I wonder if like me you have noticed an alarming parallel between this Christmas here in Australia and that first Christmas in Bethlehem so long ago when a Unique Infant Person came into the world and the story of humankind suddenly changed course from BCE (before the Common Era) to CE, as we now know it.

Let me explain.

Those of you who are "history buffs" will recall that at the time of the first Christmas the Holy Land was under the yolk of the Roman Empire. Oppression and gloom were the order of the day. Now think about Christmas in 2013. Unlike that of last year, when our country was free and happy and well and wisely governed, this Christmas a repressive and reactionary regime has been imposed on us by an uncomprehending electorate led astray by "shock jocks" and the Murdoch media. Fear and terror stalk the land, just as they did 2000 years ago on the day that the Word of God became Fully Human amongst us, while all around the stable at Bethlehem the nation of Israel was cowering beneath the brutal jackboot of occupying centurions.

Yes, fear and terror in the Australia of 2013, and above all for the most vulnerable among us. Fear and terror amongst the stranger and the asylum seeker who finds our ports and airport shut tight against them. Fear and terror for members of ethnic and other communities who fear that words of insult and calumny against them will soon be sanctioned by the abolition of section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, a protective measure (enacted when we still had a government of vision and fairmindedness) that many of us believe both encourages free speech and shields minorities from "redneck" abuse. Fear and terror amongst the dedicated and hard-working members of our wonderful Human Rights Commission itself that precious "funding" may be lost, and with it, their own vital jobs in ensuring that we are a freer and more equitable society.

Fear and terror amongst our own "first Australians", the real owners of the soil we stand on, that they will remain unmentioned in our constitution - relegated to history's dustbin like the "unpersons" in Nineteen Sixty-Four, that uncannily prescient novel by an English writer whose name momentarily escapes me - was it Somerset Maugham? ("senior moments", sad to say, become part of one's lot as one moves down life's path). Fear and terror amongst humble hard-working folk in my own parish in inner Melbourne who have scrimped and saved to buy their own home and now risk seeing it shattered by the wrecker's ball to build an unnecessary road tunnel for the convenience of a few privileged motorists in four-wheel-drives. Fear and terror on a wider scale amongst householders who do not want to see their roof tree collapse into a ditch to suit the greed of "frackers". Fear and terror amongst our Islamic sisters and brothers that the irresponsible actions of a few "terrorists" among them - poor innocents, usually young, who have misunderstood the essential peacefulness of their religion - will be misinterpreted as representing the views of their whole Muslim community and used as an excuse for marginalisation and even expulsion. Fear and terror among women whose choice of terminating a pregnancy at the stage when, having been able to determine the child's gender, they have found it not quite what they wanted, is being assailed by reactionaries who call themselves Christians. What kind of Christian charity is that? Worse, what kind of sexism - to try to refuse a mother the right to decide whether she - nobody else is carrying the baby - wants a girl child or boy child? I realise that the primary parent of Jesus was denied that choice, but that was in a patriarchal society of the sort one would like to have hoped we had put behind us.

Then there is not so much the fear and terror as hurt and anger among same-sex couples in our national capital - a place that ought to be a beacon of liberty! - told by an officious court that their marriages are fraudulent. The injustice of this has struck home particularly in my own extended family, since my dear spouse Enid's younger sibling Meredith was one of the ACT "grooms". Meredith is a very genuine person who has given many years of service as a Leader in the Uniting Church Girls' Fellowship and who latterly has found fulfilment and happiness with a very sweet Indonesian lass she met on a UCGF trip to Bali. What a heartless blow in the springtime of their love!

Yet amid all the suffering, all the anguish, do we not discern a sign of Hope in that humble manger in Bethlehem? It's hard to say what kind of hope or how it manifests itself but I'm sure it's there somewhere. For just as the Roman Empire passed into history, and every other colonialist imperialist empire after it, including the British one that still holds Australians tied to the apron strings of an outdated monarchy, and just as the capitalist-commercial-armaments-Wall Street hegemony that is the American empire is passing from the scene under the capable direction of President Obama, so will it be with the regime now installed in Canberra. Indeed, it is not Hope that tells us that this will happen but Faith. We know it will. Because Faith is God's great present to us at Christmas, along with His/Her first child.

On a personal note, along with the joy of the season, this Christmas is a time of great sadness for me and I am sure for many others. The passing from among us of dear Nelson Mandela is a reminder that in the midst of life we are in death, as the psalmist says. I did not know him well, but I was privileged to hear him speak at a World Council of Churches seminar in Johannesburg some years ago on the Christian attitude to violence, or so-called violence when used as a last resort by persecuted peoples seeking a just freedom by any means. He and his charming partner Winnie gave us a very thought-provoking discussion on the pros and cons of "necklacing" as a method of rebuking those who oppose social reform, a practice in which Mrs Mandela in particular had considerable expertise. The Mandelas' fervent concern for all those who get a "raw deal" in life put me in mind of the Sermon on the Mount. Truly, if the Lord had not given us Jesus at the first Christmas in Palestine, Nelson would have made a very good substitute!

Holiday greetings to all.

The Rev. Owen Featherhead is Minister of Burchett Hill Uniting Church and an Argus religion correspondent.

24 December 2013


"Ethnic performers" will be inflicted on passengers on the Melbourne to Frankston railway line if a proposal in the battle against "racism" goes ahead. You'd think the last thing train travellers yawning their way to work at 7am or tired after a long day in the office would feel like is to have their journey turned into an odyssey of multicultural harmony at the behest of officious busybodies trying to heal problems that don't exist. But of course the passengers' feelings don't come into it. According to one of its proponents, former Frankston councillor Christine Richards, the "Multicultural Express" project with its "colourful cultural displays", music, song and ethnic food stalls at stations is intended to "bring confidence to multicultural communities who have experienced racism along the line."

Is "racism along the line" worse than "antisocial behaviour" by young people? Anyway, "Multicultural Express" is also intended to tackle that. The organisers presumably imagine that feral youths will be so charmed by the sound of the balalaika that they'll leave cowering Asian students in peace, stop ripping the seats and desist from spraying the walls and windows of the carriage (and sometimes the students) with urban art.

It won't work. It's been tried before, mutatis mutandis. An experiment to create multicultural goodwill on trams running through the inner-city municipality of Burchett Hill had to be given up when it led to transport chaos and less rather than more racial good fellowship.

Things got off to a bad start on the first multicultural tram to leave the depot. A troupe of frangipani-decked Pacific islanders performing a Welcome Dance took up so much space in the tram (their persons being on the substantial side and their movements wildly energetic) that after the first few stops there was no more room for passengers. Stranded commuters dripping in the rain or crammed into the minute shelters along the line shook their fists as the tram shot by to the strains of Isa Lei and the pungent aroma of roast boar from the lovo oven improvised by the dancers in the rear driver's cabin.

Passengers who managed to thrust themselves into the next tram found themselves enjoying an Afghan cultural display. The driver, a recent arrival in this country, had formerly been employed on the Kabul bus line. At each stop he halted the tram for twenty minutes while he inspected the mobile phone of boarding passengers to convince himself they were not connected to a detonator. Several groups of teenage schoolgirls, wires protruding from their ears, did not hear the demand to produce their phones and pushed into the tram to station themselves comfortably with their feet on the seats. Some burst into tears as their phones were snatched from them, others into language unlikely to be approved of by their headmistresses. A sparkling trajectory of iridescent mobile phones rose like fireworks into the air as the driver hurled them into the street, where they were quickly crushed under the wheels of heavy traffic.

A further Afghan cultural experience awaited passengers on a later tram. The driver, an "illegal immigrant" who had been personally sponsored for a job in the tramways by Burchett Hill's Director of Diversity Enforcement, Greens Councillor Christine Plibersek-Ng, sprang like a jack-in-the-box from his cabin and rushed with bloodcurdling yells into the passenger compartment, flailing around him with the iron bar used for changing the points at junctions. Terrified passengers dived under the seats, seeking shelter among the micturitional smells and fast-food detritus lurking there. It transpired that, far from being an asylum seeker, the driver was a senior Taliban operative despatched to Australia to "embed" himself in the tramways service and "take the war to the enemy".

