Witten's Christmas Letter for 2001

Tauwhare Road
New Zealand
December 28, 2001


At around 5 AM on Christmas Day 2001 in the central railway station in Chennai, India (you might know it as Madras, but the name has changed) a middle-aged couple disembarked, reluctantly, from the night train that pulled in from Tiruchirappalli. The station was not busy, and they sat on a bench to consider their options. A few people slept on the platform, laid out on the bare concrete, wrapped in thin blankets. But staying was not really an option -- pretty soon it would be stinky and bustling, with insistent beggars and the inevitable "fixers" who greet you like best friends and want only to sort out your problems for you, whatever they may be (for a fee). No peace here. Perhaps church was a possibility? -- if they could find one. Christian churches are few and far between, but they do exist: clean, cool, sweet-smelling, beggar-free; some even have seats (in others the congregation sits, cross-legged, on a plain marble floor). With two or three consecutive services they could while away the whole morning. Coming to a decision, they found an auto-rickshaw (a three-wheeled rattletrap powered by a two-stroke motorcycle engine instead of the traditional legs) and haggled with the rickshaw-wallah. The usual rigmarole: drivers refuse to use the meter and quote ridiculous prices, or refuse to quote and mumble "you like" (apparently meaning "pay what you like") then argue like hell unless you come up with a ridiculous amount. They drove off through the silent but potholed and already slightly smelly streets to a hotel which looked rather down-at-heel. They had reserved for that night only, but a room was available for early registration at a half-day rate. The room was air-conditioned, which means subject to a 20% "luxury tax," but disappointing: damp and skunky. Each place on this trip seemed slightly worse than the one before. The Christmas gift was a roll of toilet paper. Everyone knows not to travel around India without one, but this couple had broken the golden rule: they forgot -- got caught short, you might say. This gift, mundane as it sounds, was really wanted, in striking contrast to all those socks, ties, and executive toys in years past! Another delightful present had arrived out of the blue when they boarded the train the previous night. Their earlier experience of a first-class sleeper in India was a pair of bunks no wider than a cheek and a half, right on the main passageway and separated from it by nothing more than a flimsy curtain. No ladder: only with assistance could you scramble up top (tough luck if you needed a midnight pee) and you had to be a contortionist to change even a sock. But on Christmas Eve Santa brought a sleeper with a spacious cabin for four, wide leather beds, clean sheets, lights, a locking door -- and best of all, no company. Luxury. Trouble was, the train arrived early, and the passengers were thrown off.

You've guessed! -- it was us. And this is our Christmas epistle. We've tried for a year or two now to give up the dreaded Witten Christmas Letter. Now the kids are grown up it seems less relevant. But we got home from our trip this morning, spent a lazy day opening all our Christmas cards and letters, and felt obliged to respond. Last year we even had a mention in the UK press! In late January a colleague returned from holiday with a copy of a Guardian weekly freebie called the editor. On Dec 22's Weblife page (p.21), under Links worth a visit, get this: "As the post-food lull kicks in, try a Queen-style Christmas message with New Zealand's Witten family, who round up their year, every year, at www.cs.waikato.ac.nz/~ihw/xmas/ xmas.99.html. Just change the digits for the year you want." We kid you not. A few years ago we started to put our letters on the World-Wide Web, and have occasionally corresponded with strangers who notice them, but to come up on The Guardian's radar -- we were flabbergasted. Because our letters seem excessively syrupy, sickly-sweet, all wonderful this and fabulous that, this year we have begun on a hard-edged, grittier note. Also, for a change, we have decided to work backwards in time.

