Post-pandemic (Part 1)

It’s been a mad few years – living through the pandemic then slowly emerging from a state of collective shell-shock feeling changed but unsure exactly how; the grotesque buffoon dethroned as leader of the free world, still loitering, still a threat; catastrophic bushfires on three continents on a scale humanity has never seen, interspersed with successive years of record rainfall and flooding; the familiar uneasiness of living in a society sliding heedlessly toward war with yet another demonised country. I had at times, during the pandemic especially, thought I should be documenting my experiences here. Life has been complicated. Social media platforms are too convenient and it’s easier to dump thoughts there, throwaways really, than to write a thoughtful and cohesive article.

The pandemic… where to begin? So much has and will be written about it. I think the best way I can contribute is to try and document my personal experiences and position them into broader social contexts.

Pandemic Year 1

At the end of 2019, I left the State Library of New South Wales where I’d been seconded for two years as Business Information Lead, responsible for the State Library’s own corporate records and archives and the related systems. I was proud to work there. I think most Sydneysiders and visitors would recognise the State Library as one of the city’s most loved institutions. The Mitchell Reading Room and the galleries around it are among our most beautiful public spaces, the Macquarie Building and its Marie Bashir Reading Room, Children’s Library, meeting rooms and computer services have a good claim to being our most useful, and the new auditorium under construction will multiply that.

I’d been on loan to the State Library from Fire and Rescue NSW, where I was returning with an informal agreement to work part time, giving me the time and brain-space to start my own business. After twenty-three years in Her Majesty’s service, I wanted to be my own boss, responsible for my own successes and failures instead of other people’s. In all those years in Government I felt I’d done very little of value to society. If I tried my hand in the world of business, perhaps I could achieve something worthwhile.

I reckoned I’d found a niche – mushroom varieties and complementary ingredients for Japanese cuisine. They’re tasty, nutritious, a fundamental in the diets of Australia’s large and expanding Asian demographic, and a growing number of consumers are looking for humane and sustainable sources of protein.

‘Organic mushies on the rise’, Kate McIlwain, The Land, 19 May 2022 (Australian Community Media).
Oyster Mushrooms grown by Illawarra Mushrooms, Timbermill studios, Bulli NSW, and sold by me at Tabetai (photo by Gary Sachtleben, Adventure Group).

Two challenges surfaced, one that had always been a hindrance during my public service career and yet somehow still surprised every time, and another global one that blindsided everyone.

I came back to Fire and Rescue in a new role in corporate governance, working outside of IT for the first time in twenty-two years. My new boss, Bren Turner, supported my shift to working part-time. This apparently wasn’t supported by her boss, and instead became something we could talk about ‘down the track’. I had not only come back hoping to work part time, I went down a couple of pay grades, a compromise I was prepared to make for the flexibility to start my own business.

It soon became clear I’d transferred into a directorate with dysfunctional levels of tension and gloom, not atypical in the New South Wales public sector. These are often the result of personality clashes or a particular personality type in a position of power.

By March 2020 though, any angst I’d felt about the matter (actually only the latest chapter in a vocational despondency which had smoldered for two decades) dissipated. In November 2019, as I was farewelling the State Library to return to Fire and Rescue, it was already becoming apparent in Wuhan, a regional city in China, that a microscopic critter had begun its feast on humanity.

December or January, it’s a little blurry exactly when COVID-19 started pushing its way to the front of the news in our corner of the world, but around mid-March 2020 after it had begun ravaging Europe and North America, it quickly became the dominant topic. In those first months, COVID-19 had seemed yet another news item about a horrible virus inflicting unfortunate people in a distant part of the world, like we’d seen with SARS, MERS, Swine Flu, Avian Flu, Ebola… but in mid-March it was like flicking a switch. Life changed.

One small personal irony is that my director had just signed off on a flexible working agreement so I could spend a day a week working from home. It seems anachronistic now post-pandemic, but this was an arrangement Fire and Rescue made with some non-frontline headquarters staff if you could be bothered jumping through all the hoops. It required me to establish a workspace that conformed to WH&S requirements, provide photos and a floor plan with dimensions, draw up an emergency escape plan from my house, and write a case for working from home which was normally plagiarised between staff and referred to the need for “focused work time”, generally for the research and composition of documentation – policies, procedures, presentations, reports and stuff. The flexible working agreement had to be signed off by a number of senior staff.

Then, in mid-March 2020, Bren simply told her whole team to work from home. It was the first week I’d planned to spend Friday working at City of Sydney Fire Station under my new flexible work agreement. A week later the Commissioner followed and directed all non-frontline and non-trades staff to work from home. No workspace photos, emergency escape routes plotted onto floorplans, no business case required. Thus began an extraordinary couple of years in my working life, as it did for office workers in affluent societies around the world. It would reshape work hereafter in ways we are really still trying to understand.

Two technological advancements made it possible for people like me to work from home, and in a historical sense they seemed to arrive just in time. Firstly, after years of flakey internet service at my place, I hadn’t realised just how solid my connection had become after the upgrades under the National Broadband Network. Secondly, Microsoft had released Office 365 in 2016, and by 2020 it was ubiquitous. The “Zoom meeting” became part of the vernacular, though I seldom ever used that particular brand of online videoconferencing technology.

I’d been in the occasional video conference over the years using different technologies and it was in daily use at the ACCC during a stint I’d done with the Commonwealth in 2015. But overnight in March 2020, MS Teams became the venue for every meeting and every interaction with my work colleagues, as well as people throughout the public and private sectors I dealt with regularly. In 2018 and 2019 at the State Library, I’d laboured for months attempting to scribe the governance framework for the implementation of SharePoint which, in typical public sector fashion, had taken two years of work involving countless waffling meetings and design and policy rewrites to not implement. In the context of the pandemic, there was now no need to fuck around and bureaucratise the crap out of everything. Necessity was temporarily permitted to be the mother of invention, MS Teams was just there, and people stepped into it intuitively, without the need for months upon months upon years of hours of meetings to tease out and negotiate complicated frameworks for its use.

Soon after my return to Fire and Rescue, I’d found a ‘gap in the line’ within my new team. My new role was ostensibly to support internal performance audits, enterprise risk management, and compliance activities. However, some of my teammates were heavily invested and more comfortable with internal audits, so I landed primary responsibility for enterprise risk management, which in hindsight was such a fabulous opportunity.

Coincidentally, at the start of the pandemic, a major restructure of the Commissioner’s Office was announced and my directorate was to be carved up and redistributed into the new structure. It would take more than a year for that to unfold.

My little home office became my place of work five days a week. It just happened to be also my sleeping quarters, a situation that became unsustainable during the second year of the pandemic, contributing to a discomfort with life in general. But in 2020 it was part of the novelty and, curiously, of a new type of freedom. I look back on that first year of the pandemic with real nostalgia now.

As an office worker, I’d long hated the daily commute. It was a big part of why I left the State Library in 2019, and the Office of Environment and Heritage five years earlier. I’d struggle daily for a parking spot at the train station, only to squish into a ten thousand tonne sardine-can rolling station by station for anything between 48 minutes and three and a half hours into the city, to be corralled like cattle out into Wynyard Station and onto the streets to our offices. It was dehumanising, and it had consumed decades of my life and destroyed my soul. Working from home during the pandemic, there was none of that.

Yet, as I write in mid 2023 when things are back to some sort of a new normal, I dropped Chizuru off at the train station one morning this week and witnessed two separate instances of middle-aged men running with their cases and coats through the carpark to get to their train, with that earnest, pained expression on their faces that I know so well. Some days it’s the outward expression of the thought, “somebody just please put a bullet in my fucking head’.

Instead, during Pandemic year 1, I’d go for a walk in the morning, sometimes through the neighbourhood, sometimes in the bush. Every few hours throughout the workday, between meetings I’d jump on my bike and cycle up and down the street a few times to keep myself physically active and think through a question or compose a few lines of whatever document I was working on. Lunchtimes I’d go for another walk, spoilt by the bushland, a stream and even a waterfall only a few hundred metres from home.

With so many people staying close to their neighborhoods, new tracks I’d never seen before opened up as dozens of people like myself were getting out and exploring. I even conducted online meetings from bushland, sitting in a park or walking back from my mechanic. A lack of mobile phone coverage was the only thing that prevented me from conducting a meeting from the waterfall.

Waterfall on a tributary to Joe Craft’s Creek, Berowra Valley National Park, 300 metres from home.

From early on we were conscious that work would probably be reshaped forever. We envisaged what has come to be known as the hybrid work environment, which recruiters now spruik in their job ads to attract staff. What we didn’t know is how long we’d be working full time at home, in a state of limbo, with social distancing and other restrictions to mitigate the spread of the virus which was on its way to killing millions. This was very isolating for some.

Each day, people would religiously check updates at the 11 AM briefing from Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Health Minister Brad Hazzard. We’d speculate over the numbers, find ourselves in deep discussion and analysis as we sliced and diced the figures from the Service NSW website – numbers infected, numbers of PCR tests done by local government area or postcode, numbers in ICU, per hospital, number of deaths. We braced ourselves for widespread tragedy.

We’d watched in horror at the news coming from Spain, then Italy, then the United Kingdom, and then the bewildering spectacle of a United States acutely divided, with an infantile President talking up hydroxychloroquine and speculating about injecting bleach into people’s bloodstream, as the number of dead in that country hit 160,000 then 300 thousand, five hundred, seven hundred thousand, and beyond a million.

As if this all wasn’t anxiety inducing enough, the pathological chatter from our political classes including all quarters of the media, of hatred and war with China, found ready ears in broader society.

The weirdness of social distancing was very off-putting at first – taking a wide berth around anyone you’d see on the street, poking elbows at each other instead of shaking hands. Wearing masks indoors was an adjustment. The contrast between city and country was stark during a visit to Port Macquarie in June 2020 for my mum’s birthday. Pulling into the carpark at Tacking Point Shopping Centre, Bryce and I automatically put on face masks before wandering in to grab a few things at the supermarket. In Sydney where rules were already tighter, if you were out and about you were wearing one, but at Tacking Point that day we may as well have been wearing burqas. Eyes were drawn to us. To my parochial hometown compatriots we were toxic aliens.

In New South Wales, measures were tweaked throughout 2020 and 2021, including a long period our movements were restricted to within our local government area or up to 10 km from home outside of it. For me that was Hornsby Shire and thousands of hectares of national parks and waterways, which felt like plenty. There were grounds for exemption, which importantly for Bryce included a partner/ companion outside your local area. His girlfriend at the time, Olivia Hannam, was just outside the 10 km in Wahroonga.

Some Sydney local government areas in the west and southwest had it worse, with a 5 km radius, night time curfews, and a heightened police presence enforcing compliance and handing out hefty fines. This opened the conservative government to accusations of political bias, with the subtext being divisions in class, race and income, made stark by imagery in the media of non-compliance going un-punished in the eastern suburbs.

Many were blindsided to learn that we live in a Federation. State borders were closed by Queensland and Western Australian, where parochial attitudes toward the heavily populated south-eastern states were exacerbated by the pandemic. Victoria, for a long time, closed the borders to residents of specific New South Wales post codes. Policy in relation to restrictions on travel, social distancing, work attendance, education, vaccination and other health matters varied from state to state and some people found this very unnatural. The media is so overawed by Commonwealth politics that Australians have become out of touch with the fact that most of the governing has occurred at the state level since before the Commonwealth existed, and the states are the fundamental jurisdiction of government and the Commonwealth is the add-on, not the other way around. The New South Wales public service is more than twice the size of the Commonwealth and the salaries higher.

Despite it all, through the fresh sunny autumn and mild winter, and into the spring and summer of 2020, looking back, every day and every season seemed idyllic.

