Modest Expectations – Hadrian’s Wall

We both have had an injection of the vaccine against the Virus this past week. My wife received the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine, having been slotted in because of a vaccination cancellation in the general practice, her earlier booking having been cancelled when vaccines were diverted to Melbourne during its last outbreak.

Because of my complicated medical history, I was placed in the bureaucratic imbroglio of being allowed by government to seek a recommendation from my doctor to receive the Pfizer vaccine. You know, the new definition of infinity.

The problem is there is not enough Pfizer vaccine in this country at present, but there is another problem in the supply chain. While in one area there is a clamour to have the vaccine where the freezing facility is bare; in others there is vaccine to spare; needing an arm in which to inject. So, it is a game of chance when distribution is a mess. Serendipity kicks in, and I was fortunate.

There is this disconnect between what the politicians announce what happens on the round.  RPAH for example, was swamped by people under 50 wanting  Pfizer vaccine. RPAH and ST V’s are just not mass centres. Their level of communication is minimal or non-existent, as they refine and then refine again the definition of infinity.  It is the place where two bureaucratic streams playing in parallel meet.

Yet the professionals on the ground are very good, given the tedium that any mass action, whether it is testing or treating, with long hours – their remuneration is not questioned, but the same task.

For those tossers in marketing, the injection is not a jab. They should know it’s a small prick in the arm without residual pain or tenderness. Morbidity after the first injection of AZ is reasonably common and anecdotally the severity varies from a day or two of “unwellness” to a need for hospitalisation. This is unrelated to the much-hyped problem with clotting. I suppose the reaction should take comfort in knowing that this shows the vaccine is working.

Still, I was lucky to be able to receive a Pfizer vaccination. Having unsuccessfully contacted multiple sites to try to get a vaccination, and having received no assistance from the Government sites, I managed to get a vaccination when there was one unused from a vial and because I could get to the location quickly.

I was told as I filled in the Pfizer form that the second dose, unlike the AZ vaccine, is more likely to provoke side effects. The paperwork is detailed, and one question I was asked would have most people scratching their heads. It enquired about mast cell disease. I would imagine most people do not have a clue about mast cells. They are important tissue cells involved in the first line defence against inflammation and infection. They contain both heparin and histamine and stain blue (basophilic), but mast cell diseases are rare, although often severe when it occurs. Maybe those with the disease know when they are asked the question.

But why ask it in this questionnaire? Apparently in people with mastocytosis, Pfizer vaccine can trigger an anaphylactic reaction. Somehow, unlike the AZ furore, it has escaped the eye of the experts or media. Nevertheless, on a slow news day…

There is one very deep problem in the messaging. To try and shift responsibility, the politicians and the bureaucrats say if you are troubled by the prospect of the vaccine side effects, talk to your doctor or pharmacist;  when English is not your first language, that message invariably will cause confusion. The confusion also arises because of the messages to stay home, isolate and get tested – conflicting instructions.

Some interpret the message as when they feel sick they should go to the doctor not to the testing centre. Hence, the infected have been turning up at doctors’ rooms or at pharmacies, and potentially compromising primary health care. Fortunately, it seems to be limited, but the more the message remains ambiguous, the more likely the infected will turn up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In relation to pharmacies giving the injection, the average pharmacy is constructed as a retail outlet not as a health centre. Many pharmacies are configured with narrow aisles crammed with all sort of goods. Is that the place for an injection of vaccine where there is a long form to be completed, concerns to be allayed and the need to wait 15 minutes after in case of a reaction? Even though pharmacists are used to managing cold chains, more so than most doctors, is the configuration appropriate? Yet I would ask the question of whether you would be injected in a shoe store? Well, very unfair, you say. But then I do remember when some pharmacies sold cigarettes.

Yes, an example of the relevant  pharmacy standard abridged shorn of some of the prolixity, indicates: “The vaccination service must (a)  have sufficient floor area to accommodate the person receiving the vaccination and an accompanying person, and the pharmacist adequate space (b) have sufficient a bench space  with an impervious surface, a chair and a first aid couch (or similar)(c) not permit the vaccination to be visible or audible to other persons in the pharmacy. …There must be at least 4 square metres to ensure that if required in an emergency, a patient could lie down on the ground (sic). Additionally, that there must be a dedicated area to enable the vaccination service to be provided.”

Who is to check compliance and can anybody show me where the model based on this standard is in operation?

As a footnote, I started writing this blog while Berejiklian was talking at one of her media conferences. Her first default position is to talk about herself, basically the why-are-you-so-unkind routine. “I have not seen my parent for a month.”

The second is to act as Pollyanna, which leads to mixed messages. For instance, when asked about whether people can go to the shop over the road when over the road is over the local government border, did our Gladys say “No”? Instead, she fluffed again, saying people should use their common sense and thus effectively countermanding the government order. She should understand by now that common sense is not necessarily a common commodity in the community.

Her indecision was shown so starkly in relief when the Victorian Premier and his officers fronted the media soon afterwards. There was information More concisely given; the messaging clearer, but she still talks too much – the sign of guilt of the child trying to talk her way out to avoid punishment.

She has found a new word “quash”! Ask 100 people in the street and see how many understand that word, particularly in the critical areas of SW Sydney. Each of these are trivial criticisms but there is a compounding effect.

Several days later, she did realise that fluff and Pollyanna did not work, as she seemed to try to change her persona to the Iron Woman from Willoughby. She still talks too much.

What will be her next role in front of the media while some of the community watch on? 

One for the Armenians

A crush of new cases fuelled by the fast-spreading delta variant has threatened to overwhelm Iranian hospitals with breathless patients too numerous to handle. But as deaths mount, and the sense swells that protection for most citizens remains far-off, thousands of desperate Iranians are taking matters into their own hands: They’re flocking to neighbouring Armenia.

Vaccines arrive

In the ex-Soviet Caucasus nation, where vaccine uptake has remained sluggish amid widespread vaccine hesitancy, authorities have been doling out free doses to foreign visitors — a boon for Iranians afraid for their lives and sick of waiting.

Gladys’ relatives are showing a humanitarian streak in Yerevan towards their neighbours. The Iranians have the highest COVID-19 infection rate in that area, yet only two per cent are vaccinated. The Armenians show their merchant finesse, having obtained Pfizer and AstraZeneca plus the Chinese and Russian versions, all for their 3 million population. 

Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus Augustus

When I studied Roman History, to me the best time to be around in Rome would have been in the second century A.D. (we did not use BCE). When I was a youngster, I always wondered why and how, despite all the debauchery and hedonism mixed with sadistic brutality, did Rome survive the first century after the death of Augustus.

However, from Trajan to Marcus Aurelius, it seemed to be so that Rome entered a “moral period”, with these two emperors being bookends between Hadrian and Antoninus Pius. This was the Golden age.

Hadrian and Trajan were related, being distant cousins. Trajan is always viewed as the conquering hero, who extended the Roman empire to its widest limits. Only after I visited Romania did I comprehend the difficulty of subduing a countryside wedged between the Carpathian Mountains and the Danube. The Danube is two-edged by forming a barrier between Roman troops and the Germanic tribes. It kept the latter out. Once the Romans bridged the river they had lost a bulwark. Their time in Dacia as it was then called (now modern Romania and Moldova) lasted 150 years. Even though the Romans were there briefly, the Roman legacy is the Romanian language.

My youthful romantic notion then was of Trajan the conqueror, a man steeled in the playing fields of Rome. Hadrian was the studious builder who came along and built walls, preserved heritage. Given the way history was taught in deference to our British heritage of the time, Hadrian was primarily a wall in the North of England.

Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall stretched across the northern English countryside, south of the modern border between Scotland and Wales.  All walls which stretch across countryside attract visitors, especially if they last 2,000 years.

Eighty Roman miles long (117 kms), it crossed northern Britain from Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west.

Most of it has gone now, but as we found out, meandering along beside it (once you could walk on it), this remaining wall is impressive as it indents, curves and disappears over the distant hill. In parts the wall is quite low and you can peer over the top, looking down on the undulating greenery folding into the dales. It is unnervingly peaceful now, thinking of the Roman defenders in combat against blue painted warriors, their Pictish accents incomprehensible yowling, rushing up the slopes with spears and shields.

I still have a copy of the source material, Cary’s History of Rome. It is a very dry account, packed with facts, but steers well away from Hadrian, the person.

It is said that the Memoirs of Hadrian, a fictional epistle from Hadrian in old age to Marcus Aurelius as a youth is one of the “imperishable” biographies of the 20th century. Written by Marguerite Youcenar in 1951, it was translated from the French somewhat later, and of course was not in the curricular diet of an impressionable youth such as myself.

I was to find out later that Hadrian was homosexual, a word in my schooldays larded with a snigger of derogatory epithets. Certainly there is nothing about this in Cary nor about Hadrian’s young Greek lover Antinous, who died tragically on the Nile. He was the subject of many extravagant memento mori by the grieving Emperor.

As has been written, Roman emperors seem to be divided between monsters and mediocrities, with an occasional near-genius, like Hadrian, thrown in to break the monotony. Highly intelligent and cultivated, he was a Grecophile, always a good sign in the ancient world. As emperor, he attempted to pull back from the imperialist expansion of his predecessor Trajan and wanted, as the chronicler Aelius Spartianus put it, to “administer the republic [so that] it would know that the state belonged to the people and was not his property.”

There are many monuments scattered around the Roman lands. At the northern entrance to the ruins of the Roman city of Gerasa, on the outskirts of the modern Jordan city of Jerash, there is the huge Arch of Hadrian, an entrance through which only the privileged could walk into the city. Gerasa was destroyed in an earthquake in the eighth century and was buried under sand for a thousand years, which meant that when it was uncovered, the ancient city was in reasonable condition, including the Arch.

Arch of Hadrian

Walking around the ruins of the city, the Arch of Hadrian, built in 130 AD, stands out. It is as though it is a symbol of an emperor, who was not the conventional cardboard character of a Roman emperor but that very complex character, who knew he had to consolidate his cousin’s expansionary strategy. After all, Dacia was not just expansion for the sake of expansion. The mines there were the source of gold and silver. It was one of the tasks that Hadrian had to balance to maintain a profitable empire, rather than continuing conquest being an exercise in hubris.

Oh, and by the way, Hadrian’s wall was built starting in 122 AD, five years after he became Emperor at the age of 41.  I doubt if it was a modest expectation.

Americanus Imperator

On both 11 September 2001 and 7 December 1941, the most powerful country in the world was ambushed. There is a word which has crept into the language “proportionate”. In the case of the Pearl Harbour attack, it was clear that this was a pre-emptive strike by the Japanese Imperial forces, the responsibility for the attack extending to the Emperor. The American revenge took four years, but bloodied and scarred, with 405,399 deaths, (comparable with deaths from the American Civil War) America emerged victorious; and so the myth of American invincibility was born.

Grateful for survival, Australia since then has followed America into the Korean War, admittedly fought under the United Nations banner, then almost a decade in Vietnam, and then 20 years in Afghanistan after a gap of 26 years. The results:

  • Korea – a festering stalemate at a cost of 36,000 American lives;
  • Vietnam – now a united country on the cusp of prosperity – a defeat in 1975 for America at a cost of 58,220 American lives; more than three million mines remain as the American legacy, with 40,000 Vietnamese killed or maimed since;
  • Afghanistan, 20 years – Taliban about to resume transmission, a defeat for America at a cost about 2,400 American lives (about the same number as the War of 1812 when the Americans were battling the British).

The following recent American assessment is unsurprising:

After having invested so much for so long in Afghanistan, we cannot now escape responsibility for its fate. In 1975, a U.S. Army colonel famously told a North Vietnamese colonel, “You know, you never beat us on the battlefield.” His counterpart responded, “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.” 

Indeed, guerrillas prevail not by outfighting but by outlasting a more powerful foe. The Taliban has done just that. It has not yet defeated the government in Kabul, but it has already defeated the one in Washington. Let the recriminations and finger-pointing begin. If Vietnam is any indication, the Afghanistan “blame game” could roil U.S. politics for decades to come.

Ruins of Afghanistan

The revenge for 11 September had thus been blown up. Anyway, 15 0f 19 conspirators were Saudis, and the Saudi royal family were allowed out of the country with the blessing of the Americans at about the time of the attack. Revenge needs a target, and a target was confected and 20 years later the Americans are farewelling the battleground of the Hindu Kush, defeated.

I would not bet on when the next exercise will occur. After all, there is always a need to use all these bright and shiny new weapons. Interesting to see the latest war exercise in Australia (take note) concentrating on a sea-land attack. Reminiscent of a World War scenario, but how relevant to modern circumstances?  War games have a periodicity, and as long as advances in technology are subverted for such activities there will always be more wars, with the armed forces increasingly bearing less of the pain, it being transferred more and more to the civilian population caught up in each particular war game. I only hope that Australia does not get a home game.

Japan – In Search of a Hill

Alan Talbot is a remarkable fellow, remembered as a self-assured Pommy kid who descended on my school. I didn’t know him well at school, but I recently caught up with him. He had a life as an accountant; mine was in medicine. I found out that he and a school friend, just after the last term of school, went walkabout in northern Queensland, with little if any money, quickly aborted.

From a young age Alan was a venturer, on show when he was at school in England where he rambled across the Lake District, and scaled Scafell Pike, in a very busy and varied trip. He has written about this and Mt Fuji in a book published last year called In Search of the Hills.

It took many years before he struck out on his mountain adventures as an adult. One of these was taking a break from a conference in Japan when he decided to climb up Mount Fuji despite it being October. The mountain was closed to tourists, with ice and snow on the climb. Alan was warmly dressed but hardly in serious mountain gear.  When he reached the point about halfway up where the road ended, he noted the signs said “closed”. Nevertheless, he noticed a Japanese guy exercising beyond the border – running up and down. He, as Alan tells it, was only running up and down 50metres or so; but that was sufficient encouragement for Alan to follow him over the border.

Fortunately, he had started early, and the mountain just encouraged him upwards. Once started, the mountain beckoned him to the next outcrop; to the next patch of scree. On the way he found a discarded parka, which although too small, gave him some protection for the climb to the summit. Once, he reached the summit, he walked around the rim, which was about a kilometre, meeting a troop of mountain climbers, who had climbed up the tougher approach but with a permit. They were shocked to see this person in little more than warm clothes.

Even if they may have disapproved what could they do with somebody who was loping along with the exhilaration of being at 13,000 feet (3,620 metres). It took him six hours to go up the mountain, where he spent one hour and then three hours to go down the way he had come. He, blackened with scree, emerged into the carpark to the astonishment of tourists who had come to see the base of the mountain in the fading light which provided a perfect vista for him as he climbed down the mountain.

Alan just did it, without any fuss.

So different from our experience when we decided to follow the instructions in a Michelin guide to go to Mount Fuji and learnt that what appears as a few lines in a book is in fact not just a matter of changing trains seamlessly and ending up with a picture book view of Mount Fuji.

We had gone to Tokyo at Easter. It happened to be cherry blossom time, just over its peak, but still providing a delicate panorama of white and pink blossoms.

Cherry blossom at Chidorigafuchi Park, Tokyo

We stayed in the Imperial Hotel, but the reason for doing so is another story. We were lucky to have a room in this hotel because it is always full at cherry blossom time.

Japonisme had its genesis in this and other portrayal of Japanese flora. Cherry blossom in full bloom is a magnificent spectacle because there is something in the delicate colour and the nature of the blooms which exemplifies that beauty is so fragile. As the blossom is buffeted by nature, it quickly loses that bloom of youth – once robust in its white and pink announcement that a new life has arrived.  Then the petals fall and accumulate as white and pink detritus on the pavement. The blossom clings, a thin remnant, until eventually it is gone.

However, if cherry blossom defines Japan, then so does Mount Fuji. If you travel by bullet train to Kyoto and you are on the right side of the train you see it briefly arising amid a landscape of poles and wire, industrial drabness and clustered houses which were defined by Pete Seeger’s song, increasingly long ago.

We decided that we wanted to see Mount Fuji close up and we had this Michelin recommended route.  The hotel concierge was polite and suggested mildly that the recommended way was complicated. “Understatement” is a Japanese characteristic rather than saying why do it.

The result was a confusion of trains. We had Green Passes equivalent to first class (the very fast Nozomi bullet train was excluded). So the train out of Tokyo on the Kyoto line was comfortable enough, fast enough, excellent by Australian standards

Mt Fuji in the mist

We had to change at Kawaguchiko where we transferred to a private railway which zigzagged its way through the gorges, past picturesque Japanese villages to Gora, where the cherry blossoms were still a filigree. It was slow and rickety, and by the time we got to there we had yet to see Mount Fuji. Then we had to board a funicular and then cable car railways as we wended higher up the mountainside and then down to Lake Ashinoka. We strained to see Mount Fuji as we rose and fell on the mountains and then  on the colourful lake ferry. Surely we would see the mountain now, but no, it was blanketed in mist.

The problem was when we arrived at the other side of the lake, where normally a bus would take us back to the railway station to board the Tokyo train, there was a huge queue of people and no buses – well very few with an officious little man determining who was given a seat. This was the problem in Japan when matters go wrong, and there is nobody to speak English; with signs comprehensible only to the Japanese. There are no concession to the visitor.

Sunset had come and gone. Everybody was concentrated on getting out of the cold and into a bus. A sprinkling of taxis arrived and at last after two hours one was within reach.  We piled in unceremoniously, me waving my stick to indicate both determination and disability. Two young Guatemalans joined us, crammed into the back seat; and off we went into the night. At last we arrived at the railway station. Tokyo thankfully was now within reach. The station was surprisingly sparsely populated, considering the melee we had left. One Nozomi rushed past without stopping, but eventually a train did stop.

The concierge had been right.  The route we had taken had successfully blended “tortuous” and “tortured” into an unforgettable day. Symbolic of this had been that part of the journey above the Owaki-dani, the valley from hell, where the steam bubbled through the cracks in the volcanic landscape, the air was pungent with sulphurous gases, Lucifer not far away.

We had not seen Mount Fuji, but we knew more about the train lines of Japan. In fact we were to use the Green Pass only five time traversing Honshu. I wished we had had Alan Talbot with us; he would have destroyed any barriers.

Mouse Whisper

Queixo ou Queijo

Now make sure you don’t get your chin in your cheese

When you are dining with the Portuguese.

Portuguese Queijo

Modest Expectations – Eleven Squared

One of our most extraordinary journeys across the USA was our drive from Los Angeles to Denver. Our first stop was at Furnace Creek. Several years before we intended to drive there, but Los Angeles was cut off by an unseasonable storm which dumped a load of snow around Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Mountains, cutting off the route to Death Valley.

This time it was on the cusp of summer and it was about a five hour drive straight after clearing customs and picking up the hire car following the flight from Australia. The drive was a little arduous. It takes a seemingly endless time to leave LA behind. However, it was a necessity as it happened to be the last day that the resort at Furnace Creek remained open before it was due to close for summer.

Death Valley

Death Valley has always been one of the hottest places on Earth, and even then was not open over the summer months. We had time to look around and feel the dryness and the heat, but hardly the temperature being experienced at the present time. Furnace Creek, where its temperature is measured, sits at 58 metres below sea level in the Mojave Desert.

As The Washington Post noted this past week: the third massive heat wave in three weeks kicked off in the West on Friday, Death Valley, Calif., soared to a searing 130 degrees. If confirmed, it would match the highest known temperature on the planet since at least 1931, which occurred less than a year ago. Friday’s 130 degree (54.4c) reading comes after it hit 126 degrees (52.2c) on both Wednesday and Thursday. It’s predicted to reach as high as 132 (55.6c) degrees on Saturday and 130 (54.4c) on Sunday. Night time lows may stay above 100 (37.8c) until the middle of next week.

What with the Pacific Northwest temperatures last week, anybody for climate change denial? What was that about coal fired power stations now?  I’m beginning to believe that nobody who is due to shuffle off the mortal coil should be allowed to vote, so much have we stuffed up the World.

But wait, there is more; from The Boston Globe describing the wettest July on record:

Flash flood warnings, tornado alerts, heat advisories, and of course, rain, rain, and more rain. Hey, whoever’s in charge here, we’d like a refund, please. We were promised Hot Vax Summer, but instead, we’re getting a soggy slap in the face. Couples who postponed their weddings because of COVID find themselves dashing to the church amid downpours. Families gathered for overdue summer reunions are enjoying more together time than they bargained for. Restaurateurs eager to make an extra buck on outdoor dining are chasing runaway umbrellas.

I doubt if this will feature on the National Party dashboards.

Information in the Soot

Neanderthal Man

I am indebted for the inspiration for the following blog to a review in The New York Review by Tim Flannery of a book just published entitled: “Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love Death and Art” by Rebecca Sykes. I have quoted from it.

Rebecca Sykes is a young Welsh palaeontologist who has spent a great amount of time in the south of France scouring the caves for signs of Neanderthal life. She is an inveterate writer and this book, which has attracted wide recognition, is her latest opus.

What I found especially interesting was the concept that soot on the cave walls can be used as a clue to age.

Fulginochronology was established three years ago as a scientific method. It is an advance in scrutinising our ancestral navel that has not been given much prominence. It involves the study of miniscule stratigraphic layers of soot on cave walls. The fossil soot build-up is a microscopic barcode printed on the walls of the cave. Each single bar line represents one specific moment of burning, around a hearth in a cave. These timelines can be read to create a chronology of events within the cave as different groups of Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens came and went. The technique has been used in the Mandrin Cave in south-east France and in the El Salt caves in Eastern Spain.

Esoteric, yet important in defining the life and times of Neanderthal man and their interaction with Homo Sapiens, and the overarching question of hybridisation. It is fascinating to think that those people roaming Europe are increasingly thought to be a hybridisation of the two occurring about 40,000 years ago. The discovery of skeletons in Europe dating from that period shows all were hybrids. It is as if suddenly the hybrids took over Europe at that time.

The concept of fulginochronology intrigued. I look forward to reading the book, once our copy reaches Australia. The question I would like answered is how do these data fit into the assertion that the Aboriginal people have been here for 65,000 years, in effect predating any hybridisation event. Maybe we need a bit of fulginochronology, Tim, in places like the Jenolan Caves.

