Modest Expectations – Renunciation of Citizenship

The Potala

If Australia is the hermit kingdom, what does that make the Lodge in Canberra?  The Potala?  It is not particularly helpful for two of the most powerful politicians to lock themselves away. Perhaps if they were creative geniuses such a juxtaposition may provide positive outcomes; but in the end, with men without such a spark, Australia ends up with a scene of reinforcement of similar attitudes and behaviour – an integral loop brewed around eggs and bacon and lox and cream cheese. A daily diet of fuelled fossils and property developers complete a depressing taste sensation of these eremites.

It is an ironic tableau given the Prime Ministerial shift in stance on the national lockdown.

Cameron Stewart made a shrewd observation on the Insiders program on 20 August to the effect that much would be revealed with Victoria’s ability to get the number of COVID-19 cases under control. The outbreak in the Albanian community in the Shepparton area, which is linked to the Caroline Springs cases, reflects the infectivity of the Delta Variant and the ease with which the virus spreads through families and the various workplaces. Unlike NSW the numbers were “grumbling along” in Victoria – until recently. There is doubt that the Victorian government wants the number lower. Nevertheless, with a lockdown, the numbers were initially contained – with the fear that with any loosening of restrictions the situation would mimic that of Sydney.

If Victoria had forced the daily case numbers down, even if not to zero, then Australia – except for NSW – would have the prospect of emerging from lockdown. NSW is still left with its population in some Berejiklian limbo, supported by an isolated NSW Prime Minister and a Victorian-based Treasurer, being slowly braised on the tip of Morton’s Fork.

The dilemma is that Australia can then be unlocked, except for NSW – the pariah State surrounding the equivalent of wartime Switzerland, called the Australian Capital Territory, providing succour to the war-fatigued refugees from the NSW War Zone, now garrisoned by the Delta Variant.

NSW inhabitants will be seeking refugee status, waving vaccination papers at the border seeking access to a COVID-19 free State. Its health system has collapsed under the load of COVID cases, with everybody wanting their elective procedures to be undertaken interstate because of the compromised status of each of the major NSW hospitals and their depletion of staff.

When anybody is used to being able to more or less control their activities, mostly by using devious tactics laced with lies, the Virus does not buy any of that. This is being shown by politicians hiding away, emerging only for controlled appearances with the media, at best having fragmentary knowledge of health to spread political half-truths. Underneath, the only Federal government strategy is wishing that the Virus would go away – and given his Pentecostal beliefs, the Prime Minister no doubt prays that “Jesus will directly intervene.”

If you want to stop the spread, you have to stop the vectors – people moving around in a disordered fashion (Brownian movement) – for at least two weeks. That is not going to happen in NSW – and, as has been proved elsewhere, vaccination helps, but achieving even 75 per cent is a challenge, not only because of the anti-vaxxers, but also  the unvaccinated  young who are spreaders.

A few weeks ago I set out a plan and inter alia suggested that as school was one place where you can capture the cohort, vaccination be provided at age 12. Vaccination may have to occur at an even younger age. However, that debate has yet to be had, as this Prime Minister’s mental energy is consumed in wedging poor hapless Albo.  Really, is that what governing Australia has been reduced to?

The point is, will Australia open up with NSW locked out? I am sure the other States are sick of Berejiklian and that NSW cabal called the Prime Minister’s office. A Treasurer held hostage because, in the end, plaintively he cries from the overgrown Lodge tennis court, a metaphor for Australia:

I coulda’ been a contender …

You don’t understand! I coulda’ had class. I coulda’ been a contender. I could’ve been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am – let’s face it.”

Maybe he will, because Cameron Stewart has proved prescient. Andrews has not got the Victorian State’s daily average down to 10 cases a day. As the week has progressed the attainment of Andrews’ goal seems unlikely to occur. Andrews is now not a counterpoint for NSW’s abject failure. Andrews now needs to recalibrate without seeming to become another Berekjiklian – the quintessential flailing, failed Premier, being pursued by the hounds of  Queensland and Western Australia. Basking to Baskerville?

Morton’s Fork

To-day everyone has to pay the heaviest taxes in our history, but whereas in former times nobody liked paying taxes, now (let us I hope) we willingly do so, for we know that our money is helping: the fight for freedom. But this willing spirit was not shown in the reign of Henry VII, whose method of taxation produced a dilemma known as “Morton’s Fork.”

His officers of taxation did not hesitate to exact forced loans from people of property. They acted in accordance with the theory that if a man lived economically he could not have failed to have saved money, and was, therefore, in a position to make his Sovereign a handsome contribution.  

Likewise, if he lived extravagantly he evidently possessed means, and was also in a position to assist his King. No wonder we inherited a dislike for taxation!

Most revolutions have originated from the excessive taxation of the common people, such as the American Revolution, which was fought to escape English taxes, and the French Revolution to end the crushing impositions of the ruling classes.

This rather quaint letter the Sydney Morning Herald published in wartime 1940 almost irrelevantly invoked the concept of Morton’s Fork. Here then there was no hint of the dilemma which Morton wilfully created when hunting for extra revenue for Henry VII, after he had come to the throne following the energy sapping War of the Roses where Morton had played an important role.

Cardinal John Morton

Although he was a Dorset man by birth, Morton had hitched himself to the Lancastrian cause, and survived during Yorkist imprisonment with his head still intact on his torso. Between being Bishop of Ely and Cardinal Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, he did have a stint in Tower of London – more a Morton roller-coaster than a fork. Moreover, Morton was always close to the Church, even though he first appears as the principal of Peckwater Inn, which had been given to an Augustine Priory several centuries before. It later became the site of Christ Church Oxford, but publican to priest gives Morton a special cachet.

Berejiklian is facing her own version of Morton’s Fork if she “lets it rip” and dismantles the lockdown; in all probability the State will collapse, as already clearly exemplified by a health system under extreme stress and NSW would attain complete pariah status within the Federation. If she intensifies the lockdown, then she is a form of Armenian toast with her Liberal Party backers, in a way never seen before by those unaffected in her Statewide constituency.  If they cannot protest in the streets, NSW voters have that alternative in 2023, unless there is revolt and cries for secession from the unaffected parts of the State well before that time.

There has already been the Tweed Heads Secessionist Movement, and what should have occurred at Federation, with all NSW south of the Murrumbidgee River being ceded to Victoria, may emerge as a local sentiment.

Then she would have to put a complete lockdown on the affected areas, allowing for no movement out for at least four weeks. Vaccination – who knows – may be her “opium of the people”. Let us face it, already we have evidence from elsewhere of the short-term effectiveness of the vaccines; but we have no plan to bolster up the very satisfactory take up to date, to include boosters even though Australia is still a long way from Shangri-La.

The World is based on getting your assumptions right

Covid-19 has exposed Australia’s economy for what it is.

We have a large, clean land and good weather. We dig dirt out of the ground which we sell as iron ore to China, which turns it into steel to build often vacant apartment blocks to pump GDP growth. We dig fossilised trees out of the ground which we also sell to China as coal to make that steel, and to burn in Japan for electricity while their nuclear reactors slowly get back online after Fukushima.

We sell immigration dressed up as education, mainly to China, which is now Australia’s third largest “export” market at $32 billion per annum – which is now halted. We are completely dependent on China which is now in a cold war with the US, possibly turning hot – where over one third of all merchandise exports go.”

So where to from here?

Technology and the elaborate transformation of our raw materials into sophisticated products with higher margins and a greater global market is the answer.

The fastest way to get there is to do everything we can to educate the nation with higher skills.

I would be paying people to go to university or TAFE in the right areas instead of sitting around in zombie companies on Job Keeper, use the spare capacity from the drop in international students to educate our own citizens and dramatically ramp up the sophistication and skills base taught at TAFE to make it a world class trade school.

My first assumption is this writer is not particularly friendly to the Morrison Government. However, like all assumptions, I could be wrong.

He is a prolific Twitter user, often commenting on subjects outside his areas of expertise, including the Sydney lockout laws, COVID-19, Politics of the United States, Donald Trump, Economic policy and many others. This has resulted in criticism from various circles including investors, who strongly suggest he should spend more energy growing a profitable company instead of constantly posting on social media.

This comment is inserted at the base of his Wikipedia biography, and my assumption is that the subject of the criticism did not insert that excerpt.

Again, I may be wrong.

Matt Barrie

The subject is Matt Barrie, self-described entrepreneur and IT expert. He has inserted himself into the “Doherty Model” debate with a very long criticism of the Doherty Institute’s modelling. He challenges the underlying assumptions of the model, and his criticism is peppered with annotations such as “garbage”.  I assume that he is calling into question the veracity of the Doherty model.

Parenthetically, when such a report as the Doherty one is commissioned and one can assume when the Government has predetermined the outcome, it politicises the findings and hence any recommendations in the Report. Here is the further parenthetic assumption that the Morrison government is following its normal pathway of creating a scapegoat, in this case in the form of Professor Lewin, if the whole Report goes “pear-shaped”, is discredited joining the $8m COVID-19 app which detected as it did only 17 cases – on the policy scrap heap..

It is part of my assumptions that the Government, which has made a number of appalling decisions, including prematurely congratulating the NSW government on successfully “quashing” the viral spread, has yet to learn.

The concern I have is how any of the models of the outcome of this Virus have factored in its transmissibility by those vaccinated, and the effect of the virus becoming endemic in children. The community has tolerated children as spreaders of that other coronavirus – the common cold – with its seasonal fluctuation. There is no vaccine, but we live with it because it is so mild in comparison with other infections and people are not hospitalised.

I am making the assumption that the AZ vaccine will be phased out as the mRNA vaccines, with their improved methods of production including the ability to be modified,  become the vaccines of choice. In itself this will present the Australian government with a number of problems in setting the policy agenda, including the substitution process, having invested so heavily in the AZ vaccine.

However, the assumption can be made that the shortages of vaccines will pass, and therefore the debate about whether Australia has booster doses or whether we help the disadvantaged countries achieve optimal vaccination also will fade as an issue.

Nevertheless, there remains the unanswered question of if, and when, boosters are required, and how young one needs to be to receive the first vaccine injection. Still questions that need to be answered, I assume.

Needless to say, it is poor form when asked to reveal the change in the modelling, Professor Lewin says she cannot. The assumption may be made that she has something to hide. The Doherty modellers should be asked to explain their model in front of their peers – publicly.

Whether he is right or wrong, Matt Barrie shows how debatable some of the assumptions underlying the report are, and therefore we do have a number of existing media forums where this can be debated, providing that the Chair of any such debate is knowledgeable and talented enough to lead the debate into objective territory. But that again is an assumption in many respects.

Hey Gladys. Where’re You Going This Weekend?

This is a story for you, Gladys.

There is a family we know in Tasmania.

They wanted to go on a holiday to Kakadu, but first they needed to visit relatives in Adelaide.

They boarded the Spirit of Tasmania with their car and were able to drive across Victoria and then stay in Adelaide with their relatives before flying to Darwin, where they rented a camper van and went to Kakadu, whence we received a text to say they were enjoying themselves. Very good people, and really good for them, not only to see their relatives in Adelaide but also to have a holiday in the Tropics during Tasmania’s chilly winter.

Then they drove their rented camper van from Darwin to Adelaide and then went home the way they had gone, in their own car.

What is that about lockdowns here? None.

The point is that the rest of Australia, especially if the smouldering Victorian outbreak is controlled, is leading a normal life, albeit a bit more hygienically than before.

A long time ago we booked a flight to Broome, having already booked on a cruise along the Kimberley coast, which would have also enabled us to go to Tiwi country, ending in Darwin. We anticipated the cancellation (which ultimately occurred) by flying to Broome early so that we could change to an alternative plan of driving to Darwin.  Having been to the Kimberley and the Northern Territory multiple times over the years we  knew what remained on our tourist agenda. However, along came the limo driver and the Berejiklian response, which has left the State locked down, with no demonstrable way of anything changing before the end of the year – if then.

Of course, none of the above  was possible for us, because of the Berejiklian stuff up. Nor any ability to go to Tasmania, nor to see our family in Melbourne.

I fail to see this adulation for the NSW Premier opening us all up for a picnic in the park or Dr Chant teaching us baby steps. Unfortunately, NSW has Berejiklian, who would be seen as an aberration in any other State. She has no strategy except vaccination in the face of the escalation of cases and a stressed health system.

Can I remind her of one thing? During the War, outside Tocumwal, they constructed an airstrip and nearby a 1,000 bed facility for war casualties, effectively taking them out of the firing line. The only way to deal with this crisis is to separate the infected, the virus vectors, until they are no longer vectors. A tent hospital would do it, because although the airstrip at Tocumwal still exists, the tent hospital has long gone and the land restored. The point is that rapidly setting up a fully functioning facility has been shown to be feasible and implementable. And a long way away without being a long way away. The wartime planners understood the apparent paradox and dealt with it accordingly.

Similar sites are available to NSW. What about some of those coastal golf courses in Sydney? Requisition these. Show some guts.

A suitable place for a quarantine village…

Watch what happens at Wellcamp when you have people with a real record of creating an airport and industrial park, as the Wagner brothers have shown; now given the task of creating a bespoke quarantine facility. In three months that will be operating.

However, you need courage to build such a facility in the face of Morrison the underminer. NSW needs a blueprint; the other States have provided various and the only unfortunate shred Berejiklian has in her policy patchwork is if Victoria has failed to reduce the number of cases. How threadbare can you become!

A Distant Mirror

I remember back in 1978, when I was reconstructing my library, I read a review about this new book titled A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman. I remember sending a note to my friend in America asking her to buy me a copy, such were the times then in getting new American books. She bought a handcut first edition, which beautifully encased the views of one of the most influential historian of the 20th century, Barbara Tuchman.

The Distant Mirror metaphor drew attention to the parallels in the phenomena extant in both the 14th and 20th centuries.  On the surface there is Voltaire’s interjection of “history never repeating itself, man does” which may seem relevant, but where does it take one?

Back to this very extensive narrative of the 14th century.

Tuchman noted that there was a tendency of historians to skirt the 14th century, perhaps because of the disastrous consequences of the Black Death plague 1348-1350 “which killed an estimated one-third of the population living between India and Iceland.” She felt this a difficult age for historians as it was an interruption in the story of human progress.

Even now, over 30 years since her death, her thoughtful analysis is worth reading.

How delightful, southern France in summer …

In contrast, read the airy twitter post from the anachronistic Alexander Downer, having got an exemption to travel to France no less. Downer is chortling on about how lovely France is at this time of the year in summer – away from the Australian Oubliette – no lockdowns; just a France with 17,590 cases recorded yesterday and a “trivial” 74 deaths.

Reminiscent of Pope Clement VI during the stint in France away from that infested place called Rome, the papacy lodged in the south of France at Avignon at the height of the Black Death.  He was ordered by his doctor to sit between two fires in the papal apartments – during the summer. Rather than avoiding the miasma, the fire discouraged the fleas, the vectors of the Yersinia pestis bacillus. Also, the Pope had the added benefit of his doctor insisting on him being socially isolated, despite the Pope losing a third of his cardinals, most of whom were some relation in some shape or form to him anyway.

Better than lockdown, milord! Especially when you have no cardinals to worry about.

Now this is Freedom (Thanks to The Boston Globe)

What we are missing by having the lockdown.

For legions of island residents and visitors, traveling to and from Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket has always been a bit of a headache.”

But this summer, the ordeal of snatching a coveted reservation on heavy travel days, and navigating the maze of buses, cars, and general commotion at the terminals has gone to migraine level, fuelling a season of discontent on the islands and mainland alike.”

Summer crowds at Martha’s Vineyard

“A fresh wave of tourists, along with an influx of new full-time island residents fleeing COVID, have packed ferries with thousands more cars, requiring travellers to book reservations weeks in advance for peak times.”

Mouse Whisper

The reward for reaching a record number of COVID cases in a single day – we can have a picnic outside – le déjeuner sur l’herbe or,

emulating Tom Lehrer’s picnic in the park:

All the world seems in tune
On a spring afternoon
When we’re poisoning pigeons in the park

…or a squirrel or two…”

Lots of ideas. Time for me to get some fresh air.

By the way, Is Tom Lehrer still alive?

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe

Modest Expectations – The Sole of Bond Street

As the pandemic has ploughed on, there is a new collective noun for the experts clamouring for media exposure – an irritation of epidemiologists. After more than 15 months of COVID, the endless stream of epidemiologists called upon to express opinions on television have variously inspired and annoyed, but more often have provided a confusing opinion. For me, the soft-spoken Marie-Louise McLaws, whose family motto is “Spectemur agendo” meaning “we are judged by our actions”, is one such example. Marie-Louise is probably judged by her talking head television profile and she obviously has her fans.

Nevertheless, she has made a pertinent observation as to the vulnerability of Victoria, particularly Melbourne, to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. It is a matter of geography – the ease with which people can move around there as distinct from other major cities in Australia.  Others are chiming in with stochastic analysis, a fancy name to define randomness of these events. Perhaps she has been over-enthusiastic in emphasising some other differences, which probably don’t exist, but the geography argument is a strong one, and the outer suburbs of Melbourne do contain many migrant groups.

Take the Indian population, for instance; they are clustered on opposite sides of Melbourne, which is the favoured destination of Indian migrants over Sydney. If you believe the blurb, that is:

Indians living in Melbourne love:

  • living in Melbourne’s suburbs with safe, accessible transport
  • local supermarkets, Indian grocery stores and restaurants
  • Melbourne’s festivals, museums and cultural events 
  • Victoria’s world-class education system
  • dining out in Melbourne’s renowned restaurants.

All conducive to a very mobile lifestyle, and there are over 56,000 Indian-born Australians in Melbourne, thus about three per cent of Melbourne’s population. Sydney has a smaller population, and it is concentrated in Harris Park and surrounding suburbs in Sydney’s west.  In this century up to 2019, Indian migration was the largest in percentage terms. People should not be coy about country of origin, especially when so many still have strong family links to a country where the virus spread has been out of control. In the midst of a pandemic, such demographic information is important.

I always remember a description of Brisbane, “If Rome was built on seven hills, Brisbane was built on seventy-seven”. Sydney by its geography is also compartmented, and this was well shown in the COVID-19 outbreak on the northern beaches of that city in December last year. This outbreak was easily contained.

However, when the infected were allowed to move around in that well known stochastic process, Brownian movement, as they were from the disembarkation of the Ruby Princess in the middle of the city with access to multiple transport links, then one could call the process, the Berekjlian, after the presiding Premier of the time. But normally it is far more challenging to move around Brisbane and Sydney than Melbourne.

In regard to accessibility, take one suburb of Melbourne, Hawthorn. There are three tram lines running through it and a railway line with at least two stations serving Hawthorn. There are also buses, and the increasing use of private buses to ferry private school children to and from school, Hawthorn and the neighbouring suburbs are a large scholastic reservoir. Added to this Melbourne is very easy to move around inside the rapidly expanding perimeter. The only barrier is the Great Dividing Range which only provides a hurdle to travel in the Dandenongs component. Otherwise, all the other sectors have major highways radiating out from Melbourne, which mean travel is easy.

In Melbourne, some talk nostalgically about living in a “village” rather than a “suburb”. I would dispute that.

At last the Federal Government, a Federal Government dominated by one Sydneysider who lives in an enclave called the Shire, has buckled to the obvious need to have a custom-built quarantine centre in Victoria close to Melbourne. Hopefully more objectivity will be applied to the tendering than much of the scandalous way the Government has gone about business over the past three years. Whether Avalon is the right place or not, it is on pre-existing Commonwealth land and relatively close to Melbourne.

I wonder though if the invaders were not “micro-marauders”, not easily identifiable, would the Governments be adopting the seemingly leisurely pace to get this centre built. Maybe photo-opportunity trips will accelerate the process. In the Northern Territory or even South to Tocumwal in NSW, one can see how quickly facilities, hospitals, airstrips and even a highway were built when the Japanese were on the horizon.

