Modest Expectations – At Last Michael Bowlby

Kizzmeika Corbett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such a little disease…

Rubella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snottites

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lechuguila Cave

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

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

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

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

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

Personal Irresponsibility

Janine Sargeant MPH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endless testing queues

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

Happy Christmas NSW from Uncle Dominic

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

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

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

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

Hazzard with two “Z” – The Alchemist from Wakehurst

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

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

What do you think vaccination is for, you chump?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other hand, this seems sensible…

Reprinted from the Boston Globe with thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

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

Joan Didion

 

Modest Expectations – Make Haste to Chiswick, Young Whyman

It is the winter of 1942. The streets of Melbourne are full of people in strange garb marching up and down the streets. Why, because the Japanese invasion is a hoax, they yell.  They want their freedoms back.  The so-called picture of Australian soldiers standing in the sun in Singapore was a film set, jigged to appear that they were Australian whereas if you looked closely, they all had native Indian faces. Signs such as “Hang John Curtin” dotted the crowd as well as “Curtains for Curtin”, “Freedom from Rationing”. “Free” is associated with anything, I want.

“When do I want it?” The howl goes up. “Now.” The roaring response. Bugger the community or the Commonweal. The Eureka flag is limp.

A procession in front of Parliament House. Meanwhile Western Australia has declared neutrality. Then out of the winter sun comes a squadron of Zeros, that lay waste the protesters in the street. At least 40 members of the crowd were dead, strafed in the first run.

Fanciful. To make a point – or reinforce a point. Defence is a Commonwealth power. Once the Commonweal has been defined, then Defence is a Commonwealth responsibility. Before Federation, the States raised their own militia. For instance, the NSW Volunteer Contingent was raised to fight in the Sudan with the British Forces. Shortlived, the contingent of 700 men constituting infantry, artillery and ambulance went there and back with barely a scratch, although there are always casualties from exotic diseases.

What is instructive was how confused was the treatment of Boer War veterans and also of sailors who experienced the Boxer Rebellion when they fought overseas during the transition of Australia, the sovereign States, to Australia, the Federation.

The main impact of the Boxer Rebellion on the nascent Australia is the presence of Chinese “souvenirs in the drawing rooms of NSW, Victoria and South Australia”. (Britain accepted 200 men from the Victorian Navy, 262 from the New South Wales Navy and the South Australian gunboat Protector with its complement of 96 officers and men.).

Defence is a no brainer. No Commonwealth would countenance each of the States having its own army. But this was a time when responsibility was confused; it was a time before 1914 when a far-off conflict offered an opportunity for a “boy’s own” adventure.

So why now has this Federal Government shoved the responsibility for Quarantine to the States when it is a clear Commonwealth power enshrined as much as Defence in the Australian Constitution. I have mentioned this matter before. It is the only original exclusive Commonwealth head of power directly related to health. As a result of Morrison’s decision (or should it more accurately be described as indecision) there are mixed messages, when the message should be simple.

Counter the pandemic as a whole-of-nation responsibility. What has happened over the period before the pandemic has been the advance in the sophistication of vaccine development against a suite of “chameleon” viruses for the previous 20 years when they had made tentative raids, only to peter out.

The problem is that the policy option of “masterly inactivity” or else the less flattering “wishing the problem will just go away” creates a vacuum. “Living with the Virus” is a more ambiguous definition of doing nothing. This shift in responsibility when it is done in such a manner is a recipe for chaos.

Hence, we have had all the jurisdictions reacting differently and often, especially in the early phase, commenting with a degree of hubris. “I have fewer cases than you … my system is better than yours” sentiment. Added to this then we had the witch’s cauldron of “experts” brewing up their own cures and policy potions.

At least much of this debate was directed to improving the response. This mixture of ideas and theories has unfortunately allowed the growth of treasonous comments in the name of “freedom”. The person who cries “freedom” while carrying a Trump Flag can be seen to be akin to that mythical 1942 scenario of denial and conspiracy, where the villain at the heart of the conspiracy is the government not the invader.

It stands to reason that when a country identifies a common enemy it is essential to have a common plan – not one with a series of different defences dependent on a local district whim. Just imagine a World War 11 cabinet with the current prime Minister, not John Curtin at his head. Here the prime policy would be to ensure that the ostrich feathers in the plumed hat would be of the finest quality rather than directed towards the conflict. Public relations put ahead of anything, concentrated on making the feathered leader look good; and using fashioning of the wedges of discontent to ensure that each wedge would divide any national response by childishly praising political allies for just that reason. Meanwhile the enemy advances.

The problem is that in any declared war situation, there is a limit to dissension.  Between pacifism and sedition? Is there a line drawn between them?

For me, protests are legitimate to a point. Now is a procession in 2019 decrying coal mining wandering through Queensland coal country similar to the recent procession wandering through Ballarat carrying the Eureka flags of rebellious gold miners of the 19th century?

In the first, the invective is coming from the bystanders; in the second, the invective is coming from within the procession. One can always discern the level of legitimacy by interpreting the legitimacy of the contents of the message of the banners being carried. The banners of the latter – those where the invective is coming from within – have been clearly of the latter variety.

Therefore, clearly there are insurrectionists loose in the country aping their counterparts in USA. The politicians are wary; they are not sure that they have convinced the population of the serious situation because, as with any aggression, the majority of the population wants freedom from the invader not the government. Hence the level of vaccination.

Only comparatively recently has government understood this. The initial picture was clouded by the quality of our original weapons. The problem with the early response to the Virus was the Federal government’s shirking of its responsibility allowed a serious public health matter to be reduced to party politics. With politicisation came a false legitimacy for all protests in the name of freedom, however defined, even though the invading force showed that it can manacle the state by closing borders and instilling fear and anxiety in the population. Western Australia has put itself in that situation, where there is only one way out.

However, despite all that, Australia has achieved a remarkable degree of vaccination; the population is now armed against the invader. This situation can be attributed to the fact that the strategic and tactical arms are now being led by a highly competent Chief Health Officer. One of the weakest links in the public health armoury has been given a vice-regal chariot to play round in, and the other State public health grandees have been suitably boxed.

Isolation is a solution to the acute situation where there is a new virus, but not when the situation becomes chronic and all the strategies have been rolled out. Therefore, there should be isolation facilities to match the requirement as best as possible. With almost two years of data, the preferred option for isolation yielding the most effective outcome should be clear, and not be reliant on the superficial excuse for a report that Jane Halton wrote. There is a need for a report that examines objectively how the various quarantine facilities have worked and also examines the effectiveness of shorter isolation periods and how that approach would be best managed.

The problem with the plan to open a community and the actual opening has dissonance, more related to community restlessness than a public health response, and the understandable but nevertheless important distinction between an acute and a chronic situation, especially when the various arms of government disagree, as continues to be the case in Australia.

As one voice has put it bluntly: “If we don’t develop systems to immunise the whole world in three months, instead of three years, we are not going to be successful against these kinds of pandemic threats.  Viruses adapt and they change, and unless we develop generalised global immunity more readily, we will always be faced with chasing our tail.”

More so if we tolerate sedition cloaked as freedom and continue to allow public health to be considered as some form of Fabian discourse covered with the sauces of alienation, angst and racist scapegoating.

