2011 Archive

Brisbane, December 1

Leaving the Gabba for lunch we notice a man with a T-shirt sign which reads: “I support two teams: New Zealand and anyone playing Australia.” Outraged, my companion’s conversation swiftly turns from the subject of the delights of cricket to the virtues of draconian visa restrictions for those who thumb their noses at the warm and openly generous hospitality that we display to our poor and unfortunate cousins across the Tasman. In their defence I remind him of their obvious diminished capacities which, in many cases, are genetic and can’t be helped. But he dismisses any mitigating circumstances  insisting instead that, in inviting them over as guests to watch our teams thrashing them in the first place demanded a lot more civility, handicapped or not. I agree but quickly point out that tightening their entry restrictions would crucially jeopardise the delicate balancing act we maintain in our relations with them. Putting up additional obstacles for the Kiwis to hurdle over before visiting our shores would make it difficult to continue to allow them to win their Rugby matches on our home grounds.
As everyone knows – and the Kiwis are first to acknowledge – this act of generosity has over the years helped keep their spirits relatively high, thereby sustaining their ability to continue to render to us our due services. Which is, after all, clearly their nation’s singular raison d’etre. What’s more, allowing them to grow some of their okay wines for our consumption and supplying us with an occasional comic, pop group or actor of mildly entertaining if not very limited talent. And all of this is not near enough compensation for having rescued them from overnight extinction a few months ago by quietly arranging for the French to throw the rugby World Cup final. Averting the en-masse national suicide which would have certainly otherwise ensued, guaranteed the Kiwis their continued existence as a nation (at least for the time being) and preempted another, one would argue, much greater catastrophe: no Kiwi left surviving to bow and scrape in our direction while we toured their truly majestic national parks.

My friend retorted in a moment of apparent jest that we could easily have imported and trained some Americans to do the job in their place, but that idea had already crossed my mind, only to have it rejected by Obama when I put it to him during his stop-over last month. He told me, patting me on my shoulder and fixing me with that enormous grin of his, that, yes, we could use some of his military people in our far-flung northern territories, but NOT – repeat NOT – in any of our “Ossie colonies,” (as he described the shaky isles), “located in the ass end of the world.” I had at first thought this last epithet somewhat severe and not a little bit cruel. But after sleeping on it for a while, it seemed strangely apt.

Canberra, November 19

Our gorgeous PM is on an international roll this week. After a triumphant week at APEC, and the impending visit of the US President, she has now proposed that we should drop the idea of banning exports of uranium to India, a country which has repeatedly refused to sign the NPT.
But Kevin Rudd has insisted that it was his idea all along and when he approached them with it some years ago the Indians kept shaking their head at the whole idea and he very wisely (he thought at the time) dropped it out of fear of them ruling him out of contention for future appointment as president of World Cricket’s governing body.
Months later, he broached this with me while we were discussing the soon to be released animated movie (in which he has the starring role.) When I told him that it was in fact a cultural oddity and that when Indians shake their heads they actually mean ‘yes’, it was too late. Once again Julia had already stolen the march on him and he was left floundering in his own ineptitude. And once again, there he was, trying to contain his anger, mumbling something incomprehensible in Mandarin to himself, and again taking out and repeatedly impaling his Pinocchio pincushion, this time with a larger needle.

Moscow May Day Celebrations, May 1

After the parade we all go back to the Lubyanka and soon find ourselves soon swilling vodka and catching up with some of our old mates. In the course of the celebrations, Austin suddenly hits on the idea of changing all the markings on the Russian tanks from Cyrillic to the Roman alphabet. That way, he explains, foreigners can more easily identify the make and model of the tank they are about to be run over by next time mother Russia extends its hands of friendship.
Putin initially only smiles at the suggestion but at that point the beautiful Anna Chapman joins the conversation. Glass of champagne in her hand and a twinkle in her eye, the ex-Spy turned TV host says it’s a great idea but wouldn’t it be better to first give it a trial on the Moscow Underground? With the forthcoming World Cup, and with all the station names in English, instead of the incomprehensible Cyrillic, tourists would more easily be able to find their way to the central point of sales of their must-have Matrioshka dolls and useless samovars without having to bother about visiting old eyesores such as the Kremlin and the ghastly St Basil’s cathedral. Moreover, she adds after a bit of careful thought and swinging her hips once more for me, by translating the Lubyanka Metro’s name into the English equivalent, “Pootie-Poot’s House of Pleasure” and putting it up in lights, some of their old foreign adversaries might be more likely to want to drop in for a quick drink and have a good laugh for old times sake, rather than averting their gaze and hastily rushing by.
Considering this idea for a moment, as any old ex-KGB agent worth his salt would, Putin called for more vodka and another cucumber sandwich.
But I went one better.
How about it, I put it to all of them, that they extend this idea even further and apply it to other landmarks in cities such as St Petersburg? By changing, for example, the depressingly dreary name of the Winter Palace to the more easy on the tongue “Palace-a-Go-Go”, it would not only help lighten up the Russia’s international image abroad, it would also suggest to the more gullible new-world tourists from America, Australia etc that there was rather more to see in it than a bunch of stuffy old paintings. For the first time since I’ve known him, Putin chuckles out loud and “Da, Da”s , smiling slyly in my direction.
We’ve hit if off again!
Anna Chapman likes the idea too and gives me another knowing wink before taking Austin by the arm and strolling off down the corridor. For a personalised tour of some of the old cells, I supposed.
An amused look still on his face, Putin tops up my drink, offers me another cucumber slice and after a bit more discussion we proceed to put away quite a lot more vodka. Near the end of the evening he eventually confides to me something that I always suspected: that he preferred the name of Batman to Pootie-Poot. But, I was not, under any circumstance whatsoever, to let Medvedev know. In vino veritas, I thought, but I gave him my word.

