Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

24.6.20

Nuts in June.

Last weekend, Alan Kohler flagged an alternate universe to the panic-stricken one run by the timorous politicians and their health officer bureaucrats who see no problem in sending the engine room of the country over the cliff (see previous post).

In the same paper, Adam Creighton reviewed the priorities of the left, of which he says 'a common theme is now sanctimony, and vast reservoirs of it', quoting the UN:

David Beasley, executive director of the UN's World Food Program, warned in April that millions could starve as a result of the economic slump induced by the hysterical response to the coronavirus by advanced countries.

Creighton pointed the finger at bureaucrats and politicians:

... the university-educated bureaucrats, teachers, public health advocates, consultants and executives dependent on government contracts, et cetera, whose incomes are more stable (than the poor, itinerant workers, small business owners and independent professionals).

More stable? Public servants are complaining about lower pay rises while small business people are losing their roof over their heads. Creighton expanded on entrenched advantage:

Lockdowns have enriched this class financially and socially. ... As it becomes clearer that COVID-19 is not as lethal as feared, calls for tough public health measures look as if they are more about hurting the private economy to pave the way for a fattened-up clerisy than to save lives.

The 'fattened up clerisy' metaphor brings to mind medieval imagery of serfs and the overlord class. Indeed, there are now two classes in society – woke and broke. Add in a little medieval-style book-burning and you get today's picture.

A day after the Kohler and Creighton stories went to press, the Victorian Premier uttered the following staccato panic-inducing idiocy: 'Don't visit friends and family. Don't go on holiday. Don't go to work. Stay home'.

It's Wednesday. Two days before the school holidays commence, with thousands of families planning the break they didn't have during the lockdown, queues are forming outside supermarkets with panicked shoppers once again stocking up, like demented squirrels, on toilet rolls. Virus-testing stations are overloaded with wait times of up to four hours. Businesses are refusing to serve customers from supposed 'hot-spot' areas. Holiday venues are sending cancellation notices to clients who have made bookings, some threatening to call police if anyone from a particular postcode turns up.

Australia's current death toll? 103. Patients currently in intensive care? 6.

22.6.20

Alan Kohler looks forward to dinner in October.

Alan Kohler (Weekend Australian Business Review, 20/6/20) has been talking to the hospitality industry.

Right now, 3.3 million people and their employers are being supported by JobKeeper at a cost of $10bn per month. ... JobKeeper (ends) September 27 ... there's a very large and very specific problem with the deadline: the four square metres rule.

Kohler suggests the only way this can be lifted is if a vaccine exists, and if the rule is still in place after 27 September hospitality businesses go into receivership en masse and hundreds and possibly millions of people will be thrown out of work.

An economic catastrophe would ensue - an industry that represents 7.2 per cent of GDP and more than 10 per cent of the workforce would close. ... each restaurant that keeps to four square metres per patron would need each diner to spend at least $2500 per sitting in Sydney and $1500 in Melbourne. ... It's not possible. ... For another month the waiters, chefs and dishwashers thus unemployed would get the JobSeeker supplement of $550 per fortnight ... so they would survive (until) October 27 at which point they would have to get a job or cut expenses to $40 a day.

Once again, highly unlikely. Now it gets nasty:

If banks end mortgage repayment forbearance in September as planned, their houses would have to be sold. Nobody in the restaurant business, or tourism, would be able to service a mortgage - owners, chefs, waiters, nobody. ... Every mortgaged house ... would be listed for sale in October ... (leading to) ... a property collapse and financial crisis to go with the spike in unemployment and double-dip depression.

Bear in mind JobKeeper and JobSeeker are both bankrolled by the taxpayer of which, in this scenario, there are fewer and fewer.

... it must be likely that the state and federal chief medical officers will advise their governments not to allow people to mingle until there's a vaccine ... (and ) ... Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg are desperate to stop the budget leaking $10bn per month ...

So what's the answer?

... my guess is that Australia won't be the only country giving up on fighting the pandemic with social distancing before the third quarter is out. ... we are heading into a new world where a lot more people get sick and die than at any time since the 19th century ...

Especially since Australia relatively speaking has barely been touched. No: you never did throw the baby out with the bathwater.

3.6.20

Up in the attic.

Where else would I be? (Apart from walking through that piece of scenery in the previous post.*)

There's a million things to which you just would not get around in the normal course of events.

One of them is reading pieces of paper found inside the sleeve of an LP record purchased on December 12, 1972 (correct: I used to write in very small script the date of every record I purchased, inside the sleeve in order not to mark the artwork).

One of these pieces of paper was an advertising flyer from Festival Records. Here's some of the text:

Festival Records proudly presents this comprehensive catalogue of over 700 top selling albums from world renowned artists. These include the greatest overseas and Australian talent such as, Joe Cocker, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cat Stevens, Elton John, Shirley Bassey, Wendy Saddington, Blackfeather, Sergio Mendes & Brasil 77, Bee Gees, Freda Payne, Carole King, Burt Bacharach, Chain, Sandy Scott, Dionne Warwick, Ronnie Burns, Waldo De Los Rios, The Ventures, Reg Lindsay, Carpenters, Francoise Hardy, Billy Vaughn, Don McLean, Johnny Cash, Barry Crocker, Ferrante & Teicher, Slim Whitman, Johnny Rivers, Free, and Jamie Redfern plus top-selling original cast and soundtrack albums ....

THe juxtaposition of some of these names is amusing. (Although Barry Crocker did have a minor hit with Robin Luke's Susie Darlin', a very good version assisted by a John Farrar production with swirling post-psychedelic echo and distortion.)

