The WHAT'S NEW! page contains the latest medical updates. If you're wondering how I'm going as far as health is concerned, this is the place to start. Latest: Wed 27 Nov 2013. 7.20AM

Monday, January 31, 2011

Rare things, Gandhi and a garter

Sei Shonagon The Pillow Book, Penguin Classics, p. 83. (C. 11th Century CE.) 
      Rare Things
A son‑in‑law who is praised by his adoptive father; a young bride who is loved by her mother‑in‑law.
A silver tweezer that is good at plucking out the hair.
A servant who does not speak badly about his master.
A person who is in no way eccentric or imperfect, who is superior in both mind and body, and who remains flawless all his life.
People who live together and still manage to behave with reserve towards each other. However much these people may try to hide their weaknesses, they usually fail.
To avoid getting ink stains on the notebook into which one is copying stories, poems, or the like. If it is a very fine notebook, one takes the greatest care not to make a blot; yet somehow one never seems to succeed.
When people, whether they be men or women or priests, have promised each other eternal friendship, it is rare for them to stay on good terms until the end.
A servant who is pleasant to his master.

Talking about M K Gandhi

I’ve mentioned Mahatma Gandhi a few times now in my rambles. Fancy being landed with the title 'Mahatma' - 'Great Soul'. But I guess he got used to it. Somehow I hope he didn't.
   There’s a programme on ABC 1 TV [Australia] that I’ve been watching. It’s a three part series on Gandhi by Mishal Husain, and two parts have been shown at the time of writing. They’re available for viewing on ABC iView though they will be taken off pretty quickly, so if you’re interested then now’s the time. (Is it possible to watch iView from outside Australia, I wonder?)
   It’s interesting for several reasons, not the least of which is that it’s been narrated by a British Muslim woman with family connections to the Mahatma.
   This gives her a problem right from the start, as many Indian Muslims feel Gandhi betrayed them at a critical time - in the early 1920s, when Gandhi led their fight in India for the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate, after the Allies pulled it apart when Turkey was one of the defeated states in WW1. Gallipoli and all that. Another fine mess you got us into, Winston.
   Her problem is that she doesn’t want to be seen as a Muslim criticising Gandhi just because she’s a Muslim, as that would distort the story she’s trying to tell. At the same time, it means she has to skate over some vital events. It was Gandhi’s calling off of the satyagraha [non-violent non-cooperation] campaign in support of the Khilafat (Caliphate) Movement that created the deep rift between Hindus and Muslims in the twentieth century, leading ultimately to the creation of Pakistan. The one-time champion of Hindu-Muslim unity, Jinnah, had no choice now but to be the voice of Muslim separatism, and Gandhi now becomes the moral leader of Hindus, with just a handful of secularist Muslims in the Hindu Muslim camp.
   The subtleties of 1920s India were teased out more in the 1982 Richard Attenborough movie of Gandhi’s life. Admittedly, he had more than three hours to piece together the bits of the story he chose to depict, he and his scriptwriters could use their imagination and dramatic license to get his point across, and he had almost limitless resources to make his film, so a comparison would be very unfair. But it just illustrates how difficult it can be to tell the real story while trying to be not only objective but to be seen to be so.
   Don’t ever think there can be such a thing as an objective history of anything. It’s impossible. If Mishal were a Hindu and not a Muslim, no doubt many would be looking out for evidence of rose-coloured glasses. Being so very British adds yet another dimension!
   We’re so used to seeing force as the solution to every problem that very few understand even now what Gandhi was doing, and the enormous power of the combination of satyagraha and ahimsa [non-harming]. Not that it can solve every problem – but it can operate within a certain context – where an established and more or less respected rule of law actually exists.
   See, in other possessions run by colonial powers less careful than the Brits about doing things by the book, someone like Gandhi would have been taken down a back alley and shot, probably sooner rather than later, and that would have been the end of it all. But the Brits didn't work that way. 
   Even the horrible things were done within the law, not outside it. In building their empire, you have to admire them for that much at least. Even Colonel Dyer who ordered the mowing down of the Indian civilians at Jallianwalla Bagh in 1919 had to face the justice system back in England and defend his action. You should read the trial transcript. It's chilling.
   But you can’t understand Gandhi if you don’t read his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, and his willingness to put his whole life before the world, warts and all. He knew for sure some would use his own words to distort the truth about his life and philosophy, but he put it out there anyway. And they have!
   It will be interesting to see how Mishal goes in the third episode. So far she’s done pretty well, I think, considering the challenges.

The wedding garter
Houston, we have a problem. Fair Dinkum. Or we had one.
   Once a day Tracey gives me a Clexane injection. It’s to keep blood clots as far away as possible. When I had two a day, we both knew which side of my stomach to stick the needle in. Day, on the left, night on the right.
   But now it’s the daily dose just once a day, it’s amazing how impossible it is for either of us to remember which was the last side done - left or right.
   It matters because if we don’t alternate, then the allergic reaction [itchiness around the injection point] can be concentrated and more annoying than it needs to be. Oh, and a couple of other reasons that it’s more trouble to explain than it’s worth - and of no interest to read, I'm certain.
   So, we came up with a solution together, though I claim the invention of the specifics.
   This was the wedding garter, only months ago worn on the bride’s shapely leg. Slipped over the left or right bedpost, this could create a failsafe marker for which side of the stomach to stab.
   Almost failsafe.... two rules.
     1. the gartered post represents the side DONE last, not ‘TO BE done’.
     2. the garter is moved to the other side IMMEDIATELY after the stabbing is carried out.
   We came unstuck you see, on the second day of operations under the new regime, when we weren’t sure the garter had been moved. I think we’ve got it nailed this time.
   That’s my Pillow Book list for today. I find it rather nice to be able to see that garter on permanent display!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Duck eggs, ants and a hot summer night

Sei Shonagon The Pillow Book, Penguin Classics, p. 69. (C. 11th Century CE.) 

