Modest Expectations – My God, not Des Clarke’s Son

There is one thing about the configuration of hotel/motel rooms. Much is made of the fact that “accessible” rooms are routinely part of a hotel’s room complement – but what does this really mean? When people think of disabled, they recognise that the signage for disability is the wheelchair. However, there is another level of disability which, on occasions, may require a wheelchair – it now tends to be described as “ambulant”, although that seems to only apply to bathroom doors.  When I need a wheelchair, I use one that can be borrowed. This is sufficient. I can manage on two sticks, even with my balance problems.

But back to those accessible rooms. Bathroom/toilet facilities need to be user friendly. Wheelchair friendly facilities must have sufficient space and most disabled facilities recognise the need to eliminate steps.  Nevertheless, many of these are not appropriately designed for the disabled who use sticks or crutches unless there are sufficient railings to assist navigating a wet floor, where sticks are liable to slip as one tries to walk on the cracks between the tiles to avoid sliding The criteria for accessible rooms definitely need to include non-slip-when-wet tiles.

What is also not factored in are the beds, which need to provide a safe place to site and reasonable ability to get out the bed. I use carer help, or else a chair located next to the bed to wrestle myself up. The mechanics are deceptively simple to assist sitting up and swinging legs over. The height of the bed should be related to the height of the person so ideally the height should be adjustable, particularly as modern beds seem designed for an accompanying ladder. The modern hospital may be the template. Hospital beds have a feature that makes them more appropriate, high-low functionality. The user can raise and lower the bed vertically, making a hospital bed ideal for people like myself, who need more assistance when getting in or out of bed.

The other issue is the inappropriateness of the chairs provided in most hotel/motel rooms – often rickety hard backed chairs or ludicrously low armchairs. Even rooms that purport to have a work desk rarely have a suitable chair on wheels. From my point of view, a decent office chair makes life much easier and I suspect for others, avoiding having to push a normal chair back and forth from a desk would be welcome.

It may be said that I am speaking from the viewpoint of a rara avis, but does anyone know? An ideal disabled room should incorporate some of the suggestions discussed above, and it would be useful to convene a working party to set the standard.

Considerations of Some Matters

Some years ago, we visited the first ghetto in the world which is located in Venice. When it was constructed to house the city’s Jews, the gates were locked at night, emphasising its quasi-prison conditions. The ghetto is far from the centre of Venice. Apart from a gaggle of Chinese tourists, the ghetto square was empty save for a Jewish family enjoying the balmy sunny day, sitting under a tree. The only jarring note was the bulletproof door to The Holocaust Museum. We did not go in. I had seen the gruesome museum in the old Gestapo headquarters in Berlin. One Holocaust Museum is enough. Pity, the Israeli government seems not to have seen it lately.

In any event we had eaten a delightful kosher lunch marred by the officious surliness of the staff. Quite obviously, non-Jews were not particularly welcome, even if we did have an inkling of the food taboos.

Reflecting on that I wonder when the world will be able to bask on the shores of the Gaza Riviera. Maybe without gates to lock the Israelis out.

The above were just a few introductory thoughts if you wish to read on.

Avraham Stern – who split from the Irgun to form the Lehi (also known as Stern Gang) in 1940 – had suggested securing support from the Third Reich.

Haaretz adds that Lehi representatives met with an official from the German Foreign Ministry in Beirut at the end of 1940.

“The establishment of the historical Jewish state on a totalitarian national basis, in an alliance relationship with the German Reich, is compatible with the preservation of German power,” the newspaper cites the Israeli document as saying. The Cradle, June 2023 (a journalist-driven American publication founded in 2021 covering “West Asia voices not heard in the world’s English-language media. That’s not the only differentiator. Not owned by any donors, and so they have no say over what is written or not.”)

Q: True or False? 

On April 19, 1943, the Warsaw ghetto uprising began after German troops and police entered the ghetto to deport its surviving inhabitants. About 700 young Jewish fighters fought the heavily armed and well-trained Germans. The ghetto fighters were able to hold out for nearly a month, but on May 16, 1943, the revolt ended. The Germans had slowly crushed the resistance. 

The SS and police captured approximately 42,000 Warsaw ghetto survivors during the uprising. They sent these people to forced labor camps and the Majdanek concentration camps. The SS and police sent another 7,000 people to the Treblinka killing center. At least 7,000 Jews died while fighting or in hiding in the ghetto. Only a few of the resistance fighters succeeded in escaping from the ghetto. – Holocaust Encyclopaedia.

