Modest expectations – Medals await for those who ski and shoot

I was sitting across a table; I can’t remember who asked the same rhetorical question first. The question went something like this: you know, you and I have one fundamental thing in common. Invariably, I’m met by a blank stare; the question just popping up.

“Our ancestors avoided the Black Death.” By whatever means, they did.

The East Smithfield plague pit – a source of genetic material

There were no defence mechanisms against the miasma, although they were certain people who began to understand the value of hygiene who found some defence.

Hygiene, as we know it, was not generally accepted even by all the medical profession, let alone the populace. Walk around any old cemetery and see the number of deaths of children under the age of five years in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from what today are curable diseases, largely due to the progressive introduction of vaccines.

Even the Spanish flu virus, which devastated country after country following WWI, the time when my father and mother were young, survives as seasonal influenza, for which a vaccine is available each year.

By the time I was born, due to the vaccination against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, these diseases were vanishing, although the pertussis vaccine was not as effective as the other two. They were all combined into the triple antigen injection in 1953.

The Spanish flu never reached Tasmania, but the 1935 polio epidemic started in the small town of Railton, the topiary town in central north Tasmania. Poliomyelitis was still a scourge when I was a small boy. I lived through the 1949 epidemic, when contact between schools stopped, and hygiene was enforced. We survived and, within the decade, first the Salk and then the more effective Sabin vaccine emerged. Over the following decades the disease melted away, such that hospitals that were constructed for poliomyelitis patient treatment were repurposed.

Vaccination was generally accepted until that rogue doctor Andrew Wakefield fooled the Lancet into publishing his outrageously fraudulent claim that autism was induced by the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine. He was in cahoots with a group of lawyers and grifters who wanted to use this claim to sue the manufacturers, distributors and those administering the vaccine.

Why Wakefield is not serving a long prison sentence is beyond me. But his antics were catalyst to much of the anti-vaccine sentiment which has followed and been attached to so much of the conspiracy mumbo jumbo. If this is allowed to continue to spread, then the world is at risk from the succeeding waves of anti-vaccine propaganda dissuading a substantial proportion from being vaccinated.

As I wrote in 2014, well before the COVID-19 epidemic, in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA):

Wilful objection to vaccination on the basis of spurious science should neither be encouraged nor rewarded, particularly by government. It is time for the whole question of conscientious objection to vaccination to be aired in Parliament if for no other reason than to find out which of our politicians are against vaccination, for they are as dangerous to continued Australian wellbeing as anyone who would challenge the biosecurity of our country.”

This statement applies more than ever!

Shenanigans is an Irish word

Racecourses that once attracted tens of thousands of people now lie beneath airport runways, university campuses and housing estates. It is now 50 years since Birmingham’s Bromford Bridge course shut (21 June 1965) and it is one of many that vanished thanks to a housing boom and the lure of developers’ money. BBC report in 2015 (The racecourse had been opened in 1894, but horse races had been held there since the 18th century.) 

Racecourses are closing all over the world. Since 2000, for instance, 38 racecourses have closed across the United States.

When reporting that the Singapore racing industry will shortly be closed down to provide vital space for housing, I recommended that Randwick racecourse too should be closed. I believe it stands to reason to take over that racecourse with all its accessibility advantages if the Government is serious in seeking to increase the housing stock most effectively. For those businesses seeking to have their staff to return to offices in the City, the redevelopment of Randwick Racecourse could provide housing located close to the city and served by light rail.

The problem is that any transactions between the Australian Jockey Club (AJC) now Australian Turf Club (ATC) and the NSW government, especially when the Party of Tripodi is in power, is influenced by the cosy relationship between it and the NSW Government.

Because most of the population takes no notice and the media writers are gushing about the purchase of racecourse land, the community is hoodwinked until the deal is done, and “spaghetti junction” politics is transferred to a “hallowed turf” rort – note the use of “hallowed”. You can find the word in the Irish Roman Catholic litany, the traditional players in the acquisition and management of the racing industry and the tribe that underpins the NSW Labor Party right.

They are aided and abetted by The National Party, whose policies are to slavishly try and keep rural myths that have never existed. The party is powerful – look how it took down Michael Baird’s attempt to abolish greyhound racing. With its history of cruelty and corruption, the abolition of greyhound racing was long overdue. Yet we, as NSW citizens, still allow it to exist, an abomination which attracts fewer and few spectators.

Determining the ownership of the racecourse is beyond me, but the trail on this matter is murky. Let’s start with a quote from a racing industry blurb:

The land at Randwick on which the racecourse was situated was crown land and controlled by the NSW Government. The issue with Homebush, apart from the state of the track, was the yearly negotiation of rent and use. At Randwick, the burgeoning AJC had much more security. In 1863, the NSW Government granted to trustees representing AJC an annual rent of “one black peppercorn payable on demand”. So far, this payment has never been collected.

Then there is no description of how the racecourse land proceeded to outright acquisition. Presumably there is an Act somewhere. Just a simple query and, if so, why was it not contained in any racing industry information.

For Rosehill, there was a clearer money trail.

The original land was held by the MacArthur family, as noted by Ian Ibbett. In 1880 it was sold to the lawyer, Septimus Stephen, who subdivided the land and advertised it for sale using the name of Rosehill.  Enter the flamboyant theatrical entrepreneur of the late nineteenth century, John Bennett. He bought a significant holding of 140 acres for a racecourse and recreation ground and on 18th April 1885, after an outlay of some £17,000, Rosehill racecourse conducted its first meeting.  Bennett even went so far as to provide a private railway track connecting Rosehill to the mainline at Clyde. The railway notwithstanding, for some years, racegoers, were able to come to the course by boat, anchoring mid-stream in the Parramatta River, while patrons paid the princely sum of a shilling for the transfer ashore.

The opening meeting at Rosehill Racecourse in 1885

Bennett set up the Rosehill Racing Club (RRC), which later became the Rosehill Racecourse Company. The amount of money which he paid for the land seems not to be disclosed or at least not readily available.

The Sydney Turf Club (STC) was founded in 1943 and is the youngest of Australia’s Principal Race Clubs. It was formed following an Act passed by the New South Wales parliament called the Sydney Turf Club Act (since repealed). The Act gave the club the power to hold 62 race meetings a year at the Rosehill and Canterbury tracks.

