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

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Dr Charlie Teo's suggestions for YOU

I think this is important enough to make a stand-alone posting.
    Firstly, please read this short article by Charlie Teo.
    Then let me refer you back to this posting which was a response to ABC's Mark Colvin's question about where to go for from that point.
    Lastly, I want to refer you to directly to just one part of Teo's article - the summary.

Dr Teo's tips to reduce brain tumour risks
- Get eight hours sleep a night and eat well to boost your immune system
- Keep electrical appliances like clock radios at the foot of the bed
- Turn electric blankets off before retiring
- Put mobile phones on hands-free
- Wait until the microwave finishes beeping before opening it

You might be skeptical. That's your privilege. You're not going to get a brain tumour, are you?
    Probably not - the odds are that you won't.
    But I did. I don't know how much difference these might make, but it's foolish to ignore them. I was not aware that there could be the slightest possible risk with electric blankets being left on, electronic clocks and radios up close to your head, or waiting right till the end of the beep cycle when your microwave often stops. (I figured that microwaves travel at the speed of light - 192,000 miles per second - and when the stop button was pressed, it was not possible for there to be any residue of radiation unless the oven was faulty. Maybe there isn't, in most modern microwave ovens - but why risk it?)
    Help protect your life!
    Thanks, Charlie Teo. You're a good man. Some of the medical establishment turn their noses up at you, because you do unorthodox things along with the standard good medical practice you always use. But I respect you greatly. Without unorthodoxy, there can be no progress.

Friday, May 27, 2011

In court in Alaska (pt 3 - final)

pt 1| pt 2 | pt 3 << you are here | home | stories from my past   

We were on. The phone was connected to a sound system that could be heard throughout the courtroom - not that there would have been many people present. It’s not like this was trial by jury, after all. They could, I’m sure, hear me better than I could hear them, and that frustrating two or three second delay unavoidable in those days of telecommunications made things harder.

    The lawyer for the refugee claimant put questions to me through which I was able to explain, reasonably sensibly I hope, the relationship in Bangladesh that had developed in politics between public power and the hidden forces at work. The power of money and the use of strong-arm tactics to yield results. The pervasiveness of what is regarded in the west as corruption. Fierce and deadly rivalries where business gain is often accompanied by street thuggery and assassination or murder. Protection of criminals by highly polarised political parties, and vice versa. The power of military figures and the complicated links with civilian rule. The need to play the game of intimidation and graft or lose functional ability in a ruthless world where the weak faltered and the strong often took it all.

    I kept it as short and direct as possible, and felt I had done well.

    Then came the turn of the lawyer challenging the refugee claims. I’m not going to try to use the American legal terminology, so I’ll keep it simple. There were no defendants, defence counsel, prosecutors and the like. (I’d have no problem with these in the Australian system, as my wife has battled many times as a solicitor in courtrooms around this region for the liberty of her clients, and she’d get the terms straightened out for me, but this wasn’t Australia.)

    Call me a chauvinist, and you have a perfect right to in view of what I’m about to say, but somehow I expected it would be a male lawyer attacking the appeal and firing questions at me, but it was a woman. And she was as hard as nails. Tough as boot leather, with a voice like a rasp, as she rapped the questions at me. Her immediate aim, I’m sure, was to unsettle me.

    ‘Do you know Mr (Asad, I’ll call him, ‘my’ lawyer’s client)?

    ‘OBJECTION!’ I heard from somewhere slightly distant.

    Yes, they actually do all that ‘Objection!’ stuff – it’s not just reserved for TV dramas after all. I was a bit shocked; I’m not sure why. There were spirited arguments between them, with our side arguing, as we’d agreed, that my role was limited to outlining objective circumstances in Bangladesh. They were going at it hammer and tongs, and I could only try to make out what the hell was really going on in there.

    She dropped that question, but still she persisted from a slightly different angle. ‘Would you say that any person involved in politics or business in Bangladesh would have to engage in criminal activity?’

    It was a tricky one. Clearly she wanted to paint a picture of our Mr Asad as a thug, which would create difficulties for him as a claimant for refugee status. There was a barrage of ‘objection’ activity but, not surprisingly, I was asked to answer the question.

    ‘I would say that a person could be honest in these matters, but could not avoid dealing with people who aren’t.’

    It wasn’t the answer she wanted, but it was true.

    After further questioning along these lines and some stubborn stonewalling on my part, she then tried another tack.

    ‘How can you be sure that the picture of these conditions you have painted is accurate?’

    So, the attack was now directed straight at me. At my competence. There were no objections from our side this time. He must have felt I could look after myself.

    ‘You have my bio data,’ I said. ‘You can see my publications in this area and the amount of time I’ve spent in Bangladesh.’

    ‘Recent United States Embassy press releases don’t indicate such a high level of violence as you’ve claimed.’ (Now I think of it, she did sound awfully like Sarah Palin when she gets stroppy, which is often these days....)

