Modest Expectations – Dominican Republic

“Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the guilty.”

Strike me lucky, Blue, did you hear that? They are at it again – the Coalition of the Willing has now changed its name to a self-preened great Aukus. Yes, I know the Great Auk has joined the Dodo, but the word here is Aukus. Remember the name! And no cracks about Noah’s Aukus.

The great AUK – now extinct

I’ve a friend who has been associated with the Senior Service since he was 19 years old. I asked him a simple question – why does Australia need submarines? He thought it was a good question, and he answered in conventional terms, that he thought Xi had the same expansionist propensity that the Japanese military had before the Second World War. I said to him it sounded like a version of the yellow peril coming from the North.

My friend made the observation that the French contract was rubbish, and the Adelaide shipyards were just not up to the requirements. From my point of view, having heard from a variety of sources, Master Pyne will have a lot to answer for this in relation to his involvement, apart from any fiduciary gain, just to shore up a few South Australian Parliamentary seats for the Liberal Party! Any objective assessment would have concluded how poor were the underlying assumptions, an impression reinforced by knowing of the recent involvement of Jane Halton as a consultant.

Yet five years ago Australia had entered into a contract – ill-formed, ill-thought through – but did the Australian Government confront the French with its concerns? Probably not. If so, why now go behind the back of the French government?

Nevertheless, the cackhanded way in which Morrison has responded to being hoodwinked into the nuclear submarine imbroglio is par for the course. That was compounded by the gratuitous insult by an American President, who knows of Morrison’s failed bet on Trump. Biden seems unable to bring himself to utter his name.

Despised by Biden. Morrison has also pissed off the French (and probably the EU as well) and the Chinese. The rest of Asia is looking askance, especially when they also see Boris, the dishevelled spectre of the playing fields of Eton College, in the mix. The question may rightly be asked – why are the British meddling in the Pacific since they do not even have any British Overseas Territory tax havens in the Pacific to defend?

Nevertheless, Morrison is following in the traditions of the recent past Australian Prime Ministers where, despite the trumpet blast about the number of members of the Coalition of the Willing (apart from a Danish contingent of about 50 troops), only Australia and Great Britain made any sizeable military contribution to America’s ill-starred invasion of Afghanistan.

The French refused to join, although it had previously committed 17,000 troops to the Gulf War in 1991.  And who can forget Menzies’ embarrassing involvement in the Suez Crisis in 1956 where, by Jove, those “gyppos” needed to be taught a thing or two. At that time the French joined the British in tickling Menzies’ vanity.

According to my source, the Americans will probably flog Australia the Virginia class nuclear submarine.  At what cost? A lot is the best estimate, and just re-emphasises the non-answer to my initial question, when Australia has a small navy, minuscular compared to both China and the USA.

This Virginia class submarine, with a crew of about 135 sailors, can carry up to 24 torpedoes and Tomahawk cruise missiles. The boat’s top underwater speed is about 25 knots (46km) per hour. The submarine has an advantage, namely the reactor plant will not require refuelling during the ship’s lifetime. But the question remains of what will the life time look like if it takes 20 years to build this fleet. It does not make sense.

Just look at the logistics. From laying down plans to final commissioning seems to take about six to seven years; but General Dynamics already has a backlog, with the boondoggle being a tasty supplement to maintain the money flow to the American armaments industry in, say, 20 years’ time. Needless to say, these submarines will be built in the USA, not Australia. There are just so many subsidiary suppliers of equipment to make Australian involvement in the manufacture impossible.

There are a few other queries, especially as the life of a submariner is not one which is immensely popular with the younger generation. Long periods of time next to a nuclear reactor underwater is not the most enticing job prospect, given the amount of time needed to ensure that the person recruited has the ability to remain sane in a closed underwater environment. So how is this to be answered?

The alternative is to invest in smaller unmanned submarines, more suitable for our shallow coastal waters. These are being built by Boeing and, according to my source, may be the future. They are cheaper; and nobody cries over the sinking of an unmanned drone.

The observations from my friend seem very sound, especially as he is concerned with our defence; not some vain manoeuvre to spend a great amount of funding on a project where the competition is already set between the two heavyweights. The Chinese are investing in more and more nuclear submarines.

Deployment of nuclear submarines confronting the Chinese in the South China sea should be left to the Americans – and the Japanese. In the undersea domain, the increase in Japan’s submarine force is highly regarded throughout Asia, and even America’s anti-submarine warfare operators struggle to track Japan’s modern fleet of super-quiet non-nuclear submarines. Note the comment about the stealthiness. This was a major criticism of the French submarines ordered by Australia, which apparently are so noisy one can hear La Marseillaise anywhere if the enemy wishes to tune in.

Even Taiwan is building new submarines. Paradoxically, there are some suggestions, one of which is that the Americans are seeking to reduce their nuclear submarine fleet. This may give some clue as to the US interest; and hence sloughing a few off to Australia – obviously at the right price whether for outright sale or some form of lend-lease – to shorten the period from 20 years to a much more “acceptable” timeframe. These alternatives may have more currency now the possibility of such has been denied by a former US Secretary for the Navy.

Sometime in the future there may be six nuclear submarines under an Australian ensign; an expenditure which could have been spent on a more mobile unmanned underwater navy, able to have quick deployment around the vulnerable coast of north-west Australia demonstrated so clearly when the Japanese attacked there, as well as Darwin in 1942. I wonder still whether this “sometime in the future” scenario will ever eventuate, but I certainly won’t be around to see it.

I do not weep for the French. In the 1990s, when President of the Faculty of Public Health Medicine within The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, I coordinated with Saatchi a protest against the French nuclear tests in the South Pacific at Mururoa Atoll. This protest involved colleagues from New Zealand and other South Pacific constituencies. I also well remember the callous bombing of the Rainbow Warrior by the French in Auckland Harbour in 1985. It should be noted that the French last withdrew its ambassador from Canberra in 1995, after Australia had withdrawn our ambassador from France two months earlier.

Given all this, I am sure that Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines will be unhappy about Australia gratuitously poking around underwater in the archipelago, knowing that there are already a number of nuclear submarines close by, if not in disputed territorial waters.

The other diplomatic problem for Australia is that the last thing the South Pacific nations will want is a nuclear reactor with a boxing kangaroo motif berthed in their harbours, which reinforces that point about the unattractiveness of the submariner’s life.

But then, will this whole extravaganza ever occur?

To boost or not to boost 

An advisory panel, independent of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), has voted to recommend administering Pfizer vaccine booster doses to people over 65 and those at high risk of severe COVID-19. The shots would be given at least six months after the original two shots.

The panel had earlier voted against a broader proposal from Pfizer to make booster shots available for people 16 and older. However, the FDA is not bound to accept the recommendation.

What is important is that Israel and USA have evidence for the efficacy of boosters, and it seems that six months is an indicative time for a booster dose of both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The need for a booster for AZ vaccine is less clear. What is known is that the AZ vaccine is a “slow burner”, and immunity levels build over time, especially when the dosing period is stretched. Currently the gap between first and second doses is between eight and 12 weeks which gives an optimal immune response.

For the third booster dose, it may be preferable to give a different brand of vaccine than the one used for the first two shots. This is specifically mentioned for the AZ vaccine. This would be positive news for those Australians over 65, who have been denied access to the Pfizer vaccine for their initial inoculation.

Booster shots are subject to speculation as to efficacy, but both Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are lined up seeking FDA approval. There is a suggestion that the Moderna booster requirement may be half the initial inoculation shot and, given the arrival of Moderna vaccine into this country, such information is relevant.

What is important is for the Government to develop a national approach to boosters, assuming that Australia will follow the FDA decisions, and moreover Israeli experience. In other words, let us not get caught up in the no man’s land of indecision; the Government failed comprehensively in relation to vaccines – they cannot afford to fail again.

The debate still centres on the level of vaccination and applauding the great response of Australians to be vaccinated once the vaccine hesitancy was  overcome. I for one, was in that cohort, and masked my hesitancy by taking the advice to space the influenza and COVID-19 vaccines. As I wrote in an April blog:

The other one, given the problems with the rollout, if I was able to secure a first dose, how long shall I have to wait for the second dose, and then more importantly, for the booster? It does not seem clear to me, whether (or more optimistically, when that will occur). That is why the J&J vaccine appeals to me more because it is single dose; but will it ever be registered in Australia? Questions, questions everywhere, but only opinions to imbibe. That is my reaction as an elderly consumer eligible for the injection. I am confused, and so will hold back. In the Australian climate it seems the best option is to wait and see.

I hope that same indecision does not dog mixed vaccine boosters, but at least if Pfizer is approved for boosters it can be used potentially across all of those over the age of 65 years. In retrospect, my comment in relation to the J&J vaccine seems have been a good bet. Although there were production difficulties, it is said that the second injection provides near to 100 per cent protection.

In any event, the matter of boosters should not be let slip in the way other matters have been mismanaged, because if boosters prove successful, then a six-monthly cycle hopefully can be converted to a minimum one year with further tweaking of the vaccine. This would then cement the booster added into the influenza vaccination cycle, with the possibility of a combined flu-COVID vaccine. This is in the future, but the matter of boosters must be part of the conversation now.

There is one distraction, if it can be called that. Why should Australia be applying for boosters when the undeveloped world is largely unvaccinated? Australia cannot take responsibility for the world. Yet if Australia accepts public health responsibility for our neighbours, the level should be clearly defined; and once it is clearly defined then these nations should be incorporated so their level of access is the same as ours.Yet at the same time those nations should accept the same level of responsibility as us.  Every society has got its “whack jobs”, every society has its level of ignorance, but public health responsibility is universal just as taboos are universal. It is all about the acceptable mix of persuasion and coercion.

Sweden Calling

I read the article by James Baillieu in Crikey extolling the virtues of the Swedish approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.  After reading it, I am sorry to miss articles on the benefits of the “English moat usage in repelling the Virus” or the “Cumulative benefit of monocle use when taking ivermectin.”

But I joke, my Lord, when such an authoritative source as yourself waxes lyrical on Sweden and its approach to the Virus. I appreciate you attribute your expertise on Sweden to your genetic pool.

My Swedish friend, a distinguished doctor from the Karolinska, who unhappily has not had been afforded the wisdom of working for seven years for McKinseys, which has been so much on show in its advice to that other McKinsey genius, Master of the Hunt, Greg.

I took the liberty, my lord, of forwarding your Epistle to The Nation of Crikey to my Swedish friend.

My friend, having read the Epistle has replied (sic):

Outcome measures obviously differ vastly whether you are a potential pub client locked (at home) or a frail elderly  person with the sword of Damocles sharpened above you. 

Australia is to be congratulated having saved so far ca 50,000 lives (compared to similar countries including Sweden)

It is somewhat callous to imply that a 0.1% death rate is negligible. The figure is also off by a factor of 10 in developed countries.  I strongly disagree.  

However there are other costs, lives not lived, children not schooled, economic problems to evaluate also before a total score can be tallied. 

To me it seems that Australia 

  1. Was lucky to be able to close borders
  2. Enforce lockdowns that saved many lives
  3.  School closures may not have been evidenced (i.e not been objectively assessed).
  4. Lockdowns only work for short times during which extensive vaccination must occur lest the disease take hold again savagely which is now occurring (in Sweden). 

We are now in Sweden following Denmark in repealing nearly all Covid restrictions, hoping fervently that our vaccination rate is ultimately sufficient.

(Consider) that there are groups in society both more exposed and sadly neither accepting vaccination nor being reached by the information, which is also as clear as it was more than a year ago when the typical Covid patient(in Sweden) was an immigrant taxi driver.  

Subsequently, he informed me that the architect of the Swedish approach, Tegnall is showing signs of stress. Baillieu labels Tegnall as independent; no he’s not – he is a civil servant. Baillieu maybe means “maverick”. Perhaps if Tegnall resigns, “maverick” becomes “martyr” in Baillieu language.

Baillieu trumpets zero deaths from COVID-19 in Sweden. On 17 September alone, there were 22 new reported deaths and 1,009 new reported cases; then on 22 September, 19 deaths. What a callous statement by Baillieu saying “Sweden’s COVID death toll of 0.14% of the population was nearly all people who had a short time to live.” 14,000 people about to die on his say-so. As my friend wrote: It is somewhat callous to imply that a 0.1%(sic) death rate is negligible.

While its economy may be showing signs of recovery, Swedish sources still say there is significant uncertainty. It’s possible that restrictions to curb the spread of infection will tighten again in autumn if cases rise, and this would impact economic growth.

Over the course of next year, employment growth is predicted to slow down further as GDP increases more slowly, but the number of employed people will still increase. Many businesses are looking for skilled workers again. A total of 190,000 people in Sweden have now been without a job for over a year. It seems a sober assessment of the current Swedish situation complementing my friend’s comments. Not a small hit, as Baillieu asserts.

Demonstrators on the steps of the Shrine, Melbourne

I don’t like what is occurring with the Virus unsuppressed in both Melbourne and Sydney, but when an over-privileged graduate of the Melbourne Establishment has a childish tantrum disguised as an objective assessment then I too, a product of the same environment, feel deeply ashamed.

What nonsense his final words: “Restore our rights and freedoms. Stop harming our children and instead protect them.”

I hope he was not wandering along the Westgate Freeway protesting this lack of Freedoms with all the irresponsible.

My great grandfather did not lose his money in the Depression of the 1890s in which the Baillieu family was a prominent player; the consequences of the Depression still affect Melbourne to this day. My great grandfather did not have much time for the Baillieus either.

John Shelby Spong

Spong sounds as if came from the world of Spike Milligan.

Bishop John Spong

Yet John Shelby Spong was a very, very serious influence. Some may say that Spong flaunted once-controversial views, but now many have become mainstream.  At times I wonder why I retain my Anglicanism, until I am reminded of Spong. I have been fortunate in knowing some great Anglican priests, but it is hard to live in the Sydney diocese which has all but abandoned people like Spong in its literal Bible interpretation and acquired intolerance of anybody not in its own image – seemingly not that of the Trinity anyway.

Yet one statement in the obituary prompted me to seek further information, and that was the statement about Judas Iscariot. He is so vilified, and yet in an excellent article on the iconography by Dr Felicity Harley relating to Judas, the early church was much more forgiving of Judas and his suicide. The reader is explicitly told that he had remorse; and there is no condemnation of Judas in his choice to take his own life in the way that he does. Rather, in recording the suicide Matthew allows guilt to pass from Judas to the Jewish leaders who ignore Judas’s confession and his atoning gesture and are thereby rendered guilty.

Later he was further vilified for that act in addition to his betrayal of Christ, and by the time of the medieval church the Hanged Judas had been consigned to the darkest parts the Inferno.

It is testimony to Spong that even in death, his obituary has made me think, in any areas I thought very much cut and dried.

I am indebted to this lightly edited obituary from The Washington Post, which I doubt will get much currency in Australia.

Long one of the most liberal voices among the nation’s Episcopalians, Bishop Spong has died at the age of 90.

In 1989, while he was bishop in Newark, N.J., he ordained the first openly gay male priest in the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Robert Williams.

Though the Rev. Ellen Barrett, an openly lesbian priest, had been ordained a decade earlier, Bishop Spong drew national attention by sending letters inviting all the church’s bishops — many of whom opposed his actions — to attend the ordination of Williams that December.

“Christian moral standards have changed quite dramatically,” Bishop Spong told The New York Times before the ordination. “We had slavery in a Christian nation. We had oppressed women. I think that our world is more Christ-like when it’s open to all of God’s children.”

And he added: “We believe that the Church needs to be honest. We have gay priests in every diocese.”

The author of more than two dozen books, Bishop Spong questioned some of Christianity’s fundamental doctrines while over the years he had often taught and lectured at Harvard Divinity School.

“He was trying to find the kernel and sweep away the husk of what it meant to follow Jesus. He was always seeking after that truth,” the Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, canon theologian at Washington National Cathedral and dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, said; “What he truly came to understand is doctrine and dogma doesn’t make us Christian. Doctrine and dogma doesn’t make us church. What makes us church is respecting the sacredness of every single human being and creating a world that does that and making sure the church is leading the world in doing so.”

“In so many ways,” she added, “he was ahead of the church.”

Nine months after Bishop Spong ordained Williams, the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops voted to pass a resolution affirming that it is “inappropriate” to ordain a practicing homosexual.

“The way the church treats its gay and lesbian members,” Bishop Spong said afterward, “strains the very fabric of my life by tearing it between my loyalty to Jesus Christ, who made a habit of embracing the outcast, and my loyalty to a church that historically has rejected Blacks, women and gays.”

Born in Charlotte, N.C., on June 16, 1931, John Shelby Spong was raised in fundamentalist churches amid those whose values were racist, sexist, and homophobic.

When he was young, he was taught that gay people were sinful, women were subordinate to men, and whites were superior to people of color.

His father, a salesman who struggled with alcoholism and died when John was 12, told him he should always say “sir” and “ma’am” to his elders, so long as they were not Black.

Bishop Spong later said the greatest influence on his upbringing was his mother, who was part of a strict Presbyterian sect that refused to play hymns because the lyrics were not “God’s words.” He later targeted that kind of biblical literalism in his books and sermons.

In 1998, for example, he criticized LGBTQ opponents as “uninformed religious people who buttress their attitude with appeals to a literal understanding of the Bible. This same mentality has marked every debate about every new insight that has arisen in the Western world over the last 600 years. It is a tired, threadbare argument that has become one of embarrassment to the cause of Christ.”

He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1952 and received a master’s in divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary in 1955. That same year, he was ordained to the priesthood and married Joan Lydia Ketner, who died in 1988. In 1990, he married Christine Mary Bridger, an administrator in the Newark archdiocese who went on to edit his work.  He was survived by his wife, five children and six grandchildren. He had a sister, who also has outlived him.

Before he became a bishop in New Jersey, he served for 20 years as a priest in North Carolina and Virginia. As rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, known as the Cathedral of the Confederacy because it was where Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis had worshiped, he took down the Confederate flag that flew above the building.

As the civil rights movement progressed, Bishop Spong found himself preaching to Black and white congregations alike, and said he worked to shed what he called the “residual racism” of his upbringing.

“I happen to believe that God’s image is in every human being, and that every human being must [be treated] with ultimate respect … And the Black people in America were the first people who made this very clear to me,” he said in a 2001 interview with the ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster.

He later expanded his ministry to encompass the fights for gender equality and LGBTQ rights. Soon after he arrived at the Diocese of Newark in the mid-1970s, the diocese became one of the first to ordain women to the priesthood.

The Rev. V. Gene Robinson, who in 2003 was consecrated as the church’s first openly gay bishop, has recently called Bishop Spong “a prophet”, using the term in the sense of “someone who speaks truth to power, who says those things that people don’t want to hear because it calls their morality and their lives into question.”

“I stand on his shoulders,” Robinson added. “Were it not for the work that he did and the ministry that he did and the advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ people that he did, I wouldn’t be a bishop. He did it long before it was popular or politically correct — he did it because he believed it was the Gospel.”

After publishing “Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop’s Search for the Origins of Christianity,” Spong spoke with the Globe in 1994 about parts of Christianity he was challenging.

Neither Judas Iscariot nor a betrayal by one of the 12 apostles was mentioned in early parts of the New Testament, he said.

“Judas was a creation of the Christian Church, which sought to shift blame for Jesus’s death from the Romans to the Jews,” he said.

In his 2005 book “The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love,” Bishop Spong wrote:

“I am now convinced that institutional Christianity has become so consumed by its quest for power and authority, most of which is rooted in the excessive claims for the Bible, that the authentic voice of God can no longer be heard within it.”

He did not say Amen. Others may.

There’s a Tree in the House

I was looking at an old repeat of Grand Designs in Australia where the owners erected a huge tree trunk as a centrepiece of their house in the tropical bush south of Darwin. It was a huge endeavour.

Trees, in the house …

By chance, at the same time, we received a short message from a renter of our property in Tasmania, which read in part; “Thank you so much for a wonderful stay in your holiday house. Our young boys absolutely loved the trees in the house.”

I had watched this installation of the tree trunk in the Northern Territory house, and yet did not immediately associate with the three massive blackwood trunks which support our house together with the trunk of a King Billy pine, which was the only old wood.

The blackwood poles were green at the time of construction and this is shown by some splitting in the poles , but the house is nearly 30 years old and seemingly that is now stabilised. The simple observation of children entering the property for the first time, full of wonderment at something we just take for granted; for them the house may be a fugue of interwoven wood. But from ageing eyes like mine, you only see what you don’t see.

Mouse Whisper

In Italy, May 1 is known is “Festa dei Lavatori”. It is a day of little work, also known in Italian as “la toiletta”. In southern England on the same day, there is a little known ceremony heralding the harvest of the first honeycomb. It is known as “Bee Day”.

Modest Expectations – Renunciation of Citizenship

The Potala

If Australia is the hermit kingdom, what does that make the Lodge in Canberra?  The Potala?  It is not particularly helpful for two of the most powerful politicians to lock themselves away. Perhaps if they were creative geniuses such a juxtaposition may provide positive outcomes; but in the end, with men without such a spark, Australia ends up with a scene of reinforcement of similar attitudes and behaviour – an integral loop brewed around eggs and bacon and lox and cream cheese. A daily diet of fuelled fossils and property developers complete a depressing taste sensation of these eremites.

It is an ironic tableau given the Prime Ministerial shift in stance on the national lockdown.

Cameron Stewart made a shrewd observation on the Insiders program on 20 August to the effect that much would be revealed with Victoria’s ability to get the number of COVID-19 cases under control. The outbreak in the Albanian community in the Shepparton area, which is linked to the Caroline Springs cases, reflects the infectivity of the Delta Variant and the ease with which the virus spreads through families and the various workplaces. Unlike NSW the numbers were “grumbling along” in Victoria – until recently. There is doubt that the Victorian government wants the number lower. Nevertheless, with a lockdown, the numbers were initially contained – with the fear that with any loosening of restrictions the situation would mimic that of Sydney.

If Victoria had forced the daily case numbers down, even if not to zero, then Australia – except for NSW – would have the prospect of emerging from lockdown. NSW is still left with its population in some Berejiklian limbo, supported by an isolated NSW Prime Minister and a Victorian-based Treasurer, being slowly braised on the tip of Morton’s Fork.

The dilemma is that Australia can then be unlocked, except for NSW – the pariah State surrounding the equivalent of wartime Switzerland, called the Australian Capital Territory, providing succour to the war-fatigued refugees from the NSW War Zone, now garrisoned by the Delta Variant.

NSW inhabitants will be seeking refugee status, waving vaccination papers at the border seeking access to a COVID-19 free State. Its health system has collapsed under the load of COVID cases, with everybody wanting their elective procedures to be undertaken interstate because of the compromised status of each of the major NSW hospitals and their depletion of staff.

