Modest Expectations – West of Liverpool

I have just watched Dr Paul Kelly, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, again on television this week. As we stagger out of this two year spotlight on this bloody virus, Australia will eventually realise how much it owes to this guy, whose calmness among the brouhaha of scientific advice has always known where the horizon is. I hope he can pass on this undoubted skill in his stewardship of public health. 

Nowhere to Hide in Unalloyed Comfort

Tannery

I was reading a text about pollution of a river in Brazil, the Rio Tiete, which runs through São Paulo, and is very polluted in places. One of the words even my young language teacher was unfamiliar with was “curtumes” – the word for tanneries.

I thought how familiar would the average young punter be with the word tannery. There would be some who might believe a tannery is where you go to lie on a tanning bed and stimulate the growth of your malignant melanomas.

How many young people would know what a tannery is?

Tanning animal hides was undertaken as far back as Neanderthal man, and  involves turning animal hides, particularly deer, into leather. Neanderthal man learnt to soften the hides by recognising the efficacy of animal fat, particularly bear, as well as bone marrow and brain. Thus, tanning has always been a messy business. Surplus skin was boiled together with other animal parts into glue.  A totally unpleasant process perpetuated for eons.

However, in the city of my youth, if there was a distinctive unpleasant smell, generally there would be an abattoir around. Tanning hides also involves the use of arsenic, formaldehyde and other pollutants that used to be dumped in a nearby river.

The importance of leather was never more emphasised to me than in the following anecdote. I  remember some years ago a vegan said the only animal product for which he, the vegan, had not found an adequate substitute was shoe leather. However, today it seems mushroom mycelia, banana and pineapple leaves, paper and cork are apparently now favoured as plasticised replacements. The petrochemical industry seems to have pushed the tannery aside.

As a result of all the pressures, there are few tanneries left in this country and the export market for hides has fallen away over the past decade. China, as it does with most polluting industries, leads in tanning, but the biggest exporter of leather is Italy.  It was the link through the leather trade (China to Italy) that facilitated COVID-19’s invasion of Europe via Chinese leather workers who had been brought in to work on the production of shoes and other leather accessories in Northern Italy – and the rest is history.

The tannery is a declining industry; but the stannary represents an even more distant industry. My ancestors came from one of three stannary towns in Devon – Ashburton. This place name is my great-grandparent’s headstone. Tin was first mined in Mesopotamia and there is much speculation as to the origin of tin mining.  The history books assure us the Ascent of Humankind passed from stone to bronze age, which means that tin was a very early metal discovered and used, alloyed with copper to form bronze.

An extensive examination of tin mining in Cornwall and Devon, published in 1908, summed up the plight of the stannary: The smelters are still at the present day the purchasers of the ore of the stannaries, and the antiquated and in some respects apparently unjust business relations between smelter and tinner are responsible for a share of the depression which has rested for a number of years on the tin mines of Cornwall.

The stannary, even in primitive form, was where tin was smelted and thus had played an important part of our early ancestors’ existence. Here, for many centuries, Devon and Cornwall were extremely important revenue producing vehicles, and it is not by chance that the Prince of Wales holds the purse strings of the Duchy of Cornwall. The towns, both in Devon and Cornwall, where the most important centres of tin mining were located; they were called Stannary Towns, a quaint appellation that still exists today. We are reminded of them by the increasing number of minor celebrities who ramble around Britain in TV docos – the remains of tin mining in these two counties always scores a mention.

The Duchy Palace which housed Cornwall’s Stannary Parliament

As for stannary, well it apparently comes from a Cornish word “steyn”, corrupted from the Latin word “stannum”. It should be noted that although we have one of the largest underground tin mines in the world on the West Coast of Tasmania, there are no stannaries, or re-named as tin smelters, in Australia. Our stannic concentrates have to be shipped to Indonesia, Malaysia – and, wait for it, China – to be refined. China has the largest tin deposits in the world, in an industry which, a decade or so ago, was nearly destroyed by the formation of an unsustainable cartel.

So, what’s in a name – tannery or stannary? Progress?

The Premier Pirouette

Pirouettes may be executed singly or as multiple rotations; the latter is commonly performed in the adagio part of a grand pas de deux.

There are many variations of pirouettes.

Watching the flourish of the new NSW Premier with the curious name is to watch an anarchist without the black flag. Unlike that anarchic atavar Tolstoy, he may not yet believe that following the teachings of Jesus and practising non-violence would lead to the collapse of the state and the capitalist economy, but perhaps he would subscribe to the first part.

Now an anarchic mind at work.  I applaud his decision to abandon hotel quarantine.

Hotel quarantine was a stratagem to tide the hotel industry over during the pandemic, but it has lasted longer than expected and the longer the hotel quarantine has been used, the more its frailty has emerged. Only the decision to limit to a dribble the number of people coming to Australia has masked the inadequacy of hotel quarantine.

I applaud his decision to abandon sign language at media conferences. This American import is a means of communication for less than 20,000. For many viewers, it is irritating pantomime, and there is the particularly objectionable sight at Queensland Government press conference where this hulking figure overpowers the conference with his flamboyant gesturing. Just read the subtitles.

I believe that the NSW Premier’s decision to open the borders is consistent with this anarchic progress; but we shall see. The border closure has been peppered with such phrases as “fortress” and “freedom” and “hermit” and the jargon of follow-the-leader journalism”, all words within the anarchist’s lexicon.

As one anarchist has written, freedom is a slippery character. Individual freedoms are tempered by exercising the freedom of one’s will over that of others. Here anarchy of individual freedom runs up against the authoritarian view of imposing their definition of freedom on others. Here the Pirouette, while mouthing the desire to ensure that no one can use institutional structures to deny individual freedoms, exercises absolute authority.

Pirouette or Whirling Dervish

He has pirouetted away from the public health physicians as his soothsayers. He perceives their academic, often contradictory discourse  is increasingly bamboozling the healthy illiterate. The Chief Health Officer now may read the daily COVID figures as though she were reading the Landline weather report, without any media one day and then let loose with her own media conference on another day.

It was interesting to see the Governor-elect of Queensland, in response to the NSW announcement of opening of international borders, shrilly shroud-waving for perhaps the last time. Everybody in Queensland will get the Virus was her dire prediction. For the Queensland Premier, everybody will get vaccinated; something the departing Chief Health Officer has left in her “To Do” basket.

