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

 

 

 

 

Modest Expectations – Gary Indiana

Two years ago, my general practitioner suggested I should be vaccinated against shingles. My wife had been afflicted with shingles on her leg, which had for a time gone undiagnosed because it was in an unusual place, and while irritating had been bearable. Shingles or herpes zoster is thought to be the result of the varicella virus, the cause of chicken pox, lying dormant in the nervous system breaking out along a particular nerve and its distribution, thus creating the mayhem of the clinical manifestation of shingles. Because of the way the distribution can occur on the body, it derives its name from “cingulum”, the Latin word for belt.

I had never contemplated being vaccinated against shingles, and given that I was suffering from an autoimmune disease I was wary when it was suggested I be inoculated.

However, I was assured the vaccine was safe, even for a person such as myself. I checked with my rheumatologist and he agreed that that it would not be a problem. Contracting shingles at my age was one reason for being inoculated, and since 70-79 seems to be the optimal age for injection of the vaccine, it has been made free by Government. Given that the cost was otherwise $280 the free inoculation created an added incentive.

In the words of Government: “A live attenuated vaccine against herpes zoster (Zostavax) was licensed in Australia in 2006. The vaccine contains approximately 14 times more attenuated varicella zoster virus (Oka strain) than the licensed chickenpox vaccines – this higher concentration is needed to produce a T-cell boosting response.” 

I had observed people with shingles. It does not kill you, but I would prefer to avoid it. I agreed to have the vaccine, not only because my two doctors agreed I should – even one that did not guarantee the same level of immunity in everyone – but also because the vaccine had been available for a sufficient time to show it was safe.

The shingles vaccine has had a very low uptake, even in people who can access it for free. There is apparently another vaccine against herpes zoster, which is said to be more effective, but its distributor has yet to convince Government it should be licensed.

The reason I have written this is that I am very committed to vaccination in children. I have seen the unspeakable tragedy of a young girl who died of a rare complication of measles. To me it is criminal for parents to deny their child vaccination against so many diseases, which in previous generations killed and maimed.

Thus, I am strongly in favour of vaccination – where vaccination is proven efficacious and safe – and where the science is not being pressured by either political hysteria or the hubris of research scientists of being there first, irrespective of the rules of scientific research – one of which is to do no harm.

I am resistant to this bonfire of expectations fueled by the media and the public relation outfits employed by these research institutes and universities, with or without Big Pharma.

My problem is that if a COVID-19 vaccine is prematurely released without all the safeguards being observed, then I shall not be vaccinated. If this is a response from one who is strongly pro-vaccination, what a field day the anti-vaxxers will have if the vaccine against the coronavirus is not only a dud but also kills people because it has not been given the appropriate time to be shown that it works in all respects.

Having said that, I remember that when the Salk vaccine was made available for poliomyelitis we lined up for injection; yet within a short time Sabin vaccine was found to be better – and so we all returned for a spoon of the oral vaccine. This oral vaccine and its ease of administration has facilitated the almost worldwide elimination of polio. Salk vaccine has become historic.

Some duds like the COVID-19 phone app don’t matter that much, but getting this vaccine wrong, when there are so many aspirants in the field as though it were akin to a sporting event, to me is not the right look. The chances are that the one that is the first to be released is the most likely to be the biggest and most dangerous dud.

By Jingo

The COVID-19 fallout from the Sturgis biker’s festival is becoming apparent. For the past 80 years, the Sturgis biker festival has been held around Sturgis, the biggest city in Meade county South Dakota. Located in the Black Hills made famous in song and near Mount Rushmore located in the next county of Pennington, this 10-day festival of the motorcycle is characterized by the three T’s – tribalism, tattoos and Trump.

Welcome to Sturgis

The sponsors reflect so much the audience: Coca Cola, Jack Daniels, Budweiser, South Dakota Beef Council, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Harley Davidson are prominent.

This year, Willie Nelson and ZZ Tops gave it a miss, but there was still a line up of country and western and heavy metal music to entertain as they pitched their caravans at the Happy Hoel Campground.

