Posted by: maximos62 | December 8, 2019

An anthology

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Protesting against the Vietnam War in 1966 during a campaign rally held by Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt, at Randwick Town Hall.

Recently I completed three stories about my own reactions to Australia’s involvement in the American War against Vietnam.

My interest is in producing an anthology of writings, perspectives on this period of conflict. I’m hoping that my modest efforts might attract other writers with something to say about this period.

Please drop me a note in the comments section for this post, if the proposition interests you

Here is a short segment from the first in the series. I’ve included the YouTub video that inspired the first part of this story.

A prelude to war

Thang sent a link to a YouTube video.

“Somewhere on this Danish refugee boat, which saved us from the damaged Truong Xuan is my family,” he explained. “We entered Hong Kong from Saigon right at the end of the Viet War.”

He had mentioned the escape but never in as much detail as the video revealed, but then he was only around four when they left, on 30 April, 1975. Thang and his family were in the first phase of a mass migration as North Vietnamese tanks entered the Presidential Palace, ending countless years of war..

Some 3,628 other refugees crammed onboard the Truong Xuan sailing from Saigon with a skeleton crew. Somewhere in the South China Sea its engines stopped and its pumps failed Captain Pham Ngoc Luy realised his vessel was in danger of capsizing. He sent out a distress signal. A Danish container ship M.S. Clara Maersk answered.

Captain Anton Olsen explained, “We get an SOS early in the morning, and then we turn around right away to the given position. Of course the given position was not right in the beginning, but after around three hours we found the ship.”

People were draped everywhere. Engine room crew managed to start the engines again the pumps began working but the ship was leaking too fast for the pumps to cope.

“So, finally we got alongside,” Captain Olsen continued. We put everything down, nets, gangway, they came up all over. It took us six hours to get everybody on board.”

Three babies were born on board, and the first, Clara, was named after the ship.

As the YouTube video ended another message from Thang accompanying grainy photo popped up on my iMessenger stream. “My dad made a poster of media coverage. The picture is of my sis and I at the Hong Kong refugee camp early May 1974.”

“Then we flew from Hong Kong to Sydney with Qantas in June, the first few hundred to come after war finished. I was like winning first prize in the Jackpot Lottery,” he added.

Meeting Thang has caused me to reflect on my own earlier understanding of the Vietnam War. Travelling through Vietnam with him in 2014 deepened my sense of the conflict, though my most unexpected perception was the people’s resilience in surviving the massive United States bombing campaign that spilled out into Laos and Cambodia.


Coming from a strong Labor[1] family, my great grandfather a founding member, I was introduced to politics over the dinner table. Countless party functions from annual picnics, and sports days, to fund raising nights when the living room was transformed into a mini casino were common. My political reality was grounded in neighbourhood networks and a strong commitment to democracy. Politics was a natural part of conversation, so it came as a surprise to me when I discovered others who considered my preoccupations either eccentric or incorrect.

“It suits Menzies to portray Labor as a party allied with the Communists,” said Dad, in one discussion.  “He sees votes in making things very simple, goodies versus baddies, and he’s trying to associate Labor with the Communists.”

Under Prime Minister R G Menzies, Australia’s immediate post war support for the decolonisation process was steadily eroded. Under his successors, Holt, Gorton and McMahon, independence movements were refracted through a new prism of paranoia, xenophobia and fear of Communism. Clarity and precision in international matters was distorted.  Even the non-aligned movement of countries was seen as aligned with the baddies because they weren’t explicitly aligned with the goodies.

Entering high school in 1960 brought contact with diverse yet predominantly European mix of fellow students. Post war Australia drew refugees and migrants from the breadth of the European continent.  Amongst them were families with direct experience of Nazism and Soviet oppression. Another refugee influx occurred after the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Against this backdrop the Cold War politics of fear, practised by the Menzies, resonated sympathetically.

I was an unselfconscious Labor supporter.

“Russell you must admit that the Labor Party is just that much closer to the Communism than the Liberal Party,” said Edward, a school friend whom I’d known since Primary School.

“Edward, I don’t see it that way. The Australian Labor Party supports democracy and freedom, it doesn’t support banning other parties.”

“Yeah but it’s closer to Communism Russell,” Edward insisted.

“It was formed by people who were just defending their rights as workers and has nothing to do with Communism.”

“It’s closer, that’s all I’m saying.”

I couldn’t blame Edward for having these views. His family was from Czechoslovakia and being Jewish ensured they had suffered under Nazism and Stalinism. I didn’t understand the term Stalinism then it was all just Communism, and whatever it was, it all went on behind the ‘Iron Curtain’.

[1] Australian Labor Party.

In May 2017 I visited Sungai Tohor on the Island of Tebingtinggi. The visit was organised by with the Singapore group People’s Movement to Stop the Haze – PMHaze.

A view of the port at Sungai Tohor

This area is within the Kabupaten of Meranti in Indonesia’s Riau Province. I’ve written numerous pieces and a short story about the challenges faced by the people who live in this area.

