Modest Expectations – Melville has some Depth (+1)

Taffy Jones died at the end of last year. Taffy Jones was in my year of medicine. Moreover, he was in Trinity College at the same time as myself.

When we graduated near the bottom of the year, we found ourselves as first year resident doctors at Box Hill & District Hospital, then an outer suburban hospital where it was considered a training ground for general practice. It was in the days before intensive care or coronary care units, before emergency physicians existed, before all the accumulated rules policed by nurses bearing clipboards in the name of “Quality Control”.

We all shared Casualty duty – all six of us. One night when Taffy was on duty a man in his thirties presented with acute chest pain. Fortuitously, Taffy thought he may have a ruptured oesophagus, an uncommon condition where the pain mimics that of cardiac pain. Taffy was right. In those days, the operation to repair the oesophagus was undertaken locally. To-day, he would have been admitted to a major teaching hospital. The chances for survival were not good, but Taffy looked after him literally day and night. One day when Taffy was sleeping in the same room, obviously not the patient, some over-zealous nurse tried to do his four-hour observations. Knowing Taffy’s innate affability, I’m sure he took it with the good grace any exhausted doctor being woken up in the middle of night to have their blood pressure being taken would. The patient recovered.

I was reminded of this when I recently went the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPAH)with a 36-hour nosebleed, which had been imperfectly staunched. I was deposited in a wheelchair to wait six hours to be attended while subject to the torture of the clipboard mania laughably called “quality control”. I, the patient vanished under a pile of protocols, even being admonished at one interval for having the temerity to question the need for blood tests when I had had them done only two days prior

Eventually, I was seen by the emergency physician and her trainee sidekick. Well, what do you know! They did not have the instruments to stop the bleeding. So, I was transferred to the ear, nose and throat (ENT) clinic late in the afternoon, having been in the emergency department since mid-morning. I was the last patient in the clinic. All the ENT specialists had left. There was no-one else but the ENT registrar. Again, I waited – after about a further 20 minutes, the registrar emerged. She treated me; she was very competent. It took 20 minutes, if that. By the way, there are four ENT registrars all of whom could have seen me during the course of the day. She did a good job, and I have had only one small bleed since; it is part of my disease spectrum.

It happened to me this week again; I, an immunologically compromised person having to wait two hours to be seen, when this time I did have a designated appointment time. This time I was very angry; the oncologist apologised. He said that the hospital administration, whom they never see, just keep loading him up with patients. Predictably from being in this poorly ventilated hospital three days later I developed what I initially thought was an upper respiratory tract infection, but then tested positive for COVID.

I was once a senior medical manager in a health service the size of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, admittedly some years ago. I always made a point of being seen around the hospital, listening, encouraging efficiency and effectiveness and at time criticising when I thought it warranted. The only place I failed but still developed a mutual regard was with the head of the eye clinic, which we maintained until his death some years ago. He was an interesting case study.

The administrator who remains office bound, giving a semblance of business by always being at meetings, at conferences, on days off, is more the profile these days. It is even worse now since the pandemic; apparently, they work from home. It is about time the government woke up and see who is ostensibly running the hospitals, looking after or ensuring that health professionals can work in a way that the patient, such as myself, feels satisfied and safe. The RPA has always been near the bottom of the pack, at least since Dr Don Child retired in 1987.

My Tasmanian Response

Somewhat impetuously, I said that I would write a piece about my Tasmania, in response to the tourist blurb distortion which appeared recently in the NYT, and which I found projected a very limited view of Tasmania.

But when I calmed down, I realised over the nearly five years I have been writing a blog each week without a break – this week at blog 255 it’s just five away from my fifth anniversary. Mostly I write about 3,000 words, including the various quotes and outside opinion which is baked into the blog. Generally, my wife waves much of my writing through, with variable degrees of editing.

Here even with so many words clocked up on my blog, my wife pointed out that my first draft wasn’t up to scratch, particularly as there is such a great amount of material to be written about this island and which I had barely touched upon. She was right.

Now, I first came to Tasmania, to Hobart in 1950, when I stayed with my parents at the Wrest Point Hotel when it was an art deco creation at Sandy Bay, an upmarket part of Hobart. So, I have a long association, but only acquired a property here 20 years ago.

I learnt over the years that it is the land itself which makes the whole of Tasmania attractive not just one small segment on the north-east coast, however beautiful. Despite the action of us white people, there is enough remaining Tasmania upon which to marvel. Tasmania is not only one particular walk through a confected culture.

Opium poppies in flower

Strangely, I like this island because the blend of exotic flora seems to augment the attractiveness of the island in addition to the underlying uniqueness of the local fauna and flora.  There are the tulips in bloom in October; the month that the red Tasmanian waratahs are in bloom. The next month it is the fields of opium poppy with its distinctive, delicate mauve blooms; and then it is time for the clouds of lavender to take the stage. Also at this time in the early new year, the leatherwood are coming into flower, its pollen harvested by the bees ending up as the eponymous dark honey. Down south, there are the cherry orchards stretching across the hills to the west of Hobart; then in January, the berries are harvested. Raspberries, never better.

But let’s get rid of the dark side of the Island originally peopled by convicts and their guards in the south, Port Arthur as a grim symbol. Then as one of the monographs from the Launceston Historical society states in the north “Anglo-Indians (in its nineteenth-century sense of the British in India), leaving India and emigrating to Australia wished, it seems, to escape, not recreate, architecturally at least, the oppression of India. In Van Diemen’s Land they could build an English cottage, not a bungalow, although a verandah may be useful. To these immigrants the concept of ‘home’ was still English – not Indian – although they chose not to return to England.” They quickly outnumbered the Aboriginal population and the story of their elimination is one of the less savoury episodes in Australian history.

Thus, despite all the efforts to promote continuity in Aboriginal heritage, it is unfortunately largely confected, as I’ve written. After all, Milligan writing in 1890 estimated that there had been only 2,000 Indigenous people when colonisation commenced. Truganini, traditionally the last of the Tasmanian Aboriginals, had died in 1876.

As has been well-reported: When Truganini met George Robinson , the chief Protector of Aborigines in 1829, her mother had been killed by sailors, her uncle shot by a soldier, her sister abducted by sealers, and her fiancé brutally murdered by timber-cutters, who had then repeatedly sexually abused her.

Then there was the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger, and the years of guilt-ridden search for them and then the hope one could rescue enough DNA from a formalinised specimen to somehow clone the animal. Arrant nonsense, the whole scenario.

Yet the Tasmanian Government never learns that there is more money in tourism, including ecotourism than the rapacious destruction of the forests and remote areas. Now it proposes allowing logging in the habitat of one of two rarest parrots – the swift parrot.

The other parrot, also migratory, the orange-bellied parrot is critically endangered. There are very few orange-bellied parrots left in the wild. Their last remaining breeding site is in the moorland and button grass around Birch’s inlet on the west coast of Tasmania. We once went searching for the parrot in this location; saw a great number of blue-winged parrots but sadly nothing with an orange belly – at least not a parrot.

Then there are well-recorded attempts of buggering up the Tasmanian environment by government’s insistence on damming every river in sight and cutting down all the old growth forests and a cavalier treatment of the Wilderness, including its refusal to stop the spread of invasive species – gorse being a case in point. Mining on the West Coast around the town of Queenstown still shows the scars in the surrounding hills, and the King River and the Macquarie Harbour contain a toxic cocktail of arsenic, cadmium, mercury and other metals. Sulphur coats the King River banks and then along the Harbour foreshore; one should not disturb the delta of the river which is rich in cadmium. Two hundred years may rid these waterways of the pollution.

Having lost Lake Pedder with its unique pink quartzite beach to inundation for a dam, the battle to conserve Tasmania has been robust, heightened by the spectacular efforts of Bob Brown and his supporters in scuttling the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam project in 1982.