This came about because the then NSW Premier William McKell, instituted government legislation which created the Sydney Turf Club (STC) in 1943. McKell hand-picked the first board of directors which set about reviewing and dismantling the proprietary and pony race clubs. After much discussion and reporting, the STC purchased Rosehill Racecourse Company and Canterbury Park Racecourse Company. The remaining clubs at Moorefield, Ascot, Kensington, Rosebery and Victoria Park gradually closed.

In February 2011 the Sydney Turf Club (STC) and the Australian Jockey Club (AJC) officially merged to form a new Sydney racing club, the Australian Turf Club (ATC), and commenced racing immediately. The backstory was that the AJC was broke and the STC was very solvent. The STC members did not want the merger, but its Board overrode the members’ wishes. That is how the racing industry works as an offshoot of the Sicilian Vespers.

Sydney racing was further boosted by a $174m funding package by the NSW Government to redevelop Randwick racecourse ($150m) along with improvements to Rosehill ($24mM).

Yet the ATC runs a deficit, despite having absorbed the STC funds.

Now the ATC has the temerity to seek $5 billion for the Rosehill site, so they can spend up on equine fripperies, when the aim should be to restrict, to reduce the outlandish prize money and to make the industry pay for itself.

The NSW Taxpayer is being asked to underwrite an industry in decline, despite the outrageous prize money. Yet another normal day at Spaghetti Junction on Macquarie Street.

Remember the word outrageous! It is time for us to stop being fooled.

I would acquire the Rosehill Racecourse, and tell them to use the pre-existing facilities, and legislate for betting companies to build the facilities elsewhere – they would soon work out what was essential and not. Anyway, that would be my starting point. Sydney needs housing not an outdated and increasingly irrelevant industry.

The Japanese Maple Births

This Spring a couple of native mynahs took over our front garden. Not only was it a birthing clinic but then we had to endure the nursery, while the two fledgelings grew up.

In the meantime, mum and dad mynahs objected to anybody coming into the garden, and dive-bombed the unsuspecting intruders, which made the 20 metres to the front door for those having to “wing” it. However, we also heard from others that they had to cross the road to go past the house in order to avoid the dive-bomb.

The two fledgelings needed to be fed, but only one emoted; after some initial false starts including when they ended up buried in clivias for half a day, both sat on the branches with their mouths open, but only one crying for more. The other was silent.

For a period we thought one had plummeted to its death, but the only intervention by my wife was a crumpled cardboard “staircase”, which enabled one of the fledgelings to eventually climb back for another try.

This was the only intervention. The nest was constructed in one of the Japanese maples. The garden contains two Japanese maples, but is essentially a walled garden, with camellias and climbing roses inside and ivy coating the outside wall alone the lane.

Then the critical time occurs, and the fledgelings shed their airborne uncertainty, and begin flying all over the property and across the lane into the trees or into our pittosporum in the back garden, which overhangs the lane or into the olive tree outside our front gate.

They might fly but they were not yet completely independent. Whether they have learnt the art of feeding themselves or not, for a time they returned to the garden at feeding time.

But now they have gone. Perhaps there has been something satisfying in providing the environment for native mynahs to raise their fledgelings. My wife doesn’t agree – native mynahs are a long way down her “bird of preference” list.  Next year, if you think the welcome is laid out again, chirp again.  You guys better go easy on attacking our visitors. Otherwise, you also can just wing it!

Yitzhak Who?

We, who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today in a loud and a clear voice; enough of blood and tears. Enough…We are today giving peace a chance and saying to you and saying to you again: enough – Yitzhak Rabin at signing of Oslo Accords 1993

The stain is spreading, President Biden. What would you say if your Secretary of State was a Muslim?  What would you say if your Secretary of State was a Jew? But then your Secretary of State is a New York Jew whose ancestors came from Hungary, with distinguished Yiddish scholars in the mix and a stepfather, who was a Holocaust survivor. Impressive CV for such a task in hand.

Now the Hamas had plenty of time to perform the atrocities for which they have been accused by the Israeli publicity machine. Such as has occurred to those who have been released, been held for a longer time when the Hamas would have had a more leisurely time to commit these foul atrocities. What, you mean, these Hamas “animals” were escorting the released captives with civility with no complaints of atrocities- on the face of it the released all seem to be well cared for. It seems a disconnect, but the Bibi is the maestro of the Disconnect.

Now, there are those gentle, considerate Israeli soldiers, shooting up hospitals, humiliating a group of Palestinian men – why the inhumanity? The shema recited alleges that these men could be Hamas with exploding underwear; well the way the Israeli soldiers are acting, they could be equal to what the Israelis describe as Hamas, shema or not.

And the West bank, let’s shoot up the Palestinians, targets for the right-wing bunch of settlers. Would you tolerate in the United States, Mr Biden – shooting up the innocents – it’s called mass murder, President Biden.

How many of those terrorist children are you going to kill before the stain covers the whole of the Land of the Free. And what about the mothers – the hypocrisy of banning abortion Stateside and yet condoning at the same time killing defenceless women, some of whom are demonstrably pregnant, by these heroic Israeli soldiers – and let’s not forget the heroic pilots who outdo one another in blowing up Gaza, and anywhere else that they fancy. Far more authentic than those video games.

Biden, look at those settlers killing the defenceless on the West Bank. They are from the same sect that murdered Rabin. Do you condone, you, President Biden a plagiarism upon your House.

And here we are, being consumed by Christmas and good cheer.  And in this time of gifts given in the traditional holly encrusted brown paper bags, there’s our Australian Government wagging its tail, loyally filling the pockets of consultants and the coffers of the American war machine who can rest comfortably, ye merry gentlemen.  The brown paper bag has never been so well decorated. Finally, this week Australia has joined with the vast majority of countries to demand a ceasefire, parting with the entrenched US position.

But, while there are vetos, who cares about Gaza? The Palestinians are just barbarians. They don’t play golf, you know.

And by the way, Happy Hannukah.

Winter in the Isle of Wight

Some years ago, about this time of the year, we went to the Isle of Wight

It was a time between appointments. Downtime. Winter in England. Where to go? The wattage of inspiration. What about the Isle of Wight? Where else? The slight sense of adventure crossing the Foggy Solent – the stretch of water which separates the land from the Isle.

