Posted in Not At All Light

A View from the Other Side – an American on the Right to Bear Arms.

Clifford is the friend of a Facebook friend in the US. He and I have had a couple of chats before. Following is an online conversation I had with him in the wake of the massacre in Las Vegas on the 1st October 2017. He is an educated American who supports a citizen’s right to bear arms. He is not in the least bit dull. All other attempts, on my part, to define him have failed. In accordance with his agreement, I have reproduced our exchange verbatim, changing only the attributions and salutations for the sake of brevity. At the time of our conversation it was believed that 59 had died. It would seem that the number is in fact 58 – a small if miraculous mercy. Our exchange begins with his response to a post reporting on the massacre:


Here we go again. A shooter evidently used illegal guns and some are looking to gun control as a solution.


Clifford, looking at this event from the other side of the Pacific I, along with most Australians, shake my head in disbelief. Many of us simply cannot believe your people can’t or won’t join the dots. Sure, it’s a complicated problem. Other countries, Switzerland for example, have a high rate of gun ownership without the associated level of carnage that characterises American society. They also have tighter gun control. The level of gun ownership in the US seems depressingly high to most people I talk to. In any country where intelligent, sensible people feel the need to own a gun in order to keep safe, it could be argued that the battle has already been lost. But surely, some effort must be made to shove the genie back into the bottle. Restrictions on weapon capability, longer waiting periods – these measures have to be tried. As for the introduction of silencers – that’s a joke, right? Americans seem keen to assert their right to freedom and that’s fair enough. Australians can understand that. But our notion of freedom does not extend to the right to own weapons of mass destruction. It’s more a matter of being able to walk the streets without some lunatic trying to blow our head off.


A gun is not WMD. US has been particularly fortunate in not having centralized governments kill hundreds of millions of our citizens as happened in Europe and Asia the last century. That is a much greater risk imo than an occasional lunatic. When citizens have guns it is difficult to herd them like sheep. This is the advantage of gun rights. US does have some weapons control, which makes sense. Evidently the Vegas shooter may have used a ‘bump stock’ which is a new technology that makes a semi automatic fire like an automatic. It may make sense to outlaw citizens owning that. As to silencers, some hunters would like to use silencers to protect their hearing. I’m not sure it makes sense to allow that for obvious reasons.


Clifford, let’s agree to disagree on whether or not 59 dead and over 500 wounded constitutes mass destruction. Other than your concern over this new weapon, are you telling me you believe US gun laws to be sufficient? And do you believe that a US citizen needs to be armed in order to protect him or herself against possible government oppression?


Of course a citizen would need to be armed if they had to fight government oppression, else how would they fight?


Fair enough that was a badly-worded question and got what it deserved. I meant to ask if you felt that potential dictatorship was a realistic threat necessitating an armed populace. I intended it as a rhetorical question. It never occurred to me that your answer would be yes. Now I’m trying to look at this from your point of view and I can see how you might take seriously the threat of dictatorship. If the 20th century taught us anything it’s that civilised, democratic societies can be subverted from within. I would question your assumption however that an armed citizenry can prevent this. I doubt if it would’ve stopped Hitler or Mussolini. And it didn’t stop Franco’s coup d’etat. And the gulf between the weaponry of the State and that of the individual (semi-automatic weapons notwithstanding) is much more than in the days when the US won its independence and enshrined the right to bear arms in its constitution. In the highly-unlikely event of the US or Australia being threatened by internal dictatorship, I think all an armed citizenry would achieve is a higher body count. Personally I’m prepared to risk the dictatorship if it means my kids are going to be safer. And just so you know, although we’ve never met, I’m pretty sure I’d trust you with a gun. But you’re not the problem, are you? (And that’s a rhetorical question too.)


Given the weaponry the State has now, including drones, you may be correct, but there is a point you may not have seen. When it comes to dictatorship enforcing its views they must use boots on the ground. I will agree that an armed citizenry is not going to defeat a unified and organized army, but if a platoon is coming for my children and I have a high powered weapon I am going to take some of them with me. The boots on the ground are not going to want to take pot shots from the farmers in the woods (a reference to the American Revolution). They are going to want to stay on their bases and leave my children alone. You need citizens for a country to function, and it is difficult to enforce draconian measures like kill all Jews against an armed citizenry.


OK, one last question if you don’t mind: are you a farmer, hunter or recreational shooter or is your primary focus self-protection?


Self protection


(W)hen I said one last question, I lied. I’ve enjoyed our exchange immensely as I did our previous one. Like many Australians, my notion of a Trump supporter is of a poorly-educated gun-toting redneck. You absolutely confound this stereotype. I would like very much to reproduce this recent exchange verbatim on my blog as I think my friends would be fascinated. Should you require it, I will of course change your name. If so pick any name you like. Do I have your permission?


You can use my name. You assume I am a Trump supporter. I would describe myself as a supporter of the American voter. I was not a Trump supporter. I am one of the college educated American ‘elites’ who pushed US politics into a box where it made no difference who was elected, Wall Street was going to win either way. Trump appealed directly to the working class, and left the college crowd (including me) befuddled. I decided to educate myself and try to understand why the White working class voted overwhelmingly for Trump, abandoning the Democrat party. Nationalism appeals to them, and the racism of the Democrats attacking Whites to favor other voting blocks had worn thin in their ranks since they were the ones paying the price.


My mistake. I must have misunderstood one of your comments from an earlier exchange. I’ll send you a link when I’ve posted it on my blog. Thanks for your cooperation. All the best.




Posted in Not So Light

Just Joshin’

I recently found myself in an episode of West Wing. You might remember it: it’s the one where Josh Lyman blunders into an internet war in response to comments he makes regarding the US political process. Before he knows it, he is plunged into an escalating conflict – this, because he has ignored the advice of his PA, the adorable Donnatella Moss. She had counselled against involvement, warning him that ‘some of those people haven’t taken their medication’. Typically, Josh dismisses her concerns and soon regrets it.

I too have a Donnatella Moss. Her name is Mary. I’m married to her which means she’s less of a PA and more of a CEO, but that’s a tale for another time. And now the real story begins…

A couple of days ago I saw on my news feed an appalling video of a pup that had been smeared with glue then covered with mud. The poor animal could barely stand or walk and was clearly distressed. Part of its face, including one eye was affected. It was acknowledged that the act had been performed by children. It was horrific and disturbing. But what really shocked me was the response of many who viewed it. With no indication of the age of the children involved, a torrent of invective was nevertheless rained down upon them. One woman suggested that the perpetrators deserved a slow and painful death. I disagreed. My opinion was informed by distant memories of my own childhood, where appreciation of consequences played very little part in my or any of my contemporaries’ decision-making. Of course it’s possible that children have evolved since then, but I doubt it. A possible scenario occurred to me: some boys (yes, sorry about the gender stereotyping) decided it might be fun to put glue and mud on a dog for a laugh, because wouldn’t that be hilarious? If, as a child, in one of my more malleable and idiotic moments, I had been persuaded to do such a thing, I am sure when confronted by the consequences of my act, I would have been mortified.

I decided to respond to this post and informed the CEO. Mary chewed her lip and looked off into the distance as she is wont to do when counselling against one of my hare-brained schemes. ‘There’s a lot of hate out there,’ she murmured. I took that as a yes and proceeded with my plan. I posted a response to ‘Death Lady’, reminding her that the perpetrators were children and the first step toward dealing with the problem might be to make them aware of the effect that it had on the dog. I suggested that ‘death to the children’ might be overreach.

Before long, I had my response – a number of them in fact, and some not entirely complimentary. One man suggested that do-gooders like me are the reason the world is in the state it is in. Another ‘called me out’. I’m not sure what this means. I’m hoping it’s something relatively benign like hot glue guns and mud pies at five paces, because I’ve seen High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and I know these confrontations don’t always end well.

