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The Scrivener: This Time, It Was Not A Dog

"The armchair and its cushions suddenly started shaking and wobbling like mad. This continued for about ten seconds,'' reports Brian Barratt.

And this time he couldn't blame the dog!

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A quiet evening. There I was, sitting in my comfychair, watching television. At about five minutes to nine, I had a strange sensation. The armchair and its cushions suddenly started shaking and wobbling like mad. This continued for about ten seconds. Aha, I thought — it isn't a dog scratching itself behind my armchair, it's an earthquake. Sure enough, we heard on the news the next morning that there had been a quake measuring 4.7 on the Richter scale, with its epicentre about 80km from Melbourne.

In Australia, we have devastating droughts, cyclones, bushfires and floods, and quite a lot of minor earth tremors. This one was very mild. It wasn't the disastrous sort of event that sometimes occurs in other countries. A few houses near the epicentre had cracks in their walls. Not dissimilar to a tremor we had some years ago when one of my friends found that her garage wall and concrete floor had cracked. But far less traumatic than the Meckering earthquake.

In 1968, a couple of weeks after arriving in Australia, I was working with colleagues in Perth, placing stock on the shelves of a large new bookshop. Apart from a strangely foreboding sky, it was an ordinary sort of day. For some reason, I glanced up at the fluorescent light fittings, which were suspended from a high ceiling. They were wafting gently to and fro. I knew exactly what that meant. "Earthquake!" I yelled. "Get outside!" And we all rushed out into the street.

They probably thought I was bonkers. However, it wasn't long before we heard that an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale had destroyed the small town of Meckering, 140km to the east. Buildings in Perth itself were damaged.

How did I know what those swinging light fittings meant? Well, I'd had a similar experience just a couple of years before, in Kitwe (Zambia). I was sitting with my elbow on the desk while I held the telephone to my ear. My upright forearm began to move almost imperceptibly to and fro of its own accord. There was a shout from the office next door, "Mr Barratt! What's happening?" It wasn't so much a shout as a scream of fear.

We heard on the wireless the next day that a widely-felt earth tremor had been caused by pressures and shifting in the great man-made lake at Kariba, far away from Kitwe. So it was the first real earthquake I actually felt. There was one before that but it wasn't a real earthquake.

In the 1950s, I was living in Harare (then known as Salisbury). Boarding with a pleasant family, I had an outside room. It was a nicely converted large garage with a double door which opened on a lovely garden. On hot nights, I left the door open. In those days, we didn't worry too much about burglars, I suppose.

One night, I woke in fright. The whole of my bed was rumbling and shaking. Muffled rhythmic thumping noises came from somewhere below me. I leapt out of bed, very scared. At the same time, a large dog rapidly unfolded itself from beneath the bed and rushed out through the open door. He was a stray who had come in for a bit of kip and had decided that 2 a.m. was a good time vigorously to scratch his fleas, in the cramped space under my bed.

That's why the thought passed through my mind when my armchair started to shake. There wasn’t a dog behind it. Mind you, I have to confess that I did check that there wasn't a possum down there. You can't be too sure about these things.

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