I also found my original copy of Dark Side of the Moon, the original Quadraphonic pressing.

*

*The location is a small wilderness immediately south of the Western Ring Road at Glenroy, halfway between the Moonee Ponds and Merri Creeks. THe occasional bicycle traverses it and the distant hum of traffic on the Ring Road is the only reminder that you are in a large city.

28.4.20

Walk in the country.

Country? This spot is not a million miles from the city. Indeed, it is within walking distance of my inner suburban house. A long walk, but a walk nevertheless. Question: can you name this isolated location? Hint: it is within 16 kilometres of the CBD.

15.4.20

A lawyer and a metallurgist walk into a bar ....

HARRIS (LAYWER): These figures are nonsense.

SANDERSON (METALLURGIST): What figures?

HARRIS: These numbers in the paper. People who have it.

SANDERSON: Have what?

HARRIS: Don't be an idiot. You haven't been under a rock for the last month.

SANDERSON: I studied archaeology. Never use that analogy with me.

HARRIS: It is not an analogy. It is a literalism taken to an absurdly exaggerated degree. You should know that by your very admission of having studied archaeology. You might well have been under a rock at some time.

SANDERSON: Get to the point. You were talking about figures.

HARRIS: Today's figure: 71,000 tested.

SANDERSON: Tested?

HARRIS: Tested, for 1291 cases. But the 71,000 tests are carried out only, as we discussed last week, on people who fit one of two categories: they have been overseas or have been in contact with a confirmed case. So why test them? Why test anyone?

SANDERSON: To find out who's got it.

HARRIS: Why?

SANDERSON: Isn't that obvious?

HARRIS: No. Au contraire, it is an absurdity. It's needle in haystack irrational. It goes nowhere, achieves nothing.

SANDERSON: But it finds people who have it.

HARRIS: Why do you want to do that? Would it not be better to find people who have had it already – some random antibody test – and map it nationally to establish infection patterns?

SANDERSON: Is there such a test?

HARRIS: I don't know. I'm not a scientist or a doctor or a microbiologist or whoever knows these things. You studied science. You'd know more than me. I'm just a lawyer.

SANDERSON: Yes, a sanctimonious argumentative one. And no, I don't know. That wasn't my field of science.

HARRIS: The point is – and this should be pretty clear – that listing daily numbers of tested people is, statistically, utterly worthless and completely misleading. It means nothing. The only useful statistic is deaths and even they are being massaged.

SANDERSON: What?

HARRIS: The death figures. Spun. Look, we've been through all this before. Some countries have changed their definitions. Where once respiratory illness might have finished off a terminal patient with cancer 24 hours before his death, the death was still put down to cancer. That was his underlying disease. That's what led to the death. My own father died of lung cancer, but his heart stopped on the morning of his death. The death certificate didn't say heart disease, it said cancer. But some nations are adding all of these to the list totals of the current epidemic – rightly or wrongly I don't know. But with infection figures dropping by the day, any government testing for the virus is, as I said, looking for needles in haystacks. And they are still only testing people who fulfil narrow criteria!

SANDERSON: Maybe you should have been a doctor.

HARRIS: I hate sick people. All that whingeing.

SANDERSON: And your criminal clients don't complain?

HARRIS: Only when I don't get them off, so it's within my control.

SANDERSON: You hard-hearted bastard. Has anyone done testing of that nature? Antibodies or immunity or something?

HARRIS: I don't know: that's what I'm asking. And if they were, they could establish a kind of ratio of people who had had the virus – including those who had been unaware of any symptoms – and how old they were, and where they lived, and other demographic information. This would also help to establish a more accurate death rate instead of the scare figures being bandied around by bureaucrats who seem to have NFI.

SANDERSON: Yeah. What about that Canberra dickhead, what's his name?

HARRIS: I don't know, they're all called Brett or Brent or Brendan or something. Must be some kind of public service initiation rite.

SANDERSON: Murphy's his name. The Australian Chief Medical officer. No Irish jokes please.

HARRIS: A chief health officer walks into a bar and then walks right out again because of the virus.

SANDERSON: Exactly. Brendan Murphy has been forced to apologise after stating a rumour as fact, that hospital staff in Tasmania attended an illegal dinner party, contributing to a massive rise in infections. Here's what he said:

(OPENS MORNING NEWSPAPER) 'Yesterday, Professor Brendan Murphy ... told NZ MPs that of 49 hospital-linked over the weekend, most of them attended an "illegal" party of medical workers.' Then it said he issued a 'clarification'.

HARRIS: Oxford definition, grovelling apology.

SANDERSON: Indeed. He said, "I am now informed that the contact tracing has not confirmed that the dinner party occurred." The health union wants him to apologise for circulating "vicious rumours".

HARRIS: I'd want him to do more than apologise. This not some journalist. It is the chief medical officer of the nation. He should resign. No one in that role should be retailing rumours. Meanwhile they're fining people for visiting their grandmother in a cemetery.

SANDERSON: No shortage of immunity there. Another scotch?

13.4.20

Science Fiction Goes Fishing.

How do you cook that? she asked.

In milk, I said, with onions, the resulting sauce thickened and then poured over the fish.

She, a Filipino in her forties, was behind the deli counter in Woolworths and I was buying some smoked cod. She looked surprised, as though she had never even sold a piece of smoked cod, let alone cooked one. In doing so she confirmed my theory, developed here some time in the past, that smoked cod is the fish that time forgot. Our great- and standard-grandmothers cooked it and perhaps even our mothers. I have never seen anyone buy it, but it still sits there in the fish section in the supermarket deli. Perhaps being smoke-preserved it needs to be thrown out only once a week, unlike fresh fish, which turns over every day. So the supermarkets continue to stock it for some obscure ever-diminishing clientele, possibly me alone. Let's set up an exclusive organisation and make me the president. The Smoked Cod International Fanciers' Institute: SCI-FI.

