My Valentine climate

Today is St Valentine’s Day, or increasingly just Valentine’s Day, invented by modern marketing ostensibly to commemorate love. It is also the day in 1975 when Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse went to his reward after a lifetime spreading sweetness and light. Real love, not the greeting card variety.

I’ve been more than a bit flat lately, what with the pestilence, the totalitarian political response to it and the decline of civilisation in general. So it brightened at least this day when I opened my e-mail to find a notification from fellow Wodehousean Ashok Bhatia of his latest blog post – a poem to a grandchild, not his but one named John Jasper, a descendant of another Wodehousean. John Jasper is one year old today, for which Ashok began:

Allow us to welcome you belatedly to this wonderful world on a special day,
When you turn one and fans in different continents are celebrating Plum;
For this is the day he decided to hand in his dinner pail,
Leaving a rich legacy of joy, should we ever become glum.

In 2016 when one of my grandchildren happened to have been born on Wodehouse’s birthday – and his parents unknowingly named him Clarence, the same moniker carried by Lord Emsworth, seigneur of Blandings Castle – Ashok penned a poem not merely of welcome but also of inspiration. I hope I live long enough to present it to Clarence one day.

One wishes you a long and healthy life, full of laughter and love,
A sunny disposition to face the harsh slings and arrows of life;
A chin-up attitude, a song in the heart, a prayer on your lips,
Guardian Angels who fuss over you and protect you from many a strife.

Then, lo and behold, came a note from blogger Biff Sock Pow in normally sunny Texas wondering what happens when paradise freezes, as it is threatening to do. Apparently, winter in Dallas is not just cold at present but absolutely frightening its brass monkeys. Londoners to whom I have been speaking are fretting over inches of snow in the streets. Snow is late but metres deep in northern California. I love it when global warming kicks in.

I am unsurprised, though, at events in the northern hemisphere – because here in Melbourne, where February usually features a run on airconditioners, autumn leaves are appearing, weeks ahead of their time. I am sensitive to these seasonal changes because I am a northerner. Over more than half a century here I have never failed to be amazed by spring’s uplifting life and autumn’s brilliant decay. Where I come from there’s hot and less hot. You need a jumper for a few weeks in the middle of the year, that’s all. I once, only once, wore an overcoat in Brisbane and got looked at in a manner that suggested I was overdoing it a bit, mate. Young ladies in that part of the world refuse to consider a climatic imperative to dress in anything but the barest minimum. Trees are the opposite – they are always covered.

In Melbourne, summer has been cool this year, apart from one or two days – not weeks, days – and, after bountiful winter and spring rains, the vegetation has been exceedingly and enjoyably lush. My lemon and olive trees are hung heavy with fruit. Something is NQR, though. I inspect my produce every day for signs of ripening but skins remain frustratingly green and foliage is thinning. I suspect my little grove is joining the plane trees and the elms and the laurels around the suburb in seeking an early bed.

What can it all mean? Nothing, precisely nothing.

There’s a word we’ve been hearing over and over again during The Pestilence and it’s this: unprecedented. Don’t believe it, neither with the pestilence nor with that other alarmist joy, climate change. It’s all happened before and it – whatever “it” might be – will happen again.

Cheer yourself instead with sunny Ashok, and a plentiful portion of Plum wine.

Hail the Patto!

My dear readers, you had a pretty rough time of it in 2020. What with the pestilence, house arrest and the destruction of your civil liberties and basic human rights, you’ve also had to put up with The Traveller’s rants about trains and P.G. Wodehouse, some oh-so-precious whimsy involving Wordsworth, wooden spoons and fairies, incomprehensible nonsense about tram tracks and a couple of 100-year-old scoops. But amid the dross were moments of absolute comedic gold that cried out for special recognition.

Sir-Les-Patterson-430x574So I have created a new award . . . the Patto, in honour of Australia’s cultural ambassador, the King of Leer, Sir Les Patterson, and his best mate, Barry Humphries. You might remember that, in the biggest joke of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the organisers outdid all the players by stripping Bazza’s name from the gong for best-in-show. Are you with me?

The Traveller began the past 12 months with a visit to the Water exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane – the jargonised captions on various questionable artworks provided a laugh or two. Then there was the Tallangatta Prophet and his prediction (ca 1989) that the United States was in imminent danger of being crushed by the Soviet Union. I had a row about the meaning of “wowser” with another Australian, no doubt to the eternal fascination of the Americans who started it. The red-in-the-bed, fair dinkum, true blue human rights advocate Dame Mary Gilmore bemused, rather than amused, us with her reasoning on why the White Australia Policy was essential and mixed (race) marriages were abominable.

flange bike editAnd how about the yarn from the lads and ladesses in the New South Wales Transport Department? These faceless funsters decided – never mind the pestilential despoilation all around them – that Sydneysiders just had to be protected from their new trams’. . . drum roll . . . flange-way gap. Well, I won’t go into it all again. Just flip back to A flange health hazard posted on 30 June. “Cyclists [inter alia],” the bureaucrats said, “are vulnerable to the risk of one or more wheels becoming stuck in the flange-way gap in tram rails.” Some lunatics in Hamburg reckon this is more of an opportunity than a threat. They have fitted training wheels to a bike, inserted the big wheels in the notorious gap and, hey presto, created the Bahnradbahnrad, the tram-bike. Wheeee!

At the end of the day, though, all things considered, I reduced the field to a short list of two. Which post would win the Patto – the story of how the British Empire was lost on Brighton Beach (Rule, Britannia! on 4 September), or the florid imaginings of wine writers (Whining, Thurber-style? on 24 July)?

The first involved retired Scots Guards officer Donald Clark, of Tonbridge, Kent, who found himself in a minority of one on the town council by opposing mixed (sex) bathing in the local swimming pool. Australian newspapers reported this with some glee in July 1920 – yes, the date is correct – the same year that closet communist Mary Gilmore also unburdened herself on the subject of mixing. This much awarded poet (and did I mention human rights advocate?) reckoned mixing the races would weaken Australia and Cr Clark declared mixing the sexes would similarly undermine the British Empire.

Saucy Postcard 1Close and constant observation on Brighton beach had convinced the ungallant Guardsman that “the female form divine” was an “entirely mythical delusion”. The spectacle of a girl in a “dripping bathing costume, with wet hair hanging over eyes, and looking like a Skye terrier”, had been responsible for many a man taking an oath of celibacy. “More husbands have escaped from matrimony on the sands of Brighton than will ever be caught there,” said he, entirely oblivious of double entendre and Brighton’s reputation as a hotbed of infidelity.

He appealed to the Tonbridge council as Imperialists and patriots to understand that Britain’s greatest need was the raising of an Imperial race. That would be impossible, said the father of eight, if the council provided the means to make men hesitate in carrying into effect the relations they had made under more alluring conditions. No woman, however beautiful, could stand the test of appearing before the man she had inspired in the damp and bedraggled condition that was the inevitable consequence of a bath, whether public or private . . . Hundreds of brides (sic) had been doomed to a life of useless celibacy through that infamous institution known as mixed bathing. He regarded Brighton and those towns which had encouraged mixed bathing as the source of the country’s coming decadence.

And, of course, history has proved Donald “where’s your troosers” Clark right. The British Empire is no more. You read it here first, folks.

james-thurber-on-Burgundy-640x413The Patto would have been awarded there and then, had I thought of it more than five minutes ago. As it happened, though, along came those ever reliable wine writers, especially the one who opined that a particular white wine “tastes of pears bitten into a day before ripeness”. This is up there in pretentiousness with James Thurber’s immortal cartoon caption (which I am delighted to borrow again). Cap’n Peary, as I dubbed him, had a few other nice lines in his critiques of various wines in this one article but none matched this one, nor ever could.

Or so I thought until this same chap popped up again in The Australian with a survey of champagnes with which to salute 2021 – no Australian bubblies, only champagne which, of course, you understand can’t be anything other than from the designated Champagne region of la belle France. Yes, you’ve got him. He’s the Oz’s regular wine critic. I can’t keep him anonymous any more – welcome, Nick Ryan, to The Traveller 2021.

Nick serves up champagne wine writing. The choice of gems this time was dazzling.

One sparkler: “[The wine] smells of the wildflowers crushed by an outdoor tryst in spring sunshine, tastes of the macerated red berries consumed in the afterglow, and lingers on the palate like the memories of the long distant time when such things were possible.” (Ah, sweet youth, panting en plein air.)

Only slightly less glittering was: “The only palate immune to invigoration from an aperitif like this sits in a mouth glued shut by a mortician.”