The Cave of Niaux

We had always wanted to see the caves at Lascaux with gallery after gallery of images of animals, all painted in the Paleolithic period by the Magdalénians about 15,000 years ago. Sealed at some stage during this prehistoric period, they lay unknown until accidently discovered by a group of boys in 1940. Opened in 1948 to the general public, it took only 15 years before the caves needed to be closed to the public because of the damage being done by the carbon dioxide in the expired air of the tourists. There were up to 1,200 tourists coming through each day, including Picasso who, on seeing the art, said that we had not learned anything new. Thousands of years later the skills of the artists were there for all of us to see.

It is suggested that, at that time 40,000 years ago with abundance of food and the benison of tranquil weather in that period, these people had time for developing artistic talent and then marry it with a spiritual philosophy – and the appropriate alignment of such thoughts within their environment, the equivalent of the feng-shui of today’s interior decorators.

Very few people are allowed in to see the paintings, but it is one of the only shows in the world that I would use “my ticket of influence” to see, if I had one. There are at least three Lascaux facsimiles, as there is another depicting the caves of Altamira near its site in Cantabria in Northern Spain. There problem with facsimiles is that, although the reproductions may be excellent, they are not in context. The paintings are of animals, in particular bison, auroch and horse seem to dominate. The colours resemble the ochre colours of our Indigenous people and largely they are drawn using iron and manganese-based pigments. Carbon is used, but apparently not in the Lascaux paintings.

The Altamira caves were discovered in the nineteenth century, and they are almost as well known as those at Lascaux. However again, these caves were closed to the public as of 2002 for much the same reasons as at Lascaux – damage from expired carbon dioxide and the fact that opening the caves up induces changes in the temperature and the humidity so that lichen and moss overgrowth is occurring on what once were plain stone walls.  All of these factors contribute to the deterioration of the paintings.

The entrance to Niaux Cave

This is where the Niaux Cave comes into the discussion. For some reason we were actually discussing cave paintings and the frustration of not being able to see any of them. We were travelling around the foothills of the French Pyrenees, which is a long way from Lascaux but over the range in Northern Spain were the Altamiras.  We had stopped at Foix, a hilltop town and over coffee, we found out we were close to the Niaux Cave. So we drove down and there it was, a majestic entrance which would not have been out of place on the front of a cathedral, a line of steel poles guiding us down the mountainside to the entrance. As we found out the number at any one time permitted in the cave is limited, but we scraped into the afternoon quota.

Descending into the cave with head lighting, walking along a board walk knowing that there were shadowy forms of stalagmites and stalactites strewn along the way, the sound of dripping water, squeezing through and crouching low at several points to progress, it could have been difficult, but mostly it was just a stroll.  On the walls the headlights showed a series of glyphs – what may have been signs – and some enigmatic lines of red and black dots along the opposite wall.

We came to an area where pathways crossed. Then we found we were climbing a steep rise into what we learnt later was the Salon Noir. It was about half a kilometre from the cave entrance into this pitch black area. Here we stopped and were instructed to turn out our lights. Even in the pitch black, you knew you were in a large space with a sense of high ceilings. It is strange that this feeling of space did not require vision. The group surprisingly was silent, just outlines alongside me.

Then the guide turned on the light and there were the images of a bison and ibex, lines of black on a rust tinted wall. Time was limited. Photography was prohibited. Once the light was turned out, that was that. Sure, they illuminated the salon to show how domed the chamber was – the acoustic quality of the chamber was tested.

Niaux cave painting

There was hardly time to absorb the images; if we had been in a facsimile of the chamber, we would have had more time to view the images; even be able to photograph; there would not have been the conservation restrictions. Stepping forward, we now have virtual reality technology, so in future we will probably not be restricted to one gallery, but be able to see the whole complex through the eyes of the palaeontologist, being able to stop, rewind, fast forward – see more than we did without the discomfort and cost of being on site. We could be force fed a commentary; and with such devices able to store the memory, not even have to remember. Just press a button, and there they are, remarkable images in a virtual cave

I have seen many Aboriginal rock paintings on site; they tend not to be in the depth of caves, but then again if the mining industry continues to blow them up with the connivance of government here in Australia, it just becomes an academic matter. I have been privileged to see some of these paintings, but I admit I have not trekked for days to see them if there’s been an opportunity to see them in a book, in a museum, or on film.

So why do we do it?   Why trek to some cave? For me, it is a sense of a different space, each of these spaces is unique, and the fact that where I was standing some artist a few millennia ago was viewing his or her masterpiece, but at least he or she had control of the flame to show what had been drawn for me to see. My time was limited to wonder at the genius of these drawings deep in a cave where sunlight could not reach.

Tartuffi not Tartuffe

Lockdown is tedious, but that is the strategy which has worked to curb the spread of the Virus if properly policed and where the community is compliant. It is essential, and there is no point looking for scapegoats. You can fine them; you can penalise them within the confines of society norms, which no longer believe that stocks and pillory are acceptable, but in the end lockdown is group punishment.

It was in this context and realising it was the season for them, we decided to purchase a truffle. Our prime epicurean son who unlike us lives in free range Australia agreed that the best truffles in Australia do come from Manjimup in Western Australia in a season which extends through winter to early spring.

Snuffling a truffle

So, we purchased a substantial fresh truffle which was delivered, vacuum packed, a few days after it was ordered. The package contained a note from the Truffle dog that snuffled it out of the round. As she said in her dog-eared note, Gaby warned us never to get in her way when she was hunting.

These truffles are related to those found in Périgord, and we noted that ours has fine white lines running through it, the sign of a good truffle. This morning it was time for scrambled eggs with visible slices of truffle, not the normal dark sprinkled confetti when you order any eggs allegedly with truffles in that local posh breakfast establishment.

Needless to say, the online shopping outlet had a truffle slicer for sale. Now how could one resist the temptation to buy this vital everyday requirement for the kitchen? It was a handsome, if somewhat terrifying serrated stainless steel implement. What was interesting to me was this affettatartufi in acciano inoz con manico in pallisandro (stainless steel truffle slicer with a wooden handle) was made not in China but in Italy.

Although France is associated with truffles, the most expensive ones are the white truffles found in Piedmont and Tuscany. Their prices can approach $10,000 a kilogram (whereas the Australian black Périgord truffles retail for $2,000 a kilogram). The white truffles are scarce, partially because nobody has ever been able to cultivate them. Needless to say, there is all this palaver about their smell and taste to justify the lengths to which people go to find these potato-shaped fungi.

The truffle slicer was what intrigued me to find out more, because it was made in Italy by a firm which has been in this sort of business for a long time – Sanoma Ambrogio. Perhaps I am just showing my ignorance, but then is that not the reason for pressing on – to show how much you don’t know?

Ambrogio Samona was the founder of the firm, which bears his name in reverse, which still manufactures its high quality product in Premona, a mountain municipality north of Milan. Here in the surrounding mountains iron ore has been mined for millennia, but Premona came into prominence in the Middle Ages because many of the iron workers were lured to Venice, and there was apparently an exchange between the two.

Originally settled by the Romans as a castra in the first century, but as is known the Romans were not great metallurgists and used brass in preference to iron. Steel-making was known for a very long time when the early metallurgy-minded noted that adding carbon to the smelted iron resulted in steel, albeit as a boutique process, used from the middle ages – mostly for armaments. There were Premonan artisans in the Venetian arsenal from that time onwards, making arms for battle, including sword blades. The best steel then came from southern India, and how they produced it has been lost; but in the Middle Ages there were also renowned steel makers in Damascus. The technology spread westwards.

Steel increasingly switched from being the accompaniment of war to that of the butcher and the kitchen. This firm, which provided our truffle slicer, was founded in 1863, and built up an international reputation so it has not only survived but also diversified.

Stainless steel came into use when it was found that the addition of chromium inhibited rust. Now the steel used by Sanelli has many additives, vanadium, molybdenum and others like spices in a kitchen so that the knives of Sanelli are just as much a symbol of Italian excellence as Bugatti or Versace, Gucci or Bulgari.

Amazing what you find when you read the outside of the truffle slicer box. And mark my words, this Tartuffo is not, dear Molière, a Tartuffe – it is the real thing.

The Stubbornness of Scott Morrison 

On 25 June, the AFR, the cheerleader for the Sydney business community, ran an Editorial entitled “Let’s hope NSW can hold out against lockdown”. Its opening lines were “Sydney remains on a knife edge”. Correct. Then it commends the Premier for keeping her nerve and not locking down the State, “leaving citizens to do the right thing themselves”. Then it goes on that line, “It is a proportional response, says the Editorial writer, whatever that means. This crap is in the same league as “We are taking the matter seriously.”

The Editorial accepts without much conviction that NSW has the best contact tracers on the planet, a claim made by Berejiklian to shore up her initial decision not to lock down Greater Sydney and the Illawarra. By saying that, she may not have recognised the potential damage she has done to the credibility of contact tracing as part of the armoury against the Virus.

This idea that lockdown infringes civil liberties and is Orwellian socialism as contended by the Liberal Party flakes in Victoria ignores the fact that the Virus does not read Hayek when that State was locked down. This neoliberal approach is the sort of dangerous twaddle that has accelerated the pandemic across the globe. Victoria had to deal with its outbreak before a vaccine was available. There’s no need to stir the embers of the disastrous decision making in relation to the choice and purchase of vaccine, which have resulted in the present level of vaccination in Australia. Australia just needs more, both in quantity and in diversity.

While accelerated vaccination provides a security blanket, there is no clear indication of long term efficacy of any of the vaccines. Vaccination provides a level of protection that is an important retardant in the spread of the Virus, even with its cleverness in its ability to change. The uncertainty is attested by the way the timing of the second AstraZeneca vaccine dose has been promoted; and there is no doubt that this vaccine has a noticeable level of morbidity as well as absolute contraindications.

Therefore, at this time and that needs to be stressed, the State Premiers have opted for suppression of the Virus, not the least because of the poor decisions made by the Federal Government and what some see as its indecision. However, it is more stubbornness in relinquishing positions that Prime Minister Morrison takes which probably owes itself somewhat to the rigidity of his upbringing. Maybe that is too sympathetic and just say Morrison has poor judgement.

Tracing the contacts

What worries me is that the contact tracing capacity becomes a casualty – a scapegoat for political indecision. I have been a severe critic of Kerry Chant as I thought the handling of the Ruby Princess was a disgrace and smacked of political interference. As Chief Health Officer, I assumed that she bore responsibility, but others closer to the action said it was not her fault, and she had minimal involvement.  If this was so, it was even more an indictment of  NSW Health.

A year on and implicated in a pandemic disaster, where politicians are essentially fearful of making difficult unpopular decisions, Dr Chant retains her job, with a tenacity and determination to pursue the Virus. I suspect that when her advice was for lockdown, it was ignored because of her reporting to a Premier whose neither makes  difficult decisions nor accepts responsibility when things go wrong. Worse, she had a Health Minister who, at one point, was advocating waving the white flag and saying we may have to live with the Virus, even though Australia has low levels of vaccination.

Hence the very visible presence of Kerry Chant, who could have resigned as I suggested and who would have to be blamed given the continuing scrutiny of NSW having to live with the tag of being the gold standard – a very two-edged foil when a catastrophe occurs.

Just ask Brendan Murphy, who at the beginning of the year was the hero of the pandemic, ACT Person of the Year and now the subject of rumours that the bus is being revved up for his demise. Certainly, his exposure has lessened as the Prime Minister seems to have taken over his role with a new military sidekick called Frewin and no sign of Dr Murphy. Fortunately, Paul Kelly still appears, but how much he is listened to is anybody’s guess.

Kerry Chant was given the title of NSW Woman of the Year in 2020, in effect binding her to the NSW Government and more particularly to the artful Premier. She therefore walks that narrow corridor where a person has to defend her scientific integrity while working for a Government at any moment liable to throw her whole strategy out the window.

It is the same dilemma that Fauci faced with Trump. Having to resist those who want to let the Virus coexist. “Let it rip”. Report of another minister in relation to the northern beaches lockdown that  she should take a cut in salary because the Virus had escaped is denied, but from my long experience, such reports are not magical – there is always a source. The dark art of undermining. Then there has been the unfair twittering about her wiping her eye with her mask – an instinctive reaction for which she apologised immediately – and then her crooked glasses (one arm of her spectacles inadvertently broken while she was being interrogated by the media). For God’s sake!

So here I am, championing Kerry Chant. What I fear is that everybody has limits, and I worry how close she is at that limit no matter how great her inner toughness. The contact tracing system is a vital defence mechanism, for the pursuit of the Terrorist Virus. Her devotion to the cause has revealed a steel I did not think she had.

One thing is certain is that singling NSW out as “gold standard” just because it has the same political complexion as the Federal Government, has to  stop.

All it does is invest Berejiklian with “teacher’s pet” status, so cessation hopefully will discourage the Prime Minister from continuing to plant wedges in the population. The disgraceful infantile behaviour of the Liberal Party opposition during the Victorian lockdown contrasts with the maturity of the NSW Labor Opposition response in supporting the government.

Perhaps the discussion may turn to ensuring that there is a uniform contact tracing system across the country, rightfully using NSW as a one of the models to be emulated. The problem with suggesting that quarantine and the processes surrounding it are a national responsibility comes against the stubbornness of the Prime Minister – or is it only stubbornness?

Mouse whisper

A sobering introduction from the May 25 New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) editorial. 

When the IOC postponed the Tokyo Olympics in March 2020, Japan had 865 active cases of Covid-19 against a global backdrop of 385,000 active cases. It was assumed that the pandemic would be controlled in 2021 or that vaccination would be widespread by then. Fourteen months later, Japan is in a state of emergency, with 70,000 active cases. Globally, there are 19 million active cases. Variants of concern, which may be more transmissible and more virulent than the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, are circulating widely. Vaccines are available in some countries, but less than 5% of Japan’s population is vaccinated, the lowest rate among all Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development countries.

I’m probably glad that I was not selected for the Rat Run. Perhaps after this Games hopefully the motto will still be Citius – Altius – Fortius, without Aegrius being added.

Modest Expectations – My Brilliant Career

“There are known knowns — there are things we know we know,” (US Secretary of Defence) Rumsfeld said in February 2002, when asked for evidence that Saddam Hussein tried to supply weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. “We also know there are known unknowns — that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Donald Rumsfeld

It was 120 years ago today that Miles Franklin’s novel My Brilliant Career was published. Let me say it was a brilliant title, but the brilliance of its content has always eluded me.

I have a very tenuous connection with Miles Franklin by staying over Easter one year at Brindabella Station, where Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin spent her early years. She was 16 when she wrote this melodramatic piece of Victorian passion, the choice between the bloke or the brilliance. Initially rejected, her book was taken up by Henry Lawson, who took it to England where it was published.

We were invited to the Brindabella station by the then owner Richard Carleton. The station lies to the south of Canberra amid the Brindabella range. The Goodradigbee River flows through the station. Carleton’s ashes were scattered on the river after his death in 2006.

Carleton was an avid fisherman but, knowing him, it was the prospect of owning a famous piece of Australiana that would have been high on his agenda in purchasing this property. Richard Carleton was a complex, highly intelligent, outwardly affable but emotionally taut person. That weekend at Brindabella I unfortunately upset what had been a relationship of mutual respect, and for a period in the mid-seventies, when I had fallen from grace as it were, he had been one of my Canberra associates, who proved not to be fair weather. So, the station was one of mixed memories.

However, that is a different tale from My Brilliant Career. Several years earlier, the film of the book of the same name had won international acclaim.  The tension between marriage and career was a relevant theme at the time in the seventies transitioning into the eighties.  The film’s director, Gillian Armstrong, had been a young Australian at the outset of a successful career as a film director; the film’s heroine was played by Judy Davis, who has played “mood indigo” so very well in her long career.  The hero was played by Sam Neill, who as usual played “Same Neill”, which he does, as always, so well. The success of the film gained the book and the author, who had died in 1954, belated recognition. Franklin is a minor author at best. Her link to feminism and her foresight in setting money aside for the annual eponymous award for “the novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases” – the award first presented in 1957 to Patrick White for Voss – has vaulted her into a position of literary eminence.

My Brilliant Career was the only novel written by her or under pseudonyms, which gained her the recognition during her lifetime that she craved.  Phyllis Rose, in an essay in The New Yorker written after the release of the film, was very critical of the novel, saying it was over-written and in fact what would have been expected in an immature person. Phyllis Rose reported that Franklin herself would later refer to it contemptuously as a girl’s book, tossed off in a matter of weeks (10), written out of ”inexperience and consuming longing”. It can be noted that Franklin prohibited its re-publication until at least 10 years after her death in 1954.

This was a somewhat different interpretation from that of Jennifer Byrne who wrote, in a foreword to a later reprint, that “the young author was stung and refused to allow My Brilliant Career to be reprinted for decades”. Allegedly this was due to controversy caused by its publication because of the aspersions cast upon certain characters in the novel, which was presumed autobiographical – presumably it was seen a betrayal of the bunyip squattocracy.

The book is very much “Come on, Goodchum, we must be going” – interspersed with the heroine’s interpretation of home teaching: “I calmly produced my switch and brought it smartly over the shoulders of my refractory pupil…but bringing the rod down on the table, I threatened to thrash every one of them if they so much as whimpered.” Nothing like a bit of domestic violence to remind the reader of its relevance to modern day.

Miles Franklin

The photo of Miles Franklin dressed in black with a matching bonnet is that of disdain and withdrawal. There is no charm in this woman. She is still young, but the image in the photograph is not that of a young woman with an umbrella tucked under her arm like a swagger stick. Judy Davis, in her portrayal, converted this cardboard woman to that of a recognisable feminist in period costume, full of smoulder and volcanic dormancy. Judy Davis was The Brilliant Career.

Why have I identified a link between the Rumsfeld Quote and Miles Franklin?

Rumsfield, in his response set down, established a quadrate for whatever reason, but presumably at least as a clever conceit. He mentioned “known knowns”, without an example, but for him presumably his date of birth would satisfy.

Then he mentions “known unknown” and gave as an example the weapons of mass destruction; but given what later transpired – the lack of these weapons which he knew about, but we mug punters did not – was an example of an “unknown known” (in this case deceit). He did not mention this option in his quoted response – the “unknown known” – and it seems nobody thought to ask him why he left it out.

Finally, for him as with us still alive, “the unknown unknown” at the time he made this statement was that he did not know the time of his death.  However, for us that survive Rumsfield, his death has become a “known known” (29 June 2021) – trivial though it may be.

I have never thought much about Miles Franklin, although her contemporary Australian female authors dominated my childhood – Mrs Aeneas Gunn of We of the Never Never and Mary Grant Bruce and Ethel Turner; their books were all in the cousins’ bookcase; I remember Katherine Prichard’s Coonardoo as a year 12 book, which I loved at the time, despite it being compulsory reading.

I started off from square one in this pursuit and took the text from Rumsfeld, which typified his “look-at-me” approach; “I’m smarter than anybody else, you stupid interviewers”, and yet he left out one of the squares of his quadrate. Why he did this? Who knows?

The more I have read about Miles Franklin, the more intriguing the person becomes. As with Phyllis Rose, I thought her writing in places unintentionally hilarious. Her writing may also be self-conscious and stilted, but that is not what makes her intriguing, especially when she was searching for that brilliant career which later, in 1946, when she wrote it, “went bung.” But did it?  Her working in the Balkans as a volunteer cook during the latter part of World War 1 was one instance, and her observations in the summaries I have read are brilliant.

The late Jill Roe spent most of her academic life at Macquarie University, concentrating on the life and times of Miles Franklin. Hers can thus be said to be the definitive biography of Franklin. Like Franklin, she grew up in the country, she at Tumby Bay, a fishing village on the Eyre Peninsula where the leafy sea dragons frolic in the nearby gulf. Unlike Miles Franklin, Professor Roe was able to resolve her sexuality and undoubtedly did have a brilliant career, judged by her baubles of success.

The more I have thought about that brilliant title, the more I see it portrays the essence of what Rumsfield was saying, even if he did not know what he was saying. As Jill Roe herself once said when accepting another piece of Tudor fancy dress from Macquarie University, “that is what I shall be arguing!” Brilliant title or brilliant insight?

What beats No Trumps

(Two Trump biographers) both said the indictment of the Trump Organization comes during what appears to be the company’s most difficult moment since Trump’s financial crash in the early 1990s.

During that period, Trump found himself hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and lost control of prized assets — including an airline, a yacht and New York’s Plaza Hotel. His business empire did not fully recover for a decade, until Trump gained television fame and made tens of millions as the star of NBC’s “The Apprentice”. 

The financial picture for Trump today, based on his government disclosures, is dramatically better than it was then. On his most recent financial disclosure form, Trump reported around $300 million in income for 2020. But experts and former employees say the reputation of his brand among consumers and potential business partners is arguably worse. 

Barbara Res, a top construction executive at the Trump Organization from 1980 to 1998, said Trump was already facing a problem caused by his political career: His company is still built around the old gold-plated luxury brand, aimed at wealthy urban dwellers and tourists. But his political career alienated most of that demographic. Now, Res said, “most of his [company’s] brand talks to people who are not his supporters.”

This is a somewhat different angle on Trump. The Brand Trump and the Political Trump are increasingly dissociated according to this former insider.

The Brand Trump will take a battering if the prediction is proved correct. When he was President, the Brand and the Political merged. Now that he is not President, his only political ploy is to keep saying the election was rigged. His mind is consumed with revenge and pillage. That is the basis of his residual power – he maintains his harness on the dark recesses of the American mind. He has turned illusion into hallucination. Yet negativity only has a limited life span, and therefore for Trump political success is vital.

Brand hedonism played out to gated communities does not respond well when his Political Brand is continually depicted as pitchforks and mob harangue. His Brand constituency should be looking around for somebody else; the Brand has been jolted by his electoral loss, and his refusal to go away. However, it is easier to believe midterm election success next year is the last shot in maintaining the sharpness of the pitchforks.

As I have said repeatedly, Trump is old and the decay is showing. His survival from COVID-19 was helped by an array of drugs, unavailable to his own constituency, and he showed resilience despite years of poor diet, obesity and pig-headedness. Nevertheless, that episode will have taken its toll, especially with a brain already fraying at its cognitive edges.