    I admit I was a bit peeved at this tactic on her part even though I might have expected it, but according to what I’d been told, it was at this point that the case was severely dented the previous time. The expertise of their witness had been strongly challenged and he fell apart. This was why I had been drafted, after all.

    The real problem for me, and one that I hadn’t considered, was that when you are under attack from a questioner and you’re on the phone, you don’t really know what’s happening in the court. You can’t see the people, interpret their faces or gestures, or even hear the objections and how the judge is reacting. But she was certainly aggressive, or pretended to be. The hostility in her voice surprised me. Probably it shouldn’t have. She was only doing her job, but it was a bit disconcerting. I wasn’t used to being grilled in a courtroom, especially one about as far away from where I was sitting as you can get, and still remain on Planet Earth.

    There was a lot of to-and-froing between the lawyers and the judge about these assertions. I couldn’t hear all that much of it clearly, but I was astounded at how often the word ‘Objection!’ came up. It was Perry Mason from my early TV days all over again!

    I simply listened, as I hadn’t been prompted to speak by anyone.

    Finally, I was asked to comment. Oh, there was a great deal I would love to have said in regard to faulty US intelligence that had led to failure in US foreign policy on the subcontinent since 1947! Failure that had contributed so much to war between India and Pakistan, the emergence of Bangladesh itself, the stirring of Islamist forces that had destabilised the whole of South and Central Asia and the Middle East – and Bangladesh, .... none of which was appropriate for me to bring up in this instance.

    And this complacent, uninformed nonsense, presumably emanating from its embassy in Dhaka, was being used in an attempt to discredit me. Suddenly I felt a bit bolshie.

    ‘I don’t have any idea what reports you’re relying on, but let me say this. The US Embassy is located in Banani. It’s a brand-new suburb miles out of the centre of Dhaka. It’s like a separate city, and has continuous electricity supply and other public utilities and a lifestyle more like Hollywood than the reality of Dhaka.’

    I paused to take a breath, but no-one was stopping me, so on I went.

    ‘Meanwhile, I was living in the oldest part of the city earlier this year, at Wari, and before that, in Muhammadpur and Dhanmondi, and on the university campus.  There were times I couldn’t walk between halls of residence at Dhaka University because of the danger of firefights between student groups in those colleges - that's with bullets. In the city, I often couldn’t move because of bombings and violent demonstrations. I saw people shot down. It’s there that the action happens, not new urban developments like Gulshan or Banani. The US Embassy out there would only have had to tune into the BBC English language news service on local radio every morning in Dhaka and they’d get the picture I’ve given you. Maybe the BBC has transcripts.’

    I enjoyed that bit. These were of course the days before such things were all online.

    Nobody seemed to be saying anything. Then I heard words that, if I had been in the courtroom, I suppose would have translated from a courtroom TV drama script as ‘You may step down.’

    I hung up the phone. The case proceeded at that point, so I had no opportunity to gauge whether I had made things better or worse for Asad, but I had done what I could.

    It was later in the day that I got a phone call from Asad’s lawyer.

    ‘We’ve won the appeal. He’s been granted residency. Thank you for your statements. They were helpful.’

    That was it. I’ll never really know the extent of the part I played in this, but I don’t know how else such a case could be won – or lost – except on the basis of this sort of evidence.

    I can’t say I felt that the United States gained an exemplary citizen as a result of the successful appeal, but I did feel true to my unspoken pledge to the tawny frogmouth with the bright yellow eyes that peered in at me through the window out of the blackness of that summer night.

pt 1pt 2 | pt 3 << you are here | home | stories from my past   

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Several people have now said they tried to post a blog comment, and it wouldn't go through. I've tried several times to make comment posting as free as possible, but it seems the program is quite temperamental on this.

May I suggest that before you hit either 'Review' or 'Post' your comment, you highlight what you've written and Edit/Copy the text so that even if it disappears, you can paste it back in and try again - OR

Select the Anonymous option, paste it in there, and sign it at the end (if you don't really want to be anonymous!) That one always seems to work - OR

Type your response in a Word doc or somewhere else, save it, and then cut and paste your text into the blog comments window.

If all that fails, let me know please!

NOTE: if you are using the Google login option, log in firstly to your email and then go to the blog. DON'T log out of gmail before going to the blog. Just go to the blog page directly.

If you log out of Google gmail and then go to the blog and try to comment, it will probably fail.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

In court in Alaska (pt 2)

pt 1 | pt 2 << you are here | pt 3 | Home | Stories from my past

The call to action came earlier than I expected – within a week of agreeing to take part in the Alaskan court proceedings. The weather here was hot and humid. For that reason, when I was waiting for the phone to ring (about 2 AM), I was clad only in the bottom half of short pyjamas, sweat trickling down my back.

