Winter Coronavirus Sunday Arvo

World Heritage Site. Exhibition Buildings, gardens and fountain. Not much to do with the text but the day before. A very pregnant woman and her partner dressed in skintight white clothes were having their photos taken in various sculptural poses in/near the fountain.

11.6. Feels like 7. Clear. Still. But with that icy note in the air.

I stretched out a mid-morning trip to Essendon to deliver some newly-made medical scrubs to a Pakistani Australian (nurse? aide? doctor?) with his two gorgeous young children who lived in a recently constructed suburban mansion. As always Essendon seemed Catholic and hilly and in the morning cold, and despite the endless family muscle cars, slightly frozen and surreal. Weird for weird times.

At the coffee shop the Greek owner stood just inside the door and directed traffic as owners might but rarely do. A young woman with two rather clever patches of dyed yellow thatch in her otherwise jet black hair (I did say it was Essendon) sorted out everything else with such deftness it was gripping. The conversation in the coffee shop had dints in it, assertive but stop-start declarations about what you could and couldn’t do. ‘No mate. No way. You can’t. They won’t letcha.’ The BMW SUVs kept up a steady stream going past, broken by the occasional Porsche Cayenne. Essendon. Plenty of money out there. Plenty of money spent out there anyway.

In the afternoon, it’s Sunday, we decided to go over to the Uni tram stop and take the first one that came past to its terminus and then walk home. It’s the busiest tram stop in the world with eight lines running through it, so there were options. It turned out to be a Number One, East Coburg to South Melbourne Beach. Wasn’t my first choice but who cares. We put our masks on and climbed aboard.

The terminus of this line is at the corner of Victoria Avenue and Beaconsfield Parade. We were at the beach. The cafes and coffee shops were full, the paths along the beach heaving with active wear and kids on scooters. Beaconsfield turn right along the beach to Station Pier then turn right up the light rail reserve back to the city.

Myrna needed a location for a Zoom dance so for a start we thought we’d bother the fishermen on Lagoon Pier.

We crossed the river over Webb Bridge, a bundle of modern architecture near Charles Grimes Bridge, Charles Grimes being the Surveyor General of NSW and the first European who ever saw the Yarra.

I looked down the river and it wasn’t Melbourne as people usually imagine it. Perhaps ever. But there was something about the whole that seemed to capture the afternoon. This place that time. Monumental, but vacant.

Then it seemed like wherever I looked it was the same.

This track takes you past Docklands Stadium where there was a game on. And the crowds had gathered, he says with heavy irony.

The forecourt warning about kicking the footy — ‘a no no. No punts, no big torps, no droppies or even bananas’ — was entirely unnecessary.

Dyse couldn’t even remember what to believe in.

Some kids were playing basketball watched by Ben Simmons and Liz Cambadge.

But the restaurant overlooking the forecourt was like a lot of other restaurants.

Food was coming from other sources. (The dominant form of traffic in our neighbourhood.)

It’s probably important to say Myrna did find a place to do her dance. It wouldn’t be coronavirus times if there wasn’t something slightly weird going round on video. All I can do is apologise we didn’t have the light rail passing in the background.

You may have noted the careful washing of hands (0.02-0.09) before the show really gets on the road.

Strange days.

Black Mountain #1

The Locals: standard Montenegrin street attire

Cattaro is a tiny, greatly coveted, much-fought-for town. The natural port for Montenegro but the property of Austria, it swelters, breathless, on a strip of shore, with the waters in front of it, and the the great wall of the Black Mountain rising sheer up behind.

Behind the town starts the rough zig-zag track, the celebrated ‘ladder of Catarro’ which until 1879 was the only path into Montenegro, and is the one the peasants still use. The making of the road was for a long while dreaded by the Montenegrins, who argued that a road that will serve for a cart will serve for artillery. The road that can let in artillery can let in something more subtle, irresistible and change working. The road was made, [by the Austrians] and there is now no barrier to prevent the twentieth century creeping up silently and sweeping over this old world land almost before its force is recognised. Whether the hardy mountain race which has successfully withstood the gory onslaught of the Turk for five hundred years, will come out unscathed from a bloodless encounter with Western civilisation time alone will tell.

Crnagora [in Montenegrin ‘crna’=black, ‘gora’, mountain], gaunt, grey, drear, a chaos of limestone crags piled one on the other in inextricable confusion, the bare wind-swept bones of a dead world. The first view of the land comes as a shock. The endless series of bare mountain tops, the arid wilderness of bare rock majestic in its rugged loneliness, tell with one blow the suffering of centuries. The next instant fills one with respect and admiration for the people who have preferred liberty in this wilderness to slavery in fat lands.

— Through the Lands of the Serb (1904) Mary Durham, yet another of those astonishingly intrepid English women travellers


‘Cattaro ‘is called Kotor now. The old walled city where tourists of Dalmatia still swarm is at the bottom of the picture. The ‘Ladder’ is the zig-zags going up the hill, seemingly endless when you’re walking up them on a hot day. But this is what you see from the top.


Quite something. Enough to attract 30 cruise ships a day in the high season. The passengers rush onto shore in crocs led by an umbrella lady or gent, wander through a few squares, look in the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon, wonder who St Tryphon was, buy an ice cream and a souvenir and tear off again. They generally leave by 6 at night and I can’t remember if that’s by choice or required by ordinance.

This is meant to be a story of a walk and to some degree it is. Walking occurred. The intention was to do a self-guided walk from Perast (one of the villages close to Kotor on the coast of the Bay) to arrive 160kms later at Stari Bar via, among other places, Cetinje, the old capital, and Virpazar.

I had chosen ZalaZ as our support company, partly because ‘Acquainting local people is a natural consequence of any ZalaZ tour’, partly because ‘walking by rare explored trail, observing all on historical Montengrin sites’, and partly because of the direction and length of the route.

Before our arrival I had had an extensive, cheerful and confidence-inspiring correspondence with Vlatko of ZalaZ and Jadranka his do-everything sidekick. The only issue was his warning about how hot it might be. 30s. Didn’t sound too bad. We had walked in heat before.

We left Tel Aviv at some ungodly hour (2.30am on checking) and shared a jammed plane with a barely semi-godly throng of Jewish holiday-makers who until expiring with exhaustion were happy to begin the holiday on the plane. At Tivat, one of the postage stamp size bits of flat land in Montenegro, the transfer car wasn’t waiting. And that was sort of it really. After the hustle of Jerusalem, Montenegro was going to be a study in patience. Things, good things, excellent things, would happen but perhaps not as you might have arranged. And anyway it was hot, glaring white calcium rock hot. Exasperating hot.

The soccer World Cup was on, and that will become evident as the story unfolds. The finals ran through this ten days with lots of upsets, and the excitement machine that was Luka Modric and Croatia doing its business. Huge.

Why Montenegro? We had tried to get there once before and were thwarted by illness. I had looked at the vast limestone scarp along the Dalmatian Coast and thought that would be good walking, … once you got up it would be anyway. The Bay of Kotor is sometimes considered the southern-most fjord in Europe, and therefore an oddity. The fact that it’s actually a drowned river valley doesn’t make it any less impressive up close. It’s a marvel. And so Montenegro … well, why not?

Mary Durham would add, at some length, the resilience and nobility of the stoic Montenegrin people, their honour, their decency, their patience, their individuality and yet their cohesion as a nation, a nation that over 500 years remained unconquered by the Ottomans no matter how hard they tried. (See also below in Black Mountain #2.)

Old Kotor is a walled city jammed up against the base of Black Mountain and consists of a higgledy-piggledy aggregation of lanes and squares. That’s what the tourists come for.

That said, it’s quite small and it didn’t take long for us to get the hang of it. But when we arrived we simply could not find our accommodation. We had risen very early and were keen for a snooze. Eventually someone told us to go to the camera shop near the Sea Gate square and see if we could find Mr Porteli. We did, and he was charming and very relaxed, including about the absence of the promised and paid for transfer. But you must move on quickly.

Our rooms wouldn’t be ready till later and we hadn’t had breakfast. So we slumped into a couple of the very comfortable wicker chairs above and counted the number of tours going past (17 in the first hour). As I drank my third cup of very good coffee I thought hmm that must be what Kotor is, a large-ish playpen for (as it turns out predominantly English and Russian) tourists. They were out sunning themselves in what felt like 40 unmediated degrees of radiant heat. When we found the pool it was just a bit of the coastline fenced off in concrete, albeit decoratively, water in water out with the tide, but entirely swimmable. After nightfall we watched a crowd of athletic young men practising water polo there (a pic appears below) but I fancy no members of Primorac Kotor, occasional superstars of the Montenegrin version of the sport who train in an indoor pool in another part of the valley to which newer Kotor has expanded.

To pass the day we walked, we swam, we snoozed in our very comfortable quarters. In that time Brazil had beaten Mexico 2-0 and Neymar had proven himself to be one of the genuinely great divers of all time. Not just a bit of diving, but powerhouse diving, straight into the turf howling with pain, possibly without an opposition player even being on the field.

At night we had dinner in the Tryphon Square with hundreds of others. And then the orchestra played. Just how delightful is that. One night only: 10-14 year olds from a Slovenian music school. The two soloists played cello and accordian, and that alone was just about worth going to Montenegro for. Their version of ‘Hallelujah’ left not a dry eye in the house. So good. There were two momentary interruptions as Spain came back from 2 nil down against Japan. But then Spain’s extra-time winner coincided exactly, precisely, with the last note of the encore which led to an enhanced and prolonged roar. It was all glorious. Everyone and everything was forgiven.

We had set ourselves for collection at 10am at the Sea Gate — no cars in the Old City, decidedly one of its attractions — and duly Vlatko appeared. Only one or two readers of this blog will understand this, but a sort of Montenegrin Chris Dewhurst.

I can see him running up these cliffs, strong, fit, a giant with a particular sort of masculine invulnerability and a great willingness but only a modest capacity to understand the frailty of others.

His mind was elsewhere. He had just bought a new property, a small farm out of Sremski Karlovci in Serbia where, strangely enough, we had been and where his family was waiting for him.

He had all the gear for us, and all the gear wasn’t much. You’re looking at it. Three laminated army ordinance maps on a some huge scale — I think Los Angeles might have been on one of them — an envelope of accommodation vouchers, and a laminated booklet of notes. The latter unfortunately was written in Montenegrin English, something you don’t think will matter till it does. Lamination was so they could be re-usable and yes they had. Oh and a phone, yes a phone, which I just could not figure how to work. I lucked in a few times, but the antediluvian combo of buttons was beyond me.

I liked him, found him plausible and interesting, but he was thinking how long it was going to take him (ages, a complicated and tiring drive) to drive over the mountains to northern Serbia more than 700 kms away.

He left us in Perast to stay with some friends of his, the first night’s accommodation in a room so small our cases had to be left outside in the hall in a household with a three year-old and a whopping but fairly new baby with a great set of lungs. Dad had a quite high-powered government job in Podgorica; when she was working, mum was an English teacher. And, besides accommodating Vlatko’s customers, they were renovating this their holiday house. It was an experience, and that’s what you go for. ‘Acquainting’.

Perast (above) is one of the many towns besides Kotor that cling to the side of the bay. Our Lady of the Rocks in the middle of the Bay (at right) is its principle attraction although it is a most picturesque hamlet with options for very good eating. Fish, straight out of the Bay. That’s what they say anyway.

That’s Perast. To fill in our afternoon we found a place to swim round the far corner. And I have just noticed that in this photo at right you can see the important part of the next day’s route, the one that caused all the bother.

At night the whole town was watching the soccer at the Montenegrin equivalent of a pub. Round of 16. England dead lucky, 4-3 over Columbia in a penalty shootout. More diving than the Great Barrier Reef.

We were collected by a boatman first thing-ish from this very jetty in fact and taken over to the village on the other side, Donji Stoliv before climbing up to Gornji Stoliv (Lower and Upper Stoliv I’d guess), the roofs about half way up that you can just see in the pic above if you look closely. Then more or less straight up over Vrdola Pass, the saddle you can see, along the top of Vrmac Peninsula, the other side of the Bay, then down down down back to Kotor: 800m up and 800m down.

It all looks so obvious now. Prosaic even. You can see it all in the photo. If you’ve been there before even once, the shape of the walk would be embedded, the way clearly evident, maps not much more than a nuisance. All you’ve got to do is find the entrance, and the boatman did that for us. Tamo, tamo. There. There.

And while it was a bit of a push — quickly passing over the fact that, if there were any left in the scattered houses, this is the way five year-olds would daily get to school and home again — the track was unambiguous. But then we got to Gornji Stoliv.

When you do this walk here are the appropriate instructions from this point. It’ll take you less than five minutes to pass through.

At the T-intersection entrance to Gornji Stoliv you will find a sign post near a large cross. One sign pointing right (west) says to ‘Vlaka Vdrola’. Ignore this sign. After turning left, 100 metres further along the track into the village you will come to a small alcove built into a stone wall. To its right is a narrow flight of stone steps which is the entry to the next phase of your walk.

At the top of the steps the track immediately turns right. You will see waymarking of a white dot in a red ring which continues. The next 3-400 metres is an area covered in goat tracks and locating the waymarks is something of a challenge but essential. After 500 metres or so this problem is resolved. The track becomes very hard to locate but the waymarking is reasonably consistent every 50m or so and will take you to the Pass.

That’s not what happened. Our map at this point sort of dissolved into unintelligibility due to the size of the scale. The notes said ‘walk to centre of town to cistern and pump. You may pump water. You may buy some goat cheeses from the locals.’ Have I mentioned that it was really hot and that we’d been climbing for 90 minutes or so? I think I may also have passed over the fact that there was bitter dispute about the next course of action.

We went into the town, which didn’t actually exist, just a scatter of empty houses, searching for a cistern. What could a ‘cistern’ be? Down into the town via a waymarked track which might eventually have taken us back to the coast, and back again and then back right up to the church this time which you can see in the background in the photo below, quite a climb up steep stone steps, to find someone cleaning up a grave who roared at us when we tried to get directions. Water? No water here! NO water. I became confident that if we followed the sign to Vlaka Vdrola we’d get there for sure. So we did about 30 minutes in a direction 90 degrees wrong which eventually petered out into a goat track of limited interest covered in blackberry vines.

Myrna 50 metres after the problem signpost and 50 metres before the flight of steps we needed to find. Meditating on what idiots men are.

I had started hating the track notes at this stage. ‘Cistern’, pump’, ‘centre of town’. What on earth could they mean? Later Vlatko asked why I didn’t ring him up at this stage. Apart from not really being able to work the phone, I imagine he would have repeated exactly what was in the notes because when you know a track so well how do you explain to someone who is coming to it so raw. And so cross. And so keen to get the promised drink of water from the ‘cistern’.

For the umpteenth time we went back to looking at the stone alcove for a clue. We had presumed this was the cistern somehow, and I noticed there was a narrow, perhaps 30 cms wide, flight of steps going in what I knew to be the right direction but apparently into a house. We climbed them and avoided the house with a sharp right turn. The waymarks which were everywhere started reappearing in an encouragingly systematic way which was just as well because this area was thick with goat tracks, and after another 60 minutes or so we were at top of the Pass (below). Still faintly furious. We had wasted 90 minutes getting through Gornji Stoliv.

Once we climbed the steps we did pass a plastic tank in a wire cage (well out of sight from below). That would be the ‘cistern’ I assume, except that cisterns are either underground water storages or storage tanks for toilets.

I had offered to rewrite Vlatko’s publicity material in more conventional English. He was interested for a minute and then said no. He thought people found it enjoyable. So sure. Ok. Lovely. Loads of Balkan charm. In retrospect I think he might have been referring to the excellence of his style rather than the preponderance of half and three-quarter mistakes, strange vocab and weird constructions that disturbs a pedant like me.

But I was talking about his publicity material. The laminated track notes were considerably worse, in part less directions than ruminations on Montenegrin life and history and in part ‘walk the salamander back downwards’. And track notes matter. They really should be precise and clear. We never found the pump or the centre of the village, but we did find this view.

Perast is hidden to the right of the conical peak in the mid-ground. We are looking north-west out to the Aegean (eventually). Lovcen, a Montenegrin icon, is on the skyline.

And we found a sign and kept at it.

‘All trails in stone area/ solid sole boots recommended.’ There it is in black and white. I had chosen to wear my old walking shoes, very comfortable but the Vibram on the soles was worn thin and had softened in this heat and, as advertised, we were walking on tracks made of broken rock. There was nowhere much to get off and every step hurt.