America is a violent society. That is a known, and Trump is known to fuel such violence. This community violence is mirrored by a propensity for political assassination. The unknown is whether his continual provocative antics will entice someone mad enough to emulate those who have gone before as political assassins:  Using the Rumsfield quadrate, “E Ea Ignota”.

Thus the “known” is, in the end, that Trump will fall from grace, whether by violent death, natural causes or just because to be demented and maintain authority he would need to be installed as Pope. The demise of the demagogues from that of the Gracchi brothers in Ancient Rome is a known fate. In the case of Trump, the unknown is to know how long it will take; and whether when the head is gone, the lumpenproletariat body will survive.

The Long House

From childhood I have always been fascinated by the wild men of Borneo, comic strip characters associated with jungle fantasy.  In my childhood, most of Borneo became independent from the Dutch in 1949 with the establishment of Indonesia, but there were enclaves along the coast, which remained part of the British Empire for about a decade longer.

One of these was Sarawak which, from 1841 to 1946, was the fiefdom of the Brooke family, the so-called White Rajahs, one of whom was the model for Josef Conrad’s “Lord Jim” – a book I have started so many times but never completed.

To me Sarawak was always distinctly exotic for three reasons – it is the home of the Orang-utan, shrunken heads and the long house. Inevitably when mention is made of these latter two, the talk is of Dayaks – the sea Dayaks to be more precise. These fierce Dayaks were the models for the wild men of Borneo.

We had made one of those on-the-spur decisions to spend time in Sarawak – it was around Easter time. We flew to Kuching, the capital.

I had been especially interested in the long house concept and have wondered whether it would be a useful model to be adapted by  Aboriginals. Having seen the living conditions of Aboriginal people in various parts of Northern Australia, where the community has close links with one another, it always seemed to be that the suburban house design with conventional rooms was never appropriate for Aboriginal living.

Therefore, when we were offered the opportunity to stay at a long house in the jungle up the Sarawak River from Kuching, we immediately accepted. The means of getting there was the distinctive Iban long boat without a paddle but with an outboard motor.

The long house was perched on stilts close to the river, access being by both a narrow concrete staircase on one side and a ramp on the side where the ablution block was placed. The slope of the river bank was steep, but we noticed there was abundant horticulture. Rubber trees were growing further up the slope, as were pepper vines (we soon learnt that the best pepper in the world came from Sarawak). There were even pineapples.

All around to show off the lush vegetation were red, yellow and variegated cordylines, slashes of colour in this tropical garden. No wonder Sarawak has been a botanist’s paradise.

Inside the long house

It was the inside of the long house which intrigued me. Down one side of the house was a stretch of poles, which defined the sleeping quarters, low platforms with a basic foam mattress and individual mosquito nets, hung away during the day. Outside access was provided via doorways with canvas flaps, a convenient way to go to the toilet at night, although the literally potential pitfalls of the broken concrete pathway posed their own challenge en route. As for other hazards, there were the roaming community dogs.

The long house owners were our host, sea Dayaks, small leathery friendly people, the men covered in tattoos.  We the guests were us two and a group of young Germans. The kitchen was located off the main area in the “apartments” of each family, and we were invited to participate in preparation of the meal, which was fish and pork, rice cooked in bamboo. Our job was to clean the bamboo leaves.

In the evening, there were demonstrations of Dayak culture – women and young boys dancing and then suddenly an older man with hornbill headdress stepped up. Our guide whispered to me that he was his uncle, the headman. He was recognising my presence by the hornbill dance.  Hornbills presage purity and strength and it is how the Dayaks communicate with their ancestors.He was according me a great honour.  Whether it was always regularly performed to recognise the oldest visitor in their midst, I was still “chuffed” by such a spontaneous gesture. The next morning, I did not justify such an honour by failing miserably in using the blowpipe.

Reflecting on this visit to the Dayaks’ long house and having stayed in Aboriginal settlements on several occasions, notable was the lack of organised horticulture in the latter. We whoever, whitefellas, have imposed our buildings on Aboriginal lands – the missions, a sign of permanency for whitefellas.  The difference is the Aboriginals foregather on their own land and move around within that space.

I remember driving into Beswick, a settlement in the Northern Territory, and seeing this lawn of green shimmering in the distance, it suggested horticulture. As we came closer it turned out not to be cultivation, but a layer of flattened VB cans covering the earth – just outside the boundary of this “dry” settlement.

Aboriginals know their flora, as shown by the myriad demonstrations of “bush tucker”. For example, I was shown  at one settlement where they knew the bush potatoes were growing, they had their digging sticks – but it was not a matter of deliberate cultivation. Why bother when there were no competitors and the potatoes came back in the same place every year.

In their kitchen, the Dayaks had large terracotta amphoras where they stocked their rice. There was minimal evidence of western tinned food; they lived off their produce and where they did not grow the commodity, they bought or bartered in bulk. The Dayaks had their own spices, in addition to pepper, which they used in every dish which was served.

There were no cans of beer.

We were very glad that we stayed in the long house, which we had always wanted to do –and it provided us an insight into successful communal living.

Confusion

Israel backed the Pfizer vaccine, and was prepared to pay the price; Australia, by not accepting the Pfizer price, is paying a different price. Moderna was never in the equation.

The great unknown is what are the deals, the kickbacks, the political and bureaucrat beneficiaries of the AstraZeneca (AZ) preference and purchase; and the various consultancies handed out to the Government mates for vaccinating the sector of the health care area they directly control – those who come under the aged care and defence portfolios. Not knowing what the conditions for the various deals were, yet knowing that there is effectively no scrutiny that will yield any immediate information, how can the community know what the hell the outcome will be?

The AZ vaccine, in a community which is unused to death by COVID-19, has received a far different response than that of its spiritual home – Great Britain, where there have been overall 125,000 deaths (the last figures available still showed 27 deaths in a single day).  Over 1,000 people have died there in a single day.

Whereas in Australia there have been 910 deaths overall, a large proportion of which were in Victoria in August/September last year, but not one since late October last year. It is thus unsurprising that in Australia every death from a reaction to AstraZeneca will be magnified; and there is rumbling in the community about how ill the AZ vaccine makes some of us feel.

Thoughts, drifting like soap bubbles …

Once the view that the government has something to hide, “gets traction” then the stigma sticks.  Here this adhesive is on the AZ vaccine. The Government seems to have little idea at times when the mRNA vaccines will become available, given the different dates being put out. Therefore, we have a range of fumblers, braided or in mufti, wheeled out to fill in the air space without saying much. Thoughts drift like soap bubbles, never reaching terra firma. The business community, medical students, paramedics are all to be enlisted into this gigantic national initiative of jabs and feints, and more jabs and more feints amid a cascades of thought bubbles – in a country with not enough vaccine.

The Prime Minister talks about phases to fill the black hole of failed policy. And thus it will go on – the strategy being to treat us as fungi – and stupid fungi at that.

The one thread which has showed as the ray of sunshine is the strength of the contact tracing system within Australia which, despite the Berejiklian wont for hyperbole, is probably among the best in the world, a fact acknowledged by Dr Chant to be due to the work of Sue Morey, who was her predecessor over 20 years ago. I wonder whether she will get as much acknowledgement that the Government has accorded other great humanitarians who have saved our country, even if it did take Victoria a considerable time to recognise the fact last year.

But even contact tracers get tired, especially if their political leaders act like buffoons and prematurely loosen restrictions or continue to leave the current bodgie hotel quarantine in place. Every potential outbreak is started by Mr or Ms 00.01% in the Prime Minister’s quarantine system.

As a postscript, it seems that the Treasurer is the last shot in the government locker, with his rallying call of the business community to marshal their workers. The strategy is anybody’s guess, but if the incentives for vaccination are free sausage sizzles and frequent flyer points, then these are in the league of offering axes, beads and mirrors.

The worry is that of filling in the policy void with public relation burble. as substitute for organised action. This is dangerous if there is no concomitant systematic collection of data when there are so many variables. Jane Halton bobbing around, with commentators on her report obviously having not read it, providing gratuitous advice does not help. “People coming home fully vaccinated need not quarantine” – given your Tampa experience, how do you police that thought bubble given this apparent Damascene conversion to open borders for Viral refugees?

Big English Guinea Pig

Uncertainty abounds; the long-term efficacy of the vaccines is anybody’s guess. There is already talk of the need for a booster; imminently Prime Minister Johnson’s initiative to sweep away all controls leaving vaccination as the only defence in the United Kingdom. Australia should watch England as the Big Guinea Pig, before doing anything precipitous.

Finally, the symbolism of the General and the Treasurer leaving the meeting of the business representatives two days ago should not be lost on the wider community. The General put on a mask immediately; the Treasurer did not.

Mouse Whisper

He was musing there, leaning on his cane, stuffing his face with cheese and wine, oblivious of my crouching beneath the table enjoying the messy Stilton droppings which were raining down around me. I always enjoyed such murine canapés.

“You know” he said to the Mop lounging in the corner of the room, as if that were his only audience, “I would not be standing here if my ancestors had not survived the Black Death.” I thought that was one way of defining survival but – looking up at him – hardly of the fittest.

 

Modest Expectations: Try a Tray in Troy, the weight is 3826

The portrait of Abraham Lincoln arrived yesterday from America. Unlike much of unframed portraiture, it did not arrive rolled up, but flat, ready for framing. The portrait is a dark image of Lincoln, with a red tear falling from his right eye.  This red drip became a widened red smudge over his shirt and bow tie. There is a red drop on his left cheekbone – a weeping stigma for a country that lost its nobility for four years.

“Abe laments”

This is not the Lincoln of the Washington Memorial, a commanding white seated statue carved in Georgia marble which, as one approaches it, becomes increasingly dominant.

This is a dark image.

The portrait is subdued as if located in the depths of American despair, the expression more sad than horrified, shedding a tear for his country. America is used to carpetbaggers and within the list of undistinguished Presidents, there have been the usual complement. Before Trump, Warren Harding was generally agreed as the worst President by the level of corruption which blossomed during his tenure, cut short by his death before completion of his first term. When all the details of Trump’s machinations come forward, some of which may have to wait until he dies, then Warren Harding will probably appear to have been overseeing two-bit chiselling.

A day after I received the portrait, this terse comment came by email from a Lincoln Project operative:

“The line between what America should be and what the dangerous edge of a radical anti-American movement wants us to become has never been clearer. 

Our mission is to defeat the sick, poisonous ideology of a growing authoritarian movement and expose the co-conspirators, enablers, and funders for their attempts to destroy American democracy. 

This is what we have (to do to) stop Trump’s return; McConnell’s Senate takeover; McCarthy’s retaking the house

It’s all on the line. This is the mission.

Because if they win, America ends.”

The Lincoln Project was founded in early 2020 to go after Trump. The core were all Republicans, who had been linked to senior Republican Party figures, carnivorous apparatchiks united in their distaste of Trump. They were certainly not idealists as more recent revelations have shown. Nevertheless, they are important players in the Republican movement, as long as they survive the questions being recently raised by the Trumpians against some of their founding members.

As The New Yorker stated in an article just before the Presidential election in October last year about the purpose of the Project:

Republicans have always invoked their connection to Abraham Lincoln, the Party’s first President; the Project sought to weaponize it. On February 27th, several of the founders appeared at Cooper Union, in the East Village, where, in 1860, Lincoln delivered an address that urged the containment of slavery and the preservation of the Union, propelling him to the Presidency. His speech began with “the facts”; in his conclusion, he said, “Let us have faith that right makes might.” Exactly a hundred and sixty years later, Wilson (one of the Project founders) stood at the same lectern that Lincoln had used and invoked a tough-guy monologue from the vigilante movie “Taken”: “We have, as the great political philosopher Liam Neeson once said, a particular set of skills—skills that make us a nightmare for people like Donald Trump.”

I made a trip to the United States in 1977, after the American public had unexpectedly elected Jimmy Carter, and when there was a wholesomeness about American politics trying to scrape away the Nixon Legacy.

There I met senior members of the Ripon Society, named for the place in Wisconsin where the Republican Party commenced. This Society had been the first element within the Republican Party that came out in support of the civil rights movement in 1962.  In 1977, it then was still differentiated from the neoliberal approach with which the gradual rise of Reagan was beginning to dominate the Republican Party. They had been in the vanguard of rejecting Barry Goldwater and his zeal in wanting to privatise everything, even the Tennessee Valley Authority, and his view on “law and order” as a means of suppression rather than protection of civil rights. Goldwater did not go so far as to encourage mob rule and the disintegration of the American polity, but he was the harbinger of it. Thus, the mildly progressive utterances of the Ripon Society within the Republican Party were overwhelmed – drowned.

The Lincoln Project is not a rebirth of the Ripon Society. The Project may say something about policy, but it is focussed on attacking Trump.

As an example of the “attack dog” approach, quoting again from The New Yorker, “The Project’s strategists metabolize news quickly enough to create spots within hours, or even minutes, of an event. In June, after Trump timidly descended a ramp at West Point, and struggled to lift a drinking glass to his mouth, the Project combined footage of the appearance with other videos of him looking feeble, and released “#TrumpIsNotWell”. The viral spot subjected the President to one of his own tricks: he mocked Hillary Clinton when she stumbled in 2016, and constantly suggests that Biden is senile. Trump was soon wasting time at a campaign rally defending his ability to walk and to drink water.”

These are thus disaffected Republicans with all the tools in trade. They have powerful friends in the Republican Party that existed before the Trump takeover and are now isolated by the populist lumpenproletariat that is the Republican base, for now.

These Lincoln Project guys are no idealists, no saints, and the recent concentration on its leading figures suggests that some of its leaders have unsavoury pasts, to say the least.

One is an alleged paedophile; and two of the other funders have been accused of siphoning money from the Project into the business. If this is so, then it reveals a systemic problem in the Republican side, whether pro or anti-Trump. The Lincoln Project notwithstanding has fought back against the allegations, and there is an accusation following an “independent” review of the truth of the above that there is an underlying smear campaign being mounted by Trump allies.

The battle rages. The Lincoln Project videos tear at the kleptarchy heart of Trump and his allies. Some ask, why persist, since Trump no longer has the real levers of power to endorse his ongoing criminality? The Lincoln Project disagrees in a mixture of above and below the belt rhetoric. The possibility of The Project being an electoral spoiler for Trump must give him a great degree of concern.

It ain’t pretty, but then neither was the storming of Democracy that occurred on January 6 in Washington.

Whyalla?

When I first heard about Sanjeev Gupta and his plan to be the saviour of Whyalla, I then expressed doubts to my wife. She looked at me, having read a distillation of his recent antics, and said my comments four years ago were hardly that mild.

Yet Gupta secured a promise from the previous South Australian government for $50 million which, in the grand scheme promulgated by Gupta, is “bugger all”, except that it was taxpayers’ money. Gupta was juggling a billion dollar commitment underpinned by Credit Suisse both through Greensill financing and directly to revamp the Whyalla steelworks, the biggest employer in the city.

Whyalla steelworks

Now four years on, Greensill is being investigated for fraud and in the words of the Financial Times, Credit Suisse was “not willing to accommodate its once highly valued client”, namely Gupta. Increasingly he is running out of friends, but continues to press the Government for a guarantee to raise further funding.

Gupta is in deep, and the question is, will the South Australian government give him a paddle? Government, having been sucked in, is probably trying to extricate itself from the labyrinth, but to save face may just be tempted to throw more money into the project “to save jobs”. It would not be the first time that private enterprise has milked money for governments with this type of blackmail. The one saving grace may be that it was a different government – a government of the workers – which provided the initial offer of $50 million. But it is not that long ago that car manufacturers walked away with billions of dollars having promised to save jobs in that industry; South Australia was right in the middle of this fiscal misadventure.

Gupta is one of those charismatic characters who obviously speaks with honeyed tones, played on an ostentatious lifestyle.  He has made a habit of acquiring tired steelworks in rust bucket cities around the world. There is always the promise to renew, to resurrect, to restore – and politicians, seeing their constituency vanish or turn against them, become Canutes. They build flimsy walls of paper – subsidies, grants, favourable legislation, which inevitably dissolve in the face of superseded need and technology.

Unfortunately, we have a political culture of survival of the dim-witted corrupt lulled by a torrent of subcontinental sweet talk. It is so easy to take the perks and do nothing except to pray with a forest of outstretched arms that nothing will happen, and all this change will just go away in some miraculous rapture.

Whyalla should start reinventing itself. After all, it has lost its ship building industry and the future of the steelworks is perilous – some would say on life support. The iron ore mined locally to feed the steelworks is low grade magnetite and, in a country which produces nearly 800 million tonnes a year, these mines in South Australia contribute only 10 million tonnes.

Whyalla lies on the Eyre peninsula, an inverted triangular zone bordered by Spencer Gulf and the Southern Ocean. It is a wonderfully diverse area. From these surrounding waters over 60 per cent of Australia’s seafood catch comes. On land there is both an arid and arable zone; below the meandering yet accurate Goyder Line, the predictor of mean rainfall, divides saltbush from wheat.

Whyalla is saltbush.

Giant cuttlefish

Yet Whyalla was originally constructed as a port, and near an iron ore deposit, once considered significant now dwarfed by the Pilbara.

It has a uniqueness – it just happens to be where the ever-changing coloured giant cuttlefish are best seen for three months each year as they mate. Spencer Gulf may not be the Great Barrier Reef, but it has a sea profile populated with exotica – the blue groper and sea horses, as well as the giant cuttle fish – that renders it an attraction for snorkelling, recreation, tourism. At the same time it is able to exist alongside the commercial seafood industry, from oysters to the tuna  found in the waters off its Southern coast. Inevitably there are tensions been ecology and pelagic farming.

In other words, between the two, with fish farming now bruited in the Gulf, Whyalla has other ways to survive Gupta.

At present there seem to be no such problems with Queensland politicians about supporting an outdated industry. The challenge is to differentiate the short term gain from long term pain. But coal is a major constituent of steel manufacture and steel manufacture worldwide has increased by 15 per cent in the past year.

It was 11 years ago that Adani came calling into the Queensland Galilee Basin, and life has changed, so much so that it is rumoured the coal from these mines is to be used in the manufacture of plastics – not steel.

The price of the Adani mines will be the water table in Central Queensland. Ironically, like the pub with no beer, Adani-sourced PVC pipes may have no water. Before that, Adani will make sure that Central Queensland is sucked dry in the pursuit of this coal for plastics. In the end, will Adani prove the Queensland answer to Mr Gupta – or worse?

Gupta has been stopped in his tracks, so Whyalla can now take a good look at its future. The “more jobs” rhetoric is vanishing in a pile of debt and unfulfilled promises. Adani has already adopted the same public relations approach in relation to the number of jobs being created in Central Queensland.

I first went to Moranbah not that many years after it had been established as a custom-built coal mining town south-west of Mackay, in the Isaac Region. Two comments struck me that I still remember: this would be the last mining town built in Queensland by a mining company; and that the newness of the town was reflected by the fact that it was yet to get its first interment. Over the years, Moranbah has kept a stable population. The cemetery is no longer pristine. There is nevertheless the need to assess here and elsewhere the number of the fly in; fly out (FIFO) miners.

The problem with assessment of the FIFO number is that counting only relates to the number on a shift at any one time, and hence the total number may be underestimated. This is the Adani constituency and, by extension, the National Party coal lobby. It is overwhelmingly male.

The population centres, which reflect the families who have settled in these small coal mining settlements, while not universal, still tend to vote for the ALP, but their vote is dwarfed electorally. The point is that a review of the voting patterns in the last Federal election shows these townships in the coal mining areas of Queensland did not uniformly vote for the Coalition.

Queensland coal

The Galilee basin is sparsely populated. Mining here is not going to lead to any permanent population shifts, especially when in the future there is no potable water available. It took four years for Gupta to unravel in Whyalla; how long will it take the Adani coal promise to unravel into stacks of coal unable to be sold; and which, by 2050, nobody will want, just another pollutant industry.

An Opportunity Missed

The objective of Hotel Quarantine is to prevent the spread of the virus from any arriving traveller who is infected into the wider community. The design, management and delivery of quarantine services is therefore critical to the achievement of this objective. However, the current system does not balance or calibrate all risks nor take decisions informed by absolute or relative risk (for example, exemption categories, transit passengers, airline crew, and the impact on people in quarantine). Report on National Review of Hotel Quarantine

Jane Halton is adroit. She conceals any inadequacies under a haughty aggressive exterior.

She is an exemplar of the person “who knows where the keys to the executive toilet are”. This art is reflected in the report she wrote on hotel quarantine – one eye on the politicians and above all one on her own skin.

It is not that the Report was badly written, but it says what her political bosses wanted her to say. It reads like a manual, listing “do’s and don’ts”, interspersed with jargon “quarantine journey”, “continuous improvement” and convoluted sentences (which reflect lack of editing) “Approaches to balancing or managing relative risk in a measured way…”

The following illustrates the unhelpful nature of the Report:

With a large number of Australian citizens and permanent residents currently offshore, the need to significantly increase arrival numbers, including for business and agricultural purposes, and the changeability of the COVID-19 situation, consideration should also be given to the establishment and maintenance of a national facility in reserve to facilitate large scale evacuations from international ports, if or when required.

As they say in the classics, “tell me something I don’t know”. No mention of cabins as Malcolm Turnbull has said Halton recommended.

However, it is not the point of this blog to parse this Report, but to highlight the opportunity missed.

October last year was a critical time for an innovative approach for quarantine, providing her with the opportunity to start mapping out a program for national quarantine, outside the hotel and home programs in place then.  She did make a last recommendation for “a national quarantine facility” which, if she had thought about it, was completely impractical in a country as big as ours. After all, her involvement in stopping the boat people had given more than a clue as to how to isolate people.

My family were infected by the Virus in early 2020, before hotel quarantine was established, and managed to quarantine at home. Two adults on testing had the Virus; the three children did not. It was a time before any mask wearing policy. They lived in a house with enough space to make social distancing possible,  with easy safe access to the outside. The family adhered to a protocol which enabled  living in the one house without becoming infected. While the family coped well, it was due to its discipline rather than demonstrating the normal home is constructed for quarantine, any more than the various designated hotels are.

Nevertheless, that family’s experience had some important lessons. The first was the cavalier way the State treated potential carriers of the Virus in the early days, which delayed the diagnosis and caused unnecessary transmission.

