Modest Expectations – Elizabeth

Our kitchen benchtop is Corian, a synthetic material composed of acrylic polymers and an aluminon trihydrate extracted from bauxite.  Marble too has negligible silica, but natural granite and its synthetic offshoot Caesarstone has a variable amount up to 90 per cent silica. Corian is cheaper, but not so resistant to stains and chipping apparently as Caesarstone.

I have a friend whose grandfather and another relative were gold miners. Victoria had many gold mines. These blokes were dead of silicosis before I started as a medical student.

As a medical student, I learnt all about silicosis.  It was a common occupational disease among those who worked in dusty environments such as quarries and in gold mining and everywhere workers were working with quartz. At the time I was a student, preventative measures such as covering nose and mouth were becoming accepted practice, so that over the next 20 years deaths from silicosis halved.

Remember that was a time when cigarette smoking was more prevalent – nothing like dust covered fingers holding a fag, and then tucked between one’s lips.

Further, it was a time when there was still residual tuberculosis in the community.

Thus, it is hardly a new threat, even though Minister Burke tried to characterise it as the “new asbestosis”. So, I am surprised by this Ministerial statement “We have now tasked Safe Work Australia to do the work to scope out what regulation is required for workplaces that deal with silica dust and to scope out, specifically, with respect to engineered stone and engineered stone benchtops to do the work starting now, on what a ban would look like.”

I would have thought there were adequate regulations, given that silicosis is hardly a new occupational disease. The question is, why the casual attitude, unless one of the jurisdictions is being resistant. I would think, license the countertop makers, and mandate wearing suitable preventative gear – both of which should improve the defence against silica dust, notwithstanding that full face respirators have been available for years. Silica is so prevalent, singling out one industry for a complete ban given its history would seem extreme. The conglomerate, Caesarstone, invented in Spain and Israel in the 1980’s became very popular in the last decade.

As one would expect, given the long association of silicosis and lung disease, the recommendation to lessen the exposure whenever possible – cutting, grinding and shaping when wet – should be a given.  Ventilation and filtration systems should be used to collect silica-containing dust at source.  If these engineering controls fail to eliminate the risk, then use an approved N95 respirator at the very least, and this includes whenever adjustments are required on site where cutting and grinding in a suitable wet environment is unlikely to be possible.

So, what’s causing this haggling among the Ministers for action when making countertops is just another industry dominated by working with quartz?

Colour me Malawi

I like Malawi. Some years ago, before COVID, we went there and I recalled part of that experience in a previous blog. I find tea plantations restful – the glossy greenery of camellia sinesis and the way the plantations are so ordered that they give the impression of cascading over the slopes of hill country, where the air is clean, the morning mist clinging to the vegetation. Yet here is a very labour-intensive industry – and the fact of exploitation nags at my thoughts.

After the First World War a Scot called McLean Kay set up a tea plantation of nearly 900 hectares in Southern Malawi. This estate is called Satemwa, in the centre of which is Huntington House, the residence of the Kays. We spend a couple of nights there. It is not the main tea picking season, but we pass a line of men plucking tea leaves and placing them in shoulder baskets. Here both men and women share the load, unlike earlier in the year, where I had seen in Sri Lanka near Kandy tea leaf being picked by women with their baskets supported by a headband around their foreheads. Here the baskets were supported by the shoulders and the Malawi terraces were not the precipices of the Sri Lanka tea plantations where goats, let alone women with heavy baskets, would be hard pressed to cling. Malawi was way more considerate in the way the tea had been planted for the workers.

The flight, followed by the long drive, tired me out. So, when we reached the House, and had been welcomed and had admired the manicured gardens with the borders of flowering bushes and trees, we were shown to our room. This was one of five – but this one special because it was where the original founder of the estate used to sleep from the time when the House was built in 1935 to when he died in 1968.  The house could be coloured as lived in – all colours turn to “faded”.

However, the bed was comfortable and soon I was asleep. I awoke in the late afternoon and found that when I tried to turn on the lights, there were none.  There was nobody around as I tried every light switch, every lamp – to no avail! It is a strange sensation to wake up in a completely silent world where there is no electricity; and then trying to sweep away post sleep confusion.

I padded round the house; it was deserted. There was an office, but nobody there. It was all too gloomy, so I moved to the front door. Restful has turned to restless.

Oh, how mystery builds.  However, the mystery collapses when I call out to my partner and she emerges, camera in hand, around the far side of the veranda. She laughs at my situation says she is sorry that she did not wake me to tell me that there would be a power outage until 10 pm that night – load shedding.  This is a common occurrence in Malawi and although the House had its own generator it was missing a vital part to make it work.

Colour the dinner dark with flickering blobs of red and amber candles and hurricane lanterns.  The cognoscenti have headlamps, as does the son of the founder who comes by later in the evening to say hello. He introduces himself as “Chips” Kay.  Chips is 85 years old and has grown up in Malawi. His accent betrays the fact that he was schooled in Cape Town and says he did not speak English until he was six years old. “Chips” is short for Cathcart and every Kay has Cathcart somewhere in their Christian monikers.  They are of Scottish lowland stock, from Ayrshire yet have strong links to the outer islands being also Clan Maclean.

