Modest Expectations – Tura Beach V 

Queen Elizabeth II

Her everlasting legacy. She did not linger. She died with dignity. She would have ensured that.

Celebrate her life; not mourn. She would not have wanted the clocks to stop.


I reluctantly must accept that I have a form of long COVID-19. It is September; I reverted from a positive to negative RAT in second week in July. My condition is characterised by persistent productive cough, lack of sleep, a veil of depression. Some days are better; some I relapse.

In any event:

The window exists 

at the end of the room

A discoloured pane frames the tree 

Sallow maple leaves cling

Potted cymbidiums hang

From trunks

That gently swing

defiantly green

Striving to touch the cycadic spikes

Along the unseen cobblestone path 

The gate aubergine 

and fire-bricked wall

Brown-wooded letter box 

All separates me from the World

Nothing else? 

That’s right

Nothing else

Why bother?

I do not go out

Just lean back in my chair 

And realise that Winter has come.

I wrote the above which I called “Reflection”. It is this view which I see every day from my table, where I sit behind my computer. To my right is the television screen – images bouncing around as the sound is turned off. I love flowers and now on the table to the right of my direct gaze is a bunch of garnet-coloured dianthus (Sweet William) in a muted patterned rosé vase. It is framed by an arced spike of cymbidium flowers – carmine stigma and delicate red russet petals – cut from our garden – stuck in a Tall Poppy Vase, that someone gave me some years ago.

Yes, this past week was my Australia Day – September One – the start of seasonal regeneration and when the wattles are at their zenith. I will get out of my chair and go out. Maybe I shall improve, but it is draining me.

 Fishing traps 

Rain is a myth haunting the arid places
And clouds are the dry eyelashes of the sun and moon. . ..
Its only protest is dust and the rivers drying
And the horrid gaping sores of a dying race –
Maria Reay, Poem from Brewarrina (1946).

I was reminded of one of my visits to Brewarrina by my son meeting “Dean from Brewarrina”, in the Tasmanian Highlands for God’s sake. We are a literary family, but predominantly in the lifestyle area of writing. Maybe I stray when I comment about the fish traps on the Barwon River at Brewarrina, a very old manifestation of Australian Aboriginal identity and industry.

Brewarrina fish traps

The poet, Mary Gilmore, grew up in the Riverina and moved around NSW as a child.  Her father if not a sundowner, was certainly a wanderer. Mary Gilmore herself moved around and was one of a group which followed William Lane to Paraguay in 1893 to found the settlement of New Australia to pursue a socialist ideal. Hers was a short lived emigration; nevertheless, she lived her life back in Australia with her exquisite literary ability used to promote her socialist ideals.

In 1933, when she was 56, she wrote about the fishing traps in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, the following of which is an extract:

That the aborigines made fish-traps and fish-balks (as we used to call them when we came across them) is a fact. That they used natural barriers as Mr David G Stead writes is also a fact. Sixty years ago there were many of the smaller balks in existence, and white people knew them and made use of them for other purposes than those intended by the aborigines. The larger fish-traps were made for the great gatherings, and were invariably based on a running reef or natural outcrop of rock. There were a number of these places of gathering known to my people, and I often heard them spoken of. One of these was on the Clarence, one at Brewarrina, one on the Upper Murray, and one down near Hay or Narrandera – it was near the swamps between these two places, the swamps being sanctuaries.

When you view the fishing traps on the Barwon River at Brewarrina, there is a necklace of rocks meandering down the river, and when Gilmore was writing her articles, she was responding to opinion which tended to dismiss these traps as manmade.  Gilmore concedes in this paragraph that the local indigenous people used natural rock formations upon which to fashion their fish traps. The reason that few have survived is attributed to whitefella dismantling the structures; but another reason is that all the structures as described, particularly those made of wood and reeds, would have been susceptible to the periodic flooding of the Murray-Darling Basin.

The reason for the survival of the Brewarrina fish traps was the fact that Brewarrina was beyond the navigability of the river paddle steamers. However, the structures are simple and could have been easily reconstructed by tribal groups after every river catastrophe, because the river is susceptible to spreading across the floodplains. Brewarrina may have these rapids, where rocks are suitable for re-arrangement, but it emphasised the importance of Brewarrina as a gathering place for Aboriginal tribes. These corroborees required some preparation to ensure sufficient food was available. Hence the importance of ensuring the fish traps were in good condition; but the converse may be true. For a hunter gatherer society where the corroboree was a regular convocation of the local tribes, it was essential to hold them in a place where food was plentiful.

One of the observations about the necklace of rocks defining the fish traps was that each fish trap is said to have one family responsible for its trap.  Given the nature of Aboriginal society, I find it unusual that, in this instance, each of the fish traps was singled out as a single family’s responsibility, implying that the fish traps conferred de facto property rights.

