A gloomy springtime in Paris

This is a tiny letter from my tiny five square metre space in the first arrondissement, my base for the next two months.

The city is almost a month into spring, but you wouldn't know it from the mood of the people. Swarms of police and piles of uncollected garbage are the most visible signs of the malaise.

There are a frequent protests and strikes aimed at thwarting President Macron's resolve to increase the eligibility age for the country's unsustainable pension, from 62 to 64. Whether or not it is successful, there is likely to be a groundswell of support for the election of a far right government in 2027.


I arrived on Thursday, before getting out of the city a day later on Friday. I travelled 80 minutes south-west by train to the famous cathedral location of Chartres.

The city's well preserved and restored cathedral was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, three and a half decades after it was mercifully left intact by an American World War II colonel who defied an order to target the German soldiers who were supposed to be holed up inside.

I had long wanted to visit Chartres Cathedral after being intrigued when, in the very secular setting of Melbourne University, one of my lecturers presented it as a pillar of Western civilisation.

Upon arrival, I experienced it as just another cathedral populated by tourists taking photos. Initially its stained glass windows and other features and artefacts lacked surprise. But, as one of them, I soon got to see why tourists go there to take photos. I found the experience of being in that space remarkably transfiguring.

Perhaps being on that higher plane has affected my appreciation of the art and cultural exhibits I visited in the days since.


These have included an exhibition of photos and objects relating to the colonisation of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I spent two hours pouring over its contents, in an unpretentious setting in a relatively small room at the base of a suburban apartment block.

The following day I viewed a most unexpected sexually explicit exhibition of queer art at the Arab World Institute. The Institute is an organisation founded by France and 18 Arab countries 'to research and disseminate information about the Arab world and its cultural and spiritual values'.


It is pleasing that these values are culture embrace LGBTQIA+ living that has to be hidden. I was moved by the obvious courage of these legend artists being at the same time 'out and proud' and Arab.

Yesterday's exhibition was appropriately bleak for this moment in history. It showcased the mixed media works of Chilean artist Eugenio Tellez, at La Maison de l'Amérique latine.


It was a curiously matter of fact inglorious celebration of war that was in fact anti-war. If Chartres Cathedral was about the making of human civilisation, these works represent its 'disarticulation'.

Links: Chartres | Abyssinie-Tigré-Erythrée-Somalie | Arab World Institute | Latin American

Silence over St Mary's Cathedral remembrance ribbon cutting

Following yesterday's funeral of Cardinal George Pell, I was disturbed to read this from a Sydney Morning Herald letter writer: 'I went to St Mary’s Cathedral to tie a ribbon on the iron fence for a friend who was raped by a priest when he was seven years old. My ribbons were cut off by men and women who were physically and verbally intimidating.'

I have wanted to believe that the persistent removal of the memorial ribbons in the weeks since the cardinal's death has been the work of fanatics, and not anybody acting on behalf of the Church.

I have been waiting in vain for the current archbishop to publicly acknowledge that the ribbons have a place in the remembrance of Cardinal Pell and the Church's child protection failings under his leadership.

'We hear you,' is what he might have said, and it's all he needed to say.

Pell was not my kind of church leader. I preferred the preceding Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Edward Clancy.

Clancy was every bit as conservative as Pell - but inclusive - in that he would sometimes embrace as policy, positions other than his own. It seemed he was the shepherd who also cared for those he disagreed with. He was not at war with them.

The example that comes to mind was his support for the Kings Cross medically supervised drug injecting centre proposed by the Sisters of Charity around 2000. I understood it as part of a harm minimisation strategy that was based on the progressive 'proportional reason' thinking in Catholic moral theology, rather than the more traditional 'moral absolutes'.

Pell killed the proposal when he became archbishop in 2001, and the Uniting Church took over and had success with it.

Clancy's approach strikes me as similar to that of NSW Liberal Party leader and Premier Dominic Perrottet. Perrottet is a far right conservative whom, it seems, governs for all, not just his Catholic Opus Dei friends, as was feared when he took over in 2021.

I am particularly heartened when I see him working positively with his political adversaries including the independent Member for Sydney and leading assisted dying campaigner Alex Greenwich. Perrottet's style can dismay conservatives and cultural warriors who expect some kind of loyalty from him.

Pell's biographer Tess Livingstone wrote in The Australian yesterday that Perrottet's no show at Pell's funeral 'beggars belief given his background as captain of Redfield College and the Cardinal’s warmth towards Opus Dei'.

Cynics suggest he's just calculating support ahead of next month's state election. But I think he's showing more feeling for the Church's sex abuse victims than the supposedly contrite church administration presiding over the cutting down of the memorial ribbons.

