Modest Expectations – At Last Michael Bowlby

Kizzmeika Corbett

Have you heard the name Kizzmeika Corbett? Well, this 35-year old immunologist is a very significant person. A leading researcher on coronavirus spike proteins and mRNA vaccine technology long before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, Corbett’s work proved critical to developing a coronavirus vaccine in record time. For a year and a half, she worked around-the-clock alongside her team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where they developed the vaccine in collaboration with Moderna.

A native of North Carolina, she early showed her innovative scientific mind. It should be added that although it is very rural, part of the tobacco road mythology where the leaf was king, North Carolina is a powerhouse in medical and health-related research, particularly at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and Duke University in Durham.

After a period working on dengue fever at Chapel Hill (with field work in Sri Lanka) and her PhD having distilled immunology research into that virus in 2014, she went to work at the NIH.

Here she attracted the attention of the Head of Faculty, Barney Graham, and was appointed to lead the coronavirus research team, meaning that years before the Virus became a pandemic, Corbett was laying the foundation that would one day allow immunologists, herself among them, to quickly formulate a vaccine against the ever-changing coronavirus.

She has become one of just a handful of scientists around the world with expertise in the viruses’ distinctive spike proteins and antibody responses — knowledge that made it possible to quickly develop and deploy vaccines.

It should be noted that the use of mRNA in making vaccines had been around for 40 years, but the breakthrough came when a protective coating for the mRNA was discovered, since injected mRNA without such protection was destroyed in the body.

In her matter of fact way, Dr Corbett describes her work.

My contribution was helping to design the vaccine, leading the preclinical studies that informed the Phase I clinical trial and designing assays used for testing of clinical trial samples.

The quest in early January 2020 was to gear up. We started ordering all the things that we needed around animal experiments. We mapped out a plan. I started assigning roles to team members.

If you want to go fast in a pandemic, then messenger RNA (mRNA) is a shoo-in. It can be manufactured very quickly in very vast quantities, and you can essentially just swap out the protein once you have the system down. We collaborated with Moderna so we could get the system down pat.

Recently she decamped to Harvard as an assistant professor at T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Assistant” is not far up the academic ladder, but like many who wish not to be overburdened with administration nor become what we used to call in Australia “Qantas professors” because they flew from conference to conference wringing as much as they could from their research.

She is therefore still the epitome of the researcher working long hours with a partner who is the assistant dean in the same school. It is not an uncommon set up, with two people intensely committed to research developing deep personal relationships to compensate for the long hours in the laboratory which research imposes. Having a partner able to share the language in which your research is couched – to understand what drives you, in this case someone who is really changing “the shopfront of society”, and not just moving the manikins around to provide an appearance, rather than effecting true change.

A year ago or more, who of the general public had heard of mRNA technology. On December 8 last year, the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine outside a clinical trial was given. We’ve moved a long way scientifically in combatting the Virus but it is clear that our social structures have not been so successful.

Dr Corbett had already tried to change that situation, and in so doing, she fell foul of former President Trump. However, it is clear that within Dr Corbett there is more than one messenger RNA.

Such a little disease…

Rubella

Once, rubella was a scourge of pregnant women. It was a very mild disease. In fact, rubella wreaked havoc in the first trimester of pregnancy. It was very transmissible . It was also known as “German measles”, because of its fascination for German physicians in the 19th century, and measles because it caused a rash. Measles comes unremarkably from the Old English, meaning “many spots”.

An Australian ophthalmologist, Norman Gregg, first described the association between rubella and birth defects.  As reported in the Australian Dictionary of Biography: His alert clinical observations and inquiring mind enabled him to make his outstanding discovery about rubella. On 15 October 1941 in Melbourne he delivered a paper on ‘Congenital Cataract following German Measles in the Mother’ to the Ophthalmological Society of Australia which was published in its Transactions. 

My clash with the Virus came twice, in 1964 and 1966. I cannot remember having had rubella, but as happens when you least want it to happen (sound familiar), I was exposed each time to a patient with rubella.

It was a time when a rubella epidemic was sweeping Europe and the United States. During that short period in the USA there were 12.5 million cases of rubella. In the USA, 20,000 children were born with congenital rubella syndrome (CRS)). Of these 11,000 were deaf, 3,500 blind, and 1,800 intellectually disabled. There were 2,100 neonatal deaths and more than 11,000 abortions – some spontaneous miscarriages, and others “performed surgically” after women were informed of “the serious risks of rubella exposure during their pregnancy”.

It so happened that in each of the years, 1964 and 1966, I was exposed to rubella in the course of my medical practice – as a first year intern and then as a pathology registrar. I also did a number of locums during those years.

Prophylaxis against rubella was injection of gamma-globulin. In the case of rubella, one was not spared – 10 mls into each buttock and five into the right arm. Being injected with a needle of a gauge that you could probably run a train through, left me with a painful legacy. However, two boys born normal was a no-brainer in terms of receiving the gamma-globulin injection during my wife’s first trimester.

The rubella virus had been isolated in 1962, and a vaccine followed in 1969, which was incorporated in the vaccination schedule a year later; and the virus has all but vanished now.

I do remember that one of the members of the Students’ Representative Council Executive probably had been a victim of CRS. Her sight was compromised, but we never talked about it, and although she fell into what some would say, the FLK basket, in retrospect her sheer ability, her doggedness in getting things done, yet her innate kindness belied her disability. In retrospect, with all my other colleagues on the Executive, I was a medical student. The other males were law, engineering and architectural students, in those days when men were kings and women were not, she earned respect. And for God’s sake, she was a social studies student!

I lost contact with her after university. She has long since died. Yet when I starting writing this piece, I suddenly realised how much we took for granted about this remarkable women. But then I muse alone. All the other members of that Executive, whose memory I treasure, are dead also.

However, my sons, I still remember the injections, well worth it, but hardly a treasured memory. 

