Modest Expectations – At Last Michael Bowlby

Kizzmeika Corbett

Have you heard the name Kizzmeika Corbett? Well, this 35-year old immunologist is a very significant person. A leading researcher on coronavirus spike proteins and mRNA vaccine technology long before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, Corbett’s work proved critical to developing a coronavirus vaccine in record time. For a year and a half, she worked around-the-clock alongside her team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where they developed the vaccine in collaboration with Moderna.

A native of North Carolina, she early showed her innovative scientific mind. It should be added that although it is very rural, part of the tobacco road mythology where the leaf was king, North Carolina is a powerhouse in medical and health-related research, particularly at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and Duke University in Durham.

After a period working on dengue fever at Chapel Hill (with field work in Sri Lanka) and her PhD having distilled immunology research into that virus in 2014, she went to work at the NIH.

Here she attracted the attention of the Head of Faculty, Barney Graham, and was appointed to lead the coronavirus research team, meaning that years before the Virus became a pandemic, Corbett was laying the foundation that would one day allow immunologists, herself among them, to quickly formulate a vaccine against the ever-changing coronavirus.

She has become one of just a handful of scientists around the world with expertise in the viruses’ distinctive spike proteins and antibody responses — knowledge that made it possible to quickly develop and deploy vaccines.

It should be noted that the use of mRNA in making vaccines had been around for 40 years, but the breakthrough came when a protective coating for the mRNA was discovered, since injected mRNA without such protection was destroyed in the body.

In her matter of fact way, Dr Corbett describes her work.

My contribution was helping to design the vaccine, leading the preclinical studies that informed the Phase I clinical trial and designing assays used for testing of clinical trial samples.

The quest in early January 2020 was to gear up. We started ordering all the things that we needed around animal experiments. We mapped out a plan. I started assigning roles to team members.

If you want to go fast in a pandemic, then messenger RNA (mRNA) is a shoo-in. It can be manufactured very quickly in very vast quantities, and you can essentially just swap out the protein once you have the system down. We collaborated with Moderna so we could get the system down pat.

Recently she decamped to Harvard as an assistant professor at T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Assistant” is not far up the academic ladder, but like many who wish not to be overburdened with administration nor become what we used to call in Australia “Qantas professors” because they flew from conference to conference wringing as much as they could from their research.

She is therefore still the epitome of the researcher working long hours with a partner who is the assistant dean in the same school. It is not an uncommon set up, with two people intensely committed to research developing deep personal relationships to compensate for the long hours in the laboratory which research imposes. Having a partner able to share the language in which your research is couched – to understand what drives you, in this case someone who is really changing “the shopfront of society”, and not just moving the manikins around to provide an appearance, rather than effecting true change.

A year ago or more, who of the general public had heard of mRNA technology. On December 8 last year, the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine outside a clinical trial was given. We’ve moved a long way scientifically in combatting the Virus but it is clear that our social structures have not been so successful.

Dr Corbett had already tried to change that situation, and in so doing, she fell foul of former President Trump. However, it is clear that within Dr Corbett there is more than one messenger RNA.

Such a little disease…

Rubella

Once, rubella was a scourge of pregnant women. It was a very mild disease. In fact, rubella wreaked havoc in the first trimester of pregnancy. It was very transmissible . It was also known as “German measles”, because of its fascination for German physicians in the 19th century, and measles because it caused a rash. Measles comes unremarkably from the Old English, meaning “many spots”.

An Australian ophthalmologist, Norman Gregg, first described the association between rubella and birth defects.  As reported in the Australian Dictionary of Biography: His alert clinical observations and inquiring mind enabled him to make his outstanding discovery about rubella. On 15 October 1941 in Melbourne he delivered a paper on ‘Congenital Cataract following German Measles in the Mother’ to the Ophthalmological Society of Australia which was published in its Transactions. 

My clash with the Virus came twice, in 1964 and 1966. I cannot remember having had rubella, but as happens when you least want it to happen (sound familiar), I was exposed each time to a patient with rubella.

It was a time when a rubella epidemic was sweeping Europe and the United States. During that short period in the USA there were 12.5 million cases of rubella. In the USA, 20,000 children were born with congenital rubella syndrome (CRS)). Of these 11,000 were deaf, 3,500 blind, and 1,800 intellectually disabled. There were 2,100 neonatal deaths and more than 11,000 abortions – some spontaneous miscarriages, and others “performed surgically” after women were informed of “the serious risks of rubella exposure during their pregnancy”.

It so happened that in each of the years, 1964 and 1966, I was exposed to rubella in the course of my medical practice – as a first year intern and then as a pathology registrar. I also did a number of locums during those years.

Prophylaxis against rubella was injection of gamma-globulin. In the case of rubella, one was not spared – 10 mls into each buttock and five into the right arm. Being injected with a needle of a gauge that you could probably run a train through, left me with a painful legacy. However, two boys born normal was a no-brainer in terms of receiving the gamma-globulin injection during my wife’s first trimester.

The rubella virus had been isolated in 1962, and a vaccine followed in 1969, which was incorporated in the vaccination schedule a year later; and the virus has all but vanished now.

I do remember that one of the members of the Students’ Representative Council Executive probably had been a victim of CRS. Her sight was compromised, but we never talked about it, and although she fell into what some would say, the FLK basket, in retrospect her sheer ability, her doggedness in getting things done, yet her innate kindness belied her disability. In retrospect, with all my other colleagues on the Executive, I was a medical student. The other males were law, engineering and architectural students, in those days when men were kings and women were not, she earned respect. And for God’s sake, she was a social studies student!

I lost contact with her after university. She has long since died. Yet when I starting writing this piece, I suddenly realised how much we took for granted about this remarkable women. But then I muse alone. All the other members of that Executive, whose memory I treasure, are dead also.

However, my sons, I still remember the injections, well worth it, but hardly a treasured memory. 

Snottites

As I probably mentioned in a previous blog, I accumulated New Scientist magazines, even though I never had time to read them.  After I started writing the blog, as the magazines were conveniently stacked in the office, they served as a source of some of my material, even though some were 20 or more years old. Most of the issues came in an era before the modern technologies, and therefore there was a certain quaintness.  Having fulfilled this purpose of providing source material, I broke the link which bound me in this state of habituation and threw them out.

Now I am down to my last few. One of which highlights the snottite. If there were a word which immediately disgusts, “snottite” would be a major contender.

Let me put it in context: This place stinks. The rotten-egg smell of hydrogen sulphide hits before you even enter the mouth of the cave. Acid drips from the walls and ceiling. Slime coats the rock with coloured blotches like ghastly gelatinous wallpaper. And then there are the “snottites”, white, wobbling versions of stalactites with the consistency of phlegm.

The snottite is a mixture of gypsum and sulphur, with bacterial activity within them which ensures a stalactite appearance stretching as far as half a metre from the ceiling of these caves. This is the sulphurous environment of the underground where even Orpheus and Eurydice wore gas masks.

The bacteria cause a coating of slime to develop over these calcareous formations. The slime forms curtains and loops that some liken to mozzarella cheese. Some slime is red in colour; some white or black. At the tip of these snottites drops sulphuric acid with a pH of 0.5. This is a hazard for cavers, where a drip on the t-shirt can burn a hole, not to mention the damage if a drip directly hits one in the eye. The skin is bad enough. Just as a comparison, battery acid is 0.8 pH; thus, snottite sulphuric acid is twice as strong.

These snottites exist in a set of caves where life is perpetuated through the metabolism of sulphur. The original cave where they were discovered in the Mexican State of Tabasco was the Cueva de Villa Luz (The Lighthouse Cave). Its name came from holes in the roof of this cave which let the light in; it was a traditional place for religious ceremonies, at least at the mouth of cave.

Lechuguila Cave

Then a guy called Jim Pisarowicz, a caver from South Dakota, explored deep into the cave in 1987 and found the snottites. That cave system is two kilometres long. However, the simultaneous discovery of the Lechuguila Cave in New Mexico, stretching 140 kilometres in length and at a depth of 500 metres, in one word dwarfed the original discovery of life in a cauldron of sulphur. Recently these sulphurous caves have also been found in Wales and elsewhere.

Under the microscope a snottite contains a dense mesh of fine bacterial filaments embedded in a mess of sticky polysaccharides that form sulphur crystals. Many of the bacteria oxidise the sulphur, but others devour these organic compounds. There are also higher organisms which consume the bacteria. One researcher has distilled the observations into a “consortium based on sulphur metabolism”.

There are fish called mollies which survive in this extremely acidic environment, even though the mollies deep in the cave were somewhat different from those at the mouth of the cave.

What does it all mean?  One supposition is that if there is such subterranean activity on Earth, why not on Mars. Not sure where it gets you – except to make sure your t-shirt on Mars can withstand acid burns.

What I find amazing is that we humans co-exist with a world where sulphur is the essential ingredient. But then, what is Hell?

Personal Irresponsibility

Janine Sargeant MPH

“Just off phone to Aussie friend who visited Germany. Testing station on every corner: takes five minutes, walk in, no line, results in 3 hours at the most. And they can do 80 million daily.  A twitter observation

 On December 12th I wrote the following email. I didn’t send it and have just found it saved in my “drafts” folder:

  • Did you see today’s numbers by the way – bloody awful – 800 in NSW? Perrottet better get onto this PDQ or we’ll have thousands of cases a day and be locked out of the rest of Australia again.

I looked at this draft email on the 26th, just two weeks later. On the 26th, the case numbers were 6,310. What happened in those two weeks? It was two weeks of Perrottet’s Christmas gift to NSW; throwing public health caution in the bin along with the used Christmas wrappings. No abundance of caution, just an abundance of Omicron, although he can’t sheet home all the blame to that variant. Masks off, QR codes gone, social distancing ditched – packed nightclubs, parties and raves in!

Today is the 30th, there are 70,928 active cases in NSW and the new cases up to 8.00 pm on the 29th are 12,226. That’s exponential growth in anyone’s book.

However, the Premier has told us not to worry about case numbers anymore; worry about hospitalisations instead (and those numbers are also now increasing exponentially). Sure, but what about all those people linked to cases who are now in isolation. If you assume a ludicrously low average of one per case, that’s over 140,000 in isolation; assume half a dozen, that’s getting up towards half a million people in isolation; where do you stop? That’s a lot of people who can’t leave their houses, who can’t work – perhaps in one of those hospitals with burgeoning numbers of COVID cases – and a lot of people sitting at home and wondering just what happened in the past two weeks.

Further, the time now taken to be advised of proximity to a “case”, courtesy the recently ceased and more recently-partly reinstated QR code, has blown out to 4-5 days. By which time you may have been out and about with COVID, given that omicron has a median incubation period of 3 days.

The “testing debacle” means that people in isolation who have needed tests on day 1 or 2 and then day 6, were likely to end up having their day 6 test before they even got the results from their first test. What a waste of time and resources. The most modest of Christmas arrangements were thrown into disarray with hosts packing up the Christmas fare and taking to the road to deliver “care packages” around the city to isolating family members. One of our family members recently turned up to a testing centre at 7.30 am and was told there was already a six hour wait – and that was in Melbourne, not Sydney. Have we demonstrated that with 6,000 plus daily cases (and who knows how many people wanting a test so they can go to Queensland), we have effectively broken the NSW Government’s testing capacity? All we can say now is thank heavens Queensland and Tasmania have just announced the removal of the PCR requirement from 1 January otherwise testing in NSW would be completely crippled. Although replacing these tests with Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) is presenting its own difficulties with supply.

Endless testing queues

At 6,000 cases a day and with State border crossing PCR requirements, the collection centres have been overrun and pathology labs are days behind despite working round the clock; inevitably, errors have crept in. Positive results require double checking which significantly slows down the test processing so as case numbers grow, the pathology response inexorably slows down. No matter how meticulous a laboratory’s quality control, systems and people under extreme pressure inevitably result in human error. So nearly 1,500 people have received wrong results in the past week; of these around 900 have now had their negative results rescinded, having been out in the community for days.

Happy Christmas NSW from Uncle Dominic

Did anyone foresee this? Where are our public health experts? Go forth and multiply the cases, says the Premier; go on holidays, go to your parties, and that’s exactly what has happened. The younger citizens have partied and raved into the night on the back of their vaxxed status and we’ve seen some spectacular superspreader events. Next, we have New Year’s Eve and then an Ashes Test; mercifully, if the Melbourne test is anything to go by, that game will be mercifully short, but just long enough to fill the new year’s COVID coffers to overflowing.

Twenty thousand cases a day and half a million in isolation in NSW by New Year’s Eve? Not beyond the realms of possibility. Happy New Year from the NSW Government. According to Premier Perrottet “it’s all going according to plan” as long as you don’t disappear into the shifting quicksand of Government COVID policy. Plans are meant to prevent chaos, not create it.

On the 30th we have now seen a change in the rules of isolation and the Prime Minister telling us we have no right to line up for a COVID test if we don’t have symptoms. Hopefully all those industries requiring employees who have been in isolation to have negative PCRs are changing their policies now as well.

And what about those RATs that you can’t find for love nor money? It’s the only time in my life I’ve gone into a pharmacy and asked if they have any RATs for sale. COVID – a whole new world.

Hazzard with two “Z” – The Alchemist from Wakehurst

Unlike the previous writer, I had been going to let the stupidity of the NSW government in relation to the Virus go through to the keeper. There are enough satirists, with an eye to the ridiculous – the antics of the Premier Pirouette. Coupled with those of Morrison, Australia potentially has a marvellous export – the Fountainhead Circus.

Thinking through what Minister Hazzard had said, what would have happened if a State Health Minister had said during the polio pandemic – “It’s inevitable that everybody’s going to get it?” You could barely hear this Metaphor through the swishing of iron lungs and the clanking of braces attached to children’s limbs.

What do you think vaccination is for, you chump?

The idea that it is a good idea to let epidemics “rip” so we can get the illusory herd immunity, is arrant nonsense. The one thing you and I share, Minister Hazzard, is that our ancestors survived among other things the Black Death. However, there were many other perils our forebears weathered so that you and I could walk on this dry and dusty land.

Even in the time of our forebears, they went to the country from the city to evade the plague bacteria that lived in the flea that lived on the rat that the sailor jacks bought from the city seaports. As you sat on that estate balcony, oh God that dreadful Pirouette is coming up the drive, fresh from sailing back from the Levant. He calls out – “no worries, I have perfumed the air in which I travelled to rid us all of the miasma.”

“Must not stand in the way of unlimited travel”, he adds.

Our parents dodged the Spanish flu, and even the worst estimate at a time when there was no vaccine defence against the Virus but people wore masks was only 5 per cent of the population. The influenza virus comes and goes as a pandemic, and I know I have had it. But according to the Hazzard dictum, why bother vaccinating – we’ll all get it. Nevertheless, there is a new vaccine annually tailored to the particular influenza strain which provides partial immunity. I will take it anytime to avoid the Hazzard spread.

So, Minister Hazzard, let us also dismiss that little reported diphtheria epidemic that your parents dodged in the twenties, to be saved by the arrival of a vaccine in the early 1930s. Of course, your parents were lucky to dodge Spanish flu. Both Spanish flu and diphtheria wreaked havoc, especially among children, as your parents were probably then.

But they are different (diphtheria caused by bacteria and flu a virus), even though both have vaccines to control their spread and hence confound the Hazzard Rule of “everybody will get it”. Diphtheria is caused by a bacterium, and the arrival of antibiotics in the 1940s has curbed a bacterial pandemic taking hold.

The population gave up on flu pandemic measures because they were “tired of them”, and paid a heavy price

Influenza continues to present a hazard, as I suspect coronavirus will be, also requiring a new vaccine variant annually, although frequency for such vaccine administration remains unclear.

And there is also the matter of “long COVID”. If I had lost my sense of smell and taste, if I were young, I would be looking at my future with trepidation, because the nerve fibres of the olfactory cranial nerve enters the olfactory part of the brain near the optic chiasma. Therefore, the virus is very close to the brain when it infects the olfactory nerve, and the course of post-viral brain syndromes is well recorded. I have personally had a family member with such a syndrome with devastating, life shortening effects.

I shudder when Hazzard’s comments echo down his corridor of ignorance.

Thus, the voice of Minister Hazzard may also reflect a politician overwhelmed by bad news and in effect surrendering. Time for you to do the right thing and take a rest, murmuring herd immunity as you drift off into stress-related sleep.

I’m sorry, but you are just not capable for whichever of the above reasons, but then some politicians never get it! I suspect you are one of them.

On the other hand, this seems sensible…

Reprinted from the Boston Globe with thanks.

With cases of Omicron surging nationwide, you may be wondering if that runny nose or aching throat is a dreaded case of COVID-19 that’s finally tracked you down, or if it’s merely a symptom of the common cold.

On top of that, the flu virus, which had all but vanished last year as the pandemic gripped the nation, appears to be making a comeback, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Distinguishing between it all can be hard, and finding a COVID-19 test can be harder. Here we try to break down what we know about Omicron symptoms so far (remember, much is unknown this early in the outbreak) and how they may differ from the common cold and flu, or even from the previous variant, Delta.

