tag:mullins.id.au,2013:/posts MICHAEL MULLINS' TINY LETTER 2020-06-24T02:55:54Z tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1564023 2020-06-24T02:55:53Z 2020-06-24T02:55:54Z The question of toppling statues
One of the readers of my last Tiny Letter emailed with a question she thought I might answer in my next. She gave me a reason to write another Tiny Letter. Perhaps others will do the same.
 
Before I answer the question, I will say that the idea of a question for the blogger reminds me of how the musician Nick Cave writes his blog The Red Hand Files. 
 
Each of his blogs is an answer to a reader question. In the most recent, a New Zealander asks: 'Do you ever look back at your anthology and wish you had been more overtly politically outspoken?’ In the previous one, there is this from the UK: 'Would you consider compiling a list of 40 books you love?’
 
The question about books had me thinking about the bookshelves in the front room of my house, in a way that answers my friend's question. 
 
As I get older, I am becoming aware that each book on my shelves is in some way a memorial to a person or moment in my life. I think this was always the case, but now it's a thing I dwell on.
 
I sometimes reposition a book to give it greater or less prominence. Authors or subjects I feel warmly about get pride of place. Those at the other end of the spectrum are relegated to a less desirable spot. 
 
There is one particular book that also has its spine reversed, to hide the title and author's name from view. Its author is my former brother in law, whose actions caused significant suffering to members of my family.
 
Why didn't I just toss the book in the bin?
 
My answer to that is also the answer to my friend's question, which incidentally was: 'I would be interested in your views re statue-toppling’.
 
It is that I want to avoid erasing all knowledge of people's misdeeds from my consciousness, because it amounts to a denial of history. 
 
In other words, it's best to preserve some memory of the anti-hero. Future generations need to know about bad deeds as well as good deeds.
 
Two years ago I visited the town of Stalin's birth in the Republic of Georgia. I was impressed that the locals refrained from toppling his statue when he fell from grace, or when they were celebrating Georgia's regaining independence from the Soviet Union. They simply moved it to a less prominent position.
 
My opposition to erasing the memory of anti-heroes also applies to place names. I have been following calls to rename Faithfull Street in Nick Cave's north-east Victorian home town of Wangaratta. It was named after a pastoralist who was involved in Aboriginal massacres in the 19th century.
 
Rather than removing Faithfull's name completely, I would prefer to see some kind of creative reversal of his honouring, such as renaming it Faithless Street.
 
What to do about Faithfull Street could be a question to put to Nick Cave.
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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1559020 2020-06-13T20:09:23Z 2020-06-14T00:09:18Z The only kid in the class without a TV These days I enjoy reconnecting with my media rich childhood in Albury-Wodonga, by reading the Border Mail newspaper online and watching the Prime7 local TV news. 

Yesterday’s paper included an obituary for Olgamary Savage (née Whelan), who was the first on air presenter at the TV station then known as AMV4. 

AMV4 commenced in 1964, when I was four years old. However my family did not purchase a TV set until 1966, I think because our mother wanted us to become devoted to reading rather than television. In my first year at school (1965), I was the only kid in my class whose family did not have a TV. It was clear to me that my mother was quite proud of that particular instance of child neglect. 
I never saw Olgamary on AMV4 because she got married and ended her mainstream career in 1965, before my family had TV. But I did know her as a colleague in the mid 1980s, when she was an interviewer and I was the production assistant on the Catholic Church’s niche current affairs program Sunday Magazine. We were given facilities and airtime on Channel 7 in Melbourne as part of their licensing agreement with the Federal Government.

Olgamary's life resonates with mine to the extent that it embraced both popular media culture and a keen sense of social justice and - importantly - an ongoing attempt to connect the two. This was the focus of Sunday Magazine, and also her political involvement on the NSW South Coast later in life.

Reconciling popular culture with social justice was also on my mind yesterday after reading a Q&A in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum supplement. It featured the perspective of 23 year old Greek-Australian popular culture archivist Michael Alexandratos, who has just released an audio compilation titled Before the Boomerang Came Back - Musical Aboriginalia (1949-1962).
The collection contains mostly kitsch appropriations of Aboriginal culture by white artists. I was listening to it on Spotify, and reading his fascinating academic paper on cultural appropriation, at the end of a week that saw continuing Black Lives Matter protests and streaming services banning content that includes blackface and other representations deemed to be offensive.

The paper, which is published on his blog Amnesiac Archive, refers to ABC Radio's 2015 banning of My Boomerang Won’t Come Back, a 1961 recording by English comedian Charlie Drake. Alexandratos argues: 'Although it may be an embarrassing legacy for some, it is also an important resource that Indigenous creatives and musicians can use to resist, re-purpose and de-colonise – on their own terms.’

He cites La Trobe University academic Liz Conor’s 2018 article in The Conversation - ‘The politics of Aboriginal kitsch’ - which savages cultural appropriation. He then quotes Wiradjuri elder Kerry Reed-Gilbert’s reaction to Conor: ‘She [Conor] attempts to convince Aboriginal people and others to think the same way that she does that we shouldn’t like Aboriginalia or have anything to do with it. How dare she!'

Obviously Conor was following the instincts of her own academic culture. She later updated her original article to say that she was ‘mortified’ that her attempt at respect turned out to be insulting.

That is a trap I’m sure I’ve fallen into more than once, and it is unwitting prejudice. I’m moved by the approach of former colleague Catherine Marshall, a travel writer whose adventures have schooled her in relating to cultures other than her own. A few days ago she published an article titled ‘How travel has changed me’ in the women’s travel magazine Travel Play Live.

Describing ‘[her own] face glow[ing] like a ghostly lightbulb amidst this communal flow of brown-skinned people’, Marshall sees herself as 'an obvious interloper … forced to adjust the viewfinder, to refocus as the telescope’s prisms invert the known world and subvert [her] place in it’.

Perhaps that’s how I felt as the only kid in a class of five year olds whose family didn’t own a TV.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1528827 2020-04-08T22:00:32Z 2020-04-08T22:00:32Z Blind obedience and the Pell trial jury While I was training to be a Jesuit in the late 70s, I learned about, and practised, ‘blind obedience’. I recall being told that if something appeared black but the superior said it was white, we were to put aside our own perceptions and reasoning and believe that it was white.

Rightly or wrongly, what I learned about blind obedience has informed my understanding of how juries work in the court system. Once a jury is properly constituted and successfully reaches its verdict according to the rules of the judiciary, we are to put aside our own opinion about the guilt or innocence of the accused, in order to accept that the jury verdict represents the truth.

There will always be arguments to counter the jury’s conclusion, but we must either accept the truth of its verdict or keep our contrary reasoning and opinions to ourselves and our inner circles, out of respect for the rule of law that underpins the social order.

That is why I was dismayed last year when several prominent church related legal experts, and one archbishop, went public with their opinions contradicting the jury verdict. They all had the added authority of being respected community leaders, so I felt that their undermining of the credibility of the jury was especially threatening to the social order.

I thought that the right place for them to air their views was behind closed doors or within legal circles. I imagined that their opinions about the evidence of the witness might find their way into the minds of appeal judges in a manner that was not public, and I felt there was no harm in that.

I could appreciate the logic in their assertions, but to my mind it was not their place to raise doubts that would undermine public confidence in the rule of law.

In line with the principle of blind obedience, we all try to align our thinking with jury’s conclusion, again for the sake of the order of society. I remember writing the following while processing and reaching a positive assessment of the Pell jury verdict in my own mind:

The more I read about the fragmentary and therefore ‘unreliable’ nature of human memory, the more I’m convinced that the form or demeanour of a testifying witness can be more telling than the verbal content of his or her testimony.

Convinced as I was of my own opinion, and that jury verdicts are sacred, I’m now struggling to bring my mind around to conform with the judgment of the High Court, in the spirit of blind obedience.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1520397 2020-03-16T03:52:04Z 2020-03-16T10:11:08Z Self-isolation to avoid the coronavirus The coronavirus has changed the plans of many. I was to depart for Paris tomorrow, but now I’m staying put here in Sydney.

The decision was taken out of my hands by the the airline, which cancelled my flight. But in any case, I’d all but decided to abandon the trip after seeking personal advice from four doctors. Three of them said I should be OK to go but the one who said don’t go was the most persuasive.

I have a friend who travels to Paris several times a year who told me about his own fatalistic approach. If I hadn’t been somewhat fatalistic in the past, I would have missed a lot of the interesting travel I’ve done. But now I’m older and wiser and the circumstances are different to anything I’ve experienced before.