The Italian tram proved at first to be very popular, clacking along to the sound of mandolins from the on-board entertainers dressed as gondoliers and with gnocchi alla romana and tiramisu served to passengers from the food stalls at stops along the way. Straw-covered chianti flasks, suspended decoratively from the hanging straps, jingled merrily. All at once a crackle on the driver's two-way radio alerted him to a gang of youths throwing bottles and generally engaging in antisocial behaviour at the next stop. With the instinct of his forebears confronted with an enemy in battle, he threw the tram into reverse, the lurch causing the dancing group performing a sprightly tarantella to sprawl across the passengers, scattering laptops and shopping. A young homemaking couple saw the multicultural Swedish dinner service they had just purchased at Ikea smashed to fragments.

At the depot there was an unpleasant scene when the driver, explaining why he had reversed the tram, was accused by a shop steward of "hate speech" in his references to the antisocial youths. This led to a formal complaint and a visit by a high official of the Human Rights Commission who addressed the tramways staff on the rights of "antisocial behaviourists" who, she asserted in a three-hour session of Diversity Counselling, "are a victim minority entitled to live their own lifestyle in a pluralistic society."

Somali performers pirated the tram to which they were assigned and drove it off the rails in an attempt to kidnap the Mayor of Burchett Hill, Councillor Les Rhiannon, and hold him to ransom. With kalashnikovs firing from every window and bell clanging, the tram crashed through the bronze doors of the Town Hall and juddered across the grand Art Deco foyer towards the Council Chamber where the Mayor was addressing a multicultural seminar on the theme  "How Sharing Our Cultures Can Enrich All Our Lives". His speech was drowned out by gunfire as the armed guard perpetually stationed at the Town Hall to protect the Mayor from "harassment" surrounded the building. Suddenly over the din came the skirl of the pipes and the Scottish tram, tastefully painted tartan, swung into Civic Square. A stall serving finnan haddock, collops and tatties was sprayed with bullets but the kilted on-board entertainers continued undeterred with their performance of "Songs of the Bonnie Highlands". They were half way through a spirited action-rendition of "Donald, Where's Your Troosers?" when shrieks of protest echoed through the tram. Two feminist passengers, both Women's Studies lecturers on their way to Manning Clark university, were complaining loudly that they had been subjected to "flashing" and that the somewhat revealing performance amounted to "virtual rape".

The English tram never left the depot. The multicultural entertainers turned out to be union officials demanding that tramways staff operating the multicultural services be paid at a higher rate than for ordinary duty since, they argued, these services fell under the Pleasure Excursions award "requiring specific additional expertise and local knowledge skills". A "process of dialogue" had just begun with tramways executives when the arrival of a troop of volunteer Morris dancers anxious to help with the entertainment and do their bit for racial harmony prompted an instant demarcation dispute. With no harmonious outcome in sight, the union officials imposed a black ban and Burchett Hill commuters are now deprived of all tramway services  sine die.

20 December 2013


            WITH "AUNTIE MERLE"

A wedding day is such a beautiful occasion that it comes as a shock to be told it wasn't a wedding day at all!

After the joy of the ceremony, the vows you went to all the trouble to write, the flowers, the best man's - I mean best person's - jokes, the flowing nectar of the vintages at the winery where you made this public declaration of your love - or perhaps, as is now very popular, you opted for a more unusual venue and exchanged rings to the warm whoosh of a hot air balloon wafting you skyward - an Invalidation is not only an anticlimax but a most distressing experience!

A number of Argus readers in our nation's Capital Territory have had their hopes and dreams shattered by the misfortune of Invalidation, and it's all the sadder coming so soon after their Big Day. Some will have heard the news while still on honeymoon (perhaps in the case of the more "roving-eyed" new grooms while endeavouring to "come on" to the waiters at Hayman Island!) or before they have even had a chance to take their going-away frock to the dry cleaners; some of the brides will have heard while climbing into the Yakka and gumboots to resume their labours on the cheese farm, or when newly returned to their desks at the Department of Human Rights and Gender Equality Enforcement. Wherever, it will have come as a blow, and several of the newly unweds have written to me to ask about the correct etiquette for dealing with this unexpected difficulty.

Here are some points to remember to make a social success of your Invalidation.


Many of your family and friends, especially those who take a keen interest in "marriage equality", will already know about your misfortune from reports in the "media". But I think is it always nice to send out a beautiful card for a special occasion. If you know anyone with a flair for illustration you might ask them to design a card in the style of that clever artist Leunig's cartoons, perhaps showing Tony Abbott (or even John Howard - Leunig does him so well!) as a wicked witch casting a spell on the happiness of two innocent lovers! - or if a witch is too misogynistic, an evil Nazi in jackboots trampling on their dreams. Those who were your guests on your Big Day might like to keep this as a souvenir of your Invalidation. And before you ask, yes, these days it is quite acceptable socially to send out cards by Touchnote or to make the announcement on Facebook.


An Invalidation does not oblige you to return presents to their donors, since these were given in good faith before the Invalidation was pronounced. On the other hand, if the present is not to your taste, your Invalidation is a good opportunity to be rid of it without giving offence.


For two happy young people in the springtime of their love it is bad enough to see their special day of joy snatched away before the ink is dry on the marriage certificate. (Of course I am aware that not all those affected are that young and that there are some very tender "winter-spring" invalidations, particularly among the more mature grooms who have had the good fortune to travel to some of the beautiful countries in South-East Asia or to Japan, but that's not the point.) Don't make things worse by letting your Invalidation poison your happiness together! There is a certain tendency in what I believe is known as today's "me" culture to react to any little disappointment by screaming and shouting like naughty children. This sort of childish tantrum is usually directed at the nearest available target, irrespective of blame. In your case this would almost certainly be the person you love most, your "better half". PLEASE don't ruin your future by giving in to this kind of irrational anger. Gentlemen couples: no hissy fits with each other, or biting and scratching. Ladies: do not punch your partner. And remarks such as, "If you hadn't been such a tightarse we could have gone to Canada where it's legal," or "I told you we should have waited but you wanted to be first cab off the rank to impress them all at Stonewall / the women's cricket team / to shove it to your Christian fundamentalist parents" are unhelpful to say the least.

That doesn't mean you don't have a right to be upset. Of course you do, but it is always better, as Australia's greatest Prime Minister so sagely advised, to maintain our rage and direct its full blast at those who are really responsible for thwarting you. Homophobic judges in the High Court, the Australian Family Association, nasty Cardinal Pell - all these are suitable targets for your annoyance. The correct etiquette here is to find out the addresses of individuals involved in the Invalidation process and seek advice from "activism" experts such as Greenpeace, Occupy or the International Socialist Students on suitable means of conveying your displeasure in no uncertain terms!


In modern etiquette it is de rigeur socially to sue someone for any personal inconvenience. This has the additional advantage of helping defuse your irritation (see above). The most obvious candidates for legal action are the venue of your wedding, on the grounds of receiving monies under false pretences, that is, for a wedding subsequently invalidated (it should surely have been the venue operator's responsibility to ensure that the wedding was fully legal under all Australian law) and, for identical reasons, the celebrant. You could toy with suing the Australian Capital Territory and the High Court, but please consult your solicitor about likely expense. You don't want to start your Invalidated life destitute! By the way, if you don't already have a solicitor, I always recommend Messrs Slater & Gordon, a long established and eminently respectable firm which even has a former Prime Minister among its distinguished past personnel!


Some marriages, sad to say, are entered into hastily and are unlikely to last. A night's "clubbing", a chance encounter walking the dog in the park or a shared passion for Ladies' Kickboxing might not be a firm basis on which to enter into matrimony. If your new marriage was starting to look shaky, and you were already getting sick of each other, your Invalidation is providential. You and your "other half" can amicably go your own separate ways, without the expense and rancour of divorce.


Dame Nature has not been kind to "same-sex" couples, but thanks to the generous efforts of many public-spirited folk - doctors, politicians, Third World women of child-bearing age and, in many cases, kind friends - this unfair obstacle has been overcome and many such couples have been blessed with their own little "bundle of joy" before or after celebrating their union. Your Invalidation in no way threatens your parenting rights, so be thankful for that!

Unhappily, though, the trauma of an Invalidation can turn two lovebirds against each other. The next thing is a "tug of war" over your little person, just as in the "heteronormative" world. There is nothing I can suggest here except old-fashioned goodwill. Do your best to share the care of the young life entrusted to you (don't worry: etiquette decrees that you are each entitled to seek the "lion's share" of access for yourself).