Depiction of fish traps, in ochre on sandstone

Brewarrina has an Aboriginal Cultural Museum recessed into a hill, and one day when driving between Bourke and Walgett, we dropped by. I remember this day well. I had no intention of purchasing anything – after all it was a museum. Nevertheless, there was one item for sale and that was a slab of sandstone upon which a depiction of the Brewarrina fishing traps was painted in ochre. The cost was $250. We bought it.

It was a very heavy piece. We transported it back to Sydney, where it sits on its mulga wood stand.  We also picked up a large rock, which sat at the intersection of two sandy tracks just outside the Tilpa pub. The rock squats incongruously in the front garden, a desert souvenir in a sub-tropical mess of bromeliads. Both remain as treasured memorabilia from the Outback.

The fish trap painting was something special – whether the fish traps were nature’s work, manmade or shared between both, it does not matter. What is not debated is that Brewarrina has been a place of significance to the Aboriginal people, even now the site of the annual Baiame’s Ngunnhu Festival, belying the misery implicit in the words of dispossession written by Maria Rey nearly 80 years ago.



We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country – Uluru Statement 2017


The objectives of ATSIC are:

  • to ensure maximum participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in government policy formulation and implementation
  • to promote indigenous self-management and self-sufficiency
  • to further indigenous economic, social and cultural development, and
  • to ensure co-ordination of Commonwealth, state, territory and local government policy affecting indigenous people. – Section 3 of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Act 1989. 

By way of 

“Where a clan or group has continued to acknowledge the laws and (so far as practicable) to observe the customs based on the traditions of that clan or group, whereby their traditional connection with the land has been substantially maintained, the traditional community title of that clan or group can be said to remain in existence.” – Attachment by certain High Court Judges to the Mabo decision

Once I was invited to address a bunch of Aboriginal elders at Utopia. This settlement is home to both the Alyerrerre and Anmatyerre people. It lies 350 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs on the Sandover Highway, an unmade road which runs across the Northern Territory spinifex and black soil plains until it eventually joins the Camooweal-Urandangi Road just over the Queensland border.

Utopia had even earned a reputation as a centre for Aboriginal art, being where Emily Kame Kngwarreye lived and painted. When we visited, she had passed away three years before.  She was one of a number of Utopia artists, notably Minnie Pwerle, Barbara Weir and Gloria Petyarre.

The distinctive style of Utopia painter Minnie Pwerle

As I was undertaking work for the Commonwealth Government, the Aboriginal elders, an all-male group, invited me to tell them why I was there. They had moved to a roofed, open concrete area, and then they squatted in a semi-circular area. A whitefella, to whom I had not been introduced hung onto a pole on the fringe.

Even though the Aboriginal elders had seemingly sat in a non-hierarchial arc it was not difficult to work out who was the boss. As I started to talk, I started to experience this extraordinary energy of the gathering.  I had never felt this level of non- verbal communication, despite their expressions being impassive, as I glanced down and around the group.

In retrospect, I likened it to the same pressure I had felt at school, when you had to speak for two minutes, without saying “um” or “ah” – or repeat yourself. The pressure was constant during the 15 minutes I spoke. When I finished, the man whom I had already identified as the leading elder stood up and said, half to the meeting in general and half to me. “Very good meeting. Let’s go have a cup of tea.” That was that.

I had felt the communication during my time talking; it had been intense, continuous but not hostile. Over the mug of tea, the discussion was general. One indication of whether you, the whitefella, was acceptable was the ability to chat. Aboriginal people can be silent; and if they believe it to be irrelevant, they simply don’t turn up for a meeting. I have been snubbed several times; “sorry business” takes precedence.

This time the two women in the party then joined us for tea. The centre of attention was the young kid with a charred kangaroo head which he gnawed at distractedly. It is amazing how small instances stick in one’s memory when other parts of that weekend passed in a blur.

The women went off with the women elders for “women’s business”. I have no idea what went on, even though one of the women was my wife. So, I can say no more; but if you are a woman reader, then you can find out if you wanted to do so.

But what is then the “Voice” in Canberra whitefella terms?

This was just one of my experiences with Aboriginal people. These were essentially desert people, and a significant group. It emphasised to me something that I had come to realise – the level of non-verbal communication among Aboriginal people. There was no indication of how well the two tribes intersected. In modern settlements where tribes have been forced together, such as Doomadgee in the Gulf Country. This product of the mission supervision and education led to displacement from traditional lands. Doomadgee is now a cauldron of various tribal groups forced together. Unsurprisingly, they are often in physical conflict.

Therefore, the concept of Voice has different connotations.

William Buckley escaped from a failed white settlement in Victoria in 1802 and lived for over 30 years with the Aboriginals who inhabited the land around Port Phillip Bay and thence into the hinterland where Colac and the shallow Western district lakes are located. When he emerged from the bush at the time Batman came from Tasmania to settle Melbourne, he had lost the ability to speak English.

Nevertheless, he had a unique perspective on what constituted communication. “Voice” in terms of a continuous Aboriginal traditional means of communication has always had a huge component of the non-verbal but also the song lines.