I hate the word “summit”. Nevertheless, there is room to have collective reflection to determine what happens when omicron is followed by omega; and at the same time have a fringe festival run by somebody seriously zany such as members of the comedic diaspora mingling with those of the conspiracy “comedians” – a dangerous strategy but one where the truly comedic are mingled with the accidental form where the sinister meets the dextrous.

I have a feeling that if these fringe elements attract the vote of those unvaccinated, then perhaps after the elections the politicians will be emboldened to start assembling the charge sheets of these characters, and carefully read what constitutes “sedition” rather than some ephemeral apologia in the name of “free speech”. The scenario depicted in the preface could have occurred if Australia at that time had been submerged in public relations releases.

Things to Watch Over

The other day, the conversation turned to what are the places where you can sit and look out at the image in front of yourself, and never tire of it. I am one of those people, where sitting in an art gallery and contemplating one picture for a long time is not my “go”. Most museums just overwhelm anybody with their volume even though the eclectic nature of the contents often means that one can concentrate on a particular item or items.

This is different. It is the item that you want to sit and gaze at for as long as it takes to absorb the whole visual spectacle – it is where these works of humankind reached ex terra ad caelum.

The problem with many of the items is that the crowd is always moving past the object, or you do not have the time to linger. This was the dilemma of my first encounter with the Amber Room. This has been reconstructed in the Summer Palace outside St Petersburg. It was lost when the Germans removed it during the 872-day siege of the then Leningrad from 1942. However, the Summer Palace was outside the Siege perimeter and thus was captured. The Amber Room, as with many other artefacts, was looted by the kleptomaniac Nazis and transported away, and in the case of the Amber Room, never found.

The Amber Room

The Amber Room is a series of panels crafted from six tonnes of amber mounted on gold-leaf walls and adorned with mosaics and mirrors. It was a paean to the material’s beauty and status, originally a gift from Prussia to Russia in 1701. To the Russians’ credit, after World War 11 Leningrad, now returned to its former name of St Petersburg to commemorate Peter the Great’s contribution of turning a swampland into one of the most magnificent cities in the world, largely rebuilt the Summer Palace as it was.

Included in the reconstruction was the Amber Room. The reconstruction based on original images is a sight where the orange spectral range explodes into so many subsets of a solar flare. This is not surprising since Phaëton, the son of the Sun-God Helios, was permitted by his father to drive the Sun chariot. But he lost control, apparently sabotaged by Zeus, and plunged to earth. The short story, as I am not going to recount Ovid’s eye-witness account, as part of their particular “sorry business”, Phaëton’s sisters turned into poplar trees to forever weep golden tears of amber.

Amber is warm to the touch; amber has the property of being magnetised, which was demonstrated to me as a child. Amber is a biological residue of pine resin, resin which stopped flowing and entrapping the feasting insect for all time. The most valuable amber is that which tends to the red edge of the spectrum – the russet colours of autumn as distinct from the yellow of the caged canary. However, when the tableau of mirrors of gilded walls, and amber, amber everywhere, there is time to wonder – and then despite everything, you are moved on in a shuffling queue, despite attempts to linger.

My other visual feast is a place which has not changed for sixteen centuries. St Petersburg, despite a far shorter history, is full of multiple treasures, many of which have been restored by the Russian Government after World War 11. On the other hand, Ravenna, in central Italy, was the centre of the Western Roman Empire for most of the fifth and sixth centuries after Rome was sacked, when the emperor moved from Rome. The lines of succession were confused by the appearance of the Goths invading Spain (Visigoths) and Italy (Ostrogoths). Despite their thrashing the Roman army, it seems that they absorbed the trappings of Rome.

In Ravenna the Ostrogoths under Theodoric established their seat of government in the name of the Roman Empire. It was a somewhat confused line of succession especially as Theodoric was an Arian, a heretical branch of the mainstream Christianity, whose interpretation of a unitary God was at odds with both Orthodox and Western Christendom’s interpretation of the Trinity.

One of the many treasures of Ravenna is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the wife of the Emperor Honorius, who preceded the advent of the Goths. She was never buried there, but for a visitor from the 21st century sitting and gazing at the wonderful decoration of this burial chamber, I wondered why not. Such an explosion of starlight with seemingly the creator’s intention of merging terra and caelum, this burial chamber belies its small size. No superlative thought can adequately describe the sight when one is ushered through the narrow doorway into one of the four transepts centred under the Mausoleum’s dome.

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

On the ceiling, the night sky is Ravenna blue, a colour unique in the same way the glass in Chartres Cathedral windows is known as Chartres Blue. Here in the Mausoleum, there is a shallow dome depicting a sky in this vivid blue mosaic with white and golden stars. A golden cross is placed at dome’s centre, signalling human redemption, through the Sacrifice on the Cross. The symbols of the four evangelists hover around the cross. This artist was no Arian.

I was supposed to move on after 10 minutes. I stayed for over an hour.

The images of day and night are so intensified in each of these places – one in amber; the another in glass mosaics. No wonder that lyrical genius, Cole Porter, was supposed to have written his song “Night and Day” after visiting the Mausoleum. What would he have written if he had also seen the Amber Room?

Omicron – What is in a Letter?

An appreciation of a recent Boston Globe wit which distils down why we have a WHO.

Perhaps that is bit harsh, but the naming rights for the Virus as it shifts its calling card through the bodies of humankind have raised a few wry smiles, even chuckles elsewhere. This I thought was the best ramble through the alphabetical jungle that I’ve read.

It’s probably safe to assume that classicists are as upset as the general population about the emergence of this latest threat.

But they, at least, can distract themselves with pronunciation debates. “I am not a technical ancient linguist,” the British celebrity historian Mary Beard tweeted: “But I do find it a bit odd that the BBC news is saying omicron with the stress on the first syllable.” Later in the Twitter thread, she revealed that she prefers the stress on the middle syllable — the “mic” part.

“I made a joke early on that we didn’t want to get to ‘Theta’,” One classicist professor joked.

Theta — the eighth letter of the Greek alphabet — is short for Thanatos, in Greek mythology the personification of death. “I might have tweeted about it,” the professor allowed.

Then he started riffing about upcoming alphabet-related naming challenges.

The next letter up, he noted, is Pi. “Do we want to go after geometry?” he asked, quickly moving on to the letter Rho, which would be tricky because “some people will want to trill it,” and as for Sigma, it takes so many written forms that it, too, could be a challenge.

“There’s madness all the way down,” he said cheerfully.

For people not following the lesser dramas of the World Health Organization,(WHO) it might come as a surprise to learn that the decision to identify the variants with Greek letters was not a simple administrative matter, but in fact decided upon after “wide consultation” and a review of “many potential naming systems,” according to a May 2021 announcement.

“WHO convened an expert group of partners from around the world to do so, including experts who are part of existing naming systems, nomenclature and virus taxonomic experts, researchers and national authorities.”

WHO turned to the Greek alphabet to make the names easy to say and remember, and to get away from geographic stigma and discrimination.

But of course, nothing is simple. Considering that the most recent named variant before Omicron was Mu, the letter Nu should have been next, followed by Xi, and then Omicron.

But there was no Nu because it sounds like “new,” naming experts feared we’d end up in some crazy “Who’s On First? Type” situation:

“What’s the new variant called?”

” Nu.”

