Modest Expectations – Dominican Republic

“Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the guilty.”

Strike me lucky, Blue, did you hear that? They are at it again – the Coalition of the Willing has now changed its name to a self-preened great Aukus. Yes, I know the Great Auk has joined the Dodo, but the word here is Aukus. Remember the name! And no cracks about Noah’s Aukus.

The great AUK – now extinct

I’ve a friend who has been associated with the Senior Service since he was 19 years old. I asked him a simple question – why does Australia need submarines? He thought it was a good question, and he answered in conventional terms, that he thought Xi had the same expansionist propensity that the Japanese military had before the Second World War. I said to him it sounded like a version of the yellow peril coming from the North.

My friend made the observation that the French contract was rubbish, and the Adelaide shipyards were just not up to the requirements. From my point of view, having heard from a variety of sources, Master Pyne will have a lot to answer for this in relation to his involvement, apart from any fiduciary gain, just to shore up a few South Australian Parliamentary seats for the Liberal Party! Any objective assessment would have concluded how poor were the underlying assumptions, an impression reinforced by knowing of the recent involvement of Jane Halton as a consultant.

Yet five years ago Australia had entered into a contract – ill-formed, ill-thought through – but did the Australian Government confront the French with its concerns? Probably not. If so, why now go behind the back of the French government?

Nevertheless, the cackhanded way in which Morrison has responded to being hoodwinked into the nuclear submarine imbroglio is par for the course. That was compounded by the gratuitous insult by an American President, who knows of Morrison’s failed bet on Trump. Biden seems unable to bring himself to utter his name.

Despised by Biden. Morrison has also pissed off the French (and probably the EU as well) and the Chinese. The rest of Asia is looking askance, especially when they also see Boris, the dishevelled spectre of the playing fields of Eton College, in the mix. The question may rightly be asked – why are the British meddling in the Pacific since they do not even have any British Overseas Territory tax havens in the Pacific to defend?

Nevertheless, Morrison is following in the traditions of the recent past Australian Prime Ministers where, despite the trumpet blast about the number of members of the Coalition of the Willing (apart from a Danish contingent of about 50 troops), only Australia and Great Britain made any sizeable military contribution to America’s ill-starred invasion of Afghanistan.

The French refused to join, although it had previously committed 17,000 troops to the Gulf War in 1991.  And who can forget Menzies’ embarrassing involvement in the Suez Crisis in 1956 where, by Jove, those “gyppos” needed to be taught a thing or two. At that time the French joined the British in tickling Menzies’ vanity.

According to my source, the Americans will probably flog Australia the Virginia class nuclear submarine.  At what cost? A lot is the best estimate, and just re-emphasises the non-answer to my initial question, when Australia has a small navy, minuscular compared to both China and the USA.

This Virginia class submarine, with a crew of about 135 sailors, can carry up to 24 torpedoes and Tomahawk cruise missiles. The boat’s top underwater speed is about 25 knots (46km) per hour. The submarine has an advantage, namely the reactor plant will not require refuelling during the ship’s lifetime. But the question remains of what will the life time look like if it takes 20 years to build this fleet. It does not make sense.

Just look at the logistics. From laying down plans to final commissioning seems to take about six to seven years; but General Dynamics already has a backlog, with the boondoggle being a tasty supplement to maintain the money flow to the American armaments industry in, say, 20 years’ time. Needless to say, these submarines will be built in the USA, not Australia. There are just so many subsidiary suppliers of equipment to make Australian involvement in the manufacture impossible.

There are a few other queries, especially as the life of a submariner is not one which is immensely popular with the younger generation. Long periods of time next to a nuclear reactor underwater is not the most enticing job prospect, given the amount of time needed to ensure that the person recruited has the ability to remain sane in a closed underwater environment. So how is this to be answered?

The alternative is to invest in smaller unmanned submarines, more suitable for our shallow coastal waters. These are being built by Boeing and, according to my source, may be the future. They are cheaper; and nobody cries over the sinking of an unmanned drone.

The observations from my friend seem very sound, especially as he is concerned with our defence; not some vain manoeuvre to spend a great amount of funding on a project where the competition is already set between the two heavyweights. The Chinese are investing in more and more nuclear submarines.

Deployment of nuclear submarines confronting the Chinese in the South China sea should be left to the Americans – and the Japanese. In the undersea domain, the increase in Japan’s submarine force is highly regarded throughout Asia, and even America’s anti-submarine warfare operators struggle to track Japan’s modern fleet of super-quiet non-nuclear submarines. Note the comment about the stealthiness. This was a major criticism of the French submarines ordered by Australia, which apparently are so noisy one can hear La Marseillaise anywhere if the enemy wishes to tune in.

Even Taiwan is building new submarines. Paradoxically, there are some suggestions, one of which is that the Americans are seeking to reduce their nuclear submarine fleet. This may give some clue as to the US interest; and hence sloughing a few off to Australia – obviously at the right price whether for outright sale or some form of lend-lease – to shorten the period from 20 years to a much more “acceptable” timeframe. These alternatives may have more currency now the possibility of such has been denied by a former US Secretary for the Navy.

Sometime in the future there may be six nuclear submarines under an Australian ensign; an expenditure which could have been spent on a more mobile unmanned underwater navy, able to have quick deployment around the vulnerable coast of north-west Australia demonstrated so clearly when the Japanese attacked there, as well as Darwin in 1942. I wonder still whether this “sometime in the future” scenario will ever eventuate, but I certainly won’t be around to see it.

I do not weep for the French. In the 1990s, when President of the Faculty of Public Health Medicine within The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, I coordinated with Saatchi a protest against the French nuclear tests in the South Pacific at Mururoa Atoll. This protest involved colleagues from New Zealand and other South Pacific constituencies. I also well remember the callous bombing of the Rainbow Warrior by the French in Auckland Harbour in 1985. It should be noted that the French last withdrew its ambassador from Canberra in 1995, after Australia had withdrawn our ambassador from France two months earlier.

Given all this, I am sure that Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines will be unhappy about Australia gratuitously poking around underwater in the archipelago, knowing that there are already a number of nuclear submarines close by, if not in disputed territorial waters.

The other diplomatic problem for Australia is that the last thing the South Pacific nations will want is a nuclear reactor with a boxing kangaroo motif berthed in their harbours, which reinforces that point about the unattractiveness of the submariner’s life.

But then, will this whole extravaganza ever occur?

To boost or not to boost 

An advisory panel, independent of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), has voted to recommend administering Pfizer vaccine booster doses to people over 65 and those at high risk of severe COVID-19. The shots would be given at least six months after the original two shots.

The panel had earlier voted against a broader proposal from Pfizer to make booster shots available for people 16 and older. However, the FDA is not bound to accept the recommendation.

What is important is that Israel and USA have evidence for the efficacy of boosters, and it seems that six months is an indicative time for a booster dose of both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The need for a booster for AZ vaccine is less clear. What is known is that the AZ vaccine is a “slow burner”, and immunity levels build over time, especially when the dosing period is stretched. Currently the gap between first and second doses is between eight and 12 weeks which gives an optimal immune response.

For the third booster dose, it may be preferable to give a different brand of vaccine than the one used for the first two shots. This is specifically mentioned for the AZ vaccine. This would be positive news for those Australians over 65, who have been denied access to the Pfizer vaccine for their initial inoculation.

Booster shots are subject to speculation as to efficacy, but both Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are lined up seeking FDA approval. There is a suggestion that the Moderna booster requirement may be half the initial inoculation shot and, given the arrival of Moderna vaccine into this country, such information is relevant.

What is important is for the Government to develop a national approach to boosters, assuming that Australia will follow the FDA decisions, and moreover Israeli experience. In other words, let us not get caught up in the no man’s land of indecision; the Government failed comprehensively in relation to vaccines – they cannot afford to fail again.

The debate still centres on the level of vaccination and applauding the great response of Australians to be vaccinated once the vaccine hesitancy was  overcome. I for one, was in that cohort, and masked my hesitancy by taking the advice to space the influenza and COVID-19 vaccines. As I wrote in an April blog:

The other one, given the problems with the rollout, if I was able to secure a first dose, how long shall I have to wait for the second dose, and then more importantly, for the booster? It does not seem clear to me, whether (or more optimistically, when that will occur). That is why the J&J vaccine appeals to me more because it is single dose; but will it ever be registered in Australia? Questions, questions everywhere, but only opinions to imbibe. That is my reaction as an elderly consumer eligible for the injection. I am confused, and so will hold back. In the Australian climate it seems the best option is to wait and see.

I hope that same indecision does not dog mixed vaccine boosters, but at least if Pfizer is approved for boosters it can be used potentially across all of those over the age of 65 years. In retrospect, my comment in relation to the J&J vaccine seems have been a good bet. Although there were production difficulties, it is said that the second injection provides near to 100 per cent protection.

In any event, the matter of boosters should not be let slip in the way other matters have been mismanaged, because if boosters prove successful, then a six-monthly cycle hopefully can be converted to a minimum one year with further tweaking of the vaccine. This would then cement the booster added into the influenza vaccination cycle, with the possibility of a combined flu-COVID vaccine. This is in the future, but the matter of boosters must be part of the conversation now.

There is one distraction, if it can be called that. Why should Australia be applying for boosters when the undeveloped world is largely unvaccinated? Australia cannot take responsibility for the world. Yet if Australia accepts public health responsibility for our neighbours, the level should be clearly defined; and once it is clearly defined then these nations should be incorporated so their level of access is the same as ours.Yet at the same time those nations should accept the same level of responsibility as us.  Every society has got its “whack jobs”, every society has its level of ignorance, but public health responsibility is universal just as taboos are universal. It is all about the acceptable mix of persuasion and coercion.

Sweden Calling

I read the article by James Baillieu in Crikey extolling the virtues of the Swedish approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.  After reading it, I am sorry to miss articles on the benefits of the “English moat usage in repelling the Virus” or the “Cumulative benefit of monocle use when taking ivermectin.”

But I joke, my Lord, when such an authoritative source as yourself waxes lyrical on Sweden and its approach to the Virus. I appreciate you attribute your expertise on Sweden to your genetic pool.

My Swedish friend, a distinguished doctor from the Karolinska, who unhappily has not had been afforded the wisdom of working for seven years for McKinseys, which has been so much on show in its advice to that other McKinsey genius, Master of the Hunt, Greg.

I took the liberty, my lord, of forwarding your Epistle to The Nation of Crikey to my Swedish friend.

My friend, having read the Epistle has replied (sic):

Outcome measures obviously differ vastly whether you are a potential pub client locked (at home) or a frail elderly  person with the sword of Damocles sharpened above you. 

Australia is to be congratulated having saved so far ca 50,000 lives (compared to similar countries including Sweden)

It is somewhat callous to imply that a 0.1% death rate is negligible. The figure is also off by a factor of 10 in developed countries.  I strongly disagree.  

However there are other costs, lives not lived, children not schooled, economic problems to evaluate also before a total score can be tallied. 

To me it seems that Australia 

  1. Was lucky to be able to close borders
  2. Enforce lockdowns that saved many lives
  3.  School closures may not have been evidenced (i.e not been objectively assessed).
  4. Lockdowns only work for short times during which extensive vaccination must occur lest the disease take hold again savagely which is now occurring (in Sweden). 

We are now in Sweden following Denmark in repealing nearly all Covid restrictions, hoping fervently that our vaccination rate is ultimately sufficient.

(Consider) that there are groups in society both more exposed and sadly neither accepting vaccination nor being reached by the information, which is also as clear as it was more than a year ago when the typical Covid patient(in Sweden) was an immigrant taxi driver.  

Subsequently, he informed me that the architect of the Swedish approach, Tegnall is showing signs of stress. Baillieu labels Tegnall as independent; no he’s not – he is a civil servant. Baillieu maybe means “maverick”. Perhaps if Tegnall resigns, “maverick” becomes “martyr” in Baillieu language.

Baillieu trumpets zero deaths from COVID-19 in Sweden. On 17 September alone, there were 22 new reported deaths and 1,009 new reported cases; then on 22 September, 19 deaths. What a callous statement by Baillieu saying “Sweden’s COVID death toll of 0.14% of the population was nearly all people who had a short time to live.” 14,000 people about to die on his say-so. As my friend wrote: It is somewhat callous to imply that a 0.1%(sic) death rate is negligible.

While its economy may be showing signs of recovery, Swedish sources still say there is significant uncertainty. It’s possible that restrictions to curb the spread of infection will tighten again in autumn if cases rise, and this would impact economic growth.

Over the course of next year, employment growth is predicted to slow down further as GDP increases more slowly, but the number of employed people will still increase. Many businesses are looking for skilled workers again. A total of 190,000 people in Sweden have now been without a job for over a year. It seems a sober assessment of the current Swedish situation complementing my friend’s comments. Not a small hit, as Baillieu asserts.

Demonstrators on the steps of the Shrine, Melbourne

I don’t like what is occurring with the Virus unsuppressed in both Melbourne and Sydney, but when an over-privileged graduate of the Melbourne Establishment has a childish tantrum disguised as an objective assessment then I too, a product of the same environment, feel deeply ashamed.

What nonsense his final words: “Restore our rights and freedoms. Stop harming our children and instead protect them.”

I hope he was not wandering along the Westgate Freeway protesting this lack of Freedoms with all the irresponsible.

My great grandfather did not lose his money in the Depression of the 1890s in which the Baillieu family was a prominent player; the consequences of the Depression still affect Melbourne to this day. My great grandfather did not have much time for the Baillieus either.

John Shelby Spong

Spong sounds as if came from the world of Spike Milligan.

Bishop John Spong

Yet John Shelby Spong was a very, very serious influence. Some may say that Spong flaunted once-controversial views, but now many have become mainstream.  At times I wonder why I retain my Anglicanism, until I am reminded of Spong. I have been fortunate in knowing some great Anglican priests, but it is hard to live in the Sydney diocese which has all but abandoned people like Spong in its literal Bible interpretation and acquired intolerance of anybody not in its own image – seemingly not that of the Trinity anyway.

Yet one statement in the obituary prompted me to seek further information, and that was the statement about Judas Iscariot. He is so vilified, and yet in an excellent article on the iconography by Dr Felicity Harley relating to Judas, the early church was much more forgiving of Judas and his suicide. The reader is explicitly told that he had remorse; and there is no condemnation of Judas in his choice to take his own life in the way that he does. Rather, in recording the suicide Matthew allows guilt to pass from Judas to the Jewish leaders who ignore Judas’s confession and his atoning gesture and are thereby rendered guilty.

Later he was further vilified for that act in addition to his betrayal of Christ, and by the time of the medieval church the Hanged Judas had been consigned to the darkest parts the Inferno.

It is testimony to Spong that even in death, his obituary has made me think, in any areas I thought very much cut and dried.

I am indebted to this lightly edited obituary from The Washington Post, which I doubt will get much currency in Australia.

Long one of the most liberal voices among the nation’s Episcopalians, Bishop Spong has died at the age of 90.

In 1989, while he was bishop in Newark, N.J., he ordained the first openly gay male priest in the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Robert Williams.

Though the Rev. Ellen Barrett, an openly lesbian priest, had been ordained a decade earlier, Bishop Spong drew national attention by sending letters inviting all the church’s bishops — many of whom opposed his actions — to attend the ordination of Williams that December.

“Christian moral standards have changed quite dramatically,” Bishop Spong told The New York Times before the ordination. “We had slavery in a Christian nation. We had oppressed women. I think that our world is more Christ-like when it’s open to all of God’s children.”

And he added: “We believe that the Church needs to be honest. We have gay priests in every diocese.”

The author of more than two dozen books, Bishop Spong questioned some of Christianity’s fundamental doctrines while over the years he had often taught and lectured at Harvard Divinity School.

“He was trying to find the kernel and sweep away the husk of what it meant to follow Jesus. He was always seeking after that truth,” the Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, canon theologian at Washington National Cathedral and dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, said; “What he truly came to understand is doctrine and dogma doesn’t make us Christian. Doctrine and dogma doesn’t make us church. What makes us church is respecting the sacredness of every single human being and creating a world that does that and making sure the church is leading the world in doing so.”

“In so many ways,” she added, “he was ahead of the church.”

Nine months after Bishop Spong ordained Williams, the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops voted to pass a resolution affirming that it is “inappropriate” to ordain a practicing homosexual.

“The way the church treats its gay and lesbian members,” Bishop Spong said afterward, “strains the very fabric of my life by tearing it between my loyalty to Jesus Christ, who made a habit of embracing the outcast, and my loyalty to a church that historically has rejected Blacks, women and gays.”

Born in Charlotte, N.C., on June 16, 1931, John Shelby Spong was raised in fundamentalist churches amid those whose values were racist, sexist, and homophobic.

When he was young, he was taught that gay people were sinful, women were subordinate to men, and whites were superior to people of color.

His father, a salesman who struggled with alcoholism and died when John was 12, told him he should always say “sir” and “ma’am” to his elders, so long as they were not Black.

Bishop Spong later said the greatest influence on his upbringing was his mother, who was part of a strict Presbyterian sect that refused to play hymns because the lyrics were not “God’s words.” He later targeted that kind of biblical literalism in his books and sermons.

In 1998, for example, he criticized LGBTQ opponents as “uninformed religious people who buttress their attitude with appeals to a literal understanding of the Bible. This same mentality has marked every debate about every new insight that has arisen in the Western world over the last 600 years. It is a tired, threadbare argument that has become one of embarrassment to the cause of Christ.”

He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1952 and received a master’s in divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary in 1955. That same year, he was ordained to the priesthood and married Joan Lydia Ketner, who died in 1988. In 1990, he married Christine Mary Bridger, an administrator in the Newark archdiocese who went on to edit his work.  He was survived by his wife, five children and six grandchildren. He had a sister, who also has outlived him.

Before he became a bishop in New Jersey, he served for 20 years as a priest in North Carolina and Virginia. As rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, known as the Cathedral of the Confederacy because it was where Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis had worshiped, he took down the Confederate flag that flew above the building.

As the civil rights movement progressed, Bishop Spong found himself preaching to Black and white congregations alike, and said he worked to shed what he called the “residual racism” of his upbringing.

“I happen to believe that God’s image is in every human being, and that every human being must [be treated] with ultimate respect … And the Black people in America were the first people who made this very clear to me,” he said in a 2001 interview with the ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster.

He later expanded his ministry to encompass the fights for gender equality and LGBTQ rights. Soon after he arrived at the Diocese of Newark in the mid-1970s, the diocese became one of the first to ordain women to the priesthood.

The Rev. V. Gene Robinson, who in 2003 was consecrated as the church’s first openly gay bishop, has recently called Bishop Spong “a prophet”, using the term in the sense of “someone who speaks truth to power, who says those things that people don’t want to hear because it calls their morality and their lives into question.”

“I stand on his shoulders,” Robinson added. “Were it not for the work that he did and the ministry that he did and the advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ people that he did, I wouldn’t be a bishop. He did it long before it was popular or politically correct — he did it because he believed it was the Gospel.”

After publishing “Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop’s Search for the Origins of Christianity,” Spong spoke with the Globe in 1994 about parts of Christianity he was challenging.

Neither Judas Iscariot nor a betrayal by one of the 12 apostles was mentioned in early parts of the New Testament, he said.

“Judas was a creation of the Christian Church, which sought to shift blame for Jesus’s death from the Romans to the Jews,” he said.

In his 2005 book “The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love,” Bishop Spong wrote:

“I am now convinced that institutional Christianity has become so consumed by its quest for power and authority, most of which is rooted in the excessive claims for the Bible, that the authentic voice of God can no longer be heard within it.”

He did not say Amen. Others may.

There’s a Tree in the House

I was looking at an old repeat of Grand Designs in Australia where the owners erected a huge tree trunk as a centrepiece of their house in the tropical bush south of Darwin. It was a huge endeavour.

Trees, in the house …

By chance, at the same time, we received a short message from a renter of our property in Tasmania, which read in part; “Thank you so much for a wonderful stay in your holiday house. Our young boys absolutely loved the trees in the house.”

I had watched this installation of the tree trunk in the Northern Territory house, and yet did not immediately associate with the three massive blackwood trunks which support our house together with the trunk of a King Billy pine, which was the only old wood.

The blackwood poles were green at the time of construction and this is shown by some splitting in the poles , but the house is nearly 30 years old and seemingly that is now stabilised. The simple observation of children entering the property for the first time, full of wonderment at something we just take for granted; for them the house may be a fugue of interwoven wood. But from ageing eyes like mine, you only see what you don’t see.