This is well-known but sometimes you need to retrace such a well known series of events, which ended up largely preserving the South-west temperate rain forest for now.

This win and the preservation of these rivers in their pristine state was brought home to me when we were flown by a friend over these rivers flowing through the Southwest National Park, the wilderness area. The Franklin and Gordon without a concrete abomination to dam them. At South-west Cape, we turned east and flew along the coast and then up the Derwent estuary, re-fuelling in Hobart. We then flew following the Derwent River until we turned to the west over the Walls of Jerusalem and across the range, over Queenstown before proceeding to land in Strahan – the airport located on a hill above Macquarie Harbour. That day, it was a perfect, cloudless day – no wind.

It is a flight to see the wilderness where the adventurous slog through or climb up or kayak down, taking days if not weeks to experience whereas we had seen it all from above. I’m afraid I did not feel guilty because there was no pain in our achievement even not being close to elemental nature; it was still a magnificent experience.

After all, living in Strahan there was the walk to Hogarth Falls, a trail carved through the rain forest where myrtle, sassafras, and celery pine grow. There is little or no Huon pine; it has long since been logged from along the rivers, but there remain a huge number of logs retrieved from the rivers and which lie in a woodyard in Strahan.

Reclaimed Huon pine

Our house is a timbered pole house – the poles are blackwood except for one  pole of King Billy pine; the floors and window frames are celery top pine; the kitchen Huon pine and the panelling mountain ash. The bathroom door is cedar, a somewhat anomalous Queensland intruder. The house which we bought is built with both new and recovered wood.

All very personal – so lucky to have this tribute to Tasmania – so lucky – surrounded as I am by Tasmanian artifacts as I write this blog.

Sexual Violence Tra-la-la

Anna Neagle and Michael Wilding

It is a strange sensation when you see revival of the mannered films in which actors such as Anna Neagle and Michael Wilding starred in the 1940s to realise you grew up when that era was ending. Pretending to be bright young man and woman in love was very much of a stretch in their very popular Maytime in Mayfair. Anna Neagle was 45 and Michael Wilding 37 years when the film was made.

They were impeccably dressed according to the times.  She wore a long flowing gown; they both smoked; she wore a corsage; he wore a dinner suit; they drank champagne from those shallow wide bottomed glasses introduced in the Prohibition era in America to disperse the bubbles so champagne was always drunk flat to fool “the fuzz”, they danced the dances of the age.  I remember learning at dancing class to the sound of a reedy voiced crooner. “Quick…quick…slow”.

Twenty-one was still the age of majority, and it was a time for a celebration. It was all Maytime in Melbourne, but on one night in 1961 I revealed the imp in me, an unfortunate trait that comes out when I’m bored and sober. The woman’s magazine reporter came up to us at this 21st shindig at the then exclusive location in Darling Street in South Yarra. My then fiancé was beautiful, which attracted “her gushiness,” and when asked my name, I gave the name of the Warden of the University College in which I was residing at the time. Where did I come from? I said Trawalla, which was a suitably upcountry location on the edge of the Western District.

I thought no more of it, but the photo of us appeared in the magazine complete with the alias. It was not long before the mother of the bloke whose 21st celebration it was wrote me a letter apologising for the error, which she had made clear in no uncertain terms to the magazine editor was unforgivable.

I heard nothing from the Warden; I was not the first to take his name for such an alias.

I have reflected on this piece of what I thought at the time was just me being clever and I used to regale people over the years with this anecdote. But really was I betraying an unfortunate attitude to women? Would I have done the same if the reporter was a male from a daily newspaper?

I had never thought about this until I was seeing this frothy comedy, with musical interludes. At one stage Michael Wilding bursts into the room and forcibly planted a kiss on Anna Neagle’s lips, at a time when the film storyline had them alienated. Then he departs gaily, and Anna Neagle instead of a normal reaction to being thus assaulted just simpered.

While it could be passed over in the entirety of the film, that action would be unacceptable these days in any script to picture a woman unaffected by this encounter. The arraignment of the former head of Spanish football for an uninvited kiss on one of Spanish woman footballers demonstrated at least universal distaste for such sexual violence.

Back when I made that gesture, what was sexual violence? Nothing to do with “me and my mates”?  Oh, really!

Getting it Right

Once when I was the medical administrator at a country hospital it was reported to me that an international medical graduate(IMG) from China, who had been assigned to the hospital as part of his registration process, was accessing pornography on hospital computers. Unlike the normal run of risk averse medical administrators, I neither did nothing nor did I “handball” the case to central office so they could organise the normal investigation.

Instead, I asked one of the staff very conversant with computer usage if he would accompany the doctor, who admitted that he had been accessing computers after hours. What he was doing was trying to find one where he could contact his sister in China. She wished to come to Australia to undertake a nursing course. He showed my colleague the computer which he had found enabled him to contact his sister in China, and the so-called porn glimpsed by the passing nursing staff was in fact pop-ups of Asian women in lingerie, incidental to his access. He had been successful in finding an appropriate computer, but I asked to see him.

I said in future not to do any further activities without asking permission, especially after hours. He was just not wanting to bother us, he explained. Nevertheless, he got the message. 

Some Like it Hot

Shamar Joseph has burst onto the cricketing scene from a shack in the back blocks of Guyana to win a test match for the West Indies, despite nursing a very bruised big toe. The amazing fact about this very fast bowler is that he is small for such a task. Standing alongside Steve Smith who is 176 cm, he seems to be slightly taller; and the source which says his height is 178cm seems to be the most plausible figure.

I thought the following recipe for Pepperpot would give the reader a touch of Guyana.

Now for the recipe, which appeared recently in the NYT, and has been modified. Cassareep, the essential ingredient is available in Australia.

Warm with sweet orange peel and spices like cloves and cinnamon, Pepperpot, a stewed meat dish popular in Guyana and the Caribbean, is traditionally served on Christmas morning. But one can make this version any time you want to celebrate. What gives it its distinct taste is cassareep, a sauce made from the cassava root. If you can’t find it, wiri wiri peppers or Scotch bonnets or a mixture of pomegranate molasses (1/3 cup), I tbsp of soy sauce and I tbsp Worcester sauce will work. Whatever you do, don’t forget to serve it with thick slices of white bread, or rice to sop up that delicious gravy.  Scotch bonnets, supposedly shaped like a tam o’shanter, are very hot chilis, ten times the Scoville unit measurement for jalapeño peppers. Apparently they are the go-to chilli of the Caribbean; but be warned!


4 pounds bone-in stew meat (oxtail, beef chuck, goat
or mutton), cut into 3-inch pieces
Kosher salt and black pepper
2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 Scotch bonnet or habanero peppers, chopped, plus
more to taste
1 large yellow onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, chopped
1 cup cassareep (or substitute)
¼ (lightly packed) cup brown sugar (dark or light)
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon whole cloves
3 medium cinnamon sticks
Peel from 1 medium orange
4 spring onions, cut into 4-inch lengths.

… now the process

Step 1
Prepare the green seasoning (onion, garlic, pepper, chives, coriander, thyme, basil): Add all ingredients to a food processor. Blend, adding water a few tablespoons at a time, until you get a thick purée. (Makes 3 cups; keep any extra in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 2 weeks.)

Step 2
Season the meat with 2 cups green seasoning, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Marinate at room temperature for 1 hour or overnight in the refrigerator.

Step 3
Heat the oven to 190 degrees. In a large Dutch oven over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons oil and transfer the meat into the pot, leaving behind any excess marinade. Brown the meat in batches. Transfer to a plate.

Step 4
Add 1 tablespoon oil to the pan, if necessary. Add Scotch bonnets and onion; sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, another 30 seconds.

