My Brilliant Friends

Elena Ferrante only had the one. I have at least three.

After, in each case, a long gestation, three stunningly good books were published in 2021/22 by people I know. Great books. Books of consuming interest. Unusual books. In each case, written with a passionate commitment to the task and its outcome. I have the incidental and particular pleasure of listening to the voices of people I know.

These ones.

They have some things in common.

Each of the three is profoundly ambitious. In each case that ambition has been realised but has also taken the books off into highly individual directions.

Dean’s is probably closest to the mainstream in terms of conception and execution. It is its sensibility that makes it idiosyncratic. Bookclubs of retired academics may take it up with some avidity, but I don’t think the other two are going to get on the lists that circulate of favoured choices. There is a stream, which is not main, for Meredith’s book; but Michael’s book belongs in a special place intire of itselfe.

The last two were both (initially) self-published and so they haven’t been massaged into what might be considered a commercial form by the publication process. They remain exactly as the authors intended them to be, and this is most obvious in their structure. Such dramatic choices as Meredith and Michael have made will unsettle readers whose preference is to remain settled. But all three use structure as a fundamental component of meaning. To create his case Dean imports these stony blocks of investigation and lays them one on top of the other decorated by the remarkable relevance of his own experience. Meredith has her own particular template which imposes some order on a mighty efflorescence. Michael’s book starts with a review of what you’re about to read. Not all books use structure as a fundamental component of meaning, but really good ones make the most of the possibilities allowed by their craft.

All three are built on a mountain of research. They all share a delight in the acquisition and sharing of a fact, part of a fervent need to be comprehensive and accurate in the exploration of their concerns. While they love a fact, each is suspicious to some degree of veridicality, the truth of an utterance, any utterance: Dean because of the partiality of history; Meredith because of the uncertainties implicit in the way life evolves; Michael because this is part of the bim-bam of his story. But they can’t hide it; they do love a fact. And so do I.

None of them are formal or distant narratives. The three books are all-in wrestles with issues which have been bothering these authors for a long time. And the matter in question is profoundly serious: living with nature; accommodating the reality of Australian history; and pain, violence and masculinity with all its kinks.

There is both trauma and release in exposing yourself in this way. I thought of calling it mature writing with an adolescent indifference to self-exposure, hoping that ‘adolescent’ would suggest its freshness and ‘indifference’ would be understood as the carelessness of courage.

Two of these books have had important public recognition, but forget the acclaim. Doesn’t matter. Make your own mind up. Read them. Each of them is a monument to intelligence and craft which can stand confidently secure in their truth to themselves. And, frankly, that is both a) out of the box and b) more than enough.

• • • • • • •

Fifty years ago we were married at Meredith and Gil Freeman’s place in Thornbury. I wanted it to be there because the whole set up — an old private hospital with much treasured blood stains on one wall — was a live example of living with the (very urban just there) land, living sustainably and thinking about what you were up to. And then there was the garden. Meredith had transformed the northern suburbs hydrophobic sands and clay into the richest mulchy loam imaginable. Forget the endless things growing in it, this soil simply bristled with goodness. It made you want to wallow in it. Three Michelin Stars: L’un des meilleurs jardins, vaut le voyage, one of the best gardens, worth the trip, a fact reported in a ‘Women’s Weekly’ of the time.

After decades of helping to improve bits of Merri-bek city (think the rejuvenation of the Merri Creek and its valley, the establishment of CERES) they decided after a slow transition to move full-time to nine acres of land at Kardella in South Gippsland. Before European incursion South Gippsland had thick, remarkable vegetation and forests of giant trees. ‘The Thorpdale Giant’, a eucalyptus regnans or Mountain Ash, measured 115m tip to toe when felled in 1880. This happened 20 minutes drive from the Freeman’s property. However they were moving onto a property which had once been a dairy farm, the side of one of the area’s now bald green hills, and they got about its transformation.

That’s one of the lines to follow in A Garden of Useful Plants. Another is Mem’s ‘bit of an obsession’ with growing food. But it’s not a series of just slightly annoying green yarns. It’s nothing like that at all. It’s a spill of the contents of a very thoughtful person’s mind.

In a very positive and elastic way it might be thought of as an almanac. It is an almanac in that it is structured by season, except because Meredith is writing it they are not European seasons. She has chosen to use the eight seasons of the Kulin Nation. As I write, yesterday was the end of the ‘Hot North Wind and Fish Trap Season’. Today we begin the ‘Eel Harvest and Inter-clan Business Season’. As the moon cycles through its phases that in turn will become the ‘Thunderstorm and Rug-Sewing Season’. (I am pleased to discover that marngrook, a precursor of Aussie Rules, is to be played in the ‘Cold West Wind and Artefact-Making Season’.) Near the beginning of each section are Jim Poulter’s short descriptions of what these seasons entail, often shaped by what’s happening with various plants. Mem’s comfortable and pervasive awareness of the very long term habitation of where she lives thickens everything out.

Like any good almanac this is just one of several organising principles. The sections actually do begin with short essays on elemental features of Place, this place. (Seasons, forest, birds, animals, very small things and so on.) We do find out a bit about what’s going on in the garden seasonally but, like any good almanac, then you shovel in piles of whatever is on or in your mind (along with letting your husband and grand daughter provide very skillful water colour illustrations).

What’s on Meredith’s mind? Well … a lot. And rather than shrinking with age those concerns appear to be expanding and reaching out towards the cosmic. ‘This book sets out to tell two stories, though neither has a proper beginning or end. Both have involved looking beyond familiar ways of thinking about any piece of land and horticulture including gardening … constantly reminding myself that what appear to be bold, narrow lines defining meaning, are really wider belts of vaguer grey, sites for exploration and emergence of new ways of seeing.’ One story is what she (and her species) has learnt about living off this particular piece of land; the other is ‘a kind of chronology of my world “starting” with the big bang but focusing on this piece of land as it is now and the plant and animal communities, including the human community, that I find myself part of.’ This provokes a series of questions which include, for example: given the dramatic changes to this landscape over the last 150 years, what plants should be encouraged to grow here now, to the benefit of both human beings and the environment as a whole?’ Large questions. Huge questions. Seminal questions.

So, not an ordinary gardening book then. Which is not to say you won’t run into some durably grounded advice: Think about water. Keep the ground covered. Replenish the soil immediately an area is emptied. Don’t plant the same crop in the same place twice in succession. Attend to the individual requirements of plants. These are couched (in explanatory paragraphs) as possible rules of thumb in a consideration of whether rules of thumb can ever be helpful or real. In fact one of the cosmic elements of the book is living next to, below, on top of and with constant uncertainty and change. Look smell touch think are the constant implied exhortations.

But she supports this process most effectively. Her essay on ‘Very Small Things’, for example, describes what’s in ‘a teaspoon of good garden soil as measured by microbial geneticists: a billion invisible bacteria, several yards of equally invisible fungal hyphae, several thousand protozoa, and few dozen nematodes. That’s in one teaspoon. Over an acre, active bacteria alone may have the same mass as two cows’. These startling facts are not left there. We laypersons are helped to imagine this environment and how it works.

‘At the bottom of the soil food web are bacteria and fungi, which are attracted to and eat the substances given off by plant roots, their exudates. These, in turn, are eaten by bigger microbes like some nematodes and protozoa, which are food for bigger nematodes and anthropods. And so on. The materials they don’t use — I hesitate to use the term ‘waste’ — become available to feed the plants. …

‘It’s the plants that are in control of all this activity, most of which takes place in the root zone or rhizosphere within a millimetre or two of the roots, as the energy resulting from photosynthesis in the leaves is used to produce root exudates in the form of carbohydrates and proteins. It’s a shame there aren’t shorter, more memorable English words for these, but they contribute to the picture nonetheless. They feed my imagination as well as each other. I think I can picture what is happening.’ I think I, a neophyte, can too.

Every ten pages or so a sharp little observation has been pulled out. So: ‘A trail of bloodied pure white feathers. All that remains of a goose and the nest she had been sitting on near the boundary fence, under which there is now a hole.’ These might be best understood as short poems.

Sometimes Mem chats away to herself as though we’re on tour but eavesdropping.

From a rumination on Climbing Beans: ‘I’ll call them French beans, though they’re not all French. Another name is green beans, though they’re not all green. They had been cultivated for thousands of years in Central and South America before Columbus brought them to the Mediterranean. They were introduced to France in the late sixteenth century, and it was the French who popularised them — a bit like kiwifruit, an important crop from New Zealand that is actually native to China. … Our borlotti beans are descended from seed given to me twenty years ago by the Greek gardener who sold us the plastic greenhouse … As I have plenty of seed, I always seem to plant them too close together. But the plants at this stage are lush and green with lots of pods already set. It doesn’t matter if they’re not easy to reach … those I can’t reach easily are left to dry on the vine for eating during the winter or planting next season.’

The Purple King need to be picked young. ‘Too young is not really possible; too old is very likely so I don’t risk it.’ The green beans might be either Giant of Stuttgart or Lazy Wife, ‘the latter so named possibly because they bear prolifically or because they’re stringless.’ In either case they are ‘straight and beautiful’. Both varieties have white seed which is hard to tell apart. The Scarlet Runners on the chook shed have their tips trimmed most probably by ringtail possums.

There’s that mood — not everywhere, but often — and it’s deeply seductive because you don’t need to respond, you can just listen (or in this case read) fascinated like listening to anyone who is completely immersed in their subject, but in this case and rather specially, knows what could be interesting about it for others.

Reading it again I am struck by how addictive the book is.

When should you eat a peach? The ‘correct’ name for a plantation of hazel trees is a plat. The significance of including ‘common’ in an animal, plant or insect name; swamp wallabies getting into the chook garden. When to plant carrots and the point of mixing the seed with very dry sand … that’s from just a few pages in the first section. It is a cornucopia without the horn.

The history of propagating (or trying to) mountain pepper; felling giant cyprus trees, up hill; snails having both a penis and a vagina; parsnip seed must be fresh or it won’t germinate; the lure of tangelos; speculation about how to define a garden; the carbon cycle; the creatures the First Fleet brought with it; the Australian ancestry of songbirds; should you prune your tomatoes? … it all just tumbles over itself, all of life, thrillingly full of life. But because of the shortness and precision of the entries it is never distractingly untidy. And everything you realise, every single thing, is related to this block of land.

This is a serious book. Earlier I mentioned that Meredith had set herself some large questions. She would be the first person to say, to insist actually, that she hadn’t answered them decisively. (Drawing the black line.) That’s correct. But sometimes if you throw armfuls of fascinating observations, facts, speculations and enthusiasms at a questing wall you can just stand back in wonder at how many stick, the admirable and stimulating patterns they make and the way their meaning evolves.

This is a great book.

Meredith Freeman (2022) A Garden of Useful Plants: Seasons in the Gippsland Hills Illustrated by Gil and Stella Freeman. Self-published. 338pp. Includes appendices: ‘A Garden Tour’, ‘Australian Native Food Species’, ‘Exotic Fruit and Nut Species, Named Varieties’, ‘Some Birds We Have Seen’ and a very useful ‘shortlist’ of related reading.

BUY IT HERE or chase it down by Googling.

• • • • • • •

I haven’t seen him for a while but Dean lives round the corner. He’s been a fixture in the tangle of acquaintances of my professional life, in my mind still famed at one point for wearing (in his official role as an influential Federal Ministerial Advisor) green shoes. He’s been writing forever, and is exceptionally good at it. Telling Tennant’s Story, though, has been an excavation of his heart as well as his head.

I’ve mentioned his writing skill. He is also a meticulous and tenacious researcher. He has useful connections. He has a keenly-defined and long-developed political sense. Those attributes are all in evidence in the book. But what he’s got that no one else has is that he’s all those things … but from 1952 (aged 10) to 1955 he also lived and went to school in Tennant Creek.

Tennant and its surrounds are not my favourite part of the country. Neither, at the time at least, were they Dean’s. ‘[Fifty years on] I had never been back and never wanted to go back. In fact, I’d wanted not to go back. I didn’t like it when we lived there and ached to leave.’ (His father was the school’s head teacher.) Tennant Creek is about as close as you can get to the absolute geographical centre of the Northern Territory, the part of Australia most densely populated with Aboriginal people. Yet during his time in Tennant they drift past ‘as in a tableau’: a group from the mission coming to the pictures but sitting separately, a shared sports day, shadows playing cards near a humpy in the spinifex on the other side of the Ashendens’ fence. They ‘were very nearly invisible yet somehow always there somewhere: sometimes referred to, even discussed, but never explained.’

This is familiar terrain for white Australians growing up in bush towns. Were there any Aboriginal kids at my school? I would have said no till I started counting them.

‘We’d won the country and then set out to win the story as well. The struggle over what the story would and would not tell was as much a part of the story as the events themselves. By the time I reached Tennant Creek [on the first of a series of return trips] … the story had been added to my list of things to find out about. Eventually, it worked its way to the top.’ That’s the genesis of this book.

The hole to be filled is ‘the other side of the story over which the great Australian silence reigns, the story in short, of the unacknowledged relations between two racial groups within a single field of life.’ Dean has taken this statement made by Bill Stanner in one of his 1968 Boyer lectures as his Pole Star.

He starts his description of the way the silence was constructed in 1860. It could have been earlier, 50 or 60 years earlier, after first contact and probably even before Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson had been shown how to traverse the Blue Mountains. I, too, was transfixed by the early white explorers (how far did they walk?! how long without water?!). If there was a role for a ‘blacktracker’ or a ‘friendly native’, it was always subordinate, but worse, vacant. There was no sense of such people as sentient or of their character, of their will, of their families, habits or lives.

That makes the issue not only one of right or wrong although there’s plenty of that; it means you don’t know what happened. There isn’t a history of any quality. You can’t share. You’re oblivious to the lives of your fellow countrypersons. On the one side there have been various constructions which have had their own purposes; on the other, covering a crucial century, there’s a void. This is the issue that Telling Tennant’s Story is tackling.

For the purposes of the book it was fortuitous that Tennant Creek was where Dean found himself. It’s had it all. The town was initially related to a Station of the Overland Telegraph Line so it has that contact history. The Line’s constructors were careful, sensitive to a degree but not to be distracted from completing their task, and armed. Just north of Tennant an incident at what became known as Attack Creek turned Stuart and his team back (a fact we discover is locally known and celebrated by some) but prompted massive and violent reprisals.

And then Tennant is at the intersection of the Stuart and Barkly Highways, the latter being the major track of the pastoralists who swept west across the grassy tablelands into the Territory from Queensland and almost completely eliminated the peoples living south of the Gulf of Carpentaria with the very bloody assistance of the Queensland Native Police. But this experience is qualified by the fact that the traditional owners, the Warumungu, were also known by their neighbours as bata aurrinia, ‘people who live on hard (infertile) ground’. This might have enabled them to prolong aspects of their conventional lives.

This connects with its identity as the site for a uniquely generous offering of anthropological information (access to 88 ceremonies in a couple of months for example) when such had a slender vogue. Baldwin Spencer, the academic, and Frank Gillen, the postmaster who contributed the term ‘Dreamtime’ to the lexicon, were the recipients, intriguing characters who leap off the page in Dean’s telling.

Thirty years later it was where W.E.H. Stanner was sent to see if the government should constrain the activities of miners (gold, and later copper) to protect the interests of the Warumungu. He described how much life had changed for them in thirty years and how restricted their access had become to their tribal lands. Stanner remained a central figure in trying to build a public understanding of Aboriginal life, perspectives and rights for several decades.

As the area over which the Warumungu had any sort of sway diminished, a mission was established nearby. Children were taken and became part of the Stolen Generation. The Warumungu was among the first groups to launch a claim (which failed in egregious circumstances) under the first Land Rights Act, that of 1976, a legacy of the Whitlam Government.

As Dean notes: ‘By the time I’d made the last of three trips back to Tennant I’d learned that the struggles over whether and how to tell Tennant’s story were for a century and half Australia’s struggles writ small, and intense.’ The stories in this first section are gripping, fascinating, so well told with some, by no means all, leaving you with a nasty taste in your mouth and a bit of acid in the pit of your stomach.

But it’s all there, or at least as much as is possible in the circumstances. You can get a grip on the lenses that were dropped into the optometrist’s tool to change the focus of the public perspective. One example was in the paper today, remembered from a Grade Five reader, a little ditty: ‘We wrought with a will unceasing/ we moulded and fashioned and planned/ and we fought with the black and we blazed the track/ that ye might inherit the land’ (from ‘Pioneers’ by Frank Hudson).

