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.

Sanja Matsuri

Three Mikoshi. Three deities? Not exactly. The immortal souls of the three founders of Sensoji. Three kami. The mikoshi are moving shrines to them. There seems no single word in the English language that fully translates to kami. Ancestor, ghost, deity. All of the above, but with us.

At some point during my long relationship with Japan, I struck upon the idea that whenever I visit, I should look up the calendar of festivals, as they’re always on somewhere. Our visit to Japan this year coincided with the Sanja Matsuri. When I learned this some months before we went, it dredged up some sketchy imagery from the memory banks of a festive mass of sweat and muscle and toil, spilling through streets beneath these hoisted ornate wooden and gilded constructions, what I now know as Omikoshi.

The Japanese Embassy in Canberra used to have this magazine, a broad glossy thing, with articles from all around Japan, something like Australian Geographic. In the early 1990s I was dating Natsuko Ezoe, who I met at the University of Canberra, so for one reason or another I found myself at the Embassy now and then, and I’d accumulated a few editions of this magazine. I read articles and pored over images of things like the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge, Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival, the Yokohama Landmark Tower, Sapporo’s Yuki Matsuri (ice and snow festival), and Tokyo’s Sanja Matsuri. I hadn’t been to Melbourne when I met Natsuko, let alone to another country.

Sanja Matsuri, Sensoji north, 19 May 2019.

Like my old National Geographics and my Unique Cars, I held onto those magazines for years. I don’t recall exactly when I parted with them, but I hope they found their way into another pair of hands and eyes to fill with wonder. Since then I’ve had the privilege to visit many of those amazing places, including Melbourne.

Umamichi-dori Avenue, Taito City, Tokyo, 19 May 2019.

With traces of ink from those magazines still on my fingers, I flew into Narita for the fist time in September 1993, to meet Natsuko and some other friends who’d returned to Japan after their year or so studying English in Canberra. Straight off the plane they took me to Asakusa, so this place was my very first experience of Japan. I’ve been back a few times over the years. It’s one of Tokyo’s must-see places for international visitors, but it’s also an important place for the people of Tokyo.

The heart of Asakusa is Sensoji. The temple dates to 645 AD and you’ll find it featured in any tourist brochure or travel web site on Tokyo. The streets around it retain something of the Edo Era in which they sprung up, and among the tourist trinket shops are eating places and other institutions that have a very long history. I’m trying real hard not to fall into a tourist travelogue here…

Sensoji, Asakusa, during Sanja Matsuri, 18 May 2019.

When I told my brother-in-law, Hiroaki Yamaguchi, I wanted to go to Sanja Matsuri, he told me I’d probably see Yakuza. During the festival, teams from different neighbourhoods take turns carrying the Omikoshi, mobile shrines, through the streets. My mother-in-law, Hatsue, remenisced about being among the throngs lifting the Omikoshi when she was a young woman, and she pulled out some old photos of Hiroaki as a kid, when he hoisted the childrens’ Omikoshi.

Nitemon Gate, Sanja Matsuri, 18 May 2019
Inside Sensoji, south toward Nitemon Gate, September 1993.

From mass media consumption to mass media production…

I’m rewriting a story I wrote back in the ’90s and it’s interesting how things have changed. I had a few oblique comments back then about the influence the mass media, particularly television, had on people, and the orthodoxies in television journalism. While this was pretty topical back then, it seems much less relevant now.

Now, especially since social media, anybody can put content out there. This web site demonstrates it too.

We have new commentaries and criticisms, new ‘problems’, perceived or otherwise, created by the completely re-written mass media landscape. Where we might have bemoaned a concentration of thought and influence, and the vacuousness and narrowness of journalism, lifestyle programming and entertainment then, just what have we gained from democratising the means of content production and dissemination?

A new word and a new concept to deal with

It’s interesting how we’re forced to grapple with new concepts whenever words come into the language. For the makers of these words of course it was the other way around. To all of the Incels out there, let me say thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you for taking one for the team. It’s so heartening to know that your genetic material won’t be passed on.

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 second worst haircut I ever had.

The few memories I have of my father are in Canberra, though neither of us were natives. One of those memories is in Garema Place, which I skirted on my way to the second barber on my list. In 1973 I’d met him in Garema Place with his friend, Bunny O’Neill. Bunny gave me a fabulous Batmobile, one of those battery-powered tin toys that drove forward and changed direction when it bumped into something. A light flashed on top and it sang “Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na, Batman”. Collectable nowadays.

On and off I’d spent a third of my life in Canberra since that day in 1973, and while I always remember it when I’m in that part of Civic, I‘d never given it much thought until now. What was troubling me elsewhere in life predisposed me to melancholic reflection. Events and experiences that were not repressed, but manifest only at certain times in life, were imbued now with new meaning. I was looking at the connection between my father and Canberra like never before.