Step 5
Add in the cassareep, brown sugar, ginger, cloves, cinnamon sticks, orange peel, spring onions and bay leaf. Add back the meat and the juices from the plate and add water to cover the meat. Let come to a boil over high heat.

Step 6
Cover the pot, transfer to the oven and cook, covered, for 2 to 2½ hours, until the meat is tender. Skim as much fat as possible from the top.

Mouse Whisper

When I got in my car at the Grand Marais Airport in rural northern Minnesota, where I’d left it, I noticed something peculiar: tiny footprints across my dust-covered dash.  Washington Post

How it all started.

The photos show what happens when a wildlife photographer finds that a white-footed mouse has decided to squat in his car. He named the mouse Morticia and she stayed there. She was more than just a subject; she was his resident model. Then she brought in a mate.

Symbiotic relationship – if that is the word.

There were rules. No food left in the car. No wires chewed in return. Mouse droppings cleaned away. Photos taken. Then the mice were gone sometime before his car had reached its time to be scrapped. Auto death at 250,000 miles.

But he still had his pictures.

Modest Expectations – Peyton Manning

“Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.” Matthew 2;16 

The Israeli Army discovered a cache of weapons behind an MRI Machine in the Al-Shifa Hospital. Unless they were plastic, nobody in their right mind would place weapons anyway near an MRI machine. Salting the mine is a well-known trick.


And of course the Israel Defence force would discover a shaft under the hospital, but who dug it? Actually, the shaft opening reminds me of one of those mine shafts in the gem fields of Central Queensland, into which I was once lowered on a makeshift lift, a glorified tin can, to the mineral face. There was a passage leading away. Here the miners were fossicking for sapphires.

Without discovering a shaft, the word “war criminal” comes to mind for Netanyahu and his buddies. Also, the American Intelligence backing the Israeli supposedly provides proof. What proof?  I would have thought that it would be easier to use technology such as the synchronized electromagnetic gradiometer which uses the enhanced conductivity associated with tunnels, as compared to the surrounding medium, to detect the tunnels. I am sure that to terrify children and stomp around a hospital looking for Hamas shadows is much more exciting to the Israeli onlookers dressed in black. Especially if one can incite a shoot-out. Good television – paediatric massacre.

The Washington Post recently reported that in December 2021, Israel’s military said a high-tech upgrade to the barrier that had long surrounded the Gaza Strip would protect nearby Israeli residents from the threat of violence from militants. It cost a billion US dollars. The Hamas have shown how vulnerable the wall was, while at the same time catching the Israeli defence forces napping.

I have written enough. I am sick of the apologias for this Israeli pogrom; the attempt to intellectualise what is just murder of thousands of children and keep invoking the destruction of Hamas being the ultimate aim whereas it was, as I speculated earlier, the genocide of the whole Gazans. What does the arithmetic of hostage mean. The damage has been done. Shame on all of us!

Gorse, I’m Right

It is a wonder the Tasmanian Government in all their gallows humour has not replaced the Tasmanian blue gum with gorse as its floral emblem, since the onward march of this yellow Caledonian curse across the landscape seems to be unstoppable. Tasmania has tried a number of methods of eradication. One has been burning but burning gorse just helps germinate the seed and accelerate the spread, while leaving an unsightly blackened scene.

Irish women may have used gorse to make a yellow dye similar to saffron from its flowers, but that is of little consolation to us Australians. Gorse presence greatly reduces land value. The plant is unpalatable to cattle and sheep. Horses will eat new growth while goats will eat mature plants. Gorse is a significant haven for vermin. There is a range of herbicides but they are costly and must be applied with a degree of skill. I cannot believe that such skill being applied at regular intervals of time along the road from Zeehan to Strahan where the gorse is advancing and has reached the Henty River would not arrest the advance. This is the land of temperate rain forest, where sections still remain pristine, but for not much longer unless the Government fights the yellow peril.

The solution is to have a permanent flock of goats. Goats are everywhere in Australia, and it has been shown that feral goats can become trained as a useful flock when it comes to eating gorse. The comment that once the goats are removed, the gorse returns has a simple solution – keep on with the goats. The missing part is government funding for the goatherds, and of course the goats. Of gorse!

We live on a Planet with a Volcanic Temper

If nothing else, the past few days have brought home a stark reality: The sleeping giant is very much awake. A network of volcanic fissures extends right into the suburbs of Reykjavík. What this bodes, no one knows. One thing is certain: The forces shaking my kitchen, shaking the foundations of so many small and brittle lives, are far beyond our control. – Aldo Sigmundsdottir, The Washington Post

Iceland is up to its old tricks again. Iceland, despite is name, does not intrude across the Arctic circle and although one correspondent diminished Grindavik as nothing more than an undistinguished fishing village, volcanic activity excites everybody. In any event magma building up beneath Iceland may break through the surface into a volcanic eruption, sending lava flows toward the Blue Lagoon, the Svartsengi geothermal power plant, as well as Grindavík.  But it seems to be spreading across the whole Reykjavík Peninsula.

Blue Lagoon

Having enjoyed the intensely pale blue lagoon with steam rising into the air, I realise that, located where it was in a cooled lava field, it is inevitable its existence will be threatened at some point when the Earth decides to move. This area has lain dormant for 800 years, but the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, a volcano completely covered by an ice cap in 2010, caused no loss of life but considerable inconvenience for planes with its dense high ash plume rising to nine kilometres into the atmosphere.

Years later, it resumed a less active state so I could drive around it on my way south; its recent activity was denoted by a wisp of smoke.

I have written extensively in an earlier blog about my visit to Iceland in 2013. Now, hearing that the Blue Lagoon is in danger, it would be a great pity if such a beautiful tourist attraction is destroyed by the lava flow, but that is how Nature functions.

The pink and white terraces

I have always been fascinated by the descriptions of the Pink and White terraces – these natural silica terraces beside Lake Rotomahana, where Victorian New Zealanders would come to bathe in the silica rich waters. The description of them always emphasised not only their beauty, but their uniqueness – some called them the eighth wonder of the World. Unfortunately, in 1886, Mount Tarawera erupted and destroyed the Terraces. Yet one is not allowed to accuse Nature of vandalism!

The other area which I know well is the Western District of Victoria. This area of Victoria was home to at least 400 short-lived basaltic volcanoes that erupted in geologically recent times (last 4.5 million years ago). Iceland by comparison has 33 active volcanos.

The largest of the Victorian volcanos is known as Tower Hill, which remains as a caldera, through which one can drive. On its sides are very rich basalt soils, in which potatoes are grown by the Koroit community under the extinct volcano. The past intense volcanic activity is also indicated by the stony rises and progressive movement of basalt rock to the Southern Ocean, on the shores of which blocks of basalt remain as sentinel of past volcanic activity. In that time, Western Victoria must have resembled one representation of Dante’s Inferno.

Putting it all in perspective, around the planet there have been 30 major volcanic eruptions this century at the rate of about one a year. The biggest volcanic eruption was Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai near Tonga in 2022. This had the same volcano eruption index (VEI) of 5 – the same power – as the Vesuvial eruption of BCE 79 which destroyed Pompeii. The only other comparable volcanic eruption (also measuring 5) was in the Southern Chilean Andes, the Cordon Caulle. This happened in 2011. The ash cloud reached as far as Melbourne, but there were no known casualties.

Those which caused the greatest loss of life were one in Guatemala and the other Anak Krakatoa in the Sunda Strait, which exploded leaving a caldera and a massive tidal wave which affected both Java and Sumatra.

On each occasion about 500 people were killed, with many more injured, with associated destruction of infrastructure.

Volcanic eruptions always attract attention, but when it is in Iceland, they always seem to occupy central stage.