The danger in all this pirouetting is that the importance of public health maybe downgraded. Fortunately, if the media loses interest in providing all and sundry with a microphone, Australia will settle down.

The importance of therapeutic agents has meant that Australia is creating a backup drug stockpile – the efficacy of their actions presumably titrated against the actual need (rather than that of the pharmaceutical companies needing to flog these cures), cost and ease of administration.

The therapeutic agents are no replacement for vaccination. The danger of this approach is exemplified by a well-to-do architect, unvaccinated as is the Texan way, who contracted a severe form of the Virus and was treated by a cocktail of these drugs and survived. He had been very sick and was now, at the time of interview, recovered and considering whether he should be vaccinated. Still ambivalent, despite the severity of his disease.

The problem, as pointed out to him, was that these drugs may assist your recovery from one infection, but they do not prevent you from succumbing to the Virus again. Even having recovered from COVID-19, vaccination is still the ideal choice since it provides a significant boost to antibody levels and hence a more consistent immunity.

Fortunately, we do not have any of our leaders beholden to Trump, and so vaccination hesitancy is not a component of our recovery. Nevertheless, the introduction of drugs which do work should assist in pushing aside the quackery as exemplified by advocacy of hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin and zinc.

The ongoing problem is the requirement for suitable quarantine facilities although this raises the whole question of the number of quarantine places needed, especially if home quarantine is found wanting. The facilities in Victoria and Queensland are being constructed. They will be built in order to reduce the claustrophobia of the current hotel quarantine. At the same time, access to open air should be much better than the artificiality and variability of  air conditioned environments.

These facilities provide a reserve power for each State where quarantine is still required. After all, the troubling yet not unexpected appearance of a variant on the Delta variant reinforces the need for such facilities now and into the future.

Five rapid antigen tests (two saliva and three nasal) have been approved by the TGA for use from 1 November (although with no information yet about how they may be used). Rapid antigen tests are already being used in a variety of settings, including aged care facilities, for film and TV production and at the Howard Springs quarantine facility when it was run by the Commonwealth government.  Responsible use of these testing kits (meaning you don’t hide positive tests) will assist in quarantine and the ability to travel in accord with the rules being imposed by the various State jurisdictions. That’s the theory anyway.

Such an approach works when there is a sense of responsibility and not the selfishness and ignorance, particularly rampant among that cohort of young men with a high level of these two qualities. Youth is bullet proof until death occurs, and then there is the spectacle of tears and flowers and roadside crosses – until the bulletproof vest of youth corrodes with age. Then it is government’s responsibility to pick up the pieces.

Until the sense of community responsibility evens out, then the community must have quarantine facilities to provide a place to curb this restlessness and self-indulgence. I wonder whether anybody in the youthful NSW government has thought this requirement through.

There are other problems, the first is how to deal with waning immunity. This is the next frontier. Fortunately, the question of the appropriate time for a booster after double dose vaccination, is being addressed and appears to have been agreed as six months.

In the long term, any time less than a year for a booster will become tiresome.  The whole inconvenience of being vaccinated in the first place may have been overcome for now. Regular vaccination should become part of assuring the public health of the community. The addition of boosters should continue the same mixture of incentives, including fear, which have shown to be successful in the current rate of vaccination in Australia, although maintaining the 80-90 per cent vaccination rate beyond this year will be a significant challenge – hence, the current discussion about retaining mandated vaccination.

Similarly, there is consideration of immunisation for children from five years to 12 years; what is the plan if the Pfizer application is approved by the FDA in America? Does the Therapeutic Goods Administration then provide approval without delay, followed by the blessing of ATAGI? In other words, there are strands of policy coursing through the veins of the Commonwealth Health Department, without any obvious connection to the various State’s programs on vaccination rates, as though that is the end point rather than an important interim stage.

The main problem with pirouetting, it does not necessarily mean progress, however extravagant, graceful and flamboyant.  And once the pirouetting stops then what is next for the unresolved challenges broached above.

It did not take long for the pirouette to resume. At the end of the week, I have been confounded and am now agog – the proposal for funding towards the manufacture of mRNA vaccines in NSW.  Just out of the Ether?

Building Links in Northern Ireland is better without Bunkers

Let them and me repose in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times, and other men, can do justice to my character; when my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done. – Robert Emmet from the Dock 1803.

To me, it will always be Derry. I remember walking the ramparts of Derry, being watched by security cameras. It was one of those drizzly grey days – the ramparts are grey and the view over Derry is grey, except for the wall murals, the futurist slashes of colour, the stark black and white merging in the greyness of Bloody Sunday.  This is the tapestry of the Troubles. I was here well after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement had brought an uneasy truce to Northern Ireland.

Derry mural

Walking round, overlooking the Bogside, here was I, an Irish Nationalist sympathiser who had never had the courage of my convictions to ever voice them. Like myself, Robert Emmet was not a Roman Catholic but passionate about the Irish being a free nation, even with all its gross imperfections. At various stages, I have thought about obtaining Irish citizenship, because my grandfather was born in Ireland, which made me eligible. In the end, although I have sung the Irish national anthem many times, you can only owe allegiance to one country, and that – for better or for worse – is Australia.

My first encounter with The Troubles was in the eighties when I travelled across the border from Donegal into Fermanagh to the border town of Belleek, famous for its porcelain. Crossing the border I passed by these sentry boxes manned by British troops. I showed my passport and was asked what I was doing. “Tourist” can be difficult to sustain as an excuse, given that I was driving an uncommon route for tourists and, as I learnt later, this was a road used by the IRA to travel between the two countries.

Belleek porcelain is not to my taste. Wandering around the factory was interesting.  It was only later when I drove down the deserted road after leaving Belleek, with Lough Erne below, that I started to feel distinctly uneasy. Even though the clouds were low, the view was superb.  Despite the niggling anxiety, I stopped to take photos, and every time I did so, I had this feeling of being watched. Yet, looking around, there was nothing to see.