Waleed Aly has waded into the conversation, questioning the validity of singling Melbourne out. As usual he writes persuasively, but I suggest that he reinforces the point that having hotel quarantine in the middle of city with the easiest means of spread of anything, be it people or viruses, is just asking for trouble.

Black Rock, near Melbourne, 1954

He singles out Black Rock as a Melbourne suburb where lockdown was not required. This suburb and the adjoining Beaumaris were developed later from bushland. They lie beyond the terminus of both tram and bus, and therefore have some the characteristics of the Sydney northern beaches suburbs. The distinguishing feature was its isolation. The way it was isolated had a distinct elite character and elitism discourages easy movement.

Despite the intervention of Waleed, as an epidemiologist, Professor McLaws, you made a good point, but in your enthusiasm to prove a point you probably went a wee bit too far.

Scars of 56

Since my Chinese exploits are receiving some interest, here is an excerpt of a book I hope to publish later this year subtitled, “When we were not too Young”. 

Over dinner my father continued to repeat that he wanted to “see China”, whatever that meant, and the only way to “see China” from his point of view was to take the train to the border at Lo Wu and stare across into the country. However, it became clear when he asked if that were possible that, although the train might go through to Lo Wu, all the passengers had to get off the train at Fan Ling, which was about four miles inside the border. Nevertheless, we bought tickets because my father said: “…you never know”. If nothing else, he was awake to serendipitous opportunity.

He had also thought of going across to Macau, which required an overnight boat trip. Macau was then a seedy remnant of the Portuguese empire. He wondered if it would be easier to get closer to China if he went there, but when he inquired about that feasibility, he was quickly disabused. There was a lawless element there and it would not be worth being exposed as a lone traveller. I thought I heard the word “triad” mentioned in the conversation.  

So here we were about to board the train to Lo Wu. The train with the steam-driven locomotive was regulation pre-war with cracked leather seats in the carriages and the views through the windows made even greyer by the grime on the windows. 

The carriage was empty apart from ourselves.

The city straggled away into the New Territories and into a quilt of paddy fields. There were distant mountains, which my father said were probably in China. He stood up and walked along the corridor hoping to get a better view. He came back and confirmed that the mountains were on the Chinese side of the border. I am not sure how he knew but, as always, he was authoritative.

Fanling Station

The train pulled into Fan Ling and the conductor came along telling us to get off. I could feel very clearly my father’s reluctance as he stood up, and slowly climbed down onto the station. At the end of the station, there were a number of Chinese soldiers in green jackets and trousers. They did not seem to be armed but symbolized a line of demarcation between themselves and the Hong Kong constabulary, who were fitted out like London policemen acting with the departing passengers as if they were directing traffic in The Strand.

The Forbidden Land lay beyond – the view entombed in the wintry sunlight.

However, there was one person standing on the station close to the train. He was wearing a hat, scarf and gabardine raincoat. The scarf was drawn up to partially conceal his face He looked across the station and, in an Australian accent, called my father’s name. My father looked up, startled at the recognition. He did not immediately recognize the figure, who lit a cigarette, for a brief moment illuminating his bespectacled face. My father strode up the platform. They shook hands and for five minutes they engaged in what appeared to be animated conversation, my father pointing toward the Chinese border. 

I was distracted by a middle-aged Chinese man, who sidled up to me with his bicycle. In broken English, he said he would take me to the border on his bicycle. It would not cost much; and I could see what China was really like. I hesitated. My father was still in deep conversation, and I looked at the bicycle. Was he going to “dink” me? There seemed to be no other way that I could get on the bicycle, unless I hired it from him. 

I looked out over the rice fields and through the line of houses, which clustered below the station. I could make out the road running north-south which presumably went towards the border.

 “Can I take your bicycle and bring it back?”

The man with the bicycle hesitated. Then he pushed it towards me especially as he saw that I had US dollars in my hand.

“What in God’s name are you doing, John?”

The border at Lo Wu, 1950s

“I thought you wanted to go to the border.”

“On that?” My father’s face split into one of his thin-lipped smiles, which you rarely saw unless he was about to launch into an invective against somebody.

The ferocity of the “On that” seemed to frighten the man with the bicycle, as he took a step back.

“So you are seen pedaling to God knows where wearing completely inadequate gear. If you don’t freeze to death, you are liable to be either shot or captured. John, I suppose you think that all that there will be is a bit of barbed wire and smiling soldiers. Does not work that way – and the last thing I want to happen is my son dead or interned. The last thing I need,” he repeated, “is for my son to be the centre of an international incident.” 

I thought my father was a bit over the top, but I suddenly felt very cold. After all, it was winter and the threadbare trees along the road towards China bent in the wind as if derisively waving me on in my fruitless endeavour.

My father gestured towards the retreating figure on the bicycle. There was no need to wave him away. He disappeared from sight off the edge of the platform.

My father turned and looked back to see the man with whom he had been talking climb onto the train. The Chinese troops did not move. 

My father gestured. “That John is a safer way of travel, but unfortunately you need to be credentialed, as Ted is. I believe he is off to Beijing. However mark my words, I shall get over the border in the next ten years – and more than once.”

We waited for the train to come back. My father was suitably vague about who Ted was, but he worked with a friend of my father who, like Ted, had been a lawyer and, if not a Communist, certainly was a definite shade of cardinal. 

My father was always very sure of himself, but I could never fathom his politics.

Postscript: My father did achieve his goal and did go to China – more than once. My father died in 1970 – so it was quite a feat in the 1960s to do just that.

Burning of the Books

Endless archives

Archives are people, and not the great people, but those who otherwise would leave no trace: the workers, the immigrants, the servicemen, the public servants, and, not least, the Indigenous. Of our collecting institutions, the NAA (National Archives of Australia) is the most truly democratic — of the people, by the people, for the people.

Record keeping, furthermore, is fundamental to the protection of citizens and the prevention of harm.

In a recent article in The Australian, a pertinent excerpt is reproduced above, Gideon Haigh has almost said it all about Assistant Treasurer Stoker and her disdain for retention of the archives – hence it follows who cares about the history of the nation? Should it be reduced to dust or why not to a bonfire?

I am reminded of the Futurist movement, which had its genesis in Italy before the First World War, with its disdain for the past and its concentration on the future with an emphasis on technology, bellicosity and patriotism. It is unsurprising given its behaviour that it was closely identified with the rise of Mussolini which they supported. When I say I am reminded of, I don’t mean to say that Assistant Minister Stoker is a simulacrum of the Futurists. Some of them had original ideas in the arts, a talent that the Minister hides under a bitcoin, having dispensed with that idiomatic past, the bushel.

After all, the Nazis refined this destruction of the past with the burning of 25,000 books in Berlin on May 10th 1933 including a significant amount of the Jewish heritage in Germany. Australia is in a delicate position where there are forces which are leading this country down an authoritarian pathway, where there is no collective memory. For years, elements of the Australian Public Service are to deny that any past existed, that corporate memory was a disease not to be confused with selective amnesia – and definitely to ensure the freedom of information was a joke that never existed. The Public Service treads the path of a Futurist movement in inked soaked quills of the Executive Porcupine – or in this country – the Executive Echidna.

David Tune, a former senior bureaucrat, was commissioned in 2019 to review the state of the national archives. He submitted his findings in early 2020; over a year later his review was released, in March this year. The report recommended the government fund a seven-year program to urgently digitise at-risk materials, for a total cost of $67.7 million. “Urgently” is hardly the word to describe Minister Stoker’s response.

Stoker’s attitude unwittingly has placed, even compounded, the Government into an untenable position.  The Treasurer, given his own heritage, should be more understanding of the destructive force Stoker is unleashing.  Frydenberg should reach into his cash box and find the money for the National Archives. Maybe such money would avoid this metaphorical burning of the Archives.

Stoker by name; stoker by profession? Surely not.

Backroad on the way from Normanton

It all started when I asked Dennis whether he could lend me the 4WD for the weekend. I wanted to check out the medical services in Normanton. There was a South African doctor who recently had arrived in the town, and there had been murmurings about the quality of the services.

To get there you needed to go down the main street of Mount Isa to the Barkly Highway and on to Cloncurry and then turn left onto the Burke Development Road. In the mythology of my family, it was said that my father recently graduated in Commerce from the University of Melbourne, had the opportunity to join a fledging Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services, but it would involve leaving his girlfriend in Melbourne. Love won out; and the Great Depression tested that love as my father tried to find a path through genteel poverty and not on the wing so to speak. This day we did not stop to savour the nostalgia of the job that never was.

By way of explanation, Cloncurry was where the airline flew the inaugural flying doctor service in 1928 – the first commercial flight was generally considered to have been from Longreach to Cloncurry six years earlier.

However, this day we had a five-hour drive to reach Normanton. Normanton is not on the Gulf and there is a further 70 kilometres to Karumba on the Gulf, in those days a centre for the northern prawn industry. The prawns were caught, processed and despatched to Asian destinations direct from the Gulf. Her brother had worked on the prawning trawlers in the Gulf of Carpentaria twenty years before. Her brother in addition to working the trawlers always loved fishing, and barramundi were the prized catch in the Gulf.

Karumba

Karumba had its own link to the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services; in the late 1930s the town was a refuelling and maintenance stop for the flying boats of the Qantas Empire Airways.

Watching the sun go down sitting on the beach after 500 kilometres drive gazing out to sea evoked a feeling of thirst, and we were on the sand without beer. So we went back to the motel at Normanton, and watched the green tree frogs climb out of the umbrella holder in the middle of the table while we drank our XXXX. We were in the tropics!

The hospital was on the hill away from the township proper. We met the middle-aged doctor and his wife, immigrants from South Africa.  They were not in their comfort zone, and the wife was particularly fearful of the fact that there were “blacks” running wild in the town. They had grown up under Apartheid and I wondered why they had left South Africa. Perhaps it was to bring their children up in a predominantly “white” country. The majority of Normanton residents were Aboriginal.

Here they were, isolated from the town, with no intention to mix and looking for the earliest possible escape route. An irrational fear of dark people and an inability to identify – while courteous to us, the authoritarian attitude, albeit racist, can only be suppressed for so long. It was clearly evident in this case.

The trip enabled us to reach the Gulf in a far more pleasant way than Burke and Wills, who had slogged their way along the same route to get to the same destination but died on their way back.

There is another less comfortable route to Normanton from Mount Isa and that is via Lake Julius rather than via Cloncurry. Lake Julius is an important water supply and is a favourite picnic spot for those wanting to have some respite from the mining atmosphere of Mount Isa.

What was unexpected was coming across the small settlement of Kajabbi where, outside the Kajabbi pub, stands a cairn. This memorial in Queensland directly acknowledges the history of conflict, as one writer states, related to “the invasion of Australia by Europeans”.

Like many other plaques mounted on stone cairns, this one commemorates a centenary – 1984 was one hundred years since the slaughter of the Kalkadoon people at Battle Mountain, just southwest of this tiny speck off the beaten track. Charlie Perkins and George Thorpe, a Kalkadoon (Kalkatungka) elder, unveiled the plaque, which reads in part:

This obelisk is in memorial to the Kalkatunga tribe, who during September 1884 fought one of Australia’s historical battles of resistance against a para-military force of European settlers and the Queensland Native Mounted Police at a place known to-day as Battle Mountain 20 klms south west of Kajabbi.

The spirit of the Kalkatunga tribe never died at battle but remains intact and alive today within the Kalkadoon Tribal Council.

Kalkatunga heritage is not the name behind the person, but the person behind the name.”

The Kalkadoon or Kalkatunga were considered elite warriors, but a group of  early whitefella settlers, in particularly one Arthur Kennedy, took it upon themselves to kill as many of this warrior tribe as they could. Battle Mountain was the major skirmish; in all, about 900 Kalkadoon were killed in this protracted war.

The cairn is modest and I remember reading its inscription, and since I had known Charlie Perkins, whose people were from Central Australia, it was significant that he had journeyed to this remote place to unveil this plaque with a local elder. He obviously held the Kalkadoon in high regard and the timing was to celebrate the founding of the Kalkadoon Tribal Council.

It is sad to read that “native” mounted police were used to help quell the tribe. It was a common ploy to use Aboriginals from other areas to assist in helping the whitefellas. If you read accounts of skirmishes in Western Victoria in the 1840s, Aboriginal troopers were brought in from places like Tumut, hundreds of kilometres away. This usage of Aboriginal police for suppression of other Aboriginal people is a slice of Australian history which is not often ventilated.

After all it a small stone memorial in a remote hamlet on a dusty backroad, an uninviting series of dips and crests which heightened the remoteness of it all, and yet another reminder of a dark era in our history, a hundred years before when the cairn was unveiled.

Just like outside the township of Bingara in the Northern Tablelands of NSW, there is a memorial to another massacre – 50 Wirrayaraay people killed on the slopes overlooking the Myall Creek. I remember reading the last three words Ngiyani winangay genunga (we will remember them]. That atrocity more than one hundred years before. There have been more. Too many to mention here.

What prompted these memories, particularly of Kajabbi?

2021 was another centenary, that of the Tulsa massacre of black Americans in 1921. As if in response, the Washington Post printed a map of all the massacres of black Americans, which is reprinted. I wonder given I have been to other sites of aboriginal massacres, there is a similar map for this country, to remind us of some of the darker side of Australian history.

Maybe, Senator Stoker, it may be hidden in the archives.

Mouse Whisper

My cousin, Conte Topo has a piccolino aversion to us English speakers, who think that “simpatico” means sympathetic, a bit upper case pretentious, but unfortunately for those who like to dabble in using foreign words simpatico means “nice” not “sympathetic”. The Italian word for “sympathetic” is “comprensivo”.

In contrast, saying the obvious, the Italian word for empathetic is in fact empatico, if you wish to use such a flash word.

However, empathy and sympathy often are used interchangeably but empathy means experiencing someone else’s feelings.  It requires an emotional component of really feeling what the other person is feeling. Sympathy, on the other hand, means understanding someone else’s suffering without getting under the skin. In short supply among certain Australian politicians at this time when a little sick girl is the victim.

Conte Topo

Modest Expectations – Luther

Just before we left Manaus, I told the driver to stop so that I could purchase an Amazonas flag. It was full sized. Flags interest me because they have meaning and the Amazonas flag is no exception. The flag has a central red band enclosed by white bands, representing hope. In the corner is a blue quadrant representing the sky; stars represent the Amazonas municipalities with Manaus as the central big star. The red band represents what Manaus must do – overcome difficulties.

Manaus – poor Manaus – a place neglected – a country defiled. Virus ridden, unable to cope.

So different from the cheery countenance when we visited Manaus. It was winter 2019. We had arrived early in the morning on a flight from Rio de Janeiro via São Paulo; the flight had taken us the best part of five hours. When you are in a cramped space, time becomes either something to be ignored or to drive one mad by looking at one’s watch, constantly nagged by “are we there yet?” But the bed, once reached, compensated.

Yet although we spent most of the time on the Amazon, the bookend times were in Manaus, the port where we boarded the cruise ship. We arrived after one in the morning in this old hotel which was in a narrow street littered with graffiti. There were signs of it being left to its own devices, with a few mango and banana trees thrown in to give it tropical colour.

It was a late breakfast highlighted by the best ceviche I have tasted. White fish, normally an enemy of my gut, was succulent, with the various additions centring around the lime juice marinade it was perfect.

The only problem was that I thought I had lost my wallet, and the room was turned upside down by long suffering staff, until I found it nestling in my documentation. My companion just looked at the ceiling.

The new bridge across the Rio Negro

The transfer to the boat soon after midday and then on return only a day before we were scheduled for a late afternoon flight meant we saw very little of Manaus. The opera house and many of the old buildings reflected the heyday wealth of Manaus from its then rubber monopoly; the wharf side markets, and the exotic nature of the produce reflected the present day source of wealth. Manaus was alive and the day was full, going all over the city and even crossing to the new bridge across Rio Negro to the city of Iranduba. By way of explanation, Manaus is technically on the Rio Negro, which lives up to its name – as we witnessed when this river joined up with the upper Amazon (Solimōes) River very near Manaus.

Açaí berries

Given how much açaí fruit has penetrated our health food industry, there was a certain luxury of actually eating the fruit from this palm in Manaus, with its agradável flavour to best to describe it. However, the grapelike fruit provided a brief novel pleasure.

That was the problem, the pleasure of being in Manaus was so brief. We would have liked to have stayed a week longer; as with many of these exotic places, they seep into the cracks of one’s personality – and one is left with a feeling of nostalgia compounded by a strange sense of grief reflecting on what the city is going through now.

With all the tragedy being enacted in Amazonas, I only hope the red band in its flag burns bright with its white companions providing the hope. What else can one say, because among other matters far away in urban Brazil, the people there have bet on an unintelligent narcissist to lead them to a better life. I do pray for Manaus – and indeed for the whole of the Amazon basin.

The problem with Age

When Biden was a young man of 20, a 43 year old war veteran and Senator from Massachusetts was inaugurated President.

The Senator’s 71 year old father looked on proudly.

Now Biden is an old man; as a 78 year old he has been inaugurated as President of the United States. His 50 year old son and 40 year old daughter looked on proudly.

By the end of John Kennedy’s first year of Presidency, his father had had a profound stroke, which left him severely disabled, unable to talk. He lingered, dying, at the current age of President Biden.

John Kennedy’s election could be seen as a reaction to the ageing heroes of World War II – the fifties had seen a demented Churchill pushed into retirement, but not until he was 81, to be replaced by an ageing, ill, long term protégé-in-waiting, who miscalculated badly over Suez and in turn was replaced by another World War warrior.

Eisenhower, later in Presidency when he was nearing 70, was wracked with health problems, including a heart attack, while in Europe De Gaulle was nearing 70 and German Chancellor Adenauer was well over 80.  Australia contributed the ageing Menzies who was nearing 70.

Before Kennedy arrived, it was an old man’s world.

Recently in America there has been a tendency for an old President to be replaced by a younger one. If this succession holds true, then Trump has no hope, even before his trial, even if his diet does not kill him before.

There are a couple of factors which are different now from 1961. One is that there are many more avenues for treatment of the ageing body. One area in particular has been treatment of cardiac disease. Then at Kennedy’s inauguration there were few if any coronary care units, no cardiac surgery on a regular basis, no stenting, and over all treatment of high blood pressure was far from today’s standards. Smoking was still rife. When I was an intern in the early 1960s, the treatment of a heart attack was symptomatic, namely bed rest and analgesics with digoxin and heparin if needed. However, every time I see Biden break into that arthritic jog I shudder and think of his succession.

This then other unknown is the presence of a female Vice-President. Good God, replacement by a younger woman!

I can see Vice-President Harris developing a close relationship with Prime Minister Ardern, but whom from Australia? The most obvious is Penny Wong.

Nevertheless, I would like to be there when Marise Payne rocks up to Washington. But then the Vice-President has been exposed to some of those delightful Republican women in the past, and no doubt in her own courteous way would politely call forth “A chi tocca” when she meets these Australian Republican simulacra, represented by the fruity Marise.

Australia Day

Once in 62 upon a pastured lawn 

The Pom called Robin Day did ask 

To serried ranks we stood

Respectful 

Should we seek republic

And the answer unexpected

From knees once genuflected

To Day we all said aye.

 

January 26

A day of Independence 

When India

Grew up and threw away its swaddling clothes

A cope with mace and orb and sceptred scrap

Lie shattered ‘pon brown flattened earth

For people confused by Battenburg

But now Republic Day they all say aye

 

January 26

A day 

For we still caught in cream bassinet 

A good man stood on Botany shores

Sent from porphyric hungovered king

Possession gained with jack of Andrew, Patrick, and of George

But no place for David, no daffodils nor leek

Yet this Southern harsh and sunburnt land a dump for human waste

He christened his green and pleasant New South Wales

In homage we whitefellas celebrate this day

 

January 26

Summer invasion to those not tanned

To frolic in illusory freedom

The Jack still flutters

A cornered eye

The Southern Cross is overseen.