Even though he is a small man in off-white shirt and trousers, his is the demeanour of the white children born in what was once Nyasaland, but since 1958 called Malawi.  He has lived through the transition from colonial authority to self-determination and prospered.  He is married to Dawn and they have four children – at least they have been incorporated into the Kay family succession planning.  He remains British, although he is slightly annoyed that the Malawi Government has not given him citizenship. Thus, he lives there somewhat as an outsider.

He tells us that winter rains are essential for good tea, as is the altitude. I wonder if I drew blood from him whether it would not be the colour of tannin, so immersed and knowledgeable he is on the subject.

In the morning the baboons caper across the lawn and rock lizards slide along the terrace concrete. Salmon pink is the colour of Malarone, the tablet we take each morning since malaria is endemic to Malawi and we are taking no chances, even though it is the dry season.  Our defences are reinforced by repellent and mosquito nets over the bed at night.

A tea plantation would not be authentic without being invited for tea tasting. The tea tasting room is long and spare, located in the factory, a set of oblong buildings in what can be called “working white”. The room where the tea is to be tasted is off white, so as to give the impression that the tea that we shall drink has been created in a hygienic atmosphere. The factory is working full bore, with the furnaces providing heat required to dry the leaves The furnaces are fuelled by blue gum logs cut from trees, dotted as small coupes around the plantation. Blue gum can be harvested after seven years so rapid is its growth.

Brown is the tea in its various shades although we are invited to spoon teas labelled white, green and black.  Familiar names like Earl Grey, Lapsang and Oolong are mentioned –and the last tea is red. This is hibiscus tea, but nobody likes the taste much.

Lake Malawi

One afternoon we drove down towards the Mozambique border. Malawi is like a gash in the Mozambican body.  It is the commencement of the Rift Valley and later in our stay we would stay on Lake Malawi, a gigantic spread of water, along the line of the Rift, increasingly accompanied by the mountains towards the Tanzanian border. I have described this part of our trip in an earlier blog.

We did not cross over into Mozambique. Perhaps we could have, but flouting the rules is not a clever thing to do in Africa. Sometimes, the impression in Africa is of a lackadaisical attitude, but I wouldn’t have bet on it.

COVID changed everything in relation to Africa. We had to cancel a trip to West Africa; not whingeing but the bloody Virus has a great deal to answer for, as well as those who for one reason or not facilitated its escape into the world.  We miss Africa. We miss Malawi.  Given everything that has happened with us, has the World in sepia, learnt anything? Yes, some have, but the narcissists who have allowed this New Age to emerge have not.

The Amur River

“We thought we were a European country,” said Deripaska, who is founder of Rusal, the biggest aluminium producer outside China. “Now, for the next 25 years, we will think more about our Asian past.”

I have just finished reading The Amur River by Colin Thubron, an English adventurer, who recounts his journey from Mongolia, where some of the tributaries of the Amur River rise, then along the Amur River as it divides China and Russia, crisscrossing the border many times, and finally along the last stretch of the River through Russia to its mouth as it flows into the Okhotsk Sea, opposite the northern Sakhalin Island.

He catalogues with clarity this arduous trip – all the more so because at that time he had just turned 80.

Retreat of Cossacks, 1685 – after the siege, the Qing troops force Russian colonists to evacuate Fortress Albazin, on the North Bank of the Amur River

The Russians and Chinese have been in confrontation across the Amur River for centuries. In the 17th century, the Manchus, after a prolonged war ending with the siege at Albazin, then a settlement on the northern loop of the Amur River, were victorious. The Manchu let time destroy the besieged Cossacks, though as much due to disease as to war wounds, until only 20 defenders were left to surrender.

The Manchus then negotiated the Treaty of Nerchinsk and one of the conditions was the destruction of Albazin, after which the Manchu influence spread into Russia. There are quirky happenings relating to the Treaty and its aftermath. The Treaty was written in four languages (Latin also Russian, Manchu and Chinese). Then there were the Peking Albazans, who looked Chinese, dressed like Russian peasants and worshipped in Russian Orthodox churches. These people are presumed to have arisen from Cossack stock who deserted to the Manchus, built churches, even had an Orthodox monastery, and then were swept away by the Bolsheviks centuries later. The rise of Stalin was the time of the Siberian gulags where people were exiled into a terrible darkness, where the light of freedom was extinguished. Just to contemplate this is excruciating, and the West deigns to dine with the representatives of this savagery, as if Tolstoy and the Bolshoi ballet are sufficient compensation. But who am I to cast the first stone; it is just Thubron’s insight that made me shake my head.

Thubron is an Englishman who sees the beauty in this harsh area of the planet, admittedly though he was there at the best time of the year.  His descriptions of the landscape are beautifully evocative – these landscapes are diverse visual seams, an essential art form for successful travel writers. To him there was a certain familiarity as he had travelled across the same territory 20 years ago when the political situation had more political fluidity in the pre-Putin and pre-Xi Jinping eras.

Russian Amur River bank

Yet the condition in this part of the country does reflect the overall politico-economic situation of the country. When the central government is weak, and the other relatively strong, then it is reflected in the respective local economic activity on either side of the Amur River. Currently, the Chinese are building large cities, whereas the Russian side of the river is impoverished.  Here are the signs of a time when Russia once held sway of the region for some time after the Treaty mentioned above. China became weaker and moreover was preoccupied by restlessness in the South of the country and Formosa for a long period. Then later the war with Japan debilitated China further, far more than Russia. Times change. His overall  current description is of Russian decay.

