Almost everyone in the democratic world feels the same way about what’s happening in Afghanistan. We went in uninvited, ousted a government and installed a new one, introduced a democratic constitution and oversaw elections. We poured billions of dollars into modernising the country’s infrastructure and institutions. Above all we set new standards for human rights and, in particular, the rights of women and girls. Afghanistan was set for a brighter future under the protection of the mightiest military alliance the world has ever seen – or so it seemed.
And then we said, “Nah. Sod this for a game of soldiers. We’re off.” Or, rather, that was said on our behalf by the US President. None of the allies was strong enough to stand alone, or even in concert if the mightiest of them left the field.
I do not need to dwell on the crimes that the Taliban has been guilty of. In our value system murder, genocide, kidnapping, rape, torture and slavery are heinous. For the Taliban they are standard operating procedure. Even after twenty years, their ideology and the wickedness that flows from it have not changed.
An uncomfortable thought crossed my mind this morning. What if Australia were invaded by the Taliban and we were subjected to the kind of brutal injustice that Afghans now face? How profound would be that shock? How devastated would be our way of life, our self-regard, our sense of place and purpose?
My next thought was even more uncomfortable. Would that devastation be anything like the impact that British colonisation had upon the Aboriginal inhabitants of this land? Were we (I mean my European forebears) the Taliban?
Twelve years ago I had a spell in hospital. They were feeding me through a tube and I lost a lot of weight. During a nightshirted shuffle around the ward, accompanied by my drip-feed, the nurses at their station asked me how I was feeling. I expressed concern that my bum seemed to have disappeared. They laughingly professed envy and asked my secret.
At that time, and for many decades prior, it was fashionable for women to want smaller bottoms than the ones nature had endowed them with. It was even a meme before memes became fashionable: “Does my bum look big in this?”
It was not always so, of course. In the mid-Victorian era artificial bottoms in the form of bustles were all the rage.
Now the wheel has come full circle and big bottoms are very definitely in. By way of evidence I present (top right of this post) the cover of an Australian Sunday supplement. But who or what caused this seismic shift? Was it Pippa Middleton’s doing, when her behind stole the show at her sister’s wedding to Prince William? Or was it engineered by the Kardashian clan for some dark purpose?
Can anyone enlighten me? Who decides these things? How is the signal sent to all the women in the world? By what alchemy are people’s self-perceptions turned upside-down overnight?
There are place whose names conjure up emotions that are out of all proportion to geographical reality. One thinks immediately of Paris, Samarkand, Xanadu… and Wimbledon.
I have a 326-year-old map of Midlesex [sic] hanging on my office wall. There are a few place names south of the Thames. Roehampton is there, spelt ‘Rowhampton’, but that suburb’s neighbour Wimbledon is absent. Now it rates inclusion in the London A-Z, but this random streetscape (courtesy of Google Maps) hints at nothing extraordinary. And yet…
Last night Mrs SG and I watched spellbound as Ashleigh Barty, carrier of Australia’s sporting hopes, battled with Karolina Plišková to win the Women’s Singles championship. Her victory was followed by royal pomp and graciousness, an interview, a quantity of photographs that in the pre-digital age would have dented the world’s supply of silver, and holding aloft the trophy plate until her arms must have ached.
And all the time one was aware of the dark green colour scheme of the stands, the worn grass, the military efficiency of the ballboys/girls… it could have been nowhere else but on the hallowed sod that mortals call Wimbledon.
Mrs SG and I had our second Covid-19 vaccinations this week: AstaZeneca both times, no side-effects. We were told that our chances of dying from a consequential blood clot are, respectively, 1.9 and 1.8 per million. As a mental exercise I estimated the lifetime odds of dying in a road accident:
Road accident deaths in Australia = 1,580 in 2020 Equivalent to 61.5 per million inhabitants per year Average life expectancy = 83.5 years So lifetime odds = 61.5 x 83.5 = 5,135 per million, or 0.5%
I know… lies, damn lies and statistics. But for me it puts things in perspective. And of course the chance of dying if you catch the Covid-19 virus is around 2% and the chance of dying of something is 100%. But not for Ashleigh. She has joined the Sporting Immortals. For such as she cremation is but a hiccup.
Remember when you had to carry a ‘Certificate of Vaccination’ when you travelled overseas? These certificates were issued by the WHO as little yellow booklets that had to be stamped and signed by doctors who gave vaccinations against smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, typhoid, polio, hepatitis and perhaps other diseases that I’ve forgotten about.
And every vaccination had to be up-to-date. In the certificate that I was using in the 1970s and 80s I found a post-it note reminding me to have another typhoid jab before 25/06/87. Here’s a photo of that certificate, together with its replacement, open at the page showing the lastest entry: 29/07/93 … Gammaglobulin for Hep A … 2ml
Nobody kicked up a fuss. Everybody recognised that these potentially fatal diseases had to be controlled and that meant ensuring that people travelling across international borders were not carrying them in their bodies. So I really don’t understand why some people are up-in-arms at the suggestion of a SARS-Cov-2 vaccination certificate as a necessary travel document.