By stiffened queen

To celebrate a day of smoke and sand and foaming ale 

 

Robin Day is long since dead

That rank of 62 is thin and worn

Who once called aye for change

Yet Her of steely Albion eyes

Or He of fumbling foreign voice survive

Shall we now spent and grey

Not live to have a true Australia day

Which we can call our own

 

A lone voice rings out

Make September First Republic Day

Is it not the first day of Spring

Is it not when wattle bloom 

A sprig for all

Is it but a symbol of youth and vigour

This day which is

The First of September

The back story of this poem was the Australian visit of Robin Day who, for many years, was the face of the BBC program “Panorama”. It was either 61 or 62. “62” in the poem is poetic licence.

Robin Day

Day had approached Zelman Cowan, then the Dean of Law at the University of Melbourne, to round up the usual suspects of Bright Young Australian Youth to be interviewed. It was a time when Great Britain was showing an interest in joining the European Common Market.  Menzies’ Australia was opposed to this course of action. Robin Day wanted a bit of colour for a piece to show on Panorama to highlight the squabble.

Zelman asked Phil Cummins, then a prominent law student and student politician, to collect his then mates. I was part of the crowd invited, and there we were, arranged outdoors “in serried ranks” as if we had won some trophy. Day was among a caste of interviewers whose unctuous style enabled him to cleverly manipulate his interviewees in the way he wanted. He was thus working his way down the student line until his flinty eyes alit on this impeccably designer dressed tramp. He asked this young bespectacled scarecrow for his opinion on the stoush, who in response brushed aside whatever had been asked and said: “I am a republican, and you Brits can do what you like.”

Then a bloke in the front row chimed in: “I don’t like the Poms either.”

This then unleashed a number of insurrectionary comments.

Zelman Cowan

From then on Mr Day found himself one out, such that in the end he was led away from the group by Dean Zelman with the words “Totally unrepresentative opinion”.

When the program was ultimately released in Australia, I saw it by chance. I had just delivered a baby as part of my student rotation at the Royal Women’s Hospital and happened to come into the student common room and there he was – Zelman Cowan wandering down one of the paths leading from the Melbourne Shrine, burbling about “the indissoluble links between Australia and the Mother Country” or some such words. Our student interview was on the cutting room floor.

Anyway, a good training run for a Governor General aspirant. After Kerr, Cowan restored a great deal of dignity to the position and ironically later in life became a republican. Pity the intervening 30 years.

As for Great Britain going into the European Union then, Menzies was just as irrelevant then as he had been during the Suez crisis in 1956; and for Great Britain then, as always, De Gaulle was la mouche dans la pommade. 

The Pardoner Prologue

With this trick, I’ve earned myself a salary of about a hundred gold coins a year. I stand up there in front of the people like I’m a priest or something and preach and tell just like the kind I just mentioned. All the stupid people sit in front of me and soak up every word I say. I make a good show of it, straining my neck to look at all the people to the right and left of me, just like a bird in a barn. I gesticulate with my hands and speak quickly, which makes my speeches dramatic and fun to watch. I always preach about greed and the other deadly sins, which makes them happy to give away their money—namely, to me. I’m only in this for the money you know, not for cleansing immortal souls. Why, I don’t give a damn if their souls are as rotten as garbage when they die! Of course, I’m not the first person who’s preached with an ulterior motive either. Some priests give sermons to make people feel good about themselves so that they’ll get promoted to bishop. Others preach for love of fame or to fan the fires of hate. I only preach to make money and sometimes to get back at people who’ve said nasty things about me or my fellow pardoners. I can rail against a person in the audience to ruin his reputation, for example, and, even if I don’t mention his name, everyone will know whom I’m talking about. That’s how I get back at my enemies, by spitting out my venom under the guise of being holy and virtuous.

This is an excerpt from the Prologue from the Pardoner’s tale.  One of the Canterbury pilgrims Geoffrey Chaucer recorded, each providing his fellow pilgrims with a tale to while away time as they rode towards Canterbury. The Prologue and the Pardoner’s tale itself have so much of Trump in them that if there were to be a further film made then Donald would fit the role of Pardoner.

The Canterbury Pilgrims

The tale told revealed three men from Flanders, the worst sort of “jocks” in their unbridled roistering decided to confront and kill Death. They were on their way to the village where they had heard Death had killed everybody when they encountered an old man who said that Death lurked behind a certain oak tree. When they reached the tree, instead of Death they found a substantial cache of gold. Now in the time-honoured way groups of three behave, two of them plotted to kill the youngest one, thereby reducing the division of spoils to two.

In the meantime, they sent the potential victim into the village to buy provisions. However, this young man had similar views, but he wanted to reduce the three-way split to one – himself. He thus went to the apothecary bought some rat poison and put it into the wine that he had also purchased.

He then went back, and his two companions killed him, but then drank the poisoned wine.  Therefore, they all ended up dead. For us, the future generation, the lesson of the tree hoard is the basis of the aphorism that greed is the root of all evil.

After the story, the Pardoner increases his sales pitch and starts flogging relics. This angers the Host who in part replies with the following:

But by the croys which that seint Eleyne fond,

I wolde I hadde thy coillons in myn hond

In stede of relikes or of seintuarie;

Lat cutte hem of, I wol thee helpe hem carie;

Thay shul be shryned in an hogges tord.

In modern terms something equivalent to having intestines for garters, but somewhat lower in the male body. Before the two descend into any rough stuff, the Knight intervenes.

Which leaves but one question, how much did Donald the Pardoner rake in from his 143 pardons.  Say an average of US$10, 000 – more you say. Probably impossible to find out, anyway I wouldn’t bother looking behind any of the trees on any of his golf courses. But you never know, given that Donald is probably out to kill Death.

Hib-brawl-tar

I was reminded of a photograph which was pulled from my father’s collection when he was touring around Europe in the late 1960s. The slide was of the Rock of Gibraltar.

The Rock had always been on my “bucket list”, and I was not alone. When I used to mention that I wanted to go there, it seemed to have a romantic connotation and it was the surest way of attracting interest.

When my father saw the Rock, it was then off limits after Franco closed the border in 1969. Spain did not re-open the border until 1985, and in the meantime Great Britain built a fence on neutral ground within which it built a modern airport. Therefore, it is an interesting experience driving across the border and the runways in order to arrive in Gibraltar proper.

Gibraltar and its airport

One thing Gibraltar knows is how to disappoint. Even though there is a polyglot population boasting an impressive heritage, Gibraltar just felt like a Butlin’s holiday camp.

The Gibraltarians have their own dialect, but most of the voices in the hotel sounded as if they were born within the sound of Bow Bells.

However, the Rock was something else.  The view across the Straits of Gibraltar is spectacular, as Africa looms through the haze and the harbour is dotted with myriad shipping.

The resident monkeys on the Rock like most of their kind are more annoying than dangerous. These Barbary apes, as they are misnamed because they have no tails, are the last wild monkey population in Europe.

The other distinct aspect is the tunnels in the Rock. The tunnel network is far larger than the roads, but not unsurprising given the Rock has been a target since its acquisition by Great Britain in 1703 as a spoil during the War of Spanish Succession, legitimised by the Treaty of Utrecht eight years later.

Spain has always tried to reclaim it, by complaint or force. In response Great Britain has reinforced the defences on the Rock, most recently during World War II. We were afforded a glimpse of these tunnels, but as far back as the late 18th century, their existence reflected this animosity with Spain. The five-year siege late in that century saw the successful experimentation by the British in being able to fire on the siege ships, and a certain Lieutenant Shrapnel lent his name to an invention, which the Spanish found disconcerting. Eventually after five years the siege was lifted.

Gibraltar has picturesque reminders of its Britishness – telephone boxes and policemen in bobby hats. However, nobody mentioned the fact that our Spanish-registered rental car had been illegally if inadvertently taken into Gibraltar. But then Gibraltar for all its professed loyalty to the British flags has a dark side, the scourge of all these overseas territories still controlled by Great Britain. In a report by the European Union released in December 2019 entitled Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorist Financing Measures, the following gives a flavour to the lackadaisical way the regulations are administered by the Gibraltarians.

Gibraltar has a sound legal framework to exchange information and cooperate with its foreign counterparts in relation to money laundering (ML), associated predicate offences and financing of terrorism (FT). Nevertheless, the timeliness of the information exchange is hindered by the shortage in human resources and the lack of clear guidelines in relation to incoming Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) requests. Legal assistance has been sought, primarily from the UK and Spain…The indicated delays in receiving replies to requests for assistance and the limited resources that law enforcement agencies have at their disposal to pursue evidence abroad impede their capacity to investigate and disrupt transnational criminal networks involved in ML, drugs trafficking and tobacco smuggling. There have been no outgoing requests related to confiscation during the review period.

Gibraltar’s economy is primarily based on tourism, financial services, online gambling and shipping. Trade is concentrated on refined petroleum, passenger and cargo ships, cars, and recreational boats. The UK, Spain, Mauritania, Italy and the Netherlands are Gibraltar’s main trading partners.

Reading between the lines, a major activity is smuggling and generally living on the dark side of the law. Admission that Mauretania is one of the major trading partners is interesting, given that Mauretania retains the pre-eminent world position in slavery.

Gibraltar is part of that stain on the World – the United Kingdom Overseas Territories, the home of all the shenanigans which are the dark side of capitalism – tax havens being the centrepiece. However, this dark soiled hidden hand is allowed to persist since it allows Capitalism to show the other philanthropic clean hand, immaculately manicured. The current situation suits those in power, having one hidden dirty hand.

As for Gibraltar, it may as well be part of Spain if it were not for it being virtually this open slather for criminal activity, which seems to be tolerated here but wouldn’t be in either Spain or Great Britain.

Gibraltar nevertheless provides employment for 10,000 Spanish citizens who use only their ID cards to cross daily from the depressed area of Spain adjacent to the Rock in which they live.

The current situation allows Gibraltarians to live in a far cheaper place and the last minute deal between Spain and Great Britain will continue to allow Gibraltar to have closer ties with the EU as a party to the Schengen Agreement. It means that Gibraltarians can move without passport through those 28 European countries which are part of the Agreement and vice versa. This closeness to the EU is what 96 per cent of Gibraltarians wanted.

Paradoxically the British, who claim sovereignty over Gibraltar, now must present passports when they want to enter because Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland are outside the Schengen Area, but the Spanish are not.

Let’s see how long before the Gibexit. But why? Criminality thrives on chaos. Look, no passport needed.

Curiae Amici Inusiti

Mouse and I have got together and present this verbal diorama. Below are the evergreen Fauci’s comments made to NYT.  Since liberation from Trump’s circus, let us say, the old boy is a wily coyote in being able to survive for 40 years in the headlights without being accused of compromising his integrity, unlike the unfortunate Deborah Birx.

The NYT interview has been published widely, but the reason for this quote is to highlight political interference for another reason. Whereas the bottom-feeders were hanging around Trump bleating that everything bad for business was the fault of these wacky (unspoken) scientists, who wilfully disregarded their suggestions to the Trump.  There is an image of scientists deep in the American psyche which associates “mad” with “scientist”. When the President is uneducated and has a prejudice against education and probably Jews, especially little rational Jews who refuse to be baited but are also very nimble in the face of bullying, there is a strong chance that the President would be infuriated.  Thus there was no chance of the man called Fauci being listened to, but becoming a figure to hate targeted by the Trump followers. He was lucky to emerge unscathed.

And the other thing that made me really concerned was, it was clear that he was getting input from people who were calling him up — I don’t know who, people he knew from business — saying, “Hey, I heard about this drug; isn’t it great?” or, “Boy, this convalescent plasma is really phenomenal.”…….He would take just as seriously their opinion — based on no data, just anecdote — that something might really be important. It wasn’t just hydroxychloroquine; it was a variety of alternative medicine-type approaches. It was always, “A guy called me up, a friend of mine from blah, blah, blah.” That’s when my anxiety started to escalate.

My own current anxiety has begun to escalate in proportion to the impatience which comes when the solution is onerous compliance.  Vaccine then becomes that Magic Potion. Clamouring for the vaccine is partially driven by such cases so eloquently outlined by the quote in the Whisper below. The fact that the guy was 92 is immaterial; it is the way he met his death. Vaccine provides the shortcut, the panacea.

Thus, the vaccine will save the world. The cry goes out if only there had been a vaccine for Mr Chapski…

Yes, if only there was a vaccine that worked. The politicians, even here in Australia where there should be no rush, want us all to be inoculated. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has given provisional approval to a vaccine which needs to be stored at very low temperatures, has been associated with a number of deaths in Norway (although there has been no adequate explanation as to why the vaccine was administered to terminally ill patients) and where there are apparent production problems, which means that the timing of the second injection, which seems essential, must be under some scrutiny. In other words, there are still a large number of unanswered questions. I note that the TGA have given provisional approval only for two years. That is the first vaccine; what about the others?

Now I would hate to suggest that whereas the fleas in the government ear in March last year would be moaning about business being ruined if you shut the country down, there are now the same fleas, different irritation. These fleas are the ones who want to resume international jaunting, chafing at being confined to barracks as it were. Vaccinate and we can go anywhere, and the Virus will buckle. Wrong; so wrong.

However, those fleas with their billion-dollar lifestyle require winter in the Northern Hemisphere. They do not want any quarantine. You just have to view the antics of some of the tennis players to get a flavour of this sense of entitlement, which the Virus does not observe. Therefore, attention is directed at Government. Vaccines must work – and if we say that often enough, it will become truth, no matter the level of evidence. This level of evidence is compromised by the cacophony of academic experts wrestling for the megaphone.

As I have written before, Viruses love Chaos.

The Prime Minister and his Ministerial congregation want to run around the World, trying to collect up the pieces of our coal-tarred reputation. Fine. That is what the vaccine rollout is all about, well not all perhaps but let’s keep it in mind, gentlemen … and oh there is a lady in the room.

Mouse whisper

Just the other day…

On the other side of 2-North, Al Chapski’s door was closed and his eyes were shut. There was no more happy talk of childhood. Before being stricken with coronavirus, Chapski’s wife said, he “never had so much as a headache.” Now, his chest rose slowly in shallow breaths. The television that once ran CNN on loop had gone black. By nightfall, the virus had overcome the 92-year-old and he died.

The nurses gathered his belongings. A sprawling life of more than nine decades textured by second-chance romance, cruise trips, Market Basket doughnuts and a love of World War II aircraft was reduced, in that moment, to a plastic bag filled with a picture frame, a pair of hearing aids, a plant in a disposable cup, a pile of clothes, and a $100 Starbucks gift card.

Then they rang his wife, who had not seen him since December.

Not quite Gray’s elegy, but a very clear one from the Boston Globe writer who had been “embedded” in the Hospital and had watched Mr Chapski die. Nobody should die like that was his thesis, but at least the nursing staff shed a tear.

And even me, Mouse who will never see 92 months let alone 92 years, shed one too.

 

Modest Expectations – Atlanta

At last he has gone. One down; at least one to go.

Now let me recall a real story based on an experience. It was the early 1980s and I was scheduled to go to America. Before I left Australia, I had a niggling tooth pain in one of my molars, but it just remained that by the time I reached San Francisco. My friend mentioned to me that the Bay to Breakers run was the next day. It was that time of my life when I was in my misnamed “fun run” phase.

San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers run starts at the Embarcadero on the Bay, where the ferry terminals are, then goes up the steep Hayes Street hill, along Curtis Street, all gay and Village People music blaring and then through the wooden shingle houses of Haight Ashbury belonging, as it did, in the world of Scott MacKenzie.  Despite being for a time a heavy drinker and smoker, I still got out for a jog every day. Although I never tried marijuana, even though it always seemed to be around, I once owned a house in Fitzroy in Melbourne which I rented out, and only after it was raided by the coppers did I find out that the tenants were growing a crop of cannabis in the back garden in what was known as the Pot House. The police were quite apologetic about the raid damage.

However, I diverge. The last part of the run was through the Golden Gate Park, strewn with pine needles. It filled me with exhilaration. My tooth was forgotten, the level of endorphins was high. The course was downhill amid the aroma of the pine forest. And best of all, the Ocean became visible, and then the run had ended.

Gradually as I wended my way back to where I was staying, the endorphin effect lessened. Celebratory drinks disguised the pain, but when I woke up the next morning, the right side of my face was blown up. I had a fever and generally had lost the exhilaration of the previous day.

I had to go to Orlando in Florida on the other side of the country that day, so we went to the local dentist, who was useless. He was busy and extracting the tooth could not be done there and then.  He prescribed oral bicillin and sent me on my way.

I don’t know how I made it across America on my own with only aspirin, bicillin and alcohol. However, the swelling was such that I drew curious glances from my fellow passengers; as far as I could remember nobody said much. But then, when you are that ill, it is difficult to remember.  I knew there was no angel shining a light on me until I arrived in Orlando very late that day where I was met by my “guardian angel”.

She took one look at me and contacted a local dental clinic. I could be seen first thing in the morning.

Alone in a bedroom overnight with only an abscess to keep me awake, I sat on the bed and watched television all night. I did not change out of my gear even though I was drenched with sweat; I washed my face but did not have the energy to shower.  I just sat and watched the time crawl past. It was probably the worst night of my life but compared to others who have been in excruciating circumstances, I at least had a goal – I had to live to my 8.15 am appointment.

I was picked up and taken to the dentist. He said as he examined me that it was lucky I was here in the United States as this was one of only a few places at that time where root canal therapy could be being undertaken. Extraction was unnecessary.

The anaesthetic was bliss and then instead of yanking out the tooth, he cleaned the infection out and in so doing, relieved the pressure, inserted local antibiotic and said the treatment would last until I got back to Australia. The dentist prescribed a powerful oral antibiotic. I remember emerging into the sunlight alone, (my angel had to go back to the Conference I was supposed to be attending). I did not feel feverish. I stood waiting for a bus, and even though the anaesthetic was wearing off, I had another bout of exhilaration. The scourge had been expunged.

I have transformed my experience into what may be considered a dental allegory when viewing the receding Rump disappearing down Pennsylvania Avenue.

When Tooth decays, gets infected and causes pain, the immediate response is to extract it and expose the underlying infection. However, if removing Tooth will cause a cosmetic ugliness, would one be tempted to treat the decaying Tooth conservatively with antibiotics and painkillers – or maybe there was nobody skilled enough to remove Tooth or cure Tooth of its affliction.

In the meantime, while there is indecision, the infection spreads and becomes an abscess, and then quickly the whole face begins to swell; and the pain becomes intense. As the affliction heightens, it becomes more difficult to control – until at last, somebody with the requisite expertise comes along and treats Tooth, drains the abscess of its golden strand purulence. A powerful antimicrobial agent is administered. It is touch and go; but the body in which Tooth lives is spared septicaemia, and able to resist a possible secondary infection from other germs.  Tooth is old, but it still can have poisonous aftermath, if infected remnants are left in the socket. Drain the cavity, is the command.

Then over time cavity is allowed to heal; not needlessly over-treated. Just gentle restorative justice for a body which had endured diseased Tooth for so long. So, impeach stage one may be all that is necessary.

Not Exactly the Jerilderie Letters

I am not sure a princess kissing Craig Kelly would turn him into a handsome prince. I’m not sure the spell being broken applies to toads.

Rather Kelly is beneath contempt, peddling the nonsense about COVID-19 cures without being called out by the Government. Rather than humouring this person, Minister Hunt should ensure he is driven from Parliament. However, he is one of the Prime Minister’s Protected Species.

Peter Fitzsimons has given us a clue in an article he wrote in September in the Sydney Morning Herald.