“That’s what I’m asking — what’s the new one called?”

“Nu.”

Using the letter Xi would probably have landed the WHO squarely in the fraught situation it was trying to avoid by using Greek letters in the first place. Not only is it a common last name, it’s the name of China’s president, Xi Jinping.

So Omicron it was. But Omicron feels sketchy. How come no one had ever heard of it before? Maybe it’s one of those Clinton-Kamala Harris-Nancy Pelosi-Anthony Fauci-Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-Lame Stream Media hoaxes.

The meme machine has been cranking overtime, likening Omicron to an evil Transformer villain (sample Tweet: “He will do whatever is necessary to further the Decepticon’s conquest of the Universe, even if it costs him personal harm.”)

The name sounds like a drug in heavy advertisement rotation on cable news: “Ask your doctor about Omicron (warning: Omicron may cause death and despair).” Or maybe a minor cryptocurrency (oh, wait, it is one, and of course its value briefly soared).

From an educational perspective, Omicron is giving people a skewed idea of the Greek alphabet. As far as many people know, Omicron comes right after the last variant to get a lot of attention, which was Delta.

“Someone said this is the worst way to teach the public the Greek alphabet,” said David Goldstein, an associate professor of linguistics, Indo-European studies, and classics at UCLA.

But at the rate things are going, this isn’t even a problem we’ll have for that much longer. The Greek alphabet has 24 letters, and we’ve already blown our way to number 15.

In June, the journal Nature urged WHO to get ahead of the name game and “consider alphabets from other languages” to have at the ready. “The WHO system’s authors will be aware that theirs is a temporary solution,” the journal intoned.

But alphabets are finite and this pandemic is endless. We need an ever-replenishing source of monikers. Disgraced public officials, maybe?

Swedish Winter

Accompanying a photo which came the other day from Sweden was the following message:

Black ice such as this is a “fairly rare” occurrence. Necessary conditions include the Greenland blockage, high pressure, rapid drop in temperature and no wind. The result is magic ice as though looking through glass and which provides extremely smooth skating. Our local mare is very reliable in providing solid ice but often not as smooth as this. Hopefully the incoming snowstorm will bypass us so that we can skate for some weeks to come (on the same magic ice).

Now here in Australia in winter we curse black ice, because it cannot be seen on a bitumen tarmac, especially in the early morning, when driving on it. A real hazard, unless you are skating on the local lake

But in Sweden, black ice is a boon as my Swedish correspondent has told me. The “Greenland blockage” was an unfamiliar term to a non-weather person such as myself. Apparently, it is the result of a high-pressure zone over Greenland, often referred to as a “blocking” pattern because it slows the flow of weather systems circulating around the Northern Hemisphere. When present, weather extremes can affect the same areas for extended periods.

Scientists evaluate the presence of a Greenland block and its intensity and duration through an index known as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). A negative NAO is often an indicator of a Greenland block. A positive NAO signals low pressure over Greenland and generally less extreme weather over the Northern Hemisphere continents. So, there it is, Greenland blocked – despite what was said above it seems it has enabled a Swedish upside.

The only question “mare” – not a female horse; not Swedish for lake; or not a Latin “sea”. May be just a “mere” mistake.  I am thus not sure.

Mouse Whisper

This item is taken from a 15 year old issue of New Scientist. Apparently a letter arrived from a bank addressed to this woman, which she described as a self-contained communication with no further information required.

Except…on the back of the sheet was written: “This page is left blank deliberately.”

Subtle but self-falsifying proposition? Anything really changed?

Modest Expectations – West of Liverpool

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

Nowhere to Hide in Unalloyed Comfort

Tannery

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

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

How many young people would know what a tannery is?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Duchy Palace which housed Cornwall’s Stannary Parliament

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

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

The Premier Pirouette

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

There are many variations of pirouettes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pirouette or Whirling Dervish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Links in Northern Ireland is better without Bunkers

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

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

Derry mural

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald Trump’s Bizarre Obsession

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

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

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

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

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

*Trump was born in 1946 and thus is 75.

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

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

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

Modest Expectation – An Item for Long Review

Ideas for a scrapbook?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there one?

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

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

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

A small endeavour 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Armenians in Ireland

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

Ruins of Rahan Church

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

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

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

Gտեսություն, ցտեսություն, Գլեդիս

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pandora with her box

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

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

And you think I’m being ironic!

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

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

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

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

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

“Volere Volare o Vogare Qualsiasi”

Letter from New York City

October 2021

Dear Readers,

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

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

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

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

The question I bet nobody will ask Dom Perrottet

Do you wear or have ever worn a cilice?

Do you know of anybody who wears a cilice?

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

But how acceptable would that be?

I have a hallucination for the country…

Modest Expectations – Lopez Nunes

Consider this summer’s Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago. All those attending were required to provide proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test. Anyone unvaccinated was required to wear masks throughout, even though the festival was outdoors. And those attending were asked to accept a “Lollapalooza Fan Health Pledge” promising they had not tested positive or been exposed to covid within two weeks or experienced any covid symptoms within 48 hours. The result? Of the hundreds of thousands of fans who attended the festival, only a few hundred have subsequently tested positive — and it is unclear whether any of them were infected at Lollapalooza.

Eighteen months into the pandemic, we’ve learned that outdoor gatherings are reasonably safe — it’s the indoor activities that invariably follow that are deadly. At Sturgis, (the annual pilgrimage to this tiny town in South Dakota for motorcycle enthusiasts) it is unlikely that the outdoor bike rallies were a problem. Most of the spread likely happened in the evenings, when people crowded into bars and restaurants, most unvaccinated, all unmasked. Large gatherings that work on keeping indoor spaces safe through vaccinations, masking, ventilation and other techniques can keep the entire gathering safer. 

Over the past year, every time we have tried to defy the virus by scorning precautions, the virus has won, and people have suffered and died: significant outbreaks, a lot of hospitalizations, too many deaths. Large gatherings like rallies, festivals and fairs are the biggest test of what our society can do in a pandemic.

The simple interpretation of the large outbreak after Sturgis is that big gatherings are just not possible during a pandemic. But that is the wrong lesson. It’s important for Americans to find ways to come together. So we should ask how we can make gatherings safer. 

Here, the pandemic playbook is straightforward: Ensure you have a highly vaccinated population. Verify people’s vaccination status. Require rapid and frequent testing, especially for the unvaccinated. Improve indoor air quality, and use masking intermittently when needed.

None of these are difficult to achieve. And none of them should be particularly inconvenient. If we do all that, we can safely get back to the things we love and the events that bring us together, like music festivals, concerts and motorcycle rallies. From The Washington Post

On the way to Sturgis to catch a dose of COVID

The Sturgis motor bike rally attracts, over a 10-day period in August, about 500,000 people, all unvaccinated, all maskless, all completely ignoring any anti-viral precautions. I remember last year the forlorn image of the lone nurse at the empty COVID-19 testing station at Sturgis.

Sturgis is a small town in sparsely populated Mead County of that State; perhaps the nearest equivalent in Australia might be the annual gathering of ute owners and their vehicles in Deniliquin.

One difference is the Deni Ute Muster, as it is called, attracts only about 25,000 with up to one hundred utes, and it has been cancelled this year, as it was last year – out of respect for the lethal nature of the Virus.