Snottites

As I probably mentioned in a previous blog, I accumulated New Scientist magazines, even though I never had time to read them.  After I started writing the blog, as the magazines were conveniently stacked in the office, they served as a source of some of my material, even though some were 20 or more years old. Most of the issues came in an era before the modern technologies, and therefore there was a certain quaintness.  Having fulfilled this purpose of providing source material, I broke the link which bound me in this state of habituation and threw them out.

Now I am down to my last few. One of which highlights the snottite. If there were a word which immediately disgusts, “snottite” would be a major contender.

Let me put it in context: This place stinks. The rotten-egg smell of hydrogen sulphide hits before you even enter the mouth of the cave. Acid drips from the walls and ceiling. Slime coats the rock with coloured blotches like ghastly gelatinous wallpaper. And then there are the “snottites”, white, wobbling versions of stalactites with the consistency of phlegm.

The snottite is a mixture of gypsum and sulphur, with bacterial activity within them which ensures a stalactite appearance stretching as far as half a metre from the ceiling of these caves. This is the sulphurous environment of the underground where even Orpheus and Eurydice wore gas masks.

The bacteria cause a coating of slime to develop over these calcareous formations. The slime forms curtains and loops that some liken to mozzarella cheese. Some slime is red in colour; some white or black. At the tip of these snottites drops sulphuric acid with a pH of 0.5. This is a hazard for cavers, where a drip on the t-shirt can burn a hole, not to mention the damage if a drip directly hits one in the eye. The skin is bad enough. Just as a comparison, battery acid is 0.8 pH; thus, snottite sulphuric acid is twice as strong.

These snottites exist in a set of caves where life is perpetuated through the metabolism of sulphur. The original cave where they were discovered in the Mexican State of Tabasco was the Cueva de Villa Luz (The Lighthouse Cave). Its name came from holes in the roof of this cave which let the light in; it was a traditional place for religious ceremonies, at least at the mouth of cave.

Lechuguila Cave

Then a guy called Jim Pisarowicz, a caver from South Dakota, explored deep into the cave in 1987 and found the snottites. That cave system is two kilometres long. However, the simultaneous discovery of the Lechuguila Cave in New Mexico, stretching 140 kilometres in length and at a depth of 500 metres, in one word dwarfed the original discovery of life in a cauldron of sulphur. Recently these sulphurous caves have also been found in Wales and elsewhere.

Under the microscope a snottite contains a dense mesh of fine bacterial filaments embedded in a mess of sticky polysaccharides that form sulphur crystals. Many of the bacteria oxidise the sulphur, but others devour these organic compounds. There are also higher organisms which consume the bacteria. One researcher has distilled the observations into a “consortium based on sulphur metabolism”.

There are fish called mollies which survive in this extremely acidic environment, even though the mollies deep in the cave were somewhat different from those at the mouth of the cave.

What does it all mean?  One supposition is that if there is such subterranean activity on Earth, why not on Mars. Not sure where it gets you – except to make sure your t-shirt on Mars can withstand acid burns.

What I find amazing is that we humans co-exist with a world where sulphur is the essential ingredient. But then, what is Hell?

Personal Irresponsibility

Janine Sargeant MPH

“Just off phone to Aussie friend who visited Germany. Testing station on every corner: takes five minutes, walk in, no line, results in 3 hours at the most. And they can do 80 million daily.  A twitter observation

 On December 12th I wrote the following email. I didn’t send it and have just found it saved in my “drafts” folder:

  • Did you see today’s numbers by the way – bloody awful – 800 in NSW? Perrottet better get onto this PDQ or we’ll have thousands of cases a day and be locked out of the rest of Australia again.

I looked at this draft email on the 26th, just two weeks later. On the 26th, the case numbers were 6,310. What happened in those two weeks? It was two weeks of Perrottet’s Christmas gift to NSW; throwing public health caution in the bin along with the used Christmas wrappings. No abundance of caution, just an abundance of Omicron, although he can’t sheet home all the blame to that variant. Masks off, QR codes gone, social distancing ditched – packed nightclubs, parties and raves in!

Today is the 30th, there are 70,928 active cases in NSW and the new cases up to 8.00 pm on the 29th are 12,226. That’s exponential growth in anyone’s book.

However, the Premier has told us not to worry about case numbers anymore; worry about hospitalisations instead (and those numbers are also now increasing exponentially). Sure, but what about all those people linked to cases who are now in isolation. If you assume a ludicrously low average of one per case, that’s over 140,000 in isolation; assume half a dozen, that’s getting up towards half a million people in isolation; where do you stop? That’s a lot of people who can’t leave their houses, who can’t work – perhaps in one of those hospitals with burgeoning numbers of COVID cases – and a lot of people sitting at home and wondering just what happened in the past two weeks.

Further, the time now taken to be advised of proximity to a “case”, courtesy the recently ceased and more recently-partly reinstated QR code, has blown out to 4-5 days. By which time you may have been out and about with COVID, given that omicron has a median incubation period of 3 days.

The “testing debacle” means that people in isolation who have needed tests on day 1 or 2 and then day 6, were likely to end up having their day 6 test before they even got the results from their first test. What a waste of time and resources. The most modest of Christmas arrangements were thrown into disarray with hosts packing up the Christmas fare and taking to the road to deliver “care packages” around the city to isolating family members. One of our family members recently turned up to a testing centre at 7.30 am and was told there was already a six hour wait – and that was in Melbourne, not Sydney. Have we demonstrated that with 6,000 plus daily cases (and who knows how many people wanting a test so they can go to Queensland), we have effectively broken the NSW Government’s testing capacity? All we can say now is thank heavens Queensland and Tasmania have just announced the removal of the PCR requirement from 1 January otherwise testing in NSW would be completely crippled. Although replacing these tests with Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) is presenting its own difficulties with supply.