The second was once the diagnosis was established, the family had a makeshift environment in which to isolate the infected from the non-infected, yet maintain communication, for instance those isolated knew when to pick up food and other supplies within the house.  The house had two separate bathrooms. It all worked over the 14 days and reaffirmed the need to keep people in an area where there was both space and access to outside air. This environment had all the advantages of Howard Springs in suburbia, but clearly everybody does not have the same optimal home environment.

It was thus evident from early on that a facility with easy access to outside air would be the best solution. The initial evacuation of the people from China confirmed that.  Halton mentions only the Howards Springs facility (25 kilometres from Darwin) and the air base at Learmonth (1071 kilometres from Perth). She fails to mention Christmas Island, where there was a large facility which had taken a first group of evacuees from China successfully quarantined and then only housed four refugees with a platoon of gaolers.

While it is still fashionable to isolate people in the middle of a city, because of the specious requirement to be close to a major hospital, Halton should have considered whether a custom-built centre should  provide either a preventative barrier or a treatment centre or both. To be close to the major teaching hospital suggests that people are confusing this primary role of preventative  quarantine centre with a locked down holding facility for Virus sufferers. For me, the expectation is that those requiring quarantine would be predominantly healthy individuals or even the infected having mild symptoms. There is scant information about the number of those infected in quarantine, who require hospitalisation, and of those, who require intensive care. There is nothing to suggest it is other than a very small number.

She sets out a flow chart of the various steps in the current quarantine process, but she does not explore the vulnerability of such a flow chart, where every step introduces a process where something can go wrong – in some cases, catastrophically.

Unfortunately, she used a piece of data which gave the Prime Minister an unreal optimism about the process. “Since implementation of mandatory hotel quarantine, 851 travellers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 during their quarantine period; a positivity rate of 0.66 per cent.”

I have no idea why it takes so long to do anything in this country these days. Maybe it is the problem of a government so immersed in spin and looking after its mates that it has forgotten that the country needs innovative and lateral thinkers. Unfortunately, Halton is not one of those, by a long stretch.

What she should have done was set out options for what standalone facilities should look like. If she had ever gone to Toowoomba, she would have encountered the Wagner brothers. Perhaps because they upended the government’s favourite psittacine spruiker, she was discouraged from investigating the Wagner proposal. I first landed in Wellcamp just after it opened and have returned periodically since. This impressive airport facility shows what can be done by private enterprise and industry, without government handout being the first priority in the developers’ business plan.

Wellcamp and its endless plains

Wellcamp has the capacity of an international airport, as it was designed for large air freighters with the prime purpose of live beef exports.  The passenger terminal, while not the size of Sydney or Melbourne, is worthy of any international air terminal. What is equally noteworthy was the amount of land available around Wellcamp.

Having once been directly involved in the Toowoomba health care system, I cannot understand the Prime Ministerial objection about Toowoomba as a site of suitable health care. By contrast, his favoured site – now known as Damascus – was developed by the Americans during WW2 as a defence storage and is now a clapped-out warehouse facility. It is right in the middle of an industrial area of Brisbane next to the old Eagle Farm Airport. So, it is owned by the Commonwealth … but what has that got to do with efficient quarantine arrangements?

If there had been some concern about involving the private sector in fighting COVID-19, selected for being mates rather than expertise, then the platoons of large consultant firms receiving massive contracts have shown that funding of bespoke centres should not be an issue.

The Federal government, without reference to the Halton Report (which is excusable given the lack of consideration given to this option in the Report), seems to have given provisional approval for a Victorian facility near Tullamarine Airport at Mickleham where the Federal Government already has a pet quarantine facility. The lack of urgency and the back-of-the-envelope calculations worries me about whether it will ever be built, given that one could be excused for thinking that the main objective of this government seems to be looking after its mates rather than the community.

If the Halton Report had seriously dealt with this matter, rather than it being a passing comment, then it would have put pressure on the timely establishment of a national network. I advocated in the middle of last year for such facilities to be built, before any vaccines became available.

Now their role is perhaps even more crucial. The speed with which the vaccines have been tested and approved is far different from the conventional approach, where 15 years developing a safe vaccine is not unusual. Here the scientific comment is changing frequently, and while the scientists equipped with the appropriate health dialect may understand what has been happening, the message to the community at large comes out as a jumble of conflicting comments.

However, what the community knows is:

  • Social distancing works
  • Vaccine works
  • Masks work

And above all, border closures work. However, this belief is shaken by breaches in the ad hoc hotel arrangements. When these breaches have caused such significant effects, it just reinforces a need for quarantine facilities where the conditions are reasonable in a self–contained system, with the equivalent of FIFO workers providing a dedicated workforce for a set time on duty and a set downtime off site. Once these are established, then Australia would be able to develop more flexibility in its immigration patterns.

Australia is not going to abandon Virus suppression. It is very much built into the community psyche because of the 2020 success, and the fact that the spread is out of control in Asia provides support for such behaviour. Countries which were held up as paragons such as Taiwan and Singapore are no longer so. The prospect of an infected Japan hosting an event where representatives of various countries with different Virus profiles will gather together in several weeks makes me uneasy, if only for the logistics of the return.

This anxiety would be less if there were dedicated quarantine facilities. The immediate benefit of such facilities would be ease of monitoring 1,000 plus people during the compulsory quarantine rather than their being scattered around the myriad hotels. If the decision is made to house the entire Olympic team at Howard Springs, then that simply confirms the need for that type of quarantine facility. Remember evacuation from Wuhan!

Time to move away from this model

In the longer run, dedicated facilities will make immigration easier, because for the foreseeable future, entry into the country will require two weeks quarantine, especially if that even more transmissible and/or more deadly putative Epsilon to Omega strains emerge.

To me custom built quarantine centres have always been a no-brainer.

You could have done so much, Jane Halton, to engender so much positivity and flair into the policy conversation. But then again that is not your style.

Mouse Whisper

When Dvorak was teaching at the National Conservatory of Music in New York, he insisted that black students be allowed to enrol with no tuition. “The future of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies,” he declared.

What this quote was referring to was the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony and the choral adaptation “Going Home”. Among the many of those who have sung this, only the great bass, Paul Robeson, has moved this mouse to tears.

Moreover, my fellow mice, of whatever colour you may be, listen to the second movement of this extraordinary work. The melody is played on the cor anglais. I had always thought of Robeson being akin to the bassoon, but so much of his voice is embodied in the warmth and richness which is the cor anglais.

This instrument is not often given the solo role that the Bohemian genius gave here, a genius who perceived the Open Door through which we all shall pass in Going Home – and not just from the New World.

Modest Expectations – Organesson

After not being given sufficient time to explain my remarks re Brett Sutton last night on Q&A what I wanted to explain is that he is not an Epidemiologist and it is on his medical advice to Govt that we continue to have shut downs. If I have offended Prof Sutton my apologies.

Q&A is a pulpit. A woman called Susan Alberti AM, AO, AC, a stepping stone queen of Order, developer extraordinaire, professional philanthropist and general Liberal party lady about town cast a nasty aspersion against the Chief Medical Officer of Victoria, Brett Sutton, on that ABC program this past week. She said he was not a doctor – a sotte voce interruption when Tom Elliot was in full flight. Now I have never watched Tom Elliot, because he is a Melbourne phenomenon, or perhaps I have had enough exposure to his father to last a lifetime.

However, I was directed toward this excerpt of the program, which I rarely watch. It brought back memories. Here Mr Speers was conducting this meeting of the Coalition with a guest from the Opposition.  He seemed to be acting as President of this newly-formed Q&A Branch of the Liberal Party, where Tom Elliot had been invited as the main speaker. I had heard of this chap as he was at university at the same time as my offspring.

I had known his father from his days at the University of Melbourne, where he was several years behind me but had a refreshing Baptist School old boy attitude to beer, billiards and of course fags, however defined.

It was refreshing to hear all the nostrums with which his father used to amuse us. Listening to Young Tom I had never realised his father, Old John, was such a fine ventriloquist. Moreover, Old John did not appear to be in the room – what a feat.

What I objected to however was the lack of immediate correction about Brett Sutton. Speers should have stopped the meeting and corrected Alberti immediately. Even in her apology, she says he is not an epidemiologist. Well, Alberti, not all epidemiologists are doctors—and to be Chief Health Officer, he does have to have a medical degree and has had extensive overseas medical experience, just not restricted to counting the dollars in the fields of Dandenong and Hallam.

Her sidekick, The Moroccan Soup Bar kid, Hana Assafiri OAM, had chimed in at the same time with the same comments, but also scrawled some sort of an apology: “unequivocal apology on getting your title wrong! The intention was to convey that you are not simply a doctor, that you heave (sic) a wealth of expertise guiding this state through the pandemic. Obviously didn’t translate the way it was intended.” I do hope, Hana Assafiri, that your pigeon pastilla does use icing sugar not iodine – sweet not bitter taste on the pie.

Stop the frolic! David Speers as a balanced chair of an ABC program, I’m afraid you are a disgrace. Full stop.

And as for Susan Alberti, my total contempt, made worse by your awkward misstatement, which is in no way an apology.

Dr Brett Sutton, Chief Health Officer

Brett Sutton is the hard man; he is one who is identified with the lock up strategy, whether fairly or unfairly. The above comments are not the only ones floating around about him. In crisis situations, you need hard men and women who can differentiate self-interest from legitimate criticism; who have a clear view of the end point. Often a lonely job.

Toilers from Homes?

A cognitive scientist by training and a working mother, has been warning about the unintended consequences of workplace flexibility, including the mental toll on mothers who still do the brunt of the housework.

The scientist stresses that managers can’t just leave it up to workers to figure out the right balance. Companies, for example, could decide there are certain times when everyone is in the office as a way to head off problems arising on work-from-home days when employees are out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

Employers could also decide not to schedule meetings at certain times of the day — such as before 9 a.m., between 3 and 4 p.m., or after 5 p.m., allowing parents (note change from above) to make school drop-offs and pick-ups, and to prepare dinner.

This expresses concisely the sentiment for developing a hybrid model of working both at home and in the office that has become the preferred option for services where front of house or on-site physical activity are not required. This describes much of the so-called gig economy.

The quote above concentrates on women to the exclusion of men.

The hybrid model is constructed with women in mind, given they inevitably are primarily responsible for children and the domestic arrangements, which all need to be sustained when she is at work. It also recognises the increasing number of women at all levels of bureaucracy – they are not just the stenographers of yore. Nevertheless, for many women the nature of their work does not give them the option of a hybrid model of remote work.

So the tug-o-war now applies to the bureaucracy however defined and be it public or private sector, responsible for delivery of product without need to be on site. The recent addition of teachers to that group as “remote learning” becomes easier to set up is an added complexity.

However, does the person in the street benefit when seeking advice or resolution of their particular concern if the hybrid model becomes generalised?

The problem is in the implementation of what could be construed as “new” bureaucracy. For the person who, by the nature of his or her job, requires a large amount of time to think, create or write, the wish to work without distraction is understandable. After all, Silicon Valley is always quoted as that – of having the libertarian approach to workstyle.

But even here, to quote a CNN source: The tech industry might seem well-positioned for remote work indefinitely but it has also spent years building a culture of collaboration and innovation that it will be loath to give up, spending untold billions on huge offices and perks like free food, gyms and nap pods that convince employees to spend more time there than they do at home.

But this above is not conventional bureaucracy nor is it one which is female dominant. Or is it just the vanguard of a “new” bureaucracy created by the pandemic where a larger proportion are women?

It may be reasonable to postulate that most people working at home have a need for ongoing communication – in no way different from working in the office.  Thus, “rules of engagement” need to be clarified. The last paragraph of the cognitive scientist’s assessment needs better definition. There must be discipline imposed on the environment where children need to be picked up and domestic duties resumed. Does domesticity take priority over the requirements of the job; one unpredictability being illness in the children – as one of my colleagues once said, “young children are bags of virus”.  It is here that the father is introduced into the hybrid model discussion.

This is the contingency which needs to be addressed if working at home is accepted as part of the hybrid model. These gaps need to be patched in the structuring of rules. In the office situation, employees take carer’s leave, or sick leave to deal with these situations, or negotiate short working days.

As soon as rules are established there will be exceptions. If the rules become the subject of an industrial award, work flexibility becomes beset with the legal rigidity of industrial contracts – with the temptation of putting in place “one size fits all”.

The problem with work flexibility is that communication becomes increasingly difficult.  Over the years, unless you happen to be the person of influence, to get in touch with “the responsible bureaucrat” in the office can be bad enough, but away from the office can be a nightmare when you want urgent resolution. There are so many reasons for having a day off and thus the decision-making is even further delayed or even forgotten.

When this is added to the actions of paranoid Government departmental heads who seem to keep their staff on the move until the corporate memory becomes totally attenuated and thus is finally lost. Then “the wheel has to be re-invented” and the same mistakes are liable to be repeated.

How many times have I had to face bureaucrats with no sense of what has gone before; who are unaware of what works and what doesn’t work? That is the problem with much of bureaucracy when it loses its corporate memory – there is a tendency to start the same process all over again, especially when there is a change in government.

Now introduce into that mix working from home without rules.

How often do you try to contact a person only to be told he or she is working from home? This is said in the sense the person is incommunicado until he or she returns to the office. The person may as well thus not be at work. So, if working at home becomes accepted as the new norm, then the bureaucrat needs to be contactable at home and must be prepared to sacrifice the privacy of the home as an “inviolate castle of domesticity”.

Where flexibility of the hybrid model is maintained alongside strong productivity, I suggest it is due to the leadership – what Max Weber called “charismatic”; but such leadership is difficult to sustain, because so much of the work pattern is determined by the leader, and the quality of that leadership. The charismatic leader leads, and then does the hybrid work model revert to a bureaucracy? I am not sure that the hybrid model has longevity; because long term “charismatic” leadership is the exception in the life of any bureaucracy – longevity is not its strong suit.

A somewhat sarcastic Bartleby opus in The Economist suggested that working from home on a Monday or Friday is a joke. On the latter day, as Bartleby writes, managers may call to listen out for tell-tale signs of the beach or golf – a comment, both sexist and ageist. Bartleby’s point is made about ageing men.

Yet if the hybrid model becomes an object for gaming and maximising “slacking”, then the above article has a set of tips. If hypothetically two days at home working are allowed, then there are ten combinations – and Monday and Friday may just raise suspicions, if not hilarity. Again, gaming is not restricted to one sex.

In the end, like the cognitive scientist’s thinking, I suspect the office environment will win out against the hybrid model, because as the final paragraph of the opening quote implies, the home environment will breed conflict within the job framework – unless the office can be made totally separate and distinct from “the hearth”.

Yet there is at least one more elephant in the room, and that is the increasing resistance to people coming into the office with an upper respiratory infection. I suspect that a population which has come through lockdowns, mandatory masks and forced compliance will be less tolerant of anybody who challenges the health of the office by coming into work, even with a common cold.

More thought needs to be given to childcare services provided under the aegis of the State to mirror the new workstyle of those who need to use them.  It is worth more than an addendum to an apologia or not of the work hybrid model.

Schools work on fee-for-term model, so that the fees make allowance for absences. When I was chairing a childcare co-operative, until that “term” business model was adopted, then the income of the childcare facility suffers from the vagaries of domestic problems – child illness being a big slice of that.

With the increasing discussion, albeit demand for a hybrid model, then childcare services usage may have to change to reflect that change in work practice.  That is another topic to be explored in a future blog, when reminiscing over personal experience, admittedly many years ago, which nevertheless may still provide productive comment.

I knew it well, Dunmunkle

As I promised, I write my take on the three towns which once were the three Townships of the Shire of Dunmunkle in the Victorian Wimmera, north of Horsham.

I used to know this area reasonably well since I was asked to resolve an issue around the delivery of health care in the 1980s at one of these townships, Minyip and went back over the next decade or so. The other two townships are Murtoa and Rupanyup. Minyip traditionally is a Lutheran town, part of the Protestant German diaspora which is layered across Southern Australia from the Barossa Valley to the NSW Riverina around Albury. By contrast, Rupanyup has Scottish Presbyterian heritage and Murtoa, Irish Roman Catholic.

Rupanyup lies on the Dunmunkle Creek, which flows into the Wimmera River. Murtoa lies on the major Melbourne-Adelaide railway line. Minyip is surrounded by wheat cropping, and once was on a spur railway line.

The Stick Shed, Murtoa

Watching the “Backroads” program on the ABC, I was fascinated by one item, and wondered why I have missed it. The second was the fact that Murtoa was ignored while, the program concentrated on Rupanyup and Minyip. That puzzled me, especially as the most interesting item in the program was the huge Murtoa grain store built in four months during World War 2 at the end of 1941, which is the only one left in Australia – the so-called Stick Shed, because it has 560 mountain ash poles supporting a galvanised iron roof structure, the building spread over four acres, and held up to 92,000 tons of wheat. The sloping roof was built in the way wheat grain naturally stockpiles itself. A majestic bush building but working inside must have been a major industrial hazard.

The other puzzle was why Murtoa was otherwise ignored. After all, it was the birthplace of Mary Delahunty, one of the most well-known ABC faces and the ABC tends to identify and remember its own. Therefore, the puzzle is why the program ignored Murtoa until almost the last frames, given that it is also the biggest of the three towns.

The tactic of the “identity” is the method of packaging the half-hour program, which inevitably gives a caricature of rural life; so different from the rural program “Landline”, which is genuinely informative about rural life. In fact the segment on Rupanyup, which is the one township struggling to survive, concentrated on chick pea production and its diverse uses, and could have as easily segmented into “Landline”. This diversification into pulse legumes around Rupanyup starting in the 1980s with field peas extended to many of the other crops, in particular lentils and chick peas, the latter most visible in the supermarket in the form of hummus. But what does that have to do with Rupanyup, the few views of the township are a tableau of peeling paint and empty shops?

I got to know Minyip when they closed the local hospital in the late 1980s and replaced it with a community health centre, which for many years had the advantage of continuity in its administration. The closure of a hospital, even a small one as happened in Minyip, made me realise that when you close a small hospital, as I have written “it is like a death in the family”. The community traditionally was born and died in the hospital. When services are rationalised even when a community health centre was constructed and proved to be excellent, the community’s grief can be underestimated.

I suspect it is less so now, presumably with dilution of the Lutheran influence. After all, in 1935 the congregation decided to move the Lutheran church with dimensions of 16 x 8.5 metres including the 19m high bell tower, 50 tons in all, a distance of 10 miles to Minyip. The congregation jacked it up onto a 12-wheel jinker and by means of a steam traction engine moved it to its present site in the township. The trip took three days. Would it happen today?

Moving the Lutheran church in 1935

The other anecdote worthy of note was in the early days of settlement when they decided to put the shire hall in Minyip, the Murtoans came across at night and took it to Murtoa. Minyip retaliated by taking it back, in a clash of the jinkers. Then it burnt down; and for years there was a residual animosity between the two communities.

Generally, the animosity or rivalry, however defined, is worked out on the football field. In 1995, with a declining pool of players, old grudges were forgotten; the Murtoa and Minyip teams amalgamated and the jumper was redesigned to absorb the colours of the two football teams. Rupanyup has been the outlier, in that its football team dropped out of the Wimmera League and down to the Horsham and District league.

The other characteristic of townships such as Minyip is that they provide cheap lodging, and therefore the problem of the traditional farming town becoming a refuge for welfare recipients and again as the community ages, the elderly members are loath to leave and they retire into towns. These towns become wellsprings of rural poverty.

At least that was my observation when I was a frequent visitor. At the time I wondered whether this continued to feed the sustainability of these tiny townships. There were pockets of rural poverty scattered across rural Victoria. The extent of the poverty could be titrated by their closeness to provincial centres. Whether that holds now in these centres, I know that for other small towns with which I have been closely involved in the intervening years, the answer is probably yes, but immigration and other social movements have changed the 1980s profile of some of these small townships, including gentrification.

Now what was Minyip to “Backroads”. The impression given was that its continued existence due to it being the set for the Flying Doctors series, and then as a convenient backdrop for other films, The Dry and the Dressmaker. Eric Bana on the first floor veranda of the local pub was not Minyip, any more than the war memorial to commemorate the Relief of Mafeking in the main street is. They are props – but they are not Minyip.

Backroads is undoubtedly entertainment, and rural Australia does have its identities, its eccentricities but it is pity that the series provides no thread, no clues to the reasons for their survival – and Australia has about 14,000 settlements with less than 1,000 people.

The diversification of cropping – is that the reason for Rupanyup? The occasional movie set – for Minyip?

Or else is there a more general reason for the persistence of settlements that you would have suspected to have outlived their reason to being, and yet not obviously changed their role? 

El Obrero 

I have become immersed in the Portuguese language, which is a somewhat schizophrenic pursuit. Most of the teachers – in Sydney at least – are Brazilian; my initial teacher has been a Portuguese national. There is a strong representation of both cultures through the respective communities in Sydney.

Portuguese Community Club, Marrickville

Therefore, I was intrigued for us to get together for lunch at the Portuguese Community Club, which is sequestered in the industrial area of Marrickville, an inner suburb of Sydney. The club is signified by a fading sign directing our car along a potholed pavement. The club has a grass area in front of the entrance resembling an old bowling green, but the building is squeezed between two railway lines, yet access is easy. No problem parking here, unlike most of suburban Sydney can be always very problematical

Inside the club it is very plain, and those at lunch were workers, some in their steel capped boots and hi-vis vests. Voluble in exchange in Portuguese it was just what it purported to be – a working man’s club. Our group of four were the interlopers, two were woman. Our garçom was a Nepali with a good grasp of Portuguese learnt paradoxically in Australia.

The food belied the surroundings. It was superb – my steamed clams – amêijoas also with an Italian label “vongole” in the menu, followed by grilled quail with the signature vinho verde to wash the food down.

El Obrero, La Boca, Buenos Aires

The spare surroundings reminded me of another worker’s restaurant we were introduced to in La Boca in Buenos Aires. We had asked the driver if we could go to a place to eat which was typical of the “working La Boca”. He said nothing but just dropped us off in front of the nondescript building. After all, La Boca is a substantial port area, although it is known for tourists wandering the narrow streets with the gaudily painted buildings, street dancers performing the tango and stalls covered in cheap knick-knacks.  All Porteno kitsch!

So different from the unprepossessing place with the barred windows, four-panel brown door and the old washed-out Coca Cola Sign juxtaposed against the green restaurant sign above the doorway.

