Modest Expectations – Siatonta

Grisons, Switzerland – where they say siatonta

Harry Cain sounds as if he should be a shamus in a Raymond Chandler novel, but he was an amusing health bureaucrat whom I met in the early 1970s in Washington. We were both characterised as “bright young men of promise” and interested in improving the health care in each country – in fact we would be in the vanguard of such improvements, so our conversation went.

When we first met it was the Nixon administration in the USA, and the Gorton-McMahon carousel in Australia, but like many smart bureaucrats he was advancing upwards through the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. We saw one another whenever I visited the United States. Harry, with his sardonic manner, was popular and knew which buttons to push. He and I got along as well as any two could when we were a Pacific Ocean apart.

I have been going through my files and I came across a news article about Harry in the Los Angles Times of 14 April 1978.

Harry Cain had an intermittent stutter and it apparently manifested itself when he had to address an audience. This day when he started to address an audience of 200 fellow federal bureaucrats, his stutter got the better of him and his boss had to read his statement:

I have totally lost my tolerance for the bureaucratic swamp through which a bureau like this must wade … old bureaucrats never die, they just grow obsolete and get transferred to another agency which can’t use their skills and can’t fire them.”

With those words he quit and it was reported that: “bemused bureaucrats came up to shake his hand (and) a woman threw her arms around him and asked, ‘what are you going to do now?’

His reply was that he was going to climb out of that swamp and dry out for a while.

To my knowledge, having dried out, he remained within the Beltway – running for a time the American Health Planning Association, getting quoted, and arguing that there was a need for a less centralised control under Obamacare –reduced government intrusiveness which he characterised as “the micro-management of Medicare. The scale and complexity of the health care industry (which) are beyond the grasp of 500 politicians sitting in Washington.”

Swamp life

But nowhere does Harry appear to say he ever wanted to drain the swamp. However, there still remains the problem of how to co-ordinate an American health care sector when there are so many interpretations and so many unresolved prejudices; unfortunately his time has passed.

Strong as Your Weakest Link

In 1666, a fire started in Fish Yard off Pudding Lane, spreading from the king’s baker’s oven. Thomas Farynor, the baker, could not contain it and off down the lane the fire sprinted. The fire spread rapidly through the pitch and thatch of the crowded buildings until it was stopped four days later by the military blowing up houses at the edge of the inferno. Very few people died directly, although many buildings, including the Guildhall and churches including the Gothic Old St Paul’s, were destroyed. Spot fires persisted for many months in London.

Pudding Lane, London

Unfortunately, a French watchmaker was hanged after a false confession to starting the fire. Thomas Farynor was one who signed the petition accusing the watchmaker of starting the fire, then rebuilt his bakery and died four years later.

In 2020, the fire was a COVID-19 virus phoenix arising from its suppression in Melbourne. The strong rumour in need of rebuttal, if untrue, is that the recent spread of the coronavirus in Victoria was started by one of the ladies who had returned from overseas and in whom being confined rankled, or so the story goes, so much so that she started imparting sexual favours to her custodians in return for “day leave” as it were. The security detail was unskilled and untrained in the ethics which are implicit in being able to distinguish not only what is legal and what is not – but also the difference between right or wrong, even if these particular individuals escape prosecution.

The endemic problem is that the security industry is rife with undertrained part-time staff. It is not a new problem. When I was a medical student, I used to ride in the back of the Mayne Nickless security van, as the third guard. I was provided with a loaded pistol although I had no training. I worked in that job part-time for years. However the lack of training is never a problem until something goes wrong, as has happened with the spread of COVID-19 from the Melbourne quarantine hotel when the security was laughable. And somebody, Mr Premier, sanctioned its use, didn’t he?

As I write, the COVID fire is still not under control in the two largest States. We await the outcome of the enquiry and wonder how close to the truth the above rumour is and how many truckloads of whitewash will be brought in to expunge the stain. Presumably the perpetrators will be deluged with some of the wash.

However, there is another potential ember attack on the horizon, the jolly ministerial pair of Payne and Reynolds are slated to fly to Washington with a retinue of braided officers and presumably the “usual suspects” which accompany such people of renown. However, as a concession, limiting the number of the flacks limits the number of potential exporters of the COVID -19 to Australia, I presume they will have a trained medical team to ensure they will all be abiding by Australian requirements. They are going into an environment where the Boss is in flagrant denial. Are all these travellers going to abide by our rules or by the lax American requirements?

I presume social contact will be constrained and I would hope that all travellers are vetted for their history of alcohol consumption. Actually I would hope that all will be on the wagon for the duration given the propensity for alcohol to reduce adherence to anti-COVID rules.

And what are they going for anyway, except for huff and puff – apart from the fact that it will make the Chinese dragon even more infuriated. As I am writing this I am also watching Midnight Oil with that political dud, Peter Garret singing US Forces at a 1985 concert on Goat Island:

US forces give the nod

It’s a setback for your country

Bombs and trenches all in rows

Bombs and threats still ask for more” … and onwards.

Easy to protest. I am surprised that the ALP is so acquiescent to the US trip. Richard Marles is its spokesperson. Richard Marles, the Geelong Grammarian who loves his toast buttered on both sides, is encouraging the jolly catch-up. Marles is not stupid and he is not endangering either himself physically or the nation by being a COVID carrier. However, it was the week when it was revealed that overseas forces in 1975 had rid themselves of a “troublesome Prime Minister”, and Marles knows that the shadowy forces mark down any Labor politician who does not bend the knee to overseas authority.

Being a boy used to the light blue trimmed blazer, he would well know the bounds of being a radical chap. He may have read about Whitlam’s sacking when he was a boy in Glamorgan knickerbockers – and somebody may tell him about a Mr Marshall Green whose successors are still abound.

The last recorded time an Australian Minister went to Washington was Peter Dutton and, as reported, his infected return elicited an almost hysterical reaction among his colleagues, who were were taken in hand and reassured by Dr Paul Kelly.