And: “It is graceful and poised, full of fine white peach and citrus characters with a seam of crushed oyster shell running right through it.”

Nick seems to have unique way of eating oysters, so I suppose it’s no surprise his critique of the $300 Krug Grande Cuvee should be the finest of his pearls: “A mountain stream and the Atlantic Ocean are both bodies of water and beautiful in their own ways, but comparisons end there. Krug is Krug first and champagne second . . . this is classic Krug. It’s a head filling, swoon inducing, fever dream of baked brioche, candied citrus, white truffle, and a lost afternoon in byzantine alleyways of an ancient spice market . . . A life lived without at least one glass of Krug is a life wasted.”

Well, my life has been wasted so far. I can live in hope I guess, but I need to get a move on. I daresay Donald Clark missed out on his glass of Krug, and I’m afraid he is going to miss out on the Patto, too, because, really, no fair judge could go past the premature pear-eater. His champers drools have clinched the inaugural Patto. Tan-ta-ra!

No doubt, Nick, you’d like to thank gaard, your parents, your sisters and your cousins and your aunts and your agent and all the wonderful people who . . .

Nah? Oh all right then.


I work to rule when having a crack: If you get a chance at a cheap shot, don’t miss. Couldn’t hit anything but the bullseye this time – wine writing is the sittingest of ducks. Nick, if by some miracle you ever see this, be aware that it’s all meant in fun. I know you’re only trying to transmit your knowledge in an entertaining way but, golly meboy, you’ve gone over the top more times than a survivor on the Western Front. For what it’s worth, I thought you loosed off a few good shots of your own in your intro to the champagne tasting, especially the reference to The Big Lebowski. Sometimes nothing else but pleasure-seeking will do. Also, hurling a heavy ball at effigies of a certain Dear Leader would have been a good way to skittle a futile, frustrating and effed-up year.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

The sinister side of politics has had a long love affair with identity.

Dame Mary Gilmore is a fair dinkum Aussie icon, in the truest, bluest sense of that much abused word. Her image has adorned Australian stamps and two sets of Australian $10 notes. Sir William Dobell painted her portrait (below).

The Australian Dictionary of Biography says: “Mary Gilmore’s significance is both literary and historical. As poet and prose writer she has drawn considerable praise . . . her best verse . . . [is] among the permanent gems of Australian poetry. As patriot, feminist, social crusader and folklorist she has now passed into Australian legend.”

The note writer for the Reserve Bank of Australia describes her thus: “Author, journalist, poet, patriot and campaigner against injustice and deprivation. Dame Mary Gilmore was a founding member of the Fellowship of Australian Writers and Sydney’s Lyceum Club and was active in organisations as diverse as the New South Wales Institute of Journalists and the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship. A highly popular and nationally known writer, Dame Mary Gilmore was a celebrated public figure: Sydney’s literati gathered annually to celebrate her birthday; awards and scholarships were given in her name; and radio broadcasts and public appearances commanded her time.”

There’s more of this laudatory stuff, much more, to be found in even a superficial search of the WWW – but you get the idea. Dame Mary Gilmore (1865-1962) was a Great Australian.

Passed over lightly is that she was also a woman of the hard left. If she was not a card-carrying communist, she was most certainly a fellow traveller . . . with a season ticket. One of her earliest exploits was to become part of William Lane’s storied and failed attempt to establish his utopian New Australia commune in Paraguay. She founded the women’s page (above) in the Australian Worker, the official newspaper of the Australian Workers Union, and edited it for 23 years. It became her platform for her many ideas and political causes, including support of the republican Irish. She left it when it could no longer tolerate her radicalism, and finished her life writing for the Communist Party paper, Tribune. The award by King George VI of the female equivalent of a knighthood, on the nomination of a conservative Australian Government (in which Robert Gordon Menzies was attorney-general) stands among her greatest, and more mysterious, achievements.

Not easily found in the record is something else. On Thursday, 9 September 1920, this future legend and champion of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, unburdened herself in the Worker of something that had clearly been exercising her mind for some time. What follows in full is what she asked, and then answered:


Life asks form – perhaps. Perhaps not. Life is indifferent to form; she only asks being. Man is unessential to life, but life, having form in man, man is.

The kind of man does not matter to life. She is as vital and as much contained in the evil man as in the good; in the black as in the white. She is so indifferent to form that her indifference is almost reason for assuming a special creation as a means of clothing her life.

Life does not ask for man; a leaf, or an animalcule, serves her purpose just as well as man.

Man does not create her, and his death does not diminish her. He holds life as a cup holds air. Break the cup, and the cup is gone; but the formless air is unaware of the change.

Man’s part is to preserve his body; he only holds life by that preservation. Life can look after herself without his care, but the body is dependent on him. The body is all the self he has apart from life – perhaps, indeed, all the self he has.

His wonderful cells are drawn together to house her who is as indifferent to him as the warmth of the fire glowing through your body is to you; as the flame is to the wood that gives it being.

But life’s indifference is no ground for indifference on the part of man. Neither is it on the part of nations.

If you or I die, it does not matter to life; but it matters to us; and it matters to our fellows. For good or evil (and let us hope and desire that it should be for good) it matters to them.

And as with an individual, so with a nation; so with a race.

Life cares nothing for bodies – body of man, body of family, body of clan, body of nation, body of race.

But all these, being bodies; and only having, being as bodies, their bodies matter to them, and their duty is to preserve them.

It is the duty of Japan to maintain the body of a Japanese Japan; it is the duty of Australia to preserve Australian Australia.

Japan has no more right to seek to make us Japanese than we have to seek to make Japan Australia. The law of right of the body-to-be intervenes. It is not a question of better or worse, nor of superiority, nor even of difference; but merely and absolutely of Being.

No man admits the right of another man to kill him. No nation and no race should.

No man admits the right of another man to kill him unless he can kill back again. But life looks on indifferent. Both men dead, she remains, immutable in being, permutable eternally and everlastingly.

It is a vague perception of the eternal, everlasting, and indifferent side of life which makes many people indifferent to a White Australia, so that they say, “What matter if other races come here . . . Are they not as good as we are?”

Quite as good – for the housing of life. But our concern is not the housing of life, but the body, personal, national, racial, that is ours.

That is our beginning, our being, our ending.

This is the care of every man, whatever the sex, age, or condition life has given him.

This is the solemn charge of being.

Here is our right to a White Australia; a right just to ourselves; inoffensive to any.

So what? That was 100 years ago, right? Except . . .

This is a country today where significant portions of the intelligentsia want to tear down statues of Captain Cook, rewrite the history of settlement and denounce the merest hint of racism wherever and whenever it occurs. People brandishing placards march down from the high moral ground during a pandemic, unhindered by police when everyone else is under house arrest. Sports players now “take a knee” before matches and ignore the national anthem.

Green-left ideology dominating our institutions demands that everybody deny the facts of life. At the same time we must bow to “the science” . . .  but only “the science” that conforms to the ideology. Men and women,  especially men, are held to account for their sins no matter how far in the past they transgressed, no matter whether they have repented in the meantime, and no matter what they might have achieved. This is now a country where anonymous denunciation is the norm.

Surely, if there were a statue of Mary Gilmore anywhere, it would be a target, if not for destruction then at least for explanation. How can her image remain on our $10 note? Racism must be condemned. It can’t be cancelled by anything.

Or, as a Lady of the Left, is she excused?

Sally White writes on the Australian Media Hall of Fame website: “Dame Mary Gilmore was a contradictory character. She was an ardent internationalist but a fierce nationalist. She was a staunch socialist who revered the monarchy. She was a pacifist who was convinced that Australia should prevail over its enemies in both World Wars. She advocated the cause of Australia’s Aborigines and Europe’s Jews but once supported the White Australia policy and the expulsion of the Chinese. She lauded domestic virtues and marriage but lived much of her adult life alone, separated from her husband and son.”

Ah, she “once supported the White Australia policy”. Once.

What about this then, from the Australian Worker, signed Mary Gilmore, 6/7/21?


Oh, John, for old faith in you!
There was a day when we held you true;
Sturdy and set as a pyramid.
Man of your word whatever you did;
But, oh, John, shattered and gone
Is the old belief that we once gave you!

“John,” we said, “is a right white man;
And white he has been since he began!”
But, John, ambition grew up in you
Till it changed the man that once we knew.
And, John, John, of old tres bon,
You have killed the faith that we gave to you.