Just here there was some shade. However for several hours in the middle of the day we had been walking in direct sun with massive glare coming off the grey rock, probably high 30s in the shade and, weak reed that I am, I had a touch of sunstroke. Sunstroke requires the lowering of body temperature. Pouring water over your head works quite well. Lying down in a cool room does as well. Neither were available. One reason was that I’d been counting on refills at the ‘cistern’ which hadn’t eventuated.

Low on water, we got to the end of the ridge and with all the errors we’d made we’d done about 15 or 16 kms, and we had to get down here via a process that wasn’t 100 percent clear.

This is Kotor and environs. The Old City is only the small triangle in the middle; the fancy pool patronised by the super water polo team is under the red roof.
Same thing but on the other side of the Bay.

We had to find the ‘salamander’ amid instructions about a grassy field and restored historic building that could have meant anything. The ‘salamander’ turned out to be one of those endless zig-zags with stone edgings and big drops (no possibility of hoon tracking) that we discovered Montenegro specialised in.

It was SO far down. When we did bottom out it was still a few kms through the suburbs, and shops that sold drinks were nowhere to be found. I had put my head under a garden tap to my great relief. But plenty of time was left for constructing my side of the next conversation with my friends at Zalaz. Even before we got onto the ‘salamander’, I had advanced the idea that I wasn’t going to do any more of this, and Myrna replied, yes, we might be intrepid but we’re not stupid.

I did feel slightly stupid. This was really a domestic walk, hardly out of sight of Kotor, up across down, what could go wrong especially compared to where we were off to next. But far more than stupid I was feeling aggrieved, if that’s a summative adjective for hot, tired and cross.

So, possibly looking like sweaty versions of death, we found Jadranka in her shop. Three things to tell her: 1) it’s too hot for us (our fault), 2) the materials are hopeless (Vlatko’s fault), 3) we’re quitting. Those three matters communicated, we (okay, I) limped off to the accommodation that had been arranged for us where we were welcomed by two stern man looking just a fraction like Serbian mafiosi saying, ‘You pay now. This company never pay.’ We got him to ring Jadranka who persuaded him otherwise and we collapsed onto the broken bed with the air con on high, and that night ate brilliantly almost by ourselves just outside the city walls at Bastion No.1.

It had been a big day.

Could be me pointing to my injured pride, but it is actually the patron saint of walkers St Jacques with coquilles and bubo, looking suitably surprised although I think he would have known. This statue is within whispering distance of the highly visible skull and bones advertised as being those of St Tryphon and a host of other religious art treasures.

I’d like to have a pic of Jadranka to insert here, a tall athletic type who ran a gift shop rather up the back of town as well as someone who tidied up after Vlatko. I’d like to insert a picture in simple gratitude. [I did! There she is at right.] There was the Montenegrin strongperson, but there was also the Montenegrin gracious host. She was both.

We came good after a sleep and a leisurely breakfast and formulated a plan. We would go back to Mr Porteli to see if he had another couple of nights available in one of his most satisfactory units in Kotor. Zalaz still had our money, so we would go back to Jadranka and see what we could negotiate. We agreed that after a couple more nights in Kotor she would arrange a driver to take us to Cetinje and to Virpazar where we would stay in rooms we’d booked and paid for, and then go on to the capital Podgorica from where we’d leave. And that’s what happened.

Kotor had at least a day’s worth of interest. We wandered to and fro, thoroughly investigating St Tryphon’s and the many and varied other churches in the Old Town, along with water polo practice at the town pool.

Can you follow the wall up this cliff? It is continuous even when the substrate is almost vertical. Imagine building it. Nah. Can’t. Imagine it being useful? Nah? Me neither. But at its apex is a fort, and if you stay at Kotor for more than half an hour and are in reasonable condition you get yourself on The Ladder and see if you can get as far as The Fort.

As it happens that was the next part of our walk and Myrna thought it would be a good idea. Did I? I am not at liberty to comment. Commercial-in-confidence.

It was furiously hot again. But we got going, perhaps in an effort to recover our dignity, and just as well because otherwise we would have missed this, an American from New York with, what, gosh, a seven-pack I would think. His equally muscular girlfriend could only do upside down. We just stood there. Applauding of course.

The Fort, I said. That’ll do. Hmm just a bit further, she said. We are less than a third of the way up The Ladder. So of course it was just a bit further. A bit further which began by having to find and climb through this window. Montenegro. Different to, say, Japan.

And then we went a bit further again. ‘How about we just go to …’, that type of thing. Before climbing again, this entailed descending through the ruins of an old town — goats and an old and highly picturesque church. How Montenegrin. Unmissable really.

By dint of a light breeze it was getting slightly cooler as we climbed but not much. A good deal of the vegetation on this track was herbs, fragrant with the sun beating down on them. Rosemary, sage and thyme were easily recognisable. Where they came from and how they survived are mysteries.

Our eventual destination is the peak here.

Just a bit further, just a bit further. To that hill. Round that corner. Another 15 minutes. There’s a mast up there. Three more zig-zags. It’s flattened out here … and we surprised ourselves.

Just in time to see one of fancier cruise ships evacuate a long stream of brown effluent into the Bay. The one at right actually.

I guess that’s what they do. But we can’t end on that note.

On the way up we had enjoyed large wonderfully sustaining glasses of pomegranate juice at this hillside establishment.

On the way down we did even better: bread, tomatoes, speck, cheese, pomegranate juice — and beer. Everything they had to offer really. Most gratifying.

This was most of the next day’s walk as per ZalaZ. As it happened we couldn’t have done the next day’s walk because there was a competitive car rally ripping up the tracks in the Lovcen National Park and it was closed — the manly side of Montenegro.

That night we had a pizza watching Belgium defeat Brazil 2-1. Brazil had four gettable chances in the last three minutes, but heck, you just never know how things are going to pan out do you.

There’s much more of interest about Montenegro to be found right here. And what an interesting place it is.

Black Mountain #2

It may be self-evident but building roads in Montenegro is both difficult and expensive.

There are not a lot of ways to get from Kotor to Cetinje (‘se-teen-yer’) by car — in fact just the one. As the local Spotted Crake flies it is about 12 kms; by car 54; and because of the serpentine quality of the road an hour or more was spent in the company of our driver Alex, one of the great entertainers we met in Montenegro.

Alex spends his winters in Belgrade and his summers by the sea. He was born in Kotor but did his law degree in Serbia. This was not an uncommon pattern among the Montenegrins we spoke to. The links between these two countries, and Russia, are strong. On discovering we were Australian, he proffered deep state information about the current and past lives of Paul Hogan and the source and etymology of the word ‘kangaroo’ roaring laughing as he did so. (On landing at Cooktown in 1770 Banks asked a local, presumably in his best Georgian English, what was that? ‘Gangurru’, Guugu Yimidhirr for ‘I don’t know’, was the reply. That’s how the story goes and how Alex’s story went. It’s good. But awkwardly ‘gangurru’ is the Guugu Yimidhirr word for what we would call the Eastern Grey Kangaroo. His stories about Paul Hogan were probably just as apocryphal but a lot funnier.)

He had a lot to say about the ancient and more recent Balkan wars, a very considered history lesson really, registering considerable disgust about what ‘they’ had done to ‘themselves’. When we got to Mary Durham’s assertion that ‘[Montenegrins were] the hardy mountain race which … successfully withstood the gory onslaught of the Turk for five hundred years’ he snorted as only Balkan men can snort — and they practice it daily from a very early age. (Snorting): They say the Ottomans [Mary’s ‘Turks’] didn’t conquer Montenegro. They did. Three times. Every time they could be bothered. Then they left. What was there? Stones. Nothing but stones. Who wants that!? (Snort.)

It was in fact a great drive, captivating for more reasons than Alex’s commentary. We went via Budva (above), Montenegro’s St Tropez where Russians and rich Serbs have their beach holidays to the extent that they had caused a massive shift in property values according to Alex, and Montenegrins can no longer afford to live there. And we went across the karst ridges, calcium grey with strips of green hanging on tight to gullies and cracks, to Cetinje, the old capital, at the foot of Lovcen National Park where we would have arrived on Vlatko’s schedule and at about the same time. But instead of spending five minutes (or two hours) passing through we were able to stay most of two days at what was once the world’s smallest national capital.

Cetinje became significant during the rule of Prince Nikola Petrovic in the mid-19th century. The Biljarda, the ‘billiard house’, the first ruler’s residence and a place of great national pride, was built there then along with a hospital and some other public buildings. But in the 1860 census Cetinje still had only 34 households.

And, with apologies to Mary Durham, it was after 14 years of Ottoman rule that it became the capital in 1878. All credit to the Montenegrins for driving them out, but the Ottomans had become a decadent shadow of their former selves by that time, and just a few decades later the Austrians stepped into the role as landlord.

After 20 years as an ‘independent principality’, Montenegro was proclaimed a kingdom in 1910. As a consequence the Government House and several other major buildings including a street of embassies were built in Cetinje. Quoting from a Montenegrin document: ‘The population census from the same year recorded a massive growth in the world’s smallest capital, registering 5,895 inhabitants.’ It may make sense at this stage to note that the country’s current total population is 631,000 (or two and bit Geelongs). Podgorica, the current capital, is the biggest city with 150,000. The third biggest city, Herceg-Novi, has less than 20,000 people.

You can fit a lot of contemporary Cetinjes into Geelong (15 if you’re counting), but that only makes it more attractive. Despite the palaces, the monasteries, the museums and galleries, the embassies, and despite the fact that it’s a picturesque ‘past glories’ sort of spot with a lot to say about itself and its surrounds, and despite the wonderful tree-lined avenues and green swards, foreign tourists don’t go there. These chaps would be more representative of the visiting class.

I assume that these two would be locals. Ah youth, glorious youth! You can warm your hands from that blush.

We were hungry and headed for the square with a massive rain cloud gathering over our heads.

Along with most others who were out and about, we sat down at the Caffe Bar ‘Dvor’ (‘palace’) in the main square. And then it rained.

Mountain rain. Orchestrated with massive claps of thunder and streaks of lightning, I have never seen, or heard, such rain. It pounded ferociously for ten minutes, then it stopped and it turned into a lovely day.

We visited King Nikola’s Palace, a modest affair with a faintly Ruritanian feel.

The accessible parts of the ground floor had displays of highly-decorated pearl-handled pistols, highly-decorated swords and highly-decorated uniforms complete with medals, sashes, ribbons, epaulettes and jazzy buttons.

Fully dressed, one would have been a sight to behold, and I guess that’s the point.

Upstairs, the modesty was more evident. It’s a small show. This is the main state room for the conduct of diplomacy.

The main bedroom, nicely matched ornate furniture but tiny.

Out in the street we moved on past all sorts of intriguing architecture. Like most of the big buildings, the Blue Palace had seen better days.

The Russian Embassy has been one of the really grand buildings of Cetinye.

But after a fire in 2002 when it was an art school, its interior is currently derelict. You can read an interesting story about it here. (Keep going with the ‘Comments’ if you want to know what the plaque on the wall says.)

And this was the French Embassy until 1914. There is a wonderful run of tiles under the bottom windows which is hard to see just here.

All sorts of remarkable things really.

It was also incumbent on us to visit the monastery, ‘a spiritual centre for centuries’ but also for complex geopolitical reasons home to a fragment of the True Cross, the Right Hand of John the Baptist and the icon of the Madonna of Philermos. (See if you can work out the complex reasons. Clue: Jerusalem > Istanbul > Malta > St Petersburg > Belgrade > Ostrog > Cetinje **Answer far far below.)

I’m always keen to get a look at a good icon, particularly such auspicious ones. But despite the very high quality of the Orthodox decoration they weren’t to be found in the monastery. National Treasures, they were kept in the National Museum.

We found the National Museum. The third of it which was open turned out to be not where the icons were. However it was where they had THE great collection of Montenegrin art and, like many such things, it was terrific. There was the usual evidence of following larger movements (okay, let’s do Impressionist now …) but also of a great deal of originality ranging from St Genevieve who looks to be in big trouble (although the angel is on standby with a towel)

to a major collection of the very individual works of Vojo Stanic.

If you’re prepared to wander you just don’t know what you’ll find.

As recommended by our exemplary host we ate at the restaurant Kole. Tournedos Rossini: that night — not necessarily always — 6.8/10. We had already seen England beat Sweden convincingly and returned to watch a very tense game Russia versus Croatia. To my initial and unwarranted surprise all the locals were barracking emphatically for Russia, the home team and tournament host. One all after 90 minutes. Croatia scored late in extra time for certain victory. But then Russia tapped one in (Fernandez, brilliantly) just as the whistle blew for full-time. 2-2. The Croatian keeper Subasic had pulled his hamstring and was limping badly. Now defeat was looking closer to certain. But somehow he managed to stop the first penalty. Next up for Russia, Fernandez who had played so well, missed everything. And that was enough. 4-3 Croatia. My team. Ha!

Another drive, this time to Virpazar, along the two long sides of an isosceles triangle and through the outskirts of Podgorica which was a surprise, I wasn’t looking at a map at the time. Our driver assured us that Podgorica was a rubbish place, industrial, warehouses, run down, that sort of thing. We’d been told this several times, and that brief glance suggested it might be true. Myrna was becoming resigned to the idea that Montenegro might not be the place to plunder for wardrobe renewal.

‘Pazar’ attached to a name indicates a market or ‘bazaar’, something the Ottomans did leave behind. ‘Vir’ means ‘whirlpool’ and that’s what the locals called it. I might have this wrong but I believe Virpazar, today, is valued by Montenegrins as THE locals’ holiday resort — the one, the serious one, with its own iconic qualities. It is on the flood plain of the Morača which brings silt down from the endless mountains behind Podgorica and thus it is a remarkably fertile area in a country not renowned for its fertility. It is located within a national park. It is also the access point to a lacustrine boating paradise to the north of the bridge and to the south and east the rest of Lake Skadar, and although shared with Albania pretty much down the middle, a defining feature of Montenegrin life.

Huge and, yes, lovely …

Vir not so much.

My view was coloured by our accommodation. I don’t have a photo of our room but I have found this one of a luxury suite in our hotel. Our room was smaller, cases on the bed smaller, up six flights of stairs, no aircon, no TV, no hot water, no bath mat. ZalaZ accommodation in fact: of the people, living simply, learning about essentials, acquainting. No real reason for complaining which nonetheless my journal indicates I continued to do describing Bobo, our host, as ‘terrifyingly hospitable’. The hotel however did have a nice garden square in front of it.

And that’s Vir really … a boaty resort, and nothing much else going on.

We decided to complete our day there we’d go for a walk. Round the top of the lake to the hills behind the nearby town of Godinje seemed a suitable target, again where our walk with Zalaz would have taken us.

Godinje is in the centre. We followed the track up into the hills above.

This walk had several noteworthy features. The first was the constant presence of the lake and, although its moods didn’t shift much — too big, too grand — in navigational terms it was reassuring.

The second was just how astonishingly lush the gardens were. Flowers, vegetables, fruit, vines, just burgeoning.

We looked high and low for somewhere to eat and even went well off our track chasing signs that suggested there was a resort at the top of the lake presumably on the coast. I can find it looking now and, as I write, it is open. But that’s not much help is it.

But the third bonus was walking up the track inland to a collection of houses which might or might not have been called Lekovici where we met this guy whose name I was told but can’t remember. Perhaps Lekovič.

As I look now this might be the Organic Paradise Restaurant with a preponderance of 5/5 digital ratings. But I’d be pretty sure it wasn’t when we there. It did look like somewhere you might get something to eat and drink if you asked, as long as you were willing to listen to someone keen for a chat.

He was back in his home town. There was a strong suggestion that his aged father, who he had returned to care for after five years away, was the local seigneurial figure. As a rule he and his family (wife and 10 year old son) wintered in Novi Sad, a biggish city in northern Serbia not so very far in fact from Vlatko’s newly-acquired farm, but had spent most of the last five years in the Canary Islands living in a tent. Five years, and apparently the Canary Islanders had not taken to them. It was very important for us to understand that when his son got sick no one helped or even showed any concern.

One reason for living in the Canaries was that he was sick of the way Serbs and Croats were at each other’s throats, while in the meantime failing to realise that Germany was manipulating Europe’s economies and turning people into slaves, especially in weak countries like the smaller parts of what used to be Yugoslavia, read Montenegro.

