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.

Chasing the post-lockdown dream

On Friday I attended the 'Writers Picnic' organised by a friend, in Sydney's Domain. It was my first social event since 'Freedom Day' ended our 106 day lockdown a few weeks ago.

The most memorable conversation concerned how a person knows if he or she is 'a writer'. The consensus was that we are writers if we experience composing text in any form as a source of pleasure and not a chore. This includes reports and other functional writing. We don't have to be any good at it, though practice makes perfect, as it does with most pursuits.

During lockdown, most of us were out of practice with many of our regular activities. Strangely this often included things that give us pleasure and don't require social distancing (writing, for example). Our wings were clipped by the need to do our bit to avoid the spread of the virus, and we lacked a sense of pursuit in our life generally.

With lockdown over for now, we can at least contemplate a return to life as we knew it. However tentatively, we can once again chase our dreams.

That was the subject of the other conversation I most remember from the Writers Picnic. Most of those present were travel writers, a dream occupation that was among those most frustrated by the lockdown. We talked about travel that was possible but also responsible.

Responsible travel can be about stimulating the economy, which is why the NSW and other state governments are encouraging us to travel in our own backyard. But there's also the challenge to consider whether local and overseas travel is something we need to do. Something that is beyond a consumer want.

Do we have loved ones to visit, or mental health or other life issues to address? Or are we just bored and footloose? That's a question for each of us to think about.

The good news is that we're beginning to have options, which is something we lacked during lockdown. A few weeks ago I purchased a flexible ticked that allows me to travel to Paris in March, or any time within the next two years. I am prepared to chase my travel dreams and visit family on the other side of the world, but I am also ready to put my life plans on hold once again.

How do I know I'm still a Catholic?

On Sunday I went to Canberra and enjoyed a semi-regular walk with a friend from my days training to be a Jesuit priest.

We both left the Jesuits a little more than 30 years ago, and I think it's true to say that each of us walked away from the practice but not the positive humanitarian values of Catholicism.

I won't hesitate to identify as 'Catholic' when I complete the Census form later this year. But I studiously avoid participation in the life of the Church because it triggers a form of PTSD related to obedience.

So how do I know I'm still a Catholic?

For a long time I wasn't sure how to answer that question. But some time last year I stumbled across the English Catholic weekly publication The Tablet in the Readly electronic newsstand.

The Tablet

As I did many years ago, I now read it from cover to cover and can find interest in almost every article. I'm able to identify with the concerns and the lines of enquiry and particular curiosities of many of the writers. That's what tells me I am still a Catholic.

The Tablet has been published for 180 years and is part of a genre of news and culture reviews that also includes the New Statesman and The Spectator. It is proudly independent and is tolerated by many church leaders even though it does not hesitate to criticise the Church.

This week's cover story looks at Boris Johnson's recent Catholic marriage, which was 'conducted after due process and entirely within the laws of the land and of the Catholic Church'. It argues that Catholic teaching on marriage is full of anomalies and inconsistencies, and that those who were angered because they felt the Church gave the British PM special treatment denied them, are sadly mistaken.

Another article sees a path for the affirmation of transgender women through an analogy with transubstantiation, which is the Catholic teaching that bread and wine are changed into Christ's body and blood substantially - not symbolically - during the eucharistic part of the Mass.

It asks: 'Could we think of transgender as in some sense analogical to transubstantiation - not capable of scientific proof, but constituting a real presence which is different from the material appearance?'

It seems The Tablet can always find a sweet spot that is captive neither to ideology hostile to religion nor the entrenched obstinacy of many religious leaders.

Wingham remains strong after fires and floods

Often on a Saturday morning I'll walk to the nearby Carriageworks farmers market. I will usually buy meat from Linga Longa Farm, which is located about 350km north of Sydney in the Manning River Valley just outside Wingham.

I am always impressed with their commitment to the seven hour round trip that enables city dwellers to enjoy fresh unprocessed meat direct from the farm. It is a pleasure to support them.