There they were: 250, 000 people over 10 days, cheek by manifold; jowl by leathers. No masks, hand sanitisers little used; social distancing, a bad joke. The Governor of South Dakota, a strident COVID-skeptic Republican rancher, who rejoices in the name of Kristi Noem, attended to encourage the lack of discipline and label their actions a defence of freedom.

Now the bikes have gone from Sturgis and Meade county is experiencing a striking increase in the number of cases – Meade, at a rate over the past seven days of 64 per 100,000 and for a population of 25,000 – 18 a day. There has been at least one death already, that of a Minnesota bikie. Patrons of tattoo parlours and bars in Sturgis were reported as being already infectious.

The surrounding counties have shown increased rates – even the sparsely populated Perkins county, which has the distinction of being the county seat of Bison, which is the farthest anywhere from a McDonalds outlet in Continental USA.

A nurse waiting for people to arrive to be tested for COVID-19 in Sturgis, SD

This remote part of the state is next to Harding county, which voted 90 per cent for Trump but has no cases of COVID-19 recorded. A triumph – or in this tiny community has anyone actually been tested? This is poor white America, where the only coloured people are remnant native Americans. The major ancestral links are Norwegian and German, and after all, it is all a hoax, as the President would say.

Yet the number of cases is rising elsewhere in surrounding States associated with the ten days in Sturgis “bike-in” is rising; as the Washington Post states” 61% of all US counties are reported as having been visited by a Sturgis rallygoer” and in the absence of contract tracing, the number of cases will be a mystery.

However, while Trump is in the White House, the Virus will continue to have a field day – not just at Sturgis but at other different venues decked with American flags with Make America Great Again scrawled across them, guns at the ready. And the Virus is still winning.

At last count, at least 300 symptomatic cases have emerged from Sturgis, but how meaningful is that number with a population reluctant to be tested, the number of asymptomatic bikers – and in public health data, knowing the denominator is all important.

Quaranta giorni?

Katherine, NT

When I used to go to Katherine in the Northern Territory I was always impressed by the Wurli Wurlinjang Aboriginal Health Service. It was then being run by Marion Scrymgour who later became a free-range politician across the Northern Territory firmament. However, the quality of aboriginal health services, as I found out, is very dependent on the strength of the directors and continuity, as often the governing bodies changes from one family to another with disruptive effects. These services are essentially nine to five exercises, which caused some resentment with the hospital staff, who were rostered on a 24-hour basis. After hours was the time when Aboriginal people often came for emergency treatment.

However, the Katherine I remember was one where the Aboriginal Health Service was utilised by the wives of the RAAF servicemen for their pregnancies and theirs and their children’s health needs. Defence force rules excluded them from the medical services available at the Tindal RAAF base.

The medical services available at Tindal RAAF base were quarantined for servicemen and servicewomen. When I asked the medical staff whether they interacted with the local health service, I was surprised by their level of uninterest. They were effectively quarantining themselves, living as they did on the RAAF base. One never saw people in uniform participating in the community.

The Katherine situation provides a potential model. The hunt for a vaccine is a distraction – what Australia has to prepare is for an ongoing war, the wartime field hospital model becomes relevant.

For instance, one major air field was located during World War 2 outside Tocumwal, a township on the Victorian border in southern New Wales. Near the airfield was a RAAF hospital which had 240 beds and 34 doctors and nurses. Built in 1942, dismantled in 1949. In other words the precedent exists for facilities, which worked well when they were needed.

Not only at Katherine, where a RAAF base remains, and airstrips capable of taking commercial airliners, but there are also numerous other, now disused air strips in the Northern Territory. These could be habilitated to take modern airliners so that overseas visitors could be all lodged for an initial quarantine period in Northern Australia.

As I have said before, hotels are not structured to be quarantine facilities, and it is time to end the practice. It was a short-term proposition that also provided income for the hotels. The hotel standards varied from the barely adequate to the disastrous and their use should be ended.

