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 archbishop of Winchester 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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Officially an Elderly Obstruction

 

THE CAGE

 

Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019

 

 

My diary noted today that 2019 had now produced 12 rabbits and that our household – that comfortably mannered and predominantly civil paradigm that is not quite entirely virtual since wherever it has been it has always had some physical form – has been smoke-free for eleven months. A number of friends on Facebook applauded the latter, which was nice of them. One, a day or so earlier, had advised that he had finally thrown out the ashtray he kept at his Gold Coast address for us to use when passing by. We have any number of ashtrays, some of them of the finest glass, in storage elsewhere. They’ll be thrown out when we finally break open the eight cubic metres of expensive space we’ve rented for years, pending occupation of our next desirable domain.

 

The Distaff and I tell each other that we feel better for being off the fags. And that’s true, in the prosaic and tedious way in which, in search of a small extension of anticipated lifespan, people nowadays obsess about their health.  But the real reason for abandoning the thoroughly enjoyable habit of a lifetime lies in its monetary and social cost. In many of the jurisdictions in which we choose to pass our time, it’s too damn expensive, inconvenient and embarrassing to continue to act like Thomas The Tank Engine on uppers.

 

Today is notable for another fact too. Before the month has run its course, I shall officially have become an Elderly Obstruction. That’s what happens to you when you’re an Australian and you turn 75. (The Distaff is much younger, lucky duck.) Seventy-five is the age where car hire companies laugh when you suggest they might like to rent you a vehicle. It’s the birthday that finally makes you completely invisible to anyone under forty, except (very rarely) young and visibly pregnant women who might offer you their seat on a bus. It’s when the passport office offers you the child rate on your renewal, half price and half time – five years instead of ten. To add to all this beneficence, various offices of the nanny state are growing impatient to tell you they are ready to send – on their schedule, not yours, and if you qualify as indigent, having lived far beyond the life expectancy of your retirement kitty  – such assistance as may from time to time be authorised, either free or subsidised, to accommodate your medical, paramedical and social needs, as officially defined.

 

This is disagreeable to a free spirit. It signals that you may no longer truly cite William Ernest Henry’s ‘Invictus’ as your order of the day:

 

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

 

That verse is wonderful, by the way. Its first line goes just as neatly, and aptly, with straight and gait.

 

And that’s the thing, you see. Adversity needs to be met with humour, just as responsibility must be met face-front, head high. Laugh at the daemons and stand up straight for the firing squad.

 

When Clive James died last week (Nov. 24) I was half-way through rereading Philip Roth’s ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’, the 1969 Onanistic and onomatopoeic American-Jewish-socio-sexual testament that made his name as a writer. It was given to me by a lovely friend who visited and who I had suggested, since she had told me she hadn’t, that she should read it. I read it first in the year of its publication and have known it ever since as ‘The Gripes of Roth’. Steinbeck’s shade has never haunted me over that jest. I like to suppose therefore that he gets a giggle out of it too.

 

James’ departure was unsurprising. He made it to eighty, an age he once noted was a decade-long bonus on the old allotment of three score and ten. He died in Britain, where he had lived since the 1960s when he joined the Blighty Expeditionary Force of Thinking Antipodeans.

 

The art of the quip was James’ forte. Some were short, some were longer, and among the most memorable were book reviews which comprised a single yet Medusa-headed complex of put-downs.

 

He was an acute observer, noting once that the British secret service was staffed at one point almost entirely by alcoholic homosexuals working for the KGB. (I’ve known one or two who were not homosexuals, but who’s to argue with a leading penseur de bonnes pensées?)

 

Nothing escaped his piercing intellect. He said once that you can never get a woman to sit down and listen to a drum solo. (Though that aside, he never observed, at least to my knowledge, the guiding principle that I have always found invaluable in gender comparisons: That as a man I have more in common with an illiterate Mongolian yak-herder than with any woman ever invented.)

 

Among his many talents, James found note as a poet. Of this, and of poetry in general, he said (in 2013 and I surmise only half in jest): Ban poetry. And make sure that anyone caught reading it is expelled from school. Then it will acquire the glamour.

 

He will be missed, Clive James, though he has left us a body of work to remind us that he walked among us before he returned to our normal state of non-existence. He had a thought about that, too, once: No one gets out alive.

 

He told Mark Colvin – alas, now also non-existent – on the ABC radio program PM in 2015: Little books are things to write at my age, I’ve decided.

 

That last thought is his best advice to me. I’m no Clive James – far from it: I’ve never been to Kogarah in my life – but there is one little book in me that is struggling to emerge.

