Norfolk Island

Norfolk Island

NORFOLK ISLAND:  The island is breathtakingly beautiful.  Driving around much of the island one  gasps at the dramatic coastline – which has always made any landing by sea very difficult.  It also has rich soil and rural pockets with fat, contented looking cows, and banana trees and palms which give it a Pacific and tropical look. The population is around 1800 but diminishing. A headline in a newspaper recently declared the island had “gone bust”, with the banks foreclosing on various businesses and residences.  I think all our holiday destinations are doing it tougher post GFC and with the high Australian dollar. The Foundation Day re-enactment of the landing in March 1788 was both kitsch and moving. History is very much alive there with ongoing resentments between these First Fleeters who arrived with my ancestor Philip Gidley King in March 1788, and Pitcairners, Mutiny on the Bounty survivors, who were relocated to the island in 1856. My ancestor unfortunately was involved – or initiated, the kidnapping of two Maoris to instruct about flax which grew on the island. They lived with Philip Gidley King who promised to return them to the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, which he did months later.  This little known episode had very far- reaching consequences, possibly laying the groundwork for the Treaty of Waitangi. I am continuing to research and write about this as I am especially interested in my colonial family interactions with indigenous people.

Boatshed, post 1825, situated in the convict National Heritage precinct, Kingston

Boatshed, post 1825, situated in the convict National Heritage precinct, Kingston

CSIRO:  It seems none of the Republican presidential candidates believe in climate change or renewable energy, not unlike our own conservative politicians. Perhaps they should read the recent report State of the Climate 2012, a review by the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology. Australia’s current climate “cannot be explained by natural variability alone” and “multiple lines of evidence show that global warming continues and that human activities are mainly responsible”.  Click here for the full and detailed report. The CSIRO is a government body  (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) not like the US Heartland Institute which appears to fund climate scepticism through “academics” for hire.

Janet Laurence After Eden (detail) 2011

Janet Laurence After Eden (detail) 2011

Janet Laurence’s After Eden exhibition/installation at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney (until 19th May) examines extremely evocatively, through various media, our experiential and cultural relationship with the natural world. Laurence thoughtfully addresses issues such as the destruction of the environment, particularly animals, and notions of healing and caring.

OECD:  Another important recent report is from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Environmental Outlook to 2050.  As Ross Gittins asks “Do you ever wonder how the environment – the global ecosystem – will cope with the continuing growth in the world population plus the rapid economic development of China, India and various other “emerging economies”?  I do. And it’s not a comforting thought”.

To cherry pick some of the points or questions in the report which Gittins writes about:  there will be irreversible “tipping points” in climate change, species loss, groundwater depletion and land degradation;  since 1970 the world economy has tripled but with significant cost to the environment and natural resources;  by 2050 and with a projected extra 2 billion people, with 70% living in cities this “will magnify challenges such as air pollution, transport congestion, and the management of waste and water in slums, with serious consequences for human health;  the ability of the resource base to support increasing demands for energy, food, water and other natural resources;  80% more energy will be required with the mix similar to today – 85% fossil fuels, 10% renewable, and 5% nuclear; increased competition for land;  global emissions increasing by half and average temperatures increasing by 3 to 6 degrees by the end of the century;  loss of biodiversity and 13% less native forests;  urban air pollution becoming the top environmental cause of premature death.

Gittins concludes that “the purpose of reports like this is to motivate rather than depress…there are policies we could pursue that made population growth and rising material living standards compatible with environmental sustainability”.

The squawking of cockatoos drew my attention to this python on the telephone lines next door to me!

The squawking of cockatoos drew my attention to this python on the telephone lines next door to me!


SYRIA:  15th March marked one year of the “Syrian uprising” and 9100 deaths later, even Russia is finally growing impatient with Assad and talking about desperately needed humanitarian assistance. Governments have a “responsibility to protect” its citizens, but there are allegations of the use of torture on both sides.  The opposition, which I think was originally peaceful, is now running out of ammunition, which coupled with their disunity, will unfortunately give Assad heart to continue his violent repression. Assad has promised to abide by Kofi Annan’s recent peace proposal, also supported (finally) by Russia and China, although it is difficult to believe him and not to be pessimistic.

AFGHANISTAN:  Everybody’s patience – both within and without the country – seems to have run out over Afghanistan. I remember in the early 2000s the Taliban were very much in retreat, and our dumb governments left to invade Iraq – one Australian remained there!

I actually saw the ex PM John Howard in the street the other day and felt like accosting him for the many reasons I felt he failed Australia. However he looked so small, old (if chipper), and ordinary – and was just ignored or unrecognised on the street  –  so I let an encounter I had dreamed about pass…

Not surprisingly, up to 31% of US combat veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder – many of them after repeated deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. Quite a percentage even end up homeless.

