The man who didn’t wash his dishes

We have a lot of old children’s books tucked away on various bookshelves around the house. Some of them date back to my childhood, others belong to my husband, and some were my mother’s. When our children grew up and moved out, they left all their childhood paraphernalia with us, including many of their books, which apparently we need to keep for them until they have their own houses. That day may never come, given today’s property prices, and if they do miraculously buy a house, I’m pretty sure their old books will continue to live at our place. Why clutter up your own house when you can clutter up somebody else’s?

I don’t really mind because I like re-reading them.

One of my favourites is The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes by Phyllis Krasilovsky. It’s a very thin old book we bought secondhand at a fete for fifty cents. Originally published in 1950, it’s a simple story about a man who eats so much dinner that he goes into a food coma and can’t be bothered washing up. Once this bad habit becomes entrenched, he ceases washing dishes at all, and is forced to eat his dinner from random items around the house, including a vase, a flowerpot and even an ashtray! It always made me laugh.

The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes by Phyllis Krasilovsky, illustrated by Barbara Cooney

I always assumed that this was a little-known book, so it surprised me to discover that Phyllis Krasilovsky wrote over twenty books for children and two novels for young adults. She also wrote humorous articles for several newspapers.

Many of her stories were written for children she actually knew. The Very Little Girl (1953) was originally a birthday card for her sister’s child, and The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes (1950) was written for her husband’s five-year-old cousin who was dying of leukemia. I don’t quite know why a story about a man not washing his dishes is appropriate for a five-year-old child, but my children always loved this story and I have read it many times.

She also wrote the wonderfully titled The Man Who Cooked for Himself , which is about being self-sufficient and begins like this…

There once was a man who lived with his cat in a little house on the edge of a wood. He didn’t have a wife or children, so he always cooked his own supper, cleaned the house by himself, and made his own bed. The man didn’t even have a car or a telephone. But he had a friend who visited him every few days, bringing him the things he needed.

Phyllis Krasilovsky
The Man Who Cooked for Himself by Phyllis Krasilovsky

Phyllis started her career with a bang.

Born Phyllis Louise Manning, she was just nineteen and newly married when she stormed into the offices of Doubleday and demanded to see an editor. Children’s book editor Margaret Lesser heard the confrontation at the front desk, read the manuscript and accepted The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes a few minutes later. I don’t think it would be that easy today. After her husband checked the contract (he was a law student), the couple set off for Alaska in their miniscule car.

I’m not sure if it was this exact model, but their car was too small to travel on the back roads of Alaska and had to be transported on the back of a truck. It reminds me of Noddy’s car.

The couple spent three years in Alaska before returning to settle in Chappaqua, about 30 miles north of New York.

In those days, Alaska was regarded as the last frontier, a bit like the wild west. Phyllis had her first child in Juneau and subsequently wrote Benny’s Flag, which tells the true story of the Aleut boy who designed the Alaskan flag.

In 1927, Benny Benson was 14 years old and living on a mission when he won a contest to design the flag for the Territory of Alaska. He was awarded $1,000, an engraved watch and a trip to Washington, DC. Quite an achievement for a young boy.

Benny Benson with the flag he designed in 1927 – photo from the Alaskan State Archives.

Both Phyllis and her husband, Bill (an entertainment lawyer) were interested in helping people maintain or regain the rights to their work. Bill Krasilovsky represented many well-known musicians including Duke Ellington and Herman Hupfeld, who wrote As Time Goes By.

In the late 1960s, Phyllis was part of an initiative of eminent children’s book authors who pressed for foreign rights to their works to be negotiated separately from domestic publishing contracts. Other members of the group included Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) and Margret Rey (Curious George).

In her later years, Phyllis taught children’s literature in Tarrytown, near New York. She died in 2014, aged 87. I love her quilted vest. It’s very Alaskan.

