Ghosts of Christmas past

I switched the light off last night and went to sleep listening to mournful, hopeful, slowly swelling music of Henryk Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony.

I slept well, better than usual lately, but like most nights recently my sleep was full of dreams. That seems a feature of the last few months. Sometimes I feel as if I have dreamt all night long. The dreams are of the usual variety, some strange and surreal, some happy, some sad, some just quirky. The dream I remember from last night was sad.

The only reason I make mention of this now is that it seems a telling dream.

It’s Christmas time, I’m an adult, but younger than I am now. As in most dreams, the scene and perspective switches rapidly and there appears little in the form of a linear narrative. The moments I remember, however, are revealing.

There’s a sombre mood throughout. It’s Christmas day, but I’m heading off somewhere. At one stage someone says Merry Christmas to me, but there’s no-one there – I’m all alone. In the next scene, I look out the window and my step-father is there, smiling at me. He’s been dead for a dozen years, but he pops up here and there in the dream, like a Christmas ghost.

A moment later I’m speaking aloud as if there was someone there to hear me, as if it has dawned on me: “I need help.”

I’m meant to be travelling, but before I do I drop by my mother’s house – she’s still alive in my dream. And my stepfather is there again, alive and sitting in a lounge chair. I go to speak to my mum, who seems surprised, and perhaps a tad irritated, to see me. Her hair has a purple tint to it. She stops to check why I haven’t left yet, busy otherwise with Christmas day festivities.

Her Christmas guests I know well enough in the dream to nod at (I don’t recognise them from my conscious life). They’re not family and I have no connection with them, but my mother is hosting on Christmas day, rather than me, her son. In the dream, I’m saddened by it. Eventually, I leave.

That’s the dream.

Smoke in the city

I woke this morning to a heavy pall of smoke outside, low in the sky and much reducing visibility. It’s different to previous days. Last week it was hazy with smoke and there was a general smoky odour and quality to the air. This is much more distinct. You can almost taste the burnt wood, and the odour is much stronger.
It’s like when you sit around a campfire for a while and the smell of the fire infuses your clothes long after the fire has gone out. There’s the tang of burnt timber, not unpleasant in itself, except when out of context like this. This isn’t a campfire – this is the smoke from huge swathes of forests on fire. And it’s a health hazard. As I said, I can taste it on my tongue and in the back of my throat, and I feel a bit of sinus pressure around my eyes. It’s much worse for asthmatics.
The air quality is rated as poor in the city, and very poor back where I live, and it’s tipped to deteriorate further. It brings home the disaster very effectively. The light is a bit eerie, and the whole environment has a surreal feel to it, like in some dystopian movie.
But at least we’re getting some rain.

The hollow man exposed

It’s raining today. It’s only light rain, but it’s been falling on and off for the last few hours. It’s been a dry year and rain is always welcome in Melbourne, but it’s really needed to the east of here, and in heavier doses.

After the horrors of yesterday, any weather relief is welcome for the firefighters. There are still many communities under threat, and loss of property is widespread. I heard it was raining in Canberra today (after their hottest day on record yesterday), and it seems the more moderate weather conditions will prevail over the fires in the east of the state, and over the border. It will come as some relief, but it’s a long way from what is needed.

It’s a strange time. There was heavy smoke from the fires on Thursday, and since to varying degrees. We’ve been subjected to the eerie lighting that often comes with bushfires, and fiery sunsets. There have been fires on the outskirts of Melbourne, but we’ve been largely untouched. Life might almost be normal except there’s not a soul here that isn’t caught up in the unfolding catastrophes.

I find it difficult. I watched the cricket yesterday, but I was continually checking the news on the fires, either on the ABC or twitter. I reckon I’d have done that every five minutes. The pleasure of the game was much diluted because of that. Regardless of what Morrison says, it’s times like these you get a true perspective.

It seems incomprehensible that I could be sitting there safe and sound while at every moment the fires consume the land and property. In Victoria alone, there’ve been a thousand firies fighting the blazes. There’ve given up their time, and many of them have lost their properties and there on day and night and I’m sitting there watching the cricket.