  Elegant Things
          A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat.
          Duck eggs.
          Shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put into a new silver bowl.
          A rosary of rock crystal.
          Wistaria blossoms. Plum blossoms covered with snow.
          A pretty child eating strawberries.

   Aren’t these fantastic word pictures? Still, I am not sure I’ve got the hang of this enterprise I’ve set out to boldly go on [Hi, Trekkies!]
   I may have to ease into this ‘list’ mentality.
   As my body becomes more unreliable my brain runs ever faster, as if it must say everything before I stop being able to, without much regard for its importance. My brain must be emptied, like an attic full of stuff.
   Maybe it’s not all that surprising to those who know what the score is.
   My one typing hand can’t keep up with the thoughts that are flowing. Nearly every word as I type is missing a letter, or has a wrong one, but it doesn’t matter that much. That can be corrected afterwards, and built-in spelling tools do a remarkable job of cleaning up typos.
   Anyway, let’s go
27 Jan 2011. About midnight.
   It’s been a warm one today, no doubt. Suddenly for the first time this season, the ants have been trekking into the house in large numbers. Into the kitchen, heading for the food, and into the bathroom, obviously after water. 
   I don’t quite get it. Just two days of high temps and they’re on the warpath inside the house, for food and water? What happened to all of it outside, all of a sudden? Did the food and water just disappear? 
   It’s not like it’s cooler in here. There are plenty of places outside that are in the cool shade and a pleasant breeze. Soxy knows that. The last place she wants to be is inside.
   Ants.... I like ants. Somehow they seem clean and neat, unlike flies and cockroaches. They work so dang hard and it all seems there’s no real purpose but just to increase their numbers. All work and no play, though – what’s that about? Surely they’re entitled to sit around after a hard day’s work with a cool nectar and some potato crisps and have a chat, even for an hour or so?
   Apparently not. Seems you’re supposed to think of the nest they’re part of as the living organism and not imagine the individual ants as separate entities. But I can’t quite manage that. I tap the bathroom sink and they start running like blazes back up the wall. Or some of them do – a few other ones go the other way and mess up the retreat. Or are they transmitting messages? But the more you tap on the sink, the more likely they are to find their way outside once more. Stop tapping and they think it’s OK to come back and start drinking again.
   Dummies! Can’t you see I’m trying to save your little individual lives? Others would just turn on the tap and swish you down the sink, or spray you with you-know-what.
   Or are humans just the same as you with their frantic lives?
   Not really. The ants are true socialists, I guess – each according to her needs, each job as valid as the next one, each programmed so no-one has to tell anyone what to do. They just do it. Like the cells that make up each living organism, most of it seems coded in. No need for an army or police to keep internal order – just the soldier ants to keep foreigners out. But humans don’t behave like ants. Not always, anyway. Perhaps not often enough!
   And sometimes too often.
   "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:" (Proverbs 6:6-8). What great Biblical scholars Google and I make as a team! And I like the fact that it gets the worker ant's gender right.
   Yet once, not that long ago, I saw this amazing thing. One of the great rivers of China was in flood. I can’t say for sure which, but probably the Yangtze. A young Chinese soldier was in the river, physically holding up part of a levee bank. He wouldn’t leave his post and slowly slipped under the water and drowned, his body supporting the timbers. 
   This was a young man who presumably had no conviction about going to heaven as a reward for his supreme sacrifice. He just knew that if he and others like him didn’t stay at their posts, the rest of the community had less chance of survival. 
   That’s not a new thing in China, though it would have had great propaganda value, especially in the Maoist days of the early 1970s. No, it’s been expected of individuals to sacrifice themselves for the good of the community throughout Chinese history, particularly against the powers of the great rivers in flood.
   Can you imagine heroism like that? I find it hard to. Yet it happens. Most parents would do it to save their children. I know I would. But to sacrifice life to save something more nebulous, that’s another matter; although patriotism engenders it no doubt, in times of war.
   You know what soldier ants also do when a downpour threatens the nest? They make a circle round the hole and press their large heads into the space at the entrance, and block out the water. How did they learn to do that?
   Sometimes I think there’s a lot in Lamarckian evolutionary theory.... But let’s not get on to evolution right now, or we’ll really be stuck in the abyss.
   No, you get LOST in the abyss and stuck in a morass. Make up your mind....
   Back to ants and socialism. It seems to me that the one critical thing that Marx didn’t allow for in his hope for a utopian future was that it would be sabotaged constantly by pseudo-Marxists. The purists were never going to survive - not in a form with real power to change things for the benefit of humanity, though they try hard enough. The pragmatists always win.
   Just like Christians have been guilty of sabotaging the message of Jesus, or Buddhists have done so with the words of the Buddha, or Muslims with the Qur'an and some Hindu nationalists with Hinduism, genuine religious and philosophical convictions have been perverted and transformed into something grotesque. They’ve been used and abused and changed to something their founders would not have recognised, nor I suspect would have approved of. People of genuine goodwill and conviction believing in the fundamental principles have been shamefully abused by those who are the power-brokers in the ideology or religion. They also can become part of the oppression, often unwittingly.
   The soldiers can be turned on the workers if it suits the leaders – or turn upon political opponents
   Enough for now. The ants have sensed it’s better to be outside and have left the bathroom of their own accord. Or by some mysterious instruction encoded in their genes.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Coincidences, a friend and a tragedy