 

I must see that it does.

 

And here’s a visual prompt to Clive James, a BBC appearance in 2016.

 

 

How High Can Everest Rise?

This appears in Quadrant magazine’s November 2019 issue, just out.

The Dizzying Heights

Ross Fitzgerald and Ian McFadyen

ISBN No: 978-1-925736-30-4

Hybrid Publishing : Melbourne

pp. 248, $24.99.

 

Review by Richard Laidlaw

It’s plainly very difficult being a political satirist these days, when the politicians seem to have cornered the market themselves and to have requisitioned all the best scripts, in the national interest, naturally. No matter. Those with the wit and the will to soldier on will scribble regardless. Someone will get a laugh, or a wry smile, or perhaps break down and sob uncontrollably at the hopelessness of it all, and give us all a giggle.

So it is with the indefatigable academic Ross Fitzgerald, teamed again with writer and actor Ian McFadyen, who has brought us a welcome glimpse of light from the heavens in the shape of ‘The Dizzying Heights’, the seventh book in the Grafton Everest saga.  Fitzgerald and McFadyen have penned an engaging yarn. By dint of supreme effort it manages – just, perhaps, and by the narrowest of squeaks in the view of some – to stay ahead of the tsunami of paradox and parody that threatens to submerge the embattled remnants of western liberal tradition and its totemic universal democracy with it.

As those who are familiar with his life and works know, Everest earned his stripes in the challenged academic environment of Mangoland. That alone is worth some sort of medal, surely? It’s not quite Texas (there are fewer assault rifles at large in the community for one thing) and is actually three times bigger and hosts a small town called Texas; but it’s certainly a place of wide-brimmed hats and a colourful antipathy to learning. To many, of course, that’s a plus. After all, as such people and their political or genetic descendants like to remind themselves, relatively few café latte liberationists or chardonnay socialists avoided official molestation or escaped punitive vigilantism in Mangoland in the early culture wars.

Yet as Gangajang so ably reminded us in ‘Sounds of Silence’, its 1984 debut pop anthem:

Out on the patio we’d sit,
And the humidity we’d breathe,
We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think, this is Australia.

The block is awkward – it faces west,
With long diagonals, sloping too.
And in the distance, through the heat haze,
In convoys of silence the cattle graze.

No one with any sense of what Australia really is, beyond the end of the freeway out of town, would fail to sense a frisson – even if only ever so slightly – at the visceral, olfactory images those words evoke. Except, of course, farcically fictional fantasy figures like Professor Dr Grafton Everest, whose life’s work as been to avoid labour of any sort, physical or cerebral.

Grafton Everest is too good to lose.

In his six previous memoirs of the moment, Everest has touched every marker on the academic orienteering course and stumbled over, or kicked aside, most of the witches’ hats and police line tapes that these days impede progress on the roads of life. There are many who show one or two of the behavioural traits that Everest himself exhibits in spades. We are very fortunate that he is a work of fiction, a figment simply of very fertile imagination. (He would shudder at the word “work,” perhaps in the manner, as Saki once wrote in another context, of an Italian greyhound on contemplating the approach of an ice age of which he personally disapproved.)

The Dizzying Heights’ is a rollicking read.

Fitzgerald and McFadyen keep up the frenetic pace of previous Everest misadventures, in this latest volume of his saga. It wraps up some loose ends and brings other streams of consciousness to some sort of conclusion. It looks at times like a final curtain, though perhaps we’re looking only at the first of a series of Melba-like farewell tours. The latter would be best. Everest is too good to lose.

In a way, he is something of a modern Stoic, albeit from the modernist Frank Spencer school that perfectly stitches together stoicism and farce; he too makes an art form of drawing uncountable numbers of impossibly tangled strings together and then wondering why the cat’s cradle won’t hold. It’s a safe bet that the Stoic’s stoic, Marcus Aurelius, did not have university luminary, premier of Mangoland, inaugural president of the Republic of Australia and nearly President of the United States Professor Dr Grafton Everest in mind when he jotted down his ‘Meditations’ two millennia ago.

 

The Dizzying Heights’ is a quick read, a rollicking one; you could easily knock it over on a rainy day, between lunch and dinner with time off for afternoon tea. It is perhaps even more unbelievable than its predecessors, but that’s one of the results of serial farce, and not simply in the framework of literature. Certainly in this slim volume the good doctor-professor rises to dizzying heights indeed. Some Americans, bless them, even try to adopt him as a presidential candidate. But enough of plot giveaways; read the book, it tells the story much better.