Small town where, when the crowd arrives and leaves, in this case in Sturgis the number of COVID-19 cases shot up. There have been variable estimates of the extent of the spread engineered by the Sturgis participants and the numbers range up to 266,000. But given the reliability of the data, just use the word “substantial” – as good as any semi-quantitative measure.

While that irresponsible Governor of South Dakota rides around pillion at such a festival, herself vaccinated (not in evidence) but maskless (in evidence) what does one expect from a country one spit away from the sinkhole.

In 1788, Sydney was all we had

One matter is evident in the lead up to the election. Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition come from the same state, and not only that, but also from suburban Sydney. There is resentment building against NSW; and that is unsurprising given what a target Berejiklian has made for herself, and which may intensify once the shadow cast by ICAC may challenge her “ermine saviour” image promoted by the AFR and subsequently universally lampooned. Again, she is a product of suburban Sydney schooling in North Ryde, and her deputy’s stronghold is in Queanbeyan, which may as well be a de facto suburb of Canberra; moreover, conventional suburbia.

I have lived half my life in Victoria and the other half in New South Wales.  I also have been lucky enough to travel widely around Australia during my working life. I remember having to work in Queensland, and that feeling of being labelled a “Mexican”, which I soon shed; but on the other hand if the Queenslanders don’t like you (which is the politician’s lot) it is hard to shed the sombrero.

I have seen images of Albanese in Queensland and he doesn’t exactly look in place there; whereas Morrison fits the bill (Queensland has a hearty dose of evangelical happy clappers like himself) at least in the country areas. The number of billboards in rural Queensland telling one that “Jesus saves”, would encourage anybody to open a bank account.

As if a prescient sign, a former Albanese sidekick has been booted from his position as Mayor of the Inner West Council, suffering the ignominy of not being able to finish his term in December, when a new council will be elected.

“The name’s Bill. Bill Shorten,” the kicker line began. “Remember it well. He’s a union supremo at the moment. He’s pals with both foxes and hounds. He’s the face of 21st century Labor. Heading for The Lodge? You better believe it.” 

I remember this quote about Bill Shorten. It doesn’t get much currency these days.

I am not a great fan of Shorten. From my sources in Melbourne flow streams of negativity. His rise to the leadership was not a pathway which personally I would have taken, but he got there, with all his “zinger” arrogance clearly demonstrating a complete lack of sense of humour in the process. A very unlovely image over seven years, and he lost the election.

Equally unlovely men have had a second chance, but in so doing, they regulated their outer coating – spots and stripes are changed accordingly. When he was young, Shorten’s essential meanness was hidden behind a youthful face and a shock of hair. I doubt whether he has changed that much, but he is intelligent, far more than the current Prime Minister and his essential meanness of spirit could carry the Labor Party to victory, given that image of NSW being the teacher’s pet and that totally inept performance of his fellow Victorian, Frydenberg, who has continually attacked his own State.

Shorten does not have to be Bob Hope with devastating one liners; he needs to convert his meanness into an image of resilience and show compassion. The baby kissing “aw-shucks” image is not Shorten; leave that to Morrison and his baseball cap.

These are hard times. Once, there was a hard time in Northern Tasmania. I was not close enough to the Beaconsfield mine disaster to know how Shorten was perceived locally at the time – whether a sincerely concerned union official or a silver-tailed blow-in – courtesy of Dick Pratt’s private plane. But he was there on the spot, not in Hawaii. Shorten’s intuitive response was one of being seen there.

Man of the people, Beaconsfield

Smart people always learn; and Shorten is smart. Howard learnt; he had the same propensity of shifting alliances – a polite way of putting it. After all, it was said Shorten was in his element in Beaconsfield given his expertise in undermining. This facet of his way up the pole of influence will always dog him; but being likened to a rodent ultimately did not impede Howard’s rise to Prime Ministership, where he did a reasonable job. He was fortunate to have Tim Fisher as his Deputy – both, may I add, New South Welshmen but at least Tim’s electorate bordered Victoria. This a luxury Morrison does not have.

The Australian government is not the plaything of New South Wales politics. Premier Andrews summed up the resentment “I signed up to a national plan to vaccinate the country, not a plan to vaccinate Sydney.” Note Andrews did not say NSW; he said Sydney.

The Lodge, Canberra

Andrews embodied a bitterness which is palpable around Australia. There is no better symbolism than Morrison going home to Sydney every weekend. He is a Sydneysider; he is not an Australian. The Lodge is where the Prime Minister of Australia resides. The problem is that, as Keating first demonstrated, it is too easy for a Sydney-based Prime Minister to use Kirribilli House as the main residence, not the Lodge. However, Canberra was constructed to symbolise the Australian Federation, not some form of extended Sydney papacy because of the accident of the first settlement, Port Jackson, where Arthur Phillip stuck the Union Jack.

The Prime Minister should test his popularity in Victoria for a start. Victoria gets a new seat at the next Federal election – a safe Labor seat named after Bob Hawke; and the recent redistribution makes the seat of Chisholm even more marginal for the Liberal Party. Especially if it is recommended as an electoral issue that Kirribilli House be opened up for the nation or sold, in order to dispense with the notion that the Federal Government is just an extension of NSW politics. After all, Kirribilli was acquired in 1919 by another NSW-based Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, to prevent the site being redeveloped.

Only since 1956 has it been the place where the Prime Minister could entertain, but not live. However, since the end of 1991 Australia has had NSW-based Prime Ministers except for the Rudd/Gillard six-year era – in other words, over a 30 year period we have had a NSW Prime Minister for 25 of those, and thus surreptitiously turning Kirribilli into the Prime Ministerial residence is outrageous. Canberra was created for that purpose, and the Lodge is the official residence of the Prime Minister, not an apartment when Parliament is sitting. Moreover, it has been recently renovated at a cost of $9m.

What a choice, with the wife and kids with a residence overlooking the Harbour, the Government being seen as not disrupting the children’s schooling.  One can see how that resonates in the community – Big Daddy.

Then no matter what, the lights will continue to burn brightly in Kirribilli, with comfy fireside chats with the NSW Premier, especially if the two share the same political affiliation – and the children are playing around at his feet.

Kiribilli-by-sea

Do we really want Albanese to continue this dubious NSW tradition?

You know, the rest of Australia can go hang but Daddy is always home for dinner – and close to Hillsong on Sundays.

Wilcannia on the Darling River

“Jack Best, you should know better.”

The woman, a Barkinji elder, had been looking at me strangely for a few minutes as I was talking. I stopped, sheepish as a naughty child.

I realised that what I was saying was trespassing into woman’s business.

That was the way.  I was openly admonished. I should have recognised her initial non-verbal scolding.  Aboriginal people are very good on non-verbal communication; the more you work with them, the more you learn how to respond appropriately.

Yet in this instance, it demonstrated that she recognised as a whitefella that I had been trusted by the local Aboriginal population, and my action was not ignorance borne of lack of knowledge; but it had been my unthinking chatter when I had wandered into women’s business by describing something I had seen.

As I said, she was a Barkinji elder, her people fine-boned Aboriginals whose land lies along the Darling River.