If you are really lucky, though, you'll be among those fortunate couples who can avoid squabbling over these things because, for you, becoming an adoptive parent was never more than a passing fancy, a demand to show that being a same-sex couple wasn't going to stop you having what non-same-sex couples have, and once the novelty wore off your little newcomer was not really wanted at all. In these circumstances the correct etiquette is for one post-Invalidation partner, if she/he wishes, to take on sole parenting rights and, if that's too much of a burden, pass the little one on to grandma and grandpa to look after. If there is no grandma and grandpa, and if neither of you want to sacrifice your newly separate social lives cleaning up after children, contemporary etiquette would require that your bundle of joy be sent back to India or wherever, or if of local provenance, handed over to social workers to be passed on to someone else.

Have a great day!
Auntie Merle

* Auntie Merle wishes to point out that she is of mixed Scottish and English descent and is a genuine aunt as traditionally understood in the English tongue. She is not in the category of aunt as the term has begun to be used in certain Australian circles and is not available to conduct smoking ceremonies, welcomes to country etc.

16 December 2013


I don't recall how it happened but some time ago I got signed up for Facebook. Why I'm not sure because I have never used it, partly because I find the telephone and e-mails quite enough to counter any tendency I might have to the eremitic and partly because I can never think of the kind of inane triviality that Facebook users vouchsafe to each other. True, there are those around me who consider my every utterance an inane triviality, but that is an argument for keeping one's thoughts to oneself rather than publishing them to the world on Facebook.

I ought to cancel my subscription but inertia has so far prevented that and I remain a nominal member of the Facebook community, not lapsed because never practising, just agnostic about the whole thing. Facebook, though, finds that not good enough. With missionary zeal it has been reaching out to claim me for its own, that I too might be amongst the elect, my name written in golden letters in the register of faithful Facebook chatterers.

It has been conducting this campaign in stages. After I had been enrolled in Facebook for several weeks and not availed myself of its services it began to e-mail finger-wagging reminders. "Acj, your account has not been very active"; "Acj, we haven't heard from you recently." (Acj, I should explain, are the three initials of my Christian names, but Facebook has somehow got hold of the idea that they are my name pure and simple, though how it would suggest pronouncing them I have no idea: a bit like "Ng" I suppose.)

These calls to repentance went on for a while at the rate of one or two a week. I ignored them. The next phase of the campaign was to hint that I was neglecting my friends. "Acj, John Smith is waiting to hear from you," - John Smith or whatever name was mentioned being someone I know, and whom, far from waiting to hear from me, I might well have spoken to ten minutes before Facebook sent its e-mail. Indeed for all Facebook knew I might have been talking to him as the e-mail arrived, though not of course on Facebook which from its point of view is what counts. Clearly John Smith is also a Facebook subscriber, though whether practising or nominal I couldn't say, nor whether his permission was sought to tell me that he was waiting to hear from me. Perhaps without knowing I too am cited in such cases: "John Smith, Acj is waiting to hear from you."

Nor do I know how Facebook knew that I know John Smith. That's mysterious and a little creepy as though Facebook is a version of Big Brother. But however they found out, the assertion that he was waiting to hear from me, or I from him, was Facebook's little fiction.

When this recourse to invention proved ineffective Facebook began to interrogate me. "Acj, do you know John Smith, Mary White and Jamie Pollard?" I felt as though I was being grilled, like one of those suspects you read about who are coyly described as "helping the police with their enquiries". In the unlucky event that Facebook were able to reach through the computer to question me face to face, how far would it go to find out who I knew? As an American entity, would it think waterboarding justified?

Usually I did know one or two of the names cited, though again how Facebook was able to peer into my address book is not clear. At any rate this catechisation was not enough to bring me into the fold. Facebook then tried flattery, cunningly trying to butter me up by implying that as well as knowing ordinary mortals like John Smith and Mary White, I also moved in more exalted circles. "Acj, do you know David Cameron and John Smith?" "Do you know John Smith and Shane Warne?" We didn't quite make it to "Acj, do you know Barack Obama, Colonel Sanders and Meryl Streep?" or "Do you know Pope Francis I, Vladimir Putin and HM The Queen?" (all of them on Facebook I believe) but it wouldn't have made any difference. Of course I didn't know them but not even Facebook's blandishments were going to make me act as though I did and send them little announcements about what I'd had for breakfast or how I couldn't stand Tony Abbott (a staple opinion, I gather, in the world of politically aware social-media enthusiasts).

Still I resisted and resist the siren calls to join in the feast of reason and flow of soul that is Facebook conversational exchange. But Facebook doesn't give up easily. The e-mails persist, though I suspect my persecutor has run out of names of people I might really know and exhausted its repertoire of those in high places it incorrectly supposes I might aspire to know. All that's left is to hurl names at me on the monkeys-writing-Shakespeare principle that, if they name enough names, one might be the name to strike the chord that will propel me into activating my account. Any names will do, it seems, and Facebook has rummaged among its subscribers far and wide. I am as fond of multiculture as anyone but not quite a citizen of the world on the scale Facebook seems to imagine. "Acj, do you know Deborah D'cruz, Oshanie Bandaranaike and Brittany Vanderrest?" "Acj, do you know Udara Wijesinghe and Rory Walker?" You can hear the shrill note of desperation rising. "Acj, do you know Madhushani Chathurika Kariyawasam, Jayamini Lakshika Perera and Melanie Blewonski?" That was this morning's e-mail. I am waiting for, "Acj, don't you know anybody?"

No, no and no again. But if the day comes when I am friendless and thinking life no longer worth living I'll have a rich store of Facebook names to turn to for companionship. "Deborah, Oshanie, Brittany and Udara, Rory, Madhushani, Jayamini and Melanie, Acj wants to know you. And hurry."

9 December 2013


Attempts to broker a peace deal in the inner-city municipality of Burchett Hill have failed, with two councils claiming control of the city.

"The People's and Workers' Council" (PWC), an alliance of Greens and independent socialists led by long-serving Mayor Councillor Les Rhiannon, is still in possession of the Town Hall and other municipal facilities. A new municipal council, made up of Coalition and "free enterprise" candidates, is waiting to take office after its members won 93 per cent of the vote in last September's election.

Councillor Rhiannon maintains that the election was "shamelessly rigged - thousands of 'postal votes' for our party received before the election and held in our headquarters to be added to the ballot boxes on the day were destroyed in a fire caused by climate change," he says. "The electoral commission has denied us the most basic justice. We demand to be allowed to ask the senders of those votes to vote again."

The source of the votes-consuming blaze, according to firemen on the scene, was a faulty souvlaki cooker in the kitchen of Salmonella's Bar & Grill next door to Hoxha House, the Greens headquarters. Flames spread quickly, helped by the fact that Hoxha House was recently refurnished in "sustainable vernacular" style with recycled redgum, hessian and wattle bark. "If the day had been cooler, which of course it couldn't be with global warming, the fire would have been out before this national tragedy occurred," Councillor Rhiannon explained.

In spite of the loss of the "postal votes" Councillor Rhiannon believes that the "not insubstantial" percentage of ratepayers who voted in favour of the PWC "legitimises us as the majority-preferred choice for the continuing good governance of the city", a view endorsed by the ABC's Burchett Hill Local Radio and the Fairfax-owned Burchett Hill Clarion. "Seven per cent of votes by democratically-minded ratepayers dedicated to improving conditions for the victim groups of the community is worth 700 per cent cast by selfish bourgeois property owners only interested in money and the value of their houses and slashing social services to the needy," thundered the Clarion in an editorial. "There is no point in mathematical quibbles. The 'Burchett Hill 7 per cent' are the people with a heart and conscience and in that sense are morally a majority," the Clarion told its readers (104 according to the latest circulation figures, mostly through subscriptions to the municipal library and council offices).

The same point was made by Councillor Rhiannon's new "partner", Carmel O'Halloran-Plibersek, a former organiser with the Union of Diversity Enforcement Officers, who is herself a Greens councillor and likes to be known as "La Pasionaria". Facial hair bristling, she told IBC Radio's Women's Empowerment Hour programme that "frankly, fascist votes don't count". "We're in power," she shrieked, "we're staying in power and to want me and the party I belong to out is basically misogyny against women."