Unshackled by a redundancy payout, at forty-five I took some time off work to study. A washed-up Sydney public servant, I was determined to make a career change and do something worthwhile for the first time in my life. Ten months later, with a fresh Masters and a high postgraduate GPA, I launched into job hunting with optimism and gusto.

After two-and-a-half months, demoralised and desperate, I took a job three hours from home in a city I’d escaped decades earlier.

In the rush, I started the job in Canberra without a fresh haircut. My sense of scruffiness was made more acute by the intensive three-day handover from an elegant high performance female. Handover done, Judy returned to Melbourne never to be seen again, and ironically now I had time to tidy up with a haircut.

My hair is troublesome when it gets a bit long. It goes boofy when I wash it, and I look like a throwback to the late 80s. Not that I’m above nostalgia for the period, but I find sorrily pathetic a person stuck in the style of their adolescence. School teachers seem especially prone to it. When my hair gets longer I avoid washing during the work week, but it’s a balancing act, because if it starts to get greasy I look like I’ve gutted a duck and stuffed my head in it, un-plucked.  Bad hair makes me feel at least two inches shorter.

Far from home, my regular barber, Marino’s, was out of reach. I’d lived in Canberra as a kid, came back in my twenties to study, and now I’d returned for a short stint of work in my forties with no idea where to go for a haircut. I stuck it in Google. Three barbers in the Canberra CBD were open until 5:30. With its pretentious title, I put Ziggy’s Continental Hairdressers last on my list. Martino’s sounded promising. So did Barbero’s, which was closer.

My office was at the southwest corner of the CBD in New Acton, a district revitalized with funky new office buildings, an arts and entertainment quarter, and swanky hotels. My aunt told me that on the site of my new office, my late father once lived in a public service hostel when he and my mother first separated. Facts like this are disconcerting, and coming at a moment in life when I felt generally unsettled, it set the tone for the few months I worked down in Canberra.

I’ve always been not merely compared to my father, but cross-generational coincidences occur with such repetition and portent that meaning is attached by those making the observations. It seems at times as though I’m following a pre-determined path. As I approached my 27th year I was mildly conscious that it was the age at which he’d died. At 28 and 29 I sometimes casually remembered: ‘oh yes, I didn’t die’.

For all that, it had never been a preoccupation. It had always been at the periphery, not even an undercurrent. My uneasiness now was due to more immediate disruptions, none-the-least of which was travelling three-and-a-half hours from home every week for the type of work I was trying to give up.  A fresh haircut would sharpen me up.  I escaped the office on five and walked across to Civic.

As a taxi driver during my undergrad days I’d rounded Vernon Circuit countless times, and I was always curious about the park on the hill that it circled, so central to the Canberra CBD and yet always unpeopled. Now, decades later, in the crisp afternoon air of early spring, for the first time I walked through that park on the way to the first barber on my list. The leaves and the grass were dull greens still muted by recent winter. My curiosity wasn’t rewarded with anything more than a young threesome chatting over a beer at a picnic table.

I found Barbero’s deep in an arcade that was quiet after five. Bright and sparkling, Barbero’s had long glass frontages and expansive floor space, chrome framed mirrors and bench-tops, and a fresh painted mural of a seaside carnival on one wall. A classical guitar sat in one corner. Front and centre of the barber shop floor was a gleaming motorcycle, a Japanese make in retro style. I’m sure I walked in there with a grin. The barber stood polishing glass.

“Do you have an appointment?”

“No, I just …”

“I’m a bit busy sorry, I’ve got a booking arriving shortly,” he explained, casting a nod across the broad empty salon.


A booking? Back home in Sydney, walk into any barber at lunchtime or after five and they’ll stack you one on top of another.

Turning, I stole another glance at the bike, now an un-ridden affectation of manliness, and headed elsewhere.

I passed Garema Place on the way to the second barber. The sculpture and fountain where we’d met my father and Bunny O’Neill were gone. Had the nakedness of John Dowie’s Father and Son been recast by the sensitivities of our times and removed to some less public space? Reprinted on postcards and brochures, I’d always thought that sculpture and the geometric pond in which it stood a Canberra icon.

The barber shop, Martino’s, was decorated in faux ‘late colonial’, with walls, floor, ceiling, and bench covered in a pastiche of ‘old’ timberwork. The antique styled barber’s chair had a wrought-iron base and a seat in brown leather. On the walls, some statement was made of cutthroat razors and their leather sharpening belts.  Moustache wax, beard oil, and hand-sheer-shaped trimmers decorated the shelves.

