Modest Expectations – Bakers

Tony Walker’s article in the Sydney Morning Herald this Monday could not have come at a more opportune time.

His questioning of whether it is the policymakers driving policy or the country spooks and their ideological soul mates in the country’s so-called security establishment amplified by the Murdoch press? That of course begs the question in which of the Murdoch beasts do the utterances fit?

One Australian problem is the number of authoritarian personalities who seem to worm their way into senior positions in the public service. When coupled with a lack of sense of humour and a tincture of paranoia, we have created the cadre, their foreheads labelled “security, spies, spooks”. The reason you do not see the label is because these men value “invisibility” – until recently.

Most of these senior bureaucrats are highly intelligent people, far smarter than their political masters. There is a great amount of academic twinkling among this group, although this is not necessarily represented by any real common sense.

One of the dumbest things is to forget the maxim – the greater the controversy, the less the autonomy of action.   Then compound that truism by harassing a member of parliament. In this case the senator is a former submariner who unsurprisingly does not like being coerced.

The only way the authoritarian can counter the controversy-autonomy axis is to persuade the pollies to pass legislation to suppress free speech even further. However, given our authoritarian’s Campanian heritage, if he comes calling again late at night the senator may recognise that Neapolitan heritage by greeting him with “Va fa Napoli.” That should end the conversation abruptly.


I went to Balibo last week.

Balibo is a town in the mountains of Timor-Leste near the Indonesian border.

Balibo is where five journalists, Australians Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart, Kiwi Gary Cunningham and British nationals, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, were murdered by the Indonesian military on 16 October 1975. We know them as the Balibo 5. I had met Greig Cunningham, Gary’s brother, when he ran a restaurant in Hawthorn. That was over 20 years ago. It had taken that time for me to come to Balibo. I have the film, but have never been able to watch it.

In the centre of Balibo is the Flag House, named for the Australian flag painted by Greg Shackleton on the side of the house, and renovated by the Victorian Government and others almost a decade ago. The photographs of these Balibo 5 plus Roger East, another Australian journalist murdered in Dili later that year when he came looking for the Balibo 5, hang on the wall.

Confronted with the ghostly blue photographs of these young men in the Flag House, who are my contemporaries, I broke down and cried uncontrollably.

I was ashamed of myself for my inaction, and yet the tears were those of both shame and anger. Alippio, our Timorese guide, plays a grainy film, which opens with Shackleton the day before his murder reporting from Maliana, a township down the road, alerting the viewer to the imminent Indonesian invasion. The film moves on to the likes of Gareth Evans and Alexander Downer pompously poncing about, in effect dismissing the Timorese and siding with the Indonesians.

The role played by our senior diplomats in Indonesia was equally disgraceful. Dripping with their diplomatic superiority, these diplomats may as well as been employed by the Indonesians. Deciding whether they would ask for Tanqueray or Bombay gin while the Indonesians murdered 200,000 Timorese is an indictment of our lack of care for our neighbours.

Last year, an Australian Parliamentary delegation visited Timor-Leste for five days. The Balibo 5 get scant mention.

One of the members of the delegation was Senator Patrick who has been shown by his recent exchanges with the Secretary of the Home Affairs Department, Michael Pezzullo, to be a staunch advocate of freedom of speech. Therefore the ghastly suppression of this right by the murders of the Balibo 5 and Roger East should not have escaped him.

There was a fear in the upper Australian echelons in 1974/75 that an independent Timor would become a communist state once the Portuguese left; the Indonesians had massacred their own communists a decade earlier, and the “reds under the bed” complex of the right wing security establishment in Australia allowed the slaughter of the Timorese. Australia thus was complicit in genocide, where the Balibo 5 killings were “collateral damage”.

The Parliamentary delegation last year did visit Balibo and were photographed beside the memorial and then presumably they went up the hill to the Balibo Fort Hotel, where a large RSL flag is pinned up over the bar, a reminder that Australian troops had also served and lost their lives there in both East and West Timor during World War 2 in 1941/42.

However, given how brief their trip was, did they stay and see the sunset, the spectacular mountainous view, overlooking the tropical vegetation where the Balibo road winds, a boneshaking series of craters amid islands of asphalt. From the hotel garden one can see the sea stretching to the horizon, a strait separating Timor from the Indonesian island of Alor, the contours of which were lost in the intensity of a red sunset.