The debate continued and after 24 hours my post had about 700 likes. ‘Death Lady’ was running at around 3,500. I was a bit surprised. I’m not unfamiliar with the minority position, but surely most people would agree with me if only I could make my position clear? I decided to have another crack at it and tapped out my response as Mary chewed her lip, stared into the distance and made strange noises in her throat. I would like to point out that my tone in this second post was, like that of the first, courteous and restrained. I had eschewed my usual shtick of insufferable smartarse and had kept it nice.

The responses continued. It was as though some people believed I had led the attack on the dog in person, egging on my juvenile charges like some deranged and murderous Pied Piper. Although initially disquieted by the vitriol I had attracted, it was now becoming hilarious. But I knew I would need to drag myself out of this vortex otherwise it would go on for ever and I would end up in a death spiral with animal lovers holding me responsible for every animal atrocity from the poisoning of Phar Lap to the murder of Bambi’s mother. I thought it might be wise to draw a line under this dispute. I composed some words and stopped to think, for I confess that this time, in my exasperation, I had farewelled Mr Nice and welcomed Mr Snarky. I decided to run it past Mary. She read it, chewed her lip and got that look again. But this time she said, ‘do it’. So I did. And because she thinks it all right and because it sums up my views and some of the views expressed in opposition, I’ll close with it now:

Well this has been fun, I have to say. I made what I thought was a reasonable point: that children who covered a dog with glue and mud did not deserve to die a slow and painful death. In return I appear to have drawn the ire of intellectuals and moral philosophers from across the globe. Some of them have mounted reasoned and balanced arguments against me. Some have contented themselves with an analysis of my character and intelligence (or lack of). Words such as: moron, idiot, grub, bleeding heart, do-gooder and twat have been given a good airing. Someone suggested that I am ‘missing a huge piece of (my) brain called logic’.

One woman invoked the case of James Bulger, the toddler beaten to death by a pair of ten-year olds. I wonder how the parents of that little boy would regard the comparison. To the woman who drew that helpful analogy I would point out that there are differences between dogs and children. Dogs have four legs; children, ideally, have two. There are other differences as well. You might like to google that.

For the woman who demanded horsewhipping and the man who suggested that they be shot, I would ask one question: are you prepared to do this yourself? Please think about this before you respond. Are you actually prepared to put a gun to a child’s head, pull the trigger and risk getting some of their brains on your clothing? Even Heinrich Himmler, had difficulty with that. (Google him too, if you have to.) As for the horsewhipping: it’s exhausting and messy. But if you can honestly answer yes to those questions then you become the person you most revile. If you cannot answer yes: welcome to the human race. Your absence has been noted, but it’s great to have you back!

I’m pretty much done now I think, so I’ll withdraw from this debate. Feel free to carry on without me. I’ll be keeping an eye out for any parting shots you care to deliver and I’ll be awarding points out of ten, based on wisdom, but mostly on wit. There will be no monetary prize, but I’m offering you the opportunity for bragging rights over your fellow paragons. I will be acknowledging scores only of six and above, though I will make honourable mention of any particularly lame responses. Please be advised that my decisions will be final and no further correspondence shall be entered into. Thanks for your time. It’s been a real pleasure. 

Posted in Not At All Light

An Anzac Ramble

I’m ambivalent in my feelings toward Anzac Day. I know it’s important to remember those who served and I think it needs to be marked with a holiday. But the tone of Anzac Day is a little too celebratory for my taste. And a bit too parochial. Remembrance Day is more my kind of commemoration – a day that strives to ignore national boundaries and focuses on the universality of war and its common suffering.

I read some time back of the behaviour of young Australians at Gallipoli at an Anzac Day service. Draped in Australian flags, and the worse for alcohol, they strutted around, laying claim to a vicarious heroism and expressing their disdain for Turks, whose arses we had kicked, apparently. A woman told of others walking and even sleeping on graves. I’ve never been to Gallipoli. I want to go there. But I don’t want to see that.

It seems odd to me that we choose to remember Gallipoli as our coming of age. Whilst it’s true that we, along with our New Zealand cousins, joined the grownups at the adult’s table, it’s also true that we invaded a people with whom we had no quarrel, at the behest of our colonial master.  We sacrificed young lives, full of hope and promise, on the altar of a spurious national interest. It was hardly the act of an adult.

When I was a child at primary school, we were told each year about Simpson and his donkey. The narrative depicted him as a Christlike figure: gentle, meek and mild, traversing the battlefield like some angel of God.

Although the making of the legend is a fascinating and labyrinthine story, the real Simpson was nuanced and far more interesting than the legend that emerged. He was an Englishman, who enlisted under a false name – a Geordie with scant regard for ceremony or authority, a practical joker who liked a drink. A bit of a troublemaker, even. But we appropriated the Geordie and sanitised him to make him fit for children. Because nothing else in that awful war was.

As I grew older and began to learn more about our involvement in the War to End all War, I discovered our men had fought in France and Flanders. I learned that in our two-and-a-half years on the Western Front we lost six times the number killed at Gallipoli. Fromelles, the Australians’ baptism of fire on the Western Front saw almost 2,000 killed in twenty-four hours. At Pozieres, in seven weeks, almost as many Australians fell as had been lost in the eight months at Gallipoli. The shellfire at Pozieres was so intense that men were buried alive.

But for so long we turned our backs on this blood- and mud-soaked horror. We preferred to commemorate the defeat at Anzac Cove, in order perhaps to justify it. We have annexed Gallipoli, in our minds, if not quite literally, and while paying lip-service to our Kiwi allies, we largely ignore the others. Yet French casualties matched our own and the British lost four times as many. The Turks, in defence of their homeland, lost almost as many killed as we did in the entire war.

What is remarkable to me is that the Turks have been generous in their treatment of us ever since. Cynics might argue that they have, today, a vested interest in such generosity, but this attitude manifested itself early. It was expressed most eloquently, less than twenty years after the landings, by the man whom our troops had the great misfortune to oppose. Mustapha Kemal was a brilliant and ruthless commander who led the defence of the peninsula. He later became Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey. He was a remarkable and enlightened man. His tribute to the dead is carved in stone on the memorial at Anzac Cove:

‘…You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours…You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace, after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.’

These words should inspire us for their generosity and humanity. And as Australians they should humble us as well. What would our response be, had the Turks invaded our shores? Would we allow them to build monuments to their dead? What would we think of flag-draped, braying oafs swaggering over hallowed ground?

I want to go to Turkey before I die. I want to see Constantine’s city. I want to see the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque and I want to walk the streets of this metropolis that was once the greatest in all the world. And I want to go to Gallipoli. But not on Anzac Day.

I’m not the first person to say this, and I hope not to be the last, but I believe our greatest martial glory belongs not to those young men who braved the storm of bullets at Anzac Cove in April 1915. It belongs instead to a group of dishevelled boys, some quarter-century later, who, ill-equipped, mal-nourished, diseased and frightened, stopped the onslaught of the battle-hardened Japanese, inflicting upon them their first defeat on land in the Second World War.

We are starting at last to acknowledge the sacrifices made in that later and greater conflagration. Despite instances of moral ambiguity, it might be the only virtuous war in history.

Yet we continue with our fascination for the First World War and in particular for this relatively minor dispute in one of its sideshows. But the death of John Simpson Kirkpatrick, the Man with the Donkey, was no sideshow for those who loved him. It was a monumental tragedy and it was repeated 60,000 times throughout the length and breadth of our land. And 17 million times across the globe. The tears that were shed drowned a continent in grief. And engulfed a world beyond.