Differently, the anthropological lens, he suggests, ‘helped make an authoritative way for us to see Aboriginal people as the constructors of a rich, complex and in some respects remarkable civilisation, thus tackling both the armchair theorists in Europe who declared that they were biologically primitive and the local hatred and contempt from the violent frontier.’ But at the same time, they ‘provided a way to overlook what had been done and to feel better about what was now theirs [ie ours, the country]. A seductive double: an affecting insight into a world now, sadly, almost gone, together with the scientifically established fact that it was no-one’s fault, really, just the inevitable and irresistible workings of evolution and progress. … Don’t look here. Look over there.’

The inevitable and irresistible workings of evolution and progress produced another revolution dating from around the mid-60s.

The second half of the book is titled ‘The Struggle to Dismantle the Silence’. It refers to and contains evidence of the massive increase of material about, and acknowledgment of, Indigenous experience. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (now the AIA and Torres Strait Islander S) was established in 1964. Typical of the times, it didn’t have an Aboriginal member on its board until 1971, a fiendishly slow process of what has been described as ‘Aboriginalisation’, perhaps resolved only in 1992 when Marcia Langton became the first Council Chair to be a woman and Aboriginal. An audit in 2014 confirmed that AIATSIS then held over 6 million feet of film, over 40,000 hours of audio, 12,800 unpublished manuscripts and record series, 653,000 photographs, and 120,000 print and published materials (3,000 of which are rare books) as well as other miscellanea. These numbers would have increased substantially by now; it is a very lively organisation. The book footnotes that nearly 20 years ago Rachel Perkins’ online directory ‘Black Book’ listed more than 2700 Indigenous organisations and individuals working in 95 professions in the arts, media and cultural industries. ‘Thousands of Aboriginal artists, writers, dancers, actors and directors, activists and intellectuals have combined with thousands more non-Indigenous cultural workers to give the Aboriginal world an astonishing prominence.’

But all this stuff fed straight into the context of the ‘history wars’. What had happened was not the struggle to tell the story any more, but to commandeer and reshape it, to get control of it in a field of contestation and to turn it into a political weapon. ‘The Aboriginal people and their relationship with the rest of us had become the sites of proxy political warfare and synthetic emotions’. (He goes on to say ‘but there’s real stuff there too, ranging from just feeling bad (in my case whenever I think about those kids crossing in front of the screen at the Pioneer Picture Theatre) through to how everyone felt when Cathy Freeman won the big race.’ The book is never less than even-handed.)

You might have forgotten about this: Henry Reynolds’ bolts of lightning about the frontier wars, Paul Keating and the Redfern speech, the wrestle over Bicentennial celebrations and histories, Geoffrey Blainey, John Howard and the black armband view of history, Hugh Morgan and the miners, the IPA, Noel Pearson’s interesting political trajectory, and even Keith Windschuttle. It’s all in the book. Go back to it, and marvel. It’s history.

What is our obligation to the past? Every nation’s history can reek of disgrace. Is it better to acknowledge these issues or cover them over and move on? A strong example to think about is the issue of the 19th and early 20th century killings and massacres. The existence of many of these is now firmly established. Were they wars? They weren’t fought with the niceties of the laws of combat, yet the first Geneva Convention was established in 1864 before some of the very worst killings. And if they weren’t wars, were they murder? And if they were murder, who was punished? And how culpable was the Government given that Aboriginal people were supposed to be under its protection? Or are these issues just too problematic to confront?

Being Dean, he doesn’t leave these questions hanging. He deals with them most thoughtfully and suggests good ideas, solid ideas, for action. Don’t preach they begin. No more preaching. ‘What the truth needs is not more “telling” but more comprehension, more absorption and more acting upon. That cannot be done by trying … to convert millions by preaching at them’. Most Australians don’t need conversion he suggests. Most Australians want to see things put right, and you’re wasting your time trying to convert the others. But ‘the fraction of the silence that remains is embedded in rituals and symbols and institutions of memory and commemoration … the barely noticed history curriculum of everyday life, the means by which the past attempts to perpetuate its own account of itself’.

A case in point — the Australian War Memorial, the ‘repository of the soul of the nation’ and its choice of what to display. Currently, Dean asserts, it is telling only part of the truth and ‘sustaining the myth that the white Australia of the War Memorial’s imagining is always and everywhere the goodie’, and its new $500m funding is designed to enhance this view. But more Aboriginal people were killed in the Queensland frontier wars than all Australian casualties of the First World War and considerably more than those of the Second. If this is a war memorial, and it is Australian, … ‘no wars’ (?), as Kevin Rudd said in a speech not long after his Apology, ‘no revolution (?), no bloodshed’ (?) Really? If the AWM is to follow its mission — ‘to assist Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society’ — I’m afraid we need the lot.

‘Truth’ is an increasingly vexed idea. President Trump and his spokespersons made ‘truth’ mean ‘only superficially true; that which is asserted or felt instinctively to be true, with no recourse to facts’, thus ‘truthy’. It is enough to cause people to steer away from talking about the truth and ‘truth-telling’.

Does that matter Dean asks, and bumps off three standard responses. ‘Coming to terms with our unresolved past?’ Nah. What’s that mean? ‘We’ll remain blind to the way others see us.’ Something in that, but down the list a bit. ‘Let’s get it sorted and move on.’ What, and never think about it again? Best We Forget?

He provides two arguments for the pursuit of these particular truths which he finds compelling.

The first, in summary, is that ‘for many Aboriginal people a problem more common, less detectable and as damaging as ‘overt racism’ or ‘discrimination’ or ‘disadvantage’ is having to live with a half-comprehension of who they are and where their circumstances have come from’. As a touchstone think about the work whitefellas put into their family histories, their memoirs, their genealogies, their heritage-ness. I can find a dozen Aboriginal acquaintances who would cheer heartily about that without even having to think about it.

The second is that ‘the pursuit of truthfulness through disciplined enquiry and evidence, tested and contested, rather than through revelation or gut feel or general agreement (or the internet) is foundational’. True. He doesn’t say foundational to what but I would say a civilised society. And not only that, it is enormously satisfying to hunt for and get closer to what actually might be the case. Geoff Blainey says: ‘Both sides deserve blame and praise’. But that’s not it. That’s not it at all. It probably isn’t even secondary. History is not a moral contest. Just tell me what happened. The rest will take care of itself (and probably in exotic and unexpected ways).

And that is the main reason why this is a great book. Dean’s book makes a serious effort to tells us what happened, to him as well as to others. It’s a model of what he is arguing for. It’s sober (and witty), thorough, interesting, comprehensive in scope but rich with case and detail, provocative … but above all, it’s right.

From a very strong field, Telling Tennant’s Story won the inaugural Australian Political Book of the Year Award (2022).

Dean Ashenden (2022) Telling Tennants’ Story: The strange career of the Great Australian Silence. Collingwood, Black Inc. Strangely also 338pp. 46pp of notes and 26 pp. of bibliography (in fine print) and several very useful maps and photo illustrations.

BUY: Any decent bookshop or wide options on line.

• • • • • • •

Disclosure: Michael is my nephew. In certain lights I can look like an older version of him. When we arrive at Coffee Roasting Warehouse it regularly appears that Wardrobe has issued us with identical instructions. We enjoy a gossip, the same things amuse us, and we share a lot of opinions including about Juan Davila. I hope it’s not presuming too much to say that we have the capacity to console each other. This may need to be borne in mind with relation to what follows.

Nobel prize winner J.M. Coetzee, who knows a bit about writing, called Michael’s book Grimmish: ‘The strangest book you are likely to read this year’. So let’s take that as our starting point. ‘Strange’ … what does the author have to say?

‘How do you write a book? You have an idea, and it grows or strengthens and doesn’t go away. You do your research, or your imagining, and you construct fences around what will be in the book to demarcate against what will not be in the book. And then you write it, and that is when the problem of structure looms, a glass mountain that defies all attempts at climbing. …

‘In 2021 I published a book, Grimmish. … It is not wilfully strange, but strangeness is what happened when I tried to pitchfork all the material I had assembled into the structure I selected.’

In this essay published in ‘Meanjin’ (Winter, 2022), Michael describes Melville and his Moby Dick in particular as an influence. But not as much as contemporary Australian-Chilean artist Juan Davila.

‘Davila denies himself nothing. He references politics, aesthetics, art history and iconography from different continents and traditions. He pastes newspaper cuttings on the canvas and scars the surface with graffiti. He is a figurative painter of rare skill who surrounds pieces with tattered gingham borders, or undermines them with kitsch frames. He used to hang his paintings in galleries and then work directly on the walls, surrounding these expensive items with rough cartoons, ambiguous smears, abstruse visual jokes.

‘More than any writer, he showed me how I could handle my material in Grimmish. Rather than the conventional novelistic method—a synthesis of all that the author has imagined and researched and theorised, sieved and distilled—I employed a pastiche of Davila’s approach. Hence my book shoehorns in newspaper stories, cultural arcana, stupid jokes, rural horror, grandiloquent expounding on masculinity, and a fragment from a short story I wrote maybe 20 years ago that seemed to fit. I couldn’t settle on an epigraph, so I included dozens: very serious clowns tumbling from a book-sized clown car; footnotes; changes of register; blooms of staccato prose and sweeps of self-conscious legato, trying to mimic the detonations Davila embeds in areas of otherwise lyrical brushwork.’

Mmmm yes, but this is misdirection. It sounds like Grimmish could be a ragtag miscellany. To the contrary. Another read has prompted me to think again about the fastidiousness of the organisation and certainly the creative flair but also the care with which each of the effects is orchestrated.

I think of the book as something like a complex zoetrope. You look through the slits at something which is moving, the same set of concerns, but constantly — at least when you spin it, slowly in this instance — giving you new perspectives.

(To remind you of what a simple zoetrope looks like and does, one illustration. Remember? Your younger self might even have made one.)

Zoetropes can be very complex. Michael’s is considerably more complex than this one. More like this one actually. The seminal point of this slightly dodgy comparison is that still things are brought to life via means which are not obvious or intuitive. They’re constructed and in unexpected ways.

What are the set of concerns? ‘The idea of suffering, the look and pointless parabola of a career fighting for money, exchanging pain for a living wage, meditations on masculinity [and its intimate relationship with these other things], the acceptance of slings and arrows [and how this might refract on these ideas], my lonely brutal samadhi [of a piece with pain, its consequences and management]’.

The ostensible vehicle is Saverio Giannone, born Avellino Italy, 16 March 1881. Fighting sobriquet Joe ‘Iron Man’ Grim/m. 1.7m (5 foot 7). Fought as a middle and welterweight but also against heavyweights. Turned pro 1899. Wikipedia thinks he had 152 fights; BoxRec 179; Michael and the National Advocate 348+. Wikipedia’s record has him 152 fights, 24 wins (10 by KO), 22 draws, 2 no contests and, the point — the proportions will be about right regardless of the quantum — 104 losses. After the first few years he wasn’t fighting to win but to show and prove that even after the heaviest punishment he couldn’t be knocked out. He earned money by being a receptacle for what most of the world would consider extreme pain. In one six-round fight Jack Johnson knocked him down an estimated 17 times. He kept getting up. At the end of the fight Johnson is quoted as saying: ‘I just don’t believe that man is made of flesh and blood.’ True. Okay? True. Grimmish is an (exploded) ‘non-fiction novel’. Okay? True. That’s what it says in the review at the start.

Does it matter if Grim was (ever) a real person or not? Probably not. But what happens in the book after a short stoic hymn to the consequences of violence is that Grim’s reality is established. The story is all there. We’re in the boxing world where someone (Michael probably) can afford to laugh if only inwardly at having produced a sentence like: ‘Grim sent a lightning right into the Cobar Chicken’s tater trap’ and, holding his breath, gritting his teeth as ‘another blow smacks into Grim’s face with a sound like a shovel hitting a watermelon’. It’s not a restful book. This section, more like hyper-active journalism than anything else, sets up Grim’s reality and the reality of what he’s up to. After that you can, and do, forget about it. What? Whether Grim really existed and did what he did. Did he though? Yeeeeeees. Read the book.

The unnamed witness figure shares the narration with Uncle Michael who lives among grand canyons of print and who drinks recurrent flagons of Royal Reserve sherry, a fight fan, who after a particularly violent bout finds himself in Grim’s dressing room washing down his trunk and legs. Subsequently he becomes Grim’s companion in so far as Grim has companions. Is that true? Probably not. Who cares. Get on with the story.

We have described the hittee, but what about the hitter, the administrator of the punishment? When you hit your opponent with everything you’ve got, and he keeps getting up. And again. And Again. What does this mean not just for inflicting further pain, but for your sense of agency, your self concept, … your capacity for compassion? You’re Grim’s opponent. How do you feel? Let’s try, in sequence. Distracted. Puzzled. Puzzled Further. Bemused. Angry. Furious. Livid (a word that appears regularly in the book in both its meanings). Bewildered, then possibly Despairing. Humiliated? As Grim does his post-bout tricks, handstands, dance moves, and shouting from the ropes, ‘I am Joe Grim. I fear no man on earth’, you might wonder who has won.

Foucault: Empathy means that the pain inflicted on a punished person causes pain to the punisher. Were any of his opponents empathic in that sense? Could this even be said to be true? We all know the old saw, this is going to hurt me more than it will hurt you. But in whose hand is the cane?

New slide in the zoetrope. Ah … Jack Johnson v Tommy Burns, ‘unforgivably’ black v white, with all Sydney watching because it would have been too hot to stage in the US, too racially charged. Uncle Michael is sent on a trip to Sydney by a bookie to check the pre-fight form and discovers Grim has been sparring for both men. Grim is able to supply, profitably, the inside that Johnson will win in a canter. Uncle Michael’s written submission is an opportunity for a whirl at youthful, turn of the century consciousness which is deeply engaging.

Enter the goat.

We must keep moving. There are so many more slides. But, enter the goat, the smelly, voluble and very sweary goat, one of a group of three (with Uncle Michael and Grim) apparently marooned in the desert on their way to Perth. This provides an opportunity for some knockabout word play and several rather good shaggy pig stories, good enough to return to without suffering. This is also an opportunity for Grim to suddenly inherit Michael the author’s logophilia and tell one of the several stories of (masculinist?) brutality in the book. It’s the story of Grim’s growth and formation, a revelation rather than an explanation of his very particular attributes, and you will read it, it will come to an end, and you will think, quietly, wow. Gosh. Okay fair enough. At the end of the goat’s story you may be more inclined to think, yuck, phew it’s over, that’s a relief. After which the goat might respond, harden the fuck up.

Another slide, quite a different colour: a very sharp (in the painful sense) and exact description of the experience of waiting with dread for the unpredictable onset of clinical depression. No punches telegraphed here, just the anticipatory terror. Another sort of pain. Acute. But it plays on towards Grim’s later incarceration for mental illness. That doesn’t have to be a connection, but it can.

You’ll be getting the idea by now I hope.

Could Grim have died? Of course he could have. Benny Paret was killed in the ring by Emile Griffith. The history of boxing like other ‘combat’ sports is spattered with deaths. This, Michael suggests, exposes the degree to which spectators are also voyeurs. But what is it to endure pain with its mortal dangers as a choice? What is it to endure the pain of being a largely ignored but compulsive writer as a choice? What sort of pain does that entail, and what does it suggest about the reams of other people who have completely unfulfilled ambitions but who will keep trying like rats (it’d be pigs in this book) on a wheel. It’s lucky we forget pain, not just for the birth rate, but for the way we can disguise its ubiquity.

Grim and crew watch a head-butting competition in the Ladies Lounge of the Norguna Pub (I think) to which they have been transported. Drinkers with improbable names run at short distance towards each other clashing heads. The winner, meaning the survivor, drinks free at the pub for a week.

Several matters arise. Pain and its administration in Grimmish is largely a cooperative venture. It’s what people do to each other, and without thinking about it you might find yourself thinking about that. The film ‘Banshees of Inisherin’, that very neat summation of Irish history as well as human nature, comes to mind. As does the war in Ukraine.

Next, drinking free at the pub for a week is deemed sufficient incentive to become involved in this blood bath. Too far? Too much? Too unfair to the drinkers in country pubs? If you can find room you can think about that too.

Enter Dora from Billinup, a tremendously suitable Western Australian name. You’ll have to know about Concha Michel and Isadora Duncan to be able to visualise her, but she is quickly realised in other ways. You are provided with three versions of her interaction with Grim to produce a compound figure. She is warm and attractive in each. This also allows an opportunity to observe Grim’s rather odd fight preparation: odd to you and I, perhaps not to the initiate. It involves what might appear on second or third glance to be more extravagant pain and this time self-inflicted.

There are several last slides, a wind up phase after the flurry of punches in the middle rounds. Joe is institutionalised in the Claremont Asylum, a harbinger of the way he is to live out his life. We have a tour of his mind some of which is rendered as a version of Jas. H. Duke’s sound poem ‘No no You can’t do that’. He has another fight in Charters Towers against Paddy Regan. We ease our way out of the stadium, breathing hard.

It’s not one for everybody this book, but it is one, a real one.


