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Ukestras make beautiful music

When Jennifer Coram-Pigott walked into an afternoon concert at Newcastle University in May last year, one of the few spare seats was next to a man with a friendly face, Robin Bond.
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They struck up a conversation, and Bond’s eyes started to well up. His wife, Yvonne, had died two months earlier and he was slowly easing himself back into life.

They walked together afterwards to the car park, where retired family counsellor Coram-Pigott, pictured below, wrote her phone number on his crumpled program, telling him to call if he ever needed to talk to someone.

‘‘She’d lost her husband 18 months earlier and wished someone had been around for her then,’’ Bond says. ‘‘She’s been there to lean against to this day.’’

‘‘It has taken me this long to get back to myself, because people don’t get there soon when you’ve lost a loved one of 45 years.

‘‘To get me to turn my life around [co-ordinator] Mark [Jackson] and the Ukestra people have brought me up; they’ve been the wind beneath my wings.’’

The gentle strumming of the ukulele now reverberates beyond Wickham, through Maitland, Lake Macquarie and Port Stephens, where 400 people have fallen in love with the instrument on which it’s impossible to play a sad song. Some have travelled to Melbourne and Hawaii, and auditioned, by invitation, for the TV show Australia’s Got Talent.

But it’s never been just about the music. At the heart of community musician Mark Jackson’s drive to establish ukestras is a desire to use music to help people form connections and create community.

It would become the Ukastle Ukestra, the flagship of Jackson’s groups, that has been meeting at Croatian Wickham Sports Club on Tuesday nights ever since.

Jackson and his partner, marine biologist Jane Jelbart, went to Melbourne’s Ukulele Festival in February last year and were inspired to establish more ukestras.

Later that month Jackson started the LakeMacUkestra on Tuesday afternoons with 17 people, and it’s still going. Numbers fluctuate, as the mostly retired participants also spend some of their time and disposable income travelling. ‘‘But they’re also spending it on me,’’ Jackson says, genuinely touched.

He started the Tomaree Ukestra on Monday mornings in May last year and about 15 people attend each week. ‘‘The sense of community up there is not really focused because everything is aimed at the tourist,’’ he says. ‘‘I wanted to put posters up, but there’s nowhere to put up posters unless it’s for a dolphin tour.’’

The group is a close one, and about five ‘‘fanatics’’ also travel down to the Ukastle Ukestra on Tuesdays.

Mid last year, Jackson decided there was room for one more group, and formed the Maitland Ukestra, which meets on Mondays.

Jelbart held the first session of The WestNewkestra in March this year. Between 20 and 30 people head to the Waterboard Bowling Club in North Lambton on Thursday nights.

Independently organised ukestras have also cropped up in Stockton and on the Central Coast.

Jackson says it’s easy to gravitate towards the instrument because it is portable, accessible and cheap. ‘‘There are four nylon strings that people can learn very easily. It lends itself to percussive qualities, and works well socially. It’s not so loud,’’ he says.

‘‘If you get all the parts going together it produces an almost harp-like quality.’’

The ukulele’s popularity peaked in the 1920s, and then in the ’50s, but died in the ’60s after the late Tiny Tim’s memorable Tiptoe Through the Tulips, sung in high falsetto.

It’s hard to pinpoint the catalyst for the recent revival, but Jackson says YouTube has exposed audiences to the likes of Hawaiian virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro (who can play an impressive version of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody), The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (which has covered Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights) and The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra (which has covered Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River).

Late Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s medley of What a Wonderful World and Somewhere over the Rainbow has remained popular since his death in 1997. It hit number one on the German singles chart in October last year when it was used in a TV commercial for deodorant.

Sales of the ukulele started to soar at Musos Corner last year. The Newcastle West shop used to sell a few during the year and about 100 in the lead-up to Christmas, mostly as presents for children. These days, 25 are sold each month, mostly to school-aged children or ukestra members.

Store owner Sandra Lindsay says supplies were particularly scarce through July and August. ‘‘The whole world seemed to become ukulele players,’’ she says. ‘‘We were pre-ordering for Christmas in huge quantities.’’