When anybody is used to being able to more or less control their activities, mostly by using devious tactics laced with lies, the Virus does not buy any of that. This is being shown by politicians hiding away, emerging only for controlled appearances with the media, at best having fragmentary knowledge of health to spread political half-truths. Underneath, the only Federal government strategy is wishing that the Virus would go away – and given his Pentecostal beliefs, the Prime Minister no doubt prays that “Jesus will directly intervene.”

If you want to stop the spread, you have to stop the vectors – people moving around in a disordered fashion (Brownian movement) – for at least two weeks. That is not going to happen in NSW – and, as has been proved elsewhere, vaccination helps, but achieving even 75 per cent is a challenge, not only because of the anti-vaxxers, but also  the unvaccinated  young who are spreaders.

A few weeks ago I set out a plan and inter alia suggested that as school was one place where you can capture the cohort, vaccination be provided at age 12. Vaccination may have to occur at an even younger age. However, that debate has yet to be had, as this Prime Minister’s mental energy is consumed in wedging poor hapless Albo.  Really, is that what governing Australia has been reduced to?

The point is, will Australia open up with NSW locked out? I am sure the other States are sick of Berejiklian and that NSW cabal called the Prime Minister’s office. A Treasurer held hostage because, in the end, plaintively he cries from the overgrown Lodge tennis court, a metaphor for Australia:

I coulda’ been a contender …

You don’t understand! I coulda’ had class. I coulda’ been a contender. I could’ve been somebody. Instead of a bum, which is what I am – let’s face it.”

Maybe he will, because Cameron Stewart has proved prescient. Andrews has not got the Victorian State’s daily average down to 10 cases a day. As the week has progressed the attainment of Andrews’ goal seems unlikely to occur. Andrews is now not a counterpoint for NSW’s abject failure. Andrews now needs to recalibrate without seeming to become another Berekjiklian – the quintessential flailing, failed Premier, being pursued by the hounds of  Queensland and Western Australia. Basking to Baskerville?

Morton’s Fork

To-day everyone has to pay the heaviest taxes in our history, but whereas in former times nobody liked paying taxes, now (let us I hope) we willingly do so, for we know that our money is helping: the fight for freedom. But this willing spirit was not shown in the reign of Henry VII, whose method of taxation produced a dilemma known as “Morton’s Fork.”

His officers of taxation did not hesitate to exact forced loans from people of property. They acted in accordance with the theory that if a man lived economically he could not have failed to have saved money, and was, therefore, in a position to make his Sovereign a handsome contribution.  

Likewise, if he lived extravagantly he evidently possessed means, and was also in a position to assist his King. No wonder we inherited a dislike for taxation!

Most revolutions have originated from the excessive taxation of the common people, such as the American Revolution, which was fought to escape English taxes, and the French Revolution to end the crushing impositions of the ruling classes.

This rather quaint letter the Sydney Morning Herald published in wartime 1940 almost irrelevantly invoked the concept of Morton’s Fork. Here then there was no hint of the dilemma which Morton wilfully created when hunting for extra revenue for Henry VII, after he had come to the throne following the energy sapping War of the Roses where Morton had played an important role.

Cardinal John Morton

Although he was a Dorset man by birth, Morton had hitched himself to the Lancastrian cause, and survived during Yorkist imprisonment with his head still intact on his torso. Between being Bishop of Ely and Cardinal Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, he did have a stint in Tower of London – more a Morton roller-coaster than a fork. Moreover, Morton was always close to the Church, even though he first appears as the principal of Peckwater Inn, which had been given to an Augustine Priory several centuries before. It later became the site of Christ Church Oxford, but publican to priest gives Morton a special cachet.

Berejiklian is facing her own version of Morton’s Fork if she “lets it rip” and dismantles the lockdown; in all probability the State will collapse, as already clearly exemplified by a health system under extreme stress and NSW would attain complete pariah status within the Federation. If she intensifies the lockdown, then she is a form of Armenian toast with her Liberal Party backers, in a way never seen before by those unaffected in her Statewide constituency.  If they cannot protest in the streets, NSW voters have that alternative in 2023, unless there is revolt and cries for secession from the unaffected parts of the State well before that time.

There has already been the Tweed Heads Secessionist Movement, and what should have occurred at Federation, with all NSW south of the Murrumbidgee River being ceded to Victoria, may emerge as a local sentiment.

Then she would have to put a complete lockdown on the affected areas, allowing for no movement out for at least four weeks. Vaccination – who knows – may be her “opium of the people”. Let us face it, already we have evidence from elsewhere of the short-term effectiveness of the vaccines; but we have no plan to bolster up the very satisfactory take up to date, to include boosters even though Australia is still a long way from Shangri-La.

The World is based on getting your assumptions right

Covid-19 has exposed Australia’s economy for what it is.

We have a large, clean land and good weather. We dig dirt out of the ground which we sell as iron ore to China, which turns it into steel to build often vacant apartment blocks to pump GDP growth. We dig fossilised trees out of the ground which we also sell to China as coal to make that steel, and to burn in Japan for electricity while their nuclear reactors slowly get back online after Fukushima.

We sell immigration dressed up as education, mainly to China, which is now Australia’s third largest “export” market at $32 billion per annum – which is now halted. We are completely dependent on China which is now in a cold war with the US, possibly turning hot – where over one third of all merchandise exports go.”

So where to from here?

Technology and the elaborate transformation of our raw materials into sophisticated products with higher margins and a greater global market is the answer.

The fastest way to get there is to do everything we can to educate the nation with higher skills.

I would be paying people to go to university or TAFE in the right areas instead of sitting around in zombie companies on Job Keeper, use the spare capacity from the drop in international students to educate our own citizens and dramatically ramp up the sophistication and skills base taught at TAFE to make it a world class trade school.

My first assumption is this writer is not particularly friendly to the Morrison Government. However, like all assumptions, I could be wrong.

He is a prolific Twitter user, often commenting on subjects outside his areas of expertise, including the Sydney lockout laws, COVID-19, Politics of the United States, Donald Trump, Economic policy and many others. This has resulted in criticism from various circles including investors, who strongly suggest he should spend more energy growing a profitable company instead of constantly posting on social media.

This comment is inserted at the base of his Wikipedia biography, and my assumption is that the subject of the criticism did not insert that excerpt.

Again, I may be wrong.

Matt Barrie

The subject is Matt Barrie, self-described entrepreneur and IT expert. He has inserted himself into the “Doherty Model” debate with a very long criticism of the Doherty Institute’s modelling. He challenges the underlying assumptions of the model, and his criticism is peppered with annotations such as “garbage”.  I assume that he is calling into question the veracity of the Doherty model.

Parenthetically, when such a report as the Doherty one is commissioned and one can assume when the Government has predetermined the outcome, it politicises the findings and hence any recommendations in the Report. Here is the further parenthetic assumption that the Morrison government is following its normal pathway of creating a scapegoat, in this case in the form of Professor Lewin, if the whole Report goes “pear-shaped”, is discredited joining the $8m COVID-19 app which detected as it did only 17 cases – on the policy scrap heap..

It is part of my assumptions that the Government, which has made a number of appalling decisions, including prematurely congratulating the NSW government on successfully “quashing” the viral spread, has yet to learn.

The concern I have is how any of the models of the outcome of this Virus have factored in its transmissibility by those vaccinated, and the effect of the virus becoming endemic in children. The community has tolerated children as spreaders of that other coronavirus – the common cold – with its seasonal fluctuation. There is no vaccine, but we live with it because it is so mild in comparison with other infections and people are not hospitalised.

I am making the assumption that the AZ vaccine will be phased out as the mRNA vaccines, with their improved methods of production including the ability to be modified,  become the vaccines of choice. In itself this will present the Australian government with a number of problems in setting the policy agenda, including the substitution process, having invested so heavily in the AZ vaccine.

However, the assumption can be made that the shortages of vaccines will pass, and therefore the debate about whether Australia has booster doses or whether we help the disadvantaged countries achieve optimal vaccination also will fade as an issue.

Nevertheless, there remains the unanswered question of if, and when, boosters are required, and how young one needs to be to receive the first vaccine injection. Still questions that need to be answered, I assume.

Needless to say, it is poor form when asked to reveal the change in the modelling, Professor Lewin says she cannot. The assumption may be made that she has something to hide. The Doherty modellers should be asked to explain their model in front of their peers – publicly.

Whether he is right or wrong, Matt Barrie shows how debatable some of the assumptions underlying the report are, and therefore we do have a number of existing media forums where this can be debated, providing that the Chair of any such debate is knowledgeable and talented enough to lead the debate into objective territory. But that again is an assumption in many respects.

Hey Gladys. Where’re You Going This Weekend?

This is a story for you, Gladys.

There is a family we know in Tasmania.

They wanted to go on a holiday to Kakadu, but first they needed to visit relatives in Adelaide.

They boarded the Spirit of Tasmania with their car and were able to drive across Victoria and then stay in Adelaide with their relatives before flying to Darwin, where they rented a camper van and went to Kakadu, whence we received a text to say they were enjoying themselves. Very good people, and really good for them, not only to see their relatives in Adelaide but also to have a holiday in the Tropics during Tasmania’s chilly winter.

Then they drove their rented camper van from Darwin to Adelaide and then went home the way they had gone, in their own car.

What is that about lockdowns here? None.

The point is that the rest of Australia, especially if the smouldering Victorian outbreak is controlled, is leading a normal life, albeit a bit more hygienically than before.

A long time ago we booked a flight to Broome, having already booked on a cruise along the Kimberley coast, which would have also enabled us to go to Tiwi country, ending in Darwin. We anticipated the cancellation (which ultimately occurred) by flying to Broome early so that we could change to an alternative plan of driving to Darwin.  Having been to the Kimberley and the Northern Territory multiple times over the years we  knew what remained on our tourist agenda. However, along came the limo driver and the Berejiklian response, which has left the State locked down, with no demonstrable way of anything changing before the end of the year – if then.

Of course, none of the above  was possible for us, because of the Berejiklian stuff up. Nor any ability to go to Tasmania, nor to see our family in Melbourne.

I fail to see this adulation for the NSW Premier opening us all up for a picnic in the park or Dr Chant teaching us baby steps. Unfortunately, NSW has Berejiklian, who would be seen as an aberration in any other State. She has no strategy except vaccination in the face of the escalation of cases and a stressed health system.

Can I remind her of one thing? During the War, outside Tocumwal, they constructed an airstrip and nearby a 1,000 bed facility for war casualties, effectively taking them out of the firing line. The only way to deal with this crisis is to separate the infected, the virus vectors, until they are no longer vectors. A tent hospital would do it, because although the airstrip at Tocumwal still exists, the tent hospital has long gone and the land restored. The point is that rapidly setting up a fully functioning facility has been shown to be feasible and implementable. And a long way away without being a long way away. The wartime planners understood the apparent paradox and dealt with it accordingly.

Similar sites are available to NSW. What about some of those coastal golf courses in Sydney? Requisition these. Show some guts.

A suitable place for a quarantine village…

Watch what happens at Wellcamp when you have people with a real record of creating an airport and industrial park, as the Wagner brothers have shown; now given the task of creating a bespoke quarantine facility. In three months that will be operating.

However, you need courage to build such a facility in the face of Morrison the underminer. NSW needs a blueprint; the other States have provided various and the only unfortunate shred Berejiklian has in her policy patchwork is if Victoria has failed to reduce the number of cases. How threadbare can you become!

A Distant Mirror

I remember back in 1978, when I was reconstructing my library, I read a review about this new book titled A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman. I remember sending a note to my friend in America asking her to buy me a copy, such were the times then in getting new American books. She bought a handcut first edition, which beautifully encased the views of one of the most influential historian of the 20th century, Barbara Tuchman.

The Distant Mirror metaphor drew attention to the parallels in the phenomena extant in both the 14th and 20th centuries.  On the surface there is Voltaire’s interjection of “history never repeating itself, man does” which may seem relevant, but where does it take one?

Back to this very extensive narrative of the 14th century.

Tuchman noted that there was a tendency of historians to skirt the 14th century, perhaps because of the disastrous consequences of the Black Death plague 1348-1350 “which killed an estimated one-third of the population living between India and Iceland.” She felt this a difficult age for historians as it was an interruption in the story of human progress.

Even now, over 30 years since her death, her thoughtful analysis is worth reading.

How delightful, southern France in summer …

In contrast, read the airy twitter post from the anachronistic Alexander Downer, having got an exemption to travel to France no less. Downer is chortling on about how lovely France is at this time of the year in summer – away from the Australian Oubliette – no lockdowns; just a France with 17,590 cases recorded yesterday and a “trivial” 74 deaths.

Reminiscent of Pope Clement VI during the stint in France away from that infested place called Rome, the papacy lodged in the south of France at Avignon at the height of the Black Death.  He was ordered by his doctor to sit between two fires in the papal apartments – during the summer. Rather than avoiding the miasma, the fire discouraged the fleas, the vectors of the Yersinia pestis bacillus. Also, the Pope had the added benefit of his doctor insisting on him being socially isolated, despite the Pope losing a third of his cardinals, most of whom were some relation in some shape or form to him anyway.

Better than lockdown, milord! Especially when you have no cardinals to worry about.

Now this is Freedom (Thanks to The Boston Globe)

What we are missing by having the lockdown.

For legions of island residents and visitors, traveling to and from Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket has always been a bit of a headache.”

But this summer, the ordeal of snatching a coveted reservation on heavy travel days, and navigating the maze of buses, cars, and general commotion at the terminals has gone to migraine level, fuelling a season of discontent on the islands and mainland alike.”

Summer crowds at Martha’s Vineyard

“A fresh wave of tourists, along with an influx of new full-time island residents fleeing COVID, have packed ferries with thousands more cars, requiring travellers to book reservations weeks in advance for peak times.”

Mouse Whisper

The reward for reaching a record number of COVID cases in a single day – we can have a picnic outside – le déjeuner sur l’herbe or,

emulating Tom Lehrer’s picnic in the park:

All the world seems in tune
On a spring afternoon
When we’re poisoning pigeons in the park

…or a squirrel or two…”

Lots of ideas. Time for me to get some fresh air.

By the way, Is Tom Lehrer still alive?

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe

Modest Expectations – A Rock in Utah

On the 9-10 May 2001, the House of Representatives met in Melbourne to celebrate the Centenary of Federation Commemorative Sittings. Twenty years on, only five of those who were sitting as Members that day are still members of Parliament.

One is Kevin Andrews, a somewhat desiccated hangover in the Coalition, who is about to be consigned to “feather duster” status, after an undistinguished 30 years in Parliament and after losing preselection.

Warren Entsch and Bob Katter are from the wilds of Northern Queensland. Both have been able to ensure election without regard to any political affiliation. Katter is part of a dynasty, and both have fiefdoms. Intervention in any issue of national importance is incidental; neither is in a position to be national leader; and indeed, do not want to be so. They both want influence of their own choosing, even as they have become old men.

The other two who were there that day? Antony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek. Each has represented inner Sydney electorates for the Australian Labor Party for that period of time; in fact Albanese was elected in 1996 and Plibersek 1998. Frankly, I thought there would be more than just five, but these latter two are still very relevant to Australia as we move towards 2030.

Yet what have they done to move the needle towards ensuring a better life for Australia?

When Whitlam came to power in 1972, he gave Australia a mighty jolt. He had foreshadowed significant change during the vindictive years of McMahon and the alcohol-stained Gorton incumbency. “It’s Time” rang around Australia.

So dangerous was Whitlam to the bunyip aristocracy that eventually, with the connivance of the Royal household and the American security service, a coup was engineered in 1975 which led to Whitlam being sacked by a drunken popinjay called Kerr, dripping in the lard of an antique post and aided and abetted shamefully by the then Chief Justice Barwick.

However, the people showed very clearly that they were tired of Whitlam.  I was a spectator in these exciting times because, whatever could be said of these years, Australia threw off its bunyip ossification.

What followed was instructive, and the fact that the current government is as bad as it has ever been has given me cause to reflect. The decade post-Whitlam saw some of the most important policy made at a national level which brought us from a narrow Poujardist, sectarian-ridden country to one where the economy and the social structures bloomed – until this past decade.

Howard, for all his conservatism and his unconscious comic talent, strangely was the last remnant of that age, during which the mood of the country reverted to that previous xenophobic jingoistic time.

Malcolm Fraser came to power in 1975 in a landslide, which could be interpreted as a rejection of progress, and he was then successively re-elected until he was voted out in 1983. Fraser was a “curate’s egg”. For instance, his approach to economic reform was that of nineteenth century Victorian protectionism. His attitudes here with the morning-suited Eggleton whispering in his ear, set back our progress a decade.

However, despite the whisperings, he did make a number of decisions that can be attributed to his government having worthwhile impacts. I have tried to think of what Albanese and Plibersek have accomplished given that they have held ministerial positions and been in Cabinet over the past decade.

The reason I am musing about this was the discovery of an article in the Guardian Weekly written 13 years ago. The title “Harpoons Down – Australia’s Last Whaling“. The last whaling hunt happened in 1978. The last whaling station was at “Cheynes Beach” near Albany, a city on the southwestern coast of Australia. It was closed that year. At the time, there was a great deal of concern expressed as to the fallout in that community; the normal talk about the loss of jobs and of a city under stress given its isolated location.

Cheynes Beach whaling station near Albany

I remember visiting the station six years earlier when it was fully operational. When we arrived, the whales were being cut into huge slices. We weren’t worried about the smell. There is a lot of blood, but my children eagerly touched the body of the closest whale carcass.

My sons haven’t forgotten that experience since. People may abhor the slaughter of whales – whaling was so much part of our heritage as watching them has become today. My sons had grown up spending their holidays in Port Fairy, in a rubble walled stone cottage built in 1848. Port Fairy, together with other settlements on Victoria’s southern coast and the offshore islands of Tasmania, owed much of their origin to whaling. The cottage was named for Ben Bowyers, himself a whaler, who built it.

In April 1979 Malcolm Fraser pledged his government’s “total commitment to protect the whale”.  It was said that he was heavily influenced by his daughter, Phoebe. Nevertheless, a total ban on whaling in Australia and the development of policy for the protection of whales further afield in international waters followed. For this, Fraser could claim that he had achieved a major change in Australian policy and attitudes.

The cessation of whaling did not convert Albany into a ghost town. I think of an ongoing prosperous city today when, across the Continent, there are coal mines dotted all along coastal New South Wales. Yet Albanese and Plibersek, if not cowering under the assault of the coal mining industry and their union collaborators, are certainly not indicating a co-ordinated program to reduce coal mining either.

That is the worrying problem. That if Australia is faced with ridding itself of a corrupt government prolonging the moral desert, do we need a timid alternative with a blank record dedicating itself for minimising change, thus retaining a compromised bureaucracy with a carousel of consultants looting the country? Moreover, where is the plan to rid the coastal strip from the Illawarra to the Hunter of coal mining? After all, I am old enough to remember the despoliation of the beaches in the same area near Newcastle by sand mining and the bleat about loss of jobs. No sand mining in the Myall Lakes now. Loss of jobs? Not that you ever know whether these sand miners were ever reduced to penury.

Do we trust a government led by any NSW politician of any political colour? When last in power in this State, the ALP government was full of corruption, as we the community are being reminded as we watch the fall out still be played out in the courts.

More spine, Albo. Dig up the “goat tracks”, as Eddie Obeid so colourfully described the trail of lobbyists and hucksters wandering to and around the Parliamentary Executive Offices!

Additionally, a small piece of advice, get yourself or at least one of your trusted lieutenants to become fluent in Health as Neal Blewett did. The lack of appreciation that Health has a separate language leaves any politician such as Plibersek at a disadvantage. Certainly it did when she was Minister.

When I met her some years ago it was clear that she and her advisers spoke a form of Health creole. However then, speaking fluent Health was not as critical as it is today, especially in the misinterpretation of the meaning of vaccine percentages.

The Mystery of Jane Halton

Vaccine advances, including the remarkable success of mRNA technology, made it possible to develop jabs for a previously unknown pathogen in less than a year, rather than the decade or more it would traditionally take. But as much as we improved, the delivery of vaccines still took far too long. In the future, our goal must be to roll out vaccines in just 100 days. This goal, first articulated by CEPI, has been adopted and championed by the UK Government as part of its G7 Presidency. Achieving it could save millions of lives and trillions of dollars should we face another pandemic threat. – Richard Hatchett – June 2021

Richard Hatchett is the Chief Executive Officer of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the Oslo-based organisation formed in 2017. The following blurb, even suitably abridged, sets out the objectives:

CEPI works to advance vaccines against emerging infectious diseases…and establishes investigational vaccine stockpiles.

CEPI also funds new and innovative platform technologies with the potential to accelerate the development and manufacture of vaccines.

CEPI is working with partners across the world on the development and manufacturing of a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19 and is seeking US$2 billion from global donors to carry out this plan. 

Australia has given CEPI a relatively small amount of $13million (half of which has already been provided) towards the $2billion. In addition to governments, notably the UK, the Gates and Wellcome Foundations have each given $100 million.

Richard Hatchett has had a remarkable career and it is outlined most relevantly in a recent book by the prolific Michael Lewis titled “The Premonition – A Pandemic Story”.  In short, Lewis focuses on a group of scientists and doctors who spent years trying to ensure America was prepared for a deadly pandemic. A medically-trained epidemiologist, Hatchett is first mentioned in the book as having being recruited by one Rajeev Venkayya, a relatively junior medical graduate himself part of a group planning for governmental response to pandemics.

Serendipity is often but not invariably associated with momentous change. Dr Venkayya arrived at the Bush White House at a time when Bush, as described in the book, was “pissed”. Bush had been at the helm when 9/11 occurred; there had been the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina – and he did not know what to do. In fact, my personal memory from afar at the time of 9/11 was of the dazed, uncomprehending look on Bush’s face when he was interrupted reading a story to pre-schoolers, to be told of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

Yet there, in this book “The Premonition”, it was said that in the summer of 2005, Bush read a book about the 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak and the devastation wrought. The book influenced Bush to such an extent that he wanted a plan to prevent this happening again. Bush had had many plans pushed his way on a number of matters, a number of which yielded catastrophic situations occurring, for instance, in Afghanistan.

Yet this proved different.

At the time in 2005 we had the outbreak of avian flu H5N1, and dire predictions of massive loss of human life, which never eventuated. Yet in the previous two years, the world had got its first spread of the SARS coronavirus, the forerunner of the COVID-19 virus.

Bush listened to Dr Vekayya, who wrote down a sketchy plan – 12 pages “which amounted less to a plan than a plan to have a plan”.  Bush asked Congress for $7.1 billion to spend on this three-part pandemic sketch plan, and Congress gave it to him. It was an insight into how Bush governed by instinct but, on this occasion, he was mostly right. Yet the business of getting a policy into place, which was little more than vaccinate and isolate, proved very difficult, given that it crossed the influential Centres for Disease Control (CDC) way of thinking.