Every day I have tears in my eyes, and not just once but 10-12 times a day – with every news report I read or see, every development.

I’m inspired by the resilience of the people on the ground. It’s a terrible time but – with notable exceptions – this has brought out the best in our community. It breaks me up every time, and it has restored much of the faith I’ve bled in the last nine months. People are good when they’re allowed to be. They’re strong and generous and decent. It’s such a cliche, but it’s true – this is the best of us.

We’ve had thousands of people displaced by these fires, many of them stranded and requiring rescue. No complaints anywhere. Everyone looking out for each other. It’s a terrible experience but there’s no time for self-pity. We’re all in it together.

The community response, in general, has been incredible and heartwarming. Stories of Sikh and Muslim communities travelling to affected areas to cook and provide food for firies and refugees. Homes being thrown open to take in those who have lost their own home. Shops giving away food and supplies to those who need it. And hundreds – if not thousands – who have donated food and supplies to the effort. To top it all off has been the donations made to the relief effort not just here in Oz, but across the world.

Then there are the firefighters. Most of them are volunteers. Many of them have been fighting fires for months now. These are people you work with and see in the street. They’re normal folk with a strong sense of duty. They fight on, getting little rest, facing horrendous conditions against an implacable foe. Their lives are at threat. As I said, there’s many who have lost their own homes in the fight. And yet they go on. I’m humbled by them.

I don’t know if they’re fighting a losing battle, but they won’t give in. These are terrible fires though, and that adds to the drama and the emotion of it. We’ve had terrible fires before, but generally they’ve been contained and extinguished within a few days. Even Black Saturday, when 173 people died, all the damage was within a devastating period of time. These fires haven’t stopped though, and listening to one of the CFA commanders yesterday he reckons we’ve got another eight weeks of this. Remember – we’ve yet to hit the peak of summer.

It almost feels as if we’re doing battle with a malevolent spirit. It feels – to me at least – like a battle between virtue and cruel indifference.

For all the good, there is also a woeful tale to tell – the Australian government.

I’ve complained about them before today. I’ve been complaining about them for years really, and much of their response hasn’t surprised me all that much. It’s a terrible government led by a shallow and opportunistic mediocrity. There’s more, though, and the latest even surprised me.

At long last yesterday, the government announced that the ADF would be drafted in to take an active role in the fight and that firefighting aircraft would be brought in from abroad (finally). It was very late – a month ago, and much of the damage inflicted might have been prevented – but at least it was happening. Morrison attempted to portray himself as the man in control, and in doing so had no shame in throwing the NSW government under the bus by suggesting they hadn’t sought the assistance he was providing. I’m not a fan of Gladys, but unlike Smoko at least she’s turned up every day and tirelessly did all she could in the effort – but she was expendable.

Then it became very clear that the government’s motivation wasn’t the welfare of the people or even doing the right thing. No, this was all about damage repair and saving some political skin, and maybe even gaining some advantage out of a horrendous situation.

Within minutes of the announcement, they’d released an ad onto social media extolling their efforts, as if it was they who had taken control of the situation. To compound it the music chosen for the ad was upbeat and cheery at a time when large swathes of the country were on fire, people were homeless, and some perished. But wait, this wasn’t an announcement but a paid political ad for the Liberal party complete – I kid you not – with a link to donate money to the party.

It was obscene, and goes to show how absolutely out of touch the PMO is with the sentiment of the nation – and how morally bankrupt Morrison is. I’ve always believed that his first priority as PM was to seek political advantage, and everything, including the Australian people, came second to that (at best). This stripped it bare, though. This, transparently, was all about him. He’d recognised he was in deep shit and tried to extricate himself in the most clumsy and tone-deaf fashion imaginable. Not surprisingly, the world came down on him, including vicious words from measured and moderate commentators. I can’t bear the sight of him. As a human being, he’s a disgrace. As prime minister, he’s a coward and a traitor.