Think of it, John, how proud we were!
So proud that we felt the heart’s deep stir
Whenever we heard men speak your name
That now is spoken with hate and blame –
John, John! whom we leaned upon
In the once deep faith you have brought to shame!

John, was there never a clean white life
In all the world you could make your wife,
But you must turn to the dusk and brown
And draggle the proud white standard down?
John, John! whose face once shone
Where the pride of race was the white man’s crown!

What will you do when the children come? –
What! Is the once bold John grown dumb? –
When the chickens come home to roost, my man,
Brindle and yellow, and black and tan,
And long, long gone from the lips of John
Are the prayers he said since his race began!

There was a white wife close beside.
John, she was fittest of all for bride!
Did you think of her when you turned your eyes
Where the alien faiths of the Easterns rise?
Think of. it, John, we builded on –
As the tree falls forever it lies. 

These two pieces were penned a year apart. They are not the emotional outbursts of a kid – they display the tightly argued reasoning of the seasoned commentator that she was. In 1920-21, Mary Gilmore was 55 years old, she had been married in 1897 and a mother almost immediately afterwards. She had been close to Henry Lawson (in more ways than one) and was already a literary lion, having published her first book of poetry in 1910. Furthermore, the White Australia policy was very broadly supported throughout the Australian populace, having been enshrined in law as one of the first acts of the new Australian Parliament when the Australian federation came into being in 1901. The policy was supported by both sides of politics until the late 1960s, when it was dismantled into irrelevance, and formally abolished in 1975. 

Mary Gilmore died in 1962. It might well be that by then she had “once supported the White Australia policy”. Maybe she changed her views as she became even more widely known and acclaimed in old age after WWII. I don’t know but, although I suspect she didn’t change, I’m willing to give her benefit of the doubt. I’m willing to think, at least hope, that even past middle age she was still capable of learning and evolving.

Which none of today’s “woke” puritans affords people not of their ideology. They truly are sinister.

FOOTNOTE: When I started this blog, I intended to steer away from political issues, because the media are saturated with current affairs commentary and I’d had enough of the struggle over “issues”. If I have sometimes strayed from that purpose, it’s because, well, I’ve found something a bit quirky to comment on, or maybe just because I couldn’t help myself. The Gilmore story encompasses both of those excuses.

For the record, I do not agree with Mary Gilmore on anything, even her contradictions. Discrimination on the basis of skin colour, apart from the morality, is a complete waste of time and energy. You might as well throw away your Bible because it has a black cover. Skin colour is not a reliable indicator of race anyway (if that’s important, which I doubt).

As for the rest of today’s wokeness . . . bah, humbug!

Flowers that bloom in the spring, tra-la

As a northerner who lives in a part of Australia that has four distinct seasons, I am always captivated by the changes from one to another in the annual cycle. They bring out my inner Wordsworth.

It’s mid-spring here now and, as I wander lonely as a cloud around my neighbourhood, I am heartened, after a winter of pestilential house arrest, by the colour along my path. Over there, roses – deep red, pink, yellow, white and shades in between. Camellias, azaleas, fuchsias and, yes, daffodils and irises and freesias. Bulbs are almost finished, though, at end-October. Magnolias were gone weeks ago. Wildflowers: dandelions, daisies, some little red blooms and purple ones I can’t identify. Indeed, many blossoms that I cannot name, and flowering weeds too. Trees and bushes and little shrubs thickly green, and best of all the callistemon and melaleuca – aka the bottlebrush.

As with all the others, I know nothing much about them. I don’t have to, really, I just like them. Somehow they warm me up in a climate where for more than half a century I have relished the short spells of hot weather, and my summer clothes last for years because they hang more in the wardrobe than on my back. The bottlebrush blaze all summer long around here, drooping densely amid the dark green foliage. Some are pink but most are red, deep red at their greatest intensity. They hang over garden walls, they brighten the median strips of bleak main roads and they look wild, untended. Certainly the large tree in my backyard gets little physical love, only the vibe of a half-demented northerner. A branch fell off it once, and we’ve had the tree doctor in to trim it a little. It hasn’t reached full bloom this season yet but some time after Christmas I expect it to be full of scarlet flowers, and therefore something of a bee-loud glade. [Yes, I know – I looked it up – that’s not Wordsworth. I like to share the blame around.]

New growth

Enough of these romantic ramblings. What all this has been leading up to is something new that’s popped up this spring. I started noticing these strange flora in the winter of my discontent on the sides of roads and footpaths as I forced my reluctant old carcase to plod a mile or two across the covid-blasted heath.

They look a lot like wooden spoons, don’t they? And they’re odd. Some seem to have faces painted on them and they have ribbon-like tendrils, all of different colours. Since first saw them I’ve been watching to see them sprout with leaves and flowers. After all, it is spring, when things in the ground tend to do that. So far, no appearance but I remain hopeful.

The other day I came across this little plot that some helpful soul had marked with a sign.

I looked it up. ARK, apparently, is irrelevant – maybe a sponsor, Noah Shipbuilding Ltd perhaps. So we can dismiss it. “Spoonville”, however, refers to the origins of these strange growths. They are, in fact, aliens, imported like cape weed from distant shores. Their genesis has been traced to a Welshman who in quite recent times lost the chip off his shoulder in a place called Llwy Pentref, or Spoon Village in proper language. [I fancy that boyo was so cheered by his loss that he ran off singing to Las Vegas, but I might be thinking of someone else – it’s not unusual for me.] The shoulder chip cross-bred with the lusty milk wood and quickly took root in the fertile resentment of the valleys. Botanists have entered it in the catalogue with the tentative classification of dicula lignea.

With that heritage, and the politically correct quarantine facilities around here, it is no surprise to me that the dicky spoonville has taken its place alongside the leek and spread rapidly through a Melbourne mired deeply in grumpiness this past winter. We already had a tradition of stirrers and wooden spooners, and now those hardy perennials will be supplemented by a ready and renewable resource of actual implements.

And what about this?

Something else. I noticed this on my trek through the covid wilderness. There’s even a little welcome mat. What can it mean? Have witchetty grubs evolved in the Melbourne suburbs to the extent they now need their own front doors? Is it the entrance to Wonderland? Is there a connection to the dicky spoonville. Or is it just that someone has fairies at the bottom of her garden?

I suspect that what we have here is a virulent attack of whimsy. This must be shut down and the source of infection destroyed. Bring out your Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, Alice, Beatrix, Mr Toad, magic puddings . . . on the fire with them. Hippity, hippity, hop. Don’t even think about it. Whimsy must be eradicated. And Wordsworth, especially Wordsworth (he hated railways, you know).

Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the wives!

Given how long it’s been since schools taught true history, I thought I should let you know a startling discovery I have made trawling through some old and obscure newspaper files.

It’s this: the British Empire, the most tremendous, glorious civilisation ever, bar none, was not brought down by whatever you think happened – an excess of hubris, the Great War, an Even Greater War or mebbe just the yearnin’ o’ people to be free. The real cause was . . . wait for it . . . mixed bathing. Yep, that’s right: the British (well, actually, English) female in the swimming pool with the British male at the same time, simultaneously, together.

I was alerted to this earth-moving fact by a headline “MIXED BATHING A Patriotic Objector” that I stumbled over in the Thursday, 22 July 1920, edition of the long-defunct, but now digitised,  Wellington Times, of western New South Wales. The story went that a Mr Donald Clark, town councillor of Tonbridge, Kent, had become famous in England for his opposition to mixed bathing at the Tonbridge swimming pool. The ever-prurient Poms had found this curious not only because mixed bathing was a pussy cat that, even in 1920, had long since jumped out of the bag and frolicked among the pigeons but also because of his reasons for voting no.

Cr Clark believed this “Continental custom” would weaken his England, dear England, by deterring fine, upstanding Englishmen from marrying their English roses and therefore procreating and populating the Empire. He had done his bit – he’d been married 36 years and fathered eight children.

However, this retired officer of the Scots Guards, with 43 years’ service under his belt, revealed himself as somewhat less than gallant when it came to (as the Wellington Times report put it) “the female form divine”. The image was an “entirely mythical delusion”, of which close and constant observation on Brighton beach had convinced him. The spectacle of a girl in a “dripping bathing costume, with wet hair hanging over eyes, and looking like a Skye terrier, had been responsible for many a man taking an oath of celibacy”.

“More husbands have escaped from matrimony on the sands of Brighton than will ever be caught there,” he was quoted as saying. Interesting choice of words. Given Brighton’s reputation as an illicit trysting rendezvous, enduring even today, this statement taken literally might well be true.