Even then, the roads in Northern Ireland were far better than on the other side of the border. It is strange that I noticed this, but I needed to pass through Enniskillen. I remembered I filled up the petrol tank here. As I recall, it was the time between the first and second Enniskillen bomb attacks. On each occasion many were killed, both soldiers and civilians. Needless to say, I did not take in the sights of Enniskillen.

I suppose looking back, I was glad to find refuge over the border back in the Republic in Co Cavan, where I stopped to buy Cavan crystal glasses and a crystal bear. I had traversed Co Fermanagh and nothing had happened, but then most of the time nothing does happen. Nevertheless, there is always the apprehension that something may happen, even when you are sympathetic, as I have been, even siding with the Republican cause. Yet irrespective of my sympathies if it had been the IRA operatives who stopped me on the road, demanding to know my business – they would have, in all probability, enacted their version of Jedburgh justice – shoot me first, try me later.

But then there was a still small voice, which said, “pull yourself together, don’t be so dramatic, boyo, you’re not on the stage of the Abbey Theatre.”

Donald Trump’s Bizarre Obsession

In 2016, presidential candidate Trump challenged a critic, Mayor Sadiq Khan of London: “Let’s do an IQ test,” as if intelligence testing were a board game, or an arm wrestling match.

Lately, Trump has been tossing around his crazy epithet “low IQ,” as in “very low-IQ individual Robert De Niro” or “low-IQ Mika Brzezinski.” I wonder if anyone other than De Niro’s mother has ever fretted about her son’s being “mentally” challenged. He’s a great actor; does he need great board scores too?

Trump is not the first politician to ply these waters. In 1987, then-Presidential candidate Joe Biden lashed out at a questioner, saying, “I think I have a much higher I.Q. than you do.” Biden then proceeded to make Trumpian, i.e. false, claims about finishing in the top half of his law school class.

I suppose most people want to be thought of as intelligent, and we know Trump is manically insecure about almost everything. Anyone who has to boast that he is “really smart” and “a very stable genius” calls attention to his intellectual vulnerability.

Why? There’s no evidence that Trump is an idiot; indeed, quite the contrary. He’s obviously lazy, preferring the intellectual slurry of television to the written word. He may have suffered the expected mental erosion of a 72-year-old (Sic)*, but he’s not slow.

*Trump was born in 1946 and thus is 75.

This above extract from The Boston Globe was somewhat ruminative; it is as though one of the senior staff at The Boston Globe had a space to fill and wrote this piece, while at the same time reminding us of Biden’s mental frailty (a situation which has always troubled me).

The analysis of Trump reminds us of the fact that mental deterioration afflicts everybody to some degree, and whether IQ is a valid measurement or not when you age; it is still there to check some level of functioning. As such it may give some solace to Trump if he wanted to demonstrate his mental prowess.

Trump is such a narcissistic personality that I doubt that he would submit himself to an IQ test.  Even if he did and the test did not validate his boast, then he would say that those administering the test had falsified the results or stolen his brain or anything that came into the confabulating gap in his 75 year old cerebrum.

I did an online IQ test, finishing the 20 questions well within the allotted time. My score was 108.  So, I am just average Giacomo, but I do have visual perception in the top one per cent. That’s great because I can perceive the light at the end of the tunnel as that hooded chap with a sickle waving a lantern. The problem is that I am not smart enough to calculate the length of the tunnel.

Mouse Whisper

A Liverpool merchant called John Bellingham shot dead the UK Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, in the halls of the Houses of Parliament on 11 May 1812.  Bellingham was summarily executed a week later at Newgate Prison.

As written, after Perceval’s death, the Parliament made generous provisions for his widow and children and approved the erection of a monument in Westminster Abbey.

Thereafter his ministry was soon forgotten, his policies reversed; there was no hand wringing by Parliamentarians and consequent acts of government to enhance security to further alienate their constituents by the erection of portcullises and attendance by armed guards. He was, after all, the Prime Minister when there was not a hungry security industry to feed and community fear to be cynically provoked.

As for us rodents, Mouseilini was the last of ours to be drowned in a vat of warfarin – or rather in a rat sack.

Modest Expectations – Ohotata Kore

I once had a Welsh friend, the navigator who sat beside the driver in those car rallies where the object seems to be to charge along tracks in the bush, often at night, at terrifying speeds. The navigator’s job was to keep his eyes on the map under torchlight and bark at the driver the instructions in regard to what the road in front was about to do. In other words, he did not look at the road; his only instrument was the map. Therefore, his accurate reading of the map was crucial to survival. Year after year he did this. Then one day, in mid rally, he told the driver to stop. He folded the map, got out of the car and never rallied again. In his case, he had lost his nerve.

In my case, I am writing my 105th blog – 105 being the non-emergency contact number for the police in New Zealand, and “non-emergency” at the head of this piece in Maori. In my case, have I lost the inclination to keep writing? Mine is not writer’s block. I know what “writer’s block” is. I have stopped writing for months while I have wrestled with not being able to see the logical or credible path forward. It is not that I have run out of ideas; it is just that there is a spaghetti junction in my mind, and which strand is the best to follow is not immediately clear.

I always admired Alistair Cooke. I listened to his “Letter from America” for years until his death. Yet when I re-read them, many are covered in the crustiness of age. Not all; some remain very relevant. Nevertheless, I always wished to emulate Cooke. There is always in him the adventurous, curious, cultivated mind. There is always something or somebody you wish to emulate at any point of time. That is the nature of civilisation, and dare I say, democracy.

This is a soliloquy in working out whether by writing this blog, I have said all I have to say to myself. After all, a blog to me is an aide-memoire before old age murders my facility not only to remember but also to make some sense of the trail that has twisted and turned in front of me for so many years. Generally, it depends on whether your map has coincided with that in front of you – and whether, if ever, you lose your nerve. However, unlike my friend, the navigator, you need a clear rear vision mirror and not one clouded in bulldust.

Our St Patrick’s Day

I have Irish ancestry; in fact, since my grandfather was born in Ireland, I am eligible for Irish citizenship. I looked at what is involved some years ago and said why would I do that at my age? I am Australian; I do not need a dual nationality, irrespective of what ephemeral advantages that might bring, such as the national anthem. The Irish national anthem is one forged by fire in 1911; Australia’s doggerel was composed for a concert of the Highland Society of New South Wales in 1878.