The two countries may not have much in common culturally, but today it seems the two countries have tacitly agreed there is no point warring over the territory. Power is economic, not military. This has been asserted by the Chinese – the Russians do the menial work moving the Chinese-made products across the river. Yet it was only in 1986 in Vladivostok that Gorbachev asserted that the countries were confined to the banks and the border was the navigable Amur in between, and his assertion remains as a given. In other words, cultural conflict has not necessarily been translated into armed conflict, apart from a few cross-border skirmishes.

The river itself is partially navigable but before World War I, there were comfortable boat trips along that part of the river. Thubron describes a boat trip made in 1914 by an Australian woman, Helen Gaunt, who relished the boat’s velvet upholstery and mahogany panelling with lunches of sturgeon, chicken and red caviar ‘spread like marmalade on an English breakfast table’. Nevertheless, the hope that the river would provide a trade route opening up Siberia to the Pacific Ocean was dashed by the shallowness of the river and particularly at the mouth of river there are many sandbanks.

Russia has concentrated its port facilities 800 miles south at Vladivostok.  The Amur may be three miles wide at its mouth, but he describes it as “running at five knots of silvered mud”. And as always he outlines the Siberian conundrum of “unblemished hills that fall in spurs of forest light” on one side of the river with walks along a jetty on the other side “the carcasses of iron barges lie sunk under its water, and its shingle is heaped with fallen bricks and concrete, tangles of wire and chains”. Ah, civilisation in all its brutality.

The book ends there.  Was the voyage worth the difficulty, the hardship? I suppose getting to the finish is in itself an achievement and his contemporary insights must be unique for a European journeying in an Asia, where Russia obviously is a player, but seemingly subservient to China. Nevertheless, the insights of his journey are very complementary to the ruminations of the Russian oligarch at the head of this blog. 

Superannuation Taylored?

Taylor is one of seven Liberal MPs in the 46th Parliament of Australia who have obtained degrees at an Oxbridge or Ivy League university, the others being Alan Tudge, Josh Frydenberg, Andrew Laming, Dave Sharma, Greg Hunt and Paul Fletcher – Wikipedia entry. 

The Hon Angus Taylor MP

I watched Angus Taylor on Sunday. I always thought that this Shadow Treasurer was a garrulous “cockie” whose diction had been caused by having a silver ladle in his mouth for too long a time. The above excerpt from his long entry in Wikipedia is amusing as it seems to outline the March of the Duds. Unlike most Wikipedia biographies, which can be interminably dull, his entry is engaging and lists all his alleged malfeasance.

I had never before watched him in a long interview. Despite his mien, he is not dumb, and his acrobatics with the truth absolutely magical; but the ease with which he does it shows that his education at The King’s School and Oxford has not gone for nought.

He can talk nonsense with the surety that the viewer knows that he knows that is nonsense.  He is at ease with this paradox of the smart man hiding behind his public school interpretation of Crocodile Dundee, as anybody could be. If he can avoid being found guilty of any malfeasance, he is assuredly the next Coalition Party leader – nor will the current National Party crop be able to stand up to him once the time comes for him to make his move.

His comments on superannuation made me think. The Prophet Taylor tells all what their superannuation package will be like in 50 years, a time relevant to my grandchildren.  I started to rack my brains about my attitude to superannuation when I was their age, an age when Taylor warns young people are going to be indexed out of their retirement funds because of that Jim Chalmers, the one that Albanese cannot drown in his endless pot of political molasses. I didn’t give superannuation a thought in my twenties.

In my thirties, because I moved around in salaried appointment, I did not accumulate any pension/superannuation funds. There was no reciprocity. My father died early in the 70s and left me some money, which was subject to inheritance tax, now abolished.   At the end of the decade, I gained employment where there was at the time a generous superannuation scheme so that, after five years, I could take the whole amount including the employer’s contribution. It was useful to access it at that time.

Having done my five years  I, with another bloke, formed a consultancy, and my superannuation thereafter was paid from the company that employed me. Thus, from the mid-eighties I did not benefit from the wave of entitlement that the politicians in cahoots with the public service controlled what they could take from the system without being called “rapacious”.

I remember the cries that went on about “getting better people into Parliament if they were paid more”. One does not hear that now the entitlements have soared, yet the standard of politician has not improved. Imagine some of them running a business? Angus Taylor stands out as one who could. Yet he defends the current superannuation arrangements rather than agreeing to a modest tax designed to improve the Government’s ability to pay for a country progressively rotting under the effects of climate change and the coddling of the Australian plutocracy, which had been so rampant when he was in Government.

In 1992 the then Prime Minister, Paul Keating introduced the policy of compulsory superannuation contributions under the Superannuation Guarantee scheme. Since this time this has grown to over $1.5 trillion and is argued as one of the key drivers of Australia’s national saving rate. This has become an asset, and like all assets, where a tax is fair and reasonable, a tax such as proposed seems to be so. Therefore Angus Taylor, you know how confected your opposition is; we do too; and judging by the polls so does the general populace.

Or perhaps it is all your working with cows in the dairying industry, that Mr Taylor, you are having difficulty in recognising caic tarbh. Surely not.