Smart, articulate, well-educated, good English, but just slightly off-putting. I think we did look at the cellar where his forebears had hidden from the Turks, the Austrians, the Nazis and whoever else was inclined to do damage, but we declined the trip through the tunnel to show how you could come out at the church of Sveti Nikola a kilometre away and escape.

We drank a glass of his entirely presentable wine, ate some of his wife’s bread and salad, paid him €10, avoided his tour of the town and, shifting the route a bit, walked home satisfied. We ate dinner at a restaurant with an overwhelmed kitchen in a thick cloud of mosquitoes which later joined us for bed.

Podgorica had had a bad rap so far among our Montenegrin contacts.

‘Flat’ appeared to be one problem and, yes, it is on the Zeta Plain, silt deposited by the Morača, Ribnica and other rivers which meet there. But ‘Podgorica’ means ‘the area below Gorica’, a hill which has now been absorbed into the city. And what does ‘gorica’ mean? Little hill. (Rather better than ‘Titograd’ which was its name from 1946-92, a celebration of the Marshall who stuck the Balkans together with his own particular type of glue. Originally Titovgrad, it was recorded incorrectly in the public annals and common usage turned it into the mistake.)

But being a bit flat and very fertile made it a popular place to live from the Iron Ages on. The Roman Emperor Diocletian was born in a village on the fringe of the city still called Duklja. (‘Doclea’ not ‘Dioclea’: another name incorrectly rendered, by the Romans this time.) A centre for trade, it became a major Ottoman fortification (ah Mary …) and several thousand Slavs and Albanians were imported to populate it. The Albanians seem to have maintained a major interest in it. The Bushati family from Shkodra ruled for 70 years from the mid 19th century.

‘Industrial’. That’s another slap. Before World War I, most of Podgorica’s economy was in trade and small-scale manufacture, an economic model established during the long rule of the Ottomans. After World War II, Podgorica became Montenegro’s capital and a focus of the rapid and somewhat oppressive urbanization and industrialization that was typical of Yugoslav communism; economically good, environmentally less so. Industries such as aluminium and tobacco processing, textiles, heavy engineering, and wine production were established in and around the city. The Plantaza vineyard forming one boundary of the city is claimed as the largest in Europe. But with the dismemberment of Yugoslavia the command economy collapsed, and the UN/ NATO sanctions of the late ’90s just added to the pain.

Boris was driving us from Vir to Podgorica and he had a lot to say about this. He himself had 17 cars, but he was unusual. Most people weren’t rich he said. As we went past he pointed to the massive aluminium plant on the outskirts of town, secured for Montenegro during the late 60s via a profoundly dodgy tender process. ‘7000 people used to work there. Now less than 1000. All propped up with Russian money.’

Another critique. ‘It was bombed flat in the war.’ And so it was. First by the Luftwaffe in 1941, then the British in 1943, then the Americans in 1944 — 76 recorded bombing raids. (Also by the NATO forces in 1999 despite Montenegrins having very little involvement in the Balkan wars of the time.) About one-tenth of the civilian population was killed by this process, yet another reminder that ‘collateral damage’ is a euphemism pasted over a much nastier reality. After the war Tito promised he’d rebuild it and he did his best in a post WWII Eastern bloc way.

2000’s Millennium Bridge in the foreground, the post-war tower blocks in the mid-ground and the Plantaza grape vines beyond.

‘Nothing interesting is left.’ That too. We visited The Old City and it doesn’t seem to have been worthy of a photo. This is someone else’s. No it’s not. Can’t find one. It seems like no one else has thought much of it either. A few disembodied stone walls treated with limited compassion.

‘Boring.’ Hmm that’s what they say

As we drove through the tree-lined boulevards to be dropped at the door of our hotel, it didn’t look, prima facie, like ‘boring’ was exactly the right word. It looked rather lovely.

Our very comfortable hotel was in the middle of an active street beer/ coffee/ food culture with hundreds of people (invisible in this picture) sitting outside, chatting and having their lunch.

I was hungry and as is often the case on arrival picked the wrong place to eat, a very strange idea of a croque m’sieur, but what the hell.

We reconnoitered. We found the Old City such as it was. The Art Gallery/Museum was closed, but we followed the river along and the famous monument was there. This is worth visiting right here. I know. Weird. Did you notice the silver skull embedded into the platform? A memorial to Vladimir Vysotsky, ‘a Soviet singer-songwriter, poet, and actor whose career had an immense and enduring effect on Soviet culture’, and a regular thorn in the side of the administration, donated by the Russian government. Why? Who knows.

And the famous Millennium bridge.

As well as this sort of thing …

Did you notice this bloke? Might be a bit Montenegrin.

And while it might be a bit down at heel, it was NOT boring as we ambled along. There was always something to see.

Suddenly, out of nowhere so to speak, this magnificent creature appeared.

The Cathedral of the Resurrected Christ. What a building! and about 10 years old when we saw it with work still going on in its surrounds.

The lower orders are these massive blocks of limestone — most roughcast, some carved — which are just so impressive, a wonderful amalgam of construction and art.

And then you enter …


Everyone gets a go.

We walked home down Vasa Raickovica through the rather scungy high rise and shops of Novi Grad (yes ‘New Town’) and discovered an outstanding patisserie where we made up for all the food we hadn’t eaten. Podgorica was developing a whole new glow.

No soccer that night: the break for the semis, but after an excellent meal at Laterna we sat in a pub watching a street orchestra play sweet and sour Balkan music.

A genuine Ottoman relic, in good order

Next day we set ourselves to find a mosque, an Ottoman clocktower, a museum, a pool and succeeded with the lot. Several mosques really via an interesting and little used route through the backblocks.

The clocktower sat next to Pod Volat restaurant, a Podgorican icon, and it was an authentic Montenegrin experience. Lord Rowland would have been proud of us. Among the heavy duty masculine throng who looked formidably tough and their several glamorous female companions, I had beer and cevapci, Mernz an omelette and some remarkable cakes to ease off with, celebrating the end really. We’d been away for six weeks and that’s enough for anyone.

Then, after waiting a mysterious length of time for it to open, we found one of the great pools: clean clear water, happy swimmers, perfect temperature and immaculately maintained and supervised.

And that was pretty much that. Podgorica … ooooo, tonight 8.9.

In the evening France, looking inspired, beat Belgium. But I was more interested in England v. Croatia.

Kieran Trippier scored from a free kick in the first five minutes — ‘IT. IS. DELICIOUS!!! PICTURE PERFECT!!!!! THERE IS NOT A BETTER STRIKE THAN THAT!!’ — and a note of supreme confidence entered the English commentator’s voice. ‘We’ve got this, and almost certainly the Cup itself. In fact hold on. I’ll just put a call through to the PM about arranging the victory parade.’ An hour later Perisic pounded one in and (slightly deflated) ‘Croatia’s cravings are satisfied. … At least for now.’ A number of threatening shots on goal followed. ‘PICKFOOOORD (the English keeper)!!!!. PICKFORD IS AN IMPENETRABLE BRICK WALL!’ But then Mandzukic poked one through the bricks. (A sort of a death gurgle, as he announced) ‘England are hurting.’

Strangely, impossibly, both destiny and fate had been thwarted, or at least re-imaged as we might say these days. Croatia was playing in the final. The revenge of the Balkans. Hardy mountain races!! Mary was right all the time!

(Perhaps I do not need to add that of course Montenegrins are not Croats, not Serbs, not Albanians, they’re Montenegrins — Mary’s point precisely.)

Proof of hardiness: a Montenegrin dance.

** THE ANSWER: ‘Although Cetinje has been one of the most important spiritual centers of Montenegro for centuries, three highly esteemed and miraculous Christian relics (namely a fragment of the Crucifixion Cross, the Right Hand of St John the Baptist and the Icon of Madonna of Philermos) found their way by a combination of unusual circumstances. The relics, which had been stored in Constantinople (Istanbul) for centuries, belonged, after the Turkish conquest in the modern 15th century, to the Knights of the Order of St John. Thereafter they were taken to Malta [Home of that Order]. The Knights of the Order, forced to leave their seat, took the Holy Relics to Russia and bestowed them to Russian Czar Pavel. The Russian Emperor commissioned his best goldsmiths to make the golden chests for these precious relics and the golden frame for the Icon, both which were then decorated with jewels. After the decline of the Russian Monarchy, the Relics were handed to the Yugoslav Royal Family of Karadjordjevic. At the beginning of the Second World War, they in turn entrusted the Holy Relics to the Ostrog monastery in Montenegro [built into the side of a cliff in the Montenegrin hinterland], where they were enshrined until 1952. Nowadays they are kept in the National Museum in Cetinje.’

Yeah okay. A hard one.

[modestly] better news

For Bax and Deirdre. (and Myrna took a lot of the photos.)

Charles Conder, A Holiday at Mentone 1888 Melbourne. Oil on canvas. Held by the Art Gallery of South Australia. Look at it again. What IS he doing? Two lots of John Cleese in the one picture. But summer. Yes. Definitely Summer.

No one in my vicinity needs to be told it’s been a dud summer: a tragic summer, a horrible terrible summer. Coronavirus is making the running just now, but it was the bushfires that did the lasting damage. At one stage there was a report, now seared into my memory, that four percent of Australia was on fire.

This was the official estimate of areas prone to bushfire in August last year.

That is a pretty good description of exactly where they happened. Were we prepared? No WE weren’t. Scomo wasn’t. The Federal Government wasn’t. But the fire chiefs and emergency services were.

Not perhaps for the scale of what occurred, nor its intensity and the massive damage to the biota. Over 18 million hectares burned as of mid-January. Two billion animals are estimated to have been killed.

This occurred mostly in forested mountainous terrain. Just over twenty per cent of Australia’s forests burnt this summer.

This is a disaster of this type unprecedented at any other time or in any other place. Biodiversity is concentrated in forests: they are home to more than 80 per cent of all terrestrial species of animals, plants and insects. So, when forests burn, the biodiversity on which humans depend for their long-term survival also disappears.

For some reason, that seems to be a hard idea to get across. It’s not because animals are cute that there is cause for concern. Nor should we be grateful for the relative absence of insects. And, if you should need one, it is actually a VERY good reason to cancel the duck-hunting season.

But this is intended to be a [modestly] better news story.

8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8

We’d been spoiled by a very successful trip to Warrnambool but we still needed some eucalyptal air in our lungs. Nothing arduous, nothing too far away: just a taste of the Alps. So we decided to do the Baw Baw plateau walk or bits of it: Mt St Gwinear car park along ski trails to the top of St Gwinear, down through some boggy flats up to join the Alps walking trail, a climb to Mt St Phillack, lunch at Freeman’s Flat, then another kilometre or two to The Tors, and back to where we came from. On a most beautiful day.

The cairn marking the top of Mt St Gwinear, 1505m ASL from memory. St Phillack 1585.

Saint Gwinear? Celtic martyr, possibly apocryphal, probably named Fingar. Saint Phillack then? Irish (or British) martyr, not well enough established even to be apocryphal. Could have been named Felec or Felicitas. File naming process under ‘Mysteries’.

So, a climb up to the ridge in the background and following it for eight or so km. That’s the story. (But look at the form of the mountain ash in the foreground. Premier League material.)

I wasn’t sure whether or not we might run into large burnt patches. I had a vague recollection that Erica, close at hand, had been evacuated in a fire emergency.

But look what we could see on this lovely day.

In this photo the horizon would be 80-100km away and it was thickly forested all that way. The fires had been further east and north and, tragic though they had been, there are still mountain forests left in Victoria and we were in the middle of one at its very best, with plenty of radiant heat in the atmosphere and water under foot to sustain and encourage more growth.

We had begun the day at Peterson’s Lookout leaning over a pulpit of grey conglomerate to peer down at the Tyers River which looked like it had plenty of water in it. Hoorah.

It wasn’t Early early, but as the shadow indicates, about the time you might expect bird song. But the cacophony of bird noise as soon as we got out of the car was an encouraging surprise. They were all there. Kookas announced our presence and soon they were all joining in: yellow-tailed black cockatoos creaking away, magpies chortling and gurgling, Major Mitchells and Sulphur-crested cockies squarking, a lyre bird or two chiming in with copies and a chain saw on the other bank, flights of crimson rosellas careening through the undergrowth, tree creepers creeping on trees, finches foraging, grey shrike-thrushes just being their modestly glamorous selves. The point is that they were all there, all correct and in glorious disorder. They might have been migrants from the carnage elsewhere. But at least they were there.

As well as the remarkable fungus, this photo has got a fly and an ant in it. The March flies were tiresome, as they can be, but after I got into stride I couldn’t begrudge them their place and their role in it and if they were going to survive by nipping at my legs, then … just get on with it I guess.

Over St Gwinear (which has its own Facebook page!) you come to Gwinear Flat. It mightn’t look like it, but this is a wonderland of vegetation. You might be looking at 50 or 60 different species of vegetation.

Myrna is bending over looking at these: snowy white mountain gentians.

They are snow gums in the background, and these ones, so eminently photogenic, haven’t been burnt. (Scoparia after flowering in the foreground.)

They are ‘young’ (maybe 60-70 yo) and briskly healthy. Muscular in fact.

And this is one of these precious places that I have written about a number of times: an alpine mossy bog.

This one is full of all sorts of bits and pieces: mint bush, members of the Bossiaea family (pea bushes), Scoparia, sedges, heaths, but under all that there will be mosses and bogs holding water and allowing it to ooze into trickles which become creeklets constantly aggregating to find their way eventually into a river. What you are looking at is an example of the source of 30 per cent of all the water that flows into the Murray. And exposure to serial fires will kill them. But not this one. It seemed luxuriously healthy.

The flowers were not at their peak but they were out: trigger plants (below), Billy Buttons, alpine daisys, Everlastings in several colours.

But perhaps the best news. Regularly along the track, as usual almost always on some prominent feature, a protruding rock or root, a firmly embedded branch, we would come across these — fresh wombat scats.

All is well in parts of the world.

Cockatoo Island


Not Goat Island, Snapper Island, Shark Island, not Pinchgut nor Spectacle Island. It’s Cockatoo Island, the biggest island in Sydney Harbour, about 3.5 km west of the bridge: filled out to 18 hectares, carved into new shapes, three-dimensionally, from its original triangle. Great slices taken out of it for shipyards.

In the foreground of this photo is an old pump, a remnant of the island’s past — in this instance as a ship building site.

For three nights we stayed in the building on the top of this artificial cliff, what once were supervisors’ cottages, which have been refurbished for visitors.

The decks provided a wonderful albeit often rather smoky view down the Harbour.

And no. Don’t be silly. It’s not smoke. It’s night time.

The island has a resonant history which, as we toured, I couldn’t help but see as art.



The Sydney Harbour foreshore is rich in evidence of thousands of years of Aboriginal life, most evident in rock carvings and shellfish middens. But no such evidence has been found on Cockatoo Island, the Aboriginal name of which is Wareamah. The island is located at the intersection of the lands of the four tribes of the Eora nation which may provide one reason for this. But it also seems possible that the island may have been a place where women’s ritual took place, a special place not for domestic habitation. It is also possible that it was in reaction to what was observed in the 1839 Sydney Gazette: ‘It is without water and is said to abound in snakes.’

The current harbour foreshore: a jangle of tree roots, sandstone blocks natural and ashlared, remnant and contemporary infrastructure, 1950s ideas —  usually rendered in concrete — about how the seaside should be, tenacious and lush sub-tropical vegetation. Patterns of both contestation and settlement, one strong line matched by another, both ferns and sandstone blocks supporting the play of light.

See what I mean? It’s art.

Convict prison 1839-69

Norfolk Island was bulging at the seams. In Tasmania Lieutenant-Governor Franklin was refusing to accept any more second-conviction convicts. ‘No place in New South Wales would be so well calculated [for an extension of prison facilities] as Cockatoo island, surrounded as it is by deep water, and yet under the very eye of authority,’ wrote Governor Gipps.

As can be customary, the execution didn’t always match the calculation.

‘Mr Inspector Lane … has paid much attention to the condition of the prisoners at night. He has often seen them at the iron gratings gasping for fresh air from without, and he “wonders how they live”. The brutalising effect on the prisoners is admitted by all, and it is described by some as terrible in depravity. Crimes of the deepest dye are committed.’ (Select Committee on Public Prisons, 1861)

There’s a silence about this image. It looks like deep breath, clear air. Your eye might be drawn by the yachts in the background or attempt (unsuccessfully) to locate the Drummoyne Pool. The implication is time past rather than any reflection on what happened here.