“Another star of the Straight Talk Show in recent times has been Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Nick Coatsworth. For while it is unusual for a public servant to take direct aim at a politician, let alone one who is a member of the government, Dr Coatsworth didn’t hesitate last week when the member for Hughes, Craig Kelly spouted stuff in Federal Parliament that came from the very lowest dregs of President Trump’s bilge tank. You remember? Kelly was insisting there is a conspiracy to stop hydroxychloroquine being used, and if not for “groupthink” and the “complete abandonment of reason” driving a “war” on the drug, it would be widely embraced. This view is, of course, dangerous bull and Coatsworth said as much, even if he dressed it up with a little humour.”

Time passes. Trump has been denounced and yesterday a new President has been inaugurated to clean the stain. Australia should do the same.

In Australia, Kelly keeps spouting dangerous Trumpian nonsense without being reprimanded. The Deputy Prime Minister thinks that having somebody running around endeavouring to compromise the health of the country is amusing. I don’t.

From her privileged eyrie in Toorak, I see the smiling member for Higgins seems to find Kelly’s behaviour amusing. Big joke is it, Dr Allen? I wonder what her peers in the Academy of Health and Medical Sciences think.

But back to Craig Kelly.

Fitzsimons gives us the clue. Coatsworth would be an ideal candidate to stand against him. Coatsworth is personable, articulate, knowledgeable, intelligent. What else would you want in a candidate to challenge the Incumbent who has none of these attributes?

You have to be strong to be a candidate standing against Kelly because much of the stuff that will be thrown at you will be from the evangelical gutter, with the nocturnal Sky trolls braying continually. Premier Andrews keeping his cool showed how it can be countered, but Coatsworth has faced Ebola, another scourge.

However, there definitely needs to be a doctor or other health professional with Coatsworth’s attributes to stand against Kelly. One thing I don’t know about Coatsworth is whether he has a sense of humour – most importantly when dealing with Kelly and his ilk is to have a sense of the ridiculous to complement one’s inherent sense of humour. The real problem with people like Kelly, and Trump was a past master, is to be drawn onto their ground and end up by arguing their ridiculous premises.

You know what they say, never wrestle with a pig, you both get dirty and the pig loves it.

Without wanting to put down other health professionals, the most familiar are the doctor, the nurse, the pharmacist – hence the need for the best available candidate to be put in the fray with the simple message that Kelly is too dangerous and detrimental the community’s interests. However, a preselection battle may settle his fate, although given the experience in Washington recently, I would not necessarily hold my breath.

Message simple – “Hughes needs better” and/ or “Kelly is trying to poison you.”

The latter comes out of the playbook of the defeat of David Hill in this same electorate in 1998. Then the head of Sydney Water, Hill was associated with the water contamination scare at the time. A variant on poisoning, but with less validity than Kelly’s reprehensible behaviour. However, it was the only NSW electorate where there was a swing against the ALP at that election.

Then there is the other local problem, which can be associated with the word “poison “. That is the steadily accumulating nuclear waste material in his electorate at ANSTO, and has Member Kelly done anything about ridding the electorate of it? After all, it is a Federal responsibility, as is quarantine.

Now to get the right candidate to send Kelly back to his cavern. 

Brief Encounter

When you arrive at a T-junction on the Murchison Highway on the West Coast of Tasmania, you can either go left to Queenstown or right to Zeehan. Now if you go towards Zeehan, you enter the tiny mining township, with its modern amenities for the fly-in-fly-out miners. Once a tin mining area, it is now a flourishing area for zinc ore extraction There is nothing much to see in Zeehan, a number of old buildings attesting to its age. Then, before you see much of the settlement, you turn left past the huge black slag heap and onto the road to Strahan, which is lined by gorse. On the hills above there is evidence of a bush fire, almost unheard of before climate change intervened.

In Zeehan, although I have never seen it (even though I have passed through Zeehan many times), there is a small reserve of land named for Eileen Joyce.

Eileen Joyce was born here in 1908. Eileen Joyce – who? Most Australians would probably scratch their heads and wonder who she was. Yet Eileen Joyce was as famous as Vera Lynn in Britain in World War II. She was a child prodigy, in that she came from very humble beginnings where there was no encouragement for her talents, until her ability to play the piano was recognised by the nuns in her school on the Western Australian Goldfields. Several years after she was born, her miner father had moved the family to a town called Boulder, where a relative owned a pub; that is where Eileen found an old piano and upon which she was given her first piano lessons.

As she tells it, she was the subject of a number of “discoveries” by the nuns in Perth where she was sent because of her piano virtuosity, and then by a series of famous musicians, starting with Percy Grainger and then Wilhelm Backhaus, who recommended that she go to Leipzig to study, which she did when she was 19 years of age.

Her breezy description in an interview disguises the extraordinary talent of this small woman with the delicate but sharp Irish features, the chestnut hair, the green eyes, the elegant backless evening dresses, and above all the flawless piano technique – and her stamina. This last was particularly shown in the war years where the number of concerts she performed was immense.

What she is remembered for, despite having a large repertoire, is her rendition of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto, where her interpretation was considered on a par with that of the composer himself. Her performance of the second movement is woven through Brief Encounter, the 1945 David Lean film starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard.

Their characters meet by chance in a railway tearoom. They are both ostensibly happily married but develop a relationship, initially platonic but then progressing to a passionate love affair until reality of their family situation makes them realise the futility of their encounter. The chance meeting in the railway tearoom ends in the same tearoom, in an excruciatingly understated way.

Brief Encounter was written by Noel Coward, who had an acute eye for relationships, and this film teases out the sadness and futility of so much of life that we, the middle class, call respectability. I first saw the film when I was young without it making much impact; reprising it later in life demonstrates its force – and the train is always a useful metaphor for life’s journey and destination.  Eileen Joyce’s interpretation of that Rachmaninoff Concerto provides a forceful sound stage, because the music is both upright and passionate; love upon a stiff upper lip.

I listened to an interview with Eileen Joyce later in life. It was not the interview of the retired woman looking back, but a woman still alive and with a very British accent, as though she was bought up in the Home Counties. While she did, from time to time, return to Australia, her grave is in Limpsfield in Surrey, not far from Delius and her beloved conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham. It is said she regretted that she was never made a Dame, but it is the problem of living too long and being forgotten.   

The defile though which Senator Lambie emerged

Sympathy for the working class has, for many, curdled into contempt. By 2016 the concept of “liberal democracy”, once bight with promise, had dulled into a neoliberal politics that was neither liberal nor democratic. The Democratic Party’s turn towards market-driven policies, the bipartisan dismantling of the public sphere, the inflight marriage of Wall Street to Silicon Valley in the cockpit of globalisation – these interventions constituted the long con of neoliberal governance, which enriched a small minority of Americans while ravaging most of the rest.

Jackson Lears, a professor at Rutgers wrote this in the January 14, 2021 issue of the New York Review of Books (NYR). I could not have put it better myself. The two leading villains in this scenario over the years were Clinton and Blair, but there have been many others.

However, Trump took it beyond any level of tolerance. He collected a constituency in Smalltown USA and elsewhere that felt angered, alienated and xenophobic.

It is said that Roosevelt had some warning of the Pearl Harbour attack but took the option that premature action was not justified. Japan had been telegraphing its punches for a long time before the eventual attack. As a result, an outraged USA arose from its isolationist position and joined the fray.

Likewise, even before he lost the election, Trump was indicating that he would not accept defeat. When it came, he then orchestrated the misinformation and stirred what others have described as his “group narcissists” to storm the citadel. Now normally there would have been “overwhelming force”. But not on January 6.

Perhaps if the normal defence response had been mounted and there had been pictures of Trump supporters being turned back, bloodied, gassed or shot, then the Trump grievance may have gained national sympathy. Instead, this was that day there was minimal defence of America against a mad treasonous President. The images of Pearl Harbour galvanised America; the Capitol invasion to destroy the Constitution has similarly galvanised America.

That pathetic bunch of Trump supporters now face the might of America if they want to continue the fight.  But does group narcissism want to see its own blood on its designer flak jacket?

Trump has joined Hideki Tojo in the Trash Can of History. Once King Leer, now the lid is being put on the Trash Can, once the stain remover has been poured in.

What are the lessons for a country which has tried to mimic Trump?

This woman storming the Capitol in the name of Trump was Ashli Babbitt, a 35 year old Californian former servicewoman, who had undertaken several tours of Afghanistan and Iraq. Her final rank was considered lower than one would have expected given the length of her service in the Air Force. She was known to have an explosive temper and to harbour grievances. She had been married twice. She had a large debt from a failed small business investment, and she had two violence orders issued against her. Although once a supporter of Obama, she had been convinced by QAnon conspiracy theories and thus was determined to go to Washington and protest on behalf of Trump.

When she reached the Capital, this is how her presence was described: The raging crowd that bashed in the windows of a barricaded door to the Speaker’s Lobby, with a short, tanned woman with an American backpack at the front of its ranks. Her attempt to climb through one of those windows, leading the way, despite a Capitol Police officer pointing a handgun in her direction. The abrupt way she toppled backward after a single shot resounded.

Ashli Babbitt died later that night, and while the word “martyr” was muttered, she was remembered as a poor, misguided person.

When I read her biographical details, her career reminded me of Senator Lambie.

Senator Lambie was born 49 years ago and grew up in a poor northern Tasmanian environment, in more ways than one. She gave birth to her first son while still a teenager, and her second relationship yielded a second child.  When recently asked about her perfect male, she was crude but direct. Her directness has been translated into being an aggressive personality. The accusations of vulgarity and bullying persist in legal action being taken by former staff members. But I jump ahead.

She joined the military with her career ending up as a military police corporal. She was discharged from the military because of a spinal injury and although she endeavoured to get a pension, she was labelled a malingerer and was refused.  That takes us up to about 2006.

Politics was an attractant. She worked for a time in the office of the Labor Senator Sherry, was an unsuccessful candidate for Liberal preselection before falling in with Clive Palmer’s Party just before the 2013 national election. 2013 was an auspicious time to be a populist and Lambie attracted a number of votes, enough to become a Palmer Senator. Populism attracts authoritarianism; Senator Lambie is no exception. It did not take her long to break away from Palmer and become an independent, maintaining her own so-called Network.

Lambie’s parliamentary career is dotted with trying to rectify her grievances, but she has a forum; she has a vote; the leaders of the nation court her; for now, she is Important – unlike Ashli Babbitt, who only had the streets and social media on which to air her grievances. Babbitt was too poor to be elected anywhere in America where, to be elected, a significant cache of cash is crucially important. However, the Australian electoral system allows for a person whose early career is not too dissimilar to Ms Babbitt to be elected.

I looked at the Senators who currently represent Wyoming, which has a population sufficient to send only one member to Congress. However, as the Constitution dictates two Senators, the same as every other State, Wyoming is well represented in DC.  In relative population terms Wyoming is the Tasmania of the USA – if only in this regard.

The senior Senator there is a male doctor; the other is a female lawyer who, when she was in Congress, was one of three women who insisted on being called “congressman”. She has held political office in her State since 1979 when she was 24. She is now 66, not a poor single mother but ferociously espousing the Trump line, even now. A different kind of authoritarian Trumpist but with the kind of power which Ashli Babbitt craved, but did not have.

It is therefore salutary to think that Lambie being elected several times assures the dispossessed that it is possible to go to Canberra, if that’s what you want: to be relevant, to be listened to – to avoid looking at the feather dusters that line the walls.

Now re-read the quote from Professor Lears at the head of this blog blot to see what Senator Lambie means in the scheme of things.

Mouse Whisper

In the last years of his life Richard Harris lived in the Savoy Hotel in London. Having become terminally ill, as he was being taken to hospital on a stretcher, he was able to raise himself up as he was carried through the lobby of the hotel and exclaim to the shocked guests, “It was the Food! It was the Food!”

Somebody should have brought the cake in out of the rain.

Modest Expectations – Iris

It was 1814, the Capitol in Washington was stormed. Then, the British not only stormed the Capitol but also burned down the White House.

Protesters scaling the wall of the Capitol building

One of the scenarios I predicted many blogs ago is that Trump would foment insurrection. I said he may set fire to the White House which, with two weeks of his gangster presidency – as one person has defined it – still leaves the metaphor to be converted to actuality. However, essentially Trump is a bully and thus by definition a coward. In his twisted mind, he wants the Biden Inauguration to be limited so that he can say he attracted a bigger crowd at his inauguration in 2017 as if that has any relevance to anything.

Trump predictably incited, and then the mob did what mobs do when they are allowed to act without adequate law enforcement. However, it could be argued that pictures of storming the Capitol, vandalising the Constitution in the name of this would-be despot, will galvanise the response of the lawmakers.  The only saving grace was that Trump had not organised an armed militia to back his activities.

However, a cynical person would believe that an undermanned police force being overwhelmed initially provided the horror of this unbridled mob, whereas the optics of a massive law enforcement force beating up legitimate protesters may have provided unwarranted sympathy for the Trump “stormtroopers”.

The award of the Legion of Merit should be returned by Morrison before it becomes his Millstone of Dishonour.  I am sure the award will be noted by the incoming Biden administration, and as the charge sheet against Trump increases this year, comparisons between Morrison and the corruption which has flourished under his stewardship with his mentor, Trump should increasingly become front and centre of the political debate.

Yet a year ago, who would have thought that the Democrats would have won both the Senate seats in Georgia. Biden has confounded me by his Presidential response to the Trump rant. He has stepped up.

Who will stand up for Australia?

Giving In without a Kelp?

This first blog blot of 2021 was prompted by an article on seaweed in a recent December issue of the New York Review of Books (NYR). I start in a laneway of Helsinki. We had just emerged from a crowded bar, where although we had booked, we were subject to the Finnish way – the people in the sitting before us were lingering and we could wait, couldn’t we, until they had finished? It was not a particularly friendly interchange, the restaurant was noisy, the atmosphere had that scurry of youth, and persons of age were regarded as somewhat out of place and thus there was nowhere to sit – and nobody moved to give us room to sit down.

Hence, upsticks literally and off down the lane to the harbour. Here on a summer’s day when you can buy cloudberries it is beautiful place to saunter in the warm sunshine, along its quay where a multitude of colourful vessels of different configuration and size are moored. But now my days of sauntering are over. Using two sticks is a very inefficient way to saunter.

This day, on turning a corner, there was a restaurant. Given that it had begun to rain heavily, it was more haven than gastronomy which drove us to enter. Instead of a noisy crowd, there were tables set in a way which beckoned the discerning diner rather than us sodden accidental tourists.

The staff were solicitous as there were few if any other customers.

We looked at the menu as something to do, and one of the waiters told us there was fresh asparagus – new season white asparagus. This dish has stuck in my memory ever since. White asparagus do not have the robustness and stringiness of the green variety; there is a certain delicate taste to them, and the way they were presented in a light coat of butter was as though we were eating the first picked.

This year as the Australian green asparagus harvest appeared, I wondered whether white asparagus would be available. At the same time, I remembered it was the time sea asparagus was harvested. Sea asparagus or samphire was somewhat of a fad a few years ago and was available around November for a limited time. It had a vague resemblance to asparagus and like much of seashore plants harvested had a salty taste, while otherwise the taste was unremarkable except that it was different from asparagus.

It was told to me that if one went to Kooweerup in Victoria, the swampland home of the growling grass frog and southern bandicoot and also home for asparagus, would be where you would find the white variety. If one went along certain Victorian foreshores where samphire was said to grow in abundance, then my lust for this delicacy would have been satisfied. However, Victoria was a prison due to the Virus at harvest time for these two commodities. Nevertheless, this year I tried to obtain some.  Being locked away in a different state leads one to yearn for that which proved, like the Holy Grail, to be unobtainable.

These are products where water is essential, but they exist very much on the edge of the western community palate. What about seaweed then?

When I buy sashimi, the accompaniment is wakame seaweed salad. The Japanese also use the black paper nori seaweed to wrap the sushi rice up with its various ingredients.

As for me, in the 1934 film “Man of Aran” that I wrote about earlier, the islanders grew potatoes in the bladderwrack, kelp left in the cracks of the stone in that harsh land.  Then “When the potatoes failed, they survived on Chondrus crispus or Irish moss.”  I once bought some carrageenan, a derivative from this red seaweed, back from Ireland. It hung around in the pantry with a ban put on it – the one which says: “if you want to cook it you can do it for yourself”. I succumbed to the blatant discrimination and eventually this vegan substitute for gelatin was thrown out unused.

Monterey kelp forest

Then there are the magnificent kelp forests. One the most spectacular is the 8.5m high one at the Monterey Aquarium, which occupies three floors of this building in this Californian coastal town made famous by Steinbeck in his writing about Cannery Row.

In the article “The Oldest Forest” Lucy Jakub who, as one would expect lives on a beach, reviews four books where seaweed is the hero. One of these books lists all the products from sunscreen to fertiliser where kelp is used. In fact, the author, Ruth Kassenger, adopts “a speculative theory, that early man had a diet rich in iodine and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) derived from algae through a number of secondary sources, which resulted in our larger brain”.

Seaweed in East Asia is a $6 billion a year bonanza, and its commercialisation was due to a British biologist Kathleen Drew-Baker, who showed in 1948 that the red seaweed, Porphyria, grew in two cycles – in the deep ocean releasing immature spores which settle closer to shore when right to propagate. (As a result of her work), Japanese scientists, in the midst of famine in US-occupied Japan, learned to pre-seed lines of nori in the lab and bring them to the ocean to grow.

Yet the article does not see any advocacy for further commercialisation. Attempts to propagate seaweed commercially as a substitute for fossil fuel in the USA have proved disastrous or viewed as Exxon’s investment as “greenwashing”. For instance, in the past decade, Exxon has spent $1.2 billion more on advertising than it has on biofuel development. After all, the Germans used seaweed as a source of potash, and the British for acetone for wartime use (WW1) when other materials were in short supply.

Yet growing seaweed is seductive as it is able to control the microblooms of the toxic algae by absorbing the fertiliser runoffs and moreover cattle fed seaweed produce less methane. However, among the experts quoted by the author, there is a consensus that where algae are grown commercially, it should be done so on small independent ocean farms. Overall, one writer Josie Iselin is quoted that we should: “leave the algae alone to do their own thing, heal the oceans as they can, and let them be, as the profound ecological engineers they are, not another for us to figure out how to manage.” After all, already “kelp forests naturally sequester 11% of their carbon in the sea”.

The NYR writer, Lucy Jakub is very perspicacious, because the prospect of worldwide famine is no longer an idle thought from a bunch of learned scientists gathering as the Club of Rome was in rediscovering Malthus. As she writes: crises lead to a search for silver bullets, in the hope they can be averted with unimaginable sacrifice, and in a spirit of optimism… (that can take) an algal-central perspective to envisioning the solution.

Just like the quest for white asparagus and samphire?

Life with the Bubble

Some years ago, I was in Brisbane staying in an upmarket hotel. I had just come in from a run along the Brisbane River. I came in, picked up a can of Diet Coke, ripped off the top and drank what would be considered a large gulp. Then, catastrophe. Let me say that it was the only time I have this intensely painful tearing sensation retrosternally. The intensity of the pain lives in my memory.

Cardiac pain has been described as a crushing pain in the same region, but one of the differential diagnoses is damage to the oesophagus mucosa, including oesophageal perforation. Perforation of the oesophagus is a potentially fatal condition as the pleural cavity and the mediastinum do not respond well to a flood of dilute hydrochloric acid or for that matter enzymic rich saliva and regurgitated gastric content.

After the acute pain, I was left with a dull pain. I rang a doctor friend, and before long I was in the intensive care unit of a major Brisbane hospital.

Fortunately, the chest Xray revealed that there was no perforation, and I was saved from a gastroscopy. The major discomfort and difficulty in swallowing meant fluids for a few days. After a few days, it settled down and I was discharged, wiser perhaps.

I had a “bit of form” as an acquaintance reminded me later when he showed me a photograph of me in a Barcelona restaurant pouring a porron of wine down my throat with the beginner’s luck in the amount of spillage being minimal.

