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.

Modest Expectations – Cheers Bar

Cheers Bar

The actual address of Cheers Bar was 112½A Beacon Street, Boston – in other words I have resorted to an approximation for this week’s blog.

One of my former partners, who was a very good mathematician, said that he always judged his peers by knowing whether they knew when to approximate. I have never been numerical, but I know you can vanish along the decimal value of π and end up in a different world where sanity evaporates in the pursuit of such accuracy in this relationship of circumference to diameter of a circle. Endless fun.

One of the matters that used to irritate me was when I was seeking certain data, I was told it was unavailable because 100 per cent of the data had not been collected. In other words, the data publication had been delayed by over-zealous statisticians when 95 per cent would have been adequate – if the distribution is normal then approximation of data around the mean of the distribution is mostly likely to be good enough for policy considerations.

But this wise mathematician also told me that when coming to conclusions make sure your assumptions are clear and transparent; something unfortunately becoming less and less evident in public policy. Then, your approximations could be assessed as to validity in the pursuit of making the particular decision.

The excellent Dr Paul Kelly, the Chief Health Officer, clearly outlined the government assumptions in his critique (let us not say criticism) of the government’s reasoning in invoking the provisions of the Biosecurity Act to keep Australians in India from returning. His was calm, measured, sensible advice, which the Government, now scrambling to save face, will follow. Within this prediction, it shall become clear how accurate is the approximation of 9,000 Australians in India who require repatriation.

And so it was, when the COVID-19 infected Dutton emerged in their midst, it was fortunate that Kelly was there to quell the Cabinet hysteria.

I do not know just how the Government have guessed, estimated, approximated and predicted the number of Australians who have visited our near neighbours. After all, the assumption is that each of the verbs in the previous sentences mean approximately the same thing, but with an ascending order of assuredness in their use in media releases.

With most of Asia plunged into pandemic considerations has Mr Coates, in that tattered remnant of his imperial cloak – the Olympic Games, issued an approximation of the number of athletes that will become infected during this festival. My assumption is that he will say “none”. Just an approximation after all!

The Divine Light of the Gods

One of the interesting aspects of the spread of COVID-19 in India is the reaction it has generated in those who, one way or another, are driven to comment. The threat to put Australian citizens in prison because they want to come home and escape the virus was hysterical. The fact that some of our best cricketers were caught up in this catastrophe only complicated the situation.

Now I am not one of those who believe that the Government’s immediate midnight reaction would have not been approved by a strong segment of the population. These have remained quiet while megaphones from both left and right have given Morrison a roasting, to coin a phrase. However, what has been most confronting here has been the sight of the funeral pyres night after night on television. As somebody said, it is a vision of hell.

In India, fire is a very important symbol. Yet India was associated with the flower generation where there was always some swami in some ashram somewhere in India where mostly privileged Europeans were drawn to seek “enlightenment”, and lotus flower symbolism was everywhere.

I first had the privilege of traveling the length and breadth of India when it was a secular state. Then the Nehru-Gandhi hegemony was strong.

With the ascension of the charismatic Modi, India has been converted into a Hindu state, despite the fact that India’s Muslim population is the World’s third largest, close behind two avowed Muslim nations, Indonesia and Pakistan. Hindu intolerance is confronting. I have entered a Kali temple, one of the few not prohibited to non-Hindu people. To me Kali was a black doll monster, at the centre of a dark incense-ridden foreign place where I was both fascinated and yet repelled.

Contrast that with the elephant head Ganesh, where the myth of his head being chopped off by an enraged Shiva and that of an elephant sown on to replace the human head is just one of tales which surround the religion. Yet we have a figure of Ganesh in our home. Ganesh is a symbol of good fortune; and it gives a clue as to how pervasive Indian culture becomes once you have been and seen.

The COVID-19 pandemic was never going to bypass India, because wherever you go in India there are crowds, pressing in upon one another. Modi loves the theatre of the large crowd and given that Varanasi is his electorate we are constantly confronted with the spectacle of the crowded river Ganges. When I was first exposed to this crush of humanity, it was as overwhelming as the smell of India, which never leaves you. There is an axiom which tests the strength of any union, association or whatever you call two foreigners abroad. “One watches the bags, while the other creates the space.” It always seemed to work no matter where we were in India – and crowds.

It is easy to ascribe a national identity to India, and there is no doubt the Hindu caste system has embedded in itself a sense of entitlement – at least with some. This is pronounced whenever you deal with Indians as at some stage a sense of entitlement will bob up.

Again, as an example, I remember giving a talk to a group of health professionals, predominantly doctors. There were both male and female doctors at this meeting in a town in the very South of India. My talk was given over dinner in which we ate our curry served on banana leaves. The whole atmosphere was so authentic – down to the separation of the male and female doctors onto separate tables, including my partner.

This often overbearing regard for the place of women was one of the problems I have encountered, not only in India but also with some Indian-trained doctors here. Yet Indian men have a great reverence for their parents, and one of the most obvious examples of this are reports of the number of older Indian women in wheelchairs at airports; sons are very concerned to ensure the mother does not have to walk from the plane, but they clearly show their wonderful ability to walk when greeted by family and leaping from the wheelchair to run to the family. This atavistic reverence is reflected in the number of stories of the Indian-born Australian now caught in India.

The other is the number of small children who seemingly have been lodged in India. It is very difficult to see an infant apparently helpless against the encroaching Virus and to not elicit the reaction for someone “to get them out of there”. What is the reason for this? Could it be that the couple working full-time in Australia want a safe haven for their child’s care, and grandparents are an obvious place to park the children, even if it means leaving them in India for extended periods. Up until now that practice has gone unnoticed or unsanctioned.

The Indian-born population in Australia amounts to 455,389 or 1.9 per cent of the Australian population. The affinity for the country of birth, especially when there are close relatives in India, remains strong. However, one of the prices of being a citizen is that you also accept that some of your personal risks clash with public policy considerations. However, if one knows the risk, then one must also accept the consequence if risk translates into liability for the wrong choice.

The fact is that the Australian government has not factored in the need for a more long term sustainable quarantine capacity will inevitably mean hardship will occur to those waiting to return from overseas. Just as it is trying to contain the Virus where up to 50 per cent of incoming travellers may be infected throws this policy stumble into letters writ large. Larger and more custom-made quarantine facilities, where it is an accepted fact that when coming from most places worldwide there will be an invariable 14-day hiatus during which everyone will quarantine and be tested multiple times, with designated exceptions such as New Zealand and the island dependencies of our two countries. The volume of people needing to come here will increase with an impatient tourist industry scratching at the Government’s door.

Politicians try to fill the vacuum of uncertainty with unsubstantiated optimism (remember the vacuous Trump assertions as America died), which in this case is trying to predict the future of a disease in which the vaccine remains unproven in its long term efficacy – and long term in this situation means “a year”.

Does that prediction alter when our young politicians realise that their contemporaries in both Brazil and India are dying from the mutant strains stealthily and rapidly causing them to die unpleasantly; and be under no illusions this chameleon virus can mutate at the drop of a tartan rug.

Australia has achieved an enviable record in quarantine, even though there are obvious blemishes. Parenthetically, rabbits were one example. Eradication has been so successful that rabbits are now a luxury item on the dinner table. Nowhere else in a major country except New Zealand has achieved suppression of the Covid-19 virus to the same extent we have. However, you can never relax, as shown by our pursuit of the rabbit plague.  (I consider Taiwan a special situation being more an armed camp than a nation.)

But after the Indian tide, the biggest test will be to see how the Government handles the anticipated 1,000 travellers returning from the Toyko Games, without assuming that any will become COVID-19 positive while out of Australia. Now where will be the holding pen? Even if the team members don’t all return at the same time, there will be a significant number to be managed at any one time in quarantine.

An expanded permanent human quarantine capacity that is not a “make do” in willing hotels clearly is essential. This sector will require staffing. That means more staffing and where does that staffing come from? I have worked in rural health encompassing inter alia assuring workforce for many years.  To achieve sustainability in the workforce in a country such as ours is very difficult, especially when the policy makers are blissfully ignorant of what works because there is no readily available corporate memory nor empirical evidence of what works – just opinion and opinionation.

Ganesh

Here we Go Again

I have worked in rural health policy for a considerable time and it sticks in the craw when a doctor reveals his ignorance by hailing the modest injection of a rural element into the Medicare benefit for eligible patients as if it is something new. Since there has been no rebuttal, this statement just confirms that the profession has no realisation of what has occurred in the past, what has worked and what has not.

Throwing money at medical workforce problems has never worked.

Repeatedly I have outlined the challenges that face the provision of rural health, and the problem is that the structural change I assisted in bringing in through the University Departments of Rural Heath, the Rural Clinical Schools and the Rural Intern Training Program in Victoria can easily disappear if there are no champions for its continuance. This requires advocacy, not lazy policy makers, who do not care a “tuppenny tart”, as long as they seem to be doing something, even if it is a discredited strategy.  This reminds me of that New York wit, Ida Downer, who wrote “Maybe some consultant provided advice at an appropriate price in order to maintain their expensive watch vice.

There are four challenges which should be addressed in the development of any rural health policy.