I have never written about one of the most fascinating places we stayed some years ago. This was Blanchland Village, nestling under the Northern Pennines. It can be succinctly described as this: Blanchland is a village on the Northumberland/County Durham border which grew out of the foundation of an abbey in 1165. It was bought by the Bishop of Durham, Nathaniel Lord Crewe, in 1708 and on his death in 1721 Blanchland became part of a charitable trust established in his will. Here we stayed in what has been described as one of the prettiest villages in England. I thought the stone buildings drab, but we were lodged in a very comfortable apartment opposite the main accommodation at the Lord Crewe Hotel. The hotel we remember had a massive fireplace and it was where we ate most meals. Kippers were on the menu – I love them, but others don’t.

Lord Crewe Arms, Blanchland

I learnt that Earl Grey Tea originally came from Northumberland and being already the tea I mostly drank, it was interesting to find its wellspring.

The other traditional drink which always seems to be associated with mediaeval retreats is mead. Cider yes, perry yes; mead definite no!

We hiked up the hill every morning. Here there were the heather-covered moors of these Northern Pennines. We came across the remains of the ancient silver mine. As reported, silver was being extracted from North Pennine ores on a significant scale during the medieval period, as was lead. Throughout many centuries of mining activity, a constant by-product of the processing and smelting of lead ores was silver.

From the report, it is further estimated that the mines produced a total of over two million ounces of silver between 1130 and 1200 here near Blanchland. As such this was an important mine for silver in the medieval period. It is considered that the minting of this silver may have contributed to a doubling of English silver currency between 1158 and 1180. However, it seems certain that this was a time when mining expanded rapidly within the ore field and was then the most productive source of mined silver in England.

In one corner there was a small dell which had been cordoned off to protect the remnant of an ancient wood. It was one of those leafy areas which you imagine form the backgrounds in multiple children’s books. The problem with the maintenance of such areas is that they are incompatible with sheep farming which is allowed on the moor.

We were lucky to be on the moors in summer, but even then it is desolate, although I enjoy the openness of the various moors and the selective isolation. What I mean by that is it is great to be able to walk the moors in summer with the aim of getting to know oneself; but try winter, slogging through the snow while composing soliloquys for one’s isolated lost soul. Not quite the same.

We were staying at the foot of the moors, and one of the days, I remember trudging up the hill and encountering a farmer who was backing his tractor onto the track. For some reason, we got talking and he revealed that he had invented the green plastic method of wrapping and waterproofing the large round bales of hay. It is interesting that small advances in the human condition remain in the brain.

Blanchland was one of those villages which, until you stop to look around and find the unusual, you may just remark that it was pretty. But its history tells otherwise that it is not just a pretty facade.

It’s a Long Way from Darjeeling

You can never count one’s number of buffaloes until they are captured. I thought it to be relevant adaption to the sub-continent of the old adage about counting chickens before they are hatched.

Cricket’s World Cup is the four-year tournament attracting the best ten teams from around the planet to play each other in the 50 overs a side match. This means a drawn-out spectacle with matches held all over India on this occasion. The Indian side were unbeaten coming into the final, which was scheduled to be held in Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat state whence Modi emerged. The stadium holds 132,000 people and is the largest in the World. The Indians were leaving nothing to chance as the curator would have had the opportunity to make a pitch friendly to the hosts. Umpires may be neutral, but curators are not.

But they lost – no, not beaten by a better team; India choked. Really?

This country always has high expectations of our sporting teams, but when they fail, the tall poppy syndrome kicks in. The higher the expectation, the intensity of the tall poppy syndrome when the particular team or individual fails.

Now the Australian cricket team has reached its zenith. Zeniths are generally not plateaux; but Australian cricket has shown remarkable ability to do just that.

Australians have had tough relentless cricket captains since Kim Hughes’ term ended in blubbering. That image was understandable given the times, but from Alan Border on, the Australian team was often ugly, graceless in maintaining its superiority until Steve Smith’s tearful response to cheating and being found out in South Africa.

Tim Paine, for an excellent underrated wicketkeeper, did the best he could. However, Pat Cummins, the current captain and a great fast bowler who can bat, has shown a resilience and yet a sense of fair play. When the Poms accused the Australians of cheating when they had had enough of the sly Bairstow and ran him out, Pat Cummins weathered the storm. His resilience was sorely tested, but with his unfailing smile, often steely, he represents the myth of the traditional Australian.

How he handles his retirement will confirm that myth, not that I believe that is tomorrow, even though fast bowling is not the most natural use of one’s body. Nevertheless, enjoy the unexpected win; even Modi, who was watching the loss, waved in acknowledgement to the Australians despite his stony expression.

Mouse Whisper

You would think a mouse would warm to hip-hop, but I’m inclined to agree with the sarcastic comment about this art form “Promoting drug dealing and degrading women. Good stuff.”

It was invented, if that is the word, in the Bronx in 1973 – 1520 Sedgewick Avenue to be precise, when some dude call D J Cool Herc, started syncopated chanting to the kids dancing at his sister’s break up party while scratching and otherwise mutilating the record. The chanting was called “rapping”. Thus, the egg was cracked and this reptilian music emerged.

Some hip-hop enthusiast in Boston forsees 2024 as “a rap scene full of more elite talent, star power, and diversity than ever before, whether we’re talking about Bia, Cousin Stizz, Oompa, Termanology, Dutch ReBelle, Millyz, Latrell James, STL GLD, Cliff Notez, Najee Janey, Avenue, Bori Rock, Brandie Blayze, Red Shaydez, or Van Buren.”

Bewdy! Lots of “Z’s”. Can’t wait.

Cool Herc’s party flyer
























Modest Expectations – Karnataka

Nesting osprey

I was going through my memorabilia, and I came across my sand dollar, which I remember was given to me by friends who lived on the outer islands of South Carolina, to be precise where they had a house on Fripp Island. We stayed there a few times, and one of the memories which has stayed with me was seeing the osprey in the morning, the birds appearing to wake up with dawn.

I must say I do have fond memories of South Carolina because it was the place where I came to love scallops. The Gay Fish Company had their base on a nearby island in what is termed the low country, in other words a high class swamp. Their daily harvest of scallops was caught early, and these were notably large and sweet; one had to get down there early because when the catch was sold there were no more for the day. As I said, before staying there, I was not keen on scallops, but these Gay-harvested scallops changed my mind. I doubt if since I have ever had such large scallops with such flavour.

The sand dollar is also known as the Holy Ghost Shell, essentially the skeleton of a sea urchin. In South Carolina there are stiff penalties if one removes them live, but when they die, they are left as bleached calciferous discs. They are not uncommon, but as they tend to be fragile, by the time they get to the beach most are cracked or chipped. I have two – one the natural remnant and the other made from base metal which I was given as a present. The shells are full of Christian symbolism relating to Jesus Christ.

The following is a common description of this symbolism. It is said that Christ left the sand dollar as a symbol to help the evangelists teach the faith. The five holes commemorate the five wounds of Christ, while at the centre on one side blooms the Easter Lily, and at the lily’s heart is the Star of Bethlehem. The Christmas poinsettia is etched on the other side, a reminder of Christ’s birth. According to this legend, if you break the centre, five white doves will be released to spread goodwill and peace.

Biologically, sand dollars are small invertebrates with distinctive exoskeletons sporting a star shape at the centre of their disc-like bodies. The tube feet and keratinous spines covering their bodies make living sand dollars look and feel like velvet. Common colourations of sand dollars are grey, dark purple, pink, red and charcoal.  When you pick them up, they’ll exude a yellow staining substance not unlike their relation, the sea urchin. Even though I associate the sand dollar with South Carolina, they are distributed worldwide and can live for up to ten years. The sand dollar is edible, but it seems only the Japanese regularly include it in their cuisine.