A Crackling Good Idea

The following dermal delights appeared recently in the Washington Post. I normally stay away from recipes, but what next? Omentum? (Black pudding ingredient among Austrian Southern Tyrolean yodellers) Tendons? (Chinese of course, slow cooked beef tendons) 

Suddenly Tim Ma had skin in the game.

The chef behind some Washington restaurants was recently in Austin in Texas and was making a simple pork skin chicharrón. “We just could not get it to puff,” he recalled. “We scraped off the fat, dehydrated it, fried it at the right temperature, and it just wouldn’t puff. But then we tried another batch that looked exactly the same, and it puffed up immediately. So we stared at it like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ It’s a whole other world of science. I blame Texas humidity.”

Ma is not alone in his embrace of that other world of science. Chefs across the country are showing more skin: in everyday chicken skin salads and cow skin stews as well as fancy turns of, say, salmon skin chicharrón in Los Angeles. Or casual eats like the Chinese-Cajun cracklin’ in New Orleans and the curry noodle sandwich with crispy guinea hen skin in Durham, N.C. Even José Andrés’ grilled vegetables are skin-on. Every skin everywhere all at once.

“It’s cool to take something apart, treat each piece differently and put the pieces back together,” Ma said. “It’s a technique thing, but it’s also a good way to introduce different flavours, different textures.”

History does not celebrate the first skin-eaters, cultures around the world now enjoy skin recipes — whether Canadian scrunchions (pork rind), Indonesian krupuk kulit (beef skin), Jewish gribenes (chicken or goose skin cracklings with fried onions), Mexican cueritos (pork rind), Slavic cvarci (pork crackling) or Vietnamese tóp mo (fried pork fat). 

At The Mary Lane in Manhattan, chef Andrew Sutin keeps reinventing his menu’s trout dish with skin: first with a dried-skin crumble, then with playful curls of fried skin on sautéed fillets and now layered between sliced leeks in a potato soup topped with trout.

“It’s a fresh approach to something that’s already there,” he said, comparing it to a “bonus track” on an album. “Your creative landscape is doubled.” Sutin compared skins’ moment in the sun to the rise of aioli and yolk-heavy pasta, which came in tandem with the popularity of egg-white omelettes and egg-white cocktails earlier this century.

“We’re trying to push the envelope into interesting adventure,” he said. “It’s delicious. It adds texture. And it’s not too far out there, really. I don’t want to serve something weird for the sake of weirdness.” 

Skin is not magic. Celebrity Chinese chef Zhenxiang Dong built his whole menu around duck skin so delicate that it easily shattered. His American debut flopped, despite counting Michelle Obama among its duck skin fans. There are also limits to what diners will stomach: Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel show “Bizarre Foods”, once recalled with revulsion that he was almost served a human baby’s foreskin in Madagascar.

Even in less-extreme circumstances, a reluctance bordering on squeamishness around eating skin is not uncommon. “My dad loves making kilawin with the cow’s skin or goat skin,” said Sheldon Simeon, a Hawaiian chef with his own recipe for Ilocano cow skin. “Not something that I do in my restaurants, though.” Asked why not, he declined to answer.

Inspired by cotenne (an Italian pork skin crackling) as well as bì heo (Vietnamese shredded pork skin noodles), New Orleans-transplanted-to-New York chef, Dominick Lee makes a roast beef tagliatelle, with a gluten-free option of pork skin noodles. He also uses dried skin as a kind of furikake-style flavour bomb with rice. It can be a tough sell. “It’s not often someone wants to talk about skin,” he said. “You’re either extremely interested in food or you’re Buffalo Bill.” 

In Savannah, Ga., Rob Newton credited ketogenic eating with a rediscovery of skin. “Keto diets have really helped the eating of skin,” he said. “You can eat chicharrónes or fish skins in cured egg yolk. People want their crunchy, salty thing without a potato or corn, and pig skin has really stepped into that role.” He’s currently developing a kind of terrine he saw in Mexico City that incorporates pulverized chicharrónes.

A desire for zero-waste sustainability helps, too. “We want to honour every bit of the animal,” Newton said. “We don’t waste the bones, the feet, the ears, nothing. This is a way to help do that. And that makes us feel good, like we’re doing the right thing, because we are.”

Mouse Whisper

From To a Mouse

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion, 
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal! 

Better late than never for Mr Burn’s annual day, and belatedly remembering to drink the classic smoked fish soup and nibble the essential haggis, neeps and tatties – all rounded off with a traditional clootie dumpling and a dram of whisky.

Cho sona ri luch ann an lofa

Haggis, neeps and tatties

Modest Expectation – An Item for Long Review

Ideas for a scrapbook?

When this blog was commenced 133 weeks ago, it was a different world. I didn’t expect that I would create a rod for my back by labelling each blog with a numerical connection to the name of the blog without being repetitive. When I started the blog, it was just by way of a scrapbook of ideas, and I was lucky to have a number of guest writers. They provided some leavening given that writing on a weekly basis is a serious business. One person caught in the middle of a pandemic with an irregular shuttered existence has a challenge to report usefully when the country’s leadership has been so uneven and where the principle of uncertainty has played into disturbance of the collective mind where the enemy is never “a tangible there” but “an intangible everywhere”.