The solution was shown when the first groups were evacuated from Wuhan and were sent to facilities in Darwin and Christmas Island, more the set up one would expect from quarantine facilities, and which apparently worked well.

However, that success was never followed up with an ordered plan to construct quarantine facilities. Instead Australia has the spectacle of fragmentation, because States close the borders, and because of its populist appeal, there is just no coherent plan for opening them.

The situation is made worse when cynical exemptions are made, such as the Queensland Premier has done with the AFL; she does not appear to recognise how destructive her behaviour is for the Federal system as a whole.

So interstate xenophobia has to be countered. Premier Andrews in Victoria is empirically developing a plan of how to control the virus. The first measure of trusting people to do the right thing did not work, especially when there are economic imperatives.

He has been able to enforce “police state” conditions with a high level of compliance. The mechanism for this seems to be working. In a world where instant gratification is everything, where else in the World has the Andrews method with his methodical unflustered approach worked?

Here there is the head of the government appearing every day on television with his experts, all of them very media savvy, either intuitively or learnt.   Anybody who is not, irrespective of intrinsic worthiness, is ruthlessly discarded.

What has happened in Victoria will form part of the text of what not do, just as the excellent report on the Newmarch affair and to a lesser degree the report on the Ruby Princess, where there is unfinished business, have done.

Public health matters are now and for the foreseeable future linked to a healthy economy, and irrespective of the puerile bleating of those who do not want to acknowledge this fact, it should underpin every policy from hereon in. Public health theory should not only be confined to health professionals, but should be included in the curriculum of all emergency services at least.

Politicians should learn to spell “epidemiology” for a start.

The greater the understanding of epidemiology, coupled with a preparedness to learn from mistakes, will accelerate the opening up of AustraIia to the world.

Therefore, when quarantine facilities are to be considered let us hope the other state politicians do not treat the concept as though it were a nuclear waste facility or a high security prison. In fact it creates both immediate and ongoing jobs at a time when unemployment has ballooned.

The obvious method would be to round up all those waiting to come back to Australia and put them through a process of repatriation which could be used to test what is best practice as of now. The use of the Darwin facilities that seemed to work so well for those returning from Wuhan could be the template for the whole of Northern Australia.

There is a need to titrate  quarantine requirements. Thus those clamouring for repatriation could be a useful test case – in other words in return for their passage, they would be regarded as if they were incoming tourists and for the point of the exercise treated as such – I prefer not to use the word “guinea pigs”. It is nevertheless potentially a win-win situation for all.

New defined quarantine arrangements in Northern Australia would provide a place where the people from overseas, especially those places classified as hot spots, are bought for the obligatory quarantine time – this is essential for the rebirth of tourism and, for a government that does not want to kill off tourism for years with a $3,000 bill on entry to Australia. Instead an affordable quarantine option should be developed through empirical testing.

The test case would enable each step to be monitored from the time the person presents for repatriation, is allocated a point of departure, tested for the coronavirus and then followed the whole away back to Australia and beyond the quarantine period until they are allowed home. The point of departure should be determined on the basis of the maximum impact on repatriation and those participating must understand that they are governed by strict rules with which they must comply.

Having advocated this solution, I have not seen any data that has come from the initial government initiatives in relation to Wuhan as to its cost efficacy. However it is obvious that hotel-based quarantine at the cost currently levied is not the answer for either returning Australians or if we are to open up for tourism and business travel. This is an impost Australia cannot afford.

However, one thing we do not want is a return to the divisions of the 1890s when the Federation was forming rather than now where the Federation could fracture. Some of our local politicians, who should know better, are rehearsing the same attitudes which nearly scuttled the Federation. These fracture lines have never been resolved and threaten to become a separate epidemic in themselves.

A Memorable Concert

Frank Sinatra was one of those myths that America sometimes does well. In real life he was never the image that he projected through his tunes. He was the little insecure guy lost, seeking redemption though love. He was the inheritor of the troubadour tradition. He sang well.

