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


Falling down the well.

I once had the acquaintance of a group of Uniting Church types who used to get together to do 'Good Works'. (Normally I don't capitalise key words but these people were so upright, they resembled capital letters themselves as they strode into their church hall, once home of the long-gone choir, to discuss their next charitable expedition 'abroad'.)

Mostly they were upper middle class widows from Kew and East Hawthorn who could afford to travel but some were gentlemen, retired woolly academic types or timid pastors who hadn't quite made it as zeal-filled missionaries, but still liked the travel aspect. They all got on together like a house on fire, of course. At their monthly meetings the ladies discussed the agenda fiercely – which third world country should be the next destination - while the men silently made tea in the corner, and with slender pale hands put out not enough stale biscuits on a tray. Hopeless.

I used to drive one of the men to the airport from Camberwell so he could save on taxi fares. The trips were hardly pilgrimages. They stayed in hotels, although they did fly Qantas economy where they'd eat the pre-prepared Neil Perry fare rather than the first class chef and sommelier deal. However, once arrived, the travellers were careful to eat only the correct regional cuisine for the area visited as a kind of gastronomical correctness. On return to Australia they'd hold dinner parties and put around plates of punugulus as if they were Smiths crisps. "Oh, just one of the things we ate in India," they'd say airily, plonking down giant bowls of pindi chole and Kerala mutton.

At one of these dinner parties, an old dear - we'll call her Mrs Jellyby - sipped her glass of mineral water and told me about the well they had provided in some scummy village in a part of India. They had travelled overnight on two buses and a crowded train from the city into which they had flown. The well was communal, of course. "It takes a village to raise a bucket," explained the old dear gravely, which was either gag of the day or she was demented, or maybe both. The well would allow the women of the village to lower a bucket on a rope and drag up some filthy artesian water with which they could cook chick peas or rinse garments or whatever it was that Indian women did when they weren't burning cow dung in their huts to stop their babies dying of cold, or walking around with pots on their heads. Or was that the African expedition? The stories all ran into one after a while, like the tigers turning to butter in Little Black Sambo.


Time and many monthly meetings passed in the old Uniting Church hall, now a 'refugee centre'. One night, someone raised a motion that they adopt a new way of being kind to poor people. Maybe they had tired of standing around in an Indian field while watching an Indian guy operating a drill in the back of a Hindustan truck. An ingenious new system had been developed, said the member, whereby you made a credit card payment and donated a goat, a duck, a piglet, or an entire farm if you had deep pockets. You could even give a Hindustan truck. Whatever. It would still be cheaper than your airfare to India. This had two key benefits. One, you could attain the moral high ground without leaving your house; and two, you could give the card proclaiming what you had given to a friend in lieu of a Christmas or birthday gift. Or for no reason at all, other than to signal that you were a Charitable Person, in capitals again.


More time passed and it was clear that token gestures would never have the effect of sheer scale, the kind of scale only possible through serious industrial undertaking. India's Adani approached Australia to run a Queensland mine, with resulting infrastructure bringing employment to Australians while providing power for an India for which a million wells, goats or Hindustan trucks are never enough.


Blow me down if I didn't see the old Uniting Church types getting in on the act. Opposing the mine. No power for cowpat-burning Indians! The dementia had clearly advanced.


Come and work at the tax office and end up somewhere 'unexpected'.

Today I was invited to consider a 'communications' position at the fraud-ridden Australian Taxation Office. The job description - it's in the public domain, so there's no breach of confidentiality - is beyond parody:
At the ATO, you'll do work you can't do anywhere else.
Nowhere else could you hide $165 million in your top drawer.
Work that is meaningful, diverse and challenging. Work that makes a real difference to the lives of Australians, and that contributes to their economic and social wellbeing. Work that might take you somewhere unexpected.
... Build cutting edge systems that engage, and make it easier to do the right thing than it is to do the wrong.
That last sentence would have any other organisation ripping the ad down in seconds. And I don't mean the bad grammar.


A barrister, a football player and a bureaucrat walk into a bar. Who buys the first round?

Once, a long time ago, when the offence industry was yet to be funded by the Australian taxpayer, Lou Richards made Melbourne laugh.

Yesterday his Flinders Street journey ended at St Paul's Cathedral after long sojourns at the Herald Sun HSV7 building and the Phoenix Hotel. Patrick Carlyon tries to define Richards' appeal:
Part insecurity, part vanity, part truth, part mockery.
Mockery? Isn't mockery a crime now? Ron Joseph delivered some choice Richards scorn on the late clown's behalf at his funeral, including barbs such as "Rhodes scolar, my bum" for ex-AFL bureaucrat Mike Fitzpatrick, who hasn't cracked a smile since he lost a game for Carlton in 1981 when an umpire pinged him for wasting time. Carlyon continues:
It was always impossible to read Richards' deepest motivations for his lighthearted grandiosity, except that we knew Richards was always looking for a laugh.
Speaking of looking for a laugh, in the same newspaper, letter-writing barrister Geoffrey Steward, under the heading 'Our humourless malaise', mourns the death of humour:
Not a day passes when we do not hear about someone being offended ... The cause of this indulgent malaise is the diminishing possession of any sense of humour by so many.
One of the examples Steward cites was an ad for SportsBet featuring 1988 Olympic drug cheat Ben Johnson. That is, repeat, 1988. A twenty-nine year old incident. The infantile bureaucrat class was beside itself, aided and abetted by its social media security blanket. Drug cheats! Gambling! Whatever!

Stephen Brook, 'media writer': "This disgraceful ad for Sportsbet ... celebrates cheating in sport." No, it doesn't, Stephen, it celebrates being able to have a bet, which is legal. Federal sports minister and nanny state bully Greg Hunt: " ... utterly inappropriate ...". Acting ASADA chief executive Judy Lind said she "could not condone the message sent in the advertisement". You can hear the ice in these comments.