Phyllis Krasilovsky 1926 – 2014

A bit puzzled

A bit puzzled

A few days before Christmas, my friend gave me a jigsaw puzzle to take home. She pressed it into my hands with such enthusiasm that I couldn’t resist, even though I don’t normally like doing puzzles. I usually get annoyed and frustrated when I can’t find the right piece, but I took it home because I thought having a puzzle on the go might lure my children away from their phones for at least a few minutes. It worked after a fashion, but then they all went home and left me with a pile of pieces, all crying out to find their proper place in the ‘big picture’, and I just couldn’t resist having a go at it myself.

In Australia, Christmas falls right at the beginning of the long summer holidays, a time when I always feel lethargic. The days are long and humid, and I don’t have enough energy to do anything except waft about, complaining that it’s too hot. I start books and abandon them half-way through. I make resolutions I know I won’t keep, and feel vaguely annoyed with myself and the world, so a puzzle was just the thing to give me a sense of purpose.

My husband rummaged around in the garage and came back with a piece of hardboard to put the puzzle on. It was a map of the world (circa 1960). It still had lots of pink (Commonwealth) countries. Sri Lanka was still Ceylon, and Tanzania was still called Tanganyika. He flipped it over and it became the perfect place to sort through the pieces.

A map of the world – Circa 1960

When Christmas was over, we moved the puzzle from the living room into my study, where I continued to sit in front of the pieces contemplating life and pretending to myself that I was doing something productive.

My husband would come in to give me encouragement, or advice about how I had too many pieces cluttering up the middle of the puzzle (true). I couldn’t see the wood for the trees. But every time I found a home for piece, I felt good about myself and the world. It made me wonder who invented this curious form of entertainment, and why.

It turns out that John Spilsbury, an English engraver and mapmaker, gets the credit for inventing the jigsaw puzzle in 1767, when he attached a map to a piece of wood and carefully cut out each country. Teachers used Spilsbury’s puzzles to teach geography by asking students to piece the map back together again.

John Silsbury’s dissected map – thought to be the first jigsaw puzzle

In those days, they were called ‘dissected maps’ and weren’t known as jigsaws until the invention of the fret treadle saw (also known as a jigsaw) which was operated with foot peddles like a sewing machine. By 1880, jigsaw puzzles were being machine crafted, and although cardboard puzzles entered the market, wooden jigsaw puzzles remained popular until the 1930s, when the puzzle craze reached its peak in the USA. Manufacturers mass-produced die-cut cardboard puzzles and sold them cheaply enough for most Americans to afford, even in the Great Depression.

Puzzles have enjoyed a huge resurgence in popularity over the last couple of years, for obvious reasons. People are stuck at home and they’re a relatively cheap form of entertainment. According to psychologists, puzzles are very appealing when we are feeling stressed because they give us a sense of control and have a known outcome. They are the perfect antidote to living in a world where everything seems out of control.

I think I’ve changed my mind about doing jigsaws, although I have to say that a lot of them don’t really appeal to me. I might do another one next summer and if I do, it might be this one, which I think is beautiful.

Geode puzzle

Guerrilla gardening

Guerrilla gardening

There’s a splash of colour in my garden that doesn’t quite belong there.

It’s a bright orange gladioli, standing tall and proud amongst the greenery and the pale pink flowers that I usually favour. My beloved aunt went to heaven years ago, but not before popping a few random bulbs into the earth when no-one was looking.

Even though it’s out of place, it reminds me of our many happy hours together in the garden. She constantly admonished me for ‘pulling the heads off weeds’ instead of removing them with their roots, and I still think about her every single time I pull a weed.

She taught me to crochet and how to make the best tomato and onion salad (slice everything thinly and sprinkle with vinegar and sugar). She would arrive unannounced with a fresh chicken in a string bag, ready to cook for dinner. She never rang before making the two-hour train journey from Sydney, and I often wondered what she would have done if we’d been away for the weekend.

Aunty Dorothy was the perfect friend. She was sometimes hard on her own daughter, but gentle and uncritical with me. Once she stayed with us for New Year and we had an impromptu party outside with our own fireworks (sparklers). The kids sang songs, and she recited a poem memorised from childhood.