You know, small details about those who are going need to be considered in meeting these Americans. How many of the travellers are susceptible: over the age of 60, obese, suffering from cardiac or respiratory problems and having diabetes? Then there are the cigarette smokers.

Enough said. Sounds as if it’s not worth the risk, especially as Trump and his regime may be a footnote in history after November – and sanity begins to prevail again. After all, one is only as strong as the weakest link.

Peril at Buck House

Given I’m actually old enough to have participated in the prequel of the Whitlam sacking, to me it was always clear that it was a put-up job.

I must congratulate Jenny Hocking in having the fortitude to have the letters released. Strangely, Whitlam never maintained the rage, because what made him both great and yet vulnerable was his basic generosity.

This was the story of the three fops. One was Whitlam, but all his other positive characteristics overshadowed this vainness. The other two were also Sydney lawyers, one became a Senator; the other, Governor-General. They were James McClelland and John Kerr respectively. Both were very careful about their appearance – one exquisitely flamboyant and tasteful, exciting the sobriquet of “Diamond Jim” and the other embarrassingly boorish and tasteless, caricatured as an Irish squire with top hat and frock coat.

Whitlam was the son of a senior public servant. His education was a mixture of the public and the private with a taste of the early Canberra. McClelland, the son of a paperhanger and signwriter, was educated at St Patrick’s Ballarat and St Kevin’s in Melbourne, where he and B.A. Santamaria were mates. Kerr, whose father was a boilermaker who worked in the Sydney dockyards, went to Fort Street School.

All were very bright scholarship boys; all became lawyers – the second world war interrupted their careers. Whitlam and McClelland were in the RAAF. Whitlam was a navigator so he flew, whereas McClelland was a leading aircraftman and stayed on the ground. However, Kerr was the star; he was one of Alf Conlan’s bright young men – and a colonel by the end of the War. With Alf, he probably absorbed the dark arts of the double agent.

After the War they came to know one another well and, if it is to be believed, Whitlam was persuaded by McClelland to appoint Kerr as Governor-General on the retirement of Paul Hasluck. The die was cast, as Kerr’s boilermaker father may have said.

The constitutional crisis was played out, demonstrating Kerr as duplicitous egged on inter alia by Buckingham Palace. If the letters had been released earlier – say in 1999 when Turnbull was heading the push for a Republic, Australia may have been in a totally different state now. The longer the release was delayed, the more the response would be who cares? The major players, except the Queen, are all dead.

Undoubtedly the Queen knew about the coup. Her private secretary Martin Charteris was showered with imperial honours, most noticeably an escalating array of those that are reserved for personal gift from the queen. It is doubtful if a displeased sovereign would have been so bountiful.

However what I find instructive is that some years later when Charteris had retired to polish his escutcheon, the Queen was placed in a similar spot in relation to a constitutional crisis which occurred in Saint Kitts and Nevis in 1981, when the Governor, Sir Probyn Inniss, used his reserve powers to refuse assent to a bill passed by the government of Sir Kennedy Simmonds, the country’s premier. Inniss believed that the bill was unconstitutional. The situation was resolved when Queen Elizabeth II, at the request of Simmonds, terminated Inniss’s commission as governor.

The problem when retracing history is that in the end what has been done has been done. I, together with a number of other players who had roles akin to those of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, may speculate on what could have been.

Fraser was a lousy Prime Minister and it may been argued that what Hawke wrought may have occurred six years earlier if Whitlam had belatedly brought in a new crew headed by Hayden and Keating and then had been allowed to manage economic policy until the scheduled election in 1978. But in the end Hawke did take over in 1983, and changed economic direction.

Many changes have occurred since 1975. The Melbourne establishment’s power is now vestigial and while the demise of these Whigs masquerading as Tories may have occurred, there has risen a very powerful plutocracy, with Sydney at its epicentre; but with Perth as a powerful outstation.

The reserve powers exist as long as the links to the British monarchy exist. Therefore, the Kerr situation could be used as a precedent for a repeat, if the plutocracy did not like the government. When you review the Governors-General since Kerr, one would have been confident that Cowan, Hayden, Stephens and Deane had the strength, integrity and wisdom in using the reserve powers in a way so as not to compromise the Australian democracy.

I would not have been so sure about the last lot of Governors-general, but the “reserve powers” situation should be addressed. It is a totally unacceptable situation that one unelected person is able to connive with a distant monarch, with increasingly tenuous links to Australia, to sack the elected Government – and to call that ability “reserve powers”.

What a joke!

The Australian propensity to change its Prime Ministers – seven in 13 years – equally may be a joke.  Thus it has been a basically unstable time and fortunately Australia has not been confronted with a Governor-General such as Kerr, using at whim the so-called “reserve powers”. Therefore, I would be wary of any merchant being appointed as Governor-General in the future. However, “reserve powers” remain the joker in the Canberra pack.

Codification of the reserve powers – just a jumble of words. I wouldn’t hold my breath that anything would occur, unless both political parties think clearly about what it means. Self-interest may drive the thoughtful on both sides of politics. Conservatives should wake up in a sweat about the spectre of a Jack Lang as Governor-General invoking “reserve powers”.

And the Australian Republic? I am an avowed Republican – but so what? I know what I would want. Given the social and economic instability of the current situation in this year of the Virus, the matter of a Republic seems somewhat of a sideshow. However, at such time as the Queen abdicates or dies, that will be the time for a serious thrust from the Republican forces.

In the meantime, the Republican movement should plan that the sideshow is ready to become the main event. Then the matter of any “reserve powers” may become irrelevant – or would it?

Putin and His Kosher kitchen

In 2001, Putin was still feeling his way amongst the leaders of the World. In January of that year he dined with the then President of Israel, Moshe Katsav. As reported in the NYT, the meal was kosher, “making the occasion a first for a Russian leader in a thousand years.”