Bahram Gur listens as Dilaram enchants the animals. From a manuscript of Amir Khusrau, Khamsa (Quintet), dated AH 1007-08 (1599–1600 AD) State Library of Victoria

Bahram Gur listens as Dilaram enchants the animals.
From a manuscript of Amir Khusrau, Khamsa (Quintet), dated AH 1007-08 (1599–1600 AD).
State Library of Victoria.

As a timely reminder of the sophistication and cultural legacy of the region, a unique exhibition has travelled to Australia for the first time, from the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.  Love and devotion; from Persia and Beyond consists of nearly 70 rare 13th to 18th century Persian, Mughal Indian and Ottoman Turkish illustrated manuscripts and miniatures.  Guest co-curator Susan Scollay gave an extremely interesting lecture on the exhibition at the AGNSW, with another on the 17th April for those of us unable to make it to the State Library of Victoria (until 1st July).

IRAN:  A classified war simulation exercise forecasts that a strike on Iran by Israel would be “perilous” for the US and lead to a wider regional war.  I applaud the Israeli and Iranian online campaign to exchange messages of friendship and love. “I wish we both get rid of our idiot politicians”.

ISRAEL:  A UN Human Rights Council is to launch an investigation into the impact of Israel’s settlement construction on the human rights of Palestinians.  Israel was quick to say it would not allow access to the country. Issues include (in some instances and areas):  prohibition of Palestinians to build new homes or renovate, and demolition of houses; no access to roads or electricity; hundreds of checkpoints; Israeli settler violence (incidences tripled in three years); and last year almost 10,000 mainly olive trees were damaged, severely affecting the livelihood of hundreds of Palestinian families.

John Lewin The Gymea Lily  watercolour 1807

John Lewin The Gymea Lily watercolour 1807

There is a marvellous exhibition Lewin:Wild Art at the State Library of NSW.  John Lewin was one of the first professional artists in the colony of Sydney at a time in the early 1800s when collectors in Europe were hungry for images and examples of flora and fauna from our part of the world. I see this giant flower growing in southern Sydney and it is about to flower.


PARALLEL UNIVERSE:  Our conservative Coalition in Australia behave as if the nation is on the brink of bankruptcy, but our Reserve Bank Governor recently said at an investment conference in Hong Kong (and reported in the SMH), that unlike nearly all other countries, our economy “suffered only a relatively mild downturn in 2008-09, made up the loss within months, and had continued to expand ever since”.  However our high dollar had fed a “sense of concern in some parts of the community, and the tendency to focus on the difficulties rather than the opportunities”.

On the same day the SMH Business Day also had an article by Ian Verrender;  “Despite all the hullabaloo, and all the hand-wringing and the wailing from various sections of the mining industry, the passage of the Mineral Resources Rent Tax (in Parliament) confirms Australia as one of the world’s most benign destinations for miners”. Again, the conservative party has been saying that this tax would scare off all potential investment. However see here for a detailed examination of how the taxation of natural resources in Australia compares –very  favourably – to other countries.

Yet another negative scare campaign from the opposition is the threat posed by refugees and asylum seekers.  According to the UNHCR Australia defied a global trend and recorded a 9% drop in claims last year, and that the numbers that come to Australia are “modest” and “manageable”.

When I was on Norfolk Island, although I was very happy, I somehow felt out of my comfort zone and was reminded that the views I hold are held by a minority of people – from climate change, to the need for a Mining Tax, to same-sex marriage (which I regard as a human rights issue).  My feeling of being out of step has been reinforced by the recent crushing defeat of the Labor Party in Queensland, where a most intelligent female Premier has now resigned from Parliament.  Now most States have conservative governments, and the Federal Government remain very unpopular.

Recently Margaret Whitlam died.  She was the wife of Gough Whitlam, one of our most important, if controversial Prime Ministers.  Margaret Whitlam was refreshingly her own person.  As she came from a rather privileged background she was asked why she supported the Labor Party. “I belong to the party that cares about people”, and this is why I am a supporter as well.

John Lewin  Koala and young watercolour 1803. Interestingly this painting was owned by Philip Gidley King who was by now Governor of NSW.

John Lewin Koala and young watercolour 1803

GERMAINE GREER:  Another of our tall and larger than life women, Germaine spends part of her year in Australia and she is very refreshing. Ignore or laugh at her at your peril. She is good “product” on television: attractive, funny, honest, provocative, very informed and very articulate. She now describes herself as an eco-feminist, and said Stephen Hawkings warns that the earth will be uninhabitable in 100 years. She thinks that Australia IS a racist country, especially about each new wave of immigrants, and that this goes back to our unresolved relationship with the original Aboriginal inhabitants.  Of course the media here have trivialised her by only highlighting “feminist” Greer’s remark that our PM had “a big arse” and should stop wearing a particular style of jacket. Perhaps as Oscar Wilde said “all criticism is autobiographical”, as she did rather fill the TV screen herself I meanly thought.