‘I saw Swan sitting in a recess … I thought it would be a grand opportunity for settling old scores with my tormentor. Walking quickly to where he was, I sprang at him, seized him by the two ears, and in death-like grasp, with the full strength of my powerful arms, dashed his head against the stone wall. The blood spouted in torrents from his mouth and nostrils.’ (William Derrincourt, Old Convict Days, published after long detours in 1899)


You can look into the blank entries to the oubliette chambers, isolation cells excavated recently after decades of disappearance, forgotten-ness in fact as well as name. These oubliettes were entered from above via a ladder which was subsequently hauled up, or you might be thrown in. No natural light. Just you and sandstone, its considerable natural attractions turning into an implacable torture.

‘From its roof I was placed in a cell, six feet by eight feet and nine feet high. As soon as the trapdoor closed I was besieged by an army of enormous rats’. In the morning not only had the rats eaten through his jacket, used as a pillow, where his food was stashed but they had also eaten the toes out of his boots.

The architecture seems to request acknowledgment of its symmetry. But it might also be a calmness onto which you can paste your own thoughts. Even though this evening the sky was celestial, the scabbling and weathering on the sandstone ensures that the symmetry is not clean, that it has character, that it prompts a response. They are gun racks (in the guardroom) and firing slits in the far wall although it is unclear where they might be aimed. But you don’t need to know. You can just appreciate the visual form.

Reform School 1871-88

In 1871 the island became an industrial school for orphaned girls and a reformatory for girls convicted of crimes. The Vernon, an aged ship, was anchored off the north-east corner as a training ship for as many as 500 orphaned boys.

‘ … Three girls came abreast of the ship, in a semi nude state, throwing stones at the windows of the workshops — blaspheming dreadfully and conducting themselves more like fiends than human beings. I was compelled to send all the boys onto the lower deck to prevent them viewing such a contaminatory exhibition.’ (The Superintendent of the Vernon to the Principal Under Secretary, 1871)

Shipyards 1913-1992

The island had been a shipyard for decades before 1913. Excavations, by convicts, often in leg irons, sometimes up to their waist in water, of the graceful slopes of Fitzroy Dock were begun in 1847 and completed in 1857.

How does this sort of thing work? (A graving dock, like a grave, right?) You drive the boat in (sail originally), shut the gate, pump the water out and then do whatever you need. Furiously maritime. In more recent years it was claimed that Cockatoo Island workers could dock a boat, clean and paint it and send it on its way in eight hours.

During the years between the reform school and the focus on shipbuilding and maintenance, the island returned to being a prison for petty criminals. However, in 1913 the Commonwealth acquired it to become the dockyards for the Royal Australian Navy. Busy during the First World War, it became frantic during the second.

  1. Titan Floating Crane (20 storeys high, able to lift 150 tonnes); 2. USS LST 471; 3. HMAS Australia; 4. River Hunter; 5. TSS Nairana; 6. HMAS Hobart; 7. HMAS Bataan; 8. HMAS Arunta; 9. USS Glimer; 10. HMAS Barcoo

You will also note how the island has become almost completely covered in building. Perhaps half, by area, of these buildings have now been removed leaving big aprons,

one of which (below) has become a home for fixed tents. The friends who took us there played a significant role in setting this arrangement up.

But plenty of evidence of ship-building remains. In the photos above and below are four steel plate benders so heavy and unwieldy it was decided to leave them where they were, one of the island’s many sculptural wonders.

Close at hand is the slipway, a symphony in concrete and rust industrialised by the regularity of measurement markings, made art by sea air and abandonment — an installation, a major work.

Below, a wall of the design wing, one of the monster storage rooms for patterns (pattern makers: leading edge 50s technology, even in retrospect so impressive).

Acknowledging Mondrian, but better. There’s more work and life in the colour gradients of the panels than anything he painted. So much work has gone into creating an effect of harmony. The rusty grilles balance the white form in the lower quadrant; the vent at the top and the little black door play off each other. Even the rust on the corrugated iron works. Wonderful.

More than anything else it was this that set me off thinking about the island as a gigantic art site.

But once I began I couldn’t stop. Ships … mass, scale, weight, power, size.

And just look at these. Form follows function: folders, benders, stampers, presses, guillotines. From another world. What superb pieces.

Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer, eat your hearts out.

The machine room is the oldest workroom on the island. Built by convicts, again out of sandstone, it is left with some machines just sitting — creatures in steel, wildly complex but stationery, full of potential but not about to burst into life. Not without a figure present, a turner in overalls and boots with an oilcan and a big rag hanging out of his/her back pocket. Not without Kevin.

Static — but visually there is so much going on. The flavour of the way the paint is flaking off the sandstone, the soft light from the arched windows, the colours in the timber supporting the gantry, the offset of the variegated bricks in the middle of the background, the effect of the translucent but green-tinged fibre glass cladding. Suddenly those steel beams spring to life, and you become conscious that the joists above them are original: old, knotted and weathered but, as appropriate for a workshop and because of their herringbone strutting, now rarely practiced, still true and square.

A figure (thank you MM) adds a graceful sway to the squareness of the composition and the power of the gantry.

The wall to the right contains several works of abstract expressionism.

And finally a little bit of social realism: the entry to Dog-Leg Tunnel. Banksy (Very) Light.

‘The closure of the island as an operational dockyard was one of those events in the life of a city of region that signals the end of an era. For many it was a jolt to realise that an industrial site had run its course. The fraternity of Cockatoo Island workers and their families, generations of tradesmen, naval architects and administrators, felt the loss most acutely. They understood the depth of experience, knowledge and hard work that had been invested in the dockyard, the decades of achievement that had contributed to Australia’s economy and naval preparedness. They understood too, how easily this great legacy might slip from view.’

This comes from a history of Cockatoo Island from which I’ve borrowed heavily. The legacy is still there, if not in full view, readily accessible — made far more so by the efforts of the Sydney Harbour Trust and its hospitable and helpful employees. The island hosts concerts, art exhibitions, school excursions, film making, parties, openings and closings. It seems to me it’s going just fine.

If there is a niggle of concern it would be about the fortunes of the hundreds of tradesmen and, by the time of closure, tradeswomen, and apprentices and their knowledge and skills. This country sometimes seems just so willing to sell off capacity to make things. Maybe they’ve been absorbed into the shipyards of the present and future. I hope so.

We left the island having had an exceptionally good time, and because it’s an island we left by boat just as we had arrived. One of the key points I guess is that it is a maritime experience, foreign to but delightful for landlubbers like me. You take the ferry from Cockatoo Island to Circular Quay. Camera pointed, I continued with the idea of encounters with art.

A repeat pattern — regularity — suggestive of endless shoe boxes, set off by life boats with a ‘safe’ Hi-Viz roof along with decorative ribboned ‘handles’ of rope for floundering souls to grasp. Secure hatches and guaranteed flotation regardless of the size of the seas. It mightn’t be exciting, but it is orderly and secure. The Titanic, but so very safe.

It turns out that this ship is Ovation of the Seas, the ship from which on December 9th last year a party disembarked to visit Whakaari also known as White Island, just off the coast of New Zealand.

Cornelia Parker at the MCA

Cornelia Parker is a major figure in the British art world. It was a coup for Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art to mount the first major retrospective of her work. And a challenge.

Her most famous work is this one — a shed (full of shed-like material) blown up by members of the British Army caught mid-explosion.

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View 1991 (with all the bits and pieces suspended from a grid on the ceiling).

Not everyone’s cup of tea. Among the bits and pieces here are the remnants of a violin. One observer at least has recoiled in horror at this discovery. You never know just how people will react do you, just what will catch their eye.

* * * * * *

I had never heard of Ms Parker and as usual didn’t have my brain quite in gear as I entered the exhibition. I saw this.

That looks interesting I thought. Bits of dirt suspended from the ceiling. Very carefully I should add. I rather liked it. It had a rather superior sort of stillness about it and the shadows provided another dimension.

I read the label. The name of the work is ‘Subconscious of a Monument’. The bits of dirt, ‘desiccated clay’, have been dug out from under the Tower of Pisa — dug out not for the purposes of art but engineering — which as a result leans less than it used to. One question, perhaps the first: Uh huh … so errr … why did she do that? The second: what should we think?

Immediately next to it is this video.

A Palestinian resident in Jerusalem speaks about his family’s work of making crowns from thorn bush cuttings. In peak months he sells several thousand. His hands and those of his son are pitted with the endless cuts and piercings that come from the work. They seem to be sitting on seats out of a wrecked plane. His son is completely impassive.

Self-described, the man himself is simply a businessman making a living. He sees no irony or complexity in what he is doing. But we can. It’s hardly possible to avoid. He’s a Palestinian/ it’s Jerusalem/ they are selling crowns of thorns to Christians/ it’s a business/ and so on and so on … There are a series of big stories attached to these ideas. And is THAT art?

I was getting more interested. There was the suggestion of a particular sort of British mind at work. British? Not British. English. The sort of Englishperson who loves games and unravelling webs of knowledge. Stephen Fry.

Round the corner is her ‘Magna Carta’, a 13m long embroidery for an Oxford College and the British Library to celebrate the 800th anniversary of its signing. In fact, a 13m long embroidery of the Wikipedia entry for ‘Magna Carta’ on 15 June 2014, the 799th anniversary, exact right down to the references (about a quarter of its total length) and the illustrations.

The particular section at left, about 200x150mm, took 400 hours, and a great deal of skill, to embroider.

It’s an interesting reminder that Pope Innocent III was involved in the advent of the very English Magna Carta. England was mixed up in Europe a long time before the EU came along.

So far so dramatic. Good, but just as people were doing, you could walk past it pretty easily without paying much attention. The idea of the Magna Carta mightn’t mean much on a Sydney summer afternoon.

But the more assiduous viewer then reads that, to rub in its theme of legality, most of the piece was hand-stitched by 33 convicts. All sorts of celebrities contributed bits and pieces. Germaine Greer did two sentences. Jarvis Cocker stitched ‘common people’ the name of one of his songs. Julian Assange did one ‘freedom’, Edward Snowden did one ‘liberty’. Several senior justices of the British High Court contributed (‘justice’, ‘denial’ and ‘delay’). One sentence was stitched during his visit to Guantanamo Bay by a human rights lawyer. The work includes a tea stain from a prisoner’s cup and a spot of blood from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger (‘contemporary political relevance’) who accidentally pricked his finger while sewing.

Like the Pisa clay piece, an understorey (and an under story) has been built. Literality, but with a twist. Awaiting discovery. And embroidery.

* * * * * * *

From time to time Ms Parker likes smashing things up to reconstruct. (See, for example, the shed above.) ‘Re-Presenting’ she calls it, in the sense of looking at things in another way. She has described such things as ‘cartoon deaths’, the sort of thing that might happen to Tom or Jerry, while pointing that, even if this has been smoothed out and disguised in the finishing stages, sculptural practice usually entails a certain amount of violence.

For ‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ she drove a steamroller over items of silver — cutlery, food service, trays, musical instruments, vases … she’s ‘drawn to things with a past’ — to create what she now describes as thirty ‘pools’ which have ‘become almost natural objects’. They were there at the MCA suspended in patterns, ‘pools’ I guess, properly. Thirty of them.

In a 1992 piece, ‘Words that Define Gravity,’ Parker wrote a dictionary definition of ‘gravity’ out longhand, and then magnified and replicated each of the words in cast lead and threw them off top of the chalk cliffs of southern England. To complete the work, she collected the lead words, mangled by the fall and left with chalk impressions, and suspended them on threads just above gallery floor level. ‘The words were made illegible by real gravity’.

She returns to ideas to enlarge them. In 1997 Parker exhibited Mass (Colder Darker Matter), suspending the charred remains of a church that had been struck by lightning in Texas while she had had a residency there. Eight years later, Parker made a companion piece, Anti-Mass, using charcoal from a Kentucky church which had been destroyed by arson. She discovered when she went to look at what had happened that in the US the cause of burning churches is rarely lightning, especially when they have largely black congregations. She also discovered a group of white Americans who make it their job to help those churches get rebuilt. Strings of narrative attach to these pieces.

Her work is also often fun. She has made a collection of ‘faces of Jesus’ occurring in unlikely places, on a piece of tortellini and in oil stains found on the floor of car parks for example, or this one in the end of a Kit Kat. Something of a triumph. (And, it must be said, this is observation of the keenest order.)

* * * * * * *

So what do we have here then?

We know that she is absorbed by found objects. But she likes the back of things, the underside, what’s left when you take things away (like the War Room, at left, what’s left when you stamp out millions of poppies for Remembrance Day), what things are like before they’re constructed (the beginnings of a pistol in Sydney). She likes oppositions (embroideries with antonyms, one set of words on one side, the other on the reverse, both showing through); she likes comparisons and measurements (wire drawn from the silver in a melted teaspoon to the length of the height of Niagara Falls for example). She likes the attachment of stories and consequences (the Magna Carta).

She offers an invitation to join in these rather strange perceptual journeys. Things can be seen this way, she says. Fun isn’t it. And interesting. And challenging. And sometimes beautiful, or if not beautiful, at least deeply satisfying.

She describes herself as a grasshopper, but I don’t think any other creature, bird insect animal, has a mind quite like hers.

She is an original, an oddity that I can’t help thinking of as English, with the directness and confident self-exposure of an upbringing in the shires and, paradoxically, with feet squarely planted on the ground (while her eyes are darting round). It might be an unusual form of common sense on view.

The works can be easily read; you’re not tested by establishing the meaning but by the profusion of meanings. You can have a look at her (good, strong, immensely active) mind at work but you’ll have to bring your own game. In that regard they can sometimes seem a bit like a general knowledge quiz, (speaking as someone who believes emphatically in the general knowledge quiz). It might be that set of demands that make it art, the clincher anyway.

There is also a firm and attractive morality at work. It might seem political, but it’s not. Something far more fundamental is in play. I liked that.

White Rabbit

The White Rabbit must be one of the most interesting galleries in Australia.

It’s private. It’s free. It used to be a Rolls Royce showroom. It has a tea house attached which has recently extended itself to serving scones besides boa (dumplings). And it only exhibits contemporary Chinese art — in most instances owned by the proprietors of the gallery, Kerr and Judith Neilson, now divorced but still hopelessly rich (think billions).

I only mention this because the strong implication of many of the pieces we saw was that this might not be such a good idea.


Entry point. A bronze, covered in car duco, four metres high: Red Memory — Asking God. Tagline: ‘The pig symbolises the speed of growth of China today with its raw gluttony, greed and avarice.’ (Chen Wenling still lives in Fujian and he can still/ is allowed still make sculptures like that.)

Superfluity — having too much, abandoning traditional values, becoming immersed in materialism and commerce and the rapacity that engenderswas a recurring theme in this massive retrospective of the owner’s favourite works.

Like this.


And this.

IMG_0470 (1).jpg

But it wasn’t all consumed with consumption. Some of it was simply strange.

These are two separate works, but the combination adds a certain frisson. The balloon inhaled till it was fully inflated and then exhaled before inhaling again. A near life-size taxi nearby did something similar.


In a lot of the work there was an undercurrent of … what? Threat? Something to knock you off balance certainly.

Even in pieces as apparently anodyne as this.

The conventions of the portraiture are venerable, hundreds of years old: pale, calm, settled, face slightly tilted, expression only to be found in the half open mouth and the way her hands are clasped — perhaps a certain wistfulness. But her uniform indicates that she is a member of the Red Guard which, during the Cultural Revolution, was responsible for all manner of unspeakable violence. That might or might not be the point. 

Life is considered a tangle where at least some of the threads will be unknown quantities. This is only a small portion of the work. And yes, they’re people — in the work as a whole perhaps several thousand. Wherever one can see an expression it is the surprised fear of calamity.


Perhaps this wonderful calamity …


A coloured bronze casting. Interest wherever you choose to look. Every face, every posture, contains a story, even that of the bloke we can’t see over the back having a pee. This is awash in circumstance: full of aspects, full of responses, full of well understood and imagined humanity. There it is — don’t shy away — that’s what life is.

Or this sculpture, a three-dimensional rendering of a school photograph. The artist is the woman far right third row. Is it the fact that it is drained of colour that makes it unsettling? White is the Chinese colour of death.

You look at it once and think, oh yeah. Wow. Very smart. Mmm actually so clever. Beautiful work. So smart. In fact how the hell did she do that? Then you look at it again … and you’re unsettled. And you look again to try to work out why. You peer closer. But they are looking at you with their blind eyes just as hard as you’re looking at them. They’re silent. But they’ve started whispering to you. And what is it they’re whispering? They’re saying you think you know what this is, but actually you’ve got no idea. Better go look at something else before you start freaking out.