++++++

Richard Laidlaw, who nowadays divides his time between Western Australia and Indonesia, was for many years a journalist in Queensland, and later a political adviser, including for National Party Premier Rob Borbidge in 1996-98. He has a blog at 8degrees0flatitude.com.

QUADRANT MAGAZINE, November 2019, pp 83-84.

Ross Fitzgerald & Ian McFadyen’s The Dizzying Heights  is currently available from the publishers:  https://www.hybridpublishers.com.au/

And from Booktopia:   https://www.booktopia.com.au/the-dizzying-heights-ross-fitzgerald/book/9781925736304.html

It Will Be Meowvellous

Bali

Sep. 4, 2019

Australian Elizabeth Henzell, from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, is a fixture in Ubud and runs Villa Kitty at Lod Tunduh, although it might be more accurate to say that it runs her, since that’s the way of much charity work in Bali. She would modestly demur, no doubt, at the assertion that she rates any number of gold stars for her energy and dedication, but it’s an incontrovertible fact. Her overcrowded establishment for homeless cats proves that.

It’s far from a thankless task, though it must often seem that it is, and of course funding is a constant battle. It’s made especially difficult because people dump cats – kittens especially – at levels demonstrating epidemic levels of lack of conscience, or leave them at the door, as it were, so they become someone else’s problem, and a charge on someone else’s wallet. The same is true of charities that look after Bali’s deprived dog population.

Henzell last year came up with the idea of staging the ACATemy Awards as a way of raising awareness, raising funds, and rewarding Villa Kitty staff and supporters for their work in the feline interest. The First ACATemy Awards were held in May last year. It was a fun night.

The Second ACATemy Awards are on Friday, Sep. 13, and like the first, at Indus Restaurant in Ubud. Black Friday is an auspicious date for any cat, black or otherwise, and whether or not they are in the company of a witch and/or a broomstick.

For Rp 400,000 at the door (Rp 350,000 if you buy a ticket beforehand) you’ll get a great night out, a welcome drink and canapés, Indus Restaurant’s famed cuisine in two courses for dinner, live entertainment in the shape of guitar music from Renda Pangestu, performance by Cecilia Wong courtesy of the Bali Beach Shack, presentation of the 2019 awards, balloon raffles and dancing to 11pm to music by DJ Tiger and DJ Pantha.

It’s in such a good cause.

And as Henzell puts it: “Our staff deserve a night a year to recognise their work and just for fun. Boy do we need a bit of fun!”

Meow to that!

Silence! Well, Sort Of

Richard Laidlaw

Bali, Mar. 7, 2019

IT’S Nyepi today in Bali. Tomorrow, Mar. 8, 2019 CE, it will be the first day of 1941 in the Balinese Hindu Caka (say Shaka) calendar of 210 days. We’ve been more or less fixtures in Bali since 1926.

Our first Nyepi, back in the Roaring Caka Twenties, was an eye-opener. We had a live-in housekeeper that first year and, come Nyepi, she sent us away to a designated tourist hotel. Nyepi was not for Bules; too difficult, she told us. We thought she meant Bules were too difficult rather than that Nyepi was, but demur we did not.

Bules are foreigners; usually white ones. The word is informal, which is to say it’s rude, which is probably why these days you find it used even in court proceedings when some silly white person has got into trouble, as too many do.

But we were curious, and asked her how she proposed to spend Nyepi (in our house). The answer was instructive: having a quiet little party with a few of her friends who would move in for the magic 24 hours.

Several years later we decamped to a favourite seaside resort for Nyepi – these days we just stay home, because it’s easier and really no trouble – where we and other cultural refugees were shooed out of the restaurant after a very early dinner so the place could plunge properly into darkness.

We had booked our usual poolside bungalow. And while we sat quietly on its terrace, making sure the lights in the room behind did not escape to alert any bad spirits that there were people around, the hotel staff arrived en masse with all the pool toys and had a lively party in the H2O.

In more recent times Bali’s authorities have tightened up on Nyepi observance. The Internet is “closed” for 24 hours – 6am to 6am – though that’s functionally the mobile Internet. Hence the appearance of this little piece today, brought to you by the fixed installation at our house. The airport is closed for 24 hours and only police and public order and emergency vehicles are allowed on the roads. The day after Nyepi dawns nearly pollution free.

Actual observance is governed locally, though there seems to have been a shift recently towards a more universal code of practice. Effectively, everyone stays at home and does nothing, or does something very quietly, spending time in contemplation of sins and the meaning of life.