    Yes, I admit to being nervous, which wouldn’t have helped. I had never testified in court, my only brushes with the law being a speeding ticket long before and a whew!-just-under-the-limit breath test which forever changed my drinking habits. I had once watched my cousin in court trying to get decent compensation for the family property swallowed up by Awoonga Dam, and he’d been sent into a tailspin by the Brisbane barrister hired to do exactly that to him.

    And this was the US legal system! I really had no idea what I was facing. Why had I agreed to this? Why hadn’t I left Mr Fixit to his fate?

    Too late for that now. The call, when it came, charged me with adrenalin.

    ‘We’re on in a few minutes. Just follow me and answer my questions.’

    Firstly came the swearing in. This was the part that in spite of the seriousness of what I was doing, I couldn’t help being amused by. I don’t remember the exact words, but I surely recall this part.

    ‘Raise your right hand and swear...’ (I guess it must have been along the lines of ‘the truth, the whole truth, etc.) But even as the words were spoken, I was picturing myself sitting there half clad, ready to raise my right hand, phone in the other. Fortunately perhaps, video Skype wasn't in vogue at the time. Who would know what I was doing with that right hand as I was taking the oath? I could have been picking my nose for all anyone else knew.

    Attracted by the light, fat white moths and Christmas beetles were fluttering and buzzing outside the window. At that point, there was a huge thump at the window I was facing, not a metre away, as if someone had thrown a basketball at it. Two brilliant, gigantic eyes steadily stared at me through it.

    Harry Potter had not yet come into existence, but it seemed a Hedwig of some sort had been sent to watch my swearing in. I nearly fainted. Have you any idea how BIG a Tawny Frogmouth’s eyes are at 2 AM, staring at you unblinking an arm's length away as you are on a call to a courtroom on the other side of the world?

    The owl picked a fat moth off the windowpane, took one last severe look at me, and flew into the darkness.

    I did what I was told and raised my hand. If Almighty God had sent Hedwig or his deputy right at that moment with a message, it was enough for me. I’d be raising my arm and telling the truth all right.
(next and final part to come: unexpectedly fiery courtroom action)

pt 1 | pt 2 << you are here | pt 3 | Home | Stories from my past

Saturday, May 21, 2011

In court in Alaska

pt 1 << you are here | pt 2 | stories from my past | home
I wanted to tell this story because the circumstances were bizarre and funny in some ways, but it has a serious side that begins the narrative. Nevertheless, I’ll start by asking you to create in your mind an image of a chap sitting in his study at 2 AM, clad only in the bottom half of a pair of shortie PJs, phone in his left hand, his right arm high in the air, and startled sharply by two enormous eyes at the window.

    Do I have your attention? If not, you may as well leave now and rearrange your paperclip collection, but I will return to this image. Yes, of course it’s a snapshot of me, and it’s for real. I’ll get back to it later.

    It was about 10 PM on a summer night in 1996; an unusually hot spell of weather for the New England Tablelands. The first indication that I was going to act as a participant in a courtroom battle in Alaska was a phone call as I was sitting at my desk in my study at our 25 acre property, Pangari, 10 km northeast of Armidale, Australia. I’ll try to re-create the dialogue.

    ‘Am I speaking to Dr Denis Wright?’ It was a quietly assured American male voice; that of someone who spends a good deal of his working life on the phone.

    I confirmed that it was. The speaker identified himself and the firm of lawyers he worked for.

    ‘I’ve been given your name because I’ve been informed you have wide experience of Bangladesh.’

    ‘It’s been a big part of my life. But how can that be of interest to you?’

    He came straight to the point, as good lawyers do. Bad ones lose cases when they don’t. ‘I’m based in Anchorage, Alaska. I have a client here who’s a Bangladeshi seeking political asylum in the USA. I need an expert to provide courtroom testimony about current political conditions in Bangladesh.’

    I winced at the word ‘expert’. Ever since someone claimed that ‘ex’ was the unknown, and ‘spurt’ a drip under pressure, I’ve not cared for it in reference to myself, though there are a few I’m happy to do so. But as far as having had experience with Bangladeshi political strife, I did know something about that. Having got out of Bangladesh under fairly dodgy conditions a few months before, first-hand experience was fresh in my mind.

    ‘My client is a quite well-known figure in Dhaka and came to the US in fear for his life.’

    Is he now? That’s a very familiar trick to pull for someone trying to migrate to the US or Canada, or Australia for that matter. I thought it, but said nothing. I was also wondering just how well-known his client was in other circles in Bangladesh.

    ‘What’s his name?’

    He gave the name to me, but I won’t repeat it here. After a bit of experience now at how a name in one of my blog stories can travel to unexpected places, I’m more cautious about this than ever before. I did know the name, though it was someone I had never met in Dhaka, nor had the desire to.

    I wouldn’t really have wanted to be associated with him. I didn’t like his politics, his friends or the people he employed in Bangladesh. He operated well behind the scenes. Oh, I could say much more about him, but let’s not complicate my life any more than it is right now by going into that. The internet walls have ears....