Driving down to Lymington through the New Forest – once the hunting domain of William the Conqueror and the place where son William, nicknamed Rufus, caught an arrow in somewhat inauspicious circumstances. Even in winter it’s a beautiful place of open forest and picturesque villages where wild donkeys roam through the streets coming out of the forest. It is all very quaint.

“Quaint” – what a delightful word derived from Old French cointe, from Latin cognitus ‘ascertained’, past participle of cognoscere. The original sense was “wise, clever”, also “ingenious, cunningly devised”, hence “out of the ordinary” and the current meaning came about in the late 18th century).

But then so is Yarmouth, where the car ferry deposits us – at the mouth of the Yar estuary. The George Hotel has been picked as the hotel of choice because of the availability of its prized No. 19 room. This room has an expansive terrace. From here we have a view over the estuary. The weather is cold, but there is not much chill factor in the wind. Yachts are shadowy forms – and even if it is the wrong part of the country, it is all very Swallows and Amazons as the Arthur Ransome books of my youth described the English coast.

The George Hotel has been described as a winter hotel. Oak stairs that slope, a plaque that recognises that King Charles 1 had been there, possibly on one of his last nights of freedom. A breakfast room that overlooks the sea where you take porridge and kippers and that keystone of British life – a pot of Earl Grey, his lordship perfectly buffered in the tea bags.

August is crowded with tourists. It is Cowes week. The yachts are thick in number on the Solent. In winter they say the village atmosphere returns. The Isle of Wight becomes a tourist attraction in summer and a haven for sailors who sail the day and crowd the bar of the George Hotel at night. The Isle of Wight has been a favourite of royalty, but Osborne House, which Albert built for Victoria, is closed for winter – apart from special viewings. They’ll start the week after we have left.

The Isle of Wight in winter is also the Isle of Wight without funfairs and crowded roads. As one lady, who runs a teddy bear museum in Brading, one of the favourite watering spots in touring the perimeter of the island, remarked – bedlam for her is a wet day in August when the shop is jammed and her ability to service sorely tested. But in a rainy winter’s day, nobody came in while I waited for the teddy bear loving wife to buy yet another bear for her collection. The transaction was completed with due care given the seriousness of the purchase. After all, teddy bears have personalities and must be compatible.

Quarr Abbey

The Quarr Abbey, the stolid red Belgian brick building constructed in early part of the 20th century is open. The home of a declining number of Benedictine monks, the abbey provides accommodation for travellers. But we came and wandered the cloisters and purchased a CD of the monks intoning Gregorian chants interrupted by the Abbey bells, but we did not stay overnight.

That is the essence of the quaintness and yet outside there is a spectacular coastline which starts in the west at the Needles and then, along the ocean face are white cliffs and spectacular views of surly seas. It is an unencumbered view – you can stop and walk at will. There is room to move here, now that winter has come.

Mouse Whisper

You know the ads on television which characterise Dan Murphy as a New York bootlegger, but the advertisements betray a discordance in the representation. First the prices on the labels are in shillings, but the felt pen used in changing the price was not in use until the 1970s. So colourful; sure, the first felt pen was patented in 1910 but up until the 70s, they were excessively clunky. The one in the ad was probably bought the day they made the advertisement.

The actual Dan Murphy was a wine merchant who had a series of successful wine outlets in Melbourne. The first was in Chapel Street Prahran, set up in 1952 in competition with his father Ted Murphy; another at the lower end of one of the “Little” streets – either Little Bourke or Little Lonsdale Street. A small, cluttered vintner’s gem; the bottle that struck one as you entered the shop was the bottle of 1945 Chateau Margaux, carefully protected under wire netting.

Dan introduced the traditional Australian beer culture to fine wines; but he eventually succumbed to the financial blandishments of Woolworths. This behemoth has changed the Dan Murphy persona to one of an American bootlegger, albeit getting things wrong – presumably intentionally.


Modest Expectations – Smokin’ Joe on the Wing

Margaret Thatcher always prided herself on how little sleep she needed. She ended up demented. Likewise, her mate Ronald Reagan emulated her four-hour nightly repose. He too ended up demented. No, there is no evidence that their form of dementia is contagious.

I’ve been writing about sleep deprivation, especially among politicians, since I worked in the Canberra “hot house”.

Morpheus, god of dreams and nightmares

My article here was prompted by one I read in the AFR last month. The AFR reported inter alia in an article written by Sally Patten that Steven Lockley, an associate professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, says: “For the past three or four decades, really, we’ve heard a lot from the exercise lobby and the nutrition lobby, which maybe gives the impression that [they are] more important than sleep.

“In my opinion, they are not. Sleep may be more important than both of those [exercise and nutrition]. If you don’t sleep well, your nutrition metabolism is impaired. If you’re fatigued, [exercise] is impaired. I think sleep needs to be raised in its importance across those three topics.

Whether anybody pays attention to this important statement is anybody’s guess, but personally I am not optimistic that it elicited any response.

Not having sleep seems to be a challenge for the ambitious in particular. There was a certain machismo about it. In the animal kingdom, there are a wide variety of sleep patterns – carnivores tend to sleep most of the day – the lion can sleep about 18 hours, whereas at the other end of the animal spectrum the giraffe is alleged to sleep for only 17 minutes per 24 hours.

In January 1964, a student deliberately went for 11 days and 25 minutes without sleep, as with blokes of his age, courting the limits of human endeavour – the award merely, as was this case, to end up as a line entry in the Guinness Book of Records. This was the last time this feat was recognised because it was deemed to be completely and idiotically unsafe.

The experiment attracted one William Dement, (yes, actual name) who was one of the early researchers into the effect of sleep deprivation. The sleep was shown to be interrupted by catnapping although the fellow seemed awake and totally unaware of this phenomenon; and it was notable that he did not use any medication apart from Coca-Cola during his marathon. There were no apparent sequelae, although in the immediate post-sleepless period, he had some difficulty in sleeping, and long term he suffered from insomnia.