Omicron is now the dominant variant in the USA and is spreading at a rapid rate, with cases rising about 23 percent in the past two weeks or so alone, according to data from the CDC. The variant has an unusually high number of mutations, some of which may be enabling it to evade immune protection. And early data has demonstrated that it is about two to three times more transmissible than the Delta variant. As a result, many, including those who are vaccinated, are likely to test positive for the virus.

Because the variant is a relatively new discovery, scientists are still studying the severity of illness and what symptoms it will bring — and if they vary from other strains. Some hopeful news arrived this week, with three teams of scientists, who studied the course Omicron took in South Africa, Scotland, and England, releasing preliminary results that showed infections more often resulted in mild illness compared to those from the Delta variant before it. The findings suggested those infected were less likely to be hospitalised, but there were caveats.

Preliminary reports indicate that those infected with the variant generally display similar symptoms to those who have been infected with either Delta or the original coronavirus. 

Data scientists with the health company Zoe used the most recent data from London, where the prevalence of Omicron is higher than in other regions throughout the United Kingdom, to analyse symptom data and compare it with data recorded in early October when Delta was dominant. The analysis found no clear difference between the two — and only about half of people experienced “the classic three symptoms of fever, cough, or loss of sense of smell or taste.” The top five recorded symptoms in both periods were a runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing, and sore throat. They tended to be “mostly mild” and “cold-like.”

In the United States, possible symptoms of the coronavirus listed by the CDC include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, the new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhoea.

When Delta became the dominant variant and led to an uptick in cases, cold-like symptoms became more common, as the lead scientist in the ZOE COVID Study noted last week. It appears to be the same case with Omicron, and some of the key symptoms first seen earlier in the pandemic — namely a loss of taste and smell — are not as typical.

An analysis published by researchers in Norway following a small Omicron outbreak among “fully vaccinated” people found that only 23 percent of patients reported a loss of taste, and only 12 percent reported a loss of smell. Meanwhile, a runny or stuffy nose, fatigue, cough, and a sore throat were the most common symptoms.

Early evidence also suggests that Omicron is less likely to spread deep into the lung tissue, despite it replicating in the upper airway quickly, which could help to explain why infections may appear milder. A study undertaken by Hong Kong University researchers found that replication of the variant in deeper lung tissue was more than ten times lower than the original of the virus.

It should also be noted that, according to data collected by ZOE, the symptoms one experiences can vary depending on vaccination status. 

Both the flu and the common cold are contagious respiratory illnesses that share similar symptoms despite being caused by different viruses, according to the CDC. In general, flu symptoms are more intense and begin more abruptly, while colds are usually milder and do not typically result in serious health problems.

The symptoms of the flu, according to the health protection agency, can include muscle or body aches and “fever or feeling feverish/chills.” It can have associated complications. Meanwhile, people who have a cold tend to have a runny or stuffy nose.

Compared to the flu, COVID-19 can cause more serious illnesses in some people, according to the CDC. It can also take longer for people to experience symptoms and they can be contagious for a greater period of time.

The CDC also stressed that because some of the symptoms of both the flu, the coronavirus, and other respiratory illnesses are so similar, testing is required to “tell what the illness is and to confirm a diagnosis,” especially because people can be infected with both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time.

In short, for those looking to determine what they are sick with for travel or planning purposes, public health experts recommend getting tested for the coronavirus beforehand.

Mouse Whisper

As I was slouching towards Mousehole these words came out of the ether and flattened my nose. 

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

Rest in peace, Joan Didion. For there will be no more 4.00 am calls, but I know what you meant. Life is indeed complicated.

Joan Didion

 

Modest Expectations – Tomas Machac

In 1994, I bought the April edition of the Atlantic Monthly because it had an article entitled “What is Political Leadership?” The author was Garry Wills, a conservative Catholic historian, with whom I had become acquainted through reading his book reviews in the New York Review of Books. Increasingly he has taken positions in relation to civil rights and then Vietnam which, in conventional terms, would seem to belie his conservative Catholic stance, especially given William Buckley was an early mentor. However, to be socially progressive is not incompatible with conservatism.

When this article was published he was 60 years old and had been in the History Department at North Western University since 1980.

Eventually, now that I have read the piece, I believe he was probably recycling long held views given his concentration on Lincoln, Roosevelt and to a lesser degree Washington.  Interspersed are anecdotes about his relationship with his father, whom he resented when he left his mother to marry a much younger Hollywood model. The disdain drips, but nevertheless he worked for his father. As he says: “That is the way leadership works – reciprocally engaging two wills…”

He makes the obvious comment. A leader must have followers, but he describes the patriarchal society concept personified by Pericles in Athens as described by Thucydides, “enabled by the respect others had for him and his own wise policy, to hold the multitude in a voluntary restraint”.

There is no doubt that Pericles was a great orator and a competent general, initially prevailing over the Spartans. Yet Wills tends to dismiss Pericles as an applicable role model. As he does also with Dale Carnegie – with his “win friends and influence people” dicta as though the leadership is customer dependent.

Wills makes the simple fact that to be a leader, one must have followers. As such, it is not a quality that is proportional to the cleverness of any advertising campaign.

I have always wondered what constitutes leadership, as though there are rules. My own observations about leadership have relied on the tripartite Weberian definition, where there are “traditional leaders” who have been afforded this role by their inherited position. Many of this class have followers only as long as the dynasty survives, because of the many “grace and favour” positions which accompany such leadership. The various Arab desert States epitomise such leadership in the modern world where once it was European royalty or Asian emperors. Often there were religious tags built into such leadership.

Pericles

I have witnessed the second type, charismatic leadership as epitomised by Pericles. In my life I have followed one charismatic leader – someone whom I never met and who, since his death, has been revealed as a very flawed character. However, a leader elicits an emotional response from the followers wanting to aspire to a goal (or goals), irrespective of the actual nature of the man (or woman).

Wills makes a very insightful observation when he said that a leader needs to understand his followers more than they need to understand him. John F. Kennedy used rhetoric in a way that drew people like myself to ideals of service – to a better world. The idea of a Peace Corps appealed because it provided evidence of a shared goal, irrespective of whether or how obtainable it actually was. The concept implied concern and actual commitment to both communities or individuals in need.

Wills makes the point that Lincoln based his belief around the Declaration of Independence as a vital aspect of his leadership. Yet he fails to acknowledge that assorted charlatans, who have not only used the Declaration of Independence but also the Bible, to further their image. To my mind, invoking such texts provides no indication of the quality of leadership; it just suggests that the person has read a desk calendar or some such.

Lincoln was assassinated, as was Kennedy. Therefore, there will also be an expectancy in leadership unfulfilled. Roosevelt was a different person, a model of leadership that Wills attempts to define. Roosevelt went from a comparatively young man of privilege to the older man who faced and battled the legacy of poliomyelitis for the rest of his life.

Battling personal infirmity and that of the country (and the World for that matter) merged. He would not give up, and that resilience was translated into his leadership style. He was able to disguise his paralysis and yet develop an intimacy with his followers with his regular “Fireside Chats”; he gave hope to his followers with the provision of civic works such as the Tennessee Valley Authority.  Yet he did nothing about civil rights: the lynching of Southern blacks; the Ku Klux Klan, the Tuskegee experiments; as well as the isolationist foreign policy and early support for the anti-Semitic, pro-fascist Father Coughlin.

Roosevelt, who is so often used as a model of successful leadership, was flawed, got things wrong and eventually stayed too long, succumbing to a mixture of diseases associated with his long term disability. The whole product made him very vulnerable to the machinations of Stalin, whose home ground advantage at Yalta was never so evident as in the 1945 determination of spheres of influence.

In the end, Wills extensively explores these charismatic leaders yet has no more solution to the nature of ideal leadership beyond reference back to Pericles. It is as though he searched and found no better model.  Wills classified Roosevelt as Periclean, (and incidentally to reinforce the point Wills compared Roosevelt’s leadership with that of the fluffy failed Adlai Stevenson).

There is no exploration of where charismatic leadership continues through the third model, an incorruptible bureaucratic leadership even after the charismatic leader has moved on. Democracy depends on bureaucrats who have to be incorruptible; thus, if you outsource the work of bureaucracy without any apparent goal other than feathering the nest of the private consulting companies, then the leadership which competent bureaucrats could provide is compromised. I remember when bureaucratic leadership was very important, as when Sabine vaccine for polio was introduced and the country had to be transferred from believing that the initial spruiked Salk vaccine was not as good.

Wills did not analyse the qualities of bureaucratic leadership in effectively carrying out the government policy. Maybe series such as “Yes Minister”, caricaturing bureaucracy leadership, while immediately very funny, nevertheless have had an insidious effect on the credibility of bureaucratic leadership. This variability in the effects of bureaucratic leadership has been shown at various stages during the current pandemic.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear

As I was exploring this topic, I tuned into the Kentucky disaster, and noted immediately the decisive compassionate leadership being shown by the Governor, Andy Beshear. He so clearly demonstrates the qualities of the charismatic leader. It is hoped that he has the moral compass to keep going with it. His demonstration of charismatic leadership and his deft and rapid transfer of the reconstruction of his State to his relevant authorities will serve as a model.

My bias is that of a person who lived through the 60s, I believe Beshear will take a national leadership role at some point. He reminds me of Robert Kennedy. I hope his life is not cut short and he does not become a fallen idol, as a number of people of promise who have not been able to define a successful leadership style.

Always Disputin’

Putin often speaks of a “One Russia,” meaning Russia, Ukraine and Belarus — or “Big Russia” and “Little Russia,” Russia being the “big” and Ukraine the “little.” He argued in 2009 that “no one should be allowed to interfere in relations between us. They have always been the business of Russia itself.”

A few years ago, before the pandemic, I took a boat trip down to the mouth of the Danube – the enormous Danube delta, the point where the river enters the Black Sea which, for the sake of completeness, the boat nosed into before retreating back into the Delta.

Pelicans in the Danube Delta

On the Northern aspect of the delta, Romania, Moldova and the Ukraine villagers live on the sandy sediment which form islands amid the reeds and sedges above the waterline.

We stopped at one of these villages called St George, where port facilities had been constructed. Here the people in this tiny village tucked within the Romanian border are mostly Ukrainian speakers. All very quaint, with all the hallmarks of the community where time has rested, except to make itself accessible to a scant tourist trade but probably more importantly to help the villagers to get supplies from a post-feudal world which has invented vodka in bottles, tinned food and frozen fish fingers.

We pass Tulcea on our way into the Delta. This township serves as the gateway to the Delta, it is firmly in Romania but as the captain said for those who have a nose for countries, we had actually been in Moldova for a brief time – at least the bow of the boat had been.

So here we were at the intersection of three countries, with Russia not that far away looking over the shoulder of Ukraine. Russia has shown no interest in annexing Romania, although one may adduce there has been Russian mischief in the creation of the Romanian-speaking Moldova. The Russians want to keep Moldova apart from the EU, but even with a breakaway province, Transnistria, along its Ukrainian border, and even with its small population, Moldova maintains a separate identity from Romania.

It demonstrates what a jigsaw the whole area is. Both Moldova and Ukraine following the dissolution of the USSR have initially had pro-Russian governments, but that has changed. Both governments now are solidly pro-western.

Putin holds the levers of Soviet power internally through his labyrinthine security services. Having been a middle level operative at the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union, he has shown his genius in assembling it again. The fact that he has done so demonstrates the skill of the person, given that it is essential that he maintain internal discipline over Russia itself. After all, he is intoxicated with the glories of Russia, and therefore the old capital of the Russian diaspora, Kiev, is the capital of the modern Ukraine but to him a crucial part of Russian heritage.

Russia is not the power it once was and the only way to invade Ukraine successfully, in his eyes, would be to ensure that potential adversaries are confused. Therefore, chaos is always his solution and fomenting chaos is one mixture of feinting, lunging, retreating and infiltrating. After all, he has worked out that America is war-wearied, and Biden has said as much. So that leaves the other members of NATO, weakened by the Brexit machinations, to come to the aid of the Ukraine. Their preferred weapon is not military but economic. The Russian economy must stagnate and then contract, which in turn starves the money trail of the Putin kleptocracy, another arm of Putin’s power. That economic rationing is the theory.

Putin relies on State sanctioned mercenaries in companies like Wagner to keep up a diet of chaos by interfering in the politics of smaller counties. At the same time he uses the Orthodox Church to spread the message of Ukrainian oneness with Mother Russia, and it worked while there was a pro-Soviet government there. After all, he repossessed Crimea with pathetic protests emanating from the West, but his incursion into eastern Ukraine seems at least to have accelerated the modernisation of the Ukrainian armed forces.

There may have been excuses for those who knew the history of the Crimean annexation. Those who knew the background of the Ukrainian hold on Crimea would have known it was a move by Khrushchev to obtain the support of the then USSR in his battle to oust Malenkov in 1954, even though Crimea was predominantly Russian. Hence it did not evoke the same response from the West.

Thus, the assumption is that the Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine would be attracted to Putin. In Ukraine these speakers constitute 30 per cent of the population and, as would be expected, the area where Russian is least spoken lies along the western border area, with its history of Hapsburg rule. Nevertheless, the linguistic division is not sharp, and often Ukrainians use both Russian and Ukrainian in conversation, even within the one sentence. In contrast there has been a marked change in national sentiment with the pro-Soviet President, Viktor Yanukovych and his cronies being ousted in 2014.

As one commentary has said: “The prominent role played by Russian-speaking Ukrainians in repelling Putin’s hybrid invasion has done much to alter perceptions of language and identity in today’s Ukraine, leading to the rise of a civic national identity that goes beyond the narrow confines of language and ethnicity. Many saw the election of Jewish Russian-speaker Volodymyr Zelenskyy as Ukraine’s sixth president in 2019 as further confirmation of the country’s evolving linguistic politics.”

The Ukrainians would also be less than impressed by the support of the tyrannical regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus. Belarusian is one of two languages spoken in that country, together with Russian. Since 1917, there has been an attempt by the Russians to smother the Belarusian language and merge the cultural identity. The fact that Lukashenka is totally dependent on Putin is not lost on the Ukrainians, especially his use of Belarus bastardry to create chaos along the Polish border.

Yet Putin will continue to create brinkmanship as his weapon of chaos. If he invades, then as one knows from chess, order prevails, unless the players on the other side do not know who will make the next move. If they hesitate then Putin leans across the board and makes the move himself. More chaos as he has usurped the rules.

Wait a minute, where does Putin stop his incursion? Are the Russian people prepared to pursue the Putinic folly? If he sweeps across the country, then he has to garrison the land conquered.

His adversaries watch as Putin experiments his weaponisation of chaos in Belarus. Those familiar with chess know he will start the game with fewer pieces than his adversaries, and they soon stop him reaching over the Board to manipulate their pieces. Instead, they will line their surplus pieces along the border of his exclave, Kaliningrad, along the Baltic Sea.  Perhaps the NATO countries would be tempted to annex it, given that one can hypothesise that many of the weapons of chaos have been hatched there, designed to cause the maximum amount of “cyberpiracy” with the resultant “cyberpain”. I wonder why Kaliningrad has been tolerated for so long, given its strategic vulnerability.

I wonder what I have missed within Putin’s thinking. Conventional risk analysis would say no way, but how disjointed and craven are the members of NATO?

Kaliningrad, Russia

Tread warily

I had negotiated the same set of stairs hundreds of times. I have always made sure that I grabbed the rail when both climbing up and descending. Where there was originally no rail on the short rise, one was installed. However, that still left a metre of open landing between the two staircases where a rail was perhaps thought not necessary or at least problematic. Thus, there was no rail in this “no-man’s land.

So, the inevitable happened. Tired, I tripped on the last tread of the first set of stairs and reached out to grasp the railing along the side of the second set of stairs. I missed. I fell heavily, cracking my head where the tread meets the riser. My right side bore the brunt. I did not lose consciousness, but after the fall I was prone. My head was awkwardly placed on the tread with my legs sticking out over the landing edge.

At my age, there was no way I could move myself. As the ambulance took an hour arriving, the only solution to get a more tolerable position was to slide down the stairs on my stomach. Bumping one tread at a time, legs being pulled by my wife, my arms pushing against the stair rail. At last, I was laid prone at the bottom of the stair.

My head, which now revealed a transverse cut partially covered with hair matted with blood. My forehead was bruised; yet I had not lost consciousness.

There I lay on the floor, still unable to roll over. After an hour and half two ambulance officers turned up, despite repeated calls. The initial exchange was not the stuff of the milk of human kindness. Having reviewed two ambulance services professionally 30 years ago, I had been responsible in part for the establishment of paramedic courses in universities, leading to professional reciprocity between States. One can excuse the characteristics of the emergency workers. Ambulance officers must adjust to all kinds of situations – many very adversarial. Nevertheless, there is often a fine line between the assertive and the aggressive – an appropriate response to a situation is a function of a person’s adaptability to each situation.