Our banjar (local “adat” precinct) disappointed us this year. We didn’t get the usual “no light no noise no sex” letter they stick on your gate before Nyepi. The nearest one I saw yesterday, returning from a late supplies mission, was on the gate of a house about 250m from ours. They must have miscalculated stock required.

Over recent years the concept of Nyepi has attracted the interest of locally resident lovies and the wider global diaspora of chakra-shakers and the like. It’s been touted as a sort of extra-powerful Earth Day, an idea that everyone who isn’t a Balinese Hindu should immediately take up as a gift from the List of Gaia’s Preferred Myths. It would do us all good, it is said. Yeah, right.

In the warp and weft of modern western life, not to mention its supposed yins and yangs, eastern philosophies have gained new traction. It’s always been a syncretic process, religion, in which beliefs formed in the early forest faerie sector have leached from one into the other. The founding Abrahamic influence in Christianity is by no means remote from this factor. Nonetheless the mysticism of eastern religions has new attractions for westerners whose culture has staled and whose civilisation is in cyclical decline.

Bali, of course, is the latest leitmotiv in chief of this phenomenon. Its unique syncretic Hindu religion – part Majapahit, part Buddhist, part animist – emphasises karma and incorporates eroticism that many outsiders, not all of them westerners, confuse with sexual licence. A whole cottage industry is now devoted to servicing the desires of western women to have their chakras adjusted. For the most part these desires are misplaced and too often have been fuelled by pulp-faction Eat Pray Love-style self-awareness books. The women get touched up both literally and figuratively.

Needless to say, none of it has anything to do with Bali’s Silent Day or the Hindu beliefs from which it springs. Nyepi is not an early Earth Day concept that the consumer-capitalist world should seize upon as a corrective to its many ills, real or imagined. To assume Silent Day is a formula for social renewal outside of its specific rites, or, worse, to actively suggest that should be so, is disrespectful of Nyepi rather than respectful of it.

For unbelievers, the requirements of Nyepi are more honestly observed in their quiet breach. The Internet for example is a utility, a function of modern life. If the religious authorities believe Hindu adherents shouldn’t use it on Silent Day, then that’s a matter for religious instruction. The faithful should wish to forgo it of their own volition.

Nyepi is not an opportunity for unbelievers to submerge themselves by specious acquisition into the sublime wonders of an imaginary world without intrusive technology. They can do that any time they like, by switching off their phones. It is for Balinese Hindus. It is a rite that flows from their belief system and it deserves honour and respect from everyone, unbelievers included.

It doesn’t demand detailed participation. Silent Day requires that certain measures are applied to your dwelling place and behaviour, and that’s fine. Observing the letter of these things, such as showing no lights or playing music that would be audible beyond your boundary, is no more difficult than, say, taking care not to publicly contravene Ramadan fasting restrictions in a majority Muslim community.

That’s chiefly a matter of courtesy and common sense. We could do with a lot more of that, everywhere.

Let Him Eat Cake

RICHARD LAIDLAW

Book Review

 

IT must be very difficult being a political satirist these days. So many politicians, to a man and woman, get underfoot with plots that would outdo a Goon Show episode and leave their writers wringing their hands in frustration: Why couldn’t we think of that?

So we owe a deep debt of gratitude to Griffith University historian professor Ross Fitzgerald and ABC broadcaster Antony Funnell for giving us the latest chronicle, the sixth, of the fanciful world of Professor Dr Grafton Everest. In 2015, Everest found himself Going Out Backwards. Apparently this difficult manoeuvre, performed with co-writer Ian McFadyen and shortlisted for the 2017 Russell Prize for Humour Writing, must have worked. In 2018 Everest has reappeared with another misadventure. Somehow this prompts fond remembrance of the Irish scaffolder who plunged from the thirtieth floor and was heard to suggest as he passed the fifteenth that it was OK so far.

These days, in the symbiotic worlds of populist politics and instant twitterdom, serious writers of farcical fiction face significant difficulties. In Australia, where Everest in So Far, So Good builds on his already established presence as the man who briefly held the balance of power in Senate and was premier of the state of Mangoland for ten days, and in Britain, he becomes an instant celebrity via a series of tweets of unsurpassed vacuity. They’re good landscapes for political vacuity, the crowned republic and the septic isle, sitting as they do right on fault lines between sense and nonsense. The earth moves frequently, creating significant shocks on the open-ended Rictus scale.

