November 22, 2015



wb = welcome back in ye olde IRC-chatroom-speak.

D returned from China last Monday after five months away.

About a week before his return I noticed that the above row of little plants had languished unwatered on his bedroom window ledge.  Too late to do anything by then other than to take this picture – the odd perspective driven by a desire to avoid my own reflection.  Even the prickly pear cutting was suffering:


The non-watering of indoor plants is probably the least of my domestic inadequacies. That is not to say that I did not engage in a degree of last-minute cleaning and tidying in the week or so before D’s return, but there is a gulf between our standards and after 5 months my solitary squalor (extreme historical example here (1) (2)) had become pretty deeply entrenched.

The last straw for D came when he decided I had put away or misplaced the power cord to the rice cooker.  I was nonplussed.  Why would I have done that?  Where could it be?  My  professed innocence and fruitless search only made things worse.  As I’ve said, this was the last straw: it wasn’t just about the rice cooker.

Eventually I looked behind the rice cooker.

The power cord (unlike those on some brands and probably the one D had been using in Shanghai) was not detachable and had been there all along.

What a relief, and a largely undeserved reprieve (for the time being) for me.



Bursting out

November 22, 2015


These flowers are now out all over Sydney.

Ours are a little bit behind the gang.  They are a hardy plant as their capacity to bloom despite a tenant’s (my) neglect and a shady situation demonstrate.

This one made me think of the proverbial bag of walnuts or perhaps more appositely, “budgie smuggler.”


What piece is that?

November 17, 2015

That’s a game I like to play when I get into the car and turn the radio on. It’s a bit like a musical equivalent of the Cambridge English school “practical criticism” where students were expected to identify “unseen” extracts of texts according to the internal hints they gave of style, genre and period.

I was sure I knew the piece, but the opening was a pastiche of antique churchiness – a slow procession – which masked the composer’s native style a bit. Soon things got moving and then I was pretty sure who he was:


Those woodwind suspensions are unmistakeably Tchaikovsky. In retrospect, even pastiche should have been a hint because he made a bit of a habit of that.

It didn’t sound like any of the symphonies I knew (though I’m a bit vague on 1, 2, 3). A moment later this really distinctive big tune (here the string parts only) burst out:



and I knew what it was.


November 14, 2015

tawny frogmouths

In mid-September I cut open my shin when I tripped over a star picket as I wandered about in the night trying to trace the source of what turned out to be a tawny frogmouth’s call.

Later I convinced myself there were two of them, but that hope proved false. There was only one, oom-oom-ooming from a regular spot on a little platform of twigs which might have been a prospective nest in the event that another bird could be attracted.

It is the male that spends most of the time incubating any eggs. Let’s say it is a he.

At first I found him in the daytime in another tree a little way away from his nightly calling-place. More recently, he has moved somewhere more obscure and only sometimes do I hear him in the little park opposite my place and not, as before, always from the one tree.

I have since heard and seen another, in Haberfield by the Hawthorne Canal. It might be the same bird trying his luck at a different spot.

Generally tawny frogmouths are considered a reasonably common bird, rarely seen merely because of their nocturnal habits and terrific camouflage in the daytime. However, given the habitat, I’d say they are relatively rare in Ashfield or the inner west of Sydney. I don’t recall seeing one since my childhood in West Pymble when there was one living in our garden, which had plenty of native trees. For that matter, we had bandicoots digging up our sole patch of lawn. I doubt that the bandicoots survive there by now.

A colleague’s sister has allowed me to post the above picture taken at her home on Sydney’s semi-rural fringe. Possibly the birds were out in the open in daylight to dry out after rain. I think of the bird on the right as dad.

(Picture © CMSH. Rights reserved. For permission, contact via me by commenting and providing reply email. Your email will not be shown here.)

Trifling with the house

November 3, 2015


A recent piece by Richard Ackland in The Guardian coined (or claimed to coin) the phrase “Asko-Hungarian empire” in reference to “Sydney’s famous cluster of Eastern European property developers and industrial types” knighted by Sir Robin Askin, onetim and notoriously (if not uniquely) corrupt premier of NSW.

It was unknown to me and so naturally I had to google it.

The problem with googling anything predating the internet age is that the sources are skewed. Apart from two relatively recent speeches by Michael Kirby (which roughly matched the sense claimed by Ackland) all I could find was a reference in Hansard for the lower house of the NSW Parliament in 1974. That pretty clearly was a reference not to some generality of knighted Hungarians, but to the business ventures of Sir Peter Abeles. Mr Mallam said:

The honourable member for Monaro should go out infront of Parliament House and hear what the demonstrators are saying. He should see the trucks of the Asko-Hungarian empire rolling down the Hume Highway. No policeman pulls up the trucks of Sir Peter Abeles, or checks their loads.

You can find a few other variations on this theme by Mr Hallam with reference to other recipients of Askin-recommended knighthoods, including Sir Paul Strasser.