   The Harrisons arrived in Calliope from Sheffield, England, oh, about 1954 I would say. I think they were Ten Pound Poms and I have no idea how they came to choose our little backwater of civilisation. Mr and Mrs Harrison spoke with that unmistakeable working class accent of that part of the north of England. They didn’t laugh, they ‘laffed’. Funny, that. How come they didn’t talk proper English like us?

   They did their best to fit in, but we must have been as much aliens to them as they were to us. None of us kids would have had the faintest idea what the streets and houses of Sheffield would have looked like, or what it would have been like to play and live in them. No TV there in Calliope, no Coronation Street to give us a clue. Just Calliope and novels set in English boarding schools, not that either would have helped!

   There were six children in the family: June, Glynn, Christine (Tina), Verdon, Lenny and John. Verdon was a couple of years older than I, but in my class at school. The others were short of stature and all had a fiery temperament, but not Verdon, who was gentle by nature and taller than the rest.

   Now I think of it, Verdon’s pint-sized dad was also called Verdon. He was gregarious and cheerful, and at concerts would get a real Music Hall atmosphere going if he got the chance. Maybe, with vivid memories of WWII only a decade old, he was fighting his own sort of war here in nowheresville in the backblocks of colonial Australia.

   Lenny was the toughest of the kids, and one day when the headmaster roared at him, Lenny, aged about 8, put up his fists and wanted to settle the matter man to man. He stood about up to Mr Curtis’s thigh and Old Jim was half amused and half pained by the sight of an enraged Lenny, fists up, ready to do battle regardless of the odds.

   No wonder Hitler didn’t make it in his quest to subdue all those Lennies and Lenores across the Channel just a decade before. They bred endurance into them in Sheffield. We kids were shocked. But Lenny thought better of the fight and ran home.

   The matter was resolved only when peppery Mrs Harrison, closely resembling a bantam hen defending her brood, came marching up to the school and started giving Old Jim a piece of her mind. It was Mrs Curtis who simmered things down by making Mrs Harrison come over to the School house and have tea and a talk, and they left on good terms. Full marks to Mrs Curtis for diplomacy. Lenny was fine after that.

   Verdon and I became best friends and were so for a couple of years. His oldest brother Glynn got an apprenticeship in Brisbane as a jockey, and then towards the end of 1958, the family moved on and into the rather seamy world of the Brisbane racing fraternity.

   I was very sorry to see Verdon go. We had spent many a weekend making go-karts and building canoes out of parts Verdon filched from the sheds on our property. In fact, it almost caused a rift when we took a brand-new piece of roofing iron worth a couple of quid, together with Dad’s best tin-snips, to build a canoe that would, we intended, rival the Bismarck. I had no clue about how to do this, and the plan was all in Verdon’s head.

   Sadly the design was a failure and Verdon scuttled the all-too-well-named Bismarck in the deepest part of the creek, only to be noticed almost immediately by Dad at the bottom of the clear pool, the tin-snips still sitting on the bank.

   Verdon was nearly banned from our place by that incident, but it became irrelevant when they moved. There’s a few lovely stories I could tell of how the Harrisons did and didn’t fit into a place like Calliope, but I’ll leave them for now at least, as there are more sobering things to come to.

   I never saw Verdon again, face to face, after the day they left Calliope. As is usual with kids, the gap closed over, and we simply disappeared from each other’s lives.

   However, I did see him again. I was just a year or so employed at the University of New England here in Armidale, and had gone back to Brisbane in March of 1977 for some brief academic gathering. I was staying with Helen and Michael Nugent, and the 7 o’clock news came on ABC TV.

   It led with a story that chilled me to the bone. The name of the man on the screen, sitting in a hospital bed and looking as if he had seen the Angel of Death, was Verdon Harrison. Now that’s not a common name. I looked at the face. His age was given as 32. Yes, there was no mistaking it. Though I had seen him last when he was about 13, the features were the same. And he surely had stared Death in the face.

   So what was the story? As I heard it on the TV news, Verdon, his father-in-law, Vic Beaver, and his brother-in-law John Hayes went out fishing in Beaver’s nine metre launch on the night of 11 March, out towards the northern tip of Moreton Island in Moreton Bay, off the Queensland coast near Brisbane. 

   In a fishing trip like this one, you would go out early in the evening of a Friday, fish all night, and return the next morning. I’d done similar trips to the bottom end of the Barrier Reef from Gladstone in the 60s when I was teaching there.