I can’t quite see her doing anything illegal, but she always went out walking with a pair of secateurs in her pocket so that she could help herself to a cutting of any plant that took her fancy, so she might have been a secret supporter of the guerrilla gardening movement (people who cultivate plants on land they don’t own).

The term was coined by the Green Guerrillas, a non-profit environmental group based in New York in the 1970s who transformed a derelict site into a garden that is still protected as a city park.

One earlier radical gardener was Gerrard Winstanley (1609–1676), an English Protestant religious reformer, philosopher and activist. Winstanley was the founder of the English group known as the True Levellers or Diggers, who seized public land with the aim of growing food to give away to the poor. Diggers Seeds in Australia, known for its commitment to growing and selling uncontaminated seed and speaking out against the corporatisation of our food supply, is partially named in honour of this movement.

Guerrilla gardening is also popular in Berlin and London, where the movement is led by Richard Reynolds. He recommends using mature, flowering plants to make a significant, immediate impact, or planting seedlings which are easily identifiable as not being weeds. Guerrilla gardeners are dedicated to revitalising ugly public spaces but don’t recommend growing fruit or vegetables on public land as they are prone to pests and diseases and need proper care. Fruit and veg should be grown in community gardens where groups of interested people can look after them.

Our own Costa Georgiadis (a hippy if ever there was one) famously supports the idea of growing plants on public land, mainly verges, which are under-utilised spaces. As Costa says, “gardening is about communication, relationships, routines and life-enrichment” and I agree. Gardening soothes the soul and brings people together.

Reading round up 2021

Reading round up 2021

One of my favourite things to do in December is to check out all the lists of the best books of the year. There’s always a title I’ve missed in my never-ending quest for a great read. It’s good to be reminded about books that have come out during the year, so that I can keep an eye out for them at the library. They sometimes take a while to show up on the shelf.

I’m hesitant to compile my own list of best books, because everyone has different tastes, but I’d like to share some titles I’ve enjoyed in case you are looking for something new to read over the holidays.

This task is usually easy for me because I normally keep a spreadsheet of books I’ve read, but this year I was very lackadaisical with my record keeping, so I’m not sure how many books I got through (and nor does it really matter) but I think it was around fifty. My list peters out in August, so I had to go back over all the issues of my newsletter to find out what I’d read, and when.

When I look back over my reading year, I can see that my concentration dropped a bit in the second half of the year, for reasons that are perfectly understandable, given the strange year that we’ve all had. Sometimes I find it hard to start new books. I wrote about that here.

I read a few romantic comedies (no shame in that) and some books that were definitely a little sweeter than my usual fare. I also gave up on a lot of books because they were not what I was in the mood for. No shame in that either. Life is too short to keep ploughing through a book you aren’t enjoying.

Overall, I think I’ve been a lot more fussy about my reading. I’m less inclined to read what I call ‘worthy’ books (they’re the books people tell you must read) and more inclined to read books that engage me with vivid stories and characters. I’d also like to note that my best reads were all recommended by reading friends or family. It’s good to have friends who know what you like and can recommend accordingly.

Here are my top ten picks for 2021, listed in the order I read them.

  1. Bruny, by Heather Rose
  2. Sorrow and Bliss, by Meg Mason
  3. Heft, by Liz Moore
  4. The Good Sister, by Sally Hepworth
  5. Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  6. The Covered Wife, Lisa Emanuel
  7. The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett
  8. Love Objects, by Emily Maguire
  9. Once There Were Wolves, by Charlotte McConaghy
  10. The Last Woman in the World, by Inga Simpson

What was your favourite book in 2021?

The Writer in the Changing Room

I’m excited to share the post I had published on the Brevity blog today.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

By Margaret Moon

Trying to become a writer is like trying on lots of new outfits to see what suits you. You start with what’s fashionable but quickly realise that the skirt is too short for your knobbly old knees and the colour is all wrong for your complexion. No matter how much you squint or look sideways at yourself in the mirror, you can’t take off the forty pounds you gained sitting at a computer writing business reports for the last thirty years and you can’t fool yourself that you look great.

