There’s a lot of bull in this China shop

Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021

Well, forgetting the bull for the present, there’s a lot of blue water – literally in this case – between the fractious business of managing relations with China and doing the sort of pre-boy on the burning deck routine we’re seeing in Australia from the government and its fellow travellers. There are bogeymen everywhere, if you listen to them. Of course China is a potential problem, though far less for Australia than for others. There’s no argument in favour of telling ourselves scary stories, or for cutting off our nose to spite our face, and we certainly need to nuance our policy. We should make the point that China’s cross-strait bullying of Taiwan destabilises the neighbourhood. We can do that pointedly as well as politely. We should emphasise to China our view that, if it cannot or will not give away its direct claim to the island, it should prosecute its aim of reincorporating Taiwan – to which the vanquished Chinese nationalists fled and set up a rival China when the communists won the civil war in 1949 – by peaceful negotiated means. We need as a corollary to this to understand that Beijing’s rhetoric is not necessarily more than huff and puff and frighten the horses unless someone else does something really stupid first.

We certainly don’t need to join the Jeremiah chorus of armchair generals and recent real ones that’s found a meal ticket in predicting war in the short term between China and the rest. Add to that list the Australian minister for defence, Peter Dutton, who told the National Press Club on November 26 that China was a terrible threat and we should remember that every Australian capital city was or would soon be within striking range of a Xi dynasty nuclear missile. Mr Dutton, who is from the fearless come-outside-and-knee-me-in-the-nuts faction of the Liberal Party, likes to scare people. He thinks it will make them vote LNP. It suits his politics, and undoubtedly his ambitions, to remind us that we should constantly worry whether underneath every bed is a red, a monster, or possibly both. At least his new focus is giving us a rest from his global Islamist conspiracy. He scares me too; but it’s his jackboot tendency rather than his misunderstanding of geopolitics that unfailingly finds my spine and sends a shiver up it.

There is as yet no direct evidence to support the Dutton view that China has an overwhelming preference for subsuming Taiwan by force, or a precise timetable for this event. It’s fairly clear that it could do so if it wanted, though it’s also clear that even if it was only fighting that other Chinese army, the nationalist one on Taiwan, it wouldn’t be doing so in a walkover. Sun Tzu noted that you should fight the battles that you can win. He is of suitably Chinese origin to gain official notice among the mandarins. But Machiavelli does venal politics much better.

Former prime minister Paul Keating’s speech at the National Press Club in Canberra on November 10 was masterly by contrast. It was informed not by funk, as some who accuse Keating of appeasement would like us to think, or (refreshingly) by a political desire to frighten people, but by a substantial comprehension of the facts. He didn’t say that Australia had no option but to kowtow to the mandarins in Beijing. He said that Australia needed to define, develop, and implement its own national policy in regard to China and its latest Great Helmsman.

In other words, we need to take a pragmatic, common sense and primarily Australian view of the relationship from our own perspective. In short, if we daren’t fully abandon our historical bipartisan preference for playing upraised middle finger on behalf of the two apron strings to whom, with the new AUKUS pact, we have revitalised our historical status as auxiliaries to the western empire, we should at least try to look as if we know where we are. A clue: We’re not anchored mid-Atlantic, somewhere between the Scilly Isles off Old England and Nantucket off New England .

And no one is suggesting that supine should replace supreme as a sensible diplomatic or defence posture, by ourselves or any others. We’re not alone in the region in feeling apprehensions over China’s future intentions. India has its own China problem, in which, in a maritime environment, Australian naval power could play a deterrent role. There’s not much we can do about the Himalayas, after all. Japan is also worried. So is South Korea. And so, for a raft of reasons, is America.