Mouse Whisper

In Italy, May 1 is known is “Festa dei Lavatori”. It is a day of little work, also known in Italian as “la toiletta”. In southern England on the same day, there is a little known ceremony heralding the harvest of the first honeycomb. It is known as “Bee Day”.

Modest Expectations – Lopez Nunes

Consider this summer’s Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago. All those attending were required to provide proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test. Anyone unvaccinated was required to wear masks throughout, even though the festival was outdoors. And those attending were asked to accept a “Lollapalooza Fan Health Pledge” promising they had not tested positive or been exposed to covid within two weeks or experienced any covid symptoms within 48 hours. The result? Of the hundreds of thousands of fans who attended the festival, only a few hundred have subsequently tested positive — and it is unclear whether any of them were infected at Lollapalooza.

Eighteen months into the pandemic, we’ve learned that outdoor gatherings are reasonably safe — it’s the indoor activities that invariably follow that are deadly. At Sturgis, (the annual pilgrimage to this tiny town in South Dakota for motorcycle enthusiasts) it is unlikely that the outdoor bike rallies were a problem. Most of the spread likely happened in the evenings, when people crowded into bars and restaurants, most unvaccinated, all unmasked. Large gatherings that work on keeping indoor spaces safe through vaccinations, masking, ventilation and other techniques can keep the entire gathering safer. 

Over the past year, every time we have tried to defy the virus by scorning precautions, the virus has won, and people have suffered and died: significant outbreaks, a lot of hospitalizations, too many deaths. Large gatherings like rallies, festivals and fairs are the biggest test of what our society can do in a pandemic.

The simple interpretation of the large outbreak after Sturgis is that big gatherings are just not possible during a pandemic. But that is the wrong lesson. It’s important for Americans to find ways to come together. So we should ask how we can make gatherings safer. 

Here, the pandemic playbook is straightforward: Ensure you have a highly vaccinated population. Verify people’s vaccination status. Require rapid and frequent testing, especially for the unvaccinated. Improve indoor air quality, and use masking intermittently when needed.

None of these are difficult to achieve. And none of them should be particularly inconvenient. If we do all that, we can safely get back to the things we love and the events that bring us together, like music festivals, concerts and motorcycle rallies. From The Washington Post

On the way to Sturgis to catch a dose of COVID

The Sturgis motor bike rally attracts, over a 10-day period in August, about 500,000 people, all unvaccinated, all maskless, all completely ignoring any anti-viral precautions. I remember last year the forlorn image of the lone nurse at the empty COVID-19 testing station at Sturgis.

Sturgis is a small town in sparsely populated Mead County of that State; perhaps the nearest equivalent in Australia might be the annual gathering of ute owners and their vehicles in Deniliquin.

One difference is the Deni Ute Muster, as it is called, attracts only about 25,000 with up to one hundred utes, and it has been cancelled this year, as it was last year – out of respect for the lethal nature of the Virus.

Small town where, when the crowd arrives and leaves, in this case in Sturgis the number of COVID-19 cases shot up. There have been variable estimates of the extent of the spread engineered by the Sturgis participants and the numbers range up to 266,000. But given the reliability of the data, just use the word “substantial” – as good as any semi-quantitative measure.

While that irresponsible Governor of South Dakota rides around pillion at such a festival, herself vaccinated (not in evidence) but maskless (in evidence) what does one expect from a country one spit away from the sinkhole.

In 1788, Sydney was all we had

One matter is evident in the lead up to the election. Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition come from the same state, and not only that, but also from suburban Sydney. There is resentment building against NSW; and that is unsurprising given what a target Berejiklian has made for herself, and which may intensify once the shadow cast by ICAC may challenge her “ermine saviour” image promoted by the AFR and subsequently universally lampooned. Again, she is a product of suburban Sydney schooling in North Ryde, and her deputy’s stronghold is in Queanbeyan, which may as well be a de facto suburb of Canberra; moreover, conventional suburbia.

I have lived half my life in Victoria and the other half in New South Wales.  I also have been lucky enough to travel widely around Australia during my working life. I remember having to work in Queensland, and that feeling of being labelled a “Mexican”, which I soon shed; but on the other hand if the Queenslanders don’t like you (which is the politician’s lot) it is hard to shed the sombrero.

I have seen images of Albanese in Queensland and he doesn’t exactly look in place there; whereas Morrison fits the bill (Queensland has a hearty dose of evangelical happy clappers like himself) at least in the country areas. The number of billboards in rural Queensland telling one that “Jesus saves”, would encourage anybody to open a bank account.

As if a prescient sign, a former Albanese sidekick has been booted from his position as Mayor of the Inner West Council, suffering the ignominy of not being able to finish his term in December, when a new council will be elected.

“The name’s Bill. Bill Shorten,” the kicker line began. “Remember it well. He’s a union supremo at the moment. He’s pals with both foxes and hounds. He’s the face of 21st century Labor. Heading for The Lodge? You better believe it.” 

I remember this quote about Bill Shorten. It doesn’t get much currency these days.

I am not a great fan of Shorten. From my sources in Melbourne flow streams of negativity. His rise to the leadership was not a pathway which personally I would have taken, but he got there, with all his “zinger” arrogance clearly demonstrating a complete lack of sense of humour in the process. A very unlovely image over seven years, and he lost the election.

Equally unlovely men have had a second chance, but in so doing, they regulated their outer coating – spots and stripes are changed accordingly. When he was young, Shorten’s essential meanness was hidden behind a youthful face and a shock of hair. I doubt whether he has changed that much, but he is intelligent, far more than the current Prime Minister and his essential meanness of spirit could carry the Labor Party to victory, given that image of NSW being the teacher’s pet and that totally inept performance of his fellow Victorian, Frydenberg, who has continually attacked his own State.

Shorten does not have to be Bob Hope with devastating one liners; he needs to convert his meanness into an image of resilience and show compassion. The baby kissing “aw-shucks” image is not Shorten; leave that to Morrison and his baseball cap.

These are hard times. Once, there was a hard time in Northern Tasmania. I was not close enough to the Beaconsfield mine disaster to know how Shorten was perceived locally at the time – whether a sincerely concerned union official or a silver-tailed blow-in – courtesy of Dick Pratt’s private plane. But he was there on the spot, not in Hawaii. Shorten’s intuitive response was one of being seen there.

Man of the people, Beaconsfield

Smart people always learn; and Shorten is smart. Howard learnt; he had the same propensity of shifting alliances – a polite way of putting it. After all, it was said Shorten was in his element in Beaconsfield given his expertise in undermining. This facet of his way up the pole of influence will always dog him; but being likened to a rodent ultimately did not impede Howard’s rise to Prime Ministership, where he did a reasonable job. He was fortunate to have Tim Fisher as his Deputy – both, may I add, New South Welshmen but at least Tim’s electorate bordered Victoria. This a luxury Morrison does not have.

The Australian government is not the plaything of New South Wales politics. Premier Andrews summed up the resentment “I signed up to a national plan to vaccinate the country, not a plan to vaccinate Sydney.” Note Andrews did not say NSW; he said Sydney.

The Lodge, Canberra

Andrews embodied a bitterness which is palpable around Australia. There is no better symbolism than Morrison going home to Sydney every weekend. He is a Sydneysider; he is not an Australian. The Lodge is where the Prime Minister of Australia resides. The problem is that, as Keating first demonstrated, it is too easy for a Sydney-based Prime Minister to use Kirribilli House as the main residence, not the Lodge. However, Canberra was constructed to symbolise the Australian Federation, not some form of extended Sydney papacy because of the accident of the first settlement, Port Jackson, where Arthur Phillip stuck the Union Jack.

The Prime Minister should test his popularity in Victoria for a start. Victoria gets a new seat at the next Federal election – a safe Labor seat named after Bob Hawke; and the recent redistribution makes the seat of Chisholm even more marginal for the Liberal Party. Especially if it is recommended as an electoral issue that Kirribilli House be opened up for the nation or sold, in order to dispense with the notion that the Federal Government is just an extension of NSW politics. After all, Kirribilli was acquired in 1919 by another NSW-based Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, to prevent the site being redeveloped.

Only since 1956 has it been the place where the Prime Minister could entertain, but not live. However, since the end of 1991 Australia has had NSW-based Prime Ministers except for the Rudd/Gillard six-year era – in other words, over a 30 year period we have had a NSW Prime Minister for 25 of those, and thus surreptitiously turning Kirribilli into the Prime Ministerial residence is outrageous. Canberra was created for that purpose, and the Lodge is the official residence of the Prime Minister, not an apartment when Parliament is sitting. Moreover, it has been recently renovated at a cost of $9m.

What a choice, with the wife and kids with a residence overlooking the Harbour, the Government being seen as not disrupting the children’s schooling.  One can see how that resonates in the community – Big Daddy.

Then no matter what, the lights will continue to burn brightly in Kirribilli, with comfy fireside chats with the NSW Premier, especially if the two share the same political affiliation – and the children are playing around at his feet.

Kiribilli-by-sea

Do we really want Albanese to continue this dubious NSW tradition?

You know, the rest of Australia can go hang but Daddy is always home for dinner – and close to Hillsong on Sundays.

Wilcannia on the Darling River

“Jack Best, you should know better.”

The woman, a Barkinji elder, had been looking at me strangely for a few minutes as I was talking. I stopped, sheepish as a naughty child.

I realised that what I was saying was trespassing into woman’s business.

That was the way.  I was openly admonished. I should have recognised her initial non-verbal scolding.  Aboriginal people are very good on non-verbal communication; the more you work with them, the more you learn how to respond appropriately.

Yet in this instance, it demonstrated that she recognised as a whitefella that I had been trusted by the local Aboriginal population, and my action was not ignorance borne of lack of knowledge; but it had been my unthinking chatter when I had wandered into women’s business by describing something I had seen.

As I said, she was a Barkinji elder, her people fine-boned Aboriginals whose land lies along the Darling River.

I spent a considerable amount of time in Wilcannia when I was working in the Far West of NSW. Whether I had any long term impact, perhaps but I doubt it. Nevertheless, I remember a time when the myth was abroad implying that Wilcannia was a dangerous place where you would not want to stop. I never had that feeling.  Yet it has always been very easy to criticise Wilcannia because the town depends on Government funding, one way or another. For a period, there was an attempt to introduce the building trades, complete with a bricklaying machine. Not a success.

Wilcannia is a very circumscribed community. Once a port on the Darling River, it now has a very important place in Australia’s heritage, both for Aboriginal people and whitefellas. Whitefellas still lived in the town – when I was there one white nun was still resident in the convent.

There was a very involved white family who had a substantial property on the Darling River, just north of Wilcannia – a beautiful property. When the Darling River is not a dry creek bed or a stream discoloured by algal blooms, it is one of the most beautiful rivers in the world, and a property being on the river had a grandstand view, employing an apt sporting cliché, one of those that riddle our language.

Wilcannia is at a junction of roads going in all directions – the conventional access east-west  via the Barrier Highway; or north along the Darling to Bourke – a rough route through Tilpa and Louth. South, you turn off the Barrier highway and go down through the Manara Hills to Ivanhoe, where I once got off the Indian Pacific at 3am in order to be given a lift back to Wilcannia. Also, I once drove the 800 kilometres from Wilcannia to Melbourne on a Saturday in a Ford Laser without power steering.

Notwithstanding, Wilcannia is a self-contained Aboriginal community, with its buildings reflecting the whitefella heritage. The buildings were constructed of the distinctive cream sandstone from the now overgrown quarry  just out of town. Wilcannia stone has a distinctive cerise streak running through it.

Whitefella heritage

Now Wilcannia is in the middle of the pandemic and, given how circumscribed the community is, it is not surprising that once the Virus arrived there, most of the community were liable to become infected. The vaccination caravan arrived, and while there is a local hospital, there has been no local doctor, although there was someone in the past, who was a bit of a “Doc Holliday”.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) provided a clinic several times a week. The local nursing staff were hard-bitten but a generous lot; they had to be because there was a regular client group, who would turn up at all hours of the day or night. While the RFDS was there to pick up emergency cases; there also was always the chance of a woman unexpectedly turning up in labour at the hospital, well into the second stage, since ante-natal care for many of the Indigenous population is under-utilised.

What I find somewhat ironic with the pandemic and the resistance to a dedicated quarantine facility by the NSW Government is the provision of motor homes and tents in Wilcannia to isolate the infected. This is an expensive way of providing a dedicated facility; and it seems to have escaped the media’s attention to ask why hasn’t the Government been able to produce the same facilities for the infected burghers of the west and south-west of Sydney – early in the outbreak? The pundits would suggest the cost would be prohibitive and nobody would be prepared to dedicate the golf courses, for instance, for this use for the pandemic duration for such a facility.

But why should there be such a positive act of discrimination towards one community and not elsewhere in NSW?    All irony aside, what happens in Wilcannia will be instructive if NSW Health have the wit to engage in the community long term. Why? Because one way or another the whole Wilcannia community will either be vaccinated, be infected or a mixture of both.

Being an isolated community, it would be interesting to see how long the immunity lasts and whether there are differences between those vaccinated and those naturally infected. The problem is the level of trust that the Barkinji give to us whitefellas. I spent many years there on and off as I said, but always recognised how conditional trust is.

My closest contact is dead. He was one of several blackfellas with whom I developed that level of trust; but that was a long time ago. Nevertheless, we did develop a blueprint – an understanding. The lesson for me was that Wilcannia provided an insight into a community caught on the edge of whitefella civilisation. Yet that took years to obtain.

The Ghost of Al Grassby

I was going to give Albanese-bashing a break, but he cannot save himself. The topic was  Australian multi-culture and how his Party had been the centre of multi-cultural advocacy. He instanced Al Grassby as being a promotor of multi-culturism, when a member of Parliament. Al Grassby initially received a great deal of favourable coverage because of his colourful self-portrayal. This face of the Griffith Calabrian N’drangeta was hidden for many years, and it was a very unfavourable way of supporting the candidature of Kristina Keneally to the Lower House to mention Grassby in any way.

Kristina Keneally

I agree with Paul Keating that she is an acquisition in the Lower House, not the least for having a sharp mind and being articulate at the same time. She leaves some of the dummies who apparently are Ministers in her wake.

It is unsurprising in his enthusiasm for multi-culturism that Albanese failed to mention the exploits of those two multi-cultural warriors, Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi, prominent bugbears that Keneally “cut off at the pass”.

I am sure Ms Keneally remembers those two examples of Australian multi-culturism during her nightmare Premiership, as she ploughs into her new electorate-in-waiting.

Nevertheless, if she inherits the Home Affairs portfolio under a Labor Government, her experience will be very useful in dealing with a guy called Pezzullo.

King Penguins on the bookshelf

King Penguins were a delightful series of books produced as one of the inspirations of Alan Lane, the founder of Penguin Books. He borrowed the concept from a small German publisher, Insel-Verlag.

Alan Lane started the publication of Penguin books in 1936, where he reprinted books in characteristic pocket editions.

In 1939, the first in this series of King Penguins – “British Birds” appeared.

As Lane said himself: “The aim of the King Penguin is different. These have not been planned to coincide with the public’s growing appreciation of art, but rather to appeal to the general liking for illustrated keepsakes of special projects.”  Unless you sample these books, that description is less than informative.

The first book had a pale green cover, with brown solid edges with white streaks between each brick, like ribbons of mortar. The full title British Birds on Lake, River and Stream lies over an inked cartoon of a kingfisher.  There were 16 colour plates taken from John Gould’s massive collection of Birds of Great Britain, which extended to seven volumes. In a one shilling crown octavo pocket size book, the King Penguin is an elegant sampler, beautifully presented, of often esoteric subjects. The introductory description of this first one acknowledged  how Gould spent several years in Australia and prepared a 600 plate Birds of Australia and is regarded as the Father of Australian ornithology.

Seventy-six King Penguins and 20 years later, the last King Penguin was published. The subject matter – the Sculpture of the Parthenon. While I enjoyed the British bird book, I’m not big on the Parthenon. But that is the quirky diversity of this set. As recounted in an earlier blog, I used the 1950 King Penguin, Romney Marsh, as a guide to find the various churches deep in this reclaimed Kent marshland.

I now have a complete King Penguin set, the collection of which was started by my father. My father bought Penguin books by the bookcase – adding to his collection every month. Not only Penguins but Pelicans, which were essentially the non-fiction counterpart.  Penguins typically had an orange colour (unless crime, which had a green cover; biography royal blue; travel/adventure crimson). The Pelicans were sky blue in colour and were published from 1937 to 1990. Along the way, when the Penguin Classics were issued, my father never missed one; King Penguins were different. He bought those when he was interested in the subject matter.

Having inherited these, I thought I must try and obtain the full set. The first and easiest option was to buy a full set, and now on eBay to buy a full set the buyer needs about US$1,000. For me, when such international trading entrepôt to tap did not exist, they were much harder to access; it was the thrill of the chase and over about five years, mostly in small secondhand bookshops in England, a complete set was achieved. Some are in better condition than others, but it was the joy of discovery – and inching towards the full set.

Magic Books of Mexico

When the last one was collected,  in my case Popular Art in Britain, my feeling of elation at having achieved the goal quickly became followed by a sense bordering on melancholia. What next? An achievement which will not materially change anything.

Yet recently I have found out about another one which I don’t have. That was the one reprinted for the Olympics Games in 1968, “Magic Books of Mexico”. My collector melancholy has lifted – if only temporarily.

The next venue?

The Pentagon has spent more than $14 trillion on the war in Afghanistan, with “one-third to one-half” of the total going to military contracts, according to a newly released report by the Costs of War Project at Brown University.

According to the report, which outlines the corporate beneficiaries of post-9/11 Pentagon spending, one-quarter to one-third of all contracts in recent years have been awarded to just five major corporations: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman – From The Boston Globe

After Afghanistan and Vietnam and Korea, coming to a venue near you – 1955, 1975, 2021; or another way 1951, 1965, 2001 – 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. To feed the above corporations, will the next conflict be the real Armageddon – or just 40 years devoted to an exercise in the Defence of Freedom as well as feeding the maw of the above named corporations?

The blood of Afghanistan is barely dry on the American escutcheon before there is more feeding of the maw, with the proposal to infect Australia with nuclear submarine technology. The beneficiary of this Thursday’s announcement? General Dynamics. Will anybody ever learn?

The Waste Land has never seemed more relevant.

This decayed hole among the mountains

In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing

Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel

There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.

It has no windows, and the door swings.

And for chapel, substitute mosque, synagogue, temple or whatever suits your prayer.

Mouse Whisper

How do you make an Armenian cross?

Mention the word accountability!

Or else hire yourself a good carver of khachkars (sounds like a guttural version of cash cow), an example below with the characteristic cross of the Armenian Apostolic Church. If you want to see the eclectic nature of the Christian Church, just wander into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The church territory is carved up between six Christian sects so that the Chapel of Saint Helena is a 12th-century Armenian church contained on the lower level. All mine!

As a paw note, I acknowledge my uncle Charles Arnamousian, for this information.

A khachkar

Modest Expectations – Sepoy Khudadad

I remember the world changed when I woke up around 3.00 am on 12 September where I was staying in Adelaide on this day 20 years ago. The television was on; I moved to turn it off. A plane was flying into a skyscraper. God, why do they run disaster movies at this hour, I thought. Then I realised it was real…

9/11 Memorial

I do not generally acknowledge anniversaries…

I leave my wife to do all the heavy lifting in this regard. Yet like all people who pretend that such milestones can just be shrugged away, I am secretly moved by spontaneous expressions of affection. Father’s Day this year was a day I will remember because of the interaction with my two sons, and the way the family, their wives and children provided background sensitivity to this old blogger, heavy with hoar.

This memorable interaction was capped off by the Aylesbury duck for dinner. I can’t remember whether I have had Aylesbury duck before. Because of its quintessential association with the United Kingdom, I may have; but no special quack sticks in my head.

Our local Rozelle restaurant has gone through many changes but has survived and is now called Le Coq. Owned by a Frenchman from Réunion, it always provided an uncomplicated “un plat de jour” accompanied by a sightly upmarket “vin ordinaire”.

With the lockdown, the restaurant had crossed the Channel and was providing Aylesbury duck as one of the options for a “cook at home” Dad’s dinner. In other words, the restaurant prepared the raw materials, complete with an orange sauce accompaniment.

My wife is a marvellous cook, but the instructions were simple. Just pre-heat the oven to 200oC and place the duck in the oven for 45 minutes. Take the duck out of the oven, add the Kipflers and Brussel sprouts and then put everything back in the oven for 15 minutes; complete by reheating the orange sauce on low heat for five minutes. Even a Kooking Klutz like me could do it (but I didn’t).