Pouring the porron

However, I had no such luck on this occasion.

As background, spontaneous oesophageal perforation was first described by the Dutch physician Hermann Boerhaave in 1724. Boerhaave’s syndrome is a form of barogenic rupture caused by a rapid rise in intraluminal pressure when there is sudden distension of the oesophagus in a closed space.  The original case described was one of explosive vomiting.

Rapid ingestion of the cold beverage with bubbles can led to spasm of the distal oesophagus followed by expansion, resulting in a sudden build-up of intra-oesophageal pressure. The vast majority of perforations occur in the left lateral wall of the distal oesophagus, 3–6 cm above the gastro-oesophageal junction, as this part is particularly weak.

What prompted this reminiscence is the latest Coca-Cola advertisement where these jolly young things are shown irresponsibly attacking these beverages, with one complete numbskull leaning backwards and pouring the drink down her upside down throat where the forces of gravity mean the fluid has to flow uphill against them. Not like our famous Prime Minister with his imbibing a yard of beer where the beer could at least flow downhill, given presumably that Hawke, like all bright bored students, had spent time when learning this party trick to also learn how to control his oesophageal reflexes.

This particular appalling example in the obviously American advertisement was the young woman who needs to use her oesophagus musculature to ensure that the Coca Cola could flow uphill. She was obviously a performer, who had trained herself to do so. Perhaps, the whole scenario was fake, concocted. In the event of those who would dare to “copy-cat” this manoeuvre, will Coca-Cola assume responsibility for all the potential incidents that may happen?

Youth have no fear, youth will push the limits. Coca Cola is the driving force. That is always the message – derring-do with a bottle of Coke.

After all, who was the person when I was young who taught me how to open a bottle with my teeth.

Fortunately, St Paul had a message for me (sorry the political incorrectness) which I heeded through cracked teeth:

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Well, not completely. However, I do tend to learn from my mistakes.

 Tea for Two

Ceylon is always associated with tea. Just after the start of World War 2

Great Britain purchased 80 per cent of the Ceylon and Indian tea crop. Australia was left out and tea was rationed here during the War. Tea plantations in Ceylon had been associated with Lipton but together north-east India (Assam and Darjeeling) with China being there the earliest Australian source. During the War, the Australian largely garrisoned Ceylon, because the local Ceylonese were not trusted. In fact, Ceylonese troops in the British Army rebelled on the Cocos Island wanting to surrender to the Japanese, with the result that after the rebellion was quelled, three of the rebels were executed, the only time during the War that British troops were executed for treason.

Then after the War, when your relatives went “Home to GB” by ship, the first port of call was always Colombo, the tell-tale memento being the carved ebony elephant on the mantelpiece.

The other attractions of Ceylon for a young eye were the stamps. These were large rectangles with the portrait of the sovereign in the upper right quadrant. They were informative because the plates had been so finely engraved. The commonest stamp of the set sent on mail was the 20c, with deep blue engraving of coconut palms bending in an unseen wind, but distant was a two-masted boat, presumably at anchor because the sails were furled. Several years ago, I bought the 11-stamp series, admittedly with King George V’s head in the corner. Each of the stamps features one idyllic scene which is far from the current situation in Sri Lanka. The stamps nevertheless illustrate the diversity that was Ceylon.

Until 2016, I had only visited Colombo airport en route from Singapore to London on Air Ceylon in 1971. The next year the name of Ceylon, derived from the old Portuguese name, was changed to Sri Lanka – “Resplendent Island”.

Sri Lanka had been a place where there were many religions. The Buddhist Sinhalese dominate the South, and at one time the Hindu Tamils were in control the north. Independence was accompanied by a debilitating war between the two populations, and in 2016 the tourist trail was well insulated.

There are many Ceylon burghers in Australia, those the results of miscegenation with the Dutch or Portuguese; they had been emigrating to Australia post-war. This was the closest coloured people were allowed as migrants from that country while the White Australia Policy was in force. They are predominantly Christian.

Then there were the Muslim Sri Lankans. I had involvement in counselling one, an international medical graduate who was both Muslim and a Sri Lankan national. I had not realised up to that time that Muslims form a significant minority in Sri Lanka. I found out that they control the gem trade.

The other association I have made with Ceylon was its sapphires. Those whose jewellery containing a Ceylon sapphire knew it to be so because of its intense blue. However, as a change on this trip I bought a green sapphire, together with an aquamarine. The choice in that emporium in Kandy seemed endless.

Kandy

Driving to Kandy, the old capital and then driving to Galle could not be more different. They are both about the same distance from Colombo, but driving to the old Capital, Kandy was like driving along a ribbon shopping strip for 120 kilometres, without any break between the settlements for countryside. Beyond Kandy in the mountains are the terraced tea plantations where women were harvesting the leaves and placing them in a bag, the holding straps of which were firmly stabilised by the woman’s forehead. The technique is portrayed in the 9c pre-war stamp of a tea picker – a woman of course.

Galle, after a minor bottleneck in Colombo, is a four-lane drive away.  Until they started playing test cricket there, I had never heard of it. Then the tsunami came on Sunday 26 December 2004 after the massive earthquake under the sea north of Sumatra.

In the words of one of Galle citizens who was watching at the time:

A long stretch of Sri Lanka’s coast was devastated by these killer waves, with more than 40,000 dead and staggering 2.5 million people displaced. Although 1,600km from the epicentre, the waves struck with huge force and swept inland as far as 5 kilometres.  Waves as high as six meters had crashed into coastal villages, sweeping away people, cars and even a train with 1700 passengers.

One of the worst hit areas was my home city Galle, the capital of Southern Sri Lanka. The water came from two sides to Galle town giving no chance for many people who were going about their daily life…

This happened while civil war was being waged – a 25-year civil war between Tamil and Sinhalese that did not end until 2009. An estimated 80,000-100,000 people died between 1982 and 2009. The deaths include 28,000 Tamil fighters, more than 21,000 Sri Lankan soldiers, 1,000 Sri Lankan police, 1,500 Indian soldiers, and tens of thousands of civilians.

Here we were seven years later in a country that had papered over so much trauma in its community fabric, and we, the Australian visitors, were travelling around as though Sri Lanka was still the Pearl of the Orient. As our driver in Galle said, those who were within the walls of the old Dutch fortress had a far greater chance of survival when the tsunami came.

When we visited, Galle exhibited few scars and the cricket ground, where Shane Warne achieved his 500th Test wicket, looked as though nothing had happened, but then 12 years had passed before we visited.

However, one major reason to go existed beyond Galle when the road reverted to type and we travelled through seaside villages until there they were, the men stilt fishing, their bodies entwined on a pole with a cross bar several metres above the water and at the same time fishing. No fishing in waders or from a wharf. Fishing this way enables them not to disturb the water. The tsunami curtailed this form of fishing; the stilts have returned, but not to the same number.

So many recollections associated with this country, with all its various names suggesting serenity, yet so little has the community strife had an impact we could have been traveling on a magic carpet far away from all that horrendous backdrop. Life on our magic carpet seemed so welcoming and tranquil.

How far from the Truth?

As I written about the injustice meted out to them, the Tamil family, Priya Murugappan, her husband Nades, and their two Australian-born daughters – Kopika now aged five, and Tharunicaa aged three imprisoned on Christmas Island, do not think so, even though the Australian authorities seem to make sure that the horrors awaiting them are not lost in a welter of government generosity and kindness. They get none.

Unlike the time Minister Dutton laid a wreath on the altar of St Sebastian’s in Colombo in 2019. How touching! The crocodile tears were flowing everywhere as he placed the wreath for those who had been killed in a suicide bombing on Easter Sunday of that year.

Sri Lanka is not the Pearl of the Orient any longer, and certainly if you are Tamil – or apparently Christian – or Muslim.  In the previous year, those Muslim shops in Kandy that we visited were burnt down by what were described as Buddhist mobs. Muslim burial is forbidden. Nothing like a bit of religious zeal and intolerance.

You’ll Never Walk Alone

Gerry Marsden died this week. I saw Gerry and the Pacemakers and Brian and the Tremolos when they performed in Melbourne in the mid-1960s. It was around the time of the Beatle frenzy and a young lawyer mate of mine got free tickets. I was even then a trifle too old for pop concerns, but we went along. Nothing much I remembered beyond “Ferry across the Mersey”. They were Liverpool Lite, managed by Brian Epstein but without the Beatle panache.

Over the years, the song “You’ll never walk alone” was associated with Gerry Marsden and became the signature tune of the Liverpool Football Club.

However, I remember the song almost a decade earlier when it was sung by Julie Jordan in Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, as a hymn to her lost partner, Billy Bigelow, killed in an industrial accident.

When you realise that Carousel opened on Broadway on April 19, 1945, just before VE-day, and ran for 890 performances. Its London rn began in 1950 and was just as successful. Every one of those audiences included dozens of women who lost husbands or sons or fathers or brothers in WW2. This song was for them, as someone wrote.  I wonder if Marsden went to his grave realising that it was more than a disembodied dirge in the 60s, but a song which comforted those who had suffered loss at the most personal level and for whom the words had a deeper meaning than a feel good Scouse anthem.

As a postscript, in 1999, Time magazine named Carousel the best musical of the 20th century.

Mouse Whisper

The taxi driver recounted the story of the famous Australian cricketer who promised $50,000 towards the reconstruction of the Galle cricket ground since it lay outside the fortress walls and was completely destroyed by the 2004 tsunami. The amount promised was modified several times and when we asked how much this cricketer eventually had actually given, the driver signalled with his fingers – zero.

A different type of gall I would think.

Galle Cricket Ground

 

Modest Expectations – Archie MacLaren

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memories of Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruminations prompted by St Lucia’s day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucia, the bearer of light

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

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

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

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

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

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

Petra – The Treasury

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

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

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

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

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

 My first Christmas December 25, 1939

Winston Churchill’s message on that day:

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

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

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

Modest Expectations – Derby Day in Walla Walla

State Capital West Virginia

It was late in the day some years ago and we had just driven past the capital of West Virginia, Charleston. The golden capital strikingly stood above the low-level smog which was layered over the city itself. Here we were in the Alleghenies, a 640 kms portion of the Appalachia, a rich source of coal. Here pitched battles were once fought between the miners and the mine owners – called the coal wars. The reason lay in the fact that during this period more miners were killed here in accidents than were lost by the US armed forces in World War 1.

West Virginia had been carved from Virginia in 1863 during the American Civil War, partially because the West Virginians did not follow most of Virginia which seceded at the outbreak of the American Civil War. Yet the electoral base and its Democrat traditions lay in its workers, radical by American unionism standards, reinforced by the memories of the coal wars.

I wondered, as we approached the entrance to this property with its imposing edifice, whether it was a hotel where we could stay for the night. I drove in and the colonnaded entrance suggested that perhaps I had inadvertently driven into a private estate. However, I got out of the car, in jeans and all, and entered the building in all innocence to enquire what was this place.

The Greenbrier

The man behind the reception desk looked me up and down and said, “Sir, this is The Greenbrier.”

As I learnt very quickly, The Greenbrier was the place where Presidents stayed, and I found out there were references to them as far back as Polk and Tyler. I thought the car parking space for the resident golf professional at the time, Sam Snead, said it all. This was a comfortable Republican enclave in the heart of what was a poverty-stricken mining area. I remembered once, on a flight north in Australia, there was a dishevelled guy sitting next to me. We got talking, although I had difficulty understanding him; he turned out to be a miner going up to the coal mines in Queensland. He was from West Virginia, and his mumbled English was full of archaic constructions and words that meant nothing – it was a dialect probably based on 17th or 18th century English. In the end, in the light aircraft, the noise of the plane made it impossible to talk and we lapsed into silence.

But back to The Greenbrier. The Government had built a huge bunker at the hotel during the height of the Cold War, which had the capacity to house the whole of the Congress in the event of a nuclear attack. The facility had long been decommissioned by the time we had stayed. I believe I was punished for my disrespectful comment as the room assigned was so far from the main building that it almost collided with the fence and was well behind the bunker. Still, they allowed us into the dining room.

However, before that could occur, the reception desk clerk had said, “If you wish to dine in, sir, you will need a jacket.”

“No worries.” I had a jacket – a blazer in fact.

A key was pushed towards me. The Greenbrier had welcomed us, after a fashion. Menofregismo as the Italians would say.

West Virginia has always been reliably Democrat, but now no more.  The three Congress members are all Republicans; only one of the two senators is a Democrat and over 50 per cent of the time he voted with or for Trump, even in the impeachment he was only one who crossed over from his Democrats for Trump.

From being reliably Democrat, now West Virginia is almost the most Republican State if judged by the vote for Trump here recently – all changed in a decade! Biden received less than 30 per cent.

The use of coal is rapidly dying, so it would be a useful exercise for the Biden Government to determine how to restructure the West Virginian economy to phase out coal. It is more difficult than just bribing the mine owners to provide the semblance of work by keeping uneconomic mines open. However, it probably would be just as cheap for the Government to bypass the owners and pay the miners a living wage disguised as a redundancy package or employ them to resuscitate the once pristine landscape mined over the past 150 years.

After all, the wealthy and influential were prepared to invest in an opulent playground here, including the Congress shelter bunker. Notwithstanding that it had been decommissioned well before we stayed, here was further evidence of the very essence of privilege in one of the poorest parts of the country.

The latter part of the last century and into this, first as governor and then as Senator, Jay Rockefeller, the great-grandson of John D Rockefeller, as a Democrat (unusual because the rest of the family were solidly Republican) won most of his elections by huge margins. There is little doubt that during his long association with West Virginia he and the coal industry were on very good terms – for most of the time. However, towards his retirement, he began to realise the impact of coal on climate. Two years before his retirement, in 2012, he made in the following statement:

Scare tactics are a cynical waste of time, money and worst of all coal miners’ hopes. But sadly, these coal operators have closed themselves off from any other opposing voices and few dared to speak out for change – even though it’s been staring them in the face for years.

This reminds me of the auto industry, which also resisted change for decades. Coal operators should learn from both the mistakes and recent success of the auto industry. I passionately believe coal miners deserve better than they are getting from operators and West Virginia certainly deserves better too. 

Here in Australia the problem is that fear has gripped Joel Fitzgibbon, not any constructive thought. His livelihood lounging on the plush red seats of Parliament House is threatened. Forget about climate, but then there are unions agitating for retention of coal mining, and the power of the unions depends on these miners coughing up subscriptions – but for what? As with the car industry, government subsidy for the uneconomic only ends up improving the bottom line of the big foreign-owned companies.

The slick Monsieur Perrottet wants to restore his stained escutcheon by expanding the coal industry in NSW to pay off a short-term debt and in so doing leaving an incalculable environmental debt for generations of Australians; the feathery Premier just keeps talking to see if she can break the world record for not taking a breath. There is some in government with a contrary idea of how to lessen the coal dependency, despite export prices for both coking and thermal coal are being maintained.

Yet there is fear of divesting away from coal. This has been aggravated by the electoral results in Queensland, and by the “near-death experience” of Fitzgibbon in his seat of Hunter. The other NSW coal seats did not seem to mirror the same extreme behaviour.

There is another problem, and that is the Fly-in-Fly-Out miners. This expanding cohort should not be confused in the arguments over the hearts and minds of the local coal miners.

As one local Mount Isa correspondent has written:

The issue of Fly In Fly Out did not get much of a look-in in the federal election, perhaps because it is mainly seen as a state issue.

FIFO is convenient for workers who want to live by the coast but still enjoy high-paid jobs in remote locations.

It is also convenient for companies who have better control over their staff and their movements whether it be on chartered flights, mining camps or buses.

But it is a terrible deal for places like Mount Isa and the towns of North West Queensland which get all of the downsides of a large mining operation on their doorstep but few of the benefits.

Yes I understand that airports, motels, pubs and clubs, and the like do well out of a transient workforce but other businesses not so well.

The wear and tear of mining operations on roads and other facilities is a cost borne by those communities. And only this morning did I hear a speaker at a MineX breakfast talk about the need for a local work force because without that “we have no social licence to operate”.

The Queensland government recognised the issue with the Strong and Sustainable Resource Communities Act introduced last year to ban 100% FIFO mining near towns like Mount Isa and Cloncurry.

However, companies can get around this simply by posting one staff member locally which meets the wording of the act but not the intent.”

Balmain coal miners

Great is it not; with one selfish self-centred politician intent on contaminating the narrative of moving away from coal.  A leader, if one can term Albanese that, should have called him out immediately.  Or do I do Mr Albanese a disservice. Maybe he really wants to see the Balmain coal mines re-opened in his electorate.  Fitzgibbon can’t have it all his own way. After all, my late neighbour used to tell me that, as a boy, he would go around the corner to the coal dump and bring coal home for the stove and the fire. It was said that Balmain was then quite a sooty turn to behold.

As a 40-year resident, I remember seeing the entrance to the mine.   After all, to that smooth genius, Monsieur Perrottet, reopening the mine shafts under the Harbour would bring lots of “coal hard cash” and so convenient – or not. And what a jape – reopening a coal mine in a Green electorate. Problem is that is where Perrottet and his fellow travellers want to scar Australia, the wildlife do not vote. However, in Balmain, I am assured that Monsieur would find a different form of wildlife – one that rumbles around the suburb in their Land Cruisers looking for anybody with a lump coal in their political pocket. After all, Monsieur wants to demolish the White Bay Power Station – perhaps a new location for an underground coal mine.

But I stray from my West Virginian narrative – at least I have a narrative.

While America looks away.

I was rummaging through my old magazines and I came across a copy of a Harper’s dated August 1999, in which there is an article where two journalists were assigned to report on Cyprus – flipping a coin to determine which of them travelled to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the other to the Republic of Cyprus. As the lead-in to that article, it was stated; “Cyprus remains partitioned, a case study in how ethnic hatred perpetuates itself but perhaps also a manual on how peace can be sustained in places like Kosovo”.

It was nearly 20 years later that my friend and I walked across the Green Zone that separated the two sides of the divided Nicosia, the major city of Cyprus.

There is something strange walking across what is essentially the line where battle formally ended.  A few peacekeepers wearing blue berets are moving around inside the buildings and the only sound is a radio blaring out modern pop. There is nobody to block our crossing through the rubble strewn street, only a strange sense of abandonment, although you know eyes are watching you in the CCTV cameras slung along your pathway. Passing from one side to the other met with little interference from the Cypriot or Turkish side.

Once we were across then there was the question of transport. We did not have to wait long before a taxi pulled up and took us to Kyrenia, a seaside town on the Turkish side where we had a pleasant seafood lunch. The taxi driver said he would return, and he did, punctually. The only noticeable difference from one side to the other was the appearance of mosques; the cars still drive on the left, irrespective of which side of the green lines one drives.

Cyprus is the only place outside the British Isles and the Republic of Ireland in Europe where there is a remnant link to the previous British occupation – driving on the left hand side of the road.

In 1878 Cyprus entered the British Empire under rather unusual circumstances. The Ottoman Empire had just been at war with Russia and were very much in danger of losing control of their capital Constantinople. The British intervened in the crisis on the side of the Ottoman Turks by sending a fleet to intimidate the Russians. The Ottoman Sultan was so thankful for the British intervention that he granted the control of the island of Cyprus to Queen Victoria. This lasted until 1960 when independence was gained. Throughout the 1950s a Greek terrorist group EOKA, under a former Nazi collaborator George Grivas, exacted a price on British occupation, a killing spree of British soldiers and Turkish Cypriots in the main.

The British still retain armed forces bases there on territory that was ceded to the United Kingdom on independence. That means that slivers of Cyprus remain British soil.

While there was a myth abroad that the Turkish and Greek Cypriot relations had been harmonious before the invasion but after Independence, that was far from the truth. The Green Zone actually began a line drawn by the British in 1963 because of strife between the two.