Buckley quickly regained his use of the English language, and in his memoirs, he describes his original exposure to a corrobborree (sic). These seemed to be where tribes could meet in harmony or for a celebratory purpose. When he was picked up by the Wathaurong tribe, as white was associated with death, he was thought of being a re-incarnated relative.  So his “initiation” into the tribe was the reason for a corrobborree (sic) where there were hours of dancing and singing and beating of sticks and improvised drumming by the women on their skin rugs which they had removed and tightened between their knees to resemble a primitive tympanum. This gave meaning to the Voice?

Then one Aboriginal fellow, whose family were from Queensland, demonstrated that in his tribe there were clicks in his language. At least there is one Aboriginal voice, known as Lardil, where the clicks express a certain meaning. He demonstrated the clicks.

I had experienced a click language before, in Namibia among those from the Kalahari Desert people. In fact, where we were once in Namibia I asked one of the women serving us to read out the menu in her language. A wondrous experience – words mingled with clicks. I regret that I did not record her recitation.

Above I mentioned songlines. I remember the small group of Aboriginals, whom we once encountered on the banks of the Murray River near Mildura. They had come from the Pitjantjatjara Lands to get away from the “troubles” as they said. These people live in the northern part of South Australia, but they have a number of what I thought were songlines which they can follow across “country”. After all, I had also met a group of Pitjantjatjara men in Ceduna on the Southern Australian Coast, an eight day walk across the desert from Amata, one of the Pitjantjatjara settlements. It was suggested that this small group on the Murray River may have followed other songlines, as one Aboriginal man later suggested. Unlikely, but then these people do travel – and it is their land as they would have it.

Pitjantjatjara land

Songlines are events where fact merges with myth interpreted through storytelling, rock art, songs and dance. As one Aboriginal elder has said: “Aboriginal people use songlines as a means of navigation, following all the landmarks they sing about. You may not have been there, but the songs give you enough information to find your way. Our people learn hundreds of songs.”

Thus, there are many interpretations of “Voice”; the Aboriginal people have so many languages and so many different totems and taboos to augment the various voices.

Given that, I have no idea what the Voice means. Is it just a forum for the articulate Aboriginal, given that there have been a number of these manifestations?

The sorry history of the Aboriginal and Torres Islander organisation (ATSIC) failed the Voice test. ATSIC was defunded nearly 20 years ago; and the former Chair is still facing 380 fraud charges. This miserable outcome of ATSIC is being used by opponents of enshrining a Voice. What has changed?

My vote in any referendum is contingent that its interpretation does not enshrine an Indigenous elite. Not the shrill Voice of self-importance. Secondly, nor should the Voice be a nod to tokenism.

The dulled Voice of dispossession continued.

Jobs and Skills Summit

We hardly need to labour the importance of the AMA’s core purpose—fighting for doctors’ interests—amid the chaos COVID continues to inflict on a health system that was stretched and inefficient to begin with. It is true that doctors’ interests have rarely, if ever, perfectly aligned with the public interest. Nonetheless, the debate over the future of healthcare in Australia stands to benefit from coherent and unified advocacy on behalf of the medical profession. The AMA still has political clout, but it needs a renewed clarity of purpose to more convincingly argue that doctor knows best

Thus concluded an editorial that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in July bemoaning the lack of engagement and the fall in the influence of a once powerful Australian Medical Association. In 1983 I attended the Hawke summit as part of the invited Association delegation, where the AMA President spoke.

It is important to reflect on how important the Hawke Government Summit was. It was summarised thus:

The Hawke Labor Government has not been conspicuous for its reforming pro-labour initiatives. With the exception of Medicare (itself quite a limited initiative) little has been done to improve the position of the least well off members of the population. This is not to say that the Labor Government has done nothing and is not interested in reform. It is just a question of the reforms they have introduced: assets tests, the deregulation of banking, entry of foreign banks, abolition of exchange controls and the floating of the Australian dollar.

The “relevance symbolism” of AMA involvement was not lost on some of the more assertive members of the AMA, but the following years were full of fighting for doctors’ interests. Whether the SMH editorial writer above was referring to the rise of Bruce Shepherd and his protégé, Brendan Nelson in the late 1980s I’m not sure. Certainly, the last bilateral Inquiry into Fees for Medicare Benefit occurred in 1984. Thereafter relations between government and the AMA dissolved into conflict.

Influence has faded once the strategists, who facilitated the AMA presence at that 1983 Summit, moved on and it lost its strategic direction under the populist Shepherd and his acolytes. Shepherd may have won a few battles, but an association where office holders are ephemeral loses continuity, (especially when they pursue personal agendas rather than those of the Association) – and may I say clout.

The AMA was not invited by Albanese’s crew to the recent summit. In fact, there appear to be only three invitees associated with health – Annie Butler; Federal secretary of the Australian Nursing and Midwife Association; Carmel Monaghan, CEO Ramsay Health; and Christine Nixon, Chair of the Australian College of General Practitioners.