    I didn’t want to be involved, but there was one thing I knew for certain. Given what I’d been told about him in Dhaka, and recent events there, his life was most certainly in danger if he went back to Bangladesh. Still, it would have been very easy to say no. I could wash my hands of the case and let them find another ‘expert’....

    Which begged the question – why me? There were thousands of Bangladeshis and several non-Bangladeshi academics in the USA familiar and experienced enough, I would have thought, to act in the case.

    ‘The total independence of the expert witness is vital. This is an appeal against the original rejection of our case, and I believe we needed more convincing testimony about conditions in Bangladesh to prove my client’s life is seriously at risk. We want a credible international expert with a research track record and on the ground experience. Our search puts you in that spot.’

    It put me in a spot all right, as a second failed appeal would send him back to circumstances unquestionably dangerous for someone like him, and it could be that my refusal to give objective opinion on these could play a part in costing him his life if he were deported. That I wouldn’t wish on anyone and wasn’t something I wanted on my conscience.

    Still I hesitated. I had my own reasons. Seven years before, his former associates were keeping a closer than comfortable eye on me when I was in Dhaka; not, I must add, that he had any personal role in that.

    This testimony, should I choose to give it, would be delivered by phone. I wasn’t going to hop on a plane to Alaska, though that might have been good fun, even in the middle of northern hemisphere winter. We discussed details of the case.

    ‘I don’t want to say anything in a court about this particular person. If I do agree to testify, I want it to be on the understanding that I speak only about objective political circumstances in Bangladesh, not anything to do with him directly.’

    ‘That’s in fact what we’re looking for. It’s your authority on national Bangladeshi politics and its environment that would be your concern. But I can’t guarantee just what sort of questions you might be asked by the other side. There is of course a fee for your services.’

    ‘Look, I write newspaper articles and talk on current affairs radio about Bangladesh politics and life, and a lot of other things. I never expect a fee for those and nor do most academics in this country. It’s part of my job. I don’t want a fee.’

    Call me dumb for not taking money off a wealthy man, win or lose, but the idea of a fee repelled me, like blood money. It instantly changes your relationship with the people who pay it. You’re on their payroll. This was one ship I wanted to be able to jump off if it became unpredictable. I said I’d think about it.

    The only reason I took it on was a perhaps over-developed concern for the life of someone who hadn’t really had much compassion for plenty of other people’s welfare in his own country. When the lawyer rang back a day later, I said I’d do it. I kept my concerns about the character of his client to myself. Those concerns were not something that was relevant to the case. And, after all, I wasn’t there to provide a character reference. (continued)
pt 1 << you are here | pt 2stories from my past | home

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The beginning and the end of plankdom

By the time you get to read this, if you can be bothered, planking will be a relic of the usual range of youthful enterprises, so I’ll get cracking before the phenomenon disappears from sight altogether (that’s next week). It will disappear not because there aren’t enough young chaps willing to play an upbeat version of ‘chicken’ or ‘dare’, perhaps in the guise of some form of futuristic spiritual fulfilment, but because planking has now been discovered by people no-one of that age wants to know. Parents and tabloid reporters – oldies like that.

    It will thus meet the fate of all things past their coolness use-by date, and some other way of doing exactly the same thing will come into vogue – tempting fate or trying to grab a corner of next-age nirvana, or both. In real life, this can end up at the pointy end of Darwinism.

    In her lovely blog, ZMKC discovered an ‘expert’ who spoke of planking as 'mediating the self'. Quite understandably, she seemed almost as unsure of what this phrase meant as to whether the expert had any idea what he was talking about. No, I’ll rephrase that. I’m pretty sure she knows full well he doesn’t have a clue, but that's for her to say.

    For mine, the only vaguely interesting thing about planking is where it started, not how it fractured and took off at so many tangents that you may as well use the term for lying down in the middle of the highway, or screaming down that same highway at 200kph fully laden with alcohol, six friends and an unshakable conviction about your own immortality, or sitting in a wobbly pyramid with a brick poised on the top.

    The reality is that planking evolved from 'gaming', when players discovered that in a lot of games, the very edges of the screen could be ‘safe’ from attack by anyone or anything in the game. As long as you didn’t go over the edge and off the screen altogether, that thin 'plank' round the edge was a resting place where you could get your breath back or work out a new strategy before you jumped back into the game.

    In other words, it was a 'cheat' that you could exploit, a perfectly safe place in terms of the game, though if you weren’t careful and missed that thin strip around the edge, you could well go over it, into game oblivion.

    And so the gamer’s term for it came into more common usage, and became synonymous with daring manoeuvres that could end in real rather than virtual disaster. Once translated into human action, the ante was upped. Gamers simply had to restart the game or maybe lose a ‘life’ when the planking manoeuvre failed. But others confused the boundary between virtual death on the screen and the end of their real-life sojourn on the planet.

