Saturday, December 1, 2001
Merry Xmas and a prosperous new year! Yes, it is that time again! The Xmas card season has arrived. I am pleased that lots of the people I write to at Xmas seem to enjoy my letters. I actually try to make them as boring as possible (e.g. by rattling on about my son Joey) but they seem to be amusing despite my best intentions.
This time last year my son Joseph was a 5'10" tall 13 year old. By his 14th birthday this year (20th July), he had reached 5'11". It seems only yesterday that he was a tot. Now he is towering over everyone. Rather hard to get used to! Joey's mental maturity seems to be advanced too. He discusses things as diverse as anger management, the Emperor Nero, German grammar and the Big Bang with me. Recently, he mentioned the Epic of Gilgamesh (the human race's earliest known literary work -- from ancient Sumeria) and when I remarked that I had a copy of it he asked to borrow it so he could read it! How many 14 year olds would even have heard of the Epic of Gilgamesh, let alone be interested enough to want to read it?
And his musicality is progressing too. At the Xmas concert put on by his piano teacher late last year while he was still 13, Joey played the "Solfegietto" by K.P.E. Bach. After listening to a lot of boring stuff at the concert it was wonderful to hear suddenly the whirl of just the sort of complex contrapuntal music that I like coming from the hands of my own son. It is of course a difficult piece and Joe put a lot of practice into it solely because he liked it. I had no influence on what he chose to play at all. I didn't even know what he was going to play.
Despite the vast body of evidence for the overwhelming importance of genetics that is now available, I must confess that I am still a bit amazed by how much Joe is a chip off the old block despite the fact that he does not live with me and that I usually see him for only about an hour each week. Once when he was about 12, I said to him that maybe he should learn to play games like cricket, golf and tennis to help him fit in with other people. His reply was that he could not see the point of chasing a little ball around the place. That is of course exactly what I think but as far as I know I had never said as much to him. As with me, computers are more his thing.
The similarities between us can be very helpful to his happiness, however. Once when he was about 8 he said to me rather dejectedly that he was no good at swimming and that the only thing he could do well in the pool was the dead man's float. I said, "That's about all that I am good at too, Joe" and that cheered him up greatly. That I have similar eccentricities to his legitimates them for him. There is no doubt that fathers can be important to sons.
Joey did Grade 9 this year -- still at Clairvaux MacKillop Catholic college -- which he seems to think highly of. He seems fairly decided now that he wants to be an academic eventually. I explained that academics only work about 12 hours a week and get paid lots of money for talking about what they are interested in so he thought that sounded pretty good. He appears very bright so he has a good chance of getting there. He even likes Maths -- which is more than I ever did.
As a sort of Xmas present to myself last year (other people mostly give me socks or hankies), I had the floors at my 100-year-old timber house at Forest St sanded and coated with polyurethane. To my eyes the old wide floorboards in polished state really look beautiful. I enjoy such a floor practically every time I walk on it! A polished floor also feels a lot cleaner underfoot than carpet. Anybody who has ever pulled carpet up knows what filthy stuff it is. I also opened out the front verandah of the place again. Previous owners had enclosed it. When I pulled off all the fibro, I was pleased to find most of the original dowel railings still underneath.
Later (on 3rd August) I sold the house for a goodly sum -- hence the new postal address at Longwood St. above. More money to put into the stockmarket! My email address and mobile phone nos. remain the same, however. My new landline phone no. is 3891-1380 but the mobile is still the best way to get me. I have owned the Longwood St. house for many years and have lived there before but this time I got the floorboards sanded and polished before I moved in. It was a pretty rough floor to start with but the chap who polished it (David Smith) is very good at replacing dodgy boards so the end result was still first-class. It has 10 bedrooms so I let part of it out. It is a 1920s timber house and I very much like its central location. Woolloongabba is also now a rapidly gentrifying suburb. I may open out part of the verandah there too in due course. With lacework railings it would look really good.
At long last I managed to sell my big Ipswich boarding house -- on May 4th. It was a great relief no longer having to deal with the dregs of society all the time. The proceeds of the sale went straight into the stockmarket. What sort of person would have bought the boarding house do you think? Go on.... Guess ---- guess ... guess. Well I will tell you. It was an absolutely gorgeous looking Dutch woman. A real dream walking! You wouldn't see better on the cover of a magazine. Life has some strange twists and turns. Apparently she grew up in country hotels and does seem quite tough underneath a charming exterior so she thinks she understands the clientele and may therefore well make a go of it. She even spent $60,000 on doing it up!