To the Vekayya group another doctor was recruited, Carlton Mercer. He came from the Veterans Administration and over time this little-known figure became, with Hatchett, the vanguard for turning the Vekayya sketch into a defined course of action, namely when a pandemic appeared imminent, in the absence of a vaccine it was to go quickly and hard in locking down the community, close schools and social distance people from one other. The problem with people who genuinely drive change is that there is always the research/medical establishment prepared to cast aspersions. In this case, this was the CDC.

When Obama came to power, he stopped listening to these Bush appointees and their accumulated experience. He was bolstered in 2009 by predicted dire consequences of the swine flu pandemic – caused by another influenza virus H1N1 – that did not eventuate. Mexico had followed their guidelines; so what! America did not; and nothing much happened.

COVID-19 was yet to come.

Richard Hatchett in 2017 ended up running CEPI, which was a critical position as related in the book, because it was able to redirect substantial funding in the development of vaccines, particularly Moderna and AstroZeneca, when the pandemic struck and the Virus was isolated. Funding was also provided by CEPI to the University of Queensland for its ultimately failed vaccine. Considering the hype surrounding this group, perhaps more reliance was placed on its success than should have been. In any event, it left Australia with very few vaccine paddles, later in 2020. At that time Australia was basking in its success of suppression of the Virus.

Since leaving the advisory role to a President who had stopped listening to him, Richard Hatchett has been very active nevertheless.

The mystery of Jane Halton? Given her position as Chair of CEPI, which she is always flaunting, the question has been asked as to why she did not influence Australia in its acquisition of vaccines by Australia in 2020, given the directions being taken by CEPI, given the obvious international standing of the CEPI CEO, Richard Hatchett. I would have thought she would have told the Government what to do, as is her wont. She certainly should have known about the efficacy of the various vaccines under development around the world, including that of the University of Queensland, and the need to stockpile a range of vaccines, not just one.

Very strange, almost as mysterious as why she is the Chair of CEPI in the first place.

Sprod 

A drawing of a Grecian urn. The athlete on the urn being offered a laurel wreath. The caption – “no thanks I’ll take the money.”

The children on the beach watching a Punch and Judy show. The sign against the beach stage read “Now in its 290th year”.

An exercise in whimsy.

George Napier Sprod was an Australian cartoonist who, for much of his working life after the Second World War, worked in England. A cartoonist who signed himself Sprod? Who would believe the name was not just a humorous pseudonym? But George Napier Sprod was indeed born in South Australia.

As has been written elsewhere, in 1938 at the age 19, George Sprod left home without notice. He had decided to ride his bike along the Murray River en route to Sydney. He got as far as Hay before selling his bike and continuing by train. Once in Sydney he set up residence in Kings Cross and started freelancing as a cartoonist and working as a street photographer.

World War II intervened. He joined up, became a gunner, was sent to Singapore, was captured and then was a POW in Changi until the end of the War. During that time he teamed up with Ronald Searle and the two of them edited a paper called “Exile”. It must have been difficult for the Japanese to comprehend, given their distinctive styles. Searle in fact had a marked effect on the Sprod development

After the War he went back to Australia, worked for a time on the Packer papers, the Daily Telegraph and Womans Weekly, found out he was not a political cartoonist and went to England, where he hit paydirt, particularly with then Punch Editor, Malcolm Muggeridge.

In the “Introduction” to a collection of Sprod cartoons, mostly ones that had appeared in Punch, published in 1956 under the title “Chips off a Shoulder”, Malcolm Muggeridge described Sprod’s drawings as very funny, with a gusto, an earthiness. “The inherent absurdity of human life positively pleases him, and his bold and uproarious situations convey this pleasure. I would say he was in no tradition at all, but just Sprod.

Muggeridge, later on the Introduction, opined on why Australia produced and nurtured more humorous artists than anywhere else. He suggested it may have been the harshness of life and the vastness of Australia, which elicited the wry smile as the readiest and most natural response, as Muggeridge so elegantly puts it. Muggeridge mentions a number of Australian cartoonists, but lumped David Low in with them. Low, probably the most acclaimed political cartoonist of them, was a New Zealander, who did work for eight years in Sydney before spending the rest of this life cartooning in England.

Just before I left running the community health program in Victoria, one of my nursing team, as an impromptu gesture presented me with a first edition of “Chips off a Shoulder”. The year was 1979, the book having been published two decades before. On the fly leaf, she had written my initials and under these the words “A sense of humour” and then below at the foot of the page “Best wishes, always” followed by a long dash. I remember once she did ask what I would like as an epitaph. I don’t remember how this matter came up, but I remember my response, “I tried”.

It is funny what you treasure and would never sell. After I left the job, I never saw her again. Her name was Beryl.

But then I never went searching for Sprod, who by that time had retreated from England back to Australia because of some messy domestic relationship there. He died in Marrickville in 2003, I know that much and that he did go on to publish a number of other books of cartoons.

Where has All the Influenza Gone?

Influenza is very much part of the discussion swirling around the COVID-19 discussions. Reference is continually being made to the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic; and reference is made to the fact that people have died of influenza in the past and we did not lock down Australia.

One can speculate about this. My view is that the Australian community has become used to the winter appearance of the virus, and there was always at the outset of “the flu season”, the Australian representative of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Reference on Influenza appearing to warn us of its dangers.  Australia was thus well placed. Scientists at the Centre in Melbourne—one of six such centres globally—faced an imprecise predictive process because of the variability of the various strains. This explained the vaccine’s varying effectiveness year to year as the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory (CSL) tried to make the most effective vaccine to counter this shifty virus.

Thus, there is a yearly vaccine, and there were established rituals. Those working in the health sector were encouraged to be vaccinated, and each health centre, generally as part of infection control, provided a systematic approach. In any event the prevalence of influenza waned as the country emerged from winter.

People died, and in fact up to 2020, every year from 2014 onwards the number of people who died increased, almost reaching 1,000 a year – until 2020 when the number dropped to 36, and then this year nil. The average age of death was 88, and hence influenza mortality was conventionally believed to be confined to the very old.

This year the community was advised to space its influenza and COVID-19 injections. I had the influenza injection first, when it became available. This I did because early in the year the COVID-19 virus seemed suppressed and the Delta variant had yet to emerge as the scourge it has become. So, in my case, “vaccine hesitancy” was an artefact, because of the expert advice to space the injections.

There is much speculation about why this apparent extinction of influenza mortality has occurred. The first is that it is only a lull in the disease progression and it will come roaring back with enhanced infectivity. Others suggest that the measures taken in regard to the current pandemic, such as social distancing, better hygiene and school closures have contributed.

Whatever the core reason for the current situation of zero mortality, the course of the influenza virus should be closely monitored but, from this unexpected effect, it does suggest that the hard approach is working.

In 1918 the community was hit by the influenza pandemic which, some say, never really went away. It just became attenuated; but there have been pandemic years. I remember the Asian flu pandemic in 1957 because I ended up in Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital. There have been outbreaks since, all caused by descendants of the Spanish flu virus, generally milder and seasonally self-limited. In summary, seasonal influenza has tended to kill the oldest and youngest in a society but has been less virulent since the 1918 pandemic – roughly half of those who died were men and women in their 20s and 30s, in the prime of their lives.

Why does the community not get so worried about influenza? First, I suggest it is because of its predictability. This is reflected clearly by the ritual of flu vaccine injections. Yet have the measure that have been put in place over the past two years fatally suppressed the flu virus? An open question.

Secondly, the coronavirus is different. The common cold is a coronavirus; the conventional wisdom – we don’t die of the common cold. But this is different, and the world was unprepared for this relative of such a mild disease to rear up and become a dangerous lethal virus, initially with no vaccine and then, as if in response to the emergence of vaccines, the more dangerous delta variant appeared.

Influenza has a predictability; this virus has not, especially as the messaging changes almost daily. These changes have increased the uncertainty, whereas the rules to deal with pandemics from a pure public health context have always been simple and unequivocal, with perhaps the added use of masks. Social distancing, school closure, restriction of all movement, personal hygiene, use of hand sanitiser, the importance of the reproduction factor – all well known.

Thirdly, another difference compared with influenza is the way this current pandemic has been handled in Australia. This is the politicisation with the inability of politicians not to interfere. The failure occurs when politicians panic, want instant solutions, unfortunately showing both ignorance and weakness at the same time. Politicians always seem to know better, especially when it interferes with business and political donors.

Ignore the public health rules, as is happening at present in NSW, and how long will it be before it is not only Afghani seeking refugee status in States with low rates of infection. One person, being a proponent of the “Let it rip” school of dealing with the Virus, said to me that he wanted to leave the country. Don’t worry. Currently, NSW is the place for you.

Mouse Whisper

Michael Kirby is an illustrious man of the people. He is known to deliver newspapers. Yet he has 30 honorary doctorates – quite a collection. There are 23 from Australian universities. Shame on the University of Western Australia and the University of Queensland. You are real laggards. But has anybody else got more honorary doctorates than our Michael K?

What a fancy dress party Michael, the Thespian, can stage. But why the number?  I suppose it is because some people collect stamps; others, like Michael, collect Tudor caps.

My mausmeister has fond but distant memories of him and that other colourful figure of Sydney University politics, the late Vincent John Flynn. He remembers the things which were said about him by those two worthies during those halcyon days of student politics, not to his face, but after he had left a meeting early.

You see Flynn had inter alia currency issues; and so does Michael. Different form of currency; different definition. Both defined by spotlight, one avoidance of it, the other always searching for it.

Modest Expectations – Geometric Progression

I rarely post on Facebook, but I feel compelled to comment on the large number of unvaccinated people there are. Many think that is awful. But the more I have thought about it, the more I conclude it may be the best thing that has happened to the human race in several centuries.

Those who choose not to vaccinate are, and will continue to be, the vast majority of those who contract COVID-19, as well as the majority of those who die. While I feel sorry for the friends and families of those people, in the long term that may be the best thing that has happened to the human race in a long time.

By weeding out the dumbest of our people, the average intelligence of our race will clearly improve!! So look on the bright side—the human race will be better off in the long term with the dumbest of our people being the largest bloc of deaths!!!

So wrote my American mate.

It demonstrates that the ferocity, which is consuming American society, being played out between those in favour of vaccination and the antivaxxers. Thinking about this invective I am reminded that my forebears survived the Black Death. But so did those of everyone who is living at present, even the progenitors of the anti-vaxxers. On this basis, some of these survivors proliferated, so stupidity is never totally extinguished.

Do I disapprove of anything sent above? Well, I do think the multiple exclamation marks are a bit over the top.

Seriously, despite the robustness of the comments, I genuinely worry about any suggestion of eugenics, for whatever reason, even in the case of America given the action of the disgusting Trump in dumbing down the community over the past four years and dismissing the seriousness of this pandemic.

Tales from the South Seas

South Sea Islanders have always seemed to me to get the rough end of the pineapple, as it were.  This mob is largely confined to the sugar growing areas of Queensland. Mostly, they have been ignored, despite the appalling way their ancestors were treated. Their forefathers were the victims of blackbirding, the trade in men mostly, from modern day Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, who were kidnapped, transported to Queensland and northern NSW, where they cut sugar cane.

South Sea Islander flag

Most were repatriated in the early years of our Federation, but a number remained – the actual figure being a subject of conjecture. From a peak of 60,000, the estimate now is about 5,000 although how rubbery that figure is, who knows.

When South Sea Islander leaders, Faith Bandler and Dr Evelyn Scott, died, politicians, the media and the wider community labelled both as Indigenous activists and gave no recognition to their South Sea Islander heritage.

Later, on other hand, when Dr Bonita Mabo died, she was widely recognised as a leading Australian South Sea Islander activist, also involved in Indigenous activism.

Therefore, the recent very public apology by the Mayor of Bundaberg, Jack Dempsey, to the South Sea Islanders reinforced the success of the Islanders over the last generation or two in educating their fellow Australians about their existence.

Australia flies both the Aboriginal and Torres Islander flags widely, but who recognises the South Sea islander flag? The argument may be that they are an insignificant number, but then if you apply that rule, the Aboriginal population and even more so the Torres Strait Islanders would be similarly considered given their respectively small percentages of the whole population.

The root problem goes back to the 1975 report of Australian Law Reform Commission where South Sea Islanders’ claims for recognition were dismissed contemptuously.

I am sure that Rugby League fans would dispute this, given that one of the greatest Rugby League players ever was Mal Meninga, himself of South Sea Islander heritage. He is not the only one.

In my 2017 book I wrote about the experiences of a young Philip Morey, when he had worked on the then New Hebrides island of Erromanga between 1932 and 1934. Here he had encountered a man who had been taken to Queensland as a youth who, after 40 years, returned to his village on Erromanga. The exchange between the young Australian and the old native needs no further commentary. It is nevertheless instructive. The extract starts with Morey asking a question while the old man was harvesting his plot of sweet potato.

The Sheep of Erromanga – Messages from the Martyrs Isle, Jack Best

“What was life here like when you were a small boy?” 

The dreaminess reappeared in the old man’s cadence. “Son, that was a long, long time ago.” The dreaminess vanished as quickly as it had come and edginess came into his voice. “I was less than twenty years old when the boat took me to Queensland. It was not even Australia then — just a group of colonies where you white men wanted me to make you some money. And I did. You know, I cut cedar and kauri for a shilling a hundred foot. I even worked on cattle stations.”

The old man drew a circle in the dirt.

“The pay wasn’t much, but I made enough money to rent fifteen acres and a farm in Northern New South Wales — on the Clarence. Married a white woman.” He stopped.

Philip thought he expected a question about mixed marriage, but miscegenation did not trouble Philip. He had read too much French literature to share the English fear of mixing skin colours. The French were very much more tolerant. He wondered whether there was a Creole culture in this strangely governed group of islands. 

Philip was quiet as he pondered this old fellow who had lived forty years among white people and who, after twenty years back on the island of his birth, could still speak fluent English. He had lived and worked under white men’s rule in a white man’s house with a white woman as his wife. He had seen and enjoyed the comforts and pains of civilization. Now he was living in a dirty and dilapidated old native hut wearing a dented old hat and a dirty threadbare loincloth.

He thought, so much for forty years in Australia!

The old man turned as if he felt Philip’s final thought as a laceration. 

“Son, civilization is not only in the eye of the white man.” His clouded eyes belied the directness, the clarity of the comment.

“You know what made me come home?” The old man continued without waiting for any acknowledgement. “I had learned enough about the way you white men handle your riches — you are always selling that lie to others to make even more for yourselves. I found out what civilization was all about. I lived as a white man — I saved and then I gambled money that I had earned on making money that would come without me earning it. What do you call it? Dividends? Interest? It has taken a long time for me to forget the words of deceit.” 

Philip thought that the way he said “deceit”, with his teeth clenched, was an expression of repugnance at a life he had once tried to embrace. 

“I lost my money,” the old man continued. “Any money I had got over that first twenty years went in the 1891 bank crash. Lost my farm, lost my living — lost my wife. Went back to the cane fields. But that life is for a young man, and my back started to give out. In the end, in my last ten years in your newly created country, I made enough to live on, but when I came home I left every penny in there — in your Australia.

What this man did not say, because there is no record of him having any children, was when the descendent of the first wave of South Sea islanders was repatriated, many of them were the product of mixed marriages, particularly with Aboriginal women. They suffered discrimination from the locals, who were of Melanesian stock. Strange world. Nevertheless, when I visited the Torres Strait, the comment was made that Torres Strait Islanders discriminated against those who lived on Horn Island, who were predominantly Aboriginal.

During World War 11 for instance, as an example of interracial discrimination, it was reported that while only earning one-third pay compared to whites, Torres Strait Islanders were compensated at a higher rate than Aboriginal soldiers. The Australian army viewed Torres Strait soldiers equal in combat with white soldiers, while they considered Aboriginal soldiers to be liabilities.

The experience the Erromanga man had in Australia from his first-hand account does not mention any discrimination – only that he lost all his money and his wife, and yet had returned home, content with obvious wisdom gained.

Captain Robert Towns

Nevertheless, even today, one matter rankles with me. At a time when the world is dishonouring slave traders, there is no move to change the name of Townsville away from one of the most notorious slave traders of the South Pacific, Robert Towns. He was British born and now is buried on Castle Hill. There has been some protest, but that has been ignored. Just imagine if Towns had been associated with an Aboriginal massacre.

I suppose it is a part of the Australian diaspora that we have a large regional city named for a mass murderer.

On what was the Vanuatu National Day, the last word should go Waskam Davis, whose forebears came from Tanna, one of the southern islands of Vanuatu. In response to the apology from the Bundaberg Mayor, she said: “We’ve grown up watching this struggle for recognition, and also working alongside our Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander families for greater recognition, greater inclusion, better outcomes for our collective communities”. 

Well, they could start by renaming Townsville. After all, we were once New Holland.

God, I am sick of these people

One source has suggested that vaccine supply logistics has been a form of a Ponzi scheme, although in this case there was a lot of smoke and mirrors about non-existent stores of vaccines or those sitting, waiting to be validated, coupled with much encouragement to “book a vaccination”. 

Such a comment displays a dangerous lack of confidence in Government.

Soldiers are joining police on the streets to ensure compliance, which has been sadly lacking in those suburbs where there has been a high immigrant population.  Those who have used their migrant groups to establish their petty satraps in local government, these so-called community leaders, have failed to accept the responsibility of both reassuring the population and reinforcing the compliance message. These community leaders should be accompanying the police and the soldiers in walking the streets, instead of braying from the sidelines.  Instead of explaining that Australia is at war with a Virus, which has killed or maimed millions of people across the World, and that this involves everyone making hard decisions about their lives in the short term, these so-called community leaders are selling this confected tripe that these people have fled from war torn countries and these immigrants will be totally blown out of their minds if they see soldiers on their streets.

Why are they doing this? Why are they sabotaging the State Government?

There are a number of reasons. I would hate to say that it is easy to whinge and in effect do bugger all. After all, do people go into local government primarily to help others?

There is a lack of leadership. The face of a Prime Minister who acts like a Cheshire cat with that very distinctive smirk, but whose default button is the media release and blame shifting.

Then there is the Premier, who is completely hapless, talks too much, has had a pet albatross called Darryl still bobbing around in this ocean of discontent, and an expertise in document shredding to list some of her achievements.  Perhaps I have missed something but there is nothing Churchillian in her desperation.  Her default button is “on the best medical advice”.

Therefore, the blame is shifted onto Kerry Chant who has shown, as I have said previously, remarkable resilience. However, everybody has his or her breaking point, especially if the contact tracing system, however well organised, is being overwhelmed.

It should be recognised that one positive outcome in NSW has been the QR code, originally devised in Japan in 1994, which was introduced after a month-long trial in Dubbo last year.

All Ministers of Health should be ensuring that the rest of the health system is working, and there are worrying signs. The problem is that all health bureaucracies are steeped in people who may know the regulations, but as I have written before, “health” is a separate language. In time, bureaucrats learn to speak “pidgin” health. While the NSW Health Minister is suitably authoritarian, he gives the impression he is not across his portfolio despite being the Minister for four years.

The key quality of a strong health minister is being able to speak fluent Health, as this is the major defence against the central agencies always wanting to trim the health budget. The problem for health ministers is that on most occasions the central agencies “plant” their own bureaucrat in the health portfolio to do their bidding. As an example, you don’t have to look past Jane Halton when she was Secretary of the Commonwealth Health Department.

As for the current Federal Minister of Health, he has presided over a failed app, a failed social marketing advertising strategy and a collection of mates getting jobs in relation to the failed logistics of distribution of the vaccine. The result is that there has been a series of poor decisions in choosing vaccines, a disjointed rollout of vaccines and, in regard the aged care portfolio, just a schemozzle when, with little additional effort, the workforce could have been vaccinated at the time of the vaccination of the residents. It does not help when the general in charge of the vaccine distribution looks as if he is about to cry at any moment.

There are so many opinions flying about that it is time to call a halt. Instead of this so-called national cabinet as seeming to be an exercise in shoring up fiefdoms and ensuring every political leader has their own pet scapegoat, it is time for political games to stop for the good of Australia.

As an example of this is the numbers flying about from the modellers about the percentage of those vaccinated which will enable Australia to move through the putative phases. The Doherty mob were asked by Government to provide an indicative figure to minimise lockdown. Fair enough – clear direction. But it seemed to let loose a storm of academic babble.  It is time for the academics to stop thinking this pandemic is a research conference.  The problem in a world of imperfect information is to know what to believe, leaving a confused community which eventually stops listening.

The country needs now:

  • A national contact tracing system. Here I agree with Stephen Duckett’s opinion piece in the SMH. Those of both NSW and Victoria have been tested. The initially woeful Victorian system was rectified; the NSW system has been resilient. If we had a national system, then it would signal that the Federation lives. Those who are starting to question the NSW system must recognise that if enough stress is put on a system, it will break. It needs continual engineering not scapegoating.
  • Custom made quarantine facilities, along the lines of Howard Springs, where there have been no recorded breaches, are essential. Its success was evident from the very start with the repatriation from Wuhan. Of course, whenever the profit motives intrude, as they did with the hotel quarantine, disaster follows, and thus the decision to look after one sector may end with the whole business sector compromised. The absurdity of continuing to talk about building them while doing virtually nothing is breathtaking. Endless useless contracts have been given to consultants over the past year; if the private sector as epitomised by the Wagner Brothers had been contracted to construct quarantine facilities they would have been in operation months ago.
  • The logistics of timely supply of testing materials and vaccines needs to be properly organised so it isn’t used as a conduit to just give taxpayers’ money to mates. Maybe somebody should take a lesson from Essington Lewis’ playbook from World War 11. If we had these turkeys in charge then, each State would have raised its own militia and Tasmanians would be making sake instead of gin.
  • The evidence of the best venue/s in which to distribute the vaccine and the need to have a national disaster plan using the evidence gained from this pandemic, particularly in the use of masks and hand sanitiser.
  • The QR code system, which has been an example of success, should be made uniform and compulsory across Australia. The communication strategy, the failure to acknowledge the app dud, and instead of subjecting the whole community communication strategy to public scrutiny, it will be buried from scrutiny to the overall national detriment. There have been some spectacular successes in social marketing campaigns in the past. Remember the success of the NSW anti-drink driving campaign orchestrated by the incomparable John Bevins.
  • Recognition of the danger of the lockdown and border closures where there is no uniform national control by the Federal Government. Say NSW decides to loosen all restrictions a lá Boris, in conflict with the other States with harsher restrictions, then there is the potential for community chaos and a fractured Federation presided over by an impotent Federal government. The actions of the West Australian Premier in particular fill me with a sense of foreboding; Australia does not need a re-enactment of the 1890s.

One of the great successes Wooldridge had when he was Commonwealth Minister of Health was improving the vaccine rate across Australia. I recognise he has had a chequered history since he left that job, but it has not stopped him from advising Hunt, particularly in the way the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme can be nuanced.

I wonder whether he would agree with “jab” as part of the politician’s lexicon, and if there is hesitancy, the best place to test this in schools is to make it compulsory for all children, say at 12, to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Once you introduce a program into schools, then it is a perfect road to eradication – rubella and polio are prime examples, or have the current policymakers forgotten about those scourges? Such a decision would reinforce some of the calls to redirect inoculation to the young.

