Modest Expectations – The Pick of a Forty-Niner


I have written about Iceland, but I’ve not been back since 2013. Therefore, I have little to say usefully from any Latter-day first hand experience. N Hallgrímskirkja is the Lutheran (Church of Iceland) parish church in Reykjavík. With a spire at 74.5 metres tall, it is the largest church in Iceland. It stands on the top of a rise, which accentuates its immense size. With a royal blue hue, it is seen here in this depiction of hell, as Iceland opens a subterranean fissure to the Underworld for the first time in 800 years. Here we have this depiction of Dante’s Inferno and him whispering in my ear (sic).

Nessun maggior dolore
che ricordarsi del tempo felice
nella miseria.

Fin troppo vero!

This volcanic outburst is on the Reykjanes peninsula in southwestern Iceland, around 50 kms southwest of the capital, Reykjavik, and 22 kms from the Keflavik international airport. One of the confronting views for the traveller who arrives in Iceland for the first visit is the lava field almost bare of vegetation. Now that the fissure has opened it is spewing forth the incandescent magma. As the photograph above shows, what a sight, but that is Iceland. Even when quiescent, Iceland is a place that if you never go, you will never know what you have missed.

Well, what do I know!

Only seven countries and three territories last year met World Health Organisation pollution guidelines for fine particulate matter, the most risky form of pollution to human health.

A recent report by the Swiss company IQAir looked at fine particular matter pollution (also known as PM 2.5) data collected by more than 30,000 ground-level air quality monitoring stations across 134 countries last year. 

Of these countries, seven had annual averages within the WHO’s guidelines of 5 micrograms per cubic metre in 2023: Australia, Estonia, Finland, Grenada, Iceland, Mauritius and New Zealand. 

French Polynesia, Bermuda and Puerto Rico also met the guidelines.

Bangladesh, Pakistan and India had the highest annual averages for fine particulate matter pollution, with Bangladesh’s PM 2.5 levels averaging more than 15 times higher in 2023 than the WHO’s recommended threshold. Tajikistan, Burkina Faso, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Nepal, Egypt and the Democratic Republic of Congo were also among the top 10 most polluted countries last year.

Added to this is that many countries in Africa and South America had no data.

According to its blurb, IQAir is a Swiss air quality technology company, specialising in protection against airborne pollutants, developing air quality monitoring and air cleaning products. IQAir also operates AirVisual, a real-time air quality information platform. This above excerpt has been reprinted from the Washington Post.

I am not an expert on global warming. I just know it is happening, and given the signs of the planet, I’m on firm ground I would have thought, and I reprinted it because it signifies Australia’s apparent success in one parameter of global pollution.

One source of expertise made the comment that particulate matter emitted through human activities not only pollutes the air, but also cools the Earth by scattering shortwave solar radiation. Yet, coarser dust particles have been found to exert a warming effect that could, to some extent compensate for the cooling effect of fine dust. On the surface that seems contradictory, but consider the giant volcanic eruption of the Indonesian Mount Tambora in 1815. It killed 60,000 people. Moreover, as one source relates;

Mt Tambora

Because Tambora ejected sulfurous gas that generated sulfate aerosols in the atmosphere, which block sunlight, the eruption created a year without a summer, leading to food shortages — people were eating cats and rats — and very general hardship throughout Europe and eastern North America.”

By way of explanation, particulate matter  consists of compounds of sulphur formed by the interaction of sulphur dioxide and sulphur trioxide with other compounds in the atmosphere.

The result of manmade activity is to enhance global warming. There are times that nature intervenes and cools the planet but with disastrous effects. However, even though they are extreme they are in essence temporary and it would appear that the earth reverts to being warm to disastrous levels, as shown by the inexorable rise in the global average temperature.

The lack of concern about particulate matter in the atmosphere just illustrates the cavalier attitude of most of the countries in the world, given that the growth of tyranny seems to be proportional to this climate change since dictatorship breeds social pathology, a sense of invincibility and ultimately which leads to a planet enshrouded in clouds of carbon dioxide. Was the planet Venus once a green and pleasant land until life was extinguished on a planet too hot to sustain any life and enveloped in a dense cloud of CO2? 

My 30/7/21 Blog

I wrote the following (shown in italics) nearly three years ago in my blog. It is an extract, but the full text is available in that of 30th July 2021. In the light of what is happening in Queensland, it may still be of some relevance.

The problem is the business model. A group of people, a dynasty of odds-and-sods, privileged individuals with a well-developed sense of Olympus, run the selection process. They seemed to have taken it literally so that they live on their eponymous mount moved from Greece to the banks of Lake Geneva in Lausanne picking as they do, a city to hold the Games. The prestige of the games has waxed and waned, but from its inception it has been in a Leap year except in 2021 and 1900. (a little known fact is the end of year century has to be divisible by 400 – i.e. next Leap year is 2400).

The International Olympic Committee should pay? What a novel idea. Then they would reap the profits and sell the property on the open market – the Olympic Block. There would be a massive interest in stadia that could stand as a monument to excess – you can just see the cities clambering to buy a used stadium – maybe for boat people – no need to send them offshore to line corrupt pockets, of course allegedly.

Current IOC’s revenue is largely generated from royalties on licensing television broadcasting rights for the Olympic Games, as well as revenues from the commercial exploitation of the Olympic symbol and Olympic emblems.  It depends on the interest generated, and there are athletics and swimming, both of which exist basically for Olympic glory. In between the Games, these activities pale in popularity against football of all codes, basketball, cricket or baseball in generating most community interest.

Abandoned Olympic stadium, Athens – 20 years on

The problem is that there are always new sports clamouring for recognition, and while for instance wrestling in the two forms are retained in the Games, they evoke minimal spectator interest. Yet, it has powerful reasons for its retention. It is one of the original sports which were part of the Ancient Games. It is popular in several countries, where it is a national pastime – Türkiye, Iran, Bulgaria. On several occasions, efforts have been made to delete the sport, but to no avail. In Paris this year, wrestling will share a venue with judo in a stadium on the Champs de Mar. The legacy of the venue? This temporary facility will be dismantled in late 2024, and as such no trace of the Olympic or Paralympic Games will remain. It will be able to be reused with multiple configurations at another location that is still to be determined.