  • Social dislocation – by which I mean that the spouse does not want to go there or where you have to send the children away to school. The concept of a young graduate going to a rural location and staying there for his or her professional life is increasingly a myth. The sensible response to this challenge is to accept that five years is a reasonable stint in one place.
  • Isolation – this occurs in a variety of forms, but professional isolation is one danger, even with the myriad professional development programs including online options, coupled with the availability of registrars and other doctors employed in subsidised training schemes. The sole doctor risks burnout, and one of the aims of the programs I promoted was to reduce the possibility of professional isolation.
  • Community tolerance – in country towns, especially if you are the only one, you have no privacy. Therefore, there are two options – immerse yourself and your family in the life of the town or get away from the town at weekends which, in a single doctor town, leads to all sorts of antagonisms. In other words, the way the community views its medical workforce is critical for retention.
  • Succession planning – often the hardest, because there is a push me/pull me syndrome in many country doctors. When the media spotlight is focussed on the local doctor, then if the request is not for money it is a plea for more doctors. The doctor should be planning for succession, but how many do that? Often, when the doctor is offered a doctor to assist, then the resident doctor changes direction because the fear is of another doctor impairing the incumbent’s income, which is generally a nonsensical fear unless there is deeper pathology than just basic insecurity. The successful country practices involve succession planning so there is a gradual ageing of the workforce and a balanced practice with each doctor having the general skills to provide emergency treatment but having a special skill required in the practice, such as anaesthesia and obstetrics.

Money is always an important component and I was involved in a number of Inquiries in which the level of Medicare (and before that Medibank) patient benefits was the focus. One of the misunderstandings is that doctors’ fees are set by government; the Federal governments sets the level of the patient medical benefit and when I had direct involvement generally the benefit and actual fee charged by the doctor did not have a substantial gap. That does not hold any longer, except for general practitioners for whom different policies have been implemented, such as those that encourage bulk billing. The rural doctor, whether general practitioner or specialist, nevertheless have other sources of income to supplement the income derived from Medicare Benefits.

If I were conducting a review again of the rural workforce, flying from place to place as I did in the late 1990s, I would ask the same questions to find out what was happening in relation to those four challenges outlined above. You need to stay overnight as I did, and not fly in and fly out the same day. This overnight stay can reveal the tension and the stratagems of avoidance when the simple question of more money and more resources are not automatically accepted as incontrovertible fact.

As a person who engineered one solution to rural workforce and see it being trashed after you have “left the room”, it is very sad, but as someone once said about me, my epitaph should be “He tried!” 

A Woman Scorned

I never liked her father, Vice President under Bush Junior. Not that he was unintelligent. He was, but dangerously so.  I’m sure that I do not like her politics, but then Liz Cheney is a determined woman, who has a set of principles and Trump in his disregard of such principles should be challenged and defeated.

Liz Cheney

She is the sole representative from the State with the smallest population, Wyoming. It is the one State that has one representative in Congress and two in the Senate.

Wyoming is a rich State, and the inhabitants pay no State income taxes because this is fossil fuel territory – oil, gas, and coal. To see the kilometre long coal trains traversing the Wyoming prairie is a sight not easily forgotten. Cheyenne is the capital in the southern part of the State two hours from the Colorado border and one hour from Laramie, where the University of Wyoming is located. Both lie on this altoplano dry area, and travelling across the country just after the snow melts, it is easy to see how the vegetation struggles.

But six hours away in the northern part of the State is Jackson situated at the southern end of the Jackson Hole Valley. Here the scenery is some of the most spectacular, with the Tetons jaggedly thrusting their snow-capped peaks more than 4,000 metres in the cærulean sky. Jackson epitomises the tax haven for the ultra-rich, with an average annual income of the residents being US$16 million, a place with which her father was heavily identified.  One commentator has encapsulated the Jackson conundrum.

This form of “gilded green philanthropy,” widens even further the ugly socio-economic divide, hollowing out the community and making it harder for workers to live nearby. Unable to find affordable housing in town, they are pushed all the way into the neighbouring state of Idaho, on the other side of the treacherous and steep 8,431-foot-high Teton Pass. These workers told many a harrowing story about just making up — and then down — to work in the dead of Wyoming winter.

Close by to the Tetons is the Yellowstone Park with his surface covering the subterranean turbulence, which manifests itself in bubbling pools and geysers spreading across and into both Idaho and Montana. Some have said this is where the destruction of continental America will occur with a massive explosion.

In the meantime, there is Liz Cheney, at the prime of her working life being repudiated on voices by her Republican colleagues yet receiving a standing ovation at the end of her speech to the Caucus yesterday. The explosion which she is engineering under Trump will come, if death or gaol do not supervene. Trump who requires a cosmetic shield to conceal his vacuity, his seditious behaviour and mental deterioration must maintain his profile for another four years. During that time, his support among his own age group will winnow with inevitable death.

Liz Cheney’s march to leadership of the Republican Party is now unconstrained by any faux-loyalty. I shudder though if Wyoming becomes the model for USA. Ironically, Trump tried, but his criminal streak and his narcissism saw him come up short.

Liz Cheney may succeed. In the short term I applaud her unyielding opposition to Trump, but I also remember she is the daughter of Dick Cheney, who was de facto President for eight long years.

Mouse Whisper

There is an entrancing book published recently called “Entangled Life”. Before anyone thinks this is one of those morbid novels about self-discovery, may I interject and say it is a very entertaining exploration of the world of the fungi. One insight into the truffle makes one realise that its smell has to compete against “the olfactory racket of the forest”. As the author, Merlin Sheldrake, writes “every visual disadvantage that truffles face -being entombed in the soil, difficult to spot once unearthed and visually unappealing once spotted – they make up with their smell”.

Elsewhere in the book, Merlin (how appropriate for a mycologist) describes one of the truffle experts as having olfactory flashbacks how powerful is the memory aroma of the top truffles.  But even so he admits there is still so little known about the fungus, including Truffle Mice! Boy, can we smell!

Modest Expectations – Stumps

After another 100 days I hope the world will have the same hope in Biden that it does now after the first 100 days.  Having survived the four years of President Trump with all his mimicry of Batman’s enemies, it is good to have Bruce Wayne alias Joe Biden back.  Sorry, so sorry I mistook your disguise as the doddering anziano, but your treatment of Anita Hill can never be disguised or forgiven because you begat Clarence Thomas, one of the great catastrophes of modern America.

Sometimes He gets it Right

Anonymouse

It was May and then June last year that this Blog started to advocate for custom built quarantine facilities. One of the Blog’s mates thought it would be too expensive, and in any event the hotel industry had near empty facilities desperately in search of customers, so hotel quarantine was born. People returning from overseas fitted the bill for the missing customers, but viral outbreaks from these hotels have sporadically occurred. However, use of such facilities has also produced lessons – all of which can be applied to the adaptation of or construction of bespoke quarantine facilities in each State near ports of entry.

The Federal Government seems to be able to wrap its collective mind around all sorts of spending needs – defence spending seems to be a bottomless pit with an endless time frame.  However, when the matter of defence is against an invisible foe, with so many tricks in its RNA, then Government seems not able to grasp the enormity of the problem and has sat on its hands for 12 months now apparently wishing it would all go away. COVID-19 will persist, with no idea when it will be conquered. At the same time, the social links between countries will be irrevocably changed.

Quarantine facilities require their own expertise and one of the various expertises needed is to ensure the rapid construction with best practice observed. That is why hard-nosed visionaries such as the Wagners in Queensland who were asked by that Government to prepare a plan, should be taken seriously; their Toowoomba airport venture should be sufficient proof as to their competence and ingenuity.

But in true Australian style, Government asks for a report. Jane Halton’s report was adequate in that she articulated the obvious – a national quarantine capacity – although it’s hard to see that recommendation, together with a collection of documentation, to be worth the alleged $118,000 it cost. The Report nevertheless provides the weasel words for the Government to ignore the positive parts of the report.  For instance, the Halton pronouncement set out such a situation for the “Commonwealth Weasel”.

States and Territories should now consider their hotel quarantine operations in line with the features of good practice and make adjustments where necessary to meet these baselines. Noting issues about scalability and the specialised nature of the workforce required to implement hotel quarantine, States and Territories should also investigate establishing standing arrangements with AUSMAT in the event of the need to scale up operations quickly.

Stripping out the verbiage, of which there is plenty, the recommendation is to get a national system of quarantine, with agreed standards and scalable capacity.  Too much to ask that our Federal and State Governments behave like grownups and just do this? The Federal Government’s admissions about quarantine in relation to returnees from India demonstrate the scale of the problem.

How long ago did Halton write her report? 

Concept village – mining, quarantine …

The Inglenooks of Age

When I was a young doctor, elderly patients who presented in hospital, with apparently uninteresting symptoms and signs, besides being old, were called “old sloughs”. Now I have reached that “old slough” age, it just confirms how offensive that description was. Even then I recoiled from the dismissive way hospitals were places where these patients were admitted. Care was a secondary consideration. Therefore, old people when there was considered nothing more could be done, were left in a bed with minimal attention until they could be moved to a geriatric hospital, which was one step before the nursing home.

One case stood out when I was reviewing some of these older people in hospital. It was at a time before the specialty of geriatrics had been carved away from general medicine and general practice. In Victoria there were geriatric hospitals; later I received a more detailed insight into such care when I had to run the rehabilitation unit at one of the large teaching hospitals in Melbourne and later still spent time reviewing facilities when I was responsible for certain sectors of community aged care.

I stopped at the bed of an elderly lady who had been classified as suffering from dementia. I reviewed her charts and there, on her drug charts, was a nightly dose of Relaxa-tabs. She had been taking these for years and the order seemed not to have been changed. Naturally, with the dose prescribed, she would sleep, but I was taken aback by the quantity.

Relaxa-tabs contained bromine and so, out of curiosity, I ordered a serum bromine. When the result came back it showed her serum bromine was at toxic levels and clearly explained her apparent dementia.

The tablets were stopped at the time of the test, and once the serum level was known treatment was instituted to flush the bromine out of her system. Over the next fortnight her mental state improved to such an extent that I cannot remember whether she went home directly or had a staged return to a more normal living. The demented state cleared – I know that much.

To me it was a salutary lesson in labels, especially now I am of that age. Bromine in not the problem it was in the past as it has been removed from reputable pharmaceuticals. I have read that in the USA it is licensed to be added to the water supply of naval ships and oil rigs, as in addition to having sedative properties, it also allegedly dampens the male libido. I grew up, myth or not, believing that bromine was added to the tea of soldiers for such an effect.

