The Courage To Eat Plums

Recently I discovered a secret source of wild berries. Or they discovered me. I was walking innocently along a footpath while on a lunch break when my shoes became stuck in a patch of violet slime. After using the edge of the gutter to scrape off as much as I could, I looked up into the high branches of the tree above me. It was laden with heavy purple fruit that looked like giant blueberries; in the same way that Diprotodons look like enormous pre-historic wombats.  The slime of course was the purple wombats turned to jam; squashed by the stomping feet of passers by. This of course appealed to my Italian wine making genes.

But although I love the tradition of homemade Italian wine I don’t like drinking it. I much prefer my wine to be made by modern viticulturists in high tech wineries with premium grapes. But I have  none of these qualms when it comes to blueberries. I love blueberries; no matter who has grown or harvested them they always taste like a tart little piece of blue heaven.  I love them in muffins, on yogurt but mainly just eaten by the punnet all by themselves. And just like a top quality wine they’re terribly expensive. So you can imagine how excited I felt to be looking into a tree full of them.

In the flash of a wonder woman twirl, albeit without the phone booth, I dropped my disguise as a city office worker and transformed into an urban food forager. Oblivious to the concerned glances of passers by, I swung my legs over the chain link fence that separated the footpath from the tiny bit of green that the tree stood on. On hands and knees I gathered several uncrushed specimens of these enormous blueberries, placing them carefully into my empty lunch box. I then took samples of the leaves from the tree; they too went into the lunch box.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t just gorge myself on all this free fruit there and then. Rule number one of foraging is don’t eat anything that you are not absolutely sure of. So although I had foraged before, it had always been in domestic environments that I could trust. Most recently lemons from a friend’s back yard tree, but also basil, figs and tomatoes from my mother’s garden (and cheese and prosciutto from her fridge). I realized that I’d never actually harvested a genuine wild source, admittedly in disguise as a street tree planted by the local council.  So I thought it best to listen to the over cautious part of my brain that doesn’t like to swallow anything that could kill me.

And so with all the enthusiasm of the amateur naturalist I spent hours trawling the internet in an attempt to identify my specimens. And that’s how I finally discovered that, although they weren’t actually giant blueberries (or purple wombats for that matter), they were indeed edible and in fact one of the more coveted native Australian bush foods, at least south of the border. Apparently they don’t think much of them up in Queensland. But let’s face it, with the impending Adani coal mine about to be constructed in that state, it seems Queenslanders don’t think much of the Great Barrier Reef either.

My research told me that I was in possession of a tasty crop of Illawarra plums or Podocarpus elatus, which is pretty much how I felt when I found that my foraging instincts had been spot on.

I also learnt that May or Autumn is the D’harawal season called Marrai-gang, a time when “the spotted tail or tiger quoll… can be heard growling and screeching in the night on the lookout for a mate. The lilli pilli is berrying and the magenta, crunchy, miniature-apple-like fruits are a favourite for birds, animals and members of the clan. … if you’re scraping hardened, purple bat and bird Lilli Pilli poo off your car, the Time of the Marrai-gang has well and truly settled in.”1


I highly recommend this website. It was a fascinating read. So although my specimen wasn’t a scarlet Lilli Pilli berry it was exhibiting the same sticky characteristics and inspired me to continue my online research.

Then I struck gold, according to the Australian National University, the Illawarra Plum produces a fruit that “is rich in taste, with subtle pine and mild resinous flavours apparently enhanced with cooking.” Notwithstanding that the webpage had a warning that the site was no longer maintained by anybody at ANU, it went on to say that, “In NSW, Illawarra plums were regarded as one of the best wild foods by Aborigines and early settlers. They are …commonly served today as a sauce in wild food restaurants.”2

Well that was plenty of provenance for me.

Now some people see food foraging as a political activity; the gathering of free food available in urban environments as an act of rebellion against the industrial food system. For others it’s a spiritual fascination; the ability to connect with the natural world on a city street. But there is also the thrill of the treasure hunt; and for me the link to my peasant forbears who roamed the arid hills of Sicily foraging for wild greens. But by far the greatest incentive is budgetary. At upwards of $5.00 a punnet, berries are ridiculously expensive, so finding a free version, in abundance, is an occasion for celebration.