Councillor Rhiannon has refused to meet a parliamentary delegation from Canberra sent to Burchett Hill to defuse the situation and pave the way for a peaceful handover of power, describing the delegates as "agents of terror despatched by the oppressive and discredited Abbott regime to stifle the forces of self-determination". Claiming to be fearful of assassination, he has enlisted as his "personal protection force" the Sons of the Caliphate (courtesy of Imam Ibn al Choppa-Hedoff Poofa of Burchett Hill Mosque), the dazzling scimitar-performance group and arts grant recipients whose whirling blades caused several cases of accidental genital mutilation at last summer's Burchett Hill International Festival of Multiculturalism and Fun.

Most of the votes in favour of the PWC were in Sharkey Ward where a number of public institutions such as Manning Clark University and the Burchett Hill Women Against Vaginal Exploitation Collective are located. Councillor Rhiannon has ordered that necessary municipal services such as rubbish collection and street cleaning be concentrated on this ward and withdrawn from other wards to "punish" them for their "disloyalty". At the same time, the council's entire staff of parking inspectors will be deployed in the "disloyal" wards with tripled daily "targets" and major roads there blocked off and replaced by bicycle lanes, rockeries and skateboard parks.

2 December 2013


"The world is too much with us; late and soon," wrote Wordsworth and one knows how he felt. Everyone needs to withdraw for a time from the cacophony of daily discourse, to divert his gaze from the instances of folly and discord that constitute public life and to stop his ears against the shrill cries of madness that echo through the media. That is why I suspended writing Argus. My retreat from the world was not absolute: it fell short of taking myself into a Trappist monastery and therefore probably didn't do much good. But at least I spared myself the frustration of trying to think of something new to say on matters of which everything new that can be said has been said a million times and often by writers far better qualified and with greater felicity of expression than I have.

Now I resume but no more, I hope, to wade into the turbid waters of what a society with too much money and too little to fill its mind regards as issues of great pith and moment (I am sure I need not name them) but which in the sweep of history are flashes in the pan, and sub specie aeternitatis not even a flicker.

Posts will be intermittent, subjects varied. One constant of this blog, the architecture, design and alteration of churches, will continue under the heading "Church Watch".

23 November 2013


The vicar of the Anglican parish of Castlemaine in central Victoria has decided as a parting shot before he retires to vandalise the interior of the parish church, a substantial Gothic Revival edifice in sandstone built in 1854 of which, he should remember, he was never more than a temporary custodian, not the proprietor. He has moved the choir stalls from either side of the chancel - an arrangement traditional in Anglican churches since its invention in the nineteenth century by the Ecclesiologists - and put them in ascending rows in the sanctuary. The altar that had stood there since the church was new has been trundled forward to the head of the nave. The choir faces the congregation like singers at a concert, with the reredos peeping above their heads. (You can just make out the inscription Holy Holy Holy: one hopes the choir wear appropriately beatific smiles.) The liturgical principle is that of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, though with a fraction of the choristers. The changes have compromised the internal logic of the building, the main part of which is one large nave and chancel combined in which the furnishings define the different parts.

It is a great pity that this church is being arbitrarily played around with, not least because on the whole the Anglican Church in Australia has hitherto treated its historic buildings with sensitivity and respect. On the whole - though even after ten or more years who can forget that one of the most notorious examples of vandalisation of any church in Australia was in an Anglican parish? At Glenhuntly in Melbourne's inner south-east, the then vicar of a church once declared the most beautiful in its diocese fell upon the building entrusted to him with an iconoclastic zeal the Puritans might have thought excessive. He tore out the graceful pulpit with its tester, wrenched the lectern from its pedestal, ripped up the floor of the sanctuary to lower - for some unfathomable reason - the level of the altar, scrapped some of the pews and moved the rest around and installed a refrigerator and "kitchenette" at the back of the nave under the First World War memorial board.

That vicar is long gone but, like the melody, his desecration lingers on, partly because no one has since put the church to rights and, now that the future of the parish is in doubt, probably no one ever well. Perhaps if the church passes out of use its mutilated interior could be retained as a cautionary example of what philistine clergymen can get up to when the mood for "reordering" is upon them.

Rare though this level of "wreckovation" has been in the Anglican Church, some disturbing cases are now being reported as the Evangelicals gain the ascendant in many parishes. These will be the subject of a future post.

Of course, when it comes to insane destruction of fine church interiors, Roman Catholics wrote the book, at least in Australia where priests seem to be able to do anything they want, unrestrained by authority or architectural and liturgical precedent.

I have written on this many times before and there is no need to go over it now, but one would have hoped that the worst of the damage carried out in the name of post-Vatican II "renewal" was over. But half a century after the Council it still goes on here and there, even though you'd think there wasn't much left to "renew". A recent example is the "restoration" of the Carmelite Church in Middle Park, Melbourne, a cavernous neo-Byzantine building in red brick designed before the First World War by the very prolific architect A. A. Fritsch in his usual full-blooded style. Fritsch's churches were intended to accommodate large congregations but of course there are fewer massgoers now (especially in gentrified paganised Middle Park) and the forest of pews can look a bit empty. Solution: move half of them out and bring the altar and everything down into the nave.

There was already a post-conciliar versus populum altar in Our Lady of Mount Carmel but it wasn't far enough forward for today's Carmelites. Now, an apron of polished timber flooring projects down what was the central aisle of the church with a conga line of new furnishings arranged on it. First comes a a big font like the bowl of a fountain - though perhaps for reasons of economy this is not the deluxe version, which you can get with water ("living water") flowing perpetually in and out of it through a tubular loop. Beyond that is an altar, square and with canted sides for no apparent reason. Stage left is a lectern and at the far end, with its back towards the tabernacle on the former high altar, a chair for the celebrant. The whole arrangement is pointless and liturgically impractical. It is of course an idea imported from the modish liturgical "experts" who held sway in the United States thirty years ago. Filling an empty space was only its incidental purpose; the real reason for putting altars in the middle of the congregation is to promote a quasi-Protestant understanding of the Mass in which "the people of God" enjoy a "family meal" around the table. This leaves the sanctuary redundant but that's just too bad.

Such protestantising of Catholic churches has almost faded from fashion in the US, where most ecclesiastical architects are now kept busy restoring "reordered" churches to their traditional appearance. But in Australia it lingers on, most notably in the work of an architect called Randall Lindstrom and Prism Designs. Have a look at what he's done to the Sydney church of the Blessed Sacrament fathers, whose raison d’être was once the antithesis of Protestant eucharistic notions (and one of whose elderly priests is a Prism "liturgical consultant"). Roman Catholics who care about their churches should be on guard if their priest suggests consulting Randall or threatens a parish "consultation" on making the sanctuary more "fitted to the eucharistic insights of Vatican II". Whatever changes are made won't get the crowds flocking back to Mass, and in a few years the damage will need to be expensively undone, and there'll be a smaller congregation to pay for it.

One might note in passing that the reason altars were turned around after the Second Vatican Council and brought down from the sanctuary closer to the congregation was to remove the "distinction" between priest and people in the offering of the Mass (and why have priests at all if there is no distinction?). In fact it has underlined it. Priest and congregation now face each other with the altar dividing them and engage in a dialogue, each with their own part. When priest and people faced the same way, the priest at the altar and the people following his words in translation in their missals, they were far more as one. Anyone attending a celebration of the pre-conciliar Mass will notice this at once. Progressives have not grasped this fact and will continue to turn around any altars left unturned they can get their hands on and to obstruct proposals to reinstate altars in their proper place.

23 November 2013


With nine human rights quangoes all going full blast in the fight for "equality" at the taxpayer's expense, we ought to be able to assume that no dark pockets of discrimination are tolerated against anybody in the new enlightened Australia, ought we not? How then does one explain the slogan on a series of prominent hoardings advertising the services of a firm of female undertakers? Underneath a picture of a woman in a silly hat like a parking inspector's sniffing, for some reason, a rose, we read: "A woman's understanding". A woman's, eh? Therefore by implication a form of understanding a man doesn't have.

But what of male undertakers who would like to think of themselves as showing just as much "understanding" in their job as the lady in the hat? Are they not being shockingly discriminated against, besmirched, held up to ridicule, put down, belittled, offended etc? If they are, that's just too bad, for all the quangoes could care. Yet imagine the screeches from the whole taxpayer-funded establishment of anti-discrimination busybodies if the advertising referred to "a man's understanding". How very understanding of them all not to make a fuss when the boot is on the other foot.

22 June 2013


With well under 100 days to go before polling, Councillor Les Rhiannon, Mayor of the inner-city municipality of Burchett Hill ("proudly twinned with Pyongyang") has made a dramatic pre-election intervention in the debate on illegal immigrants.