First, the ambulance’s lifting device was found to have a flat battery, ergo useless. The tasks were now related to the officers’ and my wife’s strength. Rolling me on my side; then stacking cushions behind my back, then the sheet its two ends under my armpits being pulled up with my feet firmly planted, I am off the floor, standing. However, on my feet, I have to be convinced that there is a now a chair behind me. It takes more reassurance than would be expected to convince me that there was a seat behind me – it is now nearly two hours since I first fell.

It is a considerable time since I last fell, that time in the garden without damaging myself, and was able to be assisted to my feet. I am now older, and my balance more delicate.

The problem of being a doctor is that you can misdiagnose anything; but once sitting in the chair I made the decision not to go to hospital, and thus go through the gamut of the emergency department – I had had enough of waiting around, and then being tested, with all the associated pain.

I found I could limp, but ensured that it was not due to hip or pelvis fracture – it was somewhere in the gluteal and quadriceps muscles – maybe even the psoas – but what would they do at the hospital, besides giving me a range of precautionary tests, perhaps a shot of morphine – and then I would inevitably vomit.  And the pain would be still there. The papers associated with my admission to discharge would be a cascade of endless questions.

Besides, even though fully vaccinated, there is always the possibility of the Virus lurking in the hospital’s corridors.

I look at my badly bruised hand. I hope I’ve made the right decision. But it is too late now. I signed a disclaimer clearing the ambulance officers from any responsibility in the decision. A very insistent request; I noted they did not ask to examine my hips or pelvis. But then I was a know-it-all old doctor, wasn’t I?

I wonder how many elderly or disabled people who fall require assistance to get off the ground or floor. Over two hours of smelling the carpet is not the best fragrance. The NSW Ambulance service averages about 25 minutes for an inner suburban urgent call. But not mine; the ambulance was based in Paddington (7.8 kilometres or 14 minutes) from my home.

I know of a private outfit which provides a pendant to be worn with an alarm system that can be activated in the event of an emergency. The reviews have not been good; and anyway, given the prevalence of falls in the elderly, why should the government not be responsible for such a service linked to the other emergency services. Like so much of aged care, government has sloughed it off to the private sector.

Ten days later, I am still bruised; my head is clear, yet my proprioception is worse, but I am improving.

Nevertheless, I have had to reflect on the ambulance response. Maybe I shall write a letter.

Was the Hunchback Saved?

Notre-Dame Cathedral was never a favourite of mine, a gloomy edifice stuck in the middle of Paris. This article by a celebrated art historian, Elizabeth Lev, is beautifully written, and in her own words a lovely example of how to extract everything from a nuanced approach. However, unlike Old St Paul’s which was demolished after it was badly damaged by the Great Fire of 1666 and replaced by the Christopher Wren ‘s masterpiece, compared with the Basilica in the Vatican, this Cathedral is being restored to modern gothic glory.

What is it about a church renovation that convinces everyone that society is fast-bound for hell in a handbasket?

I’ve been asking myself this question in recent days because of the hubbub surrounding the proposed rebuilding of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral. On Thursday, plans for the renovation of its interior spaces will be presented to the commission nationale du patrimoine et de l’architecture for approval. In advance of the review, press coverage has sought to whip decisions over Notre Dame’s “wreckovation” into an epic battle between the sacred and profane. But as with most controversies surrounding Notre Dame — and historical sanctuaries more broadly — the performative outrage obscures a more benign reality.

A recent article electrified the otherwise tranquil proceedings of clearing wreckage and stabilizing support structures in the 858-year-old church. Parisian architect Maurice Culot sounded the alarm that the plan for the interior decoration would be as if “Disney were entering Notre Dame.” Other critics accused the church of bowing before the altar of “political correctness.” Panic buttons lit up throughout the Anglosphere, recalling previous fears that the church’s roof would become a swimming pool or a car park.

But what is the hair-pulling about, really? People wept as they watched the cathedral burn, but did they know what was inside? Was it the loss of the stained glass, the statues, or the paintings that they mourned? Not until Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris fire brigade, rushed out with the relic of Christ’s crown of thorns was there general awareness of what treasures the cathedral contained.

Now critics dread the potential introduction of “modern art objects” in the two dozen-plus side chapels. But how many people remember that, pre-fire, they were an ill-kept hodgepodge generally passed over by tourists in search of an Instagram-worthy shot of the windows?

Fewer hot takes and more studied responses would serve the ancient church better. Most reactions are based on the plan for the new interior presented in May by the Rev. Gille Drouin, installed last year as a canon of the cathedral to oversee the renovation. The design calls for a “catechetical path,” in which the church’s new point of entry would be the central portal confronting the viewer with the full majesty of the space. The reconfiguration would also make better use of the side chapels, each adapted to recount salvation history from Genesis to Christ’s resurrection to the life of the church today.

Celebrated monuments that miraculously escaped the fire — the bronze crucifix given by Napoleon III, the marble Notre Dame de Paris, the 14th-century carved choir stalls, and the crown of thorns entombed in the apse — would all feature in a single coherent itinerary.

Cathedral restorers hope to collaborate with the Louvre for the restoration of “the Mays,” 76 large paintings of the Acts of the Apostles donated between 1630 and 1707 by Parisian goldsmiths. Today, some are randomly placed in the side chapels and others are in museums. The plan would return them to the nave, so that visitors would see the witness of the apostles lining the main axis of the church.

Drouin hopes to transform the cathedral, which welcomed 12 million people annually pre-pandemic, into a space that is truly “catholic,” or universal. The plan proposes five chapels for five continents, in which Bible verses would be projected in local languages. Perhaps this is what spawned the Disney comparison, a kind of Catholic Epcot Center.

But for an international icon in a city where 20 percent of residents are immigrants, what’s the problem with spreading a message of hope to every person who crosses that venerable threshold? And while some have dubbed it “Christianity for Dummies,” in a world where many Catholics are shaky on scripture and many young people are raised without religion, some back-to-basics catechetics might be in order.

While the new designs might not be to everyone’s taste, it is helpful to recall the true horrors that this cathedral has survived: French revolutionaries who beheaded its facade statues and repurposed the high altar to host a scantily clad “goddess of reason,” Napoleon’s gutting of the interior for his self-coronation as emperor, the collective neglect that spurred Victor Hugo to write “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” as a cri du coeur to preserve the building.

It is also worth remembering that St. Peter’s Basilica was knocked down and rebuilt by Pope Julius II in 1506 to similar outcry, and the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, one of the oldest Catholic churches in the world, has been rebuilt half a dozen times, each reconstruction adding a piece of “contemporary” art. In these cases, novelty in the name of catechesis has proved its worth. Indeed, the opportunity to commission new art could even revitalize long-stagnant Catholic patronage.

Regardless of attempts to turn Notre Dame’s renovators into cartoon villains, the reality is more nuanced. But nuance, unfortunately, attracts little limelight. Thus topics as seemingly tame as repairing a church after a fire become cultural flash points: Whether praising or panning, everyone gets a thrill. 

Mouse Whisper

Did you know I have an Irish cousin? The Olive-backed Pocket Mouse (Wyoming Pocket Mouse a.k.a Caic Tarbh Mouse) has a silky fur olive-grey colour, with a top band of black and olive. A yellowish-buff line marks its sides and the patches of fur behind its ears are light yellow. It is buff to pure white below, but it has a tail in the shape of a shamrock with a curious phosphorescence useful for directions to the nearest mouse hostelry. The biological name for such a tail is lanteen trefoilias.

 

Olive-backed Pocket Mouse

Modest Expectations – Field Marshall Waldemar Cardoso

Philip was the fifth child, the only brother of four elder sisters who each married titled German Nazis, hence his appearance as a 16 year old at this funeral of his favourite sister Cecilie who had died in a plane crash in 1937. His head is bowed as though grief-stricken, but uneasy in the company of his Nazi relatives as the cortege moved through the Hessian city of Darmstadt.

Prince Philip at his sister’s funeral

He was fortunate because in the early 1930s he was placed in a German school run by Kurt Hahn, who was Jewish and forced to flee Germany after the accession of Hitler to power. Hahn in turn established Gordonstoun in Scotland, and Philip followed him there to be one of his pupils. Hahn had been helped by the Labour Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald to escape and come to Great Britain and establish himself. Part of the Hahn philosophy was to encourage self-reliance. That the young Philip had in abundance.  His early socialisation had also attuned him to survival against everything. After all, even as a small boy he was a target for assassination.

His service in the Royal Navy left him a tall man, with an easy smile, hard searching eyes and a bearing which is found in most British naval officers. I never met him; probably would have had little to say which would have interested him anyway. He had lived his life when a young man; and he spent the rest of his life recuperating with a lady who was obviously besotted with him, as other women were. He was smart enough to realise not to follow the path that his father took “in burning his aristocratic bridges”.

A magnificently calculating man, but so anybody would have been in order to survive that tumultuous childhood he had. Yet he never abandoned his sisters, and his mother eventually moved into Buckingham Palace where she died in 1969.

I must say that I have never watched The Crown, and even if I had, my biases would have been such that any portrayal that did not fit into my view of the House named for a particular knotted tie popularised by that proto-Nazi, Edward VIII, would only be reinforced. Philip wanted the British Royalty to adopt Mountbatten, a far better name.

I have been a Republican since university; the Queen has lived a life which exemplifies the fact that inducing ennui is royalty’s survival grace; she has survived the Diana soap opera by ratcheting up the ennui; her three prince sons are dropkicks (one of whom should read Vanessa Springora’s Consent) – but Philip was something else. I would struggle to think of anything he actually achieved except naming rights on his eponymous Award and the many plaques, cocktail parties and dinners to cover those organisations to which he had provided his benison. And yet view or read his often savage quips; they are the comments of an unsettled person. But surviving his childhood, that was something even if the rage never left him.

A visão melancólica de Portugal

I wished I had started to learn Portuguese years ago. I only started when I did a short course in Traveller’s Portuguese, before going to Brazil and Timor-Leste in the one year. That was 2019 before the pandemic, but we had booked a Ponant cruise from Dakar in Senegal to Lisbon for March last year. On the way, the ship would first berth at a former colony, now the country of Cabo Verde and then after a brief time onto the Canary Islands, which are Spanish, it was on the Portuguese Island of Madeira; thence to Lisbon where we were due to travel around the country for two weeks. The Virus intervened, and therefore a viagem por terra e por mar was on hold for an indefinite period.

However, the language and then the culture started to intrigue me. The language is supposed to be more akin to French than Spanish – as one writer wryly compromised by saying that Portuguese is Spanish spoken with a French accent. Both Portuguese and Spanish have inherited a raft of Arabic words, whereas French has absorbed a number of Germanic words.

Nevertheless, there is a consensus that Portuguese is the most difficult of the four common Romantic languages, but if Romanian is included, then there are some exasperating tricks in its pronunciation. Even though Romanian overlaps to a great extent with Italian, the word for “thank you” in Romanian is mulțumesc, betraying its Slavonic influence and somewhat different from the Italian grazie.

My teacher has complimented me on my Portuguese accent. A major difficulty I have, especially as my hearing is not as acute as it once was, is in comprehension, as does the generous use of accents, the Portuguese tilde and the cedilla keep one on one’s metal. This is especially true when one has to write down a particular word and then pronounce it. My favourite example is avô and avó. The first is muted and means grandfather; the second is said with a flourish, grandmother. 

It is such an enticing language, but I am at the crossroads. Have I done enough as the prospect of overseas travel is now remote? Yet, the more I have become involved in Portuguese culture the more it intrigues. Listening to their traditional music, fado, one feels the whole pressure on a people, the Lusitanians maintaining their identity on a peninsula predominantly peopled by the Hispanians, from which they barely separated but squeezed into a narrow strip of land against the Atlantic Ocean.

As they developed their modern Portuguese identity, the Lusitanians became fishermen and seafarers, and venturing out they officially colonised the Azores archipelago in the mid-Atlantic in 1449. Although his expedition circumnavigated the world, Frederic Magellan may have been Portuguese, but the ill-fated expedition was funded by the Spanish monarchy. Magellan was killed in the Phillipines, and there were 18 men left commanded by a Basque who eventually returned to Lisbon.

No, it was Vasco da Gama who was the epic hero – the Portuguese Ulysses, about whose voyage to India the Os Lusíadas was written by Camoens some years after his journey. Camoens was the pseudonym for Luís Vax Camōes, a poet adventurer who, as a Byronic figure, courted danger as he roamed the East. I remembered my father had a copy of his poem in our library, which lay untouched. I suppose it is time to keep on going and be able to revel in the original Portuguese. Bit of work to do, but it does provide an incentive.

Read Os Lusíadas and actually achieve something…talvez. 

Optic moonstones 

When I was 12, I was given a field cocker spaniel, who was flecked in blue black. He was a blue roan and I called him Smokey. He was supposed to be descended from the aristocratic line of “Ware” which has won more best dog awards in Great Britain than any other breed. Cocker spaniels, as the name implies, are gun dogs with their specialty being to harass woodcock. There are a number of variations in the breed, but I know I had this very energetic, dome-headed dog, who roamed our half acre, outer suburban plot of land burying his bones, avoiding being bitten by snakes and generally, not being neutered, very much the lad about town.

At about six years, he started to develop cloudiness in his eyes which slowly became solid white cataracts. However, he was able to live with his blindness until he was scuttled while I was away at University. Smokey was trying to cross the increasingly busy road to visit his mate, a dog who had cocker spaniel blood but was hardly pure bred.

Blue roan cocker spaniel

Presumably this affliction was the result presumably of inbreeding, and today Smokey – at great cost – would have had the cataracts removed and lens inserted.

Yes, as I have had many years later. Cataracts are not a characteristic of either side of my family, and I had no sign of them until I started daily oral cortisone for my auto-immune condition. First, I noticed my vision becoming blurred even with glasses and so, as with so many of my age, I had one cataract done. The second – my right eye – was left, until recently. My sight in that eye was manageable, but one night out of curiosity, I tried to see out of that eye. I was completely blind – all I could see were moving shapes in a dirty yellow fog. This shock of blindness suddenly made me realise how important vision is to me, even though the artificial lens in the other eye enabled me to compensate and apparently have normal vision.

Now the second cataract has been removed, and the inserted lens is gradually settling down, so my vision is almost back to normal in my right eye as well.

The experience of the operation is something in its variety of illusions and hallucinations. Whereas the first operation was sedate in that my vision during the operation was coated with a black background and oval white spots like a severe Marimekko pattern, this time it was something else.

First, I saw an ironbark forest portrayed as though it was a magic forest – clearly defined but a very emerald green fading into a very brown hill that resembled a bear pelt. Then it changed to a village scene, with hints of Brueghel as photographed by Dupain. The curtain came down, and red and black lacunae dotted the lenscape with a sudden outburst of teal marshmallows exploding and then it was over – I felt the final stitch and then the lights of the operating theatre appeared. The entertainment had finished.

My eye was strapped and then I was off to the recovery room. It had been swifter than anybody thought – 20 minutes.

I had a turkey sandwich with cranberry sauce and a juice for a delayed lunch, but no grog for 24 hours. Probably just well. Who knows what I would have seen? 

Feminism – A slogan?

I accidentally switched onto a TV program which paraded a selective group of the women who apparently shaped the feminine diaspora during the 1960s and 1970s. One of the major networkers of her time, Gay Davidson, was totally ignored by this documentary. Gay was the Canberra correspondent of The Canberra Times. Gay had contacts across the political spectrum.  She was a very generous host, an astute person who had come from New Zealand, marrying Ken Davidson, The Age economic writer of the time. They had two daughters, Tui and Kiri, who were very much part of the Davidson’s life until Kiri’s tragic death from a rare late complication of measles.

Of the women featured, I had met Anne Summers through Gay, and one piece of advice left an everlasting impression on her – as she did on me with her own blunt opinions. Her legacy beside being a founding member of the Women’s Liberation Movement was her book Damned Whores and God’s Police which achieved a certain cult status.

There in this documentary a clutch of elderly women was being interviewed about their reminiscences of that time, which was universally said to be “an exciting period”. Perhaps, but having lived through the same period where there was scant childcare, where abortion was banned, where most women were still consigned to a second class status, it was interesting to listen to the various apologia. Perhaps the most disturbing comments came from Elizabeth Reid, who Whitlam appointed very publicly as his Woman’s Adviser in 1973, and then sent her on her way two years later after the disastrous “Summit” she had convened. The problem with Ms Reid is she smiles a great deal but has no sense of humour – a fatal combination.

The fault with government is that it does not learn. The recent appointment of one of the most “retentive” Ministers as “Prime Minister for Women” does not help. Marise Payne is a woman so stitched up that she burbles rather than talks naturally, and such a damaged woman is set up for an impossible task. Then there is the proposal for a National Summit to discuss women’s problems presumably to be organised by the gaggle of female Ministers delegated this task by Morrison.

If I were a cynic, I would think that the government is expecting every extremist women’s group to turn up and then fire up latent community prejudices around the Alphabet group; presumably Morrison would expect them to treat the Summit as though it were a winter Mardi Gras. In so doing, a perverse government would hope that such activities would undermine the very significant gains women have made in the first part of the year since the initial Brittany Higgins’ accusations. Then after a disastrous Summit, Morrison would have clear air in his narrowly-based constituency for another electoral victory with yet another discredited feminine movement on the sidelines.