In the evenings after work, I’d cycle up to a track off Alston Road leading to a beautiful lookout high above Berowra Waters and watch the sunset over the mountains. The half hour after sunset the sky is particularly beautiful, especially through winter. Sometimes I’d catch Claire, who’d been a fellow committee member for the Berowra RSL Youth Club. We’d sit and watch the sunset and chat. Claire raised three girls on her own while running a bookkeeping business that keeps her working long hours. She plays competitive volleyball alongside much younger teammates and opponents and devotes time to the admin of Volleyball NSW at the state level. She’s an SES volunteer and she’s been deployed throughout New South Wales during the natural disasters of recent years, and she plays cello.

With so many office workers at home rather than commuting to the city, some local businesses prospered. During much of the pandemic we weren’t able to dine out, but cafes and restaurants out in the suburbs became busy as locals dined in on takeaways or lined up outside their local cafes on workdays for their coffees, muffins and toasties rather than near the office in the city. The flip side is that the Sydney CBD spent many months deserted. Having spent much of my life working in the CBD, it was quite shocking on the few occasions I went in there during the pandemic. Still now there are empty shops down at the Martin Place end of the city. It’s been a long time since I saw that, perhaps never. Now and then I will hear of a cafe or restaurant, florist or other business that’s gone, including places I once frequented.

Except for a short period or in specific local government areas during COVID-19 outbreaks, tradespeople and others deemed essential workers weren’t subject to the same lockdown measures imposed on the rest of us. A shortage of tradespeople was an issue prior to the pandemic, but the pandemic exacerbated it, as households like mine took the opportunity to get some work done while we were home during the day. Without the expense of commuting, lunches, coffees, after-work drinks, holidays and entertainment, we were more cashed up too.

Prior to the pandemic, if I wanted any work done on my home I’d have to take time off work simply to get a quote, and if you wanted a second one it might be a month before you could be home for it. This was before you even took time off while the work was done. During the pandemic when people were home all the time, tradespeople were in high demand. We finally had a shoe cabinet and interior wall built, new balustrades and exterior staircase, a new kitchen, interior walls painted, fancy security screen doors, and a minor overhaul of the bathroom. Hereafter, for office workers, if you need to be home for any reason, you’ll just work from home.

In the meantime, strained relations between my superiors at work took its natural course. My boss Bren eventually left for a job elsewhere. Rather unusually, the Director above her (by all accounts a stress-monger and a bully) was eventually booted out. He’d snarled at a couple too many of the wrong people.

Heading into the second year of the Pandemic…

Bren had previously been in a job-share arrangement with another manager, who’d returned from maternity leave during 2020. ‘Returned’, it turned out, was an overstatement. For about a year this person was almost completely AWOL, assisted greatly by the new regime of working from home. When Bren moved on, any talk of working part-time was long forgotten by anyone but me, and work demands only grew as I was drawn into more senior positions. I began to realise I needed to quit completely if I was ever going to start a business. But I needed a secure income. Pandemic year 2 was not looking good.

I toyed with the idea of buying an established business that complemented my plans for mushrooms and Japanese cuisine and over the course of 2021 I enquired about several. Deep into the pandemic, grocery home delivery businesses in particular were taking off. I also looked at a catering supplies business and a few wholesale food distributors.

However, at the same time I was coaching Fire and Rescue leadership that by managing risk they are empowered to take it, I had a paralysingly low appetite for risk in my personal life. Over the years I’d seen too many small businesspeople lose everything – homes, businesses, marriages. The early ’90s recession hit many in my own family very hard, and my partner Chizuru is pessimistic by nature. No enquiries went beyond the initial information provided by business brokers under non-disclosure agreements.

The pandemic had come to Australia on the heels of the 2019-2020 Black Summer Bushfires, an energising time to be working at Fire and Rescue. I was analysing the risk implications arising out of the NSW Bushfire Inquiry, the Commonwealth Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Preparedness, Cheryl Steer’s exceptional review within my own agency, and the equivalent from the State Emergency Service. Enthusiastically, I did what I could to add value for the agency and the sector by initiating and contributing to conversation, opening new channels and discussions without the involvement, assent, or even acknowledgement of my barely present manager.

With reporting lines in flux due to our still undefined restructure, and with my manager AWOL, I may as well have been just going through the motions. Apart from some small early improvements to process, I could point to nothing I’d achieved in a year-and-a-half back at Fire and Rescue. In my 25 years in the public sector, this was the norm rather than the exception.

And thus, it would turn out to be again once my place in the new Commissioners Office structure was assigned under a different Director in June 2021.

Flood recovery on the Mid-North Coast

A year into the pandemic, the rains of 2021 flooded communities at record levels across a never-before-seen breadth of the state. Knowing how dispirited I’d become at Fire and Rescue, my friend Lang Ngo at the State Library brought my attention to a request for expressions of interest for temporary flood recovery staff with a new agency, Resilience NSW. Floods had devastated communities in the Hawkesbury-Nepean where I live, and on the rivers of the Mid-North Coast, including my old home town of Port Macquarie. I put my hand up and in one of her very last acts at Fire and Rescue, Bren Turner went out of her way to make it happen for me. I spent a month at the Flood Recovery Centre in Taree, followed by several months at Port Macquarie.

I landed in the Taree Flood Recovery Centre at the end of March 2021. If my first day would been anything to go by, I could actually be doing something worthwhile for a change, important work with tangible benefit to the public. Even more incredibly, on day one I’d been thrown the challenge of exercising some higher capabilities and really testing my potential, an opportunity which had never fallen my way in 25 years working in government.

The late afternoon autumn sunlight dappled under the trees and peacefully on the Manning River, beautiful despite showing scars of the trauma a couple of weeks earlier. I felt an intense mix of emotions as I walked out of the Flood Recovery Centre at the end of that first day heading to my motel – exhilarated by what had just happened and heartbroken at the decades of mismanagement and disempowerment. Heartbroken by the years spent untangling one complicated mess after another including hectic weeks you couldn’t get three consecutive minutes on any of them, that left you shell-shocked for a decade and numb forever after, and ironically through numbness, stronger and more resilient. By the scores of pointless tasks filed and forgotten, messed up and undone, the half-arsed coworkers and stuff-ups that had fallen to you and others to mop up. By the projects initiated and discontinued or never properly completed, that everyone patted each other on the back for anyway, the solutions looking for a problem you were told to force on people and the tens of millions of dollars you’d had a hand in flushing down the toilet.

Twenty-five years. I felt every minute and every sentence of it in that moment looking upon that beautiful river in this traumatised town. All the efforts, pain and stress, tense conversations, lost hours of sleep, anxious Sunday evenings, torturous train trips in to the office, all burned up on one whimsical exercise after another, consuming my life force. When I could have contributed so much. And there, finally, was proof. That day. The promise and hope in all those job applications written when my life measured only 25 years… another quarter of a century on it had all been for a net contribution to society of less than nothing.

Manning River at Taree on dusk, 8 April 2021.

In Part 2 of my ‘Post-Pandemic’ review, I’ll tell you about some of THE MEMORABLE CHARACTERS I MET ON THE MIDCOAST AND MID NORTH COAST OF NSW working on recovery operations after the floods of March 2021. I will return once again to Fire and Rescue NSW and describe my last months working there as the novelty soured and country battled through the second year of the Pandemic. I’ll also briefly touch upon unfortunate PATTERNS I saw REPEATED DECADE AFTER DECADE working in the Bureaucracy.

Shibumi, Trevanian.

I first read Trevanian ‘s Shibumi when I was 15 or 16. Years later I came across  this copy in a second-hand book store. I was 34 at the time, and it reconnected me with something I’d I felt on my first read, but had subsequently forgotten. The author himself called it a parody of the spy thriller genre, though I suspect he was pouring water on the more obsessive responses among its cult following.

I don’t mind the idea of an author making fun of tropes, if they do it well. Cervantes and Don Quixote comes to mind.

I tend to think of Shibumi nowadays as an academic execution of the genre. I just love it, and 32 years after my first read, 15 years since my last, I’m about to dive in for the third time. I wonder if it will surprise me again and transport me to that place and feeling I know it inspired in me, but which I can’t recall. 


The Imaginary Japanese

It’s okay, you can go in there, he said, with profuse nodding and smiling, unlocking the gated enclosure and gesturing for me to enter. His rake in one hand, a crisp blue shirt tucked neatly into the fawn gabardine of the retired salaryman, narrow-dscn0562brimmed cotton hat and gardening gloves impeccable despite the pile of leaves he and his buddy had amassed. ‘Kaba Kuneguchi’, he would write in my notebook, ‘September 30th, Heisei 23’ (2011), in hiragana to make it easy for the gaijin. I’d been circling the Miura Anjin memorial for ten minutes taking photos from outside the tall iron fence. Kaba was a volunteer with the Tsukuyama Park Preservation Society. Officialdom. It was okay.

I grew up in an Australia ambivalent toward the Japanese. Our grandparents had faced them in conflagration. In the 70s, when the dominance of local, British and American manufactures was overwhelmed by more available goods from Japan, ‘Jap crap’ entered the vernacular, referring to anything cheap or lacking quality. If I’d had an amoebic concept of the Japanese as a kid, that was all I knew.

Somewhere in my mid-teens, amid my awakening social and political consciousness, two things happened which ended any ambivalence I might have absorbed. Firstly, my grandfather opened-up about his wartime experiences, and I learned that despite the lingering fallout of wartime propaganda and its effect on some Australians, the attitudes of the old warriors themselves could be far from negative. They’d seen the suffering of Japanese alongside their own. They’d seen evil committed by all sides. What they’d fought for and won was peace, not lasting, purposeless hatred.

Around that time, I read Trevanian’s Shibumi, a broad, brooding novel. Shibumi revealed to a fifteen-year-old that there are alternative frames through which to look at the world, and that all knowledge is refracted by the conduits through which it’s conveyed. The novel also introduced me to the excitement of the political thriller. Protagonist Nicolai Hel was born in Shanghai to an exiled White-Russian mother, and raised in Japan by a surrogate father, General Kishikawa of the Imperial Japanese Army. It’s this upbringing, with an acute sensitivity to custom, honour, the aesthetic, and clean, lethal violence, that would equip Nicolai for a career as an international assassin.

A few years later I saw rallies protesting Japanese investment in real estate draw 1500 people on the Gold Coast, while The Canberra Times reported that Japanese were fourth on the ranking of foreign investors in Australian real estate, behind the UK, the US and New Zealand.

Then in the early 90s a Japanese girl approached me at university and asked for directions, and my hereto vague awareness of Japan became a love affair with Japan.

The gate was open, and I walked through.


Shibumi was the first of many novels written by Westerners about the Japanese that I’ve relished. As I write, within eyesight are both Shibumi and its sequel, Satori, a homage to Trevanian authored by Don Winslow. There’s The 47 Ronin Story by John Allyn, Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace, Rendezvous at Kamakura Inn by Marshall Browne, and Shogun by James Clavell. Liza Dalby’s The Tale of Murasaki is missing from my bookshelf, borrowed by some book-louse without the class to return it.

Shibumi aside, I don’t think any of these have been pronounced works of literary genius. There are famed Japanese authors on my bookshelf, both in Japanese (property of my spouse, Chizuru) and in translation. However, it’s this type of Westerners’ imaginary Japan more than Japan’s own literature that hooks me. It’s a guilty pleasure, because somewhere in my schooling are Edward Said’s Orientalism, and Alison Broinowski’s The Yellow Lady: Australian Impressions of Asia. My cherished novels exoticise, romanticise and distort the Japanese in some of the ways my liberal education would disparage. Worse still, I detect orientalist traits in my personal life, which can muddle things in a fifty per cent Japanese household.