Brilliant, brilliant meal, even if the chestnuts were water chestnuts!

No, I don’t think I had Aylesbury Duck in Aylesbury, but I have enjoyed its relative in Peking, as it was once called.

A small plane flew over the Caribbean Coast and I never noticed

I don’t generally keep correspondence, but I still have one letter from Greg, written on Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation notepaper, dated 17 December 1971 and, as he said in his letter, he would have sent a Christmas card except that “the millionaires of La Jolla have revolting taste and I can’t find any I like.”

That was Greg – just a tiny explosion out of nowhere.  Presumably that is why we took such an instant dislike to one another when we first met. We were too much alike – I, a pathology registrar and he, a laboratory scientist.

Greg developed a relationship with another laboratory scientist, a beautiful Chinese woman called Neva, who came with impeccable Shanghai heritage, and had a serenity which counterpointed Greg’s impetuosity.

Neva was friendly with both of us, and it was a time which I recounted in an earlier blog, about being feted in a particular Chinatown restaurant. I have a recollection that we came together for a very good night. Greg and I, previous adversaries, bonded. Maybe it was another time, but the point of this narrative is that we became friends. His wider circle of friends was different from mine, as instanced by his taking all of us up to Dunmochin, the property owned by Clifton Pugh at Cottles Bridge in that artistic quarter of outer Melbourne.

Then Neva went to Canada; and Greg left Australia soon after, but not for Canada. As he said in his letter, he had crossed the Pacific on a slow boat, and from Panama he had flown to Bogota, then by “a very dangerous small plane” to Leticia, the only Colombian city on the Amazon River, where three countries intersect: Colombia, Peru and Brazil. Boat to Manaus took seven days down the Amazon; and then that seemed enough on the river because he hitched a ride with the Brazilian air force to Belem, near the mouth of the Amazon, and then took a bus via Brasilia, motoring down to Rio de Janeiro.

He worked in a “dreadful little clinical Laboratory” there for 100 days, before he decamped to Sucre and Potosi, the baroque colonial past in Bolivia. It did not mention whether he enjoyed Potosi, about 4,000 metres above sea level and Sucre, at a more comfortable 2,800 metres above sea level. Sucre was where the Spanish conquistadors preferred to live in sub-tropical splendour in summer. At the same time their solid silver lifestyle was being mined in the surrounding Andes.

Then he went on to La Paz. He did the obligatory pilgrimage to Macchu Picchu in Peru, up the coast to Ecuador and back into Colombia via Cali to Bogota. Not a mention of drugs, but I knew Greg liked an odd joint or two.

Then one line in the letter transports him up to the Colombian Caribbean Coast, which must have been quite a journey, especially when catching a small boat to the Panamanian frontier, and then a small plane to Panama City. I took this part of his travels at face value – still do, although some might read the words twice.

When I pause in re-reading this letter 40 years later, I realise in a paragraph how great was the experience gained as he purchased a motorbike to ride through Central America towards California, the end point. He rode through Guatemala, with its magnificent Mayan ruin at Tikal, and Mexico gets a mention. You would think that was by motorbike – a sort of Easy Rider. However, somewhere along the way, the motorbike was ditched and he wrote that he had “a marvellous time travelling mostly on the backs of trucks, hitchhiking and in trains”. Countries are not differentiated; some people are marvellous. The letter from the ever-optimistic Greg ends in California.

At the time of the letter he was working as a technician, the parenthetic comment being the scientist’s rank without a PhD. He was working in the laboratory of Ralph Riesfield with three Italians, one German and three Americans (all unnamed). Riesfield had just arrived at Scripps, already a well known and successful scientist who, as a young man searching for a career, had consulted Einstein. Einstein had probably recognised Riesfield as a fellow refugee from Vienna, escaping as he did in 1938 with the Gestapo a street away. In itself this may have attracted the interest of Einstein, who may have recognised the family name.

While at Scripps, Riesfield distinguished himself as a pre-eminent immunologist, involved in the development of immunological agents to treat cancer.

Greg hoped to work another year at Scripps and then get on with his quest, heading off to Africa then to Europe, hoping to get work, then back through Asia and home.

I hope he had a good life. I never heard from him again. I wonder whether he ever saw Neva again. But I kept the letter, because I wanted to remember a time when there were guys like Greg whom I knew and who, even for a short time, made my life richer.

The Hotel Pattee

The train don’t go through Perry no more.

However, I get ahead of myself.

We decided once we had got to about 35 States of the United States of America that we should make an attempt to visit them all.  We had friends and acquaintances who lived in America.

I recalled one guy who had been a post-graduate at the University of Melbourne. He was always Mac to me. I don’t know how we met, but I remember him as tall Yankee, a member of the Democratic Party. We lived in those heady times of John Kennedy and, for a time, we all had hope of a new world in which Kennedy would play a central role. We loved his sense of informality, the informality of youth. Mac told me about a friend of his who worked on one of the Asian desks in the State Department; his phone rang and it was Kennedy on the line. He wanted some information and so he went straight to the guy who had it.

In those days we didn’t have many savvy Yank scholars in our midst – especially one who was young, a budding historian, and who had served as an officer in the Marine Corps. He was eight years older than me, but I think he found me interesting, perhaps because 1960-61 was the period of my Presidency of the Student Representatives Council. Occasionally in your life you enter a circle in which, for a while, you are influential and attract attention before fading back into the ruck.

Mac was very much an Ivy League product, a Harvard graduate, who was returning to a post at Princeton after his year in Australia. He married soon after he returned to the US. I know that much.

Fast forward to 2009, and I knew from desultory correspondence with him, that he had ended up at the University of Iowa where he stayed for his whole professional life, building up a formidable reputation as an American History scholar. I later found out his area of research included the Appalachians, which had always interested me, as has westward movement of the white settlers into Indian territory with the dispossession of the indigenous tribes, which became such a stain of what is referred to as “civilisation”.

Iowa city is the University town where Mac lived for most of his career. As we had never been to Iowa I decided to write to see whether he was still there. He replied to say he had retired from his academic post the previous year, assumed the title of Emeritus and moved back to the East Coast where he was born. The bare facts; no mention of wanting to catch up – after all what was there to talk about after over 50 years since last contact.

So that was that – no reason to go to Iowa City. No reason to go there, but we did. It is a three hour drive from Chicago, where we were staying with friends. Chicago is one of my favourite cities, but that is in a raft of other stories.

Iowa city was like many of its kind, owing its existence to the University; clean, respectable, middleclass-familiar. We stayed in the University hotel overnight, nothing much to do so we ventured out into the wilds of Iowa.

I remember that scene in the Hitchcock film “North by Northwest” where Cary Grant’s character in the film was being pursued in the corn field by a crop duster plane. For some reason I always thought it was meant to be Iowa; in fact it was supposed to be Indiana but was actually filmed in California. Anyway, if one wants to see flat plains covered in soya beans, Iowa is the place – with or without a vengeful crop duster plane.

Hogback Covered Bridge, Madison County, Iowa

We headed out into rural Iowa and spent the day driving around Madison County looking at the six covered bridges, which had been highlighted in the eponymous film a decade before with Merryl Streep and Clint Eastwood playing lovers.

To get to Perry, we needed to bypass Des Moines. The covered bridges are scattered, which meant considerable driving over unfamiliar backroads to find them. Thus, we were a bit tired when we reached Perry.

We stopped outside one of those Beaux Arts buildings with the vaguely Italianate style, which reflect the wealth of turn-of-the century America. This was a hotel, which announced itself on its green portico as the Hotel Pattee. As we found out, it had been built in 1913 when Perry was a thriving railway town, but had fallen into disrepair until resurrected by a lady who had been born in Perry, remembered the heyday and was determined to renovate the old hotel. Renovate was not quite the word, because each of the rooms had been meticulously renovated in a certain style. For instance, there was a Swedish Room, an Irish room, a Mexican Room, even a Quilt room – different motifs for a host of different rooms (but no Australia room).

There is even a Chautauqua room, although for those getting misty-eyed about that eponymous racehorse, Circuit or “tent” Chautauqua refers to a movement seeking to bring self-realisation and self-improvement. The first Circuit Chautauqua appeared in 1904 and travelled to 15 towns in Iowa. The goal was to deliver educational, spiritual, and cultural stimulation to rural and small-town America. Theodore Roosevelt described Chautauqua as “the most American thing in America”. Chautauqua is an Iroquois word that was used to describe a lake in western New York where this movement started.

However, we ended up in the Italian room with the ornate iron bed, lush drapes and hangings from Assisi and Fortuny silk chandelier. There were other reminders of Italy, for instance in faux-lava wall cameos; the illusion of a room in an Italian villa was created. There was even an Italian version of the prie-dieu complete with kneeler. No photos exist of me trying it out to see if She was around.

Hotel Pattee’s Mexican Room

While it was exotic, there were some tell-tale signs that a blanched pachyderm had stalked the lobby. There was a reconstructed Diner, which was closed except for breakfast.  Even now, one can see how many times the hotel has changed hands, but remained open. Nevertheless, the pachyderm still hovers.

As we found out, the woman who had extravagantly, if imaginatively, renovated the property has been forced to sell it three years before, and it had just re-opened when we stayed. There was a quality of impermanence in the air, because the rooms had been so carefully tailored to reflect this woman’s idea of a particular culture. The Italian room ostensibly celebrated that many Italians worked on the railroad. As as we walked around the town, we saw it was not a folly.

This was a workers’ town, not a tourist re-creation despite the exotic Hotel Pattee. There was still an active foundry in the centre of town, belching smoke into the air, the doors open so we could see the furnace; and we were lucky to find a laundry behind the hotel, where the women owners were very friendly and did our accumulated washing very quickly – we promised to send them a clutch of clip-on koalas for their trouble.

When experience is weighed, that day was one of the most unexpected. Covered bridges are another part of our American adventures; maybe one of us will write about it, because you must squat and have a slice of American pie after walking through each of those structures.

The Hotel Pattee was one extraordinary structure enough for one day, a day which started the day years before I first met Mac.

Never Drop Your Guard

Erin Goodyear, 28, is recovering from a breakthrough (COVID-19 vaccine) infection contracted after traveling to Arkansas for a 10-year high school reunion while cases were spiking.

She felt secure enough to attend the reunion, held in a well-ventilated venue, and to stay with her vaccinated parents. Goodyear does not regret her decision because of the opportunity to reconnect with old friends. But she wishes she had avoided certain activities, such as the drag show in a poorly ventilated and packed basement bar she attended after the reunion. 

After returning home to the District, Goodyear experienced an illness she described as a two-day cold that left her weak but not worried enough to get a coronavirus test until a friend suggested it. She also was concerned she might have infected her parents, who are vaccinated and did not become sick. Now, she has her guard up and plans to wear a mask, socialize outdoors and skip bars.

“Maybe my risk tolerance will change in the fall and winter when I’m lonely and want to see people, and I may have to do that inside more,” said Goodyear, who works for a non-profit. “The physical recovery and mental and emotional recovery did take a toll, and I just don’t want to go through that again either.” – from The Washington Post.

This is another reminder that social life is a viral challenge for the young mobile cohort, even to those like herself, who have been either fully vaccinated or have endured the disease full on, or both.

I have written about breakthrough earlier as a warning that it occurs. I agree with the approach of the Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, that these should not be overplayed, but on the other hand, the experience of those who have suffered breakthrough should not be discounted either. I have already quoted one in an earlier blog and in this case of a young woman who travelled to Arkansas (a largely unvaccinated State) for a 10 year reunion. This visit included a packed underground bar late at night. You can imagine the roistering going on – a perfect climate for the Virus to have a field night. Even for someone fully vaccinated, it was obviously not enough. She had a mild COVID-19 episode, and now had moved on, leaving this anecdote behind.

It reminded me of my days when we would be packed into hotel bars, often with low ceilings, with the air thick with cigarette smoke, and I being one of the smokers. Most of us weren’t taken immediately to the nearest hospital with respiratory disease.

Okay, in our student days we would wake up the next morning with a hangover and in the colourful parlance of the time – a mouth like the bottom of a cocky’s cage”. However, fast forward in time, and those who persisted in smoky environments, still smoking (the equivalent risk of being unvaccinated), and eventually the hacking cough of chronic bronchitis compounded by cancer of the lung led to be a hospital statistic, whether or not in ICU.

Social distancing by igloo

We have not eliminated smoking, but here in Australia smoking is contained, but not zero, and moreover has fallen out of favour as a social transactional tool. Maybe the same will happen to enclosed bars and night clubs until the community adopt a social distancing standard equivalent to the smoking ban in such areas.

Therefore, the Virus should begin to elicit the same response even if, at the moment, there are places in Australia where it has been suppressed. Victoria is battling it, NSW has given up, the other States must determine the rules which will allow lotus land to be preserved – yet not in aspic.

Let us be under no illusions.  Nobody has a clue how to safely navigate this country out of this muddle. I feel very sorry for Paul Kelly, the only bastion of sanity in Canberra; “the only rational squeak in the Morrison bubble”, as one wit put it. When I get the chance, I listen to Kelly very closely since he has been very clear-headed and remarkably outwardly calm during this whole crisis.

As I wrote very early in the Virus invasion, Australia should have built special quarantine centres in each State. However, I assume nobody in this country wants to admit anybody carrying disease. I could imagine Barnaby Joyce’s mob screaming if he said, “let all the cattle or their products in without quarantining them for foot and mouth (FMD) disease”. We have not had any FMD, a devastating disease in cattle, on this Continent since 1872 – I think that makes the point. Victoria and Queensland seem to be going to produce bespoke quarantine centres, but not NSW.

Determine the regime for vaccination and determine now (not in some Morrison future) the optimal time for boosters. This chopping and changing around only confuses even those of us with some knowledge.

Determine which age you commence the program. I hit upon 12 years of age in a previous blog. It may be earlier, but whatever the age, remember that this Virus seems to use children as an efficient Vector.

Why do I keep banging on, because some governments seem to be possessed with the infantile notion that either we can live locked up or that it does not matter that the health system may collapse under the weight of cases (we’ll just adjust our model to remove that assumption) – because in the end, folks, it’s the ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine or, may I say it, the blood of Jesus Christ which will save us. Just ask the Texans.

Mouse Whisper

It is called the Armenian Fallacy. Here am I, propped against my mousehole door, looking at some person who looks very serious and is called Susan Pearce. She apparently has drunk from the same bowl as her Boss because she has switched from daily totals of increases in vaccinations to a weekly average, because the rate of vaccination has slowed, inevitably.

In the meantime, the number of people being tested is increasingly a meaningless statistic. After all, it is mandated for those living in the uber-locked down LGAs who work in essential jobs in the community. Therefore, if it is compulsory, then most people obey and the bigger this cohort with in turn a required frequency of testing will dictate the number of tests parroted each day by the government. Yes, compliance;  but nothing to do with health status.

The other statistic she used was that 90 per cent of people with the Virus are being treated outside hospital. Even a little mouse like me would think that misleading – it is the actual number in hospital which counts when measured against existing resources.  Morrison used the same fallacy when using percentages to downplay the effect of hotel quarantine breakout.

The day of reckoning is upon us, but I can retreat into my Mousehole, and pretend I am in Cornwall.

Modest Expectations – Renunciation of Citizenship

The Potala

If Australia is the hermit kingdom, what does that make the Lodge in Canberra?  The Potala?  It is not particularly helpful for two of the most powerful politicians to lock themselves away. Perhaps if they were creative geniuses such a juxtaposition may provide positive outcomes; but in the end, with men without such a spark, Australia ends up with a scene of reinforcement of similar attitudes and behaviour – an integral loop brewed around eggs and bacon and lox and cream cheese. A daily diet of fuelled fossils and property developers complete a depressing taste sensation of these eremites.

It is an ironic tableau given the Prime Ministerial shift in stance on the national lockdown.

Cameron Stewart made a shrewd observation on the Insiders program on 20 August to the effect that much would be revealed with Victoria’s ability to get the number of COVID-19 cases under control. The outbreak in the Albanian community in the Shepparton area, which is linked to the Caroline Springs cases, reflects the infectivity of the Delta Variant and the ease with which the virus spreads through families and the various workplaces. Unlike NSW the numbers were “grumbling along” in Victoria – until recently. There is doubt that the Victorian government wants the number lower. Nevertheless, with a lockdown, the numbers were initially contained – with the fear that with any loosening of restrictions the situation would mimic that of Sydney.

If Victoria had forced the daily case numbers down, even if not to zero, then Australia – except for NSW – would have the prospect of emerging from lockdown. NSW is still left with its population in some Berejiklian limbo, supported by an isolated NSW Prime Minister and a Victorian-based Treasurer, being slowly braised on the tip of Morton’s Fork.

The dilemma is that Australia can then be unlocked, except for NSW – the pariah State surrounding the equivalent of wartime Switzerland, called the Australian Capital Territory, providing succour to the war-fatigued refugees from the NSW War Zone, now garrisoned by the Delta Variant.

NSW inhabitants will be seeking refugee status, waving vaccination papers at the border seeking access to a COVID-19 free State. Its health system has collapsed under the load of COVID cases, with everybody wanting their elective procedures to be undertaken interstate because of the compromised status of each of the major NSW hospitals and their depletion of staff.

When anybody is used to being able to more or less control their activities, mostly by using devious tactics laced with lies, the Virus does not buy any of that. This is being shown by politicians hiding away, emerging only for controlled appearances with the media, at best having fragmentary knowledge of health to spread political half-truths. Underneath, the only Federal government strategy is wishing that the Virus would go away – and given his Pentecostal beliefs, the Prime Minister no doubt prays that “Jesus will directly intervene.”

If you want to stop the spread, you have to stop the vectors – people moving around in a disordered fashion (Brownian movement) – for at least two weeks. That is not going to happen in NSW – and, as has been proved elsewhere, vaccination helps, but achieving even 75 per cent is a challenge, not only because of the anti-vaxxers, but also  the unvaccinated  young who are spreaders.

A few weeks ago I set out a plan and inter alia suggested that as school was one place where you can capture the cohort, vaccination be provided at age 12. Vaccination may have to occur at an even younger age. However, that debate has yet to be had, as this Prime Minister’s mental energy is consumed in wedging poor hapless Albo.  Really, is that what governing Australia has been reduced to?

The point is, will Australia open up with NSW locked out? I am sure the other States are sick of Berejiklian and that NSW cabal called the Prime Minister’s office. A Treasurer held hostage because, in the end, plaintively he cries from the overgrown Lodge tennis court, a metaphor for Australia:

I coulda’ been a contender …

You don’t understand! I coulda’ had class. I coulda’ been a contender. I could’ve been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am – let’s face it.”

Maybe he will, because Cameron Stewart has proved prescient. Andrews has not got the Victorian State’s daily average down to 10 cases a day. As the week has progressed the attainment of Andrews’ goal seems unlikely to occur. Andrews is now not a counterpoint for NSW’s abject failure. Andrews now needs to recalibrate without seeming to become another Berekjiklian – the quintessential flailing, failed Premier, being pursued by the hounds of  Queensland and Western Australia. Basking to Baskerville?

Morton’s Fork

To-day everyone has to pay the heaviest taxes in our history, but whereas in former times nobody liked paying taxes, now (let us I hope) we willingly do so, for we know that our money is helping: the fight for freedom. But this willing spirit was not shown in the reign of Henry VII, whose method of taxation produced a dilemma known as “Morton’s Fork.”

His officers of taxation did not hesitate to exact forced loans from people of property. They acted in accordance with the theory that if a man lived economically he could not have failed to have saved money, and was, therefore, in a position to make his Sovereign a handsome contribution.  

Likewise, if he lived extravagantly he evidently possessed means, and was also in a position to assist his King. No wonder we inherited a dislike for taxation!

Most revolutions have originated from the excessive taxation of the common people, such as the American Revolution, which was fought to escape English taxes, and the French Revolution to end the crushing impositions of the ruling classes.

This rather quaint letter the Sydney Morning Herald published in wartime 1940 almost irrelevantly invoked the concept of Morton’s Fork. Here then there was no hint of the dilemma which Morton wilfully created when hunting for extra revenue for Henry VII, after he had come to the throne following the energy sapping War of the Roses where Morton had played an important role.

Cardinal John Morton

Although he was a Dorset man by birth, Morton had hitched himself to the Lancastrian cause, and survived during Yorkist imprisonment with his head still intact on his torso. Between being Bishop of Ely and Cardinal Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, he did have a stint in Tower of London – more a Morton roller-coaster than a fork. Moreover, Morton was always close to the Church, even though he first appears as the principal of Peckwater Inn, which had been given to an Augustine Priory several centuries before. It later became the site of Christ Church Oxford, but publican to priest gives Morton a special cachet.