Nevertheless, humour still exists. In pockets. Last weekend, a sledge of Lions player Nick Robertson by Hawthorn's Isaac Smith had the umpire laughing (The Score, Scott Gullan, Herald Sun 18 May). Smith believes what is said on the field stays on the field, and is not a fan of a suggested 'code of conduct' for sledging.
"Give me a spell," he said. "Fair dinkum, I don't know what we're going to if we have a players' code of conduct on sledging. ... With sledging everyone has a moral compass and you know where you sit on that."


Rewrite that caption, editor. Editor?

Caption to photograph (Herald Sun, 17 May) of new AFL umpire:
AFL football operations manager Simon Lethlean unveils new league umpire Eleni Glouftsis yesterday.


Days Eight to Ten.

I had been dreaming about being chased by a large mosquito that kept going around my head getting louder and louder. Then I woke and the mosquito noise was a power boat doing laps of the lake.

I had drifted off in a deck chair on the grassy bank of a large lake. Now it was late morning and the sun was warm and there was a light breeze. The newspaper I had dropped had blown across the grass and one piece of broadsheet was actually in the lake. Now the boat was on the far side of the water, and trailing the boat was a large round inflatable dinghy to which two small figures were clinging. The driver of the boat seemed to be flicking the steering wheel, so that the dinghy was being drawn back and forth across the corrugated wake of the boat. The two figures were hanging on like cats on the roof of a moving car. The boat came back around clockwise and as it turned, one figure loosened his grip, apparently intentionally; and the g-forces pushed him over the other figure and the dinghy moved under the weight and overturned and the two figures were thrown off and did a kind of gymnastic commando roll in slow motion and smacked the water. The boat did a lazy arc back to the two figures who were hauling the dinghy over itself to right it, and they pulled themselves out of the water and on board the dinghy, and the boat roared off again. The figures were William and Thomas.

They went around about twenty times. Then the boat idled in to shore and flicked the dinghy around in one lazy arc and the boys collapsed onto the shore, almost unable to walk, dizzied by the ride and the wake and the falls.

The rest of the time they raced go-karts around the dusty pathways of the park between the cabins. The park stretched around the lake from 5.25 to about quarter to eight on a clock. The lake looks large but its perimeter allows a slow run or a fast walk well under an hour. They print scenic run of the month in Runner's World but nothing has ever beaten the scenery around Lake Boort.


Cabin No. 7 was at the end of a row, looking out over the lake. On the first night the sun had turned the lake and the sky orange as it went down and the orange flooded the cabin. The cabin had a covered platform like a low balcony out the front and we sat in the orange glow and ate dinner that I had cooked on sparkling utensils on a stove that was out of a 1970s kitchen cleaner commercial. It was so clean you could practically hear the jingle. The whole place was so spotless you wanted to hose the children down outside before letting them in, if at all.


Sometimes you lose at travel lotto, and sometimes you win. I had passed through Boort (which means "Smoke on the Hill" or "Smoke on the Water" depending who you ask) some years ago and seemed to remember a resort by a lake, so we pushed on through Hopetoun and Woomelang, which sounded like one of those 1960s girl band songs, then onto the main highway before Wycheproof and off again and directly east on a B road to Boort.


There was a sign on the manager's office: Under New Management. I had walked in and asked the usual question and yes, there had been several cabins available and the manageress had given me the keys to cabin 7. "You might see a mouse," she had said, "We've set traps. It's because of the harvest." I said that's OK, I'm not worried about mice, but I'll watch out for the snakes. They always come after the rodents. A man came into the office, obviously her husband. She told me they had been running the place for only three weeks and hoped the cabin would be OK.


The husband was the pilot of the boat, and had taken his own son and his friends around the lake and then my boys. Then Alexandra had a ride and he went only a bit slower. The system was simple. If you wanted to go faster, you raised a thumb: and if was too fast, you turned the thumb down. I was the spotter in the boat on the second round. A brilliant plan; it worked beautifully until you realised that the thumb sign required one hand to be removed from the restraint rope on the dinghy. Ker-splash. Another rescue.


We stayed three days.


Destination summary: Smoke on the water, fire in the sky. Boort is a small wheat belt town that no-one has ever heard about unless they have been there. Let's keep it that way.

Accommodation summary: Every child in Australia should spend a week at the Boort caravan park. Leave their devices at home; or even better, bring them along and throw them in the lake for good.

Phrase of the day: Jump in the lake.


Ridiculous conceit: writer starts book with longest sentence in history.

Three short sentences begin The History of Rock'n'Roll in Ten Songs by Greil Marcus. The fourth sentence begins:
That basically familiar way can be summed up by scrolling through the inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, letting the names compose the history of the music ...
That sentence starts on page three and marches on relentlessly to page eight.

The writing is transcendentally dense; but highly readable if you switch off your information processing brain and turn on your stream of consciousness. Marcus admitted the book's concept was a ridiculous conceit, adding that 'trying to ascribe the entire history of a form containing hundreds of thousands of exemplars into ten is fundamentally absurd'. Tongue-in-cheek, he suggested in an interview that a contest be held to see what ten songs readers would choose (instead of his own selections), the prize being a copy of his book 'for the winner to tear up'. Eureka! A self-deprecating intellectual!

One Amazon-reviewing reader who had bought the Kindle version declared it: '... the worst book I have ever attempted to read. I deeply regret purchasing it.'


The History of Rock'n'Roll in Ten Songs by Greil Marcus
Yale, 2014

Summary: Buy the hard copy; this kind of writing doesn't work on screens. Don't ask me why, it just doesn't.