"Keeping these guests to our shores in what amounts to a concentration camp in Nauru at a cost of $1000 a month for each arrival is a shameful return to the genocidal policies of the Howard terror,” he said. "It's outrageous. We could do it far more cheaply in Burchett Hill."

Councillor Rhiannon proposes that the "spontaneous visitors" (plus their subsidy) be diverted to Burchett Hill, where they could be housed in "sustainable accommodation" for "a much more reasonable figure". The sustainable accommodation is understood to be the redundant steel-mesh "suites", each with main cage and "kitty's walking area", from The Purring Pussy, a cat-boarding establishment conducted by Councillor Rhiannon's daughter Kimberley, which failed recently amid rumours that Kimberley had "snorted" its profits.

The Mayor proposes that the surplus from each $1000 would be allocated to “public benefit projects” in the municipality. Asked what these projects were, Councillor Rhiannon said that any agreement over asylum-seekers coming to Burchett Hill would put him in the position of a "scrupulous custodian of public funds held on trust" and he was therefore not at liberty to give further details. But according to e-mails allegedly seen by an anonymous "whistleblower" in the Town Hall, the only public project Councillor Rhiannon has in mind is the the campaign fund to get the Greens party, which controls the city council, re-elected when Burchett Hill residents vote for a new council on 14 September. 

The fund is in particular need of contributions, with local polls uniformly predicting an 85 to 90 per cent vote against Greens council candidates. Councillor Rhiannon dismisses these figures as "mendacious inventions by the hate media" and "venomous attempts to misinterpret the People's will", but there are indications the Greens are rattled, not only by the prospect of a landslide against them but by the risk that their own vote will be split by a "wild card" in their ranks.

The wild card is the Mayor's estranged "partner", Ms Drusilla Alitosis, the hot-blooded Hellenic siren who has entered the hustings on an all-female ticket, "Drusilla's List" (hers is the sole name on it). There's been a strong Greek community in Burchett Hill since the days of postwar migration and if Ms Alitosis can harness their political clout she stands a chance of unseating Councillor Rhiannon. Her campaign headquarters in the room behind her brother Georgiou's Blue Aegean fish shop in Racecourse Road is crammed night and day with volunteers, dancing, singing and smashing glasses. As campaign guru Ms Alitosis has recruited Georgiou's "equal marriage partner" ("we tied the knot on Mykonos") Max McTernan, a wealthy retired PR consultant.  He's already recommended that Ms Alitosis use her "natural advantages as a feisty female" (or as he put it privately, "Let's face it, Druse, you're a fag hag from way back") to pitch her appeal towards the substantial SSASGD (same-sex attracted, sex or gender diverse) community in Burchett Hill.

Last night, also on McTernan's advice, Ms Alitosis unleashed a "killer" attack on the Mayor, accusing him in a fiery speech of being not only a misogynist but a paedophile too. "That's why," she told an audience in the Our Lady of Lesbos parish centre, "he snaked his way into the position of patron of the Burchett Hill Under 10s' Coalition for Climate Change. Those kids are at risk," she shrieked.

This morning the Mayor hit back by accusing Ms Alitosis of "not being a true Green at all" and undeserving of party support. "She leaves on lights during Earth Hour, brings home non-organic feta, throws all the rubbish into one bin instead of sorting it for recycling and exploits the immunity from traffic fines I gave her by parking her Prius in bicycle lanes while she spends hours having her legs waxed," he said. He also suggested that, in the happier days when she was unofficial Mayoress, Ms Alitosis had regularly "siphoned ratepayers' money" from the mayoral entertainment allowance "to fund her retsina habit." "She's got thousands of bottles stashed away behind the fish shop," he told reporters. "Ask her where she got them."

Councillor Rhiannon moved out of the cohabitational home several weeks ago but the cause of the rift between Burchett Hill's most celebrated power couple has not been revealed. "It's private and personal," says the Mayor. A clue emerged during a civic reception for members of the Burchett Hill-Hezbollah Friendship League when, somewhat inconsistently in view of her earlier accusation, Ms Alitosis apostrophised the Mayor for being "unable to keep his hands off" the couple's Japanese au pair, Sushi. "His brain's in his pants," she informed the room, "and he's done this once too often. It was the same with that Kiwi scrubber." Her remark is believed to be an allusion to the Mayor's former "executive personal assistant", Ms Cherylette Gibney, who received an undisclosed figure in settlement of a harassment charge against Councillor Rhiannon and has now returned to her native New Zealand.

The Coalition's number one candidate for the council, merchant banker Mark Smarmley, has also had to put his house in order - literally. In spite of seeing the mayoralty of Burchett Hill as a step towards his political ambitions, he was neither living nor paying rates in the municipality until recently. He's redressed that by buying the biggest house in the district, "Graftdene", a boom-style mansion built by nineteenth-century financier and Legislative Council power-broker Sir John "Dirty Money" Gladhander. Smarmley has expensively restored the mansion after its many years as a rooming house, removing fibro-cement partitions and replacing smashed plasterwork. "The place was in a disgusting state," he told Burchett Hill Bugle Living 'n' Style reporter Lisa-Lu Alberici. "There was room after room full of derros. It took forever to get them out, but we managed."

Other parties are an unknown quantity in this election. Fielding a candidate for the first time is the First Nations Separatist Ancestral Lands Reoccupationist Party, whose leader, Chanel-outfitted Aunty Larissa Tomandjeri-Heiss, declared at a meeting around the historic Corroboree Tree in the Julian Assange (formerly King George V) Gardens that it was up to "typical blackfellas like myself to spearhead the struggle to drive the invader into the sea." As leader, Aunty Larissa has impeccable credentials, having been stolen, she says, not once but twice: "First when I was sent away to boarding school and didn't want to go and again when I won a cultural studies scholarship to Adelaide University and they made me live away from home or I couldn't have got to the lectures". To underline its separateness the FNSAP has established a "permanent tent legation" in the foyer of Burchett Hill Town Hall where it applies "selective sanctions" against the rest of Australia by picketing the cashiers' windows and obstructing citizens from paying their parking permits and pet registration. As an electoral force the party's strength is hard to estimate, though its support seems to be strongest in the area around Burchett Hill Central Station.

Another first-time party in this election is Sharia Now, which claims to represent the entire Muslim population of the municipality. Imam Ibn al Choppa-Hedoff Poofa of Burchett Hill Mosque has demanded "permanent non-elected representation on the council" for what he calls "the city's fastest growing faith community". Insiders believe the Mayor is "inclined to do a deal" with the Imam on this. Certainly, the votes of Burchett Hill's Muslim bloc could go some distance towards neutralising the electoral power of Ms Alitosis's Greek supporters. As an indication of their political convergence the Imam has made what Councillor Rhiannon calls a "public-spirited offer" to station members of his congregation with machetes at every polling booth "to persuade voters to do the right thing". "They will 'scrutinise' each vote before it is dropped into the ballot box," the Imam has promised.

So, polls or no polls, there are various factors that could turn this election in any direction. Mark Smarmley says he's "quietly confident" yet experience suggests that it would be unwise to underestimate Councillor Rhiannon. "After years of Greens politicking he knows every trick in the book," says an inside source. "He'll be checking for all the possible skeletons in his opponents' closets and he'll probably manage to discover that Smarmley's not really paying rates on his mansion and has set up a trust or something dodgy to pay them for him. And when it comes to polling day, well, it wouldn't be the first time in Les's career that boxes of votes got lost, or new ones appeared from nowhere."

The Mayor himself says he "has no doubt the good sense of the citizens of Burchett Hill will prevail" and that "come 15 September I'll still be wearing the mayoral chain, figuratively speaking" (a reference to the fact that the chain has not been seen since Ms Gibney returned to New Zealand).

In a sermon on Sunday, the Anglican vicar of Burchett Hill, Canon Owen Featherhead, commented sagely that "if only all women and men of goodwill would render unto Caesar and be like He who turned the other cheek by putting their own political preferences last and voting for the other side our fair city would get the council it deserves."

22 June 2013

There are other news stories from Burchett Hill in Argus here ("Municipal News"), here ("A Feast of Reason"), here ("On the Street Where You Eat"), here ("The One Day of the Year"), here ("The Glorious First of May"), here ("Support for the Arts"), here ("How May I Not Help You?"), here ("Our Very Own Olympics"), here ("Marriage Reform in Action"), here ("A School Story"), here ("A Voice in the World"), here ("A Blow Against Misogyny") and here ("Let Justice be Done").