By 1974, the treatment of the Turkish Cypriots was bad enough for Turkey to intervene, and it did not take that long for the Greek Cypriots to quickly sue for peace. This led to fragmented jurisdictions, separated by a UN peace force which have, since the ceasefire, patrolled the Green Zone that extends across the island, cutting through Nicosia as mentioned above.

There the line has remained intact despite regular exchange of obscenities, rock throwing, and the more serious “cocking and pointing”.

When the Harper’s article was written there was very limited access across the border. The two journalists met once, face to face, for coffee in Pyla, a small fishing village within the Green Zone.

There may have been calm when we visited, but there was residual bitterness. We were there at a time before Erdogan came on the scene with all his populist fury. However, he probably recognises what one Greek Cypriot soldier said when asked whether he would retaliate: “No,” he said smiling, “We are careful not to provoke them, because we are the weaker side.” 

Erdogan must know that and after the defeat of Armenia recently, he may be tempted to have a “go” at Cyprus.

Apart from the increased access across the Green Zone, since the 1999 Harper’s article was written, another phenomenon has occurred. It was first evident when I picked up the menu at the hotel in Limassol where we were staying. The menu was not only in Greek and English but also in Russian. The Russians have made a large investment in Cyprus – either with or without Putin’s collusion. Who would know the extent of each?

Now there is a cohort of Russians who have not only invested in property but also have bought Cyprus passports, a practice contrary to EU rules. Under pressure from the EU, Cyprus has now withdrawn that permission to buy into the Republic. Unlike Armenia, Cyprus is a member of the EU, but the Russian passports have not been cancelled.

However, would that matter given that America is now  distracted and if the Turkish Cypriot grievances are inflamed by Erdogan, how would the Republic respond? Seek Greek support? It was not there in 1974.   Would it be now?

The European Union?  Does the EU want to go to war with Turkey, a member of NATO? After all, it was NATO bombing of Serbian held positions and a USA-brokered peace which, in the 1990s, ended that perennial obsession of the Serbs to dominate the Balkans.

This is different political chemistry, and one without a strong America, with a lame-duck President with Russian connections still at the helm. Cyprus has inhospitable mountainous areas. Don’t we know it? We got lost in the wilds of Cyprus, and only worked our way out by pointing the car down the mountains, but at least there was a track to follow.

So military conquest of Cyprus is not just a case of rolling up to seaside resorts like Limassol and Paphos in Turkish tanks. The mountains are perfect for guerrilla warfare.

So-called Russian peacekeepers could already be there to help – and themselves – as they have done in Armenia. They might be there to welcome the invading Turks.

As for the sovereign British bases, maybe Boris would let the Russians have them. After all, he could say it is part of his Brexit plan. Hopefully no one would write, as Queen Mary did with “Calais”, that Cyprus will be written on his heart.

Nevertheless, it should not be ignored that the Russians doing the Trump

Presidency have built up a seasoned defence force, which has honed its skills in Syria and elsewhere. Why not Cyprus? Why not indeed!

John Kitzhaber continues his analysis of the US health system…

Dr John Kitzhaber

Public Resources

We need to understand the central role of public dollars in our healthcare system. Healthcare is the only economic sector that produces goods and services which none of its customers can afford. This system only works because the cost of medical care for individuals is heavily subsidized with public resources. This happens directly through public programs like Medicare and Medicaid. It also happens indirectly through the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance and through the public subsidies in the individual insurance market established through the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

As a result, about 90 percent of Americans depend on public subsidies to help them cover the cost of their care—all except the 28 million Americans who remain uninsured. These people are not eligible for a public subsidy themselves, but through their taxes they help subsidize the cost of healthcare for everyone else. This egregious situation reflects the systemic inequality that exists not only in our healthcare system but also across our whole society.

Thus, the central issue in the healthcare debate involves the allocation of public resources, which represent a kind of fiscal commons. They are shared resources raised from society as a whole—and they should be allocated in a way that benefits all of us, not just some of us.

The National Debt

We also need to recognize that our healthcare system is increasingly financed with debt. Why? Because public resources are finite and Congress is borrowing ever more money to pay for existing programs and services—including health care. This fact is reflected in the congressional budget deficit and in our national debt. The national debt is the accumulation of years of budget deficits and represents the amount of money that has been borrowed to cover the difference between congressional spending and the tax revenue available to pay for it. Since healthcare now accounts for over 28 percent of the federal budget not spent on interest—and is projected to grow to 33 percent by 2028—it has become a major driver of the national debt.

This means that as the population ages and the cost of care continues to rise, the economic viability of the healthcare system will increasingly depend on borrowing money—and on the capacity of the federal government to absorb more debt. If the capacity to borrow is constrained, the financial underpinnings of the healthcare system begin to unravel. Since COVID-19 has created exactly this constraint on borrowing, a healthcare financing crisis that was on the horizon is now at our door.

Income Inequality

Furthermore, a growing share of the money borrowed to prop up our medical system is not being used to expand coverage. Instead, it is enriching the profits of large corporations and wealthy individuals. Let me be very clear: our current healthcare system is increasing income inequality through a process called rent seeking. This occurs when powerful stakeholders manipulate public policy to increase their own wealth without the creation of new wealth (i.e. they take more of the pie without making the pie bigger). For example, when the pharmaceutical industry convinced Congress to prohibit the government from negotiating drug prices for the 60 million Americans on Medicare, it distorted the market by putting the power in the sellers’ hands to set whatever prices they wish. After many news stories about “big pharma”, more people have become aware of concerns with drug prices. What seems to be less well known is just how profitable medical insurance is: in 2019, the seven largest for-profit insurers had combined revenue of over $900 billion and profits of $35.6 billion, a 66 percent increase over 2018.The result of the rent seeking that is evident throughout the health care industry is lower disposable income for the individuals who have to pay those inflated prices, increased profits for the companies, and wider income inequality.

Health versus Health Care

Finally, we need to recognize that the goal of the healthcare system should be to keep people healthy, not just to finance medical care. In other words, it needs to address the social determinants of health—access to healthy food and clean water, safe housing, a reliable living wage, family and community stability, and more—which have a far greater impact than medical care on the health of both individuals and communities. Yet the ever-increasing cost of care compromises our ability to invest in these things.

Today, healthcare providers and the system have different goals. While most care providers are trying to enhance people’s health, they nevertheless work in a system where the incentives are to increase profits and redistribute more wealth to the wealthy.

Confronting the Total Cost of Care

Improving health requires a financially sustainable system that ensures that all Americans have timely access to effective medical care

and

that makes long-term investments in the social determinants of health. To achieve these dual goals requires five core elements:

  1. Universal coverage;
  2. A defined set of benefits;
  3. A delivery system that assumes risk and accountability for quality and outcomes;
  4. A global budget indexed to a sustainable rate of growth; and
  5. A cost prevention strategy that allocates some of the savings to addressing the social determinants of health. A system that incorporates these elements can take many forms, but without all five we cannot achieve our goal of improving health in a financially sustainable way.

There are two primary obstacles keeping us from moving toward a new system focused on value and health: the way the debate has been framed, and the cost-shifting strategies that—until the pandemic—allowed us to avoid the growing discrepancy between the cost of the system and our ability to pay for it.

How the Debate Is Framed

For decades, the national healthcare debate has been paralysed largely because neither Democrats nor Republicans have seriously challenged the underlying healthcare business model—the debate has been over what level of funding to provide. The current business model is built around fee-for-service reimbursement. The more they do, the more they get paid. Since the fees paid for medical services usually are not linked in a meaningful way to a positive health outcome for the person receiving the care, the system incentives are aligned with maximizing revenue rather than maximizing health.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) attempted to move away from this model with incentives to participate in accountable care organizations (ACOs), which are networks of providers that shared in savings if they delivered care more efficiently (called upside risk). The problem is that the ACOs were not required to assume any significant degree of downside risk, in which they had to refund a payer if the actual costs of care exceeded a financial benchmark. Furthermore, the ACA did not take on the rent seeking (transferring wealth to the wealthy) that accounts for so much of the cost in the system. As a consequence, the cost of health care grew from $2.6 trillion in 2010 to $3.6 trillion in 2019.

In the wake of the ACA, both major political parties have continued to debate only the extent to which we should fund the system, creating a false choice between cost and access. This false choice is reflected in the Republican view that the cost of health care is unsustainable and must be constrained, and in the Democrat view that any reduction in spending will reduce access. Both sides are right, if they remain wedded to the current business model.

Republican proposals to “repeal and replace” the ACA would simply reduce the public subsidies in the current business model, increasing the number of uninsured Americans and exacerbating the inequity that already exists. Democrat efforts to expand coverage through proposals like “Medicare for All” would significantly increase public subsidies but within the same inflationary fee-for-service business model, adding to the burden of debt that future generations will have to pay. To put it another way, Republican proposals increase inequity and harm people today; Democrat proposals increase the debt and harm people tomorrow.

Cost-Shifting Strategies

Framing the debate in this way allows legislative bodies to avoid directly addressing the cost of care by simply shifting that cost somewhere else, a strategy used by other third-party payers (insurance companies and employers). As the total cost of care increases, instead of seeking to reduce it, these payers take actions that shift the cost to individuals, who cannot afford it, or to future generations. Here are the most common cost-shifting strategies:

  • Reducing eligibility, cutting benefits, and/or raising co-payments and deductibles—all of which shift costs to individuals;
  • Reducing provider reimbursement, which may result in efforts by providers to avoid caring for those who cannot pay and/or lead to increased fees by providers when they are caring for people who are insured; and
  • Increasing debt-financed public subsidies, which shifts the burden to our children and grandchildren.

Importantly, none of these cost-shifting strategies reduce the total cost of care, which is the central structural problem in our system. Before COVID-19, we were able to rely on these strategies, particularly debt-financed public subsidies, to avoid the difficult choices necessary for a solution. But given the economic crisis we face now, we must directly confront the total cost of care. Fortunately, this gives us the opportunity to pursue new strategies that both redesign the current hyperinflationary business model and invest in those things that have the greatest impact on health and well-being.

To be concluded

Mouse Whisper

Out of an abundance of caution

ex abundanti cautela

In law, describes someone taking precautions against a very remote contingency. “One might wear a belt in addition to braces ex abundanti cautela”. In banking, a loan in which the collateral is more than the loan itself. Also, the basis for the term “an abundance of caution” employed by United States President Barack Obama to explain why the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court John Roberts had to re-administer the Presidential oath of office, and again in reference to terrorist threats.

In reference to Chief Justice Roberts, who flubbed it the first time, Obama recognised the deep conspiracy and made him do it again – correctly. Our authority is the impeccable, Il pagliacco Guiliani.

Just a quote dripping with irony, it has become the favourite phrase of the month, and it seems that is how one formally approaches the Virus, but you must be in full evening dress with all medals displayed (sic).

For we mice it is more that we’re “Out of our barn dance our Cat’s in”.

Modest Expectations – Windy Bears

Blinman is the highest settlement in South Australia at 610metres. It has a pub and one of the distinguishing features of this area is that it sells locally-made ice cream – well, not actually made in the Flinders Ranges but in a little town in this mid north area of the State – in Laura.

The Flinders Ranges were named after Matthew Flinders who, together with his cat Trim, were the first Europeans to see the Range when he anchored his boat in Spencer Gulf near present day Port Augusta, and his name was given to the Range by Governor Gawler in 1839.

Wilpena Pound is an ancient caldera in the Southern part of the Flinders Ranges. It is one of the few places which was still on my bucket list of places I hadn’t been in this vast country. The name had stuck in my mind since I read that the famous New Zealand soprano, Kiri Te Kanawa had performed here in an open-air concert – with the all kit and caboodle of an accompanying symphony orchestra.

Within the National Park now owned by the local indigenous people, the resort is surrounded by hills and the bush crowds in upon you. Ring throated green parrots are cavorting on the terrace as I am setting down my thoughts.

Six weeks earlier the area had been flooded and there is still evidence of water damaged roads. Most of the bush that had been washed along with the floodwaters had been cleared away, but the road signs still warned of flood damage and the unmade roads into the interior of the range had yet to be graded. There are plenty of hikes, which I could have done in the past, but there is still much to see.

 

The Flinders Ranges themselves are not that high, but they have a certain majesty. There is the huge Arkaroola Rock; there are the hills which are swirls of pink accentuated in the afternoon sun. A hill pokes out from the pink diorama as though it is a sand dune not rock. There is the Great Wall of China atop, in American usage, a butte. Nature had constructed what appears to be a dry-stone wall, which meanders up and across these flat-topped hills. Other peaks are jagged, saw toothed. This has been a playground for Mother Nature to experiment in form and texture. After all, to the local Aboriginal people this is the land of the Rainbow Serpent.

Throughout the ranges on the road north to Blinman, the dominant tree is the native cypress and, because of the recent rain, they are growing amid a greenery which has coalesced with the salt bush. There is also the mauve of Paterson’s Curse, which has been let loose by the rain and, as I have written before, it can look beautiful. However, as Baudelaire once wrote, at the heart of great beauty resides evil. I always think of those words when I see this imported weed coating the landscape.

Tiny Blinman has a general store, which was closed, but fortunately the pub offered the ice cream. There was once copper mining here, and the woman at the door informs us that the tour of the mine is full. She gives me some tiny pieces of malachite as compensation. I tell her my great-grandfather, when he first came to Australia, took his family south of the Flinders Range to Kapunda, where the first commercial mine in Australia had been opened in 1842. This mine also yielded copper but has long been closed. I had been there many years ago and already gathered pieces of souvenir ore from the mine tailings.

The view from Stoke’s Hill Lookout is of a red ochre expanse dotted with salt bush. Here the greenery has not penetrated and my whole vision was one that Fred Williams may have seen and painted. After all, the Flinders Ranges was inspiration for Hans Heysen also. He painted many a vibrant gum tree landscape. Although the native cypress are dominant, there are stands of several major eucalypts throughout the Ranges. There is the Southern Flinders Mallee, which grow on the rocky slopes, but along the river-beds are the imposing river red gums beloved of Heysen.

The Big Tree, Orrooroo

The largest of these eucalypts is celebrated in the small settlement of Orroroo, south of the Flinders Ranges, where the eponymously named tree is said to be over 500 years old. It has a trunk circumference of 10 metres and no fork in the trunk until six metres up.  It is a very healthy tree, but it is by no means the only tree of similar size and in the forecourt of our accommodation, there is a tree that is not much smaller. In the reception is a huge red gum counter made from a tree that had fallen over. Part of the massive trunk had been salvaged but the rest, despite protests, was cut up into firewood, the desecration often perpetuated by government-paid foresters.

Hawker is at the southern apex of the Flinders Range, a small settlement but with an enormous tyre service. This is an ominous warning of travel on the unmade roads that penetrate the Range. While we refuelled there, we were surrounded by an exhaust of leather clad motorcycle riders, most of whom were old enough to be directly inspired by Peter Fonda and Denis Hopper in Easy Rider. This is “easy riding” in the Outback, even though the sense of hair flowing the wind is now “kerbed” by a helmet.

The road to the west of the range proceeds north to Parachilna, with a pub and an official population of three. The pub is managed by a young couple who have fled there to escape the Virus, and here gained employment. This Prairie Hotel is a well-known watering spot to where once a railway ran, but no more.

The hotel is deceptive. From the outside it is a normal pub with the corrugated iron roof slung over the walls to provide protection from the sun. However, it is different from the normal desert hostelry in not being a reservoir for stubbie holders, fridge magnets, car stickers, and sexist T-shirts in a dungeon-like public bar. Inside it is tastefully decorated, light and airy.  There is a wide array of quality, mostly Aboriginal, art on display for sale. It is also the general store, sells other Aboriginal-designed artefacts, has good accommodation, the place for a good feed at breakfast and dinner; and being a pub, a wide range of grog. A bottle of my favourite Hendricks gin peeps out of a well-stocked spirits selection. Over the road from the hotel there is the budget accommodation in the form of dongas, ship containers with a portal of entry. Without air conditioning in the middle of summer, they would be like being in a microwave.

The paved road now goes a long way north and last year was extended to Marree (once the cattle railhead) to try and help those “grey nomads” dragging their caravans. Thus, Parachilna is now not a terminus but a welcome stop on the way north into the desert. For us, given how late in the day it is, this was our turning point from where we drove back, bathed in the late afternoon sun.

Adam Goodes mob – The Adnyamathanha

Terence and Josephine Coulthard, in the words of the front cover, compiled a Culture and Language Book on the Adnyamathanha people. These are local Indigenous Guardians of the Flinders Range – the long title means Rock (Adnya) People (Mathanha). The book runs to 450 pages and serves as a dictionary – the written form of the oral language – painstakingly described.

Adnyamathanha flag

These people have a flag (pictured) which combines the blue diagonal canton as representing sky and the Blue Rock people. The brown represents the land and the Red Rock people. The saucepan star formation is the men’s story line; the seven sisters the women’s story line. The circle with the radiating white lines is Ikara (Wilpena Pound) and the symbol for the whole Adnyamathanha community. Thinking about the complexity in the cultural attachments to the land we now recognise as Australia, such a flag should be looked at in a national context. It is a proud flag; this is not the flag of the downtrodden.

This strength was exemplified by us being invited to come to the launch of the book under the river red gums, where Terence sang and played the guitar, where the mob had come  and now sat under the trees and the children ran free the aboriginal kids weren’t running around, they sat with their parents. There was a lot of talk, everybody seemed to have a word to say, including the local member for Stuart with a long Dutch name.

We purchased both the book and the flag.

John Kitzhaber – His Thoughts

Below is a the first of a multipart series by Dr John Kitzhaber, former Democratic Governor of Oregon and the author of the Oregon Health Plan. I have known Dr Kitzhaber for a long time and he has agreed to his essay being reprinted in my blog. It provides an insight into the thinking of someone whom President-elect Biden may tap for ideas. Over to Governor Kitzhaber…

Dr John Kitzhaber

“I started practicing emergency medicine when I was 27 years old, and I still remember the vulnerability of the people who came to see me. They were sick or injured, frightened, and asking for help. They didn’t know me, and yet they put their trust in me. I did everything in my power to help them and yet, even then, I sometimes failed.

As an emergency doctor, being unable to save a life was devastating. The walk across the hall to the small room where family and friends waited always felt like a long hopeless journey. Yet while this poignant intersection of compassion and mortality is difficult, it is that very compassion, and the humility and caring involved, that drew many of us into healthcare in the first place.

Today, much of that compassion is being stripped away. Early in my career, in the 1970s, we had time to build the kind of personal relationships with our patients that often contributed as much to their health and well-being as the medical treatments we prescribed. Sadly, the space in which to cultivate these deeper relationships seems to be slipping away—lost to an electronic medical record that is as much about billing as about caring, and to an impersonal corporate structure that prioritizes revenue generation over a deeper understanding of the social and economic circumstances that contribute to illness.

I became a doctor to improve people’s health and well-being, not just to treat their medical conditions. I soon realized, however, that in many cases I was treating the medical complications of social problems. I was trained to treat the medical conditions, which I did to the best of my ability; but afterwards, my patients returned to the same social conditions that had brought them into the hospital in the first place. I eventually realized that our healthcare system is designed not to support wellness but rather to profit from illness. While most healthcare providers certainly don’t approach caring for people that way, the underlying business model does.

Serving in public office while still practicing medicine gave me another insight: the realization that the more money we spend on healthcare, the less is available for housing, nutrition, education, or other things that are critical to health and well-being. Since first running for the Oregon legislature in 1978, I have spent 26 years as a representative, as a senator, and as governor trying to develop a new model—one built on the recognition that health is the product of many factors, only one of which is medical care.

In 2012, in the depths of the Great Recession, Oregon established such a model: coordinated care organizations (CCOs) for our Medicaid recipients. The CCOs don’t just treat illness; they cultivate health by addressing not only physical, mental, and dental care but also related needs such as safe housing, transportation, and fresh, affordable food. CCOs have also demonstrated that it is possible to expand coverage and reduce the rate of medical inflation while improving quality and health outcomes. Now, with the deep recession triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, it is time to scale this kind of model up for the whole nation. My primary aim with this article is to offer one way in which we might achieve that goal.