One by one the dresses you’ve taken into the changing room end up on the ‘not for me’ rack outside the cubicle, hanging limply with their necklines askew and their sleeves inside out. Clothes that look appealing on the mannequin feel scratchy and uncomfortable. You begin to despair of ever finding a garment that makes you feel…

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Why you should read children’s books

Why you should read children’s books

During the last lockdown, the staff at our local library drove around hand delivering books to people like me who were stuck at home. I was thrilled when a pile of books magically appeared on the little white table on my front porch, wrapped in plastic and ready to take me to another realm.

I’d requested some children’s books and when they arrived, they came with a brown paper bag containing art supplies for a craft project suitable for three-year-olds. I don’t have anyone of that age at my house, so I gave the materials to a neighbour with two young children, but it told me that the library staff had assumed I had a small person living at my house. Why else would I be requesting picture books?

It would be easy for me to tell you I was doing “research” so that I can find a publisher for my own book, but the truth is that I enjoy reading books for children.

In Katherine Rundell’s book “Why you should read children’s books even though you are so old and wise,” she says…

“Children’s fiction necessitates distillation: at its best it renders in their purest, most archetypal forms hope, hunger, joy, fear. Think of children’s books as literary vodka.”

I love that quote. I should paint it on my wall.

Rundell says that as we get older, our imaginations become dampened and we can’t experience the same wonder that children experience when they see the stars in the night sky or the stark blue ocean. Adults feel these things at a primal level, but we are quick to deny ourselves wonder and joy. We avoid being child-like because it leaves us open and vulnerable. Who knows what other feelings might leak out if we admit to being enthralled or amazed?

Children never worry about what other people think. They shriek with delight when a beetle crawls lightly across their palm, or they see a lizard sunning itself on a warm rock. Everything is wondrous to a three-year-old, but sometimes older people forget to be amazed and become cynical and hard. Reading children’s books gives us a second chance to re-capture the bliss of being a child.

“When you read children’s books you are given the space to read again as a child: to find your way back, back to the time when new discoveries came daily and the world was colossal, before your imagination was trimmed and neatened, as if it were an optional extra”.

Katherine Rundell

Adults want things to make sense and align with their understanding of the world, but children don’t question the logic in stories, even though they are keen to ask “why” about most things in life. In The Tiger who came to Tea, the tiger eats all the food in the house and drinks all the water in the tap. Judith Kerr said that her publishers wanted her to change that line because it was impossible to drink all the water in the tap and that this would trouble children.

How foolish. If children can cope with the idea of walking through a wardrobe to a frozen wonderland full of speaking lions and magical witches, then they can certainly cope with a tiger drinking all the water in the tap.

Writing for children doesn’t mean you need to avoid big words

Rundell’s criterion for cutting words was whether they interrupted the story and not whether they were too sophisticated for children. She went against her editor’s advice and retained façade, abundance and renunciation in one of her books because there weren’t any other words that would do the same job of meaning, tone, and rhythm. But she had limits.

“I cut adamantine, a word I love and think children might also love, because it came at the climax of the story, and I didn’t want to lose even that split-second flicker of time that comes when a reader jumps over an unknown word. I would do the same for adults.”

I must admit that I had to look up adamantine because I was unfamiliar with that word. Imagine my surprise when I found it means ‘having the quality of being adamant’, which is exactly what I thought it meant, even though I was guessing.

Like adults, children understand the meaning of words by seeing them in context. They have good imaginations.

Children’s literature is not a lesser form of writing

Another myth that Rundell explores is that children’s books are easier to write than books for adults. I think they are harder. Children wriggle and squirm if they aren’t fully engaged in a story, but they can also listen to the same book hundreds of times if they like the rhythm of the words. Sometimes they just like snuggling up close to you while you read.

Children are keen to read about feelings and emotions

In the book “Are You My Mother?” by PD Eastman, a newly hatched chick goes out into the world to search for his mother. He doesn’t know what she looks like, so he asks every creature he meets if they are his mother. This includes cats, dogs and other animals. Eventually, a kind friend takes him home, and he finds his mother waiting for him and wondering where he is. This is a book about belonging, something every child (and adult) hungers for. Children can understand deep themes.