Peter Prattle writes about two important arts events in Melbourne.

It was a night of pure magic such as the young Marie Antoinette must have known as she danced with the Sun King on the Field of the Cloth of Gold - except that it wasn't ancient history, it was in Melbourne this week. The occasion? An Evening with the Stars hosted by theatrical grande dame Robyn Archer and legendary satirist and funny person Rod Quantock in aid of Women for Gillard. The Joan Kirner Arts Space on Southbank has never been seen to greater advantage: its legendary green-spangled auditorium with Indigenous motifs of genitalia - the tour de force of architects Ashton Raggatt McCrock - coruscating with talent and glamour. Everybody who is anybody was there and it made me proud to realise what incomparable riches we possess in the Melbourne arts and intellectual community. Cultural cringe! Forget it.

Rod and Robyn were impeccable hosts. As the first act Rod introduced himself in his much-loved rôle of Cap'n Snooze. Perhaps the only tiny blemish on the evening - and it was no more than the effect of a beauty spot on the countenance of the Queen of Sheba - was when Rod seemed to want to continue beyond his allotted time. Was it my imagination or did I hear a hissed "Stop hogging the f****ng stage!" from Robyn? I should calculate that fully an hour had passed before Rod, still pulling his hilarious funny faces, was carried off bodily by the next act, the hunky black-bearded scimitar-wielding Sons of the Caliphate, the Islamic performance group from Burchett Hill we had all come to see. Their well-honed blades sliced and flashed, streaks of pure silver and gold, as the Sons demonstrated with dazzling dexterity the various chopping movements traditionally employed in their home country for removing the hands of thieves and other malefactors. True, it seems brutally harsh to us, and I do not know how anyone could condone this kind of punishment for gay and transgendered people, but I fear one must never forget that in an imperfect world all culture is relative.

By now it was time for interval. Over a cool crisp glass of local bubbly I had a brief chat about literature with Morry Schonkhauser, the tall good-looking property-developing publisher for whom I briefly worked (though perhaps the less said about that the better) and his shy and retiring wife Anna, whose Flinders Lane gallery is currently featuring Bill Henson's latest show, Anuses. She laughingly told me that if I bought one of Bill's - photographs is an inadequate word: artographs perhaps I should call them - she'd "throw in" another at half price. 

One of the great things about these cultivated Melbourne evenings is that the audience can be as much an attraction as the acts on stage. I suppose it's part and parcel of being in not only the world's most liveable city but the world's most culturally aware city - yes, even compared with places with a reputation for enlightenment such as Adelaide or Auckland, both of which I have visited. 

At the bar, where the excellent cool-climate Mount Bogong Sparkling Chardonnay was on the house - a very civilised touch - I bumped (literally!) into Victorian Arts Funding supremo Gail Lesdyke and her Japanese partner Sashimi. Both are very much involved in Women for Gillard and believe that it is crucial for the arts in Australia that Labor be returned to office on 14 September, something she has no doubt will happen. "All these reports about Julia being down in the polls are nothing but scaremongering by the hate media," Gail told me, just as adorable Marieke Hardy hove into view. She'd spilt chardonnay down her pretty denim tube top, poor thing, and was very put out - even Gail had to ask her to "chill" with the language. I was helping mop her down when out of the corner of my eye I spotted my truly favourite ABC lady Margaret Throsby recording an interview with Richard Tognetti for her marvellous program, a daily "must" for me. I believe she has interviewed him 31 times! 

Another ABC great down from Sydney to enjoy the evening was the omniscient Tony Jones, who must be one of the keenest intellects I have ever encountered. It beggars belief that the hate media (again!) can go on about "bias" in our wonderful national broadcaster when its public faces are as impartial and fair-minded as Tony. I suppose it's the "tall poppy" syndrome - little pinched right-wing minds are envious of greatness.   

The bell rang to summon us back to our seats but I managed to down a couple of last glasses of wine before they stopped serving. Having just met one eminent media person in Tony who should I see as we started moving towards the auditorium but another of my pin-ups with important media associations. Justice Mordy Bromberg is a legal genius whose sage deliberations have had a most beneficial effect on our freedom of speech. At first I thought he had a twin brother with him, but that must have been the chardonnay! Before filing in, I just had time to congratulate the reclusive Michael Leunig, in town from his country hideaway, on his cartoon for the cover of the evening's souvenir program. His drawing of Tony Abbott secreting a key labelled "Your Freedoms" in his "budgie-smugglers" was alone worth the $75 I paid for the program. 

Back inside, a hush descended for perhaps the evening's most challenging act, "Goodbye Baby and Amen", a hauntingly beautiful evocation of partial-birth termination from the Raunchworks Liberated Dance Company of Coburg. The dancing was rapturous; the sinuous interplay of the dancers with their dolls as delicate and natural as the movement of reeds in the wind. I was glad that the organisers had had the courage to defy any attempts to censor this "meditation" on a very significant women's health issue. This is the kind of exploratory art we will be in serious danger of losing if the forces of reaction are voted in on 14 September.

A change of mood next, to the inimitably dry and austere wit of stand-up comedian Dave Hughes, whose impersonation of a man wanting to "take a leak" and not being able to find a loo has to be seen to be believed. After Hughesy, a musical interlude from Melbourne Theatre Company lead and singer Frankie J. Holden, who gave us a selection of songs made famous by the late Aboriginal tenor Harold Blair, who would have been at Covent Garden and the Met (Opera Australia had not then started) if it hadn't been for the racism of Australia under Menzies in the 1950s. I particularly enjoyed the traditional ballad "My Mabel Waits for Me", with its haunting lyrics (to which Frankie's golden voice did full justice):

My Mabel waits for me underneath the bright blue sky
Where the dog sits on the tuckerbox, five miles from Gundagai.

and the sublime refrain, so redolent of the rural outback:

I think she's bonzer and she thinks I'm good-oh.
I'm going to enter her - 
Going to enter her in the local show...

This is the version as adapted for vaudeville by the celebrated "Mo", Roy Rene in the 1920s. Is there a double entendre in the penultimate line? The jury's out on that one, though "Mo" did have the reputation of being "edgy" by the repressive standards of his time.

When Robyn, now acting as host by herself, announced the next act - and pièce de résistance of the evening - I thought the thunderous cheers would dislodge the green spangles from the exposed "neo-brutalist" concrete roof (Ashton Raggatt McCrock's homage, I understand, to Melbourne's pioneering modernist architect, Roy Grounds). "Please welcome," she said, "the incomparable" - and the adverb was absolutely appropriate - "Max Gillies, the greatest Australian satirist and mimic of all time." Max was in sparkling form and delighted us with a smorgasbord of his favourite characters - Marcel Marceau walking uphill against the wind, Malcolm Fraser (looking like Lurch in The Addams Family), little John Howard in jackboots with a Nazi cap and swastika, Pope John Paul II ("Eet veel make you go blind!") and (of course!) Sir John Kerr falling over drunk at the Melbourne Cup. All were as fresh and original as when Max first performed them it seems like a century ago. The audience went wild and it was a pity that when Max as Kerr fell over he was unable to get up again. As he was carried off, the great curtain, consisting of literally thousands of Aboriginal bark paintings sewn together with synthetic crocodile gut, was rung down. Then Robyn appeared and explained that Max had twisted his ankle in the fall. "Max is such a dedicated artist - he can't help throwing himself into the part," she quipped, and the house roared.

A busy busy week. Thursday I was at the Wheeler Centre, Melbourne's own Areopagus, where people meet to talk and exchange ideas just as they did thousands of years ago at the original Areopagus in ancient Rome. The evening was a landmark event for Australian literature: the launch of Christos Filthios's new book Gobble by public thinker and intellectual Robert Manne (I sometimes think the Wheeler Centre would shut down if it couldn't rely on Robert's regular appearances). Set in Melbourne, Christos's novel tells the story of Imram, a young Pakistani gay man living in Preston, a devout Muslim whose ambition is to expiate what he has been taught to believe is the stigma of his sexuality by becoming a suicide bomber. He decides to sacrifice himself by blowing up Flinders Street Station at rush hour, but when he goes into the "gents'" to put the semtex into his underpants he is seduced by a stranger lurking in one of the cubicles. This stranger turns out to be a right-wing radio host in disguise, and Imram is so ashamed and disgusted at what has been done to him that he plants the semtex in the radio host's coat as the latter is slinking out of the cubicle and - well I won't reveal the rest of the story. Robert was in excellent vein and made a terrific speech arguing that climate-change denialism makes one question the whole case against capital punishment. Afterwards I chatted with yet more of Melbourne's beau monde - Morry and Anna Schonkhauser, Bill Henson, Gail Lesdyke, Mordy Bromberg, Marieke Hardy, Richard Tognetti, Max Gillies (on a crutch but obviously on the mend, I was happy to see), Dave Hughes and of course Christos, who was with his new partner Grant, who he told me proudly is a champion surfer in his native Queensland. Such an endless array of interesting people and exciting ideas, such a glittering calendar of social exchanges. Who needs New York or London? We've got it all here. Marie Antoinette - eat your heart out!