Let’s Not Forget

Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021

There’s a lovely verse in Baker Street, Gerry Rafferty’s 1978 track – it has headed my personal hit parade for more than four decades – and it seems apt, almost totemic, as a way of describing life as I am living it these days:

He’s got this dream about buying some land

He’s gonna give up the booze and the one-night stands

And then he’ll settle down 

In some quiet little town

And forget about ev’rything

There’s some artistic licence in there. Unless you’re an American, a nightstand is better known as a bedside table. They look lonely, or at best asymmetric, unless accompanied by a twin. But I jest. Rafferty was crooning about opportunistic sexual encounters. In my case, these have been overwhelmingly more gossipy fiction than biographical fact, though I concede that the fiction, and the gossipers, gave me some anxious moments back in the day. 

But just to note: There’s no way I’m giving up the booze, even though I apparently unknowingly angered a black cat back in 2014, fell into the hands of the surgical community, and haven’t been able to touch whisky since. Do I hear you intone, “bummer!”? I’ll have a double, thanks.

Nonetheless, time has moved on and we’ve bought some land (it had a very nice house on it when we did) and we’re trying to settle down in a quiet little town. That town is formally a city, in the Australian fashion. In other words, it is far from being a metropolis. It has a population of around 35,000 people and 35,000,000 gum trees. It’s very quiet, unless there’s a breeze blowing.

We’ve now been here for more than eighteen months, having abandoned our decade and a half of Fifo life Bali in April 2020. I’m trying very hard not to forget about everything. I’m implacably opposed to the modern fashion for deciding that the past is dead and that it therefore has no utility. Historians everywhere would agree with me.

Also, after a long career as a scribbler, I’m not going to forget the things I’ve written about, or suddenly decide that I am no longer interested in them. Neither, wearing my other hat, shall I forget what I did to whom, or why, during a decade in which I politically advised people, although I still wonder how I talked myself into that walk of life.

At the end of next month, I shall be seventy-seven. This is incomprehensible. I remember clearly how, at seventeen, which though sixty years ago still seems like yesterday, I chiefly thought only two things about old guys who were seventy-seven: 

One, I’ll never make it. And two, how on earth did they?

I now know the answer to the second question: A combination of luck and (often borrowed) good judgment, with a sizeable preponderance of the former.

Is it time to consider a universal wage?

Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021

Every cloud has a silver lining. Well, that’s if you’re lucky and you believe in ancient aphorisms. But there’s certainly a silver lining under the big covid cloud if the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) attracts you. Serious academic study of the concept and of its associated cost is now under way in Australia. It’s supported – as a concept – by Anglicare, the social justice arm of the Anglican Church, and others in the welfare sector. And its big-ticket cost doesn’t look too bad against the $311 billion cost of countering covid as a disease and an economic threat outlined in the 2021-22 federal budget, especially in the remodelled tax landscape that would be necessary.

No country in the world yet has a UBI in place. Germany is currently trialling a scheme and Finland has experimented and likes the idea. Scandinavian and German concepts of mutual welfare are somewhat different from those in more capitalist-oriented societies, however. Andrew Yang, a Democrat aspirant for the US presidency in 2019 who swiftly disappeared from the hustings proposed a UBI as part of his non-mainstream program. (He said it should be $US1,400 a month, currently equivalent to $A1,800.)

Proponents of a UBI – there are other acronyms around but the theory’s the same – point out that implementing a scheme at the right level would remove much of the social disadvantage experienced by low-to-no income groups and eliminate the stigma of living on welfare. The idea is that if everyone gets a UBI, then no one will be viewed as a burden on the community. It’s a concept that’s gaining public popularity too, as a poll conducted for the not-for-profit Anglicare found last year.

It would be a handy way of reminding government that it’s people, not a pile of rocks and a bunch of bushes, that constitute a country, and that – in a democratic system at least – it really is the people who are sovereign. It would make administration simpler and eliminate confusion. A UBI set at a high enough figure to be effective ($18,500 is one suggestion, estimated to cost $126 billion a year) would be substantially offset by elimination of many other welfare payments.  This could include ending the age pension altogether if a UBI were set at the age pension level ($18,900 a year). “Age pension” Australians would simply stay on the UBI when they reached pension age.  