Yet it was his role of Angelo Maggio in “From Here to Eternity” that represented a form of heroism in the face of extreme bullying, which I had observed at school, but from which I was, for the most part, immune.

After he married Ava Gardner, she got him that role which energised his lagging career. By the time he came to Melbourne in 1959, he was back on top. Many people more expert than I in such things, believe it was his best performance – ever. He did not often sing with small groups. His backing quintet in Melbourne was led by that extraordinary vibraphonist, Red Norvo. Then there were a number of virtuosos – and none better than the chap with the goatee beard and the thinning hair, once russet.

The venue was the West Melbourne Stadium, then in an industrial part of Melbourne. It was a cavernous building, also known as the “House of Stoush” and many memorable fights were staged there. Forgotten men like Elley Bennett, Vic Patrick, Micky Tollis, Jack Hassen – they all fought there. There also the American, Chief Little Wolf, whose real name was Ventura Tennario, the most memorable of the wrestlers who strutted their stuff on Ringside Wrestling.

That night, 1st April 1959 I was there with my then girlfriend. I had secured tickets though my contacts then with the Princess theatre, where I had learned to become a spotlight operator.

Sinatra did not like Australians much, particularly the press. At the time, it was two years since his marriage to Ava Gardner had ended in a Mexican divorce. Yet the reason he came to Australia was to follow her, as he done years before when she was filming Mogambo in Africa, after which he had tried to commit suicide.

In 1959 she was in Melbourne filming “On the Beach”, the Stanley Kramer film about the end of the world. She has been wrongly attributed as saying that Melbourne was a most appropriate place for this to be filmed.

It was a time when Melbourne had six o’clock closing of hotels and if you wanted to drink in a restaurant, grog was banned after a certain time. Thus, the number of brown paper bags under tables containing bottles of wines or beer, with the bag owners drinking out of teacups, represented our sophisticated café society.

So the exotica of Hollywood in Melbourne were diversion. Star spotting was a pastime. I had accidently seen Gregory Peck, one of the stars of the film, with his son walking down the steps of my old school, where he was temporarily enrolling his son.

Hollywood comes to Melbourne

But here we were in the bleachers, Frank Sinatra, a distant speck. At one point there was a minor commotion. My companion said that somebody had arrived and she thought it was a woman. From then on Sinatra’s style changed. He had drawn laughter before when, while singing “I’ve got you under my skin”, he interrupted himself to say: “take your hand off that broad.” The audience laughed – the kid from Hoboken had brought his American swagger.

Yet after the commotion of the entrance had died down, he started to sing songs such as “Angel Eyes” and “All the Way” and “One for my Baby” culminating in “All of Me”. He was singing for one person, and we were the collective witnesses.

It was low key, fluid and yet so intense – passion, which I only realised, when I listened many years later to the recording of that night, why some think it was his most complete expression of his talent.

The person who had entered and had sat in the front row was Ava Gardner.

Then he went back to America, and there is no record of his attempting suicide again. They never married again. He apparently cried many years later when he found out Ava Gardner had died, an alcoholic recluse.

For one night my friend and I high, almost in the Stadium rafters, were almost literally flies on the wall observing a myth – or maybe the myth of the eternity of human relationships.

Mouse Whisper

How so very different!

“Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. 

Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his acceptance speech of for Democratic renomination for President in Philadelphia in 1936.

Fast forward…

“Always remember they are coming after me because I am fighting for you. That is what is happening. And it has been going from before I even got elected. And remember this, they spied on my campaign and they got caught. Let’s see now what happens.” 

Donald John Trump in his acceptance speech for Republican renomination for President in 2020 on the White House lawn.

Modest Expectations – The Falangist Tear

There is an interesting reaction to Premier Andrews. Victoria has been a gigantic COVID-19 stuff up – in Australian terms. There is a group of well-heeled Victorians that has been discomforted by him. Andrews generally has been popular but has not acted in the conventional manner in which politicians are expected to behave.