I had found them. But now they must be harvested. The big question was how.

Climbing the tree was a possibility.  I would need a longer lunch break, and a ladder. I’d also need the right clothing. A horticulturalist’s outfit – and by that I don’t mean a pretty floral dress. I would have to wear a long sleeved drill shirt and gardening pants with tool pockets, all in a lovely shade of camouflage, after all, I wanted to keep my city harvest a secret. Ironically I’d also have to wear a fluorescent tradies vest so that no questions would be asked about my right to climb the tree. My harvest after all was located in a high security, civic precinct. I wouldn’t want a security guard to mistake my purpose, which albeit not innocent, was far from evil. I’m simply an upstanding citizen who can’t stand seeing good food go to waste.

But that brought me to the second question. Would the fruit be worth all the effort it would take to harvest? Although I had gathered, photographed, and catalogued my wild find, I hadn’t actually tasted it. It would be a complete waste of an extended lunch break to die from mysterious food poisoning. The sensible thing to do would be to taste test the original sample. But unfortunately that overly cautious part of my brain simply put its foot down and refused to let me do that. It’s times like these that I regret not being a member of a powerful ancient royal household complete with my own personal food taster.

In the absence of that I decided to enroll my family and friends in the experiment. Surprisingly I faced a distinct lack of enthusiasm. It seems that the average suburbanite is afraid of putting anything into their mouths that hasn’t been bought at a supermarket.

And so once again the spirit of science is sacrificed by a lack of courage and I am doomed to watch a season of wild plums go to waste. And at the supermarket I’ll be forced to hand over a fistful of cash in exchange for a puny punnet of common variety farmed blueberries. But I will eat them with hope because I did extract the seeds from my samples and I buried them in a pot full of soil on my terrace. Perhaps by the time the seeds have grown into a tree there might be a new generation of braver souls ready to taste the purple wombats.




Images 1 and 3 in the public domain, courtesy of Peter Woodard and Euaion Painter. Image 2, authors own.

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The Ninety Percent Club

The other day I was speaking to a group of gynecologists from the USA. This is the kind of thing I get paid to do. They were a very political group, and as part of their conference program in Sydney, had requested a visit to the local legislature. That’s how I met them.

As we chatted about all things democracy, I realised they were still in shock from the result of their recent Presidential elections. So I mentioned compulsory voting. We have it. They don’t.

“Should you give it a go, considering that only 58% of the population turned out to vote in the 2016 elections?” I asked.  “In fact, is it true that more people turned out to march in protest at the result, than actually voted?” I added.

“I suppose 100% of people turn out to vote at your Federal elections?” one of them responded rather sarcastically.

“Not quite,” I replied. “It’s about 95%.”

That answer seemed like a portal opening suddenly onto an alternate universe. There was absolute silence, followed by murmurs, and then exclamations. This group of highly qualified medical professionals, mainly male, with an average age of 60, were flabbergasted by the success of an electoral law.

Only 22 countries across the world have compulsory voting. We may whinge and grumble about politicians and elections but deep down we’re proud of our electoral system. We want to participate. We want to do the right thing. We value our civic rights.  We’re a hopeful culture. That’s also, I believe, why we’re a very cynical culture; we’re often disappointed. But when our hearts and minds are engaged we’re capable of amazing things. We believe we can vote and eat our democracy sausage too.

This year is the 50th anniversary of one of those amazing things. In 1967,  90.77% of Australians voted YES to amend the Constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census, and allow the Commonwealth, rather than individual States, to make laws for them.  This is the highest ever YES vote recorded in a referendum. Considering only 8 of 44 referendums since 1901 have been carried this was an extraordinary achievement. Apart from Federation, it has been the most successful civil movement in Australian history.

And so as we commemorate this wonderful event 50 years on, it’s a good time to reflect on all of the work still to be done. How do we close the life expectancy gap so that Indigenous Australians’ no longer die 10 years before the rest of us? What form should Recognition of our First Peoples take in our Constitution? These are questions of the moment in our democracy.