Annie Butler

One was a health professional, Annie Butler, heading 290,000 nurses – an experienced nurse; one businesswoman heading a successful private health group and an ex-copper who has had her fair share of controversy. Given the politics of general practice, as distinct from the practice of general practice, who knows what her grasp of the health sector is apart from the petty intrigue which has dogged the RACGP for years.

The effect of the pandemic on employment seems to be ignored in the lack of AMA representation at the Summit last week.  Although the AMA had made plenty of comment, it failed to have a leading role. In fact, it was one of the failures of organised medicine that it assumed a passive role and at no stage attempted to co-ordinate resources and advice outside government during 2020-2022.

Such intervention would have shown relevance and helped quell extreme opinions. A very small but vocal minority in the community seized the agenda; and the politicians had no defence except enforced social isolation.  This was an important incentive for vaccination when it had become available, but once the lock downs were revoked, there was no other incentive to maintain the level of vaccination, which had been further complicated by the different times of the approval for administration to the various age groups. Their public health experts were silenced.

Medical associations now have lay administrators. Their loyalty is to their career.  They have no ongoing professional stake in maintaining the professional relevance with government.

As one who has led a number of campaigns, notably the campaign against the French nuclear tests in the South Pacific in the 1990s, I eschewed the self-aggrandisement for action. We had a plan. Irrespective of its effect, France has long since stopped the nuclear tests. The lesson was that when the interests of the medical profession coincide with those of the public as it did then, it is a powerful combination.

An AMA which exists with its office-bearers counting the number of the media releases and their appearance on Tik Tok or whatever – but in effect doing nothing or as one person said using the phrase “looking good in their suits” to define inactivity. That unfortunately is the AMA, a sound bite expressing concern or saying why doesn’t the government do something is in itself a recipe for irrelevance.

It is not surprising that Annie Butler has the ear of Government. She is an experienced nurse. She does not have to look good in a suit.

Mouse Whisper

Overheard in a lunch bar

Sandwich maker:  What would you like in your salad roll?”

She: Everything except onion, please.

He, in American accent (next in line):  That is a very Australian way of ordering.

She: Is it? Never really thought about it. Still, better than saying tomato… and a slice of beetroot … carrot … lettuce yes… jalapeño… perhaps jack cheese… at least with using “except” I’ve avoided the list sliding into infinity!

He: I get your meaning. So different from us Americans.

Whisper: The efficient quiet Australian!

Modest Expectations – Gustaf’s Little Impurity

It is a crazy situation. The Coalition is wheeling out an old codger who, in the end, could not hold his own seat, to try and burnish the credentials of a Prime Minister who has been described in very unflattering terms by a succession of women. While there hasn’t been any suggestion the Prime Minister will lose his seat, if I were in his electorate of Cook I would be interested in the credentials of his opponents.

Yet Albanese, in the same spirit of that same old codger (just a younger version), when the old codger was running for Prime Minister in 1996, decided to create himself as a small target to frustrate Keating. It worked, but the community had tired of Keating. Despite his intelligence, his vision, his achievements, in the end he scared people. Keating was also an anomaly because he never identified with sport, despite encouragement. In the end, he was also a good hater, although Howard was on a par – and in Australian politics to hate your opponents and their policies is a strong driver.

Morrison has no policies apart from feeding those who sustain his power, a dangerous tactic in a democracy. Albanese on the other hand has no vision, apart from his log cabin story told with a bowl of minestrone. As John Edwards, a former Labor operative sneered about the policy flourish of the Coalition in the Snedden period – “policy by Penguin Books” he called it. In other words, policies copied without discussion to disguise a vacuum of thought. One of the problems in Australia is the shortness of the electoral cycle. Thus, the governments are endlessly campaigning, brandishing the chocolate box of instant gratification without any long term commitment to improving the State. Rather it is about enriching oneself and one’s buddies.

Far more insidious is to advocate policies which have been shown not to have worked in the past, often because they are easy to promise. There are always missing components, selling a chassis without the engine. One of the missing components is always the translation of the effective use of funding to the actual situation. In other words, most policy announcements concern inputs – easy to throw taxpayer money around without worrying about outcome.

Perhaps the most insidious is funding projects when in effect the government is just transferring funding to a pack of rapacious rent seekers who happen to own the real estate and label it “nursing home” or “child care centre”.

Many years ago I had experience, when I was Chair of a Co-operative, of setting up a child care centre out of enlightened self-interest. In the mid-1960s it was unusual for both parents to be working full-time, but my then wife decided that she, along with a few like-minded parents, would establish a childcare centre within a co-operative framework. The centre is still operating.

There were major obstacles, not the least of which was that the woman’s place was regarded as being in the home, and if she had to work, then the family would have to look after the children. That in itself gave some clue as to the dilemma of childcare. During WWII so-called day nurseries were established with government subsidy to enable women to enter the wartime workforce, but still bear children. At the same time, at least in Victoria, there was a very strong kindergarten sector which catered for the middle class, and worked on the assumption that the educational aspect of childcare commenced at three years of age. The challenge is to formalise that learning into childcare arrangements that may begin in infancy.