It is just one example in the escalating costs of staging The Games, and its ephemeral legacy, often obscured later by the weeds growing in the ruins of this  two-week vanity exercise foisted on their community by politicians intoxicated by the prospect of so much self-importance.Yet most of those who bid for the Games will have long gone by the time the Games come around. But not the gods of the Lausanne Olympus, John Coates among them, fittingly, his canoeing prowess embodied as a latter-day epitome of Charon.

They will all be there in a swill of Dom Perignon, even if the hapless Annastacia Palaszczuk is not.

As I blogged:

The local press is celebrating Brisbane for being chosen in 2032 with Coates, the driving force. In the cold light of tomorrow, Australia may realise how it has been hoodwinked by Coates, there was no other city interested apart from his adopted hometown. Nobody else wants it. It is too expensive for dubious gains.

Coates yet has rescued the IOC, saving them from going cap in hand to some other city to strike a deal. Instead, Australia, which will be coping under the economic and social cost of the COVID-19 pandemic for decades to come, has been conned into more debt. Sure, the athletes will come, and the quote from the NYT at the head of this article will ring all so true as our Clutch of politicians will bask in the sunlight of praise until, after two weeks in 2032, the light is turned off leaving the Clutch in darkness, and in debt.

The value to Sydney after the Games has been minuscular – loaded with unusable infrastructure – stadia that are dismantled or provide a haven for weeds.  Cycle paths through a wasteland are not a big deal. Such disasters writ large in both Athens and Brazil. All the while the IOC provides the world with specimens such as John Coates, immersed in formalin jars of the past.

By 2032, an Australia Olympics may find itself drowned by a Viral debt, rising seas and irrelevance, through a lack of sponsors and tourist attractions dying from global warming. I believe this is not too much a dystopian view given what’s happening, looking around the world and seeing the ecological disaster being played out well beyond the horizons of this current euphoria.

The War of 1812

I have always been captivated by the story of the Star-Spangled banner, and the innate heroism underpinning the initial verse. The inspiration of Francis Key seeing the American flag still flying on the ramparts of Fort Henry after the British bombardment is an extraordinary image. That fifteen starred flag still flies at Fort Henry and also at Fort Clatsop, at the end of the Oregon Trail, where Lewis and Clark wintered in 1805/6.

The expedition carried just one large flag, the fifteen starred flag, which probably flew above their major camps, but before they left Fort Clatsop in March 1806 they cut it up to make five capes, to trade with Indians for food and horses. That was perfectly legal then. The first law prohibiting desecration or improper use of the flag was passed by Congress in 1917.

Jim Reeves raising the flag at Fort Clatsop

When we visited Fort Clatsop, the flag was being folded up at the end of the day. I asked whether we could buy it. Yes, we could, they are for sale – for $50. So, we have the flag, descendent of the one that inspired the American national anthem. Our flag is indeed large, having been flown from the flagpole the day we came. It is beautifully made. It is one of our prized possessions.

But the story composition  tells a different reality, as this reprinted account below tells the reader.

“It was September of 1814. The British had sacked Washington and torched the White House. The conflict became known as the War of 1812, even though it was in its third year.

Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old lawyer overheard plans for a surprise attack on Baltimore. He was held on a British ship where he watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry. He couldn’t tell from his vantage point who had won or lost. But at dawn, he saw the American flag, 15 stars and 15 stripes at the time, still waving over the Fort and was inspired to write a poem. Soon, it was set to the tune of an existing song.

That’s the short version of how “The Star-Spangled Banner” came to be.

The longer version was controversial.

First, a few things to know about the War of 1812:

  • the British practice of impressment — the forced conscription of American sailors to fight for the Royal Navy.
  • the British promised refuge to any enslaved black man, who escaped his enslavers, raising fears among White Americans of a large-scale revolt.
  • the men who escaped their bonds of slavery were welcome to join the British Corps of Colonial Marines in exchange for land after their service. As many as 4,000 people, mostly from Virginia and Maryland, thus “escaped”.

It’s important to know these things because “The Star Spangled Banner” has more than one verse. The second half of the third verse ends like this:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

They are clearly meant to threaten the African Americans who took the British up on their offer. Key surely knew about the Colonial Marines, and it’s even possible he saw them on the British ships that sailed into Baltimore Harbor.

Whether manipulation or not, the British kept their word to Colonial Marines after the war, refusing the United States’ demand that they be returned and providing them land in Trinidad and Tobago to resettle with their families.

Key clearly was racist. He descended from a wealthy plantation family with slaves. He spoke of black people as “a distinct and inferior race” and supported emancipating the enslaved only if they were immediately shipped to Africa.

During the Andrew Jackson administration, Key served as the district attorney for Washington, D.C., where he spent much of his time shoring up enslavers’ power. He strictly enforced slave laws and prosecuted abolitionists who passed out pamphlets mocking his jurisdiction as the “land of the free, home of the oppressed.”

He also influenced Jackson in appointing his brother-in-law Chief Justice of the United States. This Roger B. Taney is infamous for writing the Dred Scott decision that decreed Black people “had no rights which the White man was bound to respect.”

Although “The Star-Spangled Banner” and its verses were immediately famous, Key’s overt racism prevented it from becoming the national anthem while he was alive.

Key’s anthem gained popularity over time, particularly among post-Reconstruction White Southerners and the military. In the early 20th Century, all but the first verse were cut — not for their racism, but for their anti-British bent. The United Kingdom was by then an ally.

After the World War I misery, the lyrics were again controversial for their violence. But groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy fought back, pushing for the song to be made the official national anthem. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover made it so.

As one commentator wryly noted “The elevation of the banner from popular song to official national anthem was a neo-Confederate political victory, and it was celebrated as such. When supporters threw a victory parade in Baltimore in June 1931, the march was led by a colour guard hoisting the Confederate flag.”

Thus my long-kept view of the flag as a paean to freedom and against oppression is confounded by the above narrative!