John Brumby, his ALP predecessor, was an Old Melburnian, a product of Melbourne Grammar School and he showed it! Brumby was abrasive as his predecessor Steve Bracks was genial. Although also ALP, Bracks found that Melbourne conservatism fitted him well; he a well worn sports jacket and moleskins metaphor after those tumultuous years of Jeff Kennett’s brattishness.

After all, the first things the Melburnian, rather than those who live in Melbourne, will ask you is where did you go to school. School is such an important stigma in the life of a Melburnian. After all, I am a three generation Melburnian – but without the ultimate stigma, namely to be a member of the eponymously named Club. But of the Cricket Club, I plead guilty, although I did ask forgiveness by conforming to the Biblical utterance: “Greater love hath no man but to lay down his Lady’s Ticket for his wife.” Yes, a full member had one Lady’s ticket; and I even remember there was a time when there were members of the Cricket Club who had two Lady’s tickets – one for the mistress presumably.

However, Daniel Andrews is refreshingly different – a country boy with an outer Melbourne constituency, accused of being beholden to the Unions and hence to those who live in Melbourne and Victoria – but not beholden to the Melburnians.

Perhaps it is true and that allegiance with its factional arithmetic has left him with a mess of incompetents holding ministerial portfolios.

I met Daniel Andrews when he was a young politician first appointed Parliamentary Secretary for Health. He was so deferential for a politician to someone who, after all, was a substantial nothing; he even gave me his mobile phone number. I never followed it up. Later, when he was Health Minister, he appointed me to a Committee as his Ministerial representative, but at a distance and with a friendly acknowledgement – and with no emolument, as Gough was used to say: “What is the emolument, comrade?”

However, I have only focused on Andrews’ performance since the COVID-19 catastrophe. It is not until it is in your own yard that you realise the consequences; long gone are the happy scenes of politicians washing their hands on ABC TV.

Here you have a group of people who have spread the Virus throughout Melbourne and, to an extent regionally, along a trail of incompetence. Years of promoting sycophants, yes people, drongos, paying them peanuts with an occasional cashew in all walks of life, are coming home to roost.

So day-by-day Andrews is doing penance – taking on the sins of his Ministry and his Bureaucracy. He has gone beyond the 40 days and 40 nights. After all, he has been accused of being a control freak. Ergo, it is all his fault. Perhaps he has created the intellectual and social Sahara beneath him, but fortunately with a few notable oases that I have mentioned before.

Andrews may see vindication in his actions. The number of those with the Virus will reduce; the Canberra Pharisees may see what he is doing and stop the blame game and start to mimic him.

We should be thinking about what is an acceptable level of sufferers – elimination does not work: see New Zealand and Queensland. The States that are running the elimination line if they want to send their people spare should look at the Melbourne lesson. Australia has to derive a strategy along the lines of NSW, which has a very efficient contact tracing system to quench the outbreaks while they remain small.

In the long term social distancing will not work unless it is enforced by the spectre of those exposed being put into “bespoke” quarantine facilities. You cannot close down the country for political gain – health yes; political whim no – and ultimately no amount of dressing the political in the cloak of health will disguise the fact that approaching elections appear to be influencing states’ lockdown strategies.

Hand hygiene – the sight of sanitisers everywhere will have an effect, but just like those running the traffic lights there will always be those who won’t use them.

Group punishment does not work forever in a democratic society. A masked society – even if temporary and focused, I do not think so. Yet how long should Victoria live in a world of anonymity? Facial expression and unmuffled voice is the essence of humanity. It will eventually wear down even in the most civilised democratic society.

The Ruby Princess, Newmarch and this Victorian disaster should provide a lesson, and whether the remedy is that the Premier has to scapegoat himself each day as Daniel Andrews is doing, so be it.

After the Ruby Princess fiasco, the sackings could have been done, clinically and quickly, because it was an obvious failure of the public health area, because they were well informed. Incompetence. Only recently has the NSW Premier said she was sorry. Her minions have survived, and some seem to have learnt, as judged by their improved performance.