In the interim, give the residue of children aged between 12 and 18 the vaccine. It is only a matter of organisation to get them all vaccinated – and incidentally a good way to identify those among the parents who are avowed anti-vaxxers and those who are just hesitant.

While it has been admirable that the Government has concentrated on the elderly, the assumption being we are the most vulnerable, and therefore vaccination is a community anodyne for not clogging the acute hospitals with the most unproductive sector of the community, particularly applying to the intensive care units. Any COVID-19 patient admitted to hospital can spread the nightmare.

Another matter is the long-term morbidity, which will contribute to the cost on the system. The post-viral syndrome is protean in its manifestations and it seems that COVID-19 can be particularly severe. Then there is the murky world of the auto-immune disease, and having a chronic auto-immune disease myself, I would not flirt with the disease, with preferably having a choice of vaccine. My second injection is due tomorrow.

The overarching concern, despite much work being done in relation to SARs vaccine development in the past 15 years, none of them have had the usual level of testing that most vaccines undergo before being approved for usage. This is the baggage which Australia has, given investment in the Queensland dud and the almost exclusive Governmental preference for the AstraZeneca vaccine.  That is the risk one takes when there is urgency, and where hindsight is a wonderful attribute.

Hence, with long-term morbidity, there will always be the search for a cure. Given the nonsense in relation to bleach, zinc, ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine and whatever, it is still important that all treatments are not dismissed.  The example of the nucleotide, remdesivir with the associated use of cortisone has received attention and seems to have some role in the most serious cases, but there needs to be more convincing data.

Finally, one area which has remained relatively untouched in the mountain of commentary is the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). It should not be forgotten in any national review. Here Australia is in a pandemic and there is the spectacle of national chemist chains peddling the usual remedies for the common cold and other respiratory complaints on national television every night. Most remedies have been shown not to work, and normally can be tolerated, but this is a pandemic, and mixed messaging needs to be eliminated – not gaily spouted on national television. The medical advice is to be COVID-19 tested if you have “the most minimal of symptoms”. Yet the advertisements are full of contradictory advice encouraging use of ineffective patent medicines that are likely to delay being tested for COVID-19.

The problem is that the Commonwealth Department of Health’s Health Products Regulation Group needs a large shakeup. The current deputy secretary in charge, John Skerrett, is in a long line of bureaucrats who, in the words of the Health Department, contribute to the stewardship of Australia’s health system. Exactly! It was one area which, in hindsight, I should have weighed in when I had some influence in the area.

In all, public health specialists sit uneasily with business community. There are few bridges. An American view was that the public health specialists are Democrats and Business Republicans. It has been shown in the unfortunate politicisation of this pandemic, particularly in the United States.

There’s business, and then there’s seriously good business.

Victoria, with its vocal proponent Peter Doherty, is pushing ahead with plans for an mRNA research and production capacity in Australia. Of course, the race is on internationally.  After the spectacular success of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Sanofi announced on June 29th that it will invest more than USD475 million a year to develop mRNA vaccines against other diseases, and much of the work will be done in Cambridge, a suburb of Boston in Massachusetts

Sanofi is creating a vaccines mRNA Centre of Excellence that will employ 400 people both there and in Lyon, France. The French pharmaceutical firm has about 4,200 employees in Massachusetts. Sanofi hopes to have at least six potential vaccines to test in clinical trials by 2025 against a range of diseases.

While Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca both vowed to sell their vaccines on a non-profit basis during the pandemic, Moderna, which has never made a profit and has no other products on the market, decided to sell its vaccine at a profit, as did Pfizer, notwithstanding that it didn’t need the profits because of its already healthy bottom line. Last year Pfizer showed USD9.6bn in profits, before the COVID-19 vaccine. In the first three months of this year the COVID-19 vaccine delivered USD3.5bn of revenue.

And that is just the start. Like the eponymous Magic Pudding, the vaccine is expected to keep generating significant revenue, especially because of the likely need for regular booster shots, already before the FDA. Pfizer has said it expects its vaccine to generate USD26bn in revenue this year and the company has been signing supply deals with governments as far out as 2024. Nice work if you can get it.

Just an addendum

I could not agree more with Gideon Haigh’s comment made last Sunday about the nature and future of the Olympic Games, much in the same vein as I wrote about last week. The euphoria generated by the number of Australian gold medals in the first week made those who reckon that the Olympic Games is now in need of a thorough overhaul seem like the Grinch. The Games have provided a degree of fairy tale theatre for those of us caught in the lockdown.

The problem is that life has many airheads, often former Olympians who “are on the tit” directly or living a life that they once had in amongst the gaiety of the Games, not to mention the close contacts that some have made and persisted.  What do they call it?  Yes, the Olympic Family.

Apart from hubris, there is no reason for that appalling decision of the Queensland Premier to commit to the same contract which has left the IOC again wallowing in cash, when it was clearly on its knees. Here, the host city and, on this occasion because we have a drongo Federal Government prepared to cough up 50 per cent, every taxpayer in Australia will be saddled with debt. A form of neoliberal communism, you may ask. Don’t bother.

It was interesting to note that the residual Sydney Games debt is still bouncing around 20 years after the end of those Games.

The country, particularly Queensland, may come to curse Coates, who will be 82 when the Games come around – or dead.  Coates may think he has fenced his legacy, but as I said last week, in 2032 there will be a different World. Indeed, fire-fighting may have become an Olympic sport by then.

And by the way, that winner of the mens’ 100 metres the other day, from the vantage point of mia sedia in salotto, appeared to have the physiognomy of the Canadian Ben Johnson.  He certainly has made massive strides, as they say, over a short time, as distinct from the IOC. Could have been something in the tagliatelle.

Mouse Whisper

As my cousin Camundongo from Lisbon has warned me that before entering the swimming pool remember to circumflex since:

If in Maio

You want on whim

To decide to swim

Remember to wear your Maiô

Portuguese water dogs

Modest Expectations – Eleven Squared

One of our most extraordinary journeys across the USA was our drive from Los Angeles to Denver. Our first stop was at Furnace Creek. Several years before we intended to drive there, but Los Angeles was cut off by an unseasonable storm which dumped a load of snow around Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Mountains, cutting off the route to Death Valley.

This time it was on the cusp of summer and it was about a five hour drive straight after clearing customs and picking up the hire car following the flight from Australia. The drive was a little arduous. It takes a seemingly endless time to leave LA behind. However, it was a necessity as it happened to be the last day that the resort at Furnace Creek remained open before it was due to close for summer.

Death Valley

Death Valley has always been one of the hottest places on Earth, and even then was not open over the summer months. We had time to look around and feel the dryness and the heat, but hardly the temperature being experienced at the present time. Furnace Creek, where its temperature is measured, sits at 58 metres below sea level in the Mojave Desert.

As The Washington Post noted this past week: the third massive heat wave in three weeks kicked off in the West on Friday, Death Valley, Calif., soared to a searing 130 degrees. If confirmed, it would match the highest known temperature on the planet since at least 1931, which occurred less than a year ago. Friday’s 130 degree (54.4c) reading comes after it hit 126 degrees (52.2c) on both Wednesday and Thursday. It’s predicted to reach as high as 132 (55.6c) degrees on Saturday and 130 (54.4c) on Sunday. Night time lows may stay above 100 (37.8c) until the middle of next week.

What with the Pacific Northwest temperatures last week, anybody for climate change denial? What was that about coal fired power stations now?  I’m beginning to believe that nobody who is due to shuffle off the mortal coil should be allowed to vote, so much have we stuffed up the World.

But wait, there is more; from The Boston Globe describing the wettest July on record:

Flash flood warnings, tornado alerts, heat advisories, and of course, rain, rain, and more rain. Hey, whoever’s in charge here, we’d like a refund, please. We were promised Hot Vax Summer, but instead, we’re getting a soggy slap in the face. Couples who postponed their weddings because of COVID find themselves dashing to the church amid downpours. Families gathered for overdue summer reunions are enjoying more together time than they bargained for. Restaurateurs eager to make an extra buck on outdoor dining are chasing runaway umbrellas.

I doubt if this will feature on the National Party dashboards.

Information in the Soot

Neanderthal Man

I am indebted for the inspiration for the following blog to a review in The New York Review by Tim Flannery of a book just published entitled: “Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love Death and Art” by Rebecca Sykes. I have quoted from it.

Rebecca Sykes is a young Welsh palaeontologist who has spent a great amount of time in the south of France scouring the caves for signs of Neanderthal life. She is an inveterate writer and this book, which has attracted wide recognition, is her latest opus.

What I found especially interesting was the concept that soot on the cave walls can be used as a clue to age.

Fulginochronology was established three years ago as a scientific method. It is an advance in scrutinising our ancestral navel that has not been given much prominence. It involves the study of miniscule stratigraphic layers of soot on cave walls. The fossil soot build-up is a microscopic barcode printed on the walls of the cave. Each single bar line represents one specific moment of burning, around a hearth in a cave. These timelines can be read to create a chronology of events within the cave as different groups of Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens came and went. The technique has been used in the Mandrin Cave in south-east France and in the El Salt caves in Eastern Spain.

Esoteric, yet important in defining the life and times of Neanderthal man and their interaction with Homo Sapiens, and the overarching question of hybridisation. It is fascinating to think that those people roaming Europe are increasingly thought to be a hybridisation of the two occurring about 40,000 years ago. The discovery of skeletons in Europe dating from that period shows all were hybrids. It is as if suddenly the hybrids took over Europe at that time.

The concept of fulginochronology intrigued. I look forward to reading the book, once our copy reaches Australia. The question I would like answered is how do these data fit into the assertion that the Aboriginal people have been here for 65,000 years, in effect predating any hybridisation event. Maybe we need a bit of fulginochronology, Tim, in places like the Jenolan Caves.

The Cave of Niaux

We had always wanted to see the caves at Lascaux with gallery after gallery of images of animals, all painted in the Paleolithic period by the Magdalénians about 15,000 years ago. Sealed at some stage during this prehistoric period, they lay unknown until accidently discovered by a group of boys in 1940. Opened in 1948 to the general public, it took only 15 years before the caves needed to be closed to the public because of the damage being done by the carbon dioxide in the expired air of the tourists. There were up to 1,200 tourists coming through each day, including Picasso who, on seeing the art, said that we had not learned anything new. Thousands of years later the skills of the artists were there for all of us to see.

It is suggested that, at that time 40,000 years ago with abundance of food and the benison of tranquil weather in that period, these people had time for developing artistic talent and then marry it with a spiritual philosophy – and the appropriate alignment of such thoughts within their environment, the equivalent of the feng-shui of today’s interior decorators.

Very few people are allowed in to see the paintings, but it is one of the only shows in the world that I would use “my ticket of influence” to see, if I had one. There are at least three Lascaux facsimiles, as there is another depicting the caves of Altamira near its site in Cantabria in Northern Spain. There problem with facsimiles is that, although the reproductions may be excellent, they are not in context. The paintings are of animals, in particular bison, auroch and horse seem to dominate. The colours resemble the ochre colours of our Indigenous people and largely they are drawn using iron and manganese-based pigments. Carbon is used, but apparently not in the Lascaux paintings.

The Altamira caves were discovered in the nineteenth century, and they are almost as well known as those at Lascaux. However again, these caves were closed to the public as of 2002 for much the same reasons as at Lascaux – damage from expired carbon dioxide and the fact that opening the caves up induces changes in the temperature and the humidity so that lichen and moss overgrowth is occurring on what once were plain stone walls.  All of these factors contribute to the deterioration of the paintings.

The entrance to Niaux Cave

This is where the Niaux Cave comes into the discussion. For some reason we were actually discussing cave paintings and the frustration of not being able to see any of them. We were travelling around the foothills of the French Pyrenees, which is a long way from Lascaux but over the range in Northern Spain were the Altamiras.  We had stopped at Foix, a hilltop town and over coffee, we found out we were close to the Niaux Cave. So we drove down and there it was, a majestic entrance which would not have been out of place on the front of a cathedral, a line of steel poles guiding us down the mountainside to the entrance. As we found out the number at any one time permitted in the cave is limited, but we scraped into the afternoon quota.

Descending into the cave with head lighting, walking along a board walk knowing that there were shadowy forms of stalagmites and stalactites strewn along the way, the sound of dripping water, squeezing through and crouching low at several points to progress, it could have been difficult, but mostly it was just a stroll.  On the walls the headlights showed a series of glyphs – what may have been signs – and some enigmatic lines of red and black dots along the opposite wall.

We came to an area where pathways crossed. Then we found we were climbing a steep rise into what we learnt later was the Salon Noir. It was about half a kilometre from the cave entrance into this pitch black area. Here we stopped and were instructed to turn out our lights. Even in the pitch black, you knew you were in a large space with a sense of high ceilings. It is strange that this feeling of space did not require vision. The group surprisingly was silent, just outlines alongside me.

Then the guide turned on the light and there were the images of a bison and ibex, lines of black on a rust tinted wall. Time was limited. Photography was prohibited. Once the light was turned out, that was that. Sure, they illuminated the salon to show how domed the chamber was – the acoustic quality of the chamber was tested.

Niaux cave painting

There was hardly time to absorb the images; if we had been in a facsimile of the chamber, we would have had more time to view the images; even be able to photograph; there would not have been the conservation restrictions. Stepping forward, we now have virtual reality technology, so in future we will probably not be restricted to one gallery, but be able to see the whole complex through the eyes of the palaeontologist, being able to stop, rewind, fast forward – see more than we did without the discomfort and cost of being on site. We could be force fed a commentary; and with such devices able to store the memory, not even have to remember. Just press a button, and there they are, remarkable images in a virtual cave

I have seen many Aboriginal rock paintings on site; they tend not to be in the depth of caves, but then again if the mining industry continues to blow them up with the connivance of government here in Australia, it just becomes an academic matter. I have been privileged to see some of these paintings, but I admit I have not trekked for days to see them if there’s been an opportunity to see them in a book, in a museum, or on film.

So why do we do it?   Why trek to some cave? For me, it is a sense of a different space, each of these spaces is unique, and the fact that where I was standing some artist a few millennia ago was viewing his or her masterpiece, but at least he or she had control of the flame to show what had been drawn for me to see. My time was limited to wonder at the genius of these drawings deep in a cave where sunlight could not reach.

Tartuffi not Tartuffe

Lockdown is tedious, but that is the strategy which has worked to curb the spread of the Virus if properly policed and where the community is compliant. It is essential, and there is no point looking for scapegoats. You can fine them; you can penalise them within the confines of society norms, which no longer believe that stocks and pillory are acceptable, but in the end lockdown is group punishment.

It was in this context and realising it was the season for them, we decided to purchase a truffle. Our prime epicurean son who unlike us lives in free range Australia agreed that the best truffles in Australia do come from Manjimup in Western Australia in a season which extends through winter to early spring.

Snuffling a truffle

So, we purchased a substantial fresh truffle which was delivered, vacuum packed, a few days after it was ordered. The package contained a note from the Truffle dog that snuffled it out of the round. As she said in her dog-eared note, Gaby warned us never to get in her way when she was hunting.

These truffles are related to those found in Périgord, and we noted that ours has fine white lines running through it, the sign of a good truffle. This morning it was time for scrambled eggs with visible slices of truffle, not the normal dark sprinkled confetti when you order any eggs allegedly with truffles in that local posh breakfast establishment.

Needless to say, the online shopping outlet had a truffle slicer for sale. Now how could one resist the temptation to buy this vital everyday requirement for the kitchen? It was a handsome, if somewhat terrifying serrated stainless steel implement. What was interesting to me was this affettatartufi in acciano inoz con manico in pallisandro (stainless steel truffle slicer with a wooden handle) was made not in China but in Italy.

Although France is associated with truffles, the most expensive ones are the white truffles found in Piedmont and Tuscany. Their prices can approach $10,000 a kilogram (whereas the Australian black Périgord truffles retail for $2,000 a kilogram). The white truffles are scarce, partially because nobody has ever been able to cultivate them. Needless to say, there is all this palaver about their smell and taste to justify the lengths to which people go to find these potato-shaped fungi.

The truffle slicer was what intrigued me to find out more, because it was made in Italy by a firm which has been in this sort of business for a long time – Sanoma Ambrogio. Perhaps I am just showing my ignorance, but then is that not the reason for pressing on – to show how much you don’t know?

Ambrogio Samona was the founder of the firm, which bears his name in reverse, which still manufactures its high quality product in Premona, a mountain municipality north of Milan. Here in the surrounding mountains iron ore has been mined for millennia, but Premona came into prominence in the Middle Ages because many of the iron workers were lured to Venice, and there was apparently an exchange between the two.

Originally settled by the Romans as a castra in the first century, but as is known the Romans were not great metallurgists and used brass in preference to iron. Steel-making was known for a very long time when the early metallurgy-minded noted that adding carbon to the smelted iron resulted in steel, albeit as a boutique process, used from the middle ages – mostly for armaments. There were Premonan artisans in the Venetian arsenal from that time onwards, making arms for battle, including sword blades. The best steel then came from southern India, and how they produced it has been lost; but in the Middle Ages there were also renowned steel makers in Damascus. The technology spread westwards.

Steel increasingly switched from being the accompaniment of war to that of the butcher and the kitchen. This firm, which provided our truffle slicer, was founded in 1863, and built up an international reputation so it has not only survived but also diversified.

Stainless steel came into use when it was found that the addition of chromium inhibited rust. Now the steel used by Sanelli has many additives, vanadium, molybdenum and others like spices in a kitchen so that the knives of Sanelli are just as much a symbol of Italian excellence as Bugatti or Versace, Gucci or Bulgari.

Amazing what you find when you read the outside of the truffle slicer box. And mark my words, this Tartuffo is not, dear Molière, a Tartuffe – it is the real thing.

The Stubbornness of Scott Morrison 

On 25 June, the AFR, the cheerleader for the Sydney business community, ran an Editorial entitled “Let’s hope NSW can hold out against lockdown”. Its opening lines were “Sydney remains on a knife edge”. Correct. Then it commends the Premier for keeping her nerve and not locking down the State, “leaving citizens to do the right thing themselves”. Then it goes on that line, “It is a proportional response, says the Editorial writer, whatever that means. This crap is in the same league as “We are taking the matter seriously.”

The Editorial accepts without much conviction that NSW has the best contact tracers on the planet, a claim made by Berejiklian to shore up her initial decision not to lock down Greater Sydney and the Illawarra. By saying that, she may not have recognised the potential damage she has done to the credibility of contact tracing as part of the armoury against the Virus.

This idea that lockdown infringes civil liberties and is Orwellian socialism as contended by the Liberal Party flakes in Victoria ignores the fact that the Virus does not read Hayek when that State was locked down. This neoliberal approach is the sort of dangerous twaddle that has accelerated the pandemic across the globe. Victoria had to deal with its outbreak before a vaccine was available. There’s no need to stir the embers of the disastrous decision making in relation to the choice and purchase of vaccine, which have resulted in the present level of vaccination in Australia. Australia just needs more, both in quantity and in diversity.

While accelerated vaccination provides a security blanket, there is no clear indication of long term efficacy of any of the vaccines. Vaccination provides a level of protection that is an important retardant in the spread of the Virus, even with its cleverness in its ability to change. The uncertainty is attested by the way the timing of the second AstraZeneca vaccine dose has been promoted; and there is no doubt that this vaccine has a noticeable level of morbidity as well as absolute contraindications.

Therefore, at this time and that needs to be stressed, the State Premiers have opted for suppression of the Virus, not the least because of the poor decisions made by the Federal Government and what some see as its indecision. However, it is more stubbornness in relinquishing positions that Prime Minister Morrison takes which probably owes itself somewhat to the rigidity of his upbringing. Maybe that is too sympathetic and just say Morrison has poor judgement.

Tracing the contacts

What worries me is that the contact tracing capacity becomes a casualty – a scapegoat for political indecision. I have been a severe critic of Kerry Chant as I thought the handling of the Ruby Princess was a disgrace and smacked of political interference. As Chief Health Officer, I assumed that she bore responsibility, but others closer to the action said it was not her fault, and she had minimal involvement.  If this was so, it was even more an indictment of  NSW Health.

A year on and implicated in a pandemic disaster, where politicians are essentially fearful of making difficult unpopular decisions, Dr Chant retains her job, with a tenacity and determination to pursue the Virus. I suspect that when her advice was for lockdown, it was ignored because of her reporting to a Premier whose neither makes  difficult decisions nor accepts responsibility when things go wrong. Worse, she had a Health Minister who, at one point, was advocating waving the white flag and saying we may have to live with the Virus, even though Australia has low levels of vaccination.

Hence the very visible presence of Kerry Chant, who could have resigned as I suggested and who would have to be blamed given the continuing scrutiny of NSW having to live with the tag of being the gold standard – a very two-edged foil when a catastrophe occurs.

Just ask Brendan Murphy, who at the beginning of the year was the hero of the pandemic, ACT Person of the Year and now the subject of rumours that the bus is being revved up for his demise. Certainly, his exposure has lessened as the Prime Minister seems to have taken over his role with a new military sidekick called Frewin and no sign of Dr Murphy. Fortunately, Paul Kelly still appears, but how much he is listened to is anybody’s guess.

Kerry Chant was given the title of NSW Woman of the Year in 2020, in effect binding her to the NSW Government and more particularly to the artful Premier. She therefore walks that narrow corridor where a person has to defend her scientific integrity while working for a Government at any moment liable to throw her whole strategy out the window.

It is the same dilemma that Fauci faced with Trump. Having to resist those who want to let the Virus coexist. “Let it rip”. Report of another minister in relation to the northern beaches lockdown that  she should take a cut in salary because the Virus had escaped is denied, but from my long experience, such reports are not magical – there is always a source. The dark art of undermining. Then there has been the unfair twittering about her wiping her eye with her mask – an instinctive reaction for which she apologised immediately – and then her crooked glasses (one arm of her spectacles inadvertently broken while she was being interrogated by the media). For God’s sake!

So here I am, championing Kerry Chant. What I fear is that everybody has limits, and I worry how close she is at that limit no matter how great her inner toughness. The contact tracing system is a vital defence mechanism, for the pursuit of the Terrorist Virus. Her devotion to the cause has revealed a steel I did not think she had.

One thing is certain is that singling NSW out as “gold standard” just because it has the same political complexion as the Federal Government, has to  stop.

All it does is invest Berejiklian with “teacher’s pet” status, so cessation hopefully will discourage the Prime Minister from continuing to plant wedges in the population. The disgraceful infantile behaviour of the Liberal Party opposition during the Victorian lockdown contrasts with the maturity of the NSW Labor Opposition response in supporting the government.

Perhaps the discussion may turn to ensuring that there is a uniform contact tracing system across the country, rightfully using NSW as a one of the models to be emulated. The problem with suggesting that quarantine and the processes surrounding it are a national responsibility comes against the stubbornness of the Prime Minister – or is it only stubbornness?