This year, instead of cooking the fish and serving it with the white sauce on top and potatoes on the side, I made it in one dish, fisherman's pie-style.

On a very low heat, simmer one kilogram of cod in milk to which you have added a finely chopped onion. Drain the fish, and reserve the milk sauce to thicken slightly with cornflour.

Meanwhile, peel and put three or four large potatoes on to boil.

Flake the fish, combine it with the milk sauce and place the mixture in a large casserole.

Mash the potatoes with salt, pepper and chopped parsley and spoon over the top of the fish mixture.

Add a knob of butter, cover the casserole and bake in a medium oven for about half an hour. Add more chopped parsley to serve.

Broccoli florets boiled with rounds of zucchini – dressed in a little of the sauce; bread and butter to mop up the remaining sauce; pinot grigio.

Clink, clink. Don't come any closer. Just kidding.

4.4.20

The Long Walk.

The following figures are quoted by Dr John Lee, recently retired professor of pathology and former NHS (UK) consultant pathologist, in last week's Spectator: since September 2019, there have been 38 million infections, 390,000 hospitalisations and 23,000 deaths in the US – from flu.

On the other side of the world, in a small riverside town which was once Australia's largest trading port and is now a sleepy arcadian village where old paddle boats still steam around the river bends, a grandmother, completely recovered from CV, went shopping and 'received vile abuse', according to a newspaper. She was photographed and her image placed online – wild west 'wanted dead or alive' style – and someone wrote the comment "I hope you die you bitch".

Meanwhile, a ban has been placed on solitary – or any other kind, but solitary is the key word here – fishing. Nor can you go camping, away in the high country, far from the madding crowd, far from shrieking, hysterical women and men. Hysterical is the only word for the state's premier who with a straight face said, "no fishing trip ... is worth someone's life." The sheer inanity, indeed insanity of that statement was ignored by the state opposition leader who could manage only a pathetic rejoinder that "more clarity was needed around the rules". The poor distressed timorous little man was obviously fearful that any stronger statement would expose him to the hysteria of the mob.

Earlier in the week the same premier banned people in relationships – i.e, wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends – from visiting their partners residing at another address. More madness from a mad man. He was backed by his police minister, the robot with the little-girl voice. It took a health bureaucrat to overturn the idiocy later in the day.

The last day of good weather was Wednesday. OK, I'll go for a walk. A Raymond Chandler walk:
I walked. I walked. I walked. ... They built the Pyramids and got tired of them and pulled them down and ground the stone up to make concrete for Boulder Dam and they built that and brought the water to the Sunny Southland and used it to have a flood with. I walked all through it. ...
William came with me. He has shown signs from early years. We walked to Carlton once for lunch when he was nine. No complaints. On Wednesday we set out at eleven and headed due east, through North Coburg parklands where the great yellow film brand once had its Australian plant and where the film for 67 billion Australian holiday snaps originated. Now Kodak is gone and the land is sub-divided and people sit in their grey apartments and take another 67 billion photos, this time not as picturesque. We crossed Edgar's creek where mothers were out in small groups, straggles of children performing non-essential play as children will do; and we strode on into West Preston – or is it Reservoir? – and hit St George's Road, the wide boulevard that shoots directly north like an arrow, and where I once walked northwards as a teenager to the brand new athletics track at Edwardes Park on mythical Saturday afternoons that somehow had the golden glow of teenage optimism. This time we turned south, the teenager beside me the same age I was then. Here, St George's Road splits into two roadways with a wide grassed strip in between and a walking path down the middle and palm trees stretching along each side. We walked. The sun was hot. "L.A.," he said nodding at the palm trees. The concrete path stretched away down to the city skyline and I could imagine bikinied roller skaters emerging out of the distance but maybe that was just a clichéd image and anyway this was getting to be Northcote and they don't dress like that there. "Yes," I answered. "The palms. Or the wide pathways." Cyclists were passing in both directions now and there were more walkers than you would usually see on a Wednesday. We walked. We stopped at one of those pocket parks where a bridge passed over a small pond and some seats were shaded by trees. We sat on one of the benches and ate and drank and then resumed. The road went on, and the palms turned to some kind of deciduous tree that I couldn't work out, small-leaved and medium-sized. They would be bare in winter, but now we were in almost full shade. Then after a long time the road forked. "Here's the turn," I said. We crossed the road to the west side and walked along the path southwards until a small break indicated another pathway, which led down a long slope below the road level to where Merri Creek was a picture of reflected sun and curves and reeds. People, riding or walking, were blinking at each other as if to say who knew a week ago that Merri Creek on a Wednesday would find us here? There was plenty of space; no-one was on top of each other, and small groups were parked away in the grassy verges illegally eating lunch out of picnic baskets, or silently listening to something on headphones or just sitting. We walked. Moreland Zebras, Brunswick velodrome, CERES. We passed a woman with two small children on tricycles. One child said I don't want to go to CERES. I heard his mother reply, we're not, it's closed anyway, we're just going past it. And the child replied, but I don't want to go past it either! This was day or day two.

We walked. The sun beat down. Thornbury on one side, Brunswick the other, then Coburg and the old suburban farm that they never got to shut down and where they still grow crops that you can buy. Then over the new bridge that was built a few years ago when the old one kept getting washed away in Merri Creek’s frequent floodings. Gaffney Street, then up the hill overlooking the old Pentridge prison now full of grey apartments, and across Sydney Road and the railway line, and home. Three hours. Twenty kilometres.