From Cost and Coverage to Value and Health

For decades, the healthcare debate throughout the United States has focused almost entirely on coverage—on how to pay for access to the current system—rather than on health. What is missing is a consideration of value, which in this context means that the purpose of the system is not simply to finance and deliver medical care but rather to improve and maintain health. Indeed, the things that have the greatest impact on health across the lifespan are healthy pregnancies, decent housing, good nutrition, stable families, education, steady jobs with adequate wages, safe communities, and other “social determinants of health”; in contrast, the healthcare system itself plays a relatively minor part.

Ironically, since the cost of medical care consumes 18 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP), our current healthcare system actually undermines our ability to invest in children, families, housing, economic opportunity, and the many other key social factors important to health and well-being. This is a primary reason why the United States does not compare favourably in terms of health statistics with nations that choose to spend far more on the social determinants and far less on the healthcare system.

If we could reduce our healthcare spending from 18 to 12 percent of GDP (which is the average spent by most other industrialized nations), we would free up over one trillion dollars a year to invest in the things that contribute more to health. Such a reduction in spending might seem impossible, but successful examples of how to bring down the total cost of care do exist, including Oregon’s CCOs. Under these care models, providers receive a global budget to provide quality care with good outcomes for a defined population; if the global budget is exceeded in any given year, the providers are at financial risk for the difference. These care models change the system’s incentives from rewarding sickness to rewarding wellness—and they work. Because they focus on improving health, they prevent illnesses and thereby reduce costs without sacrificing quality.

Effectively addressing the access, value, and cost issues in our healthcare system is one of the most important domestic challenges we face as a nation. Doing so, however, requires both a clear-eyed assessment of what this system has become and the courage to challenge that system. The global pandemic, with its profound economic and social consequences, has brought into clear focus the urgent need for a new model more aligned with caring, compassion, and the goal of improving the health of our nation. And no one is more qualified to lead that effort than the people who have dedicated their lives to the healthcare profession.

COVID-19 and Our Legacy of Inequity

In 1882, the newly formed Populist Party wrote in its platform, “The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind.” Now, over 125 years later, these words aptly describe our current social and economic conditions and how little progress we have made in terms of social justice and equal opportunity. The novel coronavirus has exposed anew the inequities and the linked class and race divisions within our society, problems that have been with us since before our nation’s founding, almost always churning just below the surface, visible only indirectly when we examine disparities like disproportionately lagging health and education outcomes for chronically under-resourced— often racially or ethnically segregated—communities. Especially in the past few decades, these inequities have been masked by debt-financed economic growth that has prevented us from mustering the political will and societal solidarity necessary to address them.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the depth of these disparities, or the extent to which social justice has been eroded, than the US healthcare system. It is a massive corporate enterprise that now consumes nearly one-fifth of our GDP, a huge employer that is increasingly dependent on public debt for its financial stability, and a major driver of income inequality. The pandemic has cast these inequities and contradictions into stark relief.

We see the difficulty nonmedical essential workers have had in obtaining adequate health protections, often resulting in significantly higher rates of infection. These are people in low-wage positions—often with minimal or no sick leave or insurance—working in grocery stores, warehouses, factories, and food and agricultural production sites. We also see that Black Americans are dying from Covid-19 in dramatically disproportionate numbers—deaths attributable to the structural inequities in our society that make Black people and other people of colour more likely to have diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure, and to live near major sources of health-endangering pollutants and far from health facilities and grocery stores. These are issues we urgently need to address.

At the same time, the pandemic has for the first time brought the economic interests of those who pay for, consume, and provide healthcare into clear alignment. This gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the current system by demanding value as well as universal coverage and by constraining the total cost of care.”

To be continued next week.

 What a Village

After such an above sober analysis…

The votes for the US President have been counted and, as predicted, Trump is behaving as he always has, and in so doing disgracing all American democratic traditions.

Joe Biden has won. I have not thought much of him, but now that he is on the brink of Presidency, he needs his critics – of which I am not even a speck in importance of one of these – to give him a chance.

Trump is exhibiting the sure signs of dementia. People are now openly saying he is lying and the media is by and large turning him off. The pathetic lies are obvious, but is he confabulating? There are these long blanks in his mental processes which he fills with babble. This is associated with early dementia. Therefore, with his face the colour of a tomato, which even make up cannot hide suggests a visit to an independent medical panel would be wise.

Nancy Pelosi is 80; Joe Biden is on the cusp of 78; Mitch McConnell is 78 and unquestionably the most unhealthy seems to be Donald Trump, who is only is 74. He has had a dose of the Virus and refused to heed its danger.  Instead of convalescence he embarked on a frantic schedule in which he encouraged his adoring crowd to gather into a feed lot for the Virus. He demonstrated how the President’s power must be reviewed, as the Senate has done in the past, to clip presidential authority. Trump has shown how susceptible a nation can be to bullying, even when this is limited to four years.

There is an increasing adage that 70 years is the new 50, but believe me, 80 is the new 80. Something happens between 70 and 80 in many people, and that is why it is hard to detect how well they would handle the “next four years”. Retention of physical and mental health in individuals begins to become more of a lottery. Therefore, both Pelosi and McConnell should be watched for any slippage, but in politics that is an inconvenient comment.

I do not fear of being called ageist, because I am in the same age group. Biden still shows he can jog to the President-elect’s podium, but he called upon Obama to assist in maintaining a sense of mental resilience. I had made the comment earlier that Biden would give away to an Obama restoration. I made the comment that this may be stopped in its tracks by Michelle Obama. Obama’s oratory over the last few weeks helped solidify African-American voting intentions in these closing weeks.

Kamala Harris is 56 years old and Mike Pence is 61. Whether having endured years of Trump, Pence might retire in Indiana to try and cure the PTSD engendered by four years at “Don’s Party”, with any thoughts of a future Presidency probably snuffed out. However, the future of Kamala Harris will determine whether that divide in America painted red will ever accept under any circumstances a woman, especially if Biden should die or be incapacitated over the next four years.

In short, there is much that could be added without rehashing that which has already been said. What in the end were the most significant conclusions for me?

  • America elected a woman Vice-President.
  • Trump scored 72 million votes.
  • COVID-19 has affected three per cent of the population and O.8 per cent of the population have died up to this point. Does anybody out of that 72 million in the imitation of a self-obsessed narcissistic ex-President really care about such a small group of “losers”? Is America that callous?

Mouse Whisper

Not Anywhere

            Not Delaware

                          But Somewhere

                                     Wilmington South Australia

The Worshipful Company of South Australian Field Mouse Grain Handlers have asked me to invite you Sir to open the Wilmington Night Rodeo on January 23 next. I understand to perform this important role you will have re-schedule a minor ceremony in Washington to be with us. However how could you afford to miss having the finest tucker at Rusti Kate’s Feed Lot after a trip through the Puppet Museum, which I understand as a fine array of your predecessor’s marionettes.

Respectfully

Wilmington, South Australia

Modest Expectations – Orwell

Orwell wrote this book in the year the reverse of 1984 – 1948.

Orwell’s book “Homage to Catalonia” is the one of the best books I’ve ever read. Orwell otherwise was a miserable person – perspicacious but miserable. “The Clergyman’s Daughter” typifies his style of claustrophobic writing.

1984 was not that sort of year.  I cannot forget any day in April when the clock struck thirteen.

It was just another normal year of people being beastly to one another. Afghanistan was already the definition of insolvability. Reagan won, Hawke won, Essendon Football Club won – in that ascending order of importance for me.

The year started with my being in India. I started my particular passage to India a few days before New Year when I had flown into Bombay at a time before it changed its name to Mumbai. The overwhelming sensation was how crowded the airport was. I was going on to Delhi and learnt not to make any assumptions about that country.

I had assumed that I would be going to Delhi where I would be staying before going on to Lucknow for The Indian Medical Organisation Conference, which was held from 28 December each year. The assumption I made was that I would be flying domestically as my ticket said Air India.

When I negotiated my passage to the domestic airport, I was informed there that I was flying on an international flight, which went from the international terminal. Yes, it was destined to fly to Delhi, but then on to Moscow and then Manchester. Thus, I had to retrace my passage back to the international airport. It was night; the weather could have been better, but it had the effect of accelerating my acclimatisation to the subcontinental idiosyncrasies.

I don’t remember very much about my flight except they had both piroshki and vodka on the flight and there was more than a sprinkling of Russian speakers.

The hotel in Delhi, when I reached it, in the early morning was adequate, about two stars in modern day classification. The second lesson I had learnt by the time I arrived at Lucknow was to go with the flow. The Conference organisers had booked my accommodation, which was more in the “fallen star category”. I took one look, did not unpack and moved at my own expense to Clark’s, which was then the best available hotel in Lucknow.

Yet I did take time to visit the site of the Black Hole.

In India, there were times you could play the “sahib” card but that was not one of them. The learning curve was to prove steep. From wondering why the hell I was there, over a month I came to love India. Nevertheless, it took me almost 40 years to return. I had a number of excuses, but underneath, I just didn’t want to be disappointed that second time around. Frankly, on return to Australia I basked in the raised eyebrows and the questioning faces when I told them where I had been. I suppose they believed India to be the repository of Westerners in beads, sandals and designer rags. I did not fit the bill; moreover, I should have said I loathed it.

After all, had not India undone the Beatles? The film of E.M. Forster’s Passage to India was released later in 1984, and I confess I spent too much of the time watching this luxuriantly filmed epic trying to identify the scenic backdrop.

Lucknow

In Lucknow the most memorable occasion was a conversation with a Brahmin doctor and his attitude. He both knew Indira Gandhi and hated her to the extent of saying that she should be killed. She too was a Brahmin and here I was in Uttar Pradesh, their home territory; among the fragrant roses of Lucknow, I listened to his tirade. Every time I tried to steer the conversation onto the Indian health service, he brought me back to the Prime Minister and her faults as he saw them.

Whether he was serious or not, it was a prescient exchange. On October 31 later that year she was assassinated by her Sikh guards, apparently as a revenge for the attacks she ordered on Amritsar earlier in the year. The reprisals following her assassination saw 20,000 Sikhs killed.

Sitting in the wintry sunshine in Lucknow, I did not realise the extent of the anti-Indira undercurrent. However, while I was in Lucknow, meanwhile my partner who had come separately was fending off the marauders in Madras, barricading her hotel room. That was her welcome to India. Then later there was the delay getting from Madras to Delhi, where there was a complete lack of information about her flight details, until when I was just about to lose the plot, she appeared.

Yet after all the tumult, it was a great month for us, travelling as far north as Simla and as far south as Nagercoil. India has this overpowering diversity. We travelled in all classes on various trains, save on the roof. The overriding lesson with a wry smile – best to go in pairs, one to create the space, the other to watch the bags. Really a commentary on life rather than just on India. 

An American Nightmare

This is the last week of the campaign and the lesser of two Halloween warlocks is leading the polls. Yes, the plagiarist, promoter of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court by his disgraceful prejudiced handling of Anita Hall’s evidence in the leadup to the Thomas confirmation, his touchy-feely approach to women verging on the gropey, and the almost complete vacuity of his machine politician mind behind the smile.

And yet if I were American, I would vote for Biden.

Trump is unhinged (as I have said before) and his periods of lucidity are becoming fewer and fewer. However, there is enough commentary and associated evidence to show he is totally unfit for government for me to need to say anything more.

There was a theory among the leading business people in the early thirties in Germany that they could control the Austrian house painter. They were so wrong, except that many of them a dozen years later climbed out of the wreckage of Germany to consolidate their fortunes post-war.

However, the hopes of the side are probably those Republicans behind the Lincoln project. They are prepared to sacrifice a Republican President for Biden knowing that the latter won’t do much beyond trying to bring the country together. It will be the difficult task after the Trump dislocation, and the Lincoln Guys doubt whether Biden has the fortitude. They know him well given that he has being hanging around Capitol Hill for over forty years. He as President, essentially if he fumbles, may give the Lincoln Republicans time to find a suitable Republican in their own image.

Trump will build a militia if given a second term either directly or by way of the National Guard. His operatives have already penetrated police forces, who have been able to obtain military style weapons by confected fear being whipped up against the unseen – cynically “a fear of the darkie”. When he has done that, Trump will be able to dump the rag tag bearded motorcyclists draped in confederate uniforms. They are the equivalent of the Nazi “Brown shirts” – and when the Brown Shirts were seen as an undisciplined nuisance, they were cowered in the Night of the Long Knives – and this American bunch do not have the leadership quality of an Ernst Roehm.

They also realise that Trump will continue to stack the judiciary, so it becomes an extension of himself – lackeys without any regard for the separation of powers. Even before that is done if faced with a hostile Congress, he will endeavour to cower this remnant of democracy – and burning of the Reichstag provides the play book. That is the horrific scenario if transferred to the White House burning down.

Biden on the other hand, should he win in a spirit of unity and solidarity, may appoint “Lincoln Republicans” to his Cabinet. Then there is always the fact that, at the end of his term, should he win the next election, President Biden will be 86. As such, re-election in 2024 would put him into Mugabe territory in relation to age. However, well before that his mental capacity will be under close scrutiny. COVID-19 has been a blessing for him because it has given him the opportunity of a low – almost subterranean – profile and to conceal the wisps of that.

Nevertheless, when the expectations are low, then breaking the mould and actually doing something positive is liable to be received more rapturously rather than if his profile had higher expectation. This is exemplified by the visceral hatred in Middle America towards the Clintons, who had come into office with high expectations. One never wants fallen idols, especially if shown to be hypocritical. Cupidity, among many other Clinton failings, does not work well in communities that prize thriftiness and hard work.

Trump has never been the Fallen Idol because he has skirted the problem of us mere mortals bound by a set of Commandments. He has been deified by his followers and just like the pagan gods he has freed himself of any moral restraints. He has created his own reality where his sins are just an accepted part of the framework of his Reality.

Next week it will be interesting whether this Reality comes back to Earth, and as with the gods he is transmogrified into a beast, bird or plant – hopefully not the Lyre Bird.

The Return to the City

One rule I have always had is to try to live close to the hospital, health service, department or office where I worked. At the start of my career and at the end of my career I spent a considerable time away from home. However, even in those jobs, my accommodation was close to work.

The times I have driven against the morning and afternoon traffic; and wondered if the “trade off” of living in suburbia would be worth it. For years the conventional wisdom has been that you herd the workers into the centre of the city, but nobody had factored in the bloody mindedness of it all. Sit in a car for an hour plus and then at the end of the day, sit for another hour to return.

The first response to the above comment is to say that I have been lucky to be afforded the luxury of not having to travel far to work.

Nevertheless, living once in a rat infested flat where the final decision to leave was because of the staircase had been converted into a waterfall when it rained, because of a repeated failure by the landlord to fix the roof, was hardly an example of inner urban luxury. However, that flat was close to work. Admittedly I do not cope well when sitting in traffic, and that problem has become more acute with age.

The solution has always been to avoid the peak hour period, which is extending as congestion not only with automobile traffic but also with public transport increases.

My first year of being an intern in Box Hill hospital meant separation from my then wife, who went home to her family to prepare for our first child; my second postgraduate year saw me in Geelong, employed at the hospital and commuting which was not easy, but at least I didn’t have to drive through endless traffic.

Even though I have led a nomadic existence, I have avoided that relentless, repetitive, endless and ultimately soul-destroying life in the urban gridlock or on public transport.

COVID-19 has taught society two lessons. The first is hygiene. Before this virus, many people with upper respiratory infections would turn up in the workplace ensuring the spread of, in most cases the virus – colds and influenza were accepted as part of the fabric of modern life. This is the first year that so far I have been clear of “the dreaded lurgie”.  Once I contract an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) it means four weeks at least of the virus giving me a belting.  I still have a residual cough from my last attack in 2017.

In the pre-COVID-19 era, did we use sanitisers? No. Did we even wash our hands regularly? Perhaps. In this last category, health professionals were no better than any other.  My wife, who has always used hand sanitiser and washed her hands, is a constant reminder of my failings!

In the public setting, appearing to have a respiratory infection with associated coughing, sneezing and spluttering has become as socially unacceptable as smoking. The spectre of lockdown should dampen any recidivism.

This then leads to the second lesson – the workplace. Somewhat naively I prepared a list in a blog, which pre-supposed an ultimate return to the previous CBD workplace, admittedly sanitised but tellingly through the perspective of the boss. As the pandemic extended, more and more have adapted to working from home, even though this has meant career impinging on domesticity.

People are adapting to this so-called remote workplace. The technology improving connectivity effectively supports remote working. Travelling into the city for language lessons has given way to Zoom at home. There has not been any alteration in the learning process, just finding a parking space in a part of the city where even over a year increasing restrictions are so evident. Not having to worry about that is a relief and reduces the need and the stress of travel.

The problem for employers who are wanting their workforce to return is that many employees have adapted to working from home, now that technology is making it more than feasible and, whether it is genuine or a convenience, they ‘may not feel safe returning to work’. The resistance and the measures use to abort this social change will be interesting, because the so-called Big End of town (Culo grande) of town has been resisted.

The problem is that when there are unpalatable, unexpected changes: for instance, big investment in palatial offices so there is need for opera glasses when you enter the chief executive officer’s office, the board room with a view where the cabinets overflow with expensive alcohol and butler service, and those cosily expensive nearby city restaurants where you can avoid hoi-polloi, all the time being chauffeured around to avoid the CBD bustle. Is that reason enough for a return to the old pre-COVID-19 order?

Having written this, it is important to say what others will not because they fear reprisals for bringing out into the open the arrogant and selfish element of business, as described above and which has been accentuated by their integrity stumble.  The rise of the rent-seeker class with associated dodgy practices does not like the disappearance of the CBD – not that it will stop pressure on government to bail them out.

Already you have the governmental business advisers led by Mr Powers wanting to convert the CBD into quarantine facilities – and then at what price!

There are probably other very legitimate reasons for calls for a return to the CBD. These are not restricted to the owners of such properties, where the medium term future is challenged. I am sceptical of the NSW Treasurer, who has presided over a litany of alleged corruption, appearing to coerce workers back into the CBD. No reason, just coercion. However, it would be ironic if a so-called free market government would adopt a “soviet” approach to look after their mates, especially given the track record of his Department in coercing workers to return to the CBD.

Many of the reasons for such a return advanced in a recent forum on return to the “old order” seem illogical – as though just herding people into a large office building will stimulate the economy.   No, it is a very threadbare plea smacking of self-interest in the absence of evidence.

One businessman at the same forum said,

My single biggest asset – and it’s daylight between this and the second biggest asset – is my people, and if we push people beyond where they’re comfortable going, we’ll lose people,” he said

‘There was logic to calls for people to return to CBD offices but in the technology space he was up against companies that had told their staff they can work from home forever.

“So, the moment I say you have to come to the office, that is a condition of employment and it’s five days a week, I’m actually at a competitive disadvantage for talent.

This speaker is the type of person whose future ingenuity in enticing people to work for him should be tracked. Will this chap abandon the CBD or not?

Creation of incentives to entice a return to the CBD may not be dissimilar to policy initiatives trying to entice health professionals to rural areas. It may behove those who want people back in the CBD to look at what has and has not worked in ensuring people obey what some elements of government policy say should work. Perhaps somebody should ask Barnaby Joyce about the success of his dragooning of public servants to the Armidale or was it Tamworth CBD?  His was a centrifugal piece of government indulgence; whereas it seems that centripetal forces to the CBD are now more fashionable.

As for Monsieur Perrottet, the Treasurer of NSW and member for Epping, 24 kilometres from the CBD, may seek comment from his constituents on compulsion, government by dominican fiat and his gaudy use of public money.