Professor Ben Spies-Butcher, a Macquarie University academic and co-director of the Australian Basic Income Lab established last year with academics from Macquarie, Sydney University and the Australian National University, says the covid pandemic and the JobSeeker and JobKeeper support package responding to it stimulated interest in a UBI and created much useful data on what steps might be taken to establish one.

Covid won’t last forever as a pandemic threat, but neither will it be eradicated as an endemic risk, and the virus will continue to mutate, throwing up new variants, so it’s unlikely there’ll be a swift return – far less a full return – to life as we have known it up to now. (Unforeseen consequences are a feature of cataclysmic change, as history teaches anyone who bothers to listen. Some unreconstructed politicians and resource-stripping corporations may be feeling as blindsided as Western Europe’s feudal lords did when the Black Death of the 14th century suddenly made wage-earning freemen of their few remaining serfs and sparked the march to mercantilism, the precursor of Adam Smith’s capitalism.) 

Australia has been luckier than many countries through the covid pandemic. The virus itself has been largely a controllable public health and medical event – though Melbourne and Sydney have been hit relatively hard – and the ability of the Australian government to outlay enormous sums of money to support the national economy and population has been a boon. Long-held principles of so-called fiscal rectitude were hurriedly if sometimes grudgingly thrown overboard in 2020. There may be a few who think that we now need to be re-educated – Capitalism for Dummies 101 – but Australia has never been a fully capitalist society. Post-covid, capitalism’s theoretical signature is likely to be even further reduced. A return to perceived normality is now a questionable prospect even in the longer term.

The pandemic also hit at a crucial moment in the global transformation of industrial economies from a source of almost unlimited jobs to one in which without high skills – a lot of them so new that virtually everyone’s an apprentice in them – many people will simply not be employable. We can’t all be brain surgeons, and anyway, AI robots are as likely as not to gain an edge in that skilled speciality too. 

Similarly, the brave new world of the gig economy probably cannot be outlawed (whether it should be is another question). This means that many people face lifelong exclusion from the prospect of home loans and of building up significant superannuation. No one will give you a mortgage if you don’t have a regular job, and paying meaningful private super instalments requires a regular income.

But here’s the rub: Even an incurable optimist would have to concede that at present an Australian UBI is a distant prospect. It’s unlikely to benefit today’s age pensioners. It’s worth thinking about, though, if you’re interested in what Australia could look like in years to come. 

(This commentary also appears, slightly edited, on the website startsat60.com)

Some further reading on universal basic income:

https://www.dw.com/en/basic-income-germany-tax-free/a-54700872

https://phys.org/news/2019-02-basic-income-world-national-finland.html

Eye, Eye!

Wednesday, Apr. 14, 2021

Just a little bit of whimsy ahead of an event I’m not looking forward to.

This week I shall be having the first of two cataract surgeries. The first is in two days time, on Friday, Apr. 16, and the second is scheduled for May 11. I’ve read up on the procedure, which these days is delivered in day surgery with eye-numbing drops. It’s that last bit that gives me the heebie-jeebies. I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy, not your modern self-voyeur who likes a ringside seat. If a surgeon is going to be messing with me, I like to be unconscious.

Still, life teaches you – if you are sensible – that what must be borne must simply be borne. As with any health preventive or corrective measures, there’s a risk: that it won’t fully work; or worse. The risk is very small. It’s probably even smaller if you remember not to flinch while you can see that unnatural things are being performed upon you. And I shall try very hard to remember that.

What really irritates, however, is the evidence that the necessity for cataract surgery presents as to the failing nature of oneself. Yes, it’s a natural process. Yes, it’s also an inevitable process. And actually, it’s a welcome one, since no one should be so self-important as to want to live forever. I’m very distant from death’s door, at least so far as I know, barring the intervention of fate. But I am being forced to recognise that, actually, yes, I’m 76. How did that happen? Last thing I remember, I was chasing nymphs around rose bushes. Well, sort of. Myth is always more powerful than history. And anyway, perhaps I really was trying to get away. That could be another good myth, couldn’t it?