Outsourcing our dirty work

Later this month, I'm seeing a cousin in regional Victoria. On my previous visit just before the pandemic, she mentioned something her mother had told her.

It was that her mother and mine shared a bedroom during their childhood years. Her mother said that my mother was a good student but she was untidy.

According to my observation of the trajectory of their adult lives, that was true. Her mother was in fact the epitome of domestic virtue, and my mother less so.

Thanks to my cousin's anecdote, I have a better understanding of why my mother paid more attention to our education, than cooking and cleaning the house, while we were growing up.

The state of my house suggests that I inherited her instinct. My bookshelves offer plenty of intellectual stimulation, but there is dust and disarray elsewhere.

Last week my brother sent me an article my niece Mahalah Mullins had published in the most recent issue of the Undergraduate Philosophy Journal of Australasia.

The title is 'Life’s a Chore: Menial Household Labour, Aristotle, and the Outsourcing Dilemma'. She explores the 'moral discomfort' associated with 'paying someone to do your dirty work'.

I have reached the stage where I could afford to pay a cleaner to do my dirty work. I have thought about it. But I've concluded that my moral discomfort would be greater than the physical and spiritual comfort of living in a professionally cleaned house.

However, as Mahalah suggests, it's not so much about avoiding moral discomfort as embracing domestic virtue as a positive, in the form of promoting social cohesion and 'well-rounded human flourishing'.

It seems she is using Aristotle to reflect on sharing chores among the members of her student household.

I wish that I had been able to apply such principles to my life as I was studying Aristotle when I was her age.

But I have a companion in my house, and it's not too late for me to employ domestic virtue to achieve greater social cohesion between the two of us.


Authentic social media

This morning I was asked if I'd made any New Year's resolutions.

I said no, I don't need them. I've got diet, exercise and alcohol consumption right without such help.

But then I thought I could do with a gentle prompt to motivate me to write a TinyLetter at least weekly.

That was on my mind because another person had just asked me when I was going to write my next.

I like to think I'm no longer susceptible to nagging and pressure to perform. Rather it's the enjoyment of a task that gets me moving.

With my low carb diet, I've made a pleasure out of weight loss and its maintenance over four years.

My BeReal

That's because it involves a minimum of self-denial, at least in my mind. I enjoy the taste of cheese and fatty meats that has proved to be 'slimming' with this strange food consumption regime.

I sense that I've evolved to become non-performative in my writing in the way that I don't attempt to create a grand artifice but simply articulate what's on my mind. Some might call it self-realisation, an act that is by definition satisfying.

That is largely what the rising social media platform BeReal is about, in its attempt at being an antidote to Instagram's emphasis on beautiful images.

BeReal's users post a daily photo that is preferably boring. It is judged on timeliness and not aesthetic appeal.

What is important is that they post within two minutes of their randomly timed app notification. Late posts are allowed but looked down upon in the way that boring photos don't belong on Instagram.

Your BeReal friends don't care about whether you can produce beautiful images. They just want to know that you're alive.

Remembering Father Peter Maher

Yesterday I attended the funeral of Father Peter Maher, who was the priest in my local parish of Newtown for 20 years until 2017.

That's when he retired. He was then 67, which is unusually early for a priest. Sometimes I think I might have been a bad - or good - influence and inspired him to take early retirement. I'd retired two years earlier at the age of 55.

Peter Maher

I would have lunch with him - at my house or his - three or four times a year. He was fastidious in his catering for my low carb diet, especially with his swede mash.

I can't remember exactly how I got to know him, as I didn't attend Mass. Perhaps it was the Interplay play therapy sessions he conducted in the church on an occasional Saturday afternoon.

Personal development was a common interest, as was editing and writing for publication.

I was editor of Eureka Street and he edited the National Council of Priests publication The Swag, where he would occasionally republish my Tiny Letters.

In 2015 he was honoured with an Order of Australia in recognition of his service to religion and the community through 'programs promoting acceptance and diversity'.

Like me, he admired Pope Francis' stress on inclusion and his resistance to clericalism.

In a piece for The Swag earlier this year, he suggested that he was not bothered that Francis doesn't seem to care as much for change in church governance or doctrine as he does 'the basics of listening'.

While Peter was well able to hear the cry of those who were 'silenced, marginalised or erased', he also had a well-ordered appreciation of some of the finer things of life, including high end whisky, and overseas travel.

He liked being able to offer me a whisky or two, I think because he didn't drink alone. Before we imbibed, he would give me a briefing to ensure I knew the basics, such as the difference between single and double malt.

A few years ago he stayed in my Paris room. Sadly his return visit that was planned for mid-2020 was thwarted by COVID and the treatment for his cancer diagnosis.