ABCQ – Morris of Muttaburra

I was impressed by the reported comment of the ABC’s Director News, Analysis & Investigations, Gaven Morris. Central Queensland should be a focus of the ABC’s attention, he opined, rather than just concentrating on the needs of the inner urban elites, who apparently are all lefties like Mr V’landys to name one of my neighbours. He definitely is “elite” and “inner urban” but I doubt a “leftie”. Maybe I am now “inner urban” but not leftie enough to drink Bollinger out of a Fabian Society mug and definitely not “elite. So who are the object of the Morris criticism?

Muttaburrasaurus

Assuming Mr Morris can be a man of precision, he would be talking of Muttaburra – the geographical centre of Queensland and, being seriously thought of by the Queensland Premier, should she survive tomorrow, as altering the emblem of that State.  Muttaburra after all is the home of the Muttaburra Dinosaur – and how appealing, a dinosaur lodging at the centre of Queensland as its emblem.

Muttaburra is a little north of Longreach, where we spent a very pleasant evening among the “outer urban elite” congregated at the Longreach Club, some time ago, before it was burnt down. I have marvelled at the nearby Jericho where all the major streets are named after scientists; Aramac is where they had a lock on the rugby trophy because of their New Zealand shearers; and Barcaldine, the crucible of  the AWU where, under the famous ghost gum – the Tree of Knowledge – the shearers’ strike was hatched; the tree had not yet been so cruelly poisoned.

Now what is this audience you are trying to attract from these disparate community, Mr Morris? After all, Landline is a magnificent reconciliation for those of us in your inner urban bubble. Then “Back Roads” has been a popular social commentary of life in country towns.  It is a pity you have not shared the same sort of delights I have experienced in your Central Queensland away from the coastal fringe.

Take the gem fields near the appropriately named town of Emerald. After a meeting there, I have stayed once in nearby Sapphire, where I spent the night in the nursing post because that was the only accommodation available. The next morning I was woken up by the senior nurse’s partner, who then proceeded to drink a bottle of milk – about half of which was whisky – presumably to ward off the DTs.

Having had dinner the previous night at Rubyvale in a log hut defined as a restaurant, and then later that morning undertaking a tour of the gem fields, it was all a distinct experience. In Rubyvale we were enveloped in a cone of silence until it was realised we were there with a trusted local. This led me to be invited to experience sapphire mining firsthand. I remembered being lowered in what was narrow tin can with one of the sides cut away. I did not measure the depth, but it was probably ten to fifteen feet – maybe more.  Just hold onto the rope was the call from above. Down in the mine there was just an empty tunnel, not even a mining pick in sight.

Later I roamed the bush to places called Divine and Tomahawk, white fella gunyahs where the fossickers would vanish. Incongruously there was a public telephone at Divine. I learnt one of the local wardens had had his thumb blasted off  there by one of “Australia’s 10 Most Wanted”. They said the warden later went mad, but maybe I was confusing wardens.

Like everything in these gem fields, (around Sapphire there is no opal), but in opal fields outside Queensland – Lightning Ridge, in particular, Andamooka, and White Cliffs, (Coober Pedy I have yet to visit and Quilpie I have written about before in this blog) it is best to accept people as you see them and not to ask questions. Just go with the flow, accept the apocryphal and listen to the ABC and thus make Mr Morris happy.

Mouse Whisper 

I happened to be in Yorkshire when Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland. Hitler, Locarno, Fascism and the threat of war aroused hardly a flicker of interest locally, but the decision of the Football Association to stop publishing the fixtures in advance flung all Yorkshire into a storm of fury.

George Orwell – Road to Wigan Pier 1937.

Sound familiar? Publishing the football fixtures was important for gambling, centred as that was around the Pools in pre-war Great Britain.

The Road to Wigan Pier

Modest Expectations – Time Passages

I was given the latest biography of Governor Macquarie last year for my birthday. Of the cast of so-called British invaders, Arthur Philip and Lachlan Macquarie have stood out for their positive effect on the early colonial settlement.

Both men stood above the graft and corruption of a community of rogues that sat round the rum barrel and who had already destroyed one Governor in Bligh.

I named the Oration that the Australasian Faculty of Public Health Medicine (AFPHM) holds annually after William Redfern, who Macquarie recognised for his skills in health, although he had arrived in Sydney as a convict. Again, Macquarie promoted Francis Greenway, the convict architect – one of his early assignments was to supervise the renovation of the dilapidated Sydney Hospital.

Governor Macquarie, especially in his early years, was both energetic and innovative. Unsurprisingly the then Sydney establishment, having destroyed his predecessor, progressively undermined him using tactics that have persisted until the present day.

Remember, the Tall Poppy syndrome had its genesis in the early NSW colony.

Macquarie was not particularly well in 1820 near the end of his Governorship when he entertained the Russian mariners, who turned up in Sydney for repairs and replenishment after sailing in the Antarctic.

Von Bellinghausen’s Vostok

The two Russian ships, the Vostok and Mirinyi were under the command of Captain Thaddeus von Bellinghausen, one the greatest Russian explorers. He had served in both the Russian and British Navy, which suggests that he was at least competent in English. He had circumnavigated the world between 1803 and 1806. When he berthed his ships in Sydney in mid-1820 he and his crew were then partially through circumnavigation of the Antarctic continent. His expedition has been described as “one of the greatest Antarctic expeditions on record, well worthy of being placed beside that of Cook.

There is no record of the consumption of vodka, rum and Scotch but Macquarie’s hospitality was not mirrored when a Russian ship, Amerika visited in both 1832 and 1835. The press reports reflected the fear of a Russian invasion, which was heightened later during the Crimean War.

And in the latter part of the century when the Russians visited again in 1882, the Melbourne Age editor, David Syme, was duped into believing that Britain and Russia were about to go to war when there were three Russian warships in Port Philip Bay, and their commander Admiral Aslangegoff was ensconced in the Menzies Hotel.

It is reported that the Admiral rebuffed all invitations, even though in Melbourne there was an honorary Russian consul, James Damyon who, judging by his mansion in Glenferrie, probably could have accommodated the Admiral. Melbourne, then extremely wealthy, certainly had its moments. The suggestion of an imminent war was refuted from London and the whole episode was found to be a hoax.

Australia escaped what occurred in Africa, where the European nations subdivided the Continent during the nineteenth century – at great cost to the indigenous people. This had been happening earlier with Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British colonial invasions, but in the nineteenth century they were joined by French, German, Belgian and finally Italian interests. Even the Danish had briefly ventured into Africa and hence there was a land grab of massive proportions with subjugation and dispossession of the indigenous people.

Our continent remained a British settlement even though there were many European nations plus the Americans and later the Japanese roaming around the Pacific looking for plots of land on which to plant a flag.

Broome Cemetery

Yet around Broome, there are Aboriginal people with Japanese names; in Darwin Chinese names, but most Aboriginal people have a white fella name indicating some European ancestry. I have West Coast Irish ancestry, but my name is that of the British invaders into Ireland. I suppose we could go about rejecting these names, and I don’t know whether any of the Premier of Queensland’s ancestors were on any of the Russian ships. At some time, we are all invaders with different reasons – it is what makes up that mess which is Us.

The point is that Australia escaped being hacked about by European countries. It is not inconceivable that the Dutch could have colonised the West; the French Tasmania, and, given the evidence of the stranded Mahogany ship, the Portuguese in Western Victoria.

Therefore, Australia was left to the British, and those crucial years in the late 18th century were lost to other potential colonisers. That homogeneous colonisation assisted us becoming a nation.

Yet in 2020 this minuscular coronavirus has enabled those populist chancers who control some of their States, who seem to view their fellow Australians from other States as contagion, full rein to destroy the integrity of the country.

I have lived in the majority of States. I accept what Daniel Andrews has done with Victoria; I understand why the NSW Premier has acted as she has done with the NSW Border with Victoria – both Andrews and Berejiklian are reasonable people – however reasonable is not perfection. But the others – what a bunch of chancers, so far out their depth that they think that they are walking on water when they are in fact drowning.

The most depressing sight is that of Morrison changing the pillowslips when the whole structure of Australia is quaking from the foundations upward and threatening to disintegrate.

A Hundred Kilometres South of Louth

This happened when we were driving a clapped-out rental car back from Adelaide to Sydney and somehow we had strayed onto the road along the Darling River from Wilcannia to Bourke. It was a beautiful day, and we decided to go a different way home.

There are a couple of watering spots on the way to Bourke. Tilpa (population three) with a war memorial to Breaker Morant is one. The pub at Tilpa is a corrugated iron shed with a veranda. When we arrived that day, it was rocking and rolling with pig shooters. The noise could be heard from across the road, where we parked the car.

Tilpa Pub

We were thirsty – so I walked into the bar. As soon as I put my foot on the bar floor, all eyes turned towards me and everybody stopped talking. Eyes and silence followed me to the bar. I resisted asking for two chardonnays, and asked for two schooners of light beer.

“Cans do?” the barman broke the silence.

“Yep.”

I put a ten dollar note on the bar, and said “Keep the change.’

“Not enough.”

I added another ten dollar note, picked up the cans, and weaved my way out of the bar. The ripple of disdain was noticeable from some of those who looked me up and down. There was barely any movement to make a path for me. Once I was out of the bar, the noise resumed. I had given them a butt for their collective feeling of superiority. Cans of light. “Girlie” beer! What would you expect from a joker like that!

This silence is also found in Ireland. Walk into a bar in a rural pub there, and you learn the sound of silence. Make sure that there are enough distracted locals in the bar- otherwise you may find yourself in a conversation.

Xenophobia can only go so far, but as you’ll find out it does need a throng to flourish.

However, there was a rock at Tilpa, which seemed to mark the junction of two tracks. It was a bit heavy, but we wrestled it into the car boot. It now lies in the front garden at home, a reminder of Tilpa, a large sandstone not alone but surrounded in the garden by rocks from around the world. These rocks remind us of where we have travelled. Tilpa, the rock, seems happy here. No xenophobia between the rocks and not forgetting the neighbourly Russian sage growing in the crevices.

Spotlight on the Gig Economy

The gig economy gets its name from each piece of work being akin to an individual ‘gig’ – well so they say.

I remember a gig as a little seat between two very large wheels being drawn by Dobbin. The gig is also has been quoted as a deprecatory term for a “flighty girl” and subsequently indicated anything, which whirls, or is dangerous or unpredictable. The horse-drawn gig always suggests instability, but one got a good view.

Therefore, when I was whirling around in part-time work to keep myself financially alive, I participated in what was the gig economy without it being named as such. As I mentioned once before, I rode the back of a security van with a loaded pistol in my pocket and no idea how to use it. Up front were a couple of firemen earning a few quid on their days off. They were the blokes who actually carried the payroll. For my part, squashed among the payroll tins, I never worked out whether my employment was recorded – probably not but I did use my real name.

However, that was not my most interesting gig. I was asked whether I would like to run one of the spotlights at the Water Follies, an American outfit, which came to Australia in the summer over a number of years. They performed on the Kooyong Tennis Centre Court.

First, I had to learn to operate the spotlights. The spotlight was formed by the carbon cathode and anode sparking and burning at some extraordinary temperature inside a metal box into which a window was inserted so you see the two carbon electrodes. This was important because the worst thing possible was for the anode to burn out before intermission. So there was an optimal distance between the two carbon electrodes, a knack that had to be learned, as was making sure that the spotlight was a circle. Also, I could not compromise the integrity of the circle of light by allowing the electrode shadows to intrude into it. That was also a knack, and if that was not mastered then I would not be given more work.

The divers

The spotlight had various coloured filters and a shutter to block out the light. This was used when the spotlights had to be doused when the Water Follies’ divers were doing their routines and when they mucked up, the spotlight workers were blamed by the announcer for dazzling the divers. For the first time I learnt that truth can be alternative reality. Our spotlights were always shuttered during the diving segment.

Everything was manual, and during the intermission I had to replace the anode and given the heat being generated I needed gloves and a tool to remove and replace the anode. My employer did not provide any. Thus, I used heavy gardening gloves and long nosed pliers from the family toolbox.

The other thing I learnt on my first night was how far I had to trudge up the stands and how far the drop was behind my seat next to the spotlight. In those days, thank God, heights did not worry me.

How did I learn the trade? On the job. I worked around the spotlights in the Princess Theatre and I estimate that, as a side benefit, if you call it that, I saw “Kismet” 32 times. Yet I never tired of hearing Hayes Gordon singing “A fool sat beneath an Olive Tree…” Later I could have added or “perched above the Centre Court at Kooyong when the wind was blowing and I had forgotten my sweater”.

Hayes Gordon, the “Kismet” lead, was of that genre of baritones who always appear larger than life. Even though he had been proscribed and hence virtually exiled from his home USA by McCarthy and the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) he never lost his genial front and the twinkle in his eye – great memories of him. He would have been 100 this year.

There was definitely one benefit of the job. The Kooyong railway station near the Courts was on my train line – eight stations from home. That was very useful because in those days very few of us had cars. 

If it has e- before the technology, it must be e-good?

Sooner or later, the trials of e-scooters will end and a decision will be made. Not all hyped technologies succeed: the much-vaunted Segway is ceasing production.

The same fate probably awaits some of the many electric personal transport devices on sale.

In the meantime, it may well be battles over policy that matter most. Pavements, cycle lanes and roads are ‘all up for grabs’ as streets are reshaped in the post-lockdown world.

Whether e-scooters and other small electric vehicles are allowed to share this planned cycling infrastructure could be pivotal. Scooter companies want it. Others aren’t so sure.

When I read this, I was incredulous. Weren’t these vehicles toys? But then I do remember when Segways were being spruiked from 2002 onwards as an answer to negotiating the traffic. Now production ceasing, the company has switched to making electric scooters.

What I find interesting about the rise in electric car manufacture is a concomitant rise in concern for the waste produced by this technology and how to remove it safely without further polluting the environment.

After all, previous transport technology never factored in the pollution and waste. Even with the horse, the streets were covered in excrement. In addition to its look and smell, it was one the major sources for tetanus bacteria. The best example of what it must have been like is around Central Park in New York where the horse-drawn carriages congregate.

The other technologies – whether it be the steam engine of the locomotive or the internal combustion engines of cars and trucks or the jet engines scarring the troposphere where most of the carbon dioxide is lodged – have waste products that have belatedly not only been recognised but also been the subject of investigation into its removal.

For instance, it took 80 years before lead was removed from petrol in Australia, even though the toxicity of lead was well-known.

I do not pretend to know much about the technology that is driving the cost and efficiency improvements in electric car manufacture. However, it seems clear that electric cars are set to replace the older technologies. The time scale will be driven by concerns over climate change and the need to travel – and the economics

Somewhat encouraging is that unlike previous technologies, concern is being shown over what you do with the pollution and waste left until well after the actual technology was developed.

The metallurgical aspects of battery technology are driven by the availability of the vital metals. In this case all roads lead to China, with its near monopoly on rare-earth production.

The commonly-mentioned elements are cobalt, lithium and nickel. Most of the cobalt comes from the laughingly described Democratic Republic of Congo under hideous artisanal conditions employing child labour. Costs of extraction are low but pollution high. Most of the big cobalt mines are owned by the Chinese and the biggest refiner of cobalt is China. The car manufacturers realise this and with an eye to the consumer, other more ethical sources of cobalt are being investigated. For instance, BMW has been negotiating with Australian producers. While Australia’s supplies of cobalt are dwarfed by the Congo’s reserves, they are nevertheless substantial.

Lithium is mentioned as an essential metal in electric vehicle batteries but the use and improvement in the use of lithium is dependent on consistent supplies of cobalt. Other metals, palladium and nickel, are mentioned in the production of these batteries, but always there is the mention of the rare earths – 17 elements which are classified as lanthanides. Here China clearly dominates, and which of the rare earths is preferred in electric car batteries is kept as secret as KFC’s “secret recipe of eleven herbs and spices”.

Coal and petroleum were single substances – easily identified and subject to sub-classification. Uncomplicated; even our future Prime Minister was able to identify coal for all his Parliamentary colleagues. However, he might struggle to distinguish an ingot of samarium from one of terbium, if these are relevant. He could be excused because the battery producers do not publicly identify any particular rare earth.

The production of the electric car battery which will enable the electric car to travel from Sydney to Perth, averaging a little below the speed limit and yet not weighing the equivalent of a Leopard tank, with perhaps only a need to charge the battery every 1,000 kilometres (the newest batteries guarantee 800 kilometres), is very tempting – even for Mr Musk. The distribution of charging stations is vital, and their placement will require much tactical thought.

Since the nature of the battery and the interdependence between metals means that the cost and pollutant side-effects need to be factored in, the question of what to do with waste, not only of the metal ore production but also of waste disposal, looms large. It is being suggested that, given the scarcity of some of these metals, there will be a strong incentive for recycling – pyrometallurgy being one such means, good for cobalt but not for lithium. There is no one technology that suits all.

However, what is heartening is the level of debate about minimising pollution and finding the best way to deal with waste, starting now when the electric-powered car is emerging from its infancy.

It will be interesting to see how Australia’s policy makers cope, given the rash of sustainability policies being announced, none of which encompass electric vehicles, and given the activity around this area, I would have thought should be a worthy investment.

My friend is not so sure. He constantly is assailed by a trail of spruiking, detailing how quickly the electric battery grail is advancing. To him, it reinforces his belief that the technology is far from settled. I would have thought that it is an incentive for Australian investment. I cannot understand why Australia wants to invest in areas that have been shown to have no future – like carbon capture – or have a limited future like gas; and yet ignore the electric battery, which does have a future. Yet the technology is far from settled. Getting it right would presumably provide a return on the investment. Just give it a timeline.

Death of an Orchid

We had a bumper year growing orchids this year. As the orchids wilt and die, one was left on my desk. The three sepals have already shriveled into umber, the veins once green have changed to brown lines. One leaf remains defiantly that soft green still with veins of green, but death is coming as the very tip of the leaf has that telltale umber shade.

The central column remains strong and the colour of the labellum still has its flamboyant attractiveness, which invited many suitors to pollinate. It still has that glorious magenta lip with the colour dissolving into a flecked trail for the suitor to follow into its interior. The anther cap is dying faster, but then it has always been an accessory. Her companion orchid on the stem stills survives in the vase with its bodyguard of lavender spears, young and attractive but soon themselves to die, keeling over, not retaining the regal exit of the orchid flower.

The orchid flower will be allowed to die gradually on a comfortable place on my desk – not trampled on a garden path or left to rot in a garden pot. Dear orchid, I shall watch over you – your nobility in dying will be respected, that I guarantee.

Mouse Whisper

I was combing my whiskers when I detected him talking, perhaps to me. He had just pushed himself away from the screen. He was not happy. However I worry myself when in this world so many of my brothers and sisters exist in camps labelled “medical research”. 

I thought this is one thing the Virus would have killed, if the “Me too” movement had not got in first. But, no. The next James Bond movie is due for release in November. It still stars Daniel Craig. “No time to Die” is the title. I would have thought it is the time for these films to die. The idea of having James Bond converted to a colored woman heroine is both illogical and laughable. It was bad enough to see the Queen of England complicit. Judi Dench should be ashamed of her appearances and in so doing condoning the primal underpinnings of those films in which she appeared.

James Bond, the figment of a decaying order on the cusp of irrelevance, even when the first Bond film was released, with its campy Sean Connery and its good ol’ sexist escapism and overlay of technological gimmickry. Over the decades the films have gradually transformed into a series of sado-masochism panegyrics.

Torture in our democratic society is not escapism. Yet the Bond films seem to wallow in it and in so doing assist in deadening society to the atrocities being committed all over the world, often in the name of democracy. The problem is that the torturers seem never to be bought to justice. They just fade away into the background knowing there will be no retribution.

We thus are helpless enough without filmed torture being exploited to pay for somebody’s yacht on the Mediterranean.

Ian Fleming