Some four weeks after Simpson died at Gallipoli, his sister, Annie, unaware of his death, wrote him a letter. It was returned unopened, with the word ‘killed’ pencilled on the envelope. It contains several typographical and grammatical errors and I will not correct them. It read in part:

Dear Jack… Isn’t this card nice. So appropriate for you. It brought the tears to Mother’s eyes when she read it. Mother is not keeping well at all. You are for ever in her thoughts night and day she is talking and praying for you safety.   If only this cursed war was over and you safe beside us once more. But of course, it will have to be fought to a finish now. But it is cruel for men to be fodder for guns…Now my dear Jack, I have not room for more, so with love and the best of wishes for your safely, from Mother and myself. I remain your ever loving Sister Annie xxxx

Posted in Memoir

Happy Birthday Maria

Maria SOLO

Today would have been my mother-in-law Maria’s 84th birthday. She was a kind and generous woman and as a fellow writer/obsessive, she and I formed a close bond. When I first met her I was writing on index cards. She insisted that I needed a computer and when she upgraded to a new model she gave me her old one. It was a revelation. When my novel was accepted for publication she was ecstatic, but she died before it went to print. Those of her family she left behind put together a memorial booklet recording our memories of her. The following is my recollection:

On the last Saturday of Maria Teichel’s life, early in the afternoon, I got a phone call from her reminding me to stop by on my way home to collect a cake. This, I knew, would be no special occasion cake, just one of her ordinary cakes; that is to say a mouth-watering, three-layered monument to hedonism constructed entirely of chocolate. The layers of chocolate cake would be separated by layers of chocolate cream and the whole creation topped and covered on its sides with pale chocolate syrup, drizzled through with jagged lines of darker chocolate. It would present a challenge, being difficult to divide because of its unconventional shape.

She had a cake tin that was not the usual square or circle. As I look back now, it seems incredible that I could have missed the clue. She could have baked in any shape, but the cake she always made for us was shaped like a heart.

Maria Teichel was born on the 3rd April 1933 and died on Oaks Day, 3rd November 2011. It was fitting she should have chosen Ladies’ Day, for Maria first and foremost was a lady.
She was also a writer. And writing informed and consumed her existence, second only to her love of family. She published two novels and a script for a play. Over two hundred of her short stories appeared in Hungarian Life, the weekly Melbourne newspaper for the Hungarian expatriate community. In 1970, her novel “Sziget Utca 14” (14 Island Street) received the Award for Excellence from the Arpad Academy of Cleveland Ohio.
As a writer, Maria was always creating and inventing, breathing life into her inventions, considering their motivations, taking meticulous care with their backstories. For as every writer knows, there is always ‘backstory’. It is what takes place before the character appears on the page. For all of us here today, Maria entered each of our personal stories as a fully developed character with a backstory as eventful as any of her fictional creations.

I first met her in 1988. She was living alone in Camberwell and working for Telstra as a data processor. Her phenomenal keyboard skills were something I could only envy but as I got to know her I began to realise there was more. The people with whom she worked held her in the greatest esteem. These were highly intelligent people; witty, entertaining, articulate and thoughtful. They regarded her as one of their own. In spite of her difficulty with English, they saw through the language barrier and understood her.
As I too began to understand her, the first thing I noticed was her obsession with food. Any visit called for a banquet and even the politest of refusals was a mortal insult that called for pistols at dawn. I found this obsession odd but was keen on her daughter and thought it wise to keep Maria on-side. As the years passed and Maria cemented her role in my life as Mother-in-Law and Chief Caterer I was force-fed like some doomed pâté de foie gras duck. Gradually she broke my will and turned me into a food-addict. I became a willing slave to her culinary despotism. Over the course of two decades I made a slow and steady progress from Anorexia to Flab City. It was a sojourn filled with such delightful stopovers as Goulash, Bean Soup, Chicken Paprika, Apple Pastries, Cherry Pastries, Crunchies, Doughnuts, numerous other gems that I never knew the name of, and of course Chocolate Cake.

Another thing I saw in Maria was her quirky take on life. She was not exactly a contrarian but she had her own unique view of reality. At times she was downright hilarious, though perhaps not always intentionally. Once she told me that she hated kookaburras. “Why?” I asked. How could anyone hate a kookaburra? “Because they’re always laughing at me!” she declared. With anyone else I might have suspected a joke. I couldn’t quite keep a straight face when she told me this, but I’m glad I didn’t actually laugh out loud, because it was then that I got a bit more of her backstory.

Maria Teichel’s life spanned 78 years and 7 months exactly. She lived through some of the worst years of the 20th Century. Born only weeks after Hitler came to power, as a child she witnessed the incomprehensible depravity of Nazism. At the age of nine she saw corpses in the streets of Budapest and starving people reduced to subsisting on rotting horseflesh. For the rest of her life she associated hunger with suffering.
After the war, Hungary was a shattered wasteland and a new oppressor stood ready to envelop her in his cold embrace. When the Hungarians rebelled in 1956 and the Russian tanks came rolling across the border, the lives of Maria and other idealistic young intellectuals were in danger. Together with her husband Rezső and their young son, they spent the longest night of their lives crawling through a snowbound forest, hiding amongst the trees, listening for Soviet patrols, hearing the thud of bullets striking human flesh and the desperate cries for mercy that went unheeded.

At last they made their way across the Austrian border to safety and their journey to the other side of the world had begun. When they came to Australia, they lived at the migrant hostel in Bonegilla, a clearing house for Europe’s dispossessed. She hated her time there. After life as a fledgling film editor in Budapest, rubbing shoulders with artists and intellectuals, rural Australia was a cultural desert. The raucous hilarity of the kookaburras was a constant reminder of the life left behind. Fate was laughing at her.
Yet in spite of the difficulties of her early years in Australia, she thrived in her role as wife and mother. She worked full-time in various unfulfilling jobs to help support her family and late at night and in the early hours of the morning she wrote. She loomed large in the Australian-Hungarian community. Her stories, although unknown to the wider Australian public, were a source of sustenance and succour to her fellow expatriates. And of course there was always the cooking. Food for her was a symbol of plenty, an affirmation of life. Feeding people, any people: visitors, work colleagues, friends and friends of friends, but above all family, became her life’s mission. It was for her, the purest expression of love.

There were times when she drove me to distraction – urgent dramatic phone calls at work, demanding that I stop in on my way home and collect the chicken soup or goulash or one of a host of other dishes. It wasn’t always convenient, sometimes it was a nuisance. “For God’s sake Maria! I’m in a hurry! We’ve got a fridge full of food and we don’t need it!” I was occasionally tempted to say, but never did.
On that last day when we spoke together it wasn’t really convenient to stop by. I was busy and needed to be elsewhere but I’m glad I found the time to collect the cake and take it home for us to eat. Just one of her ordinary cakes. Nothing special. Made of chocolate, covered in chocolate, shaped like a heart.

Posted in Not So Light

The Wrong Day

Fremantle Council has earned itself the support of some, but the ire of many, over its decision to turn its back on the ‘traditional’ Australia Day celebration on January 26th and opt for something they regard as more inclusive.

Opportunistic politicians have jumped on it with alacrity, seeing no doubt a means of demonstrating their wholesome,  motherhood-loving, family-friendly, all round decency and you know, normality, in the face of these left-wing ratbag malcontents who hate Australia and want to turn it into some politically correct black armband-wearing state run by Muslims and aborigines.

Claire Moodie of the ABC, reports in her article of 25th January, that ‘far right groups Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots Front are planning to converge on Fremantle on Australia Day to protest against what they called “an act of betrayal against Australia”.’