I wonder, though, what this veteran Guardsman, of unstated rank and age, was doing on Brighton beach making a forensic examination of wet girls. Could it be that the old buffer – clad in his three-piece suit, slumped in a deckchair, knotted handkerchief protecting his skull from the sun – was, perhaps, like Leopold Bloom, enjoying rather more than the fresh air and sunshine?

Certainly not . . . how dare you, sir!! This is not a music hall sketch, nor a saucy postcard.

Judge for yourself, gentle readers. My diligence in searching the Australian National Library’s Trove database unearthed two other reports of the incident – both of them in the Sydney Sun but from two different Fleet Street rags, the Daily Mail and the Evening News.

The Evening News story seems to have been the original of the three, although it was the last published in Australia. Under the heading “DAMP AND BEDRAGGLED. Beauty in the bath. Mixed bathing and Empire”, the Sun provided the Evening News’ full report of the “impassioned speech” Cr Clark had made to the council before it voted in favour (by one vote) of the proposal for mixed bathing in the public pool on Sundays. Cr Clark had said he did not oppose the motion on puritanical grounds for “although a Scotsman, he admitted the necessity of washing even on a Sunday. He opposed it as an ardent Imperialist and patriot”.

Washing? Even on a Sunday? After that image of grubby Scotsman repairing to the local pool for his Sabbath ablutions, how could anyone not read on? It’s irresistible. Eschewing direct quotes, the reporter conjures up a pitiful picture (under a cross-head “Wet Scotch terrier”):

Let them imagine a young man infatuated overnight by the charm of a beauteous Kentish maiden dancing as his partner at one of the dazzling balls for which Tonbridge was famous. Then think of him meeting her the next morning in the public swimming bath, clad in a ready-made bathing costume that vulgarised her figure, her hair bunched in a hideous cap or straggling over her eyes, making her look like a wet Scotch terrier. He appealed to the council to regard this matter not as a subject for jest, but as Imperialists and patriots. The greatest need of the country was the raising of an Imperial race. That would be impossible if the Town Council in its thoughtlessness provided the means to make men hesitate in carrying into effect the relations they had made under more alluring conditions. No woman, however beautiful, could stand the test of appearing before the man she had inspired in the damp and bedraggled condition that was the inevitable consequence of a bath, whether public or private . . . Hundreds of brides (sic) had been doomed to a life of useless celibacy through that infamous institution known as mixed bathing. He regarded Brighton and those towns which had encouraged mixed bathing as the source of the coming decadence of this nation.

The Evening News concluded: “The women’s vote being very strong in Tonbridge, Councillor Clark will not seek re-election to the Town Council.”

The Daily Mail followed up the News. A “special correspondent” (most probably a stringer, i.e. a local reporter moonlighting for a few extra bob) went round to see Cr Clark at his home and found a “tall, soldierly man of more than 60” in his garden surprised by the stir he had caused:

Brighton beach bathers

 “I am a Puritan, and proud of it,” he told me [the reporter]. “I was perhaps brought up very strictly. I maintain that nothing is to be gained by any sort of laxness. What I said about mixed bathing was out of my convictions and in the interests of women. I am convinced that women lose more than they gain by mixed bathing, though I do not deny that the subject is a debatable one.” I asked him why he particularly instanced Brighton in his speech. “Simply because I know the town well,” he said. “The last thing I want people to imagine is that I regard Brighton as a very bad example. It is neither worse nor better than any other town. Speaking out of my knowledge of Brighton, however, I believe that more husbands have been lost than won on the beach there through mixed bathing.”

So, my small but perfectly formed audience, am I right? How fares the Empire since Cr Clark lost the argument? Did the parade of wet Scotch (or Skye) terriers through Tonbridge baths so weaken the moral fibre of the nation, and put off English manhood from doing its duty, that the Empire was doomed from then on?

Sadly, Churchill and The Few notwithstanding, I’m afraid so. Sigh.


As an old hack, with three stories on the one subject before me, I could not help but notice the differences among them and, employing observational techniques not unlike those the ungallant Guardsman focused upon the bathing belles of Brighton beach, reflect on journalistic practice. (See my survey of wine language.)

The three stories are each couched in different tones. The Times (of Wellington) is sardonic, with a suspicion of satire; the Mail is amused; the News sensational. Probably none of the reporters was actually present at the meeting because all three stories rely upon indirect speech for reporting what Cr Clark said to his fellow councillors. The only direct quotes are those the Mail reported from its interview with him in his garden.

The advantage of indirect quotation is that it allows the reporter to inject himself into the story by changing, emphasising or omitting words and phrases for effect, or to meet the purposes of the reporter. It also removes the possibility of being accused of plagiarism. However, let’s not get too heavy in this matter. I can tell you from personal experience that most of the differences in reports of the same story are simply the writer or sub-editor choosing one form of words over another or, indeed, just accidents of re-writing. Compare, for example, “responsible for the decadence of the nation” in the Daily Mail with “the source of the coming decadence of this nation” in the Evening News. The two phrases do not carry the same meaning but I’ll wager the Mail reporter (or sub-editor) in following up the News never gave it much thought.

Timing needs to be noted. The Wellington Times’ story was the first of the three to be published but this doesn’t mean its news was actually new. The Sydney Sun/Evening News story five days later, 27 July 1920, begins with the fact that Cr Clark had made his sensational stand on 2 June, nearly eight weeks before. The fastest communication between the UK and Australia 100 years ago was by cable, with messages transmitted in Morse code, but it was expensive and therefore reserved for urgent traffic. Journalists reporting from afar would cable a report in as few words as possible and sub-editors would build up the story with detail and background. Take Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Scoop, as straight reportage of this method. Cr Clark and his opinion would not have been treated in that way, so the story would have come to Australia by sea mail – in which case eight weeks was pretty swift, given the time taken at each end to get the story into print.

The two Sun stories are essentially reprints from their respective sources. The Wellington Times’ is not. The “London correspondent” it credited may have been someone from the district writing home but I doubt it. Most likely, reading the story carefully, the correspondent is a fiction and someone in the newspaper office in dusty Wellington has simply rewritten the Daily Mail’s story as a quizzical report on what is exercising the English press – Mr Clark has “suddenly become famous” at a time when “Continental bathing at fixed hours is the rule, not only at most of the English seaside resorts; but even at most of the public baths in London and the large cities of England”. The tone suggests the writer had his own purpose in rewriting the original. What he did with the only direct quote he took from the Mail clinches it for me.

Compare the Mail’s concluding quote from Cr Clark, as reported by its “special correspondent” in Tonbridge, with ostensibly the same quote reported by the Wellington Times’ “London correspondent”.

The Mail: “Speaking out of my knowledge of Brighton, however, I believe that more husbands have been lost than won on the beach there through mixed bathing.

The Wellington Times: “More husbands have escaped from matrimony on the sands of Brighton than will ever be caught there.”

While similar, the quotes are completely different in meaning and, especially, in tone. We’ll never know what Donald Clark actually said but I’d bet it was closer to the former than the latter. I think the Wellington writer, like me, took a somewhat cynical view of goings-on among husbands and wet girls in Brighton, and took the mickey accordingly. Maybe he had a view of the married state he wished to convey to his own significant other. Whatever the case his was a literary talent wasted in Wellington, NSW.







Whining, Thurber-style


I know ridiculing wine writers is like shooting fish in a barrel, as the saying goes. It’s not sporting. Usually I either just ignore wine guff or skim it, giggle and pass on to better things – like my 3000th game of solitaire.

But, with the pestilence gloom all around, I can’t resist the chance for some much needed fun. Two different winos reviewed the same two vinos this week, enabling a rare “compare and contrast”, plus they commented on three, I think slightly different, wines of the one variety from the same winemaker, which doesn’t allow a direct “apples v. apples” but is fun anyway. One of these super sippers added a sixth sampling, just for me. Oh, the words, the words!

Cop this. A white wine in this collection, one said, “tastes of pears bitten into a day before ripeness”. In the range of pretentiousness indulged in by wine buffs, if James Thurber’s cartoon caption (above) is a baseline 10, this is surely an 8 or 9.

I have omitted the names of the guilty in what follows. I don’t want anyone out there who might be familiar with the perpetrators to write rude comments about how these nice, civilised chaps don’t deserve the abuse of a hack whose almost total ignorance of wine-tasting technicalities and aesthetics is palpable (which it is).