At that time in the 1960s, there was no funding link between the two sectors but there was one advantage in Victoria, which was later abolished (because ideologues believed it should be so, even if it was shown to work), namely that the broad field of “infant welfare” and “kindergarten” were in the same Ministerial portfolio.

It was a great advantage when early childhood education was included in “community health”, for which I was responsible for five years in the late 1970s. I was constantly assailed by accusations of being dedicated to the “medical model”. This catchcry was led by social workers trying to usurp a doctor being in charge of the project – and a man to boot, figuratively. It was a form of reverse discrimination. Men were OK as paediatricians on the medical periphery, but women had the core expertise in matters related to early childhood development. This term “medical model” has become difficult to sustain as the medical workforce has become increasingly female.

The childcare model that we constructed was funding by a co-operative under the parents’ control. When I was directly involved in childcare, there was a strong antipathy to government intervention. There was no tax relief as there was for private primary and secondary school education. Childcare was “women’s business”. Even from birth, the father was excluded – fathers being present at the birth of their children was a “no-no.”

Regulations were harsh, partly to discourage childcare centres. A ghastly fire in 1957 at Templestowe, a suburb of Melbourne, where a child minding centre caught fire and infants were burnt to death, underlay this. There is no bigger disincentive than over-regulation to providing such service. Some of the regulations were just plain foolish. Most over-regulation is unenforceable, but the one regulation I best remember was the dimensions required of a dining room in a childcare centre. Accommodating more than ten children in such a centre diminished the space requirement, presumably on the grounds that as children increase in numbers they get smaller. Such is the inanity of regulation.

The major problem is the appropriateness of the staff and the underlying training requirements. Before the pandemic it was tempting just to import cheap labour from overseas and any training was left to the rent seeker entrepreneur owner – essentially, take the money without any serious value addition by way of training.

Our co-operative structure worked well, but its viability even then depended on the co-operative securing capital funding and raising fees that were based on predicted use; thus assuring certainty in the income flow. Even then, 10 per cent of children in the Centre paid nothing. (Only the management of the centre knew who they were.) The use of childcare as a convenience without planning and then expecting that the cost for such behaviour should be borne by the childcare centre was something that a co-operative can disabuse.  Financial viability is closely intertwined with the actual provision and because of parent involvement, shared responsibility.

The one element of a well-functioning co-operative where care is involved – at the extremes of life (and separating out disability) – is that it mimics the family, especially now that fathers are more likely to share responsibility – even being the prime carer. Thus, under this model, care is not designated solely to an employee as it used to be among the wealthy – the nanny employed to remove responsibility from the parents followed by the children being sent to boarding schools, or the model of the grandparents looking after the children.

In June 2021:

  • There were 7.3 million families, an increase of 1 million since June 2011,
  • 1 in 7 families were one parent families (15.0 per cent) of which nearly 80 per cent were women
  • There were 1.4 million jobless families (19.5 per cent)
  • Of the 6.1 million couple families, 1.6 per cent were same-sex couples.

Out of the jumble of statistics, can we pick those elements of the family which can be transferred to cost-effective childcare? After all, from the age of five years, most schooling is provided by the State.

Years ago, we found that for childcare, co-operatives worked; moreover, at a time when it was fashionable for childcare to be the responsibility of the wife, I was incited into involvement in the management of childcare – even to the extent of developing some knowledge and spending time in the centre among the children, that is, taking my turn in providing care as part of the co-operative effort.

This is very commonplace now that more fathers are more closely involved with their children. I have always believed that the co-operative framework is the best way to mimic the family ideal of care and early childhood education. In our case, the State subsidised us with the capital, after the university provided the basic building, providing what I call the technical component that relates to the educational and welfare components needed to modify the building to facilitate compliance.

Then the question to be answered is what are the staffing requirements to mimic an optimal home environment? There should not be a large administrative structure and the training program should be designed for neither self-aggrandisement nor unnecessary expenditure. I have always believed that the co-operative framework provides that ability for the parents to determine how much “professionalism” is required.

Rather than just throwing money into the private sector, if I would be asked to review the area, given my bias towards the co-operative framework, I would seek out what has been successful – see if the template we fashioned so long ago still applied and build on that. In the meantime, the parents should be subsidised to the theoretical level for best practice, with or without a means test. The aim would be to maximise the growth of the child, within an extended family loosely termed “co-operative”, given that the word does have a legal meaning – the aim would not be to maximise profit.

When in Knead during a Pandemic

The Boston Globe reports that the COVID-19 pandemic breathed new life into the industry of “alternative spirituality,” where customers rely on readings and reiki-charged candles for guidance. Businesses sprinkled around Boston are experiencing a spike in interest and revenue that has yet to taper out.

Crowds flock to Open Doors, an eclectic Braintree storefront stuffed with chakra bowls, lion statuettes, and images of Egyptian deities. Open Doors has 18 readers, who saw 25 percent more business than in pre-pandemic days…

The increase may be due, in part, to boredom. With the pandemic limiting entertainment options, many were on the hunt for something fun to do, something new, something novel: video games, crafts, gardening, and of course, the sourdough bread baking movement.