Such a modest entrance, but once inside, the dining area was long and expansive. The walls were covered in photographs, including the obligatory one of Maradona. From the ceiling had been hung football shirts, from teams all over the world, like an international clothes line. We were early for lunch and were ushered to a table on the side where we could see the incoming tide of workers, who quickly filled up all the tables.

The Italian influence is strong in the menu; agnolotti, parmigiana, calamari – but the carafe was the local tinto. Nobody spoke English, but in the hubbub, it was easy to indicate what you wanted. We seemed to be the only tourists there; at least we seemed the only diners to be using sign language rather than just gesticulating.

Argentine dining is associated with the parilla – the Argentinian barbecue where it is all beef and firebox. El Obrero like the Portuguese Community Club are authentic restaurants– being able to settle down into a meal which is a cultural experience can never be topped. Yet then again I wonder whether it is possible, as a tourist, to ever be authentic, the truth of which I tried to verify as I riffled through my memories of countries where I have been. I wonder how many times you have to dine in a place to be authenticated – if that is the word.

Mouse whisper

Our surname, he said, was originally ascribed as Mac Aodhadáin around the 12th century. This family are stated to be no ordinary people. They were bardic scholars and brehons – the interpreters of Irish Law. The extravagant statement that without this family, there should have been lost a precious part of Irish history. It was a name that percolated into eighteen Irish counties.

As the author of this family monograph opined “It has been said that a person’s own surname is the key to a doorway on the past. This is because one of the most interesting ways of gaining some insight into history is to follow the pathway of your own names through the maze of documents still preserved in various sources.” 

Maybe, but as I found out, my Swedish mouse relative is known as Kyrkligaråtta not Kyrkomus as written in the last blog. A genuine erråtum, I’m afraid.

Kakwkylla, venerated in Sweden as a protector against rats and mice.

Modest Expectations – Twenty of dark chocolate

Neale Daniher

Neale Daniher is a very brave man. I admire him greatly as the epitome of all that is great about being an Australian. He fully deserves the Order of Australia recently bestowed on him; he also deserves to be invested with it as soon as practical while he can still walk.

For seven years his health has progressively deteriorated. He has motor neurone disease (MND), yet he has maintained a defiance against this progressively incurable disease.  Today, he has almost lost his ability to speak. It is a terrible disease, and I know that when I developed my own disease one of the differential diagnoses, soon discounted thankfully, was MND.

The symbol for what Daniher describes as “The Beast”, with inadvertently or not its Biblical imagery, has been the ice bucket, the ice bath, the ice pool – a plunge in order to raise funds for research.

The problem is that research into the cure for motor neurone disease is at the same level as it was when I was born. Getting nowhere substantially is not restricted to MND.  I have known researchers who have spent their lives trying to develop a malaria vaccine or find a cure for Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy – to no effect. Honourable failures – the dilemma for those seeking more money for such research. That is problem personally I have in contributing money for research into this disease – poor return on investment.

Lou Gehrig

Around the time I was born, a famous baseball player died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the most common form of motor neurone disease. The disease was given his name, Lou Gehrig. He too was a brave man; a film starring Gary Cooper was made of his life. Lou Gehrig died about three years after the onset when he was only 37 years old in 1941.

Now 80 years on Neale Daniher, in his time a very gifted footballer whose playing days were foreshortened by knee injuries, is dying of the same disease. The onset of his disease was when he was 53. Over seven years survival is testimony to something innate.

Increasingly, auto-immunity is being ascribed as the culprit. Auto-immunity, the tendency of the body to destroy itself when the immune system goes rogue, is the battlefield. It is an area where the disease has been victorious up to now, particularly in the case of this disease, which causes the destruction of the nerve cells that control voluntary muscular movement.

There are a few inconclusive drugs and conservative measures which may prolong life; and as long as Neale Daniher remains optimistic, then his will to live deserves every support. After all, more than 2,000 people have the disease in Australia, and the total cost of therapeutic support per person averages out as $1m. Two are diagnosed every day; two die every day of the disease.

When there is no longer Neale Daniher around fighting against destiny, let us make sure those with this terrible disease do not die alone, paralysed, slowly suffocating. In other words, strengthen palliation, help strengthen family support but do not – I repeat – do not raise false hopes of a cure.

A muddy Saturday

This is a very simple story about a group of University students who, in 1958, won the Juniors Premiership in the Victorian Amateur Football League. It was a time when there was only one university in Victoria and therefore most of the teams that we played reflected the division between “town” and “gown”, even though the diversity of the team list reflected the normal cross-section of society. The only bond between us was a desire to play football and being under 19 we were consigned to the Juniors.

The two adult teams were the University Blacks and Blues, which were in the top grade and produced a number of players for the pinnacle, the then Victorian Football League (VFL) where you got paid. The other University team for those who just wanted a game was the University Reds.

There was a hierarchy; even as 18 year olds there were a few university students who just played VFL. which, in those days, had an Under 19 nursery as well. They were just too good to play amateur football. Many were in fact champions, not just making up the then “twenty”.

There also was the Victorian Football Association which headed a cascade of suburban and country teams where footballers who had had enough of the paltry returns from playing under the then Coulter Law in the VFL, left to play and/or coach a country team. These players would receive a generous wage and were often set up as the licensee of the local pub.

Then there were the “lily-whites” – the amateurs. In the University hierarchy, this was the place where the cohort of youngsters who were not drafted into the Blues and Blacks played. Some went straight into the top teams; some oscillated between the top teams and the Juniors.

Nevertheless, the Juniors won the Grand Final, and three members of our winning team climbed onto the roof of the University Union Building. They were said to be in a jolly state when they climbed up and affixed the Premiership flag. As one said later, they did not know how they managed to climb onto the roof given the ethanol haze that surrounded them. The flag was returned early the next week neatly folded and nothing more was said.

After that year, the team went their various ways, but one person stuck in my mind and obviously the minds of many of the others, who had known him better. He was a few years older than us and had played for the University team. He was always immaculately dressed, with his signature furled umbrella, given the grounds we played on barely afforded any shelter from the Melbourne winter. He was in direct contrast to the coach, Peter Kelliher, who was a knockabout fellow who acted, as all coaches do, with a mixture of encouragement and invective.

Ian Hamilton Munro was different. He was almost the pastoral adviser to the team – a very kind and compassionate man who was always around when you were injured, when you were having a lousy game. He was a counterpoint to the coach – one person I could always picture on the side lines – often a solitary spectator on a windswept oval.

Somebody suggested that, as we approached the 50th anniversary of the Premiership, the survivors of that year should meet annually for lunch. The first, in 2005, was deemed such a success that it was decided we would have one every year, so that has occurred every year, including 2020. This cohort, then in their youthful sixties when the lunches started are now in their eighties. Our coach, having had a stroke a decade before, was an infrequent participant from early into the lunch cycle.  The immaculate Ian Munro was a regular attender, until he fell victim to old age several years ago – and then he too was gone.

Such a small group, men now who are bonded by a football premiership gained so long ago and all accepting their mortality, has now decided to establish the immortality of their achievement and to honour their paterfamilias by donating a cup in his name for annual presentation by the Melbourne University Football Club for an annual match between the now two Melbourne University Juniors teams.

The cup is made from spun brass, silver-plated. It sits on a dark tallowwood plinth around which is collar of silver-plated nickel with enough space to engrave the annual winners for the next 80 years. It was made by the silversmiths and goldsmiths that make the solid gold Melbourne Cup each year for “that race which stops a nation” – the first Tuesday in November; these same trophy makers also create the trophies for the Australian Tennis Open; they are the last such company in existence in Australia.

Munners Cup

Ian Munro might have been embarrassed, like all good generous persons who give much, but never expect recognition. However, he would have liked the enamelled crossed furled umbrellas – one black, one blue – under his name on the trophy – the Munners Cup.

Even to us well aged, he was still always Munners – not Ian Hamilton Munro. However, that name is the cup’s pseudonym inscribed on the reverse side of the plinth. A simple story with hopefully a long nostalgic tail.

Morrison – A Description in One Word

What struck me was the stony-faced Prime Minister who had been persuaded by his Mate, Mat Cormann, to attend a West Coast Eagles match. The boos around the ground when he was introduced were universal. As part of a meet and greet in the morning, he had been persuaded by one of his consigliere, the irrepressible Mr Forrest, to partake in morning PT. It was a more typical photo-opportunity to show off his eminently “daggy” self.

He does not like to be booed. I notice that he has not turned up at any of the football matches in Victoria.

The other fact about the Prime Minister is that he is not that intelligent; yes, smart in the ways of the Molonglo swamp but not particularly well read or thoughtful. Like all people not blessed with any real sense of personal identity, he is totally versed in public relations, and therefore takes the temperature of his quarry – be it Liberal Party pre-selection or Australia before doing anything; hence he leads from the rear.

His problem, and his is not unique in this regard, is to have as the rule of thumb that you never have any Ministers and advisers more intelligent than he is.  The Prime Minister has succeeded in that endeavour, with one exception. That is the recently departed German-Belgian-West Australian, a chameleon of great skill, Mathias Cormann. There is a genus of politician who, when the master rings a bell, will argue without any shame but on cue that black is white – and too many do it persuasively, all the time knowing where the career escalator is located. Cormann has shown himself to be such an engaging man.

Morrison does not brook dissent; he just cannot take it. Part of this is explained by his reliance on a Christian belief system that does not take criticism easily. Much of the Pentecostal beliefs are couched in uncompromising, simple terms, which require no thought but a belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible. This is a Book where the ambiguities of the authors have been reduced to cartoons. His father was one such believer, and here is a person who has been coached in what some would say is a heretical belief system.

Morrison’s trip overseas has been not unexpectedly revealing. The Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, gently chided him about his aggression in relation to China; and even in the matter of mask wearing he seemed to guide our uncertain Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister has been hoping to amble the world stage but having been relegated to a landing slot at an airport distant from the G7 meeting it should have warned him at the start. There are no better people than the Poms in insulting one and then being able to smooth it over once everybody recognises that the insult was deliberate, if nuanced.  The perfect word for British diplomacy – nuance!

The daggy “Scomo” image which he believes is the basis of his rural popularity – in Queensland and New South Wales – seems not to have translated as well into International Prime Minister. Here is a guy who not only threw himself at the feet of Trump but has an old friend with connections with the dark side of the web – one of those peddling those conspiratorial beliefs, which are so much of the Trump madness.

If he were to have someone close who is visionary, with ideas that he could sample, then he may not be in his current predicament – and if he did not have an adviser called Stewart.

Biden has proved not to be the doddering front man that some of us wrongly feared, but at the centre of some hard-nosed advisers, who probably worry that Morrison is a security risk – hence the intrusion of Johnson into the Biden-Morrison meeting. It would be a problem for our relations if his words “ritual sex abuse” get wide currency in the corridors of the White House. Can Biden trust that anything he says to Morrison will not appear somewhere as an unacceptable comment?

When Howard extracted special treatment in the Kyoto Protocols for our fossil emissions, the United States owed us for our support in the Bush War Coalition of the Willing; Biden owes Morrison nothing.

In relation to the domestic scene, obviously if your Government’s handout to Big Business is essentially little more than to further enrich, then the recipients of such largesse have every reason to support the current regime. It is not an unusual situation when both sides of politics are compromised, but there is a limit which the community, however rendered compliant by the Virus, will tolerate. Australia sliding into plutocracy is not a pleasant sight.

It is also helpful for Morrison that the Murdoch newspapers’ unceasingly support him, bolstering him in a constituency of flag wavers for fossil fuels and where the environment is being progressively degraded by climate denialists.  For the moment these Murdocistas are spooking the rest of the community.

However, this strange remnant from the Trump days has found the world stage somewhat guarded. As one would have expected, he was greeted in France with all the warmth that the appalling submarine contract with the French can muster. Whatever he may think privately, Macron has been polite; it will be interesting to see if he speaks to Morrison through an interpreter – or in English.  If the first, and from afar hard to know, Macron is maintaining distance so that any communications between the two can be properly interpreted, n’est-ce pas.

Another problem for Morrison is that not all the electorates in Australia are obsessed with maintaining coal mining. There are certain electorates in Queensland and NSW where urgent steps must be taken to transfer the workforce to other industries, not to bolster coal which has to be phased out if the world is to survive beyond the end of this century.

Unfortunately, Australia has a Prime Minister who is only concerned with his re-election, and his only response to climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions is an underlined word “technology” – as if Technology is a God like Baal to be worshipped not defined. Here a throng of happy clapping followers with arms outstretched towards this Solution and repeating over and over again, “Technology. For thine is the Answer.”

Maybe I’ll wake up and blame all this on something I ate.

Aduhelm 

“I had no sense of where to turn for help, support, or even how to express the diagnosis with family, friends or co-workers. I was lost and crept further inward. There is no single handbook one can read to prepare; each journey is different, each course of the disease takes different, meandering turns—no two are alike, the experts will tell you, an observation that is clearly numbing in so many ways.”

The drug is called Aduhelm. It has just been given the all-clear by America’s Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to be prescribed for people with early Alzheimer’s dementia. As one correspondent said, for many people Alzheimer’s disease has passed through the early stage of memory loss and is not recognised until the cognitive abilities have declined significantly.

The quote above is from Mary, the wife of a journalist, Greg O’Brien who has written On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s, which follows his own decline from the early onset of the disease. Her cry is clear; and there is no wonder that those families where there is Alzheimer’s disease in their midst want a cure. No wonder that news of a drug with any prospect for improvement will generate clamour for its availability – now.

Much of the excitement generated by this drug is that it is the first since 2003 to show any promise and it has cleared a path through the FDA, not without controversy, which resulted in some members of the committee overseeing its approval resigning in protest. The method of approval has also instilled a feeling of uneasiness in this blogger.

The drug is supposed to attack amyloid-beta, the protein which appears in the nerve tangle of the Alzheimer brain. However, nobody really can say whether it is the amyloid deposits which cause the disease or whether they are waste, the result of a process which leaves this protein functionally inert in the brain. Amyloid disease is one of those differential diagnoses for unexplained disease which my generation of doctors grew to know about and recognised with its distinct histological appearance on staining.

The problem is this drug, which is defined as an amyloid-beta-directed antibody reducing the number of plaques of amyloid, is that the benefits are minimal against its downside.

This is where the drug company, Biogen, which is set to make a “motza”, begins what I call the drug company gavotte. Immaculately arrayed in elaborate steps the gavotte dancers move around in intricate steps, a spectacle of elegant circles, arms waving, legs crossing, all to produce a mannered tableau.

Even the drug company’s paid expert, in a beautifully executed twirl, said the drug “potentially prolongs patients’ independence by several months, even a few years, as demonstrated in long-term study”. She said it is a “stepping stone for our next advances” gracefully executing a series of fluttering steps.

The consumer is transported into a trance, ignoring any side-effects, asking the government to make it universally available. Biogen proposes a charge of USD4,312 per infusion “for a patient of average weight”, or USD56,000 per year.

The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, in a somewhat bizarre statement, has said Aduhelm should cost no more than USD8,300 per year, given the “insufficient” evidence supporting its benefits in clinical trials.

Dancing the gavotte …

Biogen has defended its pricing strategy, noting that the U.S. dishes out about USD600 billion in direct and indirect costs for the disease that affects roughly six million Americans. Now that is a beautiful sideways gavotte movement by the drug company.

Biogen plans to target between one to two million patients with early onset symptoms, executives said last week. The company, generous to a fault, says it won’t raise the price over the next four years.

It should be noted that this drug can only be given as an infusion in a healthcare facility; and then there are the side effects of brain swelling and bleeding, all factors to be integrated into the patient’s health status, a patient status which is directed only one way – down.

When the gavotte is transferred to Australia, it will be greeted by a solid history of successful lobbying for drugs of questionable benefits. First, there is the special pleading, which is always highly personal as one would expect. Ron Walker, the flamboyant businessman, was an influential example of this in his quest to have an experimental drug, Keytruda included for the treatment of melanoma, of which he was a sufferer. His influence on the then Minister saw the placement of this drug on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) for his particular indication at a per patient cost of $4,500 every three weeks for two years.

He achieved his goal; he died in 2018 with the benefit of an average life expectancy increase of 12 months over the cheaper chemotherapy. Not sure about the quality of that life extension. Nevertheless, the drug can now be prescribed to other cancer patients following the largesse of the current Minister, who provides a taxpayer subsidy of $120,000 annually per patient so entitled. Has Ron Walker’s intervention been cost-effective – or just costly?

The drug companies and their shareholders have a different requirement – profit at all costs. Lobbyists hang round drug companies like flies round questionable food, as one of my less than kind associates has said, ever ready to help with selling the product whatever its effectiveness; whatever its cost to the community.

Objectivity is the casualty. Hopefully, the Aduhelm saga will not get to his level, but sometimes I wonder whether governments have lost their sense of smell.

However, the cry from the wife still echoes. Yet will her husband, the author of On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s, take Aduhelm?

My mind drifts back to Neale Daniher, and the need to ensure that while we wait for a cure the palliative services are not ignored, nor the family, and most importantly, that even the person with lowest profile dies with someone holding his or her hand.

Mouse Whisper

In recognition of my friend from Dalarna, Kyrkomus, I am reminded of Carl Linnaeus, the great Swedish botanist, who sometimes got it wrong. He said that potatoes were poisonous, because he noted that the vegetable was related to deadly nightshade. However, the first woman inducted in 1748 into the Swedish Academy in Sciences, Countess Eva Ekeblad, was so recognised by showing that potatoes were essential in the manufacture of wig powder, and more importantly that cool liquor, aquavit.

Skol!

Countess Eva Ekeblad

Modest Expectations – The Sole of Bond Street

As the pandemic has ploughed on, there is a new collective noun for the experts clamouring for media exposure – an irritation of epidemiologists. After more than 15 months of COVID, the endless stream of epidemiologists called upon to express opinions on television have variously inspired and annoyed, but more often have provided a confusing opinion. For me, the soft-spoken Marie-Louise McLaws, whose family motto is “Spectemur agendo” meaning “we are judged by our actions”, is one such example. Marie-Louise is probably judged by her talking head television profile and she obviously has her fans.

Nevertheless, she has made a pertinent observation as to the vulnerability of Victoria, particularly Melbourne, to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. It is a matter of geography – the ease with which people can move around there as distinct from other major cities in Australia.  Others are chiming in with stochastic analysis, a fancy name to define randomness of these events. Perhaps she has been over-enthusiastic in emphasising some other differences, which probably don’t exist, but the geography argument is a strong one, and the outer suburbs of Melbourne do contain many migrant groups.

Take the Indian population, for instance; they are clustered on opposite sides of Melbourne, which is the favoured destination of Indian migrants over Sydney. If you believe the blurb, that is:

Indians living in Melbourne love:

  • living in Melbourne’s suburbs with safe, accessible transport
  • local supermarkets, Indian grocery stores and restaurants
  • Melbourne’s festivals, museums and cultural events 
  • Victoria’s world-class education system
  • dining out in Melbourne’s renowned restaurants.

All conducive to a very mobile lifestyle, and there are over 56,000 Indian-born Australians in Melbourne, thus about three per cent of Melbourne’s population. Sydney has a smaller population, and it is concentrated in Harris Park and surrounding suburbs in Sydney’s west.  In this century up to 2019, Indian migration was the largest in percentage terms. People should not be coy about country of origin, especially when so many still have strong family links to a country where the virus spread has been out of control. In the midst of a pandemic, such demographic information is important.

I always remember a description of Brisbane, “If Rome was built on seven hills, Brisbane was built on seventy-seven”. Sydney by its geography is also compartmented, and this was well shown in the COVID-19 outbreak on the northern beaches of that city in December last year. This outbreak was easily contained.

However, when the infected were allowed to move around in that well known stochastic process, Brownian movement, as they were from the disembarkation of the Ruby Princess in the middle of the city with access to multiple transport links, then one could call the process, the Berekjlian, after the presiding Premier of the time. But normally it is far more challenging to move around Brisbane and Sydney than Melbourne.

In regard to accessibility, take one suburb of Melbourne, Hawthorn. There are three tram lines running through it and a railway line with at least two stations serving Hawthorn. There are also buses, and the increasing use of private buses to ferry private school children to and from school, Hawthorn and the neighbouring suburbs are a large scholastic reservoir. Added to this Melbourne is very easy to move around inside the rapidly expanding perimeter. The only barrier is the Great Dividing Range which only provides a hurdle to travel in the Dandenongs component. Otherwise, all the other sectors have major highways radiating out from Melbourne, which mean travel is easy.

In Melbourne, some talk nostalgically about living in a “village” rather than a “suburb”. I would dispute that.

At last the Federal Government, a Federal Government dominated by one Sydneysider who lives in an enclave called the Shire, has buckled to the obvious need to have a custom-built quarantine centre in Victoria close to Melbourne. Hopefully more objectivity will be applied to the tendering than much of the scandalous way the Government has gone about business over the past three years. Whether Avalon is the right place or not, it is on pre-existing Commonwealth land and relatively close to Melbourne.

I wonder though if the invaders were not “micro-marauders”, not easily identifiable, would the Governments be adopting the seemingly leisurely pace to get this centre built. Maybe photo-opportunity trips will accelerate the process. In the Northern Territory or even South to Tocumwal in NSW, one can see how quickly facilities, hospitals, airstrips and even a highway were built when the Japanese were on the horizon.

Waleed Aly has waded into the conversation, questioning the validity of singling Melbourne out. As usual he writes persuasively, but I suggest that he reinforces the point that having hotel quarantine in the middle of city with the easiest means of spread of anything, be it people or viruses, is just asking for trouble.

Black Rock, near Melbourne, 1954

He singles out Black Rock as a Melbourne suburb where lockdown was not required. This suburb and the adjoining Beaumaris were developed later from bushland. They lie beyond the terminus of both tram and bus, and therefore have some the characteristics of the Sydney northern beaches suburbs. The distinguishing feature was its isolation. The way it was isolated had a distinct elite character and elitism discourages easy movement.

Despite the intervention of Waleed, as an epidemiologist, Professor McLaws, you made a good point, but in your enthusiasm to prove a point you probably went a wee bit too far.

Scars of 56

Since my Chinese exploits are receiving some interest, here is an excerpt of a book I hope to publish later this year subtitled, “When we were not too Young”. 