Living in this low country is somewhat of a lottery because of regular hurricanes, and our friends lost a new Volvo parked under their house – the pedantic might call it an undercroft filled with water. However, that is the problem. The times we were there the sun sparkled, the unreal emerald colour shone from the fairways and the nearby picturesque Beaufort, pronounced “Bue-fort” not “Beau–fort”, had that Southern charm.  The islands – a string of privileged influence, which I doubt even the mystical sand dollar can save.

Fripp Island

Massacres of Aboriginals – The role of the Aboriginal Trooper

I always wonder how the descendants of the Indigenous troopers rationalise their ancestors’ role in the massacre of their Aboriginal brothers and sisters. Have they issued apologies – do they walk as penitents to atone for their ancestors’ action?

I have been to two of the sites where major massacres of Aboriginals occurred, and where there are monuments to those killed.

The first of these is approached on a hill above Bingara in northern New South Wales. It is a plain granite rock, and the path winds because it is supposed to represent the rainbow servant. In relation to the victims, it was a particularly savage attack by whitefellas. The victims were mainly women and children, decapitated, dismembered and burnt. Seven of the perpetrators were subsequently tried and hanged, which was itself controversial at the time. The problem was that the execution hardened colonial attitudes against the Aboriginal people, rather than creating any sympathy for them.

Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld

Previously, Major James Nunn, the Commandant of the New South Wales Mounted Police, had been sent from Sydney to lead a punitive expedition against the Aboriginal people who had killed stockmen in separate incidents. His response, however, was extreme. On 26 January 1838 Nunn and his men massacred Aboriginal people camped at Waterloo Creek. Contemporary reports were vague about the number massacred. Some suggested eight deaths, others put the figure at 40-50, while Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld, the Congregational minister and chronicler suggested it may have been more like 500.

Nunn also encouraged nearby stockmen and settlers to murder any Aboriginal person they came across. It was the opening salvo in the Myall Creek murders. I cannot find any evidence, at least not in the Threlkeld papers, that there were any Aboriginal troopers involved although Aboriginal men were recruited to the NSW Mounted Police. Rolf Boldrewood, in his reflections on his time spent as an early squatter in the Western District of Victoria, mentions the recruitment of Aboriginal troopers from the tribes around Tumut, hundreds of kilometres away. Native Police were recruited from 1837, only two years after the foundation of Melbourne and the opening up of the Port Phillip District.

Queensland, by contrast, had a strong history of Aboriginal troopers. I remember coming back from Normanton in the Gulf Country via the back road to Cloncurry. Near the hamlet of Kajabbi, there is a cairn which was dedicated by Charlie Perkins and a Kalkadoon elder, George Thorpe, in 1984. The memorial commemorates one hundred years since the battle between Aboriginal tribes, in particular the Kalkadoon, and the native Mounted Police under Sub-Inspector Fred Urquhart.  For eight years he commanded a huge swathe of Far Northern Queensland including not only the Gulf but also the whole of Cape York and Thursday Island.

The Kalkadoon had been rustling the white settlers’ cattle, because the cattle had reduced the native wildlife. The Kalkadoon were used to hunting the native fauna and in its absence, the settlers’ cattle would do. The settlers called in the police and pitched battles were fought. On multiple occasions Urquhart was wounded, but this “heroism” was rewarded eventually by his becoming the head of this squad. The native police were recruited, far from where they were posted, and were known to be particularly brutal in these so-called “dispersals”.

In 1884, at least fifty Kalkadoon were killed in these so-called skirmishes.

I have been to these two places where Aboriginal people were murdered and memorials created. One was where the presence of native troopers was unproven; and probably not involved. The other there was definite involvement.

The fact is that Aboriginals in the employ of the whitefellas massacred their fellow Aboriginal people. Not the normal tribal warfare, which has pockmarked the concept of Australia of being some form of blackfella Shangri-la, if it were not for the Invaders.

The Aboriginal people love their myths. Uluru is a myth. Too much of what has happened has been airbrushed away, as the amount of meeting after meeting after meeting, with the same images – with people like Patrick Dodson trying to stir whitefella guilt by implying that Australia will lose moral authority if Australia does not vote “Yes”.

Where is the moral authority when your ancestors were murdering your fellow Aboriginal people. What do you say now about moral authority? Apologies for police actions have been undertaken by whitefellas; where is the blackfella apology?

Frederick Douglass Back on Stage

The following is a part of a text which was read out in Somerville on July 4. It comes from a speech made in 1852 by the slave emancipator, Frederick Douglass, born a slave in Maryland in 1817, but who escaped as a child.

It was on 5 July 1852 that Douglass delivered an address in the newly built Corinthian Hall in Rochester New York. This speech eventually became known as “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” One biographer called it “perhaps the greatest antislavery oration ever given”.

Like many abolitionists, Douglass believed that education would be crucial for African Americans to improve their lives; he was an early advocate for school desegregation. In the 1850s, Douglass observed that New York’s facilities and instruction for African American children were vastly inferior to those for European Americans. Douglass called for court action to open all schools to all children. He said that full inclusion within the educational system was a more pressing need for African Americans than political issues such as suffrage.

It is ironic that the Supreme Court has just struck down the affirmative action by tertiary education institutions.  In the view of the Chief Justice John Roberts, the relevant part of the 14th Amendment, its equal protection clause, was meant to help bring about a colourblind society, not to support racial preferences. What is the difference when a Society is so heavily skewed to white privilege?

Frederick Douglass

The Douglass speech is much longer than the speech made by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, over a decade later, but it has the same gravitas, the same call to reform while invoking the ideal of the fledging Republic. The fact that slavery persisted so long in the USA has always cast a shadow over all the “high-falutin” oratory that was spun around in those years before, during and after the Civil War, when so many Americans killed one another just epitomises the conundrum of the “killing fields” in the land of the free. Over what?  An enmity which persists to the present day linked to skin colour.

In the meantime, with the delivery of this speech originally made close to the 4th of July, for those in the audience in Somerville near Boston this week, this speech has been a reminder of the unhealed self-inflicted wounds that the Americans make on themselves.

Americans! Your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties) is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria, and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and bodyguards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina.

You invite to your shores, fugitives of oppression from abroad, honour them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot and kill. You glory in your refinement and your universal education yet you maintain a system as barbarous and dreadful as ever stained the character of a nation—a system begun in avarice, supported in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty. You shed tears over fallen Hungary, and make the sad story of her wrongs the theme of your poets, statesmen and orators, till your gallant sons are ready to fly to arms to vindicate her cause against her oppressors; but, in regard to the ten thousand wrongs of the American slave, you would enforce the strictest silence, and would hail him as an enemy of the nation who dares to make those wrongs the subject of public discourse!

You are all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or for Ireland; but are as cold as an iceberg at the thought of liberty for the enslaved of America. You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labour; yet, you sustain a system which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor. You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a threepenny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country. You profess to believe “that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth,” and hath commanded all men, everywhere to love one another; yet you notoriously hate, (and glory in your hatred), all men whose skins are not coloured like your own. You declare, before the world, and are understood by the world to declare, that you “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that, among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, “is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,” a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.

The Virgin Armenian

Gary Sturgess

Gary Sturgess has left his mark on NSW.

ICAC was his idea.

Gladys Berejiklian has left her mark on NSW with her version of Bridget Jones’s Diary, as revealed in the ICAC folio.

What else?

Well, I have kept my own diary-blog during the Plague years, in which Premier Berejiklian figures prominently – one misstep after another, her feet firmly placed in her goody-two shoes.

The culmination of the idolatry came with the AFR article in April 2021 with Phillip Coorey cooing about the Woman who Saved Australia. There she was photographed in all her understated sultriness, swathed in virginal white, incongruously perched on the green benches of the Legislative Assembly.

I never could get that “saviour” line, given that the Ruby Princess fiasco occurred under her watch. And then it went on and on – and everybody praised her handling of the epidemic.