He passed the test. Must be heredity. I had an uncle who walked. I don't mean walked to the post office. He crossed mountains, that kind of thing. He moved to New Zealand when I was a kid, but when I was sixteen I joined the same Melbourne bushwalking club of which he had been a member. They remembered him. He still walks in New Zealand, over 80 now. They call it tramping over there.

28.3.20

Cannery Go: teaching the twenty-first century world to eat out of a tin.

I started this blog in 2003 to record recipes, mostly ones that I had 'improvised' to put it mildly. The URL was ironic, because I was not a great cook. I'm OK now, can get around most recipes. I still don't like show-off, look-at-me recipes or meals, and I have never watched a reality cooking show on TV, and I'm not going to start now. However I did watch cooking shows produced by people who incorporated some kind of geographical context in their shows such as Mildura's Stefano di Pieri. A couple of the British chefs were good such as the straightforward Delia Smith and Scot Nick Nairn, while Antonio Carluccio's show was one of my weekly favourites. But the best cooking show of all time, in my opinion, was Two Fat Ladies. Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Paterson said what they thought and didn't give a toss what anyone else thought. Refreshing, entertaining and mature. Anyone wanting a look into a more freewheeling era with fewer cultural or verbal strictures would do well to dig up this series from the Google mine. (While you're there, get the 1980s Minder series as well. Best TV show ever. Nothing to do with food, of course, but a lot of drinking goes on between the fights.)

So across the seventeen years of this weblog I have posted several hundred improvised or sheer made-up recipes: below are some. I don't remember half of them and I don't have an index: I just typed 'cupboard' into the blog search bar.

This post from 2004 involved a can of beans and a few other random ingredients.

Eight years later, I delved into the cupboard of a hoarder and devised a recipe based around sardines.

From 2007, another recipe assembling sardines with assorted random ingredients from the cupboard. I suspect sardines are going to be popular over the next few months. Maybe as popular as the 1960s when we had them at least once a week in school lunches. Anyone seen a child eat a sardine sandwich in the past few decades?

Then, from 2013, a midnight snack conundrum: a can of diced tomatoes and yet more beans.

Where do beans come from? Have they upscaled production in bean plantations and canneries around the world? What if we run out of steel cans? Or labels? Or beans?

There is suddenly a lot of time to ponder all these important questions.

26.3.20

Another kind of crown.

And so we wind back the clock, past the GFC, the Y2K non-bug, the '87 crash, that '70s stagflation thing, the early '60s credit crunch, post-war austerity, two world wars with a depression in the middle, and a Boer war; and we crash land on page 245 of Martin Boyd’s The Cardboard Crown, where we find ourselves in the middle of the 1890s depression which, as always, followed a boom.

Arthur is giving a party to welcome his relative Alice back from England. He notes:
Nobody talked of anything but the financial crisis.
Later, Alice, whose diary is the basis for the novel, records:
'31 December. Dimanche. ... Went with Austin to the new cathedral. I do not like it ... hard, striped and confused ... No repose for the eye anywhere. They should whitewash it and hang up some good tapestries as at Arles. It needs softening. Sermon on the financial difficulty and trouble of this past year.'
Then the narrator:
As she listened to this financial sermon in the new striped cathedral, did she find it was the heart and not the eye for which there was no repose, and did she try to imagine that she was in the Duomo at Milan, or in Santa Croce, or in St. Peter's where the cardinal walked in procession in his petunia cope, and Aubrey waited outside between the colonnade and the fountains?
Aubrey is a shattered dream, left behind in Italy. Like a painted-over masterpiece slowly exposed by an art restorer, The Cardboard Crown peels back eighty years of a family’s history revealing tragedy on tragedy. Alice has married into the Langtons, whose ancestral home in England is kept up even though the family has settled in Australia, so that the family is torn between hemispheres. In England, at their ancestral Waterpark home:
... for two or three months (they) were intensely happy, driving together along the steep and shadowed lanes to sit among the ruins of Farleigh or pick wild flowers along the road to Longleat. In the evening they must often have walked out after dinner, and crossed the lawn to the stream and murmured there together in quiet voices which blended with the sounds of the twilight, the mourning of the small gnats, the splash of a trout rising, or the last twitter of a bird, while all around them was the drowsy beauty of the English summer meadows, the scenes and scents of home.
Then back in Australia:
There are in the country outside Melbourne little cottages built of bark and tin, whitewashed, with vines along their walls, and the fowls pecking at the hard earth under the fig tree, where one feels the disguised Ulysses might have asked for shelter and a bowl of goat's milk, while one cannot possibly imagine him calling at Waterpark, with its far greater antiquity. But this may be partly due to the feeling one has in the Australian countryside, that it has known the morning of the world.
Alice's diaries, conversations with relatives, and retold family mythology are Boyd's sources. Each is an opaque cloud that fleetingly opens up as it moves across the reader's line of vision before vaporising out of view. Boyd is even, evocative, poetic, almost allegorical; his long perfectly weighted sentences are commuted into precise phrases that convey the passage and decay of time by their very construction.

Rather than committing the artifice of sitting a literary quote smugly on its own page before the start of the narrative, Boyd drops Marcel Proust into the start of chapter one, making it the reasonable consideration of the narrator instead of an author's pomposity:
'When we have passed a certain age, the soul of the child that we were, and the souls of the dead from whom we spring, come and bestow upon us in handfuls their treasures and their calamities'. The realisation that I had reached this age came upon me one night in 1949. It was after midnight, and I was driving through pouring rain from a dinner party in Toorak up to Westhill, my home in the country, thirty miles from Melbourne. My thoughts were accompanied by the dreary whining of the windscreen wiper, and occasionally and dangerously interrupted by the blinding lights of a timber lorry, driven presumably by a drunkard of a criminal.
No family saga/chronicle/history/narrative clichés do this book justice. Tragedy occurs over and over, but the author understood that the emotional response is the reader's job, not to be plastered onto the page by the author.

