Modest expectations – J.J. Lyons

The problem is that, over the years, the community has become inured to the laughing mother in the advertisement with a gaggle of inanely smiling children showing how some disinfectant or other has rid the kitchen countertop of 99 per cent of germs.

If we lived in a sterile world devoid of all viruses and bacteria then like them we would all be dead.

Therefore we have to be reasonable, but when we have a media fuelling the hysteria that is not easy. There is a talk about the “surge” in infection and highlighting the number of deaths from the “killer virus”, rather than highlighting those who have recovered. The basic fact is that in a population of 25 million there have been less than 200 reported cases – i.e. as of today, an infinitesimal percentage of the population. The number is small, and it is important to maintain perspective. This is a prime function of government in the face of the irrational community response. Such a reaction dwarfs the other responsible response, which is building an evidence base as to what this coronavirus actually does.

Thus currently the rate of increase has hardly been a “surge” despite its attraction as a media headline – or even the milder use of “tide”. And if you use “surge” as a faux-dramatic metaphor then eventually the metaphor will “abate” as a tide will ebb.

Take Dr Higgins: how is the contact tracing going? It would useful if we were told how many of the people, including patients, with whom he came in contact have returned a positive test. However what we have is some State Health Minister attacking him and the AMA responding, rather than getting together and using this case to obtain useful information about the spread or otherwise of COVID-19.

Dr Higgins was on a United Airlines flight from San Francisco. I know somebody who was on the same flight who has the “sniffles”, all very mild. However, when my acquaintance’s partner became ill with a fever, an attempt to see the local general practitioner, resulted in an immediately referral to the relevant Hot Line which, having established my acquaintance as a resident of that State, then referred my acquaintance back to the general practitioner.

So much for consulting your local general practitioner as the front line defence, as the AMA have been telling the community. My acquaintance went off to a newly-designated centre for coronavirus testing. It was so new that the staff provided a good imitation of not knowing what to do. Waiting, my acquaintance and partner were alone, but it took an hour and a half for my acquaintance to be seen.

Despite my acquaintance’s history, the hospital-based centre was reluctant to undertake a test. Initially, the triage nurse wanted to send them away. Eventually my acquaintance was tested, but not the partner because at that time there was no proven contact with a confirmed virus carrier.

Ultimately they both tested positive and my acquaintance’s partner’s substantial workplace has been locked down for a week. They have children at school and university. The children tested negative.

It should be appreciated that the coronavirus tests for virus RNA being excreted at the time of the tests. There is no serology test to tell whether the person has had the coronavirus. Young people clear their system very quickly because in the main their immune response is very strong, a fact having being confirmed elsewhere. So it is quite possible that the children had been infected but have been asymptomatic and were no longer excreting the virus.

My acquaintance and partner no longer have to fight for attention. They have their own personal doctor contact available and visiting nurses. That is fine when there are so few cases, but this is a government that tends towards engendering fear rather than soothing concerns, when the number of cases are primed to increase.

Already the reluctant-to-test-centre of a week or so ago has a queue of the mostly worried well.

When winter comes is everybody going to receive such personal service? The answer is in the ability of general practice to develop a more hygienic environment this winter – not having waiting rooms filled with coughing adults and children would be a good start.

And what about the United Airlines flight? My acquaintance wasn’t sitting anywhere near Dr Higgins. So what is the evidence basis for the “same row plus two rows in front and two rows behind” exclusion zone? Almost everybody goes into the bathroom on a long flight, and from observation the level of hygiene in the bathroom is generally appalling. Tissues everywhere, an unclean basin and taps, water left in the bowl, used hand towels poking out of the waste bin, handrail and door locks not cleaned between usage.

In the meantime the United Airlines flight had been merrily going everywhere presumably continuing on with the scant hygiene measures which have been characteristic of  airlines.

It may well be that America may prove to be the biggest problem and the irrational behaviour of the President, most recently in a blanket ban on flights coming from “Europe” (senza the UK) and at the same time a reluctance to be tested himself, does not help.  Will America be added to the Australian exclusion list? After all, viruses do not respond to ideology.

I suspect that this scenario which is going on all over America with an unprepared and totally under-resourced public health system. As I’ve just said, Trump’s measures are irrational, and hard to follow, but that is nothing new.

Yet here, summer has been and gone; summer is not conducive for coronavirus spread and a containment strategy based on excluding nationals from an ever expanding list of other countries is in place. So currently it is a good time to be in Australia, and if the medium term strategy is based on a belief that with summer in the Northern Hemisphere the coronavirus epidemic will abate, then the current strategy has a modicum of sense.