I think my views are shared by many. In the last 24 hours more bitter and violent reactions to Morrison have made it to air. I find this unusual. TV news is generally conservative in this regard, but I guess they’re read the tea leaves and assessed the mood of the nation, even if the PMO hasn’t. To make it worse, it’s the firies now spouting vitriol, calling him fucking useless, and worse, and another – a seemingly mild-mannered middle-aged woman in the RFS – urging him to stand out. This was his fault. That’s what half the country thinks.

I don’t think he can recover from this. His only chance would be a mea culpa, pleading some forgiveness. That’s not in his nature though, and with so much of the country afire I don’t the nation is in a forgiving mood. (Don’t rule out a spread in a Woman’s magazine in the next few months looking to humanise him and explain his inner/secret torment/pain).

The Australian public have finally seen Morrison for what he is – a weak, ineffectual human being without scruple or humility. Basically, a scumbag.

In the meantime, the fires continue.

The good fake

My summer break is just about over. On Monday I’m back at work. I’m not looking forward to it, but the break was better than it might have been.

I hoped to go away. Planned to go away. But then unforeseen circumstances prevented it and that was a blow. For the first week of my holidays, I struggled a little. Christmas is a conflicted period for me, on top of which I’ve been wrestling with a few existential challenges.

But in other ways, the break was productive and better than being in the office. Because I didn’t go away, it meant I could do some writing instead and raced through the final edit of my manuscript. Give me another week off I’d have it finished and ready to send it off to the publisher. As it is, I reckon I’ll have it finished by the end of the month.

I was intent on getting some proper rest, body and mind. The first week that seemed a bust. I’m still not sleeping as well as I can, but I’ve had some lazy days and feeling a bit more energetic than I have been. I still figure I’ll need another break sooner than later, and ideally a proper holiday (March?), but I can get by for a while.

Around the house, I did some spring cleaning, digitised a lot of old photos, and pruned my wardrobe. I kept a pretty low profile generally.

I found no real answer to the questions I posed after Christmas, and I suspect there is no real answer. As before, I just have to make the best of it. I guess that’s disappointing in a way. It’d be nice if there was a solution to every problem. An answer to every question. Doesn’t matter how earnest or enquiring you are, life doesn’t always work that way.

What that means is that I go to work and adopt a persona, as I have for so long. Most people probably do in some way, though mine is in place to shield my frailties. The persona isn’t fake, it just isn’t all true. You take some elements of yourself, and you project them while hiding away the parts of yourself more vulnerable. It makes for a warped presentation of yourself, but most people can’t tell the difference.

I’ve wanted to be more authentic than that but found it’s hard to live with the weight of sorrow that entails in my circumstances. I accept that now. I accept all that weighs on me and troubles me, and I’m no longer willing to let them affect me as they have. I don’t want to be a victim. Nor do I want to bite my tongue. In that way, at least, I want to be real.

With that decided I intend on returning to work with my most bold self to the fore. If I have to ‘fake’ it, then let’s go for broke.

The man without empathy

While we’re in the midst of a national disaster, the backdrop to it has a perverse fascination. The big fires traverse both NSW and Victoria currently, with state leaders and authorities responding to the calamity. The fire services in both states have been immense. They’re tireless and unrelenting in the face of what is an unrelenting foe. Likewise the emergency services in general, and more recently the ADF in Victoria (but not called on in NSW).

Leadership in NSW has been problematic. Dealing with something as daunting as these fires doesn’t come naturally to Berejiklian. She appears a stiff, dogmatic character, decent at heart, but limited. She has least turned up day after day and done her best, though she must also take some responsibility for how the catastrophe has unfolded – she defunded both the RFS and Parks services in the most recent budget, and has refused to ask for help from the ADF. All of that will come out in the wash later, but it’s not a pretty picture.

Unfortunately for her, she pretty well stands alone. Her Emergency Services minister – an utter lowlife – has been on holidays in Europe since Christmas. Safe to say that if the services of an emergency services minister were needed, then it’s right now – and he’s buggered off to the northern hemisphere. The Deputy Premier is also on holiday. I understand it’s the holiday season, but none of the firefighters is taking time off and in the meantime people losing their homes, and some their life.