I hope this bunch, with Grace Tame at their head, are smarter than Morrison and his misnamed bunch of Liberals thinks they are and can handle the fringe movements.

One tip – ensure that the girls in the forefront of the protest turn up in their school uniforms. An absolute rejection of the Morrison tactics. And if they can induce some of the evangelical “Christian schools” to join in, so much greater the impact.

Consent – A memoir

In a previous blog, I mentioned the above book recently translated from the French, which details the experience Vanessa Springora, the author, had as a 14 year old and onwards as the child lover of a guy, a prominent French author who was 50 at the time.  I have now read it, “a gut-punch of a memoir with prose that cuts like a knife”, as one reviewer put it.

Matzneff

His name was Gabriel Matzneff and he actively promoted paedophilia as some form of love. In the seventies, even up to the nineties, he was lauded for his “progressive attitudes” by a wide variety of his contemporaries, both male and female. When you look at photos of him at the time, he looks a fit, tanned, good looking individual with the scrubbed face and bald head of a Yul Bynner. Yet his is the face of a satyr, who purports to be a member of the human race because of his lyrical phrases justifying the destruction of vulnerable young human beings for his own pleasure. He and the author corresponded, and in his array of books he referred to her and her letters to him without any consent even being given.

Twenty years on, he is the same animal, but a more decrepit 83 year old now being pursued by the police. His prurient ideas have long lost currency with his highbrow audience.

The book confronted me with her description of this person having anal sex with her at 14. This act is perpetrated by this middle-aged man who professed his undying love for her. She describes her absent father returning, screaming about Matzneff being a pervert and storming out again. Yet her mother condoned the relationship. Never any support, with fellow school students well aware of what was going on and she, forced into a pattern of sleazy trysts away from their prying eyes.

What is painful is to follow the descent of this young woman, even after she extracted herself from his clutches – although there was always the fear of him stalking her professing his love. This was the same man who regularly went to the Phillipines to satisfy his lust for pubescent boys, all the time crying the purity of his motives. He even offered to take her to show the purity of his motives.

Vanessa did not commit suicide; she habilitated herself and found a husband who she says cares for her. After all, she is in her mid-forties.

She is very matter of fact; no gushing over having found a caring male and having a son. It was her husband who encouraged her to write the book.

Her translator, Natasha Lehrer, writes a very perceptive note.

Even at the age of fourteen, Springora instinctively understands that her abuser is using language to steal her soul. One day he determines to write her assignment for school, an experience she describes as “dispossession”. Throughout their relationship he takes endless notes in his Moleskin notebooks, and uses them later to turn her, barely disguised, into a character in several novels that are published to some acclaim by the most esteemed Parisian publishing houses.

To Matzneff Vanessa was just a character to be followed by other girls while she was erased. She now is a restored character, not erased, having survived that torment.

She is a publisher, and this was her first work. The book deserves to be widely read. It is easy to despise G.M. as she labels him in her book, but he is one of many. Undoubtedly they lurk in Parliament House, but they are not confined to just one feed lot. Ms Springora has shown the power of publication, not to be afraid to identify the oppressor, and hope the community will exact the appropriate penalty on her tormentor.

Meanwhile, I await the arraignment of Brittany Higgins’ rapist.

Mouse Whisper

Not to put too fine a point (or is now jab) on it, Bhutan vaccinated their whole population of 800,000 in a week, after delaying the inoculations for two months because the time was inauspicious according to the governing body, Zhung Dratsang, which is apparently not translated as Minister Hunt.

Bhutan

Modest Expectations – Seaplanes & Submarines

When I was a medical student in the early 1960s, I wrote a novel ostensibly about a day in the life of a medical student. It was not particularly good, but I kept a copy of it. When I revisited it a few years ago, I was amazed at the anger and repressed violence portrayed by the anti-hero who was a reasonable facsimile of myself at that age – rootless, one who read snatches of Salinger, Camus, Kerouac, Orwell, Fanon, Hemingway – anarchic without a clue how to approach women. Boy’s school product without mother or any sisters. I was the heroic anti-hero.  Oh, yeah! I shudder to think how I negotiated my late teenage years.

However, reassessing the novel again, it having laid undisturbed for so many years, I was able to do something that was for me unique, look back on how I thought then. Bit of a worry, but it gave me an insight into what I was saying then; and what was clearly locked into my subconscious now became completely plain to the older me.

The antihero’s attitude to women was appalling. I was the writer. I could not believe that I had written some of the stuff. The plot was OK, if you like idiosyncratic self-absorption. Some of the writing I could now barely understand. Anyway, the rejection note from Rigby’s was very polite. I remember for some reason opening it on a rainy day in Adelaide. Why Adelaide – who knows? One of the mysteries of life. For a long time the rejection destroyed the author in me.

Not that I noticed as the years slipped by. Remembering the oversized cupboard I had for an office in old Parliament House, the relief was palpable when, after a day of claustrophobia, I could escape to the non-members bar.

Perhaps, had I gone back to my flat in the evenings, I would have written my diary and perhaps reflected on the draft novel. However had I done so, I would have missed out on a great deal of gossip relevant for the next day. With the small number we had in the office in those days, there was little time for “hanging out” apart from the bar. It was difficult to go out for dinner, and when you did The Lobby was the most convenient place, but dinner was always rushed.  You had to get back to the House by 8.00 pm.

So, the recent proposal to limit alcohol consumption in Parliament House in my time would have received few votes, but then Parliament House was not the widespread prairie it is now and staff numbers were roughly proportional to the workload.  Judging by the antics by this expanded fringe that are being reported, there were more of us with an IQ greater than 100. Recruitment should be improved, and “friend of my cousin’s son” should not be the prime criterion for employment. That is more important than any attempt to muzzle the “booze culture”.

The only night I remember going home early was my first night in Parliament House; thereafter on the sitting days it was full on, as was socialising, but in those days the opinion leaders in the non-members bar were all men. That was for sure.

Carrie Nation, with hatchet

The booze problem seems to be an enduring characteristic of politics. Carrie Nation developed a notoriety by spending many years destroying bars in the Mid-west. Her weapon was a hatchet; she was arrested and fined on countless occasions as she ran this rugged temperance movement. Her activities preceded the disastrous Prohibition Period.

I doubt whether there is a Carrie Nation character willing to metaphorically take an axe to alcohol in Parliament House. Banning alcohol, breath testing and testing for drugs, all knee jerk responses unthought out, will just fade away like so much editorial fluff.

Nevertheless, Carrie Nation did something which could be emulated by these Parliamentary women looking for a project to which they could all contribute. Carrie Nation set up refuges for women who were victims of abuse where alcohol was the major contributing factor.

When I was in charge of a community health program in the 1970s, the Department was intensely conservative; it could be said that members of the Santamaria Curia, laughingly referred to as the Democratic Labour Party, were firmly ensconced in senior levels of the Victorian public service as it was in some of the health funds. My administrative officer had been brought up in a conservative Roman Catholic family. At that time, it was somewhat confronting when the woman running refuges turned up with spiky hair and leather jacket. We did not bother the senior echelons of the Department in funding for these refuges.

Over to you Senator Stoker, learn something about something.

And moreover

Anonymouse

Every time I get in my car – a modest French model – I curse the car designers who don’t seem to be able to manufacture a car that has a seatbelt that fits.  The same has applied to previous cars of different brands. The adjustment offered is just sufficient to ensure the seatbelt cuts across my neck and neatly tucks under my left armpit. Is this a problem?  Yes, of course it is.

In a recent New York Review article, “Invisible Women: Data bias in a world designed for men”, the problems caused by the data gap are described: seat belts, airbags and wearable electronic devices are designed for the average male and no seat belt has ever been designed to safely accommodate a pregnant woman.  In the US, women are 17 per cent more likely than men to die in a car crash and 73 per cent more likely to be injured in a frontal crash despite being involved in fewer accidents … presumably they are being strangled by an ill-fitting seatbelt.

Only now is the first crash test dummy that accurately represents women’s bodies being developed, in Sweden. America only started using female dummies in safety tests in 2011, but these apparently don’t represent average women. Although 50 per cent of drivers are women, the industry standard is based on “male” crash test dummies in the driver’s seat.

Australian car manufacturers made some desultory efforts to acknowledge that women were a growing part of the vehicle market. Remember the make-up mirror behind the sun visor, colours designed especially for “the ladies”, and “nice mats so the high heels aren’t scuffed” that were once promoted? Fortunately, these ridiculous promotions seem to have vanished, but the seat belt problem remains, grounded in the same failure to ensure that data specifically relating to women are included in relevant data.

The data gap doesn’t just exist to make cars uncomfortable (well, downright dangerous actually).  Personal protective equipment (PPE) has been a hot topic during the COVID-19 pandemic.  PPE is designed to fit the “average man” however the vast majority of nurses are female, as are a significant proportion of emergency department doctors and new medical registrars; they have to work in PPE designed for men. Ninety-five per cent of women in emergency services say their PPE don’t fit, and that includes bullet proof vests as well.

Medical devices  have been designed for the male body. For example, the design of the metal-on-metal hip implant, supposedly a gender-neutral medical device, disproportionately injure women, who receive more replacements.  The design is too shallow for women’s wider hips leaving it more likely that metal particles will break off the implant, or that it will fail.

The impact of this data bias ends up in court: it is reported that in the US in 2018, 32 per cent of lawsuits pending in the Federal court involved products that exclusively or primarily injured women; at the same time 6.4 per cent of the mass torts involved products exclusively affecting men – Viagra, the male hair-loss drug Propecia and Adrogel, a testosterone replacement therapy. However, a comparison of individual lawsuits starkly illustrates the problem: 9,969 federal lawsuits involved products that exclusively harmed men; contrast 67,085 federal lawsuits were brought by women in relation to pelvic mesh alone.

The Prime Minister has appointed a cadre of female Ministers to improve the appalling culture in Australia’s Parliament House revealed by  multiple complaints of sexual assault and bad behaviour. He has an opportunity to be other than reactionary. There is no doubt that the culture of Parliament House must change, just as the broader culture of Australia needs to change. Government must play its part in that but at the same time the Prime Minister has an opportunity to make a mark – time for data bias to be eliminated, time for women to not have to “make do” with things designed for men.  Australia was one of the first countries in the world to make seat belts compulsory; time to lead the world and make them as safe for women as for men.

So Grace Tame, you are striving to bring about improvement in the lives of women, how about advocating a technology revolution to design women-friendly devices.

It was no Rainbow

Now that I am firmly on reminiscent road, my second night in Parliament House still sticks in my memory. After the House rose for the evening, I was having a drink with Snedden to celebrate the end of my second day, when two journalists turned up. Snedden had an easy relationship with many in the Press Gallery, and these two senior journalists turned up to see what Snedden had employed as his Principal Private Secretary (PPS), now referred to as the Chief of Staff. In those days, the media cover of staff appointment was perfunctory, but the Press Gallery apparently knew I was a doctor. Incidentally, not being regularly in the media spotlight was a blessing.

The appointment of a doctor to staff was not that unusual. Whitlam’s PPS was also medically qualified. Peter Wilenski had been President of the Sydney Union at about the time I had been President of the University of Melbourne Student Representative Council. Wilenski had branched out of medicine into a career as a diplomat; while I had remained in medicine although I found time to complete the preliminary requirements for a Master of Arts which I never found time to finish the thesis.

Greenstreet and Lorre

Anyway, these two characters arrived – to me, as they entered the room, they projected the imagery of Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre just stepping out of a film noir – one large and lumbering but with a touch of menace and the other slight with the delicately honed syntax of the intellectual. They had combined to write a book on the 1972 election of Gough Whitlam.

I had been prepared to pack up and go back to the motel but their appearance and invitation for a drink put the kibosh on that. Snedden had a particularly close relationship with Oakes at that time; Oakes had the ability of making him relax for he was a different person in private from the public persona which was often appeared stilted and pompous.  This easy relationship at that time was demonstrated a few drinks later when Snedden performed his party trick – his standing jump onto the coffee table. Very boys own. At that time, Oakes had a certain presence of honed maturity, which made me forget he was still only 28. When he laughed, it was always suppressed as he tried to keep his response to himself, and to maintain that look which some confused with Buddhic depth – but I always saw Sidney Greenstreet.

Snedden then left me to joust with Oakes and Solomon. About 3am we called it quits, a draw. Laurie Oakes had been a member of the Liberal Club at the University of Sydney, whereas David Solomon was the classic Fabian. Yet it showed the fact that politics circulated around the centre rather than being the preserve of the extremes. Nevertheless, as I have written before, the political centre is like the magnetic pole. It shifts.

I believe reflecting from a long way away but with the benefit of considerable hindsight that if Laurie Oakes had replaced Geoff Allen in the latter part of 1973 as Snedden’s Press Secretary, he would have provided the muscle to dissuade Snedden from precipitating the 1974 Federal election.

I remember being next to Snedden on the flight to Canberra when he read that Whitlam had appointed Vince Gair as Ambassador to Ireland. His immediate visceral reaction was to take Whitlam to the election. In the end, the decision to precipitate the election fractured the relationship between Snedden and Oakes. However, history is littered with the “what could have beens”.

Geoff Allen had been a remarkable Press Secretary with an incomparable ability to reframe people and make people feel good and confident, but after years in the role, he had had enough. The difference being “having enough” and “burn out” is the person recognises the first before the second phase sets in. Being very shrewd, Geoff went on to run a very successful consultancy business. It was a common career progression among those who worked for Billy Snedden.

Cormann – The Golden Point

If there was a more cringeworthy utterance from the Prime Minister it was when Cormann was elected Secretary-General of the OECD. Morrison announced it was as though Australia had won the position by punting Cormann over the black dot to win the rugby league game by a field goal.

Yes, Corman won by a single vote, which means that 18 nations voted against him, and they will be watching him for an even-handed approach, given the activities of his Australian cheer squad – if he really matters in the scheme of things. America put him in the position, changing its initial vote away from the Swedish contender.

This means that Cormann needs to toe the American line if he wants a second six-year term – and with John Kerry calling the shots, Cormann will be expected to echo the Kerry chant, at least for now.

The line to toe

As for the importance of this appointment, I have been scanning the NYT for news of his appointment. It does not seem to have appeared; but maybe I have missed the headline. Nevertheless, a Western Australian did appear in the NYT news this week – a guy being struck in the back by an octopus tentacle in the waters of the coast of that State. I believe his name was not Cormann.

Well done, Us

Over Easter, I sat down to a pub tea in a regional city in NSW. The local football and netball teams had been playing that day, and there was jubilation in air.  The tavern was packed; social distancing was nominal; there was no hand sanitiser on the table (although it was at all the entry doors); we had brought our own. It was as though the COVID-19 infection had never happened. I asked those at the table whether anybody had had a cold or flu in the previous year. Nobody had.

Small sample but perhaps it can be postulated that the level of hygiene within the community has changed. We are less tolerant of people at work with contagious diseases, the so-called “cracking hardy”, or being forced to work while sick by unsympathetic bosses.  The fact that the States have cracked down when even one community infected case appears has people fearful of being group punished if contracting the Virus.

The only one who seems immune from this is the Premier of NSW who has at times been Pollyanna or Don Quixote. She has been lucky. After the near-death experiences of the Ruby Princess disaster, the Newmarch Nursing Home catastrophe and a Chief Health Officer who, in the early days, talked about a zig-zag approach to the Virus, whatever that meant, NSW was then on the nose.

The Premier had inherited the best contact tracing system in Australia and now has a Health Minister who recognises health is the priority in righting the State and not being undermined by the self-interest of some of the business community. These conjunctions of fortune have helped place NSW in a place where the Premier has reaped the benefit, but there is still the vaccination rollout to be negotiated.

Mouse Whisper

Just as tasteless variations  as exemplified by “Schitt’s Creek” (Candian sit-com) or “Up Schipp’s Creek” (AAMI ad).

You know my Cousin Mouse complete with stick and lederhosen climbing out the Bavarian glacial valley gasped:

“Gosh, that place gave me the schist.”

Then there was the tableau of four oblong white fabric figures weaving and then falling onto the stage, and my Cousin Mouse entering off left and declaiming, pointing to prostrate figures with his stick:

“Lo, a pack of dead sheets.”

No, I am not three sheets to the wind.

A glacial valley designed to give you the schist

Modest Expectations – The Size of the Universe

Is Australia an ochlocracy?

The Ancient Greek historian, Polybius drew on the traditional theory of the three constitutions: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, which may decay into their perverted versions becoming respectively, despotism, oligarchy and “rule of violence”.

Okhlos

Okhlos is Greek for “mob”. Its potential was seen briefly in the storming of the US Capitol on January 6. It goes to show how rattled the Prime Minister continues to be when he invoked the spectre of mob rule such as that; and substitutes an irritating mantra of “the rule of law” (or does he mean lore and he has not bothered to read the evidence – but then he admits he never reads anything any time).

Morrison’s retreat behind a line of feeble excuses, backed invariably by people of privilege in the end is unsustainable. One transformation occurring in Australian culture which has probably been an important undercurrent in this societal change has been the appearance of the articulate young women who have had enough of the brutal misogyny, which hides behind the veil of Australian “mateship”.