She was the third NSW Premier to be touched by the ICAC, and none have been bought to court. In fact, Greiner and Farrell have survived handsomely. After all, New South Wales has a tradition from the earliest days of letting those convicted of misdemeanours, if not felonies, to strut free. There is a list of parliamentary dross who have been convicted, including two of murder. Notwithstanding, there had not been any convictions for forty years, until “Buckets” Rex Jackson was convicted in 1987. Since the arrival of ICAC there have been more convictions than in all the years from 1987 back to 1891 when the first misdemeanour by a parliamentarian was reported.

As reported, in July 1999 Carmen Lawrence stood in the dock in Perth District Court silently mouthing the words “thank you, thank you, thank you” across the floor to the jury. Six men and six women had spent just 45 minutes deliberating before acquitting her of perjury after a trial lasting three weeks.

Carmen Lawrence would have been the third former Western Australian Premier in less than three years to be gaoled if she had been found guilty of having given false or misleading information to the 1995 Marks Royal Commission; the charges laid under section 24 of the Royal Commission Act 1968 carried a penalty of five years imprisonment.

Former Premiers Brian Burke and Ray O’Connor and former Deputy Premier David Parker all served time behind bars in the aftermath of the WA Inc Royal Commission. Brian Burke, in addition, was sentenced to three years jail after being convicted of stealing $122,585 from the Australian Labor Party between 1984 and 1985 to fund purchases for his own private stamp collection. The former Labor leader was also gaoled in late 1994 for fraud offences, but he was released after serving only seven months of a two-year term. In keeping with the traditions of NSW, Burke survived and went onto a successful career as a pro-business lobbyist, working in partnership with former ministerial colleague Julian Grill, also investigated by the CCC of WA, charged, but subsequently found not guilty of all charges.

In February 1995 the then 69-year-old former Premier Ray O’Connor also received a prison term after being found guilty in the Perth District Court of stealing a $25,000 cheque from Bond Corporation, which had been intended for Liberal Party campaign funds. O’Connor was originally given an 18-month jail term, but he was released after serving only six months. In September 1994 David Parker was sentenced to 18 months jail after being convicted of stealing $38,000 from his campaign accounts between 1986 and 1989.

So Western Australian Premiers have been especially naughty; but in Victoria there is a certain purity, the only convictions of parliamentarians have been for drink driving. In Queensland, after the Fitzgerald Inquiry, in 1991 the former Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen was lucky that he was not convicted of perjury, largely because of the actions of the trial foreman, Luke Shaw. This person was an avowed “friend” of Bjelke-Petersen and National Party activist. Bjelke-Petersen was not re-tried because of his age and subsequent development of a form of dementia.

Berejiklian seems to have a high degree of hubris and little shame about the findings of ICAC, but here was a situation where the Commissioner could not win. Ruth McColl is a stickler for process, but she is not a practitioner of the dark arts of NSW politics. Therefore, if she takes too long, essentially a value judgement of the current NSW Premier, then there must be legislative redress to assure “the quick and dirty”. This Premier really is a piece of work. If McColl had spent less time, that group surrounding Berejiklian would have launched an assault on the Commissioner that she had given insufficient time to consider the matters under referral.  Nevertheless, I doubt whether Berejiklian saying that she wanted to spend more time with her family would bring any more incredulity than the idolatrous clamour from her claque is bringing upon her already.

What will be interesting is how Optus handles the situation. Does she damage the brand so that Optus, itself with a speckled reputation, is forced to release her back to the arms of her family.

McGuire and Berijiklian

There is an obvious question of probity, not just of some sort of stained Pollyanna. There is more to come. Influential members of the media are opposed to the secretive Armenian princess, and in the forthcoming travails of Daryl McGuire, it is inconceivable that she would not be mentioned in dispatches; plus, if she challenges the ICAC finding and expects her objections to be received in secret, she is living in fairyland.

In the meantime, those who have extolled Berejiklian should look to Plan B, because she has been spared by the drawn-out process, which in fact has provided a shield. That shield has gone; the decision is in.

Teddy Bairstow’s picnic

Lordy, Lordy! I believe gin is the preferred spirit of the game, but Pimm’s No. 1 Cup is gaining rapidly.

Not the tie but the jacket and cap … checking phone for current MCC Laws of Cricket on stumping

By the way, did you note the colour of the Lord’s tie. In our youth, we used to drink advocaat and cherry brandy – known colloquially among us medical students as blood and pus. Not that I would be that revolting.

Mouse Whisper

This mouse-myth is narrated by Herodotus, an unreliable Greek historian who lived in 5th century BC, and is said to have happened in Egypt. Whatever the truth, for we mice, it is entertaining.  Sethôs was an Ethiopian priest who became the ruler of Egypt at a time when the state was under Ethiopian domination, somewhere in the early 7th century B.C. Apparently when Sethôs clambered up to the throne, he made a point of showing he couldn’t care less about the “warrior-class” of Egyptians. He thus found himself without an army when the Assyrian King Sennacherib invaded his country. Sethos fell asleep in the temple, and the god Hephæstus, appearing to him in a vision, told him that divine succour would come to the Egyptians. In the night before the battle, field-mice gnawed the quivers, the spears and the leather shield-handles of the Assyrians, who fled on finding themselves thus disarmed. “And now,” says Herodotus, “there stands a stone image of this king in the temple of Hephæstus, and in his hand a mouse, and there is this inscription, “Let who so look on me and be pious.”

Modest Expectations – Ted Greatorex

For a couple of years in the 1980s, we spent Christmas at the Savoy Hotel in a suite which enabled us to look straight down the Thames and Christmas  lunch was in the Savoy Grill.  One of the offspring who had taken a year off to fence in Paris and Budapest (he was actually based in the latter but had a great many contacts in the stylishly named Racing club in Paris) came over to London to have lunch with us. The food was excellent; the wine flowed; the jollification found him taking off his jacket.  The Christmas cracker, suitably extravagant, yielded a parachuting man. Never mind that the son draped the parachute, to which a tiny figurine was attached, on his head so that the figurine was dangling over his nose. One of the waiters sidled up to him and murmured: “It appears that Sir’s jacket has slipped from Sir’s shoulders. Perhaps I could help Sir to put Sir’s jacket back on.”

Ah, the good old days, when Mr Pickwick stalked the land, but the offspring did not reply to the waiter “You jest, good sir. Be of good cheer.” He obeyed and put on his jacket, and Grill etiquette was restored. The parachute remained on his head for the duration.

Yuletide Greetings Everyone.

Ernie Toshack

Ernie Toshack

When I see Scott Boland bowl, with his very understated approach behind a line of more famous fast bowlers, I was reminded of Ernie Toshack, whose nickname was the “Black Prince”. He was born in Cobar and during WW11 worked in the munitions factory at Lithgow. When he was not working, he tried his hand at cricket. The man who became a member of Bradman’s Invincibles in 1948, started in the Marrickville 4th in 1941.  He was initially rejected by Petersham. His progression during the war years to his first test, being against New Zealand in 1946 at the age of 32, was spectacular. Even given that the number playing competitive cricket would have been thinned by the War, nevertheless his progression to Test status was impressive. In fact he had only two years at Test level, before chronic arthritis in his knees forced his retirement. Lindwall, Miller, and perhaps Bill Johnston were the fast bowlers our generation venerates, but Toshack?  He was no batsman and therefore it was his bowling for which he was selected.

He was a left arm medium pace bowler who was very accurate. It is said Bradman would walk down the pitch and put a sixpence on the pitch, point to it and say to Ernie that was where he wanted him to put the ball. Ernie would respond, which made him not only a very economical bowler but also underrated because he lacked an explosive delivery.

Toshack had an exotic genealogy. He was not of Aboriginal descent as Boland is. It is said that his ancestor was John Randall, believed to be originally a slave from the United States and a soldier who fought for the British in the American War of Independence. He arrived in Sydney with the First Fleet in January 1788. Skilled in musket use, Randall was soon employed as a hunter, sourcing wild game for the British officers.