It’s a different story in Victoria. We’re more used to bushfires, and the CFA is better equipped. The premier, Dan Andrews, is pretty much the polar opposite of his NSW counterpart. He’s made his name by getting things done and is a sensitive character with natural compassion. He’s taken the lead and been proactive, calling in the ADF for assistance, cutting through the red type, and announcing a state disaster. The contrast to the Prime Minister is absolute.

The Prime Minister has done nothing – offered no leadership, provided no resources, and his behaviour has been more distracting than supportive. He’s been tone death in both what he says and what he’s done, mouthing platitudes and falsehoods and refusing to accept the horrific gravity of the situation. Seriously, he’d have been better off staying in Hawaii.

Like the rest of Australia, I’ve been watching and listening. I’ve been desperate for him to do something. We’ve all been waiting for that, but clearly, he’s out of his depth.

He’s reticent because he fears that if he admits to climate change, and to the full desperation of the situation, that it will be seen as a backflip. You would think a petty consideration like that would go out the window at a time like this, but that’s who he is – a small man of limited ability.

I’ve been reflecting on his situation. We wonder sometimes how we would cope when we’re put to the test. That seems a supreme measure of the man, and all of us would like to think we’d step when we had to. We might not all be like Churchill, but we’d do our bit.

That’s the challenge Morrison faced, and he’s been an abject failure. What’s puzzled me is that he’s hardly even attempted to be the leader we need. He’s been absent and disengaged with an excuse for everything. I couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to be such a failure.

Yesterday I think he tried to head off some of the criticism of him by visiting some of the burnt out townships for some photo ops, but boy, it sure didn’t go as he planned.

In the first, Cobargo, he ties to shake the hand of a woman who isn’t offering her hand. Rather than letting it go, he reaches down to pick her hand up and give her an unwilling shake. It’s terribly awkward to watch. Then she starts talking to him, asking for help, asking for the fire services to be properly funded, and what does he do? He turns his back on her and walks away.*

As he leaves the locals harangue him, calling him useless, a cunt, telling him they don’t want him there, and so on. It’s pretty full on, but what do you expect? Half these people are now homeless because of the fires, while Morrison has hosted parties on NYE and spoken about the cricket team and sowing himself to be both utterly useless and completely out of touch.

Another clip emerged this morning from another town. He’s approaching some firies slumped over with exhaustion. He goes to shake the hand of one of them sitting down. The firey says he doesn’t want to shake hands. Morrison grabs his hand anyway. The other firey, forewarned, picks up a mug of tea and a spoon, clearly forestalling any attempt to have his hand shaken.

These clips have gone viral. It’s very clear that the PM is despised by these people. They know he’s done nothing while they’ve given everything, and for some, lost everything. And they know that for the PM these visits are intended for political consumption, and want nothing to do with anything so contrived.

I watched and I was horrified, but I admit to feeling some pity for Morrison. He deserved the reaction he got. But what I observed was a man without an ounce of empathy in him, and he knows it. He doesn’t feel what we do, and so it all becomes an act to him because nothing is natural. Maybe that’s why he’s avoided these interactions till now (compare him to Dan Andrews, who exudes compassion).

He got off that helicopter in Cobargo and didn’t know what to do. Most of us are smart enough to know that if someone won’t offer their hand to you, then don’t push it. Most of us in that situation would have felt overwhelmed with humility in the face of such desperation and loss. Most of us would have put are arms around these people, if not literally than in a metaphorical sense. And surely most of us know not to be mealy mouthed to utter platitudes about keeping your chin up, and so on. In a situation like that, it isn’t about us.

Morrison doesn’t know that because he lacks that quality. He may be a sociopath in the classic definition, for all I know. None of that excuses him. He went there for the wrong reasons to start with. And a man incapable of humility or empathy isn’t fit for office.