This rise in the women voicing their experience of the underbelly of Australian social life is far from mob rule; it shows the best aspects of democracy, thriving on freedom of speech and the actions of a new leadership led by at least three young women – and presumably more of them to come.

Yet another Liberal Woman?

I watched Kate Jenkins’ underwhelming performance last Sunday morning on television. She is the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, having jumped ship in 2016 from her role as the Victorian counterpart which she held for less than three years. Her successor in Victoria, Kristen Hilton, is about to finish a five years’ stint and is a female lawyer who came to the position from Legal Aid and community advocacy. Jenkins was from a different legal background and was a controversial appointment by the then Victorian Attorney-General, who happened then to be Liberal. She was appointed despite the selection committee unanimously recommending someone else, and indeed a number of the selection panel resigned in protest. After all, Jenkins had form, having worked for 20 years for Freehills, which was a law firm aligned to the employers in work disputes.

There was a change of Government in Victoria late in 2014, and despite her saying that the manner of appointment had been smoothed over, nevertheless when the opportunity arose to move back to a similar position under a Liberal government it is not surprising that she did.

It is somewhat of a dejà vu situation when, as Kate Jenkins was reported saying in 2018 after some Liberal Party MPs raised concerns about bullying inside the party, she suggested the community response would prompt conservative politicians to push for change. Her comments came at the same time one West Australian Liberal Senator, Linda Reynolds said it was time for Liberal MPs to stop talking about themselves and allow the party to deal with the bullying issue internally – the rule of lore methinks.

Now Kate Jenkins has been entrusted to look at the dysfunctionality of the Parliament House workplace, encouraging people to tell all but with no authority to name names. Initially, the Prime Minister had assigned one of his female colleagues, but after all what do you have a sex discrimination commissioner for? It seemed somewhat of an afterthought, but in the blokey culture in which the Prime Minister finds himself comfortable, it is unsurprising. After all, in this culture Kate Jenkins has to examine, the Office of Women has barely been heard. She has to report by November.

However, one suggestion that the office appointment be made by some independent body is ludicrous. Most ministerial offices have departmental liaison officers in any event. In many workplaces, one needs a police check. The problem lies in the fact that there are just too many parliamentary staff, the employing Minister needs to be confident of their loyalty and their moral compass. Cut back on staff numbers and get rid of the condottiere culture – 95 per cent of the time hanging out and five per cent ultimate brutality in the case of the Mafia. Applying that to the parliamentary office is boredom, gossiping and bullying – in varying degrees. Occasionally, they may contribute a snippet of relevance to portfolio deliberations.

As for the percentage of sexual harassment and assault admixed, that is surely the major task for Kate Jenkins. In her favour is that she seems to have been involved in sport, in particular the Carlton Football club. That probably has given her an insight into the blokey culture which, fuelled by alcohol and drugs, can become a very unpleasant scene.

However, the most obvious recommendations are that all cases of sexual harassment and assault they be immediately referred to the police and that Parliament House have a 24-hour counselling service on hand for the victim. The first harasser charged should be refused bail and have the case held over for a few months. This would be somewhat of a deterrent, as well as the name being on the public record instead of appearing nowhere but everywhere on social media – a case of “porterisation”.

Insurrection

When I was a medical student, there was only one medical school in Victoria. It was a traditional medical course, which had its roots in the Great Britain “honorary” system and Nightingale wards.

There was a vision of medical students in the mould of the 1950s series of “Doctor in the House” books, which were popular and vaguely true of a vanishing world.

We “fresher” students had a term of botany to start us in the world of human biochemistry, physiology and anatomy and then moving on to years in clinical medicine where we were introduced to our human pathology. However, that pathology included an introduction to the world of the medical hierarchy, enmeshed in a different pathology. It was a world of innate privilege. For instance, from my boys only private school about ten per cent of the students in my first year were old boys from my school; and most of those had been with me at school the previous year.  Therefore, there was an easy familiarity when we all gathered for our first term. None of the guys then from my school were more than acquaintances, as the friends that I had at school tended to be on the “arty fringe”, not on the treadmill of a year 12 two maths, physics and chemistry.

Despite having a headmaster enlightened for his time, having a factory to ensure a stream of first class honours and the academic superiority of the school, in the end, the school encouraged privilege and misogyny. After all, it was still a school where the boarders were banned from playing hockey, because it was a sport played by girls. Then there was the cruelty, both physical and mental. Until just before I entered the senior school, the prefects were allowed to cane, which some have reported did it with relish.

The masters – note male – were allowed to cane. I remember one time when I was framed as the instigator of a class riot and was caned in front of the class with a large wooden compass. This old boy had played tennis at championship level and his backhand was still a powerful weapon. Oh, such a wondrous time. And there we all were on the threshold of a career of caring and compassion.

There were few women then doing medicine, about 25 per cent at that time. One of them was a feisty blonde who as child had migrated with her parents and elder sister to Australia from Central Europe after the war. She attracted attention because she was always impeccably dressed, even down to her use of Mitsouko as a trademark, very good looking with a strong sense of morality, and willingness to engage men as equals.  This frank engagement was often misinterpreted. Because she was a fraction over 160cm, there was tendency by some to see her as a doll, unable to resist the fragrance of the male pheromones. Nothing was further from the truth. One professor, who had the reputation as a Lothario tried it on, got nowhere very quickly and punished her with a supplementary examination in his subject, which she ultimately passed. The professor wisely absented himself from this further examination.

There was the instance in one of those crowded raucous medical student parties, when a drunken male lifted her up and tried to sling her over his shoulder. Others intervened and he dropped her. In a flash she had flattened him with a fist which travelled from below knee level and he, helped by an inebriated lurch forward, copped the full intensity of the blow. She never gave any quarter; a remarkable woman (in the 1960s she was a pioneer in and passionate advocate also of early childhood education) who followed up with a successful career until she suddenly decided that she had had enough of a male-dominated world and retired. It was a pity.

The white shoe brigade

In our fifth year we had to undertake 10 weeks in the Women’s Hospital where during that period were to do twenty deliveries on our own, including two instrumental deliveries. That was one roster; the other was the episiotomy roster, where we had to go and sew up the incision made in the perineum when extracting the baby to avoid a tear. In those days it was a regular occurrence and we medical students had to do the suturing repair. It was an introduction to being on-call at night.

We were not to leave the premises without permission over the ten weeks and to compound this imprisonment, we had to wear all white – all white short coats, white shirt, white tie, white pullover, white trousers or skirt, white socks, white shoes. The one luxury we afforded ourselves when we were far enough down each list not to be immediately bothered being called was to go over the road to the Martini Bar at about eleven o’clock, have a veal parmigiana and watch a TV Western called The Rebel-Johnny Yuma.

The Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology was an owlish misogynist who had crawled up the pole of success by judicious naval service, membership of the Masons, a fortuitous lack of interest in the professorial post when he applied, allowing him to slide into academia without much, if any academic qualification. Then there he was, a graduate who had needed supplementary examinations to pass and was forced to undertake his first post graduate year at Tennant Creek, on the brink of a stellar career. He had a ruthless streak which, coupled with a few shrewd appointments, provided him with an aura of success. However, his most memorable utterances related to a distressed pregnant woman who came to him threatening suicide. His response – as recounted by him to us fifth year medical students – was that he showed her the window of his office and invited her to jump. The fact that she did not just proved triumphantly his insight into women. To our shame we just absorbed what he said and did nothing.

However the atmosphere, because of the activities of his lieutenants called “First assistants”, became so repressive with them singling out a Malayan Chinese student for special punishment. That was the trigger point. We students declared that enough was enough and petitioned the Professor in a written document signed by all but one of the cohort. We thought it an impressive display of solidarity, and the First Assistants were clearly rattled. Nothing happened immediately and then we felt the full force of the Professor; he isolated those he thought were the leaders and suddenly the rebellion melted away. After all, this guy could have a serious effect on careers. He enforced the punishment, “gating” the whole student cohort. This was eased as it gave the First assistants a “humane role” in releasing us from our imprisonment.

In the end a few of us, but particularly myself as I was by then Chair of The Medical Students Society, had a rough time, even though it was almost 18 months later before we faced the examiners. That is another story, but I evaded the trap – and passed, admittedly near the bottom of the year.

As to the fate of the petition, it was never seen again, except there was a second copy – signed similarly by the same set of students. I have it in my possession as an example of what he probably thought was an attempt at mob rule, but a useful document that can be added to his “in memoriam”.

After all, he was not the only disgraceful example of this disrespect for women. It was rife among obstetricians back then, but now change has occurred, especially with more female role models in the field with exemplary professional behaviour.

Then, as students, we accepted the mores, such as lining up to do an internal examination on a woman who had supposedly consented to the invasion. Some of those in my cohort, who signed the petition, became well-respected obstetricians and gynaecologists.

As for the Professor, he was knighted and acquired a trail of honorary academic degrees from all over the world, had a building named after him at one of the teaching hospitals in Melbourne and died as a revered misogynist in 1983.

IVF – Great Expectations?

The role of IVF as a ‘cure’ for infertility was crucial to the discursive construct of law as a barrier. ‘If medical advancements can help these people, it is not the role of Parliament to prevent it. Science was posited as a progressive force, aligned with nature, or perhaps with natural progress, which parliament should not impede. Paradoxically, then, law becomes both the problem and the solution as it ushers in a new era of reform.

In April 1988, my team reported to the then Commonwealth Department of Community Services and Health on the status of in vitro fertilisation (IVF). The Department prepared a summary report because some of the data we collected was confidential. The Departmental summary made the comment that the good data collected by my team “cannot be matched with good output data collected by the National Perinatal Statistics Unit (NPSU). (I use the term IVF, although ART, assisted reproductive technology, of which IVF is one, may now be more commonly used.)

To put our consultancy into perspective, the first in Australia and when 2503 pregnancies had occurred with 1851 live born infants. That was the raw statistic, and we looked at data from 1986 onwards from 15 units across Australia.

It was a time when the tabloids would pounce on any multiple pregnancy as though non-viable octuplets were in some way a blessing from God, a scenario which some members of the Roman Catholic Church applauded. It was just an instance of appalling practices, loading the woman up with fertilised eggs, on the grounds it was more likely one would be implanted.

I entered this review in a very positive frame of mind, because I knew Professor Carl Wood, who was part of the vanguard in the introduction of IVF.

The one invariable feature when we arrived at any of the units was the pictures of beaming bonny babies, so even from the early days the public relation teams were in the picture, so to speak.

Then our team confronted reality. The processes involved in IVF mean that the woman goes through a harrowing experience to conceive. Then there was the waiting period to know that the process was successful. There was some difficulty initially in finding the actual success rate. The success rate was a live baby in the basket – and multiple pregnancies counted as one. Full stop.

It was a problem in the early days and in one State where there was an “IVF cowboy” at the helm, because of his propensity to place multiple eggs into the uterus for implantation.  Of the 55 live births following IVF, 27 per cent were multiple births compared to 0.01 per cent of the total. There were 15 multiple births due to IVF of a total of 264 multiple pregnancies. Five sets were triplets born from IVF pregnancies during the time when there were only a total of 15 sets of triplets born across Australia.

The problem in assessing the “live baby in basket” against the number of IVF cycles was not made easy, because those who ran the IVF clinics were not the same team as those who delivered the women. There was thus no uniform data collection. This presented a difficulty since there were a number who might have been assessed as pregnant but who actually had a chemical pregnancy that did not progress.  This was another practice uncovered at the time – to count a rise in the hormone bHCG as a “successful IVF treatment” – a fancy bit of data manipulation since many never got beyond this stage.  In the absence of any reliable data collection, it was left to us to make the best estimate.

We noted that even at that time of our review four women had already undergone 13 treatment cycles without becoming pregnant. Considering the stress that one IVF cycle entailed, failure was a nightmarish experience – and 13 times! Added to this was a cohort of infertile men whose failure to acknowledge their own infertility created other problems. With the intracytoplasmic injection of one spermocyte into one oocyte, it always seemed to me the height of arrogance that a scientist could pick the right sperm for the right oocyte – a form of cellular eugenics. Yet in one way what could one expect. IVF was the product of veterinary medicine.

I came out of the experience of our consultancy rather differently from the person who was commissioned to undertake this review. Our reports received a mixed reception. For the most part of the succeeding 33 years, I have written nothing. Nevertheless, I have been disturbed by commercialisation of the expectations of women increasingly delaying their families – for many reasons. There is an increasing number of women in their forties seeking IVF treatment when they have certainly reached the fertility savannah if not the desert.

I was prompted to write by the following comment:

Going through IVF is the worst thing that has ever happened to me physically and emotionally. The financial costs made the whole thing far more stressful and limited how many attempts we could have. I know of people who have sold their houses and given up everything to pay for cycle after cycle to have the child they always dreamed of. What’s so infuriating, though, is that it absolutely does not have to be this expensive. This is what happens when medical care is run for private profit instead of public good.

At the time we undertook the review it was well before IVF became a hedge fund commodity like so much of health care now. One of the major reasons for the 1988 review was to understand the costs, and the report was inter alia a masterpiece in cost accounting (because of the involvement of Dr Robert Wilson).

IVF is now big business. It would be a brave politician or Department to establish an independent review as ours was. It is very difficult to work out the real success rate; it is in the interest of the industry to conflate the success rate. But the more important issue is that this is an industry that is in a position to prey on those who are so willing to give up so much for “a baby in the basket”.

The problem I have is “what is truth?” I could not believe this nonsense written by one of IVF specialists. His thesis that increasing IVF could replace falling migration levels is backed by this following burble:

Arguments based on a sense that IVF is futile for women in their 40s also hold little water these days. Twenty years ago, when I first began training in IVF, pregnancies in older women were a rarity. Yet 2017 data from Australia show that, for women aged between 40 and 44 using their own eggs, the cumulative live birth rate is well over 10% for the first cycle of IVF treatment and runs to as high as 40% by their eighth cycle of treatment.

The eighth cycle of treatment, I ask you! The cumulative live birth rate is simply, “if I keep going, what are my chances of pregnancy if I have another cycle, or another two cycles, or another three …”. Dangling a 40% success rate in front of a desperate person who is prepared to sell the house …. those who are running IVF clinics are in a position of  power -the sort of power men use to manipulate women.

Has the misogyny which once burned bright among obstetricians and gynaecology not been extinguished? Anybody making statements as airily as that suggests that it has not. Statements as that above should be tested urgently by another independent review.

I remember one piece of data that stuck in my mind. It was an early study that compared women who had undergone at least one IVF cycle and then gone back to conventional ways of procreation as those who had persisted and delivered an IVF baby. It was about the same – nine per cent.

This is another statistic that would be worth reviewing now.

Any advances on that?

Mouse Whisper

Witnesses under cross examination, however mighty their stature outside the courtroom, very soon became meek and mild and well-behaved in his hands. If they did not—if they paltered with him, or evaded his questions, or did not do justice to their testimonial responsibilities— the smell and sight of cordite smoke soon drifted into the courtroom.

I have never read a more flower-encrusted definition of bullying – in this case a description of the late Tom Hughes’ court antics.

These words are by Dyson Heydon, in a book review of Tom Hughes’ biography, in turn authored by one of those guys my mousemeister knew at school.

Attorney General Porter or his successor should not palter over the Dyson Heydon sexual harassment report in the wake of the Chief Justice’s condemnation last year of him.  Porter received a separate Departmental report on 25 February; and to all intents and purposes it is unsurprising he has done nothing since.

Modest Expectations – Atlanta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Exactly the Jerilderie Letters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But back to Craig Kelly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brief Encounter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The defile though which Senator Lambie emerged

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

Modest Expectations – The Hawke has Landed

After managing the responses to the Christchurch terrorist attacks, the White Island volcano and a pandemic — not to mention the birth of her first child — (Jacinda Ardern) has become a global standard-bearer for a progressive politics that defines itself as compassionate and competent in crisis.

So spoke the New York Times after Jacinda Ahern’s landslide election win last Saturday. Let’s face it, she was a refreshing breeze at a time when there had been some dodgy females hogging the headlines in Australia.  I get sick and tired of the mantra that women do not get a fair go. These women have demonstrated that they are no different from men. The one qualification is that I have never seen women politicians flogging stuff out of their parliamentary office. However, Darryl Maguire is not on his pat as a male if the species in running a two-dollar store out of his parliamentary office

The current problem is that having convenient attacks of amnesia seems to be the most valued commodity in public life whether it be female or male.

In my first blog, which I wrote 83 weeks ago before all that was recounted above occurred, I wrote: “Yet Jacinda Ardern gives me hope. Her words – her demeanour of grace, compassion, resolve, her ability to call out the bully – the courage of making herself a target for all the “unspeakables”. She is indeed a paragon.”

However, there is a squad of chaps who do not like her. I was criticised for blind adoration. Yet one of her great assets is a supportive partner, a person with presumably “selective” adoration.

The brutality of politics is reflected in that her hapless opponent was nick-named “Crusher”, and yet the woman seemed to revel in being called that.