The truth is that up to now, for more than three score years and ten, I’ve been incredibly fortunate in terms of health and what, if I were a horse, someone might describe as condition. The usual childhood things aside, I’ve had to deal only with dysentery – an accident of short-term residence in a hot, flyblown, windy and very sandy bit of Africa 70 years ago – and two surgeries, one long ago, and one emergency matter, more recently though dealt with successfully and far enough in the past to now be merely archive material. I’ve worn spectacles since I was 18 (though if my ophthalmic surgeon, Ed. and Glas., is right, that may soon end) and – I love this joke – I’ve had my own teeth since those that my genetics issued to me proved wholly inadequate for the tasks required of them.

In a way, I feel rather like great-grandpa’s favourite axe, now a family heirloom and still in its original condition, as good as ever, having in its long and useful life had only two new heads and four new hafts. I’m on no medication. Doctors are astounded by this, or perhaps they’re just disappointed that I’m not in the market for western-style pandemic prescriptions. But I’ve never favoured “here’s a pill, pop it,” as either prophylactic or palliative medicine. I’ve shrunk a bit, as you do under the weight of years, though not too much; and now we’re back in Australia permanently, I’m never again going to win Tallest in Room.

Right. Next question?

Mr Porter’s Problem

Thursday, Mar. 4, 2021

It’s not that he’s an entitled brat who’s never properly grown up. It isn’t that he counts himself among a group of Liberal politicians who style themselves The Swinging Dicks (a tip, fellas: buy better underwear). It isn’t that, as a consequence of his all-too-common adolescent male fantasy, he’s in that cohort of men who think women are privileged that he has noticed them and should be grateful for this beneficence. It’s not even that as attorney-general of the Commonwealth, he’s Australia’s senior law officer: that may formally be the case, but he’s just another politician, and in his case, a bad one.

Christian Porter’s problem is that when he finally fronted up to a media conference and unwelcome photo opportunity in Perth yesterday, having by his silence for far too long allowed the other 15 males in federal cabinet to be speculated upon as possible rapists, he spent 45 minutes explaining that he was the victim. Pass the sickbag. With that pathetic demonstration of the true nature of his character, he identified himself very clearly as a man with whom it would be unfortunate if not fatal to share a foxhole under fire in No Man’s Land. He denied all allegations against him. He is entitled to do so, under oath or otherwise. But there could not be a police investigation because – and there are sensible reasons for this – a complaint dies with the complainant. In this instance, too, the woman who lodged the complaint, alleging that the attorney general of the Commonwealth raped her in 1988, when he was 17 and she was 16, had not formalised her complaint before she took her own life.

Ending a police inquiry – before it had begun, in this instance – has no bearing on determining whether there should be an inquiry into historical allegations of rape. Again, Attorney General Porter is entitled to protest his innocence. He is entitled to smear the memory of the woman who claimed she was his victim, by asserting that none of the events alleged took place. In his view, then, she lied, or was mistaken, or was malicious or mad. He can do that in perfect safety. The dead cannot sue for defamation. 

But there is a word that aptly describes powerful, well-connected men whose superior sense of entitled grievance when challenged leads them to assert that they are excused scrutiny. Mr Porter has added a substantial footnote to the lexicography of crude epithets with his performance yesterday in Perth.

Instead of clearing the air by finally finding some courage – by announcing, say, that he maintained his denial of the events alleged but that in the circumstances there should be an inquiry and that he would stand aside while this took place – he gave us a fairy story. He asserted that if allegations were made against politicians and others who denied them, and that if they had to stand aside while these were investigated, then the whole basis of our rule of law would be destroyed. Give. Me. A. Break. The office of attorney-general is just that, an office like any other. If an incumbent cannot act, whether or not temporarily, other people can fill that office. No one would fall off the sides of Mr Porter’s apparently flat earth if he did the decent, sensible thing. Except perhaps in astonishment.