The underlying problem is whether the political declamations are actually being carried out. Some of the state governments websites giving advice are very good, but why not consolidate this information into one web site – this is where the federal Government should be the single voice.

One of the problems highlighted by the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic was the destructive effect of the lack of public health co-ordination between States. Ostensibly, the Commonwealth is in control, but with each State seemingly disseminating its own information, it calls into question what is the actual level of coordination.

However, the tipping point is to know how far the government’s policies can go to effectively close the country down before wrecking the whole societal fabric and not just the economy. Having everyone in two-week isolation is ultimately unsustainable.

So a greater number of people who have to work will ignore the ban or not be tested; or the government will relax the ban. The evidence is that the older population are disproportionately affected, not school children or young adults. So why close the schools? We don’t do that if children catch the common cold, a coronavirus relative.

Look at the mixed messages. No wonder the community is perplexed.

Mixed message one: There are the media appearances of politicians elbow bumping and contorting themselves. However, what does the Prime Minister do in a forum where the spread of coronavirus is being discussed? He shakes hands with the guy who introduced him, does not use any hand sanitiser and goes to a lectern where there is no indication that it is to be cleaned between speakers. As far as we could see it certainly was not cleaned in this case.

Mixed Message two: There is a full house at the women’s cricket final – so much for the empty stadium scare that some of the muppets in the football codes seem to be mouthing.

Mixed Message three: There is the spectacle of the women cricketers jumping all other one another, high-fiving, potentially contaminating one another.

Mixed Message four: The Victorian Premier is threatening to close down the education system while at the same time giving an exemption to Ferrari for the Formula One exercise in air and noise pollution. No crowds, Mr Premier, after all it is school but of a different sort.

It was wonderful to see the publicity-shy Dr Mukesh Haikerwal in his medical practice car park collecting specimens for testing in a strapped pathology system. Presumably he continued to do this once the cameras stopped and continued to flood the local pathology laboratories with specimens. But what was his protocol for offering testing? Close contact with a person with who was confirmed positive? Or the worried well? Not clear. But the next day, having put on the show for the TV, his clinic was overwhelmed.

Now pop-up clinics; I suggest the government consider using the expertise of Dr Haikerwal with his car park technique to ensure that the Health Minister’s promise of the having all these clinics popped up by the end of May can be met. After all, he looks good in a suit.

Then as Australia enters the winter unless there is reliable health surveillance, it may be expected the pop up clinics are going to be inundated by people with that other coronavirus, the common cold, or those who are suffering influenza.

It is always disappointing that the first thought of governments is the authoritarian solution. Australia has always been quick to press that button. Such a solution resulted in the misguided lock hospitals of the past on Dorre and Bernier Islands in Sharkes Bay. Aboriginal men and women suffering from venereal disease were sent there. Australia has a dark history of isolation of people with disease and community panic attacks.

It seems at this time the greatest risk group is the elderly. However, they are not all congregated in nursing homes. On the other hand, they are not, by and large, in the workforce. Many roam in the freedom of being child-free and comparatively well off. One has to know where the mobile “grey nomads” will congregate in the coming months, and where they will roam in remote Australia. Perhaps that is why there is a run on toilet paper and disinfectant.

For the sedentary aged care population and their housing, just assure hygiene and that someone is checking on them to ensure they have supplies. Places for the aged should conform to the level of hospital hygiene. After all, we are the vulnerable group, and let me say that this raises very strong questions about the workforce’s ability to communicate with an increasingly deaf population and with its significant demented cohort.

In the end, China may be able to impose Draconian provisions in the short term but will it effect the cultural changes vital to prevent this sort of disease outbreak happening again? And the experts still don’t know whether this infection confers life long immunity. The common cold recurs and it is contained in a set of coronaviruses.

As somebody very wise said to me, the aim of all the actions taken in the public and private sector should be directed to creating a new appreciation and behaviour in relationship to personal and community hygiene. Conceivably then we may be able to blunt the inevitable winter season coming up where we are beset with the common cold and influenza, as well as this COVID-19.

We are already seeing this with the proliferation of hand sanitiser stations in public places, offices, banks and shops. I hope it continues to grow so, for instance, washing your hands before eating which I was taught to do as a child, becomes the accepted norm again.

