that could have meant anything. I got out my phone and took a photo, threatening (inaudibly) to post it on TikTok. He cocked his fingers like a pistol and shot me a few times. Then the train left. I choose to believe all this was in fun, that we were each entertaining himself with these little performances.

2. Sunday. I was in my favourite bookshop, Gleebooks, buying gifts for, it turned out, eight greatnieces/nephews. A silver-haired woman commented as she passed me, ‘You’re doing well!’ A niece had given her a list of books her children might like, but without authors’ names or other helpful details. We had a pleasant little chat as we attempted to sort out whether it was great-great-nieces we were buying for, or just one great, and swapped book anecdotes. (She got help from a staff member and was delighted to find what she was looking for. I did well too.)

3. Monday morning at the swimming pool, we were greeted at reception by a woman who I’ve seen around but never in that role. As I was leaving I decided to have an actual conversation with her: ‘I’ve seen you around,’ I said, ‘but not here. Have you been working here long?’ She has worked at the pool for a long time, she said, but in the office (vague upward gesture). Covid lockdown meant that everyone had to take a turn at reception. So of course I asked after the three sisters who worked there for years before Covid, and got some of the story of how they got trapped in Queensland.

4. Tuesday. The other person in the sauna was a young woman. I made a small opening gambit – something about the wall clock having stopped – and we chatted for close to half an hour, the kind of chat that Joe Keohane says increases the wellbeing of participants. She’s a musician. I asked if I should have heard of her. ‘Not yet,’ she said modestly. But she told me her professional name and I visited her website later. When she’s famous I’ll be able to say I knew her when.

5–7. Saturday, middle of the day. An in-person birthday party for a four-year-old. I didn’t keep track of how many new people I engaged with, but I estimate at least three. Most memorably were two young parents who left Australia a bit over three years ago for one of them to work in Dublin. They got caught there by Covid–19, and returned just a couple of weeks ago, now with two young Irish-born children. I initiated the contact by advocating for their three-year-old daughter who was too shy to assert herself in the rush for a slice of the teddy-bear cake (a splendid creation of the Emerging Artist).

8. Later on Saturday. I was in the local bottle-shop’s coolroom looking for my preferred non-alcoholic drink. Two young men sauntered in, one of them lifted two cartons from the top of a pile of beer cartons, and the other picked up the two cartons below them , and they both walked out, all done smoothly and wordlessly as if they shared a brain. As I left the coolroom after them, one said to me, ‘Pretty smooth, eh?’ I said, ‘You must have done it once or twice before.’ I added, ‘I have one criticism, though. You should have taken the [brand name of top two cartons redacted].’ He was momentarily shocked. The cartons they took were also [redacted], but a different colour logo: ‘It’s a good drop, eh?’ ‘I don’t drink,’ I said, ‘but my old next-door neighbour is the brewer.’ ‘You don’t drink! You’re in the wrong place then.’ I laughed and said, ‘I can still look, can’t I?’

Running total is now 270.

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Gravel Heart

Abdulrazak Gurnah, Gravel Heart (Bloomsbury 2017)

Abdulrazak Gurnah won the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, ‘for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.’ He was born in Tanzania in 1948 and has lived in the United Kingdom most of his life. Gravel Heart is his ninth novel, and the only one available in my local library. It’s not singled out in any of the biographical outlines I’ve read, but it’s a wonderful novel. Here’s how it starts:

My father did not want me. I came to that knowledge when I was quite young, even before I understood what I was being deprived of and a long time before I could guess the reason for it. In some ways not understanding was a mercy. If this knowledge had come to me when I was older, I might have known how to live with it better but that would probably have been by pretending, and hating.

Not to be too spoilerish: when I read the last page of the novel, I immediately flipped back to those sentences. It’s hard to imagine an introduction to the story that follows that is more misleading, and yet at the same time true to the story.

The narrator, born in Zanzibar, travels to England when he finishes school, with the support of a wealthy uncle, leaving his father who is eking out a miserable existence on the margins of their town, and his mother who is having a liaison with a powerful man in the government. After decades, in which he leads a fairly aimless life in the UK, he goes back home for a visit. His mother has died and he spends a substantial amount of time with his father.