The sourdough bread baking movement in the US has received a fillip with the pandemic. Without an opportunity to bake a traditional loaf of bread while stuck inside at home, people started turning to another bread option, sourdough. Unlike other types of bread, sourdough doesn’t require dry yeast, which was in short supply during the early days of the pandemic. Sourdough requires “wild yeast”, which is present in all flour.

I spent a week at Yale a few years ago when the head of the Berkeley Divinity School, Andrew McGowan, an expert baker, had integrated his love of bread making into discussions of its biblical significance. I learnt then that when one combines flour with water, sourdough “starter” will eventuate. As someone said, neither flour nor water are going anywhere during a pandemic. In the course of my Yale time, I found out about kneading and needing to have a great deal more practice. I felt very much of entering a farinaceous novitiate, but it is always enjoyable to participate in a program where one starts with zilch knowledge. There are no expectations.

A prosforo seal

Not only sourdough but also banana bread have, during the pandemic, attracted devotees. I did not expect people to be soothing themselves with sourdough. I must have missed something during that week at Yale. Maybe I had never progressed from the novitiate. Not completely true, but making the leavened bread, prosforo, used by the Orthodox Church, foundered in the face of other things to do.

The pandemic has not finished; so perhaps we should encourage the invigoration of my farinaceous novitiate, being ultimately “well-bread” as a result of the pandemic, as it were.

By the way, during the isolation, the Ganesh on the mantelpiece kept the Virus away. Not that we indulged in any of that occult malarkey; Ganesh after all had been our protector for years – the equivalent of the Roman lares and penates.

The Orthodox Church

John Anthony McGuckin is not the name you would expect of a Romanian Orthodox archpriest. As I have always been curious about the Eastern Churches, I obtained a copy of his recent book, “The Eastern Orthodox Church”, which purports to be “a New History”. It is not that the author is dismissive of the Western Christian tradition as epitomised by the Roman Catholic and Anglican Church. It is more resentment since he believes that the Roman Catholic Church undermined it, when the Orthodox Church, apart from the Russian Church, was losing all its authority.

The Greek Orthodox Church survived under Ottoman rule linked, as it was, to Byzantium, later Constantinople. The other three original Eastern patriarchates shrivelled. Interestingly, the author is more favourably disposed towards the Anglican Church because the relationship has not suffered the effects of the original schism from Rome. As McGuckin says, in fact it may be because the two churches went separate ways from Roman Catholicism which enhanced the relationship between the Orthodox and Anglican churches.

The Russian expression of the Orthodox Church came with the Slavic conversion in the ninth century “as also in Serbia, Georgia, Bulgaria”. Much of its claim to being the church with true Apostolic succession resides on the concentration of the book on the consolidation of Christianity, before the assaults of Islam on those areas where Christianity was embodied in the four original patriarchates of the Eastern church – Jerusalem, Byzantium, Alexandria and Antioch.

The Orthodox Church bore the brunt of the early turmoil of both heresy and schism. “Heresy” was where one strayed away from the authentic beliefs of Orthodox Christianity and “schism” was where there were doctrinal and power struggles but within, not outside the Orthodox Christianity polity. There were periodic ecumenical councils in the early Church, which today may seem somewhat narrow doctrinal arguments tossed back and forth. However, it led to the separation of Non-Chalcedonian Churches of Egypt, Armenia, Syria and Ethiopia from the ongoing Ecumenical council after that of Ephesus in 431. The Assyrian Church had separated earlier.

At the end of the first part of this book, I had been introduced to a large number of clergy, saints and early Christian worthies of which I had little knowledge. Some of the differences of doctrinal interpretation seem so esoteric, yet those churches which believe in Apostolic succession have been crucial.

I still recite the Nicene Creed exemplifying inter alia my basic belief in the Trinity – this ephemeral group of Father, Son and Holy Ghost – which in itself, without doctrinal education, is a pure article of faith, otherwise impossible to fathom. In the end, why am I reciting the codified belief system, first enunciated in 325, when the Orthodox belief in the Trinity was being challenged by both Arian and Nestorian heresies?

Despite the argument about doctrine, the Nicene Creed survives today demonstrating how robust the Church is.

Even so, the Roman Church, without consulting the Eastern Church, added “and from the Son” (Filioque) to the Nicene Creed. Also, the Eastern churches resented the Roman enforcement of clerical celibacy, the limitation of the right of confirmation to the bishop, and the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist. This led to the schism between the Western and Eastern churches in 1054.

My recitation of the Creed includes “Filioque”. I take unleavened bread as part of the Eucharist, but in the Anglican church, where celibacy is a matter of choice and the Patriarch of Rome does not lead our Church.

There is a chapter on what one can expect if one enters the Orthodox Church. I remember a somewhat different experience – my first exposure to an Orthodox service. I stumbled upon such a service in the steerage area of a ship bringing Russian emigrés, who boarded the ship in Hong Kong, to Australia. It was 1957. I remember wandering down to the lowest desk having been attracted by the muffled chanting.