   Whether they were fishing or were changing fishing spots I don’t know, but out of the darkness round midnight, a 25 thousand ton Japanese freighter loomed up and smashed the launch to smithereens. A vessel the size of the freighter isn’t all that big compared with the coal and bauxite ships that used to come into Gladstone Harbour, but it’s big enough that the crew of the freighter wouldn’t have had any idea they had run down and sunk a nine metre launch in the dead of night. It simply continued on its way.

   All three men survived the sinking and found themselves clinging to the one floating object in the water nearby – an icechest. Their chances of survival were fair as there was a lot of recreational fishing done in those waters – if they could hang on through the night, that is. They would have to be seen to be rescued.

   But they weren’t in luck. For the remainder of the night and the whole of the next day, and most of the next night, they clung to the icechest, taking it in turns to get into the chest itself, which was partly submerged by its own weight but obviously had reasonable buoyancy. No other boats were around. No-one saw them and they had no means to signal anyone anyway.

   Then at about 4.30 am on the Sunday morning, some 28 hours after their boat was crushed by the freighter, their real terror began. A huge shark that Verdon later described as the largest he had ever seen in real life started nudging the icechest and brushing against their feet. They kicked at it and punched it as hard as they could, but their only weapons were their limbs. The shark was oblivious to their blows. Sensing an easy meal, it lunged at the man reported to be his father-in-law and dragged him clear of the icechest. Verdon tried to hold on to him but had no chance. Nor did Mr Beaver, who was reported as crying out: “It’s got me again. Goodbye mates, this is it.” He then disappeared.

   That would have been bad enough for the survivors, but the shark returned shortly afterwards and started circling round underneath them. Verdon strapped himself by his belt to the icechest and got as far inside it as possible. I can only imagine that Mr Hayes tried his best also to get some protection from it. But the shark took him by the foot and dragged him away. He was also gone.

   The shark did not return and nor did any other come. Not much after an hour later, a fishing vessel came by and picked Verdon up, and when he was taken to hospital he was treated for lacerations to his arm and leg.

   In a way he suffered comparatively little physical injury, but I have spent a lot of time since thinking about the permanent trauma the nightmare incident would have caused him. What would actually have happened in those last few minutes when the shark took the second of the three of them? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Verdon Harrison, with [I presume] his wife.
This would have been at least 24 hrs after the attack.
The TV picture was not so serene. Source acknowledged below 

   I thought of contacting Verdon – of course, not while he was recovering immediately from this tragedy, as it seemed ridiculous after some 20 years out of the blue and in those circumstances. Later, I even got his address and phone number, but could not bring myself to contact him. He must have relived those two days thousands of times in his nightmares or to reporters, and heaven knows how many times he would have had to retell the tale by now – not that I wanted him to. I would really have only wanted to talk about the Calliope days. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Jaws just keeps getting in the way.

   The odd thing is that a while ago, I wanted to tell this story and expected to find plenty of information about it online, as it was incredibly dramatic. But I could find nothing. Then yesterday, I thought that maybe my earlier search was faulty, so I tried again, and found to my surprise that Verdon’s story had featured just a month ago in the Australian’s Magazine. There were other references as well, mainly in databases, now online, of shark attacks. The later stories do not mention any relationship by family and marriage between the three men, so whether that was an error in the original TV report or whether it was untrue or there was a reason not to include it later I can’t say.

   So, are there coincidences? Fate? Kismet? Let’s not start that discussion again…. But it’s strange, isn’t it? How the Harrisons began their new life in a place like Calliope, how Verdon became my friend, how the jockeying career of his brother Glynn took them to Brisbane, how they decided that night to go fishing, how they and the freighter chose a collision course, how after a very long 28 hours the shark found them, and yet just 70 minutes later he was rescued, and how just one of the three survived to tell the tale. And how I happened to be in Brisbane that same night his face appeared on Brisbane TV, and the new references to it surfaced online just a month ago.

   Karma. Cause and effect. It’s nothing more – or less – than the way things are. Intriguing, but no mystery.

   I will never contact my old friend. Some things need to remain as safely stowed as they can be.*

What I didn't know when I wrote this story was that he would contact me.
Some sources

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Man from Porlock and the Pillow Book