Politicians and the media were dazzled by the Carnival cruise ships’ management over a decade – the media was sucked in despite the clear evidence of its litany of disasters here and elsewhere. Now, anybody for a Ruby Princess experience? Where are those marvelling media who took that glass of sherry, those cocktails, on the shimmering deck of hidden squalor?

Victoria has been different. Public health expertise on offer was ignored. The Ruby Princess had already demonstrated what failure of public health brings. It seemed to have had no effect on Victoria.

In Victoria there was just basic public health ignorance.

Retribution is coming in Victoria, but may Andrews have the strength to stay the course and ensure that Victoria’s disgracefully inadequate public health system is brought to the level that paradoxically NSW has always had due to the previous work of Dr Sue Morey.

Andrews is all that stands between a Victorian society on the brink – a society that will increasingly be impatient for a scapegoat or two. However, nailing Andrews to the Cross is not the solution. He needs ongoing support. The length of this lockdown occurring is a severe imposition, especially when there is loss of income on top of “cabin fever”.

Andrew’s ongoing resilience is the key. He is showing that canniness by appearing to be defeated when absorbing the shock horror of his request for a twelve months emergency extension. He will settle for six months – what he really wanted and give his opponents an apparent win. That will mean he is not the only one who owns the six months extension. It is an old ruse when you are confident in your own skin and you do “ deference in defeat” so well.

What is happening in Victoria is important as a lesson for any government when the Virus escapes into the community and spreads to nursing homes in particular. The Coates Inquiry, if she joins the dots, will be able to accurately chart the remedies. Hopefully Andrews will have stared down the Virus by that time.

Nevertheless, the outbreak of COVID-19 in correctional centres in Queensland is worrying, and its containment will test the Queensland public health arrangements. Again, prisons have been shown to be a hotspot in the USA. Quoting the NYT:

The number of deaths in state and federal prisons, local jails and immigration detention centers — which stood at 1,002 on Tuesday morning — has increased by about 40 per cent during the past six weeks, according to the database. There have been nearly 160,000 infections among prisoners and guards.

The actual number of deaths is almost certainly higher because jails and prisons perform limited testing on inmates, including many facilities that decline to test prisoners who die after exhibiting symptoms consistent with the coronavirus.

… Prisoners are infected at a rate more than five times the nation’s overall rate. The death rate of inmates is also higher than the national rate — 39 deaths per 100,000 compared to 29 deaths per 100,000.

Let’s hope that Queensland is spared the disastrous effects of the Virus, in this case being let loose in the correctional system, despite the fact that there may some people in the Southern States with a repressed sense of schadenfreude should the Virus spread in Queensland.

The Saturday Evening Post

The Saturday Evening Post is always associated with Benjamin Franklin, even though he was well and truly dead by the time it was first published in 1821. The two shared Philadelphia. Moreover, Philadelphia was the capital of the fledging United States between 1790 and 1800. The Saturday Evening Post used the portrait of Benjamin Franklin often, which gave the magazine presence – America without The Saturday Evening Post was unthinkable at the time I grew up.

Not that I grew up in the United States. I did not even go to America until 1971, when the magazine was then in severe decline. Yet I remember The Saturday Evening Post well. My father used to subscribe to it; my mother to the Ladies’ Home Journal, even though there were severe currency restrictions on Australians buying US dollars. The journals were always about two months late, because they came by sea. However, it mattered little because it was, apart from American films and the occasional entertainer and the war brides coming back to see their families, to my parents contact with American lifestyle.

My mother had just one of these “war-bride” friends with whom she regularly corresponded. Nan, her friend, had met and married a US air force officer named Bob Daggett during the War and followed him to America. Our family album was full of pictures of the wedding, where my mother was her matron of honour, a quaint term for a married bridesmaid.

A Norman Rockwell cover

Both of these journals were the mainstay of Middle America. The portraits by Norman Rockwell were the mainstay of the Post covers. Rockwell’s ability to depict life in America as a contemporary tapestry, alternating whimsy with pathos, was extraordinary.

When I use to pore over the magazine as a small boy, before they were thrown out, it was seeing another culture, a far wealthier culture with stuff just not available to Australians at the time. I wished I could paint like Rockwell.