Mouse whisper

A sobering introduction from the May 25 New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) editorial. 

When the IOC postponed the Tokyo Olympics in March 2020, Japan had 865 active cases of Covid-19 against a global backdrop of 385,000 active cases. It was assumed that the pandemic would be controlled in 2021 or that vaccination would be widespread by then. Fourteen months later, Japan is in a state of emergency, with 70,000 active cases. Globally, there are 19 million active cases. Variants of concern, which may be more transmissible and more virulent than the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, are circulating widely. Vaccines are available in some countries, but less than 5% of Japan’s population is vaccinated, the lowest rate among all Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development countries.

I’m probably glad that I was not selected for the Rat Run. Perhaps after this Games hopefully the motto will still be Citius – Altius – Fortius, without Aegrius being added.

Modest Expectations – My Brilliant Career

“There are known knowns — there are things we know we know,” (US Secretary of Defence) Rumsfeld said in February 2002, when asked for evidence that Saddam Hussein tried to supply weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. “We also know there are known unknowns — that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Donald Rumsfeld

It was 120 years ago today that Miles Franklin’s novel My Brilliant Career was published. Let me say it was a brilliant title, but the brilliance of its content has always eluded me.

I have a very tenuous connection with Miles Franklin by staying over Easter one year at Brindabella Station, where Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin spent her early years. She was 16 when she wrote this melodramatic piece of Victorian passion, the choice between the bloke or the brilliance. Initially rejected, her book was taken up by Henry Lawson, who took it to England where it was published.

We were invited to the Brindabella station by the then owner Richard Carleton. The station lies to the south of Canberra amid the Brindabella range. The Goodradigbee River flows through the station. Carleton’s ashes were scattered on the river after his death in 2006.

Carleton was an avid fisherman but, knowing him, it was the prospect of owning a famous piece of Australiana that would have been high on his agenda in purchasing this property. Richard Carleton was a complex, highly intelligent, outwardly affable but emotionally taut person. That weekend at Brindabella I unfortunately upset what had been a relationship of mutual respect, and for a period in the mid-seventies, when I had fallen from grace as it were, he had been one of my Canberra associates, who proved not to be fair weather. So, the station was one of mixed memories.

However, that is a different tale from My Brilliant Career. Several years earlier, the film of the book of the same name had won international acclaim.  The tension between marriage and career was a relevant theme at the time in the seventies transitioning into the eighties.  The film’s director, Gillian Armstrong, had been a young Australian at the outset of a successful career as a film director; the film’s heroine was played by Judy Davis, who has played “mood indigo” so very well in her long career.  The hero was played by Sam Neill, who as usual played “Same Neill”, which he does, as always, so well. The success of the film gained the book and the author, who had died in 1954, belated recognition. Franklin is a minor author at best. Her link to feminism and her foresight in setting money aside for the annual eponymous award for “the novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases” – the award first presented in 1957 to Patrick White for Voss – has vaulted her into a position of literary eminence.

My Brilliant Career was the only novel written by her or under pseudonyms, which gained her the recognition during her lifetime that she craved.  Phyllis Rose, in an essay in The New Yorker written after the release of the film, was very critical of the novel, saying it was over-written and in fact what would have been expected in an immature person. Phyllis Rose reported that Franklin herself would later refer to it contemptuously as a girl’s book, tossed off in a matter of weeks (10), written out of ”inexperience and consuming longing”. It can be noted that Franklin prohibited its re-publication until at least 10 years after her death in 1954.

This was a somewhat different interpretation from that of Jennifer Byrne who wrote, in a foreword to a later reprint, that “the young author was stung and refused to allow My Brilliant Career to be reprinted for decades”. Allegedly this was due to controversy caused by its publication because of the aspersions cast upon certain characters in the novel, which was presumed autobiographical – presumably it was seen a betrayal of the bunyip squattocracy.

The book is very much “Come on, Goodchum, we must be going” – interspersed with the heroine’s interpretation of home teaching: “I calmly produced my switch and brought it smartly over the shoulders of my refractory pupil…but bringing the rod down on the table, I threatened to thrash every one of them if they so much as whimpered.” Nothing like a bit of domestic violence to remind the reader of its relevance to modern day.

Miles Franklin

The photo of Miles Franklin dressed in black with a matching bonnet is that of disdain and withdrawal. There is no charm in this woman. She is still young, but the image in the photograph is not that of a young woman with an umbrella tucked under her arm like a swagger stick. Judy Davis, in her portrayal, converted this cardboard woman to that of a recognisable feminist in period costume, full of smoulder and volcanic dormancy. Judy Davis was The Brilliant Career.

Why have I identified a link between the Rumsfeld Quote and Miles Franklin?

Rumsfield, in his response set down, established a quadrate for whatever reason, but presumably at least as a clever conceit. He mentioned “known knowns”, without an example, but for him presumably his date of birth would satisfy.

Then he mentions “known unknown” and gave as an example the weapons of mass destruction; but given what later transpired – the lack of these weapons which he knew about, but we mug punters did not – was an example of an “unknown known” (in this case deceit). He did not mention this option in his quoted response – the “unknown known” – and it seems nobody thought to ask him why he left it out.

Finally, for him as with us still alive, “the unknown unknown” at the time he made this statement was that he did not know the time of his death.  However, for us that survive Rumsfield, his death has become a “known known” (29 June 2021) – trivial though it may be.

I have never thought much about Miles Franklin, although her contemporary Australian female authors dominated my childhood – Mrs Aeneas Gunn of We of the Never Never and Mary Grant Bruce and Ethel Turner; their books were all in the cousins’ bookcase; I remember Katherine Prichard’s Coonardoo as a year 12 book, which I loved at the time, despite it being compulsory reading.

I started off from square one in this pursuit and took the text from Rumsfeld, which typified his “look-at-me” approach; “I’m smarter than anybody else, you stupid interviewers”, and yet he left out one of the squares of his quadrate. Why he did this? Who knows?

The more I have read about Miles Franklin, the more intriguing the person becomes. As with Phyllis Rose, I thought her writing in places unintentionally hilarious. Her writing may also be self-conscious and stilted, but that is not what makes her intriguing, especially when she was searching for that brilliant career which later, in 1946, when she wrote it, “went bung.” But did it?  Her working in the Balkans as a volunteer cook during the latter part of World War 1 was one instance, and her observations in the summaries I have read are brilliant.

The late Jill Roe spent most of her academic life at Macquarie University, concentrating on the life and times of Miles Franklin. Hers can thus be said to be the definitive biography of Franklin. Like Franklin, she grew up in the country, she at Tumby Bay, a fishing village on the Eyre Peninsula where the leafy sea dragons frolic in the nearby gulf. Unlike Miles Franklin, Professor Roe was able to resolve her sexuality and undoubtedly did have a brilliant career, judged by her baubles of success.

The more I have thought about that brilliant title, the more I see it portrays the essence of what Rumsfield was saying, even if he did not know what he was saying. As Jill Roe herself once said when accepting another piece of Tudor fancy dress from Macquarie University, “that is what I shall be arguing!” Brilliant title or brilliant insight?

What beats No Trumps

(Two Trump biographers) both said the indictment of the Trump Organization comes during what appears to be the company’s most difficult moment since Trump’s financial crash in the early 1990s.

During that period, Trump found himself hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and lost control of prized assets — including an airline, a yacht and New York’s Plaza Hotel. His business empire did not fully recover for a decade, until Trump gained television fame and made tens of millions as the star of NBC’s “The Apprentice”. 

The financial picture for Trump today, based on his government disclosures, is dramatically better than it was then. On his most recent financial disclosure form, Trump reported around $300 million in income for 2020. But experts and former employees say the reputation of his brand among consumers and potential business partners is arguably worse. 

Barbara Res, a top construction executive at the Trump Organization from 1980 to 1998, said Trump was already facing a problem caused by his political career: His company is still built around the old gold-plated luxury brand, aimed at wealthy urban dwellers and tourists. But his political career alienated most of that demographic. Now, Res said, “most of his [company’s] brand talks to people who are not his supporters.”

This is a somewhat different angle on Trump. The Brand Trump and the Political Trump are increasingly dissociated according to this former insider.

The Brand Trump will take a battering if the prediction is proved correct. When he was President, the Brand and the Political merged. Now that he is not President, his only political ploy is to keep saying the election was rigged. His mind is consumed with revenge and pillage. That is the basis of his residual power – he maintains his harness on the dark recesses of the American mind. He has turned illusion into hallucination. Yet negativity only has a limited life span, and therefore for Trump political success is vital.

Brand hedonism played out to gated communities does not respond well when his Political Brand is continually depicted as pitchforks and mob harangue. His Brand constituency should be looking around for somebody else; the Brand has been jolted by his electoral loss, and his refusal to go away. However, it is easier to believe midterm election success next year is the last shot in maintaining the sharpness of the pitchforks.

As I have said repeatedly, Trump is old and the decay is showing. His survival from COVID-19 was helped by an array of drugs, unavailable to his own constituency, and he showed resilience despite years of poor diet, obesity and pig-headedness. Nevertheless, that episode will have taken its toll, especially with a brain already fraying at its cognitive edges.

America is a violent society. That is a known, and Trump is known to fuel such violence. This community violence is mirrored by a propensity for political assassination. The unknown is whether his continual provocative antics will entice someone mad enough to emulate those who have gone before as political assassins:  Using the Rumsfield quadrate, “E Ea Ignota”.

Thus the “known” is, in the end, that Trump will fall from grace, whether by violent death, natural causes or just because to be demented and maintain authority he would need to be installed as Pope. The demise of the demagogues from that of the Gracchi brothers in Ancient Rome is a known fate. In the case of Trump, the unknown is to know how long it will take; and whether when the head is gone, the lumpenproletariat body will survive.

The Long House

From childhood I have always been fascinated by the wild men of Borneo, comic strip characters associated with jungle fantasy.  In my childhood, most of Borneo became independent from the Dutch in 1949 with the establishment of Indonesia, but there were enclaves along the coast, which remained part of the British Empire for about a decade longer.

One of these was Sarawak which, from 1841 to 1946, was the fiefdom of the Brooke family, the so-called White Rajahs, one of whom was the model for Josef Conrad’s “Lord Jim” – a book I have started so many times but never completed.

To me Sarawak was always distinctly exotic for three reasons – it is the home of the Orang-utan, shrunken heads and the long house. Inevitably when mention is made of these latter two, the talk is of Dayaks – the sea Dayaks to be more precise. These fierce Dayaks were the models for the wild men of Borneo.

We had made one of those on-the-spur decisions to spend time in Sarawak – it was around Easter time. We flew to Kuching, the capital.

I had been especially interested in the long house concept and have wondered whether it would be a useful model to be adapted by  Aboriginals. Having seen the living conditions of Aboriginal people in various parts of Northern Australia, where the community has close links with one another, it always seemed to be that the suburban house design with conventional rooms was never appropriate for Aboriginal living.

Therefore, when we were offered the opportunity to stay at a long house in the jungle up the Sarawak River from Kuching, we immediately accepted. The means of getting there was the distinctive Iban long boat without a paddle but with an outboard motor.

The long house was perched on stilts close to the river, access being by both a narrow concrete staircase on one side and a ramp on the side where the ablution block was placed. The slope of the river bank was steep, but we noticed there was abundant horticulture. Rubber trees were growing further up the slope, as were pepper vines (we soon learnt that the best pepper in the world came from Sarawak). There were even pineapples.

All around to show off the lush vegetation were red, yellow and variegated cordylines, slashes of colour in this tropical garden. No wonder Sarawak has been a botanist’s paradise.

Inside the long house

It was the inside of the long house which intrigued me. Down one side of the house was a stretch of poles, which defined the sleeping quarters, low platforms with a basic foam mattress and individual mosquito nets, hung away during the day. Outside access was provided via doorways with canvas flaps, a convenient way to go to the toilet at night, although the literally potential pitfalls of the broken concrete pathway posed their own challenge en route. As for other hazards, there were the roaming community dogs.

The long house owners were our host, sea Dayaks, small leathery friendly people, the men covered in tattoos.  We the guests were us two and a group of young Germans. The kitchen was located off the main area in the “apartments” of each family, and we were invited to participate in preparation of the meal, which was fish and pork, rice cooked in bamboo. Our job was to clean the bamboo leaves.

In the evening, there were demonstrations of Dayak culture – women and young boys dancing and then suddenly an older man with hornbill headdress stepped up. Our guide whispered to me that he was his uncle, the headman. He was recognising my presence by the hornbill dance.  Hornbills presage purity and strength and it is how the Dayaks communicate with their ancestors.He was according me a great honour.  Whether it was always regularly performed to recognise the oldest visitor in their midst, I was still “chuffed” by such a spontaneous gesture. The next morning, I did not justify such an honour by failing miserably in using the blowpipe.

Reflecting on this visit to the Dayaks’ long house and having stayed in Aboriginal settlements on several occasions, notable was the lack of organised horticulture in the latter. We whoever, whitefellas, have imposed our buildings on Aboriginal lands – the missions, a sign of permanency for whitefellas.  The difference is the Aboriginals foregather on their own land and move around within that space.

I remember driving into Beswick, a settlement in the Northern Territory, and seeing this lawn of green shimmering in the distance, it suggested horticulture. As we came closer it turned out not to be cultivation, but a layer of flattened VB cans covering the earth – just outside the boundary of this “dry” settlement.

Aboriginals know their flora, as shown by the myriad demonstrations of “bush tucker”. For example, I was shown  at one settlement where they knew the bush potatoes were growing, they had their digging sticks – but it was not a matter of deliberate cultivation. Why bother when there were no competitors and the potatoes came back in the same place every year.

In their kitchen, the Dayaks had large terracotta amphoras where they stocked their rice. There was minimal evidence of western tinned food; they lived off their produce and where they did not grow the commodity, they bought or bartered in bulk. The Dayaks had their own spices, in addition to pepper, which they used in every dish which was served.

There were no cans of beer.

We were very glad that we stayed in the long house, which we had always wanted to do –and it provided us an insight into successful communal living.

Confusion

Israel backed the Pfizer vaccine, and was prepared to pay the price; Australia, by not accepting the Pfizer price, is paying a different price. Moderna was never in the equation.

The great unknown is what are the deals, the kickbacks, the political and bureaucrat beneficiaries of the AstraZeneca (AZ) preference and purchase; and the various consultancies handed out to the Government mates for vaccinating the sector of the health care area they directly control – those who come under the aged care and defence portfolios. Not knowing what the conditions for the various deals were, yet knowing that there is effectively no scrutiny that will yield any immediate information, how can the community know what the hell the outcome will be?

The AZ vaccine, in a community which is unused to death by COVID-19, has received a far different response than that of its spiritual home – Great Britain, where there have been overall 125,000 deaths (the last figures available still showed 27 deaths in a single day).  Over 1,000 people have died there in a single day.

Whereas in Australia there have been 910 deaths overall, a large proportion of which were in Victoria in August/September last year, but not one since late October last year. It is thus unsurprising that in Australia every death from a reaction to AstraZeneca will be magnified; and there is rumbling in the community about how ill the AZ vaccine makes some of us feel.

Thoughts, drifting like soap bubbles …

Once the view that the government has something to hide, “gets traction” then the stigma sticks.  Here this adhesive is on the AZ vaccine. The Government seems to have little idea at times when the mRNA vaccines will become available, given the different dates being put out. Therefore, we have a range of fumblers, braided or in mufti, wheeled out to fill in the air space without saying much. Thoughts drift like soap bubbles, never reaching terra firma. The business community, medical students, paramedics are all to be enlisted into this gigantic national initiative of jabs and feints, and more jabs and more feints amid a cascades of thought bubbles – in a country with not enough vaccine.

The Prime Minister talks about phases to fill the black hole of failed policy. And thus it will go on – the strategy being to treat us as fungi – and stupid fungi at that.

The one thread which has showed as the ray of sunshine is the strength of the contact tracing system within Australia which, despite the Berejiklian wont for hyperbole, is probably among the best in the world, a fact acknowledged by Dr Chant to be due to the work of Sue Morey, who was her predecessor over 20 years ago. I wonder whether she will get as much acknowledgement that the Government has accorded other great humanitarians who have saved our country, even if it did take Victoria a considerable time to recognise the fact last year.

But even contact tracers get tired, especially if their political leaders act like buffoons and prematurely loosen restrictions or continue to leave the current bodgie hotel quarantine in place. Every potential outbreak is started by Mr or Ms 00.01% in the Prime Minister’s quarantine system.

As a postscript, it seems that the Treasurer is the last shot in the government locker, with his rallying call of the business community to marshal their workers. The strategy is anybody’s guess, but if the incentives for vaccination are free sausage sizzles and frequent flyer points, then these are in the league of offering axes, beads and mirrors.

The worry is that of filling in the policy void with public relation burble. as substitute for organised action. This is dangerous if there is no concomitant systematic collection of data when there are so many variables. Jane Halton bobbing around, with commentators on her report obviously having not read it, providing gratuitous advice does not help. “People coming home fully vaccinated need not quarantine” – given your Tampa experience, how do you police that thought bubble given this apparent Damascene conversion to open borders for Viral refugees?

Big English Guinea Pig

Uncertainty abounds; the long-term efficacy of the vaccines is anybody’s guess. There is already talk of the need for a booster; imminently Prime Minister Johnson’s initiative to sweep away all controls leaving vaccination as the only defence in the United Kingdom. Australia should watch England as the Big Guinea Pig, before doing anything precipitous.

Finally, the symbolism of the General and the Treasurer leaving the meeting of the business representatives two days ago should not be lost on the wider community. The General put on a mask immediately; the Treasurer did not.

Mouse Whisper

He was musing there, leaning on his cane, stuffing his face with cheese and wine, oblivious of my crouching beneath the table enjoying the messy Stilton droppings which were raining down around me. I always enjoyed such murine canapés.

“You know” he said to the Mop lounging in the corner of the room, as if that were his only audience, “I would not be standing here if my ancestors had not survived the Black Death.” I thought that was one way of defining survival but – looking up at him – hardly of the fittest.

 

Modest Expectations – Organesson

After not being given sufficient time to explain my remarks re Brett Sutton last night on Q&A what I wanted to explain is that he is not an Epidemiologist and it is on his medical advice to Govt that we continue to have shut downs. If I have offended Prof Sutton my apologies.

Q&A is a pulpit. A woman called Susan Alberti AM, AO, AC, a stepping stone queen of Order, developer extraordinaire, professional philanthropist and general Liberal party lady about town cast a nasty aspersion against the Chief Medical Officer of Victoria, Brett Sutton, on that ABC program this past week. She said he was not a doctor – a sotte voce interruption when Tom Elliot was in full flight. Now I have never watched Tom Elliot, because he is a Melbourne phenomenon, or perhaps I have had enough exposure to his father to last a lifetime.

However, I was directed toward this excerpt of the program, which I rarely watch. It brought back memories. Here Mr Speers was conducting this meeting of the Coalition with a guest from the Opposition.  He seemed to be acting as President of this newly-formed Q&A Branch of the Liberal Party, where Tom Elliot had been invited as the main speaker. I had heard of this chap as he was at university at the same time as my offspring.

I had known his father from his days at the University of Melbourne, where he was several years behind me but had a refreshing Baptist School old boy attitude to beer, billiards and of course fags, however defined.

It was refreshing to hear all the nostrums with which his father used to amuse us. Listening to Young Tom I had never realised his father, Old John, was such a fine ventriloquist. Moreover, Old John did not appear to be in the room – what a feat.

What I objected to however was the lack of immediate correction about Brett Sutton. Speers should have stopped the meeting and corrected Alberti immediately. Even in her apology, she says he is not an epidemiologist. Well, Alberti, not all epidemiologists are doctors—and to be Chief Health Officer, he does have to have a medical degree and has had extensive overseas medical experience, just not restricted to counting the dollars in the fields of Dandenong and Hallam.

Her sidekick, The Moroccan Soup Bar kid, Hana Assafiri OAM, had chimed in at the same time with the same comments, but also scrawled some sort of an apology: “unequivocal apology on getting your title wrong! The intention was to convey that you are not simply a doctor, that you heave (sic) a wealth of expertise guiding this state through the pandemic. Obviously didn’t translate the way it was intended.” I do hope, Hana Assafiri, that your pigeon pastilla does use icing sugar not iodine – sweet not bitter taste on the pie.

Stop the frolic! David Speers as a balanced chair of an ABC program, I’m afraid you are a disgrace. Full stop.

And as for Susan Alberti, my total contempt, made worse by your awkward misstatement, which is in no way an apology.

Dr Brett Sutton, Chief Health Officer

Brett Sutton is the hard man; he is one who is identified with the lock up strategy, whether fairly or unfairly. The above comments are not the only ones floating around about him. In crisis situations, you need hard men and women who can differentiate self-interest from legitimate criticism; who have a clear view of the end point. Often a lonely job.

Toilers from Homes?

A cognitive scientist by training and a working mother, has been warning about the unintended consequences of workplace flexibility, including the mental toll on mothers who still do the brunt of the housework.

The scientist stresses that managers can’t just leave it up to workers to figure out the right balance. Companies, for example, could decide there are certain times when everyone is in the office as a way to head off problems arising on work-from-home days when employees are out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

Employers could also decide not to schedule meetings at certain times of the day — such as before 9 a.m., between 3 and 4 p.m., or after 5 p.m., allowing parents (note change from above) to make school drop-offs and pick-ups, and to prepare dinner.

This expresses concisely the sentiment for developing a hybrid model of working both at home and in the office that has become the preferred option for services where front of house or on-site physical activity are not required. This describes much of the so-called gig economy.

The quote above concentrates on women to the exclusion of men.

The hybrid model is constructed with women in mind, given they inevitably are primarily responsible for children and the domestic arrangements, which all need to be sustained when she is at work. It also recognises the increasing number of women at all levels of bureaucracy – they are not just the stenographers of yore. Nevertheless, for many women the nature of their work does not give them the option of a hybrid model of remote work.

So the tug-o-war now applies to the bureaucracy however defined and be it public or private sector, responsible for delivery of product without need to be on site. The recent addition of teachers to that group as “remote learning” becomes easier to set up is an added complexity.

However, does the person in the street benefit when seeking advice or resolution of their particular concern if the hybrid model becomes generalised?

The problem is in the implementation of what could be construed as “new” bureaucracy. For the person who, by the nature of his or her job, requires a large amount of time to think, create or write, the wish to work without distraction is understandable. After all, Silicon Valley is always quoted as that – of having the libertarian approach to workstyle.

But even here, to quote a CNN source: The tech industry might seem well-positioned for remote work indefinitely but it has also spent years building a culture of collaboration and innovation that it will be loath to give up, spending untold billions on huge offices and perks like free food, gyms and nap pods that convince employees to spend more time there than they do at home.

But this above is not conventional bureaucracy nor is it one which is female dominant. Or is it just the vanguard of a “new” bureaucracy created by the pandemic where a larger proportion are women?