[written 25 January, not today.]
The thoughts of mine I find most interesting to me are the ones that come when I wake at about 5 am. They flow freely and I sometimes wish there were a kind of running tape of them word for word that I could record and play back later.
   Have a pen and notebook handy, you say. The very act of writing anything down interferes with the whole process and it’s lost. You may be able to jump up, get the pen and notebook, and start writing away. I can’t. I have to struggle firstly to pull myself up to a sitting position with one hand, turn and pick up pen and paper, one handed, have no means of placing the paper with a useless hand while I try to write with the other. Then I’ll probably want to go to the bathroom, which is another full ritual I could go into in intimate detail but you don’t want or need to know. And don’t talk about some sort of voice recording device. Just as useless in the circumstances, and for the same reason.
   Either way, the man from Porlock has knocked and Coleridge has lost his poem. Kublai Khan’s pleasure dome collapses in a heap. All that’s left is a jumble of words and ideas rapidly departing, like a storm with its lightning flashes now way out on the ocean, never to return.
   No, that doesn’t work. Besides, when I wake is a perfect time to do some preliminary physical exercises, just lying there on the bed. These are just ones to stir my body a little and give it the flexibility to provide me with the balance necessary to walk safely. I also do some symmetrical work with my arms – well, as symmetrical as it can be with one arm behaving like a broken wing.
   These can’t last too long – about 15 minutes. I know this is the low point between medications, and if a seizure is going to happen, it will do so after a little exercise and before taking the anti-seizure pills. But in a way I also want to dare a seizure to strike when my resistance is lowest, because if I don’t have any rumblings or warnings, I feel like I am insured for the day, as it were. Nonsense, I know, but it works for me, so butt out.
   So, I do the exercises and go to the bathroom. I look in the mirror. It's not a pretty sight. 
   Each day my hair grows back a millimetre or so, and it makes a slight difference. To me it does, anyway. The chemotherapy I had didn’t do that much damage really, in the longer term – what was attacked over the year has recovered, only thinner and wispier and almost grey. 
   The places that really came under fire were specific areas on my scalp, and therefore the hair follicles blasted by the radiotherapy, not chemo. That’s where the hair is really struggling in its attempt to renew itself, and not making much headway. Hairway, let’s say. Ha ha.
   As my sister Kay observed when she had radiotherapy on the tumour behind her eye, what was fascinating was that you lost hair where the x-rays blasted their way OUT on the other side of your head and not just on the way IN. How fantastic is the human brain to put up with that and still let you behave reasonably normally? I was given the maximum dosage possible for a human to take with any measure of safety. So don’t blame me if I can’t remember what day it is, or what we had for dinner last night.            
   It feels to me like there’s some sort of reverse Samson effect going on. Samson as you know lost his strength when he let Delilah arrange for him to have a serious trim. I feel like the more hair I have, the weaker I get.
   It’s a funny old story, that one – Samson I mean. I wonder if the same people who make fun of the Aboriginal Dreamtime stories, or the oriental creation stories, are the same ones who regard this tale as gospel truth.
   At least I don’t go round killing Philistines. I rather like being one, anyway. You don’t need any excuses that way.
   Each morning when I wake, the fogginess in my head mutates further and further into low-level pain. It’s like sleeping allows the tumour a better opportunity to produce and expel its waste products and let them seep into other parts of the surrounding brain tissue, and that’s where the inflammation comes from. And extra pressure of course, and all of this increases as the Avastin starts to lose its battle. Being physically active tends to clear it a little; though daily the condition takes less time to come back. Right now the relentless low-level pounding is returning.
   No, it may be news time on the radio but I’m not turning it on. I can catch up on the world’s miseries and follies a little later. That’s easy enough to do. 
   In fact, this morning I have changed my routine. After eating and taking my medications, I have begun writing, here, while some lingering echoes of the stories from earlier this morning remain. 
   Perhaps they're better for being vague. Maybe if they were in front of me word for word they wouldn't seem to be half as interesting. It's like when you somehow manage to lose an email you've been writing. The moment it's gone, it seems that much better than what it probably was. Admit it.
   What I did usually was to check email, then the news online, then the blog comments, and write answers to emails – then I might write some blog entry or fool around with some FaceBook nonsense that amuses me. But by that time, the world had compressed or shattered those pre-dawn thoughts and so interwoven them with everything else since I awoke that they were no longer mine. 
   So, I decided that I will only let the world in when I have written as much as I want to here.
   This is a radical departure for me, but it’s the only way. If I don’t, hours have passed, I'll need to sleep again, and I find myself resenting my indiscipline.
   One of the most enchanting pieces of world literature easily accessible in English translation is Sei Shonagon’s the Pillow Book. It was written a thousand years ago and remains one of the most enlightening pieces of Japanese literature for the rest of the world.
   It’s a diary, pretty much. Its attraction is that quite a lot of it is simply a series of lists, and you can access the Japanese mind through these lists.
   You could get an even deeper appreciation of the Japanese mind by reading Lady Murasaki’s the Tale of Genji, but the sad truth is that this Jane Austen-ish novel of over 1000 pages in English is just too much for most people, and like much of the world’s great literature, far many more people claim to have read it than actually have.
   It’s a bit like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in that respect. A friend of mine who works at the Town Library says Rushdie’s novel is the most often borrowed and most quickly returned book in the history of the Library, with the first few pages thumbed and the rest of it pristine. Pity. It’s a fantastic piece of literature, but pretty hopeless if you don’t know anything about India or Indians or Islam.
   My point in mentioning the Pillow Book is that I think I am going to adopt much more of that style; remembered snatches of things, writing it as Peter Ustinov did in the spirit of his reminiscences, to ‘Dear Me’. What a perfect title he chose for his autobiography. What a brilliant man.
   Funnily enough, the thing I remember most about Dear Me is that when he joined up to fight the Germans in the Second World War, he chose the Tank Corps. His logic was that if he were involved in any battle, he was going to do it sitting down.
   Maybe I’ll even intersperse my jumbled thoughts with some of those from Sei Shonagon, so any effort to read this stuff won’t be entirely wasted.
   Oh, one last thing for now. There's a movie by the name of the Pillow Book. It bears little if any resemblance to the diary by Sei Shonagon, so don't be fooled!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Vietnam and Damascus, via Coronation Drive [Final Part]

From Part 1: QU was radical because Queensland had the most repressive and compromised government in the country at the time, with Joh Bjelke-Petersen becoming Premier in that year. Say no more….