I was unaware of this event when I started being interested in the pathology of going without sleep. My attention was initially attracted by the “tipping cat experiments” whereby cats were allowed to go to sleep and then tipped off the board. Very soon, you had a mad cat; and there was an unsourced report, which seems to be so sadistic and pointless, that keeping a cat awake for 15 days will kill it.

The problem is that the sleeplessness does not lead to any apparent immediate disability, especially if one has an isolated Parliament in a rural setting, full of sleepless people, where the sleeplessness is aggravated by the consumption of alcohol. The spectre of this nation being governed by people with little sleep often compounded by hangovers is a depressing scenario. After all, in the asylum, who is the maddest? Who decides?

Those Prime Ministers notorious for indulging themselves in waking up staff and public servants during the night in fits of whim are no different from the researchers who conducted the “tipping point” experiments, except that the researchers had independent approval for their action.

Disturbing people’s sleep, unless there is a disaster requiring immediate attention, sabotages the whole concept of good public administration.  The prospect of senior persons of power waking up their minions just to demonstrate their power is evidence that they are already damaged. Perhaps this is because of their chronic lack of sleep from too much plotting and scheming.

Moutardiers du Monde, Unir!

The Romans were the first to experiment with the preparation of mustard as a condiment. And by the 10th century the monks of St-Germain-des-Pres in Paris absorbed the mustard-making knowledge of Romans and began their own production.

First made in the 14th century, Dijon mustard does not have to be made in that region, provided it follows the formula that was first devised in 1856 by Jean Naigeon, a mustard maker from Dijon. Into smooth, brown seed mustard, verjuice—an acidic juice made from unripe grapes—was substituted for the common vinegar. That was his critical ingredient.

I asked my wife whether we were having difficulty getting Dijon mustard. She said no.  Why?  I said I had read that last year Europe was in the grip of a mustard shortage. It struck France hard because, believe it or not, the average French person consumes one kilo of mustard annually.  The amount that lies on the side of the plate was not calculated, save it to say that at the height of the crisis in mustard, it was not automatically added to a dish, whether, for example, as an element of mustard Gaston chicken or just left on the side of the plate.

I would have thought the mustard would have been grown around Dijon, and while that may have been case, it has been clearly insufficient. The reason for the mustard shortage lies far away in Canada, which provides 80 per cent of the brown-grain seeds (brassica juncea) needed for Dijon mustard. A devastating 2021 heat wave in the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, blamed on climate change, halved production and left French companies scrambling to secure seed supplies.

The centre for English mustard making is Norwich, where Colman’s mustard manages the classic English mustard, with its “hot” appellation. It is a mixture of yellow and brown mustard seed. While Colman’s always hovered as the acme of English mustard, Keen’s mustard powder was the condiment we grew up with, mixing it with water, put in its special pot on the table. Always with roast beef, my earliest memory of little yellow blobs swimming in gravy waiting for the late entry of Yorkshire pudding, my grandmother’s contribution to Sunday lunch, her overture before we could start eating.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine disrupted the supply of the yellow mustard seed, used in German mustard, which is very much the mustard used in USA with the classic hot dog in a roll. Turmeric is added to make it even more yellow. Both Russia and Ukraine are major producers of the yellow seed. Together with Canada and Nepal, they contribute over 70 per cent of the world production.

Where does Australia rate? Not one of the major players, I’m afraid.

In Australia, there is interest in mustard growing. It grows as an alternate crop to canola, but it is more drought resistant. The move is part of a succession/extension of the small, family-owned Yandilla Mustard enterprise at Wallendbeen in south-west NSW. Yandilla has grown into a venture producing 200 to 300 tonnes of mustard seed annually. By comparison, Canada produces 200,000 tonnes, with most coming from Saskatchewan.

In Australia, interest as far as can be ascertained, is in the brown and black mustard seed and also in growing giant red mustard, which is a very spicy Asian green, tasting like horseradish, and valued in a variety of Asian dishes – not part of the seedy diaspora.

So, there you are, the mustard story in a brimming moutardiere.

And bonne nouvelle by the end of this year, it is anticipated that the mustard shortage will be much improved. But just another testimony to climate alteration – not being able to cut the mustard.

Dwelling on Stable Circumstances

I have always been interested in housing policy, even before I ran a community health programme in Victoria. I have lived long enough to have experienced periods where it seemed that all forms of public housing were tried.

In looking back, I have noted how “slum clearance” has changed into “gentrification” of the inner suburbs. Slum clearance meant destroying many of the old working-class suburbs, built when Melbourne had expanded in its boom period of the nineteenth century. This housing stock was built at a time when Melbourne was unsewered, with a network of cobbled lanes for the convenience of the “nightmen”. Much of this housing stock had fallen into disrepair, a situation aggravated by the Great Depression.  It was a time when the growing middle class was building and buying into garden suburbs, where the blocks were large enough for such estates to develop integrity – “the quarter-acre block” became part of the language.

No longer was there the need for outside toilets and a network of cobbled lanes.  But in the inner suburbs these persisted. Worker cottages were often poorly maintained, where hygiene was lacking and poverty obvious. Vermin brought disease, and while a variety of public health measures was introduced, infant mortality remained relatively high and both acute infections like streptococcal pneumonia and chronic infections like tuberculosis were rife. Hence, these suburbs were ripe for renovation or replacement. The large concrete buildings were seen as the preferred solution.

The Holmesglen Factory, which had been geared to the construction of small arms during WWII, provided the industrial base for the prefabricated concrete which provided these 20 or 30 storey blocks of flats, to replace the slums. In retrospect, the question is how many of these houses would have been renovated if the Housing Commission had not acquired the land and built what soon became eyesores on the skyline of Melbourne.

Vertical slums

These public housing colossi were stark from the beginning, the homes now a vertical slum-in-the making. They did not break the culture of poverty, just concentrated it. Indeed, unless the residents are provided with accommodation that goes beyond the basic, then what hope is there for successful intervention in the cycle of poverty, poor housing and poor health.

Having inherited some money, I invested in inner suburban properties, and while they were habitable, there was always work to be done on leaking roofs. Before receiving this modest inheritance, I had been a tenant in the inner city near the hospital before buying a terrace house close to the University of Melbourne, the deposit paid out of profit gained from selling nickel shares. One of our tenancies had ended abruptly when the roof leaked so much that the staircase became a waterfall.