Some of these novels are based on historical people, and in 2011, during a visit to the in-laws, I took an excursion with my new camera to locate them.

I’d been enraptured by Liza Dalby’s The Tale of Murasaki. Murasaki Shikibu, who lived a thousand years ago, is remembered for authoring The Tale of Genji, often credited as the world’s first novel, and for her poetry and her diaries which provide a
titillating exposé of Heian era court culture. James Clavell’s Shogun was also fresh in my memory. I was inspired to read it after catching a re-run of the TV miniseries. Shogun is based on the life of Englishman, William Adams, known to the Japanese as Miura Anjin, who settled in Japan four hundred years ago.

I set forth to see what traces I could find of these two characters in 2011.

*            *

Yokosuka, 30 September 2011

Having wandered into Tsukuyama Park in the city of Yokosuka at the southern end of Tokyo bay, I was drawn to a broad granite staircase that, from the bottom, gave no clue about where it led, only that such an imposing set of stairs had to be going somewhere important. Approaching the top, directly ahead two cenotaphs on a dais roseWilliam Adams grave Yokosuka into view, abstract forms in stone and yet full of humanity. One, with fluid edges and floral suggestions, was unmistakably feminine, the other, sharper edged with less organic accents, discernibly male. Here stood a man and woman in timeless consort. Side by side and full of vigour, the immigrant samurai and lady of Hemi overlooked their fief, and beyond it in the distance the metropolis once known as Edo. I’d stumbled across the mossy cenotaphs of Miura Anjin (William Adams) and Magome Oyuki. My guide map was in Japanese so I’d somehow not anticipated them, though I’d been following Adams’s trail. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for when I’d set out to find what I could of William Adams, but I knew this was it. Like Adams, and James Clavell’s John Blackthorne, I’d fallen in love with a Japanese. Like Adams and Blackthorne I’d fallen in love with the Japanese. In form and placement these imaginary-japanese-blog-1cenotaphs eloquently captured Adams and
Oyuki in memorial, while in aspiration they captured me.

Four hundred years ago, favoured by shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, Adams was elevated from stranded foreign sailor to Japan’s highest nobility. Forced to leave his life in England behind, including a wife, he’d remarried to Oyuki, a woman of modest social status, out of love.

In James Clavell’s novel based on Adams’s life, protagonist Blackthorne falls for married noblewoman, Mariko, whose reciprocation would’ve resulted in both their deaths. Eventually resolved to be together, Mariko dies during the novel’s version of the Battle of Osaka, an event at which the real Adams was present.

Mariko’s passing in Shogun is a dramatic climax that tortures the reader with ‘what ifs’. ‘No, this can’t be happening,’ you’re thinking, as you will the character back to life, at the same time delighting in the tragedy of it.

Alison Broinowski points out though, that this is a common trope in Western imaginative discourse on the orient. She calls it the ‘Butterfly Phenomenon’, after Puccini’s tragic heroine.

An Eastern woman may be delightful, but she cannot become a Western wife, and her child is a half-breed. After her day in the sun with her lover, Cho cho san will pay the price of pleasure: her wings will fade, and she will perish. She is a fragile art object, but also a cheap, replaceable commodity.


Privately, I must confess to… let’s just say a slight moistening of the eye as Blackthorne’s Mariko receded on her funeral pyre, farewelled in her white kimono, like Chizuru wore on our wedding day.

Despite the outcome for Clavell’s Mariko and Puccini’s Cho-cho san, in the case of the real life Oyuki Magome, there was no reunion with the Western woman. Adams chose life with Oyuki.


Sunpu Castle, Shizuoka, 1 October 2011.

Tokugawa Ieyasu is as revered by the Japanese as a statesman can be. In the West, his profile would approximate a Julius Caesar. He’s the figure who provided the title for Clavell’s novel, ‘shogun’ being the name given to a hereditary military dictatorship which, when secured by Tokugawa in battle in 1600, signalled the beginning of Japan’s Edo Era.

Adams sometimes came to visit Tokugawa's mandarine treehis benefactor, Tokugawa, in his retirement at Sunpu. Within Sunpu Castle Park survives a sprawling mandarin tree, planted by Ieyasu, that it’s easy to imagine could have borne fruit that Adams tasted.

The castle’s been restored to its Tokugawa specifications, and there are displays of military artefacts and tactics of the day. In Clavell’s novel, Ieyasu’s avatar, ‘Lord Toranaga’, represents the pinnacle of the samurai class. The samurai, and concepts like bushido, ‘harakiri’, ninja, the katana (Japanese shizuokasumpa-037resizedsword) and its vicious application, are preoccupations in Western imagery of Japan. They coincide with the orientalist notion of the savage, inscrutable, deadly ‘other’. Some Japanese will chuckle at this Western preoccupation, and it marks one as a ‘hen-na-gaijin’ (silly foreigner). I must keep my curiosity about these things in the closet.

All the same, I can’t help having some fun with our imaginary Japanese traits. My son Bryce and I are co-conspirators. When Chizuru’s cross with one of us, we might whisper to each other in mock horror, “They chop people’s heads off”. I told my dad shizuokasumpa-087_01once, who was being a rogue, “She won’t say anything. She’ll just hand you the wakizashi,” (the short sword with which one performs seppuku).

Do we sometimes fail to differentiate the historical other when it comes to another’s
culture? There are plenty of Japanese who themselves like cultivating this aspect of their history. Are we simply sharing that veneration? Does it mirror a romanticisation with our historical selves? Adams’s contemporaries in the West included William Shakespeare, Miguel Cervantes, and fellow adventurer, Captain John Smith, who co-habited with the natives at Jamestown, the first English settlement in America, at the same moment as Adams in Japan.


Ito, Izu Peninsula, 1 October 2011.

I made it to Ito on dusk, where Tokugawa put Adams to work building a European style ship. Deep in the Izu peninsula, Ito was away from the prying eyes of Tokugawa’s enemies. Though Adams had studied shipbuilding, he’d never actually done it. He was a pilot and navigator. Fortunately for Adams, among the survivors of the Liefde, the ship imaginary-japanese-blog-13on which they’d drifted wretchedly into Japanese waters, was Pieter Janszoon, her shipwright. In Shogun, Lord Toranaga has Blackthorne’s successfully constructed first ship destroyed, breaking his hopes of sailing home to England. Another trope: the wily, manipulative oriental.

Standing here in twilight in October 2011 looking toward the headlands at either end of the bay, with its distinctive rocky outcrop off to the southeast, I knew that despite the concrete, cars, and electric lights, Adams would probably recognise this place
today. The thought brought him that much closer to me. When he produced his first ship here in 1604, Japan was on the cusp of a new epoch, and Adams was part of its foundation.

Ito, William Adams

The harbour of Ito on the Izu Peninsula, where William Adams shared his knowledge of European shipbuilding with Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Otsu, 2 October, 2011.

In Liza Dalby’s novel, it’s from the southern shore of Lake Biwa that Murasaki Shikibu embarks with her father for his posting as Governor of Echizen. She’s of From Madeira Temple looking north across Lake Biwa otsu-067marriageable age and should be staying behind in the society of the capital, but she’s adventurous. She’s cultured in Chinese writing and its venerated forms of poetry, and she can go toe-to-toe with anyone in its customary use as word-sport. In her novel, Dalby explores this in her portrayal of a historical visit by a Chinese delegation to Echizen.

I stand on the pier at Otsu’s ferry station looking over the lake, imagining their boat out amid the water craft approaching the distant shore.

Legend has it that Murasaki conceived of The Tale of Genji at Ishiyama-dera temple in Otsu, where she’d come in retreatI wonder if it was after the early death of her husband, or during her pregnancy before their daughter’s birth. In later life she returned to Ishiyama-dera in retirement to devote herself to writing and religion. At the temple, they maintain at least one Buddhist scroll in her handwriting.


I’d bought some textured washi paper and a writing brush at the Oji Paper Museum, but I’d left them in Tokyo. I made do with the least ordinary paper I could find in a nearby convenience store, and like Genji, wrote a poetic thank you note for my hotel receptionist, Ms Ito. The note remains among the papers I brought back from that trip, undelivered.


Kyoto, 4 October 2011.

The family had caught up with me, and Bryce was pestering me to take him to the Gokouyu onsen, which was apparently something special. Eleven at the time, Bryce loved the Japanese bath-house. I got dragged along.

The onsen was extensive, and Bryce’s enthusiasm for the steamy cleansing atmosphere was infectious. We scrubbed, rinsed, and when I went to dip into one of the baths, a dad jumped up startled, grabbing his two kids by the arms in hasty escape. Oh dear, is this some sort of ‘hairy gaijin’ thing?

Bryce and I bobbed around the inexplicable variety of hot, cold, warm, and cool baths.

“Hey Otto-san, come and try this one,” he squeaked in excitement. He badgered me over and watched with a grin as I dipped into the bath.


What tha’

Was that?

I’d experienced this once before in the shower at the Tamworth football grounds, where there was an electrical wiring problem in the visitors’ sheds. “Ow!” My shock was “Ow,” apparently very “Ow” amusing to Bryce. What sort of sadist made a bath that gave measured electric jolts, and why would anyone get in it?

This was not like John Blackthorne’s bath in Shogun! The Sixteenth Century Englishman, Blackthorne had to be coerced into the bath. However, once he learned that the very pleasant Lady Mariko would join him, Blackthorne quickly realised the reinvigorating benefits of the onsen. Again, Broinowski frowns on this kind of ‘observation’ about the curious nuances of openness and modesty among Asiatic females.


Kyoto, 5 October 2011

Rozan-ji, in the garden of Murasaki Shikibu.

Rozan-ji Temple, KyotoIt’s most likely here a thousand years ago that Murasaki Shikibu wrote the first part of the Tale of Genji. It’s the site once occupied by the Tsutsumi-chunogon mansion, built by Murusaki’s great-grandfather, Fujiwara Kanesuke. Murasaki was born at Tsutsumi-chonogon and lived much of her life here. Her marriage in 998 was cut short by the death of her husband, Nobutaka, three years later. She moved from here to the court of the Heian imperial palace in about 1005 at the behest of regent, Fujiwara Michinaga, becoming lady-in-waiting to Empress Shoshi.

In her fictional account, The Tale of Murasaki, Liza Dalby depicts Michinaga having his way with Murasaki, without invitation and without protest.

Rozan-ji Temple, Kyoto

It’s not so much the rape that Broinowski might draw attention to, as the compliance of the oriental female in the Western imagination.

For the past 400 years Rozan-ji temple has occupied the site of Murasaki’s former home. Kyoto 091sTo sit and look over the Genji Garden, established in 1965, is to surrender your thoughts to a life lived on this spot a thousand years ago.

Yet, if spied, it’s the hidden inner garden of Rozan-ji, less grand, that inspires the imagination most. How long has this little stone bridge been here? Wouldn’t Lady Murasaki have trod that same path herself? In those years following her husband’s Rozan-ji Temple, Kyotodeath, when she turned her energies cathartically to her Genji monogatari, would she not have put aside her writing brush sometimes and, eyes cast over this very garden in its seasons, have meditated on the transience of life and love? In this earth are there not still traces of her incense, on the wind not faint reverberation of her poems?

The Sepulchre of imaginary-japanese-blog-11Lady Murasaki

We’d cycled in the rain through Kyoto streets, our destination the final resting place of Murasaki Shikibu. “It’s around here on the map,” I said.

I think we rode past it and turned back.