Read the Australian Constitution

Section 51 (xxiii)The provision of maternity allowances, widows’ pensions, child endowment, unemployment, pharmaceutical, sickness and hospital benefits, medical and dental services (but not so as to authorize any form of civil conscription), benefits to students and family allowances.

The AMA has written to the Health Minister, Mark Butler, to express significant disappointment with the federal government’s decision to introduce legislation to remove the requirement for collaborative arrangements for nurse practitioners and midwives.

The AMA states it is very concerned this decision would lead to a fragmented, siloed approach to health care.

The AMA went on to say that when midwives and nurse practitioners were given access to the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS), there was a rock-solid government commitment to ensure strong collaboration between nurse practitioners and  midwives with medical practitioners. It stressed that this commitment was translated into legislative provisions requiring a collaboration arrangement, aimed at preventing the fragmentation of care and ensuring strong clinical government was in place.

“The planned removal of collaborative arrangement provisions that are intended to guarantee this, combined with the absence of any robust framework to operate in their place, will promote a siloed approach to care and is contrary to the original stated intent of the reforms. It is also contrary to the expert clinical advice of the MBS Review Taskforce.”

Reading the crystals for a Medicare benefit?

So much for the AMA defending its monopoly on its familiar ground. However, as I have noted many times previously, I fail to see the provision of patient benefits for nursing as described in the relevant section of the Constitution. Unless somebody is prepared to challenge this decision, to my mind, the payment of benefits for nursing in the absence of medical input is clearly unconstitutional. The precedent has now been established so wait for the queue of all manner of  health care providers for the same recognition. Iridology benefits anyone?

Mouse Whisper

In the last blog, completion of the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) was suggested to be the first question to the two old men wishing to become US President, each of whom has been queried as to the level of their cerebral functioning.

Well, the Boss took the test this week. He made no mistakes.

He is older than both Biden and Trump.

With apologies to Statler and Waldorf

Modest Expectations – Ernst not Sebastian

But if you want my quick take on it, it’s this: Whether Trump is wolfing down Big Macs on the Mar-a-Lago golf course or bargaining for bootlegged tanning lotion in prison, he will be the GOP nominee. Don’t give into magical thinking and never stop the fight to beat him at the ballot box. First, the trial itself. It’s happening in Miami. A hotbed of Trump voters, MAGA radicals, skells (tramps), boat-paraders, and people terrified of dead communists and imaginary communism. (By the way, I love Miami, I really do. But I’ve got to call this place how I see it.) Rick Wilson June 2023.

Mar-a-Lago – bought by Trump in 1985 at more than 62,000 square feet, with 58 bedrooms, 33 bathrooms, 12 fireplaces, three bomb shelters, and a 29-foot-long marble top dining table, the house is extravagant to say the least. It is the 22nd largest house in the US – the White House comes in 33rd place. – Not Alternative Fact

In response to Rick Wilson’s “By the way”, I thought I would write about my time in Miami at a time when Trump was still a two-bit grifter. Nor when Miami was the warlock’s crucible.

I have passed through Miami more than once – even taken a Concorde flight out of there to New York on my way to London. However, this occasion was the one time we had time to do some sightseeing. We had just come back from Cuba in an unmarked Delta airline plane – nevertheless a commercial fight. As the flight attendant said to us at the time, Delta flew to Havana every day. On arrival in Miami, having been duly warned that if we had any Cuban rum or cigars in our luggage, it would most likely be confiscated, we found that there was no-one from customs on the gate barring our way into Miami. In any event, we don’t smoke, and we had enough mojitos in Cuba to last a lifetime.

17th Street

This time we had decided to go on to New York by train, stopping off in Savannah. In the meantime, we went for a stroll along 17th Street downtown, the weather being perfect, to see some of Miami. We had lunch at one of those places where the food is barbecued rib, the drink is beer or bourbon, and the music is loud and country. More Texas than Miami, but Miami is cosmopolitan, a shelter against the winter for the aged, a playground for the rich and a refuge for the colourful.

As we walked down towards Miami Beach, we stopped by the Cadet Hotel emblazoned with Clark Gable memorabilia, remembering the time he was there as an instructor of the recent inductees in the air force. The year was 1942, and he was still mourning the loss of his wife, Carole Lombard, who had been killed the year before in a plane crash.

Gable and Lombard

Gable went on to serve for most of WWII, seeing action in Europe.  As we looked in on the reception area of the Hotel, there is no doubt that Gable had a charisma, which belied the fact that he had had all his teeth extracted and his leading ladies had to be inoculated against a cloud of halitosis. Still, I remember that film “It Happened One Night” which starred Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert and that it was the first of only three films which have won the five Oscars – best film, best director, best actor, best actress, best screenplay.

Clark Gable has always had a place in the lexicon of my memories because I saw the film “Soldier of Fortune” when I was in Hong Kong in 1956, the film itself being an adventure story of Gable playing the title role opposite Susan Hayward in a story where Gable rescues her screen husband, Gene Barry from the clutches of the Chinese Communists. I most remember the scene at the top of the Peak in Hong Kong where Gable is expressing ruggedly his love for Hayward. Imagine my chagrin to find out that Hayward remained in Hollywood the whole time the picture was filmed, and Gable was romanticising a Hayward double – her screen sosia.

Looking at the photograph of Gable, his distinctive expression walks the line between sagacity and salacity, but I was not the first to gaze. Judy Garland sang to his photograph in Broadway Melody – “You made me Love You”. Well, not that I sang, I might add; and my wife has never liked him. This is a slightly troublesome matter since Judy was only 15 when she recorded the song. But the teenage crush has history, and I would have preferred Grace Kelly, the first choice for the “Soldier of Fortune” heroine, but which she declined. Then I had only just turned 17 and Grace Kelly was 25 years old.

But let’s continue walking.

We stopped off on the lawns outside the Frank Gehry designed New World Centre where we listened to the New World Symphony rehearsing and the music being piped outside to those of us who stopped to listen. We did not expect to be listening to a piece of old world music in a beach resort not famed for its cultural attainment.