I approached the book tentatively – these Nobel Laureates can be tough reads. But I’m happy to recommend the book as a completely absorbing read. I felt the young man’s painful yearning for home and his mother, and his difficulty in communicating in letters across the widening cultural gulf was so intimately real to me that I had to keep reminding myself of the vast difference between his life experience and mine. (I was sent off to a prestigious boarding school a thousand miles from home at age 14 and had no idea what to write in my mandatory weekly letter home.) Mostly in England he associates with other non-White people, though some of his amorous liaisons might be white. There’s only one moment of explicit, vile racism, and though the reader sees it coming the young man is caught completely, devastatingly off guard.

The real thrill of the book for me is in the final chapters where the naturalistic mode of storytelling is stretched to its limit as the father tells his son the story of his life over two long nights. But you decide to accept the manifestly artificial set-up because the story is so powerful, and fleshes out the tantalising hints that have been there from that first paragraph. Then, stretching verisimilitude just a bit further, the son realises that his father’s story is a variation on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. (The book’s title is a phrase from that play, though I still don’t know what it means.) I can’t say how or why, but I found that moment deeply moving: something in my understanding of the world, of colonisation and racism, moved deep inside my head.

Joe Keohane’s the Power of Strangers

Joe Keohane, The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World (Viking 2021)

If I hadn’t already embarked on my 500 people project before I read this book, I would have started on it now. It’s a terrific book, of which the fabulous Ayad Akhtar (my blog post on his Homeland Elegies here) says on the back cover:

Rare is the book that delivers on the promise of a big answer to an even bigger question, but Joe Keohane’s The Power of Strangers does just that. This lively, searching work makes the case that welcoming ‘others’ isn’t just the bedrock of civilisation, it’s the surest path to the best of what life has to offer.

I can’t say it any better.

Joe Keohane is a journalist, used to talking to strangers as part of his job, with the aim of extracting newsworthy information and quotes. This book is about a different kind of talk, the reciprocal kind that is an essential part of being human, but which has been much neglected in recent decades.

Keohane draws on studies in primatology, archaeology, psychology and sociology. He describes the behaviour of ferociously territorial chimps and sweet-natured bonobos. He quotes philosophers, political scientists, novelists and historians. He interviews activists and takes part in classes, reporting on his successes and his embarrassments. He peppers his arguments with witty and moving anecdotes. He comes across as charming, intelligent, generous, and persuasive.

One of the user-friendlty feature of the book is that every now and then Keohane gives a little summary of the Book So Far. Here’s one from about the midpoint:

All right. So what do we know? We know that interdependence made hunter-gatherer groups more sociable among themselves and eventually with other groups. We know that greeting rituals in hospitality were evolved to reconcile the threat strangers pose with the opportunities that present… We know that we’re wired to favour our groups, but also that our definition of our group is flexible. We know that we’re predisposed to like people with whom we have something in common, even if we have no idea who they are and even if it consists of little more than wearing the same baseball cap. We know that cities can bring us together with countless strangers, but they can also create social norms that keep us apart. We know that talking across group boundaries can make us anxious, and we know that the relentless messaging about stranger danger that several generations were clobbered with has warped our sense of threat and possibly harmed our ability to trust.

(Page 166)

I won’t summarise the arguments for how talking to strangers was crucial to human survival in prehistoric times, or how rituals were devised to make it safe. I won’t do more than mention the experiments that show people’s sense of wellbeing increasing noticeably after they talk to a stranger, or even greet them with a wave and a smile. I won’t go into the fascinating findings that in places with high levels of generalised trust people tend not to be friendly to strangers, and vice versa, Australia being a rare, even possibly unique, exception: evidently we’re both trusting and friendly. I’ll skip over the lesser minds problem, that is, the common practical assumption that strangers aren’t fully human; and the self-explanatory phenomenon of absent presence. I’ll refrain from relaying the story of the viene-vienes in Mexico City (you can read about them here).