He never got to make that final overseas trip, though he was able to accept this with his characteristic equanimity.

Link - petermaher.org

Tunnel boring machine Dame Whina Cooper

Often on a Wednesday morning I'll see a film at my local Newtown Dendy cinema. Today it was the New Zealand biopic Whina (pronounced Feena).

Whina Cooper was a Maori social and political activist who died in 1994 aged 98. She is best known for leading an inspirational and consequential land rights protest march from the tip of the North Island, to Parliament in Wellington, in 1975.


In 2020, a tunnel boring machine working on Auckland's City Rail Link tunnels was named 'Dame Whina Cooper', to honour her strength and determination.

She was a devout Catholic who applied her characteristic peaceful resistance to the dogmatism of the Church when it stood in the way of her dignity and that of her people.

She reacted with stoicism when the priest publicly denounced her for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Then on a later occasion, she stood up and challenged him at Mass when he railed against a set of Maori carvings that were 'idolatrous' and sexually explicit.

Her stand against the hectoring Irish missionary reminded me of the outrage provoked in Ireland by 80 year old Father Seán Sheehy's condemnation of same sex marriage and abortion rights. Sheehy delivered his outspoken homily ten days ago at St Mary’s Listowel, in his native County Kerry.

Commentator Derek Scally suggested in Monday's Irish Times that 'the problem of old Catholic Ireland was not priests preaching rampant sin but ordinary people feeling – and making each other feel – rampant shame.'

The film showed Whina's ability to lift her people up and make them feel proud.

The little rituals in our daily routines

One of my greatest current achievements is a 1,905 day practice streak in the Duolingo language learning app.

I'm currently doing Spanish, but - aside from some Latin - have focused mainly on French.

I don't think I've actually learned much of any of those languages. But I have discovered how to get ahead in Duolingo rankings.

I worked my way to the top 'Diamond' league and stayed there for nearly two years.

I did this by endlessly practising the same basic lessons, before deciding that - for me - being a Duolingo high flyer was pointless.

I wasn't improving my language skills, and I didn't even have such a strong desire to do so.

I tell myself that I use it as a waking up exercise the moment I open my eyes each morning, and that is true enough.

But I was somewhat enlightened by a piece in this week's Economist magazine, on the Western adaption of a Japanese concept - ikigai - which refers to a sense of purpose in life.

The article begins with the example of a Canadian businessman who felt empty after spending most of his life climbing the corporate ladder at a global shipping firm.

His moment of truth came when he discovered a Venn diagram with four circles labelled 'what you love', 'what you're good at', 'what the world needs', and 'what you can be paid for'.

At the intersection of the four circles was the word ikigai.

For me, there were questions to ponder which help discern the purpose there is for me in continuing a modest level of Duolingo practice.

So I can acknowledge that I am curious about languages. I have staying power. The world needs people who are aware that many others are most comfortable in languages other than English. And there is some utility for me if I'm travelling and manage to build a bridge with someone by using a word or phrase of their language.

But it turns out that the Western corporate life coaches have a more calculating understanding of ikigai than the Japanese, who see it as a simple honouring of 'the little rituals in their daily routines'.

Charlie Bird's life without fear

I rarely watch TV talk shows, so I haven't bothered to tune into the new ABC talk show Frankly.

But sometimes I take a look at The Late Late Show with Ryan Tubridy, on RTÉ Player, the Irish national broadcaster's equivalent of ABC iView.

I'm always curious to learn more about the land of my forbears, and streaming a local TV program from another country makes me feel like I'm travelling there.

A recent episode included an interview with the 73 year old intrepid journalist legend Charlie Bird, whose life has changed radically since his Motor Neurone Disease diagnosis last year.

Charlie Bird and Claire on the Late Late Show from their home in Wicklow Image RTE

His mobility is compromised and he can no longer speak. But his mind is as sharp as ever.

So Ryan Tubridy journeyed to his home in County Wicklow to conduct the exceptionally moving interview alongside his partner Claire, using artificial voice technology.

Bird told him: 'I don't feel cheated, I have been very fortunate in my career in broadcasting. I have travelled to many parts of the world in my amazing life.'

One part of the world he travelled to was the Philippines, in 1983. I know, because I was there, and met him.

It was during the summer break from university. The Jesuits had sent me to travel around the Philippines for three months.

I visited the Negros Nine in a regional jail on the sugar-producing island of Negros, in the Visayas in the centre of the country.

The Negros Nine was a group of church activists that included Australian priest Brian Gore, Irish priest Niall O'Brien, Filipino priest Vicente Dangan, and six lay associates.

They had been falsely charged with multiple murders. In reality, they were being punished for emboldening oppressed workers to stand up for their rights.