It’s interesting to note the number of Australians that believe the 1967 referendum gave Aboriginal people the right to vote. That actually occurred in 1962 when the Commonwealth Electoral Act was amended. But the belief persists. I think this is an example of how much we value this practical and powerful function of citizenship. For so many Australians the 27th of May 1967 represents the day that we put away our prejudices and extended citizenship (and therefore justice) to Indigenous Australians. And so began the healing process.

Citizenship has been a fraught process in all democracies. And the right to vote, to have a say, to be represented, has been the marker of equality in civilized societies. When a government makes it harder for someone to become a citizen; not harder to live here, work here, pay taxes here, but harder to have a say, particularly in how those taxes are spent, then we revert to a very old fashioned type of democracy. It’s what the Ancient Greeks did to women and slaves.  It’s what our government now wants to do to migrants. Not to “illegal migrants”, that convenient euphemism that has made asylum seekers the scapegoat of our most recent fears, but to migrants in general. They are the new evil.

If the recently announced government policy becomes law, migrants who become permanent residents will have to wait four years before they can apply for citizenship. They will have to demonstrate that they have integrated into Australian society. They will have to pass a stringent English language test.  I oppose these changes. And not just because I’m a migrant. But because it goes against the spirit of 1967 and the spirit in which we commemorate that event 50 years on.

This year is also a much less significant anniversary. It is 40 years since my family migrated to Australia. We sailed into Sydney Harbour on the S.S. Ellinis on the 8th of April 1977.  A few years later my parents, despite their limited English, were able to become citizens. And my, and my sister’s, names appear on my father’s citizenship certificate. We didn’t have to wait for years and years. We didn’t have to do a test. My parents had been accepted into the country as economic migrants.  The assumption was that they wanted to be here, wanted to work, wanted to pay taxes; wanted to participate in this community.  Perhaps good policy comes from a hopeful vision of the future not a pandering to bigotry. What kind of country will be created from a law that makes it harder for people like my family to become citizens? Migration is both the fundamental fabric and the great tragedy of our nation. It has always been contentious. Just ask the Gadigal people.

At the next Federal election we need to vote for those that represent hope, that have the capacity to lead, that help us heal the past; we cannot continue to elect those who fall into the easy habit of exploiting our fears about the future. I hope that ninety percent of us decide to do this at the next election.


Images; 1: courtesy of Wikicommons; 2: courtesy of State Library of NSW; 3: courtesy of; 4: courtesy of Cathy Gray


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A Sapphire Blue Sydney Sky

“We’re going to stick it where the sun don’t shine.”

That’s not actually what he said.

It’s just what I imagined he was thinking. I blame such crassness on several days of ‘low residue white food’ diet followed by 24 hours of fasting. Although it felt like the Ancient Egyptian process of preserving a dead person’s viscera in canopic jars for the after life, it was just the preparation instructions for a modern colonoscopy.

What the doctor said was, “Haven’t seen you for a while. Hope you’ve been well?”

I nodded.

It had been six years in fact. Same place. Same time. Same position.

“Anyone else in the family had bowel cancer recently?”

I must have looked stunned at his question as I shook my head.

“That is why you’re here. Family history,” he said defensively. Almost in reprimand.  Almost as if my family being alive and healthy was  clear evidence that I’d just wanted a day off work.

“Right. We’ll get started. I’ll speak to you on the other side.”

Had he noticed as he spoke to me that I was holding a pair of undies, complete with sanitary napkin? If he had, he’d probably put it down to the usual strange behaviour of patients.

A new nurse asked me to turn on my side. “No towards me, towards me.” I didn’t bother explaining that I’d been trying to stuff my undies under my pillow.  As she took my  blood pressure I thought of the other nurses. They’d been extremely jolly. Bantering above my head as they whizzed my trolley down the long white corridor to the theatre. One of them was the same nurse that had taken me to the cubicle.

“Take off all your clothes and put them in this plastic bag,” she’d instructed. “Put on this white gown, open at the back. Please hurry as Dr Williams is ready for you.”

I managed to take hold of the door as she pulled it shut.

“I’ve got my period, ” I whispered.

“Just take your undies off at the last minute,” she called out as she walked away.