But I was diverted by this question, asked earlier that day by Peter Coleman, the then member for Fuller:

Mr COLEMAN: I ask the Minister of Justice a question without notice. Is the Minister aware that Mr Barry Humphries was one of the guests on a recent presentation of the television programme, the Margaret Whitlam show? Is the Minister aware, also, that Mr Hurnphries made it a condition of his appearance on the show that his appearance fee be paid to the Liberal Party-in particular to the Liverpool branch?

Mr Kelly possibly knew what was coming, because he objected to the Speaker that

when asking a question without notice a member must seek information, must not give an opinion or information, and must not create argument. Your predecessor Sir Kevin Ellis ruled that a person who has no right of reply could suffer harm from inherently mischievous statements contained in questions. In fact, he said that in future he would accept questions only if they were addressed to a Minister concerning matters of state relating to his portfolio. I ask you to rule this question out of order.

The speaker allowed Mr Coleman to complete his question. He was a government member after all.

Mr COLEMAN: I ask the Minister of Justice whether he is aware that this debt to the Liverpool branch of the Liberal Party has not been paid by Mrs Whitlam. Will the Minister refer this matter to officers of the
Police Department, to see what steps can be taken to enforce payment of this debt?

You might be surprised to know that Mr Coleman, somewhere on the way between being a journalist and a politician, qualified and was admitted as a barrister. Ron Mulock (LLB Syd) who had actually practised as a solicitor for some years took the obvious point of order (and I say obvious because it is one of the first questions which will arise for any actual legal practitioner whose client who has a civil claim wants to know why the police cannot deal with it).

Mr MULOCK: On a point of order. Although the Police Department comes within the portfolio of the Minister of Justice, I submit that it is trifling with the House to ask the Minister to refer to it what can only be described, at best, as a civil debt.

Mr SPEAKER: Order! The question comes very close to trifling with the House, and
I rule it out of order.

Of course it was too late. The allegation was out under parliamentary privilege. That nasty Margaret Whitlam was not honouring a promise made to Barry Humphries.

The bickers of the past can look so pathetic.

What is even more pathetic is that Humphries could have been complaining about this when Gough Whitlam had so generously bestowed a damehood on his famous alter-ego. Let’s not even go into whether Margaret Whitlam was responsible for paying the fees for appearances on her TV program.

I suppose an alternative hypothesis is that Humphries wasn’t complaining and Coleman was giving Humphries a bit of publicity for Humphries’ wicked joke in engineering a payment to the Liberal Party emanating from Margaret Whitlam. Humphries wrote for Quadrant which Coleman edited. (These days the Australian Spectator continues the association.)

Not, in my opinion, Peter Coleman’s finest parliamentary moment.

It’s my party

October 27, 2015


– and I’ll die if I want to.

A cheap riff on a popular song. More accurately, I believe people should be able to die when they want to, if they want to.

Mostly people don’t end up making that choice: by the time the question arises they have generally lost the capacity to exercise it, and whilst they still have the capacity they tend not to want to. But for many it is comforting to think that they could. The problem is knowing how to bring their lives to an end in a manner which is not too traumatic – most of all, not too traumatic for themselves. That is perhaps selfish but after all we will all be found dead by somebody eventually.

The Medical Board of Australia has imposed “strict conditions” on the medical registration of Dr Phillip Nitschke. There are specific conditions preventing Nitschke from providing any information about obtaining nembutal and requiring that he not “recommend, sell, deliver or otherwise make available to members of the public cylinders containing nitrogen or any other gas.”

Nitschke consented to the conditions. According to his wife, he faced legal costs of $1 million for a contested hearing.

He may now concentrate on his career as a comedian.

Pause for Remembrance

October 26, 2015


When driving down to Canberra, I often like to pause at Rose Lagoon.  It’s a pleasant spot.  It would be even more pleasant if the highway were further away.



October 24, 2015


In Ashfield, after one of this week’s storms.


October 20, 2015

When I was about 10 or 11 I won a literary prize. It was sponsored by The Australian, and Robert Drewe came to interview me at my school for a short piece that appeared in the Saturday edition of that paper together with an extract of my prize-winning work. Drewe’s story was charming but had little inaccuracies and exaggerations – almost inevitable, I’ve come to realise, from the journalistic process.

The ABC’s This Day Tonight contacted my parents asking to come to our home to do a story on me. My mother declined. At the time I was disappointed: she never asked me. Later I came to appreciate why she decided to protect me from this. To mix a few metaphors, if you get into bed with the press you will soon learn that fame is an unruly horse.

When I was practising as a solicitor in Sydney at around the turn of the century I came to know Michael Lawler when I instructed him on the introduction of a friend from law school who had already gone to the bar. For a while we had a friendship of sorts – I say of sorts because any friendship which starts in the barrister-solicitor relationship can never shake free of its professional origin. Barristers have too many reasons to be nice to solicitors.

Nevertheless, when I went to the bar, Michael was helpful to me.