1280px-Agave_americana_R01The first wine out of the cellar door, then, is the one that excited the pear-eater. It is, he said, “a delicious audit of the vineyard’s white varieties” – i.e. a round-up of a bit of everything in the paddock – which evinces, apart from premature pear, “melon rind and cut agave”. Melon rind – this chap is hungry: who voluntarily fangs the rind of any kind of melon? As for agave, I confess I had only a vague idea of what agave might be. This is it pictured here. The modern Jeeves, Wikipedia, informs us: “The genus Agave is primarily known for its succulent and xerophytic [no idea, don’t care] species that typically form large rosettes of strong, fleshy leaves.” Mexicans make tequila from it. Ole!

This white wine, our man in metaphor land concluded, is “taut and crunchy, with a fine talc finish”. Talc? Tasted any arm pits lately?

The other writer was relatively restrained. The wine, he reported, had been matured in a foudre – I looked it up: a vat. “The bouquet,” he opined, “is exotic, verging on oriental, the palate with multitudes of layers and flavours.” Well now, an oriental smell – Chinatown on a hot summer’s day, Jakarta drains, durian?

Next up is a gamay. The nasal nerves and quivering taste buds of one of our critics discovered “a piercing bouquet of all things red, the palate vibrantly crisp cherry, wild strawberry and pomegranate, leaving the mouth alive and fresh”. Sounds like a toothpaste, to go with the talcum powder in the peary white. Oh, and wild strawberries? I guess there are such things – I’ll have to keep an eye out next time I go for a walk in the park. Wouldn’t want to be nipped in the bud by a feral fruit.

The other scribe found in the gamay “Campari and rhubarb, five spice and char siu pork, some rubbed herb and wisps of smoke. A squeaky cranberry dryness. Slippery, juicy, fragrant.” Where does this epicure eat? I want some, apart from rhubarb which I consider a weed. But really, he’s fallen down on the job here – this is pretty much standard stuff for wine notes. I expected more pears of wisdom from him. “A wisp of smoke” lifts the crit a little.

The third variety these guys passed over their gullets was a pinot noir. I won’t try to sort out the three apparently different bottles. One of these wines, Cap’n Peary said, is “a shape shifter, a tight rope treader. From one angle it delivers wild strawberries, red licorice, delicately sweet spices. From another you see rhubarb and roast beetroot, some rubbed herb and blood orange. It’s a wine that hums with nervous energy.” All those flavours – it’s a dinner party on the tongue.

I don’t think I’ll ever walk a tight-rope again without eating a blood orange tasting of red licorice. Erk. Has he ever eaten red licorice?

The other gourmet found “a garden of spices alongside almost casual purity of varietal fruit”. Some glowing technical accolades followed, outlining the wine’s greatness “created by the stealth of its oh-so-fine yet persistent tannins. There’s no bombast here, just infinite class.” Oh-so-amusing.

Finally, I pass on to the chardonnay – an incomparable drop because only one of my two critics rolled his tongue around it. This wine, apparently, “draws its descriptors from geology as much as botany. Flint, quartz, and chalk [love the Oxford comma] form a bedrock on which elements of creamy lemon curd, delicate white stone fruits and dried pears sit. Cuddly at its core, alert and crunchy at its edges, graceful through the finish”.

OK, if the time ever arrives when we can go to restaurants again, I am going to clutch to my bosom a dessert combining coagulated milk flavoured with lemon juice, lychees from the original can and shrivelled pear, served on a crumbly lump of preferably quartz rock balanced carefully on the edge of the table – y’know, graceful, like – until I’m done.

Wine: the final front bar. These are the voyages of the steamed-up ship Pretension. Its eternal mission: to explore strange new words. To seek out new jargon and new metaphors. To boldly split infinitives where no wine-scribe has gone before!

A flange health hazard

Sometimes in this Great Pestilence, I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Mostly I just laugh. Take the following for example.

In The Australian newspaper of Friday, 29 May 2020, on a page featuring news stories on the Rio Tinto mining company blasting 40,000-year-old human relics to smithereens, police shooting a man equally to smithereens, three other stories about smithereens and finally something about a betting fraud, a quarter page advertisement caught my eye. Transport for New South Wales (i.e. the state government’s transport department) was investigating, the ad said, “industry capability for provision of a solution to the hazards posed by the flange-way gap in light rail tram tracks”.

Whoa, what? The flange-way gap? Even I, with my penchant for parallel steel rails, had to jog a few neurones into colliding before I got it. You mean those bits that stick out on the inside of the tram (or train) wheels and actually keep the wheels on the rails? Yep. And the flange-way gap on tram tracks is the narrow space between the rail and the road where the wheels run? Yep. Are you serious? Yep.

flange diagram editThere’s nothing more serious than a bureaucrat with an issue, particularly when everyone else is distracted by trying to save the world from a deadly virus. It is imperative that the threat to human life of the flange-way gap be addressed. Now.

flange tram tracks

Groovy, man

What threat, you may be wondering as a space-suited paramedic searching for a nasty bug pokes into your brain with a long-shanked Cotton Bud. How uncaring! “It is acknowledged around the world that the flange-way gap in light rail tram tracks can cause difficulties for other road users,” says TfNSW. “Cyclists, pedestrians with prams, and users of mobility aids such as wheelchairs and mobility scooters, are vulnerable to the risk of one of more wheels becoming stuck in the flange-way gap in tram rails as they are crossing the tracks.”

The rest of the ad describes the process of how the bureaucrats intend to deal with “interested parties” who may have a solution to the flange-way gap threat to life on Earth. Now look, I don’t have any wish to make circumstances any more difficult than they already are for people in wheelchairs or mums wheeling prams . . . bike riders, especially those who scare the pants off me on footpaths, can go to that place where global warming is, we’re told, severe and permanent. But in the great scheme of things to do in the world, solving the flange-way gap threat, such as it is, just has to be way down the list.

After all, trams have been part of the cityscape in many countries around the world for way more than a century and, indeed, tram networks are being expanded all over the place. Plenty of places also have heavy-rail trains running along city streets. In fact, one German city has completely integrated its heavy and light rail systems and even the Poms are doing the same in a couple of places. The problem in NSW is that Sydney has recently had a new light rail system installed along city streets, amid an epidemic of bike-riding, and it has clearly given the bureaucratic worryworts something really important to think about beyond the huge capital cost blowout of the project, glacial running times and general operational difficulties.

flange sydney

Crossing the line in Sydney . . . mind the gap

I’ve had a month to ponder the dangers of the flange-way gap, while I got on with work that might inform and amuse other people rather than just myself. Free association ran in a Goonish direction. The first thought that popped into what’s left of my grey matter was an old Peter Sellers sketch in which a Bluebottle-voiced adolescent described the skilled artisanship of toothbrushholesmanship – i.e. putting the holes in the end of toothbrushes so they could be hung up on hooks above washbasins. And then a Goon show lampooning the London Tube injunction to “mind the gap” between platform and trains. Somehow, because of Sellers probably, this led to the “mineshaft gap” from Dr Strangelove – “Mr. President,” bellowed General Buck Turgidson, “we must not allow a MINESHAFT GAP!”

flange desire edit

Another Flange

Even stranger was recalling Flange Desire, the female sex object from the short-lived but fondly remembered Aunty Jack show on ABCTV of long ago. [Any loose talk following this train of thought I shall both censor and censure.]

I also remember that, when Brisbane had trams rolling along its ridges and cascading down sweeping suburban thoroughfares, a mate of mine owned an old jalopy whose wheel track matched the tramline gauge. On a certain downhill run, he would set the wheels in the flange-way gaps, remove his hands from the steering wheel and coast around the curves. Another pal had a different experience. He used to ride a small motor bike with narrow tyres. One night in the rain, he locked into the flange-way gap and discovered to his discomfort, but fortunately not much else, that flange desire and wet steel are a bad combination. Flange-way gap awareness is not new – it looks new because someone gave it a name, like Covid-19, or SARS or MERS. Once upon a time they were all “the flu”, bad in itself but not deadly enough.

Anyhow, I feel the chaps and chapesses dealing with the existential threat of the flange-way gap are failing to see the real problem. They are too narrow in their thinking. I’ve been doing a bit of research – the old hack in me won’t let go – and I find that bureaucrats, engineers and tinkerers have been looking for a solution for years. There is, for example, a rubber plug that will fill most of the gap while still letting the tram wheels roll through. But all they’ve been looking at are level crossings, areas set aside for people to cross the tracks. They have failed to perceive the danger to people who don’t use the crossings – yes, I’m afraid there are people like that – and, more importantly, to bike riders like my friend of long ago who share the whole length of the road with trams.