Berejiklian is facing her own version of Morton’s Fork if she “lets it rip” and dismantles the lockdown; in all probability the State will collapse, as already clearly exemplified by a health system under extreme stress and NSW would attain complete pariah status within the Federation. If she intensifies the lockdown, then she is a form of Armenian toast with her Liberal Party backers, in a way never seen before by those unaffected in her Statewide constituency.  If they cannot protest in the streets, NSW voters have that alternative in 2023, unless there is revolt and cries for secession from the unaffected parts of the State well before that time.

There has already been the Tweed Heads Secessionist Movement, and what should have occurred at Federation, with all NSW south of the Murrumbidgee River being ceded to Victoria, may emerge as a local sentiment.

Then she would have to put a complete lockdown on the affected areas, allowing for no movement out for at least four weeks. Vaccination – who knows – may be her “opium of the people”. Let us face it, already we have evidence from elsewhere of the short-term effectiveness of the vaccines; but we have no plan to bolster up the very satisfactory take up to date, to include boosters even though Australia is still a long way from Shangri-La.

The World is based on getting your assumptions right

Covid-19 has exposed Australia’s economy for what it is.

We have a large, clean land and good weather. We dig dirt out of the ground which we sell as iron ore to China, which turns it into steel to build often vacant apartment blocks to pump GDP growth. We dig fossilised trees out of the ground which we also sell to China as coal to make that steel, and to burn in Japan for electricity while their nuclear reactors slowly get back online after Fukushima.

We sell immigration dressed up as education, mainly to China, which is now Australia’s third largest “export” market at $32 billion per annum – which is now halted. We are completely dependent on China which is now in a cold war with the US, possibly turning hot – where over one third of all merchandise exports go.”

So where to from here?

Technology and the elaborate transformation of our raw materials into sophisticated products with higher margins and a greater global market is the answer.

The fastest way to get there is to do everything we can to educate the nation with higher skills.

I would be paying people to go to university or TAFE in the right areas instead of sitting around in zombie companies on Job Keeper, use the spare capacity from the drop in international students to educate our own citizens and dramatically ramp up the sophistication and skills base taught at TAFE to make it a world class trade school.

My first assumption is this writer is not particularly friendly to the Morrison Government. However, like all assumptions, I could be wrong.

He is a prolific Twitter user, often commenting on subjects outside his areas of expertise, including the Sydney lockout laws, COVID-19, Politics of the United States, Donald Trump, Economic policy and many others. This has resulted in criticism from various circles including investors, who strongly suggest he should spend more energy growing a profitable company instead of constantly posting on social media.

This comment is inserted at the base of his Wikipedia biography, and my assumption is that the subject of the criticism did not insert that excerpt.

Again, I may be wrong.

Matt Barrie

The subject is Matt Barrie, self-described entrepreneur and IT expert. He has inserted himself into the “Doherty Model” debate with a very long criticism of the Doherty Institute’s modelling. He challenges the underlying assumptions of the model, and his criticism is peppered with annotations such as “garbage”.  I assume that he is calling into question the veracity of the Doherty model.

Parenthetically, when such a report as the Doherty one is commissioned and one can assume when the Government has predetermined the outcome, it politicises the findings and hence any recommendations in the Report. Here is the further parenthetic assumption that the Morrison government is following its normal pathway of creating a scapegoat, in this case in the form of Professor Lewin, if the whole Report goes “pear-shaped”, is discredited joining the $8m COVID-19 app which detected as it did only 17 cases – on the policy scrap heap..

It is part of my assumptions that the Government, which has made a number of appalling decisions, including prematurely congratulating the NSW government on successfully “quashing” the viral spread, has yet to learn.

The concern I have is how any of the models of the outcome of this Virus have factored in its transmissibility by those vaccinated, and the effect of the virus becoming endemic in children. The community has tolerated children as spreaders of that other coronavirus – the common cold – with its seasonal fluctuation. There is no vaccine, but we live with it because it is so mild in comparison with other infections and people are not hospitalised.

I am making the assumption that the AZ vaccine will be phased out as the mRNA vaccines, with their improved methods of production including the ability to be modified,  become the vaccines of choice. In itself this will present the Australian government with a number of problems in setting the policy agenda, including the substitution process, having invested so heavily in the AZ vaccine.

However, the assumption can be made that the shortages of vaccines will pass, and therefore the debate about whether Australia has booster doses or whether we help the disadvantaged countries achieve optimal vaccination also will fade as an issue.

Nevertheless, there remains the unanswered question of if, and when, boosters are required, and how young one needs to be to receive the first vaccine injection. Still questions that need to be answered, I assume.

Needless to say, it is poor form when asked to reveal the change in the modelling, Professor Lewin says she cannot. The assumption may be made that she has something to hide. The Doherty modellers should be asked to explain their model in front of their peers – publicly.

Whether he is right or wrong, Matt Barrie shows how debatable some of the assumptions underlying the report are, and therefore we do have a number of existing media forums where this can be debated, providing that the Chair of any such debate is knowledgeable and talented enough to lead the debate into objective territory. But that again is an assumption in many respects.

Hey Gladys. Where’re You Going This Weekend?

This is a story for you, Gladys.

There is a family we know in Tasmania.

They wanted to go on a holiday to Kakadu, but first they needed to visit relatives in Adelaide.

They boarded the Spirit of Tasmania with their car and were able to drive across Victoria and then stay in Adelaide with their relatives before flying to Darwin, where they rented a camper van and went to Kakadu, whence we received a text to say they were enjoying themselves. Very good people, and really good for them, not only to see their relatives in Adelaide but also to have a holiday in the Tropics during Tasmania’s chilly winter.

Then they drove their rented camper van from Darwin to Adelaide and then went home the way they had gone, in their own car.

What is that about lockdowns here? None.

The point is that the rest of Australia, especially if the smouldering Victorian outbreak is controlled, is leading a normal life, albeit a bit more hygienically than before.

A long time ago we booked a flight to Broome, having already booked on a cruise along the Kimberley coast, which would have also enabled us to go to Tiwi country, ending in Darwin. We anticipated the cancellation (which ultimately occurred) by flying to Broome early so that we could change to an alternative plan of driving to Darwin.  Having been to the Kimberley and the Northern Territory multiple times over the years we  knew what remained on our tourist agenda. However, along came the limo driver and the Berejiklian response, which has left the State locked down, with no demonstrable way of anything changing before the end of the year – if then.

Of course, none of the above  was possible for us, because of the Berejiklian stuff up. Nor any ability to go to Tasmania, nor to see our family in Melbourne.

I fail to see this adulation for the NSW Premier opening us all up for a picnic in the park or Dr Chant teaching us baby steps. Unfortunately, NSW has Berejiklian, who would be seen as an aberration in any other State. She has no strategy except vaccination in the face of the escalation of cases and a stressed health system.

Can I remind her of one thing? During the War, outside Tocumwal, they constructed an airstrip and nearby a 1,000 bed facility for war casualties, effectively taking them out of the firing line. The only way to deal with this crisis is to separate the infected, the virus vectors, until they are no longer vectors. A tent hospital would do it, because although the airstrip at Tocumwal still exists, the tent hospital has long gone and the land restored. The point is that rapidly setting up a fully functioning facility has been shown to be feasible and implementable. And a long way away without being a long way away. The wartime planners understood the apparent paradox and dealt with it accordingly.

Similar sites are available to NSW. What about some of those coastal golf courses in Sydney? Requisition these. Show some guts.

A suitable place for a quarantine village…

Watch what happens at Wellcamp when you have people with a real record of creating an airport and industrial park, as the Wagner brothers have shown; now given the task of creating a bespoke quarantine facility. In three months that will be operating.

However, you need courage to build such a facility in the face of Morrison the underminer. NSW needs a blueprint; the other States have provided various and the only unfortunate shred Berejiklian has in her policy patchwork is if Victoria has failed to reduce the number of cases. How threadbare can you become!

A Distant Mirror

I remember back in 1978, when I was reconstructing my library, I read a review about this new book titled A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman. I remember sending a note to my friend in America asking her to buy me a copy, such were the times then in getting new American books. She bought a handcut first edition, which beautifully encased the views of one of the most influential historian of the 20th century, Barbara Tuchman.

The Distant Mirror metaphor drew attention to the parallels in the phenomena extant in both the 14th and 20th centuries.  On the surface there is Voltaire’s interjection of “history never repeating itself, man does” which may seem relevant, but where does it take one?

Back to this very extensive narrative of the 14th century.

Tuchman noted that there was a tendency of historians to skirt the 14th century, perhaps because of the disastrous consequences of the Black Death plague 1348-1350 “which killed an estimated one-third of the population living between India and Iceland.” She felt this a difficult age for historians as it was an interruption in the story of human progress.

Even now, over 30 years since her death, her thoughtful analysis is worth reading.

How delightful, southern France in summer …

In contrast, read the airy twitter post from the anachronistic Alexander Downer, having got an exemption to travel to France no less. Downer is chortling on about how lovely France is at this time of the year in summer – away from the Australian Oubliette – no lockdowns; just a France with 17,590 cases recorded yesterday and a “trivial” 74 deaths.

Reminiscent of Pope Clement VI during the stint in France away from that infested place called Rome, the papacy lodged in the south of France at Avignon at the height of the Black Death.  He was ordered by his doctor to sit between two fires in the papal apartments – during the summer. Rather than avoiding the miasma, the fire discouraged the fleas, the vectors of the Yersinia pestis bacillus. Also, the Pope had the added benefit of his doctor insisting on him being socially isolated, despite the Pope losing a third of his cardinals, most of whom were some relation in some shape or form to him anyway.

Better than lockdown, milord! Especially when you have no cardinals to worry about.

Now this is Freedom (Thanks to The Boston Globe)

What we are missing by having the lockdown.

For legions of island residents and visitors, traveling to and from Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket has always been a bit of a headache.”

But this summer, the ordeal of snatching a coveted reservation on heavy travel days, and navigating the maze of buses, cars, and general commotion at the terminals has gone to migraine level, fuelling a season of discontent on the islands and mainland alike.”

Summer crowds at Martha’s Vineyard

“A fresh wave of tourists, along with an influx of new full-time island residents fleeing COVID, have packed ferries with thousands more cars, requiring travellers to book reservations weeks in advance for peak times.”

Mouse Whisper

The reward for reaching a record number of COVID cases in a single day – we can have a picnic outside – le déjeuner sur l’herbe or,

emulating Tom Lehrer’s picnic in the park:

All the world seems in tune
On a spring afternoon
When we’re poisoning pigeons in the park

…or a squirrel or two…”

Lots of ideas. Time for me to get some fresh air.

By the way, Is Tom Lehrer still alive?

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe

Modest Expectations – A Rock in Utah

On the 9-10 May 2001, the House of Representatives met in Melbourne to celebrate the Centenary of Federation Commemorative Sittings. Twenty years on, only five of those who were sitting as Members that day are still members of Parliament.

One is Kevin Andrews, a somewhat desiccated hangover in the Coalition, who is about to be consigned to “feather duster” status, after an undistinguished 30 years in Parliament and after losing preselection.

Warren Entsch and Bob Katter are from the wilds of Northern Queensland. Both have been able to ensure election without regard to any political affiliation. Katter is part of a dynasty, and both have fiefdoms. Intervention in any issue of national importance is incidental; neither is in a position to be national leader; and indeed, do not want to be so. They both want influence of their own choosing, even as they have become old men.

The other two who were there that day? Antony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek. Each has represented inner Sydney electorates for the Australian Labor Party for that period of time; in fact Albanese was elected in 1996 and Plibersek 1998. Frankly, I thought there would be more than just five, but these latter two are still very relevant to Australia as we move towards 2030.

Yet what have they done to move the needle towards ensuring a better life for Australia?

When Whitlam came to power in 1972, he gave Australia a mighty jolt. He had foreshadowed significant change during the vindictive years of McMahon and the alcohol-stained Gorton incumbency. “It’s Time” rang around Australia.

So dangerous was Whitlam to the bunyip aristocracy that eventually, with the connivance of the Royal household and the American security service, a coup was engineered in 1975 which led to Whitlam being sacked by a drunken popinjay called Kerr, dripping in the lard of an antique post and aided and abetted shamefully by the then Chief Justice Barwick.

However, the people showed very clearly that they were tired of Whitlam.  I was a spectator in these exciting times because, whatever could be said of these years, Australia threw off its bunyip ossification.

What followed was instructive, and the fact that the current government is as bad as it has ever been has given me cause to reflect. The decade post-Whitlam saw some of the most important policy made at a national level which brought us from a narrow Poujardist, sectarian-ridden country to one where the economy and the social structures bloomed – until this past decade.

Howard, for all his conservatism and his unconscious comic talent, strangely was the last remnant of that age, during which the mood of the country reverted to that previous xenophobic jingoistic time.

Malcolm Fraser came to power in 1975 in a landslide, which could be interpreted as a rejection of progress, and he was then successively re-elected until he was voted out in 1983. Fraser was a “curate’s egg”. For instance, his approach to economic reform was that of nineteenth century Victorian protectionism. His attitudes here with the morning-suited Eggleton whispering in his ear, set back our progress a decade.

However, despite the whisperings, he did make a number of decisions that can be attributed to his government having worthwhile impacts. I have tried to think of what Albanese and Plibersek have accomplished given that they have held ministerial positions and been in Cabinet over the past decade.

The reason I am musing about this was the discovery of an article in the Guardian Weekly written 13 years ago. The title “Harpoons Down – Australia’s Last Whaling“. The last whaling hunt happened in 1978. The last whaling station was at “Cheynes Beach” near Albany, a city on the southwestern coast of Australia. It was closed that year. At the time, there was a great deal of concern expressed as to the fallout in that community; the normal talk about the loss of jobs and of a city under stress given its isolated location.

Cheynes Beach whaling station near Albany

I remember visiting the station six years earlier when it was fully operational. When we arrived, the whales were being cut into huge slices. We weren’t worried about the smell. There is a lot of blood, but my children eagerly touched the body of the closest whale carcass.

My sons haven’t forgotten that experience since. People may abhor the slaughter of whales – whaling was so much part of our heritage as watching them has become today. My sons had grown up spending their holidays in Port Fairy, in a rubble walled stone cottage built in 1848. Port Fairy, together with other settlements on Victoria’s southern coast and the offshore islands of Tasmania, owed much of their origin to whaling. The cottage was named for Ben Bowyers, himself a whaler, who built it.

In April 1979 Malcolm Fraser pledged his government’s “total commitment to protect the whale”.  It was said that he was heavily influenced by his daughter, Phoebe. Nevertheless, a total ban on whaling in Australia and the development of policy for the protection of whales further afield in international waters followed. For this, Fraser could claim that he had achieved a major change in Australian policy and attitudes.

The cessation of whaling did not convert Albany into a ghost town. I think of an ongoing prosperous city today when, across the Continent, there are coal mines dotted all along coastal New South Wales. Yet Albanese and Plibersek, if not cowering under the assault of the coal mining industry and their union collaborators, are certainly not indicating a co-ordinated program to reduce coal mining either.

That is the worrying problem. That if Australia is faced with ridding itself of a corrupt government prolonging the moral desert, do we need a timid alternative with a blank record dedicating itself for minimising change, thus retaining a compromised bureaucracy with a carousel of consultants looting the country? Moreover, where is the plan to rid the coastal strip from the Illawarra to the Hunter of coal mining? After all, I am old enough to remember the despoliation of the beaches in the same area near Newcastle by sand mining and the bleat about loss of jobs. No sand mining in the Myall Lakes now. Loss of jobs? Not that you ever know whether these sand miners were ever reduced to penury.

Do we trust a government led by any NSW politician of any political colour? When last in power in this State, the ALP government was full of corruption, as we the community are being reminded as we watch the fall out still be played out in the courts.

More spine, Albo. Dig up the “goat tracks”, as Eddie Obeid so colourfully described the trail of lobbyists and hucksters wandering to and around the Parliamentary Executive Offices!

Additionally, a small piece of advice, get yourself or at least one of your trusted lieutenants to become fluent in Health as Neal Blewett did. The lack of appreciation that Health has a separate language leaves any politician such as Plibersek at a disadvantage. Certainly it did when she was Minister.

When I met her some years ago it was clear that she and her advisers spoke a form of Health creole. However then, speaking fluent Health was not as critical as it is today, especially in the misinterpretation of the meaning of vaccine percentages.

The Mystery of Jane Halton

Vaccine advances, including the remarkable success of mRNA technology, made it possible to develop jabs for a previously unknown pathogen in less than a year, rather than the decade or more it would traditionally take. But as much as we improved, the delivery of vaccines still took far too long. In the future, our goal must be to roll out vaccines in just 100 days. This goal, first articulated by CEPI, has been adopted and championed by the UK Government as part of its G7 Presidency. Achieving it could save millions of lives and trillions of dollars should we face another pandemic threat. – Richard Hatchett – June 2021

Richard Hatchett is the Chief Executive Officer of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the Oslo-based organisation formed in 2017. The following blurb, even suitably abridged, sets out the objectives:

CEPI works to advance vaccines against emerging infectious diseases…and establishes investigational vaccine stockpiles.

CEPI also funds new and innovative platform technologies with the potential to accelerate the development and manufacture of vaccines.

CEPI is working with partners across the world on the development and manufacturing of a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19 and is seeking US$2 billion from global donors to carry out this plan. 

Australia has given CEPI a relatively small amount of $13million (half of which has already been provided) towards the $2billion. In addition to governments, notably the UK, the Gates and Wellcome Foundations have each given $100 million.

Richard Hatchett has had a remarkable career and it is outlined most relevantly in a recent book by the prolific Michael Lewis titled “The Premonition – A Pandemic Story”.  In short, Lewis focuses on a group of scientists and doctors who spent years trying to ensure America was prepared for a deadly pandemic. A medically-trained epidemiologist, Hatchett is first mentioned in the book as having being recruited by one Rajeev Venkayya, a relatively junior medical graduate himself part of a group planning for governmental response to pandemics.

Serendipity is often but not invariably associated with momentous change. Dr Venkayya arrived at the Bush White House at a time when Bush, as described in the book, was “pissed”. Bush had been at the helm when 9/11 occurred; there had been the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina – and he did not know what to do. In fact, my personal memory from afar at the time of 9/11 was of the dazed, uncomprehending look on Bush’s face when he was interrupted reading a story to pre-schoolers, to be told of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

Yet there, in this book “The Premonition”, it was said that in the summer of 2005, Bush read a book about the 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak and the devastation wrought. The book influenced Bush to such an extent that he wanted a plan to prevent this happening again. Bush had had many plans pushed his way on a number of matters, a number of which yielded catastrophic situations occurring, for instance, in Afghanistan.

Yet this proved different.

At the time in 2005 we had the outbreak of avian flu H5N1, and dire predictions of massive loss of human life, which never eventuated. Yet in the previous two years, the world had got its first spread of the SARS coronavirus, the forerunner of the COVID-19 virus.

Bush listened to Dr Vekayya, who wrote down a sketchy plan – 12 pages “which amounted less to a plan than a plan to have a plan”.  Bush asked Congress for $7.1 billion to spend on this three-part pandemic sketch plan, and Congress gave it to him. It was an insight into how Bush governed by instinct but, on this occasion, he was mostly right. Yet the business of getting a policy into place, which was little more than vaccinate and isolate, proved very difficult, given that it crossed the influential Centres for Disease Control (CDC) way of thinking.

To the Vekayya group another doctor was recruited, Carlton Mercer. He came from the Veterans Administration and over time this little-known figure became, with Hatchett, the vanguard for turning the Vekayya sketch into a defined course of action, namely when a pandemic appeared imminent, in the absence of a vaccine it was to go quickly and hard in locking down the community, close schools and social distance people from one other. The problem with people who genuinely drive change is that there is always the research/medical establishment prepared to cast aspersions. In this case, this was the CDC.

When Obama came to power, he stopped listening to these Bush appointees and their accumulated experience. He was bolstered in 2009 by predicted dire consequences of the swine flu pandemic – caused by another influenza virus H1N1 – that did not eventuate. Mexico had followed their guidelines; so what! America did not; and nothing much happened.

COVID-19 was yet to come.

Richard Hatchett in 2017 ended up running CEPI, which was a critical position as related in the book, because it was able to redirect substantial funding in the development of vaccines, particularly Moderna and AstroZeneca, when the pandemic struck and the Virus was isolated. Funding was also provided by CEPI to the University of Queensland for its ultimately failed vaccine. Considering the hype surrounding this group, perhaps more reliance was placed on its success than should have been. In any event, it left Australia with very few vaccine paddles, later in 2020. At that time Australia was basking in its success of suppression of the Virus.