The mean age of the Timorese is 17.5 years. There are thus few old people evident in the population. Not surprising since 40 per cent are 15 years or younger. Our young driver, Jonias has nine siblings. His father was one of the Fretilin, and the photograph shows an impressive white bearded elderly man. There is a photograph of his father being embraced by Xanana Gusmao. Jonias refers to him as Xanana in reverential terms.

When you visit the museum in Dili you can see the fatigues and berets, the symbols of the Fretilin resistance – and reminders of the former repression – the dark cells, the yard with the high concrete walls where the Timorese were shot. But this is not Cuba; if resentment of Australia is there I did not feel it personally. Everybody was friendly and helpful – spontaneous gestures. No begging.

My most lasting memory was in Balibo, of this old white man sitting in a truck watching a bevy of school children walk by and then on seeing this old man, they turn and wave and smile and then turn back and do it again to see if he has responded. They made even that old man smile and return their waves.

So much to love about Timor-Leste; it is a place where Australia should spend more time. Despite everything, it is not a failed nation. The Parliamentary delegation spent one day in Balibo. It made me wonder whether that passionate defender of human rights, the Honourable Evans, you had ever done so. Even now as an old man like the man in the truck above, you should do so – perhaps as a penitent.

Many journalists have reported on conquering the arduous Kokoda trail to honour those who saved our Australia from Japanese invasion. Perhaps the same journalists may consider walking the road from the border town of Motain up the mountain to Balibo each year on 16 October, the day the Balibo 5 died. The finishing line would be the Flag House, so impressively renovated on the initiatives of the then Premier, Steve Bracks and his comrades from Victorian government, business and the voluntary sector. Such a yearly pilgrimage would constantly remind us all of the importance of having a fearless media refusing to buckle in the face of government pressure. There was no higher price than that which these journalists paid in defence of that freedom. And to reach Balibo in time for the magnificent sunset, what more would those young men have asked as a remembrance of them.

How to cook a kangaroo – part 11

The recollections of Charlie continue

“You see him, Murra Hook (arm hook), narrata (that way) him is one for that mob,” Henry whispered while pointing to a stand of mulga. “Wea,” (nothing) I replied. Henry gestured for the rifle, which I handed to him.

When he aimed I could just make out the head and shoulders of a roo perhaps 80 metres away. Henry fired and the roo seemed to drop.

“Rungu marlu!” (The roo is hit) exclaimed Tony and they all ran over to the spot while I followed in the ute. The roo was finished off with a blow to the back on its head with the rifle butt. “Hey, easy with the rifle” I called out to Henry. As Alan and Tony loaded this huge male red onto the tray, I got a whiff of its pungent odour. The roo was taken to a clear area, where Pinta-Pinta was pointing to the ground with glee and telling the younger fellas, “Warru mandjila katti” (get firewood).

A dish was dug out in the dry sandy ground and wood from two dead mulga trees was placed over it and set alight. While a chase was irresistible for the dog, Danger, he had reasonably good manners around a fresh kill. So I let him loose and he just displayed a puppy-like excitement darting about, sniffing the carcass and rolling in its scent. Meanwhile fresh green branches were placed on the ground nearby as a kind of makeshift tablecloth on which to prepare the carcass. I noticed the chest of the roo was sticky with muck it had applied from I don’t know where and was the source of the odour. The tail was cut off about a hand width from its anus so that it would not bleed much. This is also why a fresh kill is always clubbed and not shot again or stabbed to death. Pinta-Pinta talked to his son about correct procedure while he whittled a short mulga stick about as long as a table knife blade sharpened at both ends. Henry cut a same length line through the skin of the roo’s belly.

All the internal organs of the roo were pulled out onto the ground sheet of leaves. Multiple conversations went on, reporting on observations about the condition of the organs and content of the stomach and bowel some of which Tony and Henry translated for me. Pinta-Pinta sang softly. I had seen wallaby stomachs on the East Coast before, teeming with thin white worms among the green grass in the stomach, but roos like this one are rarely infested. With the bile and stomach discarded, most of the remaining organs were pushed back into the abdomen.

The abdominal skin cut was closed with Pinta-Pinta’s sharpened stick skewering the skin flaps held together and the white bowel tube was wound around the stick in a figure of 8 tie sealing the organs in the abdomen. With the fire still flaming, the carcass and tail was thrown on and turned for half a minute so that the fur was charred black. It was then taken off the fire and all the charred fur scraped off leaving it hairless, so that it can be cooked in its skin without the burnt fur stench ruining the taste on the meat.