Yes I know I’ve condemned bike riders. As far as I’m concerned they can get stuck in flange-way gaps forever and a day, or until they get mown down by a tram – whichever comes sooner. But I know this is inhumane and reveals a side of my character that is unlovely, to say the least. So, because we’re all in this together, I’ve bent my mind to finding the solution to the flange-way gap crisis . . . and I am humbled to report that it has been staring us all in the face for the best part of 30 years: the T1000 from the documentary film, Terminator 2.

The T1000 assassin robot itself is neither here nor there. What’s important is the material it’s made of – you might remember, this is a liquid metal solid and strong enough to hold anything but which can be cleaved easily and then it reforms almost immediately. Are you with me? Tramlines built of T1000 material do not need a flange-way gap. Tram wheel flanges just carve their way along the solid rail and the groove they create seals immediately behind them.

Wazzat? This is science fiction; T1000 material doesn’t exist? Of course it does. It’s in a Hollywood movie, well known as a channel for pushing ideas and technology like doomsday machines and incurable viruses out into public awareness before they miraculously come true. But if you don’t believe me, I invite you to look up “liquid metal” (or mimetic alloy) on the WWW. Maybe a few refinements need to be made but the basic technology is there.

We can eliminate the flange-way gap.


Just how dangerous is the flange-way gap? A fellow named Andrew Roseman, BE Civil (Hons), GradIEAust, a director, STRAIL Australia Pty Ltd, has provided the following information in support of his company’s solution to the problem (essentially a rubber filler): “Between January 1 2001 and June 30 2008, there was a national [Australia] total 77 level crossing train collisions with persons. The Australian Transport Council in 2003 stated that over 60% of reported deaths at railway level crossings are pedestrians. The National Level Crossing Safety Strategy identified that there is an increased risk where wheelchair or bicycle wheels may get stuck in the rail flange gaps and (level crossing) design should be appropriate for people with disabilities and other vulnerable road users. Research by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare into serious injury accidents at level crossings found that from 1999-2000 to 2003-04, pedestrian and cyclist serious injuries made up 35.8% (89 and 9 respectively), of the 274 recorded hospitalisations. Following two fatal accidents in Melbourne, the Victorian Government established a Taskforce to investigate issues of safety of people with a disability at pedestrian crossings throughout Victoria.” I leave it to you, my gentle readers, to decide whether that poses an unacceptable level of danger.

flange solutionEven a cursory examination of information available on the internet will reveal great brains have been turning over for many years on how at least to minimise the danger. This American company says, inter alia: “A common method of protecting against wheel entrapments and other mishaps, is the installation of compressible rubber flangeway filler. Flangeway filler provides a nearly flush surface for bicycles and pedestrians to traverse, but compresses under the weight of the streetcar’s wheel flange, allowing for normal transit operation.” How much better would that be with liquid metal?

Then there’s this:

flange bike editThe Bahnradbahnrad – a combination of a bicycle and a tram. You fit your bike wheels into the track and balanced on your training wheels you can whiz along, like my Brisbane mate of yesteryear. No danger of getting caught . . . you’re already there. It’s the innovative work of Hamburg-based art collective WAV.

I think they’ve got the right idea.

A story fit for mass consumption

The statistics are stark: over a five-year period 3500 Australians a year died from one particular infectious disease, 64 per cent of the 17,458 dead were between 15 and 45 years of age and 93 per cent of them contracted their fatal infection in Australia. The death rate per million people, however, was better than in many other countries, and falling. Yet this gave no satisfaction to one senior public health official because he reckoned at least 90 per cent of the toll was unnecessary – “each of these deaths has been caused originally by direct and preventable infection from either a diseased human being or a diseased animal”. The disease and the cause were well known, there was no vaccine against it but Australia, unlike in our ongoing Covid-19 crisis, carried on with life as usual.

Lone Hand 01051909The year was 1909 and the disease was tuberculosis, TB for short and once known as consumption. The snapshot above is taken from a report by the Chief Health Officer of Tasmania, Dr J.S.C. Elkington, published in The Lone Hand magazine of 1 May 1909, in a regular section “FOR THE PUBLIC GOOD”. TB is still a scourge of humanity today, although its continuing presence in Australia is largely forgotten by the general public because medical science and public health programs have it pretty much under control (one death per million in 2018). That outcome is the result of a 28-year national prevention and treatment program that was discontinued in 1976.

Think about that for a moment, as we are being allowed to emerge from our Covid-19 national, and almost worldwide, lockdown (or lockup, as I prefer). Add this timeline to your thoughts: the bacillus responsible for TB was identified in 1882; immunotherapy was raised as a possibility in 1890; the BCG vaccine of which we have heard so much lately was first applied to humans in 1921; mass immunisation using the BCG vaccine did not occur until the 1950s in many countries – and now there’s little anti-TB immunisation anywhere. The BCG vaccination that Australians of my generation had in our teens has not been part of the general immunisation program in Australia since mid-1980.

The point is that, throughout the past 138 years, Australia has never felt the need to fight TB by shutting down the economy – that being a one-word description of all human activity – as we have done over the past three months, despite there being loose in the community a highly infectious disease that erodes the lungs in most cases and in others causes crippling effects elsewhere in the body. Further, it wasn’t until 1948, after we got the Depression and World War II out of the way, with refugees and other migrants flooding into the country, that the Federal Government instituted a national public health program to combat TB.

I am not decrying what has been done to prevent the spread of Covid-19. I don’t like the authoritarian measures, nor the police state established to enforce them. But, while squirming under the yoke, as I said in a previous piece, I have to confront a salient question: what would you have done? My purpose in raising the TB experience, therefore, is to try to provide a different perspective on the Covid-19 crisis, and similar crises that are sure to follow. We should not forget that Covid-19 began life among humans as the novel coronavirus – that is, a new strain among a family of coronaviruses. It’s not a one-off. So even when a Covid-19 vaccine is developed and applied across all populations, there will be another virus or other unknown disease along in a minute.

Comparison with the so-called Spanish flu pandemic 100 years ago is not helpful. This is the only other time in Australia’s history that large parts of the economy were shut down and stringent public hygiene measures applied. (Public places like Melbourne’s Flinders Street station had “DO NOT EXPECTORATE” orders embedded in their tiled walls. I don’t remember noticing them recently but spitting in public is still a filthy practice.) People were not locked up in their homes, however, and, horrible though the flu’s impact was, it was not treated as a long term problem, and in fact it wasn’t. One reason was that, once all the returning troops from the war zones had come home, no one in 1920 could have imagined the mass movements of people around the world that we’ve experienced since the 1970s.

It’s also one reason for expecting the infectious disease crisis to be long term. The global flow of people for business and pleasure will resume at some stage soon – although “soon” looks as if it will not be until next year – because the public will demand it and governments will not be able to resist, especially in the free world. This means, inevitably, disease will once again start to be spread rapidly around the world.

In free countries – and, I suggest, in less free countries as well – the populace will not readily consent again to be placed under house arrest as each new crisis comes along. Governments will have to cease to be shocked, accept the burden and manage their way through on a long term basis. This is the lesson from having to cope with TB, and with polio and smallpox and other plagues. Public health measures will have to be put in place, more or less permanently, while the world carries on – i.e. “business as usual”. The health card people had to carry when I started travelling internationally 50 years ago will be revived (electronically of course), possibly for domestic travel too, and scanning will become commonplace. Quarantine stations might even be re-established.

The SARS virus outbreak was managed without draconian measures – I am struggling to see how Covid-19 is much different and warrants the crackdown we are enduring (rows of coffins in Italy and New York City notwithstanding). I suspect, though, that government had in its collective back pocket some notes left over from SARS and a skeleton plan of action should something like that come along again, and when it did, bingo, the bureaucrats and their political puppets took their chance to try out a few things. The house arrest of entire populations has been a giant social experiment that has morphed from “flattening the curve”, so health services could ready themselves for mass illness and death, into a mission-creep campaign of trying to kill the virus by stopping humans being human.

For me, “flattening the curve” was the main game and its objectives have been achieved – the dear old general public and their health and hospital systems are now able to cope with the inevitable “second wave” even if it is worse than the suppressed first wave. Continued lockdown and restricted societal interaction and travel are futile and destructive to both body and soul. The social experiment should cease forthwith, and proper medical management begin.