I have been registered to practise medicine in the Republic for years and like all good unionists joined the Irish Medical Organisation and even attended some of their conferences. I am shedding membership in Irish organisations of which I am a member. I have done courses in Irish, both contemporary and Old – and nothing has stuck. Except I can pronounce Niamh and Saiose.

Thus, what is left to us is acknowledgement of St Patrick’s Day. Gone are the days of faux leprechauns decked out in four-leaf clover (I was reminded this week that the world record for a stalk of clover is 56 leaves). However, blarney is what those blessed with Irish genes are contained in each Bushmill drop.

Why is it that on one day of the year Irish whiskey becomes palatable, but that is a trifle harsh, especially when it is 10 years’ old malt. The Irish drink Guinness; the elderly elsewhere call it stout. To me they are equally to be avoided. I dislike the creaminess, which spills over to many of the other Irish beers. Yet after the first two pints, it does become more tolerable.

Now Irish cuisine is another matter. It has the breadth of experience of a mashed potato abetted by cuts of meat, including mince, a step up from offal – some of which incidentally I like, as long as it is not brains, heart, lungs or sweetbreads.

In any event, we sat down to a meal of shepherd’s pie with red cabbage and apples. We did have enough potato not to add colcannon and enough cabbage not to need corned beef – other staples of Irish cuisine! Potato bread was piled up on a separate plate.

As it coincided with my Portuguese language class, I offered a toast to the class with green coloured water. You see, the Portuguese have a variety of wine which they called vinho verde. Actually, it is not green, it is straw-coloured. In fact, it is a white wine from that eponymous region of Portugal along the River Douro. I don’t think my teacher got the joke.

My celebration of my Irish heritage thus is reduced to an annual meal of modest proportions and a certain latter-day sparseness in my quaffing.

I am not one for Bloomsday, although at one of those pub celebrations, I once saw across the bar somebody who in profile uncannily resembled Katherine Mansfield. She is one of several women in history who have always fascinated me and whom I wished that I could have met.

I have shivered in the Celtic Twilight and stood in homage of William Butler Yeats and his wife, George, at their grave in Drumcliff Co Sligo. As the Irish Times reported at his final interment in 1948, he having died in France in early 1939 and his remains transferred after WWII to Ireland.

THERE WAS a veil of mist over the bare head of Ben Bulben yesterday afternoon when the remains of William Butler Yeats were buried in Irish soil. Soft grey rain swept in from the sea, soaking the Irish tricolour that lay upon the plain wooden coffin, as the body of the poet was laid at last in the churchyard of Drumcliffe.

Ben Bulben

But strangest of all my experiences in the Emerald Isle was the day I was striding across the Burren in Co Clare and I began to run because it had started to rain. I then had the strongest feeling I have ever had of déjà vu. A small boy also running, a boy in shreds and patches. No, I’m not completely mad; just Irish.

Let me fish off Cape St Mary’s

It is just a matter of my association of St Patrick’s day and the Western Australian election. It is tortuous but let me explain.

Western Australia has just witnessed the biggest rejection of being an Australian that one could ever imagine. I immediately thought of the landslide elections which have taken place in Queensland in 1974 and then in 2012. It was a matter of personalities, and if Queenslanders take a set against you then it’s “good night nurse”, as multiple “Mexicans” have found out.

However, the genesis of the Western Australian terramoto is different. The population has embraced secession with an unbridled intensity.

What WA thought of us in 1933

While the victory may partially be attributed to the current strength of the Western Australian economy, with the iron ore prices being high and Brazil being a “basket case”, the root cause lies in secessionist sentiments. Premier McGowan has been able to pull off what his State tried to do by legislative changes in the 1930s. He has seceded from the rest of Australia by just closing the borders when the Virus appeared, continuing it well after it was justified on public health reasons, thus thumbing his nose at the Prime Minister. His course of action was endorsed by the Liberal Party wipeout at the recent election.

Yet if there was one incident that set McGowan off, it was the Ruby Princess affair. He was incensed by the NSW Government’s cavalier handling of that incident, and he has used Premier Berejiklian as a punching bag ever since when it has suited him. Berejiklian seems to evoke this visceral response from other Premiers. They see through her “goodie-two-shoes teacher’s pet” persona.

The border issue made some sense when Australia was working out the adversary Virus and NSW was allowing the Virus to rip through Australia via the Ruby Princess debacle. Then progressively as Australia worked out a uniform public health response, it made less and less sense in any public health interpretation and more to political animosities to keep the borders closed.  The pain in developing this uniform strategy should not be underestimated nevertheless.

Border closure became an overt political device by the less populous States, none better manipulated than by McGowan.

It is interesting to note that during the 1890s the group that pushed Western Australia towards Federation were Eastern Goldfield miners around Kalgoorlie. Given that gold had not been discovered until a few years before, it showed how quickly a mining group could gain an influential position. Western Australia then had a small population located in a huge land mass, where cattle occupied grass castles; grain was been grown in fertile south-west; whaling was concentrated around Albany; a pearling industry had been started around Broome; and for a time, sandalwood was the major export.

Some voices suggested that New Zealand would be more relevant within the nascent Federation, but in the end by 1901, Western Australia had joined but New Zealand had declined.

Nevertheless, secessionism always close to the surface. If the Federal Government had paid heed to the history of the Western Australian secessionist movements, it would have recognised the dangerous course McGowan has pursued. It is extremely difficult now to achieve actual secession constitutionally, as the path to this was effectively closed during the 1930s. The border closure issue remains and will persist as long as the Federal Government fails to confront the situation.

Now why would I connect this secessionist movement with St Patrick’s Day?

Iceberg alley, St John’s

Whenever I think of the Irish, apart from my Australo-Irish heritage, I think of Newfoundland. When one goes to Newfoundland, one realises that Mother Nature is Irish. In the St John’s harbour on the first day of summer, there are icebergs still. Well, actually summer begins on 16 June when the trees have burst into foliage, and then there is a two-week moratorium before the mosquitos emerge, and the battle is joined.

