The tricky thing about the last column of the year is deciding whether you should reflect on what was or look forward.

Regular readers will know that this year has been something of a trial for my family.

But should I bury it like the awful, rotten thing it seemed at times? Would I have it wiped off the calendar as the year we didn’t have?

If someone had posed those questions four, five months ago I’d almost certainly have said yes.

But that’s the great thing about the passing of time: faced with a new reality, it shows you how to live it.

2013 will go down as the year I discovered friends. They’ve always been there – at every stage of my life – but I’d never valued them near enough.

It’s partly a consequence of a childhood spent on the move to far-flung satellite and cable station towns where my father was deployed.

Unlike my shy, serious brother who suffered these frequent upheavals, I was highly adaptable and made friends easily … at the drop of a hat in fact.

And that, of course, was my own peculiar problem.

You couldn’t pack friends in a removalist’s truck – so you’d love ’em and leave ’em with nary a backward glance and start again.

It probably didn’t help going into a profession where that was what you did to every one, every single day: crashing into people’s lives in the aftermath of disasters or violent crime, or picking at the threads of scandal until some sorry saga unravelled.

Encouraging people – in the midst of the most extreme circumstances – to open up, to talk to you and then lighting out when the next story came along … that was the job.

So much so that I once remarked to a friend who thought enough of me to invite me to a dinner party as one of the best friends she had made for each of the five decades of her life – a list of five people and their partners: “I don’t take prisoners.”

I know, I know. Shoot me now!

It’s actually quite hard now to be on the brink of 50 and suddenly realise you have spent the best part of half a century being absolutely insufferable.

What changed? Well, truthfully, probably not me!

But, in 2013 I actually needed people and they were there … without once asking.

They flew in from interstate, they called on the phone, they minded the dog, they sent DVDs, CDs, books, emails, texts, wrote note cards, they invited me for meals, they offered trees under which I could safely park the campervan and plug into their mains, they wore masks, gowns and gloves to keep my husband safe and they cut me some slack at work.

But the craziest thing is that they would have done more … if we’d let them. So, while my husband, who physically endured the awful, rotten things in 2013, may disagree, it was also a year of discovery and blessings.

And that’s what friends are for.

PROFILE: Salvation Army’s Major Brendan Nottle

When Major Brendan Nottle discovered he had won this year’s Melburnian of the Year award, he thought it was a joke.

“I thought it was an administrative error. I was thinking a letter was going to come in and say, ‘Sorry about that, we sent the letter to the wrong person’,” he says.

The Salvation Army social worker was awarded the honour at a glittering ceremony in November before a crowd comprising the cream of Melbourne’s business, sport, entertainment and political worlds.

He was chosen for one very simple reason: because he cares.

Born and bred in Melbourne, Major Nottle, 49, leads Salvos Melbourne Project 614, which seeks out those living on society’s fringe and helps them ease their way back in.

The program, run by a small team of dedicated staff and more than 1000 volunteers, works on establishing one-on-one relationships with the homeless and disadvantaged and then getting them the help they need.

“We thought if we’re going to get people back on their feet, we need to develop this relationship first and then be with them in the long haul and through the ups and downs,” Major Nottle says.

Thirteen programs are run through Project 614, including the Youth Street Teams that go out every Friday and Saturday night to support young people who have had too much to drink or need help getting home.

There’s also the Youth Bus, which provides a safe place for homeless and marginalised youth to enjoy a hot drink, play video games and get to know the Project 614 team.

A Salvos veteran of 22 years, Major Nottle has no doubt seen and heard just about everything possible. He remains compassionate yet unfailingly professional.

It is only when asked what motivated his career that his guard drops.

He tells how his grandmother – who was already a mother of three young boys – was almost eight months pregnant with his mother when her husband died. He had gambling and other severe addictions.

“Life was really tough for the family and the Salvation Army found out and offered support,” he says.

There were to be more family tragedies. Major Nottle’s father died when he was four and his mother died when he was 17 and in the middle of year 12, leaving him and his three older brothers orphaned.

“I think those sorts of things really shaped my outlook on life and a sense of empathy for people who find themselves in difficult circumstances,” he says.

Nottle’s family are all involved with the Salvos; it’s where he met his wife, Sandra, who also works with Project 614. Their three children, aged 26, 22 and 18, either work or volunteer with the Salvos.

Many nights, after just a couple of hours’ sleep, Nottle is out on the street before sunrise to try to establish all-important relationships with the homeless and disenfranchised.