Rollin’, rollin’ rollin’ – Raw Hide

The problem with toilet paper is that, while it is considered an essential, it is a topic we normally do not discuss.

The picture of three ladies wrestling over toilet paper in the Chullora Woolworths may be appalling for the pious commentators, but there would be a sizeable populace who found the spectacle as mildly diverting as watching mud wrestling.

This toilet paper imbroglio reminded me that a number of celebrities including Magda Szubanski, Merv Hughes and Ita Buttrose, all making fun of themselves, have appeared in toilet paper commercials. However, the prize paper seller was Lleyton Hewitt in his memorable commercials.

Perhaps Government could use these toilet paper spruikers to use their talents in calming the hysteria induced by a country afraid of being quarantined with dirty bottoms.

By the way, when we were young, there were always squares of newspaper hanging on the hook beside the dunny door. Even then we favoured the Daily Telegraph as the paper most worthy of use because we knew that it had been pre-tested.

Nevertheless, we did a trial this week – 15 minutes in tap water at ambient temperature (a) toilet paper, (b) ordinary tissue, (c) paper towel and (d) newspaper of same size – at this time that water agitated to simulate flush. The result, toilet paper and tissue disintegrated, the paper towel dehisced and the newspaper was unchanged and still readable; so much for newspaper and paper towels.

Mount Quilton, a new Tasmanian landmark

Leprosy

Leprosy is endemic in the Kimberley. When I first went to the Kimberley in the 1970s there were obvious signs of past leprosy in elderly aboriginal people, particularly men. This was characterised by loss and deformity of both fingers and toes, and the leprous discolouration of the skin.

Randy Spargo, whom I have mentioned in a previous blog, has also commented on the destruction of cheek bones and the nasal septum as a characteristic Randy remembered – the so-called “lion face”.

The Aboriginals in the early days of the 20th century who were found to have leprosy were rounded up in an appalling manner, put in chains, taken away and confined. Originally there was a leprosarium at Cossack, now a ghost town near Roebourne which, when the patients were moved to the new Derby facility in 1935, was burnt to the ground as a public health measure – such was the fear of the disease.

Bungurun

The was managed by an Irish order, St John of God nuns from the mid 1930s, and the conditions improved so much so that the leprosarium had outlived its usefulness by the time I visited Derby. In the 1940s a treatment had been found, and the public health measures of contact tracing for those with the disease was well in place. I remember one of the nurses saying that they had only one whitefella on their list; all the others were Aboriginals allowed to move around – but their movements were traceable, which was no mean feat.

I met some of the last nuns. They were caring, admirable women who had worked much of their life bringing a more humane way of caring for lepers. Soon the leprosarium would be closed. Contact tracing was maintaining oversight and facilitating care for a diminishing population of lepers.

The Kimberley is strongly Roman Catholic and there were tales of the then Bishop of Broome, John Jobst, who was reputed to have been a panzer commander in World War 2, terrifying everybody with his fierce approach to flying – tales of Aboriginals scattering as he unexpectedly would come into land.

However, the 1970s in the Kimberley was a time of great change there. Its Wild West characteristics as described above began to fade.

For those suffering from leprosy thankfully change had started earlier.

However, there are lessons to be learned. The mere mention of the word “leprosy” incites fear in the average person. Leprosy is a mycobacteria like tuberculosis. Both are contagious diseases.

Tuberculosis was particularly common before antibiotics became available, but in the Western world it was realised that there was a “herd immunity” – in other words we, as a white race, had a better immune response than other people, such as Aboriginals.

The first response of the community is to isolate the infectious ones, these days in more humane ways than in the past. However, a person is isolated, how long is the sentence – and when these poor people try to break out from their isolation our first reaction is to punish them.

Punitive powers exist under current State legislation, but true to form when you have a government such as ours that tends to prey on community fear it’s not unexpected to turn public health into incarceration. After all, the other name for this is “border control”.

We don’t want to end up with armed police patrolling the street to stop people coming out of their houses – and why not a curfew for good measure?

Before the Attorney General, who seems to be a reasonable character, goes further into this murky Duttonian world, he should see what his West Australian forbears did to the Aboriginal population in the name of public health.

After all, recommending 14 days in isolation from an indeterminate starting point when the coronavirus infection possibly occurred is just an informed guess. Why not 40 days as the Bible exhorts, Mr Morrison.

And why this stupid term “self-isolate”? In those days before the Age of Fear” I just stayed away from work when I had the flu and thought it inconsiderate to go out while coughing and presumably infective. Why not retitle the play “Self-isolating for Godot”?