Lindsay keeps in stock 10 baritone, 20 tenor, 60 concert and 60 soprano ukuleles.

She says the instrument owed much of its popularity to its price – they start at $22.95, which ‘‘is not a mortgage breaker’’ – and ease of playing. ‘‘If more children started on a ukulele they would learn to play a guitar quicker and easier,’’ she says.

Lindsay taught a ukulele class to 15 children over the summer of 1970, when the instrument cost $5.95. ‘‘If I kept going I could have had 5million ukulele players in Newcastle by now.’’

Jackson hopes the renewed interest is not a fad and believes numbers will increase as baby boomers retire. ‘‘I haven’t cracked the 20-something market yet, we get some in their 30s, quite a few in their 40s, quite a few in their 50s but most are in their 60s; most are retired.’’

Some share the hobby with their partners, others are coping with life on their own, many just want to try something new.

Some, like Robin Bond, had played an instrument before. He had studied trumpet for 3 years at the Conservatorium of Newcastle, later performing in brass bands and orchestras.

But many, including Coram-Pigott, had never played music before. ‘‘It was something I thought I’d never do,’’ she says. ‘‘I was a complete and utter novice.’’

She had difficulty moving her hands because of the pain of arthritis, but Bond kept encouraging her. ‘‘He said there’s always a way around these things.’’

Once she went along to Ukastle Ukestra, she was hooked. ‘‘They were so warm and welcoming, I just couldn’t believe the atmosphere there,’’ she says. ‘‘Everybody was happy.’’

She attended a beginners workshop in January. ‘‘Everyone was so great, so helpful, there was no pressure on me to do anything, that’s the beauty of community music.

‘‘You don’t have to work at a certain level, you work at where you can. Just to be a beginner playing a couple of chords, it was like a revelation.’’

Jackson agrees the real value of the ukestras is in what happens before and after they play. They’ve become a comfortable place where people connect.

‘‘We certainly have people saying Tuesday is my favourite day of the week because we’ve got ukulele in the evening,’’ he says. ‘‘All we’re here to do is play music that we enjoy and to enjoy each other’s company.’’

This resonates with Coram-Pigott, who went to Melbourne to support the players. ‘‘It was a wonderful experience, they all had such a good time,’’ she says. ‘‘I made a promise to myself that I’d never be on the outside again. That was that.’’

She’s now found a way to play without pain, and experiences joy. ‘‘There’s no time to be sad when playing music. It’s such a little instrument that’s provided such enjoyment to so many people. It’s certainly turned my life around.’’

The former family counsellor says if she was still working she would introduce the ukulele to therapy sessions. ‘‘The benefits of how it makes you feel, it puts you in another space.’’

Far from traditional twee tunes, the ukestras are gaining an appreciation for modern classics. They’ve mastered Ben Lee’s Catch My Disease, a medley of Train’s Hey Soul Sister and Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours and are keen to give Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean and Black Eyed Peas’ Where Is The Love a go.

They received a standing ovation at the inaugural TEDxNewy symposium in November for their renditions of U2’s All I Want Is You and Jimmy Eat World’s The Middle.

They’re learning Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know and Jackson is contemplating attempting Coldplay’s Yellow.

They’re packing their instruments and taking their talent beyond Newcastle. They’ve performed at 1233 ABC Newcastle’s A Night At The Wireless, the Melbourne Ukulele Festival, and the 41st Hawaii Ukulele Festival.

Bond says the experiences are unforgettable, and Coram-Pigott had never held a passport before the Hawaii trip.

Scouts for Australia’s Got Talent rang in October, asking the Ukestra to audition for the show. They’ve made it through to the next round in Sydney in March, the same month The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain will play City Hall, and the Melbourne Ukulele Festival will be held.

Jackson says the challenge is now remembering why they’re playing, and not being lulled into delusions of grandeur. ‘‘I’m trying to keep people contained – this is all about fun,’’ he says.