I will give you a surprisingly long list of projects that set out to encourage and enable people to talk to strangers. Most of them are in the USA – Keohane is a New Yorker – but while the ills they address may have a different flavour in other countries, I doubt if any place is free of them. In the order of appearance:

  1. Trigger Conversations: ‘a London-based “human connection organisation” that hosts social events aimed at facilitating meaningful conversations among strangers’, founded in 2016. Keohane spends a lot of time on what he learned at classes run by its founder, Georgie Nightingall
  2. Chatty Cafés: more than 900 pubs and cafés in the UK ‘set up specially marked tables where strangers can chat’
  3. Crossing Divides, a BBC series, which instituted a ‘chatty bus’ day, ‘during which riders were encouraged to talk to one another’
  4. Talk to Me, founded in 2012, a group that ‘distributed “Talk to Me” buttons to signal a willingness to talk in public, and set up “talk bars” in public spaces’
  5. Conversations New York (CNY) ‘holds regular, free group conversations, largely among strangers’. Forty to eighty people turn up at a college or in a park, are divided into groups and then talk for 90 minutes, ‘working from a list of topical or philosophical questions’
  6. Urban Confessional, which ‘encourages people to make their own crudely drawn cardboard signs [saying something like Free Listening] and stand in heavily trafficked locations offering themselves up as listeners to anyone who wants to talk’. The volunteers work in pairs to make the experience less intimidatingly intense for all parties
  7. The League of Creative Interventionists, a Californian organisation that has a number of projects, including Fear Doctor, in which someone sets up a booth in a public place that looks like Lucy’s psychiatrist booth in the Peanuts strip; and the Neighbourhood Postcard Project, in which the organisation’s founder Hunter Franks collected positive stories from the residents of a neighbourhood with a bad reputation, written on postcards, and then mailed them to people in different neighbourhoods
  8. An Instagram account called Subway Book Review that, among other things, sells tote bags that read, ‘Ask Me About the Book I’m Reading’
  9. Feasts of Strangers, hosted by the Oxford Muse Foundation, ‘dinners in which stranger are paired up and given a “menu” of intense personal questions’. The dinners last for two hours and have taken place in 15 countries
  10. Some fascinating individual projects: a young man named Judah Berger set up a table in Washington Square park in Manhattan with a sign reading, ‘Where Are You Going?’; Thomas Knox, an African-American, took a table and two chairs down to a New York subway platform to try to get people to talk to him – and succeeded amazingly; Danielle Allen, author of Talking to strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education (2004), has made a practice of talking to strangers and sees it as ‘gift giving’
  11. Braver Angels (originally called Better Angels) organises huge workshops where everyone wears a lanyard identifying them as either Republican or Democrat, and in a series of carefully structured events learn how to talk to each other – with remarkable success, even in post-Trump USA

This book was recommended to me by Jim Kable, frequent commenter on this blog. I’m hugely grateful for the recommendation.

500 people: Weeks 41 to 43

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

I had a terrific conversation in the sauna this week ranging over the relative merits of cows and goats, Buddhism and Christianity, the gym we were in and the one at Annette Kellerman, and other matters. When I was about to head for the showers I told the other chap my name, and he said, ‘I know, we’ve met before.’ So I couldn’t include the conversation as part of the Challenge – though it does confirm that at least some of these encounters have follow-ups. He may have been Number 7 in Week 14.

1. Sunday 21 November. Usually when I visit an art gallery I wouldn’t dream of initiating a conversation with an artist. Today in Articulate, a small gallery on Parramatta Road, with my 500 People challenge in mind, I did just that. The artist seemed delighted to engage. The works on exhibition were collaborative drawings, and her description of the collaborative process was fascinating. At one stage, saying, ‘I can do this because I’m the artist,’ she lifted a corner of a large hanging to show me and my two companions who had joined us the reverse side of the richly textured paper.