NOTE: Paul Kelly has a good piece in The Australian today that puts another argument. It’s worth reading, if it’s available to you, and I have done so. I can’t post a link to it here, as I no longer subscribe to the newspaper. That’s a budgetary decision rather than a cerebral choice. I’ve always read from a variety of contestable sources.

The God Squad Has the Crayon

Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021

Other people’s fairy stories have never bothered me. We’re all entitled to a little fantasy. It’s polite, too, to keep one’s own counsel on the sublime veracities that other people like to claim illuminate the liturgies with which humankind’s need for fiction has underpinned their lives. It is no moment, to most, that these have almost all been created by hierarchies to bolster their social, economic and political control systems. Anyone heard from Ra lately, or Osiris? No, didn’t think so. Just thought I’d ask. Though Seth might still be around, in many of his profoundly split personalities, or under an alias, at least.

But look, I’m only joking. Anyone with a working intellect, a functioning moral compass, and an ethical balance (these are not elite attributes) surely reveres – and reveres is the word, I use it deliberately – the faith that others display and which they use in their lives for the good of all. I have known many religious in my now seven decades on the third rock from the sun, and I would say this: it is the Jesuits who most attract me, for their gentle humour and the intellectual facility with which they balance science (and scientific fact) with ineffable religious faith. As with Groucho Marx and clubs, I wouldn’t join a church that asked me to. I said that once to a priest (a Jesuit, again) and he beamed. He then allowed himself a far from mild guffaw when I added that, as far as I knew, that was my original sin. 

All that is by the by. It demonstrates, to my own satisfaction at least, though perhaps not to the present government’s informal groups of rough-riders and (at this point metaphorical) lynch-squads that what I shall now write is informed and objective. I await advice on this, gratuitous or otherwise. 

I do not believe that it should be seen as just an anti-religious, anti-establishment rant, though some who don the bother-bootees may see it that way. It goes instead to the issue of what sort of country Australia is and should aspire to be. This behavioural mediation in favour of advancing sentience has never pleased the Flashhearts of the Anglosphere, but you wouldn’t expect it to. It’s just a shame, from the standpoint of human progress, that they seem to be charge hereabouts.

We commence, then, with a statement: There are several things wrong with the promotion of Margaret Court to the rank of Companion in the Order of Australia. Her original honour, in 2007, was as Officer of the Order, and it was awarded for her long-past tennis prowess. The fact that Rod Laver, also an Australian tennis great, later got an AC for achievements valued as equal, is one for the Fates. It’s really not an issue of gender balance, as the Council of the Order of Australia now suggests, since the common herd has had the temerity to inquire. He got one so she should have one is a ridiculous argument in the context of awards for merit. For clarity, it would be just as ridiculous (in this context) if the genders were reversed.

Because the Order of Australia is organised in a monarchical-at-one-remove courtier manner, wherein things should not be made known to the general public (for fear of what, one wonders, civil commotion, insurrection, lese-majesty, also at one remove?) we do not know who nominated the Rev. Margaret Court, former tennis player and present mentor, for promotion to the highest rank of our country’s honours system. It is this left-over from history that offends our democracy, much more than the giving of an even better gong to some woman whose mad god-bothering views about sexuality would otherwise reduce her social relevance to zilch. Australia’s all-time great female tennis player believes that homosexuality is a sin and that lesbian couples shouldn’t contrive to raise children, because these young individuals won’t have a dad. Give us a break. It is now 2021. 