Although the TV show is ‘‘a different sort of goal’’ it won’t influence song choice or arrangement. ‘‘I don’t want us trying to impress the judges, and [for the] audience to be a lens through which we choose songs.

‘‘There’s an innocence about [playing] – being too aware and sophisticated about it can break that innocence.’’

There are also challenges now about how to meet the needs of advanced students while catering for newcomers.

A beginners workshop is held in Speers Point each month (the next one is January 7). A six-week transition course is being offered to bring participants up to speed before they join a ukestra.

A Newcastle Ukulele Festival (dubbed the Nukulele Festival) is being organised for October.

This year Jackson also taught ukulele in schools at Waratah and Cardiff South, and is considering teaching parents and children together. ‘‘It brings them to the same level,’’ he smiles.

‘‘I have a saying that music of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from our community. A great cultural characteristic of our species is coming together to celebrate great occasions of happiness and grief.

‘‘For the same reason music evolved with speech, it’s helped us to express things and I think that’s really valuable.’’

Jackson and partner Jelbart play in a ukulele duo called Squidge, and are half of the bluegrass band The Do Riders, with Buladelah couple Mick and Nikki Legge.

The Legges have set up the Myall River Ukestra at Tea Gardens.

Until now, Jackson had worked part-time in order to devote energy to his music and children. But being a community musician has become so much of a full-time job that he talks with a trace of exhaustion about fitting in emails between 3am and 5am on a Thursday.

‘‘It’s taken a little while but now I do what I love,’’ he says. ‘‘I’ve got a lifestyle that I want, it’s different, it excites me, it’s still a challenge.’’

The music hasn’t stopped in Robin Bond’s Macquarie Hills home either. He’s learning the bass, planning to return to trumpet and is learning the drums, which his father used to play.

‘‘The whole family is astounded, they struggle keeping up with me because everyone has busy lives these days – but mine’s busy too.’’

ukestra南京夜网.au

To watch Ukastle Ukestra’s performance at this year’s TEDxNewy conference, go to youtube南京夜网/watch?v=msN7ta-68Eo

AN INSTRUMENT OF CHANGE

Graphic designer Danielle Scott had only been living in Newcastle for a month before the accident that changed her life.

Among the pack in a Hunter District Cycling Club race on February 21 last year, she was sprinting along Steel River Road, Mayfield West, when her foot slipped off the pedal. Despite wearing a helmet, she fractured her skull and suffered a traumatic brain injury.

Scott spent two weeks in an induced coma in John Hunter Hospital and another two weeks in rehabilitation in Rankin Park Hospital.

‘‘I thought they were joking that I had a brain injury,’’ she says.

‘‘I was using my iPod to try to make phone calls and change TV channels.’’

Scott started driving again in June, cycling again in July and working again in October.

But her confidence had dropped, it took a long time to remember things, and she battled to play songs she knew well on her guitar. She’d taught herself to play at nine, and had also learnt violin and piano. She played well enough to be in bands in her 20s and 30s.

‘‘I didn’t know who I was, I didn’t know what I could do any more,’’ she says.

‘‘My voice had been damaged from tubes and the left side of my body had been affected muscularly. It was, ‘am I always going to be like this, am I going to improve?’’’

She was with members of the Hunter District Cycling Club at the Juicy Beans cafe in Wheeler Place in September when she heard about the Ukastle Ukestra. She emailed Mark Jackson and went to a beginners session.

‘‘I expected there would be questions but Mark was very casual and really inclusive.’’

The ukulele has been her instrument of change: ‘‘I’ve always loved performing and music and it has been the tool that has started me on the path I’ve always really wanted to be on. It’s the intersection of what I love doing and what I can do reasonably well.’’

Scott now helps Jackson run beginners workshops and bridging courses.

‘‘I like to help people gain confidence in their own ability,’’ she says.

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Duo target world championship spots

Tanner Krebs has been invited to the national under-17 camp in Canberra next month. Picture: GEOFF ROBSONTIS basketball scholarship holders Grace Lennox and Tanner Krebs are in line for selection in the Australian under-17 team for the world championships later this year.
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Lennox and Krebs, both 16, of Hobart, have been invited to the national under-17 camp in Canberra next month which is part of the selection process for the world championships team.