Relathionships, he says, are the key to making a difference in people’s lives.

“We might see a homeless person and it’s easy to lump them to a stereotype. But it’s important to realise that these people often have an incredible story and are often in those situations through no fault of their own,” he says. “We have to maintain that compassion and care for those people.”

Now in its 11th year, the Melbourne Awards recognise residents, businesses and organisations whose deeds have contributed to making Melbourne a better place.

Lord mayor Robert Doyle presented Major Nottle with the award, declaring his deeds across the city “inspiring”.

“Every week, Brendan can be found in the city giving crucial support to those in need, including meals, clothing and counselling,” he said in announcing the award.

“The dedication he brings to his work makes him a role model thoroughly deserving of this accolade.”

Having seen and heard so many stories of desperation and vulnerability, does Major Nottle ever struggle to maintain momentum?

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” he says. “The thing I struggle with most is when someone we’re working with really intensely ends up dying and that’s certainly happened on a number of occasions. I find that really devastating and just a complete waste.”

To this day, Nottle does not know who nominated him for the award. But he’s thankful, as it has brought attention to the work he and his team perform seven days a week.

“For me, I think the award really speaks volumes about our team. We have a fantastic team that goes beyond what they’re expected to do. And I think it speaks volumes about the heart of the city, too.”

He says people have been “genuinely excited” for him and the team. “And they’re saying this is a really good thing that’s happened. It gives me real encouragement about the city and its heart. It’s a city that really does care. And I think that’s fantastic.”

PROFILE: Rob’s 1800km ride for asthma

When most of us are holidaying and catching up with friends and family, Rob Gomm will be riding 1800 kilometres to Adelaide and back to Melbourne over Christmas and New Years to raise funds for The Asthma Foundation of Victoria.

“My ride is not part of a large group or event,” he said.

“There is no extended support crew to help along the way. It is simply one person who is trying to show that anyone can have a meaningful impact on an issue they care about.”

Rob is aiming to raise $10,000 for asthma education, resources and research by riding his bike further than ever before.

Robin Ould, CEO of The Asthma Foundation of Victoria, recognised Rob’s great feat.

“As we are a not-for-profit organisation, we very much rely on support from the community. Rob is undertaking an enormous challenge and we’re very appreciative of his effort for The Foundation and people with asthma,” he said.

Rob has plenty of motivation.

“When I was much younger, I was diagnosed with asthma and suffered from a number of severe asthma attacks. Luckily, I was too young to remember, but my parents and brother still have powerful memories of the pain my attacks caused for the entire family.

“This gives me the motivation to raise awareness and funds”.

Asthma affects more than 2 million people nationwide and is one of the main causes of hospitalisations in children. There is still no cure and a lot more can be done for those in the community who have asthma.

Rob will leave from Federation Square in Melbourne on December 24 and ride south-west, hugging the coast until he reaches Adelaide. He will then return to Melbourne via an inland route, and aims to arrive home on January 10.

>> To donate or for an update on Rob’s progress see his blog

>> Asthma information: or call 1800 ASTHMA (1800 278 462).

INTERVIEW: Damien Fleming, tricky business

The truth is, in sport near misses are often just as memorable as the real thing. In Damien Fleming’s case, one particular dropped catch might be even better, because it was just … so … torturously … close!

Most people know Fleming took a hat-trick in his debut Test for Australia. And when you really think about it, that fact is extraordinary. A skinny 24-year-old from Perth claims three Pakistani scalps in consecutive balls the first time he wears the famous baggy green cap. The first wicket, a catch at mid-wicket, the second a spearing LBW, the third caught behind. But Fleming plays down the feat.

“It’s not something you really aim for,” he says. “The big one for me was getting the baggy green on your head. And then we broke records in Test cricket and I probably played with seven or eight of the greatest players ever. That’s what you look back on.”

As famous as that first hat-trick made Fleming, the almost second is invariably picked over more, especially given the profile of the culprit who bungled it. The question that Fleming has asked himself umpteen times since is, would he be dining out on the story as often if Shane Warne had actually snared the slips-bound rocket that ricocheted off his hands? Would it be better to have two genuine hat-tricks or one and two-thirds, involving perennial media magnet Warney?

“The conclusion I’ve come to is that I don’t reckon people would’ve remembered it as much if Warney had actually taken it,” Fleming says. “Real cricket fans would know I took two Test hat-tricks, but by him dropping it and Warne being that famous, a lot more people know that, don’t they?”