    Please don’t come up with pseudo-philosophical explanations for the stuff we’re having to suffer at the moment. I’ve seen most of them. In many ways it’s just the same as taking the risk of jumping in at the deep end of the swimming pool, and maybe taking a sliver off the gene pool at the same time.

    Can we move on now please?

Disclaimer: I am not a ‘gamer’ but I do have a very intelligent stepson now old enough to vote who has played for five sixths of his life on every platform known to gamedom, and I’d back his knowledge of such things against anyone’s. But don’t blame him for anything above. He’s just as likely to have a different opinion!

Dear friends

I've had some beautiful emails recently, all of which deserve long and lazy responses, but the time just vanishes, so I have to keep them brief. Please forgive me if I don't do them justice.

    One thing I will mention is that often is seems that the WHAT'S NEW! section of the Blob isn't as obvious as I'd hoped. There's a link to it at the top of the page and also at the side. I mention it so that you can quickly see if an arm has fallen off or something, or maybe there's an answer there to questions you were afraid to ask.

    It makes it easy for us all. It's been wonderful that there's so much interest as the page views climb to the 27,000 mark.

    In the meantime, here's something you don't see every day. It's a tray of persimmons Tracey picked from our little tree in the back garden. When friends cleaned up the backyard for us last year, they heavily pruned the persimmon tree. It did it the world of good, and the huge crop (this is only a third of it) is the result.

And now, back to my Alaskan story, which is coming along pretty well. It involves an owl, a hot night, a Bangladeshi refugee and my right arm.

    Truth is definitely often way stranger than fiction. You just can't make this stuff up!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The White Russians of Yarwun (pt 4)

pt 1 | pt 2 | pt 3 | pt 4  <<< you are here | Stories from my past | Home

My third and final story relates to vodka. I said previously that the Russian community was very law abiding, and that was true. But that didn’t mean they were angels. On the contrary, my sister Lyn had an encounter I had no idea about until the subject of the Yarwun Russians came up just yesterday. I'll let her tell the story as it's very much hers.

 It was on one of our Sunday trips to the Calliope River to fish on the downside of the bridge, and watch the water skiing above the bridge. The family, Dad, Mum, Kay, you and I were there, Jan being in Brisbane at the time, I think. We were parked in our usual spot below the bridge, in the shade of a big old gum tree.

     My efforts at catching anything had been totally unsuccessful, and I wasn't all that interested in the skiing, either, so had returned to the car to await everyone's return.

    I had noticed a group of Russian people just over from where we were parked, and there was a fair bit of loud talking and carry on. I was leaning against our car when I saw a solidly built young Russian man, definitely under the influence of strong drink, eyeing me off. He moved unsteadily towards our car and my heart started to beat a bit faster, as I thought, 'Oh no!  Don't tell me he is coming over here.'

    I looked round, but no-one was in sight, and the unsteady Russian with a big lop-sided grin walked crabwise over to our car. All I could think of to do was to slide along the side of the car. Perhaps I would be out of his bleary vision and he would lurch off somewhere else. He didn't! He just kept slowly maneuvering around the car as I desperately inched my way round, and though, recalling it, it must have been highly amusing to any onlooker, I was not one bit amused. 

    I'm not sure how many circuits we completed before I heard the welcome sounds of the returning fishing party. They all broke into large smiles at my obvious plight, but Dad's voice had the effect of sending the young man back to his own party - to my immense relief! I did get a bit of ribbing for a time afterwards, particularly from Kay, who had quite a sparkle in those eyes whenever she spoke of it.

    So there was one strong tradition which had no doubt traversed the seas from some northern Chinese port to a disembarkation on the great Island Continent - perhaps even the safe harbour of Gladstone itself. But a last word about the Yarwun Russians and vodka. As a teacher, I went to a party one evening at exactly the same spot on the Calliope River as Lyn was talking about, and I drove back to Gladstone from it fairly late in the evening. A few kilometres out from Gladstone, I saw a small truck off the road and down an embankment.

    I stopped and peered inside. A bearded middle-aged man was slumped over the steering wheel. The side window was down, which was a good thing as the vodka fumes would have gassed him if the cabin had been closed, as they almost did to me as I checked him out.

    I knew he was a Russian from Yarwun, as they all had that sort of truck – solid jeep-looking two-ton vehicles that could probably withstand a land-mine, if you could find one on the Gladstone to Rocky road.

    He was sleeping like a baby, with no sign of injury that I could discern, but how could I be sure of that? I faced a dilemma. Of course, this was thirty years before mobile phones, so I had no choice but to leave him as he was and drive home. I could have left him to sleep it off and winch the truck out when he was sober. But what if he had an injury I didn’t know about? For all I knew, his neck or back could have been broken. He could have been dead by morning.

    In the end, I called an ambulance from home and told them where to find him.