* * * * *

My companions found these works generally ‘hard’ and ‘bloodless’, with little sign of the artist and their feelings. I don’t know that I disagree with that. But I felt far more positively about them.

One thing shrieking from each work is the quality of the craft. On the top floor there was a pile of stones about 3m. wide adjusting itself with occasional heaving motions. Not a great work, but you couldn’t argue with the capability and thoroughness of the construction. And the taxi crash is a bronze! From memory it is about a metre and a half wide, and yet all that detail has been captured in a casting.

They were remarkably inventive — although perhaps it might seem like that because they are generated from another culture — and there was very little cheap about any of them.

This might have been the most obvious of them all.

‘W’ Bush and Wen Jiabao, ‘vulgar officials who pretend to be refined and cultured’, surrounded by icons of China’s rural past (the flowers) and grand cars suggesting the industrial cashed-up present. But even these are stunning embroideries and there’s something rather remarkable about the cast and pattern of highlights in the faces.

But I look at the whole and think that these are works that have been done by grown-ups.

They seem to be built on vast mounds of digested experience of humanity, not simple, not clear, but digested with heedless Chinese juices. This is not the art of comfort or fellow feeling or admiration. There is a toughness about it all that separates it from easy looking. This is art where the nerve endings have been tempered, possibly quite harshly. (One formidable example, an installation with ‘slave workers’ hanging upside down as slabs of meat waiting to be butchered.)

Finally, there is the weird fact that these exist at all, that they can exist, and in such a sophisticated form.

The first time we went to China 32 years ago, we went looking for art in Beijing and found it, on the customary overwhelming scale — a national competition with 1000s of contributors from all over the country. There were lots of nods to scroll art: waterfalls, exotic rock formations, teeny-tiny old people with a wooden staff and a conical hat and loads of this or that, mist, cloud, a dragon. But really most of the pieces would not have looked out of place at the Camberwell Rotary Art Show. Horses, pretty girls, land and sea scapes, boats at anchor, wizened relatives or just random old people. (Not babies. Why don’t people do babies?)

Then six years ago we found 798, the new arts precinct in a middle ring suburb of Beijing — and the revolution had occurred.

This is party members holding up a huge bundle of yuan, renmimbi, ‘the people’s money’. That’s what makes a party! And there was this utterly memorable tank made out of leather …

It’s the fearlessness of the work that’s so surprising. The sedition in 798 — and at White Rabbit — was more trenchant and more obvious than the crowd behaviour in Xinjiang. But somehow, who knows how, they get away with it.

Maybe that’s what we are looking at. That’s the grown-up edge, the constant awareness that art really can be a very serious and adult business indeed.

Christchurch: Recoveries

IMG_0148.jpgScott of the Antarctic. I have a fixed memory of seeing him years ago in Latimer Square over the road from where we were staying rather than next to the river nudging the CBD as he now does, and apparently always has. I remember how his gloves looked weird as though suffering from some sort of gigantism, and that there was an odd stump affair holding up his back leg. I do. Clear as crystal. Memory (shakes head), traducer …

Now I also discover that the statue, sculpted by Scott’s wife, Kathleen, was never finished. The ‘stump’ is helping to hold the whole shebang up. The gloves were to be reworked. (Good idea. They add a hint of jocular insincerity to what is clearly intended to be a serious work.) It was commissioned in 1913, started (in Italy, the war) in 1916 and the ribbon was cut in 1917 in the understanding (hers) that further work would occur. It never did. (1917?! During the war to end all wars. Just how far away from Europe is New Zealand, and for that matter just how big a deal was Scott’s expedition?)

I also remembered, correctly, that the inscription includes a late extract from Scott’s diary.

I do not regret this journey, which shows
that Englishmen can endure hardships,
help one another, and meet death with
as great fortitude as ever in the past.

May I suggest reference to Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure for further insight into this specifically English form of masochism, that of building an identity out of the romance of defeat. Amundsen got to the Pole (and back, losing no one) 33 days earlier because he was better equipped, better organised, more experienced and less full of, what can I say, lordly self-engrossed bullshit.

Christchurch’s relevance is that Scott left from Lyttleton, nearly but not quite a suburb, and Kathleen was travelling there to meet him when she learnt of his death.

He fell off his plinth breaking both legs on the 22 Feb 2011, along with a lot of the rest of the city, in what could only be called a catastrophe. But now, … he’s back! Gloves and all. We were there, quite incidentally, for the re-installation ceremony.

The statue looks north to what was in 1917 the key civic buildings. And now eight years later? Everything back? Sorted?IMG_0158.jpgNo. Still work to be done. Fortitude still required.

* * * * * *

A catastrophe.

The earthquake destroyed or rendered unusable 90 percent of the 600 or so CBD buildings. 12,000 other properties registered damage exceeding $100,000. More tellingly, 185 people died.

If you want an idea of scale, today’s papers are full of horror about the possible dollar cost of the Australian 2019/20 bushfires. Could be as much as $1.2 or even $2 billion. Horrific. But not long ago the NZ Reserve Bank estimated the total construction cost of the rebuild in Christchurch to be about $40 billion, $16 billion for each of residential and commercial construction and around $7 billion for infrastructure. And that is the construction cost. There are so many other costs involved. (I don’t want to spoil my point about the magnitude — and concentration — of what happened in Christchurch, but in Australia, for example, the unimaginable damage of what is happening this very day to the natural environment and its constituents can never be quantified.)

A lot has happened in eight years. We were there in 2015 and I thought then that it looked at least partly like a gigantic building site. The motifs were chain link fences, blasted heath car parks loosely covered with grey road metal, public art and shipping containers.2015-07-22 14.37.18.jpgThat was then;IMG_0177 (1).jpgthis is now. It’s not over yet by any means.

On the more recent visit our favourite coffee shop, the C-One, was still there, still standing, but like a monumental outrider rather than a molar in a set of teeth.IMG_0174.jpgWhat was it serving? And this is important.

Top left below are Lamingtons w/- white chocolate, coconut and [I quote] ‘a hypodermic berry syringe’. But just below the Banoffie Pies and the Custard Squares and to the right of the Caramel Walnut Brownies and the Marshmallow Caramel Slice are the Hemp Raw Balls (bottom right): w/- walnuts, almonds, linseeds [sic], sunflower seeds, dates, apricots and prunes [the entirety, just in case it’s not clear] dipped in vegan chocolate, pumpkin seeds, cranberries and Kako Samoa (refined sugar free, dairy free, vegan, gluten free, contains nuts). By some lights extreme sure, but up to the minute, the very instant in fact. NZ scones might have gone off, and tragically we think this is possible, but there is no obvious impediment to the boundaries of innovative edibles.IMG_0168.jpg

Four years ago this plaque was embedded in the seats along the footpath outside.img_1908.jpgIs that what has happened? I don’t know. But the view from that seat in 2015 was this.img_1829.jpgAnd now it’s this.IMG_0170.jpgBack, and going: and I am pleased to say including corgius intactus. They survived.

Miro restaurant (a much more interesting chocolatey red than appears here), which had for several years housed squatters, is another example of fastidious restoration20190205-NAT_3770+midlands+building.jpgwith very stylish interiors.original_sin_-interior_seating.jpg

There are some interesting new buildings but not as many as I thought there might be. Bouncing on huge isolators, this is an extension to the main hospital. The ‘X’ feature on the right is a structural member.IMG_0160.jpg

I thought this was wonderful.IMG_0175 (1).jpgŌtautahi: the place/home of (Te Potiki) Tautahi, the Maori name for the place where some of Christchurch is now, specifically near the fire station next to the river some distance from this building. But why this is so striking is that we are looking at a flat surface (with two obvious indents where the balconies are). It used to be a flat cream brick wall, and now it isn’t. L’oeil is certainly tromped. Just wonderful. And part of the new groovy area which was never far from here. Maybe that’s the Amundsen approach to recovery.

As might be obvious this was one of several beautiful days (i.e. before it got to -4C in Dunedin), IMG_0163.jpgand Hagley Park, undamaged by the quake, was as glorious as ever. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense to talk about a recovery from something that never happened, but this massive park in the middle of the city must be some sort of ‘recovery’ salve for the body politic.

Recovery is a complex notion. It might be assumed that it means return to a prior state. If so, there is no recovery and never will be from a natural disaster. Things will not be the same. The flavour of life, the form and colours of the background, social and economic as well as topographical, will have changed forever. I didn’t talk to enough people to get any idea about what they thought had happened but, even eight years after, the local paper ‘The Press’ still has plenty of column space for earthquake-related issues.

IMG_0715 (1).jpgSo over its centuries of life what has this magnificent tree seen?

The answer of course is nothing. Not a cracker. Trees can’t see. When SmoCo, the Australian Prime Minister talks about ‘the terrible threat that nature provides to this country’ he seems to be suggesting that, if not vision, ‘nature’ has agency and for that reason needs confinement, punishment even, a damned good thrashing! This is the sentiment getting a strong run in Australia’s Murdoch media — we must burn everything down to avoid everything being burnt down.

The real reminder should be that the only part of ‘nature’ that is capable of generating a threat is humankind. Only we can construct that as an idea. ‘Nature’ — if that’s what we call the climate, the vegetation, the landscape and its animal, bird and insect populations, the seas and rivers, the environment of which we are a part — may contain threats, but it doesn’t make them. 

‘Threats’ come from the idea that humanity’s task is to subdue nature and ‘have dominion over it’. If subdue means damage we’re going well. ‘Achieving dominion over nature’, a very strange idea in itself, will never occur; and only people who haven’t experienced droughts, earthquakes, fire, wind or marine storms would assume otherwise. This is the irony of the anthropocene age: we can make a first class mess of things, but we can’t control them.

This is where Scott (of the Antarctic rather than the Shire) and his ilk come in handy. They have words for confronting the implacability of ‘nature’: resolution, fortitude, backbone, fibre, pluck, dauntlessness. And those words are helpful to some degree. Who could complain about someone displaying fortitude?

But in terms of recovery efforts, if I had to choose I’d be turning myself inside out to make sure Amundsen was in charge.

Mount Buff

For all those Chalet honeymooners (John and Jo, Gil and Mem among them), and Bax and Ede who know a good lookout when they see one.

* * * * * * * *IMG_0266.jpg

From its other side, the west, the European explorers Hume and Hovell thought this looked like reclining buffalo. Its ‘Horn’ is to the left and its ‘Hump’ in the central area. A buffalo? Mmmm well no. Not really. That said I’m not a European explorer and it is no longer 1824. But according to current usage it is Mount Buffalo, one of the most interesting and certainly the most romantic of the Victorian alps. I know a dozen couples who had their honeymoon at the Chalet. That’s one reason, but there are so many more.

The Taugaurong and Minjambuttu peoples, indigenous to the area, far more appropriately called the mountain Dordordonga, The Friendly Mountain. They spent their summers on its plateau feasting on the Bogong moths which bred there gathering in their millions on rock walls and in crevices. 

5837-large.jpgFrom time to time in the past I have wondered how you might prepare Bogong moths. In my imaginings I haven’t got much beyond plucking one off the wall, popping it into your mouth and justcrunching it up. Wrong.

First, build a fire on a flat rock then, when it is suitably hot, tip a netful of moths dipsy from smoke inhalation on to said rock stirring all the while until the wings and down are removed. Place in coolamon and winnow to remove dust and wing remnants. Pound remainder until a cake or lump is formed, ‘like unto dough made from smutty wheat mixed with fat. The bodies are large and filled with a yellowish oil resembling the taste of a sweet nut. The first time this diet is used by the native tribes violent vomiting and other debilitating effects are produced, but after a few days they become accustomed to its use and then fatten and thrive exceedingly upon it with such excellent results that aborigines assemble from all parts of the country to collect [the moths] from these mountains.’ The lump didn’t last a week without spoiling unless it was smoked in which case it would last quite some time.

For this information I am indebted to the notes of Robert Brough Smith, geologist and amateur anthropologist, who observed this happening in the mid-19th century.

Another visitor round that time as a member of Baron Von Mueller’s survey party was Russian-born artist Nicholas Chevalier. This painting, The Buffalo Ranges (1864), won first prize (£200, good money) in the very first acquisition competition held by the National Gallery of Victoria where it can still be seen.

Dd102997-1.jpgThis reproduction is a very ordinary rendering of a wonderful painting distinguished by the care and precision of its detail, brilliant control of depth and utterly reliable management of colour, none of which can really be discerned here but you get the idea.

The Argus said at the time: ‘There is an alpine chain, snowclad, dark, as belongs to the sublime and precipitous, and full of the grandest reminiscences of the old world. Clad with verdure to the line of almost eternal snow, it affords us a distinguishing feature in the varied beauties of Australia Felix. Mr. Chevalier has not before painted a better or more characteristic picture; the rich foreground surrounding the old water-wheel — especially the rock-work, with its fine lichen clothing — is a beautiful piece of painting. In the centre there is a grove, which displays in a very brilliant manner the effect of the sylvan sunlight peculiar to our clime. The mountains are almost verdure-clad to the top, and the scene as a whole, almost reminds one of Chamounix [sic]. A watercourse, most beautifully introduced, supplies a defect in Australian landscape; and life is given to the picture by the bullockteam in the foreground.’ (Quite incidentally, this review has as much to say about attitudes to mountains and being just barely ‘at home’ in the Australian landscape as it does about the picture.)

The hut is the home of a farmer, Albrecht Durer Watson (now there’s a name), and his wife Margaret at One Mile Creek let’s say oooh… about a mile out of Porepunkah. (‘Porepunkah’ is a Hindi word for ‘gentle breeze’. Thomas Buckland, the first selector of land in the area and whose cows were the first Europeans to find a way up onto the Buffalo plateau, had arrived from several years in Calcutta.)

The painting is of the view from the north, the approach, the easiest way — there is no easy way — of getting up on to the plateau. Just how accurate Chevalier has been can be gauged from this pic from the extravagantly fertile Buckland Valley behind the foothill that, from the north, usually gets in the way. IMG_2447.jpg

We were off to do The Big Walk — and yes that is its name, no correspondence will be entered into — which among other things includes zigzagging across the rock slabs on the right above. We can’t see its beginning but this is most of the route.Screen Shot 2019-09-05 at 11.06.23 am.png

You start at the National Park entrance, the Eurobin Creek camp ground.IMG_2363.jpgOne way is about 12 km with a height gain of 1100m in 9km. We usually go up and come down again; appropriately, a Big Day.

The walk divides quite nicely into four parts fairly equal in length if not time. The first is the climb up to 7 Mile Spur. For 2km it varies between steep and very steep, puffing around slippery creek spurs.IMG_2370.jpgYou gain height quickly,IMG_2374.jpgbut it’s a stiff way to start the morning. When you get to the fire track along the spur it’s a relief that section is over.IMG_2380.jpgThen 600m to the road crossing at the hairpin bend. The trip by road to The Chalet is almost twice as far as the walk.IMG_2806.JPG

The second section is still up — it’s all up — but it begins by cantering along the eastern side of the ridge the road follows through Messmate, Yellow Gum, Sallee and Candlebark forest with the first views of the alps to the east.IMG_2385.jpgThat is Feathertop in full snow, the Razorback Ridge to Mt Hotham to its right. As you climb, these views just keep getting more expansive, better and better. You cross the road three more times and come out at Mackey’s Lookout.IMG_2392.jpgBy this time you’ve got to 960m asl, about 2/3 of the height gain, and you’re noticing it. It’s time for a cup of tea.IMG_2395.jpg

The third section begins here: a series of zig-zags across the rock slabs below the top of the face. IMG_2399.jpgIMG_3512.jpgBy my count, 31 corners 16 zigs and 15 zags, head out all the way, on a track that reminds me in places of the ‘road’ that the Austrians forced the Montenegrins to build so that they could haul their artillery up to the top of the cliffs above Kotor (at left).







Prime walking.

There had been rain — and snow melt — so therefore a number of random streams, and one big one which isn’t this one, were spilling down the rock faces.IMG_2406.jpgAnd just as it looks, perfect weather. Marriott’s lookout. Who wouldn’t enjoy this?IMG_2413.jpg

IMG_2409.jpgThis rock signals the the fourth section — the last of zig-zags and a long traverse west through quite dense alpine ash forest before turning sharply left back some distance across the lip of the face and around the inset of The Gorge. The track got wet,IMG_2416.jpgthen a bit snowy,
IMG_2417.jpgthen quite snowy.IMG_2424.jpgThis area was fiercely burnt during the last bad summer fires (2009) and is now coming back. One of the hazards here was saplings, hundreds of them, bent in a U-shape like animal traps over the track, their upper foliage trapped in snow banks. No damage to the trees, but entailing a lot of ducking and weaving to get through them, not to mention regularly going plop up to your crotch in one of the many voids under the icy surface. 