Q: Tell me why the current Gaza situation is different from Warsaw?

The attendees hadn’t expected a policy shift from the meeting, according to the accounts, but felt confident that their concerns would be conveyed to Biden, to be taken into consideration in his public remarks about Palestinians. Two days later, the President made the comments questioning the accuracy of Palestinian casualties at a time when Arabic-language TV channels were showing nonstop footage of lifeless, dust-covered children being pulled from the rubble after Israeli strikes. –Washington Post

Could someone tell me why Israelis are viewed as more truthful than the Palestinians?

The Venetian Ghetto was the first ghetto instituted in 1516 by decree of the then Doge Leonardo Loredan and the Venetian Senate. It would be ironic if, by his actions in Gaza, Netanyahu emulates the Doge, albeit for a different reason, reviving the ghetto so that every Jew, whether Zionist or not, is worldwide forced to live in armed enclaves for their own protection.

When the Gunman Comes to Town

The following is from the Boston Globe response to an edited account of the mass shooting in Maine. I have spent some glorious times in Maine, although I have never been to Lewiston as far as I can remember.

Mass shootings are a rarity in Australia although I well remember the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 when 35 people were killed. I was one of the few who saw the police film of the horrific aftermath, a coloured grainy film. It was a time when I had just stepped down as President of the Australasian Faculty of Public Medicine, and my successor strongly supported our Prime Minister’s response, which inter alia resulted in banning semi-automatic and pump action shotguns, without good reason. While there were concessions to the rural lobby, there were restrictions which, despite some high-profile shootings since, have seen deaths due to firearms decrease.

Nevertheless, what is interesting about this Boston Globe article is the description of the emergency medical response, given most of the shooting victims were dead. Those injured are not as newsworthy, given the concentration on the event and the number dead. How much of the response of Maine health professionals is applicable to the Australian situation?

Dr. Sheldon Stevenson was at home hosting 10 fellow emergency physicians when the call came in Wednesday night around 7:30. Colleagues at his hospital, Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, were resuscitating a gunshot victim. More were on the way.

Stevenson, the hospital’s chief of emergency medicine, had been expecting this call to come one day; mass shootings had grown far too common.

With scarcely a word, the doctors stood up and decided who would stay behind and take over for the others the next morning. The rest sped the roughly 35 miles from his Portland home to the hospital.

Meanwhile, chief executive Steven G. Littleson and chief nursing officer Kris Chaisson had already fielded similar calls. There was an active shooter, and the local emergency dispatch center had activated “code triage,” alerting everyone at the medical center that a disaster was unfolding.

As the hospital braced for what would prove to be its worst disaster ever, the staff knew what they had to do, but knew little of what they might face. Ambulance crews were reporting possibly 15 to 20 victims from two shooting sites. But the gunman was at large, and there was talk of as many as five or six additional sites, possibly waves of patients streaming in all night.

Alerted by the code triage, doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, support personnel, about 20 to 30 people in all, assembled in the ER within minutes. As word spread throughout the medical community, the emergency room filled with 100 people ready to help. Blood supplies arrived from other hospitals. Five helicopters were parked outside, ready to transport victims across the region.

The first gunshot patient arrived at 7:24 p.m. Thirteen more would stream in over the next 45 minutes — many more severely injured patients than the hospital had ever seen at once.

By the time Chaisson, the nursing chief, got to the emergency department, four shooting victims were being assessed in the trauma bays and the ER was filled with “a sea of people.”

“It was an organized chaos,” she said. “There were so many people but they knew exactly what they needed to get done … It was like a work of magic.”

Littleson, the CEO role would coordinate everything that happened next. The hospital was full Wednesday night, its 170 beds occupied, and the emergency room was already busy with the usual crush of 25 to 30 sick patients, including some who were waiting for beds. The staff would have to somehow make room for an untold number of casualties. Patients were moved into holding areas and other available spaces.

“We knew that the patients coming out of the operating room would need critical care. We had to mobilize some of our less critical care patients to other floors, to free up the ICU to take care of these patients,” Chaisson said.

Nine gunshot victims went swiftly to operating rooms — their awful wounds an urgent and obvious diagnosis. Privacy rules prevent a discussion of individual injuries, but Dr. John Alexander, the chief medical officer, named the types of surgeons who worked on them to give an idea: four trauma surgeons, four orthopedic surgeons, a vascular surgeon, a cardiothoracic surgeon, and a urologist.