Endless testing queues

At 6,000 cases a day and with State border crossing PCR requirements, the collection centres have been overrun and pathology labs are days behind despite working round the clock; inevitably, errors have crept in. Positive results require double checking which significantly slows down the test processing so as case numbers grow, the pathology response inexorably slows down. No matter how meticulous a laboratory’s quality control, systems and people under extreme pressure inevitably result in human error. So nearly 1,500 people have received wrong results in the past week; of these around 900 have now had their negative results rescinded, having been out in the community for days.

Happy Christmas NSW from Uncle Dominic

Did anyone foresee this? Where are our public health experts? Go forth and multiply the cases, says the Premier; go on holidays, go to your parties, and that’s exactly what has happened. The younger citizens have partied and raved into the night on the back of their vaxxed status and we’ve seen some spectacular superspreader events. Next, we have New Year’s Eve and then an Ashes Test; mercifully, if the Melbourne test is anything to go by, that game will be mercifully short, but just long enough to fill the new year’s COVID coffers to overflowing.

Twenty thousand cases a day and half a million in isolation in NSW by New Year’s Eve? Not beyond the realms of possibility. Happy New Year from the NSW Government. According to Premier Perrottet “it’s all going according to plan” as long as you don’t disappear into the shifting quicksand of Government COVID policy. Plans are meant to prevent chaos, not create it.

On the 30th we have now seen a change in the rules of isolation and the Prime Minister telling us we have no right to line up for a COVID test if we don’t have symptoms. Hopefully all those industries requiring employees who have been in isolation to have negative PCRs are changing their policies now as well.

And what about those RATs that you can’t find for love nor money? It’s the only time in my life I’ve gone into a pharmacy and asked if they have any RATs for sale. COVID – a whole new world.

Hazzard with two “Z” – The Alchemist from Wakehurst

Unlike the previous writer, I had been going to let the stupidity of the NSW government in relation to the Virus go through to the keeper. There are enough satirists, with an eye to the ridiculous – the antics of the Premier Pirouette. Coupled with those of Morrison, Australia potentially has a marvellous export – the Fountainhead Circus.

Thinking through what Minister Hazzard had said, what would have happened if a State Health Minister had said during the polio pandemic – “It’s inevitable that everybody’s going to get it?” You could barely hear this Metaphor through the swishing of iron lungs and the clanking of braces attached to children’s limbs.

What do you think vaccination is for, you chump?

The idea that it is a good idea to let epidemics “rip” so we can get the illusory herd immunity, is arrant nonsense. The one thing you and I share, Minister Hazzard, is that our ancestors survived among other things the Black Death. However, there were many other perils our forebears weathered so that you and I could walk on this dry and dusty land.

Even in the time of our forebears, they went to the country from the city to evade the plague bacteria that lived in the flea that lived on the rat that the sailor jacks bought from the city seaports. As you sat on that estate balcony, oh God that dreadful Pirouette is coming up the drive, fresh from sailing back from the Levant. He calls out – “no worries, I have perfumed the air in which I travelled to rid us all of the miasma.”

“Must not stand in the way of unlimited travel”, he adds.

Our parents dodged the Spanish flu, and even the worst estimate at a time when there was no vaccine defence against the Virus but people wore masks was only 5 per cent of the population. The influenza virus comes and goes as a pandemic, and I know I have had it. But according to the Hazzard dictum, why bother vaccinating – we’ll all get it. Nevertheless, there is a new vaccine annually tailored to the particular influenza strain which provides partial immunity. I will take it anytime to avoid the Hazzard spread.

So, Minister Hazzard, let us also dismiss that little reported diphtheria epidemic that your parents dodged in the twenties, to be saved by the arrival of a vaccine in the early 1930s. Of course, your parents were lucky to dodge Spanish flu. Both Spanish flu and diphtheria wreaked havoc, especially among children, as your parents were probably then.

But they are different (diphtheria caused by bacteria and flu a virus), even though both have vaccines to control their spread and hence confound the Hazzard Rule of “everybody will get it”. Diphtheria is caused by a bacterium, and the arrival of antibiotics in the 1940s has curbed a bacterial pandemic taking hold.

The population gave up on flu pandemic measures because they were “tired of them”, and paid a heavy price

Influenza continues to present a hazard, as I suspect coronavirus will be, also requiring a new vaccine variant annually, although frequency for such vaccine administration remains unclear.

And there is also the matter of “long COVID”. If I had lost my sense of smell and taste, if I were young, I would be looking at my future with trepidation, because the nerve fibres of the olfactory cranial nerve enters the olfactory part of the brain near the optic chiasma. Therefore, the virus is very close to the brain when it infects the olfactory nerve, and the course of post-viral brain syndromes is well recorded. I have personally had a family member with such a syndrome with devastating, life shortening effects.

I shudder when Hazzard’s comments echo down his corridor of ignorance.

Thus, the voice of Minister Hazzard may also reflect a politician overwhelmed by bad news and in effect surrendering. Time for you to do the right thing and take a rest, murmuring herd immunity as you drift off into stress-related sleep.

I’m sorry, but you are just not capable for whichever of the above reasons, but then some politicians never get it! I suspect you are one of them.

On the other hand, this seems sensible…

Reprinted from the Boston Globe with thanks.

With cases of Omicron surging nationwide, you may be wondering if that runny nose or aching throat is a dreaded case of COVID-19 that’s finally tracked you down, or if it’s merely a symptom of the common cold.

On top of that, the flu virus, which had all but vanished last year as the pandemic gripped the nation, appears to be making a comeback, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Distinguishing between it all can be hard, and finding a COVID-19 test can be harder. Here we try to break down what we know about Omicron symptoms so far (remember, much is unknown this early in the outbreak) and how they may differ from the common cold and flu, or even from the previous variant, Delta.