2. Monday, I went out early to buy some celery. At the checkout, a young woman asked from behind her mask, ‘Do you make celery juice?’ When I said I did, she told me about her own celery-and-lemon-juice routine, and how it had improved her health and ‘even’ her skin (her skin looked fine to me). I said I had mine mixed with carrot, beetroot, apple and ginger juice. And we were away – luckily there was no one else in the queue. Her most memorable line was, ‘I used to have mine with carrot juice but I stopped because it was like soup.’

3. Tuesday. There’s a Matisse exhibition on at the Art Gallery of NSW. I had a free ticket thanks to a son’s excellent gift of Gallery membership. I was intrigued by the 1944 painting Still life with magnolia, displayed alongside six preparatory sketches. I turned to a woman who was also looking at it and remarked how interesting it was to see the painting along with the sketches. Luckily she was no more of a connoisseur than I am, and pretty much finished my sentence for me. We chatted a little and then went our separate ways.

4. Sunday 28 November. I called to make an appointment to see a podiatrist (don’t ask!). Miraculously an appointment was possible the next day. As the receptionist was taking down my details, she asked how to spell my name. I told her, and thanked her for asking. She said she knew what it was like as her name is Isabel. I told her that both my mother and my quasi mother-in-law had that as a second name, spelled Isabel and Isobel respectively. (I discovered the next day when I asked after her that she goes by Izzy.)

5. Monday. At the podiatrist’s, I decided to have an actual conversation while she was attending to my feet. It wasn’t hard as she seems to have worked out that life goes better if you connect with people. In response to my asking how she got into podiatry, she told a sweet story. We talked about other things as well … Then, as I was going down the stairs, I heard her greet the next client: ‘I always look forward to your visits.’ ‘Me too,’ he answered.

6. Monday. I had a brief interaction with that man (‘the next client’) before going to the stairs. I saw that he was intensely focused on the Target Word in the Sydney Morning Herald. I contemplated telling him the day’s nine-letter word, but realised that would have been purely mischievous. I did, however, say truthfully, ‘This is the first time I’ve seen someone else doing that.’ He laughed, and told me he usually does the Quick Crossword, but he’d finished it and had time to fill.

7. Wednesday 8 December. I include this as representative of maybe a score of tiny, courteous-to-warm interactions that I haven’t noted. This morning in the pool, the slow lane was uncomfortably crowded. At one stage, I paused at the end of a lap to make way for the woman a couple of body-lengths behind me, who was swimming faster than me and would have had to pass me if I’d kept going. She took a moment to acknowledge the courtesy with a nod and a smile and a ‘Thanks’, and I reciprocated.

8. Thursday afternoon, driving down Addison Road in Marrickville, we passed an ambulance and police car dealing with someone who looked as if they’d been hit crossing the street. The traffic going in the opposite direction to us was banked up for blocks. When we came to our next set of lights, I gestured to the driver of the car closest to me and when she wound down her window I told her what the hold-up was. She thanked me. I know this is almost nothing as far as human contact goes, but the next time we stopped, I made the same gesture to a driver who was about the same distance from me. I could tell that this one saw me, but they (I genuinely don’t remember their gender) studiously refused the overture.

9 & 10. Saturday 11 December. We went on a long walk – from Cowan Station to Brooklyn on the Hawkesbury/Dyarubbin. We passed very few people, but had a pleasant chat at one encounter. We had been walking up a stretch that was classified as hard, and feeling it, when we met a family – a woman, a man and a teenaged girl – coming down. We exchanged politenesses. Then, inspired by Joe Keohane’s book The Power of Strangers (blog post to come soon), I admired their walking sticks, and asked if they were Nordic style. They weren’t, but both parents were happy to talk about the sticks, which led to an exchange of stories about walking various parts of the Camino/Caminho/Camiño di Compostella, past and possibly future.

Running total is now 262, but bloody Joe Keohane (see above) has ade me realise that I’ve set my bar pretty low in this challenge – most if not all the encounters I have listed are opportunistic, in the sense that these are people I meet anyhow, and many of them aren’t much more than hit-and-runs. I’ll (try to) do better.