While there I met a man whose insight into the problems facing his community impressed me greatly.


Izul Azri Fatra and Russell Darnley

Later, I will be writing more about the work of PMHaze in the Sungai Tohor area, this post is devoted to the work of GEMAST, but I will let Izul Azri Fatra tell the story.

The Story of GEMAST

I am Izul Azri Fatra, often called Azri, I am the head of Gemast (Young Generation Sungai Tohor)

A few GEMAST members

GEMAST (Generasi Muda Sungai Tohor) is an organization engaged in the environmental field. In this context, over recent years I have frequently encountered peatland fires in several villages, especially in the vicinity of the Tebingtinggi Timur. I for one have been directly involved in firefighting.

Azri fighting a smouldering peatland fire. Such fires can burn for weeks beneath the surface

In evaluating the situation I believe that the fires have been the work of human hands, so I hope in future the area where I live is no longer responsible for smoke blowing to other areas. Much damage is sustained when a fire occurs, its impact on health is bad, its destroys forest sustainability and beauty, and many habitats within forest are burned to extinction .

Replanting peatland rainforest trees

Given these circumstances GEMAST began carrying out environmental awareness campaigns by planting natural timber in several places of peatland to:

  • motivate the community,
  • protect the environment and
  • develop awareness of the importance of protecting the forest.

We also plant natural timber species in the vicinity of community settlements. We have also developed a mangroves nursery to overcome coastal erosion and work in agriculture.

We advance according to our ability, because there is a lack of funds to carry out these activities, this is because to the purchase the seeds for natural timber species and the other activities requires substantial funds.

Plant nursery for peatland rainforest trees in Sungai Tohor

I aspire to campaign for this activity in every village, especially in villages in the Tebingtinggi Timur District, so that in the future all of the community will realize how important it is to protect peatland forests.

Planting peatland rainforest trees by the roadside in Sungai Tohor

What’s more our area has deep peatland soil as much as five metres deep, so if there is a fire it is very difficult to extinguish.

Through relating this story GEMAST hopes to encourage support from people who love the environment, because we are also unable to move to protect the environment without involvement. and the help of others, and related parties.

Supporting this project

Izul Azri Fatra can be contacted via WhatsApp. He needs our support in this ambitious project. Please feel free to contact him.

If you don’t speak Indonesian or Malay use Google Translate to post your messages to him


Sungai Tohor is not well marked on maps. In time more images of the locality will be added to this map.

Related posts



Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific’, is 29 short stories in the genre of creative non-fiction. Tracing Australian connections with Asia and the Pacific through three generations, it is published in 2015 by Glass House Books an imprint of Interactive Publications (IP) ISBN: 9781925231182. Also, in Kindle and as an Audio Book. (Pecha Kucha about the book)

Influencing this collection is an acceptance that interactions with people from our own culture are generally tangible and familiar. By contrast, when beyond our immediate culture meaning and understanding must often be negotiated in intangible, non-rational and unseen ways. Foucault’s notion of the third space has influenced this work. Another influence is the Balinese belief that reality is an interaction of Sekala (The Seen) and Niskala (The Unseen).

Precisely what comprises the unseen realm varies throughout the region. What might be understood as mere micro ecology, in the ‘developed world’, can have spiritual explanations in some Asian and Pacific cultures. In rational secular society people commonly eschew magic as mythology or superstition, yet in parts of Asia and the Pacific what might be seen as myths and misconceptions can possess the power of reality.

The basic and enduring interplay of the seen and the unseen worlds is of great significance to those of us from Australia, the land that’s girt by sea. While we might choose not to see, to look inwards and to rejoice in the notion that our land abounds in nature’s gifts, regional and planetary systems are unfettered by such introspective cultural constructions.

A short biography 

‘Born in 1947 Russell Darnley had grandparents who were children when Australia achieved its independence, lived through World War I, and struggled as parents through the Great Depression of the 1930s.

His parents found their first paid employment as World War II broke out. Growing up in Sydney by the shore of the Pacific Ocean, and with a seafaring father, gave him an interest in what lay beyond. His childhood saw the birth of multicultural Australia, which he embraced, and ended with Conscription and the Vietnam War, both of which he resisted. As a young adult he travelled the world and discovered that his interests lay in South East Asia. Working respectively as teacher, administrator, researcher, director of an Indonesia based field study centre, consultant to the Australia Indonesia Institute, educational writer and digital education pioneer, he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for his voluntary work after the 2002 Bali Bombings.

Russell’s outlook is eclectic and interdisciplinary, passionately scientific yet profoundly spiritual.’

He has lived in Singapore since January 2014.