Putin with his matzah bread

The food was kosher – mushroom soup, vegetable stuffed veal, roast turkey with fruits; even the caviar was from red salmon rather than from the scaled sturgeon.

As distinct from the White House which still ordered-in kosher when the Israeli leader came calling to Washington, Putin created an entire kosher kitchen that, as reported, required “among other things, an army of rabbis, all-new utensils and a blowtorch.”

A kosher blowtorch?

Yes, the blowtorch can help make a kosher crème brulee.

Putin has tried to dampen down the anti-semitism that has been a feature of Russia social policy – pogroms being the centrepiece. However, after briefly trying to implicate Jews in the 2016 anti-Hilary campaign, Putin has aligned Russian sacrifice in WW2 with the Holocaust. It is a way of emphasising the history of anti-semitism among the Slavonic people, but extracting Russia from the general contumely.

As reported during a recent January speech at the dedication of a monument to the siege of Leningrad, Putin indicated his latest thinking on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. The Kremlin now sees the distinct and separate story of the Jewish wartime suffering as supportive of its broader campaign to improve the image of the Putinic Russia.

After all, Putin has had an easy time of it facing a divided opposition where clearly, for whatever reason, he has an ally in Trump. Putin very clearly realises that Russia can only achieve limited goals with military force. It is ironic that he seems to be using a similar tactic to that used by the USA to destroy the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. His support of Syria and the continuing military action in the Ukraine after his annexation of Crimea are targeted, and it could be argued that these could have been stopped if Trump were not his ally. However, the whole Trump association may have to wait until Trump’s finances are disclosed – if ever.

Putin, despite his spoiling tactics and his annoying misuse of cyberspace where it is inconceivable that he has any technological advantages, has looming problems. His is not a wealthy country as judged by its GDP, especially with its reliance on oil and the need to manage a vast country, made particularly vulnerable by both climate change and his own disdain for the environment – and the Virus.

It is always unwise to underestimate the Russians, as distinct from Putin. They have this habit of producing excellent strategists. This ability is manifest in their overall supremacy in chess. Russians are remembered mostly for their WW2 exploits against Germany and by their defeat of Napoleon.

Capturing Moscow has been a mirage for many invaders.

In 1709 there was the less well-known Battle of Poltava in what is now Ukraine. In a long term but initially successful campaign against Russia under a very competent leader in Charles XII, the Swedes against the Russians had the high hopes of taking Moscow.

Instead, the Swedish empire was effectively destroyed at that Battle and the Russians, under the generals of Peter the Great, not only gained Ukraine but also the Baltic states, giving Russia unimpeded access to the Baltic Sea. This access was consolidated by the concurrent construction of St Petersburg by Tsar Peter on what was swampland on the Baltic shore along the banks of the Neva River.

If you want to experience both Russian power and grandeur, St Petersburg should not be missed. As a parenthetic comment, the reconstructed Amber Room in the Summer Palace is one the wonders of the modern world.

Yet with his keen sense of history, Putin would know that Russian leaders have thrived on governing with the use of often unspeakable brutality. Putin has recently won a vote for him to govern until he is 83 years old. His desire for alliances, his disruptive tactics, his hold over Trump, the American floundering in Iraq and Afghanistan, his drive to maintain and expand access to seaports have served him well, as he has climbed the rungs of power from his unheralded anointment as Yeltsin’s successor in 1999.

Nevertheless, especially once the Virus has extracted its toll, when Trump has gone, when the Chinese have assessed his true value to them and Russia is again exhausted financially, the coming decade will certainly be a test of whether the blowtorch will only be used for the crème brulee.

Mouse Whisper

I have actually seen the newspaper cutting from The Age sometime in mid 1981 under Missing Friends, personal:

Would anyone knowing the whereabouts of GUY FAWKES please tell him we have an urgent job for him in Canberra.”

H.B. (Marlo)

Would anyone knowing the whereabouts of H.B. from Marlo…

Guy Fawkes

Modest Expectations – Blood-nut Hollow

One side of my family, the Horwills, were wool combers from Devon. The industrial revolution came later to wool processing than for cotton, but by the mid 19th century, the technology had been ironed out and manual wool combing was surplus to need. Anyway, many of the family had already gone to sea, literally. There were hard times in that year; food shortages and the upheavals in Europe may have also played a part because in the mid 19th century the Horwills scattered across the New World – to America, Canada and Australia.

Another set of ancestors, the Egans, came out from Ireland about the same time. Their father had been a flour miller in Crossard, a small township in Co. Clare. They seem to have been tenant farmers. The potato famine changed their life and drove the whole family to Australia. My great-grand father went first to Kapunda on the Yorke Peninsula, where the first commercial mine to extract copper from a rich deposit happened earlier in the decade. Unsuccessful, he was attracted by the newly-found gold in Victoria and made a considerable fortune by providing timber for the mine shafts.

1848 was a time when the working classes and the nascent middle class rose up across Europe. It cannot be blamed on the industrial revolution but it was a time that the disparity between rich and poor was accentuated.

The revolution started in Sicily where the Bourbon King’s rule was challenged. There had been a savage cholera epidemic in Sicily and it seems that arbitrary arrests of a few people sparked riots in the streets of Palermo. As the rioters gained support even from the wealthy, it became a fully-fledged rebellion with the locals seizing power from the Bourbon king, who reigned from Naples.

The rebellion spread across Continental Europe and it followed a pattern of the revolutionaries seizing power and then having it taken away from them in violent conflict, with the old order in the end re-established. However revolution did not affect Great Britain, except that the Irish Question became an even greater problem with the failure of the potato crop in a country still reliant on agrarian subsistence.

The problem is that the dynasties were re-established, refurbished and restored. However, there was now an intellectual basis for the foment among the community against the ruling dynasties traditional right to power.