The other factor in my memory was how Irish Newfoundland felt for me. The “Newfie” accent has more than a hint of the brogue, but it was the music which confirmed that Newfoundland was part of Irish diaspora. To hear the group, the Irish Descendants, singing Let me Fish Off Cape St Mary’s is to hear the heart of the diaspora. The cliffs from which this fishing port overlooks the Atlantic Ocean could be part of the West Coast of Ireland. It was ironic when I was there that fishing for cod, once the mainstay of the fishing industry, was prohibited so far had the fish stocks fallen. The ban came in 1992, and it was 20 years before the cod returned in numbers. One could still get cod’s tongue, a local delicacy but then it came from “aways”. I think somebody might have said Iceland.

And what the hell has this to do with Western Australia? Well, Newfoundland had been created a separate dominion apart from Canada in 1907. In effect it was a separate country. At the same time in 1934, while certain elements in Western Australia were agitating for secession, the Newfoundlanders were doing the opposite. The Great Depression had sent them perilously close to the financial wall, and so they joined the Canadian Federation giving up their self-governing status and adding Mainland Labrador to form the present province. The fact that Newfoundland is much the same distance to Dublin as to Ottawa did not influence the “Newfie” intent, but then it is not in their makeup to calibrate distance as a sign of loyalty.

Both in Australia and Canada shift in status has depended on constitutional recognition. In the past when there are concerns of disease spread, the methods of quarantine including border closure are constitutionally the responsibility of the Federal Government. Setting up a public relations manoeuvre and calling it a “national cabinet” in the end showed that the Federal Government was just shifting its constitutional responsibility to the States so they could cop the blame if matters went wrong as they did in Victoria.

McGowan is in the favourable position of being able to have the same advantageous GST position, as heading a State of the Commonwealth of Australia.

However, he is perceived as having had a landslide electoral victory when he shook the secessionist tambourine for all its worth, Western Australia the de facto nation holding as hostages many of the electoral Federal foes including the controversial duo of Porter and Reynolds. Moreover, Western Australia in all likelihood will lose one of the seats in coming redistribution, and therefore the already nervous Liberal Party will be forced to play “musical seats”. Thus, an already factionalised Liberal Party has all the ingredients to tear itself apart

McGowan now knows that if the Federal Government holds back GST money from Western Australia or take any other perceived discriminatory action, it will be beaten up electorally there.

McGowan knows that the Federal Government is not willing to stop him meddling with the borders. He does not need any constitutional change to effect secession without metaphorically “leaving the building”. He has effectively done so, and any arcane legal processes were brushed aside when he effectively usurped the quarantine power of the Commonwealth, which unequivocally is a constitutional power of the Federal Government.

Therefore, the Prime Minister is faced with this situation, first enunciated by Bishop Morton, of Morton’s fork.

Ironically, one of the Prime Minister’s strongest acolytes is named Morton, a Pentecostal blow-in from NSW who was in charge of the WA Liberal Party, who inherited Tangney, a very safe Liberal seat along the Swan River. No longer if the recent State election is any guide.

What happened in the 1930s was because the Federal Government of both Australia and Canada held the cards. The constitutional barriers were too great in Australia once the deed had been done in 1901; and Newfoundland simply could not afford being a separate nation.

But as they say in the native argot, McGowan is “giving it a red hot go” to create his own nation.

Oh, not another transparent bureaucrat

“At ASIO, we’re conscious that the names and labels we use are important,” he said. “Words matter. They can be very powerful in how they frame an issue and how they make people think about issue.”

Thus, spake Mr Burgess, the head of the Australian academy of spooks. He is “friendly” Mike to us punters. In a recent media interview, we get the full story of the poor boy from a migrant family who was the first in his family to go the University and moreover to undertake electrical engineering. Before the image of the “log cabin” childhood is further invoked, he outs himself as being a cyber nut, and thus he lives in a world where his simulacra in other jurisdictions try to out-hack one another.

Nevertheless, there is a cloaked anecdote about the “nest of spies” that his outfit has been able to quash or whatever – there is no detail; just an enticing tit-bit for the writer. Spooks must invoke mystery and plot right back to Walsingham.

One of the most concerning situations is when somebody in the spook business embarks on this sort of exercise, because those who run the organisation can try and present themselves as an ordinary person, you know the football team follower, has a dog et cetera and that – at the same time at budget time invokes all sorts of horror befalling the nation if the “Spook Budget” is not increased.

The security services exist to keep their rival services at bay, foiling disablers of major computer networks, and preventing such anti-community activities such as the recent Neo-Nazi gathering at Hall’s Gap.

The essential ingredient is to have a critical evaluation of the effectiveness of such activities. Burgess in the comments quoted above also maintains that no longer will they reveal whether the dangers are from the extremist right or left wing groups or delineating whether the terrorist groups are linked to ISIS or whatever. He said that his service will restrict itself to saying that such activities will be characterised as being “belief or ideologically based”. It is subtle, but in fact he is saying he will be further constricting information, but generalising the threat.

I wonder, as I pass through the airport screening how useful testing for explosives has been, because some mad guy tried to detonate explosives in the heels of his shoes on a Miami bound flight in 2001. How many copycats have been detected at Australian airports, at what cost, given also that there is a large group that is not tested anyway?

The January episode in Washington showed how useful security is when a crowd is determined to riot to the point of insurrection.  Mostly not at all.

I want to be assured that our security services don’t spend their money on profiling their operatives. I would like to believe that given the Australian security service has a history of conservative political association, this has dissipated and been replaced by a politically neutral service. Parliamentary surveillance needs to include people able to contain the secretive authoritarian technocrat that Burgess embodies.

Brigadier Sir Charles Chambers Fowell Spry CBE, DSO

Attempts were made to recruit me when ASIO, under Brigadier Spry, was a political action committee for the Menzies Government concerned with “reds under the bed”; and riddled with proto-fascist operatives such as elements of Moral Re-Armament, the leader of which Frank Buchman openly praised Hitler.

Charles Spry himself was an affable chap, with a penchant for Scotch whisky which he shared with the Prime Minister. However, behind that persona was a very determined anti-communist and where scruples could be left on the dressing table as if they were cuff links.

Whitlam set up the Hope Royal Commission in 1974, the report from which has formed the basis for the modern-day intelligence services. A raid on ASIO as ordered by Lionel Murphy, then the Commonwealth Attorney-General in 1973, would today be unimaginable.