Omicron is now the dominant variant in the USA and is spreading at a rapid rate, with cases rising about 23 percent in the past two weeks or so alone, according to data from the CDC. The variant has an unusually high number of mutations, some of which may be enabling it to evade immune protection. And early data has demonstrated that it is about two to three times more transmissible than the Delta variant. As a result, many, including those who are vaccinated, are likely to test positive for the virus.

Because the variant is a relatively new discovery, scientists are still studying the severity of illness and what symptoms it will bring — and if they vary from other strains. Some hopeful news arrived this week, with three teams of scientists, who studied the course Omicron took in South Africa, Scotland, and England, releasing preliminary results that showed infections more often resulted in mild illness compared to those from the Delta variant before it. The findings suggested those infected were less likely to be hospitalised, but there were caveats.

Preliminary reports indicate that those infected with the variant generally display similar symptoms to those who have been infected with either Delta or the original coronavirus. 

Data scientists with the health company Zoe used the most recent data from London, where the prevalence of Omicron is higher than in other regions throughout the United Kingdom, to analyse symptom data and compare it with data recorded in early October when Delta was dominant. The analysis found no clear difference between the two — and only about half of people experienced “the classic three symptoms of fever, cough, or loss of sense of smell or taste.” The top five recorded symptoms in both periods were a runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing, and sore throat. They tended to be “mostly mild” and “cold-like.”

In the United States, possible symptoms of the coronavirus listed by the CDC include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, the new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhoea.

When Delta became the dominant variant and led to an uptick in cases, cold-like symptoms became more common, as the lead scientist in the ZOE COVID Study noted last week. It appears to be the same case with Omicron, and some of the key symptoms first seen earlier in the pandemic — namely a loss of taste and smell — are not as typical.

An analysis published by researchers in Norway following a small Omicron outbreak among “fully vaccinated” people found that only 23 percent of patients reported a loss of taste, and only 12 percent reported a loss of smell. Meanwhile, a runny or stuffy nose, fatigue, cough, and a sore throat were the most common symptoms.

Early evidence also suggests that Omicron is less likely to spread deep into the lung tissue, despite it replicating in the upper airway quickly, which could help to explain why infections may appear milder. A study undertaken by Hong Kong University researchers found that replication of the variant in deeper lung tissue was more than ten times lower than the original of the virus.

It should also be noted that, according to data collected by ZOE, the symptoms one experiences can vary depending on vaccination status. 

Both the flu and the common cold are contagious respiratory illnesses that share similar symptoms despite being caused by different viruses, according to the CDC. In general, flu symptoms are more intense and begin more abruptly, while colds are usually milder and do not typically result in serious health problems.

The symptoms of the flu, according to the health protection agency, can include muscle or body aches and “fever or feeling feverish/chills.” It can have associated complications. Meanwhile, people who have a cold tend to have a runny or stuffy nose.

Compared to the flu, COVID-19 can cause more serious illnesses in some people, according to the CDC. It can also take longer for people to experience symptoms and they can be contagious for a greater period of time.

The CDC also stressed that because some of the symptoms of both the flu, the coronavirus, and other respiratory illnesses are so similar, testing is required to “tell what the illness is and to confirm a diagnosis,” especially because people can be infected with both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time.

In short, for those looking to determine what they are sick with for travel or planning purposes, public health experts recommend getting tested for the coronavirus beforehand.

Mouse Whisper

As I was slouching towards Mousehole these words came out of the ether and flattened my nose. 

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

Rest in peace, Joan Didion. For there will be no more 4.00 am calls, but I know what you meant. Life is indeed complicated.

Joan Didion

 

Modest Expectation – UoVa Piazza UOva

I am commencing this blog on Boxing day, another of those dubious holidays related to the British class structure in which boxed trifles were provided to the deserving poor on the day after the upper classes had gorged themselves with exotic meat, forcemeats and sweetmeats – the proclivity of the entitled for languid enquiries “Another swan breast, Andrew? Perhaps another leg, Charles?”

In Great Britain swans have received special protection by the Crown at least as far back as 1482, when King Edward IV authorised the Act Concerning Swans, which made all swans in Great Britain property of the Crown. He signed the law, which remains in force today, not because he wanted to conserve them, but because he loved eating swans. Edward, although born in Rouen, was a Yorkist who was embroiled in battling the Lancastrian Tudors and having seen Henry VI off, he died in his bed. His sons were not so lucky, ending their brief lives in The Tower of London due to a bit of nepoticide by their uncle, Richard, who became the Third.

St John’s College Cambridge

Like all British idiosyncrasy, only unmarked muted white swans fit into that protected category, and the Queen is even more discerning. She only eats swans from the Thames and its upper tributaries. Elsewhere the Crown has made a deal with the Worshipful Company of Vintners & Dyers in regard to swan ownership and from them to the Fellows of St John’s College Cambridge, who are the only chaps outside the Royal Family able to indulge themselves with roast swan on certain days of the year. These jolly fellows used to have swan traps along their College walls, but the traps have fallen into disuse. The College does not have a separate Warden of the Swans as the Crown does to maintain its swan traps.

Swan meat is said to be gamey, but tasty, presumably it is little different from goose except for the fat.  It would be fitting that when “Banjo” FitzSimons achieves his Republican Dinner to mark our eventual break from the 1788 Invasion he should institute a “Swan Song” dinner where the major fare is a muted white swan garnished to acknowledge Edward IV’s other undying contribution – Yorkshire pudding.

I am sure that we could find a suitable South Melbourne-gone-Sydney person to carve our exotic roast. In recognition of our cultural affinity, the Swans regalia has always been red and white. But aren’t Australian swans black?