You can have as many government inquiries into aged care as you like, but society has passed you by when you strike 80. The elderly with money can have their care softened by the cushioning effect of their money. I had an aunt who lived for her last years in a very plush nursing home, but even in that home, it was evident how many of the staff were recent immigrants, particularly from the Philippines and Nepal.

Yet neglect remains the headline for much that goes on in the aged care sector. The stories on the one hand of the Greek Orthodox Church demanding its nursing homes pay a tithe so the archbishop can have a wardrobe of fancy raiment or, on the other hand, of nursing home owners who live lavish lifestyles, complete with the signature matching yellow Lamborghinis, running nursing homes with minimum standards of care. I well remember the whole fiasco of Bronwyn Bishop’s stewardship 20 years ago when she was the Minister responsible for defending the use of kerosene baths in nursing homes Nothing much has changed, except perhaps the kerosene.

The exploitative areas of the nursing home industry should be shut down. When Governments crab away from such a drastic solution, they tacitly agree that the immensity of the problem of nursing home care requires not only more but also better trained resources in a coordinated environment and regulatory unification between the sectors – and Governments keep saying that, but effectively do nothing about solving the problem. It is ridiculous for the Commonwealth to be running the aged care sector and the States the public hospitals, when it should be the one sector.

As indicated above, I have been involved at various times of my professional career with the aged care sector, and it is a no brainer. There should be a single system, because age is a continual wave eventually crashing on the shores of death.  At present, the method of distribution of health care is via aged care packages, depending on the funding source floating on the top of the wave. Quality is incidental.

There is a philosophy with certain government sources of shovelling out the cash – job done – but what about quality and outcome? To some bureaucrats that requires actual work, collection of data and, given the reigning politicians suppress as much information as possible, they may argue what is the point?

Political announcements are all about input and the immeasurable glorious future where the recipients of such input are chewing lotus leaves – or their gums. Who needs data, especially when this is the third or fourth time the same announcement of government largesse has been made? To make the point, sometimes irony is the best way to highlight the problem, especially when the government itself is the very epitome of irony when it says, “We are taking the matter very seriously.”

The other public problem is the lack of an articulate advocate for reform on behalf of aged care residents. If you look at the vast array of those who appear on the media, there are none who regularly appear when the topic moves onto the way to actually improve the lot of the aged. The last woman of consequence to appear regularly on a panel show and make an impact by clearly showing that age was not automatically the gateway to dementia was Margaret Scott, the Tasmanian poet, who was a regular guest on Good News Week in the 1990s.

It is mainly a variety of social workers and health professionals who are some way away from being aged, often well skilled in the vocabulary of “shock and horror show”, but stopping short of doing anything.

There is the vaudeville act that the ABC has twice arranged by mixing the very old with the very young. This concept was aired first on the BBC and, given the COVID-19 pandemic, the ABC have been venturing into perilous territory, but it is assumed everybody involved has been “dry cleaned”. The concept is very interesting, but not just as sporadic entertainment. After all, grandparents looking after their grandchildren has been around for a long time, just ask the Indigenous community. I am just not aware of any program which seriously looks at the benefit of those arrangements long term and whether a program such as the ABC is airing is demonstrating anything sustainable or generalisable.

There is also that myth about 70 being the new 50. However, it is illusionary. The general improvement in the welfare of the community has improved. Too many in the years after the “new 50” start to die in a manner not befitting of a reborn generation 20 years younger.

The problem with age is invalidism and the daily humiliations that accompany it. I am reminded of the words of a young woman with motor neurone disease who said she most feared the time she could not wipe her bottom – to her this represented a turning point. Don’t just be appalled about the frail and elderly dealing with such daily humiliations. Demand that every politician spend a week or two in community service looking after the aged and contemplating their own probable destination before they can pontificate about the problems of aged care. Although perhaps their pensions will be such that their choices will be much easier in the future.

The Drums are beating

This past weekend, Essential Quality came fourth in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Louisville is the city in the middle of this blue grass country and Bourbon distilleries.

Essential Quality

As the NYT has reported, pre-race talk among the racing fraternity was all about what Sheikh Mohammed’ al-Maktoum’s money has accomplished, and the fact that the same group completely ignored the international human rights scandal over the Sheikh’s role in the disappearance of Sheikha Latifa, one of his daughters.

But others are speaking up. A group of human rights lawyers and students at the University of Louisville filed a complaint with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, asking it to bar Sheikh Mohammed and thus Essential Quality from the Derby.

“The Horse Racing Commission must also use its authority to end his involvement in Kentucky horse racing, at least until Princess Latifa is free of captivity,” the complaint document insisted. The Kentucky Racing Commission went for the long blue grass; after all, the pervasive influence of the UAE ruler who pays the wages of a large segment of the racing industry not only in Kentucky but also across the world. In Australia where the racing industry has a disproportionate influence, one can only cringe when one hears our equine commentators falling over themselves to address “His Highness”.

Two weeks ago a panel of United Nations human rights experts, including members of a panel that deal with forced disappearances and violence against women, asked Dubai for proof that Sheikha Latifa was still alive and called for her immediate release.

Evidence of life and assurances regarding her well-being are urgently required,” the U.N. analysts said. In recent years, videos have of Sheikha Latifa, saying she was imprisoned in a Dubai palace and afraid for her life. In a 2018 video she said, “her father only cares about himself and his ego.” In an ominous premonition, “I’m making this video because it could be the last video I make,” she said. She was last seen at a meal hosted by her father that the former Irish President and erstwhile defender of human rights, Mrs Mary Robinson attended. She later said she had been tricked into attending. Yet her excuses sounded lame in a report of the matter in the Irish Examiner when, in her attempt to rationalise the woman’s dire situation, she was reported to have said Sheika Latifa was said to have a bipolar disorder. I would say it was the least of the Sheika’s worries.

As widely reported, Sheikha Latifa hasn’t been seen in public since an attempt to escape in March 2018, when her Finnish personal trainer and a former French soldier joined forces to smuggle the Sheika aboard a boat, which was later boarded by armed Emirati commandos in Indian waters. Sheikha Latifa and her personal trainer, Tiina Jauhiainen, were captured at gunpoint, sedated and returned to Dubai, with Ms Jauhiainen released after a fortnight. No mention is made of the French soldier’s fate.

This is not the first time Sheikh Mohammed’s treatment of female family members generated outrage. Last year in Britain a judge found that he had abducted another daughter, Shamsa, off the streets of Cambridge in the UK in 2000, flew her by helicopter to France and then returned her to Dubai.

In addition, his youngest wife, Princess Haya, Mrs Robinson’s mate, has also left Dubai fearing for her life after she was subjected to a campaign of intimidation and harassment.

But then the Sheikh has 30 children from six wives. Given the attention being shown to women’s right in Australia, who will be the first to issue an invitation for Princess Latifa to visit Australia – if she hasn’t been killed already by Godolphin Blue.

Godolphin Blue

Tasmania – the place where it counts

Each of five electorates are called divisions. Each division has approximately the same number of electors. Voting for the House of Assembly is by a form of proportional representation using the single transferable vote (STV), known as the Hare-Clark electoral system. By having multiple members for each division, the voting intentions of the electors are more closely represented in the House of Assembly.

Since 1998, the quota for election in each division, after distribution of preferences, has been 16.7% (one-sixth). Under the preferential proportional voting system in place, the lowest-polling candidates are eliminated, and their votes distributed as preferences to the remaining candidates. If a candidate achieves a quota, their surplus votes are redistributed as preferences.

I was once elected to office by a similar system.

In this election Premier Gutwein in his Bass division nearly achieved three quotas. That is the way to do it, because once you reach the required number of votes, the surplus cascades to your fellow party members. If the level of this popularity for Gutwein had been translated across the other four division, he would have won in a landslide.

That is not how Tasmania works. Like Gaul, Tasmania is divided into three parts. Hobart in the south, Launceston in the north, and a conglomerate of towns on the north-west and west coast.

Hobart spreads westwards along the Derwent is a different constituency to Bass. Divided into Clark, where the Liberals struggled to gain a second seat and Franklin, where the Liberal and Labor Party gained two seats and Greens one, the electoral picture is far different in the other three constituencies of Lyons, Braddon and the Gutwein fortress of Bass.

Launceston, the overwhelming population centre of Bass, in fact is a much smaller electorate in geographical terms than the other two northern electorates.  Yet it does include Flinders Island, where the Islanders are the closest living remnant of an Aboriginal race despite some residual controversy, where its purity left with the death of Truganini in 1878.

Devonport is the largest town in the north-west electorate of Braddon, but this electorate has a number of settlements ranging along the coast (plus King Island) and then extending down the Murchison Highway to the “mineral shield” settlements of Rosebery, Zeehan and Queenstown and the fishing and tourist settlement of Strahan lying as it does on Macquarie Harbour, the third largest in Australia, larger than Sydney Harbour.

Within Braddon are some of most extraordinary examples of untouched temperate rain forests, despite the efforts of successive Governments to destroy it in the name of jobs. Here, in one the most magnificent wilderness areas, despite a strong working class population the electorate is strongly Liberal – the heartland of Morrison populism. The Greens are the foe. Yet the south-west is the State’s unique flora and fauna Treasury.

South-west wilderness

Lyons, also a Liberal State electorally, is an amoeboid electorate which spreads its pseudopods from the east coast through the Midlands into  Sheffield, a trendy watering hole just 22 kilometres south of Devonport which lies within Braddon on the north coast. Federally it has a Labor party member but in this State election it voted for the Liberal Party, a crossover trend which occurs in Tasmania; as does the number of Independent members of both State and Federal Parliament, which is not difficult to understand given how strong private politics are in Tasmania.