IMG_2431.jpgWe got to the highest point (Bogong on the horizon above), still about 2 km from the Chalet. It would be one hour to get there through deep snow and one hour back to where we were, even before the hour back through the snow that we had already done. Four hours through snow, and we would be doing the final hour of the walk in the dark. So, sorry but no. Thwarted but not dismayed, we scuttled/ scurried/ stumbled (Myrna’s generous choice of terms for my gait) back to the car. What a walk. You could call it a Big Walk.

But we needed to see the Chalet. You always need to see the Chalet, if only to be reassured that Australia’s largest wooden building is still there. We went the next day. (And just look at that weather!)IMG_2462.jpg

From the first, Europeans found something seductive about Mt Buff. Look at them at the turn of the last century. (Just the two colours available for hand colouring.)Government Camp at Mount Buffalo.jpg

The mountain was clearly defined — not part of a range — and visible if not necessarily accessible in a way the more remote alps aren’t.

Everyone had his or her own reason for liking it, and for that reason the social history of Mount Buff is a microcosmic version of perhaps any social history.

DSC00562.jpgFrom his trip here in 1853 Baron Von Mueller added 78 previously uncategorised species (of the 480+ present on the mountain) to his plant collection. E.T. Dunn, who called the plateau ‘a garden of the gods’, thought it the most interesting place geologically in Victoria. Thomas Buckland (and many others) was pleased to use the plateau as a place to graze his cattle during summer. Henry Carlile thought it would be ideal for a hospice. Carlo Catani was interested in the technical problems of design and engineering associated with building and transport in an alpine environment (so comparatively rare in Australia). unknown-1.jpegHilda Samsing made a going concern and a living out of the need for hospitality as the number of visitors grew. Harold Clapp pursued his idea that the mountain would be the perfect destination for train travellers, Bert Keown and Ollie Polasek for skiers. Sir Russell Grimwade and Sir George Kerferd thought it might be an important place to preserve. Sir Rupert Clarke (and a long list of others) thought it would be a good place to develop and make some money out of.

‘Guide Alice’ Manfield (above, in her scandalous trousers) and her brother Jim just seem to have fallen deeply in love with it. 

A range of interests like this is never easily accommodated. The opportunities for conflict between conservationists and developers are obvious. But it might not be as clear that they emerged as soon as Bill Weston built a log cabin on the lip of the cliff face in 1879 for a group of Melbourne doctors who were enthusiastic bushwalkers. Was this the government’s business or a private concern? Should the upper reaches of the mountain be made accessible for anyone who was interested? Could the various aspects of the mountain be ‘monetised’? Fascinating how these issues are constant over time.

Gold had been found in the Buckland Valley and prospectors searched for a time among the granite tors of Buffalo’s plateau, but mercifully they were distracted shortly after by the finds at Beechworth.

In 1898 1166 acres of the current Park around Eurobin Falls was one of the first areas in Australia to be declared a ‘temporary natural reserve’. Another 9355 acres were added in 1945 to what was then formally declared a National Park. But this didn’t put an end to cattle grazing on the plateau, ruinous to the indigenous flora. It wasn’t until 1958 that, via at best a semiformal agreement, no more grazing licences were issued. You could confidently imagine the reason would be to conserve the plateau’s indigenous flora and fauna. That would have been a factor, but the most telling reason finally was that cow shit was making a mess of the golf course!

468090-small.jpgEarly in the 20th century a vituperative war broke out between two transport companies vying for the right to transport passengers up the hill: initially horse carriage vs. motor charabanc, later bus vs. bus. Under the strain of cutting prices, both went broke. (At left, bent Sir Tommy Bent, Premier of the day (1908) opens the road.) Then there were the backdoor means (‘It wasn’t even discussed’, complained Jim Neville the distressed previous licensee) by which Victorian Railways acquired the rights to the Chalet in 1924. 

A Cabinet Minute of 1914 describes Mt Buff as the ‘premier tourist resort in Victoria’: more transcendent than Lorne, more accessible than Wilson’s Promontory. People came, slowly at first, fashionably in the 20s and 30s, and then, when people had private cars and the road up the hill was sealed, in a rush. 

For just a look or for a fortnight, they were on their way to The Chalet.

Opened in 1910, the Chalet is the earliest surviving example of purpose-built tourist accommodation on an Australian snowfield, second only to the Kosciusko Hotel in New South Wales, which opened one year earlier but which was destroyed by fire in the early 1950s. Prior to the involvement of the Victorian Railways, the natural beauty of the area was of recognised tourist value and many dignitaries, including the Governor of Victoria, made the journey to experience its beauty and majesty or to indulge in winter and snow sports. It should be emphasised that it is not a hotel, but is a guest house, with the emphasis on shared and public, versus private, facilities. It is of the most significant heritage value to the state of Victoria. (Mt Buffalo Heritage Action Plan, Allom Lovell and Assocs for Parks Victoria. 2002.) And in fact it has National Trust Heritage Overlay.800px-Mount_Buffalo_Chalet.jpgAh The Chalet The Chalet. It brings a smile to my face just thinking about it.

Our first holiday after our first daughter was born was a few days in Bright: a pig in a very cursory poke, unknown destination, just getting out of town. During that sojourn, one of the things we found — out of the blue so to speak — was Mount Buff and its chalet, and really you do have little choice but to go ooh ahh. Still. But that was 40 years ago when The Chalet was a going concern. It’s a smile now qualified.

Our kids learnt to play croquet on the front lawn, worked over the games room, swam in the pool, did the walks round Lake Catani. I think the last time we stayed as a family we might have had the Royal Suite, spec’d up for a visit that never came from the Duke and Duchess of Somewhere or Other. For dinner we would have had the soup which started every main meal and the roast which always followed in the semi-glittering dining room. We would have looked at or perhaps just walked past oblivious the displays of cups, medals and shields, pairs of skates, crossed skis, trophies of other competitions, other times, and poked our heads discretely round into the ballroom, barely noticing the bevelled mirrors and dark panelling, ambling around the endless corridors in which to get thoroughly lost. What a place. It had it all.Screen Shot 2019-09-13 at 4.56.05 pm.pngThe family at leisure in The Chalet’s piano lounge. At its peak the Chalet had a sauna, spa, gym, billiard room with four tables, games room, ballroom, dining room, café/ canteen/ gift shop, several lounges inc a smoking lounge and a TV lounge, drying room, tennis courts, golf course, swimming pool, small oval for cricket, croquet lawn, and activities centre (ski and toboggan hire) along with accommodation for about 240 guests and perhaps 35 staff. 1288244961817.jpgBut until 1983, no bar. No licence, no bar. Which didn’t stop people bringing their own. Norman Banks was one of the people escorted off the mountain for alcohol-induced excessively rambunctious behaviour. 

images.jpegIt didn’t begin like that. At right is Henry Carlile’s hospice, a very early building at a site which, with its 650m sheer rock wall, was a magnet for many ambitions.

Building The Chalet proper was a major government decision. The first design was for a granite castle replete with crenellations, finials and a tower. Didn’t happen.

By 1910 a large wooden structure had been built. The exterior was weatherboard with no interior lining. The roof had been built, against all advice, of bitumen slates which tore as the green timber in the roof (just cut from the trees on the plateau) expanded and contracted, and so leaked as a matter of course. The builder, John Duncan McBride, had warned of all these issues. Before work began, he offered to correct them by adding just £500 to his initial tender of £3195, and today we would have had a granite building.

There was no electricity, just slightly spooky, in the sense of dangerous, gas lighting. No lighting at all in the bathrooms or toilets occasioning some difficulty. There was no heating except for fire places in the lounges. A regular of the day, Dr Wilkinson, recalled that, ‘…the only public room was the lounge which had sixteen doors. The present ballroom was the dining room then. Guests had to come to meals with rugs and overcoats on. They would then rush through their dinner in order to get back to the fire. The southern wing where there was no lounge was known as “Siberia”.’

Did this stop them coming? No it did not. During one weekend of the winter of 1921 it had 163 paying guests, three times as many as pictured here.mt_buffalo_chalet_01.jpg

It was run by Victorian Railways from 1924 till 1985. VR’s Chair, Harold Clapp (whose father had overseen the introduction of tramcars to Melbourne’s streets) had seen the success of luxury resorts run by railway companies at the ‘end of the line’ in the US and UK — St Andrews, Banff, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone. He was sure he could make Mt Buff work for the resort, for the government and for his company. During that time for several decades staff wore VR uniforms, a train whistle blew for dinner held in what was officially designated the ‘Railways Refreshment Canteen’ where you arrived with your ticket for entrance. For some years there was also a curfew, because of the inherent lurking danger. 

images-3.jpegWho stayed at the Chalet? Well … in its day, the Who’s Who of Victoria: the Myers, the Brockhoffs, the Gadsdens, the MacRoberstons, the Grimwades, Sir Macfarlane Burnet, the Victorian Cabinet, the Prime Minister, various Governors. The German Ambassador and his staff were regulars for a time. Guests were required to dress for dinner, men in dinner suits, women in evening gowns. The photos above in the piano lounge and below in the ballroom are neither fake nor staged. That’s how it was.

There is a story in Dan Webb (yes, Danny, that Dan) and Bob Adam’s wonderful book The Mount Buffalo Story 1898-1998  —from which I’m stealing copiously — about a gang of 280 workers on ‘the susso’ (sustenance living wage provided during the Great Depression for public works) nearly freezing to death living in tents in deep winter on the other end of the plateau building the road to The Horn while High Society danced its way through the evenings at The Chalet.ballroom.jpegThe evening hours, which are given over to music, song, dancing and other indoor amusements, must not be overlooked when packing for a holiday at The Chalet on Mount Buffalo, and a dinner frock or gown of the semi-evening order is necessary. It would be as well to include a costume suitable for a fancy-dress ball. Victorian Railways Magazine June 1924 illustrated with this photo.

In 1938 the Railways sought and received significant government funding for expansion and renovation of the building: another storey added to the front wing, two new major wings, some private bathrooms, carpet (!!), more effective internal lining, establishment of the ‘Royal Suite’ and so on.

After the Second World War The Chalet found a new clientele. Migrants and displaced persons from Europe, many of them Jewish, found a comforting reminder of their homelands in the mountain charms and old-fashioned service of The Chalet. Year after year families returned for their summer holidays, and ‘many courtships took place under the watchful eyes of parents and elders in the ballroom’. (It’s Dirty Dancing all over again.) 

In the 1970s VR believed that old age pensioners could be persuaded to fill spare capacity during traditionally quiet times of the year. Entitled to one free country rail journey each year, many began choosing Mount Buffalo Chalet as their destination. The occupancy rate soared to the extent that in 1979 plans were drawn up for the refurbishment of the kitchen and stores, a café and better staff accommodation.

The Victorian Tourist Commission ran it from 1986 until 1993 when, like a lot of other things in Victoria, this task was put out to private tender. Several companies tried their hand.

It was during that time that I had the distinction of booking the entire complex, 235 guests for a night and two days. It was part of an effort to encourage Bright, Myrtleford and Beechworth schools to work together. The food was great, the sessions were interesting. We had a band and the ballroom shook with memories of decades of pleasure and sociability. A great time was had by all. While there were some green shoots, it failed of course because I didn’t have anything much else to offer them but a great night at the best that Victoria could offer. Their local. 

And in 2007 The Chalet closed.images-4.jpegIn the 61 years VR had run The Chalet it had made an annual profit twice; in the last five years it cost the Government $2m. In the ’50s and ’60s the average occupancy rate was 70-75 percent which I would have thought was pretty good, but 85 percent was the break even point, and there was the conventional resort problem of feast (Christmas, Easter, school holidays) and famine (the rest). Staffing was always an issue because more than half had to live on the mountain and, until the 80s, staff accommodation and living conditions were quite primitive.

DbCiotBVAAA6TCd.jpgAnd then there was upkeep on a wooden building, never well built in the first place, in an alpine environment. The degree to which it decayed in the five years from 2007 to 2012 was hard to believe. One would peer in through the picture windows down the panelled walls to the ballroom and the still vaguely glamorous front lounges, past the rotted weatherboards, destroyed guttering, termites in the piers of the foundations, fire escape staircases falling off the building, galvanised iron roofing flapping.



The big tor was still just past the cafe entrance. No one had bothered to shift it.


And the warning sign was still on the pool to make sure unruly and dangerous behaviour in the water was limited.IMG_2461 (1).jpgIMG_2460.jpg

In 2011 Parks Victoria developed a new plan which involved demolishing two-thirds of the building, new car park, day use centre including a cafe (which was to open in 2013; I’m waiting), fixed up gardens … that sort of thing. That would do me.

The front wing has now been restored to some degree. The foundations are right, the roof and cladding have been done up and that part has had a coat of paint. It looks okay.

But it needs noise inside it: chat, advice, plans, laughter, admonitions, toasts, speeches, stories of the day and of any day. Any day ever.  

But that might be it. Is it history, dead history now? The idea of the guest house, finished? While Woolies and the IGA and the Bright Brewery 1300m below are swarming with customers, don’t they want to come up the hill any more? Don’t they want to test the Buffalo’s magic to see if it’s still there? Do they even know that that’s on offer? Is it on social? Has it been Insta-ed?

Why did they used to come?

They wanted to look at The Leviathan.nma.img-ci20122933-027-wm-vs1_o3_640.jpg

Unknown.jpegThey wanted to climb, stand and sit on The Monolith.

(A passion appears for naming inanimate geographical features, especially rocks: Edinboro Castle, The Sarcophagus, The Piano, The Cathedral, the Monolith, Mahomet’s Tomb, Giant’s Causeway, The Leviathan, Whale Rock, The Sentinel, Og Gog and Magog and on and on. I’m calling it marketing.)


They wanted to sit or stand on any rock. (Pulpit Rock in this instance. Might be a man thing although there is one photo of Guide Alice lying down with half her body over the edge where the guy at the top is standing.)f9dc8faebcf71188c37a578933cdecc2.jpgThey wanted to throw snow at each other, and go tobogganingimages-1.jpegand skating on artificial Lake Catani, hectares of water a metre or two deep (which no longer freezes).images-2.jpeg

Maybe that’s over. Maybe the $86m plan for a new 99-room eco-lodge is the way to go. But maybe the punters won’t like that either. Maybe the charms of Mount Buff for the masses belong to another time, another culture. I’d hate to think so but it could be true. Not umm … interactive enough. Insufficient spectacle.DSC00533.jpg‘A Garden of the Gods’. Coming back from a walk to the South Wall, The Egg delicately balanced on the left horizon, The Hump in the background.

That same day we drove down the road towards The Horn, and a climb up The Cathedral and The Hump looked distinctly inviting. Basically up a snowy track for a couple of kilometres to each point with, as customary, the views getting better all the time, until from the top of The Hump the whole of the plateau is visible. 

Weren’t quite prepared. This is what the gentleman’s intrepid snow explorer wears these days. You can come straight from Collins St.IMG_3699.jpgWhereas the lady explorer’s today wear has gone a little more NorthFace. (At The Cathedral)IMG_2496.jpg

And then from the top of The Hump —IMG_3721.jpg

from The Cathedral to The Horn, about 5km as the crow flies, with long views to elsewhere.

You won’t run into cattle any more. The bush has swallowed the golf course utterly. The tennis courts can’t be far behind. The Oval is a lovely anachronism. A certain number of opportunities, defined by the season, remain to throw snow at each other. How much longer that will be true I can’t say.

On the flat to the right of The Cathedral where this video begins is the most important Aboriginal site on Mt Buffalo. It was a major burial ground, the most sacred of sites to the local Indigenous people, and perhaps that’s the right place to leave this excursion — a cycle perhaps, leaving this enthralling area to people who have a genuine handle to guide their appreciation of it. We’ve walked a lot here, across and around the top as well as up the front, and I can remember very few encounters with other walkers. Maybe it needs to be left for the sort of quiet meditation that walking engenders. Maybe.