She also apparently believes and wishes to promote her view – yes, this is where it gets really scary – that the only permissible position in which to have sex is the missionary one. Eat your heart out, Kama Sutra. Oops, that must be No. 65. Yes, missionary works. If you work at it, it can even be fun sometimes (though it shouldn’t be, we gather, since sex is ordained by god for purposes of procreation and isn’t a recreational pursuit; so sayeth the Rev). And she and her Pentecostal congregation are fully entitled to believe that, and clap about it to their hearts’ content. Along with any other adherents to the theory that social and sexual licence has gone far too far, god what, and all sorts of impulses, social and political as well, should be reined in forthwith, the better to secure heaven for the moneyed clappers. Yeah, well. Pass.

Kerry O’Brien, whose gimlet glare on national TV froze far better leaders than the present crop of complacent dissemblers will ever be, refused to accept his AO announced in the 2021 Australia Day Honours List, after initially accepting nomination, because of the promotion given to Margaret Court. So did an artist and a transgender doctor. 

The Order of Australia Council and the Governor-General, and the prime minister and assorted other social recidivists, should hear that message. Margaret Court is entitled to hold her abominable views. It is not the place of the Commonwealth of Australia to endorse these by default.

The same collective of guardians should also look at how Australian honours are organised. It mightn’t matter too much at the lower end – the OAMs and the AMs – but at the AO and, crucially, the AC level, we need to know who has nominated whom and upon what justification. This would assist the people, who are sovereign in our Commonwealth, to make their own informed judgments on the merits or otherwise of proposed recipients. Otherwise, as in this instance, we must assume that the god squad has requisitioned the crayon.

Here’s Mud in Your Boots! Cheers!

Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021

This week we will be marking our first Australia Day in country in fifteen years. Throughout the decade and a half that preceded April 2, 2020, when we were FIFOing as a lifestyle, we always managed to be absent for the rounds of increasingly strident and mawkish flag-waving and gong-giving that takes place every year on January 26, or has, at least, nationally, since 1994. It wasn’t until 1935 that all Australian states and territories even used the name “Australia Day” to mark that date. 

Some Australians prefer to call it Invasion Day – including from this year the national broadcaster, though the ABC would be wiser to stick to its charter and the official name and refer as necessary to other preferences – and from an Aboriginal perspective you can hardly argue. First British Boots in the Mud Day was precisely that: an invasive act of imperial requisition. Never mind the natives, they don’t matter: that was the soupçon du jour in 1788.

There is a lot to celebrate about modern Australia, and we’d be better doing that than continuing to argue by implication that the natives don’t matter. Aside from anything else, such as comprehension, for example, or conscience, or an appreciation of the nuances of history, we are all natives now; of Australia. 

Some of the more primitive Birther types among us like to pretend that no one’s a true-blue Aussie unless born within the special biosphere, that bit of the globe that’s both the world’s largest inhabited island and its smallest continent, the bit that’s girt by sea. It’s a fundamentally proto-fascist point of view rather than risible, picture-book nationalism, and it goes well with boots, muddy or otherwise, and a preference for hagiography because it tells the right fairy stories. 

But in the context of modern Australia, it’s bullshit, to use a vintage Australianism. The country has been built on constant flows of migration. Over time, it has factually ceased to be the last white colony in Asia, though not yet functionally. It’s worrying that some of its leaders seem still to want to perpetuate that long form of suicide as national policy.

So, we’ll be sitting quietly at home on the big day. We don’t have a flag to wave, or an overwhelming need to chug-a-lug, or a set of corks to sew around our hats, or a sausage sizzle to attend. You go to Bunnings for sizzles these days, anyway.

I might instead revisit the story of Woollarawarre Bennelong, a senior man of the Eora people, who made a name for himself in 1788 and is far more worthy of remembrance than the booted, plumed and beribboned Brit who became the First Jailer of New South Wales.

Tracking down the Morons

Kealy, Western Australia

Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020

We’re getting to know our new home area better, now that the temperatures are generally up a degree or two on deep midwinter and the rain, while still frequent and chill to the skin, is more likely to be in the form of showers and thus is relatively easy to dodge.