The response of these groups was predictable. Their love of Strahya is incontestable and their respect for its institutions, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion are encapsulated with impressive economy by their distinctive rallying cry. (For a copy of their manifesto, visit their website:

It occurred to me recently that, as a child, growing up in regional Australia some fifty years ago, Australia Day loomed very small, if at all, on my horizon. I don’t remember a holiday or anything of any real significance. It prompted me to resort to a quick consultation with my chum Professor Google and I have learned from the National Australia Day Council website that it was not until 1994 that all states and territories began to celebrate Australia Day consistently as a public holiday on January 26th.

Over the years I’ve heard the term ‘Australian’ or ‘Aussie’ used to describe only those of Anglo-ancestry, born in this country. Those Australians whose ancestors migrated here before ‘Australia’ was invented, or for that matter, before the end of the last Ice Age have, if we ignore the abusive epithets, found their Australian-ness qualified with the prefix ‘Indigenous’ or ‘Original’. I wonder whether some of those so described might find these labels a tad patronising.  As for the others with non-Anglo ancestry, the best they could hope for was to be described as New Australians or, for example, Greeks, and then later perhaps, Greek-Australians.  They were never quite Australians. And although this ghettoisation was exacerbated by parents sending their kids to ‘Greek School’ on weekends, the alienation was definitely a two-way street, with most of the traffic headed the other way.

When I was a kid, living in Bendigo, before Australia Day had become a thing, I was at school with a beautiful girl, whose name I still recall. (I had a bit of a crush, if you must know.) Along with many of her fellow Bendigonians, her ancestors had emigrated from China at the time of the Gold Rush in the 1850s, almost a century before my parents arrived from the UK. I was an Australian however, and she was Chinese.

Even within that majority subset of home-grown Anglos, there was, and in some minds still is, a hierarchy based on the arrival date of one’s ancestors. Given that my parents didn’t get here until 1948, I wasn’t quite the real deal. My parents were Pommies. (My dad was a Scot, so you can imagine how he felt about that description.) The problem with that timescale of ascending virtue is that Aborigines complicated the maths. Old was better than new, but too old was not too good. Pre-1788, oh dear, what was to be done with them? Apart from poisoning them, shooting them, raping them, giving them measles and taking away their children, that is. The answer was to come up with an arithmetic sleight-of-hand, a sort of Goldilocksian timescale that determined what was too old, what was too new and what was ‘just right’.

I don’t have a problem with the British. This nation was founded by them and our institutions of Common Law, Presumption of Innocence, Parliamentary Democracy, the Right to Assemble, Freedom of Speech, FREEDOM OF RELIGION, are all good reasons to be grateful that it was the British and not somebody else. And whilst it’s true that some of these rights have spawned others such as: the Right to Dress Like an Idiot, the Right to Wear a Man-Bun, the Right for a Young Woman to Get a Tattoo, the Right for Teenagers to be a Pain in the Arse and most heinous of all, the Right to Barrack for Carlton FC, these appalling corollaries of freedom have to be endured as part of the price we pay and I don’t think the British can be held solely to account for the Man-Bun. I have great admiration for the British, but that said, I don’t want them on our flag, or as our head of state and I don’t think it’s appropriate to commemorate the day they barged in and commenced to take the land off the original inhabitants.

It’s little wonder that some of the descendants of those first (I mean really first) arrivals might feel a bit miffed about the way things have turned out. They may not have been living high off the hog, but they were here and they weren’t doing too badly, then we turned up and things went downhill fast. So I don’t think you can be surprised if some of our fellow Australians want to call January 26th Invasion Day. My own view is that, in persisting to celebrate this day, we add insult to injury. It is an affront to the descendants of the unfortunate people whom we abused and dispossessed. Having done all that, it might be a bit much to expect them to dance a jig and sing ‘Oh Happy Day!’

Some time back, while visiting a friend in a Melbourne hospital, I encountered something that, living in a small town, I had never seen before. A short, squat woman – I presume it was a woman – came walking towards me. I’m guessing she was middle-aged or elderly but I have no idea what she looked like because she was dressed in a burkha. She looked like a black potato bag on legs. It didn’t bother me. I didn’t expect her to explode or suddenly produce an AK-47, but it struck me as odd. I told my kids after, that I thought it was weird. They howled me down as a throwback, although to be fair, they didn’t denounce me as racist. But I stick to my point. I think it is weird, just as I think it would be weird if you wanted to walk through the main street of town with a hessian bag over your head or dressed as Ronald Macdonald. I don’t have a problem if you want to do that, but I reserve my right to think it’s weird. What I don’t have the right to do is abuse, vilify or threaten you for that, nor seek to humiliate you for it, nor do I have the right to insist that you cease and desist. (Although I do have the right to insist that nobody make you wear that hessian bag against your will.) There should be no law against people looking ridiculous, which is good news for any sixty-year old man who dyes his hair. And no, the fact that your girlfriend is younger than your daughter does not justify you dyeing your hair or make you any less ridiculous, it just means that you’re rich. And no, rich doesn’t make you any less ridiculous either. Exhibit A: Donald Trump. But I digress.

My point is that the lady in the burkha has every right to dress and act however she likes while feeling every bit as Australian as the rest of us. All she has to do is obey our laws. She, I’m guessing, is a relatively recent arrival to our country, and like many of the descendants of our very first arrivals, I suspect 26th January has no positive emotional resonance with her.

If we’re looking for a real Australia Day, one to celebrate for all Australians, old and new, why not Federation Day, the day when the separate colonies came together to form a nation, based on the all those aforementioned freedoms, even if they did lead, inevitably, to the rise of the Man-Bun.

‘But oh Dad!’ my kids whine, ‘Federation Day is New Year’s Day. We’ll lose a Public Holiday.’

Tears of pride well in my ageing eyes. My offspring may not wrap themselves in the flag and chant meaningless jingoistic drivel, but when it comes to their worship of the Public Holiday, they are dinky-di.

It’s true, the founders might have been a bit more thoughtful and given us a day later in the year when public holidays are a bit thin on the ground. Perhaps they could have stipulated that the day be memorialised as the first Monday of July, for example, thus enshrining a long weekend, something, I think you’ll agree, we can never have enough of.  But the founders decided to greet the new century with their new nation. Poets and other people with too much time on their hands might search for some sort of moving symbolism in that choice of date, but I’m with my kids here. I think they were a pack of selfish bastards who gave no consideration to the leisure requirements of the generations to follow.

So, 1st January is a date we’re stuck with. It’s not an easy assignment, but as I like to say,  ‘when Life encourages your neighbour’s dog to take a dump on your nature strip, see if it’s possible to make a high-grade alcohol out of it, but get your neighbour to do a taste test before you try it yourself’.

My plan is this: we double up on the first of January, just like we did with Christmas Day. No I’m not suggesting a scaled-down version of New Year’s Day for the servants, because frankly, they get enough consideration as it is. What I had in mind was that we observe both days together over two days. I mean, nobody actually celebrates New Year’s Day anyway. Many Australians are sleeping off a New Year’s Eve hangover so an extra day to recover might be a nice low-key way to ease them into the year, free from all the chest-beating and shallow jingoism. The solution may not be ideal and could have a hint of dog poo in its bouquet, but if we hold our noses and drink it really fast, it might just prove the tonic. Or at least keep us going until we have our very own Republic Day.

If those who call themselves patriots took the trouble to learn something of the nation’s history, they might be prepared to settle on a more appropriate date for celebration. But that is unlikely. They seem determined to inflict their own notion of Australian-ness on the rest of us, reminding me of Samuel Johnson’s famous words: ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’.