In recent weeks I’ve been consumed by opinion and media coverage relating to the coronavirus. I’ve noticed quite a divergence between views influenced by politics and those of medical experts able to speak freely.

One morning last week I heard the ABC’s Dr Norman Swan listing the deficiencies of the American response. He argued that Australia should be requiring quarantine from incoming US travellers ahead of those from any other country. Hours later, our PM followed Trump’s lead and did the opposite, restricting travellers from Europe.

In reaching my own position, I was most persuaded by the fearless passion and well-argued stance of Sydney immunologist Dr Dan Suan, whose Facebook post I read this morning. He said: ‘It is possible I will get into trouble for saying all of this. But now I do not care’.

Advocating strict social isolation, he contrasts the successful approach of a handful of jurisdictions including Hong Kong and Singapore - which isolated their populations early - with the costly delayed response of most other countries. He said Australia made a good start in efforts to ‘flatten the curve’, but urgently needs to take significant further steps before it is too late.

He said: ‘Hospitals are completely overrun in Northern Italy like they were in Wuhan... so many deaths. Spain is soon to follow, as are cities in America. I am deeply sad for what we are about to see unfold.’

I can now see the wisdom of rejecting the temptation to be fatalistic about my trip to Paris. It is lucky that I like being in my house in Sydney because I will be spending nearly all my time here, most likely for several months. My diary is 100 per cent clear for the next two months, the time I’d envisaged being overseas. Now, with very few exceptions, it will stay that way.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1513554 2020-02-25T21:43:02Z 2020-02-25T21:43:02Z Jean Vanier and the abuse of celebrity power Like many, I was saddened and disillusioned to hear reports last weekend that Jean Vanier had psychologically manipulated and sexually abused six women in France between 1970 and 2005.

Vanier was a French Canadian philosopher who founded the worldwide network of l’Arche communities for people with intellectual disabilities. He died last May at the age of 90.

I remember visiting the L’Arche Genesaret community in Canberra in 1985. I returned in 1990 to record interviews for an ABC radio documentary that won a Human Rights Commission media award later that year.

Vanier’s teaching, which was lived out in the communities, seemed to have particular resonance for me. It was that difference and diversity was to be celebrated and not shunned.

Vanier’s fall from grace does not change anything about my appreciation of his message. Instead it has me reflecting on the very human practice of idolising people whose values we like, and how our idolisation can set them on a path towards the destruction of themselves and others, in addition to bringing discredit to their message.

The US Jesuit writer James Martin said after Vanier’s death that ‘[Vanier] and Mother Teresa were the avatars for Catholics’. In using the word avatar, Martin was referring not to the icons used to identify us in social media but rather the incarnation of gods in Hindu mythology.

Treating people like gods tends to have unintended consequences. In Vanier’s case, it seems to have made him a cult leader, complete with an adoring and unquestioning constituency and loyal deputies.

In his case, I think we have to ask why the loyal deputies did not see and report the signs that he was abusing the six women.

But we can’t lay all the blame on the deputies. I suspect we would act in the same way if we were in the shoes of the deputies because our religious and celebrity cultures ordain certain people and treat them with deference.

‘Ordain’ in this sense does not necessarily refer to religious priesthood, and sexually-abusing celebrities such as Michael Jackson are every bit as ‘ordained’ as Catholic priests who abuse their power and sexually exploit their subjects.

I think that we have to admit we are party to abuse of the power that comes with ordination if we don’t call it out when we suspect it. We are doing both the perpetrator and victim a profound disservice, not to mention the message that has drawn us in the first place.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1496757 2020-01-08T04:50:22Z 2020-01-08T04:50:22Z Pushing the boundaries of sex education in 1973 Over the holidays I was saddened to hear of the sudden death of a former priest who was responsible for the boarders when I first went away to school in 1973 at the age of 13.

I understand he left the order in the early 1990s after his superiors upheld complaints from school parents relating to allegations of him pushing the boundaries on professional standards matters. Rightly or wrongly, that would have dogged him for the rest of his life.

I remember the young, not yet ordained Jesuit pushing boundaries in the boarding house one evening. This was when he gave us a spontaneous hour-long briefing about human sexual relationships.

We’d just watched a television program that included a reference which he thought required explanation. I think it might have related to syphilis.

In any case, he gave us exactly the sexual education that many today would argue we should have received from our parents and the school curriculum. At the time, if we asked our elders about syphilis, we’d usually be told that we ‘don't need to know about these things’.

In hindsight, I suspect there was an element of prurience in the young Jesuit's delivery of the information, and it's arguable that he robbed us of our innocence to some degree.

But I’d prefer to think that it was our ignorance that he took away, and that any child exploitation that might have occurred was outweighed by the benefit.

Looking back, he was prescient in that serious teaching about human sexual relationships in schools was to be one of the key recommendations of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships that was initiated by the Whitlam Government in that same year, 1973.

The final report (1977) called for programs ‘giving sex information and an integrated program covering related social and psychological matters’. The object was 'a community more open and tolerant in outlook, and better able to form meaningful relationships’.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1484797 2019-12-02T20:53:11Z 2019-12-02T20:53:11Z Leaving Google
Last month an Amnesty International report took Google and Facebook to task for their 'surveillance-based business model' that is 'predicated on human rights abuse’.

Back in 2004, Google’s founders expressed their corporate philosophy in their prospectus with the declaration: 'Don't be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served - as shareholders and in all other ways - by a company that does good things for the world.’

I recall a colleague telling me about the company’s ‘do no evil’ manifesto. I wanted to believe it and used many of its free and paid services over the years. Until last week.

That was when I finally pulled the plug on Google by cancelling the G Suite subscription that I’d been paying for since 2007. I was attracted to this professional version of Gmail because it allowed me to have an email address with my own domain name mullins.id.au, rather than one containing Google’s company name.

I had long thought that giving users an email address containing the name of an internet service provider was a sneaky anti-competitive way for the company to discourage users from moving on to get a better deal elsewhere. For nobody wants to change their email address or telephone number.

This applied to email addresses ending in bigpond.com, optusnet.com.au or similar, that were supplied by the telcos. It was then possible to get around this with a hotmail.com or gmail.com address that unleashed you from the telco at the expense of chaining you to Hotmail or Gmail.

I opted for the paid Google service so that I could use an address with my own id.au domain. These domains were launched by the Australian Domain Registry in 1995 but sadly never took off.

As I understand it, ‘id.au’ domains were intended to allow Australians to retain their digital identity and not cede it to the service provider. I was sold, and came to think of this as maintaining my digital ‘sovereignty', avoiding being 'colonised' by the service provider.

As time went on, I learned that Google had other ways to trap me. But, more insidiously, tracking and surveillance was the basis of the ‘do no evil’ company's business model.

I was alerted to this most acutely about ten years ago when a respected church official asked me why he was getting so many ads for porn on his screen. He was shocked when I told him that it was likely somebody was looking at porn on his computer.

As an apparent gesture to users who value their privacy, Google now offers ‘incognito’ windows in its Chrome browser that are supposed to avoid tracking. But who is naive enough to trust them?

About three years ago I discovered Fastmail, a reputable Australian alternative to G Suite. I wanted to switch from Google but was dismayed to discover how difficult they would make it for me.

For example I’d lose all the Android phone apps I’d paid for over the years, as Google policy does not allow them to be transferred to another account. It would be costly in the short term, so I stayed with Google.

I finally decided to act a month ago when Google bought Fitbit. I realised that Google would own my health and fitness data from the past four years and they would integrate that with everything else they know about me.

So now I have eliminated Google from many aspects of my digital life. I have started to use Fastmail and other services that I trust to do the right thing with my data. These include the non-profit Firefox browser, the DuckDuckGo search engine, and HERE WeGo maps. I have asserted my digital dignity.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1477484 2019-11-14T05:36:39Z 2019-11-14T05:36:39Z Moving beyond the need to be self-critical Three years ago today I signed up for the free newsletter emailer at TinyLetter.com and started a blog. Like most bloggers, I was very faithful to my writing for the first year or two but then mostly overlooked it. This year I’ve averaged less than one Tiny Letter a month.

I’m always humbled to receive replies from friends who appreciate my thoughts when I do express them. They don’t always agree with my opinions but invariably seem grateful when I articulate them. They appear delighted when I write but don’t judge me when I don’t.

Significantly I don’t judge myself when I don’t write. I regard it as one of my greatest achievements in life that I have moved beyond the need to be self-critical in this way.

Self-criticism is common in young people. With particular generations including my own, it might be a product of religious teaching. Or it could be a matter of poor self-esteem that is the result of bullying or other psychological or sexual abuse.