There were four notable firebrands on campus in 1968; Brian Laver, Dan O’Neill, Dick Shearman and Jim Prentice.

Ah, so much I could say here about these guys, but let’s stick to the main story. As early as 1968, events in Vietnam were turning from bad to worse for the US and the rest of the partners involved in the Vietnam enterprise. Not that the papers told us that. We were always killing scores of Viet Cong, apparently, and it would only be a matter of time before they would be driven out of Indo-China altogether.

So we were told. Driven out of where? Their own homeland? Dream on…..

There were lunchtime meetings and rallies over the microphone in the Student Union courtyard that you couldn’t avoid if you went to the Refectory for lunch, and usually it was one or more of these four 'radicals' doing the haranguing. There was some fiery debate. I remember Bob Katter, then president of the Young Country Party, doing battle with them, not very successfully. There were plain clothes cops constantly on campus. There were several other activist groups operating simultaneously in favour of women’s lib, legalisation of various drugs, and alternate lifestyle choices of one sort or another. Hippiedom was just around the corner; in fact, for a few, it had already arrived, or some of it had.

Generally I stayed out of these things pretty much, even in 1969, as I had an overloaded course and a great deal of competition. In an Honours year in History, there were only two or three First Class Honours awarded, but in my year there were eight students reckoned worthy of Firsts. They were unlikely to award eight Firsts the next year. The pressure was really on.

I did listen to Brian Laver and Dick Shearman – all of them, in fact. Laver, like my communist Teacher’s College lecturer years before, Ted d’Urso, had passion and conviction and was highly articulate, but not a visible trace of sense of humour. I don’t think I ever saw him smile, not that he had much to smile about, as he was hounded by the police once he left campus and thrown into jail at every opportunity.

Dan O'Neill
Shearman was viciously penalised in his academic career and even barred from his studies for at least two years. O’Neill, the English Literature lecturer and probably the greatest intellect of them all, took a long time to get anywhere in his career. I could tell you why but I’m not going to, as I don’t think there’s a Statute of Limitations on saying what I can’t prove about what happened to Shearman and O’Neill.

Prentice… well, he amused me in one way, in that the first time I saw him, his first day as a university student, he was dressed in a white shirt and tie, with neat short red hair. He was walking across to the Refectory at the Students Union as I was, and Bob Katter was talking about the betrayal being inflicted on humanity by the activities of Laver and Co. Prentice flew for him verbally and the exchange was as fiery as Prentice’s hair.

As an aside to this I have to tell you that this was the first and last time Jim Prentice looked so neat on campus. Over the remainder of the year, his hair grew wilder and longer and his dress standards declined suitably to sloppy jeans and old boots with no laces.

I am actually leading up to something here, not just reminiscing, because it precipitated something of an epiphany for me. But if I were St Paul on any road heading in the direction of Damascus then I wasn’t aware of it at the time. In fact, I was sitting in front of the TV. Here’s what happened.

Political activity on campus was really heating up. No Australian university student since 1975 can have any idea what true student radicalism was like, or the forces increasingly stacked against it, especially in Queensland. There were sit-ins at the QU administration building and marches from the university along Coronation Drive to the centre of Brisbane. And there were cameras all around at the university itself, recording everything that moved - speeches, demos of one sort or another, usually entirely unrelated. Some movie teams were from the TV channels, others weren’t saying, but no doubt a lot of the footage ended up in a large building in Canberra.

So, here I was the evening of a day that Brian Laver, a considerable number of students and an increasing complement of respected academics rallied on campus in preparation for a march the next day. There was a long report on it on one of the TV channel’s news broadcasts. I had seen everything that had gone on that lunchtime though was not a participant.

I could not believe what I saw on the TV presented as news. The opening segment of some five minutes of it purported to be a report on the lunchtime proceedings at the university. What I saw was the clever and deliberate splicing together of several unrelated activities, presented as a unified story. There were the radicals, suddenly there were pro-marijuana people with Laver and Shearman in the middle of them, then there were women’s rights activists like Merle Thornton (yes, the famous Sigrid’s mother, though this isn't fair comment on Merle's achievements,) and all this was presented as a continuum. The reporter's voiceover made sure of that. Dan O’Neill suddenly became a pot-smoking drug promoter, all were advocating revolution and mayhem to bring the city to a standstill.

In my naivety I had assumed that what you saw on the TV news was what happened. I knew of course that any story could be slanted, but I never really expected such a deliberate and crafted piece of deception could or would be thrust upon the public by something going under the banner of a news broadcast. (I know, things haven’t improved, have they? – they’ve got worse, if anything).

In my innocence I really thought all TV stations worth their salt would attempt to report to the public as truthfully as they could. Any member of the public watching the news that night would be expecting a rabble of drug-crazed, violent, mindless orcs to descend on the city centre, and the police force would be doing its duty clearing the area of them and making it safe to walk the streets.

In fact, the only people who would be rallying would be students, most of them looking as much as possible like John Lennon or Janis Joplin, and some utterly normal looking academic staff with boring haircuts and sincere convictions, peacefully trying to make their point in a way democracy was supposed to protect.