Last Saturday was the first time I had been in Tasmania when the State election had been held. The gracious concession speech of the Labor leader and the gruff laconic acceptance speech of the Premier contrasted with the predictable loquacity of the Greens leader given a post-election microphone. She unfortunately provided a strident tirade, and before turning her off, I had thought politics at the top here was refreshingly different. Not so.

For a population of about 550,000 with one in four of the population living in Hobart, it has 57 Federal and State politicians; and between 200 and 300 local councillors in the 29 municipalities (it was 79 when I first visited Tasmania).

Tasmania is grossly over-governed. Under the Australian constitution it is guaranteed five seats in the House of Representatives; and as with the US Senate each State has the same number, apart from the ACT and the Northern Territory.

Comparing Wyoming with a population slightly larger than Tasmania’s, it sends only one elected representative to Congress (out of 535). By contrast, Tasmania sends five elected members to the House of Representatives (out of 151).

Therefore, Federal Government policy towards Tasmania has traditionally been to fill the begging bowl and a tree not chopped down or a river not dammed or native species not exterminated have dogged policy considerations to the detriment of the State. It is private politics in its purest form. Take the health system: if Hobart gets A, Launceston and Burnie will want A too.  It is the root cause of so much of Tasmanian problems – the inability to live with one another.

I was just perusing The Advocate, the paper of the north west. The number of football teams in the area is extraordinary, and as I have written elsewhere the antagonism between towns is often reflected on the football field and the closer the towns are to one another, the greater the antagonism and failure to work together. Thus, in terms of rationalising resources, this part of the State presents a problem in getting agreement to any public policy.

My contribution to this private politics, since I am a ratepayer, is the following ; first the gorse along the Zeehan-Strahan road needs to be eradicated before it consumes Tasmania, just as Queensland was threatened by the prickly pear infestation before the introduction of cactoblastis beetle. The other problem with gorse is that below its impenetrable prickly greenery it stores all its dead wood which can act as a fire accelerant.

Peruvian goat herder

Peruvian goat herders have been used in the USA to oversee goats which eat noxious weeds. Paradoxically if you do burn the gorse, then four to five years’ worth of goats feeding on it will eliminate gorse. Andean Peruvians are said to be the most reliable goat herders; apart from which, having a goat herd in the area will provide an industry and something for tourism. However, don’t let the goats become feral otherwise it’s another cane toad.

Secondly is to upgrade the Strahan airport to a level where it can receive planes as big as a 737. The latter is unlikely in the short term even thought it could be used for tourism in the south-west and would certainly open up the tourist market, especially with a rental car franchise. The longer term consideration is with climate change – inevitably the forests will dry out, and therefore there is a need on the west coast of Tasmania for the airstrip to be upgraded so water tankers can land instead of being based in Launceston or Hobart. For those with short memories, no one seriously believed the rainforest of the south coast of New South Wales could burn the way it did.

Then thirdly, more a suggestion than a demand, there is another industry which I find it strange that the Liberal Government has not promoted and that is dedicated quarantine facilities. I would not advocate Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour, once a prison, but a properly constructed quarantine facility in Tasmania is certainly closer to Australia than Christmas Island.

Sarah Island, Macquarie Harbour

But then the success of private politics depends on how determined and how committed one is for the long game. I wonder how well this is translated into the future administration of Tasmania.

Mouse Whisper

An unguarded comment?

As one of his colleagues recently remembered:

“30 years ago today, the wonderful C… H… died. Fabulous economist & mentor with unlimited time to talk. Friday drinks in his office often included Pichon Lalande, Lynch Bages & Chateau Talbot as he mulled over the next additions to his cellar. Great man; greatly missed.”

Different time – wrong look. Yet the connoisseur of lotus cuisine continues to be the role model for the current Canberra Elite.

Modest Expectations – Rhapsody in Blue

It was just another evening when I was doing the medical examinations for blokes called up in the lottery for Vietnam in the 1960s.

“Next!”

The lottery

He was Chinese born and he spoke little English. Even now I do not remember what he said his occupation was. However, he was about six foot tall (183 cms) and weighed just under eight stone (50 kgs). I thought at the time this stick of celery would make a good flyweight if he could box. On examination, he seemed healthy enough, but his extraordinary height to weight ratio made him ineligible to be called up for Vietnam, so I failed him. Normally when the conscripts were examined there was a young doctor and an older doctor jointly doing the examination. But for some reason, I had been left on my own this particular night. So, it was solely my recommendation. I thought nothing much more about it until one of the guys in the laboratory, who had a Chinese girlfriend, told me about this fantastic Chinese restaurant off Little Bourke Street in Melbourne.

Off we trooped and at the end of a cobblestone lane, there was a door without any identification. Open the door and we were ushered into a crowded space, where all sorts of Chinese delicacies were being consumed by a predominantly Chinese clientele. We had barely sat down in this smoky den where you could hear the click of mahjong pieces, when poking his head around one of the screens was the young bloke whom I had failed.

Now did that change the dynamics! Suddenly I was the centre of attention, and the many food dishes with which we were presented were some of the best I have tasted, then and up to the present time. I remember the perfection of the lobster, how it was cooked is only a distant olfactory memory. They insisted on the meal being free – on the house for all four of us. My occidental friend was amazed with the attention that was being poured on me. After all, I had been the accidental guest. “Bloody hell, Jack, is there anybody in Melbourne who doesn’t know you?” he said.

Heady times. I went there a few more times. The food was some of the best Cantonese cooking I had ever tasted. They insisted I never pay. It was embarrassing.  I stopped going. I have no idea what happened to him and his parents. But memories are also important, even if I never remember names. However, there are only so many free meals without being embarrassed enough and I never wanted those memories of such a spontaneous gesture to go stale. After all, he and his family really owed me nothing; I was just doing my job and the young conscript was a fortuitous coincidence with fantastic food.

The single child policy

The Chinese leader Xi Jinping was born in 1953, and because he had an important father in the Communist Party hierarchy at the time, he experienced the full force of the “Cultural Revolution” at an early age. He survived working in the fields but in his young mind was embedded an antipathy towards fomented chaos – divide and rule – and the black flag of anarchy.

His is the ordered mind of the chess player, as can be seen for instance, by the progressive blockade of Taiwan. More and more rocky outcrops in the South China Sea are being converted from pawns to more powerful pieces as he moves to the end game. In the end, once the blockade is tightened then it becomes more and more difficult for the US to protect Taiwan. Given his sense of history, Xi knows that Taiwan has a huge hostage – the unrivalled collection of Chinese antiquities looted by Chiang Kai-Shek before he transferred his Nationalist army remnant to the Island of Formosa. However, some with more intimate knowledge of China than me dispute this observation, bluntly: “he would not care a brass razoo”.

Table screen, mid to late Qing dynasty, 1736–1911, National Palace Museum, Taipei

By all means open a second front, by him encouraging the Russians to mobilise along the Ukrainian border. Russia has little to lose by being an irritant. The one thing Putin has done in the past twenty years is to modernise his armed forces, and if you look at the history of Russia, irrespective of their leaders they have generally had first class generals. Nobody is going to invade Russia. The West missed several opportunities. The media have been fixated for a time on Belarus yet Kaliningrad, a major strategic target, was allowed to remain in Russian hands – after all it was the eye of Prussia. When the Berlin Wall came down so should have Kaliningrad been separated from Russia. Russia was left off the hook by Clinton and Bush who thought they could befriend Putin – something about understanding him by looking deep into his eyes.

People want to blame Trump for letting this mess grow, but others would say Obama was the real culprit with his almost messianic belief that the world would be swayed by his rhetoric. It was unfortunate that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for essentially nothing but being elected President.

It can be said that what Obama did was progressively unpicked by Trump, especially his internal policies, but in foreign policy Obama theatrically gestured his way into a quagmire from which The Great Drainer Trump had no idea what to do to extricate America.

The 12 years of Obama and Trump enabled China to consolidate its influence to its current position and Putin not only to survive but to flourish far beyond what, in the long term, is unsustainable, that is without allies that can bolster that position. Russia or particularly Putin should never have been allowed “to escape from the bottle”.

However, that is done, but it is high time to test the sustainability of Putin, who is no mug; for even he is not immortal. His threat about his mythical red line shows more than a hint of desperation – and exasperation – now he is being regularly called out by President Biden.

Biden is so right in wanting to get out of Afghanistan, unless America is prepared to systematically sow the whole land with salt and thus deprive the Taliban of its opium income, that’s it.  Afghanistan will remain a primitive enclave inhibited as a medieval fortress by its adherence to a fundamental form of Islam, plus its geography. Given the non-recognition of women’s rights, Afghanistan will remain a festering social sore made worse by the return of the Taliban. However, globally it is a distraction. It has been a root cause of weakening America, just it has been with every Occidental power who has tried to tame it.

Putin aside, China is his main adversary, and Biden knows intimately where Obama went wrong, but he knows his operatives who were shackled by Obama and who are “the hard men and women” among them. It is fair to say that by the end of eight years of Bush and his “hawks” Obama seemed to be the change that was needed. But during his time Afghanistan festered; ISIS arose in Iraq with their vision of an Islamic caliphate and its adherents now are spread across Muslim Africa. The atrocious facility at Guantanamo Bay was not closed down.

China meanwhile has flourished economically. China has shown an increasing world-wide truculence. It is the greatest enemy of climate change because it dissembles constantly.  It selects a minority within its borders to bully. First it was the Tibetans but now, since 9/11, the Uyghers. They are Sunni Muslim, and after the Hui, also Islam adherents, the second largest ethnic minority in China.

Therefore, what has this to do with the single child policy, which was relaxed in 2015 after 35 years?