So we’ve been exploring the benefits of the Wadandi Track, which happily links our precinct to the several delights of Vasse Village, where if you’re lucky, you’ll find something open other than Coles supermarket, the Shell petrol station, and Maccas.

The Wadandi are the First Nations people of this area, an element of the Noongar nation. They are therefore to be honoured as our original citizens, a concept that like much else continues to elude many Australians.

Their track, now a paved walkway along our stretch of it, traverses country that is flat as (flat as the Lincolnshire fens, a bit of England to which the Distaff was introduced some decades ago). Being flat as, is good for walking. For the older walker, it beats the Bali goat track limestone country on which we walked for several years. On a recent perambulation, the Distaff, dear girl, noted that while flat as, it was not whiffy as, the South Holland district of Lincolnshire being the capital of cabbages.

But it is whiffy in another way. To everyone’s cost, later settlement in the region includes elements of the Moron tribe, that worldwide blot on the landscape.

One recent shuffle, including use of the handy step-ups infrastructure the Busselton city council has placed half way between ourselves and Coles, took only 55 minutes out and back, with only a little rain, dear.

But it also included a doggy do-do bag, filled with its quota, left on top of a wooden pathway perimeter pole. Why would you do that? Don’t answer, the question’s rhetorical. It also included a drowned Coles shopping trolly, lying rusted and abandoned in the flood drain under the bridge that carries the Wadandi Track over it.

Some moron had obviously decided that it was a good place to abandon the last remnants of his sentience.

There was another, a little further on, abandoned in a bush.

Silence is No Longer Golden

BOOK REVIEW: GODS AND DEMONS A foreign correspondent’s memoir | Deborah Cassrels

It’s certainly not Scoop, and Deborah Cassrels is hardly Evelyn Waugh. But there are enough fanciful echoes of imagined distant drums in Cassrels’ book, and there’s sufficient colourful reportage, to prompt consideration of the demerits of figjamery.

According to the book cover, it is a foreign correspondent’s memoir that takes the reader behind the tourist veneer of Bali and greater Indonesia. 

Well, blurb is blurb. The real mysteries and genuine delights of the archipelago will remain obscure. Little further illumination has been shone upon the 322 sheets between Cassrels’ hot covers. Indonesians, Balinese especially, will be glad that this is so. They quite like to be excluded from the glaring gaze of western impertinence, though they are very polite and rarely say so publicly.

Instead – though to give the narrative credit, it’s not all breathless – the reader is invited to a pastiche party: streams of consciousness stuck together with insubstantial vignettes. Going along for that ride is a bit like being an extra in Being There

There’s a lot of personal stuff in the book too, as befits the modern fad for laundering your linen in public rather than keeping shtum. There’s not much appetite for discretion in the self-absorbed swamp that western civilisation has become. It gets in the way of Look at Me! 

 It may surprise some readers to hear that abandoned wives who have expatriated themselves to tropical places are apt to look for sexual frisson here and there. But not many, I fancy. What may surprise is that the author has laid out clues as to places and persons – writers’ festivals and good-looking authors with finely chiselled features, e.g. – to pique the inner voyeur.  

It’s moot whether a journalist’s memoir of their time as a foreign correspondent is the right place for wink and nudge personal disclosures, if it’s designed to be taken seriously and isn’t just another I-was-wronged soliloquy.

Still, it was interesting to read Cassrels’ book because we share some of the history that is laid out within its pages. We both worked at Queensland Newspapers in Brisbane, for example, and for the same editor: Chris Mitchell. Though she was consort to Rupert’s princeling, which added some zest to our relationship. 

When I returned to Brisbane in 1983 from three years away in Papua New Guinea and fronted up at the office canteen counter the lovely lady behind it smiled at me and said, “Oh hello! Have you been on holiday?” It’s nice to be missed without having to prompt. There’s something queasily ersatz about enforced recognition. As a question, “Do you know who I am?” holds the seeds of many destructions, including derision.