From a footnote: ‘I once spoke to the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship] heavyweight champion1. and suggested that if every person on the planet engaged in a fight to the finish, he would presumably be the winner. … I asked him if that made his head swim. He wasn’t interested. I thought then, and think now, that he was frightened of the isolation. 7.5 billion people behind him and in front of him — what?

1. Knowing the author to have been a former editor of ‘The Fist’, I am inclined to believe this. But I don’t think the Champ was frightened by the prospect of isolation, more just wondering how long he had to put up with dumb questions like this. Great idea though. Commendable. Any title with ‘World’ or ‘Universe’, and most certainly ‘Ultimate’, in it is likely to be problematic.

Two matters. Footnotes in a book, a novel? Not that odd really. Dean’s book has got 46 pages of notes, and whether you stick them at the back of the book or the bottom of a page makes little difference. The footnotes in Grimmish serve the customary purpose of footnotes: bibliographic references which include delightful surprises and indicate a slightly nutty addiction to research and a bad case of bibliophilia; adding enriching detail which nonetheless might forestall the flow of reading for some readers; adding detail that is slightly digressive; adding detail that is wildly digressive but terribly interesting anyway. See eg the Regan story p. 196 in my edition. I was trying to think of a novel with footnotes and couldn’t. But I checked Julian Barnes’ 40 year-old masterpiece Flaubert’s Parrot and there might as well be. He uses everything else.

Secondly, the footnote above is an excellent illustration of what some readers might find distracting/ discomforting about the book: the conjunction of boxing and what we might call philosophy. Actually Barthes, Hazlitt, GB Shaw, Terry Eagleton and Joyce Carol Oates all make their contributions to Grimmish. (The last: ‘If the boxing ring is an altar it is not an altar of sacrifice but one of consecration and redemption. Sometimes.’) There is Norman Mailer’s The Fight, great and as recommended by The Tough Guy Bookclub, but perhaps not for the more fey questions. Donald McRae’s Dark Trade … There would be others, but this is a marriage of soft and hard, maybe even manly and unmanly. (‘I wanted more than anything to grow into a man who could not be hurt by others. Joe Grim was that dream.’ Are you allowed to say that?) This will be enough for some people to reel back in abhorrence from one or the other but especially from their communion. Boxing is not a core subject at the Philosophy Dept of the UofM and, like many such establishments, the Sutton St headquarters of North Melbourne Boxing doesn’t go out of its way to sign up philosophers. Unsettling, if not necessarily strange.

But then, as Paul Smith writes (as quoted in the book) ‘Masculinity isn’t always a pleasant thing to behold, and it’s always difficult, sometimes unpleasant to write about — it’s certainly a difficult thing in just about every respect.’ And one of those respects might be: ‘[There is] something in men, in every millimetre of the world map and every dot on the line of time, desperate to scramble up that hill of pain to see how high they can get.’

Although I’ve made a slanting case for finding one of the book’s aspects as strange, I’m not sure it is a strange book. ‘Strange’ is hardly an unqualified version of praise in any case. A strange book might be otherwise pretty crapulous, or simply strange and nothing else. A book which is both strange and good must have a lot more going for it.

Grimmish is what happens when an author pursues exactly what they think they should, applying every trick at their disposal to pull it off. Rather than strange, Grimmish is deeply individual in its sensibility and combination of interests. I don’t mean just boxing and ‘philosophy’. I include a vivid eye for the idiosyncrasies of humankind and how they play on and off each other. I include a real appreciation and interest in historicity and its potential to help wipe away shadows. I include fishing through the vast oceans of creative and questing culture to see what you can find. I include the rather startling and courageous honesty which is a feature of most of Michael’s public writing on topics of his choice. This is the primary source of the book’s ‘softness’, which is not so much soft as flesh without skin, if not the ultimate reveal then approaching it.

Helen Garner: Grimmish meets a need I didn’t even know I had. I lurched between bursts of wild laughter, shudders of horror, and gasps of awe at Winkler’s verbal command: the freshness and muscle of his verbs, the unstoppable flow of his images, the bizarre wit of the language of pugilism—and all the while, a moving subterranean glint of strange masculine tenderness.”

Helen knows something about writing too.

• In 2022 Grimmish was one of a short list of five books for Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award. I didn’t know this — never even considered its possibility — but the long list, short list and winner are decided in the one process on the same day. I think if the judges had had another ten days to think about it, Grimmish would have won. The winner, Bodies of Light, is a very good book but it tails off and you become suspicious of the diminishing authenticity, however well meaning, of the author’s investment. Grimmish is more ambitious, more interesting, more original, and more complete, in its own terms more perfect actually, than any of its competitors. (See also ‘Disclosure’ above.)

But what did I say at the beginning? Forget the acclaim. Doesn’t matter. Make your own mind up. Read them. Brilliant.

Michael Winkler (2021) Grimmish. Self-published I am going to say, although now Tasmanian publishers Puncher & Wattmann send him an occasional sliver of the commercial proceeds. 205pp.

BUY: Amazon, Booktopia, elsewhere on line, and from Michael’s website which as well as more of his writing contains a lot of other interesting responses to Grimmish.

White caps on the Coorong

Four years ago I wrote a blog called ‘The Mouth of the Murray’ which took up issues related to the depradations of the Murray-Darling river system after years of drought and decades of misuse.

The blog was quite widely read, opened anyway, which pleased me because I felt great concern about what was (and still is) a massive environmental problem. From Goondiwindi and Warrego to the mouth, 3000 kms, there were issues getting worse. But rivers die from the mouth up and so it was the Coorong that was the most vivid canary in the mine.

The Coorong is a coastal dune lake, a body of water bounded by a coastal dune and fed from time to time by ocean water — not unheard of but not so terribly common either, and the Coorong is a very large one. From the mouth to the end of the southern lagoon is about 110 kms and while its width varies it can be up to 4 kms. It is also a very precious one recognised under the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance.

In the screen shot above you can see Wellington where the Murray enters Lake Alexandrina. You can also just see its mouth near Mundoo Island. Goolwa is to its left and then to the right you can see the long green strip of the Coorong (an attempt at the Ngarrindjeri word kurangk meaning ‘neck’).

This is what it looked like when we were there four years ago, a dry salt pan with a tiny amount of vestigial plant growth.

And this is disastrous because the area’s ecology will be transformed by events of this scale, potentially almost nothing alive, potentially permanently.

But there has been rain. Lots of it, and while the floods have been described in terms of human catastrophe it is an ill flood that blows no ecosystem good.

The water from the Namoi, the Lachlan, the Macquarie, the Castlereagh and the Condamine, the Barwon, the Gwydir and the Paroo, has been working its way down the system, reconnecting and reinvigorating the Darling, filling the Menindee Lakes and in the Murray’s case swamping the Barmah Forest along with the outskirts and suburbs of the towns along its banks.

You think, well I do anyway, that all this water will take just a day or two, or a week maybe, to travel the length of the system, but it doesn’t. When we were in South Australia at Christmas the major flood level of the Murray at Renmark was going to take four or more days — it seemed uncertain — to arrive at Mannum about 400 kms away. The water is travelling downstream of course but it’s also spreading spreading spreading finding places that have been flooded before but this time seeking out new adventures.

At Murray Bridge when we crossed it in early January it looked like this, three or four kilometres wide.

On the other side of the bridge it had divided and turned into two monster streams.

The ferries had been closed at Tailem Bend and Wellington. But at Tailem Bend, about 30 kms downstream, it had resumed discipline, swollen and busy, but not yet spilling its bulging rolls over the flood plain.

It had been raining here too. Langhorne Creek had had its regular floods in October and most unusually, even the salt pans on the landward side of the road had plentiful water in them.

Melaleuca nesophila, Honey Myrtle, a Western Australian native, was growing like crazy throughout this part of South Australia. It seemed perfectly suited.

You can see it at left below out the front of this shack and its bin. It is I think the second last house before the Coorong National Park begins, and from its front door …

… da dah. You can see this. The Mouth: 200m of open water, not a dredge in sight. (They were in fact parked several kilometres back towards Goolwa, but not in use, possibly saving some of the $6m a year that their use otherwise costs.) It was a fabulous sight.

From here to get anywhere else you need to retrace your steps off Hindmarsh Island, so back to Goolwa. We had seen people — and a dog, not quite the thing in a national park — on the point overlooking the mouth and had some lukewarm ambition to do the same. But we found the road closed at the Goolwa Barrage a long way from where we wanted to get. Although you can’t see it in the picture of the Barrage below, for the first time in ages the five Murray barrages (see here) were open in a major way. Since 5 January 576 gates have been open; the usual figure is more like 40.

A few days later we crossed the river again at Murray Bridge and began the trip down the side of Lake Alexandrina to rediscover the Coorong. This is what we found: a glorious expanse of water.

We need some video here because Jack’s Point, everywhere we walked really, was awash with bird song. Saw some flying, but they were otherwise hidden in the bushes, with a dozen different calls trilling away.

Finally. Proof. The Coorong has its own numinous quality partly because of Colin Thiele’s book Storm Boy in which pelicans and their chicks play a central role. And here they were. A squadron of 15 or 20 pelicans in front of us, with many more flying about. These ones were feeding avidly with gulls ever so correctly pinching the remnants from the swarm of fish!

Remember this photo?

Currently there are fish in the Coorong. And if there are fish in the Coorong, there is so much else.

And you might note in the somewhat indistinct photo above with the pelicans, there are white caps. Quite a stiff breeze was blowing on shore from the south-west.

Despite the mighty expanses suggested here, the Coorong might be a couple of metres deep at its deepest. The idea of white caps on its surface is strange and elusive. But here it was, pretending to be a real sea. Was being a real sea. White caps. On the Coorong. Frankly, hoorah.

DIVERSIONS (pictorial)

Last light in Horsham. It’s hot. And it’s the T&G building soaring above the plain.

The Ascension attended by adoring container handlers. Once Batman’s Swamp, once the site of Dudley Mansions, once something else entirely. Now the view across to Footscray from Sassy’s restaurant.

Our friend Rikie Rupert on the Old Ghost Road, one less travelled, in the South Island of NZ. Marty, Rikie’s husband’s photo.

Chiara’s party, the photographer.

Photographing a bourek, a bourek! in the Queen Vic market.

A wedge-tailed eagle flying over the outskirts of Penshurst with the Grampians mistily in the background. From the top of Mount Rouse, one of the Western District’s noble volcanic cones.

One edge of Australia’s largest wattle seed farm. 70 acres/ 30 hectares of plantings, maturing quite quickly as acacias do. Wattleseed? ‘Wattleseed must be considered the unsung hero of Australian native foods, as it is a very rich source of protein. Since the 1970s, Wattleseed has been grown in Africa to provide protein to drought-affected populations. It is a low glycaemic food, which releases its sugars slowly and can be used by people with diabetes to help maintain blood sugar levels. Wattleseed also contains high concentrations of potassium, calcium, iron and zinc. Wattleseed has a nutty, roasted coffee aroma, with touches of sweet spice, raisins and chocolate. It has a savoury, nutty, wheat-biscuit flavour. Mount Napier, another of those wonderful cones, in the background.

Harvesting wattleseed as practiced at Tarrington has delectably basic elements. After putting your tarp underneath, you hit the tree with an aluminium pole. On the right day, at the right temperature, with the right humidity, the pods full of seed will drop. The tarps are dragged off to the seed cleaner into which the crop is fed. The result from this process is about 80 percent seed. The pile of empty pods is here in front of us. This machine, straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel, is about 60 years old but the staff of Arborline know a good thing when they see one.

Strathalbyn is 14 kms from the Langhorne Creek wineries, one reason for going there. But there are others. Two of them are the Strath Motel and breakfast at the Hammer ‘N Tongs. This startlingly verdant memory of England sits in the middle of a flat brown plain.

Playing golf in California. Obviously not my photo. But there must be a message here somewhere.

Twin-subjecter, Thomas Hirschhorn, in the Gallery of South Australia

First performance of three generations of dancers: 43, 70 and 14, all caught just at that moment when you’re required to close your eyes. They opened them a little later. (Ann Harkin specials at the Footscray Festival)

But it’s not true …

We were noodling around the television looking for something that would hit that difficult pre-Christmas spot. Ancient Inspector Morses? Seen them all, and Morse’s nasty streak is becoming more pronounced with time. Ten series of ‘Vera’? Too greyed-out pet. Can’t you do something about that Kenny love? The Year in Review on the ABC? Nah, not 2022. I’ve seen it. The (three, count them: three) Bachelor (s) doesn’t start till next year. Netflix. Anything to see? Usually no. But ‘Harry & Meghan’ comes up on the home page. Myrna says how about that? I say sure, flick it on, and get back to catching up on the five Guardian Weeklys I’m behind.

I’m not really watching. I haven’t had much interest in Harry & Meghan. You know … Royals, whatever. As far as I know, knew, she seemed a bit off the air in a slightly shrill southern Californian way. With Harry there’s the interesting colour of his hair, the Nazi uniform and the girls, his Mum’s death and her almost equally tragic life, and of course the recent breakup with the family which all seemed not quite at my attention grade. Whether above or below I can’t tell you. Besides the Guardians are burying my head in the pure insanity of the Ukrainian war, as well as the climate crisis, Liz and Rish!, the consequences of the spectacular own goal that was Brexit, and FIFA’s complicated version of the same in Qatar.

For those who missed it, this is what Barney Ronay thought about that:

Beyond that, Qatar is not, when you look more widely, some kind of rogue state peopled by a different kind of human being. In fact, the best way to look at it is perhaps as a very literal-minded and efficient expression of the forces at work across every other modern state. Qatar just does it wilder, harder and without apology. It is a reductio ad absurdum of the idea of supremely wealthy overlords, of the surveillance state, of an underclass of workers, of increasingly repressive laws, of the global carbon addiction. Do any of these sound familiar? In many ways Qatar is like your furiously able and efficient younger colleague; who has essentially looked at this, learnt the mannerisms, and said, yeah, we can do that.

Barney is rarely wrong.

But I was catching glimpses of the pair on the screen and it started to reel me in. By the end I was close to glued. Like most people, the more closely you look the more interesting they get. So while I accept it might take a pretty courageous argument to recommend watching the full six hours of ‘Harry & Meghan’, the series, let alone taking it seriously, this is my purpose here.

• • • • • • •

These are my arguments.

  1. If you want to have a point of view, you need to actually see what all the fuss is about.
  2. The series is something of a masterpiece of its type, and is worth examining as a fine example of purpose full art.
  3. It is a case study of the confected and visceral hatred that seems to drive so much public and semi-public discourse at present.
  4. Harry and Meghan are both more engaging, interesting and intelligent people than you thought. They have thought deeply about their predicament and have made clear rational choices about it. They probably won’t win the war but they know exactly how it’s being fought and who is fighting it. But do you believe them?

• • • • • •

The Fuss

“The first three episodes of ‘Harry & Meghan’ recorded 81.55 million viewing hours around the world after its debut last Thursday, Netflix said, ‘the highest view hours of any documentary title in a premiere week’. More than 28m households watched at least part of the series.”

‘Squid Game’, ‘The Stranger Part IV’ and especially ‘Wednesday Addams’ out-rated it world-wide. (Although it is the highest rating Netflix series ever aired in Britain, out-rating ‘The Crown’ the previous winner; and, just incidentally, an estimated 2 billion people watched Harry and Meghan’s wedding on TV.) But that’s not really the point.

A lot of people watched it but just about as many seem to be writing about it and far more are talking about it. I have read more than 30 (of 100s) considered reactions to it and several hundred (of what seems like millions) short ones. We were sitting out at dinner the other night when, perhaps after overhearing our conversation, the diners at the next table left saying, ‘We might as well not pay like that phoney parasite Meghan Markle.’

You might already have an opinion. It might need substantiation.

You can say what you like about their irrelevance, their insignificance, their tedium, the inconsequence of their issues and you’ll have mates. But don’t you speculate about just what made Jeremy Clarkson write (and his editors agree to publish!) this?:

We all know in our heart of hearts that Harold Markle is a slightly dim but fun-loving chin who flew Apache helicopter gunships in Afghanistan and cavorted around Las Vegas hotel rooms with naked hookers. But then along came Meghan, who obviously used some vivid bedroom promises to turn him into a warrior of woke. One day, Harry will tell the truth about his wife [but] now it seems that she has her arm so far up his bottom, she can use her fingers to alter his facial expressions. I actually feel rather sorry for him because today he’s just a glove puppet with no more control over what he says or does than Basil Brush.

Meghan, though, is a different story. I hate her. Not like I hate Nicola Sturgeon or [serial murderer] Rose West. I hate her on a cellular level. At night, I’m unable to sleep as I lie there, grinding my teeth and dreaming of the day when she is made to parade naked through the streets of every town in Britain while the crowds chant, ‘Shame!’ and throw lumps of excrement at her.