Mind you, I do remember a doctor saying, in a country that I will not name, “Do you want the shot, or just the stamp saying you’ve had the shot? The fee is the same.”
Is it just me or are houses getting uglier? Today we got promotional material for an estate agent, with this picture of a house that’s for sale in our neighbourhood. Presumably it was designed by an architect. Presumably that architect’s course had touched on the perfect proportions of the Parthenon, the distinctive grace of the Duomo di Firenze, the simple elegance of the Eiffel Tower, the soaring splendour of Barcelona’s unfinished Sagrada Familia (pictured). Was he/she away sick for all those lectures?
I blame Grand Designs, that TV series that glorifies rusty iron sheeting, half-burnt timber, floor-to-ceiling windows, concrete floors and exposed girders. At the start of the Industrial Revolution factory-owners were proud to build cotton mills that looked like houses, with well proportioned windows and decorative flourishes. Now people are building houses that look like carelessly stacked shipping containers and architects point proudly to “industrial” interiors.
Am I alone in thinking that this period of residential architecture will be looked back on with bemused revulsion? I’m sure Prince Charles agrees with me – but what about you?
In Australia there are loud calls for schools to add Sexual Consent to the lengthening list of subjects that they are supposed to teach. When I first heard of this I thought it was a joke that had been rejected as too silly for an episode of Monty Python. But it is a sincere response to a growing number of accusations of sexual assault and harassment perpetrated by young males against young females.
Some people blame the ready accessibility of online pornography, which gives boys unhealthy ideas about both the physical and the emotional aspects of sex. Some blame a cultural shift towards disrespect and a sense of male entitlement. Such a shift may be fed by exposure to pornography, of course. It may also be an unwanted side-effect of growing gender equality and the consequent erosion of men’s role as protectors.
I reflect on my own adolescence and the social environment at the time. Women were unashamedly classified as “the weaker sex” and few of the mothers I knew were in the workforce. I was brought up to regard women as slightly inferior versions of men, albeit highly desirable to have and to hold. I was taught to raise my hat to women, offer my seat to them, and generally behave in a way that seemed deferential but was in fact a show of paternalism. Later I realised that this behaviour had its roots in a social imperative that affects every tribe: the protection of its capacity to reproduce.
There is another imperative too: to manage sexual relationships in such a way that a) paternity is not in doubt, b) rights and responsibilities are unambiguously assigned, and c) lust and jealousy do not tear apart the social fabric. In the western democracies we’ve pretty much given up on this one.
At school we had no lessons that were overtly about sex – unless you count the antics of amoebae. However, we were deeply immersed in history and literature. Together with American films, sitcoms and the lyrics of pop songs, these told us all we needed to know. Thus did we learn, for example:
You shouldn’t behead your wives without a very good reason.
Having sex at 14 is fine, provided that both families disapprove.
Beating your wife is unmanly, but spanking her may be necessary from time to time and she will love you all the more afterwards.
If a woman despises you in the first reel you will end up married to her.
Only when a woman slaps your face can you be sure that you’ve overstepped an invisible line.
However, if it’s a token slap she means “It wouldn’t be ladylike to let that go unpunished, but I quite liked it.”
The first time a woman says “No” she means “Try harder.” The second time she means “Maybe.”
Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.
I would like to end with a neat conclusion, an explanation of how we can allow unrestrained individual freedom and at the same time protect people from their own and other’s weaknesses. But I can’t. Sorry.
Postscript: Only after writing this did I learn that schools in my home state of South Australia have been obliged to teach sexual consent for years!
It’s been a tough choosing a winner of this year’s Stroppy Git Award for Meaningless Twaddle.
We thought it would probably go to ex-President Trump, but a careful examination of his speeches and tweets persuaded us that we’d have to look elsewhere. The Donald makes liberal use of untruths, half-truths, lavish insults, unfinished sentences and non-sequiturs, but he doesn’t deal in meaningless twaddle. He’d be less dangerous if he did.
Instead, the much-discussed and coveted award goes to a major global food conglomerate: Mondelēz. They own… well, look at the logos – even Toblerone! Even Cadbury, for heaven’s sake!! So it’s no surprise that they turn over US$26 billion per year and have a market capitalization of US$79 billion.
Therefore they must know what they’re doing, right? And when they adopt a radical new approach to marketing, we should also take notice, right? Especially if it’s called “humaning” and disdains caution and anything so mundane as data. So how about this…
“Humaning is a unique, consumer-centric approach to marketing that creates real, human connections with purpose, moving Mondelēz International beyond cautious, data-driven tactics, and uncovering what unites us all.”