I spent a considerable amount of time in Wilcannia when I was working in the Far West of NSW. Whether I had any long term impact, perhaps but I doubt it. Nevertheless, I remember a time when the myth was abroad implying that Wilcannia was a dangerous place where you would not want to stop. I never had that feeling.  Yet it has always been very easy to criticise Wilcannia because the town depends on Government funding, one way or another. For a period, there was an attempt to introduce the building trades, complete with a bricklaying machine. Not a success.

Wilcannia is a very circumscribed community. Once a port on the Darling River, it now has a very important place in Australia’s heritage, both for Aboriginal people and whitefellas. Whitefellas still lived in the town – when I was there one white nun was still resident in the convent.

There was a very involved white family who had a substantial property on the Darling River, just north of Wilcannia – a beautiful property. When the Darling River is not a dry creek bed or a stream discoloured by algal blooms, it is one of the most beautiful rivers in the world, and a property being on the river had a grandstand view, employing an apt sporting cliché, one of those that riddle our language.

Wilcannia is at a junction of roads going in all directions – the conventional access east-west  via the Barrier Highway; or north along the Darling to Bourke – a rough route through Tilpa and Louth. South, you turn off the Barrier highway and go down through the Manara Hills to Ivanhoe, where I once got off the Indian Pacific at 3am in order to be given a lift back to Wilcannia. Also, I once drove the 800 kilometres from Wilcannia to Melbourne on a Saturday in a Ford Laser without power steering.

Notwithstanding, Wilcannia is a self-contained Aboriginal community, with its buildings reflecting the whitefella heritage. The buildings were constructed of the distinctive cream sandstone from the now overgrown quarry  just out of town. Wilcannia stone has a distinctive cerise streak running through it.

Whitefella heritage

Now Wilcannia is in the middle of the pandemic and, given how circumscribed the community is, it is not surprising that once the Virus arrived there, most of the community were liable to become infected. The vaccination caravan arrived, and while there is a local hospital, there has been no local doctor, although there was someone in the past, who was a bit of a “Doc Holliday”.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) provided a clinic several times a week. The local nursing staff were hard-bitten but a generous lot; they had to be because there was a regular client group, who would turn up at all hours of the day or night. While the RFDS was there to pick up emergency cases; there also was always the chance of a woman unexpectedly turning up in labour at the hospital, well into the second stage, since ante-natal care for many of the Indigenous population is under-utilised.

What I find somewhat ironic with the pandemic and the resistance to a dedicated quarantine facility by the NSW Government is the provision of motor homes and tents in Wilcannia to isolate the infected. This is an expensive way of providing a dedicated facility; and it seems to have escaped the media’s attention to ask why hasn’t the Government been able to produce the same facilities for the infected burghers of the west and south-west of Sydney – early in the outbreak? The pundits would suggest the cost would be prohibitive and nobody would be prepared to dedicate the golf courses, for instance, for this use for the pandemic duration for such a facility.

But why should there be such a positive act of discrimination towards one community and not elsewhere in NSW?    All irony aside, what happens in Wilcannia will be instructive if NSW Health have the wit to engage in the community long term. Why? Because one way or another the whole Wilcannia community will either be vaccinated, be infected or a mixture of both.

Being an isolated community, it would be interesting to see how long the immunity lasts and whether there are differences between those vaccinated and those naturally infected. The problem is the level of trust that the Barkinji give to us whitefellas. I spent many years there on and off as I said, but always recognised how conditional trust is.

My closest contact is dead. He was one of several blackfellas with whom I developed that level of trust; but that was a long time ago. Nevertheless, we did develop a blueprint – an understanding. The lesson for me was that Wilcannia provided an insight into a community caught on the edge of whitefella civilisation. Yet that took years to obtain.

The Ghost of Al Grassby

I was going to give Albanese-bashing a break, but he cannot save himself. The topic was  Australian multi-culture and how his Party had been the centre of multi-cultural advocacy. He instanced Al Grassby as being a promotor of multi-culturism, when a member of Parliament. Al Grassby initially received a great deal of favourable coverage because of his colourful self-portrayal. This face of the Griffith Calabrian N’drangeta was hidden for many years, and it was a very unfavourable way of supporting the candidature of Kristina Keneally to the Lower House to mention Grassby in any way.

Kristina Keneally

I agree with Paul Keating that she is an acquisition in the Lower House, not the least for having a sharp mind and being articulate at the same time. She leaves some of the dummies who apparently are Ministers in her wake.

It is unsurprising in his enthusiasm for multi-culturism that Albanese failed to mention the exploits of those two multi-cultural warriors, Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi, prominent bugbears that Keneally “cut off at the pass”.

I am sure Ms Keneally remembers those two examples of Australian multi-culturism during her nightmare Premiership, as she ploughs into her new electorate-in-waiting.

Nevertheless, if she inherits the Home Affairs portfolio under a Labor Government, her experience will be very useful in dealing with a guy called Pezzullo.

King Penguins on the bookshelf

King Penguins were a delightful series of books produced as one of the inspirations of Alan Lane, the founder of Penguin Books. He borrowed the concept from a small German publisher, Insel-Verlag.

Alan Lane started the publication of Penguin books in 1936, where he reprinted books in characteristic pocket editions.

In 1939, the first in this series of King Penguins – “British Birds” appeared.

As Lane said himself: “The aim of the King Penguin is different. These have not been planned to coincide with the public’s growing appreciation of art, but rather to appeal to the general liking for illustrated keepsakes of special projects.”  Unless you sample these books, that description is less than informative.

The first book had a pale green cover, with brown solid edges with white streaks between each brick, like ribbons of mortar. The full title British Birds on Lake, River and Stream lies over an inked cartoon of a kingfisher.  There were 16 colour plates taken from John Gould’s massive collection of Birds of Great Britain, which extended to seven volumes. In a one shilling crown octavo pocket size book, the King Penguin is an elegant sampler, beautifully presented, of often esoteric subjects. The introductory description of this first one acknowledged  how Gould spent several years in Australia and prepared a 600 plate Birds of Australia and is regarded as the Father of Australian ornithology.

Seventy-six King Penguins and 20 years later, the last King Penguin was published. The subject matter – the Sculpture of the Parthenon. While I enjoyed the British bird book, I’m not big on the Parthenon. But that is the quirky diversity of this set. As recounted in an earlier blog, I used the 1950 King Penguin, Romney Marsh, as a guide to find the various churches deep in this reclaimed Kent marshland.

I now have a complete King Penguin set, the collection of which was started by my father. My father bought Penguin books by the bookcase – adding to his collection every month. Not only Penguins but Pelicans, which were essentially the non-fiction counterpart.  Penguins typically had an orange colour (unless crime, which had a green cover; biography royal blue; travel/adventure crimson). The Pelicans were sky blue in colour and were published from 1937 to 1990. Along the way, when the Penguin Classics were issued, my father never missed one; King Penguins were different. He bought those when he was interested in the subject matter.

Having inherited these, I thought I must try and obtain the full set. The first and easiest option was to buy a full set, and now on eBay to buy a full set the buyer needs about US$1,000. For me, when such international trading entrepôt to tap did not exist, they were much harder to access; it was the thrill of the chase and over about five years, mostly in small secondhand bookshops in England, a complete set was achieved. Some are in better condition than others, but it was the joy of discovery – and inching towards the full set.