As far as I’m concerned anyone who wants to live in this country, love this country, obey its laws, and respect the rights of others to live without harassment, abuse or ridicule has the right to call themselves an Australian, without any qualifying prefix. And I believe that a new Australia Day, commemorating January 1st 1901, a date that heralded the birth of a new nation, is one with the power to unite Australians every bit as much as the one we have now, threatens to divide them.

Posted in Light

Happy Birthday Cassandra

Last night, Mary and I, together with friends, old and new, celebrated our daughter Cassandra’s twenty-first birthday.

Had the organisation been left to me, I would have chosen the Bug-A-Lugs play centre in Kyneton. We could have sat around listening to the Wiggles and Hi-5, sipped milkshakes, eaten lots of iced donuts and reminisced about those glory days when we were heroes to our kids and not just some bunch of old farts sitting in a corner with our ear trumpets and blankets over our knees.


IMG_2343 - Copy

But it was not to be. For reasons that will become apparent if you take the trouble to read on, the organisation of the event was left entirely in Cassandra’s hands.

She chose a little place on Sydney Road, Brunswick, whose internal architecture and floor plan was a blend of Shanghai Opium Den and Fire Trap Chic. Horror movie posters adorned the wall: King Kong (the original of course), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (in French) and a movie called ZAAT, whose snappy tagline read: ‘It would take an Atom Bomb to wipe out the walking catfish’ – this latter, no doubt inspired by the European Carp infestation, that has proven so popular in the Murray-Darling Basin.



Everyone had a great time. Even me. And that’s remarkable because I have the attention span of a two-year-old and I’m usually pretty keen to get home. It probably helped that the place was full of nice people and I discovered that calamari is not, as I had always supposed, surplus WWII automotive accessories dipped in batter, but is in fact the invention of a culinary genius. It also helped that I was there to celebrate the birthday of the young woman who was, remarkably, born on my very first Father’s Day – a day when my emotional range expanded by an order of magnitude, and a day that would remain unequalled until exactly two years, two months, two weeks and four days later, when her brother first made his appearance.



It was expected that Cassandra’s friend and housemate, Evangeline, and I would make speeches at the party but circumstances didn’t permit. I hope to get a copy of Evangeline’s speech and either add it here or else provide a link. In the meantime, here is what I had intended to say. Some of it may not be true, but the last half of the last paragraph is incontestable:



Some of you may not know this, but Cassandra was adopted. She was the firstborn daughter of minor European royalty, but was kidnapped at birth by a band of gypsies, spirited away from the land of her birth and smuggled out to the great south land. And it is here that her story takes a turn that is almost hard to believe, for she was abandoned on our doorstep, along with a used coffee cup and a half-eaten packet of Tim-Tams.

It was a cruel fate that befell the young princess, but she has shrugged off the injustice and borne herself with a dignity and grace worthy of her royal heritage. Her adoptive family: Mary, Tom and I, have thrived under her wise and benevolent rule. True, she dispenses tough love and, when angered, her wrath is swift and terrible to behold. But when we please her, a smile, a kind word, a loving glance, bring tears of joy to our little faces.

From an early age, Cassandra, who, unlike many of her fellow royals, possesses both a brain and a work ethic, decided that an endless round of garden parties, of opening fetes, bestowing knighthoods and entertaining foreign dignitaries, was not for her. She needed a real job. Over the years, she thought about real estate (very briefly), considered opening a night club, and flirted with the idea of a legal career. It would seem that, whatever her final choice, it will involve some form of communication. She is a great communicator. She uttered her first complete sentence at the age of 19 months and apart from occasionally pausing to draw breath, she’s been at it pretty much ever since. None of us are ever in any doubt as to what she thinks. Because she’ll tell us.

An early example of this forthrightness occurred when she was around three years of age. I had taken her to the nearby town of Kyneton and as we walked along the street we encountered a couple of young urchins, playing in the gutter. Cassandra glanced across, saw them, did a double take and stared in disbelief. She was scandalised. She pointed at them and wagged her finger. “You…you naughty people. You cheeky people.” The young urchins stared open-mouthed. Clearly they had never been spoken to like that before and certainly not by some irate imperial midget. But Cassandra, satisfied that she had exercised her royal prerogative, turned and continued on her way.

And she’s been continuing on her own way ever since, with hardly a mis-step, though one rare example does spring to mind. Once, when she was around four years old, she had her friend Stephanie over for a visit and they were playing together with Cassandra’s brother, Tom. The three of them were playing dress ups and all seemed to be going well when suddenly Cassandra came to me, sobbing as though her heart would break. I put my arm around her. “What’s the matter sweetheart?” “Oh Daddy, Stephanie won’t let me marry Tom.” And it was at this point that I began to think that perhaps Cassandra was a member of the royal family after all.

It’s natural for a parent to worry about their children. We worry about them being struck by lightning or a stray meteorite or succumbing to bubonic plague, but other than these very real existential threats, I don’t worry about Cassandra at all. She has the capacity to thrive in any environment.

She once observed that my parenting style has been minimalist, but I would argue that she has flourished under my masterful neglect. And in one area I have exceeded my parental brief, and that has been in my determination to embarrass her in public, whenever the opportunity presents itself. I regard it as a sacred duty – in fact, it’s not even a duty; it’s more of a pleasure. And it’s one I intend to avail myself of as long as I have the strength and the wit to do so.

There have been times, I confess, when I have wondered whether Cassandra is not in fact the royal changeling she once thought herself to be. Like any parent, I see in my child things that seem to transcend the separate entities that made her.  Perhaps she is channelling some long forgotten ancestor. Or perhaps the gypsies worked some weird sleight of hand, when they left her on our doorstep. More likely it is a magic that is entirely her own. She is smarter, more talented, more generous, more beautiful and far wiser than we had any right to hope for. And though I may no longer be the king of her heart, she will always be the princess of mine. Happy Birthday Cassandra. Lots of love, from Dad.

Posted in Memoir

Alex Barker

Alex Barker belonged to a generation that spent its youth in war.  It was a role that cast a long shadow over his life – a shadow that darkened as the years passed. He was tormented by memories of that brutal war until the day he died.

I didn’t know Alex until his final years. I met him at the aged care facility where he lived and where I work. By the time I knew him, his eyesight had gone. He could make out shapes but little detail. He liked to listen to the radio and had his own corner in the B wing lounge where he would sit and listen. For all of us who knew him, that spot, no matter who might sit there now, will always be Alex’s corner.

He was fond of talking books. I thought I’d get him some material from the local library so I asked him what sort of stories he liked. Westerns he told me. “Do you have any favourite authors, Alex? Anyone I should keep an eye out for?” “No,” he said. “Anyone’ll do.” Great, I thought. This’ll be easy. I didn’t know much about western authors but I’d heard about Zane Grey. He was a legend. Zane Grey and the Riders of the Purple Sage. There was bound to be a shelf load of his stuff at the library. Easy. Piece of cake. I had it all figured out. And then Alex said, “Except that bloody Zane Grey! That bloke gives me the shits. He takes half an hour just to describe a tree.” So we dropped Zane Grey and The Riders of the Purple Sage.  And we went for Ben Coady and The Abandoned Outlaw instead.

Alex’s close mate was Lindsay Nancarrow and the two of them would spend a lot of time together, not always talking, but just being together as people who are close will do. I used to chuckle watching the two of them coming back from breakfast, side by side along the corridor in their wheelchairs in a slow motion race.

Alex & Lindsay photo
Alex (left) and Lindsay farewell each other ‘just in case’ prior to Lindsay entering hospital for surgery. Alex died, aged 93, on July 23rd 2015. Lindsay died three months later.

Everything about Alex was slow – apart from his mind of course. He was in his own time bubble. And the pace around him, of carers and other staff, of visitors, must have seemed like warp speed to him. But when you took the time to enter his bubble, to slow down and listen, he could take you back into his world, through his memories of other times and places when the pace had been faster and at times even frantic.