Everyone who’s my age thinks the same way. [etc.]

This was published in the December 18 edition of mass circulation tabloid ‘The Sun’. I can see him sitting at home in his study on the farm writing it, Boris Johnson without the wit, imagining himself as part of a group (men) sitting around a table, wood panelling, leather cushions, drinking, roaring laughing, having a competition as to who can say the most disgusting thing and then get it published in ‘The Spectator’ say, or, on this noble continent, in a menu. (‘Small Breasts, Huge thighs, Big Red Box’ Haa Haaaaaaaa. Yeah put that in. Hilarious. ‘Ditch the witch.’ Fantastic.)

But I can’t see the why. Why them? The degree of malevolence … what is it exactly about these two that excites such profound animosity? Or is it just a mindless pile on? (like the way Adam Goodes staged for free kicks …)

We’ll return to that question. But what are we dealing with just here?

The Series as a work of art

The medium is the message.

In this war of Californian Hollywood v. British Red Tops (as the British tabloid dailies are known) the message of the medium chosen by the principals and the Director, Liz Garbus, is a claim to the highly-polished and scrubbed voice of reason, ‘Truth’ as we call it, Meghan and Harry’s Truth.

You would be a duffer not to spend a moment thinking what a long and expensive puff piece, in which the focus is soft, the colorations pastel and the houses impossibly grand. You may wish Episodes 1 and 6 advanced more speedily with less footage devoted to displays of just how cute Archie is. But you can’t deny the skill with which the whole thing has been structured and composed. Garbus knows her business.

‘Harry & Meghan’ is not a documentary. We don’t have any of that ‘equal time’, ‘but on the other hand’ business. Three or four times we get a black text cell with legalistic responses to assertions that have been made, but it is a personal narrative. It is completely and unapologetically their story — their home movies, their video logs, their happy snaps and their friends and confidantes, some of their relations. The primary structural vehicle is their talking heads and their voice over commentary.

But there is a resolute skill with which this has been managed, and it’s partly because Harry is such tremendous talent: articulate, poised, balanced, convincing. And open. He’s been through this. He’s seen what happened to his mum, and thought about it analytically. He has lived with Charles. He has learnt how punishing it is to maintain these iron bonds of formality and ‘doing the right thing’ and, driven to some degree by the nature and example of his wife, he is going to tell his ‘truth’. He has some idea — a more sophisticated idea than Meghan I think — of the dimensions, reach and indomitability of what the pair are up against, but he is not dismayed. He has been in the army, he has fought in combat situations, and he has a concept of how simple courage can be.

Harry & Meghan is also a love story. They are a good fit; so apparently different in background and yet in some essential ways quite alike; and they quite evidently love each other. This will of course draw mortal offence from some. (Yuck! Keep it to yourself. We don’t want to know.) But that is just background. The story they want to tell goes like this.

By way of explaning the ‘whole thing’, Harry proposes, ‘Anyone in my situation would have done exactly the same thing’ [viz. dissociating himself from the institution that is the Royal family]. In saying this he is entirely believable, but with the obvious proviso that there is no one anywhere else in the world in his situation. He is a Royal, and as a former courtier observes, ‘[The Royals] lack many of the freedoms that the rest of us take for granted. Choice of career for example, certainly choice of religion, choice of activity, choice of wife even’.

His mother would have understood. The way Diana was hounded by the press is not just illustrated by footage of her in flight but by clips from the Martin Basheer BBC interview with her crisply crucifying her oppressors from under a verandah of hair. This interview is also sampled for depictions of Royal life and entry into it. (It is Diana, not Meghan, who says ‘I was completely unprepared for it’, Diana … who’d been hanging round versions of this rhubarb most of her life.) We are provided with effective evidence of the pervasive influence of the British press and its paparazzi — ‘We pay, you pose. That’s the deal’ — and the almost unbelievable lengths to which they will go for a picture and to construct stories based on the whiffiest of half-truths.

The second episode contains Meghan’s growing up story. The initial focus is on the ‘growing up’ entailed by getting together with Harry, ‘H’ as we say. ‘My face was everywhere. My life was everywhere. Livestream cameras focused on my house and yard were installed on my neighbours’ houses.’ This is followed by a roseate portrait of her earlier life as the product of a household for many years run by her single mum, Doria, a social worker (a relevant fact of which nothing is made). Doria gets a good deal of air time. She too is very capable talent, warm, measured, puzzled by all the shenanigans surrounding her daughter but at the same time insightful about them and determined to stand her ground, her own ground.

The pitch is that Meghan was not at all glam growing up; she was the ‘big nerd’, the smart one, the eleven year-old who got a national television ad changed for stereotyping the business of cleaning dishes as a female task. Immersed in her studies, dux, valedictorian: it’s all there, a strong pictorial record. And then her history as an activist for all the right causes, especially — and the irony of this really — female empowerment. She’s not who you thought she was; she’s got a lot more strings to her bow. That’s the message, and the series goes to some lengths to prop up this view. She is or has been a UN Women’s Advocate for Political Participation and Leadership for example. But this case is more convincingly made through her own ‘domestic’ contributions to the series. She is smart. In the finest of American traditions she is highly articulate. And she is, in her own terms has to be, committed to not being brow-beaten.

She is also light-skinned. Her mother had never given her ‘the talk’, but in the tsunami of attention (‘The only title for Meghan is BLACK BITCH’) Doria anticipates that that the issue of ‘race is coming down the pike’. And lo and behold, it slithers and then is slathered right down the middle of the road in 72 point-type. ‘Straight outta Compton’ was one example from ‘The Sun’. Compton, a suburb of LA, has been notorious (in the media) as a low rent black and mixed-race gang area. ‘Straight outta Compton’ is the name of a gangsta rap album. Meghan and her mother had never been to Compton, but the message was received and endlessly amplified.

David Olusoga and Afua Hirsch, British writers and public intellectuals, and Black, are excellent choices as running commentators. The contributions they make are consistently interesting and insightful. One of Olusoga’s points, roundly ridiculed by the critical press and right-wing commentators especially, is that the emergence of this relationship coincided quite precisely and interactively with the lead up to the Brexit poll. According to a ‘Daily Mail’ poll (which is a bit like saying according to the neighbourhood goat, but still), 7 out of 10 Britons at that time thought there were too many immigrants in the country. It is generally agreed that this was one of the main issues which drove the ‘Leave’ vote.

But then, for a time, the tide turned, the wave lifted. There she was: ‘relevant to the modern world’, ‘a breath of fresh air’, a gifted worker of crowds, a warm presence with a compelling smile. There were those who thought that her introduction into the Royal family might help to make it more like Britain, to look less like the white remnants of a largely black and brown Empire and more like the contemporary cosmopolis that it is.

The tide goes out. Meghan has a step-sister Samantha who provides: ‘Meghan’s life is a lie: Sister’, ‘Her ex was a porn star’, ‘Meghan’s gangsta friends involved in drug scam’. The mass which is her father Thomas rolls into view and finds that photos posed for the tabloids (scouring a hard cover copy of ‘Images of Britain’ for example) can earn him $100,000 a shoot. Was money ever made so easily? This man has got to come to the wedding? And Samantha? Well no not Samantha, definitely not Samantha, and five days before the wedding Meghan discovers from a tabloid headline that her father is not going to come either.

I wouldn’t just have had Kate in tears over the flower girls’ dresses, I would have given up about now.

The wedding: tide high and incoming. The dresses were fine. The Queen and Doria were able to make conversation. The homily referring to Martin Luther King as an example of the transcendent power of love was delivered with most un-British force and vigour by Michael Curry, the African-American primate of the American Episcopal church. A gospel group led by Karen Gibson sang ‘Stand by Me’. And there would have been people watching all that thinking, pushy bitch, she’s had a bit too much to do with this wedding. Spoiled the whole thing. Doesn’t she realise it’s for us? US!

In short order this was followed by the couple touring Australia (and NZ and Fiji): 76 engagements in 16 days and Meghan is pregnant. Despite her getting a bit narky, it appears a brand new page has been turned in that fusty old book. The colonials adore them. It’s a rave up, a love job. On arriving home the press are saying ‘more popular and better at it than all the others’. This matters, it is explained, because popularity is the Royals’ currency. It funds their charities, allows them to go about their business, and (in William’s case) positions them for becoming monarch. Harry is incisive on these matters. He grasps exactly how all this plays out and is respectful of its requirements.

But the leaking begins. Tabloid headlines: Meghan is mean to Kate. She’s bossy. She’s demanding. She’s a narcissist. She refuses to play the game. He talks to his father to ask him for help in staunching the bleeding. ‘It’s about time it stopped isn’t it?’ he says. ‘For everyone.’ Charles advises that you can’t take on the media.

Meghan asserts that at this stage she became alert to the fact that she wasn’t just being thrown to the wolves [by the Royal Communications Offices and by implication their bosses Charles and William], she was being fed to the wolves. This appears incontrovertible.

Father Thomas re-emerges with a new game. ‘Royals a secret Scientology cult’, he headlines, and when this is received with tabloid acclaim he kicks on, doubles down, imagines more. What a dude. On the advice of the Royal offices Meghan writes him a private letter to ask him to ease off. Shortly after extracts from this letter appear in ‘The Sun’. A redacted ‘full’ version which highly colours what Meghan has written is made available on line. A social media campaign against her heats up. A respectable authority cites evidence that about 70% of the more than 150,000 online attacks come from just 83 accounts, at least 11 of which can be linked to her step-sister. (Denied by lawyers acting for same.)

You’re reading this and thinking this sounds like a movie, and yes of course it does because it is a movie, but by this stage you’ve forgotten. You’ve heard Harry and Meghan talk about it clearly and persuasively. You’ve seen the footage of the paps in the boats off Vancouver Island. You’ve seen the threats. ‘Meghan needs to die. Somebody needs to kill her. Maybe it should be me.’ A podcast is published calling for Archie to be put down. The Palace withdraws security. And you can’t imagine how they’re going to get out of this one.

The case has been made: they’ve gotta get out of this place if it’s the last thing they ever do, cause girl, there’s a better life for me and you. You can watch the rest about the court case and Charles’ perfidy and William’s tantrums and the backdooring and Oprah and the next smear campaign … but, yes, the case has been made. And if you’re not persuaded you’re a block of granite, or just a bit bored. It’ll be later that you start asking yourself what the hell is going on.

Red Tops v. Hollywood. Hollywood has played this set exceptionally well but Red Tops are either indifferent or inflamed. They continue the game by their own rules, regardless of who’s up the other end and in the confident certainty that it will go on probably at least forever. Maybe longer. Look.

The Aversion

I was persuaded. I thought it was a salutary tale of a certain type of innocence encountering some of the realities of life and responding with the (not inconsiderable) resources at their disposal. I had no trouble identifying the bad guys.

Others demurred.

Petronella Wyatt (‘Petsy’, partner B. Johnson 2000-04) writing in ‘The Telegraph’ for example:

Like the perpetually wronged 1940s cartoon character Mona Lott, the Sussexes decided on a vicious and destructive narrative that has left no door open for a return to the royal fold if life in LA goes awry. Which means their options are running out.

Who are they, really, when you strip away their tawdry celebrity? Before Meghan joined the Royal Family, she was an inconsequential television actress staring at the abyss of bit-parts in B-movies. It was only her marriage to Harry, and the generosity shown to her by the late Queen, that made her a star.

Her intelligence is basic rather than profound, and her values acrid and transient. She is a bolter [A bolter! Surely not.], who won’t stick to things she finds hard or disagreeable, nor accept life’s rougher edges. Can she truly set up her stall amongst the cream of America — amongst people whose fame is of the solid and enduring kind that is based on extraordinary talent, frequent hardship, hostile criticism and grindingly hard work?

No. Harry and Meghan had one big chance to prove themselves and make their future unassailable, one big chance to look themselves in the mirror with pride and self-assurance. They were given that chance as working members of the Royal Family.

When the curtain came up on the first act of their starring role as a couple, the audience, namely the British public, were warm to the point of effusion. So was the Press, though the Sussexes have singled it out for particular opprobrium.

The Queen even gave Meghan special privileges — such as allowing her to stay at Sandringham before her marriage — that were denied to Kate. But they took their chances and threw them back in the faces of those who had wished them well.

So, disdain. How sharper than a serpent’s tooth indeed …

Meanwhile the ‘Daily Express’ reports that ‘former Colour Sergeant Trevor Coult who won the Military Cross in Iraq in 2006, has claimed the Duke of Sussex, who resides in Montecito, California, was “absolutely appalling” for criticising the royal family in the show, and that the series and Prince Harry’s attitude towards the King and other members of the royal family was damaging the morale of British troops fighting for the country’. And Nigel Farage has helpfully revealed that the whole thing is about nothing more nor less than Meghan positioning herself for a run at Congress.

And the more sober press? Former Royal correspondent Stephen Bates in ‘The Guardian’:

So this is what snowbound, strike-hit Britain needed on a Thursday morning: a rich and entitled couple living in agreeable circumstances in California bemoaning their treatment by the media, the royal family, courtiers, a woman in the crowd in Liverpool, Meghan’s father and even the Queen by implication. Assailed by “them” and “they”.

Yes, it’s the Harry’n’Meghan show on Netflix again, another two and a half hours in which the Duke and Duchess of Sussex back resentfully into the limelight to reveal once more their truth, complete with home movies of their son Archie and copious intimate photographs showing them intruding on their own privacy. So, what’s new? Well, on this telling, they have been bullied and harassed out of The Firm they worked so hard for: five engagements in five days during their last week in Britain. And the cottage the Queen gave them in the grounds of Kensington Palace was really rather pokey.

Et voila. Fair enough! We all can agree with Nigel Farage that they’re ghastly! There’s the money thing for a start.

They’ve got all this money, they’re privileged and they’re still moaning. This lament comes in a range of colours one of which is a sombre shade of browny-grey and straight from the shoulder.

Asking for tolerance is one thing, but asking for tolerance of feudalism built on institutionalising inequality, tax breaks and legal exemptions for sovereign billionaires? As far as the royal family are concerned, Harry and Meghan don’t want a coup: they want their cut. … The experience of Harry and Meghan, or any number of similar figures in public life, is limited. More importantly, it cannot flow downstream. It cannot ever become about the Home Office, or the black unemployment rate, or the black prison population.Their gripes with the press focus only on the treatment of them as royals, never extending the very short distance to understanding that celebrities are only part of a business model for some papers whose bread and butter is the constant hammering of, and misinformation about, migrants, Muslims and other minorities (Nesrine Malik in ‘The Guardian’ 19/12).

But however interesting and prospectively valid, Malik’s view is unrepresentative. The most common view is you’ve got all this money — it just comes raining down on you for no reason — and you want a lot more you disgusting shits.

The actual amount paid by Netflix and not for just this series but for material generated over a four-year period is unknown but rumoured to be $100m, a nice round figure. That’s a lot of money, however as Marina Hyde (also usually correct) observes:

Of all the charges laid at the door of Harry and Meghan, we can reasonably discount the idea that being paid by Netflix is the sin to end all sins. I’m not sure how people think the British royal family have historically accrued their vast wealth, but a contract with a streaming giant is right down the list of money-spinning horrors. Let’s face it, there are a lot worse ways to lay your hands on a reported £88m in today’s money. No one dissolved the monasteries, here. No one ran a foreign country as an extraction colony. Looting-wise, no one did much beyond taking a call from telly warlord Ted Sarandos and thinking: yes please. This is the market value of my truth.

But as you ramble through the criticism, one feature emerges. It tends to shift, then congregate around and then focus quite specifically — on Meghan. (See Clarkson above for an ostentatiously clear example of this.) Harry is just a ‘glove puppet’ and Meghan’s real name is The Manipulator. It’s Meghan where we should focus. She’s the one who has ruined everything. She’s the cause of all the problems.

Apart from the obvious issue of being a bolter, what else is wrong with her? Lord, where do we start?

Okay. Background. Family. Awful. Oh maybe not her mum, and maybe not her sister (she just tells the truth about what a lying bitch Meghan is) but that father. He’s beyond awful. Like Wallis Simpson, Divorcee. And wasn’t she married before? And wasn’t he a drug dealer or a porn star or something? Poor. And they lived in those poor suburbs in LA … There’s all that. She’s not entitled. She’s an upstart. Even, … she’s common. So there’s a class-crossing problem, standard really for royal marriages because just where can you get access to that stock of suitable princes/ princesses?

She’s an actress. All that stuff she says, that’s just acting. Even when she’s not acting, she’s acting. She’s so phoney. She’s been trained to cry, you can see all that. This seems to be coupled with a more generalised and I had thought anachronistic suspicion of female actresses and their behaviour and morals. In this context that’s an oddity. As Jonathan Freedland points out:

[Harry and Meghan] continue to provide the service Britons have been demanding from the Windsors for a century or more. And what is that service? At its simplest, it is entertainment – or, perhaps more accurately, diversion.