Then the Post went into decline. However before it did, after my mother died in 1956, our subscriptions to these magazines died with her. After all, the arrival of the Ladies Home Journal each month just reinforced my father’s loss and my father had eventually gone to America in 1957, and fulfilled the ambition anyway.

But The Saturday Evening Post still exists – a two monthly publication. The publication is not for the millennials, even though the ubiquitous “Coles spruiker”, Curtis Stone bobs up with recipes for barbecued turkey burgers with homemade pickles and grilled corn on the cob with parsley and garlic brown butter.

The advertisements are for rechargeable hearing aids, plush recliners, the Zoomer wheel chair, betterWoman bladder control tablets. There is a concentration on health and lifestyle in the content but with a very strong nostalgic sense for an America that probably never was.

Yet among the detritus of the most recent issue was one article detailing the decisions of one lady who decided that her ongoing renal dialysis was really too much. The dialysis for this 60 year old lady was accompanied by an increasing number of savage complications. So she broached the subject of stopping the dialysis with her doctor. The author of the article was then a medical student and her report of the exchange between doctor and patient is written in simple direct prose.

When you stop dialysis, one of the most common things that happens … you can have difficulty breathing… so I will give medicines to help prevent any gasping or difficulty breathing you might have.”

“Good, I don’t … want … to suffocate. I don’t … want pain.”

The doctor quickly re-assured her that kidney failure generally doesn’t cause pain, and pain, and death would arrive only after loss of consciousness.

“Kidney failure,” he told her gently, “could be a merciful way to die.”

I had never seen this type of doctoring before. 

These medical reassurances struck a responsive chord with myself. I don’t want to suffocate; I don’t want to die in pain. Nobody does, but many do.

Later on in the article, the author notes the woman did become unconscious three days later, her family encircled the bed, singing and tying balloons on her bed posts, she dying apparently at peace, but those last few minutes – who would know what is happening, but she was not gasping for breath nor grimacing in pain.

This article carries a message that in a world which prides Self above all else, there is this other World of genuine care – a world that you wish to see in every nursing home, every place where the aged are cared for, and not the shemozzle that it is today.

Norman Rockwell ‘Saying Grace’

As of today in the USA, 40 per cent of deaths from the Virus have been elderly people in nursing homes and other residential facilities. 420,000 have been infected; 70,000 have died – but how many without suffocating or in pain? And dying all alone, apart from that life-giving technology which for them had come up short.

Strange how this recent copy of The Saturday Evening Post evokes so much reflection.

July 5, 1969, thus he wrote

A young assistant professor in zoology at the University of California at Berkeley named Richard Dawkins wrote a detailed letter to The Times. It was published on June 5, 1969. I have reproduced it in part because it provides a troubling picture of an America that basically does not seem to have changed. He wrote it at a time when the Vietnam War was at its height, and across the world the previous year there had been an outpouring against the War from young people, particularly those at universities, which had met with fierce resistance from the Authorities.

In 1969 Nixon had recently been elected to the White House, replacing the hapless Johnson. Ronald Reagan was in his Californian Governor’s office in Sacramento. Despite the carnage in Vietnam, the Americans were not winning the War. That was plain, yet Nixon was watching, contemplating, calculating like Kissinger – men whose blood was colder than Lake Baikal – to carpet bomb Vietnam.

Winter ice, Lake Baikal, Russia

Documentaries of the time, which have recently been revived on Australian television, show how much wanton damage had been done and yet how vulnerable the Americans were. There were Vietcong in the grounds of the American Embassy in Saigon. Unthinkable.

I remember the time well. I still remember my own involvement, my own reactions, my numbness that had followed the 1966 landslide victory that Holt achieved. Yet I went about my postgraduate study unscathed.

Yet it is somewhat ironic to see a former very conservative Thatcherite Conservative, Michael Portillo, languidly travelling by train through Vietnam 40 years after the War, enjoying its hospitality, enjoying the sights of what is a beautiful country, no signs of war, and “Don’t mention the War”.