Well, back to reality. By that I mean Miami Beach – a wide strip of sand lined by fenced-off villas where the rich, the famous, the colourful and the pyrites reside. There is something foreboding about high walls, with palm trees and the white stuccoed storied homes poking their heads above the parapets. In the distance is the sea, a pale blue ribbon cast against an equally azure sky, with a wisp of cloud interrupting the blue.

Beguiling. Well, yes, but really depends on when one visits.

Here in Miami the 1926 Great Hurricane left its calling card, precipitating the end of the Florida land boom and the start of The Great Depression three years early. Miami was wiped out and it is salutary to think that a comparable hurricane today would leave little change out of US$250 billion. Despite Miami being recognised as one of the most vulnerable cities in the United States to experience hurricanes, the only other one which has been classified as severe and centred on Miami was Cyclone King in October 1950, which caused severe damage but not comparable with that of 1926.

In recognition, the University of Miami has adopted Hurricanes as its nickname for all its sporting teams, but the touch I like the most is that the mascot is an ibis named Sebastian, since the ibis is the first bird to leave when a hurricane is imminent and the first to return after the hurricane has passed.

I wonder what the status of the ibis population is at Mar-a-Lago these days.

The famous Miami ibis


I have been to Antwerp twice, once in the early seventies when we were travelling through Europe and the United States, the first time, my then wife had been back to Europe from which she had come – from a British displaced persons camp in Carinthian Austria. Arriving in Australia she was unable to speak English but, as I found fluent in Slovenian and German with an Austrian accent. A medical graduate and PhD in pharmacology, she had her research papers accepted for several conference presentations, whereas I scored zero. No matter; it just meant I could track along without having to give a paper to a half empty theatre or back room. I remember that we went to Antwerp that trip, and it was somewhat comical walking through the Munich airport, past all the big planes, down the stairs, across the tarmac to the DC-3 – our air chariot dwarfed on all sides by its younger siblings.

My strange memory of that visit was having walked around a sculpture garden with all the shapes and forms representative of the interpretative impenetrability of some of this modern sculpture, I escaped from the park by climbing through a fence onto a major thoroughfare. Having been sensitised to the bizarreness of the display, the utilitarian throughway structures were replaced by my surreal vision of them.  The street with all its tubular forms, interlacing overhead wires, lights changing like giant eyes – all the street architecture which we normally ignore or accept had, to me, become the workshop of the absurd. I hasten to add I don’t do drugs, nor had I been drinking.

I had spent several hours accustoming myself to these sculptural forms, and when I emerged onto the streets, it seemed to me just an extension of what I had been looking at. It was a sensation that I’ve never had since. I do not have the imagination to concoct the vision of the great architects, but I understand the meaning of “surreal”. After all, we may be induced to say something is “surreal” when it is just something that one has never experienced; whereas surreal is a departure in a different sensory experience. I remember looking at the overhead tram wires and the stanchions and thought what if these had been placed in the garden, dimensions changed or left as stark forms amid the wooded lawns where the rail lines would lead nowhere – a phantom silvery transport system hidden under a cascade of blue leaves. Then I shook my head and followed the tram line back to our hotel to find out how my wife had gone with her presentation.

An okapi in Antwerp

The second time, my second wife and I ended up in Antwerp, because we were travelling to Cambridge. Qatar Airways had a “special return flight” from Sydney to Brussels. Having a few days to spare, we went to Antwerp by train. We stayed across the railway square in the Blu Astrid Hotel. What made this foray worthwhile was that the Antwerp Zoo was close to the railway station. The Antwerp Zoo has probably the largest number of okapi in captivity as part of a breeding program. The okapi is the only known relative of the giraffe and its natural habitat is the Congo jungle. Given that the Congo was colonised by the Belgians, it is not surprising that the first okapis were brought to Belgium. There were five or six okapis in what I thought was a generous enclosure. The total area of the Zoo is 10 hectares. However, zoos will always be imperfect, as animals are for all intents incarcerated so that we humans can stare at them.

The okapi, much smaller than its relative giraffe, was first discovered in 1901. It has a striking appearance, being almost burgundy in colour with striped legs. It’s also worthy of study, because its long term future may depend on its ability to breed in captivity. The female okapi is said to be choosey in her choice of mate, and there is not much choice in a zoo.

My wife does not much like zoos and having watched the okapi pacing around in a stressed manner, that was enough for her. She had spent a decade photographing wildlife in Africa, and hardly needed to visit an urban zoo. Okapi were an exception; she was not likely to see one in the wild unless she wandered through the Ituri Rain Forest in the Congo.

However, she does like flamingos, which we had seen in the wild, both in the south of France and in the salt pans of the Atacama Desert in Chile. Caribbean flamingos near the entrance of the zoo, attracted attention because of the noise and their vivid vermillion in colour – they seemed chatty enough.

The printing workshop

Of other places in Antwerp, The Plantin-Moretus is a unique museum that celebrates the history of European printing through the 16th century workshop and home of the city’s most celebrated printer, Christophe Plantin, which he bequeathed to his son-in-law, Jan Moretus. They printed books and maps – the cartography section being very impressive. There is a copy of the Gutenberg Bible lodged here, together with a collection of material tracing the evolution of printing up to the 19th century when innovations were introduced as a by-product of the Industrial Revolution which rendered the printing work obsolete. Looking at ancient printing presses and some of their products is to marvel at how such a collection has survived in area where bombardment, siege, and troop movements would all seem to mitigate against the existence of such an exquisite place.

I suppose we could have sought out the Diamond district where it has been near the main square since the Middle Ages. Antwerp, through its Jewish population, developed some innovative ways in cutting and polishing of all grades of diamonds. It survived two World Wars. In WWI the Germans captured Antwerp early and held the city for the duration. While there was some hesitation in deporting Jews in WWII to preserve the expertise in diamond cutting, eventually a substantial number of the Jewish population were killed in the various concentration camps, and thus compromising Antwerp’s future.

The Sinjoren, as those who live in Antwerp are nicknamed, are certainly resilient.