All the Royals are actors. With a public like that, they have to be.

And then there’s the Race Card. She isn’t Black but she is mixed race. The idea that this is a primary source of criticism is common. (And where are you from? Yes but no, where are you from? Where are your people from? There’d be plenty of that.) But I don’t think this is what has people grinding their teeth. It might be but the accusation of racism is often only a blanket abstraction that is used to throw over the complexities of real situations. In fact shouting RACIST! may be enough to have the desired effect. Not Black, however the issue might be that she is American, the sort that can find the idea of curtseying amusing.

What did Henry James say?

The American’s sense of spontaneity, sincerity, and action leads him into natural actions. He seems to represent nature itself. On the other hand, the European’s emphasis on form, ceremony, ritual, and urbanity seems to suggest the artificial. It represents art as an entity opposing nature. Finally, these qualities lead to the ultimate opposition of honesty versus evil.

Henry actually only said something of the sort, albeit in several very long novels. This is commentary. He would never be so bald and obvious. And simple. But as I have written before, communication depends on cliche and stereotyping and this is a good case in point. ‘These qualities lead to the ultimate opposition of honesty versus evil.’ That’s where this sort of talk takes us.

Meghan is expressive, cuddly, loud, direct. And while all the reasons above compound into one glorious ball of hate, I can’t help thinking the main reason we hate Harry & Meghan is that she’s a mouthy woman who doesn’t know her place and won’t do what’s she’s told. In the end, that might be it.

I was reading ‘Passion’ at the time, one of Alice Munro’s truly amazing stories. The heroine, Grace, is similarly out of water in an adopted home and family. They make assumptions about her and her behaviour without checking for evidence. There is a mute understanding that she will marry the oldest boy. But she doesn’t. She’s been sitting on her own box of ideas.

She could not explain or even quite understand that it wasn’t jealousy she felt; it was rage. And not because she couldn’t shop like that or dress like that but because that was what girls were supposed to be like. That was what men—people, everybody—thought they should be like: beautiful, treasured, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl had to be, to be fallen in love with. Then she’d become a mother and be all mushily devoted to her babies. Not selfish anymore, but just as pea-brained. Forever.

It seemed to fit.

The Truth

‘Harry & Meghan’ illustrates and confirms several things we already knew.

One is that life in the public eye is extraordinarily punishing. The bigger the eye the more punishment. Scarcely survivable. Why doesn’t Meghan just suck it up, goes the line. The rest of them (us!) did. The news, the point of difference, is that she isn’t going to.

Another is that the series casts a violent beam of light on what a Royal is required to be and consequently is. That’s not news. It was 2013 that Christopher Hitchens wrote this in a public letter (well worth reading) on the occasion of Kate Middleton Duchess of Cambridge (as was) giving birth:

If you really love him, honey, get him out of there, and yourself, too. Many of us don’t want or need another sacrificial lamb to water the dried bones and veins of a dessicated system.

The series provides access in a unusually digestible way to how the whole apparatus is quite deliberately constructed to produce as its by-products people who are at best unhappy and at worst emotionally, culturally and morally crippled. That’s Royalty, and this is behaviour for the populace to model. ‘Some recollections may vary’ indeed because they always do. But it’s not the highlight reel of the series that proves this point but the relentless day-to-day of being rich, entitled and pointless.

This is a couple of nice young people fighting for their right to be who they are. That’s what I thought, and my heart went out to them. They are stuck because Harry is in a weird situation which he understands and respects at quite remarkable depth. I think he must have learnt a lot in the army about surveying territory and strategic analysis. ‘What has happened is that I’ve changed to the point where I’ve outgrown my environment’, he notes. He has been educated in a way that his mother never was. She had rat cunning and a profound survival instinct — and no partner, no staff, no office — to help her. ‘I am a strong person’, she told Martin Basheer and my lord she must have been.

Meghan explains why they are not lying low, just tucking themselves away behind the ‘no comment’ that is the Royal patois. ‘We’re under the microscope, and if we’re under the microscope you should look at what we’re looking at. That’s what we’re for. How can it be that we can never talk about things like mental health, the environment, gender equity? Are we to be silent from now on?’ That’s an honourable perspective.

‘It is also true’, as the Guardian notes in an editorial, ‘that the greatest villains of this whole saga are not King Charles, Princes William or Harry, or any of the individual royals, but the relentlessly intrusive and hyperbolic British tabloid press and the lying and abusive world of social media.’

And if you’re going to say that — again, the bleedin’ obvious — you’re going to have to talk about the audience that funds and feeds on these industries of outrage. You will need to engage with the proposition that emotional cake and visual distraction will in fact keep the masses content. We are going to be taught some very unpleasant lessons about ourselves.

They’re the obvious takeaways.

• • • • • • •

Samantha Markle, half-sister of Meghan Markle, is calling out the Duchess’s new Netflix documentary. Speaking with Tucker Carlson on Fox News, Samantha took a swipe at Meghan’s claim of taking care of sick grandmother during the final days of her life.

She fumed: ‘The whole grandmother thing – that just did it for us. I think my grandmother would be rolling over in her grave if she saw that. [Meghan] didn’t take care of her, she visited her maybe twice. She never made apple butter with her because my grandmother was making apple butter, like, in the 1970s before Meghan was even born. So, it’s been so far-fetched.’

That’s not what happened. Listen to me will you. Listen. And I’ll tell you what happened. It was a Thursday, and she didn’t. No … just listen. Shut up. No you shut up. SHUT UP! You weren’t even there.

What resonated with me more strongly was the portrait the series provided not of people telling the truth, but of trying to convince you, the greater public, that what they are saying and showing IS The Truth, a universal event happening at this instant in at least 100 million households. It’s a case study of this process. And what makes this situation particularly compelling is that this is occurring in a super-charged environment, one constructed not just by Barney Ronay’s ‘furiously able and efficient younger colleague’ but by him and teams of his mates operating competitively. That is also why it is worthy of attention. It is the World Cup of extraordinarily common versions of this situation.

How to tell a story, a story that you firmly believe to be true, that you have lived through, a story that may be crystal clear — you think— at points, if complex at others, and whatever you say … they just don’t believe you. How could that be? How do you make yourself believed? Can you find an arbiter who will make things right? Can you build the requisite message — big enough, strong enough, insuperable enough — from the medium?

So for me the powerhouse notion of the netflix series Harry & Meghan is not their story, their so carefully constructed personal narrative, and whether or not it is successful. (Is in the US; is not in the UK apparently.) It is whether or not you believe them and why or why not. It is your reaction. Will you say, I don’t like them therefore it’s not true?

In the end it will be pointless because they inhabit a fairy tale, and that’s true whether you’re being crowned, giving speeches at the UN or digging the garden supervised by paparazzi. The idea of truth will have been compromised so comprehensively by the circumstantial ecology that it won’t mean anything.

But I’ll still believe them.

How the World Works 101

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Nobbys Beach, the City ocean baths, the breakwaters, Stockton to the north, Fort Scratchley is there somewhere … but that is a (rather fuzzy) pictorial version of the mouth of the Hunter River in Newcastle, NSW.

We’re in Newcastle at the open mouth of the Hunter. A land of amiable bogans, locked door nightclubs and unabashed brothels, long beaches and fast food, plus remnants of history undissolved by the earthquake. Along with regular hints of the red and blue of the Knights. The second last time we were there we went to a Knights game, explained we were neophytes and the lady in the box gave us seats on the centre line six rows back, the best in the house, for the cheapest price. That can happen in Newcastle.

And, if p then q, if the Knights … then the Johns brothers.

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The Johns brothers: Joey on the left, Matty on the right

Matty (who styled himself as Reg ‘Bring back the Biff’ Reagan, so seamlessly) had a nice step but once having stepped seemed to leave a lurid trail of scandal wherever his feet took him. Younger brother Andrew, ‘Joey’, went a long way further in the game. Four times Halfback of the Year (Australian rugby league we’re talking about here), won the Dally M three times for the NRL’s best player, five times fans’ player of the year, twice in 1999 and 2001 awarded the Golden Boot for world’s best player (a boot for rugby league? Weird), and in 2012 anointed as only the eighth, and some would claim the best, ‘Immortal’ of rugby league.

Except he was and he wasn’t.

Yes he was nominated. But in the light of all that other business, the nomination’s status appeared to remain fluid. He was found in London by the constabulary with a tab of ecstasy in his pocket. Where someone had slipped it. Unbeknownst to him for a start: later, beknownst. On his own subsequent admission he had used drugs all his playing career although not necessarily while playing. As explained, their use was designed to ameliorate his bipolar tendencies. Possibly. There were the unfortunate and apparently uncontrolled rants at Aboriginal players, notably including Greg Inglis who might have been as good as he was. Then the awkward business of passing inside information about a horse before a race, embedded as Joey was in the high society of the racing world. After all this and more seeped out through the media, his immortality became moot.

To overcome widespread public criticism of his drug use, the rules for designation as an ‘Immortal’ were changed. Candidates are now to be judged on their playing ability alone. Nothing else. If you’ve been the best in the world, the rules can be changed to suit with only slight compunction.

And then of course there’s Daniel Johns of Newcastle, no relation, confined to his Silver Chair.

This could be just an interesting digression, but it’s actually a suitable entry to a story largely about appearances.

• • • • • • •

The Hunter might be the divide on the east coast which distinguishes the communalism of the south of the country from the rugged individualism of the north. From tidy, well-defined (boring?) towns to clumps of bush wrenched out and planted with 17 houses, a servo and a Bunnings with a view through the trees, somewhere, across a valley, to a Coles, a primary school, a The Coffee Club, a car park and an earth moving depot.

But this valley and its environs are also very beautiful. And fertile. In some ways its discovery by the European trespassers less than 100 kms north of Sydney saved the infant colonial project. In 1811 Governor Macquarie deemed the quality of its soil to be ‘excellent’ and granted land to a group of free settlers before opening access more widely. (I note in passing it wasn’t his or the Crown’s to grant, but that would be understood.) The foundations of the wine industry had been laid in the Hunter when the population back in Sydney was still wrestling to find a route across the Blue Mountains. The first coal was found there in 1791 by a group of escaped convicts and a settlement for the purpose of mining was set up in 1799.

None of that provides the reason why I like Newcastle. But I do, a lot. Never had a bad time there. It has a subterranean buzz that suggests vitality and a reasonably harmless sort of wickedness. Bob Hudson’s Newcastle Song might help explain.

On this day we are walking along the beach. We thought we would walk from the Merewether Ocean Baths to the City Ocean Baths — I haven’t said; Newcastle has ocean baths, wonderful if ice-cold when I have tested them — along the shore path which has a name, two names actually, the Yuelarbah Track and the Memorial Walk. Gorgeous day.

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Not my photo, an old one from the Newcastle Herald before the Memorial Walk had the tape taken off its railings. But Merewether Baths are there in the far distance. And, a memory, when we walked past the park to the right of the coastal road a group of people were playing, with a much larger group watching, quidditch. Quidditch. In Newcastle. Almost perverse.

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Not my pic either. It’s more theft from the Herald, but besides being a whizzo pic it introduces us to the flyover section of the Memorial Walk which from the ground looks like this.

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The Walk celebrates the centenary of the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli, and you can see some of the soldiers being memorialised in silhouette at left above. They’re in steel because, in a splendid one-two punch, The Walk also celebrates the 100th anniversary of the founding of the iron and steel industry in Newcastle. Rio Tinto and BHP both made significant contributions to the structure in money and kind. That arty wave is stainless steel.

The steps of the first photo lead to the King Edward Park lookout that provides 360 degree views described in the literature as ‘breath taking’. We were lazing there, me thinking about steps and knees and Myrna looking out to sea. ‘Look,’ she said. ‘There’s two big boats out there. What are they doing?’ I looked as instructed and counted not two but seven. Huge tankers. Just parked. A day later we were with some friends at Mannering Park and Nick scoffed at seven. He’d seen 34 lined up.

In 2020 169 million tonnes of thermal and soft coking coal mined in the Hunter were exported via the port of Newcastle. It is the world’s largest coal export port. The port authority has recently announced the port’s operations will be powered entirely by renewable energy by 2040. (I like to inject humour into these blogs where I can.)

• • • • • • •

A day or so later we are driving the scenic route to Bathurst up the Hunter via the Golden Highway reveling in the rich pasture, the horse studs, the frequency of the stands of original forest that are still there, remembering that Kerry Packer established one of the world’s slickest polo fields near here. And suddenly, most abruptly — or had I just not been noticing — there are the naked colours and sharp benches of an open cut mine. At Warkworth. And then, after ‘suddenly’, came kilometre after kilometre of the exposed surfaces of the same mine. It went on and on. And came as a shock. But why would it? 169 million tonnes of coal have got to come from somewhere. And it’s here.

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This screen shot covers approximately 3600 square kilometres. You can decide what proportion the mines, coal mines, thermal and soft coking coal mines, take up. In the left hand corner is the north-eastern verge of the Wollemi National Park. People like Eddie Obeid and Ian Macfarlane would wonder why. The seam from that mine at Warkworth probably takes you south-west? Let’s do it!

The mine we were passing was ‘United Wambo’. I know that because I saw the sign.

In August 2019 the United Wambo coal project was approved by the Independent Planning Commission, New South Wales to extract an additional 150 million tonnes of coal at a rate of up to 10 million tonnes per annum over a period of 23 years, which is to say until 2042. So that would be the IPC rather than the IPCC which may have made a different determination.

I also noticed it was owned as a 50:50 joint venture of Wambo Coal and United Collieries, suitably indecipherable generics. I thought it might be interesting to find out who or what ‘Wambo Coal’ and ‘United Collieries’ were.

Wambo Coal is an entity fully owned by Peabody Energy Australia Pty Limited which in turn is a wholly-owned subsidiary of US-based coal company, Peabody Energy Corporation, the largest ‘pure play’ coal mining company in the world. ‘Pure play’ means ‘does nothing else’; just coal, wherever it can be found, and primarily for burning to power turbines which generate electricity. A dead set fossil fuel, pretty close to pure carbon. When burnt, carbon combines with oxygen in the air to produce carbon dioxide. Etc.

Here’s Peabody Australia’s Financial Statement as published publicly.

New glasses? Sure. Give that a go. Might work.

United Collieries on the other hand is a partnership between Glencore (95%) and the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining, and Energy Union (5%). That’s smart isn’t it? Making the Union a partner. That’d be likely to cut down on strikes and associated bolshie behaviour.

And Glencore … Glencore might be a major contributor to the well-being of NSW (and Australia). Oddly, the page I first opened at the cafe in Denman to prove this has been taken down just a week or two later. I have been present at a change in company branding! I admired the original because it was so fulsome, a work of marketing artistry, suggesting that the company’s extraction of coal has always been little more than a byproduct of its operations if not an afterthought. But that particular page is not there anymore. Instead of environmental good works, scholarships for Indigenous kids and pumping huge amounts into community playgrounds — it’s the economy stupid.

And for Australia as a whole:

I have no reason to doubt those figures nor their positive implications and consequences. Nor do I expect all coal mining to cease immediately. I’m just interested in trying to untangle the stories underneath all this.

Glencore (sometimes Glencore Xstrata), of which I had heard but knew little, is the largest company in Switzerland and somewhere round the 480th largest company in the world. But it is not the largest miner. Its core business is commodity trading and it is the largest commodity trader in the world — Global Energy Commodity Resources. In 2021 it held assets valued at US$127.510 billion. Its operating income for that year was US$8.515 billion and its net income was US$4.349 billion.

What’s a commodity trader? A person or more commonly now a business which buys and sells ‘commodities’. Like all traders, commodity traders make their money from exploiting the gap between purchase and sale price. Oil and gold are two of the most commonly traded commodities, but markets also exist for cotton, wheat, corn, sugar, coffee, cattle, lumber, silver, other metals — at present cadmium and lithium are hot trades — and yes the proverbial pork bellies indicating the significance of pork, and bacon especially, to the world’s diet. And coal.

It’s not that simple of course. No one is holding up a bag of coal (except Scomo) and saying ‘What’ll you give me for this?’ Most commodity trading involves the purchase and sale of ‘futures contracts’. A futures contract is a standardized legal contract to buy or sell something at a predetermined price for delivery at a specified time in the future, between parties not yet known to each other, … and you buy and sell those contracts. The commodity is to some extent notional and the process is, usually and straightforwardly, a form of gambling.

(Just as a matter of interest in 1970 more than 90 percent of the contracts traded related to farm produce. More recently more than three-quarters are related ‘financial instruments’, sometimes like the bundles of worthless (‘subprime’) mortgages which generated the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and brought the Lehmann Brothers financial institution tumbling down.)