Having been a tenant, I tried to be a reasonable landlord. The first property became known as “the pot house” as I subsequently found out after the police raided it and took away a large crop of cannabis sativa growing in the back garden. That was one experience. The other was when the ‘beads and sandal” student renters lit the candles too close to a rack of flimsy garments and the top floor sustained some moderate damage from the subsequent fire. The investments were in stand-alone houses, which now 40 years later have nevertheless survived to become expensive properties.

The other trap which I have is to buy into blocks of flats where the body corporate is a “stacked deck”. In other words, the body corporate is set up in a way that the incoming buyer has no say. Getting into the fraught area of rental is not for the faint-hearted; and it is where altruism is scarce.

A sense of home was underpinned by aspects of the housing service, property quality and affordability which are potentially amenable to intervention by housing providers, both public and private. These findings raise questions about the extent to which social housing providers and the private rental market can meet the needs of vulnerable tenants – the raw side of gentrification.

Earlier, my father had bought a block of land covered in blackberries in the then outer suburb of Jordanville in the 1940s. Essentially, the area was rural and quiet until 1947 when Housing Commission, Victoria moved in and built street after street of concrete and brick houses and two storey flats. The young married couples with children who occupied these low-cost houses increased the local population six-fold between 1950 and 1956.

On one side of the then Bayview Road was a public housing estate which stretched back into Ashburton; on the other side the epitome of middle class status, the Riversdale Golf Club. Eventually, the houses were released so they became privately-owned homes.

The Housing Commission administered this building program. I remember one of the Commissioners, during a visit to the Commission in an attempt to find common ground as part of trying to form a liaison between community health and public housing. The discussions were pleasant but aimless, and as the discussion was coming to an end, this Commissioner offered us a whisky. It was 11 a.m. The Victorian Housing Commission lasted until 1984 before it was abolished.

The other housing programs that I encountered when I was running community health was the construction of public housing in small country townships. Again, these estates concentrated poverty and disadvantage, given that other areas of the public service tried to use these estates as dumping areas. Released from prison, given a rail ticket to one of the four corners of the State, ending up in colourfully titled places of public housing like the Bronx . While these estates were not universally bad, they still perpetuated that culture of poverty, and moreover, stigma.

I lived through the Whitlam era where the advocacy of regional centres, specifically constructed, was so important that a specific Federal Department was created. There were great expectations held for Monarto in South Australia, but in effect only Albury-Wodonga arose as the program’s legacy, through the creation of the suburbs of Thurgoona on the Albury side and Baranduda on the Wodonga. I used to attend meeting as a Victorian representative on one of the Committees, where we had pleasant lunches and where the wheels of change moved glacially.

Yet then there was diversity. There were public servants directly interested in housing people – not only developers looking for a quick quid. These became the dominant drivers of increased housing. Estates constructed were without much attention to the services, which the private sector left to the local authorities.  The neo-liberals may shudder but travelling around planned environments of which Canberra is the greatest example in Australia does have charm.

What have we got? A crop of huge houses consuming whole blocks of land in outer Melbourne suburbs with twee names like Cloverton and Caroline Springs, expanding into these monotonous estates resembling from above as a giant series of the Roman testudo, totally at odds with Australia’s climate. These are testimony to the rise of private housing unfettered by public surveillance.

Housing policy for so long in abeyance is now front and centre; but there has been a reluctance by Government to be involved rather than just devolving it to an essentially unregulated mess. I believe among the mass of data available the ability to identify what works is to trump ideology. From what I see we are a long way away from a solution, but one thing is for sure, masterly inactivity, otherwise known as laissez-faire, will not work.

She’ll be Apples

In January 2020, the Dunns Road bushfire burnt over 330,000 hectares of pine forests, orchards, and grazing country around Batlow in the New South Wales Snowy Mountains.

It destroyed around 20 homes and damaged hundreds more.  –  ABC June 2021.

Batlow and the surrounding countryside, which is famous for its apples, was hit by the severe bushfires which carved their way through southern NSW in 2020. The fact is that one does not associate orchards with fire  burning them up.  I kept a  report of the 2020 severe fires, which burnt many of the fruit trees. It was an uneven experience. For example, a major grower, Montague, had 75-hectares of apple orchards around Batlow, 206,000 trees producing a wide variety of apples. It experienced only minor damage, but nevertheless, the quality of the apples suffered. Other smaller growers experienced greater losses.

One grower summed up his plight by saying, “That the biggest issue would be the clean-up, and then making sure that we have got sufficient cash flow to get through until harvest in mid-February. It will begin with Gala apples, then go through until early May with Pink Lady.”

The Big Peeler

The sign of the future, the “Big Apple”, survived without any sign of scalding, as did the Big Peeler, which lies closer to the heart of Batlow.

One person was reported as saying as the bushfire threat was receding, but looking to the future, “This is really unprecedented territory.  It is just really difficult to comprehend reality. As much as I am looking forward to getting back up there, there is a certain amount of dread to what we might see.”

Yet, within a year, Batlow had rebounded and experienced a bumper harvest. This was helped by the drought lifting, which in itself had provided the favourable conditions for the revival of the orchards.

A lack of backpacker labour during the pandemic meant turning to innovative solutions to get through the season. Thus, for instance, one grower invested in two apple picking machines that can assist workers who would otherwise bear the load of carrying heavy sacks and climbing ladders. At $150,000 each, the machines have been a significant investment, but one that the orchard manager has said to be well worth the cost.

The destruction of the fires has been replaced by improved infrastructure, but twenty years ago there were 75 growers and now there are just twelve. Despite technological improvements as mentioned above, just to be an apple grower is increasingly unviable, and the lifeline to profitability is diversity.

The growth of the cider making industry in Batlow, with its festival that attracts large crowds, heralds a change in emphasis, and it might be said that when fire comes, in the reconstruction, the replacement orchard reflects trends in the popularity of apples and other fruit (cherries are being increasingly grown) and the products, particularly the fermented product – cider.

Around Batlow, attention is being paid to clearing the land and planting away from the pine plantation and other wooded areas.  From all reports, Australia is entering a period of low rainfall and hence drought. What is interesting to see is what has happened to a circumscribed industry and its associated population centre after the fires; and how quickly nature and human ingenuity given the right climate can not only regenerate the industry and the township but also maintain its new level of bushfire surveillance.