Since leaving the advisory role to a President who had stopped listening to him, Richard Hatchett has been very active nevertheless.

The mystery of Jane Halton? Given her position as Chair of CEPI, which she is always flaunting, the question has been asked as to why she did not influence Australia in its acquisition of vaccines by Australia in 2020, given the directions being taken by CEPI, given the obvious international standing of the CEPI CEO, Richard Hatchett. I would have thought she would have told the Government what to do, as is her wont. She certainly should have known about the efficacy of the various vaccines under development around the world, including that of the University of Queensland, and the need to stockpile a range of vaccines, not just one.

Very strange, almost as mysterious as why she is the Chair of CEPI in the first place.

Sprod 

A drawing of a Grecian urn. The athlete on the urn being offered a laurel wreath. The caption – “no thanks I’ll take the money.”

The children on the beach watching a Punch and Judy show. The sign against the beach stage read “Now in its 290th year”.

An exercise in whimsy.

George Napier Sprod was an Australian cartoonist who, for much of his working life after the Second World War, worked in England. A cartoonist who signed himself Sprod? Who would believe the name was not just a humorous pseudonym? But George Napier Sprod was indeed born in South Australia.

As has been written elsewhere, in 1938 at the age 19, George Sprod left home without notice. He had decided to ride his bike along the Murray River en route to Sydney. He got as far as Hay before selling his bike and continuing by train. Once in Sydney he set up residence in Kings Cross and started freelancing as a cartoonist and working as a street photographer.

World War II intervened. He joined up, became a gunner, was sent to Singapore, was captured and then was a POW in Changi until the end of the War. During that time he teamed up with Ronald Searle and the two of them edited a paper called “Exile”. It must have been difficult for the Japanese to comprehend, given their distinctive styles. Searle in fact had a marked effect on the Sprod development

After the War he went back to Australia, worked for a time on the Packer papers, the Daily Telegraph and Womans Weekly, found out he was not a political cartoonist and went to England, where he hit paydirt, particularly with then Punch Editor, Malcolm Muggeridge.

In the “Introduction” to a collection of Sprod cartoons, mostly ones that had appeared in Punch, published in 1956 under the title “Chips off a Shoulder”, Malcolm Muggeridge described Sprod’s drawings as very funny, with a gusto, an earthiness. “The inherent absurdity of human life positively pleases him, and his bold and uproarious situations convey this pleasure. I would say he was in no tradition at all, but just Sprod.

Muggeridge, later on the Introduction, opined on why Australia produced and nurtured more humorous artists than anywhere else. He suggested it may have been the harshness of life and the vastness of Australia, which elicited the wry smile as the readiest and most natural response, as Muggeridge so elegantly puts it. Muggeridge mentions a number of Australian cartoonists, but lumped David Low in with them. Low, probably the most acclaimed political cartoonist of them, was a New Zealander, who did work for eight years in Sydney before spending the rest of this life cartooning in England.

Just before I left running the community health program in Victoria, one of my nursing team, as an impromptu gesture presented me with a first edition of “Chips off a Shoulder”. The year was 1979, the book having been published two decades before. On the fly leaf, she had written my initials and under these the words “A sense of humour” and then below at the foot of the page “Best wishes, always” followed by a long dash. I remember once she did ask what I would like as an epitaph. I don’t remember how this matter came up, but I remember my response, “I tried”.

It is funny what you treasure and would never sell. After I left the job, I never saw her again. Her name was Beryl.

But then I never went searching for Sprod, who by that time had retreated from England back to Australia because of some messy domestic relationship there. He died in Marrickville in 2003, I know that much and that he did go on to publish a number of other books of cartoons.

Where has All the Influenza Gone?

Influenza is very much part of the discussion swirling around the COVID-19 discussions. Reference is continually being made to the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic; and reference is made to the fact that people have died of influenza in the past and we did not lock down Australia.

One can speculate about this. My view is that the Australian community has become used to the winter appearance of the virus, and there was always at the outset of “the flu season”, the Australian representative of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Reference on Influenza appearing to warn us of its dangers.  Australia was thus well placed. Scientists at the Centre in Melbourne—one of six such centres globally—faced an imprecise predictive process because of the variability of the various strains. This explained the vaccine’s varying effectiveness year to year as the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory (CSL) tried to make the most effective vaccine to counter this shifty virus.

Thus, there is a yearly vaccine, and there were established rituals. Those working in the health sector were encouraged to be vaccinated, and each health centre, generally as part of infection control, provided a systematic approach. In any event the prevalence of influenza waned as the country emerged from winter.

People died, and in fact up to 2020, every year from 2014 onwards the number of people who died increased, almost reaching 1,000 a year – until 2020 when the number dropped to 36, and then this year nil. The average age of death was 88, and hence influenza mortality was conventionally believed to be confined to the very old.

This year the community was advised to space its influenza and COVID-19 injections. I had the influenza injection first, when it became available. This I did because early in the year the COVID-19 virus seemed suppressed and the Delta variant had yet to emerge as the scourge it has become. So, in my case, “vaccine hesitancy” was an artefact, because of the expert advice to space the injections.

There is much speculation about why this apparent extinction of influenza mortality has occurred. The first is that it is only a lull in the disease progression and it will come roaring back with enhanced infectivity. Others suggest that the measures taken in regard to the current pandemic, such as social distancing, better hygiene and school closures have contributed.

Whatever the core reason for the current situation of zero mortality, the course of the influenza virus should be closely monitored but, from this unexpected effect, it does suggest that the hard approach is working.

In 1918 the community was hit by the influenza pandemic which, some say, never really went away. It just became attenuated; but there have been pandemic years. I remember the Asian flu pandemic in 1957 because I ended up in Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital. There have been outbreaks since, all caused by descendants of the Spanish flu virus, generally milder and seasonally self-limited. In summary, seasonal influenza has tended to kill the oldest and youngest in a society but has been less virulent since the 1918 pandemic – roughly half of those who died were men and women in their 20s and 30s, in the prime of their lives.

Why does the community not get so worried about influenza? First, I suggest it is because of its predictability. This is reflected clearly by the ritual of flu vaccine injections. Yet have the measure that have been put in place over the past two years fatally suppressed the flu virus? An open question.

Secondly, the coronavirus is different. The common cold is a coronavirus; the conventional wisdom – we don’t die of the common cold. But this is different, and the world was unprepared for this relative of such a mild disease to rear up and become a dangerous lethal virus, initially with no vaccine and then, as if in response to the emergence of vaccines, the more dangerous delta variant appeared.

Influenza has a predictability; this virus has not, especially as the messaging changes almost daily. These changes have increased the uncertainty, whereas the rules to deal with pandemics from a pure public health context have always been simple and unequivocal, with perhaps the added use of masks. Social distancing, school closure, restriction of all movement, personal hygiene, use of hand sanitiser, the importance of the reproduction factor – all well known.

Thirdly, another difference compared with influenza is the way this current pandemic has been handled in Australia. This is the politicisation with the inability of politicians not to interfere. The failure occurs when politicians panic, want instant solutions, unfortunately showing both ignorance and weakness at the same time. Politicians always seem to know better, especially when it interferes with business and political donors.

Ignore the public health rules, as is happening at present in NSW, and how long will it be before it is not only Afghani seeking refugee status in States with low rates of infection. One person, being a proponent of the “Let it rip” school of dealing with the Virus, said to me that he wanted to leave the country. Don’t worry. Currently, NSW is the place for you.

Mouse Whisper

Michael Kirby is an illustrious man of the people. He is known to deliver newspapers. Yet he has 30 honorary doctorates – quite a collection. There are 23 from Australian universities. Shame on the University of Western Australia and the University of Queensland. You are real laggards. But has anybody else got more honorary doctorates than our Michael K?

What a fancy dress party Michael, the Thespian, can stage. But why the number?  I suppose it is because some people collect stamps; others, like Michael, collect Tudor caps.

My mausmeister has fond but distant memories of him and that other colourful figure of Sydney University politics, the late Vincent John Flynn. He remembers the things which were said about him by those two worthies during those halcyon days of student politics, not to his face, but after he had left a meeting early.

You see Flynn had inter alia currency issues; and so does Michael. Different form of currency; different definition. Both defined by spotlight, one avoidance of it, the other always searching for it.

Modest Expectations – Totally White

The ship is sinking. Most of us are begging the passengers to get into the lifeboats. Others are telling them to ignore us, that they’re better off trying to swim. Or, worse, denying the plain fact that they’re in danger at all.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a practice run for the even bigger global catastrophe that is climate change.

And instead of doing everything we can to save as many people as possible, we’re trying to get past the morally bankrupt right-wingers who would sooner see our fellow passengers set adrift on the ocean than admit they’re wrong and lose sway.  Boston Globe 12 August 2021

When the Ruby Princess catastrophe occurred last year, it smacked of undue influence in high places. To clear the ships, various influential Liberal names bounced around – somebody had relatives on the ship, and so on, rolling around the rumour mill. However, the media bias tended to scrub the political decks clean before the miasma could take over. The problem with NSW is that the history of the colony and then the State has been laced with corruption, and it is no different under this Premier.

At the time of the Ruby Princess debacle and for weeks following when Dr Kerry Chant was reported as advocating an incomprehensible “zig-zag approach”, I was firmly of the opinion she should be sacked. That did not help my reputation among some of my public health colleagues. In this fiasco, there were others who were the fall guys and were sidelined, but as they had no public profile they could be sidelined without fuss, irrespective of the ultimate consequences upon their respective careers.

There is an old saw which says that the controversy generated is inversely proportional to autonomy of action. Even if you try to be professional, are basically honest and hardworking, in the end if you become of no use to government, you will endure the spin, labelled the scapegoat. That unfortunately is happening now, quite unfairly, to Dr Chant. This is especially so when the State has a Premier who is a genius in deflecting responsibility. As I have written before, Berejiklian shows all the Armenian traits for survival, regularly changing her political raiment to ensure survival at the expense of others.

Dr Chant has been pilloried in the conservative press. She has been humiliated by her Minister Hazzard in front of a Parliamentary Committee.  It was her fault that the lockdown did not occur earlier … that is the spin from the Premier’s office. In the guise of praise, Berejiklian has always heaped the consequences of any COVID-19 Government decisions on the shoulders of Dr Chant, presumably the Berejilkian office ensuring that an appropriate story is fed to the media. In line with abandoning Chant, she has now stopped talking about decisions being based on “medical advice”, it is now “a whole of Government approach”.

At the time I felt very sorry for Dr Chant being consigned to irrelevance as the Premier seemed to be doing, centimetre by centimetre. There is one impediment that the Premier has created for herself by installing Dr Chant as NSW Premier’s Woman of the year 2021 with accompanying effusive praise. Hence the methods being used to erode her standing by the corridors whisperers, who inhabit all political systems.  After all, that cynosure of NSW Government intelligence, Dominic Perrottet, is reported at one stage as saying Dr Chant should take a cut in salary, presumably as punishment for not quelling the pandemic. As one dark wit has said about Dr Chant, she has come from Punchbowl to Punching Ball.

One thing I found out when holding an influential advisory role – one minute there is lavish praise heaped on you, with the danger that you believe it; the next minute, not. Chant does not fit into that category of being sucked in by that spin. Rather she has had the naïve view that politics will yield to logic, but in the current Coalition culture that is the last thing that is valued.

At the time I thought that Chant was at the point of resignation, it would be interesting to see how the public health community reacts.

Despite the usual AFR prediction the day before, there was certainly a volte face by the NSW government on Saturday 14 August when the cases rose to 446, and spread had seemingly occurred in the Aboriginal population in Western NSW?

Dr Chant returned on the Sunday and gave a report of the public health situation without political spin, controlled emotionally, but intense in her message. The Premier in the same session admitted the Saturday was a wake up call and that “she went upstairs to Dr Chant with the Deputy Premier after the briefing”.  Hello, Dr Chant was not at the 11am briefing; she was “upstairs”. One can only speculate on what occurred after that briefing apart from the Premier’s crabbing mea culpa. Furthermore, Berejiklian has reversed her previous strategy of not discouraging the dark shadows denigrating Dr Chant.

I thought Dr Chant realised that public health is part of the mysteries of political science.  I hoped she had enough resin on her hands to contain the slippery Gladys, whose business mates face the task of whether they go to ground or continue to be a noisy claque.  Unfortunately, Dr Chant, you can only use that stratagem of threatening to resign once.

Hence, by Wednesday, Chant had all but capitulated. The SMH reported her performance at the media conference where she had the opportunity to maintain her grip on the proceedings but no! As reported in the SMH, “The Premier and I are very committed to achieving the same outcomes,” Dr Chant said. “We have a shared vision: a shared vision which is high vaccination coverage and very low levels of community transmission.”

Vision or hallucination? The circuit breaker that Dr Paul Kelly had yearned remained connected. The only glimmer was that the Premier had found out that a basic reproduction number exists.

Then Dr Chant was again absent from the Thursday briefing without any comment and the moveable feast of ostensible deputies commenced again with 681 cases today.

The Commonwealth Chief Health Officer, Dr Paul Kelly, has said there is a need for a circuit breaker. Dr Chant’s resignation, or threat thereof, could have done just that. However, I am getting around to the belief that the Kelly circuit breaker will be the resignation the NSW Premier. That is not liable to happen in the short term with the neutralisation of Dr Chant.

By the way, Oliver Cromwell lurks in the South. Not Premier Andrews but “the eliminationist”, Dr Brett Sutton, the Chief Health Officer of Victoria.

Soon the comparison may well be stark if Victoria succeeds. Then the heat will be on the soles of the Berejiklian footwear. 

The Level of Incompetence

Every person with COVID will have 10-20 contacts to trace, which means if you have 100 cases a day, you need to trace 1,000-2,000 contacts within 24-48 hours. If you don’t trace them rapidly, you will miss the window of opportunity to prevent them infecting others. If you don’t trace them all, you will face a growing backlog and lose control of the epidemic.

This comment was made last year to the National Cabinet by the then Chief Scientist, when he also said that for every outbreak, the government reaction should be to go early and go hard. It seems that the NSW Premier was not listening at the time.

No matter how good the contact tracing system is, in the end it will be overwhelmed if the case load gets out of control. It is no good boasting about the number being tested if there is not the infrastructure to process the tests and report quickly; and then having identified those who are positive, they need to be isolated and their contacts traced.

There are those who believe that you can turn contact tracing into a digital exercise.  All the attempts at using computer codes or computerisation in relation to health status has been dotted with unmitigated disasters, but while the governments are under the pernicious sway of the big consultancy firms then like the poor, they will be with us always. A prime example was the COVID-19 app, which was flogged mercilessly by the government at the onset of the pandemic. This app has been an unmitigated failure.

The introduction of QR codes has improved the situation of identifying people who had been to exposure sites, but the success of any system, as with face-to-face contact tracing depends on honesty and compliance, and here, as some American source said, Australians are compliant whereas in America it would be impossible to initiate the lockdown Australians have endured without there being open opposition, in all probability, violent. Just how compliant and honest the population is in relation to the use of QR codes in the long term remains to be seen, but the maskless opponents have crawled out of the long grass and are barking at shop assistants about their “rights” to be non-QR and maskless.

After all, the Government has the tools to punish lack of compliance, by increasing penalties, both monetary and incarceration; it should use these tools.

Nevertheless, in relation to honesty, I have always wondered whether some of the cases of breaking lockdown rules hide criminal activity; presumably drugs and other illicit stuff does not move magically and lockdowns make the transport of drugs somewhat inconvenient. I wonder whether this question has been investigated, or even asked, because if a person has something to hide, he or she is not liable to confess to a contact tracer unless the contact tracer is a priest, and even then, if you are COVID-19 positive, are you going to tell them about the contraband in your possession and your contacts aka clients?

A Family Tragedy

All families need at least one mystery. On the night of 13 December 1929, a tragedy occurred in our family. Rupert Clarke was my Aunt Grace’s husband. He was also Ararat’s Shire Secretary. Ararat has always been a government town, since being a railway hub there were many workers located there.  On the hill surrounded by high bluestone walls was the prison, which held the most dangerous criminals – the mad and the bad – men who had killed and having escaped hanging were there at the Governor’s pleasure because they had been adjudged insane.

My aunt had gone to her sister who lived in the nearby town of Stawell for Christmas. Rupert was to follow, but he had work to do before he could go up to Stawell. Since he had been left to his own devices and presumably wanting to avoid the domestic chores, he decided to move into the Turf Hotel.

Turf Hotel, Ararat

The Turf Hotel no longer exists but it was then a three-storied hotel. Whereas the second floor had direct access to the balcony with its cast iron lacework, the next floor was aligned to the roof of the balcony, and the windows opened onto this roof; it was a somewhat curious construction.

As described in the local newspaper, Rupert had spent the evening yarning with the Assistant Shire Secretary and was said to have retired at midnight, stating that he wanted to study the municipal books. Did he find something puzzling – a little untoward? Who would know, because next morning he was found on the street below, in his pyjamas, in a pool of blood. It was speculated that he had sleepwalked – climbed out of bed and through the open window, wandered across to the edge of the balcony roof, and then plunged onto the street 50 feet (15.2metres) below. Apparently it was known that he walked in his sleep.

He was still alive, although he had compound fractures of both arms and one leg. He was unconscious and was described with “serious injuries to the head”. He was seen by the local doctors, obviously there was nothing much they could do, and he died at 11.00 am without regaining consciousness. He was 30 years old.

It was one of those things I heard about, but nobody ever talked about it. My aunt, with whom I had a good relationship, never talked about it. She died in 1975, and I found the newspaper cutting relating to her husband’s death sometime after.

Sleepwalking is often linked with stories of horror and there is no more famous scene than that where a highly agitated Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking and trying to wash her hands of the bloodbath in which she has been a willing participant, while her doctor stands on the side making commentary without interfering.

I have been reassured without delving back 90 years that Rupert’s death was an accident. No defenestration here. But did he find anything untoward in the municipal books? Maybe his yarning with his assistant involved consumption of a drink or two. I do not know and nobody has volunteered whether there were underlying genetic factors. Sleepwalking runs in families, and children are more likely to sleepwalk, and then grow out of it.

So, there it is.  Death by misadventure, but for those with a suspicious mind, the basis of a good story.

As for Aunt Grace. She never enjoyed Christmas after that. She never remarried.

The Meeting at Telgte

Many years ago, I read the famous history of the Thirty Years’ War by Cicely Wedgewood which was published in 1938, the work of a young historian. Cicely Wedgewood, always known as C.V., was a member of the family which has so much penetrated our lives with their china, apart from anything else. It was a long time ago when I read it and I marvelled at this most significant piece of European history happening at the same time as the rise and fall of the Stuart kings and the accession of Oliver Cromwell. We were taught about this period in England but nothing about this immensely destructive conflict in Europe happening at the same time.  Moreover, there was this magnificent historical source written by a very young Wedgewood.

There was a link with the English Monarchy as James I’s daughter, Elisabeth, was the wife of Frederick V, ruler of the Palatinate and briefly the King of Bohemia, after the defenestration of two of the ruling Roman Catholic aristocrat Regents from the windows of Prague Castle by Protestant allies of Frederick, who then ascended the throne – for a year (a cardinal rule in Prague is – don’t go near a window – it has happened before and since).

The Roman Catholic aristocrats, although falling 70 feet, survived because they all fell into a dung heap. Nevertheless, they disturbed the heap enough for some of it to hit the fan, in a manner of speaking, to fuel the beginning of the destructive sectarian Thirty Years’ War.

Günter Grass wrote his historical allegorical novella concerning a meeting of poets in Telgte, a city near the Dutch border, at the Bridge Inn there. A group from across the German states had been called together to exchange their poetic gems and provide, by the force of their deliberation, significant moral persuasion to end the War.

This gathering, although convened by a major historical figure in the Prussian poet and hymn writer Simon Dach, was mythical; even though it did not happen as written it still bore a certain sense of authenticity.  The attendees were real persons, but unless versed in the German language writers of the 16-17th century, the names just become a brain-numbing cascade, and thus for the inexperienced reader as myself, I need to read the novella again. I say German language, because the disparity within the German nation indicates the various linguistic preferences of the participants in the convocation.

This convocation, in a world where it was perilous to move about, was held under the protection of a Hessian soldier poet, Christoffel Gelnhausen and his band of Swedish musketeers and cavalry.