Lennox has been part of the girl’s under-17 squad since January last year and the Rosny College year 11 student said if her body held up she was confident of making the final line-up.

“I have been to four Australian camps for this team and they have been fantastic as a learning opportunity,” she said.

Lennox made the Australian under-17 team in September last year which beat New Zealand to qualify for the world championships that will be held in Holland in August.

“ My knee has been giving me trouble but as long as I can keep training and doing all the work I should be a good chance to make the team.”

Krebs was invited to attend his first Australian camp after good performances with the TIS men’s team on its tour of Victoria in December.

The 194-centimetre guard and New Town High grade 10 student was part of the latest TIS scholarship intake in August last year.

“It’s a great opportunity for me to play and represent my country at such a young age,” he said.

TIS head coach Justin Schueller put his scholarship holders through a three-day camp at Launceston’s Silverdome yesterday in preparation for the upcoming County Cup competition in Albury where up to 100 athletes statewide will take part.

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Collision course with car travelling on wrong side of F3

EDDIE Avillar thought he was on a collision course with the blue Ford Falcon XR6 as it travelled along the wrong side of the F3.
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Mr Avillar was heading to Morisset on a work delivery.

‘‘I saw them near the Morisset interchange driving on the wrong side of the road and heading straight for me.

‘‘I had to swap lanes to avoid hitting him,’’ Mr Avillar said. ‘‘He was heading towards Beresfield and I was on my way to Morisset.

‘‘At first I thought it was a bit weird and then the thought crossed my mind that it might have been the police.

‘‘I was going to ring the police, but I didn’t get the number plate details because it was all so quick.

‘‘I was shocked, especially when I came back to Beresfield and saw the car on the side of the road and all the police,’’ he said.

Customers and employees at Beresfield BP service station and truck stop on John Renshaw Drive were gobsmacked yesterday when they learned of the alleged carjacking of a BMW.

‘‘All of a sudden all these police arrived and there was a blue Falcon that looked like it had been knocked off the road and driven into the bush,’’ one customer said.

‘‘We didn’t even know a car jacking had happened.’’

After their arrest at Broke the pair were ushered quickly into a side entrance at Cessnock police station after arriving in separate vehicles.

The female arrived first with the male a short time later in the back of a police four-wheel-drive. He was covered with a white blanket.

About an hour after the pair was arrested a tow truck arrived at the rear of Cessnock police station to deliver the gunmetal grey BMW 120i.

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Uchimura only mainland runner

SOUTH Australian stayer Uchimura will be the only interstate runner in Wednesday’s $100,000 Devonport Cup after a Bass Strait trip was ruled out for the four Victorians entered in the race.
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The final field for the Devonport Cup will be declared at 9am today, with Uchimura expected to challenge for favouritism with top local hopes Too Many Reds, Dream Flyer, The Cleaner and Catwen Boy.

Yesterday, Ballarat trainer Darren Weir ruled out a start for his pair Can Do and Keep Control and Caulfield trainer Tony Vasil intends keeping The Wingman at home.

Top trainer David Hayes had earlier declared Token Of Honour wouldn’t be running in the Devonport Cup.

Weir said Can Do and Keep Control, both owned by the Boxhall family in Hobart, weren’t racing well enough to consider a trip to Tasmania and instead both have been entered for the Koroit Cup at Warrnambool on Sunday.

The Wingman had been in line for a trip to Tasmania, but Vasil decided against it at the last minute.

“Tony decided to pull the pin as The Wingman has had six starts in nine weeks and that might count against him after taking into account the ferry trip over,” stable manager Sam Doran said.

Following the raid of Adelaide trainer and jockey Leon Macdonald and Clare Lindop in taking out Wednesday night’s Tasmanian Guineas with Moving Money, another of our feature races will be heading to South Australia if Uchimura salutes in the Devonport Cup.