I hope that their business model makes them profitable because they've had to face a lot of adversity in recent times. They could not come to Carriageworks for more than a month because they were restocking and rebuilding fences after the destruction caused by the floods earlier this year. That was after the horror bushfires they suffered in late 2019.

Old Butcher Shop

I'd hardly heard of Wingham until I started buying meat from Linga Longa. But I became curious about the town and decided to make it the destination of my day trip by train from Sydney yesterday. I spent ten hours in the train and two and a half hours roaming the town on foot.

The highlight was the Wingham Museum, which friends had told me about. It is recognised as one of the finest museums in regional Australia, a fitting counterpart to Sydney's Powerhouse and other museums of applied arts and sciences. It was opened in 1968 in an old commercial building by the renowned aviatrix Nancy Bird-Walton.


There are many stories of pioneers of the district. Painted on the side of the museum's building is a portrait of the Irish-born pastoralist Isabella Mary Kelly, who purchased her property in 1838 and ran it with the help of eight convicts.

She was a noted horse woman who 'often stayed overnight in the bush with her loaded gun and brandy flask'. But she was disliked by some of the men of the district, who resented a woman who was unmarried and did 'men's work'. She was known to have a temper and would not allow men to stand over her.

Isabella Mary Kelly

So in 1851 her house was mysteriously burned down while she was away on business. Later forged documents saw her falsely imprisoned in Sydney's Darlinghurst Gaol. But, according to the display notes at the museum, she overcame the humiliation and adversity to remain strong.

Present moment mysticism

I'm writing this from the Palace Hotel in the declining but always fascinating far west NSW mining town of Broken Hill, which is subject to extreme temperatures because of its location in semi-desert country. I was here in January 2019 when it was in the mid 40s. This morning the mercury got down to 2.2 degrees.

Palace Hotel Broken Hill

Tomorrow I will appreciate the many transitions in the landscape during my 13 hour trip back to Sydney on the Outback Explorer train, after being away for ten days.

My first stop was Melbourne, before taking the 130 year old Overland train journey to Adelaide, where I stayed for six nights before boarding the NSW railway bus to Broken Hill through the mostly arid countryside of South Australia's mid-north.

Adelaide to Broken Hill Bus

I had a few important reasons to visit Adelaide. I wished to spend a day with a cousin whose existence I discovered only about 15 years ago. I also wanted to catch up with a work colleague from 30 years ago. But what was most pressing was the landmark Clarice Beckett exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia, as it was due to close yesterday.

Beckett, who lived from 1887 to 1935, is one of Australia's most important modernist painters. Like most Australians I'd never heard of her. But my attention was drawn to her work when I read a review of the show by the Sydney Morning Herald's famously grumpy art critic John McDonald.

Clarice Beckett Sunset from Black Rock

He said: 'It’s not often I feel the urge to visit the same show on three successive days, but Clarice Beckett: The Present Moment at the Art Gallery of South Australia, is one of those rare, inexhaustible exhibitions.'

I saw it twice, and I've joined the waiting list for the catalogue, which is being reprinted after selling out. It turns out that they've postponed its closing by a week and extended the daily opening times.

Viewing her paintings, what resonated with me in particular was the setting of the majority of them not far from her longtime residence in the beachside Melbourne suburb of Beaumaris. I grew up in country Victoria but my family went to the neighbouring beach suburb of Black Rock several times, for seaside summer holidays.

Clarice Beckett Summer Fields

I was also interested in the spirituality that underlies the paintings. The exhibition notes describe Beckett as a 'visionary mystic' who was 'receptive to international trends in science, literature, philosophy and spiritualism'.

Beckett would often rise at 4:00 am and walk up to five kilometres from her home to capture the effect of the early morning sea mists. The creator of the musical soundtrack to the exhibition writes of solitude as the central inspiration for her track choices, as she sought to contribute to the creation of 'an intimate space for viewers to contemplate The Present Moment.'