The renewal and the resilience of these Vietnamese people after such physical destruction of their country contrasts with the mental destruction of America, where the aftermath stills lingers like a toxic cloud, fanned by Trump and his followers.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington

One thing, which struck me as I read Dawkins’ letter to The Times, is how the seeds of class hostility were ignited. Young working class men drafted to fight and returning from Vietnam were vilified, spat upon by those with Ivy League credentials, who had evaded the draft, one way or the other. Resentment can be transferred from one generation to another. It is a macabre sight to see Trump, a draft dodger, a child of privilege, as the leader of these alienated, xenophobic predominantly white “midnight’s children of the Vietnam War”.

Thus on reading Dawkins I am struck with an uneasy feeling of déjà vu:

“On May 20 Berkeley became the first city in the continental United States to come under military attack from the air. An army helicopter swooped low over the campus spraying the irritant and nauseating CS gas developed for use against the Vietcong. At the same time masked soldiers blocked all but one exit from the plaza, which was the centre of the attack, making dispersal of the terrified crowd slow, and seeming to show that the gas was being used as a punishment rather than as an instrument for rapidly clearing a crowd. In any case the gas drifted all over the campus and the surrounding area, causing the hospital to put at least one respiratory patient into an iron lung, and necessitating the evacuation of children from some schools…

National Guard helicopter spraying tear gas on students and antiwar protesters in Cal’s Sproul Plaza on May 20, 1969

“What is even more ominous than that these things can occur, is that the majority of Americans seem heartily to approve. This was true over the Chicago affair, and Governor Reagan’s soaring popularity in the polls is universally attributed to his “hard line” on campus dissent. It may not be too surprising or even too worrying that the police and military should tend to favour Gestapo tactics for dealing with student rebels. What is really disturbing is that the Governor of the State can markedly improve his chances of re-election by allowing and encouraging such methods.” 

Maybe someone out there with a playbook in hand in the run up to the Presidential election has made the same observation as Dawkins did, but 50 years on – that every riot, especially if property is torched, is a vote for Trump in 2020 as it was for Reagan in 1969 and beyond, so crucial in “swing States”.

Would I lie to you?

There is always something that puzzles me about contact tracing.

Contact tracing demands a degree of honesty, and if the contact tracer comes across a group of people who habitually lie for one reason or another, especially when that group believe the police are looking over the shoulders of the contact tracers, are they going to tell you, the contact tracer, where they’ve been – to disclose their networks? Probably not.

But then part of police work is contact tracing. It is not generally linked to public health. There are rules for contact tracing when it is part of a policeman’s business, but when contact tracing is stated as being for public health purposes, it seems that the police are excluded from using that information.

However, if a “person of interest” tells a contact tracer all their links over the recent period, can the person of interest be interrogated by the police concerning the information that he/she has told the contact tracer of his/her whereabouts?

“No, says our “person of interest being interrogated”, “I have given my details to a public health person, and therefore you can ask him or her.”

However, whatever information that person has given to the contact tracer is protected and cannot be accessed. Right?

Can somebody give me some advice?

Mouse Whisper

I came across certain documents relating to my mausmeister when he was mauskind. 

Apparently this happened when he was a young, boisterous and adventurous child. His Aunt Grace lived in a large home in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn. She looked after her Uncle Frank and Aunt Mildred until each died.

My mauskind wondered why the rooms down the right side of the long corridor were always locked. One day one of the doors was unlocked and the boy looked in and saw an extensive collection of architectural drawings and plans all over the room.

Before he could venture in, his Aunt said that he had to be careful because the room was inhabited by a carpet snake. Kept it there for mice … distastefully. However, carpet snakes were huge, long – pythons that could crush the unwary, Johnny.

So he never tried to go in those rooms again. He was scared of snakes.

Many years later, he mentioned it to his cousin who was much older than him.

She laughed. Aunt Grace had once taken my cousin into her confidence.

There never was any carpet snake.

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.