But after a major upheaval, whether it be famine, epidemic or war, nothing is the same. Communication and education opportunities then were improving – if unevenly. That was the nature of society: industrial progress, the urban growth, democratic advocacy, education and with improved literacy and numeracy in the working class, all were shifting unevenly.

America and the British colonies and places like Argentina had spurts of migration – no more so than America. Here in Australia it was the Celts – Irish, Scots and Welsh – looking for a better life. There were also people from the Prussian diaspora – Lutheran Germans and Wends. Jews were forced to flee Europe – universal scapegoats.

Descendents of the immigrants

The 1848 revolution was never a major source of our migration. It was the fascination with gold a few years later. The Chinese came and their immigration is entangled in these gold discoveries. It was just a coincidence that this was around 1848.

The gulf between rich and poor was growing and all 1848 had done was to seed in the enlightened of the day that industrialisation meant that workers would eventually want their share, and have a voice.

2020 is in the middle of another revolution, a communication revolution where, rather than Rothschild, Carnegie, Mellon Rockefeller, Astors of yore, it is now the Gates, Bezos, the Google Twins, Zuckerberg and the Jobs Legacy that command the riches.

Instead of workers obediently tipping their forelocks to the pageantry of the wealthy this generation is hooked into a technology that is increasingly manipulating the masses into not paying attention to this wealth and power disparity, with this communication revolution aiding and abetting this disparity.

That is until the Virus came calling.

Like the famine and the urban cesspool of exploitation, the disparity in wealth was allowed to progress until the First World War, despite some tentative gestures to improvement. That was a critical tipping point; the misnamed Spanish flu epidemic without cure, the Great Depression and then the Second World War were sequels. To trace the causal effects of each on each other is beyond the scope of one simple blog.

However, the rich now, through what their agents laughingly called government, have peddled globalisation and the free market as a means to erode the power of the people. To me that “power of the people” has always been shorthand for democracy. Rather than the information revolution devolving power to the people, the opposite has occurred and as the algorithms of control become more and more sophisticated then so will democracy become only a façade.

However, the Virus has provided an opportunity to change the system. The rage against “lockdown” confused with oppression is reflected in the race protests, people against police brutality and a superficial correction in toppling or defacing statues. But these acts are peripheral.

As post-1848 showed, the middle class eventually sided with the rich and their politician tools, frightened of the unknown and guessing they had less to lose. Outbursts were suppressed and bribes cloaked as “commitment” seduced the others. Whenever, the word “change agent” is used, it identifies the person who has made his or her life’s work to sit on committees and do nothing.

In the end, because they suffer from the same afflictions, politicians close ranks – ask them to reduce their remuneration and perks and that is the definition of the great god, Unanimity.

However, control is in the end vested in the masters of communication. Once it was the newspaper magnates, but they are being consigned to the irrelevant.

Those who want to maintain power do it through philanthropy, such as Bill Gates who is just following the game plan of the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers, and in this country Ian Potter – but in a way that the means of amassment is well separated from the art of giving. Philanthropy is thus a powerful force – it is a form of tithe for ongoing respectability and to have a shelter in a metaphorical Nottingham Wood (to avoid the pun as you read on).

To quote the Guardian when discussing one Andrew Forrest: “This is not to say philanthropy has no real to play in a democracy. It does. But democracies cannot allow wealthy individuals and successful organisations to use philanthropy as a substitute for paying tax. That’s no longer democracy: it is oligarchy.”

Or plutocracy.

Thus the Virus gives society the opportunity to have a levelling influence on the elite. Given that the middle class is almost as afflicted as the poor, then the chance is a return to a democratic tradition, where government stops abrogating its role to care for the people.

This pandemic has made abundantly clear that investment in public health worldwide has been woeful. When governments start privatising water, as has been done, then this compounds the risk of food security, and a stagnant pool is then a cesspool. It is thus only a matter of time before waste disposal and sewage is privatised. All the gains which were made post-1848 when there was a modicum of enlightenment and there were enough statesmen to listen may be lost to a mass of politicians grubbing around for personal gain – the primordial rent seekers of today. In fact it is time to thin the rent seekers out – some are more cancerous than others, metastasising their cells all through the governing bodies.

Rocinante and his old boss

How do we bring more balance to a Post-viral World? Where government has shown leadership, the Virus has been suppressed, incarcerated if not eliminated. To maintain such a defence force against disease, then there must be consideration of government spending and thus it becomes a search for income. Since in the flurry of neoliberalism, governments have given away most of their assets, and decreased taxation, it is not easy. Tax reform can be portrayed as Rocinante tied to a post waiting for his new boss to appear. Governments of all sides have made those who genuinely believe in overall betterment quixotic.

Increasing taxation is an obvious solution whether by simplifying the tax and removing concessions, instituting a turnover tax, raising GST in a progressive way, abolishing the poll taxes which have resulted from privatisation, reintroduction of inheritance taxes, closing tax havens and generally establishing a means by which everybody pays their fair share, rather than sheltering behind the mumbo-jumbo of the “free market’’. There are plenty of options to achieve equity.

When the threat to wellbeing is greatest and where the politicians recognise their need for expert advice, this pandemic has provided a harsh lesson. Globalisation now has an altered definition.

Rather than revert to the failures of neo-liberalism, it is time for government intervention. Social housing is an immediate target – a worthy show of government’s role. It is hard to brush aside what government has done for the homeless during the pandemic, and as such reduced the burden on the street.

However, long term assistance for these poor does not fit in with aspirational greed – yet it is where there are poor housing and working conditions that the Virus will continue to flourish. As with all crises, the rich will flee to the country. Manhattan this summer has become more of a ghost town in the wealthy areas, but come winter it may be different – and ski resorts have been shown as one place the Virus strikes the rich.

Deserted Manhattan streets

It is a pity I will not live long enough to see what this post 2020 environment brings to a world, but at least when the world locked down this year – for oh so short a time – we could see the horizon. 