Hospital Screen-Shot-2017-10-15-at-12.45.50-pm

The J.S.C. Elkington who wrote The Lone Hand article quoted above was no ordinary MD. The son of a prominent Victorian educationist, in the space of eight busy years from 1902 to 1910 John Simeon Colebrook Elkington (1871-1955) transformed himself from a doctor who had failed his finals at the University of Melbourne but gained his basic qualifications in Scotland in 1896 and a diploma in public health, focused on bacteriology and tropical medicine, in London in 1902. He went to Launceston in 1903 to help combat a smallpox outbreak and never looked back.

JSC Elkington

J.S.C. Elkington

Elkington’s biographer, Michael Roe, wrote: “His report on the epidemic began an oeuvre of bureaucratic prose, outstandingly pungent and skilful. On invitation, he became Tasmania’s chief health officer in a newly established department . . . Elkington achieved much. He exhorted local authorities to care about health, campaigned against tuberculosis and food adulteration, and fostered infant care. His greatest coup was a system of checking schoolchildren’s health, which became a model throughout Australia. Nationalism led him to advocate a Federal quarantine service, achieved in 1908. On 1 January 1910 Elkington took up [a] post as commissioner of public health in Queensland.”

His 6½ pages in The Lone Hand the previous year represent strong advocacy for a national TB program, 40 years before one was implemented. The quote above goes on: “[T]he 24,000 deaths [from TB] from 1901 to 1907 formed only the termination of some 8000 years of dire illness and physical misery shared by the victims. These figures do not allow for the 10,000 and more consumptives who at the present moment are, throughout Australia, sowing the seeds of the disease in others, and who, within the next three years will themselves figure in this grim toll.”

Dr Elkington describes what tuberculosis is, how it is spread, the myths and “quackery” surrounding it, and the social and economic costs. If you substitute Covid-19 for TB, you could almost think the article was a contemporary commentary. There’s one crucial difference, though: “Over 60 per cent of all consumption deaths in Australia occur amongst people of between twenty and forty-five years of age; approximately two deaths out of every five at these ages are due to consumption. These are the years of maximum individual use and productivity, for they are above all the bread-winner and house-mother ages. They are the ages at which the death or disablement of parents leaves young families in charity. The 2000 and more deaths a year which occur at this age-period constitute an irreparable loss from an economic standpoint.” Covid-19, while it infects indiscriminately, kills mostly the old and the already infirm.

His suggestions for a solution to the TB problem, under the sub-head “How it may be fought”, begins in a now familiar way (and remember this is 121 years ago): “To estimate the chances of cure in a given case of consumption is a medical question pure and simple; to discuss the possibility of uprooting tuberculosis from a community involves close study of the most intricate social and economic problems. It is easy to formulate the academic measures required . . .” And he proceeds to list what could be, and was being, done. Except for our countrywide restrictions on movement and social interaction, these measures are every bit applicable to current Covid-19 management.

This was not good enough, though. After a dense paragraph decrying the lack of political interest in public health, Dr Elkington calls for a national policy formulated by the Federal Government and implemented by State governments, under Federal supervision, and declares: “If effective control is ever to be obtained over this scourge, the individual Australian must sit up and take an interest – an active political and personal interest.”

It can’t be emphasised enough: at the time of Dr Elkington’s article, a TB vaccine did not exist and, while research was proceeding apace, none was in sight. He did not call for the world to be shut down while medical science sought the answer. He wanted reality to be confronted. The disease was not about to disappear and so it had to be managed. All we appear to have added to Dr Elkington’s wisdom, because these days we can, is a series of Big Brother.

The one day of the year


Sweet, sweet rosemary,
She comes to me in the spring,
Her perfume in the air
Hails the warming taste of hope.

Rosemary in the breeze:
The summery scent of promise,
Of light and laughter,
Of quickening life everlasting.

And now it’s autumn,
The promise, as ever, is departed,
The ripeness in the air
Hails looming darkness and decay.

But rosemary lingers . . .
For when it’s April in Australia
Our senses become stirred
With scents of a faraway shore.

There it was spring.
They lay face down in the rosemary.
The air above buzzed
And banged with deathly blossoms.

Sweet, sweet rosemary,
She comes to me in the autumn,
Her smell in the memory
Hails white crosses on a foreign shore.

– Noel Bushnell, April 2020


In Australia and New Zealand, 25 April is Anzac Day, when we commemorate the sacrifice of our armed forces in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign of the Great War, and in all the wars and other military actions since. On 25 April 1915 Australians and New Zealanders (later the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps – ANZAC) stormed their assigned beaches on the Gallipoli Peninsula and then spent eight months in hellish hand-to-hand fighting with the desperate Turks.

Ten years ago I retrieved from the Melbourne Savage Club archives a 7000-word description by the artist and writer James Stuart MacDonald of his single, three times wounded, day at Gallipoli on 26 April, when Turkish resistance to the invasion was so fierce Australian commanders were already, after just 24 hours, considering withdrawal. MacDonald’s type-written script is a powerful account by a mature man, not a kid like most of his colleagues, and it has left a deep impression on me. Jimmy, as he was known, lay all day under a hail of fire, as low as he could get among the shrubbery on the hill just about the beach now known as Anzac Cove. It was spring in the Northern Hemisphere; rosemary grows prolifically on the Gallipoli Peninsula, it sprung green all around the troops, and the air filled with bullets and bursting shells was rich with its perfume. I cannot smell rosemary now without thinking of Jimmy and his mates living and dying by millimetres in its embrace.

The Anzacs were only a small part of the British, French and Indian expeditionary force that landed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. All suffered even greater death and destruction than the Anzacs that day and over the following months, but the name Gallipoli does not evoke anything like the same feeling in the other nations of the alliance that it does in Australia and New Zealand.

I can’t speak for New Zealanders but for Australians, Anzac Day has come to mean much more than just the futile failure that it was. Somehow the myths and legends of the Anzacs, told and retold, have been absorbed into our national psyche, such that Anzac Day is now virtually Australia’s national day. We have created a narrative of an Anzac spirit embodying courage, sacrifice and never-daunted good humour.

Many writers and philosophers, some of them hostile to the commemoration, have tried to pin down exactly what it is in Anzac Day that appeals to Australians, especially young people who have only a tenuous, if any, connection to that long-ago war. They turn out in their tens of thousands (alas, not tomorrow) to mark the occasion at Dawn Services, marches and cenotaph ceremonies up and down the country, in the big cities and tiny hamlets. Yet not even the late Les Carlyon, in his wonderful and definitive history, Gallipoli, managed to identify the essence of the attraction to Australians, including the many now of non-British origin.

For me, the best I can do is put it down to the blooding of a nation. Australia had come together as a united country only on 1 January 1901, when the British colonies became a federation of states officially named Australia. Up till then Australia as an idea had been expressed pretty much only as a cricket team that loved to play and beat the Mother Country. We were not born out of a war of independence, like the United States – we won our independence democratically and peacefully. Australia did not have to fight to become a nation. Until Gallipoli. The Anzacs represent, I think, that most basic of human statements, going back thousands of years in all kinds of cultures – the blood sacrifice. It’s something all peoples understand viscerally.

Way of the cross

The word must have gotten around by now. On the pestilence model by which we are now living the several people who generously waste a couple of minutes of their lives to visit this space have surely passed on the idea to many others: this Bushy fellow is fond of trains.

Train-rides, actually. I can hold my own, with a judicious nod or a morsel of jargon, in any chit-chat about wheel arrangements, tractive effort and bullhead rails but really only up to a point, or rather the set of points where the buffs can be switched on to their technical branch and I roll off down the mainline to some distant destination.

While under house arrest I’ve been riding with the drivers of various high-speed trains zipping around Europe and England. You sit up there alongside Bill or Pierre or Massimo and for a couple of hours watch the stanchions holding up the catenary flash past and the video maker keeps you informed which tunnel or bridge you just missed. I’ve relived a couple of somewhat slower sections from my railtour of Switzerland, now nearly five years ago, and enjoyed them all over again.

I’ve decided that, while the TGV and Eurostar are impressive, slower is better – you actually get to see stuff as it happens and not have to replay the recording, which is as good a metaphor as anything for this period of forced idleness. The idleness part comes naturally; the forced bit is bugging me. I need to slow down my anxiety. Internet fun helps, so do train videos, of course, and then comes the odd e-mail – like one I received the other day from a John Wilson in Adelaide, which reconfirmed there’s nothing new under the sun. If I thought things were bad right now, I should think again. Travellers locked up in hotels for 14 days’ quarantine need to take heed of what I am about to pass on.