As one may say “she will be apples”. But not without the energetic efforts described above.


Tangier to me was always that notorious flesh pot on the North African coast.

But there is another Tangier. It attracted my attention years ago when I learnt that many of the inhabitants had orange tonsils. Tangier is a small island in Chesapeake Bay, a 322 km long estuarine lake, increasingly salt water, which splits Virginia and Maryland. When taking the train between New York and Washington, one passes along its shore. Thus, this lake abuts the urban world.

Tangier Island

On the other hand, there is Tangier, an isolated small sliver of wetlands slowly sinking into the Bay, where the population has fallen to 500, where fishing, soft shell crabbing and oyster harvesting are the major industries, and where the people speak a Cornish American dialect, almost completely unintelligible to the average American.

Cornish families arrived progressively from 1678, when the Crocketts were one of first five to settle, (nearly all have the same few surnames Crockett, Pruitt, Thomas, Marshall, Charnock, Dise, Shores and Parks). Only the Crocketts are reliably known to be among the first five families that settled here.

Therefore, it is not surprising that there is a genetic disease, in this case it is characterised by the absence of HDL (high-density lipoproteins), the failure of not being able to make HDL. This results in esterified cholesterols being deposited in the reticulo-endothelial system, noticeably in the tonsils.

I have always been interested in these people who maintain their individuality, where the pressures to homogenise the society are compounded by the advances in communication.

There are lessons I’ve learnt from reading about a community that could be dismissed as a quaint relic without a voice in Virginian politics.

There is always resistance, but for the Tangier Island, it may come by trying to save an island where the highest point is only just over a metre above sea level. Otherwise, an isolated forgotten community inhabiting a piece of land slowly sinking in the Chesapeake Bay will be no more by 2037.

A shrinking community with a hereditary disease with a high morbidity, given that the deposition of the lipids is not restricted to the tonsils but also among other organs, in the coronary arteries of the heart.

There is no alcohol on the island with its strict Methodism. Visitors must observe the rules.

What price is America prepared to pay for its preservation?

It is always the dilemma of whether such small communities should be able to maintain a separate voice, when so many of the policy leaders lean towards a utilitarian approach. on their terms.

Mouse Whisper

Reading The Economist (Rodent edition)

If you want to learn a language just for fun, start with Swedish. If you want to rack up an impressive number, stay in Europe. But if you really want to impress, bulking up your brain to master Cantonese or Korean is the sign of the true linguistic Ironman (or woman).


Modest Expectations – Taiwan and Tobacco

Adam Spencer

I can blame this reflection on an article I came across about the polymath, Adam Spencer. As far as I can ascertain, Adam Spencer and I were born 30 years apart. Both of us had a traumatic birth, although all I know about Spencer is what I have read.

He, like myself, seemed to have a congenital unilateral oculomotor nerve palsy or paresis. In my case it was a paresis, but living with a drooping eyelid and a squint I found increasingly difficult as I grew up. The only remedy available then was intensive eye muscle exercises, and as the oculomotor nerve innervates four of the ocular muscles, it was crucial to strengthen these muscles.

Nicknamed “lazy eye”, the first danger was that through non-use I would have gone blind in the eye. Because I had a squint (or its medical term strabismus) I had double vision, which I could correct. Yet I was constantly told by my father to “pull my eye round” as the left eyeball would drift outwards. Thus, those looking at me directly may have viewed my left eyeball drifting to the left, while the right looked straight ahead. A strange, unexpected phenomenon, if you did not know me.

Fortunately, the drooping eyelid called ptosis was not severe and therefore there was only a small difference between the two eyelids. Nevertheless, the result of this birth injury was that I developed monocular vision. This meant that had to fuse the images in my brain, and thus lacked stereoscopic vision. When I was tired, I found it difficult, particularly in the laboratory when, for instance, I had to pipette into a tube where I had to judge where the pipette was in relation to the test tube.

It created some social problems for me as I tended to look down avoiding eye to eye contact so people would not be confronted by my literally “wandering eye”.  This was interpreted as either shyness or slyness, not compensation.

For years, I resisted having any operation, which anyway when I was a child did not exist. However, ophthalmic surgery progressed strongly about fifty years ago with the advent of cataract surgery and other procedures in repairing cranial nerves. When I arrived at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in 1971, I met the senior ophthalmologist, Dick Galbraith, who perhaps was not as widely known as Fred Hollows but was equally flamboyant, and a strong leader in terms of translating his high standards onto his colleagues. Galbraith also did much pro bono ophthalmology in the South Pacific.

From my arrival at the hospital, he badgered me to have my double vision corrected. In 1976, I eventually succumbed to his pressure and had the operation, and for nearly fifty years my strabismus with the accompanying double vision was “cured”, until recently. Now, especially when tired, I have noticed the double vision has returned, but it is not a bad outcome given the time elapsed since the operation. In the intervening years. I have since had two successful cataract operations undertaken by his son, James Galbraith.

We take so much for granted, because ophthalmic surgery is just accepted practice; a cataract operation now takes but twenty minutes to insert the perfectly sculpted replacement lens under sedation and local anaesthesia. I found the black and white picture show, while the operation was proceeding, very distracting but entertaining. My post-operative recovery was uneventful. Not only was the myopia gone but so also was my astigmatism.

I have at times been critical of the hoop-la that surrounds much of medical research, the unfulfilled expectations and the amount of fraud and plagiarism.

But here a significant advance of benefit to both Spencer and myself, although hampering me for longer because I’m older, should be acknowledged, and not taken for granted.

Some technical advances have been mirages; some have been downright dangerous – and duly get reported by the media.

But here I wish to praise – yes – praise- even though the technological advances have made the cost of the ophthalmic procedures very much less and this has not necessarily passed on to the patient – but that is the price we pay for the asymmetry of information, which dogs every doctor-patient relationship.

A Different Rainbow

Blindness – nobody wants to lose one of the senses, but I am very thankful for sight, and also for the fact that I am not colour blind. In fact, I am very lucky in that I can detect very small differences in colour. It is something, which never seems to be much discussed – that is one’s ability to detect differences in colour. This is a property of the cones in the retina.