    That was the last I heard of the matter, until I read in the Gladstone Observer a few weeks later that on the night of whenever it was, Dmitry Fyodor Dostoyevsky (no no no, that wasn’t his name, for Pete’s sake - I don’t have a clue what his mother called him!!) was discovered by the police in a vehicle which had left the road exactly where I had seen the truck, and that he was taken into custody, convicted and heavily fined for driving under the influence of liquor.

    I guess I did my civic duty but felt a bit guilty about it. It could have been Alec’s uncle for all I knew, but then he shouldn’t have been driving in that state. If he’d got back on the road in that truck, he might have killed somebody. Neither he nor I would have wanted that, even if the fine was a bit stiff. Jail's a lot worse.

POSTSCRIPT: So what happened to Alec? Would you believe, I got a clue from (surprise surprise) Google. Like the dramatic story of my childhood friend Verdon Harrison and the shark attack, Google is the oracle. There was one item I uncovered. The author said this:

A couple of years ago I was in Gladstone installing an exhibition titled Symmetry. A stroll through the cemetery revealed a collection of Russian graves. The name Guerassimoff stood out. Puzzled at its presence in a quintesentially Aussie town, I inquired about the Russians and was told that a community of Russians lived in a town close by, called Yarwun. Imagining a Amish-style community, I made a brief visit and tracked down a Guerassimoff, Alex, who was working at the local store. He told me quite casually the story of his family, how they had escaped the Russian revolution by fleeing to Manchuria and then to Australia, where they established a pawpaw plantation.

    So there you have it. Alex (my friend Alec) has moved barely an inch from his home. I imagine the community is pretty well dispersed now, the Yarwun pawpaw farms all bought up by developers to create dormitory suburbs for the burgeoning city of Gladstone. The White Russian diaspora would have done what every other community over a couple of generations in Australia has – made its contribution and adapted fairly seamlessly into the multicultural life we share in this fortunate country.

pt 1 | pt 2 | pt 3 pt 4  <<< you are here | Stories from my past | Home

The White Russians of Yarwun (pt 3)

pt 1 | pt 2 | pt 3 << you are here | pt 4 | Stories from my life | Home
I thought there were two items to finish this, but it turns out there are three! 

   I mentioned previously that Alec’s brother, Jules, went to Queensland University in the early 1960s. I didn’t know Jules at all, as he was several years older than Alec and I. At the time I’m now talking about, I was in Brisbane, staying with my aunt (Mum’s sister, Mavis) while I was at Teacher’s College, and the TV was on in their lounge room. It was Saturday afternoon, and a Rugby International was being played between Australia and Britain.

    I wasn’t all that interested in Rugby Union, my only contact with it coming through my GPS school pal Paul Moloney, whose shady career on the night train to Brisbane as a card sharp I documented in another story. Uncle George, Aunty Mavis’s husband, really introduced me to the sport while I was staying with them at Enoggera, and we went to some matches, including one where my swimming and gym instructor, Laurie Lawrence (yes, that Laurie Lawrence!) was playing as half-back for Queensland. (Oh man, there’s a whole other story here about Laurie Lawrence and me at Teacher’s College, but ... focus... just focus.)

    Part way through the game showing on TV, with Australia flagging a little, the announcer said that Jules Guerassimoff was about to make his international debut for Australia. At the time I had no idea that he had captained Queensland and was a dual-sport Blue recipient at Queensland Uni. 

    He ran on as a sub, and within seconds had the ball. Three players tried to bring him down, but each of them, like ninepins, lay unmoving and horizontal on the turf after the encounter. He chipped the ball to the winger over the head of the last defender, and his team-mate scored in the corner.

    The game was turned around completely, while the playing field looked like a battlefield in which someone was armed with an AK-47 and everyone else had stones. And that was Jules just running the ball, not defending!

Jules Guerassimoff, photo taken about 2007
    Jules, soon nicknamed “Big Julie” had an illustrious international career in Rugby Union, celebrated as “a crash tackler and clean out merchant extrordinaire, who often hammered opposing backs out of the game.”

    Yep, he surely was that, and the fact that his brother was my friend made me feel glory had been heaped on all of us as well. Oh I know, it’s drawing a long bow, but they were the only ones we had as Calliope kids, so give us a break....

    Still, it explains how Alec could handle himself if need be, just by years of mucking around with Jules and a football amongst the pawpaw trees at Yarwun. Big brothers tend to give little quarter to siblings, especially in football games.

    (I think I’m going to post this in two short parts. Long posts look a bit daunting, I reckon. Don’t you? The other will be posted later in the day.)
pt 1 | pt 2 | pt 3 << you are here | pt 4Stories from my life | Home

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The White Russians of Yarwun (pt 2)

pt 1 | pt 2 <<< you are here | pt 3 | Stories from my past | Home
They were of course the objects of curiosity because of some of their strange ways. I'll give you an example.