A ward full of patients and medical staff stared at me. I wanted to crawl somewhere where the sun didn’t shine. It felt like the very first day that I’d got my period when I was thirteen. That had been a Sunday morning. I’d told my mother just before we left for lunch with the extended family at my Uncle’s house. She’d hugged me and given me one of her menstruation pads. When we arrived she’d called everyone into the kitchen.

“Today is a day for celebration! Daniela is a woman!” she’d announced.

I can still feel the heat of the blush that spread across my face all those years ago.

“That is wonderful news!” my Aunt had said as she gathered me in a huge embrace. There were wolf whistles and clapping from my cousins.  My uncle had opened a bottle of spumante and my father had made a toast. No one had thought it was strange. No one had   been embarrassed. It had been like an ancient ritual of rebirth.  And I had just wanted to die.

For someone on the lookout there are plenty of opportunities to think about death. And lying on a hospital gurney being administered oxygen in preparation for a sedative that will take you into the underworld of consciousness is certainly one of them. The last few weeks had been wet and windy. Glimpses of sunshine few. Conversation all about the weather. I’d begun to wonder if we were becoming London or Melbourne. I’d started to realize how much of my mood is affected by the light outside. And so as I slipped away I did wonder if I would ever see the sunshine again. I did pray that….

I have no way of knowing what actually happened next. It would be nice if they recorded the examination, burnt it onto a DVD and sent it home with us in a little show bag. After the procedure you do get a show bag of sorts. Or at least, its would-be contents are waiting on the tray, on the table next to your bed in the recovery room. There is an interim report with discharge instructions. And there is your first meal: a see through plastic pack containing a cheese sandwich on buttered white bread; a small plastic tub of green jelly; a styrofoam cup of tea with two sugars; and a Freddo Frog.

Just as I was about to tuck into this feast I remembered my undies. I felt about under my pillow and was delighted to find that they were still there. I pulled them out and wriggled around for a few minutes under the blankets struggling to get them back on. When finally I resurfaced I was ready to eat.

That was when I noticed Dr Williams standing by my bedside.

“Ah you’re back from the dreamless in between.”

That’s not actually what he said. Just what my still drugged brain heard.

“You’ll be happy to know everything is clear. No problems at all. In fact you’ve got the pinkest guts I’ve seen in a long time,” was actually what he said.  “We’ll see you in five years time. But don’t forget, no operating heavy machinery, no driving, and no signing legal documents for the next twenty four hours.”

Nothing about sharing the experience on my blog.

Before I had a chance to thank him he’d rushed off to his next patient, or a game of golf. I hadn’t been able to say all of the things you want to say to someone who has taken you from a state of fear and worry to a whole new lease of life. Instead I turned towards the windows to hide my tears. What I saw outside was a stunning sapphire blue Sydney sky. And the sun. It was shining.  Everywhere.




Images courtesy of  Wikicommons

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Naked in Melbourne

I’ve never been a fan of sleeping naked. I have difficulty slipping into otherworldly slumber without the soft cotton comfort of my nightie, not to mention my undies. But recently, on a trip to our southern sister city, the airline we traveled with lost our luggage. Apparently it was never checked in. Despite the fact that we stood in an extremely long line, for an extremely long time, waiting to do just that. Apparently, although we watched it being pushed onto the conveyor belt and into the bowels of the airport, it never made the aeroplane. Or at least not the plane we were on.


So it was with a kind of weightless wonder that we left Melbourne airport that evening and rode into the city on the Skybus, which to our relief stuck to the road. Perhaps in compensation for our bag-less state, or maybe just because the sun sets later in Victoria and storms had passed through in the late afternoon,  the yellow-grassed hills that surround the Tullamarine Freeway were glistening with recent rain and the golden slant of the westering sun. On the eastern horizon, amongst the still heavy slate clouds, hung the widest tricolour rainbow I’d ever seen. And oblivious roos chomped steadily on the moist grass just outside the windows of our bus.  It was a beautiful welcome to a city so familiar yet at the same time so unknown.

The baggage claim attendant at the airport had said that our luggage would be delivered at 11pm that night which with the practiced cynicism of the seasoned traveller I of course did not believe.  When, after a lovely feed and a good bottle of red, we returned to the hotel and my expectations were indeed met, it put me to thinking about the chicken and the egg.  But luckily it was time for bed not philosophy.

