Modest Expectations – A Range of Lemon

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting for Bliss

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vancouver

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

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

Another time; another Trek

A pool of lotuses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Backroad out of Ceduna … Where next?

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

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

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

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

 

Strahan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St John’s Lutheran Church, Minyip

Special Pleading?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

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

As The Washington Post reports:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Modest Expectation – An Apple Once in Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And also….

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

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

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

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

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

Casey Briggs, Master of Clarity

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

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

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

You may never recover

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

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

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

A Sisyphean existence?

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

Alas, poor Harry, I knew him well.

Is anybody listening?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 A Prickly Situation

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

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

Licancabùr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the NYT said in the article:

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

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

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

Atacama cacti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

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

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

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

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

My preference. Come on The Majors.

 

 

Modest Expectations – Rhapsody in Blue

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

“Next!”

The lottery

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

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

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

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

The single child policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Promoting the one child policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did someone say Urumqi?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Burnt Offering

Anonymouse

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

Burnt offering

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Foetus is a Boy

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

Punkeydoodle’s Corners