Magic Books of Mexico

When the last one was collected,  in my case Popular Art in Britain, my feeling of elation at having achieved the goal quickly became followed by a sense bordering on melancholia. What next? An achievement which will not materially change anything.

Yet recently I have found out about another one which I don’t have. That was the one reprinted for the Olympics Games in 1968, “Magic Books of Mexico”. My collector melancholy has lifted – if only temporarily.

The next venue?

The Pentagon has spent more than $14 trillion on the war in Afghanistan, with “one-third to one-half” of the total going to military contracts, according to a newly released report by the Costs of War Project at Brown University.

According to the report, which outlines the corporate beneficiaries of post-9/11 Pentagon spending, one-quarter to one-third of all contracts in recent years have been awarded to just five major corporations: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman – From The Boston Globe

After Afghanistan and Vietnam and Korea, coming to a venue near you – 1955, 1975, 2021; or another way 1951, 1965, 2001 – 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. To feed the above corporations, will the next conflict be the real Armageddon – or just 40 years devoted to an exercise in the Defence of Freedom as well as feeding the maw of the above named corporations?

The blood of Afghanistan is barely dry on the American escutcheon before there is more feeding of the maw, with the proposal to infect Australia with nuclear submarine technology. The beneficiary of this Thursday’s announcement? General Dynamics. Will anybody ever learn?

The Waste Land has never seemed more relevant.

This decayed hole among the mountains

In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing

Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel

There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.

It has no windows, and the door swings.

And for chapel, substitute mosque, synagogue, temple or whatever suits your prayer.

Mouse Whisper

How do you make an Armenian cross?

Mention the word accountability!

Or else hire yourself a good carver of khachkars (sounds like a guttural version of cash cow), an example below with the characteristic cross of the Armenian Apostolic Church. If you want to see the eclectic nature of the Christian Church, just wander into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The church territory is carved up between six Christian sects so that the Chapel of Saint Helena is a 12th-century Armenian church contained on the lower level. All mine!

As a paw note, I acknowledge my uncle Charles Arnamousian, for this information.

A khachkar

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 – Arithmetic Progression 

“The first most precious thing in life is food in your mouth.” Rowan Atkinson has visited the local food bank I volunteer at regularly over the entire period of the Covid-19 pandemic (where visits have increased tenfold in the last two years). He brings massive amounts of tinned fish which is exactly the luxury our customers ask for first, tuna runs out so quick I’ve seen people queue for hours in the mornings to get some. He never stays around to shake hands or give some self assured speech or anything despite how everyone comes out to see him – he just passes us a few big Sainsburys bags full of tuna and fresh vegetables then drives off. A real man is defined not by his words but by his deeds. – Joel Dixton

Time to Throw away the Old Coates?

You have to understand how important these events are for small countries that are isolated. It was wonderful to have all those people and be the centre of the world. Events make them important and the focal point as they think they should be.” Quote from NYT.

As I schoolboy I went to the Olympic Games in 1956. I was sports mad and there I was, in the queue 18 months before, on the day ticket sales opened. I am there staring at the camera when I was snapped by the National Geographic magazine photographer just after I had purchased my tickets. The most expensive tickets for the opening ceremony cost six guineas, but none of these were on sale for the “unwashed” even on the opening day. After alI, I was not very far back in the queue which snaked up Lonsdale Street away from the retail store Myers.

I was able to buy tickets for the opening ceremony costing three guineas, and then there were tickets for one guinea. All very quaint, but I had the sum of 100 pounds which had come from cashing out an insurance policy my grandmother had taken out when I was born. I bought a variety of tickets, including the closing ceremony as well.

Sydney was somewhat different. Some time after Sydney was awarded the 2000 Games in 1993, my mate and I each bought two of initial ticket packages, which included the opening ceremony, for about $3,700 each. We could pay in instalments, and by far the most expensive component was the opening ceremony. That was $1,500 a ticket. The opening ceremony was a spectacle, and it is easy to dissect and criticise, but you remember some of the gloss and then the interminable parade of each country’s fashion sense as the nations marched by. The highlight for me was being included in the Torch relay, courtesy of Ansett Airlines. I had my gig in Nowra, kept the torch and, for eternity, stare out of the pages of the Illawarra Mercury.

On both occasions, I was very enthusiastic about the Games.  Here was a time to be recognised on the world stage. No matter that the 1956 Games were nearly victim to Australian mismanagement led by the fumbling fascist war hero, Wilfrid Kent Hughes, bumbling away with the irascible American IOC chairman, Avery Brundage, an admirer of Hitler, knowledge of which was airbrushed away by 1956.  Then, before the Games, inconveniently came the Suez crisis and the aborted Hungarian uprising, which resulted in a smaller Games than in Helsinki four years earlier. The Dutch inter alia did not come to Australia, and Australian quarantine regulations meant the equestrian events were held in Sweden. However, all this was lost on this 16 year old called me.

Those games were not then mired by the systemic cheating initiated by the Eastern bloc which, in 1976, led to Australia winning no gold medals, the first games at which this had occurred since Berlin in 1936. As the Australian finalist in the women’s 400 metres final commented, she was the only runner without a moustache.

There were the riots in Mexico City in 1968, the murder of the Israeli athlete hostages of Munich in 1972, the Moscow Games boycott because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980. One could hear the death rattle, with the IOC under the Irish peer, Lord Killanin, only to be rescued by the American Peter Ueberroth, who made a profit on the Olympic Games in 1984. He injected an element of humanity, whether cynical on not, in encouraging the incorporation of the Paralympics into the main schedule, to ensure that from 1988 they were held in the same city as the main games. The Paralympics had arisen from the Stoke Mandeville project in England and the first was organised in Rome in 1960, but not under the Olympic movement banner.

Somehow, despite the stench of doping and of a privileged and corrupt IOC, the Games have survived, but the death rattle can be heard again in the Tokyo Games. The Games are no longer a diadem, and Brisbane has been bullied and cajoled by one man to take on the financial burden. Can the fact get into the heads of our politicians as they grasp at the straws of our disintegrating country that nobody is really interested in taking on a massive debt, except Queensland (with, of course, the Federal Government picking up 50 per cent of the cost on behalf of the Australian tax payer)?

Australia just does not need the IOC pied pipers to allure the children of now to the Bananabender Boondoggle called “Brissie”.

Yes, I was one who marvelled at the exploits of Ralph Doubell while the smell of tear gas drifted over the Mexico City stadium and when Shane Gould was our swimming heroine and angry when Raelene Boyle was cheated out of greatness by an East German doped so much it precipitated her early death; all the while terrorists were killing 11 athletes in the Munich athletes’ village.

Sure, the magnificent swims by Ariarne Titmus and efforts of Jess Fox provide a short term boost in national pride.  They are exceptional athletes. There is no doubt that the exploits of our current Olympians feed the traditional image of a sporting nation and temporary jubilation from a nation imprisoned by a Virus. But what of 2032?

Ueberroth provided a false dawn by providing a model of running the Games profitably. He stated a clear objective; he ruthlessly pared costs, re-used venues, and achieved a profit measurable in real money. Following that, the World has had a series of Games “striving to be declared the best ever”, increasing the number of sports, some of which border on theatre and judged by subjective opinion rather than the objectivity of being “first past the post”. Along the way there have been burgeoning TV rights – until somebody may stop the carousel to do the numbers. The IOC and the successful cities in his aftermath had forgotten Ueberroth.