The original use of futures was to mitigate the risk of price or exchange rate movements by allowing parties to fix prices or rates in advance for future transactions. It is not a new idea. It is thought that the first version of this occurred in Japan in the late 17th century when samurai wanted a fixed price for rice (in which they were paid) after a series of bad harvests. Another source provides evidence of the Sumerians trading in this way in 4500BC.

There is endlessly more, but suffice it to say that while Glencore dabbles in food production and processing, crude oil production and is a huge international miner with interests in a very wide range of products, its primary business has been commodity trading.

• • • • • • •

Marc Rich was initially its beating heart. Here’s Marc looking the slick, stylish and charming person his customers and others who knew him consistently described him as.

He was born Marcell Reich in Amsterdam in 1934. His family left there in a hurry in 1941 fleeing the Nazis. In the US, that land of succour, his father found fertile ground for his entrepreneurialism: in serial form jeweller, bag manufacturer, trader in agricultural products and, eventually, financier. Marcell Reich changed his name to Marc Rich and then proceeded to turn his new name into an ideophone. He left college after a semester and got a job in the mail room of Philipp Brothers, a brokerage firm. (The mail room. What even is a ‘mail room’, and why do mail rooms so often figure in the biographies of tycoons?) In the mail room Rich met Pincus Green and they forged a partnership that accelerated them upward through the ranks. After a decade Rich was running the company’s operations in Cuba, Bolivia, and Spain learning about both metals trading and working in third world countries. Then in 1974 he and Green decided to go out on their own setting up Marc Rich and Co. in Switzerland. Via a few hiccups from trying to corner the world zinc market, this eventually became Glencore Xstrata Plc.

Quite soon after branching out on his own Rich became known as the ‘King of Oil’. His particular genius was spot trading. This is where you do hold up a bag of oil and say ‘How much?’ Two days later you’ve got money in your bank account (what is known as a ‘T+2 deal’, the most common type) and your customer has got their oil (or coal, zinc, cadmium, etc. but in this case right here mostly oil). He was so successful because of the agility of his trading. The standard practice of the big oil firms was to plod through a process of establishing long term fixed price (and both public and stable) contracts with their customers. However, if you were suitably prepared, Rich could give you a deal right then, on the spot. This became one important template for the practice of modern commodity dealers.

That was one aspect of his commercial genius. The other was that he didn’t mind where he got his oil, or other commodities, from … and he didn’t mind to whom he sold them.

His time at Philipp Brothers had provided an opportunity to develop relationships with various problematic régimes and embargoed nations. He provided oil and other commodities to, for example, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Marxist Angola, the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania, and Augusto Pinochet’s Chile among others. He made his first really big money out of trading with the South African government when it an international trade pariah because of its apartheid policies.

In 1979, in the throes of the Iranian Revolution (Shah out; Ayatollah in), Rich used his special relationship with Ayatollah Khomeini to buy oil from Iran ignoring the American embargo. For more than 15 years Iran became Rich’s most important supplier of crude oil. In a ridiculously perverse way, during that time Rich kept Israel supplied with oil delivered through a secret pipeline from Iran. At the same time he managed to help Mossad build a network of contacts in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. He also had extensive association with Russian mafiosi, some of whom have now become members of that country’s energy and commodity oligarchy. One of these, Marat Balagula, has his profession described as ‘mobster’.

Rich (who died in 2013 aged 78) told biographer Daniel Ammann that he had made his ‘most important and most profitable’ business deals by violating international trade embargoes. ‘He had no regrets whatsoever…. He used to say “I deliver a service. People want to sell oil to me and other people wanted to buy oil from me. I am a businessman, not a politician.'” He would not be alone in holding that perspective.

In 1981 Rich and Marvin Davis bought the media company 20th Century Fox, but due to an indictment filed against Rich for violating US trade sanctions against Iran, his assets including his holding in 20th Century Fox were frozen. He sold his holding to Davis who sold the lot on to Rupert Murdoch.

In 1983, Rich and Pincus Green were indicted on 65 criminal counts, including income tax evasion, wire fraud, racketeering, and trading with Iran during the oil embargo. The charges would have led to a sentence of more than 300 years in prison had Rich been convicted on all counts. At the time, it was the biggest tax evasion case in U.S. history.

Rich fled to Switzerland and, always insisting that he was not guilty, never returned to the US. Rich’s companies eventually pleaded guilty to 35 counts of tax evasion and paid USD90 million in fines. Rich himself remained on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. At that time it is believed that his personal fortune was in the arena of USD2.8 billion. He lived out his life in a heavily protected villa on the shores of Lake Lucerne ‘surrounded by Renoirs, Monets and Picassos’.

‘How the world works’ this blog is titled.

On January 20, 2001, hours before leaving office, U.S. President Bill Clinton defied any sort of conventional expectation by granting Rich a presidential pardon. Two factors are believed to be involved.

One line of explanation is that Rich’s pardon had been bought. Denise Rich, Marc’s first wife, had donated more than $1 million to the Democrats, as well as around $150,000 to Hillary’s Senate campaign and $450,000 to the Clinton Library Foundation during Clinton’s time in office. (Sounds cheap in the middle of the figures floating round doesn’t it.)

Clinton himself cited clemency pleas he had received from Israeli government officials, including then Prime Minister Ehud Barak. We note here that one person’s criminal can quite possibly be someone else’s hero. Was Rich perhaps Robin Hood in disguise? He had poured money into Israeli charitable institutions over the years, including around USD150 million (That’s more like it!) into the Israeli Museum that so caught our eye when we were in Jerusalem. (‘Jerusalem’s Israel Museum’, I wrote, ‘is a world class institution with stunning exhibits. How could a country of 8.5 million (2 million in 1960) which is 70 years old have such a thing? Read the tags. … You can see, and feel, how the money has poured in, the vast nation-sized sums of money.’) Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Michael Steinhardt, Rabbi Irving Greenberg, … they all lined up to speak for him. In an interview with The New York Times Clinton agreed that, ‘Israeli officials of both major political parties and leaders of Jewish communities in America and Europe urged the pardon of Mr. Rich. Israel did influence me profoundly’. This sounds more likely to me.

• • • • • • •

Rich, what a story, is dead. Glencore lives on. Profitably.

The company’s history, however, is peppered with ugly stories: corruption and pay-offs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, tax evasion, fraud and being the source of acid rain in Zambia, dodgy deals in the Emirates. In 2011, a Colombian court was told by former paramilitaries that they stole land and killed hundreds of its inhabitants so they could sell it to Glencore’s subsidiary Prodeco, to start an open-cut coal mine. The court accepted their evidence and concluded that coal was the motive for the massacre. This particular mine remained an issue for having no environmental management plan and distributing its waste in toxic ways.

In the Congo the acid waste from one of the company’s copper processing plants was directed into the nearest river creating a famous ‘acid waterfall’ and making the water impossible to use for domestic or other purposes. CEO Ivan Glasenberg said this problem was historical occurring before the company took over the mine. There were also issues at the same mine with children as young as 10 working underground. Glasenberg described this as a cultural practice which the company was trying to eradicate. In 2013 and 2014, in direct violation of international law a subsidiary of Glencore Xstrata was awarded two offshore drilling licences off the coast of occupied Western Sahara.

In May this year, Glencore pleaded guilty to charges from the US Futures Trading Commission of corrupt dealings with foreign governments and corrupt practices related to commodities, and agreed to pay a USD1.8 billion fine. On June 21, a British subsidiary of Glencore again pleaded guilty to seven counts of bribery laid by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office. These charges related to oil operations in Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast and South Sudan between 2012 and 2016. The SFO found that over USD28 million in bribes had been paid to officials for ‘performing their functions improperly’.

Can you make an omelette without breaking eggs? That might be what they’d argue. Massive operations all over the world, only a small proportion of which were problematic. A lot of what was going on was just how you do business in that locality. The West would suffer and complain if it didn’t have these commodities readily available. If Glencore wasn’t doing it someone else would have been … and so on. What was it Mr Rich said again? ‘I deliver a service. People want to sell [coal] to me and other people wanted to buy [coal] from me. I am a businessman, not a politician.’ Shrug.

From 2017 to 2019 the company ran (instigated and paid for really in order to deflect possible blame) a large-scale, globally coordinated lobbying campaign to promote coal use ‘by undermining environmental activists, influencing politicians and spreading sophisticated pro-coal messaging on social media’. In October 2020, Glasenberg (now retired) argued that there was no environmental benefit in divesting from coal assets since the spun-off coal mines would likely be taken over by other players without any regard for the Paris climate goals. He instead argued for capping coal mine production, thereby running them down, and using the cash generated this way to increase the production of other raw materials in high demand due to the global energy transformation. Glencore has said it plans to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 aiming at a 40 percent reduction in its carbon footprint by 2035 compared to its 2019 levels, making them on track with the Paris agreement on climate change.

• • • • • • •

‘In August 2022, the market predicted that Glencore would deliver a record profit due to its ability to thrive in volatile markets, and particularly because of its coal business that is growing rapidly during the 2022 global energy crisis. The use of coal, even in Europe, is increasing by double digit percentages as it replaces expensive natural gas from Russia. While traditional mining companies such as BHP Group and Rio Tinto Group have experienced a slowdown due to a lower demand for iron and copper ores by China, Glencore was able to increase its business mostly with coal, despite the dirty image this form of energy has. Business analysts forecast that Glencore’s dividends could exceed $10 billion in total in 2022.’

So everything’s okay then. The port of Newcastle with its renewable supplies of energy can power up and power on, and Joey Johns can forever remain Immortal.

45 degrees South, 2022

It’s probably the Waimakariri. I was too tired to know. But it is certainly New Zealand. You don’t get braided rivers like that just anywhere, especially with snow-capped mountains in the near background. There was water everywhere as we landed. Canterbury had had a foot of rain in the preceding week, a genuine wet week. It was winter and we were being international for the purposes I would say primarily of eating, sleeping and looking out the window. And seeing Rhys Darby at Christchurch’s Isaac Theatre Royal.

We had been on the theatre’s mailing list since we attended the re-opening night seven years ago after the earthquakes. Rhys Darby (at left) was going to have a concert celebrating the 25th anniversary of his stand-up comedy and while that won’t mean a thing to most people it meant enough to us to test attendance as an idea. (Flight of the Conchords? Jermaine and Brett? New Zealand takes New York? No? ah well. Rhys was Murray the band manager: ‘Now I’m going to take the roll. Brett?’ Every time he appeared the show got funnier.) His brand of humour involves his entire being while somehow remaining entirely deadpan in a very New Zealand-ish way. And yes, improbably, we went. I only loved it; he reduced Myrna to weeping mush.

The night before we had been to see Top Gun: Maverick (It was a holiday, okay? And we really wanted to have a choc top. Really. Mate, New Zealand choc tops … We drove around most of Sydenham, a southern Christchurch suburb, to find an ATM so we could accomplish the transaction. Foreign cards, in this instance, were worthless muck.) Anything more antithetical would be hard to imagine. An ageing Tom Cruise conquering some unnamed wicked country by bumping fists with young American athletes majoring in aggression and world domination, fighting off the baddies with CGI (ah yes, pardon, computer-generated imagery), a miracle of technology so removed from humankind it is hard to fathom let alone explain. Rhys just stood on the stage and said and did funny things ending the evening with his kids running around the front of the theatre distributing what we’d call thongs so they could be clapped along to his song ‘Jandals’. Not necessarily his best work, but anything more delightfully human would be hard to imagine.

However this blog is mainly just an excuse for photos, memorabilia. And to indicate that going to New Zealand for a holiday is a very desirable thing to do. I’ve made this case elsewhere, here and here and here.

We arrived in Christchurch. It is still in recovery. It is unlikely to ever be the same as it was before the giant earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 which killed 185 people and shook its centre, including its cathedral which used to dominate the city square, to bits. It is a moot point whether hundreds of millions of dollars should be spent restoring this building. Do you justify it, as a Kiwi friend did, by referring to its iconic historical status or, as her husband suggested, do you put your money instead into rebuilding the stadium, home of the Crusaders, the greatest rugby club on earth? The cathedral remnant is still not secure enough to enter to determine precisely what needs to be done. The good-looking facade is a banner. I thought Wow! Naylor Love! sponsoring the rebuild of the front wall and window, go for it you civic-minded creatures you. But in fact they’ve just sponsored the banner.

Another fake, the wall of the Riverside market, one of three pockets of the city which remain bopping. It’s flat. Yes. Flat. A single surface. But nicely done. There’s still plenty of street art.

And the Gallery is back in business. Four offerings.

The light fittings: 60s kitchen chairs with neon tubes through them. Why not?

We visited at a changeover, so the exhibition offerings were modest. Modest, but most engaging with a strong emphasis on Victoriana. Here she is herself for example.

William Nicholson, ‘H.M. The Queen’ (1899), a lithograph derived from a woodcut, and isn’t that just marvellous. Sort of perfect in a way. A huge version of this is the major decorative feature of the external walls of Christchurch’s casino. New Zealand. They do that sort of thing over there.

The exhibition I enjoyed most was called ‘Leaving for Work’, perhaps 40 pieces again often early 20th century about people at work. ‘Threshing’ (below), a woodcut print by Clare Leighton (1933), caught my eye along with its companion ‘Apple Picking’. She has found some wonderful blacks along with extremely inventive hatching. And look at that smoke coming out of the steam engine. Somewhere near here is one of the places that craft truly meets art.

Elsewhere George Dunlop Leslie’s, In the Wizard’s Garden, about 1904. The wall notes say, ‘Because the painting puzzled viewers Leslie was asked for an explanation of its meaning.’ Well, I’ve got news for the viewers: I think I know. But, elegantly obfuscating in the prescribed Victorian manner, Leslie describes the painting as being about a young medieval noblewoman who had sought an alchemist or wizard’s guidance to discover the secrets of the future. For more distracting camouflage he throws in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story ‘Rappacini’s Daughter’ in which case, unhappily, the garden would be entirely filled with poisonous plants. Okay. Menace. (Just nod knowingly. Thank you.)

For ourselves, concerns focused on the scones. In fact the heritage diet of New Zealanders may be under some threat.

The food cabinets are full of the products of wild and fertile imaginings — some of these dishes are even vegetarian — but the cheese scone, as perfected widely in the past, is endangered. We were concerned about its extinction until we found what we were looking for and much else, including a sausage roll which actually was a sausage wrapped in a pastry roll — how good is that, how express and admirable in fact, Shakespearean — in the Union Company Cafe, Port Chalmers. Worth a journey.

There’s some large scale new building, a lot of civic infrastructure including Te Pae, a giant conference centre which looms with its exterior collection of Canterbury greys and gigantic video screens illuminating its walls. And yes a giant squid. A whale swims past from time to time. You may make of that what you wish.

But there are still a lot of teeth missing from the jaw. Car parks — ubiquitous, endless — fill places where you feel buildings should be (and make you wonder where the hell all those cars come from … and why).

So we went looking for something other than the built environment.

Christchurch is not a maritime city but its eastern edge runs into the South Pacific looking here from the New Brighton Pier very pacific indeed. Christchurch’s port, its crucial port both for receiving goods and more especially for dispatching the riches of the Canterbury Plain to the world, is 10 or 12 kilometres away at Lyttleton in a fractured volcanic crater.

Separating the city and Lyttleton are the Port Hills, the crater rim, just fine for a walk. On this Saturday morning it was a sharply cold day with drifts of rain and some fierce wind up high, but we were there with dozens, scores, hundreds of locals mooching walking running riding not really noticing the weather. New Zealand.

We cheated by going up some of the way in the gondola before launching out down through Major Hornbrook’s Saddle and up to the peak, Mt Pleasant.

The Avon and Heathcote, often only masquerading as creeks, drain the mudflats of Christchurch into the estuary as seen in the pic on the right. They were both running hard and the visible surface water was much more extensive than it looks here.

When there’s a dance class on, doesn’t matter where you are, you’ve just got to do it. Mercifully the internet wasn’t good enough to sustain a whole hour out on the blasted heath. Praise the Lord. We were able to move on to the summit, near which were these lichen-encrusted trees, followed by a muddy but interesting descent down to Lyttleton via the Major Hornbrook Track.

We got to Lyttleton in the mid-afternoon and both hungry and not confident about finding anything to eat in a tiny town at that hour on a Saturday afternoon. But lo and behold we found a most conscientious and capable Japanese chef, him and his wife really, who provided for us.

The okonomiyaki was a bit sludgey — by rights it should be kept cooking at the table — but everything else was delicious.

• • • • • • •

The first night we were there there had been a big dump of snow down to 400m and as we drove 400km south to Dunedin there it all was. We stopped for a break at Oamaru, in its central part a reliquary of some time ago, a 100 years perhaps, and felt the need for an ice cream from a trailer van. They looked good and the ageing couple weren’t getting much business. That’ll surprise you. They caught our accent and wanted to sympathise with us about our recent change of government before running through Jacinda’s perfidies along with the evils of vaccination and lockdown. That van could well have been recently providing treats to those laying siege to the Beehive (the building housing NZs parliament). It takes all types. The ice creams were excellent.