Remember Quemoy and Matsu

They are called Quemoy and Matsu. Quemoy is an island in the lee of the China mainland. Matsu is a group of islands to the north scattered across the South China Sea. They are administered from Taiwan and remain an oddity from the Chiang Kai-shek retreat to Taiwan after his defeat by the Communist forces in 1949. When they are discussed they are always mentioned in the same breath. However they are very separated but not more so than from Taiwan.

Matsu

The Nationalist forces were able to repel the Communist forces when they tried to invade Quemoy in 1949. Yet given that Quemoy is just six kilometres from the mainland and yet 280 kilometres across the Strait to Taiwan, it is remarkable that China has not just absorbed it and the Matsu archipelago. They are just the kind of islands that the Chinese want to convert into bases. China seems to prefer to annoy other countries by taking over disputed rocks in the South China Seas and building military bases.

Yet in the 1950s Quemoy and Matsu were flashpoints in the conflict between the Americans and the Chinese, where the remnant Chiang Kai-shek “China” forces lodged on the island of Formosa.

There were two critical periods, and in one of the years when the two Chinas were not fighting – bombarding the islands and having aerial dogfights over the South China Sea, I was on a ship. The United States imposed a blockade on Chinese Ports. For any shipping in the South China Sea it was a tense situation for those who ventured there, in our case in a cargo ship called the S.S. Taiping. It was a ship of about 4,000 tonnes, transporting mainly wheat and wool, but also catering for a number of passengers. My recently widowered father was the ship’s doctor (and I was lodged in the second wireless officer cabin).

Thus the ship had to thread its way across the South China Sea to Hong Kong. One morning when I had just come up on deck I heard this screaming noise, which came with a rush, and suddenly there they were two American Star fighters swooping low just above the funnel and then as quickly disappearing as specks into the clouds. Now we were ready to watch if they came again, which they did. I could imagine that these planes had positioned themselves for a strafing run. They were over the ship and then were gone – hardly enough time to disturb those taking breakfast below.

S.S. Taiping

However, the noise of the planes – an ear-blistering scream – gave me a feeling of exhilaration. To my father and the chief officer, both of whom had experienced Japanese strafing and bombing, just shrugged their shoulders. However, it brought home to me the fact that we living in perilous times in a perilous sea.

Yet despite the posturing Taiwan seems safer now than it was when China was considerably weaker as it was in 1956. Quemoy and Matsu seemed to have dropped out of the lexicon of threats. I think that the Chinese government know the Taiwanese today are not the same force it considered invading 70 years ago. Nevertheless the rhetoric remains. It always does.

The Taiwanese have a very substantial military force of 165,000 active soldiers with another 1.2 million in reserve, compared to Australia with a similar population of 30,000 active soldiers with 13,000 in reserve. When I went there I thought their approach was very much like that of the Israelis. Survival had moved to consolidation and having a big stick helps – and the nation is not in the mood to relinquish any hard-earned gains.

The other reason I believe China would be loath to invade is for fear that the fine collection of artefacts dating back to Neolithic times now housed in the National Palace Museum could be destroyed. The Chinese have never forgotten the looting that occurred in 1860 when the Anglo-French forces entered Beijing and burnt the Summer Palaces. Many of the looted treasures ended up in France and the United Kingdom, but a substantial collection remains in Taiwan. The Chinese government would not want this Taiwan collection destroyed, even though it was stolen by Chiang Kai-shek at the time he fled the Mainland.

I was told the collection was so large that those items on display could be totally replaced for seven years before there would be any need to repeat the items on display. Some of these items are said to be among the finest Chinese artefacts and heritage is a very important consideration. Can China invade without damaging the collection? It answers its own question – no.

However, why do it? To have a war over an island to expunge some hubric stain begs that very question. Nevertheless, there are no bounds to laundering one’s own hubris if the gale is blowing in the right direction, whatever that direction is considered to be.

Picnic on Quemoy

In any case, I understand now that tourists can come across from the Mainland to picnic on Quemoy among the visitors from Taiwan. But then perhaps that is bad optics – ordinary people mingling.

There is a lesson for Australia in the Taiwan approach. While I was initially sceptical of their COVID-19 numbers, when you remember the discipline into which Taiwan has had to accustom itself to assure its survival, it is unsurprising that it should early on recognise a foreign invader, even if they cannot see it except under a microscope. 

Dreamer, sleep deep | Toiler, sleep long | Fighter, be rested now | Commander, sweet goodnight 

After my father died, my stepmother with these words headed her replies to those who had sent letters to her expressing sympathy and many reflecting on my father’s legacy. I found this reference in my personal file, and remembered that the words were the final ones of Carl Sandberg’s poem on the death of President Roosevelt.

It prompted me to purchase a copy of Sandberg’s complete works, and his elegiac words from “When Death Came April Twelve 1945”:

and there will be roses and spring blossoms

flung on the moving oblong box, emblems endless

flung from nearby, from faraway earth corners,

from frontline tanks nearing Berlin

unseen flowers of regard to the Commander,

from battle stations in the South Pacific

silent tokens saluting The Commander

Such is the contrast so clearly set out in the poem with Trump to perceive how far leadership has slipped in the United States. Would the passing of the current incumbent evoke such a response?

Yet Roosevelt presided over a country where segregation of black people and denial of civil rights was the order of the day in the then Democrat voting South – a country where in 1938 the Ku Klux Klan rallied in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Yet a year later, because of the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt, before 75,000 people Marion Anderson, the great American contralto sang at the Lincoln Memorial, a performance that is said to have inspired the young Martin Luther King to enter the struggle for real emancipation, a conflict still being played out on the streets of the American City.

For my part, I now have this copy of Carl Sandberg’s poems on my desk. Every morning I read a poem. His love of country is so evident that I realise how much I love my own country and how inadequate I am in expressing this love compared to Sandberg’s of America.