Let’s start with findings from China, where the one-child policy dictated family planning for nearly four decades. Researchers led by a Chinese-based psychologist in Chongqing, showed “only children” achieved lower scores in terms of how tolerant they were. According to a model of personality dimensions, tolerant people are altruistic, helpful, compassionate and cooperative. Intolerant individuals are often characterised as quarrelsome, distrustful, egocentric and more competitive.

Promoting the one child policy

At the same time, the one child policy distorted the number of male births, so that for every 120 males there were only 100 females. A comment could be made that into the Chinese population there was an excess injection (or should I say jab) of intolerant male children lacking the peaceful qualities of women. There is no mention of any sex difference between the personalities of male versus female children, although in references to the effect of the old one child policy, there was a realisation that a Chinese female can be better assimilated into the wider family, even with the cultural challenge that Chinese have made with their male child preference.

Only children apparently because of the amount of time they spend on their own, often with imaginary games, have a tendency to think laterally and devise ways in which dominate their imaginary universe. It has been well told how only children are attached to the parents, with boys tending towards the mother as the central figure of their life, although with everybody working in the community, only children while no longer sent to the Satanic mills, it may be expected in the case of the male child to either be the “princeling” or expected to muck in.

Thus, my solution for every meeting with Chinese diplomats, given so much of their population over the past 40 years has grown up as single children, should have an expert in “the only child”, and develop strategy around an essentially monochromatic culture. Once it was Mao jackets, but now the world is faced with the foibles of an “only child” Chinese generation or two.

The Chinese after all have traditionally believed themselves to be the centre of the universe. The single child policy can only have reinforced that notion. I do not think that we should be worried by the Chinese government losing face with that degree of overt or latent hubris. As somebody said, time to confront not to pander to any confected loss of face.

There are those in the Biden administration who were frustrated during the Obama years but have now been unleashed to attack Chinese policy. Perhaps there were a few others besides myself who were blindsided by the Biden bumbling campaigning persona. However, you cannot blame Obama for everything. He did pick Biden as his running mate.

As someone far smarter than me has said “It is always a question of nuance.” I think he thought I needed a bit more of it.

Did someone say Urumqi?

I went to China in 1973 with Bill Snedden and Geoff Allen.

Let me say it was a trip which Phineas Fogg may have found challenging.

It all started uneventfully. We were passengers on a BOAC V10 – the so-called “whispering giant” – flying to Hong Kong. The plan was for us to travel from Hong Kong to Guangzhou by train, and then by local airline to Beijing.  I think we still called those cities Canton and Peking even then. However, on the way over southern France, the plane developed problems with its gyroscopic equipment, which resulted in the plane being diverted back to Heathrow.

This meant an overnight stay in London while there was feverish activity to determine another way of getting there to fulfil our obligations. There was a scheduled Air France flight which, unlike BOAC, flew directly into China to Shanghai. The port of entry required a separate visa, but the Chinese Embassy in Paris responded promptly and our passports were duly stamped with another impressive entry permit. However, the next day when we reached Paris, bad news awaited us. The Chinese had or were about to detonate a hydrogen bomb at Urumqi and had closed the border for the duration of the test.

Undaunted, Snedden looked for other possibilities, and there emerged one feasible way of getting there, and that was to fly directly into Beijing. The solution was complicated because we had to fly to Frankfurt and link up with a Lufthansa flight bound for Australia. One of the immediate stops where we would alight was Karachi, where there would be enough time for us to catch the PIA flight to Beijing. There was another complication when we reached Frankfurt – the air traffic controllers were on strike. For some reason I still have this vision of three figures in this long underground tunnel under the runways, as if caught in some science fiction movie, with overhead lighting assisting all shiny aluminium cladding fighting the shadows from enveloping the tunnel before the aliens would appear at each end of this long tunnel. Why we were in the tunnel was the way to move between two terminals. Shoe leather was the only way given the time of night. Incidentally, the aliens stayed away.

In the end, the air traffic controllers called off their strike, and off we went, and the intervening eight hours allowed some sleep. We were told we had a 16-hour stopover in Karachi, and we were greeted by guys from our Trade Office there. They treated us royally with a dinner at the Trade mission where Australian red wine flowed generously and left a few of us finding ourselves sleeping on the floor.

Before dinner we had had the opportunity of walking freely around the streets, including the then Elphingstone Road. I do not think I have ever seen such abject poverty as I saw that afternoon. Given what has happened since, our wanderings through the bazaars and alleyways made me realise that we were outsiders, but even now I never think of Karachi as a dangerous place for us on that day. The other memory was the number of children, who had obviously been disabled by polio, begging, being wheeled around in makeshift carts by their brothers.

We were roused very early the next day and thus a bleary unkempt group of Australians lined up for the PIA flight to Beijing. We now had a further visa granting us permission to come to Beijing even though we had had a turbulent experience, but the Chinese were very prompt in granting the third round of visas to these Travelling Aussies. Here we were next to a hangar where, in this cold morning under the arc lights the Boeing 707 was being filled with cargo. The few passengers were to be confined to the front section. Cargo made up the bulk.  Up front, there was a sort of hierarchy in the economy seating. The Swedish princess and her partner and small entourage were first. Then came two Ugandan ministers and then us. We noted there were empty seats, and once we reached Islamabad we were invaded by Chinese guest workers going home, and Bill, who had wanted the luxury of an empty seat to sleep, found he was next to a Chinese worker.

So far so good, and off we flew across the Himalayas. I remember having Everest pointed out to me. Bill and I were standing by a porthole window, when he turned to me and said: “We are turning round.” Indeed, we were and several hours later as we landed in Islamabad, the Chinese workers all erupted into clapping and cheering. They thought they were home.

We were disembarked and now it was the middle of a very hot day, and there was nowhere cool into which to retreat in the airport. From what I could glean it appeared that when our airliner approached Chinese air space, it was denied entry. It turned out the refusal was directly related to the Urumqi blast and the possibility that we may pass through remnants of the radio-active cloud.

We had a few more uncomfortable hours where refreshments were non-alcoholic and the food meagre as our return had been totally unexpected. The Australian embassy was well nigh useless. The Ambassador was away in some cool highland retreat, and the nearest we got to having somebody “providing assistance”, I remembered, was a young nervous third secretary who did not have any information but came anyway. He endeavoured to engage in small talk and given we had been travelling for over a day he received a frosty welcome; he was so different from the trade guys in Karachi. Bill ignored him after his first venture in conversation. Geoff and I alternatively did all the requisite work in attempting to find out whether we would be leaving at all.

Not the easiest time I have ever experienced, but we told the young man he could go, and he bounded off into his embassy car, a rabbit with his eyes still firmly in spotlight. Geoff was always more tolerant than me, but even his ever-ready smile became strained. Then we waited and waited – suddenly it was all systems go. This time there were no hitches but we arrived very late in the evening. Smiling Chinese staffers, Snedden’s wife, Joy who had come to Beijing independently, and Stephan Fitzgerald, Whitlam’s choice as our first Ambassador, greeted us. He could have not been more helpful during our visit.

That is how we all reached Beijing – Bill, Geoff and Jack – and of course the Chinese workers. There is a photo on this final leg of this eventful journey, of Bill asleep with his head on the shoulder of one of these workers. The caption to the photo “Fellow Traveller.”

A Burnt Offering

Anonymouse

Anonymouse has always asked: cremated bacon – why? Not that hard you would have thought, overcooked, over-rated and, thank heavens, over there.  Yet it has to be a love affair that only an American can understand. Cremated bacon – as American as Mom’s apple pie.

Burnt offering

More amazing is that just a little research reveals detailed articles on this process – very little research but still, 880 words on how to cremate your bacon – 880 when three will do:  just burn it.

However, sticking to the task and the recipe, there is much said about skillets, laying out of the strips and rendering the fat “to achieve bacon’s character-defining crispness” (read, burnt to a cinder). Apparently, a non-stick skillet is better than cast iron, all the better to ensure even incineration.

So, on your stove top, here is the tried and true method. Lie the strips in a cold skillet, place over medium-low to medium heat, flip and fry until you reach your desired “incineration” and then transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to drain. The key is to slowly render the fat to achieve bacon’s character-defining crispness. This method is said to produce superior results every time, however defined.

Apparently there is also a water method. Add enough water to cover the bacon in the skillet which is said to result in a slightly less shatteringly crisp end result compared with “cookin’ it naked”.

For those planning to serve this delicacy to a crowd, you need only turn to your oven and then experiment with parchment paper, foil or none, depending on who is washing up. The choice 350, 375, 425 degrees or blast off. The options are endless in the pursuit of baseball-capped bacon (the equivalent of a Michelin star).

The final rule – no matter the method of cooking – is to save the fat which apparently is not only full of flavour, but also great for cooking vegetables, making vinaigrettes, frying chicken and even baking bread and desserts. Just pour that grease into a metal or glass jar, pop it in the fridge (it should last for at least three months) or freezer (where it keeps indefinitely) and grab it whenever you want to add “bacon crisp” flavour and more than a dash of cholesterol.

The Foetus is a Boy

As reported in the Boston Globe, police in Kingston, N.H., say a mysterious explosion that shook and rattled nearby homes Tuesday night was linked to a gender-reveal party.

The party was held in a quarry where officers discovered the source of the explosion was 80 pounds of Tannerite, an over-the-counter explosive target used for firearms practice and sold as a kit, police said in a statement.

The explosion included blue chalk, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader, indicating a baby boy was on the way. Nobody was injured, police said.

These celebrations can be quite dangerous since they were popularised in 2008, by a woman who now regrets starting what if it were not a privileged white heterosexual activity would have been proscribed long ago. The use of pyrotechnics to announce the genitals of your pre-newborn, as one writer suggested was symptomatic of a patriarchal society. I am not sure of that generalisation but starting forest fires, crashing planes and killing grandparents during such festivities is not a particularly good look. It is only a matter of time for either the fad burning out or legal sanctions enacted. 