Despite a shaky start, Christmas day worked out well. After a couple of hours sleep, a shower (no shortage of hot water, it turned out), and brunch (curry of course), we found a wonderful (oops! -- that word again) live performance of Carnatic music, for Chennai hosts a music and dance festival every December. We sat entranced by the weird, repetitive, moaning of the two singers. Each improvised phrase was echoed by a solo violin, sometimes interrupting partway through, fugue-like, sometimes as a refrain after the original phrase ended. An insistent beat, intricate and often even fluttery, rolled out of the two drums -- one a mridangam or double-ended drum, the other no more than an empty gourd. Continuo was provided by a tambora, a four-stringed instrument used as a drone, and a sruti or hand-pumped harmonium. One tune merged into the next with barely a pause, and only scattered applause. The tunes were all in the same key, but with different fundamental rhythms. After a few minutes we predicted that boredom would soon set in, but instead we were mesmerized and stayed for over two hours -- the only non-Indians in the audience. Afterwards we found Giggles, the world's most tightly-packed bookstore. Imagine a hundred thousand books in tottering heaps on the floor in a room maybe 10 feet by 15, threaded by a snaky passageway that you can just squeeze through to a miniscule desk at the back. The proprietor and her assistant had to clear away piles of books to allow the door to open before we could enter. They know their stock by heart -- no catalogs or computers -- and we chatted for an hour. Books are really cheap in India, and they will mail them to you for a pittance. Then we headed off in an auto-rickshaw to the Theosophical Society, whose headquarters are in Chennai, and learned a little about the infamous Madame Blavatsky and also about other mystical religions. Then to the beach. Chennai has excellent beaches, surprisingly clean. Sari-clad Indian maidens stood squealing and giggling in the sea, getting knocked about by the waves; families lounged around; hawkers wheeled their barrows; the odd cow strolled idly by. We examined the fishing boats dragged up on the beach, each comprising eight or ten crudely-hewn lengths of wood tied together with string, with a wood-stone-and-string anchor. For Christmas dinner we went to a slap-up buffet in a posh hotel, ordered a martini cocktail (what a joke! -- one glass with a drop of warm gin, another with vermouth, no ice, no shaker, no olive, mix it yourself). We expected ex-pats, but were the only Europeans there. We anticipated turkey biriani at least, but the closest we came was chicken slices in a rotisserie. However, the food was good, the Indian wine was tolerable, and we were the first to arrive (7:30), the last to leave (around 10:30) -- and probably the only ones to drink alcohol. Indians do not, it appears, linger over their meals.

South Indian food is excellent. Every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner we had curry dishes, usually quite mild and never very spicy. You eat everything with your fingers: rice with sloppy sauce, breads, and dishes of vegetables and meats slathered in delicious liquids. It's really messy. You eat with the right hand only, the left hand being reserved for administering to the other end of your body. It's true: there is no toilet paper. We visited people's houses with scrupulously clean loos (Indian-style squatters) but no paper. Although restaurants have tables and chairs, we were fortunate to visit some private homes where you sit on a mat on the marble floor to eat. Guests eat separately; the family stands by to watch. One of the daughters serves you. First the hand-washing: they put a bowl underneath and pour water over your hand. You're supposed to wash the right hand only -- when we rubbed our hands together in the bowl in the (to us) usual way, they were astonished that we didn't even know how to wash before a meal! They put a banana leaf on the floor in front of you, and spoon the food onto that. First little separate piles of hot food, with some chutneys, to eat with chapattis and other breads. You start by trying to keep your fingers clean by sandwiching chunks of food between bread, but it's hopeless. The food will keep coming until you call a halt, firmly. Then when you're full it's time for rice, maybe two different kinds, covered with hot, wet, spicy dhal. It's delicious, but really messy. More keeps coming. Now that you are completely stuffed there is more rice, this time with sloppy yogurt, for dessert. By now you've long given up trying to keep your fingers clean, your banana leaf is running with juices from the food, your legs are cramped, your bottom aches from the hard floor, and the kids have given up trying to stifle their laughter. Finally they wash your hand again, and the exhibition is over.

Before Chennai we were in Tiruchirappalli ("Trichy" for short). We stayed in a convent: hard narrow monastic beds with a thin blanket but no sheets, plain white walls, empty rooms, no furniture, no pictures. The only concession to vanity was a postage-stamp mirror over the washbasin. But the place was clean and scrubbed, and the hospitality was excellent. They had a school for teachers of special-needs children, and Pam addressed a hundred people at morning assembly with an off-the-cuff chat about her teaching experiences. Trichy is famous for temples. The town is centered around a steep volcanic plug of rock, with a temple carved into the solid stone at the base and another perched precariously on the very pinnacle. Across the river are extraordinary pyramid-shaped towers with layer upon layer of ornately carved stonework, beautifully decorated in gaudy colors. We met Shasta the temple elephant, who "blesses" you by putting his painted trunk on your head and dribbling down your collar. We watched the temple procession, led by Shasta and followed by sundry musicians with shawms, trumpets, and drums. We learned about the holy Trinity: Vishnu, Shiva and Parvati. We visited a library that contained ancient manuscripts -- 2000 years old -- written on palm leaves and bound with wood and string.