Scott Boland

The comparison between Boland and Toshack: they both had no whitefella heritage – one Aboriginal; the other in the parlance of our time, Afro-American. They were both very accurate medium fast bowlers, often but not always first change, came to Test cricket late – and their progression was unheralded, but their first test against England was memorable. In the first test against England in Brisbane in 1946, Toshack took 6/59; not quite the 6/7 that Boland claimed in his first test in Melbourne in 2021.

When you look at them more closely, there was not that close a comparison; I cannot see Boland affecting a bowler hat and a furled umbrella that the “Black Prince” would wear and carry.  Nevertheless, when I first saw the understated Boland coming into bowl, I did think of Toshack.

Look good in a Suit

This response was prompted by the belated response to the antics of Shane Fitzsimmons, whose professional life was fenestrated by his leadership in time of disaster. This is the man who has been NSW Person of the year, and who this year at the CWA Conference said:

“I was broken during the fire season when we lost people. It was very challenging on some days: hoping for moisture, but all we got was lightning and more fires. But I was inspired by the tenacity of all the fire workers, by the tenacity of communities, by the outpouring of love and kindness of people in communities.

“My way of coping is talking openly to others about how I’m feeling,”

His speech is the type of avoidance that failure bestows upon its author. Read carefully and see no admission of accountability. This is a guy who has a formula for survival, which in the end was not enough. He was sacked last week from an organisation that did not have what its name implied – Resilience NSW.

But then he was not on his Pat Malone. Nevertheless, that is not an excuse for appointing people because they rise to the top in what are as closed an order as the Trappist monks, just different regalia.

We coined shorthand for the incompetent in high places: “looks good in a suit”.

However, let’s get to the mists of youth, a time of socialisation and when the young me became very sceptical of braid and the inherent sense of self-importance it brings.

My time in cadets at school introduced to me to a uniformed service.  Being a cadet was important in my rebel socialisation. Membership of the cadet corps was virtually compulsory when I was at school, and I distinguished myself with being one of the few who went through the three years without being promoted, although I was entitled to crossed flags on my sleeves to signify that I had passed some test for the signal corps. My mate, who also was never promoted, not only had crossed flags but also crossed rifles on his sleeve to signify that he was a crack shot in the shooting team. It was a time when the school had a rifle range on the top floor of a then new building.

Perhaps it was our bringing alcohol into the cadet camp and having a brawl with senior NCOs who, in our other life, were just fellow students but with chevrons on their sleeve that gave them power in the environment of a cadet camp. Thus, when the fight broke out, I was rebelling against authority, and the fight was all the more vicious, terminated when I was hit by the butt of a rifle that night.  I learnt to cop it, leave the dispute in the tent and not to complain. Any friendship I may have had within the class where there was no rank ended there and then.

Against that personal background, when I was President of the University of Melbourne Student Representative Council, I was faced with confrontation with the head of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Fire Brigade. It was the end of first term and the engineers and commerce students were having their annual “marbles match” on the lawn outside the Union building. The lawn was once a lake and therefore it took little rain to turn it into mud. The ‘marbles match” quickly degenerated, as it always did, into a form of the Eton wall game with all the combatants covered in mud. I never knew what the aim was, but I had a bird’s eye view from the SRC office.

The “mud match” was cracking on, and there was much student activity, when the inevitable happened. Somebody broke the fire alarm in the Union, and before long, with bells ringing, the fire cart arrived driving through the milling mob in front of the Union, where it stopped. Before the firemen could get out of their vehicle, some idiot student dumped a bucket of mud over them.

A few of us immediately went down, two of those accompanying me later became very senior judges – one of the Supreme Court and one of the Federal Court. With that amount of student firepower we were able to quieten the mob and isolate some very angry firemen covered in mud, issue an apology and offer to pay for the cleaning.

The University was a very different place, being the only one then in Victoria. Thus, it was very much a place of privilege and very much left to govern itself. At no stage did I remember police being on campus in response to any student activity, and such was the case here.  A delegation, led by myself, later in the afternoon went down to Eastern Hill, where the firemen bosses were located. We were ushered in and the elderly fire chief was there glowering, surrounded by his lieutenants, all of whom affected a mixture of disdain and anger. There was no holding back as we were dressed down by this choleric elderly fire chief in his full braid. Any effort to apologise and to offer to pay for any damage was lost in a shouted invective, where top hat versus cloth cap confrontation was not far from the surface.

The newspapers were there to photograph us as we left the premises, and the incident was splashed across the front page of The Age. I do not remember being criticised by the Vice-Chancellor, with whom I met on a regular basis. It was my first introduction to a non-military uniformed service, but even at a young age I was not impressed by this braided bully, a standover merchant. OK, there are dopey students who do dopey things, but his response was completely over the top.

I was only 20, and at that age, we all move on, even if there was a post-riot hiccough, which was not related to the meeting with the fire chief. Several decades later, I was asked to review the NSW Ambulance Service. It was a time when what I knew as “ambulance driver” when I first graduated, was translating to a more professional workforce where the driver connotation had been transposed to “ambulance officer”. No longer the stretcher bearer, but a service where a cohort of newly-minted “paramedics” was being trained.

The problem was that the training was internal, there was no reciprocity between the States, and one of the teachers was reputed to have a baseball bat as allegedly one of his teaching aids. Then, within the NSW Ambulance Service, there was the “Brotherhood” – membership of which was said to be important for promotion. What was fact was that the Service had more levels of rank than the British Army. Trying to reform entrenched uniformed essential services is very difficult, even if the heads of the services are what you might call “look good in a suit”. They had risen through the services, knew all the buttons not only to polish but also to press to rid themselves of outside recommendations.

In this case, as with the hapless Fitzsimmons, it was the powers that wanted change. In our case reviewing the ambulance service, we avoided our recommendations being debated in the media. The most significant recommendation apart from reduction in the number of ranks, was to establish university-based paramedic training courses, which then led to reciprocity across the States – and at that time in the NSW Ambulance Service, an improved standard in leadership was implemented, and the ranks collapsed into a fewer number where competence trumped time in the service.

The NSW government has made a very definite and welcome decision to abolish Fitzsimmon’s empire.  No worry, he’ll still look good in a suit with all those medals he gleaned as he floated to the top.

The New Health

The central objective of insurance – the removal of uncertainty – cannot be achieved through a cash reimbursement scheme unless the fees against which the benefits are paid are also predictable – R.B. Scotton 1969. 

The common misapprehension about the Australian health system, whether it be called Medibank or Medicare, is that it sets the fees for doctors, because that is how the Federal Government intervention is interpreted. 

The Grattan Institute is at it again. The Australian health system is built around providing a patient benefit for medical services, which are provided by doctors who are working in private practice. The Grattan Institute has a solution, so simple that the media can understand. I for one am bemused by the comment that “GPs should be able to choose a new funding model that supports team care and enables them to spend more time on complex cases, by combining appointment fees with a flexible budget for each patient based on their level of need.” Compare this confused thinking with succinctness of the late Dick Scotton above.

The Constitutional Amendment in 1946 enabled the Federal government to provide medical, dental, hospital and pharmaceutical benefits. No government has taken the opportunity to set up a universal dental system, (and that deserves a separate discussion), hospital benefits which are not at present available, instead the Federal government provides funding for the States, but the area of Federal-State relations unfortunately has become one area of significant double-dipping. The whole area of State-Commonwealth relations has been very fraught; the answer to double-dipping has been to look the other way and not proscribe this scam. Much of this playground developed in Victoria when Kennett was Premier.