Mouse Whisper

I am indebted to the bicyclist who went on a country road trip outside the Canadian city of Toronto. He cycled through the hog and dairying country and came upon a hamlet named Punkeydoodle’s Corners located where the Oxford and Perth Counties meet. The origin for this name is lost in the brew that flowed down the lanes, but one theory is that when the local innkeeper sang “Yankee Doodle” it sounded more like “Punkey Doodle”. Needless to say, the hamlet signs are often stolen, but there is one more claim to fame: the world highest street address number “986039 Oxford-Perth Road”.

Punkeydoodle’s Corners

Modest Expectations – Box Hill to Port Melbourne

You know if a line was drawn from the Perth GPO to the Sydney GPO to represent the history of the Earth, reptiles would appear in Canberra and intelligent human life would evolve in Balmain Author Craig Cormick then calculating in the Federal Department of Science Set Square.

More than just a Nuance 

Below is a lightly edited extract from The Boston Globe last week. Maybe it is the foretaste of more irritating daleks on benches and mantelpieces with stupid names ostensibly doing my bidding, but who knows.

There’s nothing subtle about Microsoft’s US $19.7 billion, all-cash acquisition of Burlington-based Nuance Communications. It’s a bold statement that Microsoft intends to be the dominant provider of speech-based artificial intelligence systems to the world’s biggest enterprises, particularly in health care.

This acquisition is Microsoft’s biggest since the company paid $26 billion in 2016 to acquire the business-oriented social network LinkedIn. Microsoft bought Skype in 2011 for $8.5 billion

Nuance, which employs around 7,100 people worldwide, is famous for its artificial-intelligence software that enables computers to recognize human speech. These days, plenty of companies make similar software for consumers. In fact, Apple’s Siri voice system was based on Nuance technology.

Amazon, Google, and even Microsoft have all built their own speech software and virtual assistants for mainstream users. Nuance also used to dabble in consumer markets. But in recent years, the company has specialized in enterprise-grade AI software that understands the meanings behind words, with a particular focus on medical applications.

Today, Nuance makes software smart enough to automatically generate medical records, assist doctors in their diagnoses, and refill patients’ prescriptions. And demand for such software is likely to surge, as millions worldwide replace face-to-face doctor visits with online and remote health care — a process accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The acquisition will enable Microsoft to tap a global health care market worth $500 billion per year, it has been predicted.

And that could be just the beginning. Nuance also makes an array of intelligent programs for customer service and security applications. It makes software that can accurately figure out what a caller wants, even if they don’t use exactly the right words. It even makes a product for financial services companies that can identify fraudulent callers pretending to be someone else. The software can spot crooks not only by analysing their tone of voice, but by tracking which words they use.

And now Microsoft will be able to market all of these capabilities worldwide.

Nuance had net income of $28 million on revenue of $1.48 billion for its fiscal year ended Sept. 30, compared to a net loss of $12.2 million for the previous year.

It has been pointed out that Microsoft’s success with Nuance is by no means assured. IBM’s Watson Health initiative has also tried to apply AI technologies to health care but earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported that IBM is considering a sale of the business, which generates annual revenue of $1 billion, but no profits.

Nuance’s artificial-intelligence products are more advanced than IBM’s. Still, doctors and hospitals are often slow to embrace new technology, no matter how good it is because the health care industry itself is a very conservative industry.

The Nuance acquisition is expected to close later this year.

I can’t wait!

Digger’s Rest is now in Oxfordshire

It is interesting that Murdoch’s star is setting in every country apart from his old Digger’s Rest in “my beloved Australia” but, as Google will show, it’s in Oxfordshire.

The migration of News Corporation from Australia to Delaware in 2004 for reincorporation was seen at the time to be ambiguous. While News Corp asserted that the re-incorporation would enhance shareholder value, critics of the proposal claimed that its real purpose was to strengthen managerial power vis-à-vis shareholder power. Now assuming that the move has been the cornerstone of Murdoch family control, presumably it would not have escaped the President’s notice that Murdoch has nestled in his state where the Democrats have massive majorities in both Houses. Far be it from somebody in far off Australia to suggest that the Delaware legislature would be contemplating their version of a “poison pill” to make this old Oxfordshire squire’s life a little harder, but the White House does not seem to have a welcome mat out for Murdoch and Son.

I doubt if Boris Johnson owes the same Squire any favours. either, but Rupert has had this serpentine way of intruding into the political boudoirs of the rich and famous. Boris realises that if you watch the eye movements of a snake, you can very much know when it is about to strike. Pandering to a snake is not the best way to run a government, nevertheless as one source has written:

It may seem extraordinary that the worship of the serpent should ever have been introduced into the world, and it must appear still more remarkable that it should almost universally have prevailed. As mankind are said to have been ruined through the influence of this being, we could little expect that it would, of all other objects, have been adopted as the most sacred and salutary symbol, and rendered the chief object of adoration. Yet so we find it to have been, for in most of the ancient rites there is some allusion to it.

Some of the more uncharitable among us might believe that above is a perfect description of “Dear Rupert” at work. It is worthy to note that ophiolatreia, the worship of snakes, apparently burns out in the colder climes, when the snake is no longer seen an influential symbol.

Doing the rhumba

Yet there is a band of contrarians. I can categorically deny that Hillsong has invited any of them, their many fraternal Pentecostal mates in the Appalachian Mountains, to come to Australia with their rhumba of rattlesnakes. They follow the dictum as expressed in Mark 16:18 which says, “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them”.

Unfortunately, like many a tabloid newspaper, one verse can always be taken out of context.  Being bitten by a snake, according to these believers in the literal translation of the verse, has resulted in many a pastoral death among these Hill people, with the pastors being particular sacrifices. As He may have said “Mark my words!”

But then again Rupert’s version of the rhumba may have caused enough political demise for us not to need any spiritual injection from the Pentecostalist hills of Kentucky and Tennessee.

We Australians are all that is left of the “downsized” Rupert global injection room retreat.  Poor us. Son Lachlan has moved back to Australia. Really, do we deserve that?  Remember how his brilliance has shone previously in the Australian business world. 

Andrew Peacock – Not a Bad Bloke

I saw Andrew Peacock at close quarters when we were both active and ambitious young men. Most people go through life without the privilege that he had and indeed cultivated. He went to a private school, where he coveted being Captain of the School and where he sustained a rivalry for the post with Tony Staley, later to be a less successful politician in same Party. In the end neither of them attained Captain of the School. The captain was a quiet studious chap who played the piano well.

Peacock and Hawke

Peacock avoided student politics, while Staley was my successor as President of the Student Representative Council. However, Peacock was along a different trail. After a preliminary tilt at Federal politics unsuccessfully challenging Jim Cairns then inherited the retiring Prime Minister Menzies’ seat of Kooyong, with the appropriate blessing of the incumbent.

Peacock was well suited to the then Liberal Party, especially in Victoria where noblesse oblige played a large part, and he himself was mildly centrist in his views. Nevertheless, there were limits. I well remember the debate in Parliament on abortion, where the Liberal Party then in Opposition were universally supportive, to a man and the few women, of the anti-abortionists. When the matter came to a vote in the House of Representatives Peacock theatrically stood up as though to vote for its legalisation against the wishes of the Party, looked around at the back bench and realised that nobody was following – and promptly sat down.

Peacock performed one particularly lasting service during his relatively short stint as Minister for External Territories in 1972. He befriended the charismatic Michael Somare. Peacock was refreshingly modern, as had followed a series of Ministers who still looked on that emerging nation of Papua New Guinea as a place for the continuation of patrol officer paternalism. Together he and Somare cemented the foundations which led to Papua-New Guinea. The relationship since has not been easy, but Peacock ensured with Somare that it would be ordered and peaceful. That is his legacy, and all the stuff about him being a “ Treasure” will dissolve with the attendant crocodile tears.

Peacock and I fell out, after a savage speech I made directed at what I perceived, rightly or wrongly, as some of his actions. Like many things I have done, I probably regret it, but what does it matter when one old man reflects on the legacy of another old man now gone and who lived most of his last 20 years in Texas. Perhaps his $2.5bn mishap in the Gold Coast hedge fund accelerated that exit.

I believe if he had been given the opportunity Peacock would have made a good Prime Minister, but as he was never one for detail, he would have needed very good staff work. However, he knew how to handle his colleagues, except for Howard. In the end I believe he also got tired of having to deal with Howard, who was assiduous whereas he was not. In effect he was outlasted, even though there were a few interim Party leaders between him hanging up his political boots and Howard eventually gaining complete control of the Liberal Party.

After he left Parliament having never made Prime Minister, the zeal of public life with which he had pursued this Grail probably deserted him as he drifted into the cocktail circuit of diplomacy and mixing with other world “treasures”.  Howard was shrewd enough to offer him an official sinecure for such a pursuit. I hope Peacock was happy, because he wasn’t a bad bloke.

Nevertheless, as a wise associate of mine with a dry sense of humour said: “Only children, especially boys, should have ‘only child’ stamped on their foreheads to warn people.”  Maybe that would have been a better epitaph for Andrew.

The Shambles is not only a street in York

I have always been a great supporter of the Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory. However, I understand that at present there are insufficient people with the appropriate qualifications to keep the facility open. Why? Because so many of the regulars are committed to trying to staunch the COVID-19 outbreak in PNG.

Not enough resources. Is it time for that Morrisonian war footing?

Should this war footing the Prime Minister is trumpeting concentrate the attention of Australians – mobilising the country – get rid of all frippery – world surf carnivals and the like, and then truly putting the whole country into vaccination khaki.  Does he really mean to emulate John Curtin?

Or Prime Minister, are you just trying to run this country as though we are in the middle of a Mortein ad?