Now the New Zealand election is out of the way, there is the opportunity for our horse-drawn politicians to recognise – as the rest of the world has done – what a contemporary and significant stateswoman she is. She has been the equivalent of a wartime leader in her approach to disasters which would have defeated a lesser person.

The laughable attacks on her last week by an alleged apologist for the Australian security service and the political remnant of Mary Knoll makes one ashamed to admit to the same nationality as those other elderly jokers.

Now, Ardern can get down to work to try and transfer her qualities into the deeply corrupt Australian society. I thought I would never say that we could ever learn from a Kiwi.

As one commentator has written, the liquidity has caused a surge in real estate market prices in New Zealand, particularly Auckland.  Hopefully, this will encourage her to abandon the KiwiBuild scheme, which seems to be a remnant of “Rogernomics”, and spend the money directly on much-needed social housing.

Improved contact, whatever you call it, with Australia is also essential. How the two countries deal with the South Pacific and the incursions from the Northern Hemisphere countries will be a critical test. However, before that there will be wool.

All that superficial crap highlighting tearful family reunions around “the bubble” hides the fact, which I noticed driving around NSW this week, that there are a lot of sheep that need to be shorn. With a shortfall in our shearing workforce, Australia needs shearers. The shortfall is generally made up by 500 New Zealand shearers. Until the TransTasman bubble was developed in the last couple of weeks, there was a deterrent in the high price New Zealand shearers had to pay for working in Australia, with their own fares and quarantine arrangements estimated at A$10,000.

A gun shearer can earn $150,000 in Australia if they average 200 sheep a day. New Zealand shearers are considered high quality and readily employed by shearing contractors so it should be attractive for them to work in Australia, especially now they are able to enter Australia freely.

Let’s hope that we adapt now to developing a better collective arrangement, instead of a perpetual Bledisloe Cup attitude between the two countries. It is time in the aftermath of COVID-19 to lay down our scrums and get to work. I am sure Ardern is up for the challenge. Not sure about the Australian Prime Minister, but then November 3 may change him – or not.

It Could be a Lot of Rot

There is extensive fruit and vegetable picking work available in Australia. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates about 140,000 people are employed in this industry every year. In fact, many people travel the country working the ‘harvest trail’ which sees them in employment all year round. This is because they know when and where the harvests are and move from one harvest to the next.  

For many years, I worked in North-east Victoria right in the heart of the orchards and fruit picking. I witnessed changes in the industry during my time.

There is no doubt one of the most tranquil moments is walking along the lines of pear and apple tree with the emerging fruit. There is a calmness in the ordered lines of greenery and the rilled earth and grass along which you walk.

It was sad to see the tree pulling, which left that Acadian stroll of my first years an empty paddock.

During that time there were changes in the industry. The rise of the farmers’ market meant that there was a new appreciation of fresh fruit. The decline of canned fruit as a major component of the Australian diet meant that apricots had already fallen out of favour with the orchardists before I arrived there. The cling peaches beloved of the canners are far from being the best eating variety.

The then chair of the local health service came from a line of orchardists and the family enterprise was a major economic driver in the town, together with tourism and the now defunct milk processor. His view of the workforce was that he had the itinerant pickers who worked from harvest to harvest. They came year after year – fruit picking generally commenced in November with cherries and apricots, but the major fruit were first, the stone fruit – nectarines and peaches followed by pears and apples until late April to early May.

This was a separate cohort from those employed to pick grapes as the region is a substantial wine producer with the grape picking reaching a peak in February.

My expert friend was not particularly positive about backpackers, because they would come and leave after a few days. The problem is that the media generally turn up on day one rather than, say, day 70 to photograph the “happy campers”. The attrition rate was high, he said. The orchardists need a steady work force not a group of young people flitting from place to place.

When I was young I myself did a variety of vacation jobs – working in a wool store, reading electric light meters, working as a storeman, a guard on armoured cars, gardening, pathology laboratory assistant, working as a clerk among first and second war veterans in the then Repatriation department, spotlight worker. There may be others that I forget, but I know I never went fruit picking, which I regret.

One of the strengths of working in these jobs is you learned the vernacular of being an Australian worker, essentially at a time when unionism was strong. This was important when you were a doctor and your patients were essentially working class, as those of my father were.

There is a growing complexity in the horticultural industry, because one business model does not necessarily encompass the whole of horticultural harvesting.

Some politicians who undertook compulsory national service (or more likely received an exemption) in a different era now champion putting “these young blighters” to work in some sort of revived “Nasho”. However, there will be some smart young person, who will see a place for a scheme which harnesses the workforce in the gig economy to perform this kind of work.  Yet the politicians have allowed a generation of young workers to be pushed into the gig economy, whether they wanted to be there or not, and now may be the time for those in the gig economy to organise themselves – they have the means to do so.

It is a fallacy to believe that the young are not entrepreneurs.

Given the appropriate incentives they could develop business models for efficient fruit picking or for that matter the whole area of horticulture.

In forming the business plan, there are a number of hurdles to address. How do you marshal a workforce with tertiary aspirations, yet where the vacation coincides in substantial part with the fruit-picking season; and yet where the delights of the flesh and the necessity to work are in conflict.

Fruit picking as a business exercise should not be left to the labour contract companies, which the COVID-19 pandemic has shown to be both predatory and incompetent.

Fruit picking as a youthful enterprise, with the instincts of a co-operative work force, requires consideration in that balance between government subsidy and impost on one’s future career. Therefore, the business must ask the question of how much and whether in the end it fills the gap between the two.

The female and male workforce, price, availability, reliability, capacity needs to be assessed and negotiated. In the end are there enough young people prepared to pick fruit effectively and efficiently?

There are a number of reservations, and that is the sustainability of the industry, and because it is so varied and seasonal to develop the flexibility. I remember my orchardist friend pulled a substantial number of trees and replaced them with freezing storage units, because there was a significant demand for such facilities. That was business.

Tastes change.

When I was young, one of the treats was having snow apples. They grew in cold climates and I last had them about 15 years ago; they were growing in a vineyard in the Victorian Pyrenees. Once grown commercially, they suffered from a lack of reliability and resilience, which gave them a short season and besides, they did not store well.

For the growers, profitability is aided if the need for manual harvesting is removed. One industry which has completely removed the need for manual labour is the sugar cane industry. That has occurred in my lifetime.

Almond Trees

As another instance, the number of almond trees that have appeared where once there was only a dried fruit industry along the Murray river has meant that with the rise of the almond and with mechanisation of their harvesting there is no need for a labour force. Similarly, just outside Leeton there is huge acreage being given over to walnut trees. Again, no manual harvesting.  It highlights the need for a workforce that is both agile and responsive.

I know if I were younger and had lived in a “horticulture”, I may have tackled this task, but I am not. Still, it is a challenge because, as I said, tastes change. I remember when I was reviewing a small health service on the Victorian border, I innocently mentioned that I was growing pomegranates. The response I elicited was somewhat comical. The man was about to invest in “serious” pomegranate tree planting. It was a time when Australia had just discovered the delights of the pomegranate, and he immediately thought I was there to “case” the place for pomegranate investment rather than reviewing the health service. When I said I was only planting a couple in my back garden in Sydney, he visibly relaxed.

As an epilogue, pomegranates must be removed from the tree using clippers or secateurs, from March to May. The stem of the tree is strong and thick; fruit cannot be pulled from the tree without damaging the fruit and/or tree. There are no mechanical harvesters. Some of the growers have small acreage and have banded together to form de facto co-operatives to avoid employing pickers. However, as the southern hemisphere only supplies one per cent of the world’s production, the potential should be large for out-of-season export to the northern hemisphere. Ramping up production will require a workforce to pick the pomegranates as they are not the easiest to harvest.

Over to you guys.

մոգ pronounced mog

Armenia

Armenians, it was once said to me, are the shrewdest business people after the Bengalis. Armenians can weave beautiful intricate carpets. Armenians have been Turkish punching bags. Armenians, if nothing else, are survivors. One of my favourite songs is linked to that great Armenian troubadour Charles Aznavour. The song? “She”.

She, Gladys Berejiklian, also has strong and proud Armenian heritage, clear in the retention of her surname. She has cultivated an image of saintliness trying to emulate the many Armenian saints within the Armenian Orthodox Church that as reported she attends regularly.

My encounter with Gladys was when she was the newly-elected member for Willoughby. She came to a dinner where I was the guest of honour. She was late and was brought along by the host of the dinner to be introduced to me. Before that could occur, she saw somebody who must have been so important that she was totally discourteous and totally ignored me, despite being brought to specifically meet me.

I was surprised but then the Italian have a word for it –menefregismo. The barista not looking at you as he pushes the coffee in your direction while talking to a mate at the bar is an example. When it is combined with furbo, which has many interpretations but suggests a person on the make, then it perfectly described Berekjikian that night – except she is a furba to acknowledge her gender. After all – fare la furba – is to jump the queue.

Despite that first impression, if I thought about her which was not often in the intervening period, she seemed superficially to be assiduous and competent.

This year, however, you could not get away from her, because of the series of incidents. I noticed a characteristic, which underpins her authority. She can talk for long periods without saying: “um” or “ah” or any hint of hesitation. It was a trait that I remember a certain English teacher trying to instil into us boys, and for years, there was a BBC radio show called “Just a Minute” where the panellists were given a subject and had to talk for a minute without hesitation, repetition – a variation of not saying “um or “ah”.

It became clear that even when she was very wrong, as with the Ruby Princess, this ability to talk without hesitation gave her an air of authority and her escape hatch from admitting error.

It is amazing how a one trick pony has gone so far, but it may be argued when coupled with that of her immaculate conceived persona that she has been very important to her Party when underneath her feet is a swamp of indeterminate depth inhabited by all sorts of creatures, those that grate and those that appal.

The immaculate sparkle has gone. Yet one of her Ministers, in a stumbling defence, said she was married to NSW. Needless to say, how that could be interpreted in the current soap opera obviously escaped him.

At least, NSW has been spared that agonisingly ambiguous statement of the politician under stress: “I am going nowhere.”

I await the first hint of hesitation in her voice, but maybe that occurred with Kyle Sandilands. Then some may be said to have standards which do not include parsing his utterances and her replies.

I have to admit she did sign the gift I received at the dinner and still treasure – a magnificent book on Aboriginal Art.

Chloroquine studies are alive and well in Parkville

There is still one study in Australia into whether taking hydroxychloroquine can help prevent health care workers getting COVID-19 in the first place. And the jury is still out on that one.

What an interesting take by the intrepid Paul Barry. He had spent extensive time in his “Media Watch” two weeks ago bagging that comedy duo, Bolt and Dean, for their advocacy of the use of hydroxychloroquine in the treatment of COVID-19.

I expressed concerns months ago that funding had been provided to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) to test the prophylactic use of this drug for health workers. The hypothesis I thought threadbare, and subsequently, the evidence against its use has become overwhelming. Barry interviewed Steven Tong from The Doherty Institute who had stopped a trial on the drug’s usage, and used the word “rubbish” in defining the further investigation in the use of the drug.

Even Donald Trump has disavowed its usage, and Barry played an excerpt of recent footage of the President to back up that contention.

So why his curious form of words suggesting that health workers are a separate entity, otherwise why in Barry’s words is the jury out, when he had just demonstrated that the jury had well and truly delivered the verdict of it having not only no effect but also potentially dangerous.

I sent an email to Mr Barry, but he seems to have learnt from his usual quarry of spivs. Just ignore and hope I would go away. However, over my long life in which I have been exposed to many journalists – their worse outcome is to lose objectivity and begin to be believe in their self-beatification.

For the record, I’ve published below my last letter to WEHI, after I had a very swift response to my first letter. Note that I have had no response in the interim 3 months plus, when much has happened to further discredit the use of the drug.

The problem is this drug can potentially kill, for what? WEHI had assembled a cheer squad asserting the worthiness of this study. I was assured that the funding was totally derived from government, although WEHI had admitted accepting money for COVID-19 from a Chinese company, which has been under governmental investigation for business malfeasance.

I made sure that copies of my correspondence were sent to both Brendan Murphy and Anne Kelso, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of NHMRC. Needless to say, they have shown no interest.

I have published that letter, unabridged below. I hope that community and peer pressure will stop this pointless exercise. I canvassed the study with certain sources outside the WEHI claque, and one comment was telling – how concerned he was in the decay of a once great Institute. Not my view as yet.

Perhaps, Mr Barry, you could clarify further why you made that comment, when you were so definite in criticising it elsewhere in you program. Have you an undeclared link with WEHI? Unfortunately I don’t have my own “Media Watch” to keep you up to the mark.

I’m sorry, but at this stage, I am disappointed. Below, my last letter of 27 June 2020 to Prof Doug Hilton AO, Director, WEHI:

Dear Professor Hilton,

Thank you for your very prompt email. Your direct response in relation to the source of funding for the study is instructional for those who obfuscate, however unintentional.

I am very sympathetic to the plight of research institutions in raising funds, but raising expectations, as you would realise, is two-edged. I am somewhat concerned by some of the reports emanating about putative cures because there is already a scepticism in the community about science, which has led the dark fringes of society exploiting anti-science attitudes in the community. This situation is always aggravated when expectations fall short.

You are very disappointed by my linking the Trump support for hydroxychloroquine, but the message received is as equally important as that sent. I do not question that Pellegrini and Wicks had constructed a hypothesis, but its construction when there is already controversy as to its use obviously raises question of whether the publicity created did not play a part in the government making available funding.

I’m alarmed, as you must be, by the apparent renewed support by Trump for its usage even after the FDA’s July warning on its safe use, on the advice provided by Dr Stella Immanuel, whose other ideas are bizarre to give the most generous interpretation. Given how increasingly difficult the situation is becoming you may wish to reconsider the WEHI position, given any association with this Dr Immanuel’s idea would not benefit WEHI.

It is for you as Director to determine its priority in the overall research program if MRFF funding had not been made available. That the availability of funding was not influenced by political considerations, at the time when hydroxychloroquine as a cure was being so widely promoted, was at the tie partially answered in your response.

I note that the study is subject to interim analysis and look forward to its release.

I note that the study has rheumatologists and other lines of support, I am not sure whether my requests have been answered so that I am not personally reassured, in particular concerning the safety of the study. However, for the time being I shall accept your assurances.

In relation to your final paragraph, I have read your annual reports and periodic bulletins – and I understand you have had some spectacular results that have resulted in profitable collaboration with the private sector. However, may I make a couple of points: you refer to my being a medical doctor, but I also suffer from a chronic autoimmune disease, and therefore mine is not a detached interest.

Also in relation to the therapeutic effect of hydroxychloroquine, as I have written elsewhere, the drug was essential in treating the malaria that I contracted in Madagascar over 30 years ago. It was a nasty experience; fortunately I have never had a second attack. But that was malaria, a recognised use for hydroxychloroquine!

From your response you are far from the “the simple protein chemist” as you describe yourself. Your response is impeccably drafted, apart from your use of “principle”. My principal committee I assure you was principled.

My kind regards

Jack Best

As someone said, the first death of a health worker in this study will see a scattering of support for the study, which would test even the best “Outback ringer” to catch.

Watch this space.

Mouse Whisper

Hickory Dickory Dock

The way he kisses dictators’ butts. I mean, the way he ignores the Uighurs, our literal concentration camps in Xinjiang. Right now, he hasn’t lifted a finger on behalf of the Hong-Kongers,”.

“The United States now regularly sells out our allies under his leadership, the way he treats women, spends like a drunken sailor. The ways I criticize President Obama for that kind of spending; I’ve criticized President Trump for as well. He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors. His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He’s flirted with white supremacists.” …

“But the reality is that the President careened from curb to curb. First, he ignored Covid. And then he went into full economic shutdown mode. He was the one who said 10 to 14 days of shutdown would fix this. And that was always wrong. I mean, and so I don’t think the way he’s led through Covid has been reasonable or responsible, or right.”

The author of these statements?  Senator Bernie Sanders? Any other Democrat?

No, it was the junior Republican senator for Nebraska, the anti-abortion, anti-Affordable Care Act, pro-gun, anti-impeachment Senator Bill Sasse.

Yes, he may have said it in a whisper, but let me say it was a courageous whisper across the Pawnee National Grasslands of Nebraska.

Senator Bill Sasse

Modest Expectations – Telephone Pole on Ardmona

Fillet of a fenny snake;
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard's leg and howlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

I must be living in a parallel universe.  Nobody has commented how much like Wonderland it all is. Illness with Trump becomes a circus act.

Two lines of people in white coats troop down the stairs of the Walter Reed Hospital. In my many years I have never seen doctors emerge from a hospital as if they are members of a marching band who have forgotten their high stepping band major twirling a baton.

At that stage, I wondered who was looking after the President – he was conducting a photo-op to convince everybody he was working; yet he looked ill. So, I presume the crew of that little masterpiece he was filming were physicians who doubled as camera crew.

Then he is out on the streets, denying every protocol relating to the Virus, bar one, he appeared to have his lower face covered. But he is a bag of contagion, for God’s sake.  He is being driven by men in masks and white coats, but the strait jacket is nowhere to be seen.