Over dinner my father continued to repeat that he wanted to “see China”, whatever that meant, and the only way to “see China” from his point of view was to take the train to the border at Lo Wu and stare across into the country. However, it became clear when he asked if that were possible that, although the train might go through to Lo Wu, all the passengers had to get off the train at Fan Ling, which was about four miles inside the border. Nevertheless, we bought tickets because my father said: “…you never know”. If nothing else, he was awake to serendipitous opportunity.

He had also thought of going across to Macau, which required an overnight boat trip. Macau was then a seedy remnant of the Portuguese empire. He wondered if it would be easier to get closer to China if he went there, but when he inquired about that feasibility, he was quickly disabused. There was a lawless element there and it would not be worth being exposed as a lone traveller. I thought I heard the word “triad” mentioned in the conversation.  

So here we were about to board the train to Lo Wu. The train with the steam-driven locomotive was regulation pre-war with cracked leather seats in the carriages and the views through the windows made even greyer by the grime on the windows. 

The carriage was empty apart from ourselves.

The city straggled away into the New Territories and into a quilt of paddy fields. There were distant mountains, which my father said were probably in China. He stood up and walked along the corridor hoping to get a better view. He came back and confirmed that the mountains were on the Chinese side of the border. I am not sure how he knew but, as always, he was authoritative.

Fanling Station

The train pulled into Fan Ling and the conductor came along telling us to get off. I could feel very clearly my father’s reluctance as he stood up, and slowly climbed down onto the station. At the end of the station, there were a number of Chinese soldiers in green jackets and trousers. They did not seem to be armed but symbolized a line of demarcation between themselves and the Hong Kong constabulary, who were fitted out like London policemen acting with the departing passengers as if they were directing traffic in The Strand.

The Forbidden Land lay beyond – the view entombed in the wintry sunlight.

However, there was one person standing on the station close to the train. He was wearing a hat, scarf and gabardine raincoat. The scarf was drawn up to partially conceal his face He looked across the station and, in an Australian accent, called my father’s name. My father looked up, startled at the recognition. He did not immediately recognize the figure, who lit a cigarette, for a brief moment illuminating his bespectacled face. My father strode up the platform. They shook hands and for five minutes they engaged in what appeared to be animated conversation, my father pointing toward the Chinese border. 

I was distracted by a middle-aged Chinese man, who sidled up to me with his bicycle. In broken English, he said he would take me to the border on his bicycle. It would not cost much; and I could see what China was really like. I hesitated. My father was still in deep conversation, and I looked at the bicycle. Was he going to “dink” me? There seemed to be no other way that I could get on the bicycle, unless I hired it from him. 

I looked out over the rice fields and through the line of houses, which clustered below the station. I could make out the road running north-south which presumably went towards the border.

 “Can I take your bicycle and bring it back?”

The man with the bicycle hesitated. Then he pushed it towards me especially as he saw that I had US dollars in my hand.

“What in God’s name are you doing, John?”

The border at Lo Wu, 1950s

“I thought you wanted to go to the border.”

“On that?” My father’s face split into one of his thin-lipped smiles, which you rarely saw unless he was about to launch into an invective against somebody.

The ferocity of the “On that” seemed to frighten the man with the bicycle, as he took a step back.

“So you are seen pedaling to God knows where wearing completely inadequate gear. If you don’t freeze to death, you are liable to be either shot or captured. John, I suppose you think that all that there will be is a bit of barbed wire and smiling soldiers. Does not work that way – and the last thing I want to happen is my son dead or interned. The last thing I need,” he repeated, “is for my son to be the centre of an international incident.” 

I thought my father was a bit over the top, but I suddenly felt very cold. After all, it was winter and the threadbare trees along the road towards China bent in the wind as if derisively waving me on in my fruitless endeavour.

My father gestured towards the retreating figure on the bicycle. There was no need to wave him away. He disappeared from sight off the edge of the platform.

My father turned and looked back to see the man with whom he had been talking climb onto the train. The Chinese troops did not move. 

My father gestured. “That John is a safer way of travel, but unfortunately you need to be credentialed, as Ted is. I believe he is off to Beijing. However mark my words, I shall get over the border in the next ten years – and more than once.”

We waited for the train to come back. My father was suitably vague about who Ted was, but he worked with a friend of my father who, like Ted, had been a lawyer and, if not a Communist, certainly was a definite shade of cardinal. 

My father was always very sure of himself, but I could never fathom his politics.

Postscript: My father did achieve his goal and did go to China – more than once. My father died in 1970 – so it was quite a feat in the 1960s to do just that.

Burning of the Books

Endless archives

Archives are people, and not the great people, but those who otherwise would leave no trace: the workers, the immigrants, the servicemen, the public servants, and, not least, the Indigenous. Of our collecting institutions, the NAA (National Archives of Australia) is the most truly democratic — of the people, by the people, for the people.

Record keeping, furthermore, is fundamental to the protection of citizens and the prevention of harm.

In a recent article in The Australian, a pertinent excerpt is reproduced above, Gideon Haigh has almost said it all about Assistant Treasurer Stoker and her disdain for retention of the archives – hence it follows who cares about the history of the nation? Should it be reduced to dust or why not to a bonfire?

I am reminded of the Futurist movement, which had its genesis in Italy before the First World War, with its disdain for the past and its concentration on the future with an emphasis on technology, bellicosity and patriotism. It is unsurprising given its behaviour that it was closely identified with the rise of Mussolini which they supported. When I say I am reminded of, I don’t mean to say that Assistant Minister Stoker is a simulacrum of the Futurists. Some of them had original ideas in the arts, a talent that the Minister hides under a bitcoin, having dispensed with that idiomatic past, the bushel.

After all, the Nazis refined this destruction of the past with the burning of 25,000 books in Berlin on May 10th 1933 including a significant amount of the Jewish heritage in Germany. Australia is in a delicate position where there are forces which are leading this country down an authoritarian pathway, where there is no collective memory. For years, elements of the Australian Public Service are to deny that any past existed, that corporate memory was a disease not to be confused with selective amnesia – and definitely to ensure the freedom of information was a joke that never existed. The Public Service treads the path of a Futurist movement in inked soaked quills of the Executive Porcupine – or in this country – the Executive Echidna.

David Tune, a former senior bureaucrat, was commissioned in 2019 to review the state of the national archives. He submitted his findings in early 2020; over a year later his review was released, in March this year. The report recommended the government fund a seven-year program to urgently digitise at-risk materials, for a total cost of $67.7 million. “Urgently” is hardly the word to describe Minister Stoker’s response.

Stoker’s attitude unwittingly has placed, even compounded, the Government into an untenable position.  The Treasurer, given his own heritage, should be more understanding of the destructive force Stoker is unleashing.  Frydenberg should reach into his cash box and find the money for the National Archives. Maybe such money would avoid this metaphorical burning of the Archives.

Stoker by name; stoker by profession? Surely not.

Backroad on the way from Normanton

It all started when I asked Dennis whether he could lend me the 4WD for the weekend. I wanted to check out the medical services in Normanton. There was a South African doctor who recently had arrived in the town, and there had been murmurings about the quality of the services.

To get there you needed to go down the main street of Mount Isa to the Barkly Highway and on to Cloncurry and then turn left onto the Burke Development Road. In the mythology of my family, it was said that my father recently graduated in Commerce from the University of Melbourne, had the opportunity to join a fledging Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services, but it would involve leaving his girlfriend in Melbourne. Love won out; and the Great Depression tested that love as my father tried to find a path through genteel poverty and not on the wing so to speak. This day we did not stop to savour the nostalgia of the job that never was.

By way of explanation, Cloncurry was where the airline flew the inaugural flying doctor service in 1928 – the first commercial flight was generally considered to have been from Longreach to Cloncurry six years earlier.

However, this day we had a five-hour drive to reach Normanton. Normanton is not on the Gulf and there is a further 70 kilometres to Karumba on the Gulf, in those days a centre for the northern prawn industry. The prawns were caught, processed and despatched to Asian destinations direct from the Gulf. Her brother had worked on the prawning trawlers in the Gulf of Carpentaria twenty years before. Her brother in addition to working the trawlers always loved fishing, and barramundi were the prized catch in the Gulf.

Karumba

Karumba had its own link to the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services; in the late 1930s the town was a refuelling and maintenance stop for the flying boats of the Qantas Empire Airways.

Watching the sun go down sitting on the beach after 500 kilometres drive gazing out to sea evoked a feeling of thirst, and we were on the sand without beer. So we went back to the motel at Normanton, and watched the green tree frogs climb out of the umbrella holder in the middle of the table while we drank our XXXX. We were in the tropics!

The hospital was on the hill away from the township proper. We met the middle-aged doctor and his wife, immigrants from South Africa.  They were not in their comfort zone, and the wife was particularly fearful of the fact that there were “blacks” running wild in the town. They had grown up under Apartheid and I wondered why they had left South Africa. Perhaps it was to bring their children up in a predominantly “white” country. The majority of Normanton residents were Aboriginal.

Here they were, isolated from the town, with no intention to mix and looking for the earliest possible escape route. An irrational fear of dark people and an inability to identify – while courteous to us, the authoritarian attitude, albeit racist, can only be suppressed for so long. It was clearly evident in this case.

The trip enabled us to reach the Gulf in a far more pleasant way than Burke and Wills, who had slogged their way along the same route to get to the same destination but died on their way back.

There is another less comfortable route to Normanton from Mount Isa and that is via Lake Julius rather than via Cloncurry. Lake Julius is an important water supply and is a favourite picnic spot for those wanting to have some respite from the mining atmosphere of Mount Isa.

What was unexpected was coming across the small settlement of Kajabbi where, outside the Kajabbi pub, stands a cairn. This memorial in Queensland directly acknowledges the history of conflict, as one writer states, related to “the invasion of Australia by Europeans”.

Like many other plaques mounted on stone cairns, this one commemorates a centenary – 1984 was one hundred years since the slaughter of the Kalkadoon people at Battle Mountain, just southwest of this tiny speck off the beaten track. Charlie Perkins and George Thorpe, a Kalkadoon (Kalkatungka) elder, unveiled the plaque, which reads in part:

This obelisk is in memorial to the Kalkatunga tribe, who during September 1884 fought one of Australia’s historical battles of resistance against a para-military force of European settlers and the Queensland Native Mounted Police at a place known to-day as Battle Mountain 20 klms south west of Kajabbi.

The spirit of the Kalkatunga tribe never died at battle but remains intact and alive today within the Kalkadoon Tribal Council.

Kalkatunga heritage is not the name behind the person, but the person behind the name.”

The Kalkadoon or Kalkatunga were considered elite warriors, but a group of  early whitefella settlers, in particularly one Arthur Kennedy, took it upon themselves to kill as many of this warrior tribe as they could. Battle Mountain was the major skirmish; in all, about 900 Kalkadoon were killed in this protracted war.

The cairn is modest and I remember reading its inscription, and since I had known Charlie Perkins, whose people were from Central Australia, it was significant that he had journeyed to this remote place to unveil this plaque with a local elder. He obviously held the Kalkadoon in high regard and the timing was to celebrate the founding of the Kalkadoon Tribal Council.

It is sad to read that “native” mounted police were used to help quell the tribe. It was a common ploy to use Aboriginals from other areas to assist in helping the whitefellas. If you read accounts of skirmishes in Western Victoria in the 1840s, Aboriginal troopers were brought in from places like Tumut, hundreds of kilometres away. This usage of Aboriginal police for suppression of other Aboriginal people is a slice of Australian history which is not often ventilated.

After all it a small stone memorial in a remote hamlet on a dusty backroad, an uninviting series of dips and crests which heightened the remoteness of it all, and yet another reminder of a dark era in our history, a hundred years before when the cairn was unveiled.

Just like outside the township of Bingara in the Northern Tablelands of NSW, there is a memorial to another massacre – 50 Wirrayaraay people killed on the slopes overlooking the Myall Creek. I remember reading the last three words Ngiyani winangay genunga (we will remember them]. That atrocity more than one hundred years before. There have been more. Too many to mention here.

What prompted these memories, particularly of Kajabbi?

2021 was another centenary, that of the Tulsa massacre of black Americans in 1921. As if in response, the Washington Post printed a map of all the massacres of black Americans, which is reprinted. I wonder given I have been to other sites of aboriginal massacres, there is a similar map for this country, to remind us of some of the darker side of Australian history.

Maybe, Senator Stoker, it may be hidden in the archives.

Mouse Whisper

My cousin, Conte Topo has a piccolino aversion to us English speakers, who think that “simpatico” means sympathetic, a bit upper case pretentious, but unfortunately for those who like to dabble in using foreign words simpatico means “nice” not “sympathetic”. The Italian word for “sympathetic” is “comprensivo”.

In contrast, saying the obvious, the Italian word for empathetic is in fact empatico, if you wish to use such a flash word.

However, empathy and sympathy often are used interchangeably but empathy means experiencing someone else’s feelings.  It requires an emotional component of really feeling what the other person is feeling. Sympathy, on the other hand, means understanding someone else’s suffering without getting under the skin. In short supply among certain Australian politicians at this time when a little sick girl is the victim.

Conte Topo

Modest Expectations – A Range of Lemon

In 2011, shortly before he became governor of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi warned fellow Italians that Venice in the 17th century and Amsterdam in the 18th century planted the seeds of their collapse by putting elite privilege ahead of innovation. Corporate Italy can hang on to what is left of its sheen.

To which I would also ask, do you smell the gum leaves of Canberra in that quote?

Draghi then goes on with a quote from “The Leopard”, where Prince Trancedi Falconeri says to his uncle Dom Fabrizio, “If you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

This is the last paragraph from an article published in the October 24th 2020 issue of The Economist about corporate decline in Italy. The article starts with an acknowledgement of that novel by saying, “Few works of literature capture the challenges of managing [societal] decay.

If you read very slowly you might be able to detect that we too have a leopard who has learnt to change his spots at the next leap of leopards passing through the spin of his mind. 

Waiting for Bliss

Last week I came across the word “bliss” – a word little used in these pandemic times, but once linked very firmly with “ignorance”. It is an old English word, and I would ask the readers, when could you genuinely say you had experienced a state of bliss?

What is a state of bliss? The definition varies from person to person. It is not wandering round in a trance; and it is not squatting on the floor and being told to meditate. It is not a set of rosary beads nor a set of bells – some may relate bliss to one or more of the senses – sitting in front of a log fire toasting marshmallows having come in from the icy cold and relaxing in a deep armchair drinking a suitably warmed glass of wine while listening to a the Tallis Singers’ recording of the Allegri’s Miserere. To me that is a suitable caricature of the meaning of bliss. This scenario can be explained in a conscious appeal to all the senses – extreme sensuality on a forgiving cliff face.

For me, bliss has always been unexpected. I was racking my brains trying to overcome the mist of ignorance to work through how many times in my life I have experienced bliss. Twice. Both were unexpected, and one instance came after a night in the Royal Women’s hospital student quarters in Melbourne back in the summer of 1962, and the other in 2002 all’aperto in Vancouver.

In one case I had experienced; and in the other I was waiting – in expectation. In both cases there was a woman involved – one in the past tense, the other in the future.

The summer of 1962 was the year when I just become engaged and where I used to sleep illicitly in the Hospital where my fiancé was doing her obstetrics term as a student. I used to leave the hospital a tick before six am and went over the road to a friend’s flat where he had a spare bed that I could “crash” on before going off for my job. For some reason, my friend was away. He had just finished an architecture degree and maybe it was a job out of town; I don’t remember but I would occasionally run into his cheerful flatmate over Vegemite toast and cup of tea.

This particular morning the sun was streaming into the room in his rented terrace,  a comfortable bed and the record player with George Shearing playing “Folks who live on the Hill”. The album with a young woman with her black dress spread around her, demure smile, looking upwards. Drifting into sleep with this environment, this was bliss, a sense that it could never get better – the recent times provided that core requirement of optimism – the security of such optimism in the past, present and future tense which leads into that bliss, which you want to last forever.

Vancouver

The second time, I was in Vancouver sitting outside, the weather was mild and I could gaze up at the mountains hidden partially by a scarf of sea mist. I was waiting for her to arrive, and the expectation of her arrival gave me that same sense of bliss. I did not sleep or even doze off, but had a very good Coho salmon. The wine was Washington State. That I remember, and unlike my normal approach, I ate very slowly and sipped rather than gulped. The mild temperature, open air, the food, the solitude among a late afternoon drinking mob provided the setting, but overall the expectation of seeing her that sealed the bliss. She was arriving later in evening from the other side of Canada.

Both were in good times, but this very juxtaposition of these two occurrences only has meaning when I paste them with those other vignettes which constitute life, so many of which do not have the same muted delicate colours which bliss has. Bliss is thus rare – at least for myself. I hope that in my last view of human experience I will be able to be full of bliss listening to Shearing playing Kern and Hammerstein, and with that expectation of seeing Her. 

Another time; another Trek

A pool of lotuses

A few weeks ago, my blog charted our eventful course to China in the summer of 1973. The weather was foul in Beijing. There were floods and we were unable to go to the Great Wall as a result, but it was interesting times to be there, given the turbulent period China was going through at the time.  I intend reviewing notes of the visit which are in one of my numerous archive boxes. As with our difficult journey to get there, leaving Beijing was no pool of lotuses either.

Our leaving Beijing when we did, produced one of the great regrets of my life. Unlike Gough, we did not meet Mao Tse Tung, but even though the Gang of Four were then in the ascendency and he was not, Chou en-lai was still a significant figure. The then Maltese Ambassador to China and also the High Commissioner in Australia – he was a shadowy figure but he kept popping up elsewhere – said that if we stayed another day he could arrange for us to see the great man. On reflection, there may have been a discussion with Stephen Fitzgerald, the Australian Ambassador, but my lasting impression was that it was a done deal but for one thing – we were on a tight schedule and on that schedule was a meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka. In the scheme of things at the time, the meeting with Chou En-lai could not be fitted in. As I say, I still harbour that regret, to have missed meeting with one of the greatest men of the 20th century.

There was no direct flight from Beijing to Tokyo in 1973. The route would take us in a Chinese Ilyushin, as it turned out to be, to Guangzhou and then by train to Hong Kong, where we would fly to Tokyo. That was the plan, but this trip was one of the unexpected. The fellow travellers included the Chinese women’s volleyball team. That was unexpected; to see all these 1.8 metres tall Chinese women strolling down the aisle of the plane. As I reflected, I had lived in a world of stereotypes, and these young Chinese women were not that.

Then the fun and games started. We were forced to land at the then Henchow, and we were emptied out of the planes. Initially here was no information, and efforts to find out, even trying to contact the Australian Embassy in Beijing were unfruitful. So, all we had to do was wait. The flight crew parked themselves under the wing of the plane to get out of the sun.

The airport was on the outskirts of a village, which makes me think that although they gave us a name, it was not a major hub where we landed. The facilities were rudimentary and after a fruitless endeavour to get through to Beijing, I went for a stroll down to the village. After all, there seemed to be no security, and I had reached its outskirts, when I looked back and there was a soldier carrying a rifle running down the hill. It was clear from his gesturing that I was out of bounds. Although, he was smiling and his demeanour was surprisingly sympathetic to my venture, there were rules; and he escorted me back.

Otherwise, Geoff produced a football from somewhere, so the three of us entertained the few airport staff, the volleyball team who were standing at a distance from us on the tarmac and the aircrew under the wing. There seemed to be a cone of isolation around us.  Nobody ventured near us. Not surprising when we could not speak Mandarin, and there was no Chinese minder travelling with us.

When the ball rolled over to them, it was treated as if it were a bomb. Nevertheless, these three Australians cavorting around in the sun with a strange looking ball had an audience. Geoff had been a champion schoolboy footballer, and Bill Snedden had played competitive football, as I had. Mine had been curtailed not only because of lack of skill but by my need for glasses, and the fact that contact lens technology was very primitive during my playing years. In a tussle to get the ball, Geoff showed the benefit of wide hips when he easily brushed me aside in competing for the ball. Playing on a hot airstrip losing one’s balance on such a surface reminded of the times I used to play sock football in the school’s brick quadrangle. The hands suffered as they hit the bricks.

Eventually three hot, mildly sunburnt blokes were motioned to join the plane. In retrospect, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, lost in Central China playing kick to kick on a distant tarmac, was a mildly amusing incident but today, a major political figure uncontactable in the wilds of China…well…

As we found later when we arrived in Guangzhou, the delay was due to a storm described as “monsoonal” passing through the city at that time. The air navigation instrumentation then was not equipped to enable any plane to land safely during such a storm.

Being completely “stuffed’, I have very little recollection of the city, except we were parked in a fine old hotel and the climate was subtropical. I remember the chintz curtains, looking out over lush tropical growth – the normal collection of monstera deliciosa and other undergrowth to which I could not put a name.

The next morning we were on the train to Hong Kong, and there were rice fields all along the rail line and the ubiquitous lychee trees in the middle of the fields.

Then we were across the border into Hong Kong, where we met up with Snedden’s wife, Joy, and had a relaxing time there.

I was left with the task of booking the flight to Tokyo. There were three alternatives BOAC, Alitalia and Air India. Given that forelock touching was the order of the day and there were people watching for aberrant republican behaviour, I chose BOAC. When guess what? Alitalia departed on time; BOAC was indefinitely delayed and Air India was about to leave. It was already taxiing out to take off when it was told to come back and pick up four Australians – travelling first class. Well, the revenue boost would have doubled that of the paying customers; there were only about ten others in economy, and it was the time before business class.  Also, it was a time when a country to have its own national airline was all important. Prestige before profit in those days.

We were not late for the meeting with Prime Minister Tanaka.

Backroad out of Ceduna … Where next?

Given my love of Strahan, for many years we have owned a blackwood pole house there; if it were not for the trees we would have a view of Macquarie Harbour. We once had such a view but that has now vanished in an entanglement of blackberry and tea trees. Strangely this tangle disappears down the Esplanade where there is an uninterrupted water view from the ex-mayor’s house.

I have only watched the Backroads show once, when it visited the small Victorian town of Beaufort, so much part of my family life. I thought the program strange, focussing on quirky periphery. This must make good television because the ratings are said to be high and the program receives substantial support from the ABC. It plays to a belief system of the viewers, it doesn’t shock and it gave a view of Beaufort uncluttered by any relevance. Nevertheless, those pictured obviously loved their half-hour of exposure.