I remember reading Erving Goffman on “Asylum” and “Stigma” when I was a young man. These books elaborated the concept of total institutions and the relationship between the inmates and those in supervisory positions of the inmates.

Goffman’s “total institutions” concept can be traced back to the establishment of the Hôpital Général in Paris in 1656 by Louis XIV. Once an arsenal, a rest home for war veterans, and several hospitals, the Hôpital Général served as a house of confinement for the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, prisoners and the insane – those who sought assistance and those who were sent there by royal or judicial decree. In the space of several months, one out of every hundred inhabitants of Paris would find themselves confined in these institutions indiscriminately.

Australia is in various stages of lockdown; a euphemistic way of describing imprisonment–lite.

Goffman set out his rules for the game. How relevant are they to our current society after such a period of intermittent lockdowns?

Goffman’s inmate is subject to three rule sets. The first are “house rules”, which should be “relatively” explicit both prescriptively and proscriptively.

In exchange, secondly there are clearly defined rewards and privileges for obedience. Bound up with this system is the nature of release. The third element is the nature of punishment, when the rules are broken.

Does Goffman give any clue as to how the inmate should respond? No, he does not. His analysis of various responses to lockdown is well catalogued whether monastery or mental hospital. The concept of a prolonged imprisonment was not seen as the consequence when the Virus first appeared early last year. Then a selection of politicians from both sides of politics participated in light-hearted advertisements to encourage hand washing. It was as though it was similar to the mood at the outbreak of WW1 when the early prediction was of the conflict being over by Christmas 1914.

With imprisonment, the length of sentence is known; in the asylum, this is less certain, when translated to a whole community locked down.

In the early phase of the pandemic, the conspiracy theorists and the anarchists, the libertarian-authoritarians and anti-vaxxers were yet to form their confederacy.  Rather it was the doomsayers. After initial hesitation, a strong advocacy time for improved hygiene, social distancing leading on to community isolation and, belatedly, masks  and hope improved the compliance of the community.

Unfortunately, Trump and the mad assortment of the above consolidated the COVID nonsense. It should not be forgotten that this activity was unconsciously aided and abetted by elements of the research community scrabbling for funding and prepared to participate in studies, on, for instance, hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.

The race for a useful vaccine commenced. Over the previous 20 years, there had been much preliminary research on vaccines into these viruses, which was translated into an accelerated pathway for developing an effective vaccine. The nature of the coronavirus, with its chameleon quality, presented a problem, but the value of the previous work became clear with the mRNA vaccines demonstrating efficacy and able to have an accelerated introduction this year.

Last year showed the impressive use of the lockdown – but turning much of Australia into a prison until the Virus was apparently conquered. Unfortunately, the Virus changed into a more virulent form.

The Federal Government refused to develop dedicated quarantine facilities and if it were not from some robust medical advice, a nascent mixture of the above toxic creatures some of which already existed within the Parliament  exhibited the same Trumpian irresponsibility which plunged the World into the pandemic crisis.

The successful suppression of the Virus lulled Australia into a period of self-satisfaction, not recognising that armistice is necessarily unconditional surrender.

The problem has been that, despite enhanced vaccination, the second wave lockdown in NSW has not been as effective once the Delta variant got into the community. The delay in Berejiklian’s response let the Virus loose. It reached Victoria before any lockdown measures were in place. Even the swift lockdown there was insufficient, and the lack of compliance in Victoria has been poor in traditional working class areas, when the Federal government failed to restore sufficient income support to offset not being able to go to work.

“House rules” had not been explicitly stated to the effect that, if the virus appeared again, you, the community would be imprisoned again even when you had been granted both the privileges of vaccination and some income support. The first round had generated sufficient anger, assuaged by Job Keeper and Job Seeker; a second lockdown term in both NSW and Victoria (and the ACT) was not brief, there was little income support and the severity of the lockdown varied according to the particular whim of the government.

However, this lockdown has been resisted by a group of “ex-prisoners” who have set up an urban guerrilla operation designed not only to burn down “the prison” but also to institute a Trotskyist state of permanent revolution. The State has no way of collecting these guerrillas who have become carriers of the virus, the frontline shock troops for the Virus, except by reacting to the rioters. The more strident they become the more the resentment builds up in the rest of the community, made worse because of no improvement. At the same time, the Murdoch media has inflamed the situation by encouraging this resentment without advocating a solution.

Is there one?

In the post WWII community, democracies have paradoxically increased the number incarcerated. Now, what about the vaccine refuseniks and those infected. Prisons are acceptable for the first, but what of the second? Bespoke quarantine arrangements – infectious diseases sanitoria – all linked to a healthy outcome, may be acceptable. But for God’s sake, do not use the words “lock hospitals” or “concentration camps”.

However, all such facilities must have a degree of humanity; but all imply selective isolation.  Our society will have to develop a system of temporary standardised isolation facilities, where those infected are well treated but there is suitable surveillance. Otherwise, as has been shown, this, and future viruses, will spread like wildfire, vaccination or not such facilities need to be integrated into the health system.

Opening up the community becomes a meaningless term while a significant group in the community remains defiant, refusing vaccination, and in fact enhancing the pandemic, replete with the images once invoked by Erving Goffman.  

A small endeavour 

This is the story about how the pandemic has disrupted a small program in Malawi – but first, the background.