A turning point for me occurred on this day three years ago, when I had a private session with the Commissioner at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

I’d always regarded my experience of sexual abuse as insignificant. The meeting with the Commissioner did not change that. But it helped me appreciate the context of the abuse, which was the psychological power plays in institutions that prevented many children from growing into confident adults.

This often occurred at the hands of authority figures in the institutions who themselves were damaged human beings. Their behaviour tended to go hand in hand with distortions of religious doctrine that fostered guilt and diminished young people’s self-image.

Like many of my contemporaries, I was affected by this right up until the moment of my retirement, also three years ago. It was not coincidental that I’d spent a large part of my working life working for religious institutions, for the most part adopting a subservient demeanour.

But I feel I was able to draw a line under this self-critical pattern of behaviour in 2015, around the time of my retirement and my meeting with the Commissioner.

On the day of that meeting I had a sense that I was shedding the yoke of my past and entering a new life in which nobody including myself would judge me. That has proven to be the case.

That day was in fact my my birthday, as is today. I’ve just turned 60 and officially become a Senior in the eyes of the NSW Government. I have my Seniors and Gold Opal transport concession cards as a badge of this particular honour.

For me, being a senior means that I am affirmed and not judged. There can be many challenges for people at this stage of life, including health, loneliness, finance and often greater suffering when natural disasters strike.

But if other seniors have learned the lessons I have, our often newfound psychological resilience can allow us to face adversity in a way we couldn’t when we were robbed of self-confidence in our younger days.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1469358 2019-10-23T17:09:00Z 2019-10-23T17:09:01Z The purification of Holy Innocents Cemetery At the centre of the square next to my Paris street - Rue de la Ferronnerie - is the Fountain of the Innocents. It is the oldest monumental fountain in Paris and a focal point for the groups of young people that gather there.

The other day I saw a very old map of the city. I noticed that the square was marked as a cemetery, and it included a church named after the Holy Innocents. Innocents refers to the male infants King Herod ordered massacred, according to the biblical narrative.

I did some research and discovered that the space had indeed been a burial ground from the Middle Ages until the late 18th century. It was then condemned as a health hazard.

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The corpses and bones were subsequently exhumed and transported to underground storage near Montparnasse, on the other side of the city. This site is now known as the Catacombs and open to the public as a tourist attraction. The Innocents church was demolished and the fountain moved to the centre, where it still stands.

I’m now half way through a 2011 novel on the exhumation, by Booker Prize nominated British writer Andrew Miller. Titled Pure, it recreates the story of the removal of the corpses, which it depicts as a purification.

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This took place on the eve of the French Revolution, which could crudely be described as the forces of reason replacing the cloud of religious superstition. A purification of sorts, though the term refers more directly to the foul smell that permeated the area. It would turn fresh produce rotten and taint the breath of the residents.

The main character is a young engineer named Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a fervent believer in rationality. The family he boards with are given to superstition and are hostile to his work once they discover what it is.

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My interest is heightened by the coincidence concerning the historic Camperdown cemetery at the top of my street in Sydney. In the late 1940s, ghost stories and a murder led to demands for the ‘purification’ of a large section of the site.

This took the form of the transfer of headstones to the area next to adjacent church, and use of the space for the creation of the Camperdown Memorial Rest Park. Today it’s a well frequented meeting place for young people and dog owners.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1464274 2019-10-09T14:38:02Z 2019-10-09T14:38:02Z The role of ordinary Catholics in clerical sex abuse In recent days I've had an email conversation with a friend in New Zealand about the forced resignation of Palmerston North Bishop Charles Drennan.

A young woman had come forward to complain that she'd been the victim of inappropriate sexual behaviour on Drennan's part. The resignation came after the Church's investigative body contracted an outside investigator to evaluate her claim.

Details of the claim were not revealed at her request. But the country's most senior Catholic Cardinal John Dew said: 'In the eyes of the Catholic Church, Bishop Drennan’s behaviour was completely unacceptable.'

The US publication CruxNow pointed out that the Church has long considered sexual relationships between clerics and adult women to be sinful and inappropriate, but not criminal or necessarily worthy of permanent sanction.

'However, the #MeToo movement and the scandal over ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, an American defrocked by Francis for sexual misconduct, have forced a reckoning about the imbalance of power in relationships between clerics and lay adults, nuns and seminarians, and whether such relationships can ever be consensual.'

I experienced this imbalance when I was a trainee Jesuit teaching in one of the order's schools 30 years ago. While I wasn't technically a cleric, I sensed that I was being accorded much more respect than I was due. At parent-teacher events, and when invited to parents' homes for a meal, I was treated like royalty.

I felt that I could get to enjoy this. Many clerics did, and turned it to their advantage. Then when their sex drive kicked in, some would not hold back.

I remember witnessing the rector of another college touching women inappropriately at a garden party. It was 40 years before #metoo and women would put up with such behaviour. At most they'd whisper behind the cleric's back that he was a 'sleaze'.

We now know that the power imbalance is the cause not only of perhaps inconsequential touching, but serious sexual abuse of minors. It often leads to lifelong mental illness and sometimes drug abuse and suicide.

My NZ friend commented on clericalism in the context of sexual abuse: 'Most people don’t understand it. I worked hard to get my head around it.'

But she ended with an anecdote that suggests the clerical state does not have to affect priests in this way.

'Our cardinal [John Dew] wrote recently "Call me John" about how it was important to call priests and religious by their names rather than using the epithet.'

While I find that very uplifting, I was troubled by her next sentence, in which she said that most people in her parish 'dismissed it'.

Such dismissal suggests the real source of the problem could actually be ordinary Catholics playing into the clergy's hands with a self-deprecating 'Yes Father' attitude.

When I was a school student, I remember one of the priests asking to be called by his first name. When I referred to 'Geoff' in front of my father, he berated me, insisting that it was customary for us to show special respect for priests by not using their first name.

The kind of respect we show towards clerics is our choice. Clergy are able to behave as if they're a race apart - and take sexual liberties - because ordinary Catholics give them licence to do it. The pope and other senior leaders appoint them but we decide how to respect them and live with the consequences.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1462993 2019-10-05T07:57:33Z 2019-10-05T07:57:34Z The challenge of tranquillity on Rodrigues Island After a week in Mauritius, I arrived in Rodrigues with my Australian-Mauritian friend. Rodrigues is a small Indian Ocean island with a population of around 40,000.

It is part of Mauritius, though some distance away. Further than the island of Réunion, which is culturally close to Mauritius and Rodrigues but a Department of France.

Rodrigues has a distinctive relationship with Mauritius. I realised this when we had to go through passport control when leaving the island of Mauritius and arriving on the island of Rodrigues, as if it was a different country.

There is an autonomous Regional Assembly that makes at least some of its own laws. Most notable for us was the ban on plastic bags that doesn't exist on the island of Mauritius.

We were instructed to surrender all plastic bags upon arrival at the airport. An unusual pleasure, though a few hours later we were disappointed to see plastic bottles on the beach.

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Rodrigues' ethnic makeup is different to that of Mauritius, with a mainly Creole population of African origin and very few Hindus and Muslims. It seems dry and barren compared to Mauritius. Water is obviously very precious, with low pressure and interruptions to the supply.

However that is part of the simplicity of the experience. We're staying in the Oasis Vacances guest house in the isolated location of Point Diable. It feels like a two star hotel, but it's clean, and that's my preference.

Upon arrival the biggest challenge for me was the tranquillity, which provides quite a contrast to the vibrance of Mauritius.

I can't recall ever having stayed on a small island before, and it seemed there was nothing to do. But that, I realised, was the point.

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Like many people, I'm oriented towards doing things, and indeed that is how I filled my week in Mauritius.

But here time is passed looking out at the ocean and reading, while sitting around at the guest house. Apart from a few roosters crowing, there are few sounds.

Yesterday I was apprehensive about how I'd fill the two and a half days, thinking that is was closer to a religious retreat than anything else I'd experienced. But now I'm feeling it's something I could get to like.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1460385 2019-09-28T03:53:19Z 2019-09-28T03:53:19Z English and French in Mauritius I arrived in the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius at lunchtime yesterday, here for a ten day visit with an Australian friend whose homeland it is.

It was a clear day so I enjoyed glimpses of the island from the air and noted the engraving of the national symbol the dodo on the disembarkation card.

I also observed the odd mixture of English and French, often used together. The street where my Airbnb is located is Père Laval Street - not Rue Père Laval or Father Laval Street. My host is a real estate agent and she explained that the transactions are negotiated in French but based on English law.