*

Alice, based on a real person, was of that generation whose sons would be decimated in the Great War. Those who survived would face Spanish flu which would claim more than the war’s toll. Alice's such bereaved contemporaries would then, in middle to late age, witness another depression and might still be alive to see yet another son-crunching world conflict. Those real-life Alices who made it that far would surely have wondered if the course of evolution could withstand the wastage of a couple of generations' worth of the finest and best young men. The question remains today. The twentieth century was as savage a destroyer of life as any time in human history. Have those who were left – the men who stayed behind – lived up to their brothers' ideals, or determination, or courage? After all, we are only twenty years into the subsequent century. A lot of leaders look like vacillating, arm-waving emoticons jumping to salute the latest public mood swing; without resolve, without strength, without historical perspective, without an original thought, without a clue.

Perhaps civilisation had been mortally wounded in some rain-soaked field in France in 1916.

*

The Cardboard Crown by Martin Boyd
1952 Cresset Press London

*

Kitchen Hand instant summary: The Cardboard Crown should be read by every Australian high school student; but good luck if you can find a copy.

19.3.20

The Jargon Virus.

The big autumn wet (most March rain since 1929 – and that fell in the first few days) ended and a longer period of warm sunny days came in. I went to bed, the smell of new cut grass and lavender stealing in the open window and the long stems of the rose bushes – almost up to the eaves – tapping against the house in the night air. The night was mild and I pushed down one blanket.

It must have been well after midnight when I woke. I pulled up the other blanket. Near dawn, I woke again. This time I was cold, so I got out of bed and put on a warm top. In the morning I dressed warmer than the temperature – 26 celsius – warranted. I felt like I wasn't there. I felt weak. The day passed in a kind of surreal light as if I was watching it but not in it.

That night was cooler but this time, towards morning, I threw the blankets off. I wasn't cold any more. I was hot. I sweated. That day I stayed home.

The doctor had two questions:

- Have you been overseas?

- No. Not ever.

- Not ever?

- Correct. Life got in the way.

- Never mind. It's all ahead of you, when the airlines fly again. If they fly again. Have you been in contact with anyone with the virus?

- How would I know? I've been to about seven crowded supermarkets looking unsuccessfully for a number of items necessary for the effective functioning of life in a civilised society such as hygiene; so who knows who I've been in contact with?

- No. I meant that you know has the virus.

- Then no.

OK, that was three questions but the middle one was just conversation. He continued:

- Then no test.

- No test?

- No.

- Then how would I know?

- You don't and you won't. The test is for people who have a higher likelihood of getting the virus, and the criteria are you have been overseas or you have had contact with someone with the virus already. So go home.

- Do I (to use as ugly a piece of jargon as 'social distancing') self-isolate?

- No. You already said you've been hanging around supermarkets too much so what would be the point?

The next day, the third, I was a well man again, well enough to face up to coffee. That is always a sign. You are sick when you can't face a strong coffee.

*

Everything was cancelled. Football training, athletics, the cricket awards night, girl guides. The lot. Society stopped in its tracks. Isolationism is the new mantra, despite doc's suggestion. Bureaucrats said 'don't panic' (as if they had to spend half a day visiting multiple supermarkets to obtain supplies for their children.) Then they – or at least the prime minister, which is the same thing, as bureaucrats write his speeches and he just reads them with a kind of deprecating smirk – said this could last six months. That other idiot, the Victorian chief health officer, last week said 'don't panic, but stock up for a fortnight just in case'. That sent them out in their millions hunting down supplies. He's an idiot not for his medical expertise which I am sure is adequate but for the sheer stupidity of that statement.

On Tuesday evening when normally the thump and cry of football training would echo across Raeburn reserve and the two boys would work up teenage appetites, I took them and their sister instead to Williamstown beach where they waded in the still silvery water under an overcast sky and a blanket of heavy humid air. The sun sank, and out on the water, a cruise ship sat shiftily, as if waiting. Another was closer in. They looked like Chandler's the Royal Crown and the Montecito from Farewell My Lovely, but they were far deadlier. They were waiting to dock at Station Pier with their noxious payload.

10.3.20

The Paper Chase.

I read John Wyndham's science fiction novels in 1972 across the long mild winter in the wooden building that housed Four Gold. The library had purchased new Penguin copies with newly designed covers combining clean negative images over 1970s-style fluoro backgrounds and now, decades later, I looked for them again for the boys, who are now the age I was then.

I ordered new copies from Pictures and Pages. The publisher is still Penguin, but the cover art is new, each book themed with effete-looking (SOED def. 3) youths with pale faces, doe eyes and sensitive lips. One has a bird sitting on his head (The Midwich Cuckoos), one lichen growing on his face (Trouble with Lichen) and one sits in a deck chair on the seabed (The Kraken Wakes). What on earth was the publisher's brief to the cover artist?

While I'm on the subject, the print and paper quality of these books is appalling. The type almost bleeds into the rough paper, on which you can see flecks of darker fibre, which is not good for someone who has PVD in his eyes. A hint to the poor paper quality can be found opposite the title page: greenpenguin.co.uk. Further:
'This book is made from Forest Stewardship Council™ certified paper'.
If you really want to save the planet, try to find the originals, second-hand. They'll be easier to read.