Mouse Whisper

When Marie Curie visited the United States in 1921, interest in radium surged as reported some years ago in one of those journals hoarded by mausmeister. “Americans were flocking in their thousands to buy bottles of radioactive water, believing it would cure their aches and pains.”

Never fear, there is a spa in an old uranium mining area on the border of Germany and the Czech Republic, which advertises the anti-inflammatory effects of radon-infused water. How many, Topollino wonders, are fruitlessly flocking to this spa to escape the virus?

Radium Palace

Modest Expectations – The Dark Blue

When you read this I shall be far away, floating down the Amazon where the piranhas are actually fish. One of the diseases of the Americas that gets very little airplay is Chagas disease, named for the Brazilian doctor, Carlos Justiniano Ribeiro Chagas. With the globalisation of disease, which is impervious to political shenanigans, cases are turning up in Australia. However, while it has the acute manifestation of any infectious diseases, it is the long-term insidious effects on the cardiovascular system.

Trypanosoma cruzi

It is said that Charles Darwin picked up Chagas disease as a young man when he was “Beagling” his way around South America. It would explain why an outgoing young adventurer increasingly became a reclusive invalid as he grew older, never again venturing from Great Britain.

Chagas disease is caused by Trypanosoma cruzi, a protozoa which is carried by a particular bug, commonly called the ‘kissing bug’, so called because of how it cuddles up to you, sucking your blood and letting the protozoa bug into the blood stream. There are drugs to treat the trypanosoma but the course is long and hazardous as one may be strewn with complications.

However, given its insidious nature and that the fact that when backpacking it is romantic to sleep under thatch or in adobe, remember to have that mosquito net, however inconvenient it may be, and a good amount of insect repellent.

The Lancet has said in a sobering statement: “Chagas disease has been considered a neglected disease, without fully effective drug treatment to avoid the chronic stage.

Australian figures on its prevalence are scanty, but undoubtedly it is there as I noted above. After all, disease is a free market.

I shall keep reminding myself of that as the Amazon drifts by. 

Setting down Bores

Charlie McMahon continues his reminisces …

We took the smoothest route via Papunya but that was still a rough corrugated dirt road for 600 of the 750 km drive. There was one lane of good tarred bitumen up the middle of the road so that you drove half on the dirt shoulder when either overtaking or accommodating oncoming traffic.

Near the Mount Zeil plain we came up to overtake a fully loaded “3 dog” road train doing about 90 kmph to our 100. I reckoned it looked safe enough to overtake with the road ahead dead straight. The truckie was not likely to go half on the shoulder to ease our passage and I indicated my intention to pass with high beam flashes and came up beside the road train driving entirely on the shoulder, which slowed us a bit. I was going OK till about a quarter away from passing the road train, a huge hump appeared on the edge of the shoulder, a blasted drainage gully that the dust swirled up by the road train had obscured. I slowed but still hit it at speed. Up and over we went with the load and fellas on the back bounced around. Danger barked, shouts of dismay and Henry with me in the front woke from his snooze looked back and “oh-ho jingiles, lucky one, Murra Hook. They all there still” was all he said. We barrelled on and made to pass the road train again. The truckie congratulated us with the road train horn blaring. “More better I drive ilta” (true questioningly) Henry said. So he took over at the Papunya turn off. Had Henry been driving he would have seen the bump long before I did and we drove on into the night without incident to camp at the halfway point west of Mt Liebig.

On the way the next day we found Freddy West and his family of six camped 100 km before Kiwirrkurra at the Moying Bore near Tjiterong. They were there as an expression of his eagerness to move to Kiwirrkurra, his traditional land. He waved us over, offering a billy of warm sweet tea and put his son Nicholas on board telling him ‘work karriantjku’ (go work with them). Nicholas had been in a lot of trouble sniffing petrol, breaking into places at Kintore – his ability with locks astonished everyone for a child with zero formal education.

On arrival our Kiwirrkurra camp appeared pretty much as we had left it, though the Vinnie’s bag of clothes had been dragged about. “Lotta myall dog been here”, Charlie reckoned and there was much discussion about tracks the crew saw as they gave the place the once over and the first timers showed elation at being on ancestral ground, old hands pointing to and naming places near and distant.