It may be reasonable to postulate that most people working at home have a need for ongoing communication – in no way different from working in the office.  Thus, “rules of engagement” need to be clarified. The last paragraph of the cognitive scientist’s assessment needs better definition. There must be discipline imposed on the environment where children need to be picked up and domestic duties resumed. Does domesticity take priority over the requirements of the job; one unpredictability being illness in the children – as one of my colleagues once said, “young children are bags of virus”.  It is here that the father is introduced into the hybrid model discussion.

This is the contingency which needs to be addressed if working at home is accepted as part of the hybrid model. These gaps need to be patched in the structuring of rules. In the office situation, employees take carer’s leave, or sick leave to deal with these situations, or negotiate short working days.

As soon as rules are established there will be exceptions. If the rules become the subject of an industrial award, work flexibility becomes beset with the legal rigidity of industrial contracts – with the temptation of putting in place “one size fits all”.

The problem with work flexibility is that communication becomes increasingly difficult.  Over the years, unless you happen to be the person of influence, to get in touch with “the responsible bureaucrat” in the office can be bad enough, but away from the office can be a nightmare when you want urgent resolution. There are so many reasons for having a day off and thus the decision-making is even further delayed or even forgotten.

When this is added to the actions of paranoid Government departmental heads who seem to keep their staff on the move until the corporate memory becomes totally attenuated and thus is finally lost. Then “the wheel has to be re-invented” and the same mistakes are liable to be repeated.

How many times have I had to face bureaucrats with no sense of what has gone before; who are unaware of what works and what doesn’t work? That is the problem with much of bureaucracy when it loses its corporate memory – there is a tendency to start the same process all over again, especially when there is a change in government.

Now introduce into that mix working from home without rules.

How often do you try to contact a person only to be told he or she is working from home? This is said in the sense the person is incommunicado until he or she returns to the office. The person may as well thus not be at work. So, if working at home becomes accepted as the new norm, then the bureaucrat needs to be contactable at home and must be prepared to sacrifice the privacy of the home as an “inviolate castle of domesticity”.

Where flexibility of the hybrid model is maintained alongside strong productivity, I suggest it is due to the leadership – what Max Weber called “charismatic”; but such leadership is difficult to sustain, because so much of the work pattern is determined by the leader, and the quality of that leadership. The charismatic leader leads, and then does the hybrid work model revert to a bureaucracy? I am not sure that the hybrid model has longevity; because long term “charismatic” leadership is the exception in the life of any bureaucracy – longevity is not its strong suit.

A somewhat sarcastic Bartleby opus in The Economist suggested that working from home on a Monday or Friday is a joke. On the latter day, as Bartleby writes, managers may call to listen out for tell-tale signs of the beach or golf – a comment, both sexist and ageist. Bartleby’s point is made about ageing men.

Yet if the hybrid model becomes an object for gaming and maximising “slacking”, then the above article has a set of tips. If hypothetically two days at home working are allowed, then there are ten combinations – and Monday and Friday may just raise suspicions, if not hilarity. Again, gaming is not restricted to one sex.

In the end, like the cognitive scientist’s thinking, I suspect the office environment will win out against the hybrid model, because as the final paragraph of the opening quote implies, the home environment will breed conflict within the job framework – unless the office can be made totally separate and distinct from “the hearth”.

Yet there is at least one more elephant in the room, and that is the increasing resistance to people coming into the office with an upper respiratory infection. I suspect that a population which has come through lockdowns, mandatory masks and forced compliance will be less tolerant of anybody who challenges the health of the office by coming into work, even with a common cold.

More thought needs to be given to childcare services provided under the aegis of the State to mirror the new workstyle of those who need to use them.  It is worth more than an addendum to an apologia or not of the work hybrid model.

Schools work on fee-for-term model, so that the fees make allowance for absences. When I was chairing a childcare co-operative, until that “term” business model was adopted, then the income of the childcare facility suffers from the vagaries of domestic problems – child illness being a big slice of that.

With the increasing discussion, albeit demand for a hybrid model, then childcare services usage may have to change to reflect that change in work practice.  That is another topic to be explored in a future blog, when reminiscing over personal experience, admittedly many years ago, which nevertheless may still provide productive comment.

I knew it well, Dunmunkle

As I promised, I write my take on the three towns which once were the three Townships of the Shire of Dunmunkle in the Victorian Wimmera, north of Horsham.

I used to know this area reasonably well since I was asked to resolve an issue around the delivery of health care in the 1980s at one of these townships, Minyip and went back over the next decade or so. The other two townships are Murtoa and Rupanyup. Minyip traditionally is a Lutheran town, part of the Protestant German diaspora which is layered across Southern Australia from the Barossa Valley to the NSW Riverina around Albury. By contrast, Rupanyup has Scottish Presbyterian heritage and Murtoa, Irish Roman Catholic.

Rupanyup lies on the Dunmunkle Creek, which flows into the Wimmera River. Murtoa lies on the major Melbourne-Adelaide railway line. Minyip is surrounded by wheat cropping, and once was on a spur railway line.

The Stick Shed, Murtoa

Watching the “Backroads” program on the ABC, I was fascinated by one item, and wondered why I have missed it. The second was the fact that Murtoa was ignored while, the program concentrated on Rupanyup and Minyip. That puzzled me, especially as the most interesting item in the program was the huge Murtoa grain store built in four months during World War 2 at the end of 1941, which is the only one left in Australia – the so-called Stick Shed, because it has 560 mountain ash poles supporting a galvanised iron roof structure, the building spread over four acres, and held up to 92,000 tons of wheat. The sloping roof was built in the way wheat grain naturally stockpiles itself. A majestic bush building but working inside must have been a major industrial hazard.

The other puzzle was why Murtoa was otherwise ignored. After all, it was the birthplace of Mary Delahunty, one of the most well-known ABC faces and the ABC tends to identify and remember its own. Therefore, the puzzle is why the program ignored Murtoa until almost the last frames, given that it is also the biggest of the three towns.

The tactic of the “identity” is the method of packaging the half-hour program, which inevitably gives a caricature of rural life; so different from the rural program “Landline”, which is genuinely informative about rural life. In fact the segment on Rupanyup, which is the one township struggling to survive, concentrated on chick pea production and its diverse uses, and could have as easily segmented into “Landline”. This diversification into pulse legumes around Rupanyup starting in the 1980s with field peas extended to many of the other crops, in particular lentils and chick peas, the latter most visible in the supermarket in the form of hummus. But what does that have to do with Rupanyup, the few views of the township are a tableau of peeling paint and empty shops?

I got to know Minyip when they closed the local hospital in the late 1980s and replaced it with a community health centre, which for many years had the advantage of continuity in its administration. The closure of a hospital, even a small one as happened in Minyip, made me realise that when you close a small hospital, as I have written “it is like a death in the family”. The community traditionally was born and died in the hospital. When services are rationalised even when a community health centre was constructed and proved to be excellent, the community’s grief can be underestimated.

I suspect it is less so now, presumably with dilution of the Lutheran influence. After all, in 1935 the congregation decided to move the Lutheran church with dimensions of 16 x 8.5 metres including the 19m high bell tower, 50 tons in all, a distance of 10 miles to Minyip. The congregation jacked it up onto a 12-wheel jinker and by means of a steam traction engine moved it to its present site in the township. The trip took three days. Would it happen today?

Moving the Lutheran church in 1935

The other anecdote worthy of note was in the early days of settlement when they decided to put the shire hall in Minyip, the Murtoans came across at night and took it to Murtoa. Minyip retaliated by taking it back, in a clash of the jinkers. Then it burnt down; and for years there was a residual animosity between the two communities.

Generally, the animosity or rivalry, however defined, is worked out on the football field. In 1995, with a declining pool of players, old grudges were forgotten; the Murtoa and Minyip teams amalgamated and the jumper was redesigned to absorb the colours of the two football teams. Rupanyup has been the outlier, in that its football team dropped out of the Wimmera League and down to the Horsham and District league.

The other characteristic of townships such as Minyip is that they provide cheap lodging, and therefore the problem of the traditional farming town becoming a refuge for welfare recipients and again as the community ages, the elderly members are loath to leave and they retire into towns. These towns become wellsprings of rural poverty.

At least that was my observation when I was a frequent visitor. At the time I wondered whether this continued to feed the sustainability of these tiny townships. There were pockets of rural poverty scattered across rural Victoria. The extent of the poverty could be titrated by their closeness to provincial centres. Whether that holds now in these centres, I know that for other small towns with which I have been closely involved in the intervening years, the answer is probably yes, but immigration and other social movements have changed the 1980s profile of some of these small townships, including gentrification.

Now what was Minyip to “Backroads”. The impression given was that its continued existence due to it being the set for the Flying Doctors series, and then as a convenient backdrop for other films, The Dry and the Dressmaker. Eric Bana on the first floor veranda of the local pub was not Minyip, any more than the war memorial to commemorate the Relief of Mafeking in the main street is. They are props – but they are not Minyip.

Backroads is undoubtedly entertainment, and rural Australia does have its identities, its eccentricities but it is pity that the series provides no thread, no clues to the reasons for their survival – and Australia has about 14,000 settlements with less than 1,000 people.

The diversification of cropping – is that the reason for Rupanyup? The occasional movie set – for Minyip?

Or else is there a more general reason for the persistence of settlements that you would have suspected to have outlived their reason to being, and yet not obviously changed their role? 

El Obrero 

I have become immersed in the Portuguese language, which is a somewhat schizophrenic pursuit. Most of the teachers – in Sydney at least – are Brazilian; my initial teacher has been a Portuguese national. There is a strong representation of both cultures through the respective communities in Sydney.

Portuguese Community Club, Marrickville

Therefore, I was intrigued for us to get together for lunch at the Portuguese Community Club, which is sequestered in the industrial area of Marrickville, an inner suburb of Sydney. The club is signified by a fading sign directing our car along a potholed pavement. The club has a grass area in front of the entrance resembling an old bowling green, but the building is squeezed between two railway lines, yet access is easy. No problem parking here, unlike most of suburban Sydney can be always very problematical

Inside the club it is very plain, and those at lunch were workers, some in their steel capped boots and hi-vis vests. Voluble in exchange in Portuguese it was just what it purported to be – a working man’s club. Our group of four were the interlopers, two were woman. Our garçom was a Nepali with a good grasp of Portuguese learnt paradoxically in Australia.

The food belied the surroundings. It was superb – my steamed clams – amêijoas also with an Italian label “vongole” in the menu, followed by grilled quail with the signature vinho verde to wash the food down.

El Obrero, La Boca, Buenos Aires

The spare surroundings reminded me of another worker’s restaurant we were introduced to in La Boca in Buenos Aires. We had asked the driver if we could go to a place to eat which was typical of the “working La Boca”. He said nothing but just dropped us off in front of the nondescript building. After all, La Boca is a substantial port area, although it is known for tourists wandering the narrow streets with the gaudily painted buildings, street dancers performing the tango and stalls covered in cheap knick-knacks.  All Porteno kitsch!

So different from the unprepossessing place with the barred windows, four-panel brown door and the old washed-out Coca Cola Sign juxtaposed against the green restaurant sign above the doorway.

Such a modest entrance, but once inside, the dining area was long and expansive. The walls were covered in photographs, including the obligatory one of Maradona. From the ceiling had been hung football shirts, from teams all over the world, like an international clothes line. We were early for lunch and were ushered to a table on the side where we could see the incoming tide of workers, who quickly filled up all the tables.

The Italian influence is strong in the menu; agnolotti, parmigiana, calamari – but the carafe was the local tinto. Nobody spoke English, but in the hubbub, it was easy to indicate what you wanted. We seemed to be the only tourists there; at least we seemed the only diners to be using sign language rather than just gesticulating.

Argentine dining is associated with the parilla – the Argentinian barbecue where it is all beef and firebox. El Obrero like the Portuguese Community Club are authentic restaurants– being able to settle down into a meal which is a cultural experience can never be topped. Yet then again I wonder whether it is possible, as a tourist, to ever be authentic, the truth of which I tried to verify as I riffled through my memories of countries where I have been. I wonder how many times you have to dine in a place to be authenticated – if that is the word.

Mouse whisper

Our surname, he said, was originally ascribed as Mac Aodhadáin around the 12th century. This family are stated to be no ordinary people. They were bardic scholars and brehons – the interpreters of Irish Law. The extravagant statement that without this family, there should have been lost a precious part of Irish history. It was a name that percolated into eighteen Irish counties.

As the author of this family monograph opined “It has been said that a person’s own surname is the key to a doorway on the past. This is because one of the most interesting ways of gaining some insight into history is to follow the pathway of your own names through the maze of documents still preserved in various sources.” 

Maybe, but as I found out, my Swedish mouse relative is known as Kyrkligaråtta not Kyrkomus as written in the last blog. A genuine erråtum, I’m afraid.

Kakwkylla, venerated in Sweden as a protector against rats and mice.

Modest Expectations – The Sole of Bond Street

As the pandemic has ploughed on, there is a new collective noun for the experts clamouring for media exposure – an irritation of epidemiologists. After more than 15 months of COVID, the endless stream of epidemiologists called upon to express opinions on television have variously inspired and annoyed, but more often have provided a confusing opinion. For me, the soft-spoken Marie-Louise McLaws, whose family motto is “Spectemur agendo” meaning “we are judged by our actions”, is one such example. Marie-Louise is probably judged by her talking head television profile and she obviously has her fans.

Nevertheless, she has made a pertinent observation as to the vulnerability of Victoria, particularly Melbourne, to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. It is a matter of geography – the ease with which people can move around there as distinct from other major cities in Australia.  Others are chiming in with stochastic analysis, a fancy name to define randomness of these events. Perhaps she has been over-enthusiastic in emphasising some other differences, which probably don’t exist, but the geography argument is a strong one, and the outer suburbs of Melbourne do contain many migrant groups.

Take the Indian population, for instance; they are clustered on opposite sides of Melbourne, which is the favoured destination of Indian migrants over Sydney. If you believe the blurb, that is:

Indians living in Melbourne love:

  • living in Melbourne’s suburbs with safe, accessible transport
  • local supermarkets, Indian grocery stores and restaurants
  • Melbourne’s festivals, museums and cultural events 
  • Victoria’s world-class education system
  • dining out in Melbourne’s renowned restaurants.

All conducive to a very mobile lifestyle, and there are over 56,000 Indian-born Australians in Melbourne, thus about three per cent of Melbourne’s population. Sydney has a smaller population, and it is concentrated in Harris Park and surrounding suburbs in Sydney’s west.  In this century up to 2019, Indian migration was the largest in percentage terms. People should not be coy about country of origin, especially when so many still have strong family links to a country where the virus spread has been out of control. In the midst of a pandemic, such demographic information is important.

I always remember a description of Brisbane, “If Rome was built on seven hills, Brisbane was built on seventy-seven”. Sydney by its geography is also compartmented, and this was well shown in the COVID-19 outbreak on the northern beaches of that city in December last year. This outbreak was easily contained.

However, when the infected were allowed to move around in that well known stochastic process, Brownian movement, as they were from the disembarkation of the Ruby Princess in the middle of the city with access to multiple transport links, then one could call the process, the Berekjlian, after the presiding Premier of the time. But normally it is far more challenging to move around Brisbane and Sydney than Melbourne.

In regard to accessibility, take one suburb of Melbourne, Hawthorn. There are three tram lines running through it and a railway line with at least two stations serving Hawthorn. There are also buses, and the increasing use of private buses to ferry private school children to and from school, Hawthorn and the neighbouring suburbs are a large scholastic reservoir. Added to this Melbourne is very easy to move around inside the rapidly expanding perimeter. The only barrier is the Great Dividing Range which only provides a hurdle to travel in the Dandenongs component. Otherwise, all the other sectors have major highways radiating out from Melbourne, which mean travel is easy.

In Melbourne, some talk nostalgically about living in a “village” rather than a “suburb”. I would dispute that.

At last the Federal Government, a Federal Government dominated by one Sydneysider who lives in an enclave called the Shire, has buckled to the obvious need to have a custom-built quarantine centre in Victoria close to Melbourne. Hopefully more objectivity will be applied to the tendering than much of the scandalous way the Government has gone about business over the past three years. Whether Avalon is the right place or not, it is on pre-existing Commonwealth land and relatively close to Melbourne.

I wonder though if the invaders were not “micro-marauders”, not easily identifiable, would the Governments be adopting the seemingly leisurely pace to get this centre built. Maybe photo-opportunity trips will accelerate the process. In the Northern Territory or even South to Tocumwal in NSW, one can see how quickly facilities, hospitals, airstrips and even a highway were built when the Japanese were on the horizon.

Waleed Aly has waded into the conversation, questioning the validity of singling Melbourne out. As usual he writes persuasively, but I suggest that he reinforces the point that having hotel quarantine in the middle of city with the easiest means of spread of anything, be it people or viruses, is just asking for trouble.

Black Rock, near Melbourne, 1954

He singles out Black Rock as a Melbourne suburb where lockdown was not required. This suburb and the adjoining Beaumaris were developed later from bushland. They lie beyond the terminus of both tram and bus, and therefore have some the characteristics of the Sydney northern beaches suburbs. The distinguishing feature was its isolation. The way it was isolated had a distinct elite character and elitism discourages easy movement.

Despite the intervention of Waleed, as an epidemiologist, Professor McLaws, you made a good point, but in your enthusiasm to prove a point you probably went a wee bit too far.

Scars of 56

Since my Chinese exploits are receiving some interest, here is an excerpt of a book I hope to publish later this year subtitled, “When we were not too Young”. 

Over dinner my father continued to repeat that he wanted to “see China”, whatever that meant, and the only way to “see China” from his point of view was to take the train to the border at Lo Wu and stare across into the country. However, it became clear when he asked if that were possible that, although the train might go through to Lo Wu, all the passengers had to get off the train at Fan Ling, which was about four miles inside the border. Nevertheless, we bought tickets because my father said: “…you never know”. If nothing else, he was awake to serendipitous opportunity.

He had also thought of going across to Macau, which required an overnight boat trip. Macau was then a seedy remnant of the Portuguese empire. He wondered if it would be easier to get closer to China if he went there, but when he inquired about that feasibility, he was quickly disabused. There was a lawless element there and it would not be worth being exposed as a lone traveller. I thought I heard the word “triad” mentioned in the conversation.  

So here we were about to board the train to Lo Wu. The train with the steam-driven locomotive was regulation pre-war with cracked leather seats in the carriages and the views through the windows made even greyer by the grime on the windows. 

The carriage was empty apart from ourselves.

The city straggled away into the New Territories and into a quilt of paddy fields. There were distant mountains, which my father said were probably in China. He stood up and walked along the corridor hoping to get a better view. He came back and confirmed that the mountains were on the Chinese side of the border. I am not sure how he knew but, as always, he was authoritative.

Fanling Station

The train pulled into Fan Ling and the conductor came along telling us to get off. I could feel very clearly my father’s reluctance as he stood up, and slowly climbed down onto the station. At the end of the station, there were a number of Chinese soldiers in green jackets and trousers. They did not seem to be armed but symbolized a line of demarcation between themselves and the Hong Kong constabulary, who were fitted out like London policemen acting with the departing passengers as if they were directing traffic in The Strand.

The Forbidden Land lay beyond – the view entombed in the wintry sunlight.

However, there was one person standing on the station close to the train. He was wearing a hat, scarf and gabardine raincoat. The scarf was drawn up to partially conceal his face He looked across the station and, in an Australian accent, called my father’s name. My father looked up, startled at the recognition. He did not immediately recognize the figure, who lit a cigarette, for a brief moment illuminating his bespectacled face. My father strode up the platform. They shook hands and for five minutes they engaged in what appeared to be animated conversation, my father pointing toward the Chinese border. 

I was distracted by a middle-aged Chinese man, who sidled up to me with his bicycle. In broken English, he said he would take me to the border on his bicycle. It would not cost much; and I could see what China was really like. I hesitated. My father was still in deep conversation, and I looked at the bicycle. Was he going to “dink” me? There seemed to be no other way that I could get on the bicycle, unless I hired it from him. 

I looked out over the rice fields and through the line of houses, which clustered below the station. I could make out the road running north-south which presumably went towards the border.

 “Can I take your bicycle and bring it back?”

The man with the bicycle hesitated. Then he pushed it towards me especially as he saw that I had US dollars in my hand.

“What in God’s name are you doing, John?”

The border at Lo Wu, 1950s

“I thought you wanted to go to the border.”

“On that?” My father’s face split into one of his thin-lipped smiles, which you rarely saw unless he was about to launch into an invective against somebody.

The ferocity of the “On that” seemed to frighten the man with the bicycle, as he took a step back.

“So you are seen pedaling to God knows where wearing completely inadequate gear. If you don’t freeze to death, you are liable to be either shot or captured. John, I suppose you think that all that there will be is a bit of barbed wire and smiling soldiers. Does not work that way – and the last thing I want to happen is my son dead or interned. The last thing I need,” he repeated, “is for my son to be the centre of an international incident.” 

I thought my father was a bit over the top, but I suddenly felt very cold. After all, it was winter and the threadbare trees along the road towards China bent in the wind as if derisively waving me on in my fruitless endeavour.

My father gestured towards the retreating figure on the bicycle. There was no need to wave him away. He disappeared from sight off the edge of the platform.

My father turned and looked back to see the man with whom he had been talking climb onto the train. The Chinese troops did not move. 

My father gestured. “That John is a safer way of travel, but unfortunately you need to be credentialed, as Ted is. I believe he is off to Beijing. However mark my words, I shall get over the border in the next ten years – and more than once.”

We waited for the train to come back. My father was suitably vague about who Ted was, but he worked with a friend of my father who, like Ted, had been a lawyer and, if not a Communist, certainly was a definite shade of cardinal. 

My father was always very sure of himself, but I could never fathom his politics.

Postscript: My father did achieve his goal and did go to China – more than once. My father died in 1970 – so it was quite a feat in the 1960s to do just that.

Burning of the Books

Endless archives

Archives are people, and not the great people, but those who otherwise would leave no trace: the workers, the immigrants, the servicemen, the public servants, and, not least, the Indigenous. Of our collecting institutions, the NAA (National Archives of Australia) is the most truly democratic — of the people, by the people, for the people.

Record keeping, furthermore, is fundamental to the protection of citizens and the prevention of harm.

In a recent article in The Australian, a pertinent excerpt is reproduced above, Gideon Haigh has almost said it all about Assistant Treasurer Stoker and her disdain for retention of the archives – hence it follows who cares about the history of the nation? Should it be reduced to dust or why not to a bonfire?

I am reminded of the Futurist movement, which had its genesis in Italy before the First World War, with its disdain for the past and its concentration on the future with an emphasis on technology, bellicosity and patriotism. It is unsurprising given its behaviour that it was closely identified with the rise of Mussolini which they supported. When I say I am reminded of, I don’t mean to say that Assistant Minister Stoker is a simulacrum of the Futurists. Some of them had original ideas in the arts, a talent that the Minister hides under a bitcoin, having dispensed with that idiomatic past, the bushel.