Huon Pine

in Strahan, a village on Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s West Coast there is a two-storied Pole House called Piner’s Loft. It was the labour of love of an extraordinary builder called Dan whose partner was so important to him in providing the inspiration to construct from old Tasmanian wood. In other words, it was built as an homage to the Tasmanian forests. He used only recovered wood, except for the structural poles which were blackwood, and not completely seasoned. However, even with the cracks in the unseasoned wood, blackwood is sturdy and the cracks have stabilised with age. Blackwood is not immediately endangered and is an essential component of the temperate rain forest which covers south-west Tasmania. There are two of these lofty trees along the drive. This drive to the back door has been delivered by the local vicar, who also works in his earth-moving business – literally not only moving heaven, but also earth.

Piners Loft, Strahan, Tasmania

There is another structural pole tucked away in the Loft, and that is one of King Billy Pine. However, in the case of the indigenous pine only recycled wood was used. The floorboards, window and door frames are mostly celery pine, and outside the back door, there is celery pine growing quietly. The fascia board is of Tasmanian blue gum, the only tree whose flower is a State emblem. Blue gum is a tree whose profligate growth has made it declared verminous in California.

Meanwhile, the bathroom door is an exotic, Western cedar.

The Piner’s Loft kitchen is composed of that most beautiful of Tasmanian woods, the Huon pine. Once almost sawn to extinction, these trees live a thousand years and beyond. In the forest, their caterpillar like fronds suggest a tree which may have watched the dinosaur walk. In the wild they are the most unprepossessing trees as they age, with bare arms stretching through the canopy. The trunks are gnarled and twisted; and yet the wood is magical as it is worked.

The Huon pine used to be cut by men called piners, who would travel upstream searching for it because Huon pine grows close to water courses. These piners would stay in rough shelters enduring the rain year round, sleet in winter and mosquitoes in summers. They floated the cut logs down the rivers.  They all but cleared the forests of the pine, so now only salvaged wood can be worked. Cutting down a Huon pine is cutting off your inheritance; the remaining trees are protected.

Huon Pine

Huon pines contain a natural oil called methyl eugenol, which gives the wood both its legendary durability and its unique fragrance. They grow very slowly, requiring about 500 years to reach the size at which time the trunk can be sawn into timber. Huon timber varies from a light straw to a rich golden colour.  Fresh wood surfaces darken after contact with air and sunlight.  It is a light, soft and very fine textured wood which is easy to saw, chisel, plane, turn or sand. It is a very good timber for building boats because its close grain, in addition to its lightness and the oil in the wood assists in the waterproofing.

The shavings work well in cupboards to guard against silverfish and other insects which like to eat one’s clothing. It is thus a wood of many seasons.

I am now looking at a Huon pine bowl we mutually presented ourselves as a Christmas present. The aroma is pungent, filling the air as you would expect. It is not the smell of the eucalypt. Roger, the wood turner who made the bowl says he can no longer smell the wood, but for those of us unused to its distinctive pine oil odour, it fills the room.

The wood is known for its “birds-eyes”, flecked dark spots in the wood which is prized. This bowl has waves through the timber like the clouds in a sunset, where the pale yellow of cloud grades into ochre heavens and in so doing catches all the shades in between. It is a glorious piece of carving and like the Loft not only is testimony to the sawyers of the West Coast but also the survival of the fauna and foliage of that State struggling against the barbarian blackberry, bracken and gorse – and bushfire.

This Tasmanian heritage is threatened but unfortunately the government sits by, its hands tucked firmly under it buttocks, while it dreams of dams and concrete. This is what it terms heritage.

But perhaps I am being too critical, but this excerpt from the 2020/21 Tasmanian Budget is indicative of the priorities:

Funding of $75,000 has been provided in 2020‑21, to continue the development of bushfire mitigation legislation commenced in 2019‑20. The legislation aims to improve bushfire mitigation in Tasmania by streamlining approval processes to reduce fuel and mechanically clear vegetation, and ensuring clear accountability for landholders and occupants. Enough to clear the politicians’ country chalets; how thoughtful!

Such is this frugal cornucopia emptied on fire protection, but Captain Courageous stands on his poop deck – and emotes “Thou shalt not enter, ye vermin from other States who dare to violate the purity on my Bailiwick.”

But for the time being, I am looking at this beautiful Huon pine bowl.

Gascon Paradox

This is probably well-known; thus, I apologise for those in the know. Nevertheless, it was mentioned during the preliminaries to cooking a goose for Christmas lunch. Gascony is considered that part of France in the Southwest below Bordeaux and stretches into the Basque country at the foot of the Pyrenees and to Bayonne nearer the coast where the rivers flow from the mountains.

Gascony

Bayonne is famous for its cured ham – so the story goes, a mediaeval nobleman was out hunting and mortally wounded a wild boar which escaped, only to be found some months later dead in a hot briny pool. The carcass had been so cured by the brine in the intervening months, such that the discoverers waxed lyrical and Bayonne ham was born with all the attendant requirements, which the French love to impose, such as in this case special river salt that is needed to cure it … need I go on?

Gascons, who have affinity to these Bayonne Basques, are believed to be the owners of a gastronomic paradox. To paint a suitably gourmand picture, foie gras is one of the delicacies of Gascony but if one is to eat it one has to turn a blind eye to the process of gavage where the goose is force fed so that its liver suffers fatty degeneration, and then the bird is harvested, its liver to destined  inter alia to be spread on toast. I must admit to having had such a breakfast, beats rice bubbles and Vegemite on toast – at least in France. Sorry, I did feel not any pangs – to me it is just an exotic form of dripping .

Condom Armagnac

However, that is the Gascon way. They eat loads of goose and duck fats – saturated fats to the brim – and yet the Gascons live the longest of any Frenchman or woman, with the lowest incidence of heart disease. There are various reasons given – you know, they have an amazing leguminous diet, but the reason I like best is that Gascony is an area where  fine dry wine from Bordeaux is produced, and imbibing that in moderation has a positive effect in countering the fat. They even mention, as one moves across Gascony to Condom from where Armagnac, the source of oldest top-flight brandy, has been made since the thirteenth century, one can begin to salivate at the prospect of a cooked goose. Armagnac is the foxglove extract of France.