Critic and writer Peter Prattle, former editor of Pretentious magazine, reviews theatre for The Spectator Australia and is Argus arts and culture correspondent. 

14 June 2013


I see that my old school in Melbourne now has a “commencement”. One can only imagine what the English master of my time (or teacher as he would these days be called), the Olympian A. A. Phillips, coiner of the phrase “cultural cringe”, would have had to say about this unnecessary and fatuous copying of an American educational usage. And he might have been very terse about the abandonment of the principle that for good style in English, where two words exist for the same thing, the shorter one is usually to be preferred, which is generally the one from pre-Norman English rather than French and Latin. 

If the school must have a commencement why not call it a beginning? T. S. Eliot didn't write, "In my commencement is my end". Oscar Hammerstein II might have had Maria sing, "Let's start at the very commencement / A very good place to start", but as a good stylist he didn't. And surely it was not only for alliteration that Cole Porter chose not to write, "When they commence the beguine".

10 June 2013


“Conservative” Catholic commentators clutch at straws to maintain that Pope Francis, who is clearly steeped in Vatican II and its ensuing nonsense, is fundamentally in continuity with the ecclesiology of Pope Benedict XVI - well, at any rate, not in outright discontinuity. But has it occurred to them that Francis might tactfully be keeping his real agenda up his sleeve out of respect for his predecessor as long as the latter remains alive? When Benedict dies, conservatives might not know what’s hit them. The innovations of Vatican II could well seem mild by comparison once this South American Jesuit starts implementing his ideas.

For his part, Benedict XVI will come to be seen as one of the more historically significant popes, though whether as the one who started the Roman Catholic Church back on the road to post-Vatican II recovery or the last gasp of the old order it is too soon to tell. But to some extent he undermined his good work by two mistakes. One was the establishment of an ordinariate for disaffected Anglicans who, it was explained, wanted to convert to Catholicism yet retain their "liturgical patrimony". The Pope's intentions were no doubt wholly pastoral, but to smooth the Romeward path of these Anglicans surely it was not necessary to create a separate fold for them within the Church, with its own hierarchy and jurisdiction. Would it not have been enough to license, after due doctrinal examination, the English Missal, the eucharistic rite traditionally used by Anglo-Catholics - an amalgam of the less Protestant parts of the communion rite in the Book of Common Prayer with excerpts from the Tridentine Mass translated into a sort of Cranmerian English - as a legitimate alternative rite for any Catholic to use?  And the same with Morning and Evening Prayer, as alternatives to Lauds and Vespers? The patrimony-loving Anglicans - of whom it turned out that there were not that many at all - could then have converted individually, as anyone else coming into the Catholic Church must do. They, and any other Catholic who wished, could have used these Anglican-derived rites at will. As it is, the ordinariate converts have joined a sort of sub-church with its own services, a non-territorial quasi-diocese without the historical justification, as the ancient Uniate churches have, of ethnicity, culture and tradition. Where is the unity in that?

The other mistake was in the implementation of Summorum Pontificum. An act of justice and aesthetic sensitivity in itself, it was, like the first Gulf War, flawed in execution by not being followed through. The restoration of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass as a legitimate rite throughout the Church was intended to offer Catholics an alternative to the rather uninspiring liturgy concocted (with Protestant input!) after the Council. But it's not an alternative because it follows a different calendar. Pope Benedict had apparently hoped that the two rites would function complementarily to widen the spiritual experience of Massgoers. But you can't go one Sunday to one and the next Sunday to the other because liturgically the Sundays are not the same Sundays of the year and the scripture readings are different. Since the Sunday readings are intended to present the Gospels and the rest of the scriptural canon in continuity, and are not bits of the Bible arbitrarily selected here and there, you have to follow the sequence either at one rite or the other. This means that the sacrament that above all expresses the unity of the Church is celebrated separately by two worshipping communities, again without any cultural or other justification. Pope Benedict ought to have ensured that the Latin calendar be made uniform as a necessary pre-condition for the reintroduction of the Old Mass. 

10 June 2013


President Obama, the erstwhile “community organiser” who went on to become a successful Canute (by rhetoric alone he has been able, according to the latest data, to fulfil his electoral promise to halt the rising of the seas and the warming of the planet) found himself the other day in front of an audience but without a teleprompter or a script. Whatever words of wisdom he intended to impart, not being in his head or in his heart, were thus unavailable for delivery. You would think he could have ad libbed a bit about hope and change or the injustice of British treatment of the Mau Mau, but he just floundered. "My remarks are not sitting here," he complained, inspecting the empty lectern. "I'm uhhh.... people.... oh goodness..."

No doubt behind the scenes later on the language was a little stronger against whoever let this clockwork president out on the stage without winding him up first.

10 June 2013


The death of Margaret Thatcher is a reminder of just what hypocrites feminists are. A woman who rose to the highest elected office in her country ought to be a heroine to the sisterhood, a source of inspiration and a model for emulation. Lady Thatcher incarnated what feminists are always exhorting their fellow women to do. Yet professional feminists, as exemplified by organised women's movements of various sorts, have never admired her. It is probably not too much to say that many of them loathed her.

There are at least two reasons for this. One is that Lady Thatcher was never a feminist herself, except in the true sense (that all rational people are) of believing that being a woman is no obstacle to rising in the world and breaking through the "glass ceiling" that feminists like to think stops women getting to the top in their careers (rather, say, than inability or family commitments). But she was not a grudge-bearing card-carrying ideological feminist forever spouting sub-Marxist claptrap. She was not a feminist of the type that can only succeed in some artificially conditioned environment such as the academic world, where female promotion is as much a result of male terror at being thought "sexist" as of any specific talent. She competed against men on the terms imposed by the harsh world of politics, where nobody gets a soft ride. Nor, when she fell from power, did she blame "misogyny", as our own female Prime Minister constantly does for every real or imagined slight.

The other reason feminists disapproved of Margaret Thatcher is that she was a conservative, in both the large and small "c" senses. The feminist movement is innately left-wing, and is not really on behalf of women at all. Women are only its vehicle. Feminist theorists want to use women to revolutionise society. Women who co-operate with and accept the existing social order and make a successful career within it are seen by ideological feminists as quislings (perhaps they should be called Auntie Toms). Mother Teresa was disapproved of by feminists for similar reasons. She didn't accept the existing social order she found and she did her best to ameliorate it. But she didn't preach revolution or suggest that women be ordained priests (most feminists have no time for Christianity but think that if it has to exist it ought to be feminised). So no kudos for her either.

Feminism is the greatest heresy of our age. It has censored our speech: we think we have freedom of expression but try writing for publication in "non-inclusive" prose. It has poisoned our social attitudes: feminism is not about the equality of men and women; it is about dividing society and pitting them against each other. It has ruined the lives of those women who have allowed themselves to be persuaded that traditional femininity is demeaning, that child-rearing at home is an obstacle to self-realisation and that marriage is legalised rape: many women who "left" their marriages in midlife rather than stay "trapped" in what feminists told them was a prison are now old and sad and lonely. It has destroyed objectivity and rationality in public discourse. Objectivity has been replaced by partisanship based on sex.

This is illustrated by the case of Julia Gillard. Australia's Prime Minister is certainly no Thatcher and is never subject to the vituperative hatred (from of course the Left) that Thatcher endured. But what criticism there is, and it is increasing and is by no means limited to her political opponents, is portrayed by feminists not as a legitimate point of view, as an assessment of her policies and character by politically uncommitted observers not bound by party loyalty whose only interest is that the country be efficiently governed, but as "misogyny". The Prime Minister, feminists maintain, is criticised because she is a woman, not because she is a disaster as Prime Minister. It would seem to follow according to this logic that because she is a woman it is unthinkable that her policies could be at fault, or that she could ever merit criticism. (Of course it's not, because Margaret Thatcher was a woman and her policies were constantly criticised, not least by feminists themselves. But as we have said, she was the wrong kind of woman).