In a very perceptive thesis on the organisation published in 2018, Coventry concluded:

Intelligence and security have become second nature to Australians and anyone else in the US ‘hub and spokes’ system. To argue for the abolition of ASIO in the present time is unpalatable; for good reason. The neoliberal phenomenon of globalisation means that targets of terrorism are, as Nixon feared, ubiquitous. Any citizen or corporation or NGO located overseas can be seen as an extension of a targeted government; all it takes is a careless comment by a public official. It is often overlooked that governments have a clear role in provoking terrorism, including within in society, though many may wish to believe this threat comes purely from the mental illness, barbarity and jealousy of others.

In 2010, the former director general of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, told the Chilcot Inquiry that she had warned the Blair Government (1997-2007) that involvement in the Iraq War would result in higher levels of home-grown terrorism. She was of course vindicated. It must be said that ASIO has done well so far to keep the Australian Government and citizenry from the kind of harm exhibited overseas.

That last comment is reassuring, but that was written before Burgess became the ASIO Director-General in 2019, and he is running the line of foreign interference and espionage being the paramount dangers (rather than terrorism) which suits his technologically-driven agenda. He reminds me of the old “cold war warriors”, himself ideologically driven as far as his background has given meaning to that word (or words).

Australia needs an Attorney-General to withstand Burgess’ undoubtedly very powerful personality coupled with his wide access to information. To believe that Australia’s security organisation does not actively participate in cyber warfare would be incredibly naïve.

I am now an avid watcher of the activities of Mike Burgess. I look forward to his first interview with Crikey.

Mouse Whisper

I never did like that skunk Pepe Le Pew. His characterisation gave rodents a bad name, but he is the latest casualty in the war against the predatory male. Looney Tunes have shown him the door.  The comedian, David Chappelle, who once said that the famous can always become infamous but not unfamous, says of the skunk: Pepe, whom he laughed at as a kid, later through an adult lens makes him realise: “What kind of … rapist is this guy?” 

Wait a minute! I stand corrected. Skunks are not rodents; they are of the same ilk as Tim Wilson’s cabal of wolverines.

Pepe Le Pew, about to be cancelled

Modest expectations – Route Marcus John

I was born on the west coast of Ireland many year ago & up to now I thought I had a hard life as a young boy picking potatoes for farmers, plucking turkeys for meat exporters, caddying for rich golfers wishing for a bag of clubs on each shoulder. But after seeing (how the Blasket people lived) I now I know I lived the life of a prince. The Blasket people were made of granite. I now live the life of a softie in England compared to what they endured …

Blasket Island

This stray Twitter comment from some guy who had watched a video on the Blasket islands off the coast of Kerry typifies many of us with West coast Irish heritage. There is something about really returning to one’s Celtic roots if you travel to one of the islands.

The Blasket islands have not been inhabited since 1953 when the then Taioseach Eamon De Valera moved the last 22 inhabitants off the island and onto the mainland. Nevertheless, this group of islands has much Gaelic literature written about them.

Sometimes, especially as you grow older, you like to relax in your heritage. Mine is partially rooted in Co Clare and off the coast are the Aran Islands; an intrinsic part of the Gaeltacht.

I remember the day I went to Inishmore, the largest of the three islands. I took the ferry from Doolin. The ferry was delayed until the tide came in, and if you get impatient, remember the Irish nostrum: “A watched kettle never boils”. So we all waited and waited. However, the day was one of those days when you thought you were going to a Greek Island rather than to an island in the Atlantic Ocean.

Rowing your curragh

The 1934 documentary called Man of Aran that I watched recently, made and remade the point that the seas around the island were very rough and perilous, and not a good place to be out rowing your curragh. It is a dark film.

The island seems to be enveloped in gloom – dragging the curragh from the surf, gathering seaweed to provide nutrition for the soil, breaking stones to uncover that precious soil in which to plant potatoes, cliff fishing – a hazardous exercise of throwing a long line down the cliff wall into the sea. Conversing in Gaelic – hard to hear with words drifting the waves and wind.

Overall, men, woman, boy – these are the toilers of the seas, to borrow from Victor Hugo. Light is provided when the figures are set against the backdrop of grey skies hacking at rocks or looking out to sea. Or else light is the white spume of the dark tempestuous sea crashing against the rocks and cliff face.

The film uses black and white imagery, which has been so over-used, to define an Ireland deprived of its emerald hue – sunless and poor.

Contrast it against the unexpected experience of being on the Aran Islands when the sun shone and you could be in the Mediterranean. Here was an optimistic panorama and not a cloud in the sky; the ocean a millpond. An island where you could take off your heavy fisherman’s jacket and sweater and go bare-sleeved.

I trekked across the limestone and grass and over stone walls to the ancient Neolithic fort which sits on the edge of cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It has the appearance of half being there, and the other half having broken away and fallen in the water. The Legend of Atlantis often gets a run when you see the ruin, especially from above. But it is an illusion; it was just built that way, as if to defy the elements.

In the progress of the trudge across the island, I was sunburnt – for God’s sake in Ireland. Twice that has happened. And that was before I could blame it on climate change.

The Man of Aran, however authentic it may have been when it was a pathfinding documentary of a vanishing Ireland, now can be portrayed as a caricature of an impoverished land.

But that day on the island aroused in the emotion of an ancestral intrusion. The landscape is a limestone continuation of the Burren, an extraordinary pavement that appears to have the hand of my ancestors in its creation. Yet it is where Nature has brought together Arctic and Mediterranean flora in the nooks and crannies of this pavement. It is a place where I have had the sensation, walking across it, of having been there before – was that chance or was it predetermined that I had placed feet on where one of my ancestors had trodden.

I have always been fascinated by the concept of the Celtic twilight.

Therefore, one of the privileges of an Irish heritage is that it has provided me with a sense of that past, which has shaped who I am – both my insignificance and my significance. That day on Inishmore I was tempted to buy a stone cottage and live surrounded by dry stonewalls and green fields. The life of an ascetic lingered for a moment.

That urge passed because in the end you are one person no matter where your heritage may lie, and I am Australian not Irish, not someone who repeatedly says that my mob have been here for 40,000 years but nevertheless proud of my mob who have been in Australia for 170 years.