The gelding is prepared by premier Adelaide trainer Tony McEvoy and he has engaged leading rider Matthew Neilson for Wednesday.

Longford trainer Troy Blacker is aiming to win the Devonport Cup in consecutive years and next week will be represented by Dream Flyer.

Dream Flyer is a half-brother to last year’s winner Dream Quest and Blacker has engaged Tasmania’s top jockey Brendon McCoull for the ride.

The Devonport Cup has proved elusive for McCoull – from 17 attempts he has won the race only twice, aboard Bay Ritz in 2006 and Lunardi two years later.

Although final acceptances will be taken this morning, the barrier draw will be held in conjunction with a calcutta at Spreyton Park at 2pm on Sunday.

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McEvoy calls on Missen for Gold Coast run

Dale Missen has been booked to ride Little Critter for the Tony McEvoy stable at the Gold Coast tomorrow.BRISBANE – Gun heavyweight jockey Dale Missen knows better than most the importance of grabbing every opportunity with both hands.
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A former champion Victorian country apprentice, Missen, 31, took north Queensland racing by storm when he relocated to Mackay four years ago for the heavier weight scale and promptly won Racing Queensland’s Provincial and Country jockey award in his first season.

He’s had the same impact on the Gold Coast since he made the venue his main focus 12 months ago and now he’s hoping the momentum will continue tomorrow after receiving a big opportunity of Magic Millions success with a surprise call-up from the Tony McEvoy stable.

McEvoy has booked Missen for two rides, including Adelaide colt Little Critter, who can cement his spot in next week’s $2 million Magic Millions Classic field with a win in the $100,000 Magic Millions Tickets Online Now Handicap (900 metres).

Little Critter has been handed the visitor’s draw and will jump from barrier 10 in the field of 11, but the in-form Missen is confident he can overcome that.

“Good barriers win races – that’s for sure,” he said.

“But I’ll just have to do what I can to overcome it and hope for a bit of luck.

“I rode a bit for Tony without success when I was apprenticed in Melbourne, so this is a great opportunity for me and I am grateful for it.

“The Gold Coast is very competitive, but I’ve been happy with how I’ve been going since I moved to Brisbane last year and concentrated on the coast.”

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Jets Squadron helps police find louts

INVESTIGATION: Jets fans at Bluetongue Stadium last weekend.SQUADRON president Tim Verschelden said yesterday that he would help the authorities identify the Newcastle Jets fans who caused the ugly scenes at Saturday’s F3 derby at Bluetongue Stadium.
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Up to 13 people, believed to be Jets fans, were ejected and seven more were refused entry and flares were let off inside and outside the Gosford venue.

Groups of Jets and Mariners fans were also captured on YouTube chanting obscenities and attempting to incite each other after the game.

Football Federation Australia is investigating the behaviour of fans and could hand out five-year bans from A-League games to the supporters who let off flares.

A spokesman for the FFA said yesterday that the result of the investigation could be known today.

‘‘We do a lot of work with venues, venue security and local police, so it’s not a simple matter,’’ he said.

‘‘When these matters go from being, with the case of the flares, a football matter to a criminal or civil matter, then we’ve got to be careful we don’t pre-empt anything that the police might want to do.’’

Yesterday many visitors to the Herald website were critical of the Jets supporter group, the Squadron.

Verschelden has denied any of the offenders were Squadron members and condemned their actions.

He went further yesterday, saying he and other senior Squadron members would assist the FFA, Jets and police in identifying the unruly supporters.

‘‘I’ve got nothing to hide,’’ Verschelden said.

‘‘In our role, that’s what we need to do.

‘‘Us senior Squadron blokes will always help any authorities in anything around us.

‘‘We will always make sure we help find out who the culprits are that do these terrible things and make sure we get to the bottom of it.’’

Verschelden said the Squadron also took precautions to prevent trouble at F3 derby matches at Bluetongue Stadium.

This involved speaking to ground security and police days before the game and senior Squadron members addressing fans before and during the game about behaving appropriately.

