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.

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

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

 

The Doolally Squad

HECTOR’S DIARY

Titbits from his regular diet of worms

 

The Cage, Bali

Sunday, May 20, 2018

 

 

IT’S hard to know what to write about the Surabaya bombings. Doubtless there are those who would advise against writing anything about them. But that won’t do. Perhaps we could start by saying that at least the suicide bombers did everyone a favour by exiting the gene pool. It’s a shame hell doesn’t exist except as a human notion. They’d look good rotting there forever.

There are, however, some practical things worth noting about the events of the past week in East Java and elsewhere. First, let’s consider this: it is all but impossible to live a secluded, unnoticed life in Indonesia, the more so within the majority Muslim community, where the mosque is not only the prayer room but also the community centre and the focal point of guidance. The archipelago is in any case communal by cultural history, social preference and force of habit. In Surabaya, someone must have worked out that the mad father and mother of the sacrificial children seemed a bit bent, if not actually murderously doolally. Perhaps they decided it would be better, or safer, not to have worked that out, and that if the local prayer leader wanted to do so, he would; there’s a sort of communal blindness too. The substantial cache of pipe bombs found after the church attacks would have been difficult to pass off as spare motorbike mufflers, even to the thickest of casual observers. Did anyone say anything, to anyone? If they did, to whom was it said?

The second thing to be said is that the police did a good job after the events, both in Surabaya and in Pekenbaru, though clearly more needs to be done in the intelligence gathering area by both the police and the national intelligence body. A good rule of engagement for any police is one that states that if you see a terrorist, shoot him dead instantly, or her, since it seems women are taking up the profession of mass murder. Going some way back to Densus 88’s previous tactics, as has now been authorised, is also a sensible protective measure. There’s an argument too for reviving the military’s tri-service special forces, also now under way, though they should stay out of it unless the situation is truly dire. Densus 88 is the best policing anti-terrorist tool in the kit.

The third, and most important, thing to say is that Indonesia should not allow itself to be spooked by terrorism into retreating from the democratic norms that it has courageously and progressively put in place since the Suharto era. It shouldn’t worry, either, about the longer-term effects on tourism of an uptick in terrorist activity ahead of next year’s presidential election. There may be short-term dip, primarily in western source markets. Leaders, especially in Bali, need to develop a responsive and responsible narrative on that front.

Taking Fire

AN old friend, Ross Eastgate, a former Australian army officer who now writes (in Australia) on military issues, got into trouble for a column he wrote after the Israeli army employed snipers to pick off selected targets on the “front line” between Israel and Gaza. As he noted, snipers are legitimate military assets when they are used to target enemy military personnel (or important insurrectionists or terrorists). Using them against a crowd of protesters chiefly armed with slingshots, whether or not they have been organised by Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist outfit, is not. It’s a war crime, plain and simple.

Hamas in Gaza took advantage of the Trump decision to shift the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to drum up more anti-Israeli action. Given the conditions that exist in Gaza under Hamas’s control, we can safely assume that the interests of the common people there are not its primary concern. But the modern State of Israel, originally the product of a European Jewish plantation in the Levant two millennia after the Romans threw them out, has a duty to abide by international law. It’s a legal state and it must behave lawfully, particularly if it proclaims its democratic credentials.

The trouble is, the global Israel lobby has turned into an art form the idea that anti-Zionism is the same as anti-Semitism. It isn’t.

A Lovely Man

WE left Queensland 13 years ago and headed to the west coast. Not in the Billy Joel sense. We’re not doing a stand-up routine in LA. Who’d bother in Perth anyway? And we retain east coast connections and lots of old friends, some of whom come to see us from time to time, though that’s in Bali, our Fat Controller-proof bolthole.

Sadly, we lost another of our old friends recently, former Queensland treasurer and Labor Party strongman Terry Mackenroth. He died, far too early, and unexpectedly, soon after the lung cancer that he’d beaten 20 years ago had been diagnosed again. They gave him a state funeral (in non-Toff Australia that’s without the trinkets and baubles). It would have been good to be there (it was in Brisbane on May 8) but like so many things these days that was not to be.

Mackenroth was a hard-fighting politician but straight as a die. If he said he’d do something, you knew he’d do it. If he said he wouldn’t, all you could do was shut your briefcase and go away. He was also a very lovely man.

When people leave us, we pause for thought. There are always anecdotes that spring to mind. They can be a comfort. After he saw off his first bout of the Big C two decades ago he got into the annual shave heads for cancer fundraising effort. At that time, for his sins, Hector’s amanuensis was working in politics, having given up on Rupert Murdoch. It was the opposite side of politics from Mackenroth’s.

The annual tribute visit to the minister’s parliamentary office, to deposit that year’s personal contribution to the razor gang, was always a treat. We’d stay for a brief chat and then return to our own quarters. The funny looks and pursed lips of our own little troupe of flacks when we got back from enemy territory were fun to observe.

Name Games

THERE’S another of those curious Facebook-focused phishing exercises going around at the moment. It purports to list the 20 people most important to you. That’s on Facebook, of course, which isn’t real life at all and your best friends (who are also your worst enemies) are actually those two chaps called Cursor and Autocorrect.

We’re very happy that we haven’t appeared on anyone’s virtual nearest and dearest list. At least, we hadn’t when we last checked. To appear on one would bring to mind Groucho Marx’s sensible injunction against joining any club that would see fit to invite him.

Big Wedding

SINCE we were in Bali, where big weddings are all the go, we felt no pain in missing out on that other sizeable celebration in Windsor, U.K. Well, we wouldn’t have anyway, but let’s not spoil a good story.

On Friday evening we were at the Nusa Dua nuptials of a couple whose connections, from our perspective, are some lovely friends we’ve known for years. Nyoman Sueta is a community leader in Nusa Dua and his wife Made Siri is too. She also makes fabulous pancakes.

We ran into other old friends there, Made Winarsa – who is now sommelier at the St Regis Bali – and his wife Ayu Trisna, whose hospitality records run right back to the Conrad Bali years ago and both of whom we’ve known since they were students. There were lots of speeches – it helped that they were all in Balinese and Indonesian of course – and between times, opportunities to chat.

The setting was Peninsula Island, which will be familiar to many Australian and other visitors. It didn’t rain (it’s the dry season now) and the south-easterly breeze from the ocean was pleasantly cool.

It was a great night all round, and it was an honour to be present. We had our photo taken with the bride and groom, an obligatory thing. Possibly we jumped the queue for that. But nobody seemed to mind.

MEOWvellous

IT’S without question the purrfect way to spend a Saturday evening in Ubud. There will be no yoga, for one thing. The occasion is the inaugural Villa Kitty ACATemy Awards, an invitation only soiree at Indus Restaurant. It’s on May 26.

Elizabeth Henzell, hostess with the mostest on the night and the inspiration for Villa Kitty, tells us we should be dressed up as much as we like and be prepared to dance the night away. Yes, um. Good. Make mine tonic water with ice so it looks like a G&T (an old trick from our flack days).

Villa Kitty does marvellous work for Bali’s feline community and is worth support every time. Its sponsors are great people.

Elizabeth recently lost Maya, the light of her life. She arrived six years ago as a hairless waif and became a silken black tortoiseshell with the love and proper food and care she found with Elizabeth, along with the 10 other cats who shared her domain. She had a good life and was loved. There’s nothing to beat that.

Chin-chin!