“Oh, hang on, it’s here.”imaginary-japanese-blog-10

Down an unassuming footpath off Horikawa-dori, a kilometre north of where the
Heian era imperial palace had stood, I’d come into the physical presence of my heroine. Was it her bodaciousness in doing other than expected from a woman of her era; learning, marrying at a time of her imaginary-japanese-blog-8choosing? Taken by her stories of lustful encounters, and the underlying loneliness and yearning in her own story, I was enamoured with a woman who’d been dead a thousand years. Was she an orientalist ideal I sought in my Japanese wife? Am I another Westerner romanticising the exotic, unable to distinguish the temporal other?

There I was looking at a sepulchre on a rainy day in Kyoto, scanning the surface of every rock carved in her honour, marvelling at the idea of being where Murasaki lay.


Biwa store, Kyoto 6 October 2011

The biwa is a mandolin-kyoto-011resizeshaped stringed instrument, an instrument played by Murasaki’s protagonist, Genji, and Murasaki herself. On a suburban back-street we came across an antique store with battered biwa hanging from the walls and rafters in various states of disrepair. It’s the neighbourhood where, indelibly, I’d exchanged glances with a Maiko more than a dozen years before. Now that I think of it, it was during that visit to Japan that I met my wife, Chizuru.

I linger in the store, trying to recall references to the Biwa in The Tale, like

It happened on a cool summer evening that Genji was sauntering round the Ummeiden in the palace yard. He heard the sound of a biwa proceeding from a veranda. It was played by this lady. She performed well upon it, for she was often accustomed to play it before the Emperor along with male musicians. It sounded very charming. She was also singing to it the “Melon grower.”

“Ah!” thought Genji, “the singing woman in Gakshoo, whom the poet spoke of, may have been like this one,” and he stood still and listened. Slowly he approached near the veranda, humming slowly, as he went, “Adzmaya,” which she soon noticed, and took up the song, “Do open and come in!”

Chizuru’s bored, and getting impatient. I look at her in dismay. Just when is this woman going to begin exchanging poetry with me? Perhaps if I build that tatami room she’ll rediscover her koto and play for me after our evening bath, until we end like Genji and his Fujitsubo.

*            *            *

Nihonbashi, Tokyo, 8 October 2011.

tokyo-004resizeBryce and I cycle down to the site of Miura Anjin’s mansion in Nihonbashi, where there’s a little stone memorial, well-tended. We head over to the imperial palace, and circle the giant statue of fourteenth century samurai, tokyo-009resizeKusunoki Masashige, on horseback. We pass an oversized motor-scooter with blue flake-metallic paint and chrome to excess. It’s a Harley Davidson parody, incurably Japanese, and its swept back styling oddly mirrors the stance of Masashige’s thundering steed.

Unlike me, Bryce’s experience won’t be one of ‘encounter’ with another culture. The challenge will be owning, and being the custodian of two, dividing his energies between tending, like Kaba Kuneguchi at Tsukuyama Park, to both. He’ll become not merely the gatekeeper for two worlds, but the gate between them.



More photos capturing the world of Murasaki Shikibu here.

More photos capturing the world of William Adams here.


Bowring, Richard and Shikibu, Murasaki. Murasaki Shikibu, Her Diary and Poetic Memoirs: a translation and study. Trans. Bowring, Richard. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Broinowski, Alison. The Yellow Lady: Australian Impressions of Asia, 2nd ed. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Clavell, James. Shogun, Hodder paperback edition. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006.

Dalby, Liza. The Tale of Murasaki, (Vintage edition). London: Vintage, 2011.

Naito, Satoko. “Genji monogatari and its reception.” In The Cambridge History of Japanese Literature, Shirane, Haruo and Suzuki, Tomi eds., pp. 193-204. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Downloaded Macquarie University Library 7 October 2016.

Nippon Steel Human Resources Development Company. Nippon, The Land And Its People, 3rd edition. Nippon Steel, 1988.

Shikibu, Murasaki. The Diary of Lady Murasaki (Penguin Classics), Kindle Edition. Trans. Bowring, Richard. London: Penguin, 1996.

Shikibu, Murasaki. The Tale of Gengi, Vols. 1 and 2. Trans. Seidensticker, Edward G. Tokyo: Tuttle, 1978.

Stewart, Andrew. “Survey highlights hatred of Japanese.” Canberra Times, Saturday 11 March 1989, page 9. Downloaded from TROVE, National Library of Australia, 6 November 2016.

Trevanian. Shibumi. London: Book Club Associates, 1980.

Wright, Tony. “Leather, Volvos and Japanese invaders.” Canberra Times, Thursday 9 June 1988, page 1. Downloaded from TROVE, National Library of Australia, 6 November 2016.

Yamamoto, Shoichi. William Adams and Yokosuka (pamphlet). Trans. McClure, Bonnie. Yokosuka: Yokosuka City, 2009.



Site Visits

Sepulchre of Murasaki Shikibu, Kyoto.

Ito, Izu Peninsula.

Lake Biwa, Otsu.

Nihonbashi, Tokyo.

Paper Museum, Oji.

Rozan-ji Temple, Kyoto.

Sumpu Castle, Shizuoka.

Tale of Genji Museum, Uji.

Tokyo National Museum, Ueno.

Tsukuyama Park, Yokosuka City.

Yokosuka City Museum, Yokosuka.

The unluckiest colour

Dear Mr Ali

Have you ever pondered the idea that green is an unlucky colour? I first heard it years ago from a babbling sports-caster, referring to green racing cars. It was one of those lines that just defecate out of these commentators as if slender moments of quiet lead audiences to distraction and end in a docked pay-check. I guess there’s a sub-class of broadcasters who never fully appreciated the transition from radio to TV. Do you mind if I call you Muhammad? Considering you’re in heaven now I’m sure we can be more relaxed with protocol.

Some time after hearing about it being an unlucky colour for racing cars, I learned there’s a general superstition about the colour green. I’m a bit skeptical. From the evidence I’ve gathered, green might be unlucky for some people, but there’s equally enough evidence that it’s lucky for others.

The luckiness or otherwise of green is a particularly salient question at the moment, with Australia competing at the Olympics in Rio. Our national colours reflect the green and gold of the wattle, our national emblem. At recent Olympics, inspired by an eternally over-optimistic Australian media, both the team and the populace have been left feeling despondently under-endowed with gold. Muhammad, as an Olympian with an extraordinary tale to tell about your own gold medal (even by Olympic standards), I’m sure you can appreciate how emotive this can be for some people.

Australian olympic uniform 2016 Rio

Could these be the unluckiest athletes in Rio?

I’ve observed that most Aussie team uniforms are predominantly gold, with little more than highlights in green. Perhaps what’s needed is to shift the balance in athletes’ attire toward green, thus conjuring a greater amount of inward bound gold due to the tendency for equilibrium in the natural order of things.

It’s worth remembering that green and gold only became Australia’s official national colours in 1984. Blue and gold was one alternative under consideration at the time. If, with objective, evidence based, peer reviewed science we could prove a converse relationship between green and luck, then I’d say there’s a case for revisiting that decision. It’s a matter of personal preference I know, but I think blue and gold are a more fetching combination. But I won’t let that smoke my objectivity.

I don’t know the origins of the superstition as it pertains to green racing cars. The Bentleys of the 1920s and 30s and the Jaguars of the 1950s and 60s are most

Personally, I’d feel lucky with a 1927 Bentley parked in the driveway.

often associated with a shade of green peculiarly attributed to the British, and both marques enjoyed long periods of domination over the competition. As did Mercedes, yet their silver cars ultimately had the worst luck in motor racing history, crashing at the 1955 Le Mans and killing 83 spectators and driver, Pierre Levegh, and injuring many more. Mercedes gave racing away for decades after that.

Dick Johnson’s crash during the top-ten shootout the day before Bathurst 1983 would support the proposition that green race cars are bad luck. Johnson’s major sponsor back then was our lately retired statesman, Ross Palmer. Johnson’s cars were liveried to spruik Palmer Tube Mills trade-marks. Thus you had Tru-Blu through 80-82, and Greens-Tuf in 83-84.

Dick Johnson’s 1983 XE Falcon.

Though externally and mechanically similar to the XD Falcon that preceded it, in which Johnson had won Bathurst in 1981, the XE Falcon of 1982-1984 brought one major technological advance. The origins of the XD’s leaf-spring rear suspension could be traced to horse-drawn carriages, so the XE’s new trailing arm suspension with watt’s linkages represented generational change. I won’t bore you with the engineering principles. Suffice to say that the physics are sound. In the mum and dad road car it really did result in better ride, handling and endurance – although the overuse of these terms by marketeers makes it easy to overlook. Of course, independent rear suspension, which is current orthodoxy, was still a long way off.

The bright, titanic, Greens-Tuf Falcon handled a bit ‘taily’ during Johnson’s 1983 hot lap. Johnson clipped the wall coming out of Forrest’s Elbow and a tonne and-a-half of Kermit-green horsepower hopscotched, tumbling into the trees and landing in a tangled wreck.

RIP Greens-Tuf 1

Johnson acquired a replacement car from a back-of-the-grid amateur racer, who in those days could still enter the Bathurst race (much to the irritation of some professionals, most vociferously, Johnson), and his mechanics battled to put years of development work into it overnight. Local TAFE apprentices squirted the now iconic Greens-Tuf livery onto it, and Johnson was miraculously on the grid for the start of the race. I always have this image of a pit-crew dude with green paint-splotches on his palms after pushing the tacky car out of the shed, though that again is borrowed from the imagination of one of those commentators who wittily invented it to evade silence.

Johnson himself bemoaned the lack of downforce provided by Ford’s homologated rear spoiler design. Whether it was that, Muhammad, or the lead time in coming to grips with a whole new suspension, don’t you think a technical explanation would be at least as likely as the colour of the paintwork? Not to mention human error and human imperfection.

In his Greens-Tuf livery, Johnson went on to win the Australian Touring Car Championship in 1984. His unluckiest Bathurst was undoubtedly 1980, when he qualified in pole position, but his Tru-Blu Falcon crashed early in the race after hitting a rock, thrown on the track by one of the lobotomised spectators who dominate the sport’s fan-base.

Muhammad, though you declared it yourself, many would agree you indeed have good claim to be considered the greatest in your sport. To my knowledge you never wore green trunks. You almost invariably wore white trunks with a black stripe. The notable exception was your fight with Joe Frazier, forty-five years ago this month, when you wore red crushed velvet trunks with white stripes. Frazier wore his signature green trunks, and for that fight, which has gone down in posterity as ‘The Fight of the Century’, Frazier’s green trunks were especially lush, with gold stripes, and a gold floral pattern which looked almost leopard-skin in effect. You and Frazier went fifteen rounds, and Frazier won on points.  If we asked Joe Frazier, who for convenience we’ll say is also in heaven, I bet he’d say green was his good luck colour.

This is where it gets complicated, because you fought Frazier three times. For your 1974 bout at New York’s Madison Square Garden, you were back in your white trunks with black stripes, whereas Frazier had forsaken his green trunks for white, with flamboyant zig-zagged patterned openings over the thigh.  Muhammad, you won on points after 12 rounds.

To summarise: in 1971 Frazier wore his signature green, you went red with white instead of your favoured white with black, Frazier won. In 1974 Frazier experimented with non-green trunks, you wore your white with black, you won. It’s tempting to conclude at this point that we each have our own lucky colour.

Finally we arrive at the ‘Thrilla in Manilla’ in 1975, your third and final confrontation with Smokin’ Joe Frazier. Importantly, for this bout, you appeared in your regular white trunks, and Frazier in his regular green.