Before Trichy we were in Mysore, chief historical city in Karnatika province (both Trichy and Chennai are in Tamil Nadu). Here the local language is Kannada rather than Tamil. For many centuries Mysore has been the seat of the Maharaja, and is famous for its palaces. The main palace is truly awesome, a mixture of Indian and Arabian architecture with light, airy, spaces, built from Italian marble. It's an over-the-top kaleidoscope of stained glass, gilt, mirrors, and gaudy colors. Cleverly painted figures on the walls have eyes (and bodies, and even feet) that follow you as you walk past. Most impressive was a huge door made of solid silver, intricately carved from top to bottom. We drove to a temple on a nearby hill at dusk and watched as the palace illuminations were switched on, hundreds of thousands of lights tracing its every detail. Mysore has several other palaces and we visited many of them. We also went to an old stone temple nearby, built in the 13th Century and carved in fantastic detail. Elephants, horsemen, swans, scenes from the epics -- and even contortions from the Karma Sutra -- are carved everywhere into the solid stone.

In Mysore our hosts were Hindu; in Trichy they were Muslim with strong Christian connections (hence the convent). In numerous conversations we learned about Indian religion and attitudes. Hindus are vegetarian, and all animals are sacred. Cows are extremely sacred, and freely wander the streets of Indian towns and cities, checking out the piles of garbage there. Some have owners and are tethered to trees; others are apparently homeless and wander aimlessly. They lie in the middle of streets and hold up the traffic. We watched one stroll idly over a pedestrian crossing, oblivious to the policeman directing the traffic and to dozens of patiently waiting car-drivers. Bulls are also special, for they bear the god Vishnu. A huge black-painted concrete bull lounges near the hill temple in Mysore, horns garlanded with flowers. Tigers -- and even monkeys, which you occasionally see in the streets -- have associated gods and god-like forms. Mosquitoes and water-buffalo, however, are not sacred. The latter are considered stupid, and you might insult a person by implying that they were weaned on buffalo milk. Buffaloes, like cows, grow long horns -- they are evidently not cut as they are in the west -- which are often decorated with bright paint, or bells. Talking of horns, the streets are a cacophony of vehicle horns. Trucks and buses have signs at the rear saying "please use horn" and few motorists can resist the temptation. One lasting impression was a small garage advertising "horn repairs": obviously a flourishing business in India.

Before Mysore, Ian attended a conference in Bangalore, the "air-conditioned city" and India's Silicon Valley. Pam joined him after a few days, and they moved from the posh conference hotel to a guesthouse at the Indian Institute of Science. In all, Ian was in India for nearly three weeks, Pam for just over two. It was a great experience, a great ending to our six months traveling work-holiday (one of us was working, the other holidaying; guess which), and a great alternative way to celebrate Christmas than sitting at home sans kids, a twosome with a turkey. Perhaps the nicest and most surprising thing about India was that people were so open and friendly. Tourists are rare in South India, and you are continually greeted on the street, offered help if you look puzzled, and accosted by groups of delightful grinning kids daring each other to shake your hand and ask your name. And the other nice thing, also unexpected, was that our stomachs and guts behaved perfectly. No problem.

Before India we spent two months in San Francisco. Ian was visiting Google, a trendy high-tech outfit in Silicon Valley (if you use the web, you should be using the search engine at google.com). Ian's ex-student Craig and wife Kirsten had arranged the visit. They found for us a little apartment in San Francisco, in the Castro district (home of the gay community and a great place to live) just five minutes walk from them, up an almost vertical hill with a magnificent view over the city and the Bay Bridge. Google paid for the apartment, the car, the cellphone -- which is just as well since New Zealand dollars don't go far these days -- but no salary -- which saved Ian from feeling like a wage slave. Google is a successful dotcom startup, and an amazing place to work. Of course they're all kids, children really, and whenever Ian walked in the door the average age went up ten years (there were 200 of them and one of him, work it out for yourself). The place is full of giant brightly-colored physiotherapy balls, unicycles, electric scooters, fun playthings for budding millionaires. Ian's "screen saver" (this bit is for computer types) showed current queries scrolling past at the rate of one per second (Google processes 3,000 queries per second at peak periods), and they make absolutely fascinating reading. The cook there used to cook for the Grateful Dead (remember Jerry Garcia?), and served exotic dishes for lunch and dinner. We might have roast pheasant one day, wild Canadian elk cutlets the next, then buffalo steaks. The desserts were to die for. The fridges were packed with juice, coke, smoothies. The cappuccino machine was awesome. In the coffee room were rows of plastic containers with every breakfast cereal known to man and child, and all sorts of nuts (not peanuts, high-class ones like cashews), cookies, dried fruit. Everything was free. They talk about the "startup 15," the fifteen pounds everyone gains in the first two weeks of working in places like this. There's really no reason to leave Google: they try to keep you at work as long as possible. There are showers, washing machines, a sauna, gym, masseuse, visiting hairdresser and even a doctor. As it happens, one of Ian's books had been prescribed reading for Google employees in the old days when they started up three years ago, and he was a minor celebrity -- it was said that he was there for the "wow" factor. Wow!