No social distancing at this ritual

The increasingly erratic Prime Minister has been essentially advocating tossing away the hard-earned gains of lock down and border closure by advocating home quarantine and people being able to in effect freely travel into the pandemic areas, because allegedly some Liberal Party donor has a villa in Tuscany and/or his Hillsong mates want to import singing and clapping in viral bags from all over the world for some Convention. Somebody may have seen the success of such religious festivals in India in spreading the Virus and want to emulate these by mass baptisms in the Hawkesbury River or some such spectacular event where social distancing is perceived as a heathen ritual.

It is slowly becoming clearer about the efficacy of vaccinations, and unfortunately it seems that the Australian Government has plumped for the inferior, if cheaper vaccine. When I see only poor old John Skerrett wearing the pelt of scapegoat, assuring the Australian public about how well the Australian vaccination world is, you know the politicians have lengthened their bargepoles.

Australia has done a remarkable job in suppressing the virus, in preventing variants from gaining a hold and allowing us to live a normal life.

Therefore, for Australians, the words “war footing” either jar or are ignored. What is needed is for the Federal Government to assume its constitutional responsibility and not “tar baby” the States. It should prepare mass vaccination facilities and train enough vaccinators so that when supplies of vaccine become available, they can be manned immediately so the program can start. Part-time vaccinators, trained and ready, should have similar entitlements as if they were a uniformed force reserve, ready to present to their particular vaccine centre when called up. The vaccinations will require military precision.

The question of which vaccine needs to be resolved. Transparency is essential. Thus, as a start, it is important to know how many politicians hold shares in AstraZeneca or CSL or, for that matter, in any suppliers of essential goods. That should be done immediately. Let us get some real transparency into the decision making. Then repeat the justification for such vaccines, slowly identifying also all the consultants, their role and achievements, if any.

Then, continue with the AstraZeneca vaccine for all those over 65 – first and second injection.  As with America, weekly totals are placed on public view. If the AstraZeneca can be modified to one injection, that option should be pursued. You are dealing with many elderly people and one injection is easier to remember than two.

It seems that Pfizer and Moderna technology is far superior, and now that they can be stored in a conventional refrigerator without fear of interruption of the cold chain integrity, supplies must be obtained, and a definite timetable set. The new public relations scenario is roping poor old John Shine in for speculation on whether Australia will get into the business of manufacturing the effective mRNA vaccines somewhere sometime in the future. I don’t say it cannot be done, but a timetable for completion and distribution needs to be calculated. In the interim, McKinsey continues to be financially enhanced.

The Prime Minister should be gagged unless his utterances can be confirmed to be true by an independent panel headed by Norman Swan or his equivalent in order to regain lost political credibility.

The unknowns are gradually becoming clear. There will be a need for booster injections to counter the viral variants beyond the first one; there will be a real necessity for Australia to improve its home-based technology. The advances that Pfizer have apparently achieved in reducing the age at which children can be injected should be monitored closely. Increasingly, being unvaccinated at all ages will be a risk when our world opens up to that villa in Tuscany.

That villa in Tuscany …

Razors – how the land scrape has changed

In my whole life the longest time I have ever gone without a shave after I reached the “age of the bristle” has been three days. That occurred at Easter 1958 which fell in the first week of April that year.  I was induced by two fellow medical students to go on a camping trip in the high plains area of Victoria.

I had never been camping before, and instead of a sleeping bag I had an old eiderdown, which proved to be a very comfortable substitute – we were lucky it didn’t rain.  The nights were very cold in the high country – the Porepunkah caravan park and the Bruthen tip. I am sure the eiderdown did not conform to the kit of a conventional camper. I forgot to take a razor.

Since that time razor technology has changed to such an extent that the ritual of yesterday with badger brush, to mix the shaving soap in a custom made Wedgewood porcelain bowl for a lather prior to the application of the razor was not a two minute exercise. That was a morning ritual, and many of the professionals in my father’s and grandfather’s generation paid a visit to the barber in the morning before work for a shave, complete with hot towels and all the fragrances that substituted for our modern deodorants – underarm and elsewhere. Presumably a presiding judge never wanted to appear as a Norman Gunston figure – but it would have done wonders for court humour.

When I started to shave, I used to have to screw the razor into the so-called safety razor which took no account of a wrinkly face; you need to tighten the skin to avoid the inevitable cuts as the razor encountered adolescent pimples underneath the softened lathered face. This whole process was interrupted by constantly having to run the shaver under water to remove the facial hair. Often this was not a pretty sight.

The electric razor followed. This was an apparent advance, but it came with a pre-shave conditioner and an aftershave lotion, most of which smelt like a French bordello – well, an imagined French bordello.  Brut was the champion odour. Old Spice was equally repugnant.  Aramis too was another turnoff among the few young women who ventured near. The problem with the electric razor is that despite the hype, it never gave a close shave; to such an extent that I was accused of presenting for a final year obstetric oral examination as an unshaven and untidy “colt from Carlton”. I well remember I was wearing a very expensive pale grey suit, and these days such a facial presentation would have been considered fashionable. Apparently, I lost marks for neatness, which was the way the senior medical profession operated in those days, especially when they thought one had the mien of a rebel and needed to be sent to an eastern suburban Siberia as an intern.

Facial salvation eventually came with the modern disposable razor, which has been constantly tweaked so that one can shave without any of the former ritual, although it does help to wet your face. And the time taken? Well, if you can’t do it in under two minutes, you must have latent narcissist tendencies trapped by your vision in the mirror of your post-shaven purity.

Seriously, we forget the time saved by the modern razors, and as long as one does not use the same one more than 24 times, then it gives the facies a very close approximation to a member of human race, unlike those who bury their jaws in home grown hedges.

Mouse Whisper

The Minister for Cultural Correctness, Admiral of the Swift, Pedro Dutônão has a issued a twerking ban on the Dill Squadron. Twiggy and his sidetwiglet ScãoMão have been severely reprimanded for their inappropriate antics before the start of the Collingwood clash with the West Coast Eagles. The Admiral was reported as saying that the crowd reaction of booing one of these perpetrators was completely justifiable in view of that earlier disgraceful mass action. The Admiral went on to regret any hurt that may have been caused to any Australian viewing the original performance but failed to mention the level of reparations due to the Australian community.

Modest Expectations – Field Marshall Waldemar Cardoso

Philip was the fifth child, the only brother of four elder sisters who each married titled German Nazis, hence his appearance as a 16 year old at this funeral of his favourite sister Cecilie who had died in a plane crash in 1937. His head is bowed as though grief-stricken, but uneasy in the company of his Nazi relatives as the cortege moved through the Hessian city of Darmstadt.

Prince Philip at his sister’s funeral

He was fortunate because in the early 1930s he was placed in a German school run by Kurt Hahn, who was Jewish and forced to flee Germany after the accession of Hitler to power. Hahn in turn established Gordonstoun in Scotland, and Philip followed him there to be one of his pupils. Hahn had been helped by the Labour Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald to escape and come to Great Britain and establish himself. Part of the Hahn philosophy was to encourage self-reliance. That the young Philip had in abundance.  His early socialisation had also attuned him to survival against everything. After all, even as a small boy he was a target for assassination.

His service in the Royal Navy left him a tall man, with an easy smile, hard searching eyes and a bearing which is found in most British naval officers. I never met him; probably would have had little to say which would have interested him anyway. He had lived his life when a young man; and he spent the rest of his life recuperating with a lady who was obviously besotted with him, as other women were. He was smart enough to realise not to follow the path that his father took “in burning his aristocratic bridges”.

A magnificently calculating man, but so anybody would have been in order to survive that tumultuous childhood he had. Yet he never abandoned his sisters, and his mother eventually moved into Buckingham Palace where she died in 1969.

I must say that I have never watched The Crown, and even if I had, my biases would have been such that any portrayal that did not fit into my view of the House named for a particular knotted tie popularised by that proto-Nazi, Edward VIII, would only be reinforced. Philip wanted the British Royalty to adopt Mountbatten, a far better name.

I have been a Republican since university; the Queen has lived a life which exemplifies the fact that inducing ennui is royalty’s survival grace; she has survived the Diana soap opera by ratcheting up the ennui; her three prince sons are dropkicks (one of whom should read Vanessa Springora’s Consent) – but Philip was something else. I would struggle to think of anything he actually achieved except naming rights on his eponymous Award and the many plaques, cocktail parties and dinners to cover those organisations to which he had provided his benison. And yet view or read his often savage quips; they are the comments of an unsettled person. But surviving his childhood, that was something even if the rage never left him.

A visão melancólica de Portugal

I wished I had started to learn Portuguese years ago. I only started when I did a short course in Traveller’s Portuguese, before going to Brazil and Timor-Leste in the one year. That was 2019 before the pandemic, but we had booked a Ponant cruise from Dakar in Senegal to Lisbon for March last year. On the way, the ship would first berth at a former colony, now the country of Cabo Verde and then after a brief time onto the Canary Islands, which are Spanish, it was on the Portuguese Island of Madeira; thence to Lisbon where we were due to travel around the country for two weeks. The Virus intervened, and therefore a viagem por terra e por mar was on hold for an indefinite period.

However, the language and then the culture started to intrigue me. The language is supposed to be more akin to French than Spanish – as one writer wryly compromised by saying that Portuguese is Spanish spoken with a French accent. Both Portuguese and Spanish have inherited a raft of Arabic words, whereas French has absorbed a number of Germanic words.

Nevertheless, there is a consensus that Portuguese is the most difficult of the four common Romantic languages, but if Romanian is included, then there are some exasperating tricks in its pronunciation. Even though Romanian overlaps to a great extent with Italian, the word for “thank you” in Romanian is mulțumesc, betraying its Slavonic influence and somewhat different from the Italian grazie.