[Trump] urges us all to shake loose the surly bonds of civilised conduct: to make science irrelevant and rationality optional, to render truth obsolete, to set power free to roam the world, to lift all the core conditions written into the social contract – fealty to reason, scepticism about instincts, aspirations to justice. We then, at last, will be restored to the primordial American state of nature – free to consume, to pillage, to destroy, to wall out our neighbours and to hate people for living in shitholes.

— Gary Greenberg: Analyse this: What Freud can teach us about Trumpism.


I saw The King (aka ‘Promised Land’) at the last Melbourne Film Festival. I thought it was one of the best films I’d ever seen. It had a lot of quirkiness built into its attempt to rope together scores of apparently disparate elements — images, words, music — thoroughly eclectic, ‘an onslaught’ one critic calls it, but so sweetly edited. 

Mid-film, the maker, Eugene Jarecki, sitting in a Phantom V Rolls-Royce which once belonged to Elvis turns to his road crew chief Wayne Gerstner who is driving and asks: ‘What do you think I’m doin’ with this movie now?’ Gerstner replies: ‘I don’t know what the hell you’re doin’ with this movie … and I’m not sure you know what you’re doin’ either. That’s what’s scary.’ He mulls a moment. ‘Some sort of comparison of the rise and fall of Elvis with the rise and decline of America.’

Bang. Got it in one.

A foundation conceit is driving Elvis’s car, purchased for US$400,000, the single most expensive element of the production, through key places in Elvis’s life: Tupelo, Memphis, Hollywood, Las Vegas and populating these places with voices from his past and the present. In the rear passenger seat we have contributions from a dozen sets of musicians, ranging from Emi Sunshine, a 10 year-old shouter of high distinction who sings with her family band, to a group from the Stax Academy which is devoted to teaching black kids the magic arts of vocal entertainment. They sing ‘Chain of Fools’ mesmerisingly. John Hiatt begins weeping. ‘Sitting in this car and getting the sense, you know, just of how trapped he was. He was just a poor mama’s boy from Mississippi.’ He then plays and sings, ‘Wind don’t have to hurry’, a most affecting song.

A heap of people offer their commentary, among them Elvis’s best friend when he was young, a girl he went out with as a teenager, his hairdresser, his foremost biographer Pete Guralnick, and Chuck D (from rappers Public Enemy), Mike Myers, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Ashton Kutcher and Alec Baldwin all of whom illustrate their capacity for keen insight and unabashed self awareness. Ethan Hawke, who co-produced the film and seems to be something of an Elvis scholar, makes notable contributions.

James Carville, Bill Clinton’s chief strategist during the successful years, also appears. Early in the film we have a shot of Mike Tyson destroying an opponent with one punch over Carville saying: ‘They say Tyson hit you so hard he changed the way you taste. It’s the same with Elvis. America never tasted the same after he hit it.’ True, absolutely true, and one good reason why you’d make this film.

I loved it, but many of the pundits of the American media didn’t share my view. [I think it has only been released to film festivals. It has not run in Australian cinemas. You can get it with the customary effort from Google Play.]

He is interested in showing how Elvis represents the ‘American Dream’ and exemplifies the ‘American story,’ as part of a larger goal of showing how America went from Elvis to Trump. But the movie does so in painfully simplistic terms, with encyclopaedia-style snippets of history, authentically pained but insubstantial musings on “how we got here,” and an odd reliance on the comments of celebrities who lack any particular Presley connection, and who end up stifling the genuine insights of non-celebrity subjects who do. As a result, ‘The King’ isn’t so much a diagnosis as it is a part of the mediascape that it decries.  — Richard Brody New Yorker

Elvis Presley’s instrument, a voice so singular that it was recognized instantly all over the world, provides a haunting counterpoint to the ideas set forth in Eugene Jarecki’s “The King.” But this documentary feature is fascinating and infuriating in unequal parts, the latter far outweighing the former, since Mr. Jarecki’s instrument is a shoehorn. With an insistence that borders almost comically on obsession, he forces the singer’s life into a larger theory of national decline — the American Dream is dead, and Elvis is the emblem of its passing. — Joe Morgenstern Wall Street Journal 

The New York Times was kinder but not a great deal more insightful. Pete Travers in Rolling Stone phoned 500 words in from some far away place.

But it’s not the American Dream with which the film is concerned. It’s America itself. As I read it, during the course of the film Jarecki becomes aware that he is using Elvis’s story to talk about the trajectory, and impending end, of the American Empire. As James Carville says: ‘We are so fucked, you have no idea.’

* * * * * * * *


Elvis-Home-8.jpgElvis began his life as struggling white trash. Gladys kept things together. Vernon didn’t. Elvis was three when his father went to gaol for eight months for forging a cheque, part of a pattern. They lived in this two-room house in Tupelo that Vernon built before moving to one of three houses designated for whites in a Negro district of heavily segregated Memphis. America is just emerging from the Great Depression at this point.

Was he Latin? Part Black? Sioux? No. His mother was Scots-Irish with a distant hint of Norman French and his father, from whom he got at least as much of his looks, German-Scottish. That velvet sensuality just emerged from some magical genetic collusion.

You can infer the real colour of his hair from the photos above: auburn, copper, chestnut, even dirty blonde. He was the kid who built his teenage quiff from pomade and jet black shoe polish with a christening of rose water. He dyed his eyelashes till he died. He was the kid who, in his teens, carried his guitar around in its case at school, the one who other kids called a hillbilly, who was shy, who did okay at school except in music which he failed. That last might be too much: apocryphal. I’d rather it wasn’t true really. I can see all the rest: the sloe-eyed outsider with music in his veins, frequenting gospel halls and listening obsessively to Mississippi Slim on Radio WELO and other stations that played ‘race music’. At 12 he was invited by Slim (whose brother knew Elvis at school) to perform on air. The first time he was too shy; the second he quavered his way through a gospel song.

He spent some years failing auditions, often apparently on the basis that he was neither one thing nor the other, a genre shape-shifter. Almost certainly hoping to be noticed, he paid the Sun Studios to cut two songs for his own use: ‘My Happiness’ and ‘That’s when heartaches begin’. One of the studio’s minions made a note, ‘Good ballad singer. Hold.’ And hold they did. For 18 months. This was no overnight sensation. Overnight came later.

When the call finally came he spent the day in the studio singing ballads with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, and it just wasn’t working. Sam Phillips, the boss, was looking for ‘a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel. I find one of those and I’ll make a billion dollars.’ At the end of the day’s recording, round 11 at night, the musicians were sick of it and started mucking round. Elvis began playing Big Boy Crudup’s ‘That’s all right‘. ‘Sam had the door to the control booth open … He stuck his head out and said, “What are you doing?” And we said, “We don’t know.” “Well, back up,” he said, “try to find a place to start, and do it again.”‘

Empires are founded on disruption of the established order. Disruption and, in time, transformation. Think of the American War of Independence, a lightning bolt into the heart of class-based societies everywhere. Or, more proximately, World War II ending with the US as the only cashed-up country in the world. That’s the clear beginning of the American Empire.

 But neither is that beginning an overnight sensation. It stands on the shoulders of 150 years of growth, development, influences and contributions, until a point is reached where it is not even a bit speculative to say: This is how it is now. We’re in charge. Not soft diplomacy, but a tidal wave of steely fact crashing down on your head. You don’t even bother telling people you’re the big dog. You just are. It has happened. It’s over. Think of the Romans in Gaul, the Ottomans in the Balkans, Saladin’s forces in Jerusalem. And, don’t let me distract you but, the Chinese today.

Elvis could croon, he liked ballads, he sang gospel, but at this stage of his career he chose to sing and play something else: rockabilly, rhythm and blues, rock n roll — your choice of term. But it wasn’t like anyone else. It was a disruption. ‘Before Elvis there was nothing’, said John Lennon. Bob Dylan agreed. ‘Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.’


This is a force of nature at work. Too hot for Nashville’s Grand Ol’ Opry for example. They politely declined a second performance. And, if the alternative is Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra, this is an earthquake; maybe why Frank, or someone ghosting for him, wrote in a trade magazine: ‘[rock and roll] is brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious. … It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It smells phoney and false. It is sung, played and written, for the most part, by cretinous goons. … This rancid-smelling aphrodisiac I deplore.’

The FBI was sent a memo from a Catholic Archdiocese saying : ‘Presley is a definite danger to the security of the United States. … [His] actions and motions were [while performing] such as to rouse the sexual passions of teenaged youth. … After the show, more than 1,000 teenagers tried to gang [sic] into Presley’s room at the auditorium. … Indications of the harm Presley did just in La Crosse were two high school girls … whose abdomen and thigh had Presley’s autograph.’

sullivan-136400246077602601.jpegThis is happening over 18 months. The ‘overnight-ness’ figures only after appearances on national television, firstly on the Milton Berle Show which accorded him his first number one hit, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, and then, famously, on the Ed Sullivan Show (Ed at left with El) where it was suggested that to accommodate the impressionable sensibilities of American youth the star would only be shot from the waist up. Sullivan had suggested that Elvis had ‘got some kind of device hanging down below the crotch of his pants — so when he moves his legs back and forth you can see the outline of his cock. … I think it’s a Coke bottle. … We just can’t have this on a Sunday night. This is a family show!’ But the evidence makes it obvious that they shot the lot, Coke bottle or not. Strangely, on his third appearance on Ed Sullivan they did only shoot waist up. It is believed that Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, insisted. To help with publicity.

On one occasion early in his career he was forced to sing ‘Hound Dog’ on TV to a stationary and only semi-alarmed but keenly alert dachshund. But this is a young man at the peak of his powers. He could do any damned thing. Like Mehmed II entering Constantinople, he surged past those sorts of impediments without even noticing. He seems to have been most annoyed by being referred to as ‘Elvis the Pelvis’, but even then it was only ‘silly’, a vague irritation.

He didn’t even have to ‘move’, but he did. At 21, one year after his debut on television, he was one of the most famous people on earth. Sticking with our parallel, there are moments when empires simply take fire, indomitable. Resistance suddenly looks so terribly out of date.

In a discussion of cultural appropriation, the film provides clear evidence that the dance moves in ‘Hound Dog’ — parallel knee waggles, up on pointed toes, hip shakes — can be readily found in black performance of rhythm and blues. Identical. It quotes from Public Enemy’s rap ‘Fight the Power’: ‘Elvis was a hero to most/ But he never meant shit to me you see/ Straight up racist that sucker was/ Simple and plain.’ Van Jones, a journalist and shaker in the Obama administration notes that we never found Elvis in the middle of a human rights march. And perhaps crucially that it was Big Momma Thornton who sang ‘Hound Dog’ first and some would say — not me — best. Where’s her credit line? Where’s her payday? But it’s Chuck D., the rapper who performs the Public Enemy lyrics above, who says: ‘Listen. The entire American experience is cultural appropriation.’ Hound Dog? A traditional African American field song? Not as such. Written in 1952 by two young New York Jews, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Empires hoover up everything: money, ideas, art, culture. Frankly, who cares where they come from? If you want to be where the action is, where the patronage is, where the stimulation is — the Medici’s Florence, Louis XIV’s France, Queen Victoria’s England, ’60s America — you will find endless threads of influence. In Elvis’s case you will find the manifold musical forms present in his environment growing up — bluegrass, hillbilly, gospel, the blues, rhythm and blues — in evidence right through his career. But he made something special out of his own version of them. And, frankly, frankly, anything else … go looking if you want to.

Then he was called up.


The song ‘G.I. Blues’ comes from the film G.I. Blues which isn’t made till after he left the service in 1960. I’ve included it here simply as a marker, although it’s not too bad, one of the shuffles that fill up his oeuvre, especially the film music: huggabuh huggabuh huggabuh chuggabuh huggabuh chuggabuh. But let’s be clear, it’s not rock n roll; and the audience is nodding appreciatively and swaying rather than screaming and presenting their abdomen for signing. And just as a side note, you can also look at this, and all of Jailhouse Rock among other things, and wonder if his appeal is not primarily androgynous.

220px-Elvis_sworn_into_army_1958.jpgElvis, who even before going into the Army had signed a deal with Paramount for seven pictures, was being managed. Elvis could have largely continued his career just wearing a uniform, but it appears that he and the Colonel agreed, if for differing reasons, that he should be in so far as it was possible a ‘normal’ soldier. The Colonel didn’t mind. On two weeks leave, Elvis recorded a stache of songs which the Colonel released strategically to keep the legend alive while Elvis was serving , among them ‘Wear a Ring around Your Neck’, Hard Headed Woman’, ‘One Night’, ‘(Now and Then there’s) A Fool such as I’, and ‘A Big Hunk of Love’, all monster hits.

But apart from discovering the value of amphetamines prescribed to mask the tedium of guard duty, Elvis was ‘normalised’ (certainly when compared with Muhammed Ali when he faced the same issue). When he returned to civilian life he seemed to have been rehabilitated for and by the commentariat and the authorities. He’d ‘grown up’ and become ‘one of us’. As one of the contributors to the film notes: ‘He left this city as James Dean and he came back somewhat as John Wayne.’ (That happens to empires too, the civilising influences of maturity rubbing their more rabid edges off.)

As is well known, he spent most of his stint in the army at Bad Neuheim in Germany where he also met the 13 year-old Priscilla later to be his wife. Apart from three concerts in Canada in 1957 this is the only time that Elvis left the United States.

We could talk about insularity, the insularity and self-absorption which tends to mark one strand at least of imperial thinking and behaviour. But it is more likely that Elvis would have been perfectly willing to tour like artists with an international reach commonly do. In 1968 he said: ‘Before too long I’m going to make some personal appearance tours. I’ll probably start out here in this country and after that, play some concerts abroad, probably starting in Europe. I want to see some places I’ve never seen before.’

popexpresso-com-Elvis-Presley.jpgWhy didn’t he? Probably the Colonel (above at left), whose name was not ‘Tom Parker’ but Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, a Dutch citizen and an illegal immigrant to the US, a fact which would probably have been uncovered if he had left the country, and he wasn’t letting Elvis go anywhere on his own. Voila! Elvis’s own Dutch East India company, a parasite (the first manager to do a 50/50 split on all earnings) on the body host.

Brody-The-King.jpgBut like his country, Elvis loved guns. He admired the US military and in his own indirect way supported its growing presence around the world — at this time especially in south-east Asia, the war that Ali had railed against.

And then immediately on discharge there were the films.

The films. Ahhh the films. He had managed to break back into gaol.

Unknown-1.jpeg31 of them, made between 1956 and 1969, often three a year: not a recipe for cinema of the highest quality. And I don’t know whether you will instantly recall Spinout or Easy come, easy go, or even Stay away Joe, tagline: ‘Elvis goes West, the West goes wild. And that’s no Sitting Bull’. In that film Elvis plays an ‘Indian’, a Native American, for the second time. But unlike in Flaming Star, the other one, a tenable film in which Elvis’s acting plunges more than millimetre deep, his Cherokee character is a combination of all available stereotypes of dodgy Injun shiftlessness.

And this makes it distinctive because his characters are far more commonly outsiders who conquer. The American Dream achieved. He is commonly set up against shysters and smarmy double dealers who represent an out-of-reach and predatory class defined by wealth, institutional authority and/or age. 

Most commonly, always, there is a woman (women sometimes) at the center of the film who is/are the prize. Wild in the Country — in which ‘Elvis Presley sings songs of love to [separately, three for the standard price of one] Hope Lange, Tuesday Weld and Millie Perkins’ — is the only film where he is required to display much in the way of brain. A grizzled sage (versions of whom turn up with regularity) tells him, unaccountably, that he’s got a knack for writing.

These films, written by algorithm, are for kids (young teenage girls more precisely) and fans who are willing to abandon their adulthood. I was a kid once. The first time I took a girl out it was to go to ‘Blue Hawaii’. We watched this.


So resoundingly memorable that it was the featured item at the Travellin’ Winklers’ wedding, sung beautifully as it has been so many times since. What a song! An alluring arms-wide-open invitation to join in, and sinnnngg — ‘… some things were meant to be. Taaaaake myyyyyy hand …’ But a great song in a rubbish film. Check out the clumsiness of the cut at 0.40 and the staging which requires everyone (Joan Blackman is The Girl) to become statuary, grinning for 2.40. You might as well turn the picture off and just listen.

These films propose the hero as a bundle of unbuttoned and glamorous id driven by (fairly genial) instinct and emotion — loose, untamed.  But the dormant volcano erupts only at unfairness, wrong doing and infringements of the character’s freedom. He might have a motor bike but it won’t be black; he might have a leather jacket but it will not have a skull and crossbones on the back. He not will have tatts and, just as in real life, he will be disarmingly polite and honest.