I am saddened by those who want to deface statues, which was the way of previous generations to honour mostly men of their time.

James Cook was not perfect; he trod the line between assertion and aggression. Discipline and loyalty yet are essential attributes when you are sailing in the unknown. Choice is not a discussion on the niceties of democracy when choice is between survival and death.

Graffiti is one vehicle of the ignorant. Cook does not deserve that. His images don’t deserve that. Before these furbo children of the millennium pick up their spray cans again, they should think: will you ever have the same level of curiosity, bravery and endeavour that that Yorkshire explorer had, rather than being the furtive snigger of the dark night coward wielding spray cans?

The Man from Blood-nut Hollow

I met Reg Hickey when I tutored his daughter in biochemistry. She was studying to be a health professional. The details are foggy, but I know it was not nursing. It was the year I had a job in Geelong at the Hospital, and I got on well with Reg. He was the closest to beatification in that city at the time, which also was known as Blood-nut Hollow because of Hickey having a propensity to recruit red-headed players.

Reg Hickey had coached Geelong at Australian Rules for three periods beginning in 1932 until he finally retired in 1959. I remembered him well because he coached Geelong the year they beat my team, Essendon in 1951 – a surprise victory. This victory was one of three premierships Hickey won with Geelong.

Reg then was very influential in the world of football. He secured two tickets for the 1965 Grand Final when Essendon played St Kilda. My then wife was an exquisite blonde, a doctor who had come to Australia as a refugee with her sister and parents. Born in what is now Slovenia, she could be a somewhat fiery individual.

We were shown to our seats. They were very good seats, given there were 104,000 other people at the Melbourne Cricket ground that day. The seats were three rows back from the fence.

On this occasion, I had not realised that her passion extended to the football field. At one point, the play came very close to us. There was a scuffle. One involved in this altercation was Carl Ditterich, a very tall burly St Kilda ruckman who had made a sensational debut two seasons before when he 18, With his shock of blond hair and youthful enthusiasm, you could not miss him in any crowd.

Well, my then wife did that day. Ditterich who was increasingly known for translating that enthusiasm in aggression was roughing up Essendon player Ted Fordham just in front of us. Enraged at this bullying of a smaller player, she stood up and flung an open can of “Palato”, a fizzy orange cordial drink, in Ditterich’s direction.

Palato went everywhere, but we were sitting among Essendon fans who, despite being splattered with the orange drink in accordance with Newton’s Third law of Motion, gave her a big cheer. She sat down regally as ever without acknowledging the applause. The can missed Ditterich. I cannot recall whether I wanted to stay or flee. But nothing happened. No retribution – we did not have men labelled Security in those days and police only appeared near the game to stop the crowds running onto the field of play.

Essendon went on to win the game. Fordham kicked seven goals and was named Man of the Match. I don’t know whether Carl had much of a match – how could you with visions of that young avenging doctor in the third row of the Southern Stand!

As for Mr Hickey, my life was better for knowing him, however briefly, as I moved back to Melbourne the next year.

Mouse whisper

Mice are used to long winding passages but there is always a nest in among the passages where I can always watch Nestflix.

However, I was enjoying one of G.K Chesterton’s short stories, a bit dry but still meaty, when I came across this quote:

What we all dread most,” said the priest in a low voice, “is a maze with no centre.

The priest was Father Brown. The story was The Head of Caesar.

I chewed on it for a moment. I thought how relevant the quote is today in the world outside my mouse hole.

Modest Expectations – Giuseppe Conte

Kristina Keneally last Sunday was almost hysterically defensive in trying to shield the NSW Department of Health from blame for the Ruby Princess affair. It is noted that she, among others, enjoyed the largesse of Carnival, as reported in The Australian Financial Review in 2009. And the media does not report all her contacts; therefore it is inconceivable that this dinner was the only contact she has had with what are described as the “queens of the sea”.

They were dubbed the queens of the sea and the seaboard triumvirate as Carnival Australia chief Ann Sherry and chairman Katie Lahey and Governor-General Quentin Bryce put on a massive party for the launch of P&O Cruises’ new liner, the Pacific Jewel, at Sydney’s overseas passenger terminal on Saturday night.

More than 900 diplomatic, tourism and naval brass plus some serious business heavies hit the deck in the balmy summer weather to watch Bryce do the honours in the traditional naming ceremony.

Among the guests were GPT Group chief Michael Cameron, Deutsche Bank chief Chum Darvall, NSW Premier Kristina Keneally, UBS chief Matthew Grounds, Unicef Australia chief Carolyn Hardy, Telstra chairman Catherine Livingstone, David Jones chairman Bob Savage and head of apparel Colette Garnsey, Garvan Research Foundation director Lyn Gearing and navy fleet commander Rear Admiral Steve Gilmore. Also on board were the liner’s celebrity chef Luke Mangan and designer Alex Perry, who dressed Sherry (unfortunate juxtaposition -ed) and R.M. Williams’ chief Hamish Turner.

From all accounts it was a big night, with an on-deck circus and Australian Idols Stan Walker and Wes Carr. Funds raised went to the Leukaemia Foundation and Special Olympics Australia. And this time – unlike in May, when Sherry and her posse were quarantined on board – there was no swine flu to worry about.

Quite a quarantine force above, Ms Sherry! And this time in 2020 you made sure you were not on board when the virus hit.

Dear Chattie

This is a very personal note which others may find eye glazing. One of my cousins, Carol, put together the letters between the soldier and his sweetheart. They were her grandparents; Charlotte Egan was my aunt.

Andy Campbell, a young farmer, went into battle at Armentières almost as soon as he arrived in France in 1917. The family soon received the news “missing in action, believed killed”.

However,

                                                  Military Hospital

                                                  Tankerton

                                                  29/3/1917

My loving girl,

I suppose you will be wondering how I am getting along. I sent a cable home so they would let you know I’m progressing slowly … I wrote to you from Boulogne in France. I came over here on the 26th and it is a pleasure to see the good old English soil again. France is a rotten hole of a place.