I ate the books alive in 1972, but I'd forgotten the plot details. When the new books arrived, I read the blurbs:

' ... a mysterious silver object appears (in a sleepy village) and all the inhabitants fall unconscious. ... A day later the object is gone and everyone awakes unharmed, except ... ';

'It started with fireballs raining down from the sky and crashing into the oceans' deeps. Then ships began sinking mysteriously and later "sea tanks" emerged from the deep to claim people ...';

' ... a scintillating story of the power wielded by science in our lives and asks: how much trust should we place in those we appoint to be its guardians?';

' ... everyone (in the world) ... (is) blinded by a meteor shower ... civilisation (is) in chaos, ... huge, venomous plants able to "walk", feeding on human flesh ... '.

It all came flooding back to me. The tiresome dreariness of 1972's Form Four Gold - epitomised by Brother Heslin's appalling biblical studies classes - had an antidote. I could escape via sport only on Wednesday afternoons when the thump and cry of football games echoed across Fairbairn Park beside the river but back in the classroom, hunched in the far left corner of the back row, I could read a John Wyndham novel any time, any day, hidden behind some vile textbook.

*

I gave the boys their books, and that night I dreamed a terrifying new virus had circled the world hidden inside mankind's most common symptom: the cough. Whether the slightest clearing of a throat to the heaviest smoker's hack, no-one knew who carried the virus. Borders were closed, panic followed and overnight, toilet paper disappeared from supermarket shelves, leading to a shortage of a vitally essential material:

Forest Stewardship Council™ certified paper made from responsible sources.

26.2.20

The Talk of the Town: real life Eustace Tilley found in ineffectual marketing department. Part Two (or possibly three) of an occasional series.

Of course, it was an extraordinary coincidence that I had been a witness to both the Coles' home brand launch in Tooronga and to the northern suburbs store manager's acid comment about the brand on the other side of town.

O (the literary 'O') yes! It was a long way from Tooronga to Pascoe Vale; so far distant that never had it been heard that any person from that hilltop eyrie looking imperiously across Gardiner's Creek (and no less a freeway than the Monash) had ever come to visit, or even pass through, that flat square of a suburb stretching itself taut from Hadfield's cream-brick nightmare in the north to hippy North Brunswick in the south, and North Coburg in the east before dropping off a western cliff at Gaffney Street into the muck of Moonee Ponds Creek and the murk of that other freeway, the Tullamarine; which is not to say it hadn't happened – but who, and when, and where, and why – was as lost in the unrecorded minutiae of life in a city of five million as a wedding ring tossed into Port Philip Bay.

Except me. I lived there, that is to say, in that stretched handkerchief of post-war houses and suburban football grounds and streets named after English counties – 'Essex Street' – not the aforementioned dowager of a suburb in between stuffy, blue-rinse Camberwell and toffy Toorak.

This is probably an exaggeration. An art director daughter of an agency principal (she couldn't draw) I worked with once said she'd never been to Sunshine (a western suburb), but that an uncle of hers had driven through it once – like you'd remember being on the first manned flight to the moon, or your cousin was on death row once. It doesn't matter. The point is that there was a deep gulf between the simpering, social climbing inner eastern private school Brighton-accented class that ran the marketing departments of large corporates, and the northern suburbs supermarket workers who stood outside smoking in the darkness in between shifts and could nail the truth of something in five well-chosen words. This puzzle has never been solved, or explained: that the latter class can (note: can) be articulate bordering on terse, and instantly dismissive of obvious stupidity; while the private school educatarchy (yes, no such word but there should be) has a natural tendency to produce verbal sludge, whether typed into their keyboards or spoken out loud, albeit in well-rounded modulated tones. Those long drawn out vowels are hell to listen to. They could also convince themselves that black was white. You'll Love Coles.

This particular bunch of grapes was led by a dandy who wore very good dark blue suits and who preened and surrounded himself with mainly female acolytes. He also liked to have imported newspapers and magazines delivered to his office, rather than to his home. On one particular occasion when I was in the same building doing some kind of rudimentary – it could not have been anything else – writing, I actually saw him become cross if not angry because someone had borrowed one. Where's my New Yorker magazine? he thundered. Who took it? Like there were two members of the look-at-me intelligentsia on the same floor. As if. He wore glasses, and was tall and thin. Hell, if he had broken his specs in two and peered through one half he was Eustace Tilley! Coincidences like this don't occur daily.

His acolytes had that accent, and they swished around headquarters in a cloud of fine white linen/cotton/whatever and bobbed haircuts, and wore dangerous-looking earrings and red pumps, and carried important-looking folders into meetings and frowned. They all frowned, because it made you look intelligent instead of vacant.

Then the wheel/circle/name your mixed metaphor turned. Ian McLeod, the hard nut Scot retailer was brought in from the UK to fix Coles. He was briefed on its state. People did not like the Coles 'shopping experience', they told him. He arrived in Australia, visited one of the stores, and was confronted with a shelf holding seven thousand cans bearing the logo: You'll Love Coles. His words echoed the prescient reaction of that store manager out in the suburbs several months earlier:

You've gotta be fuckin' joking.


The story got back to Tooronga about five minutes later. People froze. It was comical. I was there. It was like in those cartoons where a character gets rooted to the spot, and then it cracks all over, and then it falls to the ground in bits.


15.2.20

The Can of Beans.