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Père Laval was a 19th century French missionary priest, who is more properly referred to as Blessed Jacques-Désiré Laval. His cause for canonisation was given a boost earlier this month when Pope Francis visited the island.

Laval was medical practitioner who'd written a doctoral thesis on rheumatoid arthritis. As a priest he is best known for devoting his energies to the poor in Mauritius, and he remains a unifying figure who is also respected by the increasingly Hindu majority.

Walking around the streets was a little dangerous, as they do not have footpaths and the cars travel at speed. We called at an old-style street shop and noticed it was selling napolitaines.

They are a sweet treat made by sandwiching jam between two shortbread cookies, prepared with flour and butter and covered with a layer of pink icing. I knew about them from Australia because a Mauritian friend made them commercially because she felt drawn to introduce as aspect of her family's culture to Australia.


More photos on Instagram.


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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1459669 2019-09-26T13:36:07Z 2019-09-26T13:36:08Z Paris the home of bad coffee
Paris is known for its café culture but not for good coffee. A 2010 article in the New York Times asked why it’s so bad. The answer included old beans, over-roasted beans, second-rate machines, and coffee ground in batches and not to order.

Coffee in Paris is in fact getting better. But it’s mainly due to the influence of foreigners, including Australians and New Zealanders. 
 
Pfaff, a business near me, sells coffee machines but not coffee. When I went there earlier this year I met a genial Frenchman named Guillaume, who learned to make good coffee when he worked in New Zealand. He will offer you a cup of his first class espresso if you’re chatting with him, perhaps in the hope that one day he’ll sell you one of his expensive machines.

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In Australia, it’s usual to have to travel some distance for a good cake shop or delicatessen. In Paris you have to do the same for a good coffee. I didn’t know exactly where to go until last weekend, when an Australian friend sent me a list of six of the best cafés in Paris for coffee. I’ve been walking the inner arrondissements and sampling one, each day this week.
 
The first I visited was Fringe, in the 3rd arrondissement. Its American owner has trained his American baristas in precision extraction (there’s a mathematical formula). There they put the hot water through the ground coffee for exactly 27 seconds. I didn’t hear any French spoken by the clientele. It was all American accented English. But the coffee was the best.

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I’m no expert in what makes a good coffee but you know it when you taste one. The flavour is intense and it stays in your mouth for hours. At this moment I’m still savouring the Ethiopian double espresso that I had a few hours ago at Coutume, in the 7th arrondissement. While I was there the baristas were in WhatsApp contact with their Australian boss and co-founder and they seemed pleased but not surprised that an Australian customer had tracked them down. 
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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1459347 2019-09-25T16:10:07Z 2019-09-25T16:10:07Z Filth with a purpose
Knowing I was in Paris, a friend taunted me by sending an article from the Guardian titled ‘Paris, city of romance, rues new image as the dirty man of Europe’.

I replied that it was just another English put down of the French. I added the suggestion that the filth is partly a reflection of the anarchy and right to protest that the French respect.

Foreign tourists tend to treat Paris as a kind of Disneyland for grown ups. To them it’s an aesthetic and cultural haven. They like to think that time has stood still and nothing is out of place. 

So it’s no surprise that they are upset by the ubiquity of the graffiti tags, or the shop windows that have been damaged by members of the Yellow Vests protest movement. 

So am I. Until I read about how the French underclass has been disenfranchised by political leaders who are most sympathetic to big business, which includes tourism. I begin to understand how the tags are a medium of expression for those who are otherwise voiceless.

Earlier in the year I attended a talk by Edouard Louis, a young public intellectual from a working class background. I had been reading his three short autobiographical novels.

As a philosopher, he is recognised as a bridge between rationality and the Yellow Vest movement, which is regarded by many as barbarous. 

Louis managed to extract himself from the underclass from which the Yellow Vests originate. He understands their grievances only too well, though he stresses his abhorrence for the racism and homophobia of some of them.

He was asked to comment on the Yellow Vests’ acts of vandalism against the Arc de Triomphe, an important symbol of the Republic. He said: ‘You really have never experienced misery to be able to think that a tag on a historical monument is more serious than the impossibility of living [a decent life].’

From now on, I will try to respect graffiti tags I see around Paris, and even back home in Sydney.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1381085 2019-03-04T04:18:38Z 2019-03-04T04:18:39Z Unlocking the truth about George Pell's conviction

George Pell’s conviction was a surprise to me. I’m at a loss to explain to myself how it came about. It is astonishing to think that a man of his stature and cunning could have done such things. The victim’s presentation to the jury as sole witness must have been compelling. 

When I’m part of a ‘did he or didn’t he’ conversation, I argue that we cannot pretend to know if Pell is guilty because we were not present for the testimony of the witness. 

I am not an expert, but the more I read about the fragmentary and therefore ‘unreliable’ nature of human memory, the more I’m convinced that the form or demeanour of a testifying witness can be more telling than the verbal content of his or her testimony. 

Increasingly I’m reluctant to take literally words in the recall of a witness. In the same way, I’m not a biblical fundamentalist and therefore don’t read the Bible literally. I interpret its words in the light of a range of factors including studies in history and literature.

In the case of the Pell trial, I’m imagining that the jury would have interpreted the verbal recall in light of emotions the witness was displaying. They would have provided the key that those of us not present do not have to inform our judgment.

Many people dismiss any element of testimony that is thought to be guided by emotion. Court proceedings are based on rational argument that takes what a witness says literally. If holes can be picked in the verbal narrative of the witness, the allegations remain unproven. This might stand to reason, but I think the approach needs to be rethought.

I’m currently reading the recent book Diving for Seahorses: The Science and Secrets of Human Memory, which was written by two Norwegian sisters, one a neuropsychologist and the other a writer and journalist. It looks at the evolution of our understanding of memory, including the watershed questioning by the father of psychology William James, in the late 19th century.

‘When James was alive, people thought of each memory as a unit, a copy of reality, like something that could be pulled out of a folder in a filing cabinet.’

But instead the key to understanding memory came to be seen as the seahorse, ‘slowly swaying in rhythm with the sensory areas and the emotion and awareness centres of the brain’. 

Hence the Greek word for seahorse - hippocampus - was used to name the elongated ridges on the floor of each lateral ventricle of the brain, thought to be the centre of emotion and memory.

The fact that our recollections are influenced by emotions and sense perception - such as taste and smell - means that two people who have experienced the same phenomenon will often have completely different memories of it. 

This could explain why contextual information about Pell’s sexual abuse that was provided to the media by others does not square with the witness testimony of the victim. Because it's said to be unlikely that Pell would have returned so quickly to the sacristy, the victim's testimony is thought to be discredited.

The ABC journalist Louise Milligan is one of the few people aside from the jury to have met the victim. She said ‘I defy anyone to meet this man and not think that he is telling the truth.’

Perhaps we should refrain from advancing opinions on the truth or otherwise of the victim’s testimony until we get to meet him.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1373186 2019-02-12T04:23:39Z 2019-02-12T04:23:39Z A journey to the far west of NSW and beyond

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend who urged me to write about my recent nine day trip to Broken Hill and the Flinders Ranges. This time last week I was returning to Sydney on the Broken Hill Explorer train after visiting the 'silver city', along with the Flinders Ranges and a couple of South Australian towns including Peterborough and Quorn.

I was without my travelling companion on the return journey. One 14 hour rail journey is enough for most people and he took a flight from Broken Hill to Sydney. But I'm a self-confessed train nerd and was more than happy to travel back on the weekly NSW passenger train that was removed from service a few decades ago and then reinstated after pressure from a local politician.

Long distance country trains can't compete with the airlines, and this one wasn't very full. I'd long been anxious to take the journey before the route is cancelled again. It beats the Indian Pacific to the extent that you get to travel across NSW during daylight hours and can witness the slow transition from Sydney's urban sprawl through the Blue Mountains and fertile farm lands to the sparse desert vegetation of the state's west. Gazing at the landscape through a train window is my idea of meditation.

Railways had been the economic lifeline of most of the towns we visited, and their decline accompanied economic stagnation. Rural industries have their good and bad years and this year the local communities are suffering hardship from the drought. Broken Hill was an Australian mining town like no other but there is no longer activity in that sector.

Everywhere there are signs of past prosperity. The city is struggling to reinvent itself through art and tourism and solar power generation. I remember noting in the 1970s that the city's population was a shade over 30,000, 3000 more than that of Albury, where I was growing up. Now Broken Hill's population is around 17,000 and Albury's approaching 60,000. There are a few bright spots such as the Living Desert Sculptures and the annual Broken Heel Festival in September, which celebrates the theatrical anniversary of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. 