I was in Armentières in the trenches.
Miss C. Egan

Austin Hospital Heidelberg

Dear Madam

Re: Pte A Campbell No 2033 38th Battalion

… He is stated to have been admitted on the 12th March to the 13th to the General Hospital suffering multiple gunshot wounds and dangerously ill.

… admitted to Military Hospital Tankerton in Kent.

… suffering from a shrapnel wound of back, left arm, right hip and buttock. He has a compound fracture of the left ulna and radius. He has an injury to his left lung. General condition is severe but is progressing satisfactorily.

Well my darling I hope you are not worrying. I know you will be anxious. I haven’t lost any limbs thank goodness. But I’ve got some shrapnel in my chest somewhere. It went in my back. The other wounds are healing fast.

…This a great place for oysters. The boats go out every morning and the boys here call them the Australian fleet

…I often dream of my loving girl and home
                                                                              Goodbye lovely.

Andy Campbell was returned to Australia, hospitalised in Caulfield Hospital and was discharged from the hospital and the Army in 1918, a year after being wounded.

Andy married Charlotte Egan in 1920 in Redbank in Central Victoria.

In the end, they had four children. They moved around country Victoria, he working for the State Government in the Soldiers Settlement Scheme, finally ending up in the small town of Beaufort.

Charlotte Egan became one of the earliest members of the CWA and as well as raising a family worked as a volunteer for the Red Cross and other charities for all her married life. She was known for her cottage garden. “Stalwart” she was in every sense of the word.

Andy, who never regained the use of his left arm, died suddenly in 1953 and Aunt Chattie, as I knew her, outlived Andy by almost 50 years, dying at 101.

As my cousin wrote about her father and his sisters growing up during the Great Depression “They lived the country life-style with wood burning stoves, home baked bread, roast dinner, a cow to milk and butter to churn.”

In 1992, I was asked by the Victorian Department of Health to review a number of small country hospitals including the one where my Aunt Chattie resided; one where she had spent a considerable time on its Auxiliary. When I was there I went to see her; she was then 100. She turned to me and with these direct words of quiet reproach, said: “You have not come here to close the hospital I hope, Johnnie.”

It was the same Aunt Chattie, who reproached little Johnnie for throwing a scone 45 years before at Great Aunt Mildred.

The hospital remains open today.

Edenhope War Memorial

Andy Campbell’s name is on the War Memorial in Edenhope as it is with those of his brothers also on the one in Harrow. These are small towns near the South Australian border where Andy Campbell grew up and later worked.

One Anzac morning I happened to be in Edenhope. I was alone standing in front of the War Memorial. It was a cold morning with clear skies streaked with red. It was a strange sensation that I, a person who abhors war and thinks Anzac Day commemoration is overblown, should be standing at dawn to honour Uncle Andy on that day in April.

But then Uncle Andy did not think war was much chop either. 

The Day My Belt Broke – an Australian at the Antiques Roadshow 

The hardy BBC perennial show has been yet another casualty of the Covid-19 pandemic. It has been cancelled in 2020.

I am an antique Antiques Roadshow tragic. Fiona Bruce has been the presenter since 2008. She exudes charm; how she handles the gormless, how she handles tragic situations – all are confronted with a degree of appropriate equanimity and sympathy.

Antiques Roadshow, Benedictine Abbey, Buckfast, Devon

The TV show has been brilliantly devised because so many of the long time presenters are so idiosyncratic and of course the locations for the shows are carefully selected. I happened to be looking at the program early in 2018, and saw that the last Antiques Roadshow would be at Buckfast in Devon in the grounds of the Benedictine Abbey. Buckfastleigh, the adjoining “ancient woollen town” was where I could trace my maternal line back seven generations.

Too good an opportunity to pass up! Since I was going to be in the town for the Roadshow I decided I would pose two modest questions about my submitted items: was that New Zealand silver on the 19th century greenstone boot hook and was that Australian gold decorating the carnelian brooch?

However, the program organisers seemed not interested.

On impulse I decided to present a spurtle to Fiona Bruce – something Australian. So, given her Scottish name, I bought it, a Scottish porridge stirrer, made on the west Coast of Tasmania from Huon pine – a quirky gesture.

We arrived around 10 in the morning – there were already long queues. We were assigned to the “Miscellaneous” queue. For TV, queues are shown as an interactive experience, with Fiona often moving along the line. The reality is that you just shuffle along for three hours, although it must be said that the Poms are unfailingly cheerful at this event.

Eventually, we were diverted to Hillary Kay with our 1912 diorama of Canberra because as a naturalised Australian she knows “us colonials”. The less charming expert to whom we were initially sent was very offhand and uninterested in our offerings, but at least she did send us over to Hillary.

The first thing Hillary said was that I looked “reasonably respectable” and could I mind her handbag. Then she disappeared for 20 minutes. When she came back, she was just as she appears on screen – charming, frank, informative, with a sharp-edged smile.

She admitted she had no clue about either the value of this long scroll or its purpose, but believed it was a significant piece of Australiana. Australiana mostly had little market in the United Kingdom. We had a pleasant conversation even though probably I could have met her in Sydney if I had bothered to work out where or if she consulted there.

As for Fiona Bruce, just after we had arrived in the morning we had been directed to the producer for a possible spurtle handover. “Yes Fiona would be delighted to meet and receive the spurtle”, with the addendum that it would be “off camera”. But drat – the spurtle was left in the car – and the moment was lost. “Yes we could come back later” – “yes around 1 to 2- Fiona tends to leave about 4”, but as the day wears on then everybody becomes consumed with the unexpected and then your request becomes an irritation … when I later enquired of the producer I was told “no time soon”. The moment passed and I penned a note and left the spurtle with the BBC.