At the same time a substantial film, television and book stream about the Australian bush country provides a different picture – a dark foreboding scene, deeply crime-ridden country towns, where there is always some secret which the townsfolk know but won’t tell and where a serial killer stalks the unsuspecting city-slicker. This is a country, the background to horror stories, of empty houses, banging doors, and where you only see the feet and the flashing knife.

I have had the benefit of seeing much of Australia and, looking through the schedule of past episodes of Backroads, I’ve been to most of the towns featured, not just as a tourist but to work, and that has included spending time in Aboriginal communities. Hence, for instance when I watched that extraordinary portrayal of the Aboriginal relationship in the film Samson and Delilah, it was reality, slightly “doctored” but essentially reality – it rang true, not from what I had read or had been told, but what I have seen.

 

Strahan

One of the challenges of being from “aways” is that it is important to blend in while realising that you are a “blow-in” and like all “blow-ins” you know it, they know it and, unlike the Backroads crew, when they pack away the camera, you from “aways” still have to live with the long time residents, and not be there just when the Macquarie Harbour is sparkling and the ocean is calm. The plaques around the foreshore remind of those alive how dangerous the seas are, but that was the risk of earning a living out in the Ocean.

The cinematography of Macquarie Harbour, the Southern Ocean and the accompanying rugged temperate rain forest with encircling mountains is brilliant. North barely seen are the two mountains, Heemskerk and Zeehan, the first 721 metes high, the second 684 metres. Both were seen by Abel Tasman when he sailed these two ships past the mountains in 1642. The mountains bear the names of those two ships; named by Bass and Flinders 1802 while circumnavigating Tasmania.

The Backroads episode provides this glorious perspective of the Wilderness, the Harbour, the Rivers and the Ocean. I agree, fantastic.  I have flown with a mate in his twin-engined Cessna on such a day – from Strahan over the Gordon and Franklin Rivers to the Southeast Cape and then back over the Walls of Jerusalem. Let me say there are not many days which provide the perfect uninterrupted vista without being buffeted around the sky by the powerful winds, because these are the “Roaring Forties” where the storms roll in with the greatest intensity.

“Backroads” has essentially a tourist view of Macquarie Harbour, two of the major rivers the Gordon and the Franklin, and the Southern Ocean. The King River, flowing as it does from Queenstown, being cleansed from metal pollution gets very little mention – maybe 12 years ago when the powerboat was taking people on adrenalin leaching trips up the river, it may have got a mention. But then the seaplane has gone too and the train which runs on the Abt railway gets not a mention, presumably because the engines were being overhauled. Yet that railway among others is essential to the Strahan narrative, otherwise if it were running why ignore the original lifeline after the convict settlement had gone.

Heather Ewart, the presenter, is pictured on the steel ketch “Stormbreaker”, drifting down the Gordon river; Heather Ewart on Sarah Island, a ruined convict settlement full of gore where the tourists are dropped off for a quick exposure to the horror that was; Heather Ewart as a walk-on participant in “The Ship that Was”, a long running sketch about adventurous escaped convicts, staged in a theatre setup on the wharf.

She is there interviewing a couple of young Aboriginal women from “aways” picking up shells on the beach. Mate, there are middens on the West Coast but not there where the full fury of the Ocean storms would have washed them away eons ago. Eventually, the show ends up in the woodworks, but not before we see Bob Brown, the Saviour of the West Coast wilderness and the film clips from that campaign so many years ago; the whales more recently stranded on the Ocean beach, and then for a piece of trivia, a waterskiing event to break some concocted world record for the most water skiers at any one time.  May I say I have never seen waterskiing on the Harbour as a regular activity. It is just too rough.

Picture postcard maybe; emphasis on the Wilderness, the magnificent scenery but except for a short reference to huon piners, not much about Strahan. Strahan does not exist because it is perched on a large, picturesque harbour. It was a port for the mines of Queenstown, on the other side of the West Coast Range – an isolated settlement set in the most beautiful part of Australia. People did not go there to admire the beauty; they went there to work. And the question is why – and why have they stayed?

While the background may be beautiful, the living conditions are harsh – but not the day that Heather Ewart blew in with her entourage. The opportunity missed of how a town has reconciled itself to the need to conserve when the genesis of the township was to exploit Australia. Isn’t that more the dilemma of modern Australia rather than the extent of the line of water skiers on the Harbour?

A hardy, resourceful community which has adapted – that has been my privilege of being a person from “aways” to know Strahan – to experience more than one sunset.

Somebody told me the week before Backroads was about the towns of the Dunmunkle Shire in the Wimmera. Now that is a place I know very well, particularly Minyip. Maybe I will look at what they have done with those townships.

St John’s Lutheran Church, Minyip

Special Pleading?

Let me give this person privacy. However, I have heard of a woman who was in remission from her disease of polymyalgia rheumatica and, having submitted to the AstraZeneca vaccine, promptly got an exacerbation of the disease, which has persisted.

The problem with polymyalgia rheumatica, nobody knows what causes it, whether it is a vasculitis or myopathy. What is known is that it occurs in older age groups and is associated with osteoarthritis and, in a number of cases, with another autoimmune condition, called temporal arteritis – a condition of the artery supplying the temple region. If not treated temporal arteritis can lead to blindness. This is patently a disease of a blood vessel.

Polymyalgia generally resolves by two years after diagnosis, which is complicated by the stealthy onset of the disease. Therefore, the onset is difficult to pinpoint. However, with me it burst out into a florid state of muscle pain, extreme weakness and stiffness of joints. In its untreated state one has the premonition of death, holding onto the basin in the bathroom and seeing the world disappearing from view – but trying not to let go. That is what occurred to me. After seven years the disease is chronic – I shall die with or because of the disease. The more the disease is stimulated by outside influences, the more it will shorten my life.

Treatment is cortisone, and it is in this titration of the amount of cortisone that provides symptomatic relief.  Methotrexate did nothing. Without cortisone, it is simple. I would be dead by now.

In the initial fulminant state, there is in addition to the indicators of infection, an indication that platelet function has been disturbed. In this particular case there was a marked thrombocytosis. Platelet problems are at the heart of the AstraZeneca side effects.

Being on cortisone therapy for over seven years means that adrenal function becomes compromised, well demonstrated when the replacement cortisone  was at point where it could be expected for the home grown cortisone to kick in if there was stress.  My adrenals did not kick in, and I experienced symptoms of hypoadrenalism.

Therefore, living on the edge should not be challenged by a vaccine which has its own problems, even if they are downplayed. Yes, I have had my influenza inoculation for 2021; yes I had my shingles inoculation several years ago. None provide 100 per cent protection; and indeed I have a mild reaction to the influenza inoculation; no pain at the site but a slight feeling of unwellness with upper respiratory symptomatology for several days. Symptomatically, my polymyalgia has got worse.

But then I am a doctor once a medical researcher and public health physician. The soothing words saying “do not worry” are not here crashing on a shore devoid of information. The case can be argued that it would be better to avoid the risk. However, in a country where choice is limited to who you know, well why not ask that I be given the Pfizer vaccine by my public health physician peers.

However, if my request is refused, maybe I will have to consign myself to the line of AstraZeneca injectees, with all the hollow assurances, but knowing that I am especially vulnerable to admittedly rare significant side effects.

If this insistence on AstraZeneca occurs, then I will post a daily message on social media telling everybody 24 hour by 24 hour how well I am going – and for Government “come in spinner.”

The coins are about to be tossed. The chances are of (a) no complications; (b) side-effects with the ultimate government prize of my death; or (c) putting the kip down and allowing me to have the Pfizer vaccine and of course my daily diary of how that vaccine is treating me.

Then of course I could not have the vaccine and die of that wonderful phrase “natural causes”; better than “misadventure”.

Mouse Whisper

I am entering into the world of invention. This invention threatens to take over the world, so they say. It is an American invention. It is a new type of pasta that is sweeping the trattorie of New York. There are 300 different types of pasta and yet for this new one, people have to wait for 12 weeks to get a packet of the new pasta, and then it costs USD18.00 plus postage. It is called “cascatelli” in reference to the Italian word for waterfall.

To me, the ravenous mouse, the pasta resembles a caterpillar, but this pasta is said to be able to capture ragu or vongole jetsam which may be drifting by in the sauce, flooding the pasta dish. This is the secret, opening up the tube and having pincer pasta pseudopodia able to clutch and not to let go of the tidbit onto your shirt (or in my case my mousling bib) but finding the safety of your mouth.

In Australia you can buy similar pasta, where the tube is closed, called creste di gallo – “coxscomb”. This pasta sells for about AUD$5.00.

As The Washington Post reports:

But it is the technology of opening the tube and having the right template that has the culinary world agog.

There’s no wrong sauce for this pasta. Every kind clings like Velcro.

It’s like a Venus fly trap. Anything that goes in there can’t get out.”

The pasta’s marketing materials refer to that grippy-ness as “sauceability.” Alongside “forkability” and “toothsinkability,” these goofy, made-up terms form the inventor, Dan Pashman’s trifecta of ideal pasta characteristics.

Ugh, that is sufficient mangling of the English language – bit like pasta.

 

Modest Expectation – An Apple Once in Paris

Just to put Australia’s lack of flexibility into context, where the AstraZeneca vaccine has been prioritised for vaccinating the population Moderna, as reported below, seems to be leading the pack. Where are we, Mr Morrison? Are you across what is happening, and if you have recently done a deal with Moderna has this advance been factored into the deal? AstraZeneca technology is apparently increasingly obsolete in the face of such coronavirus vaccines.

I remember a different time, when the polio vaccines first came to Australia. I was first injected with the Salk vaccine and then, when the Sabin vaccine arrived, it was able to be administered easily orally because it was a live attenuated virus; the Salk vaccine was quickly jettisoned. But then Australia avoided  political furore; we relied on the medical evidence not the share portfolios of various people in influential places .

Also, Prime Minister there is one statistic which you use to justify the continued use of hotels for quarantine – your “99.99 per cent effective at protecting the community against COVID-19” mantra. However, when the air flows are mixed and internal, the problem of cross infection exists, whereas in the case of the Howard Springs facility the air flow is to the outside, with little or no chance of a compromised airflow. Thank God it is only that tiny percentage, Prime Minister. That causes enough chaos as we are now seeing in Victoria, without tempting Fate any further. This is where the use of data only shows what a catastrophic situation it would be if the effectiveness was any lower.

But let’s hear what the CEO of Moderna, based as it is in the Boston area, had to say about its advance, as reported in The Boston Globe, and draw your own conclusions.

Moderna’s chief executive on Wednesday discussed the biotech’s progress in developing a booster shot against COVID-19 variants, saying the company hopes to have authorization from the Food and Drug Administration on one of three booster strategies by the end of the summer or early fall.

Stéphane Bancel said Moderna is working on three different options for a single-dose booster shot against variants of concern: the current vaccine, a new variant-specific vaccine, and a 50/50 mix of the two.

Moderna last week shared early study results that showed its first two options — the current vaccine at half the dosage and a shot of its reworked vaccine — both appeared to raise antibody levels against variants that first emerged in South Africa and Brazil. Bancel said the company is expecting to receive data on the third booster strategy in the coming weeks.

“And then we’ll work with the FDA to get the safe and effective variant-specific booster to the American people as fast as we can,” he added.

The data showed that Moderna’s current vaccine “looks good” in protecting against variants, Bancel said, but the reworked vaccine tailored to fight off newer strains of the virus “looks stronger” against the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa.

Bancel said it’s “not impossible” that a booster could be ready for the fall for people who were vaccinated against COVID-19 in December 2020 or early January, especially for high-risk groups.

“When we have that data [on the third booster strategy] in the clinic, we will pick which one we’ll take for authorization,” Bancel said. “We’re hoping that toward the end of the summer or early fall, we should be able, if the data is good, to have authorization for a boost to be used in the fall to protect all of us so that we can have a good fall and a next good winter.”

Bancel also said the company is working with federal officials to test “the mixing of vaccines,” ensuring that regardless of which vaccine a person initially received, it will be safe for them to get Moderna’s booster shot.

“We shared last Wednesday news that the Moderna vaccine in the 12 to 17 years of age has 96 percent efficacy,” Bancel said. “The safety profile is like what we saw for the adults, and we’re working with the FDA to get the vaccine authorized as soon as we can.”

Moderna is continuing to study its vaccine for children 6 months to 11 years old, Bancel said, and that data is expected to take a few more months.

“We have to go very slow down in age to ensure the safety of the children,” Bancel said. “And we’re also starting at the lower dose, because given their lower weight, we might need to lower the dose for children. But for the teens, it will be the exact same dose, which will help the distribution of a vaccine.”

And also….

Under the heading “Breaking Alert”, The Boston Globe publishes the ongoing COVID-19 situation. An example is reprinted below.

The death toll from confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts rose by 19 to 17,413, the Department of Public Health reported Monday. The number of confirmed cases climbed by 281, bringing the total to 657,119.

The number of coronavirus vaccinations administered rose by 25,904 to 7,168,399, state officials reported.

As the population of Massachusetts is about 6.3 million, and about 20 per cent are under 15, it means that many of the residents are being given their second injection of an mRNA vaccine.

Every day, the NYT has a comprehensive list of the data down to county level. Where can you obtain such data published daily in Australia, in relation to vaccination?

Casey Briggs, Master of Clarity

When the pandemic was rife in Australia we could follow its course every day with the ABC’s Casey Briggs, whose clear informative manner showed Mr Briggs as The Master of Mathematics; to which he could as well have added The Master of Clarity.

He could report vaccination levels in the same manner on a daily manner if the data were available.

Only criminal idiots would want to the fiddle the supply demand relationship by manipulating the data for so-called political advantage.

You may never recover

This is the only comment I shall make about the Princes. I sympathise deeply and know that probably their relationship, in whichever way it existed after their mother was killed, may one day be repaired to the extent that they do remain civil towards one another.  I suspect the attitudes of their wives in this is vitally important.

A loving mother taken from teenage sons in the presence of an inadequate father – undoubtedly a good man but because of his own stunted upbringing with an inability to show compassion – is very familiar.

Genuine compassion is something one recognises when you yourself lack it. People may try and manufacture compassion, but fail because it is an inherent attribute, just like a sense of humour. Most of those who are afflicted with the combination of loss of a loving mother, the inability to ever come to terms with the wakening nightmare of your last glimpse of her, coupled with the attempts by the remaining father to fill the void and failing, who then eventually gives up, marries again and gradually become to you an irrelevance.  Onwards into an adulthood for which you are ill prepared and then you have to muddle through life in a cloud of unforgiveness, episodic self-pity and destructive fury.

A Sisyphean existence?

Occasionally, in among the circumstance of life with a variable dollop of pomp added, you may do something worthwhile. But for what? Your other life upon which the flashlight is never dimmed, wherever you try to escape, always haunts. For those for whom compassion does not pay, there is a delight in having all your trespasses laid bare, yet as those who trespass against you seek justification in hypocritical comment only, which encourages you to further trespass. A Sisyphean existence?

Alas, poor Harry, I knew him well.

Is anybody listening?

The three articles on China published last week in the AFR are almost like the last hurrah from one of the most insightful and level-headed journalists still living. Max Suich is one of those people who has lived a long and varied life; and his reflections on the current state of play in China draws upon his own views and those of a number of his contemporaries, and their apprehension about the course of current Sino-Australian relations.

This trilogy commences with reference to the world conditions when the AFR was started 70 years ago. It was not long after that I was on a cargo boat in the South China Sea in sight of one of the disputed islands of Matsu and Quemoy, tiny National Chinese outposts close to the mainland and Communist China. It was a time when the Chiang Kai-shek regime in the island of Formosa was seen as the legitimate representative of China in the United Nations.  How fanciful that appears now, but then as we crossed the South China Sea, we were buzzed by American Starfighters which swooped out of the clouds and came over the ship just above mast height – twice.

Bloody hell, was it necessary to demonstrate to a small ship carrying wool and grain to Japan how powerful America was? The power equation certainly has shifted over the past decades in the Southern China Sea. American planes intimidating ships close to the Chinese shore in 2021 – I don’t think so – unless America was on war footing.

As for Australia: The conclusion is that while we dramatically changed our approach, we did not define a policy objective for the new relationship with China or a strategy to achieve it. Nor did we thoroughly review alternative options. We elevated anger about Chinese activities in Australia and latent ministerial hostility towards China, turning threadbare slogans into policy. Traditional measured, thoughtful policy-making in an area of such great importance is lost.

Thus spake Suich. He sets out his conclusion succinctly and directly on the first page of his trilogy. He then spends much of the rest justifying the conclusion, which is more a thesis. He had come to that conclusion as the anti-Chinese forces in this country were emboldened by Trump’s antics. No matter how Turnbull may want to re-write history he should share the opprobrium which Max dishes out.

We have no hedge – we are “all the way with the USA” but what if the USA is not there? How does our military, naval and air force stack up, in the face of an aggressive China? Not much, is his assessment. Australia is vulnerable especially, as he pointed out, Pine Gap would be an early target for any Sino-American conflict. Therefore, whether or not America proved to be a steadfast ally, part of any war strategy in this part of the World would be to knock out Pine Gap, inevitably leading Australia being locked into the conflict.

Max Suich has dissected the Australian government approach into three phases, “push back, call out, out in front”. The three stage approach typifies a crude approach to the reality where the right wing infiltrate in the intelligence always inflates the danger in order to maintain their relevance to government. Max quoted one still serving official – “without Trump the hawks would not have the mode to develop their own insane line that we had no choice but to divert trade flows and supply chains.”

As he goes on to write, the John Howard approach twenty years ago “we don’t have to choose” between America and China has been dumped, but echoing experienced advice there was no way that Australia, with its limited defence forces, could possibly back up its bellicose rhetoric. In fact, as Turnbull has written in his recent opus, Australia has to be careful where its warships sail in Asian waters because there is no doubt that the Chinese are watching. The Americans may have the power to extricate a ship which ventures too close, but Australia by itself does not.

Nevertheless, paranoia is fanned by the idea that the Chinese government is penetrating the Australia community and in particular the Chinese diaspora. Such investigation of this has only yielded Sam Dastyari who, despite his indiscretion, still seems to be involved in the sensitive vaccine rollout. There was all that flurry around Gladys Liu, the Coalition member for Chisholm, because of her apparent ties in China, but that seems to have dropped off the intelligence schedule and is not mentioned by Max anywhere in the article.

The Government seems not to be bothered by the experience of South Korea where, earlier in the last decade, it experienced a Chinese trade freeze. Yet for all the bravado, the articles note three forces operating currently in our dealings with China. The alienation from China has been aggravated, as he points out, by the circumstances of the COVID-19 virus first being seen in Wuhan and the subsequent lack of co-operation by the Chinese in the investigation of its genesis, where one of the major cheerleaders for the investigation has been Australia.

The first force is the feeling of being abandoned, and if one delves into the history of the ANZUS pact, it was constructed originally against the wishes of the State Department in Washington – the nightmare of “Washington not picking up the phone.”   Then the rise of Xi Jin Ping, who has disturbed the comfortable trading arrangement that some Australians had built up with various Chinese businesses. The impression of a free enterprise economy able to exist under a one-party system was brought to a halt by Xi .

Max recognises that Xi’s assertiveness and his expansionary vision for China as a truly Pacific maritime power was another impetus for the rise  in Australia of the intelligence community influence and their political hawks on both sides of the parliamentary aisles. Any moderating influence of DFAT is seemingly ignored and Max quotes Foreign Minister Payne going it alone on the Wuhan inspectors seeking answers on the Wuhan connection with the virus, and particularly whether the virus escaped from a laboratory there.

He doesn’t attempt to analyse Xi’s character, because being pragmatic, Max recognises Xi is what he is, and nothing will change him. However, this is not to say that defining his strengths and weaknesses is not more than a parlour game. Remember XI was a princeling forced to eat dirt – he understands how the game “Go” unravels. In this game, there is a need to understand its length. Xi does not intend losing; he has tasted the soil. As someone said to me, he doesn’t care about the niceties.

Max says that the breakdown of our government’s foreign policy development process and its supplanting by the security and intelligence services and their vociferous supported is a main driver of Australian government attitude.

I know there is a younger brigade of Australians who have repeatedly dealt with the Chinese and who believe that Obama’s soft position towards China would have been reflected in the present Biden administration. However, free of Obama, these so-called liberals have adopted a hard line almost indistinguishable from that of the Trumpers. In this narrative, Obama is the villain.

As Max said, we took more risks than we should; we could have been adroit. This is the position of “former senior officials who lament the lack, still, of policy making and disciplined public language about China, that weighs up options and employs some subtlety and seriously considers the risks of war.”

One source, Paul Dib, compares the situation to the 1930s where the risks set off by territorial confrontation were ever present, in Europe, Africa, and Asia. In the meantime, Australia then lived in bliss, ostensibly under the wing of the British Empire. Now it is the USA to continue to shield us, but the hawks are everywhere so that his conclusion of this need to follow the USA is “a bleak but realistic view…if the hawks of Washington and Beijing are not stifled, if compromise is rebuffed, war will be the consequence, a disaster for Taiwan and the combatants and a disaster for the rich and growing economies of our region.”

China is not complicated as suggested in the article – the World exists at the whim of Xi Jin Ping.

His adversaries are varied; have we ever really looked into the eyes of these hawks of ours – these eyes exhibiting uncertain bravado and fear?

These are not the fanatics which drove the agenda of the 1930s but more the muddle-headed wombats who took us into the Vietnam war. This time, the War will not be an away game.

I do not want the prospect, if I survive, of stumbling through the rubble which was once Sydney. Everybody, look carefully at Gaza and that was only an 11 day’s conflict.

Thank you, Max for encouraging me to write this critique.

 A Prickly Situation

My eye was caught by an article in the NYT this week. It concerned the poaching of rare species of cacti from the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile and them being found smuggled into Italy.

The Atacama Desert is not particularly large compared to other deserts, but it is a remarkable ecological structure. There is an area where it has not rained for about 500 years; there is another part where the largest copper mine in the world is located.