If Broken Hill is on a long trajectory towards becoming a ghost town, nearby Silverton trades on being just that. With a population of just 50, it has been rescued from obscurity by the film and TV industry, which regularly uses the town and its surrounds for sets. We drove past the Mad Max Museum and the Silverton Hotel, which has featured in more than a dozen productions.

Coburn Hotel Cockburn SA

Our favourite ghost town was the once bustling South Australian border town of Cockburn, which has a population of 56. We stopped for lunch at the Coburn Hotel (above), which was recently saved from closure by residents, who take it in turns to volunteer to staff it. The president of the Progress Association Iris Williams proudly showed us around the hotel, which offers drinks, toasted sandwiches and simple accommodation. The following day, my guide at Peterborough's Steamtown heritage rail museum told me that he had been stationed at Cockburn when it was an important railway town.

Once one of Australia's most important rail hubs, Peterborough itself is just as quiet a working railway town as Cockburn. I walked the length of the abandoned railway platform, which is now covered in bird droppings. We had breakfast at the Duck Duck Goose Cafe, where the owner Matt told us about the cheap property prices and that he had not looked back since relocating from Newtown in Sydney. We told him that we too are from Newtown and he knew exactly how far we'd come culturally. 


Photos

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1358811 2018-12-31T05:42:38Z 2018-12-31T05:42:38Z The love of fat

This morning I had the pleasure of listening to a podcast about fat, from a recent ABC radio broadcast.

It was a pleasure because it celebrated fat. Duck fat, butter, lard, bread and dripping, and suet were all discussed.

There was an interview with a veteran Italian-Australian butcher whose pet hate was customers asking for fat to be trimmed from the meat, despite knowing it would diminish the flavour.

That's because, over the past 50 years or so, most of the developed world has, it seems, been brainwashed into thinking that fat is bad for us.

Recently I've also watched That Sugar Film on SBS, which traces the history of the tarnishing of fat's public image, to the heart attack suffered by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955.

This event thrust the issue of heart disease into the public domain, with two theories emerging. One, from US physiologist Ancel Keys, declared that fat was the problem. The other was from British physician John Yudkin, who believed sugar was to blame.

Over the next two decades, the discussion brought fierce arguments from both camps. Keys won out, fat became the villain, sugar was exonnerated, and 'low fat' was institutionalised as the only healthy diet.

Not surprisingly, sugar industry lobbyists played a major role in demonising fat, which was systematically removed from otherwise healthy foods and replaced by sugar and carbohydrates.

One of my greatest sources of pleasure this year has been cheeses and sausages and other high fat foods including nuts, offal and full-fat Greek yoghurt. I have embraced these at the expense of sugar and carbs, and received very favourable blood test results from the GP earlier this month.

I was a healthy weight and receiving good test results for several years before I made the change in my diet. Friends wondered about my motivation, and sometimes I did as well. I guess my best explanation was that I did it 'for the love of fat'.

If there's a lesson for all of us at this time of new year's resolution making, it's that it's better to choose a positive lifestyle change that seems more like an indulgence, and to forget about 'giving up' something that is supposed to be not good for us.



Links: Podcast | That Sugar Film

 

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1357457 2018-12-27T04:11:14Z 2018-12-27T04:11:14Z Abstract thinkers living in bubbles

During the Christmas break I read Rick Morton's One Hundred Years of Dirt, which is one of the more acclaimed Australian memoirs published during 2018.

I found it an easy read in that it's less than 200 pages and beautifully written. But it was also very uncomfortable, for two reasons.

The first is its details of the wretched life he's led. This includes childhood trauma in outback Queensland followed by material poverty as an adolescent in a single parent household closer to the city. Then there's the emotional disability that has lasted to the present, in the life of the now 31 year old journalist at The Australian.

The second reason is that Morton's message is confronting for people with a world view like mine. He sees us as culture warriors from both sides of the political spectrum who never step outside our respective bubbles.

'We don't need more journalists from the right or from the left... What the media needs is more reporters with the ability to understand their subjects.'

Morton is speaking about politicians as much as he is journalists. He suggests that the quality of their understanding of people is just as important as the soundness of their policies.

That is a plausible explanation for the success of rogue politicians like Hanson and Trump, whose policies are inconsistent, shallow or non-existent.

The problem with the bubble-dwellers is that we grew up with university educations and a diet of comparatively abstract media content, largely from the ABC. This is where Rick Morton has the upper hand in understanding how people tick.

'Mum's life was hard and we relaxed by watching soap operas, reality television and The Today Show. I can't remember a time when we had ABC-anything on.'

Not only do the politicians and right and left culture warriors lack cut-through, but Morton talks about the anger they generate in the people they're seeking to win over.

'It's directed at a system that overwhelmingly keeps people in their place. ... I had no connections, no networks, no family even in the big cities where I would end up working.'

Morton attributes his eventual success to a combination of 'the handy resilience forged under such conditions' and 'dumb luck'.

He's now in a position to act as a bridge between those of us who believe that 'higher power prices are the cost of fighting climate change' and the many Australians for whom 'the slightest bump in their electricity bill means a deeper slide into poverty'.

Morton's first-hand experience of poverty enables him to credibly point the way to politicians in their bubbles, who are actually the ones who most need to be bridges between abstract thought and real life.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1354931 2018-12-19T02:58:02Z 2018-12-19T02:58:02Z The importance of wage growth

The blemish on this week's 'beautiful set of numbers' announced by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was wage growth.

Australia's economy is performing well, at least for now. This is due to a combination of fortuitously high commodity prices and government fiscal restraint.

But wage growth is around two per cent per year, half what it was a couple of years ago. That's the slowest sustained rate of growth since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

This interests me because I'm coming to the end of a short-term paid research task for a Sydney academic. She is comparing the diminishment of the wage system during the Great Depression to that of the present day.

I've been listening to interviews with Australians who lived through the Great Depression. They tell of how they got by without wages. This involved relying upon food vouchers and work for the dole, as well as the generosity of shopkeepers and others.

Today we have many young people attempting to survive without wages in the digital economy. They are contractors or 'support partners' for companies such as Foodora or Deliveroo. They often receive remuneration at subsistence levels and lack almost all the usual benefits of wage earners.

Like workers who lived through the Great Depression, they are the victims of wagelessness.

Unusual for my generation, I experienced wagelessness when I was was in my twenties. A component of my studies for the Jesuit priesthood included full-time 'unwaged' work, as a secondary school teacher, and then in the media.

I received board and lodging but no payments. I did not have or need a bank account. Technically the work attracted a stipend (or a wage in the case of my ABC media work). But I did not see either because the funds went directly to the community.

At the time I didn't see the need for an income other than a little 'pocket money' to allow me to go to the movies or get a train out of the city for a bushwalk on a Saturday.

But we all need to build financial wealth to provide a secure future for ourselves, and our family if we have one. The way to do that is to receive not only a wage, but a wage that increases exponentially.

I was lucky that I received a proper 'growing' wage once I left the Jesuits at the age of 30 and, almost 30 years later, have financial security.

The wageless of the Great Depression eventually got jobs, and at least some made up the lost ground. But uncertainty remains for younger people today, including the wageless and those with stagnant wages. What kind of future will they enjoy?

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1348203 2018-11-28T02:13:21Z 2018-12-09T12:29:04Z Why I avoid social media news feeds

Yesterday I invited Tony Kevin to lunch. He is a friend from Canberra whom I got to know as a frequent contributor to Eureka Street when I was editor. He's a former Australian diplomat and author who these days writes commentary on Russia. His 2017 book Return to Moscow reflects on his first visit in the 48 years since his posting there as a young diplomat at the height of the Cold War.

He told me that he's feeling demoralised because most editors reject his articles. He says they view them as too friendly to Russia. An exception is John Menadue, who today published Tony's Kerch Strait incident analysis, which scrutinises the pro-Ukrainian 'false narrative [that] is already solidifying in Western media'.

It's true that most people only want to read commentary they agree with. They don't want to be told their world view rests on shaky foundations, even if they're confident that this contrary view is wrong. If their news source includes unpalatable views, they will go elsewhere. Editors don't want to lose readers and most of them will only publish content that is is comforting. It makes commercial sense.

Science and tech communicator Ketan Joshi described 'algorithmic news' on ABC TV's The Drum on Monday. He said that Facebook and the like use their algorithms to create news that confirms their users' pre-existing views. If they gave them content with views they didn't like, chances are that the users would ditch the feed for a rival and revenues would drop.

People who've grown up with social media are particularly averse to discordant views. I'm from an older, more perverse generation that thrives on views we disagree with.