To make a point, our goose was moreover well and truly cooked.

The roast goose on Christmas Day was perfect; it is a difficult bird to cook well. The line for it being overcooked is thin and then, as experienced by us many years ago, the goose becomes tough and inedible. The traditional cold goose on Boxing Day was well complemented by the fennel and orange salad. The company was perfect in the Padlocked City.

But the Chateau Rothschild will have to wait.

Retreat into Reality

I am so sick and tired of incompetence and/or corruption of government, where deceit is a valued commodity in a Pentecostal cloak, which has now assumed the dimensions once afforded to the Masons’ secret handshake.

So much so, that I have retreated into the reality of the most memorable opening scenes of films that I have seen during my life.

The first is Out of Africa, where the opening scene, Kenya 1913, is of a steam train coursing across the empty savannah Plain. It is a spare train, few carriages and then the first image of Meryl Streep. She has a luminosity as though encased in an aureole.  The image is brief.

Merryl Streep

Then onwards – images of the train coming into focus, crossing more fertile country, always mountains in the background. Night falls, and only the train’s headlamp and lights in the carriage burn bright, and then it is next morning and the train reaches its destination. People, apart from that fleeting glimpse of Merryl Streep as Karen Blixen as appear for the first time.  The background wistful yet lush music of John Barry is a perfect accompaniment to this beautiful opening scene.

Then there is number two, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It is 1961. The vision of a yellow taxi driving down a deserted Fifth Avenue around dawn and depositing this slim figure in black with the beehive hairdo in front of Tiffany’s is one of minimalist elegance. Whether any actress other than Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly could have provided such panache with so little movement would have been a challenge. Eating a pretzel and drinking coffee from a paper cup without fumbling is in line with the minimalism.

For an instant, in front of the Tiffany’s window, she is the lady behind the bar at the Folies Bergère in the Manet painting of the same name, and then she is drifting around the corner, down 95th street, finally depositing the food bag in a trash receptacle. All the time, Moon River is being played.

The third is Chariots of Fire where, after the memorial service introduction, we see this phalanx of young men in the training gear of the time, white shirt and shorts running through the shallows, supposedly at Broadstairs in Kent, where the British team was in training in Paris for the 1924 Olympic Games. The fact that they were running in bare feet is emphasised in the first shot. This opening sequence was shot in Scotland near St Andrew’s Golf Course and that the other runners were essentially a bunch of golf caddies is just too much inconsequential information. The fact that the final clip from this opening scene sees the running pack traversing the first hole at St Andrew’s, rather than the Carlton Hotel’s lawns on the Kent foreshore, did not diminish the expectations for a film which celebrated an idealistic romantic notion of heroism. That is the reality I like – and the Vangelis theme helped.

I could not summarise the theme better than the composer himself – Vangelis was a somewhat more convenient name than Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou.

Lord Lindsay aka Lord Burleigh

He recalled the dilemmas of Eric Liddell, the Scottish athlete who would not run on a Sunday because it was contrary to his Christian beliefs; Lord Lindsay, who selflessly gave Liddell his slot in a weekday heat so that the Scot could compete in the Olympics; Harold Abrahams, the Jewish runner ostracised by the establishment. All were men who would not compromise on their values, no matter the cost.

“If you look for truth you have to be courageous. My main inspiration was the story itself. The rest I did instinctively, without thinking about anything else, other than to express my feelings with the technological means available to me at the time.”

The title “Chariots of Fire” brought me back to the where and now. The term derives from the Old Testament and it is adopted as a metaphor by William Blake. Jerusalem, the choral interpretation of his poem, is embedded in my brain. We sang it so often at school. The men above deserved a “chariot of fire” as their accolade.

If Blake could descend in a chariot of fire and see our Australia, would he wonder whether we could ever build Jerusalem among our own dark satanic coal mines. But we should finish the anthem – and the race which both Abraham and Liddell ran beyond their Olympic participation is equally applicable to us Australians – a universal call

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem

Safe as a Bronte Beach Santa Party

Anonymouse

First fireworks, and now cricket – what is the NSW Government thinking? Picture this: in the red corner, Cricket Australia, the SCG and the McGrath Foundation, and in the blue corner, “the best medical advice” of NSW.  So, who won the bout between cricket and good public health sense? Well, who do you think? But the more pertinent question is who lost, and the answer is the people of NSW.

At the same time as the Premier of NSW has the northern beaches locked up and the best medical advice to everyone in greater Sydney is don’t go out for new year’s eve, apparently it is perfectly OK for up to 125,000 people to travel by public transport to the SCG, mingle as they enter and exit and sit in the stands unmasked (that’s 25k for each day of the test). How can this be so?

Memo to Gladys:  Cancel the cricket, give the McGrath Foundation the million or two dollars that it raises at a Sydney test (and in the long run that will be a bargain compared with the massive cost of many COVID cases and a protracted lockdown that inevitably will be caused by the super spreader test), send the cricketers and their entourages packing to somewhere much safer for them and for NSW.  Stop mucking around with the lives of the people of NSW, lock down greater Sydney and mandate mask wearing immediately until you actually have this outbreak under control.

With the Northern Beaches and Croydon outbreaks growing and the potential for weeks or months of lockdown looming as happened in Melbourne, having fireworks and allowing five days of cricket with spectators to go ahead is about as responsible as the Bondi Beach Santa party. Time will tell – if the cricket goes ahead – whether all the predictions of it being the super spreader of all time are realised. If so, NSW’s world best contract tracing system won’t amount to a hill of beans.  We still don’t know who was the source of the Avalon cluster, or who has pushed so hard for the Test to go ahead in Sydney and why the NSW Government is taking such a huge risk in allowing it?