I found it amazing that Antwerp was able to hold the Olympic Games less than two years after the Armistice, but given the survival instincts of the population, why should anybody be surprised. Australia was represented at the Games. The flagbearer, George Parker, born in Leichhardt, died in Five Dock, seems to have spent his life walking. At the Antwerp games, he finished second in the 3,000 m walk, beaten by an Italian. The only other Australian medals were awarded in swimming – a silver and a bronze.

And my lasting impression? Workers eating this green food with chips and mayonnaise. This is palint ‘n groen – eels served with a green sauce made with fresh river herbs and wild leaf vegetables, chervil, sorrel, spinach, watercress and wild garlic leaves. Tasted it – not too bad.

Pride comes before a Fall saith Solomon

When I was undertaking the National Rural Stocktake in 1999, I found it frustrating to arrive at a desert destination to find no-one there.  I had to accept that the Aboriginal people spend a substantial amount of their time on “Sorry Business”, which took them away and thus they would be unavailable because one of their number had died. Travelling around Aboriginal communities, I often found a great amount of argument, dispute, aggression – and when I was confronted with stories about harassment and violence, I had to make a decision. Namely, I was not there to deal with the problems of the individual Aboriginal person, unfortunate as that may have been. That deserved a review of its own, and although I made incidental comments, my prime aim was to prosecute the case for developing clinical and public health education facilities in the bush, which occurred with funding allocated in the 2000 Federal Budget.

I was brought up in a whitefella world where Aboriginal people were labelled as “stone age” and hence patronised as if they should be kept in an ethnological zoo. It is not surprising therefore that the bulk of whitefellas just did not know how to communicate with Aboriginal people. At the outset I had not appreciated that being taciturn with whitefellas belied a highly complex system of communication, where verbal was only one of the means. Being able to communicate, whitefella to blackfella is a privilege, as I found out.

As background, I had become aware of the level of discrimination from a young age. It had been coated by kind paternalism. For example, when I was a child in the time of the “picaninny”, I received the Church Missionary Society news from the Roper River Mission in then far off Arnhem Land. The growth of missions, both secular and religious only served to emphasise the separation of the Aboriginals from their Land, which did not become recognised until Aboriginal artistic skill with all its complexity became recognised by whitefellas. When I had gone to Alice Springs in 1951, I came back with a large shield, which languished in the storeroom, because every time I picked it up, my hands were covered with red ochre. Over the years as I collected more Aboriginal artifacts, I began to celebrate the diversity, but not without making errors in walking the line of what was taboo and what not.

Martin Luther King

Afro-American emancipation grew out the 1960s’ cry for emancipation led by Martin Luther King and Malcom X and then the black Panthers, injecting an edgy defiance challenging the comfortable world of middle-class America. At the same time, until he was assassinated, King tried to persuade. His was an evolutionary approach, to which he harnessed public opinion for recognition.

Aboriginal advocacy grew alongside. Recognition of Aboriginal identity grew, dispatching the equivalent of “Uncle Tom” as contempt of the so-called the Aboriginal “coconut” – brown on the outside, white on the inside.  Aggression has been the watchword, mixed with a litany of Aboriginal grievances such as the stolen generation and life expectancy being continually drilled into us whitefellas, some of whom have succumbed to guilt, preferring to give in; other whitefellas in power have just employed passive resistance. Rather than mollifying the aggressors, the level of J’accuse by the voluble few has increased with bombastic Noel Pearson as one of the leading Accusers.

From Whitlam onwards, governments sought to increase funding and opportunities for Aboriginal people, despite the opposition of some of the parliamentarians. As I have said, symbolism and metaphor are simple; real action is not. I was around at the time of the first aboriginal medical graduates. I saw many of the Aboriginal medical services (AMS) which arose from the Congress model in Alice Springs, and I looked for change. Many of the AMS were clearly dysfunctional, mainly because there was no continuity in the treatment objectives. Congress has been operating since 1975 and it has had a substantial amount of funding. It has had its vociferous defenders, given it has been the oldest Aboriginal Health Service. However, stripping away the “blah-blah” apologia, what has it actually accomplished?

It is a serious question when there is this push for an ephemeral Voice, as though there is a pot of gold at the end of the Indigenous Larynx. I see the ability of the Aboriginal people to contribute and shape our destiny, but I’m afraid I’ll not accept the pompous sullen uninformed Voice of a few Aboriginal people.  Some people who should know better are attempting to gain cheap political acclaim, without thinking through what outcome is expected and what it means for the many Aboriginal people who won’t be part of the Voice. The Voice does not have a powerful Champion who can coherently unite an increasingly divided nation. Linda Burney is not that champion; unfortunately, she lacks the intellectual firepower, and those who spring to her defence further weaken her, only serving to exaggerate her deficiencies.

Narenda Jacobs

I would prefer Narelda Jacobs and Pat Anderson; but the male Aboriginal able to communicate with those tending to Vote “No” – the critical cohort I believe – should be a Rugby player in Queensland and an Australian Rules player in the West. But perhaps if the women’s football team is triumphant, Sam Kerr will trump every male.

When I undertook the Rural Stocktake, I tried to identify examples of what worked in relation to Aboriginal health, but such success could never be long term because of the harsh reality of the eventual failure to provide a plan for succession. It is not unexpected because so much of Aboriginal success depends on charismatic leadership, which does not necessarily translate to a long term success and is eventually swept under the sands of failure.

I well remember the activities of Geoff Clark and the fate of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, which he chaired. This fiasco has not come into the conversation about the Voice, even though Geoff Clark was never short of a word. In the end at a time in Australia when funding is short, homelessness is on the rise and where poverty has increased, to see affluent, mostly university-affiliated sections of the Aboriginal community continually meeting in a non-wintry part of the country and complaining about their lot, begins to grate. The Mayor of Broken Hill may not be the most subtle of individuals but in explaining why the Council would not in future pay for “welcome to country” or smoking ceremonies by Aboriginal elders made it clear when questioned responded: “Why should he pay for welcoming people to his Land.”