The local press is celebrating Brisbane for being chosen in 2032 with Coates, as the driving force, being forgiven for his boorish behaviour. In the cold light of tomorrow, Australia may realise how it has been hoodwinked by Coates, there was no other city interested apart from his adopted hometown. Nobody else wants it. It is too expensive for dubious gains.

Coates  yet has rescued the IOC, saving them from going cap in hand to some other city to strike a deal. Instead Australia, which will be coping under the economic and social cost of the COVID-19 pandemic for decades to come, has been conned into more debt. Sure, the athletes will come, and the quote from the NYT at the head of this article will ring all so true as our Clutch of politicians will bask in the sunlight of praise until, after two weeks in 2032, the light is turned off leaving the Clutch in darkness, and in debt.

I suggest that failing the employment of a latter-day Ueberroth, Queensland do a poll to determine the level of sponsor interest. It is noteworthy that the AFR was gushing in its Editorial about Brisbane’s win. Are they the same writers who, just a couple of weeks ago, advocated that Sydney not go into lockdown to halt the spread of the Virus?

Enough said?

Well, not quite. Remember in 2003 when the NYT ran an article on the financial aftermath of the Sydney Olympic Games. This quote is salutary:

For a party that lasted only 16 days, the Games carried a big bill. In a 2002 report, the New South Wales auditor general put the Games’ cost at 6.484 billion Australian dollars, or about $4.77 billion, of which 2.037 billion Australian dollars came from the government. The report cautiously accepts estimates by the government of New South Wales that the Games generated 653 million Australian dollars in additional tax revenues from visitors, but even that figure leaves a loss of 1.326 billion Australian dollars.

All the extra costs of the Games were paid for from the budget, meaning they did not leave much of a fiscal hangover. (Unlike the Montreal Games where the 1976 Olympic Games billion dollar debt was not finally extinguished until 2006.)

“A lot of our planning was very extravagant,” Richard Cashman (then a UNSW academic) said. “There was a decline in the health and education budgets in the years before the Games.”

The value to the Sydney after the Games has been minuscular – loaded with unusable infrastructure – stadia that are dismantled or provide a haven for weeds.  Cycle paths through a wasteland are not a big deal. Such disasters writ large in both Athens and Brazil. All the while the IOC provides the world with specimens such as John Coates, immersed in formalin jars of the past.

By 2032, an Australia Olympics may find itself drowned by a Viral debt, rising seas and irrelevance, through a lack of sponsors and tourist attractions dying from global warming. I believe this is not too much a dystopian view given what’s happening, looking around the world and seeing the ecological disaster being played out well beyond the horizons of this current euphoria.

Remembering Cuba

Cuba was what we expected.

Now we went to Cuba as members of an American delegation. I suppose that was somewhat unusual, having been invited by the leader of the group of health care professionals, Dr Bill Jessee, to join the delegation. It was an easier time then when Obama had loosened the restrictions, and relatively easy to get to Havana. After all it is only  370 kms from Miami with a flight time of  one hour. The plane we flew in was not marked but on returning it was clearly a Delta flight. In the flight magazine Havana was not listed as a Delta destination but on questioning the flight attendant she was quite offhand in saying, “Oh, we fly every day to Cuba.”

We were booked into the Mela Cohiba, a so-called 5-star hotel close to the beach, but a half hour walk from the Old Havana centre. It was a somewhat strange experience when we arrived to be sitting around the pool drinking the first of countless mojitos – the signature white rum, sugar, lime and soda with mint garnish. A walk up the shaded street with the broken concrete footpath showed an interesting sight: the British Embassy was next to that of the Northern Korean.

Despite the protestations of Cuba being an egalitarian country, this Havana suburb could pass as any middle class suburb.

What was evident was that despite the general ramshackle nature of Havana, there was still an underlying enthusiasm for what Castro had done. For instance, there was the wiry little guy who was introduced with reverence. He was small, hard faced, leathery and harangued us in Spanish. He had been one of the 26th July crowd, they whispered, the original band of men who had followed Castro into the Sierra Maestra mountains – hence the reverence. When we were there, Castro, albeit ailing, was still nominally in charge. Castro’s brother, Raul, maintained the Castro power.

However, as you read the papers today, there is street rioting. Fidel is dead; Raul retired. The Castro legacy of the romantic saviour, in a population winnowed by the original opposition being crushed or fled to Florida, is now of decreasing relevance to this younger urbanised group. They have no memory of a rural revolution; the energy which drove the victory over the corrupt Batista regime ruling a Cuba that was the louche playground of American gangsters.

Once the largest World supplier of sugar, exploited by American and other foreign interests, and then after the Castro accession distortion in the market  by Russian subsidy, Cuba has had to restructure what was a sugar economy. Now Cuba is way down the list of sugar cane producers and therefore having to adjust its economy to sustain its socialist ideals has become increasingly difficult.

In 1959, Castro offered a different world, and whether you agree with his methods, he was able to establish, govern and improve the standards of living. Whatever you may think of the methods, Castro had a cleansing effect on Cuba as a haven for criminals and resisted over decades American interference, starting with the Bay of Pigs in 1960.  Notably when we were there, there were no beggars on the streets, no overt poverty. The unemployment level was said to be less than four per cent, but there is some controversy about what that figure means. The level of “hidden unemployment” may be a factor underlying the recent rioting.

The American automobiles around the streets were remnants of the fifties. They had become a tourist attraction. We were driven about in a sky blue Ford Mercury, but mostly we bussed around the various locations to see a variety of health facilities in what appeared to be a school bus.

The hospitals reminded me of the country hospitals that I had known in the early part of my medical career, just shorn of the technology which I had come to accept as de rigeur. Their pitch to us was laced with propaganda, matter-of-the-fact, no overt hostility to the Americans, mildly surprised to find a couple of Australians in their midst. This was the home of the the barefoot doctor!

One of the local leaders of our delegation told us how her parents had been part of the communist ethos whereby if you were a labourer on building a block of apartments you would be given one. The problem now, however, was that these small one or two bedroom apartments that housed a small family 40 years before, increasingly were housing two to three generations because housing development under the communist regime had not sustained the increasing need for new housing.

The visit had its ups and down. I was laid low for a couple of days with severe food poisoning, which I suspect came from a fish lunch. I was the only one to be poisoned, so I wondered whether I had been a mistaken target for some dastardly deed. Anyway, it reduced the amount of health facilities I had to visit, so there is always a silver lining. Nevertheless, I did avoid being a customer of the Cuban health system, whatever conclusion can be drawn from that.

Havana’s old city was just what you would expect – the picture postcard vista of the Old Spanish American town.  At the dinner when I was serenaded for my birthday, she could have been a sultry Lena Horne look-alike stepped out of a 40s movie, and I trying to be cool as she fixed me with her gaze as she sang. But I don’t do nonchalance well.

Wandering into the Nacional Hotel with all the memorabilia of its heyday strewn around, it was easy to be transported back to that era of Clark Gable and Ernest Hemingway. This was the place in Havana where the movie stars flocked because you could drink, you could gamble, you could frolic with money and in so doing could escape the Puritan eye of their American forefathers. Built on a hill overlooking the sea, with a large lawn, the hotel was not difficult to imagine being in one’s tux strolling out in the evening, cocktail in hand, and watching the lights of the hotel skip along the sea swell.