Dunedin is the capital of the Otago region and in the past a home away from home for Scots. (Edinborough = ‘Edin town’ in Old English; Dunedin = ‘Edin town’ in Gaelic.) It is famous for its hills and, in Baldwin Street, has the steepest road in the world, 1: 2.86, officially certified by Guinness Records. A town in Wales laid claim to this title in 2019 but Dunedin courageously fought back. The decision to reinstate the previous record holder was reached in 2020 following the completion of an extensive review of an appeal brought by representatives of Baldwin Street. The appeal included a comparative survey of the three-dimensional shapes of the Dunedin street and Ffordd Pen Llech. The findings revealed that in order to fairly assess the different shape of the streets, whether they’re straight or curved, steepness must be measured by the central axis (the centre line of the road). Certainly that would have been the way I would see it. Regardless, it’s steep all over the place.

It is also a university town (see immediately above: who else would?) with excellent cafes and coffee and funky clothes shops. The University of Otago comes in very high on world rankings and looks like it would be great fun to attend. The day after we arrived it was Open Day and the town was swarming with late adolescents and their parents.

This is the view from what might be the best room in town, the top floor suite of the 97 Moray Motel, Room 409, looking out over The Octagon, the nominal centre of the city. The square is furnished with a statue of Robbie Burns (described on investigation as an ‘eroto-maniac’. Why Scots put up statues to him — there’s another one in Ballarat for example — is beyond me), and a bus depot. St Paul’s Cathedral, an Anglican church, and the Forsyth Barr office block dominate. We wondered if the office block had just been erected. We couldn’t remember it. And, in which case, just who had paid whom and how much? But our mate at reception said that it had been there for ages; it was just that the exterior had recently been renovated. Hence the spotty styling, the lift block and the new top storey which offered some groovy lighting effects.

Robbie’s down there somewhere over the top of the white car.

Dunedin is the sort of place where amateurs publish ideas for city walks. (See also above.) We chose to follow the excellent and well-researched advice of Antony Hamel, barrister. Some of the advice anyway; his guide offers 20 walks. ‘Grand Homes of Dunedin’ takes you up (and up and up) to Royal Terrace just below the ‘Town Belt’. (The original instructions to the New Zealand Company’s Scottish surveyor included: ‘It is indeed desirable that the whole outside of the Town, inland, should be separated from the country by a broad belt of land which you will declare that the Company intends to be public property on condition that no buildings be ever erected upon it.’ ) You walk through the Town Belt which, even if the city has crept over the other side of it, is still 10 or more kilometres long and is still a lovely thing flourishing with several dozen different types of noisy birds. Then on to Jubilee Park and back down High Street to the Octagon.

Some samples. These two in Royal Terrace were owned by the same family (Hudson’s chocolate and biscuit manufacturers), the second now being a Buddhist Centre.

Near them is Ulveston, probably the party piece. Built for a family of four, it was subsequently vested to a somewhat nervous City of Dunedin (upkeep costs). It is now open to the public at regular specified times.

And it has a rather lovely greenhouse.

Just around the corner is the Ritchie House which has recently been bought for a very large sum of money by St Hilda’s, a nearby private secondary school for girls with the customary surfeit of funds.

On the corner in the background above is this one, a more sober affair but interesting in its own 1920s way.

… with this view across the city and the end of the harbour to Vauxhall.

Just below Jubilee Park. This wasn’t on the list but I liked it. You could talk about the San Francisco influence, or perhaps the Dunedin influence on San Francisco, or perhaps how you build houses in steep places where there isn’t much suitable stone but plenty of timber (and, in its time, gold).

• • • • • • •

Dunedin is at the end of a long bay, Otago Harbour, with the Peninsula famous for its sea life on its southern side.

We visited the Royal Albatross Centre at Taiaroa Head and this was something. Four chicks had decided to do their eight months of pre-flight maturation within 15 or so metres of the viewing station, a pill box with a glass slit. (A not very old fort with the ‘Invisible Gun’ which can be raised and lowered is close at hand.) And there they are, these fat things with legs that can only just support their 12 kilo weight.

This one was stumbling around flapping its wings rehearsing flight.

Taiaroa Head is one home for about 5 percent of all the albatrosses in the world. They mate here, commonly for life, and produce one egg which is nurtured by both parents taking turns to go fishing for chick feed. The chick’s first flight, which for the one above might be 3-4 weeks away, is to Chile 10,000 kms away. Their first flight! which takes them 10-15 days! They are able to lock the tendons in their wings which have a 3+ metre span and coast on upper level air currents using only as much energy as they would sitting on the ocean surface. They stay in Chile for five years sowing their wild oats and return to the Otago for responsible parenthood. How do they know how to get here? No idea. Some say via smell. There are some orphan chicks here which are incubated, fed and nurtured by the Centre’s staff. The oldest regular visitor was Grandma, who was still breeding at 60. (If you’re interested.) It has been a sanctuary since 1927 and is a most impressive place.

We saw some adults flying and just how magnificent were they. There was a brisk wind blowing and so sensitive and I guess efficient were their aerodynamics that it wasn’t always easy to land.

On the way home Myrna decided we should go to Sandfly Bay via Highcroft Road and what a drive it turned out to be. This is a pretty gorgeous part of the world.

Sandfly Bay is where sand flies rather than where there are sand flies, and had its own impressive dunes with a carefully marked path for human visitors.

And we were lucky enough to be completely ignored by four panaka, New Zealand sea lions.

Here are three of them, with one heading off bored or possibly embarrassed, because it was clear that the other two were involved in some serious foreplay.

Okay. Speculative. But the female on the left would chew away at the male (do I know the genders? No. Not for certain. But my ‘she’ was smaller and sleaker.) until she garnered some similar response. Play fights. He’d get bored. She draped herself over the drift tree still chomping and whimpering, then slid back and my ‘he’ lifted himself up and just flopped on her, all half a tonne of him. It went on, but so did we. Important to give creatures their privacy.

Old bloke leaving a panaka squatting on its haunches to its own devices.

Then there’s the other side of the bay. We had seen this oddity from Taiaroa Head and thought we should investigate more closely.

This is The Mole, all 1.2 kms of it sticking out into the mouth of the harbour. A ‘mole’ (which has the same root as ‘molecule’ and the chemical measurement ‘mole’ meaning ‘mass’) differs from a pier or jetty in that it is solid. Water can’t pass underneath it. There are nine shipwrecks contributing to the rock and cement here. The idea was to prevent sand bars blocking the entrance to the harbour. This is apparently successful, and it is repaired from time to time.

It doesn’t look like it in the pic above but this area was swarming with sea birds. I don’t know what the ones below were but I don’t think gulls: wrong beak, wrong colouring. I’m pretty sure they are terns, but in their hundreds they were wheeling and squalling, a majestic performance really.

We hadn’t had enormous luck with food. The parents and the teenage graduands were better prepared than we were and had soaked up the more obvious eating places. But I’d liked the look of a place we’d tried at St Clair Beach and thought we should give it a go. And a go we gave it. Titi. Chef’s choice of food, er hem locally sourced of course and some of the most imaginative and brilliantly successful cooking I’ve ever tasted. Everything was right. The table was Goldilocks-sized, the chairs comfortable, the service fun, alert but not intrusive, and very well educated. They had to recite the contents of each of the dishes and they did so with enthusiasm and pride. From the texture, taste and colour of the avocado foundation of the amuse bouche to the pumpkin ice cream, a bavarois with a thin coating of white chocolate for dessert, one masterpiece after another kept arriving.

Myrna had the vegetarian offering and I’m pretty sure this was ‘Ettrick’s Carrots’, a soup with lemongrass, coconut, cashew, coriander, lime and paw paw. The purple is the carrot, the flavour of which I can only describe as enticingly warm.

I know: disgraceful. But I don’t care. Once in a while it’s good to encounter the work of a genius with food. I’d go again right now. They’d be open. 24 The Esplanade, St Clair. Come on. Why not? Let’s go.

Nearly there. I thought I’d like to show you this dish of helleborus grown at the Blueskin Nurseries in Waitati. I’ve never seen helleborus, usually a most discrete plant, with such offerings.

Back in Christchurch everything was normal again.

And finally some advice.

Press either the Go button or ‘Replay’

THE CITY: Now Open, Winter

I spent a few days searching out the 40 laneway artworks from ‘Flash Forward’, a City of Melbourne project designed to … who knows really. Tart up the laneways? Support local artists? Make the City a more interesting place?

I ambled; and ambling round the city is a different experience from being on a mission to buy something in Bourke Street ranging as far as Little Bourke before getting on the tram to come home. And with the specific purpose of looking, looking around, things change. Puzzles abound.

One of the first of these is just what is going on in all that space above eye level. Like in here. What’s that all about? Is there even anyone, or anything for that matter, in there?

Here is a possible face for those rooms, hidden and immersed in his phone. Although he would meet people in the lobby.

At least he’s not on his electric bike weaving his way along the footpath terrorising the pedestrians.

And of course there are scores of such buildings and a dozen or more under construction. Below, 1954 and a few years ago from almost the same aerial vantage point. Don’t glance. Look at least twice. Use the Exhibition Buildings as a key.

In time I suppose people will be living (and possibly WFH) in those high rises, but what about the old three- to five-storey buildings that belong to 50 or 150 years ago. They can’t all be full of people replacing watch batteries or manning the headquarters of the Sleep Appreciation Society. There is just so much real estate there … and now, apparently, so many fewer people — except construction workers, tradies and maintenance men — to enliven it.

This is what a hi-vis worksite looks like when the workers with collars have gone home. Safe. Really safe. And below on the worksite, which was proceeding regardless, is what 2.8 tonnes of concrete dangling above your head looks like. Massively unsafe. I was leaning up against the first piece of Flash Forward art I found and not wearing a hi-vis jacket.

Quite nicely related, a second thing I was conscious of is that the city looms, especially if you are inclined to look up. Or if you are wandering around the lanes.

Sometimes, as on the right above, the ‘looming’ stacks up; and sometimes with chronological messages. If we start with St Augustine’s, the three generations below represent 164 years of building.

More chronology. Once the site of the Princess Mary Club, accommodation for young women workers in the city away from home, especially if that home was in the country. So much no longer; could the foreground building, once a parsonage or a manse as it is called on the nearby plan, be considered a vestigial remnant? I think no.

And John Wesley … what would he think about all this? Too much? Take it down a notch?

In another part of the city … one to which I never go. I don’t know who spends time in those lanes down in the south-west corner near Spencer St … a new world for me. I had never seen or heard of the Holey-Moley Golf Club for example on Little Bourke west of King. ‘This large family facility offers 27 holes of pop-culture themed golf for all ages.’ Who knew? Who actually could comprehend? But it was jumping — JAM-packed — In an otherwise fairly deserted streetscape.

Near here people were making private use of that sort of solitude.

Speaking as we were some time ago of old multiple storey buildings …

The celebration of the Relief of Mafeking in 1900 from the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets, with hats de rigueur. The banner says ‘WELCOME COMRADE’. (This must be, and was of course, before the endearment ‘comrade’ developed new overtones.) Coles Book Arcade is visible at the left. In those days there appears to have been a much more relaxed approach to men and windows. The roof of the Royal Arcade’s veranda seems to have been adopted as the main viewing platform.

In Royal Arcade this time I found a queue at Spellbox waiting for psychic readings (via ’21st Century witchcraft’) …

… and out the front something else to catch the eye.

What is that? What is he holding, a fire? And why is he wearing a mask?

Looking more closely there are three of them.



Down in The Causeway we find people at work with, on the right, just enough room to turn around. No wonder he was so grumpy.

Despite its formidable decoration it was too early for the Chuckle Park Bar.

Stalactites, with the best souvlaki, the absolute best, over time, never other than tempting … was resisted.

I re-discovered the Wunderkammer, literally something like ‘room of miracles’, ‘cabinet of curiosities’ in some renderings, self-advertised as ‘Scientific Curiosities Artefacts and Ephemera’ which this day included dishes one coin or key thick, dippy birds and a phrenological head.

And this cat must appear. He was hammering heavy metal riffs outside two sign-free shops, but far more importantly outside Maniax Axe Throwing, a tram, and Officeworks.

Sun glare on the way home. Just here at 5pm it was blinding. The ‘trousers’ building at the corner of William and Collins has signs up warning pedestrians about the dangers of sun glare off its walls.

Finally there is knowledge to be gleaned, if not necessarily at the Wunderkammer, then in China town.

‘It is the Thunderbolt that steers the course of all things.’ Remember that.

* * * * * *

Just a small addendum. Nothing to do with the preceding. Out of town. The merest whiff of Canberra.

So that’s how Jackson did it! With a magnifying glass and a brush the width of an ant. Can I avoid referring to irony? Yes I will.
A small sample of implements in a shed every one of which (including the spilt nails) was made entirely of glass. Startlingly good.

And now, of course, you’d like a look at the new and rather zippy lane art. CLICK>

THE CITY: Laneway Art

A new bin in our lane with the late sun describing a vivid triangle on it and highlighting its red-ness. I’m calling it art.

* * * * * * *

Myrna found an article in the paper about ‘Flash Forward’, a new lot of art in the city, art in the lanes, mostly graffer murals but not exclusively so.

I skimmed the article and looked at the pictures and thought, four, easy. Even if they are spread round the extremities of the city let’s go and have a look. So we did.

First one.

Work by Nick Azidis, at the end of Highlander Lane, off Flinders Street

The author of the article, Robert Nelson, thought the most successful of these ‘interventions’ (interventions?) were ‘those that functioned as if they’re a kind of architecture in themselves’. This is a good example. It is also a good example of the experience: turning a corner into a lane that you would otherwise never visit or even find to happen on an unexpected pleasure. A (mid-key) wow moment.

We tramped a couple of kilometres across to the diametrically opposite corner of the city to the next one.

Work by Puzle, in Evans Lane near Exhibition in the north-east corner.

Previously a red brick wall with some random graffiti in the bottom left-hand corner. Better in the flesh than in the photo. But check out the separated stacked blocks at each end, all doing something different, but living together happily enough. Very strong and satisfying. I loved it.

I had to look at the next one carefully to see that I’d got it. The ‘re-casting’ of the brickwork covers the entire wall and in the top street corner, turns a page. It’s also actually very hard to see because the lane is so narrow. There would be better vantage points not available to the casual wanderer, but from the lane floor you can still see what’s going on. The sign contributing to the vibe says ‘LEISURE PLEASURE & LIQUOR’ .

Work by George Goodnow (‘Goodie) in Tattersall’s Lane near Chinatown off Lonsdale

We missed this one. The suspended fish-like creatures light up at night, and the wall art … well, we might have just missed it. Neither the lowering portrait nor the game of hoops outside a lively bar is part of the show. Just an indication that the city is still a living organism.

Jarra Karalinar Steel, Stevenson’s Lane off Tattersall’s Lane

Also in Stevenson’s Lane were some witty light panels with an African flavour. You can’t see it, but I liked ‘No thoughts. Just be hot.’ The one you can see says: ‘Waiting for ideas’.

Work by Olana Janfa, also in Stevenson’s Lane.

And that’s it I thought. Good job. Enjoyed that. Then I went back to read the article more closely and I discovered that there are not four but 40. Not only that, but each art work has its own attached (and expansive) music which you can hear if you click on the link above, or this one if you can’t be bothered finding it. CLICK> It’s a big show.

So I went back to the drawing board, pencilled in another day or two for the treasure hunt and kept looking, and eventually arrived pretty close to consummation.

This is the first one I found on the second excursion, the crumpled spray can offering a motif for the whole show.

Work by Ling in Wills Street near the market

Some were ephemeral like this light show, and how good is that!

Work by Yandell Walton, in Platypus Alley off Little Bourke near Hardware Lane

This one had come and gone. Part of a series: ‘Some people are so poor all they have is money.’

Work by Kay Abude in Windsor Place on one side of the Windsor Hotel.

Some had disappeared as construction had taken hold on building sites.

Some I couldn’t find.

Work by Gosia Wlodarczak, somewhere in the Royal Arcade

Some I found but they were the wrong ones: yes to the one on the right, no to the one on the left which is in the lane but around a corner and up the other end. But I liked the birds flying through the wall regardless.

And even if you find them, you might miss something.

Work by Ling in Finlay Alley. I added the bin because it seemed to fit.

This is what was there.

Some are in obvious places and I’ve been able to watch them grow.

Some hadn’t been finished.

Work by Textaqueen, in Foxton Lane off Market near Flinders Street

Some had. Marvellous.

Work by Drez, Ulster Place above the steps of Parliament Station.