I met the three priests, along with three journalists. They included Charlie Bird, an ABC correspondent and a journalist from the Brisbane Catholic Leader.

I did not know what had made him so famous in his home country in the intervening decades. So earlier today, I took a look at his Wikipedia entry.

Summarising his eventful career, it says that for many years in the 1990s, he was the point of contact between RTÉ and the Provisional IRA.

Then in 2006 he was injured while covering the Dublin Riots of 2007. As a youth, he had taken an interest in far left politics as a member of the Irish Young Socialists.

It's clear that he lived at least the first part of the journalist's ideal to act 'without fear or favour'. It seems that has prepared him well to face death without fear.

From the sectarian divide to the culture wars

Yesterday a friend said to me in an email: 'I miss your Tiny Letters as they were always thought provoking'.

I'd written to tell him about a talk I'd been to on Sunday about religion on Australian radio in the 1940s and 1950s. The speaker was Professor John Potts of the Centre for Media History at Macquarie University.

It would be an obscure topic for most people, but not my friend and I. We worked together on religious programs for commercial radio and television in Melbourne in the mid 1980s. Then I was a producer at ABC religious radio in Sydney for four years from 1988.

The talk painted a picture of the sectarianism that divided Australian society for much of the 20th century. Unlike today, most people identified as religious, and there was deep enmity between Catholics and Protestants.

The divisions were breaking down by the time I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. But I have vivid memories of feeling an outsider when I was a cub in the scouting movement.

Akela (the leader) looked at me disapprovingly when he was completing my admission form and I revealed I was a Catholic. 'You mean Roman Catholic', he corrected me with a tone of admonishment.

Radio Replies

My father was young in the 1930s. He'd tell us about his cricket heroes Don Bradman and Stan McCabe, making it clear that he much preferred the devout Catholic McCabe to Bradman, who was said to be hostile to Catholics.

What most interested me about Sunday's talk was its depiction of the difference between religious broadcasts on the ABC from those of commercial radio.

In those days the commercial stations were controlled by interest groups, most notably the churches. In Sydney, 2SM was the Catholic station while 2CH was the voice of the Protestant denominations.

Their broadcasts upheld the sectarian divide with a style that was often combative. This is evident in the print version of 2SM radio priest Dr Leslie Rumble's Radio Replies, which is on my bookshelf as a relic from my father.

On the other hand, ABC religious programs maintained standards that attempted to avoid division. Even if it produced content that was bland in comparison with that of the commercials.

The long time departmental head Kenneth Henderson strictly forbade sectarian sledging. He was more interested in appealing to listeners who were more questioning. This was evident in his program Plain Christianity: A Word to the Wayfarer.

It's quite a blessing that the sectarian divide has all but disappeared. But perhaps the culture wars have taken its place, complete with the difference in styles of coverage between the ABC and commercial media.

Link: John Potts Radio Journal article

Anthropology and institutional sex abuse

During the week I discovered that one of my Melbourne University lecturers, Chicago-born Donna Merwick, died a few months ago.

She taught me American History, I think in 1983. Then - in my honours year in 1985 - I did History and Anthropology, the course she taught with her husband Greg Dening.

Being a Jesuit student at the time, what interested me most was that Donna had been a nun and Greg a Jesuit priest. While they never mentioned it in the class, I learned from Donna's obituary that they had remained lifelong Catholics.


My first memory of Greg was when he would visit my school to research his 1978 book Xavier A Centenary Portrait. I remember him operating out of a store room in the boarding house in the South Wing, and it was an education in itself to witness a historian at work with the various papers he'd gathered.

He died in 2008, two years after the publication of Church Alive, his history of the North Sydney Jesuit parish. I recall him writing to me after I reviewed the book in Eureka Street, congratulating me on how well my review had grasped his anthropological method. I suspect he hadn't realised I'd been in his class years earlier, after which I was strongly influenced by his teaching that institutions were essentially cultures.

This shaped my view that institutions are often more culpable for child sexual abuse than the individuals who committed the abuses. I think many of these people have been made to carry total blame for actions that accorded with the profoundly evil cultures of the institutions, which can appear to carry on as if they and their leaders have nothing to atone for.

Cultures prevail on us, telling us how to act and behave. There are particular and often unspoken ways of thinking, feeling and believing that are either OK or not OK.

The anthropologist ascribes deeper meaning to everyday aspects of a culture. I remember Donna and Greg introducing us to Clifford Geertz's idea of 'thick description' and his book The Interpretation of Cultures, perhaps the most famous text of ethnography from the 20th century. I found it dense and hard going but its teaching, and that of Donna and Greg has endured.