Grievances are met with counter grievance. As someone said, looking at the Aboriginal flag and the Australian flag flying alongside each other on the Harbour Bridge, why? The same person sees the Aboriginal flag as a sign of division and the Australian flag as an embarrassing relic – both to be replaced by a single flag for everyone in the country.  Personally, I believe the Aboriginal flag should be the Australian flag rather than the colonial relic. But to me whose ancestors have occupied the country as part of the Celtic diaspora, the Eureka flag flown first by the Ballarat miners during their 1854 insurrection also epitomises that Australia is my Land – and let nobody forget that. I too have a Voice. That is precious privilege of Democracy.

Brisbane – The Novel

Having won the Solzhenitsyn Prize, the Big Book prize, and the Yasnaya Polyana Literary Award, as well as having been short-listed for the National Bestseller Prize and the Russian Booker Prize, Eugene Vodolazkin has emerged in the eyes of many as the most important living Russian writer.

I was thumbing through a recent issue of the NYRB and came across a review by the above author. The book was entitled Brisbane. Given that Brisbane and Russian literature are not ready companions, I read the review. On reading this, it seemed to be just an extension of my perspective of Russian literature, telling the Russian story where Death is an ever-present metronome of the various degrees of misery and cruelty which pockmark the whole literary Russian Treasury of the mysteries of life. These mysteries have always been palpable in the Russian Orthodox liturgy, and in its extraordinary church music, where it soars from the depths to the heights. Terra ad caelium.

Why is this novel called Brisbane? It is about Gleb Vanovsky, a celebrated Russian guitarist who, at the age of fifty, is diagnosed with Parkinsonism which not only inhibits his ability to play the guitar but also ultimately will kill him. He has a biographer named Sergei Nesterov who, offering to write his biography, sets about establishing this dual perception of Vanovsky’s early life from each of Vanovsky’s and Nesterov’s perceptions. The second part of the novel details what has happened since his diagnosis. It seems from reading that it is a novel about various interpretations of the meaning of life.

And what of the Brisbane allusion? Apparently Vanoksky’s mother was enamoured by the image of Brisbane as a subtropical Utopia and had an Australian male correspondent, who said she should come. Unfortunately, she was killed on the way to the airport by some thugs. So Russian!

Ah, the Russian tome called Brisbane.  The author was born in Kyiv but has spent most of his life in Russia.

Premier Palaszczuk with her Polish heritage should be indeed interested in such a view of Brisbane as Utopia. But watch out going to a Russian airport.

Mouse Whisper

My mäusemaister has this obsession whence Melania Trump has gone. She seems to have vanished to Europe – no longer the lady hand in hand with the Trump.  The prominent Irish author Fintan O’Toole, in a recent response to criticism of an article of his appearing in NYRB, has suggested that Cohen, the lawyer and once Trump confidant but who has now decamped from his side to be a pigeon with a stool, is one reason for the disappearance. He was told by Trump to pay Stormy Daniels and tell Melania that the payment was made to avert Daniels’ “fake story” about Trump himself.

As Trump was reported to have said, paying Daniels off was far cheaper than a divorce settlement, as Trump wanted his wife to be mollified. O’Toole opens up another front on the besieged Trump – the circus of a potential divorce. He is probably only saved by Melania not wanting her laundry aired, well at least not before it is appropriately washed.

Modest Expectations – Dead Poets Society

King Charles inherited 45,667 acres of land across England & Wales, worth around £650m, generating income of £24m pa. He didn’t pay a single penny in inheritance tax & will only pay income tax if he volunteers. On the 6th May you will pay to put a crown on his head. These stark comments were relayed on a Twitter feed and, given the opaqueness of the Royal finances in many areas, the numbers are probably as reliable as any others.

It will be interesting to note which Australians will be part of the Forelock Shuffle to Westminster Abbey. How many avowed Republicans will be following the Prime Minister who, given his dainty ambivalence, will go and try to dampen criticism by offering to have a Regal Party on his plane, a modified KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport, which in itself is a modified Airbus A330 jet, which can accommodate 100 passengers.

The Coronation

But then, at the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, 250 seats were reserved for Australians headed by the then Prime Minister, Robert Menzies. There were 8,000 invitations issued.  There was an Australian military contingent which participated in the changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Two Australian warships participated in a Spithead Review of 300 ships. Notably, the commentator on British Pathe reported that the crews of British and foreign ships all cheered. Foreign? It should be noted our Australian nationality on our passports only occurred in 1949; the words “British Passport” was retained on our passports until 1967.

The coronation of Charles III provides an opportunity to dispense with all the seductive pomp at which the British are very good – it appeals to all of the Cringe in Australians, afflicted by an inferiority complex which also guides the bunyip aristocracy.

We have a High Commissioner in London – let him be Australia’s representative. That’s sufficient.

But no, no, no – maybe Albanese will still be Prime Minister when William V ascends the British throne. By that time Australia should be a republic.

But then that is Australia Dreaming.

The Flag

One of the most difficult changes in Australia would be to change the flag. My first response years ago would have been dismissive; namely “who cares?”

We are used to it, and then all our history is mixed with histrionics associated with preservation of the hoar frost for those who still yearn for the Mother Country and have never forgiven the Labor Party for doing away with Imperial Honours. The preservation of the Union Jack in the Flag would preserve the hoar on the railing post.

But I suspect most people couldn’t care less. There is not a strong sense of wrapping ourselves in the Australian flag and crying “patriotism”. Yet the process to change the Australian Flag is formidable. The current Australian flag was officially raised for the first time on 3rd September 1901 at the Royal Exhibition Buildings, Melbourne, unveiled by Australia’s first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton. The design was the product of a competition held to find a national flag for the newly federated Australian nation. The competition attracted 32,832 entries from Australia and overseas; five individuals shared the honour of submitting the winning design. Apart from a few minor differences in the magnitude and number of points on the stars these people had designed what we now know as the Australian Flag.

The Australian flag was called the Australian or Commonwealth Blue Ensign until the Flags Act of 1953 gave it the title of Australian National Flag, confirming it as the chief national symbol by law, custom and tradition. This fact was recognised in 1996 when the Governor-General, Sir William Deane, proclaimed 3 September “Australian National Flag Day”.