Licancabùr

As we looked out from our hotel in San Pedro de Atacama in this patch of green, the dominant view rising high from the desert was Licancabùr, the volcanic cone rising high above the desert. The volcano is very close straddling the Bolivian and Chilean border, and as you near it, sulphur is mined on its slopes. Sulphur – ah, the whiff of hell, but here the winds tend to cart the smell away.

This desert has historically been an area of dispute between Chile, Bolivia and Peru. It was called the Saltpetre War, and ostensibly it was about Bolivia retaining access to the Pacific Ocean but, as the name implies, it was a battle over the nitrite deposits used in both fertilisers and explosives. Chile won that war, which has enabled that country to exploit the mineral rich Atacama and, since discovered, also the site of substantial lithium deposits.

San Pedro de Atacama is in an altiplano pocket of the desert, the remnants of the Andes, which mean one is strolling and riding around at 2, 408 metres. The highest point we reached were the Geysers del Tatio which lie at 4,330 metres, a large cauldron of boiling water where there are signs in English and Spanish warning for you not to get too close to the edge of the multiple pools. The sudden spurts of boiling waters and steam at such an altitude are very impressive. There are no fences; you are able to freely wander. At least one tourist did step too close apparently and ended up boiled in one of the pools.

Even though we were only 14 kilometres from the Bolivian border we skipped walking up the volcano which tops 5,920 m. For comparison, Mount Kosciuszko is 2,200 m high.

This area of the Atacama altiplano is very diverse. What with the geysers, and flamingos standing in salt water at an alkaline PH of 10 and eating the crustacea out of the brine. These tiny marine life determine the flamingoes’ colour. Every desert has “bad lands” of rocks and gulches. Here Atacama has its red rock folded into buttes and jagged cliffs. They were thought to mimic valleys on the moon rather than a scenario from a Hollywood Western.

Here I found myself rooted, unable to move, halfway up one of these hills, on a goat track not one-person wide, winding itself to the peak. I have always suffered from vertigo, and stupidly I looked back and down. The cheerful chatter ceased. There is nothing more debilitating than being stuck like that, with feet in the shifting sand unable to move. Here, feminine resolve came to the forefront to uproot the fear – women on either side of me giving me their hands, encouraging me onwards.

We stop on the way in stone cottage villages where the construction of the houses would not have changed since Inca times. One of these villages called Machuca had about ten houses, was situated at 4,000 metres but still had its church perched on the hill above the houses. This is subsistence living. Guanacos can live at that high altitude and like their relatives, camels, will drink salty water, but like the vicuñas are not domesticated. The flightless rheas dot the landscape, not venturing close.

It was an enthralling landscape and the hospitality overall was great, the only blemish being locked in a poorly ventilated minibus with an English family for three hours as we went back to Antofagasta to catch the plane back to Santiago, but they probably had the same feelings towards us – a little more Albion disdain. Having sprawled across the front rows they objected to us wanting the windows being open. Not even my wife’s imitation of Shrek’s donkey colleague amused them.

But you see what is pointed out to you or what you are looking for, and in the desert, on this trip I failed to appreciate the flora.  In the Atacama are some of the rarest and most intricate cacti. I suppose I should have been interested given the use of cactus wood to make the doors of the cottages.

Now there is an increasing market for those unnoticed cacti.  The cacti of the Atacama are special. A year after the robbery from the Atacama happened, the NYT has reported on a cactus “heist”. This had been uncovered in Northern Italy.  Most of the stolen plants, many over a hundred years old, had been taken from the Atacama.

As the NYT said in the article:

Cactuses and other succulents are hot business today. They have become the darlings of social media, promoted by indoor plant influencers for their outlandish looks and minimal care requirements. The pandemic only increased their popularity, with shops struggling to keep some species in stock.

The average hipster’s cactus collection will include only common species propagated in nurseries. But for some specialist collectors — who tend to be middle-aged or older men — the hobby is much more serious.

“A lot of what drives the interest and passion for these plants is their uniqueness and rarity.”

Atacama cacti

Of course, that is the problem. People with too much money, bored by their hedonism, looking for something different and in this instance, something requiring little maintenance. Perfect!

There is a line to be drawn between appreciation and acquisition. I have never been a xerophile, and in fact cacti watching has always been low on my attention span. Having written that, cacti can be striking. I wrote a piece one winter in Arizona called “Snow on the Saguaro”. Seeing those majestic cacti, their branches smothered in white, reflects how severe the winter was we were then traversing.  While we marvelled and I wrote this, there was no passion to dig up all these cacti and transport them Los Angeles to become a prop for silver tinsel and light. A silly notion, but no more silly than digging up the cacti in the Atacama for them to be festooned on balconies of the palazzi of Milan.

One wonders how many of those who buy plants illicitly taken, really appreciate them, or do they just want to have something nobody else has.

Anyway, this story had a better end than most of these robberies. As has been reported:

844 cactuses made the return journey to Chile. Around 100 others had died, and 84 stayed in Milan for study.

Mr. Cattabriga (responsible for apprehending the shipments which had first passed through easier EU custom controls in Romania and Greece) has been making daily video calls to try to ensure the plants are being properly cared for while they are in quarantine. According to Bernardo Martínez Aguilera, head of the forest inspection department at Chile’s National Forest Corporation, the final goal “is that the majority of these individuals return to their natural environment, which they never should have left.”

Rules have been introduced among cacti lovers not to purchase the seeds for such exotica, on the grounds that if these cacti are allegedly propagated, it provides a cover for the poachers’ lack of provenance. A worldwide problem but this is a salutary tale. The answer is always the same – curbing the poor attracted by the cash, harvesting the cacti and a cohort of wealthy humans who always vote for subsidy, tax breaks and entitlement with rapacious middlemen who always vote for subsidy, tax breaks and entitlement with greasy paws.

Mouse Whisper

Is it an unnoticed cultural cringe? The Swans are a Sydney Australian Football team, which was transplanted from Melbourne where they were known as the South Melbourne Football Club. The colours are red and white which earned them the early nickname of “The Bloods’. But somehow, presumably because South Melbourne was originally a marsh from which the Albert Park Lake was carved, the idea of calling the team by the name “Swans” was floated. But the white swan, whether cob or pen, is not an Australian; it’s a Pom!

Black swans are as Australians as Vegemite. If the club wanted to call itself the Swans, it should have adopted black. I am surprised that my indigenous brothers played with colours and name which reflected colonial attitudes. Especially as there are only black swans on the Albert Park Lake.

Imagine the Sydney Swans changing to a black and red strip. What would they say at Essendon?

And don’t me started on the St George Illawarra Rugby League colours taken from the St George Cross which I believe has some relationship to an island off Europe.

Dragons – yes, they have relation to Australia – water dragons can be seen all over Sydney in nurseries.

By the way, the native animal of NSW is the platypus and the bird kookaburra, but a Major Mitchell cockatoo has all the elements of red (if actually pink) and white. But barracking for the platypi, the Kookas (or Burras or the Cockatoos) – could be very authentic like the Eels.

My preference. Come on The Majors.

 

 

Modest Expectations – Biden & Boehner

Here I am still writing a blog over two years from one I started inter alia with a eulogy of Jacinda Ardern, which caused some ruction among my acquaintances. I use the word “eulogy” because I was seen as being over complimentary. Yet in retrospect, given the revelations which have come out about the predatory behaviour embedded in the contemporary political scene, she has emerged as an exemplar of how a female political staffer can become Prime Minister – and not only become Prime Minister but also be prepared to hand over the reins to her then deputy, Winston Peters, while she had a baby.

Now the self-confidence that exuded coupled with the compassion and leadership she has shown in the face of the tragedy of volcano eruption and mass shooting have been so heartfelt. But I better not lay my comments about Jacinta Ardern on with a trowel; otherwise others may wonder aloud why I am still Mr Starry-eyes. Maybe it is because she does not wear a baseball cap – well not often. It also helps if instinctively you know how and when to smile and how and when to grieve.

A Woman in White

The question always arises – am I responding to an illusion? The quote below is elegant in the way it describes such a reaction.

In the novel’s famed opening scene, art teacher Walter Hartright is walking back to London on a desolate street around midnight “when, in one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me.”

He turns to see “the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to toe in white garments …”

“’Is that the road to London?’” she asks.

The encounter is both unexpected and cinematic. The dark deserted road, coupled with the late hour contrasts vividly with the light touch of the extraordinarily dressed woman and her mundane question.

No; the woman in question in this excerpt is not Christine Holgate coming home from a Parliamentary ordeal, but the woman who gives the name to Wilkie Collins’ 1859 novel “The Woman in White”, some say the first mystery novel. Her name, Anne Catherick, a woman dressed so by her mother, but it is a different way of looking at the one subject – a woman dressed in white.  Beware what you wish for, even when wafting as a Friday AFR supplement apparition, who was once a Premier of a State of Australia. Was it is meant to create an illusion like Anne Catherick?

Order Arms!

During the Vietnam War, there was an increased requirement for doctors. My relationship with military activity ended when I left school and, among the many wonderfully mindless activities I left behind, was the cadet corps for which, despite my years of faithful service, I was never rewarded with promotion.

My friend and I bore scars of our service. On our uniform sleeves – mine with crossed flags to signal my devotion to the signal corps – and my friend’s, who was also a crack shot and had crossed rifles in recognition of his membership of the school shooting team. The school even then had a rifle range on the top of one of the buildings – long since gone.

But perhaps if my early love for the military camaraderie had not been dampened, who knows where Sousa would have taken me. At the annual cadet camp my friend and I tried to implement that camaraderie by inviting some of our fellow cadets who, unlike us were distinguished with stripes of authority, to share our gin in the methylated spirits bottle. Our invitation was met with undue hostility. We were not to know they were militant abstainers. The problem was we had no chevrons to be stripped from our sleeves, so long-term punishment was limited; and the matter was settled within the tent. I still remember being hit from behind and the rifle butt on my neck.

When it came to national service, which persisted into the late 1950s, I was excluded because of my calcanea vera which, in common parlance, translated as very flat feet. All my life, if I walked long distances or had jobs which required my standing on my feet for many hours, the spasticity and consequential pain particularly of my peroneal muscles and tendons and the small extensor muscles on the dorsum of the foot was intense. The pain was often incapacitating for a day or more, and the only antidote I found very late in life was R.M. Williams boots. Surgery was excluded very early.

My friends came back, but apart from the “Nasho” anecdotes very few continued with any association with armed forces. A number of the medical students committed themselves to the various armed services in order to pay for their tuition but also to provide 1,500 pounds tax free a year until they finished their course.

On graduation, they would be promoted to Naval lieutenant or equivalent and in return after their intern year they were expected to give four years of service. My father, who had strong links with armed service through his work in the Repatriation Department as a doctor and somebody who spent both pre-war and later during World War 11 as an officer in “the wavy navy” was keen that I join the Navy. His attention to polishing his handmade shoes I could never emulate; so that fantasy drifted away.

However, during the 1960s, with two kids and a wife also involved in post-graduate study, money was tight. I was working in the Monash Department of Medicine at the then Prince Henry’s Hospital in St Kilda Rd Melbourne, which was conveniently located next to Victoria Barracks. Out of the blue, a doctor with strong links with the medical corps whom I remember as Colonel Hogan, asked whether I would do some of morning sick parades at the Barracks. This led to more work undertaking the annual medical examination of the ranks, there and elsewhere in Victoria.  Then, as the ballot came in for Vietnam recruitment, I was asked to undertake the medical examinations of the conscripts.

I had kept my opinions very much to myself, but I was personally devastated by the 1966 khaki election where the Coalition achieved a landslide as they played “jingo bells” all night. It is why I find this continual beating of the tom-toms of war even now so appalling. Apparently Vietnam has not been lesson enough, witnessing a generation of damaged men and women who emerged from that conflict and initially without the plaudits of a substantial number of their own generation, who instead protested in the streets.

Yet here was even the opportunity to examine young men who had been conscripted by the roll of a roulette wheel to fight in a foreign land for what proved to be vacuous objectives. I did not hide my distaste but nor did I volunteer my opposition on a street corner.  The fact that my step-mother shared the secretary role of the Australia-China Society with Myra Roper at that time and that she and my father went to and were lionised in China several times during the course of the 1960s did not affect my job with the army.

We were a strange bunch, who used to gather several nights a week to examine each bunch of conscripts. Two doctors were teamed, one older and one younger who did not know one another beyond vicarious professional association. Nevertheless, there were times when I was rostered alone to undertake the recruit examinations. One night when alone I had about ten young blokes, all of whom failed my medical examination. My strictness on ensuring fitness to die perhaps swayed some of the decisions that evening. It was such a calamity that such a number were unfit, but it passed without comment from above. Incidentally we were asked not to say anything beyond that required to elicit symptoms, but if a significant disease was discovered then all one could say was that the potential recruit should go and see his local doctor.

The ability to detect mental illness was very limited and the illness had to be florid. This was the case when I was confronted by a restless young man walking up and down the corridor who insisted he wanted a gun so he “could kill some commies”.  When I found he had an eyeball tattooed on each buttock, I regretfully failed him by writing “atypical strabismus” on his form, thus avoiding an essay on his obvious mental troubles. These examinations did not give us leeway to highlight mental health problems; I hoped that the local medical doctor, if he ever saw one, recognised that the young man had a serious problem.

At the other end of this medical cocoon was the recruit who turned up, complete with caftan, beads and sandals, a flower child in all ways. He stood defiantly with his principled stance, refusing to be examined. Fortunately, the only doctors left that evening were a few of the younger ones, who knew one another and thus were never rostered to work together. This defiance was an exceptional situation. The older doctors left us to sort out this problem.

Thus, we did have an advantage of youth in that we did not pull out the “I’m a doctor; you’ll do as I say” line. We just negotiated and as the night wore on, he knew that we would wait him out. He wanted some exposure as the “victim” being taken away, but as my fellow doctor said, “Look, we all want to go home. Just get up on the couch and let us do a quick examination”. For us, it was about the minimal set of words which should have given him the hint, if he had listened, that we were going to fail him. After some more tedious palaver, he consented to a limited examination.

We did not have to examine far – only needed a stethoscope on his chest. Listening to his heart, he had a very loud “machinery murmur”; all that trouble he had put us through. There was no way he could pass his medical examination; in fact, he needed to see a cardiac specialist.  He had got his exemption.

Realising that all was not well, his attitude changed from truculence to fear – poor bugger – as he saw us discussing the finding – but all we were permitted to say was that he should go and see his local doctor as soon as possible. Even here we were not even allowed to tell him he had failed, even after such close contact. “Just don’t delay, but go home – and good luck”.

A Catalyst

Nick Coatsworth is an unusual doctor.  He has an impressive career inter alia working for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) from 2004 in Congo-Brazzaville, the Republic of Chad, and the Darfur region of Sudan. Before becoming President of MSF Australia in 2010-11. I have never met him, but during my professional career, I have met a couple of doctors with his easy confidence and natural charisma with the underlying skill to match. “This man ain’t no desk jockey,” as they say. However, this past  week he has shown perfect political timing. The boyish grin has been replaced by the serious “defender of the Faith”.

I think he is a beacon, despite being the face that tried to flog the COVID-19 App, which was such a dud, and which I thought might have precipitated him moving out of the Department. He was truly handed the Australian “sandwich”. There are two ways such involvement can be interpreted, apart from bad judgement – of which we were all guilty of at one time or another. The first is that he genuinely believed; and/or he was the epitome of the loyal public servant.

The Toblerone Zone – 1942

There is such uncertainty about the government. This is a government once applauded for its suppression of the Virus. Now, its success is being assailed. Words like “hermit kingdom” and “gilded cage” are bandied about. But the polls suggest that Australians support border closure. There is another metaphor for the current situation “Switzerland in 1942” – a neutral country surrounded by ongoing war.

Australia has been inured to defending the borders. Against the “boat people”, we have an enduring policy of making asylum seekers very unwelcome and thus over more than 20 years of border closure and the construction of basic facilities offshore, in PNG or Nauru and countries like Cambodia which took money for not much of anything. However, it fuelled the flame that has never fully died of “White Australia”.

Stripping all the self-interest away, there are distinct matters that face the Government linked to the changing times –

  • The intertwining of political and scientific speak – the prize example is “herd immunity”. Ask a politician to define it; I remember when the late Senator Button asked the then Minister for Science a question with notice along the lines of “what was the relationship between an inch and a centimetre?” The Minister could not answer. Here are the key words – “without notice” – to which I would add, “without understanding”. Senator Pattison, in his cameo appearance on Q&A this week, has shown in his responses that this lack of understanding has persisted in the plush red of the Senate.
  • the efficacy and uptake of the various vaccines. The Government bet on the AstraZeneca vaccine where controversy seems to have engendered the hesitancy beloved by the anti-vaxxers. Unfortunately the chance to obliterate that hesitancy by providing a choice of vaccines has not been an option. Choice is important provided there is a similar proven efficacy. As for anti-vaxxers – they are not hesitant – they are clear about their opposition.
  • the prevention of community spread and the fact that there has been an attitudinal and behavioural change towards hygiene – masks are one example. There is a developing phenomenon of living with the virus as vaccination rolls out; the images of Australian intensive care units and dying patients have been removed from the media screens to be replaced by images of India. Nevertheless, so long as the health services are not compromised within Australia, then the government has eased restrictions locally. After all, there are few politicians who want to be unpopular, and in many countries this loosening of the restrictions is very much ad hoc and often premature.
  • the construction of dedicated quarantine facilities for incoming travellers, where it seems there is no plan beyond expansion of the current Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory.
  • the agitation for Australian border opening. Now the Genie is well and truly out of the bottle as the business groups are beginning not only to agitate but also, as one influential person initially showed by her disdain for the collateral damage of lives lost, to question what might be an “acceptable” level of deaths from COVID that would accompany open borders. “Death at the Australian Open” would be a title for a crime novel; or schadenfreude.

The Coatsworth message was at its heart very authoritarian. All the seers, laureate prophets, tea leaf examiners, bird augers, and hand washing experts should be sidelined, and the only collective voice should be those who have to articulate and implement the policy.

It could be a long shot, it but sounds by his oratory that Coatsworth is submitting his application, and the one image I have of him is a very thoughtful guy, but one who when he makes up his mind that’s it! He may be able to accomplish this huge Medusa head task, especially as he has a track record of leadership. Good to give him a go.

On second thoughts, maybe the application should be for Prime Minister.

Reformation – COVID1517

The Clown at 95 

In Danville, the boy spent a lot of time at the movies. Fifteen cents bought a ticket to the Palace to see westerns, Bela Lugosi’s latest or slapstick comedies with Buster Keaton, the moody pratfall master, and Laurel and Hardy. Stan Laurel, the British-born comic with the bow tie and bowler, was a particular favourite and he would practice his routines. Years later, after his own rise, he tracked down the reclusive Laurel and visited him at home. When Laurel died in 1965, he delivered his eulogy with a tearful Keaton sitting in the front row. “God bless all clowns,” he said, delivering his hero’s favourite poem, “The Clown’s Prayer.” “Who star in the world with laughter,/ Who ring the rafters with flying jest,/ Who make the world spin merry on its way.”

A year later, he did the same at Keaton’s funeral. 

Dick & Mary

I could not resist putting this extract into my blog. The “he” is Dick Van Dyke, now 95 but in amazingly good fettle, an actor to whom I have never paid that much attention. His show “The Dick Van Dyke Show” with his co-star Mary Tyler Moore was always somewhere in the background wherever there was a television set in a house. The times I watched it, it was a combination of slapstick towards us, the audience; yet an underlying sexual attraction between him and Moore. Otherwise, it was just conventional American sitcom.

I knew he was very tall, and that he was always fresh-faced youthfulness disguising a man who was both an alcoholic and smoked too much. Yet, teetotal but still chewing nicotine gum, he now looks remarkably fit and ever broadly smiling, his signature.

I was fascinated by the reference to Stan Laurel, and the fact that as a relatively unknown actor he gave the eulogy to Laurel at his 1965 funeral, where another famous comic, the deadpan Buster Keaton, was sitting in the front row. Keaton died a year later and again Van Dyke was the eulogist at the funeral. Before his death, Keaton gave Van Dyke one of his most valued possessions – a set of billiard cues – which Van Dyke still possesses.

These names mean very little today, but in their day, each was huge at the box office. Comedian Stan Laurel was one part of the Laurel and Hardy duo. Stan Laurel was in fact English born, in Ulverston in Cumbria, where a statue of the two has been erected.

All very interesting along the pathway of nasturtium trivia, but what caught my eye was that there is a Clown’s Prayer which, in abridged form, is somewhat different from that quoted above, says:

As I stumble through this life, help me to create more laughter than tears, dispense more cheer than gloom, spread more cheer than despair. Never let me become so indifferent, that I will fail to see the wonders in the eyes of a child, or the twinkle in the eyes of the aged. Never let me forget that my total effort is to cheer people, make them happy, and forget momentarily, all the unpleasantness in their lives. And in my final moment, may I hear You whisper: “When you made My people smile, you made Me”.

Clown’s service, Hackney

It did not take much further research to find out that there is a Holy Trinity Church in Hackney in the London East End which is known as the Clown’s Church, because every year there is a service in February to celebrate the life of Joe Grimaldi, the first archetypical clown to use the white-face makeup and the term “Here we go again”. Since 1967, the congregation has been permitted to dress as clowns. Notwithstanding, the most recent vicar is not only a chaplain to the Queen, but she has been made the Suffragan Bishop for Dover (which means she hangs out in Canterbury Cathedral).

I have travelled a long way from Mr Van Dyke, unless he has performed at one of the Clown services – but then meandering, as I say, plucking the nasturtiums as I go is one of the features of blog writing. And I refrain from suggesting a new form of opening prayer for Parliament – but the words of the prayer belie the title the Clown. More I think of Pagliacco.

Mouse Whisper

In many places of worship my image has been carved under many a pew.

I as a mouse may be one thing, even venerated. Mice in plague proportions overrunning and destroying the world are another. Mice showed the way in demonstrating the efficacy of penicillin, and you humans have benefited mightily by our sacrifice. Ask Howard Florey who also said that humans were 500 times the size of a mouse.

You as a human may be one thing and you too may be venerated. But humans overrunning and destroying the world are another.

It is just a matter of how the plague is controlled, especially when all who are running around don’t acknowledge that they can be a plague within their world of Horizons.