Stevenson, the emergency chief, said the hospital treats gunshot wounds at least every month. But typically they are from handguns and hunting rifles, involving a single bullet wound.

The wounds he saw this time were an order of magnitude more severe, because the automatic weapon the shooter used sprays people with multiple bullets and shrapnel that rips the flesh. “They’re devastating wounds. Lots of soft tissue injuries, vascular injuries,” he said.

Because patients had been rushed to the hospital, and then into surgery, some were still unidentified two hours later. “That was a very difficult time for the families and for us as well,” he said, but eventually family members were brought inside and the patients identified.

In all, 15 gunshot casualties were taken to hospitals: 14 to Central Maine, and one to St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, also in Lewiston.

Central Maine discharged two less severely injured patients after treatment on Wednesday night. Another patient was transferred to Maine Medical Center in Portland because the Lewiston hospital didn’t have enough operating rooms. Two died in the emergency department, and one died after surgery at Central Maine.

On Thursday, one surgical patient was discharged to home and another was transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital because of the nature of his injuries. The patients cared for at St. Mary’s and Maine Medical Center were also discharged. Late Friday two more patients were discharged from Central Maine.

That means that, of the 12 injured survivors, five remained hospitalized on Saturday — four at Central Maine (three of them in critical condition) and one in stable condition at Mass General. Staff members had prepared for such an emergency many times, in drills and exercises. Just a month earlier, they’d done a tabletop simulation involving mass casualties.

“People have assigned roles,” said Alexander, who is an emergency physician. “They understood what their roles were. They stepped into those roles and they acted accordingly. They are just incredibly heroic.”

Once it became clear there were no more gunshot patients, the challenge was convincing day-shift nurses to go home, because they would be needed the next day. They took comfort huddling with their teams, and feared leaving the hospital.

“We had to almost push them: ‘You’re still safe. … Let’s get a security escort to your car and let’s try and get you home. You’re safe at home.’”

The next day the hospital was eerily quiet. With the shelter-in-place order in effect, the hospital cancelled surgeries and the emergency room saw just 35 patients all day, compared with 120 on a typical day. By Friday, as the hospital resumed normal operation, clinicians and workers who had been stunned and shocked started processing what had happened. Counsellors were made available throughout the hospital.

“Their training and their skills take over during the event. Emotions and feelings take over afterward,” Littleson said. “The grieving process will now unfold over the next couple of weeks. In some respects, the hard part has just begun.”

Littleson, who used to work at a hospital in New Jersey not far from Manhattan, recalls preparing to receive an influx of patients on 9/11. None arrived because there were so few survivors.

He thought of that when he realized that in Wednesday’s mass shooting, the 18 dead outnumbered the 12 injured survivors.

“The tragedy of this event,” Littleson said, “is that there weren’t more patients to care for.”

I think I know what he meant, but it could have been better said.

It’s Just Dust

When you actually successfully regulate something, so that nobody sees it anymore, your very success is the thing that causes it to emerge again. Because it’s just lost in people’s minds.” Dr Frances Kinnear 

Bernie Banton

Who remembers Bernie Banton? Do you remember David Martin? What did they have in common. They both died of asbestos-induced disease. One, Bernie Banton worked for the industry villain in asbestos – James Hardie – in the 1960s and 1970s.

David Martin

The other was a naval officer who was Governor of NSW until a couple of days before his death from mesothelioma in 1990. He had been exposed to asbestos in the ships on which he served in his long career. The navy was his life, commencing as a midshipman and rising to the rank of rear admiral.

Asbestosis was a vertically integrated disease. By this I mean from the workers in the Colonial Sugar Refinery (CSR) blue asbestos Wittenoom mine, which operated between 1943 and 1965. Here in the Hamersley Ranges, Lang Hancock started his career, in an environment where asbestos fibres are carried by wind and water everywhere, and disturbed by human activities such as walking or driving around the area. 7,000 workers and their wives and children succumbed.

This was the same story with asbestos with its cottonlike appearance, easily pulled apart or packed as insulation throughout buildings until 1984, when the dangers of the material became apparent, and the community gradually come to realise a deadly material lay in the walls of so many buildings built post-war. James Hardie was the major distributor where Banton and his two brothers worked for 20 years.

Then there were the people who worked in an asbestos-riddled environment, as the rear admiral did.