He said the Squadron controlled its membership to keep out troublemakers.

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Fergie refuses to panic after second loss

Newcastle forward Demba Ba scored a stunning goal against Manchester United in its 3-0 defeat of the champions.NEWCASTLE, England – Sir Alex Ferguson insisted it was not time to panic after Manchester United had handed the English Premier League title initiative back to Manchester City with a second straight loss.
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A stunned Ferguson saw his side suffer a comprehensive 3-0 defeat at Newcastle, condemning it to back-to-back league losses for the first time in 10 months to remain in second, but three points adrift of Roberto Mancini’s leaders, while holding the same advantage over Tottenham Hotspur, in third.

The Manchester rivals meet in the FA Cup this weekend, but Ferguson’s thoughts remain on his attempts to stretch City’s 44-year wait for the English top-flight crown.

“Of course it is advantage City. We had our opportunity, they played last night and won, so it’s advantage to them.

“The one plus for me is we had two or three players back, and maybe that can make the difference. It’s not a time to panic – we have the patience and experience to cope.”

Phil Jones’ embarrassing injury-time own goal completed United’s misery, after stunning goals in each half from Demba Ba and Yohan Cabaye set Newcastle on the way to a first home win in two months to cement its hold on seventh place.

Wayne Rooney failed to shine on his return after a one-game suspension and hefty fine for flouting a club curfew over Christmas, as United were shut out for the first time this season.

“We started reasonably well, and we had a good chance when Wayne was through and the ball ran under his foot,” said Ferguson

“But then Newcastle scored a fantastic goal, and it really picked everyone up in the stadium.

“They got really aggressive against us and made it difficult.

In yesterday’s other game, Bolton moved off the bottom after coming from behind to beat Everton 2-1 at Goodison Park.

Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard opened the scoring with a freak effort before Bolton hit back with goals from David Ngog and Gary Cahill.

Howard’s 63rd-minute effort came when the Everton goalkeeper’s long clearance bounced over the head of Bolton keeper Adam Bogdan and flew into the net. He is only the fourth goalie to score in Premier League history.

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Woman accused of neighbour’s attempted murder

COMMITTED FOR TRIAL: Christine Reed.CHRISTINE Reed, 61, pleaded not guilty in Newcastle District Court yesterday to the attempted murder of her neighbour, a 63-year-old woman, and was committed for trial.
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The two women lived in a duplex in Justine Parade, Rutherford, and it is alleged by police Ms Reed had been verbally abusive towards her next-door-neighbour for several years.

The neighbour said as she was leaving her home on the afternoon of March 8, Ms Reed yelled out: ‘‘You’ll be dead.’’

Police allege that when she returned at 4.45pm, Ms Reed was armed with a large knife and a piece of brick and attacked her neighbour, striking her to the side of the head.

It is alleged Ms Reed then lunged at the other woman with a knife, towards her stomach, prompting a struggle over the weapon, which left the alleged victim with tendon damage to her fingers.

After wresting the knife from Ms Reed it is alleged Ms Reed recovered the knife and came back at her neighbour a second time, attempting to stab and slash her throat.

At one point it is alleged Ms Reed held her neighbour by the hair, to expose her throat, and slashed at her.

Police say a witness arrived and removed the knife, and removed Ms Reed from the other woman, while other witnesses called police.

In court yesterday Ms Reed, wearing dark pants and a striped cardigan, was asked to repeat her plea of not guilty to attempted murder for the judge to hear.

She also pleaded not guilty to a second alternative charge of wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.

Her trial, estimated to take five days, was set for May 7.

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Believers push so we get the message

CLASPED in this correspondent’s hand, a God botherer’s letter detailing all that surely awaits your columnist upon being damned and duly consigned to hell.
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Beautifully, if rather shakily composed by what is obviously an ancient hand, the missive is (yea and certainly verily), a miracle of vituperation.

It includes much biblically inspired colourful allusion to ”heaping of coals on the head” if not reaping the non-specific vengeance of the Lord Almighty.

It’s all in Romans 12:19, apparently.