I like to avoid the journalistic junk food of social media news feeds. I don't even spend much time at The Guardian, which would have to be my own online comfort zone. Instead I pay money to Rupert Murdoch to subscribe to The Australian.

That goes against the grain and I don't like a lot of the views I read. But it makes me think, much more than content from The Guardian or the titles of Fairfax (now Nine Entertainment).

I often end up respecting commentators I disagree with. I have no doubt that grappling with diverse opinions gets me far closer to the truth than an algorithmic social media news feed would. But just as importantly, diverse news consumption habits also contribute to a less polarised society.

In The Australian this week, I read Greg Sheridan's argument for the rejection of UK prime minister Theresa May's Brexit deal. Sheridan didn't persuade me to change my mind, but he prompted me to identify exactly why I want to see the UK Parliament pass the deal.


Links: Menadue | The Drum

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1345219 2018-11-19T03:42:31Z 2018-11-19T04:05:48Z Parallel visits to Paris

I'd been in Paris for two months and winter was fast approaching. So last week it was good to land back in Sydney, where summer is in the air.

It's the season for catching up with family and friends. I tend to do that in small measure, so it's always a pleasure. Yesterday I enjoyed a visit from my niece, who was up from Melbourne, and there are a couple of friends I hope to see before Christmas.

One is Catherine Marshall, a former colleague from Eureka Street's publisher Jesuit Communications. She left the security of institutional employment about the same time as me, to become a freelance travel writer. She's had notable success at that, having recently been named the Australian Society of Travel Writers' Travel Writer of the Year, for the second year in a row.

I don't get excited by most of the travel writing I read in Fairfax and The Australian newspapers. That's because because economic reality ensures that it is heavy on either promotion or click-bait. But Catherine has a knack of doing the obligatory product placement in a way that does not interfere with the integrity of her observations and life musings.

I was particularly interested in her latest piece on a recent visit to Paris and how she felt she'd aged in the 25 years since her previous visit.

She writes of having returned to Paris with her best friend and original travelling companion. Both were 'wide-eyed young women visiting Europe for the first time'.

As it happens, their first visit to Paris would have been in 1993 - the year of my first visit. My subsequent visit was also not until many years later (2011).

Catherine describes her first visit as a 'fleeting, whirlwind blitz' that contrasts with their 2018 desire to 'discover the city at an unhurried pace'.

I think that my 1993 visit would have been even more fleeting than theirs.

Mine lasted a mere four hours. I was a 33 year old mature age backpacker on my first trip to Europe. I'd not had the opportunity to travel before, so I wanted to cram as much as possible into the short time available. So Paris was part of the 'five countries in five days' itinerary I'd planned for myself.

I recall finding my way to the Sacré-Coeur basilica at Monmartre, feeling judged on the Metro for being so unkempt, and being served 'two' (deux) espresso coffees when I thought I was asking for 'some' coffee (du café). Then it was time to board the train for Barcelona.

The unhurried pace of Catherine's return visit involved slowly gliding along the Seine in a glass-roofed Batobus tourist barge (the subject of her product placement). The unhurried pace of my present-day return visiting is about giving the city two months - instead of four hours - of my time, in the hope of a far greater return on my investment.


Link: Catherine's article

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1342740 2018-11-11T11:35:26Z 2018-11-11T11:35:26Z My war remembrance of Great-uncle Hugh

Today is my last day in Paris until March. It's around 11:00 am and I'm sitting in my room a few kilometres from the Arc de Triomph, where world leaders are gathered to commemorate the Armistice that ended World War One.

While I can't avoid the sound of the jets that I can hear flying overhead, I'm not watching it on TV and don't feel inclined to go anywhere near the event itself.

I don't have much time for communal war remembrance as it is most commonly practised. I've been disturbed by the politicisation of war remembrance that has accompanied the disproportionate promotion of the Anzac myth since the Howard years.

In Australia there is a highly selective regime of remembrance that chooses to exclude the Frontier Wars that killed large numbers of indigenous Australians, and also the many unsavoury aspects of war such as the mistreatment of women by our 'heroes'.

My view is that communal war remembrance should be more nuanced. It needs to include an element of contrition for the shameful actions, alongside legitimate pride for actions that went towards achieving what must be the greatest degree of global harmony in the history of humankind.

Yesterday a cousin of my mother's sent some information and photos of Great-uncle Hugh, who volunteered for military service as a 44 year old in 1915. He was killed in action as a Driver in the Australian Field Artillery in northern France in September 1917.

I've always known about my grandfather's service in these parts during this war, but the detail about Great-uncle Hugh was new to me. The electronic album included a clipping from a regional Victorian local newspaper.

It describes him as a farmer and member of the local Agricultural Society who was 'held in high esteem for his sterling character and industrious habits'. He was a single man who left Australia as a gunner with the artillery and was subsequently appointed as a driver.

Great-uncle Hugh was buried in Godewaersvelde British Cemetery, which is located near the Belgian border in northern France. That gives me the opportunity to go there - perhaps on Anzac Day next year - to engage in my own act of private war remembrance.

As a single man myself, I will contemplate his leaving Australia on the adventure of his lifetime without having to be mindful of fidelity to a partner and possibly children back home. Having seen mention of his 'sterling character', I will take that on face value and imagine him resisting temptation to take advantage of vulnerable local civilians he comes across during the course of his service and recreational downtime. As family, I will share ownership of any lapses.

I will be paying respect and hoping to establish a connection that includes a degree of familial affection and solidarity. I will not regard him as a demigod, or even a 'hero' as such. For it seems to be that he was just a man of his time doing what men of his time did, and that his time happened to be a particularly dangerous one.

Would I have done what he did? I don't know. The nearest I came was going to East Timor to join Caritas Australia's relief effort following the destructive events of August 1999. There were known threats to our security.

Some time later I received a mass produced certificate of appreciation from Prime Minister John Howard that implied I was some kind of minor war hero.

I wanted to toss it in the bin but my mother framed it and put it on her wall, potentially establishing a myth that I was in fact some kind of hero. When all I doing was saying yes to adventure that was being offered to me. There may have been something worthy about it, but essentially it was adventure and I wasn't a hero.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1340006 2018-11-04T17:31:35Z 2018-11-04T17:31:35Z A life of creative randomness and circuitousness

I was touched when friend wrote to me this morning mentioning that he hadn't seen a 'tiny letter' from me in some time, suggesting he was worried that I might not be well.

The truth is that I am well, close to the end of my third two-month sojourn in Paris. I'm spending the weekend with my sister and her husband in rural Kent, England, after choosing to make the journey from Paris on the long-distance bus that includes the ferry crossing from Calais to Dover.

The email made me reflect that we all have 'signs of life' that we project - intentionally or otherwise - to friends, family, neighbours, and others. The signs are usually associated with habitual behaviour that is visible. When we break or vary our habits, it can seem that there is something awry.

Two years ago this month I started writing a letter - also referred to as a blog - almost every day. After a while it became less regular, and it's now over a month since I last posted during my visit to Luxembourg.

I didn't want to be bound to produce a piece of writing every day, as I was happily finished with the main part of my working life with all its deadlines and pressures. I wanted to become a free spirit and foster a certain creative randomness and circuitousness in what I do.

This is evident in many aspects of my life such as my choice the other day to travel using the old Dover ferry rather than the modern and more convenient Eurostar train.

While I haven't had a job as such for three years, this year I have started to undertake some paid 'hobby' employment. One of my part-time roles is to do English language subtitles for the Mubi arthouse movie streaming service, and the other involves compiling logs of oral history recordings for an academic at Sydney University.

I have also been doing more reading than usual, and continuing to keep up with my health and fitness regime, currently with a new dimension, which is my experimentation with the no sugar-low carb-high fat diet.

As I mentioned previously, my motivation is not to lose weight but rather to healthily enjoy the high fat part of the French diet, accepting that baguettes and cakes and pastries are definitely off the menu. I have faithfully kept this discipline and been rewarded with plenty of foie gras, duck confit, fatty sausages, and much more.

Will I stick with it into the future? I don't know. I contacted Thai Airways the other day and ordered raw vegetarian meals for my flights to Sydney, as that is the option that is most compatible with the diet. 

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1326491 2018-09-27T16:22:05Z 2018-09-27T16:22:06Z Where strong borders belong in the museum

I'm currently in Luxembourg for two days. I'd long been curious about the country that is the world's second richest and the EU's second smallest. It's a grand duchy, which is really no different to a monarchy ruled by a king or queen, except that its head of state is a grand duke.