You went out like a wrecking ball in the first few rounds, capitalising on Frazier’s reputation for being slow to get his mojo. Then you settled into your rope-a-dope strategy, leaning right back on the ropes and defending, for your opponent to tire himself taking shots. Like some American ballet, this oddly complemented the Frazier camp’s tactic to work on disabling your body.

Despite both stratagems, in round 6 you took a succession of lethal right hooks to the head that would’ve ended any other fight. Though you remained standing, people there said you went visibly stiff, as though mildly paralysed.

With your lungs and your skin broiling in the Quezon tropics, you and Frazier tussled savagely for 14 rounds, before the damage you’d inflicted in the first 3 finally stopped him. With his face a fluid-filled vacuum-pack, poor Joe could no longer see out either of his eyes. With Joe now a hundred kilogram slab of meat, trainer Eddie Futch stopped it before you took the ring for the final round. You’d defended your title with a technical knock-out.

You and Joe Frazier had finally met in your respective colours. That day though, Muhammad Ali, I don’t think was lucky for either of you.

Yours sincerely


Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali Thrilla in Manilla

Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, Quezon City, 1 October 1975.

Nan eulogy

We sometimes think we live in a time of immense and rapid change, but often we’re thinking in terms of gizmos, or the variety of stuff we can buy.

Nan was born in the depths of the Great Depression, when unemployment, homelessness and hunger were common. Australia as a nation was less than 30 years old. God Save the King was our national anthem, and our flag would not be the official Australian flag for another twenty-four years. Canberra hadn’t yet been officially named. The last convict transportees had been shipped to Australia less than a lifetime earlier. Cars were only beginning to come into widespread use, horses played a practical part in everyday lives. ANZAC Day marches were a recent idea, and the participants were all First World War veterans, many of them still young men. Even a roof over your head didn’t guarantee you more than a dirt floor. Her own family lived on what they could grow in their garden and the rabbits her father trapped. Australians divided themselves vividly between Catholic and Protestant. In parts of Australia, Aborigines continued lifestyles that had existed since our European ancestors lived in caves.  The bodyline cricket season hadn’t yet been played.

People don’t just live through transition, they’re active participants. They’re responsible for it. It’s people like Nan who brought us from that – to where we are today.

World War II happened during a formative part of Nan’s life, and while it brought austerity to all and terrible sacrifice and loss to many families around Australia, it also brought violence to her own home town. We can’t imagine the terror experienced by a 14 year old girl when more than 1100 escapees were on the loose after the Cowra Breakout. 231 Japanese and 4 Australian soldiers were killed in or around her home town. Real terror of the type we entertain ourselves with in movies, books, TV and computer games nowadays. It was real and she lived it.

The post-war decades saw incredible growth and prosperity for Australia. Modern homes, a car for every family, refrigerators, leisure time, and jobs that could pay for it all – these things only became a reality in Nan’s lifetime. To come from The Depression to that, filled people with optimism. For a long time it was possible to believe the future could only keep getting bigger and brighter, and this no doubt influenced Nan’s outlook. The first decades of her married life were dynamic – moves from Cowra, to Forbes, Dubbo, Cessnock, the Central Coast, and finally to Canberra, the birth of 11 children, and by the late 60s – grandchildren.

The world was changing in big ways. Nan’s daughters were liberated and this meant greater participation in the workforce in the days before the child care system we have today. Nan played a part in raising my sister Lesa, my cousin Dana and I. We were only the first of many of her grandchildren in whose life she played a practical everyday part. It was often only through Nan’s support her daughters were able to participate in work, and that has a lot to do with the prosperity we as descendants and as a society enjoy today. It’s only in recent years people have begun to think about the value of this unpaid domestic work to our economy. But let me tell you – the contribution Nan made was immeasurable.

To my knowledge, apart from one special exception, Nan is survived by all her descendants – children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and now great-great-grandchildren – eighty-five or six of us in all. From where we sit today it’s easy to overlook how extraordinary this is. When Nan was born, and for every generation before her, mortality rates and life expectancy made such an achievement unthinkable. Incredible change and it was achieved by the people of her lifetime. We might picture some character in a lab-coat, fiddling test-tubes to come up with a vaccine for polio, or new antibiotics, and these things did happen in Nan’s lifetime. However, it’s not just improved ideas in medicine, hygiene, nutrition and safety – it’s how we respond to them, and how we put them into practice. How we become the change. Its Nan’s child-rearing that got us here, and by the example she passed on to her children.

Being so numerous, the people of Australia owe us all a tremendous debt for occupying so much of Nan’s time and energy. Imagine if she’d been free for to pursue her other great interests, such as politics? Nobody here could doubt that she’d have forced her way to the front of the pack. It would be totalitarian, and tens of thousands more Australians would have got their back-sides smacked by Nan’s wooden spoon.

If I told you that Mary Anastacia Norton was a timid person, who liked to keep her opinions to herself, you’d say – “This bloke’s turned up at the wrong funeral.”

Here’s the thing – Mothers Have Opinions! It’s practically the job description. From the day we’re born, mothers have an opinion on every aspect of our lives. Sometimes that brings us into conflict with them.  Mothers are our checks and balances. Mothers and their input keep us true, cause us to look at ourselves, and whether we adjust ourselves according to their views, or we use them to reinforce our own divergent ones, it makes us who we are. When we disagree, that is simply independence.

Every time I saw Nan she’d repeat some old anecdotes about me. How many of us had that experience – rolling our eyes and thinking – ‘here we go again.’ Mostly they were benign – “Remember that time you got your head stuck between the railings on my front step? ” “Remember the time you kids were smoking under the house?” Others would cause you to cringe – reminders of your own limitations, and more importantly – that she knew them.  Last time I saw her there were none of this second type, only fond memories. It was a sign. In her last days all those transgressions were forgotten. That’s a message you can all take away from here today – All Is Resolved.

In a long life there are ups and downs. One constant through all Nan’s life was her friendship with Valda Harper. Friends since they were tiny, Valda was Nan’s bridesmaid. Through all the years, Nan cherished the twice-yearly phone calls on each of their birthdays. Thank you, Valda, for a loyal friendship that made her life so much richer.

One of Nan’s most treasured mementos was the medal awarded to her grandfather, Alf Munz, by the people of Murrumbidgerie, present day Wongarbon near Dubbo, in recognition of his service during the Boer War. This was a source of tremendous pride for Nan. The Boer War is linked in time with Australia’s Federation, our first foray onto the world stage as a nation in our own right – and her own grandfather was part of it. Son of German migrants, by the time of World War 1, Alf found himself labelled “Mun the Hun”, Nan used to say. Nan was not immune to the lessons of her forebears.

One of the greatest experiences of Nan’s life was her visit to Ireland, where she travelled to the places where many of her ancestors originated. The absolute thrill that trip gave her, and the joy it brought her to reminisce about it forever after. Special thanks go to my uncle Glenn for making that possible.

A long and eventful life is not without tragedy. The tragic loss of her brother Jimmy in 1971, a young man with a young family, never left her. Nan cared for her own mother, Maggie, through illness during the last years of her life. Nan keenly felt the heart-break and suffering her mother endured. The scars of these two losses were never too far from the surface. Another tragedy of Nan’s life was the loss of her home and business during the recession of the early 90s. It was a terrible injustice and one can only imagine how powerless it left her feeling, as it must have seemed like all those years of growing prosperity suddenly fell away irretrievably. Though in time she recovered from each, experiences like these alter a person, leaving you never quite the same again.

Nan always left an impact so it was true to form of her to ‘check-out’ on Christmas day. She made sure the day of her passing wouldn’t be forgotten. At least she had the courtesy to wait till the end of the day so we all got a chance to enjoy Christmas with our families.

I was very fortunate to see Nan a couple of times during her final days. That first time I saw her in the hospital I was shocked by how frail she looked. I returned the next day and she was much brighter – she’d had a good sleep. Despite her frailty, in her final days she was more positive and she had greater clarity than I had seen in a long time.

We comfort ourselves in the knowledge that Nan’s journey has ended. Her illness in recent years had left her very dependent on others. There are some types of support in your frailty that you simply don’t want to burden others with, and yet it just happens that way, it’s not like we have a choice. Nan was especially thankful to my cousin Chloe for being there. I know that Chloe, for her part, wouldn’t have thought twice about taking care of Nan.  She was part of Nan, and Nan was part of her. Special thanks to Nan’s nurse, Karen, affectionately known as number 12, whose service went beyond the call of duty. Thanks also to Anne-Maree and Lorraine for nursing and for cleaning.

Most of all, our greatest debt of gratitude is to my grandfather, Ron Norton.  Pop, without you, in recent years where would she have been? For the past 65 years for that matter. You have been the dutiful husband. In sickness and in health you were there, and now in your grief you go beyond. We’re here for you.

One of the happiest things I saw in recent times was an incredible love and devotion between Nan and Pop. It was really inspiring to see them so close and loving in her final days, in a way I have never seen before. Very, very touching.

The last time I saw Nan, like always her conversation included bits of news about her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. She was always aware of every one of us, what was going on in our lives. She felt our losses and took pride in our achievements.  I thought about her own personal losses I mentioned before and how in time she recovered. When I think about her 85 or 86 descendants and look around at many of them today I realise why. You see, you are her greatest achievement. You are her life’s work.

My grandmother, Mary Anastacia Norton, known as "Molly" on the right, with lifelong friend Valda Harper on the left.

My grandmother, Mary Anastacia Norton, known as “Molly” on the right, with lifelong friend Valda Harper on the left.

The law can’t get him, but the history books will.

Alan Wilkie is far from unique in stating this man should be held criminally culpable. WMDs were never a motivation and the majority of us could see straight through it (polls at the time were saying two thirds of Australians were opposed the war) yet Howard expects us to believe he couldn’t? Hundreds of thousands of terrorised Iraqis were murdered and the US treasury was bankrupted while Halliburton profits and the price of a barrel of oil soared… justified with absurd lies like Colin Powell’s ‘mobile chemical weapons factory’ trucks? Not on your life, not when the history is written. The criminal US Republican leadership captured Howard with a third carrot – racial exceptionalism. Greed and a naïve sense of superiority have eternally been the root cause of war. The war these guys foolishly started is still brewing, will last many decades and might inevitably reach our shores. Justice virtually demands it, because what these guys prove is there is no justice in the rule of international law. If there were any justice, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Blair, and this man would be dragged before Nuremberg style trials. The best we can hope for though is to ensure these men are afforded their proper place in history. In John Howard’s dwindling years he sees the history books written, and invariably they do in fact leave us with a picture of a man who conspired to mass murder.

Fallujah Chapter 8

The taxi turned into Allée des Deux Trianons, Versailles, at precisely 7:30, fitting into a long line of cars offloading passengers in turn at the Grand Trianon. The line of cars moved ahead slowly as more than one limousine lingered at the disembarkation point for its celebrity occupants to make an ‘entry’ before the Grand Trianon’s peristyle.

“Come on, let’s walk,” said Felicity as their taxi inched along. “We can take a shortcut through Marie Antoinette’s Estate.”

“Is that allowed?” said Alan, frowning unsure.

“Excellente idée” said Gerome, already handing a large note to the taxi driver.

They climbed out of the taxi, and when it u-turned conspicuously out of the queue Felicity had already thrown her Christian Louboutins over and was now climbing the fence. “We can cut through the gardens,” she said.

“Here, give me a boost,” said Gerome to a bewildered Alan, who nonetheless leaned down and linked his hands to offer his boss a lift.

Now that the precedent was set, after a moment’s thought occupants of several other vehicles began disembarking right there on the long gravel drive amid playful conversation and laughter. A few followed Felicity’s lead and climbed over the fence to enjoy an early evening walk through the garden, but most preferred to walk along the tree-lined drive up to the Grand Trianon.