I knew that and felt outraged on their behalf. I have to say that I have always thought most demonstrations are pretty pointless unless they involve huge numbers and when public sentiment is on the side of the demonstrators, which, through disinformation via the press, was not happening in the late 60s and early 70s. But then you have to start somewhere.

In that demonstration the day following that news broadcast, it was those innocent protestors who suffered the indignities of jailing and criminalising when none of it was necessary. It was presented as a triumph of law and order over violence and subversion. And that was far from the only time it happened.

It was, in fact, a nasty form of petty Fascism and there was absolutely no excuse for it. None. My father fought in WWII to preserve a system that allowed people the right to freedom of speech, not to get their heads cracked open for defending their rights. He mightn't have agreed with their point of view, but he would have wanted them to have their say. Students joined these demonstrations because it became an issue of free speech as much as one of bad foreign policy.

I took much more careful notice after that of what was going on at the university in terms of student political activity. It’s not my wish to go into this here but I will say that it became more and more obvious that there was coordination of information between hostile student groups, the university administration, the police, the state and federal governments and the commercial press. ‘Run over the bastards’ may have been the NSW Premier Askin’s suggestion to his driver as to what to do to demonstrators in Sydney, but it could just as easily have come from a ministerial car on Coronation Drive in Brisbane in 1969 or the early 70s.

That little clinking sound wasn’t really to do with epiphany; it was the sound of the scales falling off my eyes. If people were to be pushed off the street I wanted it to be because they were dangerous to the public; not because they were trying to make a point, peacefully - and one which, in the case of the Indo-China war, certainly turned out to be totally justified.


Because we were placed in class groups alphabetically, my friends at Teacher's College had names starting mainly with 'W'. Both Neil and Lyn were in my group, and they ended up marrying.

Neil Weekes and Lyn Winter 1966
Neil was one of the Nashos who were called up for military service and stayed on in the Army, eventually becoming Brigadier. This photo was one I took the last time I ever saw him, at the end of our teacher training in 1965.

Brigadier Weekes served with the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment in South Vietnam in 1968 as a Platoon Commander, where he was awarded the Military Cross (MC) for gallantry.

He lost several men in this action, and I have no doubt he was very cool under fire.

I do sometimes wonder if Ted D'Urso's words came to him when the platoon first was first attacked, but I doubt it very much. I'm afraid that our outlooks these days would be very different to what they were then.

My other friend who was called up for military service at the same time returned from Vietnam a hopeless alcoholic and a broken man.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Vietnam and Damascus, via Coronation Drive

Let’s get it straight right from the start. I’m not a political radical. Sometimes I wish I were, because radicals have strong ideals, but I am too cynical about some aspects of human nature for that. In fact, no-one could be more cynical about politics than I.

When it comes to power, human nature isn’t all that pretty, and politics brings out the worst in most people - not everyone, but way too many of them. No matter what happens, if you can’t compromise with your principles in politics, then you won’t make it in the power stakes. And politics is all about power.

This applies to those who believe in democracy, fascism, Marxism or anarchism – or any other ism – name your poison. If you have strong principles, then, in politics, you may remain pure – but probably powerless. Mahatma Gandhi was the only one I know who was an exception… but then, he was a superb lawyer too, and never claimed to be a politician (though in the end, no-one understood politics better than he did!)

I said in another story how I grew up in the country and on a farm. It was impossible with that background to remain on the land and expect anyone other than non-urban-based politicians to try to look after your interests. That didn’t leave you with much choice, really, in Australia. It probably still doesn’t, though Libs and Labor try to make the right noises to attract the country vote. Both of them know that with an 80% urban population, electoral success lies in the major cities.

Thus my prejudices were strongly fixed when I headed for Brisbane in 1965 for Teacher’s College, and nothing really gave my complacency a powerful jolt until I went to university full time in 1968. Even so, a few incidents made me pause briefly to reflect on such things in 1965.

One was that this was the year I put my name in the hat for military service. All male youths of my age had to do that. It was quite exciting really. Had my birthdate been pulled out of the hat, as several of my friends’ names were, off I would have gone to Vietnam on what I believed was a mission to save the world from the evil communists.

Secondly, one of the lecturers in Politics at Teacher’s College actually was a communist. His name was Ted d’Urso, and he was the first communist I’d ever seen – as far as I knew, anyway. No-one could have been a Commo in Calliope! Amazingly, he looked just like all the other lecturers. He was dressed in a white shirt and tie, and didn’t have fangs or anything. He just said,
Some of you in this room are going to be sitting in a paddy field in Vietnam in two years, and when you come under fire for the first time, you’re going to say “What the hell am I doing here?” All I want to discuss with you are some facts you can check with any reliable source, Then you'll know why someone in a black t-shirt and pants, someone you won't even see, is going to try their best to kill you….
You tend to sit up and take notice when someone says that to you. I liked Ted d’Urso. His lectures were always interesting, even though he had no strong sense of humour as far as I could see. Maybe he reserved it for family and friends. He did have deep rage and a strong sense of justice and that made up for the lack of humour. Full credit to the Queensland State Department of Education for employing a maverick. The world needs people with a strong sense of justice even more than a sense of humour, and heaven knows, often enough you surely need the latter….