Luxembourg itself is not on the tourist map because it's dominated by banks and is not a spectacularly charming city. But the natural landscape and the rural villages are another matter, as I discovered this morning when I decided to travel to Schengen.

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While it's only 33 km by road from the capital, Schengen is in a remote corner of the tiny country. It's where Luxembourg intersects with France and Germany, and it requires two separate regional buses to get there.

It's best known as the location of the 1985 signing of the Schengen agreement that abolished border controls between most EU countries, and a number of non-EU countries including Switzerland, Iceland and Norway.

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I enjoyed a visit to the European Museum, which is all about the vision for a Europe without borders and how that came to be realised. Reduced border controls were seen as an antidote to the nationalism that was responsible for the suffering and destruction of the two world wars of the 20th century.

Nationalism and strong borders go hand in hand, whereas international co-operation invites us to rethink the need for strong borders, which divide humanity artificially and, arguably, unnecessarily.

I was aware of this as I walked from Luxembourg into Germany and then into France, all in the space of less than half an hour. The regions I walked into - Saarland in Germany and Lorraine in France - have been passed between France and Germany, as recently as the 20th century.

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Does it really matter whether they're in France or Germany? Regional identity is one thing. It defines cultures. National identity is something else.

At the museum, the elephant in the room was the sad reality that the vision for a humanity united without borders is unravelling, with Europe's migrant crisis and the proliferation around the world of 'strong man' leaders who insist on strong borders.

The museum's focus on the lifting of border controls is intended to celebrate a remarkable achievement that is part of our present. The fear is that it will come to be viewed as a marking of the history of an idea that came and went.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1324454 2018-09-22T18:00:04Z 2018-09-22T18:00:05Z The Parisian virtue of idleness

While I was working out at my Paris gym today, I was listening to a podcast of Geraldine Doogue's Saturday morning ABC radio program.

She was interviewing Irish professor Brian O'Connor on his book Idleness: A Philosophical Essay.

He was presenting idleness as a virtue, or at least a state of being that does not deserve a bad press.

The message is that many of us have to fill our lives with productivity because that's what our various insecurities demand. We have a craving for recognition and think that the only way of achieving that is to do something others will notice and give us credit for.

Was I working out in the gym because I want others to regard my body as easy on the eye?

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That was certainly part of my initial motivation a few years ago when I first started going to the gym in Sydney.

But these days - particularly here in Paris - it's just one of my various states of being. Gym time is thinking time, people watching time, podcast listening time, and body stretching time.

Perhaps it's idleness. At least I'm not a slave to anything, which is what you are if you are preoccupied with working hard to fulfill the expectations of others.

That is perhaps where there's a difference between the gym in Paris and the gym in Sydney.

In Sydney you're more likely to see people thrashing themselves in the hope of becoming something. In Paris - the home of existentialism - it's more a matter of being. As I see it, they're already proud of who they are, and some outsiders choose to regard that as arrogance.

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There's definitely a different energy, and our term 'work out' to describe what gym goers do seems strangely out of place in Paris. You're there because you're there. Of course you don't just sit around. You do pump iron and jump on the treadmill. But essentially it seems less about goal orientation.

My approach is much the same during the hours I'm not at the gym. I walk around the streets of the Marais every day with no particular purpose in mind.

Today I entered five or six small art galleries and looked at the paintings on the walls and chatted to the attendants. In one sense I was idle and just passing time. But I don't feel the time was 'wasted' because I'm at home now with a stimulating mix of vivid images in my mind. A variation on the physical high I experience after my return from the gym.

I sometimes wonder whether I should feel ashamed that I'm a few minutes walk from some of the world's most famous art museums including the Louvre and don't feel inclined to visit them. It's too much like hard work.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1322864 2018-09-18T10:39:39Z 2018-10-03T09:54:59Z Eating fat and avoiding obesity

I'm back in Paris after four months in Australia. There's no doubt the Sydney winter was more comfortable than Paris' summer heatwave would have been. Especially in my tiny non-air conditioned top floor room.

Louvre Pyramid

Even the city's autumn weather is unseasonal, with daytime temperatures currently in the mid to high 20s. I'm wearing shorts, and sleeping at night under the cover of just a sheet. When I arrived here in March, I was greeted with snow and sub-zero temperatures.

That's not the only thing that's different this time around. I've decided to limit cake consumption and to suspend my half-baguette a day bread habit, in favour of one or two croissants a week and a few high-fat treats.

Croissant aux amandes

It's the result of reading a new healthy lifestyle book that my brother put me on to when I visited him six weeks ago.

The book is written by former Australian Cricket team physician Dr Peter Brukner and titled A Fat Lot of Good. It's part memoir and part commonsense interpretation of the ketogenic or low carb diet. The diet advocates maximising meat and fat and vegetables grown above the ground, and minimising grains and sugars and processed foods.

Peter Brukner A Fat Lot of Good

I know that there's no good reason for me to tamper with my choice of foods. For several years I've maintained a healthy weight and blood pressure and enjoyed a balanced diet.

When I mentioned it to my GP, he was not particularly fussed one way or the other, as long as I manage to contain my zeal and my portion sizes. He pointed to a study in The Lancet that challenges thinking that meals such as bacon and eggs for breakfast can be a healthy choice. The study suggests we should replace grains and sugars with vegetable rather than animal products.

My motivation in varying my diet is to enjoy some of the delicious high fat foods available to me here in France. My rationale is that if I'm prepared to say no to baguettes (high in carbs), I can opt for croissants (which are mostly butter and therefore high in fat).

Shopping basket

On my first day here, I headed for my nearby good food store Causses and brought home a duck terrine, Andouille pork sausage and vanilla butter. I've been using the vanilla butter to flavour the undeniably healthy broccoli I've steamed in the microwave.

I have long wondered why the French eat all these delicious foods while maintaining a low obesity rate (15% compared to 28% of Australians). Obviously portion control is a major factor. But I think that it's also their tendency to be less submissive to received orthodoxies.

According to Brukner, Australians have been duped in their acceptance in recent decades of the teaching that fat is bad and sugar is more or less OK.

The important thing is not to go to the other extreme and believe that fat is all good. The French don't believe fat is good or bad. They consume fat, and also sugar, in good measure.

My attitude to a healthy lifestyle is similar to my approach to religion. Our interests are best served when we take responsibility for our own choices and leave hard line preaching to the professional zealots.

UPDATE: I had an email exchange with Peter Brukner, who did not specifically mention croissants in his book. It turns out that they may be mainly butter, but they're still bread containing a significant proportion of carbs. So consuming them will be an occasional, not a daily, ritual. He also dismissed the 'crap research' contrary study that warned against animal product foods. He suggested it is discredited paid-for content from a commercial offshoot of the Lancet. He pointed me to articles and video that argue it is methodologically flawed data collected by individuals with a grain industry political agenda.



Links: Lancet | Causses

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1302000 2018-07-11T00:13:30Z 2018-08-01T01:51:10Z Laughing at mental illness

The Melbourne writer Isabella Fels often uses whimsy in telling of her experience of living independently with mental illness. In her article for Eureka Street this week, she writes about her unsuccessful attempt to learn to drive. 

She gently mocks what she describes as her instructor’s failure to understand her mental illness in a way that suggests it is as ham-fisted as her own efforts to master the fundamentals of driving a car. 

I feel for Isabella because she would fail to grasp a range of life skills due to her instructors’ inadequacies  – rather than her own. But the truth is that the instructors are frequently not up to the job because they do not have the preparation and resources necessary for dealing with people with special needs.

That is one of the conclusions of an author featured on yesterday’s NPR Fresh Air podcast. Her name is Alisa Roth, and she visited a range of prisons in the US to research her recently published book Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness.

In framing the incarceration and treatment of the mentally ill as the ‘next civil rights issue’, she has some sympathy for the much maligned corrections officers. 

‘They’re forced to play this dual role of caretaker and enforcer but, more complicated than that, is the fact that they really don't have the training ... to, say, identify schizophrenia versus depression.’

We can point the finger at the justice system. But there’s another book to be written about how our entertainment and media industries treat mental illness. They have an important role in normalisation efforts but they can shamelessly exploit mental illness for its perceived entertainment value.

I remember the controversy generated four years ago when the Perth Show was forced to cancel one of its amusements following a public outcry.

It was a recreation of London’s Bedlam psychiatric hospital where, in the 16th century, they raised funds by allowing members of the public to pay to visit so they could ridicule and taunt the residents.

I was reminded of this last week when a Prime7 regional TV news bulletin referred to the now closed Mayday Hills mental health facility at Beechworth in north-east Victoria as a former ‘lunatic asylum’. 