I like to read children’s books because they make me feel better about the world. When I’m stressed, or tired or angry, they bring me comfort and take me back to a place where feelings are allowed to be expressed and where values such as love and friendship are deeply held and treasured.

Children’s books get down to the nitty gritty without being pompous, but they are often profound. They’re like poetry. Pure, concise, and true.

Like literary vodka.

And the winner is…

And the winner is…

There’s always a big flurry of activity when the winner of the Booker Prize is announced. This year, The Promise by Damon Galgut won the coveted award for the best novel written in English and published in the UK.

Winning the Booker is a big deal. The winner receives £50,000 and authors who are shortlisted win £2,500. This doesn’t sound like very much, but being shortlisted usually results in a dramatic increase in book sales, so it can transform an author’s career overnight.

But apart from the generous prize money, it made me wonder why the Booker is so important and how it all started.

It turns out that the Booker Prize has a very murky past involving exploitation, slavery and reparation.

Here’s a potted history:

In 1815 Josias Booker arrived in British Guiana, and his younger brother George joined him soon after. George found work as a shipping agent for the export of timber and Josias became the manager of a cotton plantation, where he managed nearly 200 enslaved people.

With the abolition of slavery, which took effect in 1834, the Booker brothers received compensation from the state for 52 emancipated slaves. The Slave Ownership Database at University College London records the total sum as £2,884, equivalent to £378,000 in 2020.

In 1835, George and Richard Booker (another brother) founded a trading and shipping company and established the Booker Line, which focused on shipping goods. Richard Booker died four years later in 1838, leaving Josias and George to increase the business after the purchase of sugar plantations across the colony. At one point, the Bookers controlled 75% of the sugar industry in British Guiana and owned five Booker Line ships. It was common to refer to the country as Booker’s Guiana, rather than British Guiana. After emancipation, the sugar plantations relied on indentured labourers shipped in from Calcutta. This continued for over three quarters of a century, with workers being treated as slaves and living in poor conditions.

In 1952, Jock Campbell took over the chairmanship of the company and his Fabian social politics transformed it into a benevolent force, providing major benefits for sugar workers. Jock Campbell helped to set up Booker’s Author Division, which sponsored the original Booker Prize until 2002.

The modern day Booker has no connection to the family and is currently sponsored by a charitable foundation.

Not only does the prize have a colourful past, the choice of winner is often very controversial. There is often widespread debate about whether the ‘right’ book has won as well as whether the judging panel was diverse enough.

This year’s panel was chaired by historian Maya Jasanoff and included writer and editor Horatio Harrod; actor Natascha McElhone; Professor Chigozie Obioma and former Archbishop Rowan Williams, who is also a poet. A mixed bunch indeed, but the winner was apparently a unanimous choice.

Will I read The Promise? Probably not. It looks too highbrow for me, but I might get around to reading Great Circle, which is very long, but getting great reviews. One of my favourite books this year was Klara and the Sun, which was on the long list, but sadly didn’t make it to the short list.

Do you plan to read any of the books on this year’s list? Let me know in the comments.

The elements of style

The elements of style

I spent the morning searching high and low for a postcard I bought in a New York bookshop nearly two years ago. I had chosen it especially for my friend Megan, but hadn’t given it to her, so I thought it would be perfect for her upcoming birthday. Using some clever detective work, I found it nestled between the pages of my copy of The Elements of Style, which I purchased in the same bookshop.

The Elements of Style was first published in 1918 by William Strunk Jr. a professor of English at Cornell University. It was later expanded and updated by his most famous student, EB White. Some of you might recognise EB White as the author of such classics as Charlotte’s Webb and Stuart Little.

Often simply referred to as Strunk and White, it’s a slim little book. The salesperson tried to convince me to buy a facsimile of the original, but I didn’t like the old-fashioned font, so I bought a newer, easy-to-read version. I was delighted to get my very own copy, but until recently, I hadn’t bothered to read it. It was only when I found my missing postcard that I realised that this very short book contains pretty much everything you need to know about writing well.