Sir Raphael Cilento [1940]
Thirdly, one evening after Damodar Singhal’s lecture to our class in Contemporary Southern Asia, Damodar chaired a speech by the eminent medico, Sir Raphael Cilento, entitled something like ‘The Red Menace to Australia’. I decided to stay on for it.

I don’t know if anyone these days remembers Sir Raphael Cilento, but in 1965 he had a formidable public profile. Perhaps they might be more likely to remember his daughter Diane, who’s better known than he is, as she married Sean Connery, the original Bond; James Bond, Agent 007. You know the one - the real one. I can't resist putting in a picture. She went to Enoggera School where I prac-taught, but is a lot older than I.

Diane Cilento and her [then] hubby
Well, Sir Raphael’s lecture was illustrated by red arrows pouring down from the USSR and China through Indo-China and the Malay Peninsula and all of Indonesia, straight for Australia’s red heart. The Domino Theory was alive and kicking, and Sir Raphael, a curious political mixture and wannabe politician who really should have stuck to medicine, was intent on getting the message across in no uncertain manner. I thought he had a point, at the time.

Damodar was one of the politest people I ever knew, so at the end of the lecture, and in spite of the fact that it was mainly poppycock and Singhal could have ripped his theories to shreds, he thanked the good knight politely for the address, which he described as ‘Sir Raphael’s interpretation’ of the politics of Southeast Asia.

Sir Raphael’s face flushed at this vote of thanks. I thought for a fraction of a second it was modesty, but it was outrage that the word ‘interpretation’ was used. To him it was tantamount to an attack on the eminent doctor’s integrity. What he was doing was imparting fact, not opinion…. He swept out the door in a huff.

There’s a fascinating follow-up to this Cilento story I’d love to share with you, but not here and now. Another time, perhaps. But I think, for the first time in my short life (I was 17 at the time), I suspected that there were more ways of looking at an historical or a political problem than a ‘right’ one and a ‘wrong’ one.

Still, nothing much shook my political views until I arrived back on campus in 1968. What a perfect time to be a student! Contrary to popular perception, Queensland University was the most radical university in the country apart from Monash, and Monash University was perceived as most radical only because of the press coverage it got nationally.

QU was radical because Queensland had the most repressive and compromised government in the country at the time, with Joh Bjelke-Petersen becoming Premier in that year. Read on….

Friday, January 21, 2011

Man up!

I feel some sense of renewal today.

   Perhaps it’s that the Avastin hit from last Wednesday has kicked in and my body actually believes me this time when I tell it that it doesn’t have to put up with chemotherapy at the same time.

   Last time I had Avastin was the first time without chemotherapy and its knockdown effects, and I don’t think my body quite believed me. Or maybe it’s that instead of a three-weekly dose now being given three weeks apart instead of four is letting it do its job better. 

   This time it feels different, even though the MRI last week (it seems longer than that!) showed renewed tumour activity and stronger indications of inflammation around it. What the MRI can’t show, if the previous one was two months before, is exactly when that increased activity started, or its pace. It could have been slow and continuous over two months, or it might have all happened in the last fortnight before the MRI was done.

   There's just no way of knowing.

   All we have to go by is the increase in headaches, woolly-brain syndrome*, memory failure and the feeling of imminent seizure. In some ways it would be nice to know (OK, interesting to know then) but wouldn’t change anything. 

   Anyway, I thought I fell short of Kaylene’s expectations at physiotherapy yesterday. Yes, it was well before Christmas/New Year since the last visit and the temptation to indulge a little had not been resisted – which I don’t regret – but when we tried doing certain physical things with the right arm during therapy, I think she expected better of me yesterday. 

   I expected better of me even though I hadn’t done enough to have the right to. It’s like putting the maths book under your pillow and hoping the equations will seep into your brain. Probably won’t work - actual effort is required.

   It’s not that there had been regression – just no progress. So, we went back to the basics and worked on those. Me going red in the face doing things like lying there attempting to make a smooth movement of my right hand from an upright position over to my left hip. Hopeless! The right hand snaked down with jerky ungainly stops and starts, like a crane with a drunken monkey in charge. 

   Anyway, I vowed to do better, as my walking had definitely improved with practice going round the block daily with Sylvia. An hour a day, Kaylene said. I knew that’s what I should be doing already but had been too lazy to do it properly in the past month. 

   No, no whips or hair shirts. No point. It’s easy to get discouraged or lose enthusiasm in the face of a bleak future – a bit like when some fatty starts a diet and after being good for a few days doesn’t seem to be making progress – the temptation to abandon it is strong. No, I am not going to do that. Not yet, anyway. I’m not saying I mightn’t.

   Besides, as I said, a couple of positive things come with positive resolutions. For one thing, the right ankle and foot that have been swollen have gone down a bit in the past 12 hours. It could be because the weather is cooler – it’s a glorious day out there today! – or Sylvia’s long massaging of the foot the other night cleared some veins a little, or the harder work with arm physiotherapy yesterday. Or a better mental attitude – who knows? Work with it, buster.

   I’m just happy with positive things. Yes, I feel better and more … vital, even with the omnipresence of woolly-brain syndrome. The roller coaster is still on the rails though we know it could fly off at any moment. But let’s try to enjoy the ride while the view is so stunning.

*I told you I'd invent a phrase for that fuzziness of the brain, didn't I? Woolly head syndrome it is.... [WHS]