The new owners of the historic property have established a holiday park with a horror amusement aspect that includes the house featured in the 1998 Australian comedy film The Castle

This is how a local tourist website promotes Mayday Hills:

‘Evening Ghost Tours will take you through the deserted buildings, where your guide will share stories and myths of patients of likes of James Kelly, uncle of the notorious bush ranger Ned Kelly and Ida Pender the wife of gangster Squizzy Taylor.’

An American website called The Hauntist has an entry on the ‘Beechworth Lunatic Asylum’ claiming that ‘a quick search for haunted locations throughout the world will consistently place Beechworth Lunatic Asylum at the top of the list.’

Why does this sacred ground have to be repurposed in such a bizarre and offensive manner? I had a cousin who was periodically a resident at Mayday Hills in the 1970s. Was she a ‘lunatic’ in the ‘asylum’? 

The juxtaposition of mental illness and humour is a delicate undertaking. Andrew Denton mastered it back in the 1990s. Comedians such as Hannah Gadsby have taken it to new heights more recently. And Isabella Fels does it in her writing for Eureka Street. But the new Mayday Hills and its promoters take us back to a time of darkness and inhumanity.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1299911 2018-07-04T23:06:30Z 2018-07-05T02:15:30Z Retiring with imagination

It’s mid-winter in southern Australia. The weather is variable, with a comfortable 23 degree day ahead of us today in Sydney. Crops are failing in rural areas due to unusually dry conditions, even though Sydney had its rainiest June in decades.

Usually the weather affects just my spirits and how much walking I can do around the city. But on Sydney’s wildest and wettest day – Tuesday 19 June – I had three appointments that prevented me from sheltering in the comfort of my home.

At one moment I got caught in a freak horizontal rain storm. I think that was responsible for contaminated rainwater leaking into the space between my left eye and its contact lens. 

The result was a serious eye infection that had me feeling very sick one night and turning up to Emergency at the Sydney Eye Hospital in the hours before dawn. For nearly three weeks now, I’ve had the best of care and expect my health to be back normal shortly, though I won’t be wearing my contact lenses until at least the end of the month.

Until the past few days, I’ve been unable to look at screens or read printed matter. But I’ve enjoyed listening to all the podcasts of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which took place in May. It’s as if I attended the event in person, as I did the Sydney Film Festival a few weeks later.

Lying in my warm bed listening to the various conversations without the distraction of screens turned out to be an unusually pleasant and stimulating experience. But I wouldn’t say the same about trying to navigate the aisles of the supermarket not being able to read the labels on the different products. That has given me a genuine insight into how people feel marginalised by their disabilities and health conditions.

It has me thinking about a talk I’ve been invited to give to fellow retirees at the beginning of next month at the local University of the Third Age (U3A) in Cootamundra in south-west NSW. 

With the anxieties of youth and middle age behind them, so-called retirees can focus on looking after and fine-tuning the various dimensions of their lives, and possibly enjoying a more fulfilled life in their later years than earlier. I'm referring to health, finances and imagination.

It is imagination which tends to get less airplay when we decide on how to configure and manage our post-work lives. Yet it is every bit as important as our health and our finances. Without it we might stay working even though we no longer really enjoy it. Or just retire and allow boredom to set in.

The ‘grey nomads’ who tour Australia with their motor homes tend to be making the most of their imagination. For me, imagination led to my purchase of a room in Paris to use as a base for four months of the year. Which is what prompted the invitation from my Cootamundra friend to address her U3A chapter on the topic of ‘Living a Double Life’.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1286760 2018-05-23T19:58:34Z 2018-05-24T08:59:53Z Wilson conviction exposes Australian bishops’ lack of contrition

In January this year, a friend took his own life while suffering psychological torture that was apparently caused by a priest sexually abusing him in Newcastle more than 40 years ago.

I think of him when I reflect on Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson’s conviction this week for covering up the claim of another sexual abuse victim in that diocese around the same time.

Nothing is known of the circumstances of my friend’s sexual abuse. But I can’t help wondering that if church personnel in positions of authority had routinely acted on knowledge or suspicion of sexual abuse, he might have been spared the suffering that led to his suicide.

Instead they failed to act because priority was given to preserving the good name of the church. There was a culture of arrogance that appeared to value the integrity of the institution ahead of the welfare of the people it purported to serve.

Unfortunately it appears - to me at least - that there has been a lack of fundamental change in the attitude of the Australian bishops as a body.

Yesterday a friend wrote in an open Facebook post addressed to the Australian bishops: ‘If it were appropriate for every one of Chile’s Bishops to tender their resignations to the Holy Father, why is it appropriate that a convicted criminal ... retains his position [as Archbishop of Adelaide]?’

He was referring to the Chilean bishops’ recent acceptance of their failings and their offer to resign. Pope Francis had accused them of destroying evidence of sexual crimes, putting pressure on investigators to downplay abuse accusations and showing ‘grave negligence’ in protecting children from paedophile priests.

According to testimony heard by the Royal Commission, that is exactly what took place in Maitland-Newcastle Diocese under Bishop Leo Clarke. Clarke was Archbishop Wilson’s superior at the time, and Archbishop Wilson was required to dance to his tune.

As it happens, Archbishop Wilson did decide to step down late yesterday. But only after dragging his feet and being supported in doing so by Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference President Archbishop Mark Coleridge.

Why was it left to Archbishop Wilson - with his understandable lack of objectivity - to decide on such a crucial matter? How could it be that a convicted criminal was allowed to continue to serve as Archbishop of Adelaide and to make that decision himself? Surely Archbishop Coleridge should have  publicly exhorted him to stand down immediately after his conviction, if not before (Coleridge does not have the authority to remove him).

Moreover I interpreted Archbishop Coleridge’s short statement after Wilson’s conviction as a slapping down of the criminal justice system and, by implication, the victims whom it had vindicated. Why was it relevant for Coleridge to mention in such a brief document that Archbishop Wilson ‘maintained his innocence throughout this long judicial process’? To me, Archbishop Coleridge appeared to be publicly questioning his colleague’s criminal conviction.

As a recent President of the Bishops Conference, Archbishop Wilson was a leading light in the Bishops’ attempts to implement programs and policies to protect children at risk. He seems to be of good character. However the court has decided that he has a criminal past that he must atone for.

If I ask myself whether I want him to go to jail, I have to say yes. If he doesn’t, there will be little or no justice for those whom he failed all those years ago. They are individuals who remind me of my clergy sex abuse victim friend who did not receive justice and took his own life.

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tag:mullins.id.au,2013:Post/1284078 2018-05-16T14:07:48Z 2018-05-16T14:07:49Z Where I'm also at home

Yesterday I returned to Paris after spending a few days visiting my sister across the English Channel in Kent. 

I’m here for less than two days before leaving Sydney in the morning. I’ll be there until I travel to Paris again, for two months from September.

Before I departed England, my sister asked me what it felt like to be going home. I thought she meant Sydney, but she insisted she was referring to my ‘home’ in Paris.

I’m in a space I ‘own’ but I’m only ever here on a tourist visa and I hardly speak the language. So I haven’t thought of it as ‘home’.

But she got me thinking about what we mean when we say we are at home.

Today I had a few thoughts while reading back over an invitation I received recently from an Australian friend who is organising a six day spiritual but non-religious personal awareness retreat in rural France in August.

The intention is for the participants to find their ‘authentic selves’. 

To some people, a phrase like that is just another piece of new age jargon. The retreat is not meant for them. 

My friend and the retreat leader have in mind people who have might have undergone life changes such as leaving a long-term relationship. Or perhaps jumping into the void from an all consuming work life. 

We might once have felt ‘at home’ in our former circumstances. But change – either chosen or forced – challenges us to recalibrate where we feel at home. 

To do this, most of us need to gain perspective by breaking out of whatever shell that could be preventing us from reaching a deeper level of awareness.

I’m not going to the retreat, but I have been working at living life at this deeper level. 

My minimalist lifestyle here in Paris enables me to be at home here because a deeper awareness takes the place of the material ‘stuff’ in my house in Sydney. Living part-time in my tiny room on the other side of the world completes my sense of self.

I’m not ready to burn the books on my Sydney bookshelf that are a monument to my past. But they represent almost all stages of my life and act as a powerful symbol that stares down at me every day and can hold me back if I let it. 

There is in fact much that I cherish about my past. But I need time out from the books and the other things in my house – to be in my other home – in order to be who I am at this stage of my life. 

The size of my Paris room is intentionally too small for me to accumulate things. Instead I’m relying on my inner resources for that all important sense of self. 


Link: I am that I am Retreat

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