In 1959 this romance was transferred to revolution, but that has long gone and given way to an ageing, ideologically-driven nation increasingly having difficulty paying its way.

Yet in 2011 I suspect there was enough residual nostalgia and reverence, because of the Castros. They epitomised this romantic image of revolution, where the face of Che Guevara was still everywhere.

In a restaurant where we went for lunch I noted a stack of those T-shirts with Guevara printed on the front. Red starred berets were on sale. I went across to the stand where they had been stocked, a much better word than displayed because there was nobody trying to hawk them. I extracted a red and black one with the imprint of Che on the front – and a beret. Once the others in the party saw what I done, they flocked over, and then there were none.

Needless to say, this group of health professionals had a number, somewhat incongruously, who went off to buy that other commodity for which Cuba is famous – the cigar. Together with Cuban rum, cigars were still a prohibited import into the USA. There were constant warnings that the customs would be there, searching for any sign of Cuban tobacco leaf or the smell of rum. The funny thing was when we arrived back in Miami at the end of the week, there was not a customs officer in sight. Irony on a number of levels.

The footpath along the sea wall provided a wide vista of the foreshore, although you had to be wary of the rogue wave breaching the wall and giving one of good dousing. Here  was another reminder of the American presence. In Havana, walking along the seafront, there was this large  anonymous building surrounded by a formidable fence.   This building was the one which later achieved a degree of notoriety when the embassy staff were subject to microwave radiation during 2016-2017. They complained of symptoms ranging from dizziness, loss of balance, hearing loss, anxiety and something they described as “cognitive fog”. It became known as “Havana syndrome”. It coincided with the time of Trump, who predictably re-imposed  sanctions on Cuba.

The memories of Cuba seem a long time go. I suppose being on an American delegation we could watch the interactions. Apart from the irascible “hero of the revolution”, the reception for the Americans was warm; whether any thing long term developed from the trip I doubt it. The problem is that the Caribbean is a beautiful area contaminated by European adventurism. The Cubans had freed themselves from that, at a price, but still exhibited a warmth in welcoming these health professionals without any feeling that we were meeting a set of selected ideologues spouting inanities.

You get to know when you are on a mushroom tour. Cuba was not one of these . I like to believe in the musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club – the optimism and exuberance of these old guys, could not have come from a totally dark past.

As one writer put it recently: “The musicians you hear on the street corners of Old Havana aren’t playing current styles like reggaeton, or hip-hop, or even salsa. They’re playing music by the Buena Vista Social Club.” As it was when we visited. Thank God, Trump did not destroy that; I do hope that element does survive amid the rioting of a youth that has no memory of the 26th of July.

A Precautionary Tale yet One of Hope

Below is an edited article from The Washington Post this week. It is at a time when some Australian journalists seem to be advocating “eating our young”. In other words, singling out ATAGI is not particularly productive. It gave the typical conservative advice, narrowly based and what they did not say was based on the wrong assumption. There was insufficient Pfizer vaccine to allow for unfettered choice.

Australia is in a time of rationing, not seen since World War 11, and therefore if ATAGI gave advice related to a time of cornucopia rather than rationing, the decision should have been the role of government, rather deflect on the meaningless “we rely on medical advice”. In any event, the government has changed the chair of the ATAGI – just one way of defining scapegoat.

Meanwhile…

Kim Marin and her 12-year-old daughter, Kate, isolate at home Friday in Fairfax County. Both are fully vaccinated and recently tested positive for the coronavirus.  

Kim Marin planned to spend her 51st birthday on Friday eating a cherry pie made by her 80-year-old mother and 12-year-old daughter. But Marin and her daughter, Kate, began feeling ill earlier this week. On Wednesday the pair, who are fully vaccinated and live in Fairfax County, tested positive for the coronavirus.

At first, it seemed like they just had a bad cold: They were coughing, sneezing, and feeling achy. But their symptoms got progressively worse. Kate developed a bad sore throat and the two were outright exhausted. 

“Because my daughter and I were feeling so badly, I just thought, let’s go to urgent care and while we’re here, they should probably test us [for the coronavirus],” Marin said. “We both got tested and we were shocked. We both were first in line to get vaccinated when we were able to.” 

Breakthrough cases are rare. Just 0.031 percent of the 4.5 million fully vaccinated people in Virginia have developed covid-19, according to the state’s dashboard. Just 0.05 percent of the more than 375,000 fully vaccinated people in the District of Columbia have tested positive. And out of the 3.5 million people who have been fully vaccinated in Maryland, just 2,493 have tested positive, according to state officials. 

“I think the thing that’s so startling is that we have been really sick,” Marin said. “The messaging has been that cases like ours should be pretty mild... We’re not in the hospital, so we’re so grateful for that. But it still has not been an easy week.”

Marin has been fully vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine since mid-April, and Kate, also with the Pfizer vaccine, since mid-June. Both Marin’s 48-year-old husband and 14-year-old son, who are both fully vaccinated, tested negative Friday. 

Marin said she isn’t quite sure how she and her daughter contracted the virus. Her family still frequently wears masks when going to the grocery store, only having walked into a store a few times without one. Health officials have yet to contact Marin and her daughter for contact tracing, she said. But Marin immediately notified her doctor and the family’s paediatrician about their results. Marin said her nurse told her she was getting more of these calls from vaccinated people, and told her to go back to wearing masks full time.

Officials in the Washington region haven’t moved to reinstate mask restrictions.

The delta variant has already become the dominant strain in Maryland and Virginia; it makes up 1 percent of cases, but officials are working to increase their sequencing of specimens. While the risk of contracting the virus for vaccinated people is still low, it has increased compared to earlier strains.

The delta variant is much more infectious than the alpha variant was, and than the wild type was before that, and so a better understanding really is — in the short term, in the past 30 days — what proportion of new cases were in individuals who are vaccinated, because that gives a better picture today of what the risk is today to any vaccinated person. 

Los Angeles County officials, for example, look at breakthrough cases in a time-bound way and are able to say, for instance, that 20 percent of the coronavirus cases in June in the county were among vaccinated people. While time-bound figures can help show how exactly the risk for vaccinated people is increasing, officials say it’s still important to note that the risk level for unvaccinated people is higher and increasing, too. 

For her part, Marin plans to go back to taking the precautions she followed in the spring. She has young nephews whom she doesn’t plan to be around without a mask anymore. And she no longer plans to go maskless in any public spaces. But she’s still grateful for the vaccines has made that possible.

“I’m struck by how much worse it could have been,” Marin said. “While it’s been very unpleasant, and scary, we have not felt like it was life-threatening.”

Mouse Whisper

This involves two doctors who were discussing the fact that one of them had been able to diagnose a middle-aged man, whose heart condition had baffled a variety of clinicians. The first doctor asked how the other had come to the diagnosis of cardiac amyloidosis.

The second replied by saying he used the Uncle Bert Sign. “If I described Uncle Bert to you and sent you out into a crowd to find him, you’d probably fail. But if you’d ever seen Uncle Bert” — he snapped his fingers — “no problem. You’d find him in a second. It’s all about recognition.”

Heard it before, Topo?

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.