Mouse Whisper

I get sick and tired of hearing this doggerel. You know that one that starts “A for horses”… “B for mutton”….”C for yourself” and ends up “X for breakfast”, “Y for husband” and “Z for breezes”. For the least comprehending of you guys read, in order:

Hay

Beef

See

Eggs

Wife

Zephyr (incorporates the “for”)

I bet you are all slapping your thighs with laughter and emoting “How clever”. But it is a clue to the reason for the title of the blog in the twisted mind of my mausmeister … if you can be bothered. I believe he is going to publish the hundred Blog title names after he reaches that centenary blog.

X for breakfast

Modest Expectations – Archie MacLaren

There never was a cricketer with more than the grandeur of A. C. MacLaren. When I think of his play now, years after it all happened, the emotions that stir in me afresh, and all my impressions of it, are mingled with emotions and impressions I have had from other and greater arts than bat and ball. 

Thus spake Neville Cardus, once the doyen of cricketing savants. But what is the relevance to this Christmas blog about an English captain who never won a series against Australia. I shall leave it as a challenge to those who can be bothered, like my teenage grandson Luka who is already a cricketing tragic with better-than-average all-rounder credentials.

One of the more recent cricketing traditions around Christmas has been the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, but in 1951, the third test in Adelaide finished on Christmas Day, with only the second defeat of the Australian cricket team since the end of World War 2. The West Indian cricketers broke into a spontaneous calypso. At that time, their major West Indian strike bowlers were:

(a) Sonny Ramadhin, of Indian descent from Trinidad, who bowled both right hand leg and off break without a discernible change in his action. His off break was not the conventional “googly”. He bowled with cap on head and his sleeves done up. It is not recorded whether he ever wore an overcoat while bowling during a damp English tour. However, at 91 he is still alive. A quirky fact about Ramadhin was that he was not given a Christian name at birth, acquired Sonny later on to disguise this fact and moreover was given fictitious initials “KT” presumably for further respectability.

(b) Alf Valentine, a Jamaican who bowled left-arm off-spinners with a vicious tweak. While Sonny was tiny, Alf was tall. Alf, who was a year younger than his “spin twin”, died in 2004.

Together, they destroyed Australia that day, and everybody was able to indulge themselves in a Christmas dinner as the Test conveniently finished before four in the afternoon. Given the Australian view at that time about doing anything on Sundays and religious holidays, I have no memory of any controversy about cricket being played on a Holy Day.

Memories of Christmas

When I was small, Christmas, even at the height of wartime, was magical because there was always a large Christmas tree and it was always decorated with the mostly homemade decorations that my mother made, scrounged and generally tried to drown the tree in cheerful decoration. Whence I was a small boy I loved the intense green colour of the pine tree. In the second week of January in the hot summer sun, it was sad to see the pine tree lying, browning, discarded on the nature strip when two weeks before its brilliant green frame seemed to touch the ceiling with the star on the top. Mother was religious; father was not. I felt that the Christmas tree bound our small family together.

I learnt early to read “not to be opened until December 25”; but everybody excused Little Johnny when his sneak preview damaged the signage too much to be repaired. Poor little Johnny can’t read – you can’t expect him to know. Oh yeah!

Notwithstanding, my father seemed to be a ghostly presence in my early years during the War when he was bouncing back from naval duty and then disappearing again up North. He came back to graduate as a doctor in early 1946. When I think about it, he seemed to buy my Christmas presents with an eye to himself. I remember the Hornby replica of the Flying Scotsman train; then there was a Meccano Set, much more complicated than my competence or interest. From a child anyway I was never much interested in building things or gadgets. My father on the other hand loved gadgets; and he liked collecting them and books.

I always liked the stocking because of the mysterious bulges which turned out to be mostly edible. However, the wonderment remained until I found out that Santa Claus did not exist. Not that we ever put out a glass of milk or a biscuit or whatever. Still, it was a shock I do remember, and after that Christmas never had the same edge of belief and wonderment.

I had never thought about the underlying deceit and lies from that first encounter at Christmas. At the same time we were all solemnly told not to lie as children, and I more or less obeyed. In our society, however truthfulness is not universally rewarded while untruthfulness is not punished. Truth is slippery, and our perception of it nudges our belief system. In the case of Santa Claus, it is rationalised by adults as a good spirit, but to a small child, such abstract thought is years away.

While deception is part of life and is the basic tool of the magician, lying deliberately can become pathological, and when occurring in a person of influence such as Trump it can be destructive. His apparent success has encouraged other politicians, especially those who have had a career of essentially talking in tongues, distorting perceptions, to abandon, ignore or be extremely inventive around telling the truth.

I wonder if the underlying cause is the harsh parent syndrome, where no matter what explanation, you are going to receive a severe dose of corporal punishment. “It was not me,” Donald screamed, “It was my bruvver.”

But then Trump’s father’s second name was “Christ”. 

Ruminations prompted by St Lucia’s day

In 1700, Sweden, which included Finland at the time, planned to convert from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. 

Therefore 1700, which should have been a leap year in the Julian calendar, was not a leap year in Sweden. However, 1704 and 1708 became leap years by error. This left Sweden out of synchronization with both the Julian and the Gregorian calendars, so the country reverted back to the Julian calendar.

February 30, 1712, came into existence in Sweden when the Julian calendar was restored and two leap days were added that year. Sweden’s final conversion to the Gregorian calendar occurred in 1753, when an 11-day correction was applied so that February 17 was succeeded by March 1 that year. Not everyone was pleased with the calendar reform. Some people believed it stole 11 days of their lives.

This exercise in calendrical calisthenics was also applied in terms of St Lucia’s Day which falls on December 13, which under the old Julian calendar was the winter solstice, but the tradition has persisted despite the Gregorian calendar.