Danger, the dog, got a good sniff of some scent and bolted off not to be seen again till dark. I took a quick shower and said to Henry “you’re next” as well as suggesting to Charlie that since he had been sitting next to Henry for two days he would do well to have one too. I dried off beside the fire as the crew had started. I got out the scabies oil for Henry. As Aboriginals do, he showers with his clothes on. Whether he was shy or just efficient I didn’t bother to ask but handed him fresh clothes from the Vinnie’s bag.

August was perfect work weather. After about two weeks we were well into the job with the four 1x2sq metre-footing holes for the windmill tower legs dug with crowbar and shovel. The John Deer tractor had a bucket and ripper, good for pipeline trenching, and a trailer for carting water and aggregate but without a backhoe for deep holes. The fairly soft soil of Kiwirrkurra made digging easier, which was one of the reasons for choosing the place, so the proper job pit dunny was finished in three days. It was a design called the Blair Ventilated Pit Toilet, shown to me by Steve Pattman at the Centre for Appropriate Technology.

To briefly describe it, a 2 x 2 meter mesh reinforced concrete slab is poured with an off centre “crap hole”, another near the edge for a vent pipe and left to set while the hole is dug 1.8 metres or more deep. The slab is dragged over the hole and the shelter fastened to it with the vent pipe painted dark running up the exterior of the sunny sidewall. An insect mesh cap goes on top of the vent pipe. The dunny building has a hall type entrance to darken the inside so that when you look down into the “crap hole” there’s a circle of light on the bottom of the pit from the vent pipe. Any flies that enter invariably seek the light to leave and drawn by the draft up the sun warmed vent pipe, get stopped at the mesh. Walla! An odourless fly trap and having a proper dunny was a treat for in two years work at Kintore I had to do with a shallow trench – there was always too much to do and the quartz rock subsoil would have been a very hard dunny pit to dig.

We did not listen to the radio so the outside world mattered little. We worked every day and no one bothered with the time or names of days. Sometimes in the evening we turned on the Codan SSB radio tuned into a frequency used by locals, so that the crew would have great fun telling other clans away of the new place they were building. I heard amazing tales of doings in life out there in the days they laughingly called ‘before trouser time’. They would mix up dreaming stories with actual ones and I gave up asking ‘ilta’ (true) ‘did it really happen’ after realising they were often unsure themselves of what was myth and what wasn’t. The young fellas liked to hear Henry’s take on things and looking at the moon one night he asked me to confirm the moon trips “Tjpangarti (my skin name) true int it, some white fella been longa moon, been leave house and car there too”. We cooked and ate together. A coil of black one-inch pipe on the roof of the half walled shed we had built gave us the luxury of warm showers. It pleased me to see the crew (except for Charlie) use them fully dressed so body and clothes got washed in one go. Bathing was not an option for desert people and living around a fire tends to cure or cover their bodies with smoke.

The missing Horse

One reads brochures about Slovenia and they all say you can get horse and foal meat in some of the restaurants. Intriguing, I thought.

Slovenia is a tiny country nestling between Croatia, Italy and Austria, with the Alps forming a crescentic barrier in the north. In the south, Slovenia has a narrow coastline on the Adriatic Sea, with Trieste nearby.

We travelled to Slovenia by car from Venice headed for Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. We were told to get a vinjete before the border. This is the only way to pay the road toll in Slovenia (15 euros for a week). We were warned that the Slovenian police wait just across the border, and the fine for not having the vinjete is substantial, 300 euros.

Otherwise the passage across the border is seamless. One moment the signs are in Italian, the next in Slovene – transition from the Romantic to the Slavic.

However we are travelling in a more north-easterly direction towards the capital of Slovenia. Ljubljana is a trap for the new arrival because of its central hill; the tunnel through it, the shortcut to the north but not to the city centre, can fool even the GPS. Ljubljana is one tricky place to navigate, to coin a phrase.

The Antiq Palace Hotel turns out to be a rambling allegedly 16th century building. We are piloted to the room up stairs, via a lift, along a series of corridors bending and twisting until we are on a landing overlooking an internal courtyard. Here we are greeted with music, its source unseen. There is singing, then a horn; a violin struggling to escape; a cacophony of variable quality. Apparently there is a music school in the building on the other side of the courtyard.

The room turns out to be a suite. There is a huge dining room, a lounge area, a bedroom and a bathroom dominated by a huge spa bath. Over the bed in this white painted room was a painting which seemed to indicate that if you had difficulty with nightmares this would ensure you would get one – a weird sylvan scene.