Moscow, April 29

In Russia with son Austin a few days before the big parade. Relaxing and taking in the sights we find ourselves strolling down Tverskaya in Moscow and it strikes me how odd it was to discover the boulevard completely void of tanks or missile launch trucks. This very Russian past time, of rolling heavy tanks and machinery down the streets, a past time which they have, throughout history, found the generosity within their hearts to export to many other countries, is now usually performed only once a year during the May Day celebrations.

And this is why we are up at such an early hour. With the parade about to begin in an hour or so, we pop into a nearby bread shop for some blinies and cucumbers. There are about 20 people in there, traditional Russian music playing in the background – someone with a balalaika is rejoicing over the successful harvest again. The very pretty young woman serving us doesn’t speak or understand a word of English and, true to form, after I point to the items on the menu, plops the blinies rudely and perfunctorily on a plate before us.

To lift her spirits a bit, Austin kindly tries his hand at Russian.
Reading from the phrase book he says in Russian what he thought was “Thank you for this meal of blinies, we will be eating your feast with much glee and appropriateness.” Incredibly, this suddenly provokes a huge shout of spontaneous joy from her. She immediately pulls out a dead fish from under the counter and starts beating the wall with it in time to the balalaika, dancing as she goes. Everyone else in the cafe gets up and joins in with her, happily cheering and clapping in our direction.

Immensely embarrassed we were both in danger of indigestion such was our haste in wanting to eat and make a quick exit.
Afterwards I tell Austin that he mispronounced the word “blini” which gave the whole sentence a completely different idiomatic meaning of “Whose turn is it to bash the salmon in time to the music again?”, which is of course United Russia’s campaign song. This totally confused everyone, thinking that we were members of the United Russia and Putin was in the neighbourhood again and felt compelled to display their loyalties. Feeling rather ashamed of ourselves, we left for the parade as soon as decently possible.

Canberra, April 22

Off to the uni to do a spot of mid-semester exam invigilation. It’s the time of year when thousands of international students sit their examinations under the control and watchful and enthusiastic eyes of adjudicators like myself

Much to my disappointment mace and tasers have been once again ruled out for the third year running and instead, as students pour into the examination rooms en masse, we are forced to continue to use the traditional screaming and kicking technique as the authorised method of  crowd control. Disappointingly too, my very reasonable proposal to have their chairs live-wired (but centrally administered) has also been rejected out of hand. So  it seems students who breach exam rules and the usual norms of civility – in particular students that hawk or spit as a matter of course – can still only be given a stern warning or made to move to another table for their offence. Completely rejected, again, my very reasonable suggestion to allow invigilators to be able to follow their own conscience in calculating the amount of voltage to be applied. This would have been determined by the severity of the individual student’s breach of the rules or the particular degree to which the said student’s actions or bad personal habits irritated the invigilator in question (no photo ID, shows ID before being asked, forgot to bring a pencil, sneezes without bothering to cover the mouth, headwear/no headwear, mainland Chinese, French, German, has a particular smell about them… that sort of thing.)

These very reasonable proposals were all refused, supposedly out of fear of upsetting the students’ fee-paying parents. It was also put to me that the arbitrary application of electro-shock might be construed as being ‘unfair’ or ‘racist’ to other students of different nationalities in this great multicultural utopia of ours, particularly if one nationality (one of my peers suggested the mainland Chinese students might be a good bet) seemed to cop more of it than the others. Why? My question was ignored.

But I believe these excuses to be all hogwash. I’m convinced that these control orders  have been rejected out of hand by another diktat from the perfidious – and clearly unbalanced – Green fiefdom that now runs the country. This nasty bunch of female lunatics stupidly believe that allowing invigilators to act according to their own conscience would constitute yet another threat to old growth forests, cetaceans and their genocidal goal of putting an end to human procreation.
I can only hope that the evil green tentacles which have spread like a cancer throughout the corridors of Australian academia are quickly dismembered after the next election and, with Tony Abbott calling the shots, reason and sanity once more allowed to prevail.

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