Sometimes it was hard to distinguish what was and what wasn’t in the show. These weren’t.

I was sorry about the last one, in the foyer of the State Bank Galleria, whoops Melbourne Galleria. The video installation was really something, especially with the added reflections. I think I’ll call it part of the show.

Two excellent ones nearby.

Another girls and cats one, maybe a remnant of the lockdown.

Work by Taylor Broekman in Bourke Place down near William Street.

Nearby are two others, both grand affairs that were hard to photograph.

Work by Bundit Puangthong at the entry to Rose Lane.

I could go on with the whole 40. But that’s rather a lot. I’ll pick a few more I liked.

Work by UB in George Johnson Lane behind the North Melbourne Town Hall. (The only one out of the city per se plus you can make the metal bits move.)

Work by Getnup in McIlwraith Place. ‘Architectural’.

Work by Prue Stevenson in Little William Street. Heartfelt and different. A detail below.

Work by Sarah Crowest in Corr’s Lane off Little Bourke, mostly an access point for car rentals. Witty and very decisive about itself
I found this which I thought was brilliant in Kirk’s Lane. However I was meant to find the work below. Less brilliant.
Work by Bacondrum
Either Drewery Place or Drewery Alley (and not in the show). Maybe for the offset provided by the figure hunched over their phone.

Work by Fikaris in Lees Place off Exhibition. Each figure is denoted. Brainy and fun to wrestle with.

Work by Shay Bakar in Whiteheart Lane off Little Bourke near Elizabeth. Strong, stylish, uses the location perfectly

A sad final story. The lane whose name has the most florid referent might just be the dullest of them all.

Final judgment: great fun finding them and mostly rewarding when found with some real standouts.

ROCK (+water and wood): Tasmania

Turapina/ Ben Lomond plateau with its alpine meadows and customary drifts of cloud

Ten days, six walks. That’s what the itinerary said. But what’s an itinerary: a set of aspirations? A rough plan of what you might do? Perhaps more commonly thought of as an iron clad guarantee that everything would be all right, and that you do/ see all the things that are on that list. Directive. Yes. Except that this one had been constructed not quite at random but pretty close. According to whim and with barely plausible ambitions. Just getting on a plane for a start … what an idea. I had almost forgotten how. Booking things … it seemed like an impertinence, or if not an impertinence, a fairly low confidence flutter.

But eventually the Tamar Estuary unfolded beneath us, there was a (wildly expensive) car at the Budget depot, and Lonnie was still there in all its two- and three-storey glory.

It’s quiet after 8 apart from the hoons with the announcements from their straight thru exhausts bouncing off the empty streets and the valley walls. Tassie. Wonderful.

Why go to Tassie? Because you tried to last year on almost exactly the same dates and you couldn’t. That’s one reason. There are others. It’s the attractive forthrightness of the Jacqui Lambies. It’s looking at the results of consuming too many, far too many, Banjo’s pastries. It is an encounter with taste unfettered by fashion. It’s watching people have a go because they can. (That applies to bulldozing trees as much as it does to saving them.) It’s seeing the consequences of living proximately but feeling isolated. It’s getting your feet wet in history — all those preserved buildings and picturesque precincts, the back of Launceston’s waterfront, the golden sandstone of Hobart’s older houses, the Hope and Anchor being the oldest continuously licenced pub in Australia, the gruesome stories attached to Port Arthur, Sarah and Maria Islands, Eaglehawk Neck, not to mention the colonial treatment of its Indigenous population. History is also being lived as you watch in a form of participatory time shift. Is it 70s? 80s? Could it be in part the 1950s? And then there is MONA which is an assemblage and reflection of all these things.

Any one of those things would draw you, but probably for us the winners are the geography and climate, its natural world.

It is by no means all pristine wilderness. But even where it isn’t there is often a lot to drink in and respond to.

Near Liffey among the northern paddocks. ‘Forest Reserve’ in the background, and I think hedges of gorse in the foreground. Gorse!

And there’s this of course.

The remnants of a coupe in Evercreech Forest between Mathinna and Fingal. This area is adjacent to a Park Reserve famous for its huge trees.

But then …

Meander Falls in spate, falling more than 90m in two, on this very wet day, dramatic eruptions.

That’s why ten days, six walks.

• • • • • • • •

Mount Arthur (Indigenous name unknown)

Mount Arthur (1188m asl) is 30 kms north-east of Launceston. Guides say four hours up and back; we took five. Guides say 8.5-9.5 kms all up; after wandering all over the top, my GPS said 11.8. It is called a popular walk, but I think only with afficionados and people who care. The track does not look heavily used.

We’d been there before and been rebuffed. You leave the car at the end of a dirt road sort of in someone’s quite isolated front yard and, like a lot of walks, it starts very steeply. But in this case, after a very brief concession, it gets steeper. And then there’s a boulder field. And then to get to the top you climb bigger boulders. Last time, years ago, we started late, it was pouring rain, we got to the boulder field and I’d had enough. But I remember the track as having shown real promise and you like to get to the top just to see what’s what. And as it turns out it is a wonderful walk, reasonably hard (for the aged) but with a real reward from the top.

Nothofagus litter on the floor. A beech forest … that’s a bit special. Great to walk on, soft and spongy. More familiar in NZ.
The peak with its beehive cairn built in the late 1800s, a serious work of art.
… and what you can see. The Tamar Estuary and Bass Strait to the north-west with the Western Tiers in the far background.
… and Turapina / Ben Lomond to the south.

Turapina / Ben Lomond

Turapina contains the second highest peak in Tasmania. A number of outcrops surround a massive boulder field plateau. The least prepossessing, Legge’s Tor is (at 1572m) the highest of these. We’ve walked here quite a lot, usually a 12km loop starting at ‘Carr Villa’, now a classy Scout Camp, and climbing up through the Big Opening to the plateau, across the Plains of Heaven (true), and down Jacob’s Ladder back to the car.

Conditions have also varied including once when the temperature dropped about 15 or more degrees in 10 minutes, almost too quickly to properly notice and get the gloves on. This photo was taken on one of those snowy days.

Mount Misery on the east side of the Big Opening, with birds.

But it wasn’t like that when we arrived this time, a blowy overcast day with no hint of snow.

And what a marvel of dolerite columns it is.

The knees were still recovering from Mt Arthur the previous day, so we drove up to the ski village and walked across the plateau to Legge’s Tor, a few kilometres, not much more than a stroll really.

This is the road which takes you up onto the plateau and to the ski village, a one-lane road known as Jacob’s Ladder with formidable hairpin bends. Note its path through the boulder field. It is suggested that Richie Porte, a native of Launceston and a podium finisher in the Tour de France as well as a champion domestique, used to train here.
Over the edge
There would be things to know about the Summit Hut, now reasonably derelict and not far from Legge’s Tor, but I don’t know them.
Classic alpine meadow with Pincushion (in bright green) a lovely but fragile plant.
Required inclusion.

Apsley Gorge (Indigenous name unknown)

There are two Apsley Gorges within 30 kilometres of each other, one on the Douglas River and one on the Apsley River, both in the east coast Douglas-Apsley National Park, unusual in Tasmania for being dry eucalypt forest. I don’t know much about the first one, but the second has a walk attached to it.

It can be a there and back, or it can be a loop, either way roughly the same distance, around six kms. The point about the loop, however, is that you walk back down, and in, the river. We had been here 20 years before and I hadn’t been properly prepared but the idea of working your way through the gorge and then down the river held major attractions. There’s a lot of pleasure to be had rock-hopping your way down a river.

Whatever your choice you can’t go anywhere without first crossing it.

You immediately notice the difference in the forest: lots of varieties of eucalypt with native pines, blackwood and grasses as well, but ratty to my untutored eye in a way that the rainforests aren’t. That said, mea culpa, this Park contains more than half of all eucalypt species found in Tasmania, a huge range of flowering plants and grasses and a great variety of wild life. None of which we saw, just as it happens.

The track rises over a headland for several kilometres and then descends sharply into the Gorge.

We thought about it, doing the loop and going back down the river, and did some modest reconnaissance. The advice is ‘if the river is knee deep in the wade across to the entry do not attempt the walk through the gorge.’ There had been some recent big rains on the east coast but it was just mid-calf. I knew that choice entailed more than a dozen river crossings, and that there are bits which you could run along and there are bits where you have to work your way through past vertical cliffs on at least one side. I watched Jan and Al, two fit 50 year-olds from Perth, do one crossing pushed around by the current and wet up to mid thigh and and thought, if it was 10 centimetres lower … but it wasn’t. Not in the mood. So we turned back into the few hundred steps to get out of the gorge and went back the way we’d come.

On return we sat here at Apsley Waterhole and had a cup of tea. This rocky-bottomed pool is apparently a favourite of swimmers and one guy did turn up to glissade into the very cold water. We were waiting for Jan and Al, as one does, and an hour and quarter after we got back they appeared, stumbling through that rock at the upper end of the pool, having had an adventure. We cheered and clapped and exchanged phone numbers. But then there were the two 20 yo girls who had also chosen to come back down the river. We rescued one from a mightily engorged leech before they left. They didn’t seem quite as well prepared. We left. Al did some work on their van, but Jan waited for them. Two and a half hours. That’s a big day out in the gorge. Glad we didn’t. Another time.

Tiarra-Marra-Monah / Maria Island

We went to Tiarra-Marra-Monah, which probably no-one anywhere ever calls Tiarra-Marra-Monah, because we hadn’t been there before. It is significant because the figure-8 island, the two parts of which are connected by McRae Isthmus, is a National Park entire. There is no shop, no car, very basic accommodation in the old penitentiary, wildlife tamed by people looking not touching, and lots of other beautiful things. And you can only get there by ferry.

The ferry was a puffer jacket and walking boot fashion show, North Face, Mountain Designs and Kathmandu all heavily represented. As evident it was a most beautiful autumn day. We hired bikes because there was a lot to see and walking wouldn’t allow us to do what we wanted which was to visit the Painted Caves and then make an attempt on Bishop and Clerk, two 700m dolerite columns on the northern end of the island.

The penitentiary buildings with, in the foreground, some Cape Barren Geese grazing, a couple of clumps of those ubiquitous bella donnas and in the far background at left Bishop and Clerk.
An outlier on the way to the Painted Cliffs, probably photographed endlessly.

The Painted Cliffs did not disappoint. After a 100m walk along a beach, around a jutting corner were these cliffs, limestone stained along its strata by millennia of dripping iron. These cliffs are about 6-8 metres high and in full sun would have been simply amazing.

The walk to Bishop and Clerk — to the top of the Bishop really, only very good rock climbers could get up the Clerk — starts quite high on top of some ocean cliffs and its first third is quite amiable, a steady but reasonably gentle climb through forest.

This is a popular walk. There is another climb on the island up Mount Maria more difficult to reach and more difficult when you get there. But it would seem that most people who visit the island have Bishop and Clerk in their sights. There were probably about 80 people on the track with us which, while not Bourke Street, is pretty unusual. They ranged from young hippies dancing across the scree field in bare feet (‘See?! It’s just a matter of choice.’) to people who really should have consulted their doctor before setting out. Some at least of these rested at the scree field (‘scree’ smaller than ‘boulders’ but used apparently interchangeably in this location) and turned around. Some I think had never seen a boulder field before and they can look like a rock wall.

And this one is a bit annoying. It goes on beyond your expectations, you keep turning blind corners and there it is again. More! Bugger. It had captured the trekkers’ imagination. And then, when you’re through it, you look up and think you’re nearly there. But you’re not. There’s another 20 minutes.

The Clerk, 600m down to the sea.

Quite a lot of advice is offered (brochure, guide, map, bloke who rented us the bikes) not to do the last 50 metres. But really, you know … as if. You’ve got that far. You’ve beaten the scree field. What danger could lurk that would stop you from here? But sure enough there’s quite a boulder in the way, a couple of metres high with a negative face to climb onto. That is a face that slopes down rather than up, and that says in a quiet but menacing voice, you’re going to slide off here. But there are a couple of footholds in the right places and a crack that you can get your fingers into for purchase and, like most people on the mountain that day, we got to the top. I felt renewed.

Kunanyi / Mt Wellington

No name or date, but painted by Henry Gritten in 1856 and unmistakeably The Mountain.

You turn the corner on the way in from the airport and, bang, there it is. The Mountain. What’s the weather like in Hobart? Is there any snow on The Mountain? Can you see the Organ Pipes or are they muffled in cloud? We hadn’t come from the airport but we were coming in that road. There are other cities with natural features that announce them — Sydney has the harbour, Rio the Sugarloaf, New York Manhattan — but Hobart has The Mountain. It doesn’t really need a name but all the signage these days says ‘kunanyi / Mt Wellington’, a change legislated in 2013, and one of the State’s inaugural dual-named geographic features. So hurrah for that. Why would you want a mountain like this, here, named after an English Duke who helped supervise, at a distance, the fighting of a war with the French, half a world away geographically and much further culturally.

We’ve done a lot of walking on The Mountain — near a capital city of walkers it’s covered in tracks — and have preferences. We’d had a great family day in Nubeena and were ready for a climb. So, start at The Springs, up the Ice House Track, stiff but quick, to the top and clamber across the South Wellington track to the summit (1271m for interest). Down the Panorama Track to the Chalet and then along Organ Pipes back to the car. Might be about 12kms. Ideal really.

I noticed a few spots of rain on the cars as we left downtown Hobart but hardly any on the ground. But by the time we got to Fern Tree the gutters were running quite hard and further on up to The Springs the walls of the cuttings had sprung leaks. Water was squirting out of them, something I’d never seen before. Clearly a day for the raincoats. We were putting them on and getting organised when a bloke came over with something for us to see on his phone. He was track-builder and his gang had been up, as it happened, on Ice House Track. He showed us a video of his mate mid-calf in the torrent that was the Ice House Track. There might have been next to no rain in Hobart, Australia’s second driest capital, but a few kilometres away as the crow flies The Mountain had had 80mm overnight. He was going home and suggested we revise our plans. Fair point, and achievable. We could use tracks that ran more closely with the contours rather than perpendicularly across them.

Looks fine doesn’t it: the Lenah Valley Track before traversing up to the Organ Pipes. Panorama up to the summit. Back the same way. We’d gone 200m when we heard this noise.

We were reasonably out of it, but the floor of the forest was running and making a great watery racket. Sort of a marvel in its own way and rather than diminish the pleasure of the walk re-directed it.

Natural foam fizzing in a gutter.

Our feet stayed reasonably dry till we needed to go up the Summit Track to the Organ Pipes. And then they didn’t. Make sure the sound is turned up.

There are plenty of boulder fields to walk across on the ‘front’ of The Mountain. Adding to the dimensions of sensory experience we experienced while doing so was listening to very active subterranean watercourses somewhere beneath us grunting and shlooooshing away.

Something special seems to happen to the colours of vegetation in the wet. This talks to walkers. I know because of the incidence of photos just like this one.

The one minute that the cloud parted allowing us to see what was below, probably the northern suburbs Glenorchy way.

It could have looked like this, but it mattered not one whit.

Meander Falls

We hadn’t been to Meander Falls before and they sounded promising. They weren’t in my standard guidebook (the excellent Day Walks In Tasmania by John and Monica Chapman), and the advice about the walk was various. Some young adventurer reports (with selfie) on the internet that he had run there and back in 2.5 hours which would make him a) a world-record holding rogainer and b) quite likely a combination of a dickhead and bullshit artist. But that’s the internet for you.

I forgot to un-pause my Map My Walks so I don’t know how far to say we walked. The signs tend to concentrate on times and congregate around 5-6 hours. In intermittent bouts of rainfall, we took six with lunch and time spent ogling.

The first third (a theme is emerging here) is a stroll through beech forest next to the Meander which on this particular day was boiling, fabulous. Compared to the northern floods it was nothing of course, but in this micro-environment it was hurling down, noisy company almost all the way.

The track is officially: ‘Formed earthen track, few obstacles. Generally a modified surface, sections may be hardened. Width: variable and less than 1200mm. Kept mostly clear.’ This is a reasonably representative section of it in the second third.

The river remained company until the last third when the track veers away, still climbing steeply, to circumvent a rocky prominence. But exquisite scenery everywhere.

One feature of this walk was the range of fungi we saw, must have been 20 or 30 types, each seeming to be trying to outdo the other in terms of colour and form.

The approach to the falls — on this wet wet day; we were lucky — was signalled at some distance by their noise, a constant and increasing roaring. There’s a flattish bit across the top of a headland, very wet in this instance, before the curtain goes up. But then the curtain does go up.

When the tops haven’t disappeared into the mist the two drops are round 90 dramatic metres. They’re not the Victoria or Niagara Falls, but gee it was fun to see them. Maybe it’s the effort of getting there, or maybe it’s the cup of tea.

Happy travels.