    The Russian women who came into Gladstone hospital to have their babies amazed staff and friends of the nurses at how, when the babies were just a few days old, the young mothers would be stuffing their bellies with nearly as much porridge as breast milk (and there was plenty of the latter, by the look of those women!) Maybe that's why most of the White Russians were so solidly built, boys and girls, by the time they went to school. Like all migrant groups with another native language, it was always the kids who broke the ice and did the integrating.

    So it was with my friend Alec Guerassimoff. I met him at Rural School in Gladstone every Friday, when we were in Grades 7 and 8 (primary school). Just close your eyes and picture the stereotypical Russian boy. There, now I don't have to describe him, do I? But just to make sure, he had that creamy-brown complexion, blond curly hair, and sky-blue eyes that must be just as they are in that picture in your head. He was simply another kid in the class, built like a tank and good at sports, especially any form of football. The school case he carried was made of pine, unlike ours made of more fashionable rubbish, beautifully crafted with the skill of a master cabinetmaker. Home-made, needless to say.

    Any other kid would have been teased because his school port was different to ours. Not Alec. Not unless you were feeling a bit suicidal. Alec was built about 90% of pure muscle, in a stocky non-aggressive way.

    Though now I come to think of it, there was one incident where he did defend himself on the only occasion I witnessed someone foolhardy enough to take him on. He was a high school boy about three years older and much taller than either of us, approaching us on the path with a couple of cronies between high school buildings. He shoved Alec hard and ordered him out of the way. Alec rounded on him in a flash, clasped his arms and body in a bone-crunching bearhug, and hurled him down the two metre embankment beside us. I don't mean pushed. I mean threw him, in an arc with a radius of close to a metre, from top to bottom of the slope.

    Well, I was impressed. So was the idiot who took him on, feeling his ribs gingerly and not willing to get up till we were long gone. His mates chose not to intervene.

    I called him Baloo after that. You know. Kipling's brown bear in The Jungle Book. He didn't know who Baloo was till I told him, and he just grinned.

    We'd stroll down to Fritz Deitie's store at lunchtime to buy finger buns, and chatted about all sorts of things. His brother Jules, he told me once, was going to Queensland University the following year. That was unsurprising as the Guerassimoffs were all clever as well as athletic. But generally, our conversation would be no different from that of any other teenage boys. Why should it have been, after all? That's simply what we were, just boys at school, with the same interests. How I wish these people who fear those who've grown up in a different cultural environment could see that, and not rabbit on about some community's failure to integrate.

    Just give it a generation. It always works, if people don't get too silly about it. But where was I?

    There was one thing that was very different about the Russians. When there was a service at the little weatherboard church in Calliope, which was about every two weeks in the 1950s, the Russian men used to file in; bushy-bearded fellows who smiled very briefly as they entered, but uttered not a word thereafter. 

    This was the Church of England, which must have been closest in form of worship to what they were used to wherever they came from. They did not attend every time. I now suspect there were special days on their religious calendar to be celebrated - ones we didn't know about.

    In Calliope, very few local men went to church - it was the women who supported it in every way. So it was quite a novelty to see these men come down to the front pews, where as men they obviously expected to be seated, with the rest of the church full of local women and children. They didn't bring either their women or kids, and the men were usually middle aged or elderly. Clearly the women weren't part of the programme. I suspect they were having a good time on those Sunday mornings revelling in their own company, free of the senior men, who apparently didn't regard the women's salvation as their particular concern.

    How much they put in the collection plate during the service I have no idea, but the minister was always very pleased to see them come in the door. I have the feeling they were generous when it came to their spiritual welfare. Or then again, I could be doing them an injustice: maybe they were doing the necessary religious observance for the whole community. I doubt if they followed a word of the service in English, given the archaic language.
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: ... Amen.
I guess I'll never forget the prayers for the entire service in their identical order every time. Each one was a gauge of how long I would have to stay there and sit still until the service was over.

    But then, a lot of Catholics at the same period of our history wouldn't have understood a word of the Latin Mass, so what's the difference, really? It was the rite, the keeping of the tradition as best they could, in a place far in every way from where they had been born.

    I have one more short tale about the Russians of Yarwun, and then that's it. No, two. Next time. Really short, I ummmm promise...
pt 1 | pt 2 <<< you are here | pt 3 | Stories from my past | Home

The White Russians of Yarwun

Pt 1 <<<you are here | Pt 2 | Pt 3 | Stories from my past | Home

It’s probably not necessary to say it, but I will just to be on the safe side, that the White Russians I’m talking about haven’t been defined here by their skin colour, though the only ones I knew were white in that sense as well. The term comes from post-1917 in Russia following the ‘Red’ revolution – in what soon became the Soviet Union.

    I don’t want to go into Soviet history here, but the White Russians were those who had no intention of being Red. Supported by outside powers about as unsuccessfully as irredentism now is in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, the White Russians found themselves driven by the Reds further and further out of North Asia. Some ended up in Manchuria and others, knowing that they had no chance of restoring Tsarist Russia or creating their own republic, migrated to other parts of the world. The Maoist revolution in China in 1949 sealed their fate.