Two thirds of a moon cast just enough light to navigate the garden path. They crossed a small bridge and passed a domed marble structure that Alan thought captured the moonlight magically.

“Le Temple de l’Amour,” Gerome commented.

They stopped briefly and looked up at it before they continued on. The path wound alongside what appeared a narrow pond of water-lilies, eventually coming upon a more grand structure, lit up to magnificent effect.

“Le Petit Trianon,” said Gerome.

“Built for Madame de Pompadour,” explained Felicity, “…Louis XV’s favourite squeeze.”

The gardens from here were more formal and lit all the way up to the Grand Trianon. Felicity and her two gentlemen led a few small groups along a broad gravel avenue, past flowerbeds and wide ornamental pools, and past the ‘French’ Pavilion. Mirthful conversation mingled across groups of strangers, adding a sense of festival to the whole event.

They reached the Grand Trianon with at least a dozen cars still waiting to disgorge their dazzling occupants.

Walking straight past the peristyle across which all the fabulous attendees were making their splendid entrances, they made their way instead directly to the Garden Room where a jazz quartet entertained guests spilling out down the steps and into the garden where trays of champagne and hors d’oeuvre were circulating.

“Gerome you sly bastard,” somebody called out. Gerome turned to greet the man with an enormous smile and amid a lot of back-slapping, hand-shaking and “Ça va?” and “Ça va! Ça va bien!”, Gerome introduced Felicity and Alan to Frederic Oudea, Deputy Chief Financial Officer at Société Générale. The schmoozing was underway in earnest. In fact Gerome seemed to know half the well-heeled charismatics at the party, industrialists and politicians, movie stars and recording industry execs. The representatives of various NGOs and charities circulated, like classy whores in a first class brothel or hyenas round a slaughtering pen Alan couldn’t make up his mind.

Doctor Beauvoir seemed to take to it naturally, slipping easily into jovial banter with complete strangers, many of them well-known identities and some of them simply oozing status and wealth. Noticing that Alan was less than comfortable in this environment she drew him into conversation more than once, and proved so adept at this that Alan could almost have believed himself a natural raconteur.

Pretty soon guests were asked to make their way into the Cotelle Gallery, where almost its entire fifty metre length was consumed by a row of four great dining tables, each resplendent in full formal setting beneath the famous Montcenis chandeliers. A small platform with a rostrum had been placed to one side midway along the Gallery, just high enough so that all guests could see the speaker. Places were labelled and Gerome, Felicity and Alan found themselves seated directly to the right of the rostrum amid Liliane Bettencourt with her chaperon, eighteen year old grandson Jean-Victor Bettencourt-Meyers, and the year’s pop princess, Jenifer Bartoli.

While other guests began taking their seats Madame Bettencourt, resplendent in majestic Givenchi dress and Cartier jewellery, remained standing, grandson diligently at her elbow, in steady conversation with Gerome and two other dignitaries.

“André sends his regards, Gérome. He always said how thankful he was to have you and Lionel over at Parnibas. He appreciated your expert service and your excellent advice.”

“I‘m sure Gérome feels very fortunate for the association with Monsieur Bettencourt and L’Oreal too, Liliane. The bankers do alright for themselves with our money, and you certainly have plenty of it for them to do alright with,” said Jeaneé Plantin, UNESCO Assistant Director-General and Mistress of Ceremonies for this evening’s event, raising a few chuckles from everyone except Gerome.

“Ouch, that stings,” said Gerome. “See the level of respect I get Berglind?” he implored OECD Deputy Secretary-General, Berglind Ásgeirsdóttir. “I don’t recall UNESCO ever complaining about the bank’s support, or L’Oreal’s for that matter,” he added with a nod at Madame Bettencourt.

“I feel it too, Gérome,” said Ásgeirsdóttir smirking. “Sometimes it seems keeping the world’s finances in order is a thankless task. We can at least take consolation in the knowledge it’s a Buddhist virtue, personal sacrifice for the benefit of others without seeking recognition.”

“The fastest way to universal transcendental enlightenment is more bankers in the world, I always say, self-sacrificing breed that they are,” quipped Plantin.

“Twenty years running this NGO and you still think of me as nothing other than a banker Jeaneé.”

“Oh ‘Romie, don’t be so sensitive. You know I’m only teasing, mon cherie.”

“Try as we might, we can never outrun our past. I should know, I have more past than just about anyone,” said Madame Bettencourt. Gerome, Plantin and Ásgeirsdóttir were lost for words. “It would be nice if people would let us move on. Instead, as the years go by all we seem to do is accumulate more of a past,” she added, pensively. “How is Lionél nowadays?”

Gerome looked at Liliane Bettencourt a moment bewildered. “Lionél Rochefort passed away, sadly. He was a great man, a great boss.”

“Mon dieu, such terrible news. How did it happen? When?”

“Let me see… September ’93 it was. Almost eleven years ago now,” explained Gerome sombrely.

When entrees arrived it was Plantin’s cue to take the rostrum, and Ásgeirsdóttir was able to gently suggest they take their seats.

Though humanitarian aid was not core business for UNESCO, Gerome owed his prominent position this evening to the intervention of Liliane Bettencourt, who was attending both as a major sponsor and as representative of the Alliance Internationale des Femmes. On accepting UNESCO’s invitation to this gala event, eighty-one year old Bettencourt requested the guest list so she could indicate her preferred seating arrangements. ‘Preferred’ actually meant who she would have at her table. She was both relieved and heartened to find Gerome’s name on the guest list, somebody with whom she could be comfortable, whose past association with her ailing husband provided warm reminiscences of happier times, and with whom she’d shared many an event like this one in days past.

Pop star Jenifer found herself within the most élite circle of this exclusive event on account of young Jean-Victor Bettencourt-Meyers being a fan. Reviewing the guest list with her personal assistant, coming across the name ‘Jenifer’, Madame Bettencourt had remarked “Jenifer who?” Her PA tried very hard to explain why it was just ‘Jenifer’ to no avail. “Who on earth has the name ‘just Jenifer’?” When her PA remarked that her grandson Jean-Victor was listening to Jenifer all the time, Liliane hatched the plan to have him accompany her and surprise him by having the beautiful young songstress seated right beside him. It had to be said, among all the dazzling beauties and starlets circulating so far this evening, the lad’s eyes appeared compulsively drawn to the singer, who in a vintage Bulgari dress and with Prada accessories cut an improbably unique and striking figure upon this sea of glamour. As he and his grandmother took their seats his heart indeed skipped a few beats as it became clear he was to be seated beside Jenifer, who’d been making introductions with Alan and Felicity.

“Madame Bettencourt, let me introduce Mister Alan Steiger, our chef de mission in Iraq, and Docteur Felicity Beauvoir, who will be flying out to our Iraq mission tomorrow to take up a position as surgeon.”

Madame Bettencourt nodded her assent and smiled.

“Oh,” said Jenifer. “You work in Iraq?”


“And you must be?” said Madame Bettencourt, feigning ignorance.

“Jenifer,” said Jean-Victor.


“Oh this is Jenifer? You have a beautiful voice ma chère,” said Madame Bettencourt, who couldn’t actually recall hearing the pop music that came from this dark-eyed nubile, merely the genre. “My grandson Jean-Victor listens to you all the time.”

“I have your CD,” said the teenager, smiling ear to ear.

“Oh. That’s wonderful,” replied the young pop star. “You’ll have to let me sign it for you.”

The boy’s face went ashen. “I don’t have it with me,” he said, as though a great travesty had occurred. “I… I didn’t know you’d be here.”

“I have a new one coming out in a couple of months so how about if I send you a signed copy?”

“Oh, really? That would be wonderful,” said Jean-Victor utterly smitten.

“Docteur Beauvoir?” said Madame Bettencourt, considering. “Any relation to…?”

“Yes, he’s my father,” replied Felicity.

“Oh. I see,” said Madame Bettencourt, forcing a smile. Felicity smiled back.

“And I am very pleased to meet you,” said Gerome reaching across and shaking Jenifer’s hand before taking his seat opposite Liliane Bettencourt at the end of the table. “We’re very thankful for your support.”

“I’m very proud to be involved.”

“Oh,” said Madame Bettencourt, caught off-guard. “You’ve made a contribution to Gerome’s charity?”

“In such a troubled world I think his NGO does very important work. I’m just honoured that you’re personally aware of my donation, Monsieur Trembleau.”

“Very commendable of you ma chère,” said Madame Bettencourt, providing a polished performance of disguising her irritation.

Gerome could barely conceal his glee as he leaned back in his chair introducing Berglind Ásgeirsdóttir to Jenifer, Alan and Felicity. This was turning out better than he could have imagined. All he had to do now was publish an article in Le Figaro commending the young star for her generous contribution. Liliane Bettencourt could never allow herself to be outdone by this week’s celebrity nymphette, and the donation would be quadrupled.

“Well this year with your generous support we’ll be helping these two provide food, shelter and medical care to the terrorised women and children of Iraq,” Gerome told Jenifer, tilting his head toward Felicity and Alan.

Conversation halted as Jeaneé Plantin got the evening’s formalities underway.

“Mesdames et monsieurs,” she said, taking the rostrum. “On behalf of UNESCO Social and Human Sciences I welcome you to this evening’s charity gala event as part of our International Symposium on Gender, Peace and Conflict.” She paused to allow her intrusion into the hum of conversation to settle over the gallery, beaming theatrically at no one in particular, an orator of phenomenal technique as Gerome recalled.

“Firstly I would like to thank Madame Noëlle Lenoir, Minister for European Affairs, and Mr Osman Topčagić, Director of the European Integrations Directorate of Bosnia and Herzegovina for joining us here tonight. I’d also like to acknowledge Christine Albanel, President of the Museum and Domain of the Palace of Versailles, and thank you and your staff for preparing this marvellous venue.

“How lucky we are on such a beautiful evening,” she continued after a moment, smiling directly at a random few faces at the tables around her. “…to be here at this magnificent place. It’s one of the best things about working at UNESCO, the role we play in the recognition and preservation of the cultural and natural wonders that constitute our World Heritage list. But of course we have no more claim over them than anyone else, they represent a common heritage, they belong to all humanity and indeed in many ways, particularly those natural wonders, they transcend even humanity. As a Frenchwoman though, I reserve the right to claim Versailles as especially mine.”

She swayed backward ever so slightly before leaning forward as though she were Maria Callas taking a breath before launching into a new verse.

“Civilisation,” she declared, “…is a term we don’t use much anymore outside the ancient history classroom. Historically its usage was tied to the inverse concept of the ‘primitive’, and thankfully we no longer look at the magnificent achievements of our own cultures,” she said, allowing herself a moment to look across the Cotelle Gallery and absorb it, “…and use them to define the uncivilised, the ‘primitive’, to identify the lesser human beings, the social and cultural ‘untermunchen’.” She paused again momentarily to allow her use of the term to sink in.

“So we moved beyond the term ‘civilisation’ to demonstrate we don’t see ourselves as exceptional, or more accurately that we don’t see others as unexceptional.”

“I favour bringing back the term civilisation as a means of introducing a new counter-concept, de-civilisation. Yes, easy to forget that ‘civilisation’ is not essentially a noun.” She looked over at the party at the head of the table to her left. “Perhaps no-one here will have a more intimate appreciation of what I mean by de-civilisation than our Sarajevan visitor, Mr Topčagić [Topcagic’s own story of Bosnian war.]

“Three hundred years ago an ailing Louis XIV was visited here at the Grand Trianon by his five year old grandson. The Sun King told young Louis XV to keep France in peace for ‘it is the ruin of peoples!’