The problem is many employers, in response to public health problems, have sought to obfuscate, refuse to accept responsibility, lobby parliamentarians about loss of jobs and social catastrophe if the use of material is curtailed. Just muddy the waters, bugger the toxicity, until the community pressure through legal redress catches up with the employer’s venality. As was written a decade ago: “The banning of asbestos in 2003 was the culmination of a three-decades long process that got underway in the 1970s through the efforts of workers and their families, health professionals, and researchers” – note the absence of the employers, the big mining companies seemingly doing nothing to improve the situation.

The current furore about the silica-based material, which has become fashionable for kitchen countertops, but in the process of cutting the material to size, creates a silica-laden atmosphere. When I was entering my career as a doctor, silicosis was a major occupational health disease, contracted then by miners and quarry workers. It received so much attention and publicity as a cause of respiratory disease there was no controversy within the health profession as to this association. A major associated problem was that most of workers then were also cigarette smokers; the danger of cigarette smoking was comprehensively exposed by the work of Doll in the 1970s.

In this current scenario, where the culprit is a fashionable kitchen countertop product that is silica held together by resin, one would think that it was a no brainer to ban the product.

As the SMH editorialised this week, The (Safe Work Australia) report (recommending a ban on this stone) was handed to the governments on August 16 but not released until last Friday. Despite the delay, the Minister for Workplace Relations Tony Burke then skirted the issue of a national blanket ban saying it was not reasonable to make a final decision without the public knowing the Safe Work Australian’s recommendations. Burke said a meeting of federal and state work, health and safety ministers would be convened by year’s end to consider the next step.

Mr Burke, who have you been talking to, when the dangers of silica are so well known even before you were a boy? Your response in the media is laughable. Why the delay? Who has been in your ear?

A Fashion Plate at the White House 

At a dinner at the White House on Tuesday, Mr. Biden and first lady Jill Biden presented the Prime Minister with an antique writing desk, designed by an American company in Michigan, the White House said. The first lady gave (Jodie) Haydon a hand-crafted green enamel and diamond necklace.

The NYT covered the Albanese visit by sending its fashion editor.

In amongst all the plaudits, the visit fulfilled all the expectations outlined in my last blog. The Americans laid on the treacly flattery, and characteristically Albanese responded to his swain in the audience while talking at the dinner, by saying it will be all downhill from now on. He may be right, but not for the reason stated.

Biden treated Albanese as anybody would treat a fawning vassal. Let me indicate, as I have before, I am not a great fan of Biden, but watching him in government he gets it right most of the time. Hooded eyes, which mean it is difficult to assess his mood, a flawed man who has spent most of his life in Washington, a man who has grieved far more than most of us, Biden has a residual advantage – that “Pepsodent” smile. I would imagine that if I were in the Albanese shoes, how seductive that would be, especially if I needed a father figure.

The treatment: “Don’t be a naughty boy and play with that kid across the road without telling us. Otherwise, I’ll send you to bed without your banquet.”

Thus, Albanese is lucky – slap on the back, not on the wrist – yet. Depends now on how he navigates China. The removal of tariffs is probably more important than some hypothecated underwater war toy (if ever launched at a time when “AUKUS” has replaced “obsolete” in the Australian vocabulary.)

Albanese is lucky. I surmise this US administration cannot countenance Dutton, especially following the Morrison debacle. However, Trump would be another matter. Yes, it is Halloween this week.

Mouse Whisper

Ever heard about my Andean cousin, the leaf eared mouse. They have been called “extremophiles” Why? Well let the current issue of Science set the scene:

Few places are as inhospitable as the top of Llullaillaco, a 6700-meter volcano on the border between Chile and Argentina.Winds howl nonstop and no plants live there; daytime temperatures never get above freezing and plummet even more come nightfall. Oxygen levels are just 40% of those at sea level, too low for mammals to live there —or so biologists thought until 3 years ago when a research team captured a live leaf-eared mouse at its summit.  

That has proved not to be a fluke as climbers in the high Andes have seen the mouse scurrying across the snow searching for lichens to feed upon.

There you are!  Mice on top of the world.

Modest Expectations – Elizabeth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colour me Malawi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lake Malawi

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

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

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

The Amur River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian Amur River bank

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

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

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

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

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

Superannuation Taylored?

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

The Hon Angus Taylor MP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Crackling Good Idea

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

Suddenly Tim Ma had skin in the game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

From To a Mouse

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

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

Cho sona ri luch ann an lofa

Haggis, neeps and tatties