Cassrels and Mitchell were later arrivals in Brisbane, following the Murdoch takeover of Queensland Newspapers. It was clear to me that I was surplus to the Murdoch circus requirements to be implemented by Mitchell. And Mitchell’s assertion that I was astonishingly well paid (he wasn’t?) didn’t worry me. I’d had a fair run. I’d managed to stay out of the limelight (journalists are supposed to report the news, not make it) and had an iron in another fire that would glow a welcome red well before Mitchell might deem it necessary to don his Black Adder Bishop of Bath and Wells suit and approach me from behind with his own.

Never mind.

And of course, a book should be read by people who don’t know the inside story. Cassrels writes with a light touch and in a way that engages the casual reader, who will be interested to discover what happened after she arrived in Bali in 2009 with a laptop computer and a business card.

FOOTNOTE: Cassrels appears at this year’s virtual Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, on Nov. 3, when she’ll be in conversation with Wayan Juniarta of The Jakarta Post. They’ll be discussing the challenges facing Indonesia, and her book. Visit ubudwritersfestival.com for the full 2020 UWRF experience.

GODS AND DEMONS Deborah Cassrels. HarperCollins. Published 2020. ISBN 978 0 7333 3890 8 (pbk) 978 1 4607 0913 9 (ebook)

Feisty Gal

Mara Wolford, 1969-2020

Soon after the Distaff and I left Indonesia at the beginning of April this year, Mara Wolford sent me an SMS from Bali. It said, simply, “I’m glad you’re safe at home. That is all.”

I thought nothing of it at the time. Wolford had a penchant for oblique reference. It complemented rather than sat awkwardly with her astonishing directness, her take-no-prisoners approach to life and its issues. It was one among many things about her that I found attractive and intriguing.

Perhaps, in retrospect, I should have messaged back asking her to elucidate. She had a writer’s eye for an elegant word, something else I liked about her. When I got her message, I’d thought fleetingly about getting back to her, to ask her what she had meant, and what had lain behind her statement. But I didn’t – that phone was a Huawei and soon after surviving the strains of Covid-19 quarantine in Perth it fell over and all its workings with it; its successor is a Nokia – and now of course, I cannot get back to Mara.

We’d known each other for some years, though we only met in person a handful of times, such being the modern world of social media and information technology. Our last face-to-face comprised an interesting hour or two at our villa at Ungasan on the Bukit in Bali not long before we left the island. It was the usual wide-ranging discussion and it was much enjoyed by all four people present.

Wolford, as always, had plenty of plans. She was never a gal to sit in decorative idleness. She wasn’t outré, in the usual sense in which that word is understood, but she was certainly out there. A lot of people seem to have difficulty with others who, from their point of view, either won’t or can’t shut up. In that way, too, we were kindred spirits.

Our paths first crossed in 2016, when she was served a spiked drink in a dodgy bar that was later closed down by the authorities, and afterwards made a fuss about it all over Facebook. The seamier side of tourist and foreign resident entertainment in Bali has never liked to be outed by complainants who make a fuss and endanger profits.  

Wolford’s was not the only incident of its sort, merely one of the most publicised.

Social media isn’t an environment where it is safe to assume that any of the formal rules of civility apply. It’s the ignorantly self-interested who rule and the loudly angry who raise lynch mobs against those who have offended them. (It’s interesting that lynching is a word of American origin, taking its name from one Captain William Lynch, head of an informally raised judicial tribunal in Virginia, circa 1780.)

A year after her seaside bar ordeal in far from gentle Canggu, Wolford reprised the matter on her Facebook page. We joined the fray (see Feisty Gal here). Among other things, it gave us an excuse to reprise a favourite line of our own, to the effect that it was a pity we’d ever given away our sjambok.

Wolford, who died far too young and unexpectedly, some days ago at Benoa, Bali, was a surfer, writer, muse and mother from Santa Cruz, California, among other claims to fame. She had a heart of gold and I will miss her.