I don’t know much about marketing (my book sales bear witness to this) but I do know that these 28 words are the collective winners of this year’s Stroppy. Congratulations, Mondelēz!
PS It’s 1 February. When I was a boy in London and then the north of England there was a superstitious belief that if the first thing you said on the first day of every month throughout the year was “white rabbits” you would have good luck. But I never remembered to say it every month. Did you grow up with the same belief?
We welcome birds to our garden, But one thing we won’t pardon: Subjecting a nec– Tarine to a peck; At that our kind hearts harden.
We put a net over our small-ish nectarine tree again this year, and with the help of safety pins did a better job of bird-proofing it. A couple did find their way in and needed help to escape. I think they spread the word, because we had no further avian trouble and we harvested a bumper crop. Unfortunately our electronic scale’s batteries died at just the wrong moment, but we filled four-and-a-bit buckets and only had to cut out about 5% of the juicy, golden god-blessed flesh.
With such a surfeit of fruit to deploy, the next apple crumble that Mrs SG made was a nectarine crumble – and pretty good it is too – and the freezer is two-thirds stuffed with bags of sliced nectarines. A reminder of summer sun when winter comes.
Fruit is in the news in Australia, and in the UK too. As we have become wealthy (Australia’s per capita GDP is five times the global average) we have become lazy. It’s a socio-economic sickness that infects all rich nations sooner or later: it happened in Rome too, a long time ago.
A symptom of this infection has been highlighted by another: Covid-19. It seems that we no longer pick our own fruit and vegetables. Before the borders closed that arduous, low-paid work was done for us by European backpackers and Pacific Islanders on special work visas. Unemployment has peaked as businesses have been forced to close – many never to re-open – yet farmers cannot find people willing to pick their fruit. The Government has just announced a shipment of ni-Vanuatu workers to save the day, riding the foam as the US cavalry used to ride the prairie on similar missions.
Does this mean that we’ve lost our oomph, our get-up-and-go, our will to work and strive and build a nation? I fear it does. Let us hope that China’s burgeoning wealth brings it to the same torpid state before Xi Jinping becomes master of our world.
PS Watch out for the announcement of the winner of this year’s Stroppy (the Stroppy Git Award for Meaningless Twaddle). The excitement is mounting and assessment is under way!
Yesterday was a sad day: 2 January 2021. Our local cinema closed. We moved into the area in 1985, when The Trak and its associated video store (remember those?) had been open for 10 years. I won’t say we moved here because of The Trak, but it was one of the factors.
Its three screens occupied the upper floor of a modest commercial building. Nothing fancy, no art deco styling, no sweeping staircase. It’s close to the mighty Burnside Village shopping centre, which is about to be expanded – with a cinema complex to be added. Although The Trak specialised in non-mainstream films it could probably not have survived competition from across the road. But it was Covid-19 that delivered the killing blow.
We went to the last show of all, of course, and bought chocolate coated ice-cream cones at the candy bar. We’d become used to being the only two people, perhaps with one or two others scattered around the auditorium, but last night most of the seats were filled. The show was a 1957 film called ‘The Smallest Show on Earth’ whose cast list is a Who’s Who of British comedy in the 1950s. Appropriately it was about a young couple who inherit a small, dilapidated cinema and try to make a go of it.
There was not a dry eye in the house when the final credits played, even though it was a comedy. Adam (pictured above), the owner, gave a final speech and explained why he had not closed the curtain that covers the screen. This is a cinema tradition, signifying that resurrection is not impossible.
And indeed The Trak will live on, in name at least. Adam and his partner are looking for a new venue to lease; and if that fails they will try to run it on a ‘pop-up’ basis. Wherever, whenever, Mrs SG and I will there for the next show.
Like everyone, I suppose, I have very happy memories of Christmas as it was when I was a child. There are things I miss. Let me list a few…
Unpacking the Christmas tree lights, plugging them in, and finding by trial and error which one had gone lame since last Christmas – because if one bulb went, none would come on.
Receiving dozens and dozens of Christmas cards, delivered twice a day by children hired in their school holidays to cope with the tidal wave of greetings.
Hanging those cards over strings suspended between lintels and light fittings, not putting two with the same dominant colour side-by-side, mixing up the big and the small, the sacred and the profane.
Opening up the big cardboard box (that one of my father’s tailored suits had come in) and choosing which of the familiar sheets of wrapping paper I would use for this year’s gifts to my family. Parcels were secured with string in those days, so wrapping paper could be recycled forever.
Emancipating nuts with heavy steel nutcrackers. Hazel nuts were easy; walnuts needed precise application of pressure; brazil nuts needed brute strength, but only up to the moment of fracture or you’d be left with a handful of mash.
Merry Christmas to you and yours – and a reminder to make your nomination for next year’s Stroppy Git Award for Meaningless Twaddle (known in the popular press as “The Stroppy”). Closing date: 15 January (midday GMT).