However, at that point any lingering thought of staying on the off chance of meeting Ms Bruce was dashed when my belt broke – and now I was truly disabled. Trying to keep one’s trousers up when one is walking uphill with two canes takes one to new level of disability.

So there we were – missed out on meeting Fiona Bruce – but then one of the great disappointments of my life was not meeting Zhou-En-lai either in Beijing in 1973, but that is another story.

Give me Land, lots of Land…

Hundreds of cases are believed to have emanated from an après-ski restaurant and bar in Ischgl, a resort town in Austria. You can see a video of the carousing at the alleged establishment, where there’s nothing but close quarters boisterousness and singing. 

Why is singing significant? One 2019 study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports found that “the rate of particle emission during normal human speech is positively correlated with the loudness (amplitude) of vocalization.” It also found that “a small fraction of individuals behaves as ‘speech superemitters,’ consistently releasing an order of magnitude more particles than their peers.” In its review of the literature, it also offered wild facts like this: Saying “aah” for 30 seconds releases more micron-scale particles than does 30 seconds of coughing. That may be why weddings and funerals and birthday parties and church services of all sorts have been central to outbreak anecdotes. As for drinking establishments, a quiet pub with a bit of space between customers probably isn’t going to see a lot of people infected at once. But a rowdy spot in the Alps? A lot of infections. Shared vocalization is a magical thing in normal times, but these are coronavirus times. Even a cough-along is looking safer than a sing-along. 

Aspen après ski

This quote is comes from a recent issue of Vanity Fair, and is timely for proponents of opening up the snow fields.

What the virus has taught us is that space is important, but is this not an absolute. Snowfields provide space, but not the lodges, which are not necessarily built for spacious relaxation.

While the upper crust ski set might enjoy spacious accommodation, much of the rest of the skiing experience is crowded bars, lift lines and chairs. Combine that with close contact with the ski slopes workers who live in very close quarters, and a highly contagious virus has an ideal setting in which to spread.

In Victoria Mr Virus No 13 was one of the early ones to be infected by the virus on his way through the United States. He infected his wife who was a teacher, and in turn one of her colleagues who shared an office with her contracted the virus. There was one other case at the school, a boy who had recently returned from China, with whom she had no contact. The school online chatroom was full of thrashing about – no one knowing what to do. Their three children were not positive on testing – two being pupils where she taught.

The instinctive reaction is to flee home, lock the doors and turn it into a fortress to defend Olivia and Christian from the risk of contracting the disease. Home schooling is rapidly constructed. Then TV arrives and we have pictures of the domestic Elysian Fields where Olivia and Christian are seen hard at work on their own personal laptops carefully spaced around the island bench in the kitchen, and home is portrayed as a uniformly happy environment.

If long-term home schooling were the answer why have schools? What is emerging in Australia is a frayed attitude to schools.

For those whose parents have employment then the school becomes a de facto childcare centre. Is that what schooling is about? What about the family in the working class area where both parents are unemployed and the children are at home. Do they go to school as part of a welfare system to escape the threat of domestic violence, ever present at home?

The problem with selective schooling is the loss of the objective –universal education. Because as shown in those parts of USA where education is rudimentary, one of the pillars of civilisation is severely loosened.

In Australia the school situation provides the basis of an observational trial. Inevitably political fingers cannot be kept to themselves and thus any data collected will be contaminated.

Three States are opening the schools up; two are opening up cautiously; and three are favouring keeping children away except for exceptional circumstances.

Given that the major factor in spreading the virus in schools is probably the teacher staff room, I can understand why the health authorities are cautiously supporting fully opening the school. Children seemingly develop a mild form of the disease, but it was not so when I lived through a polio epidemic. So educational strategies where widespread disease threatens must be robust but flexible.

Shroud-waving teachers stigmatise their profession by saying that they cannot convert the current situation into a new routine. Dream on, the world and everyone in it will have to live with the virus, a vaccine is not coming soon, and thus society must develop the ability to work in a different space with scrupulous hand hygiene and regularly cleaning of the classrooms and making sure the school toilets are maintained and not pig sties covered in disgusting graffiti.

The toilet is literally the seat of good hygiene, where it is imperative to maintain the soap/sanitiser and have a working drier. The traditional paper hand towel should be banished. Schools will need to employ people to ensure that an even standard of hygiene is maintained as well as the cleanliness of the ablution block, whether it be the poshest or the most working class of schools.

This approach to hygiene has to be embedded in the school culture and in the teaching profession, rather than complaining that the virus is not one’s personal responsibility. Nobody should be allowed in the school with any signs of respiratory disease. If by chance they are, all school should have a school nurse, someone able to be kitted up and quarantine both the sick child and teachers until they are able to go home or to a health care centre.

When it is expressed in this way, it means not letting children go back to school and leave it that – it means a wholesale change in the physical school arrangements over time. There would be nothing more worthwhile in the life of a medical or nursing student than to spend a few weeks in a school assuring cleanliness even if it meant that they had to clean out and maintain the cleanliness of the latrine. This would provide some useful understanding of basic practical public health.

This pandemic is not a casual event; the World has been fortunate to have dodged the contagion for so long, given how many epidemics have threatened.

A country that trashes education, a country that trashes health and hygiene is a barbaric State. Just ask Donald Trump.

Mouse whisper

An H5N1 strain of bird flu influenza virus emerged in Southern China in 2006 (where else?). While it appeared in chickens, the super-spreaders were shown to be ducks. The one that initiated it all was Donald, the greatest super-spreader the world has ever known. It was seen quacking all over Southern China – rose gardens, high golden towers – everywhere, its distinctive vermillion tail twitching – a sight to see.

And then it vanished. Nobody knew where it went. But they say it was a dangerous virus Donald carried, capable of doing anything, even being able to convert its carrier into a different species. The most powerful and destructive virus ever isolated in modern civilisation it is said, but then nothing as a result has ever been greater than Donald the Quack.