Alex Bell Barker was born on 23rd June 1922 at his parents’ home in Maryborough Queensland. He was the youngest of four children born to Mary Eliza Barker (neé Bell) and Herbert John Barker, who was known to all as Bert. Mary was a sometime journalist who contributed to both the Woman’s Mirror magazine and the Maryborough Chronicle. Bert was a decorative painter who came from a family of coach builders. Alex remembers his father as an artist with the dagger liner, a fine brush required for the most intricate work.

The eldest of Alex’s siblings was his sister Ruda (christened Gertrude), followed by Bill, then John. John would later become a fully qualified butter maker at the Maryborough Butter Factory, while Bill would, at the age of eighteen, become Queensland’s youngest ever fully qualified pharmacist.

Alex started school at The Albert School a co-educational primary that covered the years up to seventh grade. He joined the Boy Scouts and it was here that he gained an introduction to semaphore and Morse code, two skills that would soon have a profound effect on his life. Alex loved his time in the scouts, relishing the mentorship of two adult leaders Mr Bertram and Mr Horne. Under their guidance and inspiration, Alex became a Patrol Leader but when they left the Scout troop they were replaced by a man called Crocker whose leadership skills were less satisfactory. When Alex helpfully pointed this out to Crocker he was given ‘scout punishment’ which entailed having cold water poured down his sleeve. Alex wasn’t having any of that. He (literally) got on his bike and that was the end of the Scouts.

After completing primary, Alex enrolled at Maryborough Boys Grammar in year 8, or what was then known as Junior year. He remained in secondary school until the end of Year 9.

Upon finishing school, at the age of 14, he began working at a local draper’s shop where he delivered parcels, swept the asphalt and cleaned windows.

The Second World War broke out little over two months after Alex’s seventeenth birthday and, lying about his age and claiming to be eighteen, he enlisted in the 47th Militia Battalion. Alex wanted to join the Regular Army but he needed to be 20 years old for that. Unfortunately when he lied about his age, his lie was not big enough.

After three months training at Enoggera Camp in Brisbane, Alex was assigned to the Signal Corps and posted to the Headquarters Wing in Brisbane. He would do 12 days’ straight duty in order to qualify for a weekend’s leave and then would travel by train to his parents’ home in Maryborough. Very often he would encounter Mr Crocker, his former Scoutmaster, who was now a porter on the railways. Alex sensed that Crocker was keen to chat, but Alex had no desire to renew the acquaintance. The only railway person he had any interest in was Hazel Messer, the Stationmaster’s daughter. Alex liked the look of her and decided that one day he would get the nerve to ask her out.

He had a mate called Frank Therkelsen and the two of them decided to have what was called in those days a “chop party”, the forerunner of the barbecue. Alex didn’t have a girlfriend, but decided to ask Nola Clemens who was a friend of the family. When Alex and Frank arrived at Nola’s home in Frank’s car, Nola announced that she was unable to come but had arranged for her friend Hazel to stand in for her. It wasn’t until much later that Alex realised the girls had, in his words, “cooked it up”.

Later that year, Alex was ordered to report to the Signals School near Brisbane. He qualified as a signaller and was enlisted in the Regular Army. By the end of 1940, and still an underage soldier, Alex was promoted to Corporal and began to instruct other men in the use of wireless, flags, heliograph and aldis lamp, all of which employed morse as the language of communication.

His various duties in Australia, included a posting at Fort Kissing Point, which sounds like something out of a ‘50s RomCom, but is an actual place. He also had a stint as a coast watcher on Magnetic Island. By now promoted to Sergeant, Alex was placed in charge of a detail of wireless operators whose role was to observe shipping and aircraft activity around Palm Island and report by radio to Townsville.

In June 1942, he turned 20, or according to the Army, 21, which meant that he could now join the AIF and be eligible for overseas service. He was posted to New Guinea. This assignment was interrupted when he became ill and was sent back to hospital in Cairns.

After being discharged from Cairns hospital, he was ordered to return to Brisbane. On the way he stopped over in Maryborough to visit his parents. He also spoke to Hazel’s father and gained his permission to marry.

Alex obtained leave that was owed and he and Hazel were married on the 7th of March 1943. They honeymooned at his parents’ holiday home on the coast. Alex took Hazel boating. They sailed from Tuan Point to Amity Point. Despite fine weather and a calm sea, Hazel spent the entire trip cowering in the bottom of the boat. Upon their return they encountered some local fishermen who told him that the Army wanted him in Brisbane. The honeymoon was over.

Alex was soon on his way back to Papua New Guinea and the time he spent there during the war left a lasting impression. Not all of it was bad. Some of his many anecdotes were hilarious. There were tales of being trapped in quicksand and of children rescued from crocodiles and of fishing with gelignite. Alex was always a keen fisherman. But the serious side of war was something else. The things he was prepared to talk about were bad enough, but the worst of it he kept to himself. The enemy he faced was ruthless and played by different rules. The experiences that traumatised him most were the outrages he witnessed against children. Many of his stories are not fit for repeating and the ones he left untold can only be imagined. One story he was prepared to tell, was of his futile attempt to save a native village.

Alex in uniform photoOne evening, Japanese aircraft passed overhead on their way to attack the US wharf at Giropa. Realising the enemy might mistake nearby native cooking fires for their target, Alex ran to warn the villagers. He was too late. As he approached, shouting his warning, bombs began to fall amongst the native huts. Women and children were blown to pieces and a scorching steel fragment struck his eye. Ultimately, this fragment, too deep to be removed, would cause a cancer. But the sight of those innocent women and children being slaughtered left a lifelong scar as well.

Not only the sights, but the smell of war as well left a lasting impact. A sickly odour would haunt battlefields long after the action ceased and Alex could never quite get the stench of death out of his nostrils. Years later he could still taste it in his food. The war became a burden that would weigh upon him for the rest of his life. Yet in spite of his inner torment, it never compromised his demeanour. He remained always courteous, thoughtful and appreciative. He was a gentlemen. The burden he shouldered, with such dignity and grace, has at last been lifted. Rest in peace Alex.  And farewell. It was a privilege to have known you. And we were proud to call you a friend.


Posted in Memoir


They killed the town where I grew up. Broke its heart. Butchered and dismembered it. Carried away and cannibalised the parts deemed of value. Ploughed the rest under and turned it into a hole in the ground. You could just about taste the grief it caused; almost reach out and touch it. For people who’d lived their lives there, raised children or buried friends. But I thought it a fitting end. And had it been possible, I would have danced on its grave.

I am standing, as near as I can tell, where our house once stood, on one of two hills flanking the town’s western edge. Below me and to the east, dredgers like giant steel locusts crawl over the coalface, cutting it with great revolving bucket-wheels. Their work seems slow but it is inexorable. They shift housefuls of coal, but nothing seems to change. It does though. In its own time.

Everything changes in its own time, my father used to say. Even the hills change but so slowly we’ll never see it. There are trees up there, he once said, squinting eastward into the morning sun, there are trees up there in the Jeeralangs that fell over a hundred years ago and still haven’t rotted away.

He was a man obsessed by time; never could get enough of it. And he would measure it with his hands and feet, beating a tattoo on the kitchen table, tapping his soles against the floorboards, always anxious to be going, to keep moving.

And moving was something we did a lot of when I was young. First one town and then another as he chased promotion, chased a better life. And when I was ten years old, we came at last to Yallourn, a smug and coddled company town of immaculate streets and nominal rents and twice weekly garbage collections and paternalistic healthcare; some people’s idea of heaven on earth. I hated the place from the day I saw it.