Mustapha drove us in the Toyota Land Cruiser from Majete, in the south of Malawi, to Pumulani on Lake Malawi.  It took seven hours, during which time we left the wildlife reserve for a front row seat of rural Malawi and then, contrasting that view, with that of the commercial hub of Blantyre with its profusion of modern buildings, cars and men in suits and ties. Blantyre is the toilet break stopover. Even the posh hotel does not have sufficient toilet paper and the spare toilet paper had been left in the truck. To paraphrase the saying about chooks: “don’t count your rolls until they are attached”.

Mustapha is a Sunni Moslem. He prays five times a day, observes Ramadan and his food is halal. He is a ranger at the wildlife reserve and lives three hours away in a village where he goes home for four days a month. Home is a two-room brick house with separate cooking and washing facilities. In the language of the Chichewa people, he is bambo; his wife mai and they have two ana – one is four years; the other, a ten month old baby. Both are boys.

Most of the rangers are Christian; his village is mixed, like his workplace.  This is reflected in the countryside through which we pass, where church and mosque co-exist in the one village. The Muslim influence spread from the north under Arab influence and there are concentrations of Muslims along the Lake. However, Malawians are predominantly Christian.

The camp we have left lies on the Shire River, which we cross twice more on our trip across Malawi. The riverbank is lined by elephant grass but behind this natural stockade are cultivated rows of corn and squares of green vegetable garden – maize, beans, tomato plants, sweet potatoes and onions are common crops – the abundance of these vegetables is evident in the markets of the various townships we pass through.

Outside Blantyre, rural Malawi is people walking – women and children, water containers or packages on their heads; children in brightly coloured uniforms straggling home from school.  Rural Malawi is also oxcarts being driven and bicycles, mostly ridden by men. Bicycles are loaded down with charcoal or straw-coloured thatching grass or wooden staves. Bags of charcoals standing like sentinels abut the road, ready for sale. Stooks of thatching grass also line the roadside for sale.

Police roadblocks are everywhere, but only once are we asked where we are going.

As we go further north and towards the central Malawi plain the country becomes drier. Baobab trees appear in profusion. Flashes of yellow, red and pink signify the profusion of bougainvillea. It vaguely resembles the Australian Kimberley with the rocky outcrops, the red earth and vegetation dominated by acacia interspersed by villages with signature mango trees. Here lies the difference between this part of Malawi and the Kimberley.

The Kimberley is sparsely populated, unlike Malawi where the villages tumble against one another so that walking between villages is feasible. So much of the traffic is pedestrian, despite two large buses destined for Lilongwe passing us at a breakneck speed. There are minibuses and mitolos clustered in the larger townships overloading themselves with people and goods. We pass a bicycle, one of many, a youth hunched over the handlebars. The message on his violet T-shirt is memorable: “Jesus is my hero.”

Surprisingly at no stage have we seen evidence of the major cash crop of Malawi, tobacco. Hereby hangs another dilemma that Malawi faces. Malawi is recognised as the source of superior tobacco. Yet increasingly in the Western world tobacco is a pariah crop. World opinion is closing in on tobacco usage because of its undeniable link with cancer and a host of other diseases.  It is a matter which cannot be swept as cigarette ash under the carpet of government inertia worldwide.

We reach our destination after seven hours. Lake Malawi extends for 500 kilometres and we’re at the southern end. It looks like a giant sea and it is little wonder that the early Australian explorers, aware of what was happening in Africa, searched for an inland sea. In parts the Lake is 400 m deep and 52 km wide. The Shire River is the only river that flows out of Lake Malawi, joining the Zambezi River in Mozambique. The Lake extends north to the Tanzanian border; and a small part lies within the Mozambican border. This is the Southern end of the Great Rift Valley, where the tectonic plates are inching apart. The Great Rift Valley runs from Mozambique, through the Lake, to Tanzania, where it splits into two.

The Eastern flank runs through Kenya and the West through Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, before joining again in Ethiopia, running into and along the Red Sea, turning northward to end in the far reaches of Syria. I cannot help thinking that the Great Rift Valley is a metaphor for Africa – a tectonic plate moving its 48 component countries apart. Perhaps the metaphor is too cute and exaggerated, but it is surprising nobody seems to have traversed these jagged faults to find, in documentary terms, the “Real Africa” to see how long the rift really is. Michael Palin has crisscrossed the world; Stephen Fry has landed glancing blows in encompassing the 50 states of America; and David Attenborough has “terrorised” the fauna in his “pan-world”exploration of why and who and what we are.

Life is tranquil – so different from the above intrepid world travellers. The only excitement is the female baboon bounding towards me across the patio and seizing my morning tea biscuits. One into the mouth; and knowing that she has the advantage of surprise, seizing a second. The plate clatters onto the tiles and breaks into pieces. She has gone, chased by the staff.

I sit as a speck on the edge of this enormous freshwater pond. We are eating fish – the chambo – a white-fleshed, elegant tasting fish – drawn from the lake. We sailed around in a dhow and watched the fish eagles circling and the silent men in their canoes, each searching for fish. We sailed past a pod of hippopotami lounging just off the shoreline. A ribbon of villages lines the beach. They could be on a desert island. Except that when the dhow heads back to shore there is this rocky escarpment so reminiscent of north-west Australia.