I wonder what this will mean for his tenure. I’ve been watching and reading the reading the disaffection expressed across the airwaves and social media, and I knew that it should be taken with a grain of salt – twitter isn’t the electorate. But then it seemed to break free of those constraints, and I was more hopeful. More journalists were commenting, and the commentary from abroad has been scathing. But again, I was a pessimist – this translate into anything.

But now this and I think he’s now lost so much authority I wonder if he can recover from it. He’s been shown as being weak and ineffectual, and the subject of ridicule. Australians have seen other Australians make a judgement on him.

The next election is more than two years away, more’s the pity, but I think he’ll take a big hit from this – especially given how the opposition leadership has been so strong through this period. His bigger threat is a spill, however, not that any of us can get excited by that. Next in line are a couple of more sociopaths (Dutton and Porter), and a nuff nuff in Frydenburg.

In the meantime, Australia burns. There’s much more at stake now than party politics.


*On the radio this morning Morrison has attempted to re-write the narrative, claiming that he stopped to talk to her rather than walking away. This is a deliberate ploy and very meta. No matter there’s video to prove otherwise, the idea is that if you say something long enough and loud enough without varying from it, then enough people will begin to doubt the evidence of their eyes. Fake news becomes real news, it’s the modern way. We know Morrison is a well established liar, but he can claim inspiration from Trump.



What is truly bizarre is how or why he has acted this way – his absence from any practical contribution goes way beyond anything political.

The fires of hell

Every news bulletin has a report on a bushfire in Australia, and quite often multiple reports on fires in different states of the country. It’s been like that since October, since before summer began. I don’t know about others, but I’m finding it hard to take. It distresses me every time.

I feel an overwhelming empathy for the people forced out of their homes by the fires, and the utter sense of displacement and loss they must feel. Their lives have been fractured, and hearth and home taken.

Then there are the volunteer firies. This is a role borne out of community, by necessity, and often family tradition. They pitch in through the year, preparing and training, with the expectation that they may be called on come the summer to deal with a bushfire or two. In a bad year that might be a big fire that draws upon all their resilience and resources, but generally, it’s over soon enough. This year, some firies have been fighting fires for months.

Imagine the stress and exhaustion. Imagine the demands on their life, their families, their finances. These are volunteers. They don’t get paid for it. They do it because it’s the right thing to do and no complaints. In an average year, they shrug their shoulders and get on with it. They’re getting on with it now, but it’s far from a normal year, and many are trying to juggle work with family and fighting the fires. Others have taken leave off work altogether – there are crews from interstate, and even overseas, fighting these fires. They are tested around the clock, have worked through Christmas, through day and night, pulling their weight – and with fuck all support.

These guys epitomise what heroism really is, but I can’t express how disgusted I am with the government who stands by doing nothing. It’s only last week, after intense pressure, that the federal government agreed to offer some compensation to firefighters who’ve taken time off work to fight the fires. But then, it’s very selective – if you’re from NSW you’re in luck, but only if you’re a small business owner. The rest of you, the rest of Australia, can go stuff yourselves. That’s the petty, cowardly nature of our government.

These firies have had to scrounge food and fuel in many instances, and sometimes equipment, to continue the fight. The government could’ve called in the ADF to help, but hasn’t. It could’ve put the SOS out across the world to get in firefighting aircraft, but hasn’t. It could’ve converted Hercules aircraft, but hasn’t. The list of things it hasn’t done is immense. What it has done is go on holiday. Literally.

These people aren’t fit to be in the same room as the firies. They turn up for photo ops, they pontificate to the media, they obfuscate and deflect and blame, but they take no responsibility and do nothing to help.

This is a great part of my distress. My heart is breaking for the country and the good people there, but our politicians look smug and refuse to consider that may have some accountability for this.

I think the fire fronts may have been better contained had the resources been provided to do so, and the dire situation we face now may not have evolved so desperately. The fires are different now, though. The scale and ferocity is beyond previous experience. It’s like a juggernaut that can’t be stopped, but perhaps only slowed if lucky. It gets in your head. There’s a sense of abject impotence being at the complete mercy of the elements and of nature. We pray for rain and cooler weather, but the days get hotter, they remain dry, and if anything storm fronts whip up to make it worse.