We had come from Bendigo, a place I loved. A city with a history. A city of mullock heaps and gold shafts and poppet heads. A city that set the colony on its feet in the dizzy days of gold. I loved its raw red hungry earth. Loved the lichen-covered boulders strewn across the nearby hills as though they had been flung from the hands of giants. I loved the big sky and the wafer-thin clouds. I even loved a girl there, or thought I did.

And then we came to the heart of the Latrobe Valley, to the pampered legoland village of Yallourn. A dying town then, though I didn’t yet know it. A town that was dying before it was born. Conceived in the minds of engineers and accountants and built, for the purposes of economy, on a seam of coal – a decision that dooms it. Its days like the days of man are numbered. And its life-long labour, is to dig its own grave.

I watch the bucket-wheels cutting the coalface, slicing through time, dredging the past. As I stand there with my kids, I do some dredging of my own. I remember another time. And I am standing with my father watching the giant locusts devour the coal. He is pointing at the open cut, telling me time is layered against its walls and eons are measured in inches.

Long ago he says, long before the white man and the aborigine, there was a swamp and a forest that grew within it. It stretched beyond the horizon in all directions and as each tree died it fell into the swamp. Over a period of thirty million years, the trees were laid down, one upon the other, until the conditions that gave rise to it changed, and the forest at last died out.

Thirty million years he says, pausing for emphasis, raising his eyebrows.

How long is thirty million years Dad, I ask.

He looks at me and gives me one of his slow quiet smiles. How far from here to Melbourne he asks me. Ninety-three miles I say. Sounds about right to me he says. Now imagine ninety-odd miles is thirty million years. How old are you, ten? I nod my head. If thirty million years is from here to Melbourne, how long do you reckon ten years’d be? I dunno I say. He could tell me anything and I wouldn’t have a clue. Go on have a guess he says. A hundred yard dash do you reckon? A cricket pitch? A cricket pitch I say. He grins again and slowly pulls his right hand out from behind his back.

That’s me, he says, stretching his fingers as wide as he can, forty years. And you, he holds thumb and forefinger about two inches apart, that’s you; ten years old. And thirty million years is ninety miles. From here to Melbourne.

I stand near the coalface, now, not then, as a father, no longer a son. It occurs to me, for the first time, how idiosyncratic is that image, how typical of him. For time is distance, he always says, distance between things happening. But time for him is absolute. A relentless metronome measuring an unvarying beat. He thinks Einstein is a madman. If time can change, then it’s not time, it’s something else he says. But in this as in other things I will learn he is not infallible. He cannot conceive of time as elastic, yet the evidence is everywhere. I am back with my father looking forward and time seems to stretch forever. I stand beside my son looking backwards and wonder where it went.

It is said by some that everyone has a book inside them. If so, then my father’s is a novel about Roman Britain, about the clash of the Druids and the New God. He tells me as his retirement draws near he might just get around to it at last. When he’s on easy street. With time on his hands. I am dubious about this but refrain from saying so. I am sure he does have a book inside of him, but I’m not sure it’s a novel. I feel certain he lacks the imagination for such an undertaking. But in the end it is not lack of imagination that will thwart him.

Years after his death, my mother shows me an essay he wrote as a boy. It is an account of some forgotten Scottish princess journeying to her wedding; an imaginative and beautiful piece. Sixty years later I read it in a tumult of emotions. Pride competes with frustration at a talent gone untended. A father’s frustration. For in this confrontation with his secret past, I feel an unsettling sense of dislocation. As though our lives have been transposed. As though he is the son and I am the father.

Brown coal he is telling me, pointing at the strata. The Germans have it too he says, they call it lignite. Younger than black coal and safer too. Open cut mining you see, none of this burrowing underground, coughing your lungs up, dying before your time. This stuff’s beautiful he says. No miner’s lung here. No problems here with lungs. None that he knew about anyway. None he was told about. Asbestos is never mentioned. And all the while growing in his lungs is the condition that will kill him. The condition with the unpronouncable name mesalithelioma. Its work too is slow but it is inexorable as it dredges away the living tissue, transforming it into a detritus of shredded rags.

Later, much later or perhaps not so much later; half a handspan on his roadmap of time, he lies in a hospital bed, hooked up to a machine, oxygen fed to him through tubes. I’ll beat this thing he tells me. I don’t intend to chuck it in just yet. I have learned by now he is not infallible, he does not know everything, but just this one last time, I can almost believe him. A few days later he turns to my sister. Are you the nurse he asks. Are you the Navy nurse? He is dredging his own past now, peeling back the years.

I watch the dredger as it peels back the eons. I am standing in time, if not quite in place, much where my father stood – into my forties, the span of an outstretched hand. A couple of years before he dies my father asks me, any ideas on marriage. Got anyone in mind he wonders. I laugh. Why this sudden urge to marry me off I ask. He looks a little sheepish. Oh well he says, we like to see our kids fixed up before we shuffle off. Fixed up I hoot. We fall about laughing. Settled down, he says at last.

An autumnal wind whips through the valley, lifting a shadow of dust from the coal face, like mist from the crest of a wave. I hold my left hand out in front of me and stretch my fingers as wide as I can. I bring my right hand out as well, spreading it, holding it against the other, thumb to thumb. With luck I’ll make it. My children are still young, but it is my fervent hope I will live long enough to play with their children. If they wait as long as I did to start a family, it may not be possible.

I lower my hands and my daughter tugs at one. She has no hat and the wind is bothering her. Can we go now Dad she asks. Soon, I say. You can wait in the car if you like.

My son remains beside me, clutching my leg. He is eighteen months old. Less than a blade of grass on the verge of time, but already he is riding the great exponential curve, his brain digesting in days what his ancestors took millenia to master. Eons of evolution fast forwarding, as he learns to oppose his thumb, to walk and talk and understand his world. His tiny hand wraps around my finger. I seem like a giant to him; omnipotent and indestructible. Time will prove otherwise. As he grows and I diminish, he will bear witness to my fallibility.

My daughter sits in the car. Through the glass, I can hear her chattering in her trilling bird-like voice. Always chattering, always asking questions I can’t always answer.

My son looks up at me and in a gesture pre-dating language raises his arms. I pick him up and carry him toward the car.

In Wales, there is a mining town that lies beneath a lake. Stone houses and cobbled streets lay drowned by progress – a grim parody of Atlantis. There is no such resting place for Yallourn. It has turned to dust and like the men it killed, lives only in memory.

I start the car to begin our journey back to Melbourne. A journey of thirty million years.

Posted in Not So Light

Oh Canada – just do it!

I’ve always admired the Canadians. They seem like fairly easy-going, civilised people; sort of like nice Americans, but without the automatic weapons. And let’s face it, living next door to a self-obsessed megalomaniac can’t be easy. It’d be like when you go to a party or out to dinner and you’re stuck next to someone who spends the entire evening talking about themselves – oh God, just shoot me! Except that they’re heavily armed, have no sense of irony and they might just do that. Don’t get me wrong – I like the Americans. I’m just glad I don’t live next door to them. So I think the Canadians are great for being to be able to put up with all that. And I love the fact that they have a tourist attraction called The Inside Passage. Seriously, if that doesn’t attract tourists, nothing will. They also have a great flag:

Canadian flag

See? Isn’t it a beauty? I’m obsessed with the Canadian flag, because I think it serves as a model for what ours should be, but I won’t go into that now – that’s a diatribe for another day. The Canadians also have a great national anthem – ‘O Canada’. It’s spine-tinglingly beautiful. Whenever I hear it, it makes me want to become a Canadian – except, not really. Here is a link if you want to have a listen.