Like most retired sportspeople, Fleming talks about his cricketing career openly and freely. Since then he’s become a father, I wonder how that experience compares to the highs of representing Australia? “You just can’t compare them,” he says. “The daily joys of fatherhood and hopefully grandfatherhood is going to be there for the rest of your life; whereas playing for Australia was a seven-year period.”

We’re sitting in a café in Ashburton, with people milling all around us. There are no interruptions for autographs or “are you the guy who …?”. The past is clearly safe where it is, but the present is full of promise for Fleming. The conversation covers as much of Fleming’s current gig as a commentator as it does his time as one of Australia’s spearhead quicks.

It was earlier this year that the surprise verdict was delivered by current and former players that he was the most popular cricket commentator in the country, edging out even ageless legend Richie Benaud. Fleming loves the work, and takes it seriously.

“Even now I’m still looking to improve,” he says. “To take it different levels, to be more entertaining, to give a better insight. So I’ve got my commentary goals, as I had my cricketing goals.”

Fleming could happily talk about the vagaries of commentary all day, but that won’t do. One thing I’m eager to tell Fleming now I have the chance is that I’m sorry, but just like the song goes, I don’t like cricket, oh no. And I don’t love it, either. I used to. I have more fond cricket memories than I do of football. I have memories of blokes in colouredpyjamas running around under lights, playing well past my bedtime, with big blazing batsmen – Deano! – and gangly West Indian quicks going at each other.

I have memories of some poor Kiwi bloke being called a wanker, whatever that was. Memories, too, of tension and drama and a whole stand mirroring the every move of a hefty bloke with a mo. I have bloody excellent memories of cricket. Now, it’s grim-faced whippets with reality-TV girlfriends also selling me undies and cricket bats and turning a triple-century knock into a seven-figure sponsorship. Where’s the fun in that?

Damien Fleming’s room-mate on that first tour, in 1994-95, says the fun has gone the way of the facial hair. Former Test selector Mervyn Hughes was recently quoted as saying “facial hair brings the best out of the players”.

“When I played, a lot of people had moustaches – David Boon and Graham Gooch [former England skipper] both had lovely moustaches,” Hughes said in The Telegraph. “They are just going out of the game. I firmly believe it should be brought back. I would like to see the guys with moustaches, beards, goatees, half-beards and half-shaved heads.”

Despite being an admittedly “odd couple” in their hotel room – “I never said a word in my first few years and he was the loud extrovert” – Damien and Mervyn have found accord over the years. While the pair were “the messiest guys of all time” in the Australian team, they have forged a fraternal bond. Hughes is now “like an older brother”. “I’d trust him with my life. He’s the most honest, polite person I’ve played with.” This tender bromance notwithstanding, Fleming happens to agree with him on the point about a little extra growth going a long way.

“I totally agree with Merv,” he says. “We’re a mullet short, we’re a goatee short, we’re a Boonie moustache short. And for me, I’d rather it come from the quicks. When you talk about the characters, how many characters are batsmen?”

Fleming is obviously biased towards his kind, the bowlers, but overall he’s philosophical about the state of cricket. To put it bluntly, they had more fun back in his day, but they make more money now: “I suppose nothing’s perfect. They make millions of dollars now, whereas my era was quite well off, the era before got nothing.”

Is it as simple as declaring the current-era professional compared to a semi-professional and before that amateur sport? “It was probably semi-professional in my time in terms of money. I don’t think we were any less professional in our training. We still had to sacrifice a lot. You had to drift away from from your mates a bit because you were playing cricket. But at least there was a culture where it was OK to celebrate.

“I remember we won an Adelaide Test at 11 o’clock one time and we knew we’d be able to drink for the rest of the afternoon in the dressing rooms, then go out and celebrate in public, as well. We’d pick a pub, we’d celebrate with the punters. So the punters loved it. We were out there doing our thing. And then you travel and you train hard.

“With fines and all that now, that’d be just asking for trouble. I don’t think it’s really the players’ fault that it’s less fun. It’s the standards within cricket Australia and the standards within the public. It would be all through the papers now, wouldn’t it, because everyone’s got a phone.

“I can tell you the younger players coming through still love it. If you talk to older players who have started playing in premier leagues around the world, they’re out there in the field going ‘Who are my teammates? What am I doing this for?’ It’s just money.

“Whereas, if you ask a lot of young players, they still want to do it. You’re still playing for your country, and I think that Test cricket has still got that feeling to it. It still means something to play for Australia.”