The centre of Ljubljana has been preserved in its pre-World War One architectural attire. Its Austro-Hungarian past is evident in the two-storey houses with gabled roofs, stuccoed walls and large windows lining Ljubljanica River. One early evening when the sky was still blue and the streetlights were lit, you could be forgiven for thinking that this city was the inspiration for Magritte’s series of Dominion of Light paintings.

The problem with the food started on the first night after a meal of kranski and sauerkraut. Whether it was that or a roll I had earlier bought from a motorway food barn, I had a generous bout of food poisoning. I could not blame the horse. My first day in Slovenia thus was spent recovering, but she roamed the streets far and wide, photographing the Triple bridge and beyond.

The narrow Ključavničarska (The Locksmith) Street in the medieval part of the town, connecting Cankarjevo nabrežje (Cankar Quay) with the Mestni Trg (Town Square), contained a surprise. The central gutter was full of bronze heads about the size of billiard balls, most looking at you, as the water trickles over them. Oddball does not do them justice. These are the work of Jacov Brdar, whose work is scattered around the city. It has a Tolkien feel – with the heads looking like members of the Gollum family. They are featured above in the heading of this Blog.

In many ways, walking from bridge to bridge is a reminder of walking along the Seine in Paris, but without the cars streaking alongside.

Ljubljana and the Ljubljanica River – Photo: Janine Sargeant

The river lies just down the hill from the Antiq Hotel and acts as a magnet – so much so that until the last day we did not use the green coloured electric cars, which circle the inner city and are reserved for the disabled and the elderly and their carers. They are called “cavalier”, the name being adapted from the Slovenian for “gentleman”.

On our last night in Ljubljana we used the transport to a traditional restaurant on the outskirts of the old city – the Taverna Tatyana. It was away from the tourists and the bar was full of locals quaffing their beer. It was all brown beams and low ceilings and homely hosts, who spoke passable English. It allegedly had horse and foal on the menu. Not so. Instead they provided a Dalmatian stew and grilled pork with wild mushrooms and after the main course, the magnificent strudel. Slovenian wine is a cheap and good accompaniment as is the complimentary glass of the local honey brandy called medica.

The electric car was there promptly to take us back to the hotel – I wished I had used it more given that my ability to walk was limited –no longer able to roam far and wide. However, the bridge near the hotel was always a site of “a happening” – tonight there was a pumpkin-shaped carriage, which fitted in well with this fairy tale backdrop.

On another night the bridge provided the dance floor for a group of young people elegantly executing the tango. We watched the precisely executed movements while sitting on a granite bench, consuming a cornet of freshly roasted chestnuts.

Yet for all these fairy tale qualities, Ljubljana is a university city. Those walking past are predominantly young and fashionable. The restaurant in the riverfront, overflowing with young people, labelled itself Mexican but the food was “pancake parlour” and the service was poor; yet nobody seemed to care as they oscillated between conversation and iPhone – or just sat, concentrating on their screens, tapping away ensuring future thumb disorders as they decoded life.

The lack of transport and reliance on foot and bicycles accentuates that this is a place for youth. The elderly lady dressed all in white struggling with her bicycle was an exception. She stood out in this world where it was the young who cycled.

We did travel elsewhere – but a full description of our “Cook’s Tour” could well become a Clog. But not a sign of horse on the menu.

When I asked my adviser on Slovenian food about the “missing horse”, he looked at me and asked me whether we had gone to the Tivoli Gardens as he had suggested. Apparently horse burgers are available in the Tivoli Gardens – at least I can confront my vegetarian friends with somewhat of a clear conscience.

But as for the survival of Slovenia, a tiny remnant of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which survived Tito and the break up of Yugoslavia with which it, I am reminded of what that wise observer of human nature, whose writing appears above, Charlie McMahon has said about small countries and survival of language: “Learning a language from a culture where the core practices are gone is really only good for that.” The Slovenes have never let their culture be destroyed, and hence they have a vibrant language with all the blossoms that that will bring.

Still, there is this matter of konjsko meso. 

Mouse Whisper

To further annoy the occasional reader of a vegan persuasion, overheard in a restaurant in Swakopmund in Namibia, after perusing the menu she was heard to say, “I think I’ll try the zebra.”

Not a laughing matter …         Photo: Janine Sargeant

To which the waiter impeccably replied ‘Black or white stripes, madam?”

No, it was not an exchange of hoarse whispers, but in fact it was true, (with apologies to Mr Brydon).