Gazing in at this Disneyesque study of the period, I was reminded of a visit a while back to the town of Bungendore near Canberra where my stepfather grew up. As a kid I’d spent idyllic weekends and holidays there. It’s where I went to stay with my grandparents when my little brother was born, a playground then of treehouses, ghost-houses, wild cousins, horses and carrot-patches, ferrets and yabbies, my grandparents’ service station and ancient cars in the field. I stopped on my way through years later, my grandparents long retired and living up the coast. Around a small square aside the highway someone had reconstructed historical scenes commemorating a local bushranger of the 1870s, complete with stuffed potato sacks moulded into courtroom figures. On one side of the square a pair of saloon doors were screwed to a painted scene on a wall, with “Saloon Bar” above them in Old-West type, and “Whiskey 5₡”. The town’s heritage had been gleaned from a Sergio Leone Western.

All that was missing at Martino’s was the haircutting brother of that hipster waiter from lunchtime, with his bushman’s beard, rolled up sleave check shirt, and his leather butcher’s apron. The doors were closed.

With time running short, in resignation I made way over to Ziggy’s, dreading what manner of extravagance I’d find at a “hairdressers” in this place.  As I approached though, this strip of The Sydney Building along Northbourne Avenue looked curiously un-gentrified.  Even the 1970s brown alloy frames of the grubby glass shop-frontage remained. Within them a clashing second-hand grey metal shop door of slightly different vintage had been fitted.

Back in the early 90s when I was driving taxis around Canberra, in place of Ziggy’s there’d been a kebab shop that served drunks at all hours coming out of the night club next door. Much of their cuisine ended up spilt or vomited onto the back seat of my taxi. Now, even the night club that had served two and a half generations was abandoned.

“Good afternoon.”

Ziggy’s Continental Hairdresser, it turned out, was a sub-continental hairdresser after all. Inside, a rectangular patch of worn light blue and grey patterned linoleum floor in one corner contrasted with scuffed brown floor tiles throughout the rest, signifying alternative fit-outs for long-gone occupants of the shop-space. A second-hand bench of mud-brown timber-patterned laminex had been transplanted onto the back wall, whose last coat of paint had been a dull orange. Customers sat in padded chairs of the type found in RSL Club dining rooms.

How could I have doubted? It made perfect sense, when you think about it. Who doesn’t love a Ziggy? Ziggy Marley, Ziggy Stardust. There’s Ziggy Switkowski, possibly the exception that proves the rule.

Excellent, I thought. This’ll be cheap. I sat and took off my specs and he said, “How would you like it?”

Cricket, of course. Ever the icebreaker with South Asians. I knew they were playing somewhere in the world, but at this time of year I couldn’t be sure where. Yes, I’d just finished work. No, he hadn’t had a busy day, except for lunch time. Despite attempts at conversation while he cut, Ziggy’s customer proved doggedly unresponsive, as though there was a cultural divide that could never be breached, to be played out eternally in the cricket world both on and off the pitch. As though egalitarianism were struggling to reconcile the caste system.

Where could I have begun to share my thoughts with Ziggy? Could I have summarised it as the weird feeling you get when you return after two decades to a place you once lived? The faces who aren’t there? I could have told him I was commuting from Sydney, or that my wife was flying to Jordan and my son would be home on his own for the first time. We hadn’t even done well at the small talk. Too lost in my thoughts, poor Ziggy had been left to surmise about his customer’s indifference.

When the cutting stopped, he combed at me swiftly and diligently. I replaced my spectacles and checked in the crooked mirror.  Hmm … looked a bit rough, but I’d discreetly wait till I was out of Ziggy’s sight and then brush it back properly.

“Yes, that’s fine, thanks.”

At an entryway into the Woden shopping centre on the way back to my aunt’s place where I was staying, I realised I was at the last place I’d seen my father. He’d worn his CMF uniform to impress my sister and I, and possibly my mum. It didn’t work on my mother. I remembered a hurried escape, and some tears.

In time, Mum would develop regrets, particularly after, as she saw it, my brother’s children had been kept from him.


*             *

There’d been something more disquieting about comparisons with my father than his premature death. As a kid I’d cringed at comments “you’re just like your father”, or “you’re the spitting image”. There was something deeply shameful about him, and I didn’t know why. It was something stretching back so early into childhood that it preceded memory. It wasn’t until I approached adulthood and greater independence that my paternal grandparents, no longer fearful that I could be taken away from them, began to open up about him. I saw my father for the first time in a positive light.