The innkeeper, Libuschka, had participated in a number of military incursions herself. She had been on “harum-scarum” campaigns, participated as a soldier in the distribution of loot.  She captivated her literary audience by detailing her exploits when she had been in her twenties, “in breeches and on horseback” she had served in the Battle of Lutter and taken a Danish captain prisoner. This Battle 20 years before had been a spectacular defeat of the Protestants under Christian IV, the Danish king. She is the only woman whose personality is drawn out in the novella. There is the normal background of young women who could have walked out of Moll Flanders, free love being the escape amid the squalor of war.

The book weaves a background of violence, ever-present fear of atrocity, and yet central Europe had been at war for nearly 30 years, the countryside had been laid waste, food was in short supply. The description of the feast in the book where, at a time of famine, the assembled company rationalised their gourmandising by not asking too deeply how the soldiers had obtained the ingredients.

The key historical association was that Telgte was close to Münster, where ultimately the Treaty of Westphalia, which meant the end of the War, was concluded. The literary figures had no effect on the Treaty deliberations, as they were brutally informed.

In the end, protection of the soldiers was removed and the inn burnt down, but those participants, although vulnerable, all returned to their disparate homes safely.  I suppose that was the closest one could get to a happy ending.

The Treaty of Westphalia

The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 gave the Swiss independence from Austria and the Netherlands independence from Spain. The German principalities secured their autonomy. Sweden gained territory and cash, Brandenburg and Bavaria made gains; France acquired most of Alsace-Lorraine. The prospect of a Roman Catholic reconquest of Europe vanished forever. Protestantism was in the world to stay.

The above is a concise summary. Grass wrote this novella post-WW2. Germany had suffered a cataclysmic defeat and been divided into four zones by the foreign victors. This was not a Treaty, but an unconditional surrender. Central Europe, as it was three centuries before, had been laid waste in the prosecution of territorial aims and ideological pursuits.

How ironic to read such a book at the time when the President of the United States  has called a halt on a pointless war, recognising there is no gain in prosecuting it further. Yet the political braying within his country for what he has done – for what?  Only to save military face and spend billions more in dollars?  The guilt-ridden neocon shadows who have led us into this War of the Willing are now very much more the older but, as is in evidence, not wiser men unfortunately – or dead themselves.

Just a Normal day with the Lobbyists

Limitations of Authorized Use 

Sotrovimab is not authorized for use in patients: 

  • who are hospitalized due to COVID-19, OR 
  • who require oxygen therapy due to COVID-19, OR
  • who require an increase in baseline oxygen flow rate due to COVID-19 (in those on chronic oxygen therapy due to underlying non-COVID-19 related comorbidity). 

Benefit of treatment with sotrovimab has not been observed in patients hospitalized due to COVID‑19. SARS-CoV-2 monoclonal antibodies may be associated with worse clinical outcomes when administered to hospitalized patients with COVID‑19 requiring high flow oxygen or mechanical ventilation – GSK/Vir Technology release for media and investors 26 May 2021

With all the concentration on vaccination to counter COVID-19, the purchase of 7,700 doses of sotrovimab, described as a “novel monoclonal antibody treatment”, occurred in early August. The drug’s efficacy has yet to be peer reviewed. The Government was coy about the cost. However, from information available it costs about USD2,200 a dose and is given intravenously as an 8ml bolus. This drug was purchased while it still had only an Emergency Use Authorisation (EUA) from the FDA in America.

Much of the drug company information is parroted back by one “Greg Hunt, Liberal Party of Australia Somerville Australia”. This authorisation is jammed in the middle of a Ministerial media release by this resident of Somerville in Victoria. There is reference to the support it is receiving from one of the  expert committees.

The day after the Hunt release, nevertheless, Australia’s top COVID-19 clinical advisory group was reported  (sic):

There is not yet enough high-quality evidence to support use of a new monoclonal antibody treatment, of which the federal government recently bought more than 7700 doses.Based on the fact it was an interim analysis of a single study, with relatively low numbers, the panel decided to give an only-in-research recommendation, pending the availability of more data,” he said. “We don’t base our recommendations on press releases. Other countries have also purchased Sotrovimab. The government is trying to get ahead of the curve and purchasing a drug, pending review by the TGA, is reasonable.”

This is a two-bob-each-way answer, especially given the “killer” information in last line of the pharmaceutical company’s release is “between 30 June and 13 July, the drug was administered to 6,175 patients with mild and moderate disease, and within 14 days 92% of recipients had fully recovered with a 99% ICU prevention rate”.

With a Government grasping at straws, why have we not heard  much about this wonder drug, especially given the haste in purchase?  Given the Government propensity to magnify every minute scrap of positive information, here the Federal Government has been strangely muted.

Far be it from me to suggest that a well-placed lobbyist got in the ear of the Boy from Somerville and cleaned up – not the huge bucks of some of the expenditure – on the Treasury line item labelled “Rorts”.

Where now are the vials of Sotrovimab? Into which veins has this drug gone? If any? More information please, before it is an invitation for an avalanche of unproven drugs with unpronounceable names dumped on our “fatal” shores, courtesy of a very persuasive lobbyist.

Or emerging into a more positive light, just how is the administration of this life-saving drug progressing?

The cost of this exercise – about $20m?  Just petty cash, so inured Australia has become that it has not been questioned.

Mouse Whisper

I am only a mouse but I can’t keep out these whispering echoes.  The sounds are persistent. Perhaps a bent banana may help – certainly the glint of gold does not.

 Japanese government auditors have estimated the true costs are likely at least to be $25 billion, which includes projects related to the Games.

You actually have very limited possibilities of stripping down cost because the majority of the business decisions are made by the IOC and international athletics organizations.

Even under the best circumstances, putting on the Olympics is quite a burden financially … covid-19 definitely hasn’t made it easier for Tokyo.”

You have been warned, my fellow mice gnawing on the sugar cane ambrosia, oblivious of the world tomorrow.

These recent Games are sure to put an unprecedented burden on the host city of Tokyo and the Japanese government, which is facing a ballooning national debt that is worsening because of the pandemic.

Remember all that is yellow is not gold. Bananas eventually lose their yellow glow, blacken, then rot.

Modest Expectations – Clive Lloyd

In this lockdown, gazing up through the grate of our oubliette at the caerulean blue sky above, I thought about the place in Australia where I’d rather be more than anywhere else. After all, we love the West Coast of Tasmania and I love driving out from Broken Hill at sunset and seeing the Mundi Mundi Plains spread out below me; the small dust speck of a car streaking across the plain lives in my memory.

I could ramble on and on – Jacob’s ladder in the Indian Ocean at Broome; the total eclipse of the sun at Ceduna and even my first adventure in the bush when I, still in kindergarten, climbed up Little Joe – and so on – wallowing in the reminiscences of being privileged, able to travel around Australia.

No, the place that I would rather be is sitting at the edge of the river where the Darling River empties into the Murray River, near Wentworth. It is the epitome of serenity, where all you have to do is just watch as these two major arteries which maintain life in the Southern Part of the Continent sustain life, come together.

It is not as though being there you are far from civilisation. If you you’re your gaze away from the rivers you can see through the river red gum foliage a collection of nondescript houses, a recreation reserve and even paved streets. The hospital at Wentworth, essentially a nursing home of 22 beds when I was last there, lies on a spit of land near the junction of the rivers – unfortunately the rooms at the hospital do not have a river view. There is also the disfigurement of a viewing tower.  Fortunately, that and the buildings do not contaminate my view of the river.

What is beautiful is being able to shut all that out at the water’s edge. Just watching the rivers move; one having flowed from the Snowy Mountains, the other from Queensland, picking up many a tributary along the way – as a giant imperial force, until it finds that the real emperor with its own of tributaries from NSW and Victoria justly receives its homage as the Darling salutes her, not as a rushing torrent but as a genial meeting of the waters. Yet there is always the vulnerability of the Darling river being bled until in parts it is reduced to pools of water.

I have seen where other giant rivers come together, such as the Missouri and the Mississippi at St Louis and the Rio Negro entering the Amazon at Manaus. The first conjunction is not spectacular – just one meandering around low marsh land as though accidently meeting. The other is more spectacular, bringing its distinctive colour, seemingly black at a distance but in reality umber, to be dissipated by its mighty tawny relative. “Mighty” is the word attached to big rivers. I had a colleague who always prefaced Murray with “mighty”.

River red gum

Shaded by the river red gums that provide the arcade through which one moves towards the other there is a certain tranquillity, which even the sulphur crested and the black cockatoos screeching above, cannot disturb. Their noise enables me to block out the sounds of the dusty dirty city to coin a phase. Their racket is counterpointed by the black swans noiselessly passing by and the wild ducks which move with the merest splash.

Near the open space there is patch of long reed and sedge, which has to be negotiated if you want to wander down the river to get a better vantage point. I have always watched for snakes because water and tiger snakes go together in Australia. Fortunately, there is a narrow path cut through the reeds, but unfortunately I cannot pivot this story. I have never seen a tiger snake there.

I found a relevant scrap of paper to complement the above reminiscence. In the past, I would jot things down, but did not have the time to do anything more with them then. However, I tend to find them tucked away. This is the story of my life. I once wrote a series of short stories, which I labelled Outlines in numerical order. I remember giving them to the late Brian Johns and he gave them to someone to assess. The reviewer came back and said they sure were outlines – implying how little content there was. I thought that somewhat cruel, but I shrugged; I had other outlines that needed attention – and these short stories ended up in my chaotic filing system.

I have been thinking about that criticism as I‘ve being doing an archaeological dig through my existence. Maybe that has been the description of who I am – an outline that has drifted along through a series of those undulating hills – perhaps towards that “green hill far away”. Anyway, enough of that!

This scrap of paper which was obviously written for some long-forgotten speech as it floridly commenced: “I was festooned with gown and caduceus” as the rather awkward opening gambit.

When I worked onwards through my notes, it described a route I travelled very rarely, between Broken Hill and Mildura. Mostly I drove the Silver City Highway, which was a sealed road. That was never a guarantee against the odd kangaroo, so I tried to avoid driving at dusk.  But the early morning was also a dangerous time. I was somewhat shocked to see this grey furry blur disappearing under the left headlight and how I missed it, God only knows – as well does the kangaroo.

The other route from Broken Hill to Mildura is partially sealed. Driving to Menindee, the road is paved. Menindee is a strongly aboriginal township, but without the notoriety of Wilcannia.

When I would reach Menindee, I usually sat down for a beer in the internal courtyard of the hotel. Here was where Burke and Wills stayed, but since that time the pub has burnt down, losing that authenticity, and that single hibiscus which grew in the courtyard.

Burke and Wills campsite

When I was there then, there was water in the Menindee Lakes because rainfall had been moderate in the early 1990s. I since have seen the lakes waterless. I found it distressing because dry Menindee Lakes signal a distressed river. Near the four Menindee Lakes, there is a sign that says Burke and Wills camped there; well, they had taken 18 men with them, and those that had not resigned stayed by the Lakes.  Burke and Wills were ensconced in the inn. The journey from Melbourne had taken two months to arrive there with their wagons, horses and 22 camels. As I sat in the courtyard drinking a beer and looking abstractedly at the walls, I wrote down “…we all have magnificent obsessions, for in the end we are a long time dead”.

In the annals of Australian exploration the Burke and Wills expedition was a gigantic “cock-up”, but as with the Gallipoli disaster, it is a part of the national psyche to not only remember but also venerate these occasions.

From Menindee to travel south, I drove on to Pooncarie, also on the Darling River. The road between the two townships was just bulldust then. Not only does an oncoming vehicle create a sandstorm, but what may appear to be a smooth sandy roadway can be a cover for large craters. A nice little trap for those who want to “fang” along. If you want to deviate away from the delights of Pooncarie, population 48, you can drive towards Mungo National Park, named after Mungo MacCallum whose forefathers inhabited the region before they anglicised their name to Wentworth, that nearby town standing on traditional land.

Va bene, I have been known to pull the end of a leg. But MacCallum inherited certain of the Wentworth traits.

Anyway, apart from being back on the Darling River, Pooncarie has a pub, a community health centre and an airstrip – but not much more. The fact that the Pooncarie Cup in October is the highlight says a great deal about these tiny settlements. This is not a value judgement, just an observation. If it is not an annual race meeting, it is a rodeo. The next step up are the annual shows or field days – I don’t quite know where to rank the B&S Balls.

Wentworth and Mildura are not that distant from one another – the orange groves surrounded by arid land soon appear. After a drive through the waterless land, citrus groves are civilisation. They have proliferated all along the road. This is the Sunraysia District.

The road is sealed and it has been the work of the then local member of Parliament who, as he always did when he was determined, had the road made some years before, after a time when the township was cut off by floods and a pregnant woman died because she could not be evacuated in time.

The medical service at Wentworth was appalling at the time I was there, but that was the problem with rural medicine. Out there were a number of weird doctors, who survived because they were often in single person practices and nobody was watching them.  Wentworth was one of these captured townships. As I found out, it was almost impossible to get dysfunctional doctors deregistered then.  Wentworth residents had some solace of knowing that Mildura was only 30 minutes away. However, as was demonstrated, Pooncarie was a township too far. Needless to say, its population did not justify a doctor.

Confluence of Darling and Murray Rivers

Then again, I am sitting here in my favourite place where the rivers run together and as I watch silently, I recall what Yeats once wrote:

“…Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence
.”

Snakes alive

I have always been wary of snakes. As I wrote above, I always look where I am putting my feet. The reason is that when I was about 14 years old, I went to retrieve a football which I had kicked over the fence into the long grass. I was wearing thick socks and football boots. I forget why I was kitted up – but fortunately I was, as it turned out.

Eastern brown

It all happened in such a flash. I was about to pick up my football when I felt as though I stood on a pipe, there was this sting in my leg and a saw a greenish brown body of what I presumed to be a snake slithering away.

When I went back over the fence to home, I pulled my sock off revealing two distinct puncture marks in my calf. The ambulance was called; I don’t remember much after that – until the ambulance arrived. I know my father, who was a doctor was not there. Somebody in the house may have tried to tourniquet my leg. There was nobody there to try do anything much with the puncture marks apart from washing it.

As I remember it, nothing much happened. The ambulance drivers arrived with polyvalent antivenene. First, they had to give me a small amount to test my reaction. I had a major local reaction. They did not give me the full dose.  While this was going on, minutes were ticking over and I remained symptomless.

I had been bitten, that was clear. Why had nothing occurred? The snake was later to be identified when a few weeks later, workers clearing the site for the construction of a telephone exchange killed an eastern brown snake.  That would fit the fleeting picture I had.

Ever since I have speculated while I had no systemic signs. Perhaps the football sock absorbed the venom; or as does happen, the first strike often does not contain any venom. The eastern brown snake is very venomous, and even though its fangs are short, they were still able to imprint my leg with the tell-tale puncture marks.

Anyway, that is my snake story. Anticlimactic but true. Come on, do you know anybody who was bitten by a snake?

Not a household name

Allyson Felix won her 11th career Olympic medal Saturday, combining with her American teammates to finish the 4×400-meter relay in 3 minutes, 16.85 seconds for a runaway victory.

The team of Felix, Sydney McLaughlin, Dalilah Muhammad and Athing Mu was never in jeopardy in this one. Poland finished second, 3.68 seconds behind, and Jamaica finished third.

Felix, who became the most-decorated woman in Olympic track history when she won bronze in the 400 the night before, now passes Carl Lewis with the most track medals of any US athlete. Of the 11 medals, seven are gold.

No doubt an amazing feat, but she is hardly a household name in Australia. Similarly in USA, who had heard of Emma McKeon, certainly not the NYT.

The Olympic Games has been used by the venal to justify their existence by these fleeting illusions. Unfortunately, it is a drug for politicians to cloak their venality in collaboration with the dark forces of the IOC.

Norman, Smith, Carlos

Yet the Olympic Games has spawned for each nation a pantheon. Even re-telling the story behind the famous photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their arms in the Black Panther salute in the 200 metres victory ceremony, Americans fail to recognise the role of the whitefella on the podium with the human rights badge. He was Peter Norman, and his intrinsic solidarity with the two others was victimised by a spiteful hierarchy which foreshortened his career. When Norman died in 2006, both Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral. Needless to say, these three men have been belatedly recognised for what they did. However, the essential humanity of this trio have been brushed away by the Olympic seigneurs with their “joy-boy” vassals that still roam the upper feudal reaches of the “sporting family”.

Perhaps the man most associated with the Olympic ideals was Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936. The story is well known of his friendship with the German athlete Luz Long, who assisted Owens in his long jump style. Long’s name dissolved into time as he had been killed in World War 11 in Italy. His legacy, a letter to Owens re-affirming his friendship, was written just before his death on the battlefield.

However, there is a lesser-known story about Owens in Berlin where he was befriended by one of the Finnish sprinters, Toivo Sariola. When Owens said he felt unsafe in the streets, Toivo said Owens should join his group and thus the Finns would protect him in the city. Owens greatly appreciated Toivo’s gesture. After the USA’s victory in the Men’s 4x100m relay final, Jesse donated the USA team’s baton to Toivo and wrote on it “With friendship to Toivo Sariola”.

Paavo Nurmi

From 1912 to 1928, Finland was never lower than fourth in the medal count and, in 1924, finished second with 14 gold medals. This was the time of the distance runner Paavo Nurmi, who was always mentioned in the same tone of reverence as Owen. At the 1924 Paris Games, Nurmi made history by becoming the first athlete ever to win five gold medals at a single Olympic Games. Over four days, Nurmi won the 1,500 metres, the 5,000 metres, the 3,000 metres team event and the two cross-country events. He was prevented from competing in the 10,000 metres because officials thought it would be too much. Nurmi broke the record for the 10,000 metres very soon after, a record which stood for 13 years.

But how times change. In 1924, Australia sent 37 athletes; the Finns 121. In Tokyo 2020, Australia sent 472 and the Fins 45.

At the 2020 Olympic games Finland won two bronze medals. Since 2000, Finland has only won one gold medal – in shooting.

Helsinki was due to hold the Olympic Games in 1940 and, although the Finns had built some of the venues, it was a difficult proposition to hold the Games and at the same time battle what we would term today as “the Russian variant”, while the whole of Europe was succumbing to a much more virulent “Hitler variant”. Compare that with Tokyo today, and if the world had been able to visually enhance the virus particles so it could be visible, I doubt if Tokyo would have gone ahead. After all, Spanish flu did not disrupt the Olympic Games cycle in the 1920s for perhaps the same reason. It was unseen.

One the major scandals to have coloured the modern Finn’s view of sporting success has been in 2001 the Finn Nordic skiing team being caught systematically doping. Six top Finnish skiers were caught and disqualified.  They were using a plasma expander to mask erythropoietin usage, for which there was no reliable test at the time. The scandal was covered in the national press as a matter of public shame, and there was a sense of collective embarrassment in the country.

As one commentator said: “For the Finns, the worst thing about the doping scandal was not, however, the scandal itself. The worst thing was that, along with the facade of honesty in sports in general, the myth of the honest, hardworking Finn came crashing down.”

Yet before there had been the Finnish runner, Lasse Viren, who dominated distance running in the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games. He claimed reindeer milk and running long distances in the snow and at altitude was his secret. He never admitted to blood doping, which was then not illegal (until 1986). One reflection:

Scandinavia had helped pioneer the practice for winter sports, particularly cross-country skiing. It was very much in vogue in Finland at the time of Viren’s arrival on the world stage, and that he only seemed to peak at the major competitions added fuel to the speculation that blood doping had to be part of his preparation.

Even though it was legal at the time, to some people it offered a clear and unfair advantage, while others reckoned it was merely a more scientific form of say altitude training, and simply used the body’s own resources in a more productive manner.

Salla, Finland

The Finns are intense people with a dry sense of humour. One of the bids for the 2032 Summer Games was from Salla in the very north of Finland, one of the coldest places there.  The bid for 2032, was based on  the climate with global warming being just right for Salla  holding the Summer Games. One Finnish word for this parodic exercise is ironinen.

Helsinki did eventually hold the Olympics Games in 1952, using those facilities which had been built pre-war. Even now they are impressive. One source has stated there is no way of telling even the approximate cost of these ventures.   One figure was an “on books” cost of 1,580 million finnmarks and the Committee reported a 49 million mark loss.

It is significant that for Tokyo, the Finns sent their Minister for Science and Culture, Antti Kurvinen, who was there to discuss the themes of education and competence, especially from the perspective of the digital transformation, research and innovation.  Not sport. He is a significant figure in the Finland Government, being also head of the Liberal Party Parliamentary Group. The Finnish words for “political junket” are “poliittista roskaa” (literally political rubbish). One would be forgiven for thinking that is the overall Finn view of the Olympic Games.