Within about 15 minutes the fire had died down and the hot ashes were pushed aside for the roo to be placed in the pit and covered with the embers and scorching dust. The tail was buried in ashes beside it. Meanwhile an entree was had with the small intestine grilled on top of the ashes at the edge of the pyre for eight minutes. This intestinal fat so it works as a grill. The roo was cooked for an hour and tested periodically for heat by waving an arm over it.

What I learned from the Pintupi is that the dry earth oven will only burn the food cooked within if more wood is added after the initial burn. On the other hand, if the ground is damp two fires are required one to dry the earth the second to cook. I also learned that potatoes can be cooked in their skins perfectly under the ashes with no foil needed to prevent charred skin.

Pulled out of the fire and back onto the leafy “tablecloth”, the roo was cut between the hind legs and a billy can used to collect the hot blood, which had boiled inside to help cook the meat. Young fellas are thought best suited to drink this tonic and Tony, Alan and Frankie went for it on this day.

The meat was half raw with a strong gamey smell, too much for me to have more than a couple of mouthfuls. I was happy to take some tail, which is less gamey and though tougher, is not so raw and had some fat. The dog was given some rib bones. Yet had the roo not being cooked in its juices and skin it would have been too tough to chew and contain quartz grains that crack teeth.

Before cooking the roo, Pinta-Pinta had removed its Achilles tendons, used for binding barbs on spears. After the meal we went to the creek, shovelled about a ton of gravel onto the tray, returned to the fireplace to pick up Pinta-Pinta and his son, Matthew, with the meat. They were indeed happy hunters that returned to Kintore and their meat warmed their welcome.

I still had misgivings about the death of such a magnificent animal merely to fill a few stomachs but my feeling was different from that of the Pintupi people, who never seem to experience such sentimental thoughts about the natural world. They live too close to it. (To be continued)

For those who do not know Charlie McMahon and the reference to him as Murra Hook is that the lower part of his arm was blown off due to an accident when he was a young fella. Charlie has a prosthesis with a hook attachment, which he uses with great facility.

The facility of age

A couple of weeks ago something happened that had never happened to me before. I was in Elizabeth Street near the Flinders Street station in Melbourne when I needed to go to the toilet urgently. No public toilet was immediately accessible when I needed one. The problem with age is that a tranquil reservoir in a nanosecond can become a raging torrent threatening to breach the cystic defences. In medical terms it is called “urgency” – and when combined with irritable bowel syndrome as this was, can present as an emergency; but easily solved if you can find a toilet.

I went into a Japanese restaurant expecting that they would understand my plight. First one then another Japanese lady barred my way – “no customer; no use toilet”. I said that I would buy something but had to use the toilet first; in fact I became so exasperated I said I would buy the (expletive deleted) shop.

Fortunately a young male employee intervened and allowed me the use the toilet. When I came out, he explained that he had a non-customer, who had smoked in the toilet. I wasn’t sure of the relevance but thanked him and left relieved. The staff knew I had been there and lined the way out. I had remonstrated but not touched anybody; pushed anybody aside.

However, it brought home to me that in the design of cities there must be sufficient accessible public toilets designed for an ageing population. Having them underground and locking them up is hardly a definition of accessibility.

In the UK for instance the number of public toilets is decreasing, apparently because of the local authorities’ belief that public toilets are cesspools of unsavoury behaviour. That perception can be solved by a combination of appropriate supervision and modern technology.

In the United States if it were not for the fast food outlets there would be few if any accessible public toilets.

Urban planners have to realise that in designing pedestrian malls in cities complete with images of promenading slim figurines amid trees looking like puff balls, these figurine humanoids may not need toilets, but we humans do. This is an ageing Australia and toilets become an important public service. Local government wants to turn streets into pedestrian malls and one site suggested is this Elizabeth Street. The Arcadian world of the local government dreamers and their courtier planners needs to include accessible toilets.

Mouse Whisper 

Ratbag repeated comments she made to me in the cyber room of the Noccundra pub about the time of 50th anniversary of the Balibo 5 murders in 2015.

Even after all these years, the memory of these murders remains fresh and clear. In 1975, there were no faxes, mobile phones, internet and emails. Sitting in a shack on a ridgeline in a third world country, you really were alone and very very isolated.

Strange but I still feel alone and very isolated, even though Ratbag is a very wise murine valise.

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