After all, the Nazis refined this destruction of the past with the burning of 25,000 books in Berlin on May 10th 1933 including a significant amount of the Jewish heritage in Germany. Australia is in a delicate position where there are forces which are leading this country down an authoritarian pathway, where there is no collective memory. For years, elements of the Australian Public Service are to deny that any past existed, that corporate memory was a disease not to be confused with selective amnesia – and definitely to ensure the freedom of information was a joke that never existed. The Public Service treads the path of a Futurist movement in inked soaked quills of the Executive Porcupine – or in this country – the Executive Echidna.

David Tune, a former senior bureaucrat, was commissioned in 2019 to review the state of the national archives. He submitted his findings in early 2020; over a year later his review was released, in March this year. The report recommended the government fund a seven-year program to urgently digitise at-risk materials, for a total cost of $67.7 million. “Urgently” is hardly the word to describe Minister Stoker’s response.

Stoker’s attitude unwittingly has placed, even compounded, the Government into an untenable position.  The Treasurer, given his own heritage, should be more understanding of the destructive force Stoker is unleashing.  Frydenberg should reach into his cash box and find the money for the National Archives. Maybe such money would avoid this metaphorical burning of the Archives.

Stoker by name; stoker by profession? Surely not.

Backroad on the way from Normanton

It all started when I asked Dennis whether he could lend me the 4WD for the weekend. I wanted to check out the medical services in Normanton. There was a South African doctor who recently had arrived in the town, and there had been murmurings about the quality of the services.

To get there you needed to go down the main street of Mount Isa to the Barkly Highway and on to Cloncurry and then turn left onto the Burke Development Road. In the mythology of my family, it was said that my father recently graduated in Commerce from the University of Melbourne, had the opportunity to join a fledging Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services, but it would involve leaving his girlfriend in Melbourne. Love won out; and the Great Depression tested that love as my father tried to find a path through genteel poverty and not on the wing so to speak. This day we did not stop to savour the nostalgia of the job that never was.

By way of explanation, Cloncurry was where the airline flew the inaugural flying doctor service in 1928 – the first commercial flight was generally considered to have been from Longreach to Cloncurry six years earlier.

However, this day we had a five-hour drive to reach Normanton. Normanton is not on the Gulf and there is a further 70 kilometres to Karumba on the Gulf, in those days a centre for the northern prawn industry. The prawns were caught, processed and despatched to Asian destinations direct from the Gulf. Her brother had worked on the prawning trawlers in the Gulf of Carpentaria twenty years before. Her brother in addition to working the trawlers always loved fishing, and barramundi were the prized catch in the Gulf.

Karumba

Karumba had its own link to the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services; in the late 1930s the town was a refuelling and maintenance stop for the flying boats of the Qantas Empire Airways.

Watching the sun go down sitting on the beach after 500 kilometres drive gazing out to sea evoked a feeling of thirst, and we were on the sand without beer. So we went back to the motel at Normanton, and watched the green tree frogs climb out of the umbrella holder in the middle of the table while we drank our XXXX. We were in the tropics!

The hospital was on the hill away from the township proper. We met the middle-aged doctor and his wife, immigrants from South Africa.  They were not in their comfort zone, and the wife was particularly fearful of the fact that there were “blacks” running wild in the town. They had grown up under Apartheid and I wondered why they had left South Africa. Perhaps it was to bring their children up in a predominantly “white” country. The majority of Normanton residents were Aboriginal.

Here they were, isolated from the town, with no intention to mix and looking for the earliest possible escape route. An irrational fear of dark people and an inability to identify – while courteous to us, the authoritarian attitude, albeit racist, can only be suppressed for so long. It was clearly evident in this case.

The trip enabled us to reach the Gulf in a far more pleasant way than Burke and Wills, who had slogged their way along the same route to get to the same destination but died on their way back.

There is another less comfortable route to Normanton from Mount Isa and that is via Lake Julius rather than via Cloncurry. Lake Julius is an important water supply and is a favourite picnic spot for those wanting to have some respite from the mining atmosphere of Mount Isa.

What was unexpected was coming across the small settlement of Kajabbi where, outside the Kajabbi pub, stands a cairn. This memorial in Queensland directly acknowledges the history of conflict, as one writer states, related to “the invasion of Australia by Europeans”.

Like many other plaques mounted on stone cairns, this one commemorates a centenary – 1984 was one hundred years since the slaughter of the Kalkadoon people at Battle Mountain, just southwest of this tiny speck off the beaten track. Charlie Perkins and George Thorpe, a Kalkadoon (Kalkatungka) elder, unveiled the plaque, which reads in part:

This obelisk is in memorial to the Kalkatunga tribe, who during September 1884 fought one of Australia’s historical battles of resistance against a para-military force of European settlers and the Queensland Native Mounted Police at a place known to-day as Battle Mountain 20 klms south west of Kajabbi.

The spirit of the Kalkatunga tribe never died at battle but remains intact and alive today within the Kalkadoon Tribal Council.

Kalkatunga heritage is not the name behind the person, but the person behind the name.”

The Kalkadoon or Kalkatunga were considered elite warriors, but a group of  early whitefella settlers, in particularly one Arthur Kennedy, took it upon themselves to kill as many of this warrior tribe as they could. Battle Mountain was the major skirmish; in all, about 900 Kalkadoon were killed in this protracted war.

The cairn is modest and I remember reading its inscription, and since I had known Charlie Perkins, whose people were from Central Australia, it was significant that he had journeyed to this remote place to unveil this plaque with a local elder. He obviously held the Kalkadoon in high regard and the timing was to celebrate the founding of the Kalkadoon Tribal Council.

It is sad to read that “native” mounted police were used to help quell the tribe. It was a common ploy to use Aboriginals from other areas to assist in helping the whitefellas. If you read accounts of skirmishes in Western Victoria in the 1840s, Aboriginal troopers were brought in from places like Tumut, hundreds of kilometres away. This usage of Aboriginal police for suppression of other Aboriginal people is a slice of Australian history which is not often ventilated.

After all it a small stone memorial in a remote hamlet on a dusty backroad, an uninviting series of dips and crests which heightened the remoteness of it all, and yet another reminder of a dark era in our history, a hundred years before when the cairn was unveiled.

Just like outside the township of Bingara in the Northern Tablelands of NSW, there is a memorial to another massacre – 50 Wirrayaraay people killed on the slopes overlooking the Myall Creek. I remember reading the last three words Ngiyani winangay genunga (we will remember them]. That atrocity more than one hundred years before. There have been more. Too many to mention here.

What prompted these memories, particularly of Kajabbi?

2021 was another centenary, that of the Tulsa massacre of black Americans in 1921. As if in response, the Washington Post printed a map of all the massacres of black Americans, which is reprinted. I wonder given I have been to other sites of aboriginal massacres, there is a similar map for this country, to remind us of some of the darker side of Australian history.

Maybe, Senator Stoker, it may be hidden in the archives.

Mouse Whisper

My cousin, Conte Topo has a piccolino aversion to us English speakers, who think that “simpatico” means sympathetic, a bit upper case pretentious, but unfortunately for those who like to dabble in using foreign words simpatico means “nice” not “sympathetic”. The Italian word for “sympathetic” is “comprensivo”.

In contrast, saying the obvious, the Italian word for empathetic is in fact empatico, if you wish to use such a flash word.

However, empathy and sympathy often are used interchangeably but empathy means experiencing someone else’s feelings.  It requires an emotional component of really feeling what the other person is feeling. Sympathy, on the other hand, means understanding someone else’s suffering without getting under the skin. In short supply among certain Australian politicians at this time when a little sick girl is the victim.

Conte Topo

Modest Expectations – A Range of Lemon

In 2011, shortly before he became governor of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi warned fellow Italians that Venice in the 17th century and Amsterdam in the 18th century planted the seeds of their collapse by putting elite privilege ahead of innovation. Corporate Italy can hang on to what is left of its sheen.

To which I would also ask, do you smell the gum leaves of Canberra in that quote?

Draghi then goes on with a quote from “The Leopard”, where Prince Trancedi Falconeri says to his uncle Dom Fabrizio, “If you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

This is the last paragraph from an article published in the October 24th 2020 issue of The Economist about corporate decline in Italy. The article starts with an acknowledgement of that novel by saying, “Few works of literature capture the challenges of managing [societal] decay.

If you read very slowly you might be able to detect that we too have a leopard who has learnt to change his spots at the next leap of leopards passing through the spin of his mind. 

Waiting for Bliss

Last week I came across the word “bliss” – a word little used in these pandemic times, but once linked very firmly with “ignorance”. It is an old English word, and I would ask the readers, when could you genuinely say you had experienced a state of bliss?

What is a state of bliss? The definition varies from person to person. It is not wandering round in a trance; and it is not squatting on the floor and being told to meditate. It is not a set of rosary beads nor a set of bells – some may relate bliss to one or more of the senses – sitting in front of a log fire toasting marshmallows having come in from the icy cold and relaxing in a deep armchair drinking a suitably warmed glass of wine while listening to a the Tallis Singers’ recording of the Allegri’s Miserere. To me that is a suitable caricature of the meaning of bliss. This scenario can be explained in a conscious appeal to all the senses – extreme sensuality on a forgiving cliff face.

For me, bliss has always been unexpected. I was racking my brains trying to overcome the mist of ignorance to work through how many times in my life I have experienced bliss. Twice. Both were unexpected, and one instance came after a night in the Royal Women’s hospital student quarters in Melbourne back in the summer of 1962, and the other in 2002 all’aperto in Vancouver.

In one case I had experienced; and in the other I was waiting – in expectation. In both cases there was a woman involved – one in the past tense, the other in the future.

The summer of 1962 was the year when I just become engaged and where I used to sleep illicitly in the Hospital where my fiancé was doing her obstetrics term as a student. I used to leave the hospital a tick before six am and went over the road to a friend’s flat where he had a spare bed that I could “crash” on before going off for my job. For some reason, my friend was away. He had just finished an architecture degree and maybe it was a job out of town; I don’t remember but I would occasionally run into his cheerful flatmate over Vegemite toast and cup of tea.

This particular morning the sun was streaming into the room in his rented terrace,  a comfortable bed and the record player with George Shearing playing “Folks who live on the Hill”. The album with a young woman with her black dress spread around her, demure smile, looking upwards. Drifting into sleep with this environment, this was bliss, a sense that it could never get better – the recent times provided that core requirement of optimism – the security of such optimism in the past, present and future tense which leads into that bliss, which you want to last forever.

Vancouver

The second time, I was in Vancouver sitting outside, the weather was mild and I could gaze up at the mountains hidden partially by a scarf of sea mist. I was waiting for her to arrive, and the expectation of her arrival gave me that same sense of bliss. I did not sleep or even doze off, but had a very good Coho salmon. The wine was Washington State. That I remember, and unlike my normal approach, I ate very slowly and sipped rather than gulped. The mild temperature, open air, the food, the solitude among a late afternoon drinking mob provided the setting, but overall the expectation of seeing her that sealed the bliss. She was arriving later in evening from the other side of Canada.

Both were in good times, but this very juxtaposition of these two occurrences only has meaning when I paste them with those other vignettes which constitute life, so many of which do not have the same muted delicate colours which bliss has. Bliss is thus rare – at least for myself. I hope that in my last view of human experience I will be able to be full of bliss listening to Shearing playing Kern and Hammerstein, and with that expectation of seeing Her. 

Another time; another Trek

A pool of lotuses

A few weeks ago, my blog charted our eventful course to China in the summer of 1973. The weather was foul in Beijing. There were floods and we were unable to go to the Great Wall as a result, but it was interesting times to be there, given the turbulent period China was going through at the time.  I intend reviewing notes of the visit which are in one of my numerous archive boxes. As with our difficult journey to get there, leaving Beijing was no pool of lotuses either.

Our leaving Beijing when we did, produced one of the great regrets of my life. Unlike Gough, we did not meet Mao Tse Tung, but even though the Gang of Four were then in the ascendency and he was not, Chou en-lai was still a significant figure. The then Maltese Ambassador to China and also the High Commissioner in Australia – he was a shadowy figure but he kept popping up elsewhere – said that if we stayed another day he could arrange for us to see the great man. On reflection, there may have been a discussion with Stephen Fitzgerald, the Australian Ambassador, but my lasting impression was that it was a done deal but for one thing – we were on a tight schedule and on that schedule was a meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka. In the scheme of things at the time, the meeting with Chou En-lai could not be fitted in. As I say, I still harbour that regret, to have missed meeting with one of the greatest men of the 20th century.

There was no direct flight from Beijing to Tokyo in 1973. The route would take us in a Chinese Ilyushin, as it turned out to be, to Guangzhou and then by train to Hong Kong, where we would fly to Tokyo. That was the plan, but this trip was one of the unexpected. The fellow travellers included the Chinese women’s volleyball team. That was unexpected; to see all these 1.8 metres tall Chinese women strolling down the aisle of the plane. As I reflected, I had lived in a world of stereotypes, and these young Chinese women were not that.

Then the fun and games started. We were forced to land at the then Henchow, and we were emptied out of the planes. Initially here was no information, and efforts to find out, even trying to contact the Australian Embassy in Beijing were unfruitful. So, all we had to do was wait. The flight crew parked themselves under the wing of the plane to get out of the sun.

The airport was on the outskirts of a village, which makes me think that although they gave us a name, it was not a major hub where we landed. The facilities were rudimentary and after a fruitless endeavour to get through to Beijing, I went for a stroll down to the village. After all, there seemed to be no security, and I had reached its outskirts, when I looked back and there was a soldier carrying a rifle running down the hill. It was clear from his gesturing that I was out of bounds. Although, he was smiling and his demeanour was surprisingly sympathetic to my venture, there were rules; and he escorted me back.

Otherwise, Geoff produced a football from somewhere, so the three of us entertained the few airport staff, the volleyball team who were standing at a distance from us on the tarmac and the aircrew under the wing. There seemed to be a cone of isolation around us.  Nobody ventured near us. Not surprising when we could not speak Mandarin, and there was no Chinese minder travelling with us.

When the ball rolled over to them, it was treated as if it were a bomb. Nevertheless, these three Australians cavorting around in the sun with a strange looking ball had an audience. Geoff had been a champion schoolboy footballer, and Bill Snedden had played competitive football, as I had. Mine had been curtailed not only because of lack of skill but by my need for glasses, and the fact that contact lens technology was very primitive during my playing years. In a tussle to get the ball, Geoff showed the benefit of wide hips when he easily brushed me aside in competing for the ball. Playing on a hot airstrip losing one’s balance on such a surface reminded of the times I used to play sock football in the school’s brick quadrangle. The hands suffered as they hit the bricks.

Eventually three hot, mildly sunburnt blokes were motioned to join the plane. In retrospect, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, lost in Central China playing kick to kick on a distant tarmac, was a mildly amusing incident but today, a major political figure uncontactable in the wilds of China…well…

As we found later when we arrived in Guangzhou, the delay was due to a storm described as “monsoonal” passing through the city at that time. The air navigation instrumentation then was not equipped to enable any plane to land safely during such a storm.

Being completely “stuffed’, I have very little recollection of the city, except we were parked in a fine old hotel and the climate was subtropical. I remember the chintz curtains, looking out over lush tropical growth – the normal collection of monstera deliciosa and other undergrowth to which I could not put a name.

The next morning we were on the train to Hong Kong, and there were rice fields all along the rail line and the ubiquitous lychee trees in the middle of the fields.

Then we were across the border into Hong Kong, where we met up with Snedden’s wife, Joy, and had a relaxing time there.

I was left with the task of booking the flight to Tokyo. There were three alternatives BOAC, Alitalia and Air India. Given that forelock touching was the order of the day and there were people watching for aberrant republican behaviour, I chose BOAC. When guess what? Alitalia departed on time; BOAC was indefinitely delayed and Air India was about to leave. It was already taxiing out to take off when it was told to come back and pick up four Australians – travelling first class. Well, the revenue boost would have doubled that of the paying customers; there were only about ten others in economy, and it was the time before business class.  Also, it was a time when a country to have its own national airline was all important. Prestige before profit in those days.

We were not late for the meeting with Prime Minister Tanaka.

Backroad out of Ceduna … Where next?

Given my love of Strahan, for many years we have owned a blackwood pole house there; if it were not for the trees we would have a view of Macquarie Harbour. We once had such a view but that has now vanished in an entanglement of blackberry and tea trees. Strangely this tangle disappears down the Esplanade where there is an uninterrupted water view from the ex-mayor’s house.

I have only watched the Backroads show once, when it visited the small Victorian town of Beaufort, so much part of my family life. I thought the program strange, focussing on quirky periphery. This must make good television because the ratings are said to be high and the program receives substantial support from the ABC. It plays to a belief system of the viewers, it doesn’t shock and it gave a view of Beaufort uncluttered by any relevance. Nevertheless, those pictured obviously loved their half-hour of exposure.

At the same time a substantial film, television and book stream about the Australian bush country provides a different picture – a dark foreboding scene, deeply crime-ridden country towns, where there is always some secret which the townsfolk know but won’t tell and where a serial killer stalks the unsuspecting city-slicker. This is a country, the background to horror stories, of empty houses, banging doors, and where you only see the feet and the flashing knife.

I have had the benefit of seeing much of Australia and, looking through the schedule of past episodes of Backroads, I’ve been to most of the towns featured, not just as a tourist but to work, and that has included spending time in Aboriginal communities. Hence, for instance when I watched that extraordinary portrayal of the Aboriginal relationship in the film Samson and Delilah, it was reality, slightly “doctored” but essentially reality – it rang true, not from what I had read or had been told, but what I have seen.

 

Strahan

One of the challenges of being from “aways” is that it is important to blend in while realising that you are a “blow-in” and like all “blow-ins” you know it, they know it and, unlike the Backroads crew, when they pack away the camera, you from “aways” still have to live with the long time residents, and not be there just when the Macquarie Harbour is sparkling and the ocean is calm. The plaques around the foreshore remind of those alive how dangerous the seas are, but that was the risk of earning a living out in the Ocean.

The cinematography of Macquarie Harbour, the Southern Ocean and the accompanying rugged temperate rain forest with encircling mountains is brilliant. North barely seen are the two mountains, Heemskerk and Zeehan, the first 721 metes high, the second 684 metres. Both were seen by Abel Tasman when he sailed these two ships past the mountains in 1642. The mountains bear the names of those two ships; named by Bass and Flinders 1802 while circumnavigating Tasmania.

The Backroads episode provides this glorious perspective of the Wilderness, the Harbour, the Rivers and the Ocean. I agree, fantastic.  I have flown with a mate in his twin-engined Cessna on such a day – from Strahan over the Gordon and Franklin Rivers to the Southeast Cape and then back over the Walls of Jerusalem. Let me say there are not many days which provide the perfect uninterrupted vista without being buffeted around the sky by the powerful winds, because these are the “Roaring Forties” where the storms roll in with the greatest intensity.

“Backroads” has essentially a tourist view of Macquarie Harbour, two of the major rivers the Gordon and the Franklin, and the Southern Ocean. The King River, flowing as it does from Queenstown, being cleansed from metal pollution gets very little mention – maybe 12 years ago when the powerboat was taking people on adrenalin leaching trips up the river, it may have got a mention. But then the seaplane has gone too and the train which runs on the Abt railway gets not a mention, presumably because the engines were being overhauled. Yet that railway among others is essential to the Strahan narrative, otherwise if it were running why ignore the original lifeline after the convict settlement had gone.

Heather Ewart, the presenter, is pictured on the steel ketch “Stormbreaker”, drifting down the Gordon river; Heather Ewart on Sarah Island, a ruined convict settlement full of gore where the tourists are dropped off for a quick exposure to the horror that was; Heather Ewart as a walk-on participant in “The Ship that Was”, a long running sketch about adventurous escaped convicts, staged in a theatre setup on the wharf.

She is there interviewing a couple of young Aboriginal women from “aways” picking up shells on the beach. Mate, there are middens on the West Coast but not there where the full fury of the Ocean storms would have washed them away eons ago. Eventually, the show ends up in the woodworks, but not before we see Bob Brown, the Saviour of the West Coast wilderness and the film clips from that campaign so many years ago; the whales more recently stranded on the Ocean beach, and then for a piece of trivia, a waterskiing event to break some concocted world record for the most water skiers at any one time.  May I say I have never seen waterskiing on the Harbour as a regular activity. It is just too rough.

Picture postcard maybe; emphasis on the Wilderness, the magnificent scenery but except for a short reference to huon piners, not much about Strahan. Strahan does not exist because it is perched on a large, picturesque harbour. It was a port for the mines of Queenstown, on the other side of the West Coast Range – an isolated settlement set in the most beautiful part of Australia. People did not go there to admire the beauty; they went there to work. And the question is why – and why have they stayed?

While the background may be beautiful, the living conditions are harsh – but not the day that Heather Ewart blew in with her entourage. The opportunity missed of how a town has reconciled itself to the need to conserve when the genesis of the township was to exploit Australia. Isn’t that more the dilemma of modern Australia rather than the extent of the line of water skiers on the Harbour?

A hardy, resourceful community which has adapted – that has been my privilege of being a person from “aways” to know Strahan – to experience more than one sunset.

Somebody told me the week before Backroads was about the towns of the Dunmunkle Shire in the Wimmera. Now that is a place I know very well, particularly Minyip. Maybe I will look at what they have done with those townships.

St John’s Lutheran Church, Minyip

Special Pleading?

Let me give this person privacy. However, I have heard of a woman who was in remission from her disease of polymyalgia rheumatica and, having submitted to the AstraZeneca vaccine, promptly got an exacerbation of the disease, which has persisted.

The problem with polymyalgia rheumatica, nobody knows what causes it, whether it is a vasculitis or myopathy. What is known is that it occurs in older age groups and is associated with osteoarthritis and, in a number of cases, with another autoimmune condition, called temporal arteritis – a condition of the artery supplying the temple region. If not treated temporal arteritis can lead to blindness. This is patently a disease of a blood vessel.

Polymyalgia generally resolves by two years after diagnosis, which is complicated by the stealthy onset of the disease. Therefore, the onset is difficult to pinpoint. However, with me it burst out into a florid state of muscle pain, extreme weakness and stiffness of joints. In its untreated state one has the premonition of death, holding onto the basin in the bathroom and seeing the world disappearing from view – but trying not to let go. That is what occurred to me. After seven years the disease is chronic – I shall die with or because of the disease. The more the disease is stimulated by outside influences, the more it will shorten my life.

Treatment is cortisone, and it is in this titration of the amount of cortisone that provides symptomatic relief.  Methotrexate did nothing. Without cortisone, it is simple. I would be dead by now.

In the initial fulminant state, there is in addition to the indicators of infection, an indication that platelet function has been disturbed. In this particular case there was a marked thrombocytosis. Platelet problems are at the heart of the AstraZeneca side effects.