Around the same time I started to work out that my mother’s family, parochials that they were, believed he’d been in a homosexual relationship with Bunny O’Neill. It comes up sometimes in hushed tones or oblique references to this day. I’ve never confirmed it, and I’ve observed some of those same people to be knowers of things despite evidence or fact, including doubtful assertions about the sexual ‘deviancy’ of numerous other people. The truth about my father is curious only in as much as it reconfirms their bigotry, and I love them no less for their simplicity. I’ve tried to track down Bunny O’Neill a few times over the years, seeking some connection to my father I suppose, but equally to tell him how very much that Bat-mobile meant.

*             *             *

Brushing my teeth before bed, I glanced in the mirror and realised how patchy my hair was. There were bunches and strands missed everywhere, leaving a head full of rat’s tails. When I got out of the shower the next morning to spruce up for work, I realised I was looking at the second worst haircut I’d ever had. At the front, one snip had mowed down to the scalp, and the next one had trimmed diagonally. I could have almost succumbed, like my bigoted kinfolk, to theories about the global labour market and anecdotes about call centres outsourced to India. But then I remembered the only worse haircut I ever had. That was the time I cut it myself.

John Dowie’s Father and son, Garema Place, 1960s.

Redundancy a year on…

A year since I finished with the NSW Government I’ve managed to scramble my way through a Masters in International Relations, and I was rewarded with excellent results. Two months since my last exam I’m still looking for work but I have a really hot prospect this Friday so – fingers crossed.

Some might misinterpret what I’m about to write as sour grapes, but no, I’m very happy to have moved on and I volunteered for the opportunity. I could have stayed and been part of the new structure, there were many opportunities and I would have been given a place, but to be honest I was burnt out. Secure from the vantage of a year’s distance I can’t help making some observations.

Public sector executives love buzzwords and buzz-phrases (a crutch to mask their uncertainty), and every one of them adds their personal stamp with a restructure. My old branch, renamed Business Information Services or BIS, was remade along the lines of the cutting edge “SFIA” framework (can’t remember what the acronym stands for, something forgettable). My position, my boss’s, and some of my colleagues’, mandated under NSW legislation, were not known to exist within the SFIA framework. However, four additional Senior Executive roles were.

A year on, my manager’s old job, my old job and one of my colleagues’ jobs have all been advertised in the past few weeks. I guess someone worked out er… who’s going to do the work?

One year is coincidentally the same period which must pass before you can be re-hired without having to pay back any of your redundancy package. As an IT system administrator, in the past I have literally reinstated a person’s system access 1 year and one day from the date of their redundancy.

BIS ended up with six Senior Executives covering functions previously covered by 1 and-a-bit, and the merged establishment stayed steady at 113. At least in the BIS (IT) part of the organisation there was no need for the O’Farrell/Baird Government’s imperative “efficiency dividends”. The outcome was in fact the opposite of what the O’Farrell Government set out to do. That is to say it became more, not less top-heavy, which is consistent with the productivity killing and revenue flushing experiences during the continuous ‘personal stamp’ restructures under the previous incompetent Labor Government’s musical chairs of departmental executives.

I remember a meeting when a colleague pointed the new CIO toward the O’Farrell Government’s Public Service Commission review which spelled out the framework and the context of the restructure (in which the CIO had been the second hire after the Department Head, and thereafter was supposed to be an implementer), and my colleague was belittled like he was being a bit obsessive.

Roles within the new structure were formulated with multiple capability frameworks, because again, the same executive was ignorant that the NSW Public Service Commission was already implementing a capability framework, and thus thought he was very original in implementing another one, so that the two were overlaid, making the new “role” descriptions so abstract as to be meaningless. If it weren’t for the additional info some astute managers put into job advertisements, in many cases you literally could not tell what the job was. Managers with responsibility for functions of which they had some experience fielded absurd questions from confused prospective applicants, while managers with no experience of their new functions just added to the confusion. At all levels numerous people ended up with responsibilities for which they had no experience, knowledge or capabilities.

A year later those people are still being shifted, and the football team of new Senior Execs are dusting off old “position” descriptions and re-hiring deleted positions (the Government changed the terminology from “position description” to “role description” because it apparently infers less ownership on the part of the occupant).

And, in typical public sector fashion, the genius responsible, the guy who created a divisional structure based on some IT consultancy’s licensed (ie. it was paid for) snake oil methodology fit for nothing but a good brochure, who was hired from interstate and missed the Premier’s brief on what the restructure was for, and couldn’t be bothered to read it when it was brought to his attention, and did the complete opposite, shifting the head count toward more senior levels, displaying complete incompetence and leaving absolute chaos in his wake, has added it to his CV as another brilliant success, and already moved on to an even higher senior executive job.

Anybody would think Labor were still running the joint.