Anne Hailes: Deaths and bushfires make for a sorrowful start to the new year

Northern Ireland journalist Letitia Fitzpatrick, who now works on the Wauchope Gazette in New South Wales

WHAT a sorrowful 10 days have just passed. The deaths of children, young men and women, car accidents and illnesses, have filled the newspapers. People in the public eye too – the passing of RTÉ’s Marian Finucane, for instance. And, having been mainly a radio journalist, it is Marian’s voice that will remain in my memory.

Sometimes soft and cajoling, always incisive and no nonsense, her interviews were always well researched and informative. With Gay Bryne gone and now Marian, we’ve lost two of the most professional and popular presenters, both attractive but never pushing themselves, always trusted sources of information.

And then came news of another RTÉ broadcaster, veteran DJ Larry Gogan.

But for those of us who admired the quirky, loveable Stephen Clements, news of his death last Tuesday lunchtime came as a dreadful shock.

When he was in his early 20s he wrote to me when I was producing the Ask Anne programme on Ulster Television. He enclosed a video tape of himself giving a straight-to-camera piece which was both funny and professional.

He asked, did I think he could fulfil his ambition and become a broadcaster? There was no doubt and he proved this over and over again.

A couple of years ago after an event in Belfast City Hall I was walking to my car when Stephen came running across the gardens, leapt over the railings and caught up with me: “Just to say thank you again.” A hug and a kiss and he was off. He was a sweet man who loved his family and it’s a tragedy that he should leave us all too soon.

Trouble in paradise

HEARTBREAKING too is the dreadful news from Australia. Imagine walking away from your beloved home and all the precious things you have gathered throughout your life, nothing left but the clothes you stand up in.

Paradise has suddenly become a version of Dante’s Inferno. News from Candy Devine in Brisbane is that although there’s smoke in the air and that they’ve been advised to have a suitcase ready in case of forced evacuation, she is safe.

From Belfast, senior journalist Letitia Fitzpatrick, who now works on the Wauchope Gazette in New South Wales, sent me this heartfelt message: “These last few weeks of bushfires have been terrifying and unprecedented. Are we now accepting a future where drought is commonplace and the bushfire season gets longer and deadlier?

"Will we concede that people will die and homes will be lost across this beautiful country every year in rising numbers? Will Australian children miss school and sports because of fire danger and lingering smoke levels that are worse than Beijing or New Delhi?

"Will asthma sufferers become used to queuing at the doctor’s for oxygen to help them breathe?

"I have no answers except to say that when people with political differences put them aside and work together for the greater good, lives can be saved and the whole landscape can change.”

On the other side of the world

AT A time when birds and animals are devastated by the fires in Australia, my grandson Charlie's Wild Explorer, the RSPB publication for 'young nature nuts’ took my attention last week.

One fascinating article is about ice and this is the time of year to investigate. The idea is to get a pair of gloves, a magnifying glass, a stick and a hammer. Put out a container of water in the garden and wait until it freezes and then carefully crack the ice with the hammer, hook it out with the stick and, wearing your gloves, hold it up to the light.

Apparently with a magnifier you will see a world of shapes and colours, something children will love to do and, believe me, I will be doing too.

Another idea for how to fill an empty afternoon rather than having a nose stuck in an iPad or a new smart phone is to get a balloon, fill it with water and some food colouring, drop in a coin, tie the top and put the balloon in the freezer. Once frozen peel off the balloon and give the frozen ball of ice to a friend to guess what’s inside!

I reckon that would be a wonderful way to propose marriage, with the engagement ring frozen in the coloured ice. In fact, it reminds me of a summertime party when I tried a similar idea. Get an empty bottle of coca cola, cut the top third off, fill it with water and submerge a few flower heads. Then put an empty bottle of wine into the water and carefully place the whole lot in the freezer.

When you take it out later, remove the wine bottle, slide off the coca cola bottle and you’re left with a beautiful floral ice bucket with a space to put in a bottle of soft drink or white wine for serving chilled. It looks beautiful and is a great talking point.

Feed the birds, tuppence a bag

Apparently blackbird numbers have dropped by 22 per cent and starlings by 79 per cent since surveys began in 1979 so the magazine gives advice on encouraging birds to settle and nest by providing the food they need. Buy some seeds, crushed peanuts, a few raisins and some fruit. And, most important, a source of water, making sure it doesn't freeze.

After 40 years, the Big Garden Birdwatch happens later this month on January 25,26 and 27. Just registrar your interest at the website, keep a note of the birds and let the RSPB know the results. It takes only one hour's observation and only applies to birds that land on the ground.

I always think it would be better a couple of weeks later as on the day I choose there never seem to be any birds around – too cold.

No need to go outside, observe from the window in the warmth.

We must appreciate and nurture what we have.

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