My teacher has complimented me on my Portuguese accent. A major difficulty I have, especially as my hearing is not as acute as it once was, is in comprehension, as does the generous use of accents, the Portuguese tilde and the cedilla keep one on one’s metal. This is especially true when one has to write down a particular word and then pronounce it. My favourite example is avô and avó. The first is muted and means grandfather; the second is said with a flourish, grandmother. 

It is such an enticing language, but I am at the crossroads. Have I done enough as the prospect of overseas travel is now remote? Yet, the more I have become involved in Portuguese culture the more it intrigues. Listening to their traditional music, fado, one feels the whole pressure on a people, the Lusitanians maintaining their identity on a peninsula predominantly peopled by the Hispanians, from which they barely separated but squeezed into a narrow strip of land against the Atlantic Ocean.

As they developed their modern Portuguese identity, the Lusitanians became fishermen and seafarers, and venturing out they officially colonised the Azores archipelago in the mid-Atlantic in 1449. Although his expedition circumnavigated the world, Frederic Magellan may have been Portuguese, but the ill-fated expedition was funded by the Spanish monarchy. Magellan was killed in the Phillipines, and there were 18 men left commanded by a Basque who eventually returned to Lisbon.

No, it was Vasco da Gama who was the epic hero – the Portuguese Ulysses, about whose voyage to India the Os Lusíadas was written by Camoens some years after his journey. Camoens was the pseudonym for Luís Vax Camōes, a poet adventurer who, as a Byronic figure, courted danger as he roamed the East. I remembered my father had a copy of his poem in our library, which lay untouched. I suppose it is time to keep on going and be able to revel in the original Portuguese. Bit of work to do, but it does provide an incentive.

Read Os Lusíadas and actually achieve something…talvez. 

Optic moonstones 

When I was 12, I was given a field cocker spaniel, who was flecked in blue black. He was a blue roan and I called him Smokey. He was supposed to be descended from the aristocratic line of “Ware” which has won more best dog awards in Great Britain than any other breed. Cocker spaniels, as the name implies, are gun dogs with their specialty being to harass woodcock. There are a number of variations in the breed, but I know I had this very energetic, dome-headed dog, who roamed our half acre, outer suburban plot of land burying his bones, avoiding being bitten by snakes and generally, not being neutered, very much the lad about town.

At about six years, he started to develop cloudiness in his eyes which slowly became solid white cataracts. However, he was able to live with his blindness until he was scuttled while I was away at University. Smokey was trying to cross the increasingly busy road to visit his mate, a dog who had cocker spaniel blood but was hardly pure bred.

Blue roan cocker spaniel

Presumably this affliction was the result presumably of inbreeding, and today Smokey – at great cost – would have had the cataracts removed and lens inserted.

Yes, as I have had many years later. Cataracts are not a characteristic of either side of my family, and I had no sign of them until I started daily oral cortisone for my auto-immune condition. First, I noticed my vision becoming blurred even with glasses and so, as with so many of my age, I had one cataract done. The second – my right eye – was left, until recently. My sight in that eye was manageable, but one night out of curiosity, I tried to see out of that eye. I was completely blind – all I could see were moving shapes in a dirty yellow fog. This shock of blindness suddenly made me realise how important vision is to me, even though the artificial lens in the other eye enabled me to compensate and apparently have normal vision.

Now the second cataract has been removed, and the inserted lens is gradually settling down, so my vision is almost back to normal in my right eye as well.

The experience of the operation is something in its variety of illusions and hallucinations. Whereas the first operation was sedate in that my vision during the operation was coated with a black background and oval white spots like a severe Marimekko pattern, this time it was something else.

First, I saw an ironbark forest portrayed as though it was a magic forest – clearly defined but a very emerald green fading into a very brown hill that resembled a bear pelt. Then it changed to a village scene, with hints of Brueghel as photographed by Dupain. The curtain came down, and red and black lacunae dotted the lenscape with a sudden outburst of teal marshmallows exploding and then it was over – I felt the final stitch and then the lights of the operating theatre appeared. The entertainment had finished.

My eye was strapped and then I was off to the recovery room. It had been swifter than anybody thought – 20 minutes.

I had a turkey sandwich with cranberry sauce and a juice for a delayed lunch, but no grog for 24 hours. Probably just well. Who knows what I would have seen? 

Feminism – A slogan?

I accidentally switched onto a TV program which paraded a selective group of the women who apparently shaped the feminine diaspora during the 1960s and 1970s. One of the major networkers of her time, Gay Davidson, was totally ignored by this documentary. Gay was the Canberra correspondent of The Canberra Times. Gay had contacts across the political spectrum.  She was a very generous host, an astute person who had come from New Zealand, marrying Ken Davidson, The Age economic writer of the time. They had two daughters, Tui and Kiri, who were very much part of the Davidson’s life until Kiri’s tragic death from a rare late complication of measles.

Of the women featured, I had met Anne Summers through Gay, and one piece of advice left an everlasting impression on her – as she did on me with her own blunt opinions. Her legacy beside being a founding member of the Women’s Liberation Movement was her book Damned Whores and God’s Police which achieved a certain cult status.

There in this documentary a clutch of elderly women was being interviewed about their reminiscences of that time, which was universally said to be “an exciting period”. Perhaps, but having lived through the same period where there was scant childcare, where abortion was banned, where most women were still consigned to a second class status, it was interesting to listen to the various apologia. Perhaps the most disturbing comments came from Elizabeth Reid, who Whitlam appointed very publicly as his Woman’s Adviser in 1973, and then sent her on her way two years later after the disastrous “Summit” she had convened. The problem with Ms Reid is she smiles a great deal but has no sense of humour – a fatal combination.

The fault with government is that it does not learn. The recent appointment of one of the most “retentive” Ministers as “Prime Minister for Women” does not help. Marise Payne is a woman so stitched up that she burbles rather than talks naturally, and such a damaged woman is set up for an impossible task. Then there is the proposal for a National Summit to discuss women’s problems presumably to be organised by the gaggle of female Ministers delegated this task by Morrison.

If I were a cynic, I would think that the government is expecting every extremist women’s group to turn up and then fire up latent community prejudices around the Alphabet group; presumably Morrison would expect them to treat the Summit as though it were a winter Mardi Gras. In so doing, a perverse government would hope that such activities would undermine the very significant gains women have made in the first part of the year since the initial Brittany Higgins’ accusations. Then after a disastrous Summit, Morrison would have clear air in his narrowly-based constituency for another electoral victory with yet another discredited feminine movement on the sidelines.

I hope this bunch, with Grace Tame at their head, are smarter than Morrison and his misnamed bunch of Liberals thinks they are and can handle the fringe movements.

One tip – ensure that the girls in the forefront of the protest turn up in their school uniforms. An absolute rejection of the Morrison tactics. And if they can induce some of the evangelical “Christian schools” to join in, so much greater the impact.

Consent – A memoir

In a previous blog, I mentioned the above book recently translated from the French, which details the experience Vanessa Springora, the author, had as a 14 year old and onwards as the child lover of a guy, a prominent French author who was 50 at the time.  I have now read it, “a gut-punch of a memoir with prose that cuts like a knife”, as one reviewer put it.

Matzneff

His name was Gabriel Matzneff and he actively promoted paedophilia as some form of love. In the seventies, even up to the nineties, he was lauded for his “progressive attitudes” by a wide variety of his contemporaries, both male and female. When you look at photos of him at the time, he looks a fit, tanned, good looking individual with the scrubbed face and bald head of a Yul Bynner. Yet his is the face of a satyr, who purports to be a member of the human race because of his lyrical phrases justifying the destruction of vulnerable young human beings for his own pleasure. He and the author corresponded, and in his array of books he referred to her and her letters to him without any consent even being given.

Twenty years on, he is the same animal, but a more decrepit 83 year old now being pursued by the police. His prurient ideas have long lost currency with his highbrow audience.

The book confronted me with her description of this person having anal sex with her at 14. This act is perpetrated by this middle-aged man who professed his undying love for her. She describes her absent father returning, screaming about Matzneff being a pervert and storming out again. Yet her mother condoned the relationship. Never any support, with fellow school students well aware of what was going on and she, forced into a pattern of sleazy trysts away from their prying eyes.

What is painful is to follow the descent of this young woman, even after she extracted herself from his clutches – although there was always the fear of him stalking her professing his love. This was the same man who regularly went to the Phillipines to satisfy his lust for pubescent boys, all the time crying the purity of his motives. He even offered to take her to show the purity of his motives.

Vanessa did not commit suicide; she habilitated herself and found a husband who she says cares for her. After all, she is in her mid-forties.

She is very matter of fact; no gushing over having found a caring male and having a son. It was her husband who encouraged her to write the book.

Her translator, Natasha Lehrer, writes a very perceptive note.

Even at the age of fourteen, Springora instinctively understands that her abuser is using language to steal her soul. One day he determines to write her assignment for school, an experience she describes as “dispossession”. Throughout their relationship he takes endless notes in his Moleskin notebooks, and uses them later to turn her, barely disguised, into a character in several novels that are published to some acclaim by the most esteemed Parisian publishing houses.

To Matzneff Vanessa was just a character to be followed by other girls while she was erased. She now is a restored character, not erased, having survived that torment.

She is a publisher, and this was her first work. The book deserves to be widely read. It is easy to despise G.M. as she labels him in her book, but he is one of many. Undoubtedly they lurk in Parliament House, but they are not confined to just one feed lot. Ms Springora has shown the power of publication, not to be afraid to identify the oppressor, and hope the community will exact the appropriate penalty on her tormentor.

Meanwhile, I await the arraignment of Brittany Higgins’ rapist.

Mouse Whisper

Not to put too fine a point (or is now jab) on it, Bhutan vaccinated their whole population of 800,000 in a week, after delaying the inoculations for two months because the time was inauspicious according to the governing body, Zhung Dratsang, which is apparently not translated as Minister Hunt.

Bhutan