A visiting editor-in-chief of the interesting Monocle magazine was surprised that Australia did not take more of a lead – given our location and English language – as a much needed voice in our Asia -Pacific region, rather like Al-Jazeera in the Middle East.

SHAME: The duck shooting season has begun in Australia, although most States have banned it; a visiting Brazilian student was tasered to death on a Sydney street; and there is finally, controversy over the use of whips – padded or otherwise, in Australian horse racing.

FOOD: a report from the Harvard School of Public Health Research states that excessive consumption of red meat is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality. Dietary guidelines in Australia recommend 3-4 servings of red meat per week and to limit or avoid processed meat. The rate of diabetes is predicted to double in a decade.

BOB CARR:  In a surprise move the PM replaced Kevin Rudd as Foreign Minister with an ex State Premier. Bob Carr is very articulate and intelligent, but as Premier, ran down the State’s infrastructure, and introduced spin over substance into Australian politics. In his maiden speech in the Senate, however, he did speak about an “overlap” rather than a “clash” of civilisations between the Western and Muslim worlds, is a believer in climate change, and is very concerned about the world’s oceans.  Unfortunately, after years of attention deprivation, he is a garrulous know-all and has made several diplomatic blunders already.

JULIAN ASSANGE:  A tweet from WikiLeaks said Julian Assange intends to stand for an Australian Senate seat – and that this is possible despite his present predicament in England. (27% of Indian politicians have faced criminal charges and I think some have even served from jail, while a Sydney Bangladeshi taxi driver told me 80% of parliamentarians in Bangladesh have had criminal convictions and wear it as a badge of honour!)

Meanwhile a UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has accused the US of “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” of Bradley Manning.

Rin Tin Tin

Rin Tin Tin Source: Spectrum SMH March 24th

RIN TIN TIN:  I have enjoyed the reviews of this recent book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend of the World’s Most Famous Dog by Susan Orlean.  Reviewer Delia Falconer in The Australian notes that in the 1920s Rin Tin Tin was earning eight times more than the studios human actors and received 2000 fan letters a week. He was also named as co-respondent in the divorce of his owner. “One gift of his longevity is he allows us to see, through him, an evolving entertainment culture.  And, more curiously, how we project the strangeness of our own humanity on to animals – all beasts of burden, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, “made to carry some portion of our thoughts””.

Fellow reviewer and dog lover Diana Simmonds in the SMH adds “Among much else, the reader will learn more than any sane person could ever want to know about dogs in movies, dogs in war, dog training, dog trainers and the genesis of the German shepherd (about 1899)”.

MISC STATS: 70% of internet traffic is devoted to porn; ebook sales rose by 623% between January and June 2011 in the UK; Forbes listed 1226 billionaires in the world with a combined wealth of US 4.6 trillion; 8 illegal unmanned drone attacks by the US this year so far – and it seems Australia will be hosting US surveillance drones from the Cocos Islands!

MAIL: Thanks to Kate for drawing my attention to two worthy organisations she supports – David Shepherd Wildlife and Wild tiger. Suddenly there seems to be great support for the endangered orangutangs – check out the Australian Orangutang Project. Apparently there were approximately 5000 orangutang deaths last year, and with 80% of their habitat lost, they could be extinct in 5-10 years. I received a nasty computer virus from a very worthy orangutang site, making my blog later than usual, so I won’t list that site for the moment!

EXHIBITIONS: We are currently spoiled for art exhibitions in Sydney. I’ve already mentioned colonial artist John Lewin’s Wild Art at the State Library, and Janet Laurence at the Sherman Contemporary Art  Foundation. William Kentridge is at Annandale Galleries.  Ruark Lewis is in two beautiful exhibitions – GADAWULKWULK at Cross Art Projects with Barayuwa Munugurr, and in Shadowplay with Jumaadi and Jason Wing at dna projects, Chippendale.  The Museum of Contemporary Art opens a new wing, and Michael Brand (ex Getty) has been appointed the new Director of the Art Gallery of NSW.

I was lucky enough to attend the opening of Opera Australia’s La Traviata staged on Sydney Harbour under a giant chandelier.

EARTH HOUR: It is important to participate in this global initiative which began in Australia 5 years ago and is an imaginative expression of a commitment to sustainability and environmental action.  People in at least 135 countries and independent states will be turning off their lights (Saturday 31st March 8.30pm Sydney time) – and remember to turn off electrical appliances at the wall as they are extremely wasteful of energy. Click here to find out more. La Traviata’s giant chandelier will be very conspicuous!

Installation by Jason Wing In Between Two Worlds, Kimber Lane, Chinatown, Sydney. Photograph David Corbet.

Installation by Jason Wing In Between Two Worlds, Kimber Lane, Chinatown, Sydney. Photograph David Corbet.