A rather silly thing I did early this year was to buy myself a second car. I think it was just because I could not resist a bargain. A Chinese tenant of mine was returning to China after a couple of years studying here and wanted to sell his car for $2,000. As I knew that the car had been running well, I snapped it up. It is however a 10-year old Ford Festiva with a lot of minor dents and scratches etc in its panels so I doubt that he could have sold it for much more anyway. I did however spend $400 on getting its airconditioning going again so I find that very handy on hot days. Since installing new airconditioning in my existing car would have cost me about $2,000 anyway, one could perhaps say that I got the Festiva almost for free! I also found out that the trade-in value of my 1995 Daihatsu Charade was only $3,000 so I am the king of cheap cars these days. The upholstery of the Charade's driver's seat came apart recently but Cahoon the motor trimmer fixed it like new for only $50. Motor trimmers seem to be very clever and handy chaps.
I started buying company shares around the middle of last year with the expectation of only modest capital gains but in fact gained around $100,000 overall in my first year! Earning an average of $2,000 a week by doing nothing was a lot of fun! Though sharemarket gains are of course "paper" gains. They can just disappear overnight. For instance, on the last day of the 00/01 financial year I was $125,000 ahead but after the New York disaster my portfolio had dropped back to being worth only what I paid for it. Though that was probably pretty good in the circumstances. Lots of people did big dough at that time. Just a couple of weeks later I was back to being $70,000 ahead though.
A few days after the N.Y. attack, shares in QBE (an Australian insurance company with some exposure to New York) dropped from $10 to $3. So lots of galahs actually sold at $3! I hung onto mine and just two weeks later they were back up to $6! It must have been a lesson to those who sold at $3. Fancy selling shares on a scare and then seeing them double in value almost immediately! Much heartburn! And a lot of those who sold would have been wise-head superannuation fund managers and other "professional" investors. It is a great pity that managed funds generally do so poorly when so many average people pay them a small fortune to take care of their nest-egg. I always tell people to make their own mistakes rather than pay someone else to make them for you. If you buy into a range of blue chip companies you are unlikely to lose overall and you will most likely gain heaps.
Despite the odd setback, share gains make Real Estate look very poor. Funnily enough, a lot of the big superannuation funds went backwards over the same period in which I was getting well ahead. Even though people put money into their fund during the year, they found that their super was still worth less at the end of the year than it was at the beginning! Nasty! The funds must have had a lot invested in computer-related companies or in Japanese companies. The total value of listed Japanese companies dropped to just half what it was in the last 12 months. And some of the computer companies went broke entirely and even the big ones lost an awful lot. "Yahoo", for instance, went from selling at $200 per share down to $18 per share and even Microsoft halved in value. I had no shares in such risky companies.
Given that I did so well relative to many professional investors, I am rather kicking myself that I did not suspect earlier that I had some talent for picking good stocks. My investment strategy is in fact very conservative. Like many others, I have tried to learn from Warren Buffet -- the world's most successful investor. I try to pick big "blue chip" companies that do relatively simple, old-fashioned things well and pay a dividend of at least 4% of the share value: A very old-fashioned approach but it seems to work well.
Some of the shares I bought were lemons, however: Nothing as bad as HIH or One.Tel etc. but I lost a bit of money on AGL, PBL, Telstra, Goodman Fielder, News Corp, etc. Telstra shares have caused a lot of pain in a lot of people's pockets, of course. Fortunately, I had relatively few of them. And I bought Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp at $19, sold at $18 and saw it later fall to $12. Anyway, keeping track of my shares has now become one of my major recreations. I log on to see the prices a couple of times a day sometimes but I don't trade actively. I buy for the medium to long term. I am no day trader. Day traders nearly all go broke eventually anyway. If you have ever watched the way share prices jump around during the day, you will understand why. I rather hate weekends now because there is no share-trading then and so I cannot watch my stocks move!
On the cultural front, I was pleased to discover that Brisbane has an amateur archaeologist's group meeting at the Museum called the Diggings Club. At the first meeting I attended (in May) I heard a very interesting talk on the Phaistos disc -- a well-known puzzle to followers of Minoan (ancient Cretan) civilization. So in Brisbane one can even attend learned talks on arcane points of archaeology! If you should just happen to be interested in the Phaistos disc, it was the Fischer interpretation that was discussed. A modern History club also started up in August at the Museum and I gave the first talk there on Prince Otto von Bismarck (the founder of modern Germany).
The Friends of Antiquity club also continues to flourish in conjunction with the Classics Dept. at the University of Qld. and there were several interesting talks given during the year. At one of them a British archaeologist (John Tubb) gave reasons for believing that the Old Testament was almost entirely composed during the Babylonian exile rather than being written over many centuries.