There they were, in the dimness of this area of the ship abutting the forward cargo hold. The dark shadow of the priest in dark robes partially illuminated by a shaft of light; the indistinct features of a congregation, all standing, and the liturgical chanting in an atmosphere, heavy with incense.

I have since become interested in Russian church music, particularly in the oktavist, who can sing an octave below the conventional operatic basso profundo. There are a number of these Russian oktavists, who sing yet not grumble this extraordinarily low register, including one named Glen Miller (who is actually American), whose rendition of Chesnokov’s concerto “Do Not Reject me in my Old Age” I find magisterial while others may find it turgid, especially when he explores the lowest notes. I do not understand Russian but absorb the strength of the voice. To me, the Orthodox Church is an emotional experience.

Tchaikovsky’s “Hymn to the Cherubim” brings back memories of that experience on the ship which seemed so simple – so close to Eternity. As the composer himself said “Where the heart does not enter; there can be no music. Music is an incomparably more powerful means and is a subtler language for expressing the thousand different moments of the soul’s moods.”

In recalling that day on the ship, I could have stumbled equally in another age into the Early Church tucked away in some cave in the Eastern Empire, in a world yet to break out into liturgical disputes and worldly appropriation. This was Christianity close to the time of the Apostles, which is the strength of McGuckin’s book, where the extremely difficult concept of the Trinity was being played out against a temporal background. There is so much darkness.  God only knows what would have happened if Christ had been confronted and asked why there were no female Apostles. But maybe he was and it was not reported – or it was suppressed. Such is questioning why I profess to be an Anglican.

Rather than questioning, it is a tragedy that the Orthodox tradition has been traduced by a small person called Putin, whose only reference point is a mythical Slavic empire laced up with the superficial gaudiness of ecclesiastical trappings. Yet he is not the only one. Misplaced crusades have enmeshed Christianity ever since the meaning of the Trinity was too difficult for universal acceptance. Factionalism developed. War follows.

McGuckan, by his emphasis on the doctrinal struggles of the early church, does not make for light reading as I indicated above, but without the steadfastness of the Orthodox beliefs of the early Church, maybe we Europeans may not have ended up venerating a Palestinian or Jew or whatever – immaterial when You are an integral part of the Trinity no less.


The Licorice Pizza

When The Guardian film critic, Peter Bradshaw was asked which film he had tipped to win Best Picture this year 2022, he paused. “Coda has crept up on me. I feel like it might just take it. Then again, I adored Belfast, Licorice Pizza and Drive My Car – I gave them all five stars.”

“Don’t Look Up was a little smug and hectoring for my liking … Dune was wonderful as a spectacle, deeply involving and exotic. Timothée Chalamet , who plays the messianic Paul Atreides in Dune has superseded my man-crush on Adam Driver.”

Adam Driver is a former Marine who is also apparently featured in three films in 2021, The House of Gucci, The Last Duel and Annette. Anyway, I am not sure what a “man-crush” is; sounds a bit crowded to me.

Film watching has been a casualty of the pandemic. I used to get my dose of films on long haul flights, but since 2019, that has disappeared; and I’m sure that this is yet another change, which until I read the list, has rendered me ignorant – and yet I have not missed any of them. Yet!  Must be age.

The Island – Part III 

This is the final instalment of the northern adventure of that doctor called Bill, based on my experience over 40 years ago. I have repeated the last paragraph of Part II to improve continuity in recounting Bill’s return trip from the Port.

Bill on the move now. The moon cast a faint light — headlights full on, passing the derestriction sign, he was headed back to base. Still, he felt uncomfortable against the hard vinyl seat back. The white lines of the road streamed under the yellow stare of the car lights. No other light anywhere. The scenery had become amorphous; no longer the sweeping watercolour vistas which had absorbed him during the afternoon. Now he was concentrated on the road and the accompanying distance signs.

Every sign was keenly sought. He began to concentrate on the sides of the road to see if he could detect the reflection of the headlights in the eyes of animals — red eyes for cattle, blue eyes for sheep and he was buggered if he knew what colour eyes kangaroos had.

It was easy to resent the car. Like all Australian-made cars, he thought, a souped up tin can on wheels. Big engine in this one; and on an empty road, difficult not to put the accelerator to the floor. But the car was his island of light.

His concentration was interrupted by an impression of something slithering across the road. It was probably a python, or some other snake. Not a goanna. No, probably a snake, but a pretty big one given the thud as he hit it.

The headlights glared ahead as the road rose through the blackness. The signpost indicated the Intersection. This was the start of the difficult area, he remembered Graham saying. He tried to fiddle the radio to give himself some company. The static mocked back and he quickly gave up.

Then he saw the red reflectors — there was a slow car up front. He wondered whether he could just sit behind it and follow, letting it take the brunt of the night. He slowed down, but his impatience got the better of him. He was a creature of habit. The highways near Perth at night were what he knew, and he always drove in the fast lane. He pulled out and raced past. The other car receded, and he was on his own again.