Most people have three types of cones and are described as being “trichromatic”. Those who are colour blind have only two types of cones, making them dichromatic. And individuals with tetrachromacy have four types of cones, allowing them to see up to 9 million more colours than everyone else! One theory attributes this ability to a mutation on the X chromosome and so it is limited to women. Some estimate twelve per cent of women have these four different types of cones. They just don’t have to use this whole range.

Others have reported women naturally are better than men at colour differentiation, especially in the orange-yellow range, particularly in detecting small differences. Without much evidence, testosterone has also been implicated as a barrier, but as reported: people who work with colour – think of artists and designers – have a significantly more enhanced colour vocabulary. So, the difference between men and women might not be completely biological, but cultural. This latency would seem to agree with those with a genetic explanation.

Cimbidium Big Chief

As I look up from writing this blog, there is a cymbidium orchid in front of me on the desk. I thought about how you would describe the shapes of the flowers to a blind person – perhaps this could be done by tracing the shape on the palm of his or her hand. But how would I describe the colours of an orchid which is a light green and speckled in distinctive way with irregular deep red spots.

Therefore, describing differences in colour can be by comparison, and directly saying that is the colour light or dark. When we are not sure we add -ish to the end of the colour – greenish or yellowish as examples.

The level of a person’s ability to have the appropriate vocabulary to describe a particular colour is a limiting factor as is the respondent engaged in the description of colour.  Take this exchange with my wife. I asked my wife what the red of the flower spots was. She said crimson; I had independently also labelled them crimson. Now describe “crimson”?  Why is the colour not burgundy, claret, plum, magenta, maroon or just dark red? When referencing the colour to a colour chart, the flower spots were closer to “carmine” – the colour I had forgotten, although I wonder how common the word is in anybody’s vocabulary.

As coincidence would have it in a discussion of ‘reds’, Pantone’s Colour of the Year 2023 is Viva Magenta

Those who have worked with a Pantone colour chart will have an idea of nomenclature. Pantone, which every year announces a “colour of the year” to maintain its position as arbiter of world colour, differentiates only 15,000 colours, nowhere near the magic nine million.

But back to carmine and crimson: the two colours are separated by their origin. Crimson was derived from the kermes female – a scale insect with a propensity for oak; Carmine comes from the cochineal beetle. The names have come via Latin, Arabic, with the actual English words for each of these colours related to a French language iteration.

But the sobering comment is that explanation of a tetrachromat to the normal trichromat is about as incomprehensible to the latter as the trichromat trying to explain colour to the dichromat, those who are conventionally considered to be colour-blind.

Thus, to put a name on your ability to differentiate colours depends on innate ability – or just being able to read a colour chart. But nine million? Where does that figure come from?

Pony Up

Sydney’s pony racing epicentre stretched from the city to Botany Bay, with the main courses located in Rosebery, Kensington, Ascot and Victoria Park

What was pony racing? For some the name conjures images of children riding Shetland ponies in “hay-bale” hurdle races at agricultural shows. This is totally misleading; in Australia, pony racing was the name given to a sport conducted at racecourses that raced outside Australian Jockey Club and Victoria Racing Club jurisdictions and were so popular they were a constant thorn in the side to these clubs of the establishment. It was racing’s pioneering equivalent of the “Super-league” and World Series Cricket schisms. Most races at “pony” meetings were in fact contested by fully-grown thoroughbreds.

Some writers have perpetuated myths about pony racing, depicting the sport as a rough-and-ready, corrupt form of weekday racing, featuring midget horses on miniature racecourses, existing only during the Great Depression. It has been suggested that pony racing appealed to the desperate, the “needy and greedy” elements of the working class only. Sydney’s Pony Racecourses demonstrate that such assertions are without basis. The sport was one of the country’s biggest industries, with the prize money for its cup-races matching the Cox Plate. Some of its Sydney racecourses were rated second only Randwick, and for a time it was more popular on Saturdays than Australian Jockey Club racing.

The four pony racecourses between the city and Botany Bay were an integral part of Sydney life during the first half of the 20th century. Existing histories of horse racing fail to acknowledge the contemporary importance and popularity of pony racing. This alternative history of horse racing enables pony racing to claim “[its] fair share of the past”.  Wayne Peake

The above is taken from a book in which Wayne Peake blows apart the various myths and misinformation that in particular the Australian Jockey Club sowed beginning in the heyday of so-called pony racing before WWII.

The fate of the Victoria Park Racecourse which was located on reclaimed swamp land at Zetland is illustrative of the fate of racecourses when the public good wins out against vested interests. Victoria Park constitutes 25 hectares in Zetland. There were several other racecourses, located around the Sydney airport.

In relation to Victoria Park, it was requisitioned when World War II broke out.  The racecourse was occupied by the Army for two years, and in 1945 was sold to Lord Nuffield to expand his automobile manufacturing empire into Australia. The company became British Motor Corporation in the 1960s and manufactured the Mini for many years. The 1970s saw a decline in the company’s fortunes, especially when the P76 was developed to compete with the existing Holden, Ford and Chrysler models. Ostensibly, the P76 design was adapted so a 44-gallon drum could be put in the boot. The company, Leyland Australia, found that sales were badly affected not only by being an ugly car with a huge boot, but also by industrial problems, fuel price increases and tariff reductions. The factory closed in 1975.

The Australian Navy took over the site in 1975 and built a large stores depot to amalgamate the many small facilities that had grown up around Sydney from World War II. The Navy eventually moved out in 1995, and the NSW Government’s Landcom land development agency purchased Victoria Park. The site was equipped with streets and basic infrastructure for residential use and then sold to developers. Today it is the site of 3,000 apartments and a shopping centre and 3.7 hectares of open space.

With all the agitation over the lack of housing, Randwick racecourse occupies 81 hectares near the centre of Sydney. It was granted to the Australian Jockey Club at a time when Randwick was sand dunes and swamp, and at the periphery of the city fifty years after the founding of Sydney.

When one sees this huge area, which lies fallow most of the year with only 45 race meetings each year, so close to the centre of Sydney with excellent transport facilities, it should be inevitable that the city planners should assess the future of all the Sydney racecourses, given how two are near the centre of city where affordable housing is at a premium.