My interest in academe has revived a bit this year. I have submitted a couple of papers (one now provisionally accepted for publication) and I also now have my own Website
(http://jonjayray.tripod.com) to make my past papers more available. It is even cached by Google.com so anyone in the whole world who does an internet search will now find my site if what it covers is of interest to them. There is even a recent piccy of me on the internet at: http://jonjayray.tripod.com/homepage.html
My birthday celebrations this year were once again extensive. On the Friday, Jenny made a Paella for seven of us which was much enjoyed. Jenny has always done a great Paella. And on the Saturday Geraldine and I with Jill and Lewis made the customary trip to The Clansmen restaurant for dinner. They are one of the few restaurants who can do duck well so that is what I had. Lewis was in good form and we had a lot of laughs. And it was alcohol-free too! It is a pity that The Clansmen was taken over about a year ago by a Greek, however. I liked it better when Mr Campbell was in charge -- despite his obvious liking for "a wee dram". And the Greek bloke went broke a few weeks after I had been there but was back in charge via a new company a couple of months after that so goodness knows what is happening there now. And on the Sunday, Jenny's son Paul had Geraldine and me over for lunch at his new house.
Jill and I are still the best of friends but we no longer dine together once a week. Geraldine and I dine out only occasionally. Often when Geraldine and I do dine out these days, we go to Lefkas Greek Taverna at Hill End. Nobody else seems to have starters as good as their Taramasalata and Haloumi. I think Greeks are best at running Greek restaurants.
In summer, Geraldine and I also occasionally have a picnic tea at various places -- including the park at the Figtree Pocket boatramp -- which is very cool and scenic of a summer's evening. Geraldine cooks the dinner at home and we take it to a riverside park to eat.
We celebrated Burns Night that way on 25th. January this year. Geraldine and I met Jill and Lewis at twilight at the Figtree Pocket boatramp park for our dinner. There are a couple of good picnic tables by the river there and it is a cool spot to go to at the height of a Brisbane summer. We did not get a haggis this year but I did don the kilt for the occasion and I read out a few of the more famous poems before dinner. I even sang "Ye banks and braes o' bonny Doon"! There weren't many passers-by but they did seem curious.
The day after that I was very pleased to take photos of some of my cousins twice removed. For around the last 20 years, all of my many Brisbane relatives on my mother's side have been meeting every Australia Day for a get-together over a barbecue lunch. From the beginning, they brought their children along with them. Most of those children are however now grown up and some have families of their own so they still come along but now bring their own children too. And those children are my cousins twice removed. And the little ones are of course a great delight to us all.
On Easter Sunday, Geraldine, Jill, Lewis and I went to St John's Cathedral for the sung Eucharist at 9.30pm with the Archbishop (later to be Governor General) officiating. It is a wonderful setting for a colourful ecclesiastical occasion and the music was great. Although they don't seem to believe in anything much these days, the Church of England can still put on a good show. Since Lewis is Jewish and the others of us are Protestant only by background, that suited us pretty well. After that we all went to nearby Mowbray Park by the Brisbane river for a two-hour picnic lunch. Luckily it was a sunny day.
I was quite inspired by the various interviews on TV with His Grace Bishop John Shelby ("Jack") Spong when he was out here from the U.S.A. in July. His is a very modernized version of Christianity so it is lucky that he is an Anglican (an "Episcopalian" in American terms). He would be too heretical for anyone else. At one point he said that he sympathized with the man who said: "I am not a member of any organized religion. I am an Anglican". I also liked it when he said that he did not think prayer should be like a letter to Santa Claus. I think he is brilliantly intelligent, very scholarly, very honest, very sincere and a true follower of Christ. If I were not a atheist I would probably have to be a Spong-type Anglican.
Despite that, however, I think his could only ever be very much a minority pastorate. The most successful diocese in communion with Lambeth is undoubtedly the Sydney one and Sydney Anglicans are unusually faithful to the original Church of England doctrines -- i.e. they are very heedful of the letter of the New Testament. If Anglicanism generally has lost its way, the huge Sydney diocese shows what it might have been. Where else do you find Anglican churches full of committed young people? A few old ladies in flowered hats would be a more usual Anglican congregation as far as I can tell.
In May, Geraldine and I went to a concert of sacred choral music at St John's Anglican cathedral. The program was headed by Allegri's "Miserere nos" so the place was packed -- and for good reason. The soaring stone arches of a big Gothic cathedral were the perfect setting (both visually and acoustically) for such music -- and with a big choir (the State & Municipal) and a first-class alto giving a top quality performance it was a peak musical experience. For my taste, Brisbane is an amazingly good place for classical music concerts.
Geraldine sold her big house at Figtree Pocket early in the year also for a goodly sum and had another one built for much less at River Hills. So both Geraldine and my old friend Jill now live at River Hills! River Hills is not at all a prestigious address like Figtree Pocket but who cares? Geraldine's new house almost overlooks the Brisbane river so that is pretty pleasant. Like Jill, the money Geraldine gained by her move she used to fatten up her sharemarket portfolio. We both like bank shares and have both done well out of National Australia Bank and Suncorp-Metway shares in particular.