Anxiety about encountering the unexpected kept his back and neck muscles tense. The Spirits had certainly decided to give him a hard time, Bill thought. When the cattle did come, he was expecting them. There they were, two bullocks blundering out into his headlights. He slewed the car past the first one, the tail of the car whipped around so it was like a crab skidding towards the second one. Bill felt the tail clip the bullock and the car reeled back. Bill was no rally driver. He might be able to gun a car down a straight expressway, but here, Bill was a captive of the Spirits.

The car slid onto the gravel. The brakes locked and, for a brief instant, the car shook as though about to roll, then it stopped. The car had not gone into the bush, or hit a tree or gone down a culvert or up an embankment. It just ended up at right angles to the direction of the road, part of the back wheels still touching the macadam.

Then came the adrenalin outpouring. He perspired; the fear and fright reaction had kicked in. Wide-eyed, dry mouthed and a feeling like his heart was about to pump its way into his neck. He shook uncontrollably. Voluntary action was slow to return. He had slumped forward and he sat back and slowly twisted the steering wheel. He switched the ignition off, and then on. All the needle indicators came back. Encouraged by that, he wondered whether the car would move. It did. He reversed it over to the edge of the road to give himself room to turn and point the car in the right direction.

He wondered why the slow car had not caught up. Not that he needed company. He climbed out to survey the damage. There was dent in the rear left door and mudguard. He rubbed his hand over the dent; the tail light was smashed, but no metal had been pushed against the tyre. He looked back for the bullock, but there was nothing — not even a low moan of an injured animal; there was no sign of life.

For the first time, he felt the touch of the night.

He leaned against the car and tried to adapt his eyes to the limits of his night vision; but as he did, he felt the sense of closeness, so tactile that it caused him to straighten, as though finger pads were gently but relentlessly pressing into his shoulder blades. The Spirits had come down the escarpment, from where the Aboriginals had drawn their likenesses. Bill was the vicarious outsider, challenging the night. He had been warned and was now bidden to go. He had been allowed to survive.

Bradshaw figure
But what of the Bradshaw figures — what would these aliens have to say? Would they come and oppress him?

The open car door allowed a pool of light to spill onto the road. The car was Bill’s ship of urban identity. He drove away. There was no further interference in his progress back to his civilisation. He once or twice caught the reflection of other animals’ eyes, but they stayed off the road. He passed the trail to where the rock paintings lay. He had tried to mark it by a nearby concrete bridge. He wondered whether he would come again to see the paintings — to pay his respects. He had been privileged. Privileged — was that only a word to ward off the darkness?
It was all a bit of an anticlimax. 

The lights of the Town on the Dam came into view and he felt himself relax. He knew where he was; no longer in unconnected darkness. There were cars on the road; there were even stray pedestrians. There were lights on the dam. At the motel, he wiped the sweat from the steering wheel before he went into the bar and ordered a whisky. Fuck being privileged — he had only spooked himself. He drank the whisky and ordered another.

He called Avis and a small peroxided woman in pink halter top and shorts came and inspected the damage. She advised him not to drive it; perhaps someone could show him the sights. Bill said that was a good idea. 

In the end, Bill preferred to sit around the pool, reading Alistair McLean, and not going too far from the air-conditioned bar. And when he did go out he went to the souvenir shop and bought a bark painting and a couple of large pieces of zebra rock. The souvenir shop owner, said: “These are unique; you don’t get them anywhere else — except on the floor of the dam.”

The owner tossed in a couple of postcards for good measure. Bill sent the postcards to his friends saying how great the weather was and that he would be flying back in a couple of days. In time, he wrote, for the dinner next week — or was it only cocktails and canapés overlooking the Swan River? He said nothing about the night and his island of light. They would think that it was all bullshit.

Mouse Whisper

I have been told that Nadine Gordimer was a very good writer. In fact she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1991. This extract below from her recently-read book “A World of Strangers”, first published in 1958, written about South Africa during the early Apartheid era, says it all. The initial description is of living as a black person in Sophiatown, contrasted with the privileged white in Alexandra in the early 1950s – all in the city of Johannesburg.

The reality was nearer the surface. There was nothing for the frustrated man to do but grumble in the street; there was nothing for the deserted girl to do but sit on the step and wait for her bastard to be born; there was nothing to be done with the drunk but let him lie in the yard until he’d got over it. Among the people I met with Cecil (the woman the author’s hero was living with at the time), frustrated men threw themselves into golf and horse racing, girls who had had broken love affairs went off to Europe, drunks were called alcoholics, and underwent expensive cures. That was all. That was the only difference.

Boredom is universal, independent of race – and gives meaning to “meaningless”.

As for we mice – we tend not to be black or white – more grey; unless of course, we are born in the fields with a rural russet hue.

Now where is my white mouse mate, Branco. Oh, there he is – a completely boring mouse – into the its Holeyness, the Swiss Emmenthaler.

Sophiatown c1950