Being on cortisone therapy for over seven years means that adrenal function becomes compromised, well demonstrated when the replacement cortisone  was at point where it could be expected for the home grown cortisone to kick in if there was stress.  My adrenals did not kick in, and I experienced symptoms of hypoadrenalism.

Therefore, living on the edge should not be challenged by a vaccine which has its own problems, even if they are downplayed. Yes, I have had my influenza inoculation for 2021; yes I had my shingles inoculation several years ago. None provide 100 per cent protection; and indeed I have a mild reaction to the influenza inoculation; no pain at the site but a slight feeling of unwellness with upper respiratory symptomatology for several days. Symptomatically, my polymyalgia has got worse.

But then I am a doctor once a medical researcher and public health physician. The soothing words saying “do not worry” are not here crashing on a shore devoid of information. The case can be argued that it would be better to avoid the risk. However, in a country where choice is limited to who you know, well why not ask that I be given the Pfizer vaccine by my public health physician peers.

However, if my request is refused, maybe I will have to consign myself to the line of AstraZeneca injectees, with all the hollow assurances, but knowing that I am especially vulnerable to admittedly rare significant side effects.

If this insistence on AstraZeneca occurs, then I will post a daily message on social media telling everybody 24 hour by 24 hour how well I am going – and for Government “come in spinner.”

The coins are about to be tossed. The chances are of (a) no complications; (b) side-effects with the ultimate government prize of my death; or (c) putting the kip down and allowing me to have the Pfizer vaccine and of course my daily diary of how that vaccine is treating me.

Then of course I could not have the vaccine and die of that wonderful phrase “natural causes”; better than “misadventure”.

Mouse Whisper

I am entering into the world of invention. This invention threatens to take over the world, so they say. It is an American invention. It is a new type of pasta that is sweeping the trattorie of New York. There are 300 different types of pasta and yet for this new one, people have to wait for 12 weeks to get a packet of the new pasta, and then it costs USD18.00 plus postage. It is called “cascatelli” in reference to the Italian word for waterfall.

To me, the ravenous mouse, the pasta resembles a caterpillar, but this pasta is said to be able to capture ragu or vongole jetsam which may be drifting by in the sauce, flooding the pasta dish. This is the secret, opening up the tube and having pincer pasta pseudopodia able to clutch and not to let go of the tidbit onto your shirt (or in my case my mousling bib) but finding the safety of your mouth.

In Australia you can buy similar pasta, where the tube is closed, called creste di gallo – “coxscomb”. This pasta sells for about AUD$5.00.

As The Washington Post reports:

But it is the technology of opening the tube and having the right template that has the culinary world agog.

There’s no wrong sauce for this pasta. Every kind clings like Velcro.

It’s like a Venus fly trap. Anything that goes in there can’t get out.”

The pasta’s marketing materials refer to that grippy-ness as “sauceability.” Alongside “forkability” and “toothsinkability,” these goofy, made-up terms form the inventor, Dan Pashman’s trifecta of ideal pasta characteristics.

Ugh, that is sufficient mangling of the English language – bit like pasta.

 

Modest Expectation – An Apple Once in Paris

Just to put Australia’s lack of flexibility into context, where the AstraZeneca vaccine has been prioritised for vaccinating the population Moderna, as reported below, seems to be leading the pack. Where are we, Mr Morrison? Are you across what is happening, and if you have recently done a deal with Moderna has this advance been factored into the deal? AstraZeneca technology is apparently increasingly obsolete in the face of such coronavirus vaccines.

I remember a different time, when the polio vaccines first came to Australia. I was first injected with the Salk vaccine and then, when the Sabin vaccine arrived, it was able to be administered easily orally because it was a live attenuated virus; the Salk vaccine was quickly jettisoned. But then Australia avoided  political furore; we relied on the medical evidence not the share portfolios of various people in influential places .

Also, Prime Minister there is one statistic which you use to justify the continued use of hotels for quarantine – your “99.99 per cent effective at protecting the community against COVID-19” mantra. However, when the air flows are mixed and internal, the problem of cross infection exists, whereas in the case of the Howard Springs facility the air flow is to the outside, with little or no chance of a compromised airflow. Thank God it is only that tiny percentage, Prime Minister. That causes enough chaos as we are now seeing in Victoria, without tempting Fate any further. This is where the use of data only shows what a catastrophic situation it would be if the effectiveness was any lower.

But let’s hear what the CEO of Moderna, based as it is in the Boston area, had to say about its advance, as reported in The Boston Globe, and draw your own conclusions.

Moderna’s chief executive on Wednesday discussed the biotech’s progress in developing a booster shot against COVID-19 variants, saying the company hopes to have authorization from the Food and Drug Administration on one of three booster strategies by the end of the summer or early fall.

Stéphane Bancel said Moderna is working on three different options for a single-dose booster shot against variants of concern: the current vaccine, a new variant-specific vaccine, and a 50/50 mix of the two.

Moderna last week shared early study results that showed its first two options — the current vaccine at half the dosage and a shot of its reworked vaccine — both appeared to raise antibody levels against variants that first emerged in South Africa and Brazil. Bancel said the company is expecting to receive data on the third booster strategy in the coming weeks.

“And then we’ll work with the FDA to get the safe and effective variant-specific booster to the American people as fast as we can,” he added.

The data showed that Moderna’s current vaccine “looks good” in protecting against variants, Bancel said, but the reworked vaccine tailored to fight off newer strains of the virus “looks stronger” against the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa.

Bancel said it’s “not impossible” that a booster could be ready for the fall for people who were vaccinated against COVID-19 in December 2020 or early January, especially for high-risk groups.

“When we have that data [on the third booster strategy] in the clinic, we will pick which one we’ll take for authorization,” Bancel said. “We’re hoping that toward the end of the summer or early fall, we should be able, if the data is good, to have authorization for a boost to be used in the fall to protect all of us so that we can have a good fall and a next good winter.”

Bancel also said the company is working with federal officials to test “the mixing of vaccines,” ensuring that regardless of which vaccine a person initially received, it will be safe for them to get Moderna’s booster shot.

“We shared last Wednesday news that the Moderna vaccine in the 12 to 17 years of age has 96 percent efficacy,” Bancel said. “The safety profile is like what we saw for the adults, and we’re working with the FDA to get the vaccine authorized as soon as we can.”

Moderna is continuing to study its vaccine for children 6 months to 11 years old, Bancel said, and that data is expected to take a few more months.

“We have to go very slow down in age to ensure the safety of the children,” Bancel said. “And we’re also starting at the lower dose, because given their lower weight, we might need to lower the dose for children. But for the teens, it will be the exact same dose, which will help the distribution of a vaccine.”

And also….

Under the heading “Breaking Alert”, The Boston Globe publishes the ongoing COVID-19 situation. An example is reprinted below.

The death toll from confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts rose by 19 to 17,413, the Department of Public Health reported Monday. The number of confirmed cases climbed by 281, bringing the total to 657,119.

The number of coronavirus vaccinations administered rose by 25,904 to 7,168,399, state officials reported.

As the population of Massachusetts is about 6.3 million, and about 20 per cent are under 15, it means that many of the residents are being given their second injection of an mRNA vaccine.

Every day, the NYT has a comprehensive list of the data down to county level. Where can you obtain such data published daily in Australia, in relation to vaccination?

Casey Briggs, Master of Clarity

When the pandemic was rife in Australia we could follow its course every day with the ABC’s Casey Briggs, whose clear informative manner showed Mr Briggs as The Master of Mathematics; to which he could as well have added The Master of Clarity.

He could report vaccination levels in the same manner on a daily manner if the data were available.

Only criminal idiots would want to the fiddle the supply demand relationship by manipulating the data for so-called political advantage.

You may never recover

This is the only comment I shall make about the Princes. I sympathise deeply and know that probably their relationship, in whichever way it existed after their mother was killed, may one day be repaired to the extent that they do remain civil towards one another.  I suspect the attitudes of their wives in this is vitally important.

A loving mother taken from teenage sons in the presence of an inadequate father – undoubtedly a good man but because of his own stunted upbringing with an inability to show compassion – is very familiar.

Genuine compassion is something one recognises when you yourself lack it. People may try and manufacture compassion, but fail because it is an inherent attribute, just like a sense of humour. Most of those who are afflicted with the combination of loss of a loving mother, the inability to ever come to terms with the wakening nightmare of your last glimpse of her, coupled with the attempts by the remaining father to fill the void and failing, who then eventually gives up, marries again and gradually become to you an irrelevance.  Onwards into an adulthood for which you are ill prepared and then you have to muddle through life in a cloud of unforgiveness, episodic self-pity and destructive fury.

A Sisyphean existence?

Occasionally, in among the circumstance of life with a variable dollop of pomp added, you may do something worthwhile. But for what? Your other life upon which the flashlight is never dimmed, wherever you try to escape, always haunts. For those for whom compassion does not pay, there is a delight in having all your trespasses laid bare, yet as those who trespass against you seek justification in hypocritical comment only, which encourages you to further trespass. A Sisyphean existence?

Alas, poor Harry, I knew him well.

Is anybody listening?

The three articles on China published last week in the AFR are almost like the last hurrah from one of the most insightful and level-headed journalists still living. Max Suich is one of those people who has lived a long and varied life; and his reflections on the current state of play in China draws upon his own views and those of a number of his contemporaries, and their apprehension about the course of current Sino-Australian relations.

This trilogy commences with reference to the world conditions when the AFR was started 70 years ago. It was not long after that I was on a cargo boat in the South China Sea in sight of one of the disputed islands of Matsu and Quemoy, tiny National Chinese outposts close to the mainland and Communist China. It was a time when the Chiang Kai-shek regime in the island of Formosa was seen as the legitimate representative of China in the United Nations.  How fanciful that appears now, but then as we crossed the South China Sea, we were buzzed by American Starfighters which swooped out of the clouds and came over the ship just above mast height – twice.

Bloody hell, was it necessary to demonstrate to a small ship carrying wool and grain to Japan how powerful America was? The power equation certainly has shifted over the past decades in the Southern China Sea. American planes intimidating ships close to the Chinese shore in 2021 – I don’t think so – unless America was on war footing.

As for Australia: The conclusion is that while we dramatically changed our approach, we did not define a policy objective for the new relationship with China or a strategy to achieve it. Nor did we thoroughly review alternative options. We elevated anger about Chinese activities in Australia and latent ministerial hostility towards China, turning threadbare slogans into policy. Traditional measured, thoughtful policy-making in an area of such great importance is lost.

Thus spake Suich. He sets out his conclusion succinctly and directly on the first page of his trilogy. He then spends much of the rest justifying the conclusion, which is more a thesis. He had come to that conclusion as the anti-Chinese forces in this country were emboldened by Trump’s antics. No matter how Turnbull may want to re-write history he should share the opprobrium which Max dishes out.

We have no hedge – we are “all the way with the USA” but what if the USA is not there? How does our military, naval and air force stack up, in the face of an aggressive China? Not much, is his assessment. Australia is vulnerable especially, as he pointed out, Pine Gap would be an early target for any Sino-American conflict. Therefore, whether or not America proved to be a steadfast ally, part of any war strategy in this part of the World would be to knock out Pine Gap, inevitably leading Australia being locked into the conflict.

Max Suich has dissected the Australian government approach into three phases, “push back, call out, out in front”. The three stage approach typifies a crude approach to the reality where the right wing infiltrate in the intelligence always inflates the danger in order to maintain their relevance to government. Max quoted one still serving official – “without Trump the hawks would not have the mode to develop their own insane line that we had no choice but to divert trade flows and supply chains.”

As he goes on to write, the John Howard approach twenty years ago “we don’t have to choose” between America and China has been dumped, but echoing experienced advice there was no way that Australia, with its limited defence forces, could possibly back up its bellicose rhetoric. In fact, as Turnbull has written in his recent opus, Australia has to be careful where its warships sail in Asian waters because there is no doubt that the Chinese are watching. The Americans may have the power to extricate a ship which ventures too close, but Australia by itself does not.

Nevertheless, paranoia is fanned by the idea that the Chinese government is penetrating the Australia community and in particular the Chinese diaspora. Such investigation of this has only yielded Sam Dastyari who, despite his indiscretion, still seems to be involved in the sensitive vaccine rollout. There was all that flurry around Gladys Liu, the Coalition member for Chisholm, because of her apparent ties in China, but that seems to have dropped off the intelligence schedule and is not mentioned by Max anywhere in the article.

The Government seems not to be bothered by the experience of South Korea where, earlier in the last decade, it experienced a Chinese trade freeze. Yet for all the bravado, the articles note three forces operating currently in our dealings with China. The alienation from China has been aggravated, as he points out, by the circumstances of the COVID-19 virus first being seen in Wuhan and the subsequent lack of co-operation by the Chinese in the investigation of its genesis, where one of the major cheerleaders for the investigation has been Australia.

The first force is the feeling of being abandoned, and if one delves into the history of the ANZUS pact, it was constructed originally against the wishes of the State Department in Washington – the nightmare of “Washington not picking up the phone.”   Then the rise of Xi Jin Ping, who has disturbed the comfortable trading arrangement that some Australians had built up with various Chinese businesses. The impression of a free enterprise economy able to exist under a one-party system was brought to a halt by Xi .

Max recognises that Xi’s assertiveness and his expansionary vision for China as a truly Pacific maritime power was another impetus for the rise  in Australia of the intelligence community influence and their political hawks on both sides of the parliamentary aisles. Any moderating influence of DFAT is seemingly ignored and Max quotes Foreign Minister Payne going it alone on the Wuhan inspectors seeking answers on the Wuhan connection with the virus, and particularly whether the virus escaped from a laboratory there.

He doesn’t attempt to analyse Xi’s character, because being pragmatic, Max recognises Xi is what he is, and nothing will change him. However, this is not to say that defining his strengths and weaknesses is not more than a parlour game. Remember XI was a princeling forced to eat dirt – he understands how the game “Go” unravels. In this game, there is a need to understand its length. Xi does not intend losing; he has tasted the soil. As someone said to me, he doesn’t care about the niceties.

Max says that the breakdown of our government’s foreign policy development process and its supplanting by the security and intelligence services and their vociferous supported is a main driver of Australian government attitude.

I know there is a younger brigade of Australians who have repeatedly dealt with the Chinese and who believe that Obama’s soft position towards China would have been reflected in the present Biden administration. However, free of Obama, these so-called liberals have adopted a hard line almost indistinguishable from that of the Trumpers. In this narrative, Obama is the villain.

As Max said, we took more risks than we should; we could have been adroit. This is the position of “former senior officials who lament the lack, still, of policy making and disciplined public language about China, that weighs up options and employs some subtlety and seriously considers the risks of war.”

One source, Paul Dib, compares the situation to the 1930s where the risks set off by territorial confrontation were ever present, in Europe, Africa, and Asia. In the meantime, Australia then lived in bliss, ostensibly under the wing of the British Empire. Now it is the USA to continue to shield us, but the hawks are everywhere so that his conclusion of this need to follow the USA is “a bleak but realistic view…if the hawks of Washington and Beijing are not stifled, if compromise is rebuffed, war will be the consequence, a disaster for Taiwan and the combatants and a disaster for the rich and growing economies of our region.”

China is not complicated as suggested in the article – the World exists at the whim of Xi Jin Ping.

His adversaries are varied; have we ever really looked into the eyes of these hawks of ours – these eyes exhibiting uncertain bravado and fear?

These are not the fanatics which drove the agenda of the 1930s but more the muddle-headed wombats who took us into the Vietnam war. This time, the War will not be an away game.

I do not want the prospect, if I survive, of stumbling through the rubble which was once Sydney. Everybody, look carefully at Gaza and that was only an 11 day’s conflict.

Thank you, Max for encouraging me to write this critique.

 A Prickly Situation

My eye was caught by an article in the NYT this week. It concerned the poaching of rare species of cacti from the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile and them being found smuggled into Italy.

The Atacama Desert is not particularly large compared to other deserts, but it is a remarkable ecological structure. There is an area where it has not rained for about 500 years; there is another part where the largest copper mine in the world is located.

Licancabùr

As we looked out from our hotel in San Pedro de Atacama in this patch of green, the dominant view rising high from the desert was Licancabùr, the volcanic cone rising high above the desert. The volcano is very close straddling the Bolivian and Chilean border, and as you near it, sulphur is mined on its slopes. Sulphur – ah, the whiff of hell, but here the winds tend to cart the smell away.

This desert has historically been an area of dispute between Chile, Bolivia and Peru. It was called the Saltpetre War, and ostensibly it was about Bolivia retaining access to the Pacific Ocean but, as the name implies, it was a battle over the nitrite deposits used in both fertilisers and explosives. Chile won that war, which has enabled that country to exploit the mineral rich Atacama and, since discovered, also the site of substantial lithium deposits.

San Pedro de Atacama is in an altiplano pocket of the desert, the remnants of the Andes, which mean one is strolling and riding around at 2, 408 metres. The highest point we reached were the Geysers del Tatio which lie at 4,330 metres, a large cauldron of boiling water where there are signs in English and Spanish warning for you not to get too close to the edge of the multiple pools. The sudden spurts of boiling waters and steam at such an altitude are very impressive. There are no fences; you are able to freely wander. At least one tourist did step too close apparently and ended up boiled in one of the pools.

Even though we were only 14 kilometres from the Bolivian border we skipped walking up the volcano which tops 5,920 m. For comparison, Mount Kosciuszko is 2,200 m high.

This area of the Atacama altiplano is very diverse. What with the geysers, and flamingos standing in salt water at an alkaline PH of 10 and eating the crustacea out of the brine. These tiny marine life determine the flamingoes’ colour. Every desert has “bad lands” of rocks and gulches. Here Atacama has its red rock folded into buttes and jagged cliffs. They were thought to mimic valleys on the moon rather than a scenario from a Hollywood Western.

Here I found myself rooted, unable to move, halfway up one of these hills, on a goat track not one-person wide, winding itself to the peak. I have always suffered from vertigo, and stupidly I looked back and down. The cheerful chatter ceased. There is nothing more debilitating than being stuck like that, with feet in the shifting sand unable to move. Here, feminine resolve came to the forefront to uproot the fear – women on either side of me giving me their hands, encouraging me onwards.

We stop on the way in stone cottage villages where the construction of the houses would not have changed since Inca times. One of these villages called Machuca had about ten houses, was situated at 4,000 metres but still had its church perched on the hill above the houses. This is subsistence living. Guanacos can live at that high altitude and like their relatives, camels, will drink salty water, but like the vicuñas are not domesticated. The flightless rheas dot the landscape, not venturing close.

It was an enthralling landscape and the hospitality overall was great, the only blemish being locked in a poorly ventilated minibus with an English family for three hours as we went back to Antofagasta to catch the plane back to Santiago, but they probably had the same feelings towards us – a little more Albion disdain. Having sprawled across the front rows they objected to us wanting the windows being open. Not even my wife’s imitation of Shrek’s donkey colleague amused them.

But you see what is pointed out to you or what you are looking for, and in the desert, on this trip I failed to appreciate the flora.  In the Atacama are some of the rarest and most intricate cacti. I suppose I should have been interested given the use of cactus wood to make the doors of the cottages.

Now there is an increasing market for those unnoticed cacti.  The cacti of the Atacama are special. A year after the robbery from the Atacama happened, the NYT has reported on a cactus “heist”. This had been uncovered in Northern Italy.  Most of the stolen plants, many over a hundred years old, had been taken from the Atacama.

As the NYT said in the article:

Cactuses and other succulents are hot business today. They have become the darlings of social media, promoted by indoor plant influencers for their outlandish looks and minimal care requirements. The pandemic only increased their popularity, with shops struggling to keep some species in stock.

The average hipster’s cactus collection will include only common species propagated in nurseries. But for some specialist collectors — who tend to be middle-aged or older men — the hobby is much more serious.

“A lot of what drives the interest and passion for these plants is their uniqueness and rarity.”

Atacama cacti

Of course, that is the problem. People with too much money, bored by their hedonism, looking for something different and in this instance, something requiring little maintenance. Perfect!

There is a line to be drawn between appreciation and acquisition. I have never been a xerophile, and in fact cacti watching has always been low on my attention span. Having written that, cacti can be striking. I wrote a piece one winter in Arizona called “Snow on the Saguaro”. Seeing those majestic cacti, their branches smothered in white, reflects how severe the winter was we were then traversing.  While we marvelled and I wrote this, there was no passion to dig up all these cacti and transport them Los Angeles to become a prop for silver tinsel and light. A silly notion, but no more silly than digging up the cacti in the Atacama for them to be festooned on balconies of the palazzi of Milan.

One wonders how many of those who buy plants illicitly taken, really appreciate them, or do they just want to have something nobody else has.

Anyway, this story had a better end than most of these robberies. As has been reported:

844 cactuses made the return journey to Chile. Around 100 others had died, and 84 stayed in Milan for study.

Mr. Cattabriga (responsible for apprehending the shipments which had first passed through easier EU custom controls in Romania and Greece) has been making daily video calls to try to ensure the plants are being properly cared for while they are in quarantine. According to Bernardo Martínez Aguilera, head of the forest inspection department at Chile’s National Forest Corporation, the final goal “is that the majority of these individuals return to their natural environment, which they never should have left.”

Rules have been introduced among cacti lovers not to purchase the seeds for such exotica, on the grounds that if these cacti are allegedly propagated, it provides a cover for the poachers’ lack of provenance. A worldwide problem but this is a salutary tale. The answer is always the same – curbing the poor attracted by the cash, harvesting the cacti and a cohort of wealthy humans who always vote for subsidy, tax breaks and entitlement with rapacious middlemen who always vote for subsidy, tax breaks and entitlement with greasy paws.

Mouse Whisper

Is it an unnoticed cultural cringe? The Swans are a Sydney Australian Football team, which was transplanted from Melbourne where they were known as the South Melbourne Football Club. The colours are red and white which earned them the early nickname of “The Bloods’. But somehow, presumably because South Melbourne was originally a marsh from which the Albert Park Lake was carved, the idea of calling the team by the name “Swans” was floated. But the white swan, whether cob or pen, is not an Australian; it’s a Pom!

Black swans are as Australians as Vegemite. If the club wanted to call itself the Swans, it should have adopted black. I am surprised that my indigenous brothers played with colours and name which reflected colonial attitudes. Especially as there are only black swans on the Albert Park Lake.

Imagine the Sydney Swans changing to a black and red strip. What would they say at Essendon?

And don’t me started on the St George Illawarra Rugby League colours taken from the St George Cross which I believe has some relationship to an island off Europe.

Dragons – yes, they have relation to Australia – water dragons can be seen all over Sydney in nurseries.

By the way, the native animal of NSW is the platypus and the bird kookaburra, but a Major Mitchell cockatoo has all the elements of red (if actually pink) and white. But barracking for the platypi, the Kookas (or Burras or the Cockatoos) – could be very authentic like the Eels.

My preference. Come on The Majors.