Several unpublished amateurs are in the mix there, operating on the shifting lines that no longer fully divide intelligent satire from unbelievable farce. There’s Australia’s latest revolving door prime minister, whose campaign bus which he has vacuously labelled with his ScoMo pitch runs around without him on board, because he has a busy schedule, you see, and lots of important things to do (like upset the Indonesians and a valuable trade deal in pursuit of a few extra votes in the Wentworth by-election that his party didn’t win anyway). He can’t waste time on the ground. He has to fly. Still, there’s a giggle in the thought that he’s labelled the very bus that he’ll almost certainly be going under, metaphorically, on Election Day.

Meanwhile his opponent Shorten (or is it Curly?) keeps his head down and some contentious policies under wraps. No point in taking fire if leading members of the other mob are running around all over the place offering themselves as targets. Besides, his political friend in NSW, the just departed opposition leader Luke Foley, has recently acquired public notoriety and Very Silly Boy status by letting his hands do the walking at Christmas drinks in 2016 and trying to avoid the consequences until – as was inevitable – someone on the other side, corrections minister David Elliott in this instance, poured a bucket on him under parliamentary privilege.

In these circumstances, the chroniclers of Everest have done a sterling job. In So Far, So Good, the good professor-doctor even becomes president-presumptive of the forthcoming Republic of Australia, by virtue of his instant further celebrity, a venally vacuous PM, a series of farcical incidents in Australia and Britain, and acquaintance with a smart robot whose real task is to spy on him but who covers himself in virtual glory by also baking cakes. Everest has a strict wife who rations everything from sex to comfort food. Many will sympathise with him in this predicament.

Among the walk-on characters in the latest misadventures of Professor Dr Grafton Everest is a large, assertive woman who was once a leading politician and is now Australia’s ambassador to the U.S.A., the U.N., Italy and the Vatican. A good gig if you can get it and you like Fifth Avenue and Milanese millinery. There are other vignettes that strike a chord for anyone well versed in Mangoland’s history and culture – one senior female academic, for example – and the labyrinthine nature and Byzantine ways of Canberra. People sometimes ask themselves if they miss this suspect bouillabaisse. The sensible among them are apt to answer no.

So Far, So Good – the title sounds like a lift from The Compleat Optimist– takes the reader on a manic ride around the commercially focused universities of the Neocon Age, through the drivel-strewn gulches of Western politics (where are the Apaches when you really need them?) and the obsession with eyes down, two thumbs technology, fear of outsiders and distrust of elites that misinforms modern dialogue.

As a certain British wartime ambassador to Moscow observed, in a report to the Foreign Office in London that he typed himself and which remained suppressed for fifty years – it noted the arrival of his new Turkish counterpart, Mustafa Kunt – in dark days one looks for little shafts of light from heaven. Fitzgerald and Funnell have provided one with Everest’s latest dispatches. Its cover is evocative too. It features a lovely illustration by Alan Moir, the Fairfax cartoonist, to whom the book is dedicated.

It’s now in my library. I’ve put it next to my volume of Collected Rants. It seems a very suitable prophylactic against the tsunamis of confected angst that otherwise threaten to submerge us.

So Far, So Good. By Ross Fitzgerald and Antony Funnell. Hybrid Books, Melbourne. Paperback and e-book. IBSN 978-1-925272-97-0 (p) | 978-1-925282-55-9 (e)

A Bitter Blow

HECTOR’S DIARY

 

Snippets from his regular diet of worms

 

THE CAGE

Bali

Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018

 

THE second Lombok earthquake, on Sunday evening (Aug. 5), was far worse than its immediate predecessor (Jul. 29), and as finally calculated at seven on the Richter scale the biggest in this area in quite some time. Deaths are officially put at 131 (Aug. 9) despite other reports suggesting a toll closer to 400 and the government saying the toll is certain to rise as collapsed buildings are searched. There are countless injured. There was a very small tsunami, measuring centimetres not metres. Inevitably, there was chaos after the quake and when it’s dark and there’s no power, as was the situation in Lombok, it’s extra scary. Aftershocks continue. There was a 6.1 tremor today (Aug. 9). The place looks like a battlefield. The bulk of the impact was in the north of the island. Senggigi is a ghost town. The northern Gilis have been largely cleared of people. Hotels and restaurants have closed for the duration, which is unknown. Villages have been laid waste everywhere.