Modest expectations – Tennessee Ernie Ford

We were having lunch at the weekend and were discussing the penalty of age and what happens when you grow old. “Yes”, he reflected. “You may have a point. Once, my phone calls were returned immediately; now it may take four days or longer.”

I immediately thought of a time I was at a function in Dubbo and a number of politicians mentioned my name in glowing terms. One guy came up to me and said he had not heard of me, but I must be influential because of the things being said about me. “No, I replied, “Influence is ephemeral – it can disappear as quickly as it appears.’’

Not that some people do not retain influence for a long time – but there is a price to pay. You have to mix with a crowd of the same types grasping at the ephemera until, like Citizen Kane, they have only “rosebud” to murmur; some don’t even have that.

The comment that summarises much of what occurs was from the defeated member of parliament who said what he noticed most was that the telephones stopped ringing. Obviously that image needs to be updated in social media terms, but it summarises the ephemeral nature of influence and the intellectual laziness that surrounds it and which is epitomised by the growth in each politician’s office of the number of consigliere.

Traditionally, the more senior the ex-pollie the more important the government sinecure away from Canberra; some ex-Ministers have became chancellors of universities all the way down the ephemeral rungs to that of teaching politics part-time. Using their retirement or ousting, some are able to undertake pro bono or voluntary work, underpinned by their generous pensions and their contacts.

The problem is that politicians over the past 40 years have become outrageously well paid, with generous perks that seem to be never-ending. However, the stories of excess are not met any more by community outrage when reported but by clamours for more of the gravy train tickets.

“Jobs for the boys” have been replaced by the scourge of “rent seeking” – essentially jobs for doing nothing while wrapped in the gossamer of influence.

The hoary excuse for such greed is “I have sacrificed so much.” To which is added the lachrymose sacrifice my family has made for my increased prancing around in the Ephemera.

To put it bluntly, a rent-seeker is just a metastasis. A cancerous excrescence away from the main tumour, but still reflecting the nature of the tumour as it destroys the framework of the body. Doing no good but draining the life from the body for a price.

Yes, a metaphor, but the metaphor is obvious. And the metastases, male and female, let’s mention no names but they know who they are.

Mr Unaipon – My modest acknowledgement of NAIDOC week

Of all the Aboriginal people, I would have most liked to have met David Unaipon.

He died when I was in my mid-twenties. I had never heard of him then.

But what had been my exposure at that time to Aboriginal people? Virtually none. I had been to the Hermansburg mission as a child and seen Albert Namatjira and Rex Batterbee, the white fella associated with encouraging Namatjira’s talent in watercolours and that of the Western Arrernte people.

I was a rabid Essendon supporter from a young age. Norm McDonald played on the half back flank for Essendon. I never thought of him being Aboriginal, a Dhauwurd Wurrung man from around Lake Condah; just a magical footballer – boy was he fast!

Then, if an Aboriginal person was mentioned with the word “footballer” it seemed always to be Doug Nicholls.

It was a world where I could have met David Unaipon but there was no $50 note to tell me he even existed.

David Unaipon died in 1967, and the closest I have got to him is his grave overlooking Lake Alexandrina, Victoria’s name before she became queen.

One of my fondest memories of when I used to go around the bush was seeing the Ngarrindjeri land near the mouth of the Murray river at Raukkan. Its Lutheran church is pictured on the $50 note. For some reason, it has some of my best memories.

One of my clearest memories of Raukkan was going into the Aboriginal office and seeing the number of portraits of their late elders lining the wall – mug shots as you would see in a whitefella boardroom. There was no concern about showing the faces or mention of the dead among the Ngarrindjeri, so I was told.

I happen to have a wonderfully annotated copy of David Unaipon’s slim volume “Native Legends” which he wrote in 1929. It is said to be the first volume actually written by an Aboriginal person. He is succinct.

For instance, Pah Kowie – The Creature cell of Life and Intelligence is just one page and concludes:

Thus many of the ideas formulated by my ancient fathers may seem absurd to an enlightened age fantastic and absurd, but to us these ideas are the foundation of a structure and edifice of knowledge under whose shadow we live today.”

I wonder what Mr Unaipon would have said today.

However, I am a bit surprised that this early work has not been reprinted, at least as far as I know, given that most of us are reminded of him everyday.

The Bruce Robinson New World Odyssey

I remember the Independent Enquiry into the Repatriation System under the wonderfully named Justice Paul Toose. It was set up in 1971 and did not report until February 1976 – three elections and three Prime Ministers later. As people in government joked, this “plodding” inquiry lasted longer than the First World War and ran to 800 pages and 300 recommendations, one of which seems to have been changing the name of the repatriation department to the department of veteran affairs.