In chapter two, The Elementary Principles of Composition, it offers the following advice.

  1. Put statements in a positive form. For example, instead of saying “she did not think that the apples were very tasty” say “she thought the apples were sour”.
  2. Use definite, concrete language. Instead of saying “a period of unfavourable weather set in” say “it rained every day for a week”.
  3. Place the emphatic words in a sentence at the end. Writer and editor Allison K Williams also says that you should start sentences with a strong verb and end with a strong noun. “Bring me your dead” is a good example.
  4. And my favourite piece of advice: omit needless words. What can I say?

These suggestions will strengthen your writing, but they all take practice.



I grew up in the Salvation Army and once a year we had a period of a month or so, just before Easter, where we practiced self-denial. The idea was that you went without something you liked, for example, chocolate milkshakes, and gave the money you saved to the church so that they could support their international missions. It was a bit like Dry July, except you couldn’t abstain from alcohol because that was already on the banned list. The self-denial program was a thinly veiled, Protestant version of Lent, and everyone took it very seriously.

People are sometimes unaware that the Salvation Army is church as well as a charity. They have a hierarchy of ministers (called officers) and all the trappings of a religious institution, plus lots of flags and other quasi-military paraphernalia. There are three services every Sunday and a well-defined set of theological constructs underpin their work.

William Booth and his wife Catherine founded the Salvation Army in 1865. Booth was originally a Methodist minister who preached in the slums of London. In this environment, the Booths saw first-hand the effects the consumption of alcohol had on families and the community, hence the rule that all members of the church abstain from drinking alcohol and from dancing, which is thought to lead to lewd behaviour.

Methodism emphasises charity work and support for the sick and the poor, ideals which are known collectively as the Social Gospel, a social movement within Protestantism that applies Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as economic inequality, poverty, crime, racial inequality, environmental degradation, child labour and the dangers of war. These are all social issues that I care about, not necessarily from a Christian perspective, but because I think they are important, but I still think some negative messages have seeped into my psyche, especially in relation to self-care.

As with most Protestant religions, the need to deny oneself pleasure is reinforced strongly in sermons and hymns. You are told that denying yourself pleasure on earth will result in ‘riches in heaven’. This could be something as simple as not eating that second baked potato or foregoing a coffee when you are at the shops. If you go without something, you’ll be rewarded. Rather than accumulating wealth on earth, you pay into your heavenly bank account by doing good deeds and being charitable, but also by denying yourself pleasure.

I was talking to a friend about this recently. We both have issues with buying ourselves treats. Chocolates, flowers, exotic fruit and other desirable products, like beautifully scented hand cream. We happily spend our money on things that are deemed necessities, but there’s some unwritten rule about buying things that aren’t strictly necessary, but add to our quality of life.

A few years ago, I realised I had an issue with spending money on myself. Perhaps this came from my childhood, from too much time sitting on those cold, hard pews listening to sermons. I’m not sure. When my kids were little, I hardly ever spent any money on myself, but my ideas about what items are luxuries have changed over time.

In years gone by, I would only buy avocadoes occasionally because I thought they were too extravagant. Now I buy one every week along with milk, cheese, eggs, and other essentials. I’m still up in the air about blueberries. Are they a luxury? Are they a superfood? I accidentally bought two punnets last week when I was doing the grocery shopping online and was relieved to find that they were on special and only cost two dollars a punnet. Bargain!

Lately I’ve been practicing being more generous with myself and others. It’s nice to buy things for other people, especially things I know they won’t buy themselves. Being in lockdown has made this so much easier; there are so many opportunities for online shopping. I try to restrain myself from getting carried away, but then I think, why not spoil yourself? Why not spoil others? Life is short.

I haven’t forgotten to have a social conscience, but it’s tempered with more self-love. And lest you think I’m being critical of the Salvos, let me say that I think they do great work and I’m deeply indebted to them for my deep and abiding love of brass band music.