Of course the bathroom bag was in the luggage so there was no toothpaste or toothbrushes. Oh well, who hasn’t occasionally had the extremely late night and tumbled into bed without brushing their teeth? I carefully took off all my clothes and hung them in the wardrobe for re-wearing the next day. Oh well, who hasn’t occasionally  worn their clothes two days in a row? But of course my jammies were also in the luggage! And clean underwear! Note to self: in future always carry spare intimate things in hand bag. I took off my underpants and carefully arranged them on a hanger for airing. They would have to do a double shift. That had certainly never happened before! Now I was ready to slip into the smooth, clean, white sheets. How is it that my sheets at home never feel this smooth or clean?

I prepared myself for a night of sleepless tossing. There’s something far too vulnerable, too open, and too strange about having absolutely no clothes on in bed. I would never be able to sleep naked.  I have met people who do. You know, those relaxed types who seem to glow with inner health.  It always seems far too risqué to me. After all who knows what could happen?

I was woken at 7am by the clang of tram bells. Ahh Melbourne; sure beats waking up to the profanities of the inner city ice addicts back home. That’s when I realised I’d slept the whole night through. In fact, I can’t remember having had a better night sleep since I was about three. I felt alive. I felt healthy. I felt energetic. I’d always assumed the glow those nudists had was due to all the sex but it might simply be all the sleep. What other delights had I denied myself in my nearly fifty years of life?

Just as I was contemplating how much more exciting life could be without baggage, a text arrived on my mobile. “Great News! Your luggage has arrived in Melbourne. We will contact you once it has cleared security to arrange for delivery. We estimate this will be within three hours.”

Well that was great news. I’d never slept naked before and after trying it I couldn’t feel better. Now I had the opportunity to experiment with a little more adventure in my life. What could be better than appearing in my birthday suit at the breakfast buffet? And so, I leapt out of bed, all ready for my first day in Melbourne.


Images: The Bookworm by Hermann Fenner-Behmer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; and authors own image of Melbourne at dawn.

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My Top Ten Books

Here are ten books that I enjoyed reading last year and thought were worth sharing. They’re a mix of fiction and non-fiction in no particular order. I read them at the beach, on the train, on the couch, in the park, in waiting rooms and in bed. Enjoy!



Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit   hinthedrs                                          Rebecca Solnit embodies two of my favourite attributes, she writes exquisitely and is a radical peddler of hope. Described as a ‘cultural historian in the desert mystic mode’, Solnit argues that our pessimism and despair arise from assuming we know what will happen next. Subtitled Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, this fascinating collection of essays unearths the transformative power of political engagement.


xjourney-s-end-jpg-pagespeed-ic-erloa0y-mvJourney’s End by Jennifer Scoullar                                                               Set in the Byron Bay hinterland this is the perfect summer holiday read.  In the genre of page turning rural romances but with a rewilding twist, it will have you dreaming of selling up your city life and escaping to the country.


Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit  wrs                                                                     Ok so it’s obvious I’m a big Solnit fan but she just writes so beautifully. This is a book about walking. It’s also a history of thinking while wandering, with tales and adventures of the mind and spirit from philosophers and poets, trouble makers and adventurers. I also recommend The Faraway Nearby,  A Field Guide to Getting Lost and The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness.


Philosophy for Life And Other Dangerous Situations by Jules Evans    pforl                               Part self help, part cognitive psychology this entertaining and wise book inspires us to use classical philosophy to solve modern day problems. Structured as a day shadowing  the ancient philosophers at the School of Athens it will inspire you to keep your New Year resolutions.


Oldest foods on Earth: A History of Australian Native Foods by John Newton  oldest-foods                This is a fascinating survey of the native foods that grow on our continent and have been used for thousands of years by Indigenous Australians. I love the suggestion that we celebrate Australia Day with a meal of native Australian foods shared between European and Aboriginal Australians. A revolutionary idea and a perfect way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of  the 1967 referendum this year.