We had a great time in San Francisco. One weekend we visited a friend in Capitola, near Santa Cruz, who is engaged to a ballerina! We learned a lot about ballet, and even visited the school to watch her conduct a rehearsal. Having previously known almost nothing and cared even less about ballet, we found it really exciting. Watching rehearsals is definitely the way to generate enthusiasm for new art forms, and makes you realize how much you learn about music from playing in an orchestra. The previous weekend was Thanksgiving. Although we have spent many Thanksgivings in Canada, it's quite different in the US. It's the biggest family time in the calendar, and being "home for Thanksgiving" is even more important than being home for Christmas. We had several invitations -- the people we met were so hospitable -- and ended up at the home of Martin and Andrew and their twins, along with Craig and Kirsten. Martin loves to cook, and we had the nicest meal there. What we hadn't realized was the extent to which the US goes wild at Halloween. Most people at Google wore elaborate costumes -- one gay youth had a ball dressing up as a very attractive-looking housemaid, and changed his wig several times during the course of the (working!) day. With half a million other people we visited the Castro district that evening, and saw the most incredible exhibitions, including acres of exposed flesh of all possible genders. We were tremendously impressed with the good-humored nature of the crowd: there was no aggravation, everyone was best friends, and no-one was conspicuously drunk. A great weekend was spent with Ian's publisher and her ex-publisher husband, both of Italian descent, who live north, across the Golden Gate bridge. Publishers have a reputation for living the good life, richly deserved in this case. We began with negronis, which have recently become our favorite cocktail -- a generous dollop of gin, Campari, red vermouth, and a dash more gin. We had a riotous evening with many of the people who have worked on Ian's books (and are now working on his current one), spent the night there (we could hardly have done otherwise), breakfasted on lox and fresh bagels, lunched on oysters, dined on crab chowder. We caught up with old friends Peter and Margaret from Essex days all those years ago, and their kids and their partners. We visited Monterey and had a Steinbeck fest: Cannery Row, the Palace Flophouse, all those fictitious joints from Steinbeck's novels. We ate more crab. We checked out the Museum of Modern Art with its extensive collection of Matisse and his contemporaries (lots of pictures we'd seen before in art books), a weird postmodern display from Latin America called "ultra baroque" (what a name -- you have to see the exhibition to realize how very appropriate it is), and a special exhibition of Ansel Adams, who photographed many Canadian Rocky scenes that we know and love. We were hardly ever at home in San Francisco: sometimes we ate at Google, sometimes with friends, sometimes out. It was a most enjoyable and sociable time. The only negative aspect, for Ian, was the commuting: between 40 and 90 minutes in each direction. Luckily he always had company. Pam joined the recorder society in Palo Alto, attended a workshop conducted by a famous American recorder virtuoso, and played in a concert just before she left. Ian often played jazz with Craig in the entrance foyer of Google, where there's a grand piano.

Before San Francisco, New Orleans, where we spent two weeks in a rambling old guesthouse run in the southern style with black servants (including Miss Mary, who did our washing). Our room was gloomy, with a huge old bed, raised far off the ground with a little stool to climb up. The furniture consisted of one easy chair, an ancient armoire and a rickety card-table. The curtains were heavy, dark, and fixed in place. It was most uncomfortable in a genteel sort of way. We were in a posh historic area near Tulane University, which Ian was visiting, but right on the streetcar line so we could easily get downtown. In the old days there was indeed a streetcar named Desire, which served a New Orleans suburb of the same name, but has been replaced by the more prosaically named Number 72 bus. New Orleans was everything we had expected. Black musicians played jazz on every street corner, including one exceptionally good lady clarinetist who held her instrument straight up and played shimmering cascades of very high notes (this is impossible). The French Quarter was perpetual party-time. Drinks came in massive 32 oz plastic beakers: frozen daiquiris, famous (?) New Orleans "hurricanes", "hand grenades" (in a lurid green grenade-shaped plastic container), and the widely advertised "rat attack" (we didn't try this). The crowd strolled around, drink in hand. Naked dancers were silhouetted against window shades. Beautiful young harlots, occasionally overtly knickerless, paraded on balconies above the street, bantering with the crowd below. As a flashing neon sign at an "adult club" proclaimed once a second, "What's the problem? It's only sex."