Back in the hospital, he has a tantrum. “I wanna go home” is the insistent refrain. Back at the White House, it is plain that he is short of breath, struggling to maintain his posture. Next frame in this farce: Trump has seized the narrative from his medical staff and is now reporting his own condition. The cameras do not switch to the White House lawns to show his staff playing croquet with flamingos as mallets with Virus balls.

The head of Trump’s medical retinue is an osteopath. Sure he was titled an emergency physician, but what does that mean in the term of this guy’s experience? He demonstrated a level of inexperience, which could be attributed to nervousness or incompetence.  As has been observed, “There are innumerable examples of sycophants rising to a level of incompetence where they are finally ‘revealed’. When that happens, the kissing up no longer matters – now reality demands competence.”

The question remains: what does his osteopath know about infectious diseases? Not much.

The President is being given a weird concoction of drugs, and one of the ironies is that if this unpredictable infant negotiates the illness, then the cult worship will intensify.

Is Trump taking a calculated risk in leaving hospital and returning to the White Burrow, whilst ensuring a screen of twitters? Or have the hinges completely come away from the door?

Zigzagging all across the landscape, he knows that the media are fascinated by his serpentine movements. The media is the helpless rodent in front of the snake, mesmerised by these movements.  Perhaps more the Komodo dragon rather than snake, given that saliva is the medium for contagion, and that saliva is an ooze coating his White Burrow. So beware the Kiss of the Komodo, Ivanka.

But then young Komodos climb trees to get away from the cannibalistic adult Komodo – they, like Donald, are too heavy to climb trees.

And as a postscript question to the hapless Dr Conley, can the King Komodo still smell the hamburger and chips he is gobbling?  Or would that be too much like being a clinician to answer that? 

A future President of the USA writes to the incumbent…

It is ostensibly January 31, 1829. Martin Van Buren picks up his quill in New York and writes to President Jackson. He is alarmed. 

“The canal system of this country is being threatened by the spread of a new form of transportation known as ‘railroads’. The federal government must preserve the canals for the following reasons:

One. If canal boats are supplanted by ‘railroads’, serious unemployment will result. Captains, cooks, drivers, hostlers, repairmen and lock tenders will be left without means of livelihood, not to mention the numerous farmers now employed in growing hay for the horses.

Two. Boat builders would suffer, and towline, whip and harness makers would be left destitute.

Three. Canal boats are absolutely essential to the defense of the United States. In the event of the expected trouble with England, the Erie Canal would be the only means by which we could ever move the supplies so vital to waging modern war.

As you may well know, Mr. President,’railroad’ carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of fifteen miles per hour by ‘engines’ which, in addition to endangering life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside, setting fire to crops, scaring the livestock and frightening women and children. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed.”

The problem with the letter was that it was a (in Trumpian Capitals) HOAX. Jackson had yet to be sworn in when the letter was purportedly written and no original of this letter has ever been found. Yet this example of absurdly protectionist fears, written in such a manner that it would be greeted by outrage and derision, is still given currency.  I remember hearing about the supposed letter when I was a teenager. It had been shown to me in all seriousness. I was duped. This hoax letter is still doing the rounds. How many are still duped?

I wonder whether any of the Trump sputacchiere will have currency in 200 years from now. But then, as those reading about the climate hoax on the parchment of the Murdoch past, it just may be a remnant of civilisation living in a world resembling the remains of a Texan barbecue in an ocean of blue-green algae learning to love aloes, hemlock and bitter melon by then.

An Australian Centre for Disease Control Thought Bubble

A mate of mine received this ALP splurge from the Shadow Minister of Health Bowen.

Australia went into COVID-19 unprepared. We are the only OECD country without a Centre for Disease Control. Our nation went into the coronavirus pandemic with less than one mask for every Australian in the National Medical Stockpile, an overreliance on global supply chains, and badly stretched aged and health care systems.

Future pandemics are a certainty and we can’t be left playing catch-up again. We can’t afford another Ruby Princess, or another tragic disaster in aged care. Our health, our lives and our economy depend on us getting our response to future pandemics right.

That’s why this morning, Anthony Albanese and I announced that, if elected, a future Labor Government will strengthen Australia’s response to future pandemics by establishing an Australian Centre for Disease Control.

Establishing an Australian Centre for Disease Control would mean that Australia will be better prepared to avoid the mistakes we’ve seen from this government so far.

This is one of the most contestable announcements that has emerged from the Opposition. I always remember one Government staffer deriding Opposition policies as “Policy by Penguin Book”. In other words, somebody thinks he has a bright idea, and then reads stuff which supports his claim without discussing it with anyone with experience for confirmation of the assertions.

What the ALP are advocating is that Australia centralise the public health to one centre, as the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) in the USA which, over the years because of good leadership up until Trump interfered with its succession planning, enabled its high academic reputation to be maintained. Now the CDC lies wounded, maybe mortally. There is no back up.

The media release says Australia went into the COVID-19 pandemic unprepared. Yet theoretically perched on a board of an international organisation dedicated to epidemic preparedness was a former head of the Federal Department of Health. This person watched while a number of abortive epidemics denoted by colourful acronyms rolled across our country.

What did she do not only heading Health but also then Finance? Emulated Sir Humphrey, if her performance on the “4 Corners” program was any guide. The “4 Corners” program seemingly was supposed to remind everybody of her grasp of the subject but instead showed how content-free she actually is.

There was no significant increase in the funding for public health under her stewardship and, at the end of her reign as the Government might have said, “we were shovel-ready to cop the Virus”.

However not to be diverted, back to the ALP announcement. Nothing wrong with that first sentence! This writer plunges on.

However, how are the OECD countries travelling? The media release says that Australia is the only OECD country out of 36 members without a Centre for Disease Control. That is a stretch. I am unaware of New Zealand having such a centre. USA with its CDC has 7.3 million COVID-19 cases, whereas the Australian total without a CDC is 27,200 and New Zealand 1,858. How does the author regard the use of the particular statistic to bolster his case for an Australian CDC?

Then the non-sequiter in the release – “few masks, an over-reliance of supply chains and a vulnerable aged care sector”. So? That is not a responsibility of a CDC.

The success of the Australian health system, despite being starved of funds for public health over the past 20 years, coinciding as it did with the Halton stewardship, was that NSW had set up a decentralised contact tracing system in the early 1990s as part of a generalised devolution of public health responsibility regionally. Hence in NSW, disasters in nursing homes and the Ruby Princess were resolved, messily but nevertheless resolved without huge numbers of cases and deaths compared to the later Victorian experience.

Even though I advocated that in NSW heads should roll because of these disasters, the basic strength of the public health system saved them. The Premier has never fully acknowledged the authors of that program – and it was certainly not Dr Chant, as she has herself acknowledged.

The Parkville Precinct

Victoria on the other hand never had an organised public health system, and the reason was that public health funding, beyond the training programs, was sacrificed on the altar of Parkville aggrandisement.

The result was that Victoria was completely ill-prepared to be able to handle the contact tracing requirements of this epidemic. What has saved Victoria is not some esoteric centre in Canberra, but a realisation by Andrews and some of the public health specialists that something had to be done to save the situation. Let’s face it – he closed down Victoria to allow the public health system to be upgraded and a de facto regional approach created.

By shutting Victoria down he enabled the street fighting with the virus to be undertaken with minimum street casualties, and the hand-to-hand combat in nursing homes where the Virus had sheltered to be contained and then has been steadily rooting it out, even though innocent people unfortunately have been caught in the “crossfire” without any protection.

A regionalised public health system has many heads and, unlike in America where CDC relevance and responsibility has been decapitated, thus is harder to destroy.

Ergo, mark for Master Bowen: D-…  A poorly thought-out essay.  Please resubmit after getting advice from somebody who knows.

Appointment with a Telegraph Pole

I was badly injured. Yet as the car which I had been driving a few minutes previously was being incinerated, I found myself laughing. I had got out of the car. I remember releasing my seatbelt and opening the door. Now I was watching the car – a rented Holden Calais burning. In the distance but coming closer I could hear bells ringing.

Charon and the River Styx

Then blank. The next picture imprinted on my memory was of opening my eyes and looking upwards into a hairy face. I did not care, if this was introduction to a hirsute Hell then so be it.

Then I heard my name being called – distant but distinct. Since I was not wearing glasses as I usually did, I had to focus. No, it was not the representative from Hades customs seeing if I was bringing anything illegal to burn, but my cousin’s son Owen.

My cousin, Margaret, and her husband Bill, lived in Shepparton at the time, and that evening I had intended to go to her 50th birthday party there. Bill was the city engineer at the time. Owen had a sister, Jill, who I do not remember playing any role in the drama.

It had been an ordinary Saturday, and I had had an uproarious lunch, with a few drinks. I assessed myself able to drive the three hours to Shepparton. The problem being June, the weather was foul, but I arrived in Shepparton at about five o’clock in the evening. Given that the party was not going to start until after eight, instead of going to the motel, I decided to go and see another mate who had a parish in a nearby town. No matter that this was the eve of the shortest day of the year and the sun had set. The rain had come again.

I did not get far, and fleetingly remembered the car aquaplaning and sliding off the road up a narrow muddy pathway.

So much for any more festivities.

Then blackness before the image of fumbling for the door handle.

Having got out of the car, I could not walk for two weeks. While I had considerable soft tissue damage, the only fracture was a rib broken by the seatbelt as I went from 100 kph to zero in a second or so.

It took me a long time to recover so I could return to work. I needed plastic surgery on my face, where my chin had imploded on the steering wheel. Fortunately, that was skilfully done, but then if you need plastic surgery for disfigurement rather than vanity, Melbourne has traditionally been the best place in Australia. So I was fortunate in more ways than one.

Now 40 years later I have extensive osteoarthritis in spine, knees and shoulders. That is the price of the impact. It is unsurprising that until I developed an autoimmune disease related to the arthritis, I coped. In the years after the accident I competed in many misnamed “fun runs”, and while finishing in the ruck, it convinced me that I had enough mobility to do so.

That I have described elsewhere.

There was one major change that I noticed about six months after the accident, but have I never talked much about it.  Probably because it is so subjective. As background, I had extensive head injuries, and the area between skull surface and the thin muscle layer, the galeal aponeurosis, was a lake of blood. This fluctuant spongy mass stayed for several weeks, but I did not have any intracranial bleeding.

I went back to work. The Italians call it garbo – it is an untranslatable Italian word, but it is the way I was treated – trying to suggest I had come back prematurely but not telling me directly; garbo. Courteous pitying, you might translate it.

My insight was such that I was oblivious to hints for a longer time in convalescence. I was never sat down by my peers and specifically challenged – and even if I had been there is always someone prepared to make allowances, and in split decisions, the benefit of the doubt generally prevails. I presume that occurred in my case, and I solved the problem by being perceived as eventually returning to “normal”.

Yet there was one  change in my personality that, unless you had followed me as a boy, adolescent and young man, you may have missed.  Before the accident, I had been prone to periods of dark depression; yet not despairing enough to be suicidal.

After that head injury, I have never again had these episodes of deep depression. At that time, there was not the same attention being paid to head injury – particularly on the sporting field.

Yet there is now an increasing reportage of traumatic injury of combat, although it has been around since Cain punched Abel.

Having mental infirmity was just a hidden phenomenon, and in an era of “stiff upper lips” as the shorthand for not showing any weakness, you did not talk about mental frailty. If you were laid out, you shook your head, got back on your feet and went back into the fray. There was never any talk about head injury, unless there was obvious loss of function.

In my case, whatever happened to my brain circuits in the crash, I emerged with a change of which I gradually became aware. I was able to cope better with setbacks. The dark moods were largely gone. Had the accident changed my circuitry? The obvious answer subjectively was “yes”. However, there was no one able to judge whether I had changed.

I am not advocating for people to improve their lot by banging their heads against walls, but what I am saying is traumatic injury is very much a lottery, and never should be ignored. Concussion is one thing, but is important in having someone who is able to detect any long-term change from head trauma, especially repeated. The problem is it takes time (and in this world who has the time or the level of care) to stop the episode ending up as a death against a telephone pole on a country road in the middle of a tempest. Some survive; some do not.

Putting Meaning into ExHume

Conditions not complied with or enforced (currently under review). State government approval conditions require 80% of ‘reservoir gas’ emissions (3.4-4 million tonnes each year) from the Gorgon facility to be captured and pumped underground (geosequestration or CCS) delivering a 40% reduction in the project’s total emissions.

Chevron received $60m in federal funding for the geosequestration project. It announced geosequestration had begun on August 8th, 2019, more than two years after production commenced. Delays were due to ‘ongoing technical problems’ and Chevron has also been accused of deliberately mismanaging the geosequestration project. No penalties were imposed by the WA government for emissions not sequestered over this period, and alternative offsets were not provided by Chevron despite State conditions requiring them in the event the geosequestration is not successful.

A review is currently underway by the WA Environmental Protection Authority to examine and clarify the intended start-date for the geosequestration condition at the request of the WA Minister for the Environment. There is no federal requirement for sequestration ….

Chevron geosequestration project

Australia has had a Carbon Capture and Storage Development Fund since 2009. These carbon technologies are supposed to trap the carbon dioxide produced by factories or fossil fuel power plants before they are emitted into the atmosphere where they contribute to global heating.

Once trapped, the greenhouse gas can then be piped into permanent underground storage facilities or sold to buyers who can use the carbon to manufacture plastics, boost greenhouse crops and as one boosting media release said even “help make fizzy drinks”.

As one insider has written, when the Australian fund was established for carbon capture in 2009, crude oil prices were just recovering from a sharp but very brief decline. Then Chevron decided on the final investment decision (FID) for Gorgon. The world was awash in natural gas then as it is now. Chevron made a decision on a projected $30bn LNG facility with a cost model in which high hydrocarbon prices would bail them out.

The cost overruns made Gorgon the most expensive LNG facility per unit cost ever of more than $50bn and the raw gas stream from the field already contains 15% CO2.

Today, carbon capture (CCUS) facilities around the world are capturing more than 35 million tonnes of CO2 per year. Apparently that is equivalent to the annual CO2 emissions of Ireland, whatever relevance that may be. Recent announcements and commitments have the potential to more than double current global CO2 capture capacity. But the International Energy Agency’s Sustainable Development Scenario, which charts a path towards achieving the world’s stated climate ambitions, calls for a 20-fold increase in annual CO2 capture rates from power and industrial facilities in the next decade.

Most activity seems to be taking place in Norway and the adjoining fields in the North Sea. Norway built the first large scale carbon-capture project at the Sleipner gas field in 1996, and since has been storing nearly 1 million metric tons of CO2 each year.

Against the above estimated optimal requirements, that seems small, and Norway is where carbon capture is reckoned to be the most advanced. The current situation is a long way away from the ideal, and despite government investment in the technology,

For someone trying to find out what is going on, the area is full of obfuscation. The quote from the WA Conservation Council at the head of this blog segment has not been denied. The problem is that Government uses “carbon capture” in its recent policy announcement as though it is being shown to be a settled solution. There is one facility in Australia where carbon capture is supposed to work. It is a long way away from scrutiny – the Gorgon LNG project on Barrow Island in the middle of a nature reserve.

At least one matter is to be settled and that is that this natural gas field contributes more carbon pollution than any other facility in Australia.  In addition, the fate of the Gorgon CCUS plant has been racked with problems and even now it is not fully operational while the parent Chevron facility spews out pollution.

So there is a price. Now if the technology is going somewhere, fine, but if it is just a disguised handout to help a business mate or mates, then it should classify as assisting new technologies

It is difficult to work out how much has been wasted as distinct from being spent wisely. The Morrison government has indicated it will contribute another $50 million into carbon capture and storage technology, following more than $1 billion in taxpayer subsidies and investment from the fossil fuel sector since the early 2000s. Teasing out how much has been contributed by either sector may provide a different figure but in the end, we mug punters foot the bill. For what?

Back in Canberra, there is a major structural problem in policy direction, and that is the country is run by a public relations man. He is spin, not substance. It has been an unfortunate trait in Australia in recent times that major political roles have been filled by people of his ilk – journalists – more interested in feeding the news cycle than doing anything to improve the lives of Australians and more generally the world.

NSW suffered from Carr; South Austalia from Rann and Australia, Abbott – although the Abbott is more an aberration and thus harder to classify as a giornalista. Wistfully we may look back when journalists who became Prime Ministers were men of substance – John Curtin and Alfred Deakin.

Added to this mix is Minister Angus Taylor who leaves a dubious trail of politics mixed with self-interest rather than any real commitment to what is one of the greatest challenges – climate change. Frankly, he is not up to the challenge. That is why I suggest that the Minister, the member of Hume should exit, lending himself to a slogan – Taylor to ExHume. In fact, he should be dismissed – no longer be in any equation.

If carbon capture was the only energy boondoggle, perhaps I would be less vehement…but it is not!

I worry about a country where policy is predicated on being generous to your mates. Still, there is always a day of reckoning.

Finally, a pertinent comment from an insider made in relation to those executives in the oil and gas industry, who form a Praetorian Guard of Mates around the Prime Minister:

“They are stuck in their ways, which worked for the past decades and made them and their shareholders very rich. Now they can’t do anything else.