I hope I have added value to the nation of many nations brought together under the Southern Cross even as the twilight gathers. In the end, it is what you do with the privilege of being here, be it one year or 40,000.

I disagree with the Twitter who escaped from the West Coast to become a softie in England.   Migration does mean being, as he terms, “a softie”. It was not a soft option for my ancestors to leave, after all it is a long way from Tipperary, let alone County Clare.

The Cylcon

I first saw them in a roadhouse at Little Topar, lying alongside the emu eggs in a dusty display case. I asked whether I could buy one of them. The guy behind the counter said no. He was only minding them for the owner. Same reply each time, I asked. The owner was elusive. Stone walls are stone walling and I did not stop at Little Topar often enough to nag.

So there it rested, until I saw one advertised on e-Bay. I am not one of those people who regularly trawls e-Bay, but I was attracted to a couple of Aboriginal artefacts, which looked ridiculously cheap. However, they became part of a bidding war – and I have never bought anything at auction. In any case, I am a tyro when bidding against skilled operators, who have so much better timing of their bids (to say nothing of the automated bidding programs).

Anyway, once on the e-Bay site, I had a further look for anything else that that might be interesting. Then there it was – one of those items that had been displayed at the Little Topar roadhouse.

It was a cylcon and it was for sale.

To put Little Topar into context, it is a roadhouse about 100 kilometres from Broken Hill. Nothing else. Cylcons, as the name implies, are conicocylindrical stones. They are said to be found across Australia, but were often picked up by those working on properties in Western NSW and South-West Queensland. Markings are not uniform and it is said that the local Aboriginal Barkinji knew nothing of them.

However, then you read elsewhere about a mob around Lake Eyre who were still using stones that resemble cylcons at least 50 years ago.

Tchuringas are often mentioned alongside cylcons as having magical powers. I know what authentic tchuringas look like as I was shown several when I was travelling around the Kimberley in the late 1970s. An elder of the local mob, who thought I was important enough to unwrap this valuable legacy showed them to me as we sat alone. As I worked out later, this was one of the most sacred possessions. That’s all I will say recognising that anything I could say about it would be strictly men’s business and remains so.

So now I have a hard sandstone cylcon. I can talk about it, still not knowing what its significance is – it remains unfinished business.

The messages are getting mixed again

A couple of recalcitrant families have tested positive for the Virus in Victoria and the postal address of these families suggests they are not “white anglo-saxon protestants”. Anyway there is no mention of heritage, and there was only passing reference to the fact that last month it was Cedar Meat abattoir at Brooklyn in one of the targeted local government areas (LGA), which was associated with an outbreak resulting in 111 workers testing positive. Do we really want to punish the whole of Victoria because of one group? Let us not be coy about where the problem lies.

The fact is Victoria has used the first lockdown in March to refine contact tracing to a very comprehensive level. However, there is need to develop a strategy to selectively isolate those groups who persist in flouting the rules, without disrupting everybody’s lives.

An Essendon football player has tested positive for COVID-19 virus. He has been found guilty of flouting the very tough guidelines, which have tried to isolate these gladiators in some sort of safe house environment. Then they show the image of this player on the field with his teammates. First, he spits on the ground and then he blows his nose so the droplets spray everywhere.

So the AFL says that they take every precaution to ensure that the behaviour of players is hygienic; so is this player as pictured the only one spitting and blowing his nose without a tissue? No evidence of hand sanitiser here. No evidence that he was disciplined for those disgusting pieces of behaviour. The game must go on, the tills must keep jingling – metaphorically.

There is confusion about whether he has tested positively or not; and anyway Essendon say he only had contact with a marginal player who would not have been selected.

That seems to be the first mixed message; just like the scurry before the Grand Prix in March. Essendon player contact vs a large Keilor Downs family contact – different approach?

Then there is the matter of quarantine facilities.

One topic that has not received much attention is the need for permanent quarantine facilities.

Sydney quarantine station

Australia has been quick to lock up asylum seekers. They are clearly different from those who flout – accidently or intentionally – the rules laid down in one major respect, the latter group vote. The way the Biloela Four have been treated is nothing short of disgraceful.

This situation is more than regrettable if an ignorant populist tries to bend public health discipline for short-term electoral gain. One of the problems with the Victorian outbreak is that it is within Labour-voting electorates. However, the Premier seems imperturbable.

That is no reason for the current Government adopting a different reaction to one where the outbreak is in Liberal- voting electorates

In the past, where there was a need to quarantine people, quarantine facilities were located close to the shipping. However, while cruise ships have been shown to be a very real source of infection, it is air travel where the major problem of ongoing infection will arise. Therefore, as quarantine is now becoming an ongoing issue, it is now important to rapidly develop facilities close to airports, where those to be quarantined can go.

Using hotels in the centre of the city with obviously unskilled staff is not an ideal long-term solution. Hotels are not constructed to quarantine people – quarantine facilities must be secure.

As has been shown in Sweden, believing people will take seriously a foe that they cannot see, hear or touch has not worked. This Virus may show its presence through smell and debatably taste, but they are not the primary senses to stimulate a “viral defence policy”.

The second mixed message is thus that politicians think quarantining the asylum seekers is OK; but not those fleeing the Virus.

The Prime Minister is keen to have a building /renovation program. Constructing appropriate quarantine facilities would be an important way to consolidate in more ways than one on the governments’ achievements; rather than fritter the sense of unity away on acrimony over the borders or fritter away money on some renovation scheme accessible to a few well-heeled homeowners. Some would say a return to the primitivism of politics rather than a rational way of devising a sustainable quarantine program.

In doing so, the government must realise that this situation is not a three month wonder since it seems that some countries, notably the USA have given up, irrespective of what they say, and just wish for a vaccine or that the Virus will go away.

Therefore, such construction recognises that this situation is not going away any time soon. One of the dozens of facilities currently seeking a vaccine might be lucky, but inescapably the most recent vaccines for HPV and chicken pox took 15 and 20 years respectively to develop.

When government wants to, it can use its own land to construct anything.

Those that are sick go to hospital. There used to be infectious disease hospitals – the last one being Fairfield Hospital in Melbourne, which was closed in 1996. I once had a week in Fairfield as a teenager when I had a severe respiratory infection for which there was no obvious reason. In another time, I could have been the first in a line of pandemic victims with an unusual set of symptoms.