New Zealand in the past decade spent NZ$23m in attempting to change the flag, a matter dear to the then Prime Minister, John Keys. He persuasively said that the similarity in the Australian and New Zealand flags was one reason to change. It should be noted that Australia, New Zealand, Tuvalu, and Fiji are the only nations to retain the symbol of British colonialism. Moreover, Fiji is a republic.

Strangely, the State of Hawaii retains the Union Jack embroidered in its flag. Curiously the stripes on the Hawaiian flag are similar to those on the Russian flag. The construction of Hawaii’s flag occurred when the indigenous Hawaiian rulers were ingratiating themselves with the perceived powerful European powers in the Pacific.

In the end, changing our flag is indeed formidable, but not insurmountable. How did the Canadians do it? After all, Canada has always been the favourite place for the Royals to visit, in particular the late Queen.  The Canadians eschewed a referendum. They concentrated on the emblem of the maple leaf, set up a Parliamentary Committee, and then a process that involved progressive simplification of the design to the single red leaf.

On 22 October 1964, the committee voted in favour of the single-leaf concept. Two months later the House of Commons approved the design, followed shortly after by the Senate. The Liberal Ontario politician, John Matheson, one of the flag committee’s members, is often credited with achieving consensus within the committee and helping to end the Great Flag Debate in Parliament. The lesson is: keep it simple, use a universally recognised symbol, exert leadership and take nothing for granted.

I wonder if Keys had insisted on the silver fern and an “all black” background with or without the Southern Cross – and stuck to it – would the New Zealanders not have retained their current flag.

Gough Whitlam, in an interview in 1994, insisted that arguments about servicemen and women serving under the existing Flag in all of Australia’s wars were untrue. He said he had been the last Prime Minister to have served under the flag, (he was in the air force in World War II), but that Flag had been a red, not a blue, one and at RAAF funerals the casket had been draped in the Union Jack, not the Australian flag. The current flag had not been formally adopted until the enactment of the Flags Act of 1953, and had only been used in one war, Vietnam, and then only on land. The navy and air force continued to use their own flags.

We got this blue one because Menzies did not like red,” said Whitlam, adding that his Liberal predecessor had once used the New Zealand flag while on a visit to Canada. Trust Billy McMahon to get it wrong.

Whitlam went on to say, “We need an Australian as head of state who will be accepted by other heads of state in the world and we need a flag which is identified as Australian and accepted by all — the original Australians and those who have come here from overseas.” 

Whitlam said he favoured retaining that part of the flag that was distinctively Australian — the Southern Cross. 

Keys made the mistake of trying to establish a consensus, probably impossible when you need to obtain change when it is a matter of taste and to convince those who believe the flag is a sacred relic.

First, I would remove the Union Jack, and re-position the Southern Cross in the night sky.  I would prefer wattle as emblematic given that the Australian colours are not dark blue, but green and gold. To me, wattle provides the gold and the blue green of the eucalyptus as the background. In spring, in the southern states, the land is a tapestry of green and gold. Why do our representatives dress in a grass green colour given that this is a country of blue mountains, which essentially are the eucalyptus colour from a distance – and a suitable colour acknowledging this green merging into the blue should not be a great challenge to mix?

Then maybe Australia should have “a jury” to determine how to match the elements and then, as with Canada, the most suitable arrangement would evolve.

I must say, I have form. When I was a senior staffer, I was asked what would be discussed at the next parliamentary party meeting, the last meeting having been consumed with discussion of the Flag. I replied I supposed it would be the Party’s policy on heraldic symbols. It was reported in the media. There were some in the Party who were not amused. It gave some insight into the importance that I, as a young man, ascribed to the Flag, to which I alluded at the start of this piece. Maybe age has modified my flippancy.

Jackals and Hyenas Abroad

Rumore” in Italian is the word for “noise”. Recently, someone commented that I (née big Johnnie) had been kicked out of the Liberal Party. One person close to me said I should wear that as a badge of honour.

Others said to me, why bother?  Still a lie is a lie and needs to be corrected. Now the political process, as with any combative arrangement, attracts the jackals and hyenas to feed on the carrion of this process. By this I refer to the detritus of innuendo and lies served up in the clubs, and board rooms of Australia amid the sly chortles wreathed in cigar smoke and the glittering whisky decanters on the pour.

I was a member of the Liberal Party for about a decade in the seventies and early eighties. In that time, I was a political staffer; organised a centrist discussion group called “Grapple” with assistance from other like-minded so-called “small L liberals”, an unfortunate moniker; was a branch president for a few years and failed in three tilts to gain pre-selection for outer Melbourne parliament seats.

When I moved to Sydney in 1979, I cut my ties with “Grapple” and joined the then Australian Institute of Political Science. The Institute received funding then from some of the big Australian companies, but the money spinner was the Summer School, where aspiring politicians, and those interested in political science could debate a particular theme over the long weekend in January. The Institute produced the Australian Quarterly.

The Institute owed its existence to members of the Sydney establishment led by Norman Cowper who, in 1932, set it up as a reaction to a growth of the Fascist New Guard led by Eric Campbell on the extreme right. On the left was Jack Lang, the NSW Premier with his defiant populism, which threatened the established order in a far different way from Campbell.  Nevertheless, both were authoritarian as most extreme politicians are whether they are left or right.

In the early years of the Depression revolution was in the air. How serious in retrospect who knows, but one of the results was the Australian Institute of Political Science was formed. Cowper was shrewd in that in the construction of the Sydney-based Board he invited Labor Party members to join the Board – and thus for many years this bipartisan governance persisted. There were also Melbourne directors, who would be present at the Summer School. It was all very civilised; the only problem was that the Institute was running out of money by the time I joined.

There was enough money to celebrate the 50th anniversary, which I organised and invited David Owen, who was one of the leaders of Social Democrats and at that time considered as a future British Prime Minister. Unlike most politicians these days, he charged nothing for his appearance fee, but we engineered a first class airfare return to London plus accommodation.