Now, the thing is, the Canadians are debating whether or not to make a small but significant change to the lyrics of ‘O Canada’. They want to change from, “all thy sons command” to “all of us command.” Elizabeth Renzetti, in The Globe and Mail, June 3rd, puts the case in favour. I think she pretty well nails it. She notes that a previous attempt to change the language failed and suspects that the phrase ‘gender neutral’ caused conservative heartburn. She says: “It is an infelicitous phrase…No one would name a boat or a horse Gender Neutral. If it were me, I wouldn’t say the changes make the anthem gender-neutral, I’d say they make it fair…”

It’s made me think about something that’s exercised my mind for a while and that’s the question of gender and language – specifically the word ‘man’ and its use in the English language. ‘Man’ refers both to the species and the gender. We, men that is, have appropriated the word, and use it as we please. The word ‘woman’ derives from, and is subordinate to the word ‘man’, just as Eve was derived from Adam’s rib and is therefore subordinate to him. The notion is anachronistic and it seems to me that a change in the language is overdue.

In an attempt to be gender neutral, or as Ms Renzetti might say, fair, we have amended the word ‘chairman’ to ‘chairperson’. It might be fair, but it’s inelegant. And what of words like ‘manpower’, ‘manslaughter’, ‘man-made’, ‘man-hour’? In a world where women drive trains and trams, fly aircraft and sail ships, should ‘railwaymen’, ‘tramwaymen’, ‘airmen’ and ‘seamen’ be applied to women? I think not. And in the case of the latter, never, ever without her consent.

So what does that leave us with? We could go with ‘railwayperson/s’ which sounds ridiculous or ‘railway–men and –women’ which is a bit of a mouthful. Applying the same logic, we end up with ‘seaperson/s’ or ‘sea people’ which sounds like something out of Phoenician history, or ‘sea–men and –women’ which, if you say it quickly, sounds interesting, but kind of rude.

I think the solution is, and I hope you’re sitting down, because this is going to sound ridiculous, but I think we should change the word for ‘man’, where it denotes gender. To put it simply: if we took the words ‘man’ and ‘human’ and switched their meanings, so that ‘man’ is only ever used to denote the species, and ‘human’, the adult male thereof, life would be simpler. After, of course, it had gone through a really difficult and protracted period of confusion, hysteria, outrage and abuse. Blood would flow in the streets and I fear that some of it might be mine, but let’s face it, you’ve got to die of something and I’ve lived a life, if you can call it that. But I digress.

Of course, it’s a ridiculous idea, I get that. And it’s not going to happen. But imagine if it already had. Imagine if we had been born into an English-speaking world where there was no gender-bias in our language and the male and female of the species both derived from the same root. I’ve just made a truly hilarious pun that only my fellow Australians and my New Zealand neighbours will appreciate. So I’ve provided a link. New Zealanders, for the benefit of overseas readers, play Canada to our US. They are sensible, funny and they keep beating us at rugby, which is really annoying, or would be, if I cared about rugby. It’s true, their flag is nowhere near as good as Canada’s. It looks like ours and both are in serious need of a makeover, but that is a rant for another time. Like the Canadians, they have an absolute cracker of a national anthem. If you don’t believe me, have a listen. But I digress. And I need to move on, because if your attention span is anything like mine, I probably lost you at ‘I like the Americans’.

Returning to my ridiculous idea that will never get up: obviously there would need to be some sort of transition period, like when the UK adopted decimal currency and transitioned from ‘pence’ to ‘new pence’ and then back to ‘pence’ again.

I’m not sure exactly how it would be handled. Maybe it is as simple as ‘man’ and ‘men’ become ‘human’ and ‘humen’. Maybe, acknowledging, our chromosomal differences we could become xmen and ymen. Just so you know, I’m not really that keen on the idea of not being a man anymore, even if it does mean I get to be more human. I don’t like change any more than the next man, woman or human. I don’t always feel like going to work either. But sometimes you’ve just got to human up. As for being a yman? Well better than being an xman with those great steel claws extruding from my arms. And if those sideburns looked ridiculous on Hugh Jackman, what hope would I have! Anyway, I’m not really a details human. I’ll leave that to somebody else to figure out. I’ve put enough effort into this already and my work here is almost done.

I’ll conclude by saying I’m not going to weigh in on the right to life/pro-choice debate by suggesting that we are literally human before we are male or female. But in a figurative sense, of course we are. We are all human first, before we are black or white, male or female, straight or gay or anything in between. And if we could frame a nomenclature that acknowledged our common humanity and asserted its primacy, then I think that would be fair.

Posted in Light

Butchers are people too.

Jeff Rapley, a butcher in Narooma on the south coast of New South Wales recently put a sign in his window: “eating two strips of Rapley’s award winning bacon for breakfast reduces your chance of being a suicide bomber by 100%”.


Bacon window
Photo: UK Telegraph

Mr Rapley removed the sign when a customer complained, but not before a passer-by had taken a photo and posted it on social media, where it gained widespread attention. Many denounced Mr Rapley as an ignorant racist.

The controversy prompted by Mr Rapley’s action has raised the vexed issue of social stereotyping and I would like to add my voice to the debate. I would like to say once and for all in clear and stentorian tones: not all butchers are stupid!

Butchers get a bad rap. Many are seen as jovial, if not very bright fellows; good only for making inane, suggestive banter and laying a surreptitious hand on the scales. The very word ‘butcher’ carries with it unfortunate connotations. The Butcherbird was named for its habit of impaling prey, the better to eat or mount for display to potential mates.

Then there was the infamous “Butcher of Lyon”, Klaus Barbie, whose trial, in 1987, for crimes against humanity, offended honest tradesmen and confused little girls the world over. As for any little girl whose daddy was a butcher… one can only shake one’s head in despair.

A group can never be judged by an individual. Butchers are people, just like anyone else and each has a right to his or her own multi-faceted individuality. My own uncle Ted, was a butcher, but he eschewed the stereotype. True, he was a banterer par excellence, but he never laid a heavy hand upon the scales, and apart from the odd, inadvertent self-wound, the blood on his hands was never human. And he was smart too; smart enough in his pre-butchering days to perceive a demand for condoms in the conservative Republic of Ireland. On his many trips across the North Atlantic, he was able to meet this demand. Admittedly, he added a small percentage for his troubles, but as those troubles included strafing by the Luftwaffe and stalking by U-boats, few of his loyal clients objected.

And then of course, there is Mr Rapley, another defier of stereotype, a supremely intelligent man who has identified an important association between dietary habits and social pathology. Mr Rapley suggests that anyone with a proclivity for eating bacon is not the sort of person who will self-detonate in order to cause the deaths of his fellows. This is a point well-made. It has long been apparent to sensible people that vegetarians and vegans are a menace to society. They threaten to undermine the values that have made this country great. The agenda of these malcontents is nothing short of world domination and they will seize any means to promote their dark agenda. Before we know it, we, the citizens of a barbecue and beer-swilling free and tolerant society will, by home-grown, self-immolating vegans and vegetarians, be terrorised into choking down carrot juice, great slabs of tofu and forests of alfalfa.

I believe we owe Mr Rapley a debt of gratitude, for not only has he reminded us, albeit unintentionally, of the folly of judging the group by the individual, he has alerted us to the interface between diet and anti-social behaviour. His veiled warning against vegan/vegetarian terrorism is one that cannot be taken too seriously. It must never be forgotten that Hitler was a vegetarian. It is incumbent upon us, as a society, to deal with these subversives.

My suggestion is that, relying on informers, the government identify vegans and vegetarians, and require them to wear some sort of symbol, affixed to their clothing, to denote their affiliation: a head of broccoli perhaps, or a square of tofu. The next step would be to concentrate them in camps where they can gorge themselves on their revolting kohl rabi and Brussel sprouts and blow themselves up to their heart’s content.