Over Coates

There is one fact that has got lost in the ebullience of Brisbane overcoming the sturdy opposition of Salla, that Finnish megapolis within the Arctic circle of 50 people.  There has been no announcement for the 2030 Winter Olympics. Yet.  The Washington Post has wryly commented that: “you’ll notice an unprecedented hole, the 2030 Winter Games, still looking for a home. There’s a reason for that. The world has caught onto the ruse and the Olympics need to respond by acknowledging their process is outdated and unnecessary.” To use that new collective noun, it may well be that there is an inadequacy of bidders, or perhaps serious bidders.

Curling, 2030

But wait! What about Canberra? What a great idea!  Could use that Parliament House foyer for curling. Come on, Scotty what about it? Worth a few media releases. Send the hares running up the ski runs at Perisher. But be prepared for those “over coates” to guard against that pending reign.

Mouse Whisper

For Finns, silence is golden; talking is silver.

This was demonstrated to me when I met my cousin Hiiri dragging a large vial of vodka across the sauna floor.

He motioned to me to open the vial, and I poured each of us a thimble. Before each thimble in honour of his presence, I would cry “Skål”.  Hiiri remained mute again. I raised the thimble and again cried out “Skål”. Hiiri said nothing.  Again… and again. Skål. Skål.

Even though he said nothing, I could see Hiiri was getting irritable.

Then suddenly Hiiri burst out: “The trouble with you Australian mice, you talk too much.”

That was ten words.

Modest Expectations – Geometric Progression

I rarely post on Facebook, but I feel compelled to comment on the large number of unvaccinated people there are. Many think that is awful. But the more I have thought about it, the more I conclude it may be the best thing that has happened to the human race in several centuries.

Those who choose not to vaccinate are, and will continue to be, the vast majority of those who contract COVID-19, as well as the majority of those who die. While I feel sorry for the friends and families of those people, in the long term that may be the best thing that has happened to the human race in a long time.

By weeding out the dumbest of our people, the average intelligence of our race will clearly improve!! So look on the bright side—the human race will be better off in the long term with the dumbest of our people being the largest bloc of deaths!!!

So wrote my American mate.

It demonstrates that the ferocity, which is consuming American society, being played out between those in favour of vaccination and the antivaxxers. Thinking about this invective I am reminded that my forebears survived the Black Death. But so did those of everyone who is living at present, even the progenitors of the anti-vaxxers. On this basis, some of these survivors proliferated, so stupidity is never totally extinguished.

Do I disapprove of anything sent above? Well, I do think the multiple exclamation marks are a bit over the top.

Seriously, despite the robustness of the comments, I genuinely worry about any suggestion of eugenics, for whatever reason, even in the case of America given the action of the disgusting Trump in dumbing down the community over the past four years and dismissing the seriousness of this pandemic.

Tales from the South Seas

South Sea Islanders have always seemed to me to get the rough end of the pineapple, as it were.  This mob is largely confined to the sugar growing areas of Queensland. Mostly, they have been ignored, despite the appalling way their ancestors were treated. Their forefathers were the victims of blackbirding, the trade in men mostly, from modern day Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, who were kidnapped, transported to Queensland and northern NSW, where they cut sugar cane.

South Sea Islander flag

Most were repatriated in the early years of our Federation, but a number remained – the actual figure being a subject of conjecture. From a peak of 60,000, the estimate now is about 5,000 although how rubbery that figure is, who knows.

When South Sea Islander leaders, Faith Bandler and Dr Evelyn Scott, died, politicians, the media and the wider community labelled both as Indigenous activists and gave no recognition to their South Sea Islander heritage.

Later, on other hand, when Dr Bonita Mabo died, she was widely recognised as a leading Australian South Sea Islander activist, also involved in Indigenous activism.

Therefore, the recent very public apology by the Mayor of Bundaberg, Jack Dempsey, to the South Sea Islanders reinforced the success of the Islanders over the last generation or two in educating their fellow Australians about their existence.

Australia flies both the Aboriginal and Torres Islander flags widely, but who recognises the South Sea islander flag? The argument may be that they are an insignificant number, but then if you apply that rule, the Aboriginal population and even more so the Torres Strait Islanders would be similarly considered given their respectively small percentages of the whole population.

The root problem goes back to the 1975 report of Australian Law Reform Commission where South Sea Islanders’ claims for recognition were dismissed contemptuously.

I am sure that Rugby League fans would dispute this, given that one of the greatest Rugby League players ever was Mal Meninga, himself of South Sea Islander heritage. He is not the only one.

In my 2017 book I wrote about the experiences of a young Philip Morey, when he had worked on the then New Hebrides island of Erromanga between 1932 and 1934. Here he had encountered a man who had been taken to Queensland as a youth who, after 40 years, returned to his village on Erromanga. The exchange between the young Australian and the old native needs no further commentary. It is nevertheless instructive. The extract starts with Morey asking a question while the old man was harvesting his plot of sweet potato.

The Sheep of Erromanga – Messages from the Martyrs Isle, Jack Best

“What was life here like when you were a small boy?” 

The dreaminess reappeared in the old man’s cadence. “Son, that was a long, long time ago.” The dreaminess vanished as quickly as it had come and edginess came into his voice. “I was less than twenty years old when the boat took me to Queensland. It was not even Australia then — just a group of colonies where you white men wanted me to make you some money. And I did. You know, I cut cedar and kauri for a shilling a hundred foot. I even worked on cattle stations.”

The old man drew a circle in the dirt.

“The pay wasn’t much, but I made enough money to rent fifteen acres and a farm in Northern New South Wales — on the Clarence. Married a white woman.” He stopped.

Philip thought he expected a question about mixed marriage, but miscegenation did not trouble Philip. He had read too much French literature to share the English fear of mixing skin colours. The French were very much more tolerant. He wondered whether there was a Creole culture in this strangely governed group of islands. 

Philip was quiet as he pondered this old fellow who had lived forty years among white people and who, after twenty years back on the island of his birth, could still speak fluent English. He had lived and worked under white men’s rule in a white man’s house with a white woman as his wife. He had seen and enjoyed the comforts and pains of civilization. Now he was living in a dirty and dilapidated old native hut wearing a dented old hat and a dirty threadbare loincloth.

He thought, so much for forty years in Australia!

The old man turned as if he felt Philip’s final thought as a laceration. 

“Son, civilization is not only in the eye of the white man.” His clouded eyes belied the directness, the clarity of the comment.

“You know what made me come home?” The old man continued without waiting for any acknowledgement. “I had learned enough about the way you white men handle your riches — you are always selling that lie to others to make even more for yourselves. I found out what civilization was all about. I lived as a white man — I saved and then I gambled money that I had earned on making money that would come without me earning it. What do you call it? Dividends? Interest? It has taken a long time for me to forget the words of deceit.” 

Philip thought that the way he said “deceit”, with his teeth clenched, was an expression of repugnance at a life he had once tried to embrace. 

“I lost my money,” the old man continued. “Any money I had got over that first twenty years went in the 1891 bank crash. Lost my farm, lost my living — lost my wife. Went back to the cane fields. But that life is for a young man, and my back started to give out. In the end, in my last ten years in your newly created country, I made enough to live on, but when I came home I left every penny in there — in your Australia.

What this man did not say, because there is no record of him having any children, was when the descendent of the first wave of South Sea islanders was repatriated, many of them were the product of mixed marriages, particularly with Aboriginal women. They suffered discrimination from the locals, who were of Melanesian stock. Strange world. Nevertheless, when I visited the Torres Strait, the comment was made that Torres Strait Islanders discriminated against those who lived on Horn Island, who were predominantly Aboriginal.

During World War 11 for instance, as an example of interracial discrimination, it was reported that while only earning one-third pay compared to whites, Torres Strait Islanders were compensated at a higher rate than Aboriginal soldiers. The Australian army viewed Torres Strait soldiers equal in combat with white soldiers, while they considered Aboriginal soldiers to be liabilities.

The experience the Erromanga man had in Australia from his first-hand account does not mention any discrimination – only that he lost all his money and his wife, and yet had returned home, content with obvious wisdom gained.

Captain Robert Towns

Nevertheless, even today, one matter rankles with me. At a time when the world is dishonouring slave traders, there is no move to change the name of Townsville away from one of the most notorious slave traders of the South Pacific, Robert Towns. He was British born and now is buried on Castle Hill. There has been some protest, but that has been ignored. Just imagine if Towns had been associated with an Aboriginal massacre.

I suppose it is a part of the Australian diaspora that we have a large regional city named for a mass murderer.

On what was the Vanuatu National Day, the last word should go Waskam Davis, whose forebears came from Tanna, one of the southern islands of Vanuatu. In response to the apology from the Bundaberg Mayor, she said: “We’ve grown up watching this struggle for recognition, and also working alongside our Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander families for greater recognition, greater inclusion, better outcomes for our collective communities”. 

Well, they could start by renaming Townsville. After all, we were once New Holland.

God, I am sick of these people

One source has suggested that vaccine supply logistics has been a form of a Ponzi scheme, although in this case there was a lot of smoke and mirrors about non-existent stores of vaccines or those sitting, waiting to be validated, coupled with much encouragement to “book a vaccination”. 

Such a comment displays a dangerous lack of confidence in Government.

Soldiers are joining police on the streets to ensure compliance, which has been sadly lacking in those suburbs where there has been a high immigrant population.  Those who have used their migrant groups to establish their petty satraps in local government, these so-called community leaders, have failed to accept the responsibility of both reassuring the population and reinforcing the compliance message. These community leaders should be accompanying the police and the soldiers in walking the streets, instead of braying from the sidelines.  Instead of explaining that Australia is at war with a Virus, which has killed or maimed millions of people across the World, and that this involves everyone making hard decisions about their lives in the short term, these so-called community leaders are selling this confected tripe that these people have fled from war torn countries and these immigrants will be totally blown out of their minds if they see soldiers on their streets.

Why are they doing this? Why are they sabotaging the State Government?

There are a number of reasons. I would hate to say that it is easy to whinge and in effect do bugger all. After all, do people go into local government primarily to help others?

There is a lack of leadership. The face of a Prime Minister who acts like a Cheshire cat with that very distinctive smirk, but whose default button is the media release and blame shifting.

Then there is the Premier, who is completely hapless, talks too much, has had a pet albatross called Darryl still bobbing around in this ocean of discontent, and an expertise in document shredding to list some of her achievements.  Perhaps I have missed something but there is nothing Churchillian in her desperation.  Her default button is “on the best medical advice”.

Therefore, the blame is shifted onto Kerry Chant who has shown, as I have said previously, remarkable resilience. However, everybody has his or her breaking point, especially if the contact tracing system, however well organised, is being overwhelmed.

It should be recognised that one positive outcome in NSW has been the QR code, originally devised in Japan in 1994, which was introduced after a month-long trial in Dubbo last year.

All Ministers of Health should be ensuring that the rest of the health system is working, and there are worrying signs. The problem is that all health bureaucracies are steeped in people who may know the regulations, but as I have written before, “health” is a separate language. In time, bureaucrats learn to speak “pidgin” health. While the NSW Health Minister is suitably authoritarian, he gives the impression he is not across his portfolio despite being the Minister for four years.

The key quality of a strong health minister is being able to speak fluent Health, as this is the major defence against the central agencies always wanting to trim the health budget. The problem for health ministers is that on most occasions the central agencies “plant” their own bureaucrat in the health portfolio to do their bidding. As an example, you don’t have to look past Jane Halton when she was Secretary of the Commonwealth Health Department.

As for the current Federal Minister of Health, he has presided over a failed app, a failed social marketing advertising strategy and a collection of mates getting jobs in relation to the failed logistics of distribution of the vaccine. The result is that there has been a series of poor decisions in choosing vaccines, a disjointed rollout of vaccines and, in regard the aged care portfolio, just a schemozzle when, with little additional effort, the workforce could have been vaccinated at the time of the vaccination of the residents. It does not help when the general in charge of the vaccine distribution looks as if he is about to cry at any moment.

There are so many opinions flying about that it is time to call a halt. Instead of this so-called national cabinet as seeming to be an exercise in shoring up fiefdoms and ensuring every political leader has their own pet scapegoat, it is time for political games to stop for the good of Australia.

As an example of this is the numbers flying about from the modellers about the percentage of those vaccinated which will enable Australia to move through the putative phases. The Doherty mob were asked by Government to provide an indicative figure to minimise lockdown. Fair enough – clear direction. But it seemed to let loose a storm of academic babble.  It is time for the academics to stop thinking this pandemic is a research conference.  The problem in a world of imperfect information is to know what to believe, leaving a confused community which eventually stops listening.

The country needs now:

  • A national contact tracing system. Here I agree with Stephen Duckett’s opinion piece in the SMH. Those of both NSW and Victoria have been tested. The initially woeful Victorian system was rectified; the NSW system has been resilient. If we had a national system, then it would signal that the Federation lives. Those who are starting to question the NSW system must recognise that if enough stress is put on a system, it will break. It needs continual engineering not scapegoating.
  • Custom made quarantine facilities, along the lines of Howard Springs, where there have been no recorded breaches, are essential. Its success was evident from the very start with the repatriation from Wuhan. Of course, whenever the profit motives intrude, as they did with the hotel quarantine, disaster follows, and thus the decision to look after one sector may end with the whole business sector compromised. The absurdity of continuing to talk about building them while doing virtually nothing is breathtaking. Endless useless contracts have been given to consultants over the past year; if the private sector as epitomised by the Wagner Brothers had been contracted to construct quarantine facilities they would have been in operation months ago.
  • The logistics of timely supply of testing materials and vaccines needs to be properly organised so it isn’t used as a conduit to just give taxpayers’ money to mates. Maybe somebody should take a lesson from Essington Lewis’ playbook from World War 11. If we had these turkeys in charge then, each State would have raised its own militia and Tasmanians would be making sake instead of gin.
  • The evidence of the best venue/s in which to distribute the vaccine and the need to have a national disaster plan using the evidence gained from this pandemic, particularly in the use of masks and hand sanitiser.
  • The QR code system, which has been an example of success, should be made uniform and compulsory across Australia. The communication strategy, the failure to acknowledge the app dud, and instead of subjecting the whole community communication strategy to public scrutiny, it will be buried from scrutiny to the overall national detriment. There have been some spectacular successes in social marketing campaigns in the past. Remember the success of the NSW anti-drink driving campaign orchestrated by the incomparable John Bevins.
  • Recognition of the danger of the lockdown and border closures where there is no uniform national control by the Federal Government. Say NSW decides to loosen all restrictions a lá Boris, in conflict with the other States with harsher restrictions, then there is the potential for community chaos and a fractured Federation presided over by an impotent Federal government. The actions of the West Australian Premier in particular fill me with a sense of foreboding; Australia does not need a re-enactment of the 1890s.

One of the great successes Wooldridge had when he was Commonwealth Minister of Health was improving the vaccine rate across Australia. I recognise he has had a chequered history since he left that job, but it has not stopped him from advising Hunt, particularly in the way the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme can be nuanced.

I wonder whether he would agree with “jab” as part of the politician’s lexicon, and if there is hesitancy, the best place to test this in schools is to make it compulsory for all children, say at 12, to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Once you introduce a program into schools, then it is a perfect road to eradication – rubella and polio are prime examples, or have the current policymakers forgotten about those scourges? Such a decision would reinforce some of the calls to redirect inoculation to the young.

In the interim, give the residue of children aged between 12 and 18 the vaccine. It is only a matter of organisation to get them all vaccinated – and incidentally a good way to identify those among the parents who are avowed anti-vaxxers and those who are just hesitant.

While it has been admirable that the Government has concentrated on the elderly, the assumption being we are the most vulnerable, and therefore vaccination is a community anodyne for not clogging the acute hospitals with the most unproductive sector of the community, particularly applying to the intensive care units. Any COVID-19 patient admitted to hospital can spread the nightmare.

Another matter is the long-term morbidity, which will contribute to the cost on the system. The post-viral syndrome is protean in its manifestations and it seems that COVID-19 can be particularly severe. Then there is the murky world of the auto-immune disease, and having a chronic auto-immune disease myself, I would not flirt with the disease, with preferably having a choice of vaccine. My second injection is due tomorrow.

The overarching concern, despite much work being done in relation to SARs vaccine development in the past 15 years, none of them have had the usual level of testing that most vaccines undergo before being approved for usage. This is the baggage which Australia has, given investment in the Queensland dud and the almost exclusive Governmental preference for the AstraZeneca vaccine.  That is the risk one takes when there is urgency, and where hindsight is a wonderful attribute.

Hence, with long-term morbidity, there will always be the search for a cure. Given the nonsense in relation to bleach, zinc, ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine and whatever, it is still important that all treatments are not dismissed.  The example of the nucleotide, remdesivir with the associated use of cortisone has received attention and seems to have some role in the most serious cases, but there needs to be more convincing data.

Finally, one area which has remained relatively untouched in the mountain of commentary is the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). It should not be forgotten in any national review. Here Australia is in a pandemic and there is the spectacle of national chemist chains peddling the usual remedies for the common cold and other respiratory complaints on national television every night. Most remedies have been shown not to work, and normally can be tolerated, but this is a pandemic, and mixed messaging needs to be eliminated – not gaily spouted on national television. The medical advice is to be COVID-19 tested if you have “the most minimal of symptoms”. Yet the advertisements are full of contradictory advice encouraging use of ineffective patent medicines that are likely to delay being tested for COVID-19.

The problem is that the Commonwealth Department of Health’s Health Products Regulation Group needs a large shakeup. The current deputy secretary in charge, John Skerrett, is in a long line of bureaucrats who, in the words of the Health Department, contribute to the stewardship of Australia’s health system. Exactly! It was one area which, in hindsight, I should have weighed in when I had some influence in the area.

In all, public health specialists sit uneasily with business community. There are few bridges. An American view was that the public health specialists are Democrats and Business Republicans. It has been shown in the unfortunate politicisation of this pandemic, particularly in the United States.

There’s business, and then there’s seriously good business.

Victoria, with its vocal proponent Peter Doherty, is pushing ahead with plans for an mRNA research and production capacity in Australia. Of course, the race is on internationally.  After the spectacular success of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Sanofi announced on June 29th that it will invest more than USD475 million a year to develop mRNA vaccines against other diseases, and much of the work will be done in Cambridge, a suburb of Boston in Massachusetts

Sanofi is creating a vaccines mRNA Centre of Excellence that will employ 400 people both there and in Lyon, France. The French pharmaceutical firm has about 4,200 employees in Massachusetts. Sanofi hopes to have at least six potential vaccines to test in clinical trials by 2025 against a range of diseases.

While Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca both vowed to sell their vaccines on a non-profit basis during the pandemic, Moderna, which has never made a profit and has no other products on the market, decided to sell its vaccine at a profit, as did Pfizer, notwithstanding that it didn’t need the profits because of its already healthy bottom line. Last year Pfizer showed USD9.6bn in profits, before the COVID-19 vaccine. In the first three months of this year the COVID-19 vaccine delivered USD3.5bn of revenue.

And that is just the start. Like the eponymous Magic Pudding, the vaccine is expected to keep generating significant revenue, especially because of the likely need for regular booster shots, already before the FDA. Pfizer has said it expects its vaccine to generate USD26bn in revenue this year and the company has been signing supply deals with governments as far out as 2024. Nice work if you can get it.

Just an addendum

I could not agree more with Gideon Haigh’s comment made last Sunday about the nature and future of the Olympic Games, much in the same vein as I wrote about last week. The euphoria generated by the number of Australian gold medals in the first week made those who reckon that the Olympic Games is now in need of a thorough overhaul seem like the Grinch. The Games have provided a degree of fairy tale theatre for those of us caught in the lockdown.

The problem is that life has many airheads, often former Olympians who “are on the tit” directly or living a life that they once had in amongst the gaiety of the Games, not to mention the close contacts that some have made and persisted.  What do they call it?  Yes, the Olympic Family.

Apart from hubris, there is no reason for that appalling decision of the Queensland Premier to commit to the same contract which has left the IOC again wallowing in cash, when it was clearly on its knees. Here, the host city and, on this occasion because we have a drongo Federal Government prepared to cough up 50 per cent, every taxpayer in Australia will be saddled with debt. A form of neoliberal communism, you may ask. Don’t bother.

It was interesting to note that the residual Sydney Games debt is still bouncing around 20 years after the end of those Games.

The country, particularly Queensland, may come to curse Coates, who will be 82 when the Games come around – or dead.  Coates may think he has fenced his legacy, but as I said last week, in 2032 there will be a different World. Indeed, fire-fighting may have become an Olympic sport by then.