John Wilson has written a book about The Overland, a passenger train that has plied its trade between Melbourne and Adelaide for 133 years as a joint venture between the Victorian and South Australian State Governments, even after being sold to private operators. The states had to subsidise it because, well, as everyone knows, passenger trains that aren’t tourist operations hardly ever pay their way. South Australia decided enough was enough about 18 months ago, but kept doling out a few dollars up to the end of last year when the state finally cut up its credit card, and now the train is on life support from Victoria alone. The owners have had enough, too – they don’t want to continue. I suspect strongly The Overland will be another casualty of the pestilence.

My long-suffering wife and I took The Overland to Adelaide last year where we connected with The Ghan for our Bollinger-boosted ride to Darwin. As I wrote back then, the run from Melbourne to Adelaide is a good day out but the poor old Overland is looking and feeling the lack of love from its owners and subsidisers. So when I saw John’s book advertised in Railway Digest, the monthly journal of the Australian Railway Historical Society (New South Wales), I was immediately interested, particularly as he billed it a social history. The story is, he writes on his website, “how one train changed the lives of the people and responded to the needs of the populations, particularly the people of Victoria and South Australia. It was a significant catalyst in the Federation of the Australian colonies. It has connections to football, the Temperance movement and the Sabbatarian movement. It reflects the human connection to the railway, humour and poetry.” What could be better than that?

OVERLAND-COVER-JAN-2020I immediately went to his website and ordered a pre-publication copy. Back came a friendly e-mail to say the tome had yet to be printed but I could expect it in about a month. No problem – time is something we all have plenty of at present. But there was a bonus, an unexpected attachment. John begins these eight and a bit A4 pages: “I was curious regarding the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 and whether there were any lessons to be learnt from history. I decided to research the topic and add it to the appendices of the book. There are some lessons to be learnt, and I believe that the research will be of use to the community in the coming weeks. Accordingly I am releasing it now . . .”

John’s research is presented from the perspective of the flu’s effect on the operations of the South Australian railways – inevitable, I suppose, given that a) this is a train book; and b) John is a South Australian. Nice, hospitable people South Australians, and I drink rather more of their wine than is probably good for me, but they do tend to think their little corner of the vast Australian desert is the centre of the universe. John has scoured the pages of various 1918-19 newspapers (digitised online at the Australian National Library) for a narrative of what happened as the flu advanced on Australia and, eventually, South Australia. Victoria and NSW were declared infected, so commerce – including train travel – was allowed to continue between them but South Australia was “clean” and wanted to stay that way [didn’t happen, by the way]. On 28 January 1919, the Federal Government (then based in Melbourne) proclaimed a seven-day quarantine regime at South Australia’s borders which meant, inter alia, that people travelling by train from Melbourne to Adelaide would be held up at the border town of Serviceton for a week.

John writes what happened next: “The Proclamation came into force at half past 4 o’clock on the afternoon of January 28, and from that time all traffic over the border to South Australia ceased. Now, it just happened that each day at half past 4 o’clock the Adelaide Express departed from Spencer Street [Melbourne]. And so, on that evening the Express departed for Adelaide. Railway staff passed on the advice to their associates further along the line. But the Adelaide-bound passengers were oblivious to all of this – until they reached Serviceton! On reaching the border station they were turfed out of their bunks and compartments to make the best of the limited resources of the station and town (as reported in the [Adelaide] Register, 1 March 1919.)”

serviceton in use date unknown

Serviceton station . . . picture undated but probably pre-WW1

An anonymous person bailed up at Serviceton [undoubtedly male] penned an angry article for The Register denouncing the conditions there. Detainees had to attend largely to their own needs from very limited resources. Men used the goods shed as their sleeping quarters and women were billeted in Serviceton, a small settlement that had been established solely to service the railway. Imagine the outrage if governments did today what they did then. John has included the Register article in his book’s appendix on the flu impact. It is headed: “The quarantine at Serviceton. A whole-hearted condemnation.” Here are excerpts:

. . . passengers for Adelaide and the East-West line bought tickets at Spencer Street up to, pretty-well, the starting time of the express, and began their journey without the slightest knowledge that there would be any hitch in its completion. Nothing happened on the journey to lead any one to anticipate trouble, until at Serviceton, at 3 a.m., all passengers were awakened, and told to get out of the train as speedily as possible.

The station officials saw to it that everybody and everything were out of the train, carefully locked all doors, and put out the lights; and the trainload of passengers spent the rest of the night huddled together on the platform. It was wet and bitterly cold . . . Had the train been going on, or been required for a return journey, the putting of the passengers on to a platform might have been justifiable. If only as a matter of comfort, why could not the passengers have been permitted to occupy them until daylight at least?

. . . the lot of the passengers at Serviceton. For drinking, dirty water; for a wash, a running tap on the platform; for lavatory purposes, accommodation too dreadful for words; for sleeping, the womenfolk are catered for by the courtesy and kindness of the few housekeepers Serviceton possesses; the men the choice of the shelter of a wheat stack or the floor of a small goods shed; and for everybody, to stay in the same clothes day and night for seven days! On account of there being no through traffic, a siding at the station is packed with first and second class carriages and sleeping cars, but all under lock and key . . .

The treatment of the stranded folk is most objectionable. Can it be credited that every morning men and women have to stand at a running tap on the platform and take turns at a morning wash? Whoever is responsible. State or individual, the conditions are nothing short of a disgrace, a scandal, and a hopeless discredit to those concerned. And the value of the whole situation is what? Well, simply farce.

Segregation surely is the only safeguard against the introduction of influenza or any other epidemic. Nothing is done at Serviceton to guard against any ailment. Victoria still runs its afternoon express to Serviceton, arriving at 3 a.m. Every train brings newcomers, the refreshment room is open to the train, and it and the platform constitute a rendezvous for the newcomers every night and for those who are nearing the end of their period of detention. The new folk, 11 hours after leaving Melbourne, are having supper at the same table with those who will be leaving for Adelaide in a few hours. The same thing happens at breakfast and lunch, and at noon, the liberated ones, having served their seven days, take their departure, and are farewelled by newcomers who were in Melbourne 20 hours before.

Nightly, after supper, the new arrivals among the men are taken over, either to the wheat stack or the goods shed, and put in the remainder of the night shoulder to shoulder with men who are spending their last night there and will sleep in Adelaide within a few hours. The women folk are compelled to herd on the platform until it is time to try and secure a shakedown for the next six nights.

Any comparison with the plight of passengers arriving in Australia by air or cruise ship in our own time of pestilence would be odious and wholly gratuitous. One sidelight to John’s story is that Australian officialdom in 1919 believed fresh, open air was a preventative for the spread of the flu. Being cooped up in enclosed spaces was a problem. Indeed it was decreed that train windows had to be kept open at all times (airconditioning 1919-style). Our medical scientists and, especially, officials and politicians must have learned a great deal about viral infections in the past 100 years. Given the armed police and booted soldiers patrolling our suburbs to keep us off the beaches and out of the parks, all I can surmise is that fresh air and sunshine are no longer considered good for us.

I suppose, my gentle readers, you are getting the idea that I am not happy under the yoke of the authoritarian isolation and social distancing regimes being enforced by our State and Federal Governments. I am not, and I will not be until they are dismantled. I fear some of the apparatus will become permanent. Nevertheless I have to concede the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19 as it has become, could not have been allowed to spread in the same way the Spanish flu did a century ago. I am confounded by the question: what would you have done?

I am amazed, though, that Australians, those notorious buckers of authority, have accepted house arrest so meekly, and appalled that certain stridently vocal claimants of freedom and civil rights have been calling for a total, enforced lockdown, a complete cessation of human activity beyond simple life support.

The great moustaches of history would be bristling with grim and deadly pleasure.

FOOTNOTE: The Overland – A Social History, by John Wilson. 190 pages, hard cover, colour throughout, extensively illustrated, index and references. Available online from and on general release from 28 June.

AND ANOTHER: The cover of the book is a new painting by Glen Hadden of a Melbourne-bound train at Serviceton in the 1930s. Serviceton was established in 1887 on the inter-colonial (then interstate) border between Victoria and South Australia to enable trains to swap locomotives and crews (SA gear for SA operation and Victorian for Victoria). Believe it or not the place is named not as a description of its function but in honour of James Service, a former Victorian Premier. No doubt someone thought this great pun. Through running of trains began in the 1980s and the trains stopped calling at Serviceton altogether not long after. The grand station building today stands fenced off and abandoned. All the station’s infrastructure has gone. The town, always small, is almost a ghost town today (pop. 120 or so).

serviceton today

Serviceton station today . . . abandoned to the fates