A particularly egregious example of this subjective feminist partisanship could be found (where else?) in the shrunken pages of the Melbourne Age this week, from the pen of one Sally Young, described not as the silly little airhead she obviously is but as an associate professor in the social and political sciences department of Melbourne University. Sally's view is that the public has an unfavourable impression of Julia Gillard because that is how the media presents her, and it does this because the press has always presented women in a negative light. That's because it's run by men, nasty patriarchal men too. The fact that women abound in senior positions in journalism is not allowed to upset the feminist symmetry of this defence of Julia by a woman because she is a woman and with not the faintest attempt to understand what the Prime Minister is doing politically that is causing voters who couldn't care less whether Australia is led by a male or a female to turn against her.

It used to be possible for civilised men and women to judge the quality of human endeavour in any field by standards that were at least intended to be objective. That some no longer can, preferring to base their assessment on common membership of a sex, is to reduce cultural conversation to the politics of the primary schoolyard. That is an achievement of feminism.

19 April 2013


Finally a good laugh at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. A right-on audience is up in arms at discovering that there is such a thing as offensive comedy after all. Comedy-lovers who couldn't care less when other people's sensitivities are offended rush for the exits and demand censorship when their own are.

The offender is the black monologuist Tracy Morgan, like all Comedy Festival performers boring beyond belief, but nevertheless hailed as "edgy", "challenging" etc. But on Saturday evening Morgan made the mistake of getting on the wrong side of the anti-misogyny grievance-mongers. As the Herald Sun reports:

Disgusted comedy fans stormed out of Hamer Hall when the visiting American comedian let fly with a sexist rant on stage at the weekend.
An outpouring of anger hit social media after Morgan's two sold-out shows on Saturday night, with guests urging others to boycott future performances citing extreme misogyny and lack of humour.
(Who is doing the citing? The guests or or the future performances?)
The controversial comedian has a huge following as the star of hit TV show30 Rock and was performing at the comedy festival as part of a national tour.
His expletive-riddled show was saturated with offensive material about women and graphic sexual references, leading to about 50 people walking out and many more to express their revulsion and demand refunds.

Apparently these oh-so-broadminded people can take just so much smut before they stop tittering.

Sue, who was at the show, said the performance "went beyond the gutter".

"It was all sexually related. He said he was a pervert and this is the sort of stuff he liked and then it went on from there,” Sue told 3AW radio.

"It was like a horrible experience.

 He went everywhere, he discussed disabled people having sex, what his experiences were, everything he discussed was just disgusting."

Quite euphonic, that last phrase. Perhaps Sue should be on stage herself. As for Morgan, he should have stuck to the usual Comedy Festival formula of jibes against conventional morality, the Coalition and Christianity and he would have had them in the aisles.

15 April 2013


Has anyone else noticed that this is more or less how the end of the world began in Nevil Shute's novel On the Beach?

North Korea seen moving missile after it declares it has given approval for a nuclear attack on the United States 

- Herald Sun, 4 April 2013.

It was Albania in the novel, not North Korea, and the attack was on Italy not the U.S. But everyone got dragged in and no one anywhere on earth survived.

4 April 2013


History is composed of a series of changes - changes in quick succession, changes over a longer period. When the latter occur it's sometimes called the end of an era. That's what has just happened in St Kilda, where I live.

The era that has ended is the era of Dr R. J. ("Dick") O'Bryan and his surgery in Fitzroy Street. For 38 years he's been in general practice there. His patients have represented the full range of St Kilda residents, from the people who live in large and expensively renovated Victorian and Edwardian houses or smartly modernised 1920s flats to those in seedy rooms. When St Kilda had an Aboriginal community (a city council supposedly committed to "diversity" cleared it out as part of a tidy-up in preparation for that periodic curse of the district, the Grand Prix) Dick was their doctor. Dick has always done his best for all his patients but his compassion for the poor, the unfortunate and the marginalised is legendary in St Kilda. Everyone knows him for it.

Failing health and advancing years have led to the end of this era in St Kilda medical history. Dick, who once said he would never retire, has been forced to do so by the realisation that he may never again be well enough to practise. "His work has been his life," says his wife Julianna who ran the business side of the surgery. "He is very upset at having to stop now."

If Dick is upset it is not too much to say that many of his patients are devastated, and none more so than the poorer ones. "They've been knocked sideways down at the Sacred Heart Mission," says Dick's son Tom. Some of the people there, he says, the ones who have their meals at the mission and sleep in dosshouses, don't know what they're going to do. Dick O'Bryan has been their friend. He has been a doctor who treated them with dignity irrespective of their status in life. For some he has been the only person with whom they could have a reasonable conversation, perhaps the only person who regarded them with respect.

Dick's surgery was often full of such people, some of them old, some not so old but prematurely aged by a burden of life they found too heavy to cope with. Down-and-outs they are sometimes dismissively called by those more successful in their worldly existence. In the finest tradition of medical attention to the whole person Dick did his best to make sure that though they may have been down they were never out. Prescriptions came with the invaluable bonus of a sympathetic ear. If in terms of fashion Dick's surgery had the least best-dressed waiting-room crowd in St Kilda, in terms of the spectrum of human life it must have had the richest and most varied.

Not the least of the distinctive personalities in it was Dick himself. Dick is a big man, physically, intellectually and spiritually. He is tall and smiling with an untidy mass of white hair like a cartoonist's idea of an eccentric musician. In or out of the surgery - especially in the cheap but good restaurants he contrived to find (difficult in Melbourne where the one adjective tends to exclude the other) - he was always ready for a talk, anything from a quick chat to a profound discussion. Dick is a mine of information on all kinds of abstruse subjects. He is a literary man, a published poet. On his desk in the surgery, along with the day's cryptic crossword from the newspaper, there was always a serious book lying open to be taken up between patients. The preferred subjects were history and philosophy. Among the framed certificates on the wall was one testifying to Dick's graduation from a theology course under the auspices of Melbourne University.

This association with theology might be extended to Dick's approach to medicine. As a doctor he has the devotion of a missionary. He gave up a prosperous practice in Camberwell "prescribing Valium to bored housewives" to move to St Kilda and the greater challenge of helping people who hadn't had much of a chance in life. St Kilda when Dick arrived was an even more schizophrenic place than now with a few well-to-do residents in pockets of respectability and a far larger number of the poor and needy. Some lived in appalling conditions in rented rooms that ought to have been condemned. Some slept rough. In addition there was the sleazy life of Grey Street and Acland Street with sex and drugs for sale. No one who needed medical help was turned away from Dick's surgery. No one who needed medical help and couldn't get to the surgery was turned down by Dick, who over the years answered many calls to treat some unfortunate ("often not long for this world") in a grossly sub-standard, filthy rented room.

Dick's children grew up, as Julianna puts it, "with an understanding of the people who visited the surgery". Every year at Christmas and Easter Dick and Julianna made room at their table for at least a couple of Dick's lonely patients. The OAM - Medal of the Order of Australia - could not have had a more deserving recipient than Dick when he received it in 2011 for "his contribution to the community".

For a generation now St Kilda has been changing character. One by one the rooming houses have been demolished or reconstructed as desirable residences for families with gleaming four-wheel-drives and children at private schools. The squalor of the street life has given way - to some extent - to smart restaurants and groovy bars. The haves are replacing the have-nots. The amount of "affordable" accommodation decreases by the month. St Kilda is becoming more like the Camberwell Dick left nearly four decades ago. The kind of people he came to help are thinner on the ground.

There was never a computer on Dick's desk in the surgery. His patients weren't numbers in a system; their medical details were written down on cards. As every schoolteacher knows, writing something out by hand is a certain way of remembering it. Dick always remembered his patients' names and faces: he remembered them as individuals, not simply cases. There is not a name on a card in Dick's "current patients" file who will not miss that friendly surgery with its policy of no appointments (calculating the best time to drop in without encountering a long wait became something of an art form). St Kilda is not the same since that sad day some weeks ago when private misfortune obliged this most civilised and compassionate of doctors to close his door and switch off that familiar red light in Fitzroy Street for the last time.

30 March 2013