The Indonesian authorities responded immediately and effectively and deserve applause. There were already troops on Lombok after the first quake, which killed 20 people, and these were swiftly reinforced, including by two medical battalions and an Indonesian Navy hospital ship. Evacuated tourists were flown to Bali at no cost (to themselves), another creditable action by the authorities. Others in the Gilis have been evacuated by sea.

The Australians issued advice to reconsider the need to travel to Lombok and the Gilis, promising to keep this under review in consultation with the Indonesian government. Lombok is certainly not a place for a touristic experience at present, or a place for too many well meaning but competing feet on the ground.

It’s early days. The casualty count cannot yet be finalised or a realistic estimate of infrastructure damage provided. Fortunately it’s the dry season and at least some of the publicly funded reconstruction work should be completed before the rains arrive. The public priorities are immediate relief with food and clean water, healthy shelter, preventive health measures, and strict policing to minimise looting and theft. But the people of Lombok will need on-going assistance well into the medium term future, and in that scenario there’s room for private charities as well as public assistance and that provided by investors with assets – which are also damaged and at least temporarily non-performing – in the area.

The longer-term economic consequences are unknown. It is a tragedy that Lombok did not deserve, and one whose relief will require everyone’s attention, and their wallets, for a while.

And So It Goes

A BLUDGE is beaut. That’s what we suggested in the previous diary a month ago, if anyone can remember that far back. And so it was. But we suppose we should now get back to scribbling. Actually we’ve missed it. We’re not really in favour of gentle decay and decline.

The month away from the quill was fairly active here, it seems. Far too much went on that might have dipped the nib in the ink had we been energised enough to hold the feather attached to it.

Bali elected a new governor who campaigned on a platform of ignoring Indonesia’s two-child policy, preferring the Balinese standard of four, and failed to elect the rival candidate whose promise was that he would stamp on Tomy Winata’s proposed Benoa Bay despoliation forever (an emergent smaller excrescence at Serangan seems to be a fait accompli). The Bigger Families Party takes office on Sep. 17.

Mt. Agung bubbled along with its long period of volcanic activity, monitored by scientists whose discipline of volcanology is by nature inexact, which mystifies tourists present and proposed, as well as others, who wonder why no one can really say what the mountain will. In the old days, before 140 characters became not only the limit of argument but also its epitome and its leitmotif, such people could be ignored. That’s if you heard from them at all.

Cheesed Off

YES, we know you’re not supposed to do it, so when you’re nicked all you can do is suck it up. But we do like our cheese and occasional affordable imported rations are always welcome. The unofficial dispensation is a kilo of curd per pax, though even then, if someone super-officious or out of sorts happens to spy it in your baggage on arrival you’re up for a lecture about how Indonesia makes its own cheese. There’s no argument there: It does; and some of it is very nice.

On our recent return home from the land of the fractious girts, we had stretched the envelope with four kilos of tasty mousetrap, a mainstay of our larder. It’s far cheaper when sourced from places where cheese is not an exotic concoction that wouldn’t go at all well with nasi goreng.

We had handed in the customs form on which we declared we were carrying food and, on the back of the form, in the space provided, had scribbled a note saying this was cheese for personal consumption. This information was ignored. So indeed was the form itself, which was snatched away, crumpled up, and left on the bench.

We were pointed at a poster nearby that warned not declaring foodstuffs was punishable by hefty fines involving multiple zeros after some big numbers and/or a stay in one of Indonesia’s lovely prisons. Our protests that we had declared it as required led a young woman in Bea Cukai hijab rig to put on her bossy face, what could be seen of it, and tell the Companion to sit and wait “correctly”. The Companion didn’t sit, correctly or otherwise, but we’ve been here long enough to know when not to poke a stick in the cage, however much you’d like to.

They called the senior duty quarantine officer, a gentleman who struggled into view 40 minutes later. It had long been clear that while with Indonesian officialdom sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t, this time fate had arranged for us to run into a whole pack of can’ts.

There ensued a scene worthy of the best British farce. “I have a deal for you,” said the Diary, loudly enough for other defaulting arrivals nearby to hear and have to supress a giggle, while dumping his contraband loudly on the bench. “You have the cheese and I’ll keep the plastic bag.”

Great Line-Up

IT’S pleasing to see double Miles Franklin Award winner Kim Scott in the line-up for this year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (Oct. 24-28), because Noongar country, the southwest of Western Australia, is our home when we’re not in Bali. Scott is a celebrated Australian writer who has been weaving the magic of Noongar lore into his novels since Benang: From the Heart(1999), which won the Miles Franklin 2000 prize. He won again with That Deadman Dancein 2011. He’ll be a treat in Ubud this year.