ABOUT A DECADE AGO. IN THE BOARDROOM OF A MAJOR NATIONAL SUPERMARKET CHAIN, TWENTY MARKETING PEOPLE (AND ME AS A FREELANCE WRITER ON AN IN-HOUSE VISIT) ARE SITTING AROUND A MASSIVE TABLE. THE CHIEF MARKETING EXECUTIVE HAD BRIEFED THE COMPANY'S ADVERTISING AGENCY TO COME UP WITH A NEW NAME FOR ITS HOUSE BRAND LINE OF GROCERIES AND WAS MIFFED WHEN THE AGENCY FAILED TO PRODUCE AN EXTENSIVE POWERPOINT PRESENTATION, PRESENTING ITS NAMING IDEAS ON TRADITIONAL PHYSICAL BOARDS INSTEAD. THE SUPERMARKET CHAIN, IN A FIT OF PIQUE, HAS DECIDED TO SPURN ITS AGENCY AND PRODUCE THE IN-HOUSE BRAND ITSELF.

SMILING MARKETING PERSON NAMED PAMELA (FIFTIES, BOBBED FAKE-BLONDE HAIRCUT, RED LIPSTICK, EARRINGS TO MATCH, CHAIN OF CHUNKY RED STONES, SLEEVELESS WHITE LINEN DRESS, RED HEELS): Thanks, everyone. I'm glad you could all make it this morning. It's an important day in the annals of supermarket retailing in this country. And an important day in the history of great brands, because today we are commencing Australia-wide domination for a brand new brand. (SHE LAUGHS) Brand new brand. Get it?

BORED TITTERS FROM THOSE ACTUALLY LISTENING.

SMILING MARKETING PERSON CONTINUES: As you know, we asked our advertising agency to present on this momentous challenge to the future of our industry and to come up with names and pack designs for this iconic new house brand.

DOOR BANGS OPEN, ANOTHER THREE MARKETING PEOPLE ENTER WITH COFFEE CUPS IN HAND.

SMILING MARKETING PERSON CONTINUES, SMILE UNDISTURBED: Oh, good morning: I was just explaining some of the history of the development of our new initiative in the packaged goods area ...

THE INTERRUPTERS SIT DOWN NOISILY.

SMILING MARKETING PERSON: ... and how we briefed our very expensive advertising agency on directions for the new brand name and packaging design and how they presented their concept ...

SHE SHAKES HER HEAD AND TRAILS OFF BEFORE CONTINUING.

... on boards! Can you believe that? I still can't. I mean, what is PowerPoint for? The launch of a new in-house product for a major national supermarket chain deserves at the very least a two-hour PowerPoint presentation with what, fifty pages of development, strategy and creative execution?

A BORED MARKETING EXECUTIVE SITTING AT THE TABLE: Maybe they figured it was just a 99 cent can of beans.

SMILING MARKETING PERSON (STOPS SMILING MOMENTARILY): It's not about the beans, Tony. It's about the prestige of a major national supermarket chain. Mere suppliers need to recognise our importance. I expect nothing less.

TONY: But some suppliers are actually quite good at efficiency and perhaps don't see the need to spend three hours and an endless PowerPoint presentation to introduce a new name for ...

SMILING MARKETING PERSON (NOW NOT SMILING AGAIN): Efficiency? Efficiency? What's efficiency got to do with it?

TONY: Well, it's just that some of the agencies I've worked with (prior to joining this company) no longer believe in complex and colourful but ultimately vapid technology for its own sake; and have gone back to the simplicity of presenting concepts on tactile boards that artists have actually created.

SMILING MARKETING PERSON: Not here they don't. And anyway, we're efficient: we've eliminated several hundred suppliers to our supermarkets in our inexorable drive to world house-brand domination. That's efficiency. Imagine not having to deal with all those suppliers.

SHE HITS A BUTTON AND THE SCREEN LIGHTS UP. SHE CONTINUES: And so we thanked the agency very much, saw them to the door, slammed it behind them and decided to come up with a new house brand name ourselves. After all, we know ourselves best, don't we?

SHE LOOKS AROUND ENQUIRINGLY AT THE GATHERED MARKETING DEPARTMENT, SOME OF WHOM ARE LISTENING.

SMILING MARKETING PERSON: So we invested great time and major resources in researching the history of our house brands. First there was Embassy. That was too '60s and nationalistic. Then there was Farmland. That was too childish and unbelievable and anyway, Woolworths owns the Fresh Food people and has farmers in its ads. I can't think why.

And after much deliberation, I am very glad to say (SHUFFLING THROUGH A FEW MORE PPT PAGES OF MEANINGLESS GRAPHS AND SQUIGGLES AND CLICHES) that we have been able to come up with a name so exceedingly memorable that people will not fail to take it to their hearts and never buy a proprietary brand again.

A name that reflects the beloved position our very own company holds in the hearts of every Australian.

A name that might ultimately grace products in every aisle of every one of our stores across this great nation of ours.

SHE CLICKS ONTO THE REVEAL SHOT, WHICH SHOWS THE NEW NAME IN THREE COLOURS:

You'll Love Coles.

THE BOARDROOM ERUPTS INTO DESULTORY APPLAUSE FROM ABOUT THREE PEOPLE. THE REST JUST STARE.

SMILING MARKETING PERSON: You'll Love Coles! Isn't it wonderful! Because people do! They love us! They love our clean, well-stocked stores, they love our friendly service, they love the way our staff treat them, they love everything about us! And they will love that they will now be able to buy their favourite product under our very own name! Heinz, SPC, Kraft - who needs them?

SHE PAUSES FOR BREATH

And we will love the extra margin and not having to deal with brand managers.

THEY EXIT AND GO TO LUNCH IN THE HEAD OFFICE CAFETERIA THE SIZE OF A FOOTBALL STADIUM THAT SERVES BAD COFFEE AND CELLOPHANE-WRAPPED SALAD ROLLS THAT ARE ALREADY LIMP AND MOIST.