Beckett never travelled beyond Victoria, though she did some of her most renowned paintings during the six months she spent at Naringal Station in the state's Western District. As I sat in the bus travelling through arid regions of South Australia's mid-north yesterday, I wondered what she would have made of them.

The film festival that never ends

Last weekend saw my Mubi film previewing job come to an end. The streaming company had paid me a small amount of money to look for technical imperfections in a total of 358 films over the past four years.

At one stage I had a larger role with Mubi, creating English subtitles for English language films. But for the most part I was a member of a community of around 30 amateur previewers. Last week my contact notified me that they'd decided to move the preview tasks inhouse.


Mubi offers a variety of arthouse, classic and experimental films. You may have seen the Mubi icon on the menu of your smart TV or Apple or other streaming box. I have been a subscriber since 2011, when I owned an early streaming device called Boxee.

What I like most about Mubi is the way they curate and present one film each day and give subscribers a month to watch it. In this way they school their subscribers in film appreciation and provide the perfect antidote to many people's experience of Netflix - thousands of films available but nothing worth watching.

This Boys Life

Mubi is like a film festival that never ends. I've been a subscriber to the Sydney Film Festival since 2004, and I deliberately opt for the 'set menu' of about 33 films chosen by curators. I make a point of seeing them all and have not missed one since 2008.

Labyrinth of Cinema

I was first introduced to arthouse films back in the 1980s by a friend who was a graduate of the directors course at the Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS). He'd also trained as a sculptor at the Sydney School of Art and was much inspired by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's philosophy of film as 'sculpting in time'.

For many viewers, the problem with Tarkovsky is that they could not understand what was going on in his films. For me, understanding a film is always a work in progress.

Honouring infamy

Yesterday I enjoyed a day trip to Bathurst, three and a half hours west of Sydney across the Blue Mountains. It is an old gold mining town that is currently experiencing rapid population growth.

Like Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria, the wealth from gold mining gave Bathurst a legacy of impressive buildings, and today there is no shortage of cultural institutions.


I visited the Regional Art Gallery, the Australian Fossil and Mineral Museum, and the Bathurst Rail Museum, which was opened only last year. The city once had a railway workforce of 500, including former prime minister Ben Chifley, who was an engine driver.

But because it was Anzac Day, the focal point was the Bathurst Town Square, where the war memorials are situated. There was the main memorial tower, which is famous for its bells. Yesterday they were peeling with identifiable tunes in an extended concert performance.


But of more immediate interest to me was the Boer War Memorial. That is because, while on the train from Sydney, I had read a Peter FitzSimons opinion article in the Sun-Herald newspaper. It concerned local war criminal Peter Handcock, who is disgraced but controversially honoured there.

Strangely it reminded me of my 2018 trip to Stalin's home town of Gori in Georgia, where they honour his infamy.

Handcock was executed with Anglo-Australian Lieutenant Harry 'Breaker' Morant, after being court-martialled and convicted of committing murder while on active duty in 1902. Lord Kitchener unveiled the memorial in 1910, but apparently agreed to do so only after Handcock's name was removed from the list of heroes.

Disgraced lieutenant deserves no honour - The Sun-Herald 25 Apr 21

However Handcock's name was restored in 1964 after lobbying from his son. Yesterday the memorial was adorned with flowers, perhaps put there by his great grandson, who maintains a website to tell the family's side of the story.

Breaker Morant was brought to prominence a few years later by Bruce Beresford's 1980 Australian war drama film Breaker Morant. Beresford told film critic Father Peter Malone in 1999 that he had 'never pretended for a moment that they weren't guilty'. He expressed dismay and said he was 'amazed' that so many people mistakenly thought the film was about 'poor Australians who were framed by the Brits'.

FitzSimons has attempted to demythologise Breaker Morant through his 2020 book Breaker Morant. I hope that Bathurst locals can quietly lay aside attempts to lionise Handcock and instead focus their energies on paying tribute to their real hero Ben Chifley.