Again examining the letterwriter’s spidery handwriting, it seems hell hath no fury like the person examining sacred texts for interesting ways in which the believer’s holy hit man smites the alleged blasphemer.

Yet what has raised the mighty wrath of the sender may remain an eternal mystery.

Perhaps it was an essay published here in October last year remarking on the way the further south one travels in the US the more one discovers avowedly fundamentalist ”eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” Christian folks embracing the death penalty.

”Evangelicals believe the death penalty is a necessary weapon against Satan and their God demands it,” Australian writer Don Watson summed up Texas’s execution toll of an average 20 criminals a year.

We also pointed out that Creationists see being taxed to aid

charitable causes including the sick, the poor and jobless as paradoxically part of ”creeping socialism”.

The letter may have been a response to our bemused report that Americans, especially those 41 per cent describing themselves as evangelicals, have what University of California boffin Toby Miller described as a ”trance-like intimacy with their God”.

For Australians, according to Professor Miller, that’s akin to ”watching Shane Warne’s ball of the century or receiving one of his text messages”, even if we wondered how he knew about stuff like that.

And it came to pass that the letter’s arrival involved the miracle of the delivery itself, what with Australia Post having taken an extended Christmas-new year break.

A first thought was that the person sending it had got his own ass into gear after having had a surfeit of being nice to others, what with it being the season of goodwill.

All that church-going, praying, smiling, present-giving, wearing of funny tissue paper hats and blowing whizzers is bound to exhaust even the most benign party giver or goer.

Meanwhile, the mystery letter brought into focus the roiling battle over the actual existence, or otherwise, of Jehovah coincidentally being fought out in this newspaper.

Almost every day, such correspondence appears in this newspaper, some pointing out that but for Jehovah none of us would be enjoying the sort of life we have.

We are not sure whether there is a theologically driven wealth factor here, meaning that the more one is a true believer the more creature comforts one enjoys, possibly up to the level of a big jacuzzi, a new Beemer and even possibly a huge Tattslotto win for the truly serious genuflector.

Some believers have wielded the quill to claim that atheists, with their lack of a belief system, have nothing to contribute to the debate.

Trouble is, and let’s face it, believers do hold all the cards.

An atheist after shuffling off the mortal coil cannot say: ”There you are, told you, there’s no life after death, no heaven.”

The religious, no matter how smug or irritating they appear at times, are sure they are heading for serious time cloud-side strumming a harp, no matter if it’s all wishful thinking.

We leave the last word on this mystery of carking it to late American academic Sidney Morgenbesser, who towards the end of his long final illness, and as reported in last week’s edition of Australian Spectator groaned: ”Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in Him?’

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110-year-old Maitland woman shares secrets

CELEBRATION: Blanche Coward.BLANCHE Coward has some good advice for anyone wishing to live a grand old life as she has.
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Walk, eat chocolate, have a little flutter and enjoy your dessert.

Mrs Coward can lay claim to being an authority on longevity. Why? Because tomorrow she will celebrate her 110th birthday.

The charming resident of Calvary Mount Carmel at Maitland is one of the state’s oldest people.

Barely assisted by her walking frame, or her ‘‘mighty steed’’ as she likes to refer to it, she still marches the corridors of her retirement home at an enviable pace.

When asked how she’s managed to stay so healthy and active, Mrs Coward puts it all down to genetics and keeping away from anything nastier than a good dessert.

‘‘I never thought I would reach this age,’’ she said. ‘‘I think you’re just born like this.’’

Mrs Coward said she has always walked everywhere and her doctor said her legs are so good now because her limbs have always been used.

‘‘I think walking so much has probably contributed to my good health and I love chocolate.’’

The oldest member of Legacy, Mrs Coward is socially active and enjoys attending special social functions at the local club.

She also enjoys trying her luck on scratchies and has entered the NSW Lottery since day one in 1931.

Born in England in 1901, Mrs Coward moved to Sydney with her parents and siblings when she was 12.

She went into service after school doing domestic duties including being a nanny.

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