Any attempt to resume such a plot of land, given the mystical nomenclature of “royal” combined with all the vested interests clustered around Randwick – such words as “Irish Catholics”, “Daily Telegraph and other Murdokistas” – and then all the appeal to “tradition” as a word covering “privileges” and that other powerful word “vested interests”. Currently this putative coalition against any change in the configuration of the racecourse in Sydney might probably sacrifice the Canterbury racecourse to housing development, but I would not count on it. Just trying to acquire the outside car park led nowhere, and there is a moratorium on any re-development on that site until 2027.

Given that the Government was faced down by the “dishlicker” lobby over the suggestion that dog racing had seen its day, there is a latent underground force dedicated, irrespective of the popularity, to keeping all the sports upon which a wager could be laid on the outcome of animal races. Yet what is the point of having a dog track almost in the heart of the city, when that track attracts few paying customers – in fact an average of 120 people per race meeting has been quoted – but the defence is that it generates $50m in revenue a year. This of course begs the questions of where is evidence of the $50m, and why not simply computerise all the dog racing – computerised dog racing was run in TABs years ago. The defenders talk about people who will be put out of work, without any evidence of how many would be affected. The reality is that there is an abundance of greyhounds that need homes.

Harness racing moved out from its inner suburban track at Harold Park Sydney to Menangle in the Southern Highlands. The last race meeting was held at Harold Park Paceway in December 2010. Subsequently 1300 apartments were built on 10.6 hectares with 3.8 hectares of open space. Given that the Harold Park area was about ten per cent of the size of Randwick racecourse, it indicates how much potential space there is for housing given that horse racing is hardly essential and could also be moved to the Central Highlands.

Singapore Racing Club

Sacrificing Randwick for the public good may be considered fanciful but is it reasonable to have such facilities so central and accessible when there is such huge pressure on housing site? The Singapore Government does not think so. The last race at the Singapore racetrack is scheduled next year and the 120 hectare site will be handed back to the Singapore Government by 2027, thus ending horse racing in Singapore, where apparently attendances have been falling over the years. The land will be used for housing.

Even the chairman of the Singapore Racing Club, which dates from 1842, has admitted, “This transition will serve to optimise land use for the greater good of the local community and future generations.

These words should be ringing in the ears of the Prime Minister, but they won’t be. He shoves some money into a taxpayer-fed investment fund that is subject to the vagaries of the stockmarket, where the difference between this action and increasing the supply of housing is a lousy joke. Here the country has a deficit in housing, with prime land barely used by the privileged few not coming under scrutiny. Land allocated nearly two hundred years ago to horse racing should not be treated as though it is sacred, but who is listening? Certainly not a Prime Minister who wants to be loved at any cost and a set of parliamentarian freeloaders sipping Bollinger and munching canapés at The Everest race meeting.

Eighty is not the new Sixty

The easiest way to spot an absence seizure is to look for a blank stare that lasts for a few seconds. People in the midst of having an absence seizure don’t speak, listen, or appear to understand. An absence seizure doesn’t typically cause you to fall down. You could be in the middle of making dinner, walking across the room, or typing an e-mail when you have the seizure. Then suddenly you snap out of it and continue as you were before the seizure. – Johns Hopkins

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

Mitch McConnell, the 81 year old American Senator, who has done his best to destroy American democracy, this week demonstrated a petit mal episode. Now relabelled absence seizure, the above description describes accurately what was happening to McConnell. There was a film noir quality about how his fellow Republican politicians reacted. First, they did not seem to know what to do, then they stared at their cognitively dislocated boss. No chair was bought; he was just led away by Senator Barrasso, an orthopaedic surgeon by trade. As one used to Americans yelling 911 at the sight of any emergency, this was a quiet handover.  Senator Thune, McConnell’s deputy, stepped into the breach. Some minutes later, McConnell apparently re-appeared.

In the 1977 Australian referendum, designed to clean up constitutional anomalies, a compulsory retirement age for Federal judges of 70 was passed with a substantial majority. As Mr Justice Kirby at the time said: “The Members of Parliament, who rarely saw the justices of the High Court in those itinerant days, were uniformly shocked at the Acting Chief Justice, Mr Justice Eddie McTiernan’s age and apparent feebleness. It was the sight of the octogenarian which encouraged the bipartisan support for the amendment of the constitution providing for the compulsory retirement of Federal Judges.

Despite his increasing slowness in writing judgments, McTiernan, who had been on the High Court for 46 years, refused to retire until September 1976 when, at the age of 84, he broke his hip and the Chief Justice, Sir Garfield Barwick, refused to allow a wheelchair ramp to be installed for him at the High Court.

The vote to change the Constitution received one of the highest approvals of any Australian referendum proposals. Incidentally, McTiernan lived to 97 years.

The Centenarian

With the advances in medical care, people are living longer but such medical advances are outpacing those improving retention of cognitive ability. The number of failed cures for senile decay, under the rubric of Alzheimer’s disease, has been disappointing. The Californian Senator Feinstein, who appears grossly cerebrally impaired, and probably unable to comprehend what she is required to do, is an example. At 90 she is the sixth oldest Senator ever to serve. Strom Thurmond was still one of the serving South Carolinian Senators at 100.

Even Popes now retire, after the spectacle of a Pope who was so mentally incapacitated that all types of shenanigans were perpetuated during his papacy. The Cardinals retain their cardinal biretta, but after 80 are excluded from the enclave and are requested to retire at 75, although recommended not dictated by papal bull.

Time for Parliamentarians to legislate for retirement dates. Simple request, Otherwise, let’s have a useful meaningful referendum to make it so, so it is not only Federal judges who are compulsorily retired. Sorry, Bob Katter, you will have to go. But 76 years has given you time for you to make an impression on your parliamentary cushion.

Mouse Whisper

Remembering the confronting Sinéad O’Connor whose son committed suicide almost a year before his mother followed him through the bardo.

Been living as undead night creature since. He was the love of my life, the lamp of my soul. We were one soul in two halves. He was the only person who ever loved me unconditionally. I am lost in the bardo without him.

A troubled talent who passed away in a week where our household also was touched by another person, who may himself have wanted time in the bardo.

Tibetan illustration of the “Peaceful and Wrathful Deities of the post-mortem intermediate state (bardo)”