So will Fatima Bhutto, Hanif Kureishi, and a whole list of others. It’s the UWRF’s fifteenth birthday this year. It’ll be a rave. Check out the festival’s website.

Flying High

THE Merah Putih is fluttering at The Cage, up for its annual outing. It’s Independence Day on Aug. 17 and our practise is to fly the flag for the whole month of August.

We won the unofficial race for First Flutter in the precinct again. Ours was up and waving triumphantly well before any others, though a little raggedly as it has been in service for some years.

Big Bird

BIG is best, or so the legend goes across a very wide field of human endeavour. And now the big Garuda on the Bukit above Jimbaran is complete. It has even won the imprimatur of chief foreign social arbiter Sophie Digby, of The Yak Magazine. It’s very big, at third biggest in the world of oversized monumental statuary. Ozymandias might even be jealous, if his remains were real rather than just the poetic fancy of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

In Bali those who seek to monumentalise have until now tended to be more modest about it, unless on a traffic circle, or about monkeys, or in honour of Independence Hero I Gusti Ngurah Rai. But from all reports most people are very pleased with Big G, so that’s good. We’ll all have fun finding out how the access roads to the new attraction will cope with all those big buses.

It is plainly visible from a long distance as an artificial eminence. Closer to hand and from the back side, as Indonesian English delightfully puts it, it looks more like a chap with his hands up, trying to surrender perhaps, than a mythical eagle. But never mind.

Farewell, Friend

IT was sad to learn recently that Dale Sanders, a long term resident of Lombok and a fierce Kiwi, had left the field. He had been in poor health for a while. We’re sure they gave him a very fine and richly deserved Haka at the pearly gates.

We first ran into Dale 12 years ago, when for our sins we were editing the Lombok Times, from Bali, and he, for his, was marketing real estate across the strait. One day the All Blacks were playing the Wallabies and we were both watching the televised match, he from Kerangandan in West Lombok and we from Nusa Dua. The lads in green and gold scored first – they can’t have read the rules of trans-Tasman rugby clashes, which state that an All Blacks’ Haka gives the Kiwis a 10-point lead before kick-off – and we incautiously messaged him pointing out that the Aussies were ahead. His response was succinct: Not for long. It proved a depressingly accurate forecast.

Chin-chin!

The Bludge Report

HECTOR’S DIARY

 

Titbits from his regular diet of worms

 

VASSE, Western Australia

Monday, Jul. 2, 2018

 

WE are, we’ve told friends, having a bit of a bludge. One of them very kindly said we deserved to do this. Many others, perhaps, just shrugged, Atlas-like or otherwise. Some others among them may have breathed a sigh of temporary relief. We’re aware that diarists can be a bit in your face sometimes.

But having a bit of a bludge is a very Australian thing to do. It’s one of the finest aspects of being a citizen of the land down under. Bludging has a long and honourable history in settler Australia. It may even trace its origins back to the day Captain Phillip got his boots muddy at Sydney Cove in 1788 and gave himself the next day off to recover.

It is fifty years since John Gorton, our personal favourite post-war Australian prime minister – Gorton was an honourable man who later voted himself out of office with his casting vote in a tied party room leadership challenge – bemused the British media when he arrived in London on an official visit. Someone among the small flock of hacks present asked him what he had come to Britain to do. Gorton cracked his engaging lopsided grin, a product of his war injuries, and said: “I’m here for a bit of a bludge.” This mystified the assemblage of Poms until it was translated for them. Then, we think, they not only understood, but also empathised. The true bonds of former empire were stronger then.

A little downtime helps to reduce the overburden of premium dross under which we have to live these days. And even if this is the depth of what passes for winter in the southwest of Western Australia, it works a treat. A change of climate is as good as a rest.

Black Hole

TELSTRA, Australia’s still formally protected telecoms utility, struggles to provide adequate IT service to many parts of the country. It’s a sizeable pebble, Australia, after all, though most of its 25 million people are huddled along the eastern seaboard. In the west, where people make an art form of feeling deprived by federation and policies designed (they claim) to advantage the big cities “over east”, it struggles even harder.

Vasse is a pleasant town near the major tourism centre of Busselton, on the edge of the Margaret River wine country. It is not remote, in any sense. But it is one of Telstra’s many black spots; a place where in IT terms service might sometimes be better spelled ecivres. Worse, it’s such a black spot that it’s really more of a black hole, like one of those intergalactic gravitational vortexes into which everything gets sucked and not even light can escape.