TWO MONTHS LATER.

LATE ONE EVENING. AFTER A LONG DAY WRITING TENDERS FOR A NATIONAL OFFICE SUPPLIES CLIENT, I AM PICKING UP SOME GROCERIES FOR DINNER IN MY LOCAL SUPERMARKET IN THE NORTHERN SUBURBS. WORKERS ARE STACKING SHELVES WITH NEW YOU'LL LOVE COLES BAKED BEANS. THE STORE MANAGER WALKS PAST.

STORE MANAGER: Great name, isn't it? I wonder which head office genius came up with that.

HE PAUSES. THE SHELF STACKERS LOOK AT HIM, PICKING UP IMMEDIATELY ON HIS SARCASM.

STORE MANAGER: Because people don't love Coles at all. They fucking hate Coles.

SUDDENLY ONE OF THE STACKS COLLAPSES, AND EIGHT HUNDRED CANS OF YOU'LL LOVE COLES REDUCED-SALT BAKED BEANS COME CRASHING DOWN.

STORE MANAGER: Says it all, really.

13.2.20

The Girl From San Carlos de Bariloche.

IT WAS EVENING AFTER A LONG DAY'S SHOOT IN THE HILLS BEHIND THE LAKESIDE CITY OF SAN CARLOS BARILOCHE, CIRCA 1992. THE LAST RAYS OF THE SUN HAD TURNED THE RED TERRACOTTA ROOF TO BURNING ORANGE AND THE WHITE WALLS TO GOLD. BEYOND THE HOUSE, SOME EUCALYPTS WERE SWAYING GENTLY IN THE WARM EVENING BREEZE AND THEIR BARE, LITHE GOLDEN LIMBS WERE AS SENSUOUS AS ANY FEMALE'S. WELL NOT QUITE, BUT ALMOST. YES, EUCALYPTS.

I WAS TOYING WITH A DRINK AND LUSTING AFTER THE DELICIOUS AROMA OF PRIME ARGENTINIAN BEEF ROASTING ON THE BARBECUE. SOME KIND OF BOSSA NOVA MUSIC DRIFTED OUT OF THE HOUSE AND CAME ON THE WARM BREEZE, LIKE SAND BEING SHAKEN IN A GLASS BOTTLE.

SHE WAS SITTING ON THE CHAIR OPPOSITE. HER EYES WERE PROBABLY DARK BROWN, BUT THEY FLASHED BLACK AND SOMETHING ELSE. MAYBE LIGHTNING. HER HAIR WAS SO BLACK IT SHONE ALMOST BLUE IN THE DARKENING SHADOWS. SHE WAS WEARING A SIMPLE SLEEVELESS COTTON DRESS, A RED FLORAL PRINT OVER CREAM. HER SKIN WAS SEVERAL SHADES DEEPER THAN THE CREAM BUT PROBABLY TEN TIMES CREAMIER. AS SHE SPOKE I WATCHED HER LIPS STRUGGLE OVER THE UNFAMILIAR, HARSH ENGLISH CONSONANT AND VOWEL FORMATIONS.

THE GIRL FROM SAN CARLOS DE BARILOCHE: So what ees copywriter? (HER LIPS HAD PARTICULAR TROUBLE WITH THE LAST WORD, ALTERNATIVELY POUTING AND STRETCHING IN THAT OVER-EXPRESSIVE LATIN WAY.)

ME: Huh? Oh. Copywriters write ads. Technically, the text is called copy, hence copywriter.

THE GIRL FROM SAN CARLOS DE BARILOCHE: I thought eet was sometheeng to do with protecting 'copyright'. My Engleesh ... (THE LIPS AGAIN - OVER THE WHITE TEETH)

ME (TAKING A SIP OF MY RED WINE, AN ARGENTINIAN SOMETHING OR OTHER): Huh - copyright. As if! There's almost no copyright in advertising. Everyone just steals everyone else's ideas. No, nothing to do with copyright. Although the confusion is perfectly understandable. And it's not your lack of English, I get that kind of thing at home all the time. People who don't work in advertising think copywriters are like patent attorneys or something.

THE GIRL FROM SAN CARLOS DE BARILOCHE: (SHE SHIFTS HERSELF AND RE-SETTLES IN HER CHAIR AND THE SIMPLE DRESS SHIFTS WITH HER AND I KIND OF DON'T NOTICE WHAT SHE SAYS): So you write ideas for advertising, that ees it?

ME: Um, what? Oh, yes. Although it is sometimes very difficult to concentrate ...

LATER, THE BARBECUE IS SERVED. THE GIRL FROM SAN CARLOS DE BARILOCHE EATS WITH GUSTO, WITHOUT INHIBITION OR PRETENCE. SHE HAS THE ASSURED SELF-CONFIDENCE THAT WOMEN OFTEN LACK WHEN EATING IN PUBLIC. OF COURSE, SHE IS PERFECTLY WELL-MANNERED, BUT HER SELF-ASSURANCE MEANS THAT ONE WOULD FORGIVE HER IF SHE WERE TO PICK UP A BONE IN HER BARE HANDS, LUSTILY CHEW THE MEAT OFF IT, AND THEN THROW IT INTO THE DARKENING SHRUBBERY AT THE EDGE OF OUR LITTLE OUTDOOR DINING ALCOVE. SHE DOESN'T, OF COURSE. HER RIGHT HAND GRASPS HER KNIFE, AND AS SHE CUTS HER STEAK, SHE SWAYS GENTLY.

I FORGET WHAT HAPPENED NEXT.