Pharmaceutical benefits provide subsidised drugs on a schedule of benefits. That is the invariable, that is if the government sets a benefit it needs to provide a list of value of benefits. This has also been an area where special pleading for very expensive drugs has the form of a lottery, where who you know is of as much importance as proven efficacy of the drug.

Then there are medical benefits, which are the core of the health system, whether it be the initial Earle Page iteration or the post-Nimmo Inquiry, Medibank or Medicare, the architects of which were the late John Deeble and Dick Scotton.

The core of these later proposals was universality. Every Australian was entitled to free care – medical and hospital care; and for pensioners and other poor people identified, free drugs provided they were on a benefit schedule or made available through a hospital pharmacy. The government set a tax levy to cover the cost of Medicare.

When there is an open funding model coupled with changes in the technology to improve the efficiency, if these are not appropriately monitored, as has occurred, then the result can mean the funding model is now completely out of whack.

Any system which pays on the basis of benefits has a major subjective element. If you base it on the fair and reasonable fee that a medical practitioner charges, the value of the benefit is dependent on the particular segment of the profession being as objective as can be in the value of the treatment. In the initial establishment of the benefits, the ophthalmologists based their “fair and reasonable fee” on the highest charging colleague in the country, which produced an exaggerated benefit. This was 1971 and with time any improvement in technology that improved throughput made the benefit more lucrative. Nevertheless, it did not prevent most ophthalmologists currently charging far more than the patient benefit.

Despite an increasingly elaborate medical benefits schedule, a doctor can charge what he or she likes as long as it can said to be “fair and reasonable”. The benefits schedule was also constructed to provide a small incentive for bulk billing, for which swiftness and surety of government payments was the reward. The Schedule benefit for general practitioners has encouraged turnover and episodic treatment, and therefore the Schedule has become an object for gaming. This applies particularly to all consultations, pathology and imaging.

Procedural medicine is divided into diagnostic and curative/palliative. At the outset the benefits schedule was also constructed for professional services. One of the consequences of the increasing differentiation of medicine is the increase in the number of procedures which, in turn, has led to the increase in the size and complexity of the Schedule list, and consequently tracking benefits against the fees charged requires collection of data.

Yet an immense amount of time is spent determining the value of procedures, using varying levels of evidence, as if each item has a unique fee. That may be correct, but the government is concerned with providing a range of patient benefits commensurate with what the item of service is worth.

Once the benefits and the fees for procedures were more or less aligned, but that has changed. Over time there has been dislocation of the fee charged from the patient benefit accepted as full payment by the proceduralist.  Those who cannot afford the added impost end up on a public health care waiting list. Added to this, the payment for prostheses has never been properly codified for benefit payment.  There are resultant anomalies. Dressings for chronic skin infection are not covered by benefits – either Medicare or private health. The whole benefit for this area has never been satisfactorily confronted, while the number of prostheses continually increases.

Once general practices, imaging and pathology services were Australian owned – essentially cottage industries – but the profitability did not go unnoticed by business and gradually the multinationals have bought up the practices.  Medicare funding thus is allegedly ending up in offshore funds. In other words, the Medicare system is providing a means exported profits. These hedge funds and other financial vehicles do not invest to lose money. In other words, Australian government funding is providing sustenance to those “altruistic entities” located in the Cayman Islands and its ilk.

The system needs re-structuring.  Recently yet there has been a seemingly endless review headed by Bruce Robinson, which seems to have become arcane groups of specialists debating the equivalent of angels on pinheads. It was supposed to review the health system and hopefully repair the system. Like so many of the reviews since Nimmo and after the last AMA-Government Inquiry in 1984, money is funnelled into the big consultancy firms, many of which are peopled by former public servants, for little result in terms of improved health care.

The central agency nightmare is if the Benefits system is extended to the whole raft of health professionals, other than those as specified in the constitutional amendment. However, a “weasel clause” came in 1974 with the extension of a limited patient benefit to optometry, by “deeming optometry services medical”. The inclusion of health professionals since then has been based on them being undertaken under “medical supervision”.

These professions wish to have independent access to items that generate patient Medicare benefits, and many would object to the “deemed medical” rubric as infringing on each individual skill set. However, to my mind any such benefit systems could be challenged on constitutional grounds. The community indignation which would ensue would likely be such that a resultant constitutional amendment put to referendum would be overwhelmingly passed and the resultant floodgate of expenditure would provide the Federal government with potentially massive expenditure – and headache.

There are exclusions from Medicare benefits – in other words, government can exclude procedures or anything they deem ineligible, as has been done with most cosmetic surgery. Limitations on the number of courses of IVF treatment are imposed. This can be a blunt object, and with every inclusion or exclusion there inevitably are grey areas – and controversy.

My view, after many years of being involved with Medicare, is that the construction of the benefits list is all important, and patient benefits need to be clearly differentiated for the purpose of calculation into four components. The three traditional components are professional, technical and capital, to which I would add the educational component to boost the value of the benefit for consultative medicine. Technical and capital component can be calculated based on actual cost, providing that the ratio between actual use and capacity does not allow windfall gain. Professional is how much a person’s skill and time taken are calculated. Educational component takes into account concomitant teaching occurring when the doctor is consulting and has been the basis of a submission I made to government some years ago. Then, instead of valuing each individual item of service, the government could consider providing the benefits on the basis of bands: one for episodic treatment for acute cases and second, courses of treatment for the chronically ill.

Patients’ benefits can be set either based on episodes, (predominantly acute – e.g. appendicectomy) or courses of treatment (predominantly chronic e.g. radiotherapy for cancer), or a mixture of both ( e.g general practitioner attendances). This would enable the schedule to be collapsed in a range of benefits, based on the above considerations. It is a pity that the AMA no longer has expertise in this area, because this was the basis of the AMA / Government Inquiries where neither the AMA nor the Department was asleep at the wheel.

Because of the indifferent quality of the Health Ministers since Michael Wooldridge, with surprisingly the possible exception of Tony Abbot, the Health Department has little desire to be involved in health financing – at least seriously – and increasingly finds itself at the mercy of the financial strictures of the “central agencies” so very little changes unfortunately and thus neglecting the truism incorporated in Dick Scotton’s prescient words over 50 years ago.

A reminder of what I wrote in my blog

As I write this blog on Easter Sunday, maybe Albanese will start to rise to the task; and the proposal for an Integrity Commission is a very good place for him to start.

One thing he should remember is to pick on the topic where the Government is vulnerable and then hammer it. Add a pinch of climate change and the country being held to ransom by the very wealthy “oligarchs”, whose wealth has been tied up in fossil fuels, and the formula becomes stronger. However, whether Albanese can dispense this prescription will unfold over the next little while.

The problem with “over a next little while” is it is as long as a piece of string – as short as a piece string for that matter.

The Big Island

One great advantage Albanese has is, in one word, Dutton, completely unelectable outside Queensland. A second great advantage is the former Prime Minister, who should relinquish his electorate of Cook and this time have a long holiday evangelising outside Australia, under volcanoes reminding him of his fire and brimstone Pentecostalism. Hawaii – the Big Island would be a good start.

Mouse Whisper

A civilised community exists on a basis of trust.

When you destroy that trust, then in the end you believe in nobody. You are in a dark forest inhabited by the symbols of demons or warlocks or any of the representations of Beelzebub, because they are the enemy – and you alone are the symbol of purity. What has happened to America is a man with artificial golden mane, golden face, golden geegaws (unsurprising given from ancient times religious icons are smothered in gold) burst upon a country, already conspiracy ripened by the pastors of the Second Coming and satanic interpretations of the Book of Revelations. Coupled this with those playing in the shadow isolation of video violence and how can anybody trust anybody. In the end the one supreme person who did not trust, who never trusted the law, did not understand impartiality reigns supreme with all the bodies whom he/she/it did not trust littered all around.

On that cheerful note…

Happy Christmas from Mousehole.

Mousehole Christmas