Paradoxically the real hero is a very organised, highly sophisticated and coldly calculating commercial machine. Not all of Elvis’s films made money but the bulk of them did. The Colonel was making money. Everyone was making money.

When given a choice, well … as Ethan Hawke memorably puts it in the film: ‘Elvis at every turn picked money. “Should I stay at Sun records? Well, there’s more money at RCA, I’ll go to RCA. Should I take this big, giant movie contract, even though I don’t have any creative control? Well, it’s the biggest movie deal ever, let’s take it. Should I go on tour like I want to or should I take the biggest offer a live performer’s ever had in Vegas?”‘

But of course everyone was taking the money. That was what you did. As Mike Myers observes in the film: ‘You used to link the US automatically with democracy, but now it’s capitalism.’ The US had turned into the greatest money-making machine ever. Finance, technology, manufacturing, agriculture, resource development, entertainment all supported by brilliant logistical systems and augmented by a genuine respect for research and development: a package of unfathomable proportions, enough to flood the world with its goods and services. Frederick Taylor’s principles of ‘scientific management’ which had been so influential were being questioned and superseded by Peter Drucker’s more sophisticated insights (especially on the importance of intellectual work), but all the machinery was still in place. Order, direction, focus, discipline, data, careful marketing, strong supply chains, hierarchical management systems, well fed but tame unions — all underpinned by the motivation and confidence that success breeds along with loyalty to the underlying idea.

This is an empire in full stride, wonderfully confident of its own perspectives and direction. Even if it wasn’t always true, you could (and even more so, should) assume that next year would always be better than this, and that your children would grow up to be happier, or wealthier at least, than you were. Tight, orderly, the procedural rituals of cultural control were generally well understood and observed.

Organisation Man might have chafed from time to time at the nature and rewards from his work. (Organisation Woman was at home cooking, hanging out the clothes and looking after the next prodigious generation.) But at root he must have felt that what was good for General Motors was good for the USA. Had anyone ever had it so good? Suck it up and get on with it. In Elvis’s case, 31 times.

However, you might note the bookend years for these films: 1956 and 1969. Between them, an earthquake in popular youth culture was taking place which Elvis may well have had a hand in starting but the Beatles were its most visible form. The story goes that in the early film years the Colonel used to put Elvis under a blanket so the car could get past the massed girls when he wanted to leave the studio. He was still doing it in 1969, but it was to hide the fact that there were no girls. The soundtrack for ‘Speedway’ released in late 1986 reached No.98 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Ignoring any of that, the films were making Elvis sick: in mind, body and soul; and he finally said no, or at least, let me do something else, something I want to do. (What were the children of the empire saying? Much the same thing.)

The 1968 TV concert ‘Elvis’ was the comeback. The Colonel wanted an hour of Christmas songs. Elvis and the show’s director Steve Binder dodged that marshmallow bullet. Jon Landau, who knows about these things, wrote: ‘There is something magical about watching a man who has lost himself find his way back home. He sang with the kind of power people no longer expect of rock ‘n’ roll singers. He moved his body [clad at times in skin tight black leather] with a lack of pretension and effort that must have made Jim Morrison green with envy.’

It had it all. I remember it. I thought I’d turn on the TV to watch this old tart to see what he had and could only agree with John Robertson: ‘He conjured up the vision of a performer who could be all things: a flirtatious teenage idol with a heart of gold; a tempestuous, dangerous lover; a gutbucket blues singer; a sophisticated nightclub entertainer; a raucous rocker.’


And NOTHING was better than the big finish, ‘If I Can Dream’. Play it again. Play it as often you like, and see if it doesn’t affect you each time.

He’s got a catalogue of these anthems — How great thou art, The Impossible Dream, Lord this time you gave me a mountain, My Way, I just can’t help believing, The wonder of you, You’ll never walk alone — huge vocals over towering feats of orchestration. Celine Dion and Whitney Houston, eat your hearts out. But this might be the pinnacle. It’s a better song.

Here’s a story about it.

America was in the midst of an upheaval in 1968. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing and our world and culture were changing. Within a short span of time, two leaders were assassinated. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis – Elvis’ hometown. Robert Kennedy, a US Senator who strongly supported human rights and social justice, was killed two months later, on June 6.

In the spring of ’68, Elvis was working on his upcoming TV special, ‘Elvis’. After seeing the news about Kennedy’s death on TV, Elvis spent a night with the show’s director, Steve Binder, and his friends, talking about the assassinations. The conversation was heartfelt and honest, and Binder went to the show’s Musical Director Billy Goldenberg and songwriter Earl Brown and asked them for a powerful, meaningful song that would close out the show. Because the special was slated to air in December, the producers and Elvis’ manager, Col. Tom Parker, had planned to end the show with a Christmas song, but Binder had other ideas. 

On June 23, 1968, Elvis recorded ‘If I Can Dream’ in several impassioned takes, even though it is said that the first take Elvis gave was perfect. The King gave such a powerful performance that some band members were taken aback, so blown away by Elvis’ performance that they had to do several retakes to improve their own performances.

But it was after the band and backup singers were sent home that Elvis gave an even more astonishing performance as he re-recorded the vocals. He had the lights turned off and fell to his knees on the concrete floor, giving himself completely to the song. After those takes, Elvis went to the control room and had his chosen take played repeatedly before he gave it his blessing. He told Binder, ‘I’ll never sing another song I don’t believe in’.

That’s a story. An innocent story really. But lurking in the background, regardless of Elvis on his knees singing, we have the highest quality made-to-measure sentiment manufactured more or less overnight. Power, resources, capability all thrown at it, from the lonely trumpet opening to the tinkling glockenspiel and the powerhouse synthesized organ; from the massed backup choir to the final anguished plea, even to the humble ‘Thank you. Good night’ to a silent (stunned? respectful?) audience. These people know how to put on a show. They are the best. The entertainment industry had long overtaken agriculture as America’s international trade staple.

All empires need a sustaining myth. It may be that the American empire was the first to make it secular. We’re trapped in a world/ That’s troubled with pain/ But as long as a man/ Has the strength to dream/ He can redeem his soul and fly. The American Dream: If I want it enough, I can have anything I want, I can be anything I want. Riiiiiight Now! A declarative flag pointing the way on a buoy floating in the sea of optimism that sometimes startles and surprises visitors to the US.

It’s also about individualism. It’s the ‘man’ (sorry women, these days you do too) who has the strength to dream, to redeem his soul and fly. Whereas if we sing (just as emotionally) Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set/ God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet, the ‘thee’ is plural — ‘us’, ‘the nation’, ‘the empire’.

And so when The Individual (say the President maybe …?), the one we’re counting on, the one in the spotlight, betrays their weakness …


… the nation shivers.

This clip is one of the reasons I wanted to write this blog. It was recorded in Rapid City, South Dakota, two weeks before he died. (South Dakota! How are the mighty fallen …) In the film we don’t see the bumbling first minute available here. The rest is used to run under the end credits, along with clips, among other things, of Bill Clinton embracing Monica Lewinsky, the initial bombing of Baghdad in the Iraqi War, Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster, OJ Simpson gesturing with the too small gloves, a crowd at a pre-Presidential Trump rally chanting ‘Build the wall’.

Wheezing, sniffing, sweating, unfocused, pasty, scarcely intelligible as he mumbles and mixes up words and yes, fat. Still self-aware enough to laugh at this version of himself, to ask the audience, ‘How’re you like it so far?’ And then he starts playing, and glory be, that voice! Some atavistic memory kicks in which allows him to hit the right keys, hammering them, maybe with a bit of incipient madness, enough at least to make you look through Contacts for the doctor’s number. The thick satin voice hits all the notes, or near enough. He can still drive to the top of the crescendo without slipping backwards, although it’s someone else’s voice who finishes it off for him. The vibrato is still there along with the bel canto embroidery. He can still do it. Somehow. Christ knows.

I am transfixed by this performance. Spellbound. It is perhaps, against all possibilities, commanding, but hanging all the way off the question: is he going to make it? Can this very sick man do this? And a second order question — who let him get this way?

He seems to have died straining at stool as they used to say, trying to resolve chronic and extreme constipation brought on by the opioids in his system. Initially it was claimed that the cause of death was cardiac arrythmia, something I’ve enjoyed myself. Further investigation found 14 different types of prescription drugs in his system, ‘ten in significant quantity’. His doctor George Nichopoulos was exonerated of criminal liability for the death. However, ‘in the first eight months of 1977 alone, he had [prescribed] more than 10,000 doses of sedatives, amphetamines, and narcotics in Elvis’ name.’ His license was suspended for three months.

As it happens, prescription drug overdoses killed more than 79,000 people in the US last year, an increase of about 15% from the year before. A majority of the deaths  — just over 49,000 — was caused by opioids. Not gun violence, not car crashes nor AIDS have ever killed as many people in the US in a single year. 







Since Elvis died in 1977 the gulf between America’s super-wealthy and its struggling masses has grown dramatically. Graceland is a small suburban cottage compared with modern executive mansions. At the height of his fame, Elvis earned $1.2m in a year; Amazon’s Jeff Bezos makes more than that every hour. In 2017 the 350 wealthiest Americans owned more wealth than half of all Americans combined. More than 70 percent of that wealth wasn’t made ab initio but built on inheritance. That doesn’t have the makings of aristocracy; it is aristocracy, dynastic plutocratic aristocracy. And that has all the makings of dissension and the splitting of the body politic that we seem to be witnessing.

An article in the ‘Washington Post’ (10/6/19) states that one in three American 18 to 34 year-old men are unemployed and at or near the poverty line, the new ‘lost boys’ and perfect fodder for all sorts of nuttiness including the mass of ‘incels’, involuntary celibates, yes those, the ones that spend their lives trying to make women’s lives hell.

I’d like to throw in a personal KPI that I adhere to, and often use, as in: ‘You don’t trust science? Do you ever drive over a bridge?’ There are 612,677 bridges in the US. In 2018 59,387 were, according to the Federal Highway Administration, ‘structurally deficient’ with at least one key structural element in poor condition. 

You can only make suggestive generalisations about something as gigantic as an empire, but without even mentioning misadventures on foreign affairs or decline in manufacturing or R&D or technological leadership, those sorts of things are pointers to decline.

Trump’s Presidency fits this state of affairs like a finger inserted into something that a finger fits really well. (When you clicked on the clip above did you see Trump? Whispering incoherently and gesturing oddly? I started doing this and now can’t stop.) He is governing on personal whim and bullshit.

Harry Frankfurt in his 2005 philosophical study On Bullshit: “[The bullshitter] does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.” Viewed thus, Trump — and his mates — are the personification of bullshit. And that’s the danger for all of us. That and his hopeless narcissism and insularity, his short-sightedness and selfishness.

We are watching a formidable attack on Enlightenment values (see the epigraph far above), those strange but important attachments we have tenuously made to civilised human social behaviour. Rush Limbaugh, a radio host/commentator who currently has a weekly audience of around 13.25 million unique listeners, has described journalism, law, the academy and science as ‘The Four Corners of Deceit’. Not every American listens to Rush Limbaugh and not every American listening to Rush Limbaugh believes that, but how is it that that can even find a place in public discourse and influential public discourse at that? These are fragile entities so easily destroyed, and generally by narcissism and insularity, short-sightedness and selfishness.

Can this be the country that gave us the Marshall Plan, the most civilised response to catastrophe there has ever been, the country that gave us the League of Nations, UNESCO, the World Health Organisation, service clubs, the Peace Corps, the country that made it a principle that corruption should be rooted out and never allowed to flourish (not least because of the way in which it stuffs up commerce)? And, on the surface at least, the idea that rational process was something to be pursued assiduously and relentlessly?

Empires don’t collapse over night. It took The Holy Roman Empire 500 years to slide completely off the shelf. The Ottomans were alive as long as Albania was paying tribute (1922), but that was centuries after everyone else had stopped caring. Brexit could be considered to some degree as a shout from the grave from the vestigial remnants of an Imperial British past. You can walk, albeit carefully, around the streets of London or through the home counties and still comfortably imagine a time when the sun did not set on the red bits of the map. It’s still there: it’s just that everything else has changed.

Is the US still a GREAT Country? Of course it is. Obama and Hilary were right, not Trump. The GDP is, if not burgeoning, just fine at present; the Dow Jones Industrial Index is healthy; the military might is still intact and shored up by inconceivable amounts of annual funding. India and China might be catching up, but Silicon Valley is the cutting edge of digital progress. New York and LA are still the ultimate destinations for people who want to develop and show off their talent. There are scores of millions of civilised thoughtful people among its population who are concerned about the daily maintenance of Enlightenment values.

It is a great country, a massively great country. But maybe it might not be the GREATEST country any more: a big dog sure, but not the biggest dog in the yard. Maybe there’s another big, and hungry (and hugely energetic, and disciplined) dog unfettered by ‘freedoms’ and ‘rights’ in the yard which might be pinching the food. (What the …! Bolto, get the gun.)

The US is a great country, a massively great country. But apparently it can be thrown off course by a few thousand illegal migrants entering by foot from the south, those drug-addled gangsters that pick the fruit and tend the houses, pools and gardens of rich Californians. And if so, I’m sorry to say, that’s not a great country.

When they begin failing, empires thrash about, still trying to assert themselves and confirm notions, their own and those of spectators, of their unassailable power. A perceived change in social (domestic, local, national) circumstances, especially a weakening of position, produces uncertainty and insecurity and a desperation to defend what is already no longer the status quo. We might see this realised soon in Iran. I hope not.

Now, especially, in this connected and accessible world, the scale of such changes is tectonic with the capacity to engender that insecurity and uncertainty on a world-wide basis. Everywhere. Like in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, Italy and all those other places where the Hard Man has suddenly sprung up for reasons that are hard to pin down. Is it in the hope that such people will provide protection from those inexplicable but troubling tectonic rumblings?

Jarecki says: ‘I found myself saying, “It’s like we all woke up one day and discovered we were Fat Elvis. We had been young and beautiful once, but now we were addicted to all manner of quick fixes – consumption, carbohydrates, drugs, vanity, violence. Elvis did all of that, and look where it got him.”‘

Maybe we have both been wrong to drag Elvis into it. Where did it get him? His output still earns well … money at least. US$40million last year, not to be compared with Michael Jackson’s $400m but that was a special case. El came in Number Two. Appreciation? I read a news story today that said if you were younger than 35 it was very unlikely you would have ever knowingly heard an Elvis track. Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! The remnants of the empire turn out to be impersonators, almost always from the Fat years, who are allowed to congregate in Parkes (smaller than Geelong and more rural) once a year.

Even after all that, you have no control of what is left. Destiny rolls on, even in that nation which built its identity first and foremost on being a republic — and where Elvis was The King.


• I have strayed a fair way from the film to follow my own route to thinking about these issues. Jarecki’s take is much more elegant and diffuse, partly because as I have said already I think he was changing his mind about the precise meaning of what he was looking at during the making of the film. That might be what the critics are complaining about.

But he may well have also been being cautious about his audience and their sensibilities. I’ve done far more shoehorning here than Jarecki allowed himself. He gives you a pretty free go to think what you like. But I’m not an American. I suspect that it could well be important for the citizens, including the articulate, smart and liberal citizens, any citizens, of the dominant country in the world to consciously or unconsciously repress ideas about a decline to Number Two or worse. But Trumpsters chanting ‘Lock up Hilary’… what are they shouting but: ‘We’re going down the gurgler and I’m really worried about it. Give me a bigger gun. I want to shoot some Venezuelans. Someone. Anyone. That’ll make me feel better.’

An honest effort to think hard about what’s going on is not something I would usually complain about. Particularly when the material, and the dialogue of the art, could be so rich. I think the critics might have had trouble with the nature of the chosen medium of expression (chasing an interesting parallel and looking out for where the bits knock together, and of course parallel things don’t knock together but you know what I mean). They might have been disappointed in the lack of stiffness in the connections in what is being proposed (and what I am proposing about the nature of empires, most seriously if it matters). But it’s not an allegory. It’s not even an extended metaphor. Not everything Elvis did is reflected in the trajectory of the American Empire (or even the American Dream as they keep misplacing it), or vice versa.

It’s just adventurous (and artistic) play which might pay off or not. You hope there’s an audience for that.

• Big thanks to Russ Maddock for helping me get the clips off YouTube.


• In 2012 the spider Paradonea presleyi was named in Elvis’s honor. That’s surely something.

Three good books on Post-Truth-ism