St Lucia lived in Sicily in the fourth century C.E. and was an early martyr to male jealousy. She had a suitor who would not accept her giving her life to God. He and his pagan mates tried to burn her and when that did not work, they stabbed her in the throat. She has become the patron saint of virginity, kindness and the blind.  She was also supposed to have taken food to Christians hiding in the catacombs, wearing a headdress of candles to light the way so she could have her hands free to carry the provisions. Allegedly some monks brought her story to Scandinavia and everybody was so entranced that she has her own day in the Swedish calendar.

She even has her own signature buns (lussekatter)– dotted with raisins and a touch of saffron for taste, to be eaten for breakfast.

Lucia, the bearer of light

My Swedish friend sent me a link to wonderful choral performance, to celebrate the day. It was presumably at dusk on this shortest of days. A recent quote sums to beautifully provide another insight relevant to the celebration. The most important thing is to hold that tiny spark of life, if it is in a bud, in a seed, that is our work, to hold on to life, so when spring comes back, there can be growth. 

The choir is essentially composed of young people in white robes with a red ribbon tied around the waist. Red is the liturgical colour for saints. In this video they were all young women. The lead singer of the choir had a garland on her head, with nine candles. She represents Lucia, the bearer of light. In the background are a number of young male choristers who, as distinct from those in white are well rugged up in identical clothes and a scarf twisted over to cover their necks. The viewers know the depth of the cold by the condensation in the air as they sing; no indoor auditorium for these young people.

There is a section of young children singing in a snug festive room as they make Christmas decorations, there is a music section with an alto saxophonist and double bass; in one section the singer, who is accompanied by a piano accordion, is in traditional Sámi dress in front of a lavvu with reindeer roaming in the backgound. I presumed, by the presence of Swedish subtitles, that the singing in this segment was in Sámi. The concert was an hour long, and the link: https://www.svtplay.se/video/29267198/luciamorgon-fran-jukkasjarvi

Watching and listening to this concert made me think of the paradox of Christmas. Christmas has become just that – a celebration in the snow. All the trappings, all the sentimentality is linked to images of Northern Europe or those areas of North America where the pine trees are the backdrop and the images are of clear starry cold nights with reindeer, sleigh rides, snowmen (never snow women – or have I missed something?).

But when the Nativity was wowing them in Bethlehem, there was not a reindeer or sleigh in sight.

Yet in Jordan we travelled down from the freezing mountains, where shepherds watched their flocks by night, and the skies were clear. We encountered, in this country where Christ may have walked, both frankincense and myrrh for sale. These, together with gold, the wise men may have bought on the way. Sitting in the adobe shop, I could have imagined that this could have been the case, and then the three wise men deciding whether the baby needed swaddling clothes as well.

Petra – The Treasury

Travelling through Jordan, there is the reminder of not only Christianity but of other religions, their faith and their architecture. The most stunning is the rock city of Petra built by the Nabateans, Arabs of whom there is sketchy knowledge, but they were polytheistic and important in managing the regional trade routes. Petra is just the most breathtaking manifestation of the way the peoples who populated modern day Jordan approached their beliefs. Standing on the top of Mount Nebo, one of the most sacred sites for both Christians and Jews, we gazed out over the landscape where many of the settlements have Biblical reference, among these Bethlehem lying 50 kilometres away to the west.

One of the common threads in religious belief is the celebration of the winter solstice, and Christmas is no different. However, in Jordan there is a degree of authenticity, where snow may be on the peaks, in winter while at sea level the pasture remains green and fertile along the Sea of Galilee. By authenticity, it should be recognised that the Nativity was a time when Arabs and Jews merged into a common heritage as they gathered around the newly-born Infant.

However, to have a Christmas tradition re-cast in the starkness of the Middle East, where Peace on Earth is a rare commodity.  The nativity is not just a play for infants performing before treacly parents. The Swedes showed in their celebration of St Lucia’s day that children are only one part. The problem with so many of the Christmas carols is that they refer to the Northern European latter-day traditions rather than to the Land in which Christ was born. I portrayed this conundrum in a short story I once wrote; and there are only a few that tie the birth of Christ to where it occurred in their Christmas observance. The processional “Once in Royal David’s City” is one such hymn.

Let us have a Palestinian Christmas – just once. When I went to Bethlehem, there were a substantial number of Christian Arabs. That was 25 years ago when I took a ten-minute taxi drive from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. How times have changed. Still, in Australia we can have Christmas in the desert. It would be more authentic, but it is the longest day here. After that, it is all downhill to winter.

Still, as I write I see the decorated fir tree in the window of our house. We are prisoners of tradition, no matter how this observance contrasts with what I have written. Would I substitute a coolabah tree or native cypress covered in Antipodean detritus? I think I would, and who needs candles when we have so much daylight and the Southern Cross?

 My first Christmas December 25, 1939

Winston Churchill’s message on that day:

There is a certain similarity between the position now and at the end of 1914. The transition from peace to war has been accomplished. The outer seas, for the moment at any rate, are clear from enemy surface craft. The lines in France are static. But in addition on the sea we have repelled the U-boat attack … and we can see our way through the magnetic mine novelty. Moreover, in France the frontier is maintained instead of six or seven of the French provinces and Belgium being in the enemy’s hands. Thus I feel we may compare the position now very favourably with that of 1914. And also I have the feeling (which may be corrected at any moment) that the Kaiser’s Germany was a much tougher than Nazi Germany.

I shut my eyes. It is as though Boris Johnson is talking. Churchill was lucky; over to you, Bojo. Got a rabbit foot handy?

Mouse Whisper

I understand that this was not a boy called Christopher questioning.

Apparently, this little child asked his father “where does poo come from Daddy?”

His father explained it to him and a look of horror came over the child’s cherubic face, “And Piglet?”

Happy Christmas to all and May your Yuletide never go out.
Don’t forget putting Mirth into the Myrrh, Sense into Frank and Gold into AUz.