COVID-19 has shown that it is preferable to have the capacity to treat an infectious disease for which there is no cure and but importantly to have the skills to treat patients without the disease being let loose in the general hospital environment.   After all, warnings of recent epidemics have been largely ignored; but now the pandemic has come upon a World which has been shown as hopelessly unprepared.

The third mixed message follows on and involves border closures. With the Victorian outbreak, the hysteria is rising again. “Victoria is the Lazaret State”. Australia has suppressed the Virus to such an extent that it can be isolated to specific areas. So you can lock down particular areas; not the whole State. You prohibit movement outside that area until the virus is suppressed; those who don’t obey go to the quarantine facilities and join the overseas arrivals.

The bluntness of this message may act as a deterrent. We have not worried about the niceties of language for the asylum seekers; so why not those that flout the COVID-19 regulations. No exceptions, not even for the rich and infamous. However, there must be designated quarantine facilities that are run as such. Once you have defined quarantine facilities and the staff requirements you bring certainty into the process.

My son came back from the United States in early March and was case 13 in Victoria. It was uncertain times as knowledge of the behaviour of the Virus was not as well known as it is now. His spread was contained. That meant inter alia that the whole family stayed at home without any direct contact with anybody until all were virus-negative. However he and his wife have defined antibody titres, as presumably have all those who have recovered in Australia.

Before we have more mixed messages – of having some recognition of their status, what does it mean? Can such people travel freely around the country or internationally? Around the world there are a growing number of such people. Do they get the equivalent of a diplomatic passport to travel? What is the ideal threshold titre for immunity required? And the questions mount up because there is still so much unknown. To avoid a fourth mixed message, does Australia just subscribe to the WHO conservative dictum on this subject – especially the immunity passport as suggested by Chilean sources have superficial appeal to some?

George V Salle à Manger

After all, there will be a graduated requirement for return to travel. Some places will be safer than others. This one area where a fifth mixed message is liable to arise as the “politician itch” to go overseas becomes unbearable. This pandemic has questioned the need to have all the junket paraphernalia – sister-cities, inter-parliamentary delegations, most conferences and even business travel – let alone ministers and their staff spending vast sums of money for nothing much more than say, having lobster bisque at the George V in Paris.

Been there; done that. Time to suppress the virus of Self Indulgence, which also selectively affects tastebuds. However, for others it has been a fascination – the overseas all-expenses paid junket. What is the government’s advice in relation to this? What twisting and turning will Australia see to make sure the lobster bisque does not go to waste?

And of course there is the sixth mixed message to end all mixed messages, Ann Sherry. She has, as recently as February this year, been applauded for all the good works she did for the Carnival organisation. She has now bobbed up co-chairing some Australia-New Zealand outfit to promote, among other things, tourism. Given her propensity to flog ships can we expect Carnival, her old ahoy, to be plying between their ships between Australia and New Zealand?

I understand there is no foundation to the rumour that Carnival is renaming its ships: the Rabies Princess, the Diarrhoea Princess, the Plague Princess and the Leprosy Princess. 

Five Characters in Search of a Disease

We were having lunch in the neighbourhood restaurant that serves freshly shucked rock oysters mostly from the south Coast.

Nearby, in retrospect far too close to us, a table was set for five.

They straggled in and sat down at the table with their bottles of wine. They were five men, well into their sixties and beyond, and typical of men when they gather together, loud talking, joking, passing the booze – as they have probably done whenever they’ve gathered.

The problem is that these are not normal times. Were they social distancing themselves? Well, no. Their bodies were touching. Was there any evidence of hand sanitiser? Well, no

In fact in retrospect, given that the courtyard was virtually empty, they could have located there.

However, suddenly one of them sneezed and coughed extravagantly. No tissue – he at least belatedly put his hand in front of his mouth. I told him off – told him to cough into his sleeve. I said a few more words. The table shut up for a short time.

Who was this other old codger telling off one of their number? They were stunned, as though being pulled up for a transgression outside the confessional box was itself a venal sin. Then they said no more and went back to their crowded space – except nobody coughed.

It emphasises how tenuous this whole community regulation as been on any long-term change of behaviour, even attitudes. Here was a group of men in the target age for serious trouble if they were unfortunate enough to catch the Virus.

However that is not the imagery that is projected on the screens; rather it is of old people being the victims. In some cases this is true, but there is a problem. It is being able to tell old people what to do – especially when they are not culturally attuned to change, except by extreme coercion.

In this case, I remember these guys as young men – not this particular quintet. They nevertheless represent that chap who limped into the surgery 50 years before with a severely infected leg following a seemingly minor injury a week before. If they have come earlier they would not have had such drastic treatment. Now these men have aged but their attitudes have not changed. In their minds they are disease-proof – that is until the Virus comes calling. They are the most vulnerable age group.

When we left, one of them muttered something that was obviously in the same literate genius sense of “What are ya?”, given the others guffawed. Sometimes the larrikin in the Australian persona is seductive; at other times, not so much.

My dining companion who is a well-known public health physician said to me afterwards that we should have told the proprietor to ask them to comply. We did not. That is our fault. It poses the dilemma of calling people out, especially the elderly who always know best (you know the guy who smokes heavily and boasts that he has never had a day off work in is life), when you only have the authority of your voice to make them comply.

Premier, you who presided over a government that gave us the Ruby Princess, should recognise that the situation occurring in Melbourne is only a cigarette paper thin barrier away from occurring in Sydney suburbs in NSW that have similar ethnic demographics where large family gatherings are the regular occurrences – let alone among the men who lunched next to us last Friday.

So may I respectfully suggest that you get your competent Health people to look at the potentially vulnerable local government areas and the level of compliance within each with the COVID-19 guidelines?

Mouse Whisper

Sometimes I come out of my mousehole, and there is this sleek lizard skink sunning himself in the morning rays. He cavorts around my mausmeister’s kitchen, and has done so for a long time.

My mausmeister decided then that he would call my industrious friend Dyson, because of his ability to vacuum – clean the floor of pesky insects.

However with the revelations in this week’s papers, it asked me why would any self-respecting lizard (and it emphasised the self-respecting) call himself Dyson?

He is petitioning to change his name to Hoover.

Dyson