And by the way, that winner of the mens’ 100 metres the other day, from the vantage point of mia sedia in salotto, appeared to have the physiognomy of the Canadian Ben Johnson.  He certainly has made massive strides, as they say, over a short time, as distinct from the IOC. Could have been something in the tagliatelle.

Mouse Whisper

As my cousin Camundongo from Lisbon has warned me that before entering the swimming pool remember to circumflex since:

If in Maio

You want on whim

To decide to swim

Remember to wear your Maiô

Portuguese water dogs

Modest Expectations – Arithmetic Progression 

“The first most precious thing in life is food in your mouth.” Rowan Atkinson has visited the local food bank I volunteer at regularly over the entire period of the Covid-19 pandemic (where visits have increased tenfold in the last two years). He brings massive amounts of tinned fish which is exactly the luxury our customers ask for first, tuna runs out so quick I’ve seen people queue for hours in the mornings to get some. He never stays around to shake hands or give some self assured speech or anything despite how everyone comes out to see him – he just passes us a few big Sainsburys bags full of tuna and fresh vegetables then drives off. A real man is defined not by his words but by his deeds. – Joel Dixton

Time to Throw away the Old Coates?

You have to understand how important these events are for small countries that are isolated. It was wonderful to have all those people and be the centre of the world. Events make them important and the focal point as they think they should be.” Quote from NYT.

As I schoolboy I went to the Olympic Games in 1956. I was sports mad and there I was, in the queue 18 months before, on the day ticket sales opened. I am there staring at the camera when I was snapped by the National Geographic magazine photographer just after I had purchased my tickets. The most expensive tickets for the opening ceremony cost six guineas, but none of these were on sale for the “unwashed” even on the opening day. After alI, I was not very far back in the queue which snaked up Lonsdale Street away from the retail store Myers.

I was able to buy tickets for the opening ceremony costing three guineas, and then there were tickets for one guinea. All very quaint, but I had the sum of 100 pounds which had come from cashing out an insurance policy my grandmother had taken out when I was born. I bought a variety of tickets, including the closing ceremony as well.

Sydney was somewhat different. Some time after Sydney was awarded the 2000 Games in 1993, my mate and I each bought two of initial ticket packages, which included the opening ceremony, for about $3,700 each. We could pay in instalments, and by far the most expensive component was the opening ceremony. That was $1,500 a ticket. The opening ceremony was a spectacle, and it is easy to dissect and criticise, but you remember some of the gloss and then the interminable parade of each country’s fashion sense as the nations marched by. The highlight for me was being included in the Torch relay, courtesy of Ansett Airlines. I had my gig in Nowra, kept the torch and, for eternity, stare out of the pages of the Illawarra Mercury.

On both occasions, I was very enthusiastic about the Games.  Here was a time to be recognised on the world stage. No matter that the 1956 Games were nearly victim to Australian mismanagement led by the fumbling fascist war hero, Wilfrid Kent Hughes, bumbling away with the irascible American IOC chairman, Avery Brundage, an admirer of Hitler, knowledge of which was airbrushed away by 1956.  Then, before the Games, inconveniently came the Suez crisis and the aborted Hungarian uprising, which resulted in a smaller Games than in Helsinki four years earlier. The Dutch inter alia did not come to Australia, and Australian quarantine regulations meant the equestrian events were held in Sweden. However, all this was lost on this 16 year old called me.

Those games were not then mired by the systemic cheating initiated by the Eastern bloc which, in 1976, led to Australia winning no gold medals, the first games at which this had occurred since Berlin in 1936. As the Australian finalist in the women’s 400 metres final commented, she was the only runner without a moustache.

There were the riots in Mexico City in 1968, the murder of the Israeli athlete hostages of Munich in 1972, the Moscow Games boycott because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980. One could hear the death rattle, with the IOC under the Irish peer, Lord Killanin, only to be rescued by the American Peter Ueberroth, who made a profit on the Olympic Games in 1984. He injected an element of humanity, whether cynical on not, in encouraging the incorporation of the Paralympics into the main schedule, to ensure that from 1988 they were held in the same city as the main games. The Paralympics had arisen from the Stoke Mandeville project in England and the first was organised in Rome in 1960, but not under the Olympic movement banner.

Somehow, despite the stench of doping and of a privileged and corrupt IOC, the Games have survived, but the death rattle can be heard again in the Tokyo Games. The Games are no longer a diadem, and Brisbane has been bullied and cajoled by one man to take on the financial burden. Can the fact get into the heads of our politicians as they grasp at the straws of our disintegrating country that nobody is really interested in taking on a massive debt, except Queensland (with, of course, the Federal Government picking up 50 per cent of the cost on behalf of the Australian tax payer)?

Australia just does not need the IOC pied pipers to allure the children of now to the Bananabender Boondoggle called “Brissie”.

Yes, I was one who marvelled at the exploits of Ralph Doubell while the smell of tear gas drifted over the Mexico City stadium and when Shane Gould was our swimming heroine and angry when Raelene Boyle was cheated out of greatness by an East German doped so much it precipitated her early death; all the while terrorists were killing 11 athletes in the Munich athletes’ village.

Sure, the magnificent swims by Ariarne Titmus and efforts of Jess Fox provide a short term boost in national pride.  They are exceptional athletes. There is no doubt that the exploits of our current Olympians feed the traditional image of a sporting nation and temporary jubilation from a nation imprisoned by a Virus. But what of 2032?

Ueberroth provided a false dawn by providing a model of running the Games profitably. He stated a clear objective; he ruthlessly pared costs, re-used venues, and achieved a profit measurable in real money. Following that, the World has had a series of Games “striving to be declared the best ever”, increasing the number of sports, some of which border on theatre and judged by subjective opinion rather than the objectivity of being “first past the post”. Along the way there have been burgeoning TV rights – until somebody may stop the carousel to do the numbers. The IOC and the successful cities in his aftermath had forgotten Ueberroth.

The local press is celebrating Brisbane for being chosen in 2032 with Coates, as the driving force, being forgiven for his boorish behaviour. In the cold light of tomorrow, Australia may realise how it has been hoodwinked by Coates, there was no other city interested apart from his adopted hometown. Nobody else wants it. It is too expensive for dubious gains.

Coates  yet has rescued the IOC, saving them from going cap in hand to some other city to strike a deal. Instead Australia, which will be coping under the economic and social cost of the COVID-19 pandemic for decades to come, has been conned into more debt. Sure, the athletes will come, and the quote from the NYT at the head of this article will ring all so true as our Clutch of politicians will bask in the sunlight of praise until, after two weeks in 2032, the light is turned off leaving the Clutch in darkness, and in debt.

I suggest that failing the employment of a latter-day Ueberroth, Queensland do a poll to determine the level of sponsor interest. It is noteworthy that the AFR was gushing in its Editorial about Brisbane’s win. Are they the same writers who, just a couple of weeks ago, advocated that Sydney not go into lockdown to halt the spread of the Virus?

Enough said?

Well, not quite. Remember in 2003 when the NYT ran an article on the financial aftermath of the Sydney Olympic Games. This quote is salutary:

For a party that lasted only 16 days, the Games carried a big bill. In a 2002 report, the New South Wales auditor general put the Games’ cost at 6.484 billion Australian dollars, or about $4.77 billion, of which 2.037 billion Australian dollars came from the government. The report cautiously accepts estimates by the government of New South Wales that the Games generated 653 million Australian dollars in additional tax revenues from visitors, but even that figure leaves a loss of 1.326 billion Australian dollars.

All the extra costs of the Games were paid for from the budget, meaning they did not leave much of a fiscal hangover. (Unlike the Montreal Games where the 1976 Olympic Games billion dollar debt was not finally extinguished until 2006.)

“A lot of our planning was very extravagant,” Richard Cashman (then a UNSW academic) said. “There was a decline in the health and education budgets in the years before the Games.”

The value to the Sydney after the Games has been minuscular – loaded with unusable infrastructure – stadia that are dismantled or provide a haven for weeds.  Cycle paths through a wasteland are not a big deal. Such disasters writ large in both Athens and Brazil. All the while the IOC provides the world with specimens such as John Coates, immersed in formalin jars of the past.

By 2032, an Australia Olympics may find itself drowned by a Viral debt, rising seas and irrelevance, through a lack of sponsors and tourist attractions dying from global warming. I believe this is not too much a dystopian view given what’s happening, looking around the world and seeing the ecological disaster being played out well beyond the horizons of this current euphoria.

Remembering Cuba

Cuba was what we expected.

Now we went to Cuba as members of an American delegation. I suppose that was somewhat unusual, having been invited by the leader of the group of health care professionals, Dr Bill Jessee, to join the delegation. It was an easier time then when Obama had loosened the restrictions, and relatively easy to get to Havana. After all it is only  370 kms from Miami with a flight time of  one hour. The plane we flew in was not marked but on returning it was clearly a Delta flight. In the flight magazine Havana was not listed as a Delta destination but on questioning the flight attendant she was quite offhand in saying, “Oh, we fly every day to Cuba.”

We were booked into the Mela Cohiba, a so-called 5-star hotel close to the beach, but a half hour walk from the Old Havana centre. It was a somewhat strange experience when we arrived to be sitting around the pool drinking the first of countless mojitos – the signature white rum, sugar, lime and soda with mint garnish. A walk up the shaded street with the broken concrete footpath showed an interesting sight: the British Embassy was next to that of the Northern Korean.

Despite the protestations of Cuba being an egalitarian country, this Havana suburb could pass as any middle class suburb.

What was evident was that despite the general ramshackle nature of Havana, there was still an underlying enthusiasm for what Castro had done. For instance, there was the wiry little guy who was introduced with reverence. He was small, hard faced, leathery and harangued us in Spanish. He had been one of the 26th July crowd, they whispered, the original band of men who had followed Castro into the Sierra Maestra mountains – hence the reverence. When we were there, Castro, albeit ailing, was still nominally in charge. Castro’s brother, Raul, maintained the Castro power.

However, as you read the papers today, there is street rioting. Fidel is dead; Raul retired. The Castro legacy of the romantic saviour, in a population winnowed by the original opposition being crushed or fled to Florida, is now of decreasing relevance to this younger urbanised group. They have no memory of a rural revolution; the energy which drove the victory over the corrupt Batista regime ruling a Cuba that was the louche playground of American gangsters.

Once the largest World supplier of sugar, exploited by American and other foreign interests, and then after the Castro accession distortion in the market  by Russian subsidy, Cuba has had to restructure what was a sugar economy. Now Cuba is way down the list of sugar cane producers and therefore having to adjust its economy to sustain its socialist ideals has become increasingly difficult.

In 1959, Castro offered a different world, and whether you agree with his methods, he was able to establish, govern and improve the standards of living. Whatever you may think of the methods, Castro had a cleansing effect on Cuba as a haven for criminals and resisted over decades American interference, starting with the Bay of Pigs in 1960.  Notably when we were there, there were no beggars on the streets, no overt poverty. The unemployment level was said to be less than four per cent, but there is some controversy about what that figure means. The level of “hidden unemployment” may be a factor underlying the recent rioting.

The American automobiles around the streets were remnants of the fifties. They had become a tourist attraction. We were driven about in a sky blue Ford Mercury, but mostly we bussed around the various locations to see a variety of health facilities in what appeared to be a school bus.

The hospitals reminded me of the country hospitals that I had known in the early part of my medical career, just shorn of the technology which I had come to accept as de rigeur. Their pitch to us was laced with propaganda, matter-of-the-fact, no overt hostility to the Americans, mildly surprised to find a couple of Australians in their midst. This was the home of the the barefoot doctor!

One of the local leaders of our delegation told us how her parents had been part of the communist ethos whereby if you were a labourer on building a block of apartments you would be given one. The problem now, however, was that these small one or two bedroom apartments that housed a small family 40 years before, increasingly were housing two to three generations because housing development under the communist regime had not sustained the increasing need for new housing.

The visit had its ups and down. I was laid low for a couple of days with severe food poisoning, which I suspect came from a fish lunch. I was the only one to be poisoned, so I wondered whether I had been a mistaken target for some dastardly deed. Anyway, it reduced the amount of health facilities I had to visit, so there is always a silver lining. Nevertheless, I did avoid being a customer of the Cuban health system, whatever conclusion can be drawn from that.

Havana’s old city was just what you would expect – the picture postcard vista of the Old Spanish American town.  At the dinner when I was serenaded for my birthday, she could have been a sultry Lena Horne look-alike stepped out of a 40s movie, and I trying to be cool as she fixed me with her gaze as she sang. But I don’t do nonchalance well.

Wandering into the Nacional Hotel with all the memorabilia of its heyday strewn around, it was easy to be transported back to that era of Clark Gable and Ernest Hemingway. This was the place in Havana where the movie stars flocked because you could drink, you could gamble, you could frolic with money and in so doing could escape the Puritan eye of their American forefathers. Built on a hill overlooking the sea, with a large lawn, the hotel was not difficult to imagine being in one’s tux strolling out in the evening, cocktail in hand, and watching the lights of the hotel skip along the sea swell.

In 1959 this romance was transferred to revolution, but that has long gone and given way to an ageing, ideologically-driven nation increasingly having difficulty paying its way.

Yet in 2011 I suspect there was enough residual nostalgia and reverence, because of the Castros. They epitomised this romantic image of revolution, where the face of Che Guevara was still everywhere.

In a restaurant where we went for lunch I noted a stack of those T-shirts with Guevara printed on the front. Red starred berets were on sale. I went across to the stand where they had been stocked, a much better word than displayed because there was nobody trying to hawk them. I extracted a red and black one with the imprint of Che on the front – and a beret. Once the others in the party saw what I done, they flocked over, and then there were none.

Needless to say, this group of health professionals had a number, somewhat incongruously, who went off to buy that other commodity for which Cuba is famous – the cigar. Together with Cuban rum, cigars were still a prohibited import into the USA. There were constant warnings that the customs would be there, searching for any sign of Cuban tobacco leaf or the smell of rum. The funny thing was when we arrived back in Miami at the end of the week, there was not a customs officer in sight. Irony on a number of levels.

The footpath along the sea wall provided a wide vista of the foreshore, although you had to be wary of the rogue wave breaching the wall and giving one of good dousing. Here  was another reminder of the American presence. In Havana, walking along the seafront, there was this large  anonymous building surrounded by a formidable fence.   This building was the one which later achieved a degree of notoriety when the embassy staff were subject to microwave radiation during 2016-2017. They complained of symptoms ranging from dizziness, loss of balance, hearing loss, anxiety and something they described as “cognitive fog”. It became known as “Havana syndrome”. It coincided with the time of Trump, who predictably re-imposed  sanctions on Cuba.

The memories of Cuba seem a long time go. I suppose being on an American delegation we could watch the interactions. Apart from the irascible “hero of the revolution”, the reception for the Americans was warm; whether any thing long term developed from the trip I doubt it. The problem is that the Caribbean is a beautiful area contaminated by European adventurism. The Cubans had freed themselves from that, at a price, but still exhibited a warmth in welcoming these health professionals without any feeling that we were meeting a set of selected ideologues spouting inanities.

You get to know when you are on a mushroom tour. Cuba was not one of these . I like to believe in the musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club – the optimism and exuberance of these old guys, could not have come from a totally dark past.

As one writer put it recently: “The musicians you hear on the street corners of Old Havana aren’t playing current styles like reggaeton, or hip-hop, or even salsa. They’re playing music by the Buena Vista Social Club.” As it was when we visited. Thank God, Trump did not destroy that; I do hope that element does survive amid the rioting of a youth that has no memory of the 26th of July.

A Precautionary Tale yet One of Hope

Below is an edited article from The Washington Post this week. It is at a time when some Australian journalists seem to be advocating “eating our young”. In other words, singling out ATAGI is not particularly productive. It gave the typical conservative advice, narrowly based and what they did not say was based on the wrong assumption. There was insufficient Pfizer vaccine to allow for unfettered choice.

Australia is in a time of rationing, not seen since World War 11, and therefore if ATAGI gave advice related to a time of cornucopia rather than rationing, the decision should have been the role of government, rather deflect on the meaningless “we rely on medical advice”. In any event, the government has changed the chair of the ATAGI – just one way of defining scapegoat.

Meanwhile…

Kim Marin and her 12-year-old daughter, Kate, isolate at home Friday in Fairfax County. Both are fully vaccinated and recently tested positive for the coronavirus.  

Kim Marin planned to spend her 51st birthday on Friday eating a cherry pie made by her 80-year-old mother and 12-year-old daughter. But Marin and her daughter, Kate, began feeling ill earlier this week. On Wednesday the pair, who are fully vaccinated and live in Fairfax County, tested positive for the coronavirus.

At first, it seemed like they just had a bad cold: They were coughing, sneezing, and feeling achy. But their symptoms got progressively worse. Kate developed a bad sore throat and the two were outright exhausted. 

“Because my daughter and I were feeling so badly, I just thought, let’s go to urgent care and while we’re here, they should probably test us [for the coronavirus],” Marin said. “We both got tested and we were shocked. We both were first in line to get vaccinated when we were able to.” 

Breakthrough cases are rare. Just 0.031 percent of the 4.5 million fully vaccinated people in Virginia have developed covid-19, according to the state’s dashboard. Just 0.05 percent of the more than 375,000 fully vaccinated people in the District of Columbia have tested positive. And out of the 3.5 million people who have been fully vaccinated in Maryland, just 2,493 have tested positive, according to state officials. 

“I think the thing that’s so startling is that we have been really sick,” Marin said. “The messaging has been that cases like ours should be pretty mild... We’re not in the hospital, so we’re so grateful for that. But it still has not been an easy week.”

Marin has been fully vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine since mid-April, and Kate, also with the Pfizer vaccine, since mid-June. Both Marin’s 48-year-old husband and 14-year-old son, who are both fully vaccinated, tested negative Friday. 

Marin said she isn’t quite sure how she and her daughter contracted the virus. Her family still frequently wears masks when going to the grocery store, only having walked into a store a few times without one. Health officials have yet to contact Marin and her daughter for contact tracing, she said. But Marin immediately notified her doctor and the family’s paediatrician about their results. Marin said her nurse told her she was getting more of these calls from vaccinated people, and told her to go back to wearing masks full time.

Officials in the Washington region haven’t moved to reinstate mask restrictions.

The delta variant has already become the dominant strain in Maryland and Virginia; it makes up 1 percent of cases, but officials are working to increase their sequencing of specimens. While the risk of contracting the virus for vaccinated people is still low, it has increased compared to earlier strains.

The delta variant is much more infectious than the alpha variant was, and than the wild type was before that, and so a better understanding really is — in the short term, in the past 30 days — what proportion of new cases were in individuals who are vaccinated, because that gives a better picture today of what the risk is today to any vaccinated person. 

Los Angeles County officials, for example, look at breakthrough cases in a time-bound way and are able to say, for instance, that 20 percent of the coronavirus cases in June in the county were among vaccinated people. While time-bound figures can help show how exactly the risk for vaccinated people is increasing, officials say it’s still important to note that the risk level for unvaccinated people is higher and increasing, too. 

For her part, Marin plans to go back to taking the precautions she followed in the spring. She has young nephews whom she doesn’t plan to be around without a mask anymore. And she no longer plans to go maskless in any public spaces. But she’s still grateful for the vaccines has made that possible.

“I’m struck by how much worse it could have been,” Marin said. “While it’s been very unpleasant, and scary, we have not felt like it was life-threatening.”

Mouse Whisper

This involves two doctors who were discussing the fact that one of them had been able to diagnose a middle-aged man, whose heart condition had baffled a variety of clinicians. The first doctor asked how the other had come to the diagnosis of cardiac amyloidosis.

The second replied by saying he used the Uncle Bert Sign. “If I described Uncle Bert to you and sent you out into a crowd to find him, you’d probably fail. But if you’d ever seen Uncle Bert” — he snapped his fingers — “no problem. You’d find him in a second. It’s all about recognition.”

Heard it before, Topo?

Modest Expectations – Hadrian’s Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One for the Armenians

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

Vaccines arrive

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

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

Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus Augustus

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

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

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

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

Hadrian’s Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arch of Hadrian

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

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

Americanus Imperator

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

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

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

The following recent American assessment is unsurprising:

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

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

Ruins of Afghanistan

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

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

Japan – In Search of a Hill

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

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

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

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

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

Alan just did it, without any fuss.

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

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

Cherry blossom at Chidorigafuchi Park, Tokyo

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

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

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

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

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

Mt Fuji in the mist

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

Queixo ou Queijo

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

When you are dining with the Portuguese.

Portuguese Queijo