Not that I would like to see the Review of the Medicare Benefits Schedule break the Toose record, but Professor Robinson is giving it a red hot go. The review has been going for four years – for what? Any review that takes that amount of time becomes problematical.

As a comparison, while this Robinson Review with its 30 committees has been meandering along, the Review into Australian banking practices under Mr Justice Haynes has been [2017-2019] and reported in 1,137 pages ; in the USA the Mueller investigation has also been [2017-2019], and reported in 472 pages.

They were somewhat significant inquiries.

Yet here we have Bruce Robinson and his crew backed by McKinsey just like the Mississippi River, “it just keeps rollin’ along”. I have heard the time 2023 mentioned as the new end point. Well, that would break the record – a formidable feat. Probably we could have a plaque to celebrate the finish of this Homeric epic.

Perhaps getting a sharper Shadow Minister for Health in Chris Bowen will see if we can dam the Robinson and his multiple tributaries.

The subsidiary question is how much has McKinsey cost the Government for no noticeable impact – you know McKinsey, the firm that is in a running feud with the NYT about its methods and clients. It is an unedifying backdrop.

It is interesting that the latest round of Ministerial adjustments to the Medicare Benefits Schedule by Minister Hunt did not seem to mention the Review. As one senior politician said to me once, governments use these inquiries as a means of maintaining a freeze on patient benefits. I wonder if the patients themselves know of this stratagem.

Unlike the original Nimmo Inquiry which reported in 1969, which had the knowledgeable advice and expertise of John Deeble and Bruce Scotton, subsequent reviews since the breakdown of the periodic Enquiries conducted by Government and the AMA have not achieved very much – but at a great cost in time and the employment of outside consultants.

I should know. Medibank and Medicare have been central to the life of most doctors, including myself and it should not be left to slowly decay, because of an interminable uncertainty, which is the other side effect of an unending wander through the Medicare Benefits Schedule.

Knock before Entering

My wife loves photographing doors. Front doors, that is. Front doors opening on streets; front doors not hidden by a pathway, a garden, a porch or verandah and a flyscreen.

In it simplest form she believes the front door defines the place, the thoroughfare, the relationship of one place to another, the people behind the door in the space, working and living there.

I am not so sure. I see the front door as an identifier of the place but not necessarily those behind the door. Many of us merely inherit our front doors. Many front doors do not identify anything. There may be nothing behind that door but an empty space.

The doorway is Ianua in Latin, named for the god with two faces and from where the word “January” is derived – and janitor as well. January is the doorway to the year. We cannot prevent anybody from passing through the doorway. February always comes.

We, however, may have a janitor to maintain the upkeep of door and passageways. That person may have many names and interpretations in many languages.

We invented the door and then locks to keep people away from the space behind the door, for whatever reason. The door becomes the vehicle for the lock and for maintaining permission to use that space. The door can become a massive contraption to secure that space or as occurs in rural areas in my country just a way of keeping the dust and the animals out. The houses meanwhile are left unlocked. The unlocked door can be a measure of trust, but also a measure of carelessness.

Once I could turn the handle on any church door in any out of the way place, and I could enter and stand in this church with all its furnishings and stained glass intact. This is not carelessness, but an act of trust by those who have the key to the door.

The front door as an inanimate piece of wood or metal is an obstruction to that passage, and so may be an identifier. My wife may be right. How we regard the front door in fact may define the civilisation in which we tread.

Mouse Whisper

I decided to try my hand at shrew taming. I sent for an application form and received the following questions. Well, not actually.

I have inserted the word “shrew taming” to protect the names of the drongos who manufactured these questions. My reflection is the same as it has always been, except my fur is bit greyer and the lines on my faces are deeper than when I was a pinkie.

But see if you can interpret this set of Parts into English. Good Luck!

Part 1: Tell us about yourself and your role 

Objective: Understand the individual’s overall role and interactions with shrew taming

Part 2: Tell me about your experience with shrew tamers

Objective: to understand individuals touch points with shrew tamers and their overall end to end experience

Part 3: What is your overall reflection based on these experiences? 

Objective: to understand shrew tamer’s strengths and pain points to identify future areas of focus for the end to end experience 

Part 4: What would you like to see more of in future? 

Objective: focus on the future experience and how we can orchestrate touch points in the future to ensure a seamless experience.”