For us, street music was of much more interest than street sex. Loud, live rock screamed from every bar. But we wanted jazz. The guidebook took us to "Preservation Hall," where the old music is preserved. You have to line up to get in. And it's about music, nothing else. They don't sell drinks, and you can't take them in. No smoking. No loos even. All there is is an ancient hall with faded jazz posters on the walls, bench seats for the lucky few at the front, and plenty of standing room behind. The bands -- six, eight piece -- come in and play 45 minute sets, 15 minute breaks, from eight until midnight. Some are marching bands, with sousaphone instead of string bass, snare and bass drums instead of drum kits. The music is excellent, the routine unchanging (e.g. the order of solos), the jokes time-worn ("I used to play the trombone, but I let it slide" ... "The next number is dedicated to my ex-wife: Take the A train.") Nothing is electric: there is no amplification. We loved it. And the food. There used to be two things we couldn't eat: dog (as Ian discovered in China last year) and oysters from the half shell. Now we have conquered oysters. They were plentiful, cheap, and (like everything else) flavored with Tabasco sauce -- and we had lots of opportunity to practice. We ate po'boys (poor boys -- French bread sandwiches), crawdads (teeny crayfish, also known as mud bugs), jambalaya, and plenty of thick, rich étouffé sauce.

Before New Orleans, we split. Ian was in Alberta, Calgary and nearby (in the mountains) Canmore, with a flying visit trip to Edmonton and to see our friends in Camrose. He caught up with many old friends, ate numerous lunches (everyone eats sushi, which is great because Ian loves it), gave guest lectures in Calgary and Edmonton, hiked in the Rockies, and went to a concert by John Renbourne, the old 1960s British folkie, still going strong. He even sailed around the Glenmore reservoir on a friend's trailer-sailer.

Pam was in London on September 11th, and she got stuck there. Ian had just gone to Calgary (he was safe in the Rockies). The original plan was for Pam to follow a few days later, but instead she had to put in a quick trip to Australia to see Anna, who was in dire need of some parental TLC. Pam was staying with her mother in London, having managed, through a few frantic phone calls, to change her original London - San Francisco - Calgary - New Orleans routing to London - San Francisco - Sydney - San Francisco - New Orleans instead. When tragedy struck in New York she was delayed for nearly a week. She made it to Sydney for a slightly curtailed visit with Anna, and helped get her through her difficulties. Anna is fine now, and there's nothing to worry about. The positive part was that Pam, stuck in London, was able to spend more time with her Mum and Nikki, who was visiting friends there -- but more of that later. Of course our family felt pretty exposed at that tragic time, spread over Australia (Anna), London (Pam and Nikki) and Canada (Ian), with lots of travel plans, and ten weeks in the US ahead of us. However, apart from increased airport security and long delays (Ian unthinkingly packed his washbag in his carry-on for a quick trip from San Francisco to Seattle and had his nail-clippers confiscated) we were unaffected. Except that one of his hosts in the International Development Center he was visiting at Tulane University, an expert on disaster cleanup and management, was spirited away to the Nevada desert by the US Army for secret meetings for most of the duration of Ian's visit. However, we have to say that it was a relief to leave the US, and now we're back home New Zealand feels about as safe a haven as you can expect today.

This letter is getting long, and there's much yet to tell. Before going to Canada, Ian was at a conference in Darmstadt, Germany. But another conference in nearby Freiburg wanted his services as a jazz musician for their social evening, so he played hooky for a night, hopped on a train to Freiburg, went straight to the pub, played until the wee small hours, slept in a hotel, and caught the early morning train back to Darmstadt. It was great! Before that, we were together in Milan. One of the wonders of the world is the roof of Milan cathedral, by the way; if we had more space we would praise it exuberantly (don't miss it if you go). We had five days there (another conference). Before that, we were in Braunschweig, west of Berlin, for a couple of memorable weeks. We really got into the German summertime way of life, eating and drinking at outside restaurants nearly every evening. Our friends Dieter and Uschi took us on great trips -- a windmill museum(!), a hike in witch country, the wooden horse of Troy. Before that we visited Pam's brother Stephen who runs the café/pub in a tiny French village called Pampelonne, near a little town called Albi (home of Toulouse Lautrec), near Toulouse. We had the nicest time there, eating (Maggie cools fabulous meals), drinking (it's a bar, after all) and walking around the countryside -- we had no idea that rural France was so nice. Before that, Paris for a few days, visiting UNESCO. We walked everywhere -- it was great. Before that, London, with nostalgic side trips to Sheffield and Wivenhoe. Before that, Ireland, where Ian won a cup sailing in a regatta. (To be fair, he was a minor player in a crew of five.) Before that, Ian was in the US at a couple of conferences, while Pam was back home -- she met him in N. Ireland. We were away for almost exactly six months. What a great experience.