The Art of Grace by Sarah L Kaufman art-of-grace                                                              A delight to read, this beautifully written book delves into all aspects of the elusive quality of grace.  Subtitled, On Moving Well Through Life it’s like a wander through a well curated modern art museum. It ends with a lovely chapter guaranteed to make even the most slothful and clumsy amongst us more at ease in the world.


The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones         last-chinese-chef                                             A delicate love story immersed in the philosophy and high art of Chinese cuisine. Sublimely written it is nourishment for the soul but it will also make you hungry for the traditional food of the Middle Kingdom.  (Try Chinatown’s Golden Century where Sydney’s top chefs can be found after their shifts). I also enjoyed Mones’ other novels set in modern China, Lost in Translation and A Cup of Light.


My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem gslonther                                                            This is a terrific memoir of a life well lived. Gloria Steinem regales us with tales from her travels.  As a feminist activist, democratic organiser and writer since the 1960’s, she credits a deeply held attitude of hope to a lifetime on the road.



Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen xmiller-s-valley                                                                    I love this writer and this, her latest novel, is possibly also my favourite. Set in a small American town that is about to be drowned to make way for a dam, it is a beautiful exploration by the main character, Mimi Miller, of truth, identity and home. Quindlen is just one of several female American writers whose novels I have enjoyed. Others include Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Patchett, Amy Tan, Ursula Le Guinn, Toni Morrison, Nicole Mones and Marilyn Robinson.


The Story. An anthology in three parts: Love, Loss, Life Chosen by Victoria Hislop                 I thoroughly enjoyed this  terrific collection of short stories by women writers such as Katherine Mansfield, Doris Lessing, Alice Walker, Flannery O’Connor, Hillary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and many, many more. These are some of the most brilliant and profound pieces of short fiction I have ever read.

Top image: Winslow Homer, Reading by the Brook (wikimedia commons)


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Get On Your Soap Box

This summer, as you enjoy Christmas carols or the symphony in the Domain, see if you can also spot an old time orator on their soap box in Speaker’s Corner.


The tradition of Speaker’s Corner comes to us from London’s Hyde Park, where open-air debate and discussion are allowed as long as the constabulary consider that speeches don’t break the law. Here in Sydney, between the two world wars last century, the Domain had become such a hotbed for political debate that some wanted free speech banned from the area. Instead, the Government reduced the hours when you could climb onto your soap box to 2 pm – 5 pm in winter and 2 pm – 5:30 pm in summer. This restriction apparently continues to this day so be wary if you’re tempted to speak out.

In 1932 Speaker’s Corner was the scene of one of the largest rallies ever held protesting Governor Game’s dismissal of Premier Jack Lang. Similarly people came together in the Domain after the dismissal of Prime Minister Whitlam by Governor General Kerr on 11 November 1975.


One memorable soap box orator, amongst many, was John Webster. Deliberately provocative he delighted crowds from the 1950’s through to the 80’s with his unique pronunciations on every ideology along the political spectrum. After his death his family wanted his ashes spread in the Domain but the Sydney Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust requested a $10 000 donation from The Exodus Foundation, a charity that feeds homeless people, and that had assisted the family with their request. Reverend Bill Crews declined to give the donation and instead chose a rainy wet night to return John Webster to Speaker’s Corner.


Earlier in the 20th century, on 18 November 1934 crowds gathered to hear another famous speaker, Czech writer and journalist Egon Kisch. Despite having held a valid visa he’d been refused entry to Australia on the grounds that he was a communist. He’d been detained on the ship that had brought him here while his case was taken to the High Court. Meanwhile the ship was ordered to leave the country, the determined Kisch attempted to disembark by jumping off, landing on the dock in Port Melbourne.  Unfortunately this resulted in a broken leg and his return to detention on the ship. The press went wild. When his case was presented to the High Court, Judge H.V. Evatt ruled in Kisch’s favour concluding that the ban could not be justified by the Immigration Act.

However the saga was not yet over. On his arrival in Sydney the authorities awaited to give him the Dictation Test; a small hurdle embedded in the Immigration Act. The test was in Gaelic. Kisch knew at least eleven European languages but Gaelic wasn’t one of them.  He failed the test and was once again imprisoned. His case was taken up by the International Labour Defence who specialised in helping political prisoners around the world. For four months Australians were regaled by the press with stories from this battle between the illegal immigrant and the Attorney-General, Mr Menzies.