The celebration was centred around the first Cowper Oration. Norman Cowper, then 87 years old, attended.  The celebration was a success, which surprised some on the Board which had become a comfortable place for mates to meet when money was not a problem. I was an outsider, a Melburnian. The Institute leaned towards the Labor party.  Despite the 50th anniversary, which was just a temporary fillip, the financial situation was increasingly dire and, not for the first time in such a situation, a Board turned to me to become the Chair and solve the resultant problem of potential insolvency.

In the mid 1980s, certainly the mood for change coincided if not clashed within the Institute. The Summer school became non-viable. Where once the Summer School was “the only game in town”, now the growth of forums, symposia, workshops and all sorts of scientific meetings were competing for the space the Institute once had to itself. Politics was becoming more partisan and trying to define the political centre became impossible with the bipartisan adoption of elements of neoliberalism, banging the drum of individual freedom and the contempt for government. In other words, there was a certain pessimism about the future of the AIPS with funds drying up.

At this time, there was a move by some of the Melbourne directors who were members of the Liberal Party headed by Richard Alston to take the Institute to Melbourne and convert it into a right wing think tank. There was no plan just an assertion to trust him while his cabal appropriated the name of the Institute. Nevertheless, the unseen hand of John Elliot, then at the height of his “Fosterisation” hubris, was probably behind funding an Alston-led organisation.

By this time I had let my Liberal Party membership lapse; but the action in resisting this move of the Institute and having the Sydney directors support me in resisting this move, did not win me any friends in the Victorian Branch of the Liberal Party of which I once was a member. Then I took the secretariat of the Institute into my office and it survived, as it does today. I was fortunate to have Gay Davidson, a senior political journalist in Canberra, as my Vice-President for much of the following decade. We retained Government funding. Australian Quarterly survived with people such as Ross Garnaut editing it for a time.

No, I was not kicked out of the Liberal Party. I left it with the minimum of fuss.

I resigned as Chair of the Australian Institute of Politics and Science (the name was changed during my stewardship to better reflect its change in function) after 18 years in 2002 and was succeeded by Rick McLean. The Institute and Australian Quarterly remain to this day.

Dauber or just Dabbler

When I was searching for a site for University of Melbourne Family Club Child Care Centre in the late 60s, I had a strange encounter when I met a Miss Dauber who was, if not the only surviving descendent of Horatio Larcher, certainly a major beneficiary of his estate. Larcher, according in his brief 1942 obituary, had been born in London in 1854, and migrated to Victoria in 1871. He built up one of the largest retail distribution businesses of milk in Melbourne. To illustrate this, by 1907 he was advertising his  Farm Dairy at 45 Moor St Fitzroy. At about that time, pasteurisation was introduced, and his dairy continued to increase its output from 50 to 100 quarts daily in 1896 to 10,000 quarts a day in 1922.

Larcher’s milk cart

Returning from the UK on a visit in 1936, Larcher had brought samples of sterilised and “homogenised” milk, very popular in England. The cream was pressed into the milk and the heat sterilised. Kept in a cool place, if the bottle was not opened, Larcher was quoted as saying the milk would last indefinitely. He brought back samples. “Such milk, which could be sold for about a penny a pint more than ordinary milk, would be invaluable in Australia for transportation over any distance.” He seemed to be describing ultra-pasteurisation.

In Victoria, the Milk Pasteurization Act 1958 specified that “no one should sell or deliver milk except milk pasteurised at licensed pasteurising premises and bottled and sealed as prescribed.” At that time, only about half the milk sold in Victoria was pasteurised. I was in Trinity College at the University of Melbourne then and we had cows grazing on the College grounds; we consumed the milk from the College cows – unpasteurised. No-one to my knowledge contracted bovine tuberculosis nor brucellosis.

Therefore, Larchers had distributed milk through major generational change when at first milk needed to be purchased almost daily from the milkman, unless the family had an ice chest or Coolgardie safe or the new-fangled refrigerator.

The Larcher method of distribution was the horse drawn cart and the horses were stabled on the Moor Street premises, where Larcher himself lived. While there is a photograph of a Larcher horse and cart outside the Southern Cross in 1966, it was not long after that when Larchers closed.

The times had now changed irrevocably. The whole method of distribution was now through the corner store or the supermarket where milk could be refrigerated. The road traffic had increased such that the horse and cart with streets covered with horse excrement was no longer the best method of retaining or distributing milk. This freed up the stables, with their extensive courtyard, in a place not too far from the University of Melbourne.

Miss Dauber was interested in the conversion of the stables into a child-minding centre, and thus I entered into negotiation and I found out I was drawn into a gossamer web. Miss Dauber was a delicate woman whose age was difficult to define by just looking at her finely lined face. She seemed somewhat detached but at the same time she affected coquettish behaviour. There was another young man competing for the property to provide the child-minding centre, but he had no overt experience; even then his strange persona concealed a dark side which ultimately led to him being “sectioned” and held securely in a mental health facility for a period.

With my then young family I visited Miss Dauber on several occasions at her extensive country property at Healesville. What I remember clearly was the magnificent cork tree. I had never seen a fully grown cork tree with its distinctive bark. Funny what you remember, but after a while I realised that, despite her elegant afternoon tea hospitality, I was being strung along, as if courting for Miss Dauber’s hand, much to her enjoyment.

In the words of a nineteenth century novel, I withdrew, thanked her with a flourish of effusiveness. and sought more successfully another premises, this one in Carlton. It was a complete break. I never knew what ultimately happened to Miss Dauber. In a later architectural history of Inner Melbourne, I note reference to a Dauber Child Minding Centre in 1971 located in the Moor Street premises.

Today, it is an undistinguished block of flats. But the Larcher chimney still exists as a remnant of its glory days.

The Melbourne University Family Club with its premises in Carlton has remained, a pioneer in early childhood development.

Mouse Whisper

Jeff Tiedrich is a 65 year old New York graphic designer known since 2000 for his acerbic blogs. He has played guitar in the band Alligator and looks uncannily like Eric Clapton.

After the recent Michigan massacre, he tweeted: Well-regulated militia opens fire on Michigan State University in East Lansing. Cheap thoughts and useless prayers now being rushed to the scene … more on this soon-to-be-forgotten-and-then-repeated story-as-it develops.

Jeff Tiedrich