One reason for the trip was that Nikki left home in February. We had a great combined farewell and anticipatory 21st birthday party for her and her best friend Kirsty, who was also departing (though they didn't travel together). We filled the pool with balloons. We killed the fatted sheep, roasted it on a spit. Nikki and Kirsty's friends, our friends and some family (including Pam's Mum who was visiting for a couple of months) all made quick work of it. There were a couple of speeches (blissfully unremembered). Ian conked out around midnight (hot work, roasting and carving, and thirsts need quenching); Pam lasted longer; Nikki's lot eventually got to sleep sometime the next morning. Then Nikki was off to Greece via Vancouver, Canada, and we were empty nesters. Funny how these life phases sound like other people's problems until they happen to you. We weren't divorced within the month as our daughters had feared -- they think they pull us together when in fact they create all the stress! And though we miss terribly having kids in the house, we still seem to be pretty busy and certainly don't find time hanging on our hands. The six months away was intended to ease us into it: now we're finally back maybe things will get more challenging.

Nikki was heading for Greece but got stuck in Vancouver. Deliberately stuck -- she loved it, got a job as a barrista at Starbucks. When Ian went to his annual conference at the Snowbird ski resort in Utah at the end of March, for which he had missed Nikki's birthday every year for ten consecutive years, she flew down to join him and they spent her 21st together on the ski slopes. A couple of years before he had skied there with Anna. Funny how the girls differ: Anna is all dare-devil, go faster Dad -- you can do it -- while Nikki is far more conservative (but equally skillful). Eventually she left Vancouver in early September for London, where Pam was (remember? -- never mind). They had a few delightful days together; more than a few, since Pam got stuck. Then Nikki went to Ireland to visit Ian's family (with Kirsty, who has been in London; yes, it's complicated) and then off to Greece (by herself). But Athens was not the idyll she had expected. She stayed with people of her own age, which was fine. But as she toured around by herself, she had trouble with men -- dirty old ones. This was something she hadn't bargained for. Neither was the loneliness of visiting tourist spots by herself. And she missed Vancouver. So she baled out and got herself a quick ticket back to London, whereupon Ian and Pam (where were we? -- New Orleans, I think) bought her a ticket to Vancouver. She's still there. While in San Francisco we popped up to Seattle for a long weekend -- Ian was visiting the university there -- and Nikki came down on the bus to join us. It was an excellent reunion.

Anna remains in Sydney, Australia. She's been there for nearly a year and a half, surely a record for stability. But although based in Sydney's northern beach area she moves around a lot -- the "W" page of our address book is filled with crossed-out and updated addresses for her. Currently she lives in Avalon and works a little further south in Manly, a northern suburb of Sydney. She shares with a very pregnant dog that belongs to one of her flat-mates. The house is in an up-market area among many trees -- a worry with all the conflagrations around Sydney at the moment, but Anna assures us she's OK. (Anyway, there's always the sea, she says.) In the trees are many possums and cockatiels; there used to be koala bears, but they have migrated to avoid the influx of human inhabitants. She's just a few minutes walk from an excellent beach. As well as the obligatory surf club, it has a salt-water swimming pool built into the rocks that's fed by waves splashing in from the ocean. Even the pool gets rough when the surf is running. Anna says she gets to lie on the beach most days. But she's just about to move again, closer to work.

For many months Anna worked in a video rental store. She was second in charge, with a good prospect of promotion. But she left because of personality problems with her boss, who was the owner's son -- and stealing money from the till. Now she has joined a clothing store, where she works in various different branches. Anna's social life has always been pretty busy. She seems to have lost some of her body piercings -- traded them for dreadlocks! Her friends are mostly male, and mostly people she was flatting with.

And that's it for the year, except to wish you lots of love and belated seasonal greetings. Did we keep it hard-edged and gritty? Guess not; next year, perhaps. We hope your New Year is happy and that you have kept your resolutions so far. May peace be with you: the world sure needs it.

Pam and Ian, Anna and Nikki (remotely)