Finally Kisch was released and was able to tell his story to thousands of supporters in the Domain. He told of being taken prisoner by the NAZI’s in Berlin in 1933 on the night of the Reichstag fire; a critical event that led to the the NAZIs taking over Germany. He told of being lucky to be expelled from Germany, compared to friends who had been beaten to death in jail. He warned of the threat that Hitler posed to the world.


So this summer, as the musicians take a break, you might want to wander with your glass of bubbly over to the ‘Viva Voce’ Soap-Box sculpture by Debra Phillips that commemorates ‘Speaker’s Corner’ and contemplate the lives of the radical souls who have stood on their soap boxes in the Domain. Maybe even have a crack at it yourself – but only if it’s in the prescribed hours.


Books and websites: The history of soapbox oratory by Steve Maxwell, Chiswick, (1994); Discovering the Domain edited by Edwin Wilson, Hale & Iremonger, (1986); Kisch in Australia Exhibition,Catalogue, NSW State Library, (2005);; (Bill Crews scatters John Webster’s ashes in Domain – ABC Report)

Images and attributions: Tropfest in the domain By John Polson via Wikimedia Commons; John Webster by Raymond De Berquelle, Courtesy of National Library of Australia; Egon Kisch by Sam Hood via Wikimedia Commons


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Bugs, Birds and Bees

Recently I was talking to my mother. My phone call interrupted her in the shed where she was wrestling with the pesticide pump. She was removing the original hose and replacing it with a longer one. By way of making conversation I stupidly asked why. Her plan, she told me, was to climb up into the roof cavity and spray the pesticide throughout the ceiling. At this point I should mention that my mother is in her seventies. She’d obviously just been told that’s the new thirty.

I almost said, “Haven’t you heard that the European parliament has banned pesticides because the honey bee has lost its dance?” But I caught myself in time. My mother’s Italian. Italy has very few songbirds, hardly any bees and virtually no insects. Anything that crawls, flies, or moves on four legs must be stomped out, or eaten, as quickly as possible, including the European parliament. So what I said instead was, “Can’t you call the pest control man to do that?” I’ve found that delaying tactics sometimes work better than outright obstruction.


“No. No. No. I did that last time.  He just stands on the ladder and does ‘puff’, ‘puff’, two times in the air. He doesn’t even go inside. And two weeks later the ants are marching across my kitchen again. He is a waste of money. I will do it myself. And I use three times what they say on the bottle. I make sure that it works.”

The problem had now escalated from simple pesticide use to toxic chemical warfare. I attempted a bus analogy, “I don’t think you need three times as much to kill the pests. If you get hit by a bus and die, it doesn’t matter if two more buses run you over. You’re not going to be more dead.”

It didn’t work.

So I switched to an occupational health and safety angle. “You know that it’s really poisonous to breathe in those chemicals?” As I listened to her answer, I watched a drunken cockroach stagger across the carpet of my living room.

Leaf cutting ant at the London Butterfly House in Syon Park

“I”m not stupid. I wear a mask.” She said. And just as I was about to mention that the chemicals seep through your skin, “And gloves. I wear your father’s old boiler suit. The white one. I look like I am going into space,” she chuckled.

“How do you get up into the roof?” I asked.

“I climb up on the ladder.” Her tone was one of wonder at the enormous stupidity of her own daughter.

“You go all the way into the roof?” I persisted.

“To every corner. That’s where they hide. But don’t worry; I take the telephone with me. If anything happens I will call you.”

And with that she hung up. She had things to do, places to be, a whole roof cavity to napalm.

Later that day as I sat down with a cup of tea I saw the cockroach under the coffee table. The poor thing was lying on its back. That’s when I remembered the baits I’d put out a few weeks ago. The first bug of the season had succumbed to my need to euthanize these living creatures.

“Oh!” said the pot to the kettle……


Images via Wikimedia Commons – attributions: Bumble bee on a flower by Christian Bauer ; Leaf cutting ant by William Warby; Still Life: Turkey and Songbirds in a Landscape by North Italian School.

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