    And so, at some time after the Second World War, a community of White Russians was established just west of Gladstone, Queensland, at a place called by its Aboriginal name of Yarwun. This isn’t something I’ve researched so don’t expect historical precision here – I just want to get them settled in so I can tell my personal story about my White Russian friends.

    Oh, just one other thing, and the history lesson, such as it is, is over.

    Australia welcomed these heavily bearded men with their shawled, headscarved and seemingly docile women. All of this was quite alien to my parents’ generation living on farms and in townships in rural Queensland.

    They were white in skin colour, and they were strongly opposed to communism, so they didn’t have much trouble being accepted as the right sort of migrant for mid-twentieth century Australia. Australia was no friend of the Reds, especially rural Australia where I came from. None of us had ever seen a communist, and the propaganda we grew up with painted a scary picture – not that people like Stalin helped the communist image.

    So, politically, the White Russians were regarded as 100% safe.

    I’m guessing there must have been about a hundred of them – families and single men. I have no idea what they must have thought of their new home patch. They brought enough money with them to buy land, and why they chose Yarwun I can’t imagine, except the soil in the river valleys wasn’t bad and it was safe and peaceful, and no-one was shooting at them. That must have been a bit of a relief.

    It was land suited to growing pawpaws, and that’s what they did. How much knowledge they had of pawpaws before coming to Yarwun I don’t have a clue. Probably not a lot. BUT many of them were peasants, used to hard labour, very heavy work, living on the smell of a greasy bullock, fresh air and cabbage, and if any migrants were going to make it in a not particularly hospitable place, geologically speaking, it was them. OK, ‘they’, you grammar Nazis. Go away. I have a story here, and I’m nowhere near as far along as I wanted to be at this point.

    Pawpaws you may know as papaya, or papaws. For us in central Queensland, they were pronounced and spelled ‘pawpaws’, so don’t expect me to change now just because another name looks more upmarket.

    Pawpaws are palm trees, and if you were as lucky as we were, you could reach through the kitchen window and pick one, dead ripe, straight from the tree, and have it in a fruit salad in minutes. It’s a beautiful fruit, although I see people buying green ones in chain store fruit and veggie areas, and they must be bitter and tasteless if they don't let them ripen fully. They’d certainly put me off pawpaws if I’d never tried them before, but we loved the delicious ones we grew.

    Bitter or tasteless? Not so the ones the Russians developed in Yarwun. They were spectacular in quality in every way, and Yarwun pawpaws became famous all over the east coast of Australia as far as they could be shipped before overripening. Yarwun pawpaws in that sense had a similar reputation to Bowen mangoes – the best of the best you could get your hands on. (Oh, and I have to add - they are absolutely the perfect antidote to a sluggish digestive system!)

    The White Russians thus prospered, and no-one begrudged them that, not for a second. We all knew what hard work went into this success. Although they weren’t unfriendly, they kept pretty much to themselves and were totally law abiding as a community and as individuals - except for one minor incident I'll come to later.

    They were of course the objects of curiosity for some of their strange ways. I‘ll give you an example

Pt 1 <<<you are here | Pt 2 | Pt 3 | Stories from my past | Home

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hitchens, the journey and an angel

A friend of ours is having a desperate struggle with cancer at the moment. I mean, really desperate. A mutual friend, who is an angel, is helping her through, but it is an exhausting and difficult task. We feel for them both. 

    This is at least the third time in the recent past that the angel's been called on to do this for friends, and in at least two of these cases, these friends relied on her almost totally for the sort of support, material and emotional, that terminally ill friends need. Often in fact, they demand it, which I guess is, up to a point, understandable in many ways, given what lies ahead for them. I can only begin to imagine what a toll it's taken on her over that time. AND she calls to see me very regularly as well.

    Christopher Hitchens, whose writings on Islam often used to make me furious when I was teaching a course on modern Islam, has cancer of the larynx. He writes candidly of his journey, which is why I find his views on his approaching death very revealing, and of course I cannot help relating to what he says.
   "Like so many of life’s varieties of experience," he writes, "the novelty of a diagnosis of malignant cancer has a tendency to wear off. The thing begins to pall, even to become banal. One can become quite used to the specter of the eternal Footman, like some lethal old bore lurking in the hallway at the end of the evening, hoping for the chance to have a word. And I don't so much object to his holding my coat in that marked manner, as if mutely reminding me that it's time to be on my way. No, it's the snickering that gets me down." (Italics mine.)
   And so he goes on, writing just as I would be telling it if I had his literary skills. His article's here. He's telling the story for a whole lot of people. I've not always agreed with his political or religious views, but I certainly respect them. And him.

(Incidentally, there's another fascinating article by him. This is it.)