“Of course, Louis XIV’s conclusion was no semi-divine flash of brilliance. Actually it’s a pretty ordinary thing to say. Like me you probably know numerous people who say much the same thing all the time. I’d even dare to suggest most of you here tonight are in agreement with the Sun King. Yet peace is so often mislaid and this universal lesson about conflict all but forgotten.

“How is it that despite an indelible connection to our past and all the historical examples that are well remembered, successive generations forget the universal detriment brought by conflict? It’s because the lesson is not about peace or conflict, it’s about the ethno-centric assumption of exceptionalism. One thing that UNESCO’s World Heritage List demonstrates is that all peoples and all lands of the world are exceptional.

“Sadly, much of the work of UN agencies and their partners is in damage control – dealing with the consequences of conflict, most often, overwhelmingly in fact, the consequences upon women and children.

“Uniquely among UN agencies, the natural role I’ve come to realise for UNESCO to play is instead to develop, encourage and exploit civilising influences as a force for prevention. Women, it would seem, have a unique stake in this. Firstly, as I mentioned, we’re a disproportionate representation among recipients of humanitarian aid, the victims of conflict if you like and all of its ghastliness including sexual violence, displacement and insecurity, but women also represent an increasing proportion of active players in conflict, as in much of the world women are taking an increasing role in the military. Women are taking part in irregular offensive action too. You’ll find women among the FARQ guerrilla fighters in Colombia, and among suicide bombers in the Middle-East.

“In nations across the world, and yes this includes the developed world, women are only just starting to become players among the political elite from whence the genesis of conflict inevitably comes. We’ve new powers of influence women have seldom known before. The questions is – are we really going to be a civilising influence, a force for peace? I’d like to think so, not because of any assumptions about the innate pacific qualities of womanhood, simply because the gender balance is the biggest change in the dynamics of conflict since classical times.

“Despite rhetorical if accurate assertions that men are responsible for more acts of violence, it doesn’t logically follow that empowered women are any less likely to deliver conflict. It is a comforting thought though, an idea we’ve been trying to imagine ways to employ in the cause of peace since at least 2400 years ago when Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata.”

She paused as a few sniggers echoed around the gallery. Smirking, she continued. “What it does guarantee however is that we have a seat at the table as conflict is being played out and perhaps more importantly during peace-building.

“So what evidence is there to be optimistic that the increasing influence of women is going to be a force for civilisation, or more accurately, against de-civilisation, when for example in so much of the world women remain powerless? Well, that’s what I expect to find out through the course of this week. The implication of an increasing influence of women on conflict and peace is a theme among many of the speakers and papers being presented at this symposium. Of course it’s not the only theme.

“Already at this symposium we’ve heard Dr Eugenia Date-Bah explain both the importance and opportunity that exists in the appropriate employment of women in post-conflict reconstruction and the effect it has on the sustainability of peace building and nation building.

“Those of us lucky enough to have been at UNESCO House this morning to hear Betty Reardon speak will be utterly persuaded of the role gender can play in non-violent conflict resolution, and how important equity in education is in achieving that.

“Looking ahead at the programme for the rest of this week I am overwhelmed with anticipation. Thank you, each and every one of you for coming to make our symposium a success.

“I will wrap up now, not because I don’t have a lot to say on the subject but because while I watch you all savouring your entrées I see my own getting cold over there.” She garnered a few chuckles, particularly among those who knew she could talk the leg off an iron stove.

“After dinner we’ll have an opportunity to circulate a while before I introduce Minister Lenoir who has some interesting news about European intergovernmental initiatives, and Mr Topčagić who will share some experiences of the Balkan wars, Europe’s last major conflict. Please, enjoy the evening.”

Gerome stood amid the clapping, kissed Plantin on the cheek as she returned to their table before sliding her chair beneath her as she took her seat at the head of the table between himself and Madame Bettencourt. When applause subsided and guests turned to the extravagant meal being laid out before them an orchestra of conversation quickly engulfed the Cotelle Gallery. For Plantin’s benefit Gerome made introductions again.

“I understand your father’s Algerian,” said Madame Plantin to Jenifer.

“Oui,” said Jenifer. “My complicated heritage has been one preoccupation of the media, but my Algerian father is often the topic of conversation.”

“It’s something you have in common with Docteur Beauvoir here,” said Gerome.

“Your father’s Algerian too?”

“My grandmother. My grandfather was a Lieutenant in le Legion, he came home from North Africa in ’55 with an Algerian bride and a young son.”

“A Legionnaire?!” Madame Bettencourt reconfirmed with glowing admiration, being of that last generation to have known the French Empire and the rugged national symbolism of le Legion. “Soon after he was elected to the National Assembly my husband sat on the commission for overseas territories. In 1955 the Legionnaires in Algeria were a major point of discussion in our household,” Then her smile turned into a frown as a memory had her aghast. “So your grandfather was not among that rabble involved in the Officer’s Putsch in 1961?”

“No,” said Felicity with a laugh. “He was back home in Valbonne growing fruit by then,”

Reassured, Bettencourt smiled and nodded assent.

“Growing fruit in the Cote d’Azur? Sounds like an idyllic vocation for a retired soldier,” Plantin commented.

“How romantic,” agreed Jenifer.

Conversation over dinner covered the backgrounds of everyone except Liliane Bettencourt, Gerome and Jeaneé Plantin, from Jean-Victor’s planned university studies and Jenifer’s forthcoming second album, to Felicity’s work in the South Pacific and Berglind Ásgeirsdóttir’s yearning for snowfall. It finally settled upon Alan’s mission in Iraq and comparisons with those earlier conflicts like the Algerian war.

“How rudimentary humanitarian efforts were back then, and how challenging it must have been,” commented Ásgeirsdóttir.

“Well, most of what we need to do is rudimentary stuff – clean water and food, clothing, shelter and basic medical care,” said Alan, who’d reluctantly been drawn into conversation. “We may be better resourced nowadays but bureaucratisation has added its own difficulties, we’ve added layers of inefficiency that simply weren’t there before. How much less of my day would be consumed by administration around politics and accountability, and how much more of our time would have been spent delivering humanitarian aid if we’d been doing this for instance in Algeria in the ‘50s?”

This gave the party something to ponder over the haute cuisine and superior wine being lavishly served them.

As meals were coming to an end several guests started moving around and visiting acquaintances, and all around the Cotelle Gallery parties began to form. Gerome, Plantin, Bettencourt, Ásgeirsdóttir and Jenifer were soon very occupied, so that Felicity, Alan and Jean-Victor were left to form their own little party in the recess of a window overlooking a geometric garden toward the Grand Canal, in between Jean Cotelle II’s Vue de l’Orangerie et du château à partir de la pièce d’eau des Suisses and his Bosquet de l’Arc de Triomphe-Salle basse. Felicity’s two gentleman companions were reserved to say the least. Jean-Victor forced a comment on the nearby painting of l’Orangerie.

“It’s very nice,” he said inanely.

“Yes it is,” agreed Alan, stepping over to take a closer look at its surface, imagining that yes, that is what a 17th century oil painting looks like close up.

“The garden looks exactly the same today,” said Jean-Victor.

Felicity smiled as the two men looked on awkwardly at the painting, as though imagining they were making the impression of consumedly appraising an exquisite masterpiece but in fact using the gesture to avoid conversation with anyone else in the crowd.

“It’s an interesting idea isn’t it, art imitating life and then life being artificially held still so that it conforms thereafter to the art,” said Felicity.

Both men nodded and said hmmm… as though considering her appraisal in depth.

“His work hangs all around the gallery,” Jean-Victor said stiffly.

“How much would paintings like that be worth do you think?” Alan pondered, feigning interest.

“I don’t know,” said Jean-Victor, who hadn’t yet developed the knowledge of art acquisition that he would no doubt one day need. “All together they must be worth a couple of million euros,” he surmised, gesturing at the paintings hanging the length of the Cotelle Gallery.

As Felicity followed her disinterested companions’ eyes around the gallery she couldn’t help observing that was approximately the value of her own father’s work presently on display. She nudged Jean-Victor with an elbow. “See Pierre Cabot over there,” she said, lowering her voice and nodding discretely toward the veteran action movie star. Her two companions leaned closer to hear.

“Yeah,” said Jean-Victor attentively.

“Three facelifts,” she whispered.

The boy’s eyes widened, and Alan’s no less, as they both glanced compulsively toward the star.

“Helene Cardinale over by the rostrum,” she continued, pointing out the former fashion model and now department store figurehead. “Frequent flyer kilometres on the liposuction table.”

“Nooo?!” said Jean-Victor in amazement.

“Yes,” said Felicity nodding. Alan blinked in astonishment. “My father’s a cosmetic surgeon,” she explained.

“He is?”

“Aha.” Felicity nodded discretely toward various celebrities and other identities around the gallery. “Breast enhancement… nose-job… botox… tattoo removal… breast enhancement and botox… facelift… lipo’… breast reduction,” she rattled off.

Alan frowned at the last one “Really?”

Jean-Victor giggled.

Henri Beauvoir grew up the eldest son of a Southern orchardist and bee-keeper, the former Lieutenant of the Foreign Legion. His Algerian mother moved to her Lieutenant’s native Provence at a time when Algeria was still considered part of the French mainland. In the decade after France’s North-African territory gained independence in 1962, Samira Beauvoir became increasingly culturally isolated. Intensely proud of her heritage, she’d often find cause to declare so in her dealings with the townsfolk of Valbonne where they’d settled. While appreciated by her husband and many leading community figures, among Valbonne’s more parochial inhabitants, who took the view that Algeria was a land of towel-heads and turncoats, she was often the butt of racial slur. This perhaps contributed to a sense of restlessness in the young Henri.

His father’s orchards and apiaries delivered the family an adequate if somewhat hardworking existence, but Henri’s ambitions were not quite so modest. By his late teens he was making the daily and nightly commute downhill to the resort towns of the Cote d’Azur where he worked in the cafes and hotels. A determined worker with an outstanding eye to detail, he soon found himself working in the most exclusive hotels serving Europe’s most affluent, for whom the Cote d’Azur was a favoured playground. With his mother’s dark eyes and brown skin, his father’s lean muscular frame, and his own unique intensity and highly developed sense of self-possession, Henri found popularity among the region’s transitory patrician inhabitants who saw him as another exotic Mediterranean attraction, and he was often invited to parties as a curiosity, a touch of local flavour. Many of them returned year to year including a family from Normandy who possessed a villa in Antibes, a berth in the local marina, and a wild blonde blue-eyed daughter named Blanche who represented Henri’s own idea of the exotic.

The relationship was seasonal for a few years, an open secret, and did not continue at a distance whenever she returned home to Rouen. While the family discreetly accepted Henri as Blanche’s holiday play-thing, any suggestion that a courtship was occurring would have been quite absurd. Henri was the pleasant young local who took your breakfast orders or served you Long Island Iced Teas at le Martinez.

Henri understood all too well his social limitations and it rankled. What they often mistook for an endearing nonchalance was in fact a great big chip on his shoulder.

This all changed though in 1971 when Henri’s father concluded negotiations with the agency funded by both national and provincial governments for the acquisition of land for the establishment of the enterprise estate, Sophia Antipolis. Great tracts of land through the middle of this planned sprawling new technology park were occupied by the former Lieutenant Beauvoir’s prized orchards and apiaries. Monsieur Beauvoir retained small landholdings outside of Sophia Antipolis, but his compensation was of such proportion that any agriculture he undertook hereafter was essentially as a hobbyist.

Now almost twenty, first son Henri who’d been both smart and conscientious during his schooling, matriculated without difficulty and was dispatched to Paris to study medicine. Never again would Henri suffer the barbs of his mother’s race or his father’s income. Never again would he be subject to social stigma. Or so he thought.