According to API the average age of an employee in the oil and gas industry is 51 years, only surpassed by the average age of employees in funeral homes. The average age of the managers and decision makers in the industry is even higher. 

Right there lies the problem, in plain sight for everyone to see. The decision makers in O&G are all solid, hard-working and amply educated individuals. Sternly conservative due to a lifelong paradigm of analogous thinking such as ‘proven design’ in this once wonderful adventurous industry.”

In ten years, the current lot will mostly be dead, dripping with honours and never having to pay the price they may have inflicted. So shall I be, but is not going to deter me from encouraging Australia to sleep only when the moon is no longer red with pollution.

Mouse Whisper

The Lewis chessmen are about my size. I sat in the back stalls watching a program on this extraordinary cache of figurines, which was a Viking hoard found in the sand dunes of the Outer Hebridean Isle of Lewis in 1831. Most of the 93 artifacts are in the British or Scottish National Museums. When the hoard was deposited, the Outer Hebrides were colonised by Norwegian Vikings.

The figurine which attracted my attention was one of a Bishop, with his right hand administering benediction. With the thumb opened, in the early church, the three open digits came to represent the Trinity (The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), while the two closed digits represented the dual nature of Christ as both man and God.

However, the Bishop’s hand in one of the figurines resembled Duputyrens contracture, which is a disease predominantly of the palmar fascia, the connective tissue beneath the skin which, as it thickens, pulls the fingers into a flexed position. The disease generally affects the little and ring fingers first.

Further, it is a disease which originated in the Vikings, it is a disease which affects males and is associated – among other things – with a love of alcoholic beverages.

Just an observation, but an interesting one?

Modest Expectations – Siatonta

Grisons, Switzerland – where they say siatonta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swamp life

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

Strong as Your Weakest Link

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

Pudding Lane, London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US forces give the nod

It’s a setback for your country

Bombs and trenches all in rows

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peril at Buck House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a joke!

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

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

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

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

Putin and His Kosher kitchen

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

Putin with his matzah bread

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

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

A kosher blowtorch?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capturing Moscow has been a mirage for many invaders.

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

H.B. (Marlo)

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

Guy Fawkes

Modest expectations – On viewing a Gun Carriage November 1963

A weeping blackness

But           

Refusal to enshroud

A memory

In a haze

         Of

What you were to do

                           Yet what would you be

                                             As man

                                                      Of seventy-two

                                             You when the flames of youth

                                                      Have died

                                             How promising can a man

                                                      Of seventy-two

                                                               Superannuated

                                             With a watch

                                                      A gold watch

                                             A great gold watch which ticks

                                             And tells that time is time

Who grieves

         For your greatness

         For your back

         Which now relieved

         Stands straight

For mourners lift

         Their candles high

For who knows you

         Who knows

The emptiness of the tomb

For who but you

         Can deride

The greatness that might have been

         For you – at seventy-two

 

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was 46 years old when he was assassinated. He would have been 103 this year.

It was my tribute, the tribute of 24 year old about to graduate as a doctor, still raw; still disbelieving that this man who could have inspired our generation was dead – assassinated. My first reaction was that it was some mad right-wing Southern racist.

Kennedy was a courageous thoughtful man inured to disability. However, there he was – distant but resonant to the young idealist. Staring down the Russians, learning from the ill-advised Bay of Pigs, and probably about to dump the Texan anachronism from the Vice-President position for someone who would face not only the massive change in American society but understand the nuances of post-colonial Asia.

How he would have handled the Vietnam conflict would have been instructive, because the cancerous growth of American exceptionalism – as culminating in this present Trumpian farce – may never have happened.

How different a time it was when Kennedy recommended appointments to the Supreme Court based on talent not ideology – both swiftly ratified. One was Abe Goldberg, the eminent jurist with his opposition to capital punishment that led to its long moratorium in America; the other was Byron White who, despite his strong Democratic party links, became the “swing” vote until his retirement in 1993. Funny how good sense and rational thought have flown away from Pennsylvania Avenue.

Strange when I re-read this poem after many years, that I picked the age of 72. Trump is 74 this week. Only time is ticking for him. 

The “Free-City State” of Hong Kong

Nowhere is that sense of selective self-righteousness more apparent than the extreme sensitivity in Beijing towards Australia’s criticism of China’s behaviour in the South China Sea. There is strong public support for the official view that China’s claim to historic territorial rights is totally justified, along with indignation that this could be even questioned.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s statement about the need to respect the ruling of the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague last July as binding and final is regarded as particularly egregious.

Jennifer Hewett was travelling in China this month as a guest of the Chinese government.

I note that it is the same Jennifer Hewett who wrote that piece in October 2016 who referred last Friday in the Australian Financial Review to the people’s republic of Victoria.

This sly comment in an otherwise unremarkable piece of journalism stood out, because amid reasoned argument there was no justification for the statement.

“The people’s republic of Victoria” is just the same as a label of “Junket journalism” pinned to a journalist called Jennifer when discussing her guest experience in China at their expense.

After all, the paper she writes for has been prepared to the take Chinese Government money for China Watch – a propaganda instrument of that Government. Nevertheless, some of the articles are interesting when stripped of their cocô de touro covering.

Hong Kong is due to be returned to China in 2047. The Chinese Government has accelerated the process. The Chinese government doles out the rope so that the dissidents can protest for a time. Once the government has had time to assure itself that it has identified all the ringleaders, then it will move in, and use its overwhelming force to quell the dissent. At the same time, the ringleaders will be targeted so that unlike Mao, these dissidents cannot set up a guerrilla force.

The dissidents have done a very good job up to this point in harassment, but a guerrilla movement needs strong leadership to resist the inevitable imprisonment.

The aim now of the Chinese government is to arrest all of them with or without murdering some of them. Once imprisoned, then choose the instrument of torture.

In the face of this, the options for the dissidents are: be a political penitent; melt into the background; leave Hong Kong or fight on to an irrelevant death or remembered martyrdom. After all, Tiananmen Square provides the blueprint.

First, the Chinese Government clears the streets of the dissidents. There will be little forewarning before the invasion. Big business can pull down the shades and high up in their skyscrapers the noise of rioters being killed can be drowned by Vivaldi being piped through the system.

Horse racing can still proceed so we Australians can be reassured that nothing untoward has happened. You can still see Hong Kong on the TV racing channel.

However I shall concentrate on those images of empty streets bristling with of the People’s Armed Forces on street corners – men who do not speak the local Cantonese. It is the Hong Kong oxymoron for all those foreign journalists to digest searching for a catchy 32-second “grab”; an empty street full of men with guns and tear gas and heavy metal.

It is a small step for the legislature to meet in secret, not in accord with the agreement with the British – no negative votes now.

The transition is complete. The dissidents are somewhere in China, far from our eyes. The Hong Kong legislature now reborn becomes a sheet of red with applauding figurines

With time everybody in Hong Kong is encouraged to develop a convenient amnesia to what has gone on. The dissidents never existed. Business as usual nods in agreement. Eyes are averted not to see evidence of more People’s Armed Forces on street corners – men who do not speak the local Cantonese.

All the trappings of the legislative process agreed with the British may be maintained with Carrie Lam, but she will pass and eventually the fiction will fade away – and Hong Kong will now be “One China – One System”.

The Chinese Government seems to have a tricky decision about maintaining a Hong Kong with an open trade policy, but now under a Chinese rule of law. Given the mainland experience of an increasingly intrusive government, a Hong Kong shorn of the pretence of democracy has to reassure Europeans that the remnants of colonialism do provide a safe enclave for business. If the judicial system completely loses its independence, then business only belongs to the Chinese government and its concessional treatment of us Guizi.

Anyway, as one reliable source said, China always takes a long view and there is already a visible transition of importance from Hong Kong to Shanghai.

Given how the Chinese Government is playing Australia on a break, what is our attitude to all the potential Hong Kong refugees; and do you not think that the Chinese will test Australia out further in the Government’s nascent “White Australia” policy?

This whole business is complicated by the 350,000 Hong Kongers who have British Overseas National passports. These allow for one year’s access without the need for a visa; more ominously another 2.5 million are eligible but have let their passports lapse. Given how immigration-averse Boris’ government is, one can rest assure that the Brits will start putting pressure on both us and Canada to share the “pain”.

You know old boy, the Commonwealth and all that. Watch this space.

However, clinging to Mike and Donald may not be the best solution either. Perhaps we should adopt a modified Belt and Braces policy, making sure we do not rely totally on China – but something has to hold our trousers up. At present it is a lovely rusted ferric belt.

Maybe a more self-reliant by ourselves with a little help from who?

It is time for some lateral thinking, because the name
“China” keeps popping up as the answer.

After all, due to the strength of our public health response Australia has a comparative health advantage over those countries that have not recognised that the Virus breeds and feeds on Chaos.

Turning this public health advantage into an economic advantage is not helped if Australia prioritises frippery, turning this country into a circus fuelled by a shallow media and even shallower politicians.

As for Hong Kong, remember 100 years ago there was another city-state dependent on Great Britain for control over its foreign relations. This state lasted, until its invasion by Germany in 1939, for nearly 20 years – the Free City of Danzig.

Does anybody remember Danzig now?

In the meantime, what will Jennifer say?

Muscular Judaism

Some years ago when Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) was a new modality I had been able, despite some government opposition, to facilitate its use attracting a Medicare benefit for the patient, I received a phone call from some guy who said he represented an Israeli technology firm. He was interested in selling MRI equipment, and he mentioned that his firm was interested in the low Tesla end of the MRI equipment spectrum. However, he wondered whether he could meet me when I was in Melbourne.

I agreed and was somewhat surprised by the address as it was essentially a residential suburb where I once owned a property.

Nevertheless the address where we were to meet was in North Fitzroy. As I anticipated, I arrived at a rather nondescript brick villa. One of the first things I noted was that all the windows were barred and the blinds were drawn. As I walked up to the front door, the light above the door winked at me.

I remember being ushered into a tiled floor entrance where a small flight of stairs led to an open living area, where three other men were lounging around. My hosts were all of medium height, with cropped hair, and what struck me was how supremely fit they appeared. They were all dressed in expensive casual attire but despite the seeming relaxed informality, the atmosphere in the room was far from that.

I remember being introduced, but names meant nothing and probably when I thought about it later, the names were likely manufactured. The only item in the room that sticks in my memory was a model of an El Al airliner, but the room had comfortable chairs where I was invited to sit, and offered coffee or tea. I chose coffee. It was instant. I hate instant.

The problem was that suddenly I did not know why I was here. Everybody spoke perfect yet accented English. The discussion started about the MRI technology and the fact that in this area Israel had developed a great number of interesting products. However, the discussion increasingly became general.

I felt trapped – there was an unspoken menace in the air. It was obvious that the MRI was the bait. All of them were very courteous and amiable. I really did not know what this encounter was about. I generally tend to deviate from the script and play with words in meetings. Not this morning – I have never stuck more carefully to the “script” and measured my replies than I did during that hour. I had never felt under such scrutiny – random seemingly innocuous questions kept coming in this seemingly friendly fashion from each of them. Their seating meant that I had to shift round to answer; I was not always facing in the same direction because of the way they had dispersed themselves.

I still had no idea what this was all about. They were searching me for some information, but what? At the end of our hour, they all got up and said how good it had been to meet me, and they would be touch.

When I was outside, I had this immense sense of relief.

I did not look back. I never tried to find the house again. Presumably they got what they wanted or thought that they had wasted an hour, because I never heard from them again. Laughingly, I related that I had had morning coffee with Mossad. Nobody smiled.

Some years later, I did go to Jerusalem when Yitzhak Rabin was Prime Minister. It was a time that one could jump into a taxi in Jerusalem and ten minutes later you were in Bethlehem in Palestine. I am glad I went there at that time, but I did not meet up with anyone who resembled the guys whom I had met in Melbourne. I ventured a question to the Conference Israeli organiser, who was a veteran of the Six Day War. He smiled, patted my arm and changed the subject.

Life with Brian 

When I left the Australian Medical Association one of the presents that I was given was a small olive tree in a pot. In honour of a surgeon with a strong link as I had with the Quality Assurance “industry”, I named the tree “Brian”.

The tree was potted and languished outside our office for a number of years making very slow progress.

Then when we moved into a new house, the olive tree followed in its wooden stave barrel. However, it still was stunted and had never produced an olive in five years.

Then one day, a delivery van took out the crepe myrtle tree in front of the house. Crepe myrtles are a favoured street tree in inner Sydney. The colour of their flowers are bright and various.

This incident left a hole in the footpath, the house brick wall exposed, and as the house is located on a poorly cambered corner of inner city asphalt which purports to be a road, the wall was vulnerable to a car running into it. At least the trees provided a barrier for the house.

Early one morning, a car ploughed into the wall, and left a Volkswagen car badge as a calling card. The car had reversed from the rubble and was disappearing around the corner by the time we had come down the stairs. Later “mummy” brought her son around to apologise and to offer to pay for the repair of the wall. We accepted the offer, and the wall was duly rebuilt.

Perhaps we reasoned if we planted the olive tree in the street it would provide some protection. It was a sturdy young tree. We planted the tree in the verge outside the front gate with no real expectations. However, released from the confines of the pot, it started to grow – and did it grow.

Over the next few years, it grew until one spring, there appeared the tiny yellow blossom foreshadowing an autumn olive harvest. The amount of olives varied but in a good years there were seven to ten kilograms. The first time we seriously picked olives, the recipe was just too tedious with the frequent changes in water and brine, and complicated by our being at home irregularly as we travelled around Australia and overseas.

So mostly we left others to come and pick them. Being away for considerable times even if we had intended to harvest them often we would come home and find the tree stripped bare. One year our regular taxi driver, John asked if he could harvest them. In return he presented us with a large bottle of olives, which tasted good and made us think again about our direct involvement.

Then there were a couple of lean years but during that time I had been to Cyprus and watched an aged nun in the courtyard of her retreat, splitting the olives and then placing them in brine. It seemed that with the additions of few sprigs of this and that and chunks of lemon that was it – so fiddling around changing the water was unnecessary.

Now in this year of the Virus, the harvest was bountiful. Locked down, she ventured out and returned with pails of green olives. Only the top most branches escaped because (a) she did not want to climb that high up a ladder and (b) for some reason the rake had gone missing.

However, there were more than enough and for those that are interested, the olive were split, stone retained and than placed in clean jars containing a ten per cent brine solution with white vinegar in a ratio of four to one. A couple of lemons were squeezed into each jar.

It is wise to use non-iodised salt, as olives are bitter enough without that bitterness being augmented by iodine. Put a slice of lemon on the top to keep the olives submerged and then a layer olive oil over the top to keep air out. Seal the bottle and wait. Six weeks later we opened the jar – and bingo. They were good, surprisingly – chewy but full of taste going well with the martini, described in an earlier blog.

Now, that we have entered the olive curing industry, and our olive tree is strong and healthy, as Brian too will be remembered, why not put a grove of olive trees down our street? Our local Council is supposed to be Green, and olive is only a shade of green. The local member of Parliament should be enthusiastic. Jamie Parker is a Green; he once was a purveyor of herbal remedies, one with the interesting title of horny goat weed.

Here is a chance to build on a life with Brian – he could initiate a Grove of Brians with our enthusiastic local member transformed into a Master Olivatore rather than just being remembered as a Faunus vendor, who accidently strayed into Macquarie street.

Mea Culpa

Let me admit to fallibility. Last week I was severely critical of the trial being proposed by the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research (WEHI) to give hydroxychloroquine to frontline health workers, I headed the piece with a quote from a recent Lancet article. It was purported to be an observational trial and its results fitted into my thesis – that the proposed WEHI COVID-19 trial would be ineffective, irrelevant and potentially dangerous.

I was influenced by one particular report of people in Manaus being treated for COVID-19 were given the drug and who died. Manaus had 2000 deaths in April from the virus and the numbers over all of Brazil have topped 30,000 despite their President advocating the use of hydroxychloroquine.

Yes – the Lancet article was neat; it played to my bias; I was blind; the Lancet! How could it be wrong? Surely the journal could not repeat the Wakefield fiasco of 1998, which launched this dangerous Wakefield on his anti-vaxing worldwide rampage.

Therefore, I am very sorry that I used the quote, but in apologizing for its use, I still believe in what I have written, rather than what I quoted. I hope the WEHI trial never takes place, and for all of my above reasons. However, I would still be curious to see the protocol and the ethics committee report of this study.

Mouse Whisper

I have always abhorred this tendency when people are are unsure of the colour to say “bluish” or “yellowish” or size “shortish”.

Therefore I applaud my relative Bmac in refusing to use the word “hamish”.

Now as BMac would know, hame is a two curved wooden padded harness, that forms a collar around the neck of a draft animal. In fact, hame is a yoke – a big yoke. This has to be taken seriously and not referred to as “hamish’’ – a bit of a yoke.

Therefore I applaud you again, BMac, for your deletion of “ish” in all your conversation; as long as you don’t advocate “f with chips” followed a “d of banana fritters.”

A hame in good use