Tony Abbott’s appointment in 2002 of Michael Lawler as Vice President of the then Industrial Relations Commission came as a surprise to many. Though capable, he had yet to be appointed senior counsel.

In retrospect I have always wondered whether, despite Tony Abbott’s claims that he opposed the Howard government’s introduction of Workchoices, some kind of emasculation of the Commission’s jurisdiction was already in contemplation, in which case it would have been “OK” to appoint a relatively obscure candidate who should be grateful for the appointment regardless of what was subsequently done to the jurisdiction. Not so much a poisoned chalice as an empty one.

I went to Michael’s swearing in and caught up with him a few times after that before we drifted apart.

I suppose that once the substratum of the professional association fell away it was almost inevitable that the friendship would also fall away. Most friendships and especially friendships formed through work turn out to be situational.

So I have watched from afar the gathering storm around him.

It is a pity for his sake that Michael Lawler is an adult and could not have been prevented by his mother from inviting Four Corners into his and Kathy Jackson’s house for last night’s program.

Signs of the times

October 18, 2015

On Saturday night to the final performance by the SSO of this year’s run of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

It was pretty good and better than I remember its last outing by the SSO in 2008, mounted in association with the visit of the pope.

My friend and former high-school English teacher, Lx (“My God, you people shit me!” he memorably said once before storming out of our year 9 classroom mid-lesson: he had a lot of days off on acoount of “migraines” that year at the end of which he left – though he returned to the school when I was in year 12) didn’t even remember he had been to that performance. Lx still remembered (as I do) the performance conducted by Mackerras in 1992.

I can’t say mine is a detailed recollection: a few moments come to mind but it is the overall impression which survives. What I really remember by now is that it was memorable. There is a CD out on ABC Classics which is either that performance or associated recordings. Were I to listen to it now I doubt if it would live up to the memory. The Town Hall had just been renovated to mark the city’s sesqui-centenary. The familiar old venue was unexpectedly resplendent and I suspect that was all a part of it. As ever, you had to be there.

The Missa Sol is a demanding work for the choir. They made a pretty good fist of it.

Compared to recordings by professional choirs the main thing I miss in performances by the Philharmonia is “produced” voices in the male parts – somehow the absence of female counterparts doesn’t seem to matter so much to me. Still, the tenors attacked their most exposed entry fearlessly – I expect they had been saving a bit up for that particular moment. It occurs to me that part of the trick in preparing a choir for such a taxing work is to pace its approach according to its capacities and the demands on the choristers’ stamina. The sopranos were also good in the punishingly elevated “Et vitam venturi” fugue.

At the curtainless curtain calls tenor soloist Stuart Skelton made his approbation of the choir’s work evident by stamping his foot(well, one of them – he does have two) on the stage when their moments of acknowledgement came. It’s an odd gesture when you are standing (foot stamping works better when you are seated) but struck me as heartfelt. I saved my foot-stamping for Dene Olding on account of his solo in the Benedictus.

As Lx commented on the way out, there was the odd ensemble untidiness. I was more concerned with the balance. Sometimes, as in, say, violin and cello concertos, an orchestra should just pretend to play loudly. Some of Stuart Skelton’s thunder at “homo factus est” was stolen because the orchestra was too loud; likewise the solo quartet’s in “Pleni sunt coeli.” Generally when playing with the choir I thought the trombones too strong: I think of them as choral equali, not orchestral muscle. I was left wondering: what on earth the violins fiddling away so furiously for? It is always a bad sign when there is busyness on stage for no discernible aural outcome. In the Benedictus I would have preferred a quieter pianissimo if that was technically possible (I mean for the trombones) – give the violinist a chance!

But without doubt it was always engrossing – even the Credo flew by. And it wasn’t all rush and thunder: there were dramatic pauses and electric silences as well. Despite my balance complaints- quibbles probably in the scheme of things, David Robertson held the whole thing together cogently and even movingly. I put religion and my own irreligion to one side and went with the metaphorical flow.

I must have been deeply affected by it because I was quite unable to sleep in the night that followed. This is always a sign that something has really worked me up. Sure, excessive caffeine can have the same effect but that wasn’t a factor on Saturday.

As I looked along row U of the stalls I fancied I was (still, as for the past almost 30 years) the youngest person in it. There were maybe 3 possible candidates for being just a little older than I and maybe even the same age if I was mistaken, but otherwise most had a good 10 years on me and many at least 20.

Before the concert I chatted with Lx and a friend of his who was recovering from surgery for a stress fracture. We heard about some of the exercises prescribed by her physiotherapist, as well as Dick van Dyke(90)’s advice for a healthy old age, which she said was: “Keep moving.” Apparently going down stairs sideways is one of the worst habits to fall into.

“My walking stick got tangled up,” said a woman in the row behind me to her friend as we (oh so slowly) made our way out of the hall. I waited at the end of my row to catch up with Lx coming from further back. I soon found that the end of the row is now favoured by older concert-goers for whom even the handrail against the opposite wall offers insufficient support. That’s a sign of the times and the times ahead.


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