But there is another facet of the camp where we are staying. They are acting as protection for a dozen albino children living in the nearby villages – the eldest being 18. Albinos are constantly at risk of being kidnapped, slaughtered, and dismembered for their body parts. The superstition in several East African countries that possession of albino remains will provide luck is a grotesque reflection on our human condition; and in the last two years before we went 18 children had been reported killed in Malawi. The real number? Who knows! Family members have been known to be complicit in such barbarity.

We rightly worry about rhinoceros being killed for a lump of inert keratin; we should also express our abhorrence of this human trade for what – a person with a congenital lack of melanin pigment.

There are practical requirements for albinos living in this part of Africa, beside expressing outrage – sunscreen, UV protective clothing, sun hats, sunglasses – and there is a need for eye testing facilities.

The camp where we stayed had set up a project to support albino children in three local villages; this involved their staff and also donations from guests from time to time.  Easy to just hand over some notes and move on, however we decided to become involved in the longer term by providing bulk supplies of sunscreen and sun protective gear that was not easy to obtain in Malawi and other East African countries. However, that plan struck a snag early on – the cost of getting a large amount of sunscreen from Australia to Malawi was prohibitive – $40 to post just one litre and more than three months on the road! A different solution was needed and no assistance was forthcoming from courier companies.

For a number of years one of us had been going to Africa each year so instead of sending supplies, I took packages with me – with more than 50 kgs of sunscreen and 50 pairs of sunglasses.  This was still cheaper for me to take it and pay for a return flight from Johannesburg to Malawi (including a night in Lilongwe) than to freight the stuff from Australia! I would give it to a contact in Malawi who delivered it to the camp from where it was then distributed. Customs in Malawi were bemused by the exercise, seemingly concerned I was planning to set up shop there and long discussions were usually involved with the customs officers about the exercise.

However, COVID put paid to those plans. By the time I can get another large supply to Malawi it will likely be three to four years since the last delivery without outside assistance, just one of the many impacts of COVID on African people. The health devastation wrought by COVID upon African countries and the lack of vaccines for all but a small percentage of the population makes me so sad, given for someone like myself who loves southern Africa and its people.  For the many local people who have relied on tourism for their livelihoods, the sudden and extended cessation of travel to African countries has left many struggling to survive.

Affluent western countries may now be opening up for travel but the acute shortage of COVID vaccines across Africa means day to day living as well as tourism will not return to anything like normal for years.

Armenians in Ireland

I was intrigued when seeing the Armenian Cross, the so-call khachkar, which are still being constructed in that country. I thought how much these khachkars resembled the Celtic cross, particularly the high crosses. Apparently there were Armenian monks in Ireland in around the 8th century, refugees from Islam. The two High Crosses, one at Durrow in Co Offaly and the other at Muiredach in Co Lough are suggestive of the traditional Armenian khachkars.

Ruins of Rahan Church

The one at Durrow is close to the village of Rahan, where there was a monastery dating from the 5th century. The first monastery was established in the 5th century BCE and then extended 100 years later by St Carthage. The site consists of two churches and the ruin of a mediaeval tower house, and therefore existed four centuries before the Armenians are said to have come.

The Armenians may have been housed in the monastery. The Armenian churches have pointed domes to mimic the cone of Mt Ararat, and high vaulting with the height of the church matching the length of the church. There is enough remaining of the Rahan church to strongly hint at the association. The stonework and pitched roof line resemble that of contemporary 9th century surviving Armenian architecture. The other association which may have relevance is that it is known Charlemagne used Armenians as his architects.

However, so much is lost in speculation as the dots joining them have been pulverised in the passage of unrecorded time.

Gտեսություն, ցտեսություն, Գլեդիս

What is going on in Australian politics in terms of corruption is as old as the First Fleet. Gary Sturgess, while Director-General of the Premier’s Office, was once the genius behind Nick Greiner who, as Premier, introduced the Bill creating the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) when Premier in 1988 (sic):

In recent years, in New South Wales we have seen: a Minister of the Crown gaoled for bribery; an inquiry into a second, and indeed a third, former Minister for alleged corruption; the former Chief Stipendiary Magistrate gaoled for perverting the course of justice; a former Commissioner of Police in the courts on a criminal charge; the former Deputy Commissioner of Police charged with bribery; a series of investigations and court cases involving judicial figures including a High Court Judge; and a disturbing number of dismissals, retirements and convictions of senior police officers for offences involving corrupt conduct… No government can maintain its claim to legitimacy while there remains the cloud of suspicion and doubt that has hung over government in New South Wales.

The charge sheet Greiner listed was long.  Later, Greiner was himself a casualty, when supporting one of his Ministers. These actions were referred to the newly-formed ICAC and he resigned when the four independent parliamentarians would not support him.  He was replaced by John Fahey.

What sticks in the craw is the outrage that this Government body, which has done its homework obviously painstakingly and interviewed the former Premier, should be pilloried. The former Premier knows that the game is up, because if ICAC had got it wrong, well somebody as well-versed as her would have invoked the “force field” with anecdotes of the poor little migrant, who has triumphed against the odds.

The concealment of the Deal, which the politicians want to shovel under the carpet, using privacy as the cleaning agent, was not helped by the ambivalent response from Mark Dreyfus. He, the Shadow Federal Attorney-General on one hand indicated that an incoming Labor government would introduce a meaningful ICAC. Yet on the other hand he had the qualification suggesting that there should be more secrecy to enshroud the preliminary investigation, aka “wriggle room”, which suggests that there are a number of sidelong glances towards certain colleagues, given the Labor Party itself is not “squeaky clean”.