Henri’s escape from the small town of his childhood coincided with Blanche outgrowing her own provincial beginnings. They ran into each other by chance at a café on Boulevard Saint Germain. Both liberated by the boundless opportunity that Paris represented, and somewhat assisted by the times, their once teenage urges for each other now re-ignited in an explosion of passion, the consequence of which was the arrival two years later in 1974 of a bounding baby Felicity. A marriage did occur, and it saw out the decade, but just as Henri reacted to his former modest social standing by becoming exceedingly conservative, Blanche reacted to her own staid Northern upbringing by submersing herself in Paris’s avant-garde fashion, art and music scene, finding her feet at precisely the punk rock era. Though finally if informally separated since 1984, they remained technically married right to this day, more as a result of oversight than of lingering attachment.

Henri’s determination was such that he was able to enter the competitive discipline of surgery, and he pursued the then still somewhat obscure but already lucrative specialisation of cosmetic surgery. Incredibly, right from his internship he found himself catering to the same class and sometimes even the same individuals he’d served cocktails and lunches to less than a decade before. The same remarkable work ethic and attention to detail he’d displayed back then guaranteed that Henri soon earned a reputation and eventually even an income to rival most of them. By 2004 Henri knew a good proportion of France’s, indeed Europe’s ruling classes more intimately than almost anyone, making him as well connected and deeply respected as anybody at UNESCO’s event tonight at Versailles. But Henri would never, could never be invited to an event such as this. His relationships with these people were intensely private. Not one of them would hope to see him at an event like this, knowing as he did their most intimate secrets.

“Watch out, here comes your grand-mère with Tummy-tuck,” said Felicity as Bettencourt bounded toward them with Jean-Pierre Gaumont, head of StudioCanal trailing.

“Jean-Victor, there’s someone I want you to meet,” said Liliane. “See, Jean-Pierre, isn’t he as handsome as I said.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Gaumont, reaching for the young man’s hand. “Your grand-mère tells me you have an interest in cinema.”

“Well I’m not sure I’ve yet met anyone who doesn’t,” said Jean-Victor, shaking the studio boss’s hand with a broad smile. Unable to control the urge he glanced down at Gaumont’s waistcoat, then burst into laughter.

“And you must be…” said Gaumont, releasing young Jean-Victor’s hand and turning to Felicity and Alan.

“Docteur Felicity Beauvoir.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Alan, taking Gaumont’s hand with a grin. “Alan. Alan Steiger.”

For the rest of the evening Alan, Felicity and Jean-Victor were inseparable buddies, sharing as they did a gentle comedic disdain for the pomp of the event. As they circumnavigated the gallery they garnered a few of their own discreet commentators. Whispers of “Bettencourt’s grandson” were followed by subtle alluring stares from glamorous lasses and one or two cougars. The singularly understated elegance of her olive-brown George Hameika dress and tiny pendant of simple Arabic design, her uniquely naturally tanned skin and the sun-bleached tips of her hair, at the end of winter no less, contrasted against both the lustre of her gold Christian Louboutins and the orangeness of some of the more radiant ladies, unassuming as it may have been, marked Felicity as quite astonishing all the same.

“His suit hangs off him like a potato sack and the trousers don’t match the jacket,” Liliane Bettencourt herself observed piteously of Alan. She imagined him the hard working school teacher of humble middle-American origins, scouring the racks at charity bazaars, carefully accumulating his wealth in food stamps until lifted from menial obscurity by a benevolent Gerome. She would make a point of taking him aside at some point in the evening and making her €5 million NGO pledge directly to Alan. Gerome would be enormously impressed and thankful for her altruism.


Vue de l’Orangerie et du château à partir de la pièce d’eau des Suisses

Vue de l’Orangerie et du château à partir de la pièce d’eau des Suisses – Jean Cotelle the younger





Set against a backdrop of the dramatic Southern Caucasus, NGO is the story of a humanitarian aid mission during the 2008 conflict in South Ossetia, and a Russian military expedition to intercept a covert shipment of sophisticated American arms.

Dr Felicity Beauvoir stands on the bridge of the Maersk Intrepid as it docks at the port of Poti on Georgia’s Black Sea coast. The ship carries a cargo of humanitarian aid and the members of her team. Waiting on the dock is their chef de mission, Alan Steiger, the man she loves. Felicity hasn’t seen Alan in three years, since they were thrown together under harrowing circumstances in Iraq, right before he returned home to his wife and kids in the States.

Kapitan Garik Pavlovich of the Russian 58th Army’s 19th Motor Rifle Brigade commands a detachment of elite T-90 tanks. His mission is both audacious and dangerous, threatening to open the conflict on a whole new front, as he travels deep inside enemy territory via the mythic Mamison Pass. His biggest challenge though is to manage his bureaucrat passenger, Eduard from the SVR, Russia’s post-Soviet equivalent of the KGB.

Vaja Sidamonidze is a proud Mingrelian and a proud Georgian but he’s disappointed his country hasn’t reached its potential, stifled by the parochial and the self-interest of the opportunistic few. Vaja learned to drive a truck in the Soviet Army and after Perestroika, at the time of Georgian independence he found his place in the new free market world when he bought an ex-government truck and began his transport company. Vaja is forced to draw upon long forgotten soldiering skills to protect his compatriots and a group of foreigners as the raging conflict destroys his life’s work. But Vaja has already lost more than anyone could bear, for somewhere in Georgia’s seemingly interminable civil wars Vaja lost his only son.

Herb Tasker’s still a country boy at heart, despite having climbed the corporate ladder of a Fortune 500 company. Herb’s decided to give something back to society so now he works for a not-for-profit humanitarian aid organisation. However, Herb holds the secret to the tragedy unfolding around them.

NGO explores the tension between political, military and humanitarian aspects of conflict. Political failure, bureaucratic mismanagement, the dehumanising effect of petty bureaucracy, and the shortcomings of mass media reportage are all major themes. Underscoring it all is the personal human tragedy of conflict.

One of our own.

In 1982 Emmanuel Kondok and his family were imprisoned and tortured. His father was killed in captivity and soon after release his brother died of the injuries he’d sustained through torture. Emmanuel’s dramatic escape, alone at 12 years of age, and his arduous journey through eastern Africa afflicted by drought and war is a compelling story of the refugee experience.

Emmanuel Kondok

I was born in Twic County in the Warrap State in South Sudan. My family were farmers, my father a community leader and a spiritual leader through heredity.  In 1982 as we were on our way to market to sell produce we were intercepted by Government forces and imprisoned. My father was accused of conspiring with the rebel army.

The whole family were imprisoned in the local Garrison and tortured. Each day I was sent down to the river to wash the vehicles of the Government forces. On one of these occasions a stranger helped me to escape by swimming across the river. [This first episode in Emmanuel’s escape must have been a harrowing event, more so when you consider it happened at age 12.  – scribblehead] I had to cross a broad running river swimming underwater holding my breath, knowing that if I surfaced I would have been shot by the soldiers guarding me.

Reaching the other side I was on my own, afraid for my family but compelled by the will to survive. I was picked up by some strangers and joined them as they fled our homeland for Ethiopia. In the three months after my escape my father was assassinated while in captivity before the rest of my family was released. A further three months later my brother was also dead as a result of the injuries he’d sustained through torture.

The same three months my family remained in captivity, tortured and my father killed, I spent walking to Ethiopia with this band of asylum seekers. The three month walk to Ethiopia was arduous, the countryside laid waste by drought, famine and war. There was no food and no water. People had to eat what they could find in the bush, and drink their own urine. Many perished.

Surviving to reach Ethiopia, I was sent to the Pinyudo Refugee camp where I lived alongside hundreds of thousands of refugees who’d fled the brutal war. I was able to receive some schooling while at Pinyudo. However life in the refugee camp was far from ideal. At times there was as little as 400 grams of food per day.

In 1991 after a change of government in Ethiopia the South Sudanese refugees were forced to return home. Another perilous journey. I remember many people dying as they tried to cross the Gilo River. We lived again not only with constant thirst and hunger, but with the fear of wild animals. Some of those who perished were taken by lion or hyena.

Back in South Sudan I lived in the town of Panchalla on the border with Ethiopia. The Red Cross entered the town with food, water, medical aid and shelter. The aid was short lived however, as after three months the Sudanese army attacked the town, and I was forced to flee for my life yet again. The situation in South Sudan and throughout Sudan was still very dangerous, so I made my way down to Kenya, again seeking asylum from the conflict that was raging in my homeland.

When I arrived in Kenya the UNHCR received us and we were sent to the Kakuma Refugee Camp. It was while in Kakuma in 1995 I met and married my wife, Mrs Aluel Deng Piyom.

The conditions in Kakuma were also not ideal, there was often fighting between the locals and refugees, but I still found the opportunity to go to school, and I was able to finish my Secondary Schooling in 1997. Going to school was important. I learnt a lot about the world, and gained more and more knowledge about the bad things within it.

I became a Youth Leader in the camp, working with the Catholic Mission to organise social activities and teaching the children, and also with UNICEF helping to distribute school materials and teaching farming practices. I also worked with different non – government organisations advocating peace in South Sudan and Sudan.

In 2005, twenty-three years after I first fled my homeland seeking asylum, the Australian government accepted me and I moved to Sydney with my wife and two children. When I arrived in Australia I soon found a job in a fruit packing factory. I worked there for four years. I now work to support African communities living in Western Sydney.

My expectations in coming to Australia were that it would be peaceful, and that my children would be able to go school, to learn English, and to mingle with Australian children.

Learning English was difficult, and I also do miss my family in South Sudan. I know I have had a good life here; electricity, public transport and comfortable home. I also know that in Southern Sudan people are still suffering. I’m nowadays working very hard to see that other Southern Sudanese, especially children, will have the capacity to grow, just as I have had the opportunity to do.

In Australia I’ve worked hard to continue my education. I received an Advanced Diploma of Human Resources & Management from Granville TAFE in 2011. I also finished the Diploma of Management with Careers Australia, and I currently study for a Bachelor of Applied Business Management with University of Ballarat.

I founded the Southern Hope Community Organisation Incorporated (SHCO) in 2010, a charitable registered not-for-profit organisation providing help and support to Southern Sudanese African Australians. We provide support to widows, orphans, isolated community members and individuals who cannot do things due to disability.

The SHCO mission is to prepare South Sudanese immigrants residing in Australia to become productive citizens by providing a work and learning environment where they feel challenged, respected & accountable as they strive to meet the demands of citizenship. Our aim is to improve the lives of South Sudanese families and support their smooth integration into Australian life and local Community.

I would say to Australian a big thank you for what you have done for opening the door to refugees from all over the world.

Emmanuel Kondok


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Emmanuel Kondok works to help South Sudanese to get on their feet and find their place in a peaceful Australia after so many of them have suffered from the type of traumatic experiences he did.

From the age of 12 Emmanuel endured hardships no child should ever experience. He now works to ensure a better life for Southern Sudanese both in Australia and back in Africa, and also to raise awareness of the issues facing South Sudanese. On the occasion of my 44th birthday what I wish is that Emmanuel’s children never suffer from the intolerance toward refugees that so many in our community like to express, enflamed by our profligate mass media and our defective political leaders, and which has at its root the same evil that infected the hearts of those who forced Emmanuel to endure what he did. My birthday wish is that Emmanuel and his family find peace here, that his children go to school and learn about the good that is in the world, and that he and his children mingle with Australians, where their different origins are respected and appreciated, and among whom they will each be accepted as one of our own. – Scribblehead

Visit the Southern Hope Community Organisation web site and consider donating.