We’re out of our depth – and the government sits like a deer in the spotlights. Do something!

I wonder if this how it’s going to be from here on in? Is this our future? If there is anything good to come of this, it must be that many more are now awake to the critical nature of climate change. There’s always been a clamour, but it’s building to a frenzy now. Surely, it can’t still be ignored?

In the meantime, the fires rage on. In East Gippsland, it looks like a scene from the apocalypse. Much of it has been evacuated, but many stayed, and the fires are out of control. Four are reported missing, and overnight another firefighter died when the wind overturned his fire truck. That’s how it is.

There were even fires encroaching yesterday on Melbourne suburbia, including a very urban suburb I lived in briefly 30 years ago.

In NSW the fires ring Sydney. What if they converge? That would be catastrophic. If nothing else, the government should be mindful of the huge economic impact of these fires, and the effect on tourism. Surely that should motivate them to do something? Not likely.

And in Tasmania fires are out of control there as well.

There’s an immense amount of territory on fire, and in different places across the country. The damage is catastrophic, and the toll on wildlife is enough to make you cry. If there’s a hell on earth, then these days it’s in Australia.

The last time in 1987

The Boxing Day test match against New Zealand has just concluded with a resounding victory to Australia. Throughout the game, there was a lot of commentary about how New Zealand hadn’t played a Test in Melbourne since 1987. That was a famous match, and all the talk reminded me that I was there.

Actually, I was only there for the last hour or two. I may have attended a day earlier in the match – I don’t remember, but what I do remember is getting off work early in the city and walking down to the MCG on the last day to catch the exciting conclusion.

It’s a famous match because New Zealand was heading for what appeared a certain victory when the last two Australian batsmen came to the crease – Mike Whitney and Craig McDermott. They were up against Richard Hadlee at the peak of his powers. He took ten wickets in this match, and a whole pile more through the series – and I still reckon he’s one of the best five quick bowlers I’ve ever seen (Dennis Lillee and Wasim Akram head that list).

I was working at NAB at the time and probably following the match in the office. This was a tough era to be an Australian cricket fan, probably our lowest ever ebb. A bunch of champions had retired, a rebel tour to South Africa decimated our cricketing depth, and the very reluctant captain in Allan Border had taken over from a tearful Kim Hughes. At best, the team was competitive, though it was building (and it did win the World Cup in a shock result).

I got down to the ‘G with the team about eight down and staring down the barrel. The doors had been flung open, and the crowd had swelled with people like me dropping in on the way home from the office.

I think I was by myself – funny the things you forget, and the things you remember. I do recall how gripping a contest it was when the ninth wicket fell, and it looked odds on that the Kiwis would win.

The game went on, though. In my memory, it was about 30 minutes of steadfast defence. With every ball, you held your breath. Each ball survived meant you could breathe again. There was a big appeal at one stage, LBW against McDermott. Had there been DRS those days he might have ended up out. The umpire ruled not out though, and the game went on.

Finally, it came to the last over, Richard Hadlee bowling to Mike Whitney. Again and again, Hadlee probed, again and again, Whitney defended. With every ball survived the crowd would clap. Then came the last bowl – and Whitney prodded the ball back down the pitch, and raised his arms.

It’s a famous moment; a famous image. I remember the feeling, as if we’d won. We don’t normally like to celebrate draws, it’s un-Australian, but this time it felt pretty ripe because the team had managed it against the odds.

For me, in the crowd, it was a great day to finish a working day.

Sadly, a few years later, I rocked up after work on a similar occasion against England and watched as the much unheralded Dean Headley swept through an Australian side searching for victory. I reckon I saw the last four wickets fall, and the loss that resulted. That was a much different feeling – though it was a much different side. By then we were top of the heap. We lost that match but won that series, and most series after for the next 15 years.

This year, 30 years on, we flogged ’em.