Yet recently I received in the mail one of those unsolicited letters sent to his “million closest friends” from Albanese. The letter announced in bold that “An Albanese Labor Government will establish a powerful transparent and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission.” There was no detail, but it seemed more robust than the utterance of Dreyfus. One favourable Dreyfus action was that unlike some of his other Labor colleagues, he did not fall for the trap of effusively praising a disgraced departing Premier.

I suspect Berejiklian has no other life apart from politics; she was coddled by the media, unlike Julia Gillard. It should be remembered that Niki Savva conducted a relentless war against Gillard in the media, with that deadly efficiency women have when they want to bring down another woman. Berejiklian had none of that criticism; she “ascended” to the top unlike the messy way Gillard did.

The requirement for a National ICAC will be advanced if the next election produces a raft of intelligent independents not bound to the mindless obedience that the factional system of both parties imposes. The need for robust debate should be freed from those politicians, often influential, who have been compromised, as has been clearly shown by this Federal Government’s record of thinly-veiled corruption.

Has somebody lost the lock on the Pandora’s Box?

Pandora with her box

It seems that there is a virus of resignation sweeping the NSW Parliament. The one thing I admired in John Barilaro’s resignation was his refusal to criticise ICAC, because the reasons for his resignation are still unclear.

His comment was most unlike that of his Federal National leader, Barnaby Joyce who has likened ICAC to the Spanish Inquisition. I am surprised that Barnaby believes ICAC is thus run by Dominicans obsessed with Jewish and Muslim apostasy.  The Spanish connection on the other hand seems to have formed an important part of Mr Perrottet’s life through his membership of Opus Dei, which was the brainchild of Josemaria Escrivá, a Spanish priest with close links to Franco’s rule. Therefore, if one believes Joyce, Dominic Perrottet with his Spanish connection should be a strong supporter of ICAC.

And you think I’m being ironic!

As well, for those interested in what happens to seats vacated by NSW Premiers requiring a by-election, the Liberals should remember when they picked up Premier Wran’s seat of Bass Hill in 1986. Narrow victory it may have been, but there was a 22 per cent swing. Yet the Labor Party does not seem to have the appetite for such a course in relation to Gladys’ seat; but nevertheless the Liberal Party should call a by-election as soon as possible to stymie any independent candidature.

Now NSW is faced with a trifecta of by-elections, and the more politicians protest about an organisation dedicated to rooting out corruption, the more they lose whatever shred of trust remains within the community,

Yet Jesuit-trained Barnaby can’t shut up. His antics remind me of that old joke (and here I am indebted to The Guardian) about a Franciscan, a Dominican and a Jesuit who are arrested during the Russian revolution for spreading the Christian gospel and thrown into a dark prison cell. In a bid to restore the light, each man reflects on the traditions of his own order.

The Franciscan decides to wear sackcloth and ashes and pray for light. Nothing happens. The Dominican prepares and delivers an hour-long lecture on the virtue of light. Nothing happens. Then the Jesuit gets up and mends the fuse. The light comes on.

Really, you don’t say, Barnaby was taught by the Jesuits. Perhaps he only heard the words, “light” and “fuse” – and made the wrong connection.

“Volere Volare o Vogare Qualsiasi”

Letter from New York City

October 2021

Dear Readers,

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—that is, if you enjoy the spookier things in life. There are more than a few scary tales on our October roster, including Edith Wharton’s own selection of her best ghost stories, a new paperback of the Edward Gorey-illustrated edition of the H.G. Wells classic The War of the Worlds, and another selection of supernatural stories from our friends at Notting Hill Editions. Below you’ll find some fun, spine-tingling readings, as well as a peek inside the latest title in the New York Review Comics series and a little bit of the story behind the cover of Mr. Beethoven, Paul Griffiths’s inventive novel about the eponymous composer.

If you are a local or visiting New York City this weekend, consider coming by the NYRB booths at the Brooklyn Book Festival. We will be at booth 12 for Children’s Day on Saturday, October 2, and at booth 405 and 406 for the Main Day on Sunday, October 3. We will be selling books and, on the Main Day, giving copies of The New York Review of Books away. We would love to see you there. 

— An email received from the New York Review of Books.

Sorry.  Hope to see you next year; but thanks for the invitation. Saturday and Sunday were a bit cloudy, otherwise the weather in this past week has been a bit variable – rain and all, but New York is New York, Virus or Not!

The question I bet nobody will ask Dom Perrottet

Do you wear or have ever worn a cilice?

Do you know of anybody who wears a cilice?

If the reply is no, you, the investigative journalist should then approach his brother who is Dean of Warrane College and ask what is its policy in relation to the wearing of the cilice.

I would be mortified if any of you, the fourth estate, dared to ask, but may do so; but Morrison is not a valid reply.

Mouse Whisper

It is acceptable for the political leader to stand before his or her constituency to make a sweeping gesture and say “I have a vision for the country…”

Often it would be more truthful if the same political leader would rather have said, “I have a hallucination for the country…”

But how acceptable would that be?

I have a hallucination for the country…