Slip Stitch

Slip Stitch

A few years ago, I went to Melbourne to visit my daughter and even though I’d been warned that Melbourne is colder than Sydney; I didn’t take enough warm clothes with me. My daughter had a gas fire, so it was lovely and cosy in her unit, but every time we ventured outside the biting wind tore through my flimsy coat and made my teeth chatter, so we took ourselves off to a thrift shop to see if I could find a warm cardigan.

The shop was in a giant warehouse; the clothes arranged by colour and then size. I saw a young woman pushing a supermarket trolley heaped with crocheted garments. She was wearing one of those string vests and wearing sandals, despite the chilly weather.

I wondered how she was going to get all her purchases home and what she was going to do with all those woolly garments once she got there. I must have made a comment about this because she started chatting to me about how much she loved retro clothes and how she couldn’t stop buying them. She said that she would love to learn to crochet, and I said that she needed to find a granny to teach her. “That’s why I’m asking you”, she said. I was very surprised because I was only in my late fifties at the time and didn’t consider myself to be anywhere near old, despite my greying hair.

I explained I didn’t live locally, so I couldn’t give her lessons. I didn’t tell her that my skills were rudimentary and that I could only do the most basic stitches. I was still reeling from being mistaken for an old lady and she clearly thought that all ‘old people’ could knit, sew, and crochet.

In years gone by, this would have been true. My grandmother used to say that her key skills were talking and handiwork. She was a brilliant talker, but an even better knitter in her day. She was one of those women who could watch television, knit, and eat Cadbury’s Milk Chocolate all at the same time. She would glance down at her knitting occasionally if she was casting on or off or working on an armhole, but mostly she could easily handle doing three things at the same time. She only ever watched the ABC and refused to switch over to the commercial channels. It was as if they didn’t exist.

She had a stroke when she was in her seventies and for a long while she couldn’t talk and was paralysed down one side. At first she didn’t recognise anyone except my stepfather, whom she had always disliked, mainly because she thought he wasn’t as good as my father, who had died several years earlier. My stepfather went to see her in the hospital every day after work and helped her to learn to talk again. She changed her mind about him after that.

When she had her stroke, she forgot how to knit and never regained those skills. Someone taught her how to crochet and she spent the next few years making those striped blankets that old people use as knee rugs. She made them from leftover balls of wool in colours that didn’t always match, but it gave her something to do with her hands.

I didn’t inherit any handicraft skills from my grandmother. I start off projects with good intentions but sometimes lose interest when things aren’t turning out the way I want them to. I’m a terribly slow knitter and have only ever finished one garment, a vest I knitted secretly for my husband during my lunch breaks. I made a smocked dress for my goddaughter when she was a toddler, but it took me about a year to finish that as well.

I’ve been trying to persuade my eldest daughter to teach herself to crochet. I think it would be good for her to do something that doesn’t involve looking at a screen, but I know that learning a new skill is hard when you are on your own. You really need someone around who can help you when you drop a stitch or get muddled. I pointed her towards some YouTube videos, which have simple explanations, and sent her a ball of practice wool and a crochet hook in case she gets the urge, but I know it’s hard to get motivated on your own. Like quilting, knitting and crochet are pastimes that are often enjoyed with other people, especially when you are a beginner.

There’s been a world-wide resurgence of old-fashioned handicrafts over the last few years. Making something with your hands is fun and the repetitive nature of knitting, sewing or needlework is meditative and soothing. It doesn’t stop you thinking, but it gives you something to focus on, which often helps. Plus, producing something tangible is rewarding. So much or our work these days is intangible. It lives on a screen, and we have little to show for our efforts at the end of the day. I think that’s one reason writers are so excited when they publish a book. It’s something you can hold in your hands and say, I made this.

I’ve yet to get my crochet hook out, although I’m tempted to make something simple. A doll’s blanket or perhaps a knee rug for when I eventually turn into an old lady.

I’m still wearing the nice brown cardigan with the big buttons that I bought for three dollars at the thrift shop in Melbourne.