The Diary’s travelling modem, by which access may be obtained to the Internet without impacting on the data plans of one’s hosts, works brilliantly. Except in Vasse, where, not to be crude (hah!), an allegory comes to mind relating to the ephemeral habits of tarts’ couture. Still, we’re here for a bludge, as previously noted, so it really doesn’t matter terribly much. Except when it does. But then again, if that’s the case, there’s a measure of relief in just muttering, “Oh knickers!”

Batik On

WE chose to fly Bali-Perth this time with Batik Air, one of the local labels of the Malaysian-Indonesian Lion spinoff Malindo. It’s a good outfit and flies the latest Boeing 737 marques. It’s also dry, which might be a downer for some travellers, but who really needs to drink alcoholic beverages on a flight of less than four hours? Don’t bother answering. The question is rhetorical.

It’s cheap but full service, and with more legroom than you get in cattle class on other low cost carriers, who really should call themselves Packemin Airlines. It was our third time with Batik. And we’ll be back on board again.

Speaking of packing them in, we hear from travellers who have endured the new seventeen-hour Perth-London nonstop flights with Qantas – part of the grand plan to link bits of the Anglosphere without the distressing necessity to land even briefly in other bits of Gaia that so worry the tremblers – that if you’re down the back in QF’s sardine-tin 787s, it’s a very long time to spend with your knees up round your ears.

It’s a Con, All Right

NOT many people read Quarterly Essay. It’s published every three months, as perhaps its title might suggest to the mathematically astute, and it features writing that goes rather beyond the hundred words with pictures format that seems to attract the text generation. It’s a shining example of what Australian intellectual thought can actually offer, if anyone wants to bother.

In its latest issue, just out, the headline article is a brilliant deconstruction of Neoliberalism. Even if you don’t believe Neoliberalism is a con job by the oligarchs and others whose policy is to keep the proletariat under the heel, it’s a damn good read.

Foreign Affairs

MANY years ago, an editor of practical erudition for whom Hector had the privilege of working gave him a weekly foreign affairs column in his newspaper, and announced this at the daily news conference with a smile and a line that we’ve always remembered: “He has many of them,” he said. It wasn’t quite true, not unless you’re the sort of person who thinks many is any number above zero, that is. But never mind. Hector’s cachet was temporarily given extra glister. Of such things are undeserved reputations built and unlikely legends made.

Foreign affairs have always been our interest. We began that exercise long ago, in the country of our birth and in a pan-European fashion, though with a pre-EU (and certainly pre-Brexit) British cast, even if was not the then authorised one. It was better than trying to gauge the density of the fog and worrying about the fish and chips. Later, we thought at the time to the mutual interest of both parties, we transferred our spyglass to the antipodes and engaged the world with an Australian perspective. That was back in the days when the Anglosphere was a clubby sort of thing, a bit like the Freemasons without the goats, instead of a network of fear-filled foxholes in an alien world. Even these days, it’s still better, as well as more fun, than staring blindly at the back fence muttering about the perfidy of the government in forever failing to buy you the most expensive beer on the bar list.

So the advent late last year of Australian Foreign Affairs, a journal to be published three times a year by Schwartz Publishing Pty Ltd, was a welcome shaft of light from the heavens. Allan Gyngell, honorary professor at the ANU in Canberra, wrote in the inaugural issue an article headlined The Company We Keep. In it, he said this of Australia’s foreign affairs interests: “Australians need to see themselves as the actors, not the audience, in the drama of the changing world; to shake off that nagging fear of abandonment and replace it with confidence in our capacity to set our own goals and to understand the path we have to make, with others or alone, to get there. No one else can do it for us.”

Amen to that, we said silently to ourselves as we nestled in the warmth of early afternoon lamplight and the space heating mandated by the wintry weather in our present location.

Bali Bind

WE’LL be back in Bali on Jul. 12, if the schedule is adhered to and unless Mt Agung chooses that day to make yet another effusive demonstration of its power. A date with the limpid ripples of our favourite Bukit beach soon thereafter would be welcome. That will follow the adventure of switching on the hot water system at The Cage, a task that involves fiddling around in the midnight dark outside, so that pre-slumber showers can be taken without the bad language that accompanies cold ones.

Thereafter, Hector will be back to his regular regime of scribbling on local issues of note. We’ve kept his to-read folder up to date throughout, but we’re not entirely sure he’s actually read much of it. Still, he can catch up with all that on the evening flight back. It’s a dry one, after all.

Chin-chin