What the reviewers say

Associate Professor David Reeve, Visiting Fellow UNSW, School of Humanities and Languages

In launching the book, David had this to say: “This is partly creative fiction though it’s based on his own life and I think of it of keeping to a tradition of writing on Asia. I remember the excitement back in 1978 when Chris Koch published The Year of Living Dangerously then in 1980 Blanche D’Alpuget published Monkeys in the Dark and in 1981 Turtle Beach. Robert Drew in 1981 published A Cry in the Jungle Bar.

When I look at the similarity of those four novels in each of those Australians go forward full of high ideals and anticipation but in fact come home defeated, physically wounded or psychologically wounded or in the case of the hero of A Cry in the Jungle Bar actually dead.

So, I think this is a new and more mature and more realistic mood in Russell Darnley’s book. The Australian doesn’t go out with high hopes to Asia, gets defeated and returns partially destroyed, certainly damaged. In him it’s a much more complex engagement, it has of course it fears, it’s dangers, its sicknesses but it’s much more mature in its approach to the complexities of these enmeshments.”

T. D. Luong, author of The Refugee Wolf

Sometimes distance can help us recast our perceptions of the world. They can be based on unspoken and wrong assumptions about culture and identity. The Australian author, currently based in Singapore, but who is fluent in Indonesian because of having provided extensive cultural tours in his former career, is well positioned to recast such perceptions. He forces us to ask: is Australia’s relationship with Asia working well enough to bridge the cultural divide?

The opening and closing chapters are deftly written book-ends. They are set at Coogee beach and it is the author’s emotional connection to this place and relationship with his grandfather that helps us look outwards to inviting places like Bali, then inwards to ruminate upon the darkness and trauma that fell upon us after the 2002 bombings.

Darnley’s exceptional debut work reframes Australia’s relationship with Asia and Melanesia in a myriad of ways.

There are entertaining stories over 50 years, which traverse Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Vietnam, PNG, just to name the main places. There’s a story set in Bali about adultery and told through the prism of magic; another one reflects upon Baby Boomers and their perception of the Japanese after WW2, and there’s a hilarious one about an activist uni student who dodges the Vietnam War draft.

The book also reframes Australia’s identity. Does Australia lean more towards being progressive or conservative or vacillate between both, and how might this impact on our relationship with Asia?

Through many personal journeys, observations and interesting characters, he illuminates and expands upon the notion, which is at the heart of the book. What we sometimes see in an empirical way is not necessarily what lies underneath. There are intangible structures such us cultural practice, memory, spirituality and power relationships which intersect, weave and give rise to more nuanced complexity than what we can fully rationalise or even articulate at a given point in time.

Seen and Unseen is an insightful, intelligent and very significant book which helps us learn more about the Asian region and ourselves as Australians.

With his hard-won insights and descriptive powers of observation, Russell Darnley is a cultural interpreter of the first rank.

Kim Patra, Author, In the Arms of Angels

It’s a very candid and wonderfully written account of the Bali Bombings. Pretty hard to read actually, emotionally, I guess the ghosts never really go away, do they?

Bill Dalton in Toko Buku, Bali Advertiser, (for Ubud Readers’ & Writers’ Festival) October 2016.

This entertaining and enlightening book of short stories spanning 100 years is a work of naked and unflinching honesty. The subject matter perfectly compliments the spirit of this year’s UWRF whose dictum is Tat Tvam Asi, translated as ‘I am you, you are me.” Darnley’s experiences help us understand the lives of others and recognize our common humanity. As the writer himself puts it, “Seeking meaning across cultures we each absorb a little of the other and enter a new cultural space where I am you and you are me.”

Emeritus Professor Stuart Campbell author of Cairo Mon Amour

‘Seen and unseen’: testimony of a man who kept faith with his vision for Australia in the world.

I bought Russell Darnley’s Seen and Unseen some months ago and tucked it into a corner of my Kindle, dipping into some of the ‘stories’ in the gaps between my backlog of novels-to-read.

With some holiday time on my hands, I decided to start at the beginning – and I couldn’t stop reading. I now saw that the ‘stories’ formed a coherent narrative woven from threads of spirituality, self-discovery, and an expression of one man’s understanding of Australia in the world.

The motif of the seen and the unseen, drawn from the Balinese notion of sekala and niskala, signifying the ubiquity of the spiritual world, is the strongest of these threads: How else to interpret the first and last sections of the book, when Darnley converses with his dead grandfather on the cliffs at Coogee.

But Seen and Unseen isn’t an extended navel gaze. There’s wonderfully powerful and evocative material about intellectual life in seventies Sydney, about student parties in inner city flats, about the study of Bahasa Indonesia in the brief period when the Australian Government was prepared to fund it generously.

In reading Darnley’s book, I realised that he and I had moved in intersecting circles in the seventies and eighties but had (perhaps) never met. As a university languages school head, I rode the crest of the Indonesian studies movement for a few years, but Darnley’s book brought back uncomfortable memories of my having to close an Indonesian program as funding tightened and the popularity of the language waned in the face of Japanese and Chinese. I was also reminded of the hopes for deep engagement with Indonesia during Gareth Evans’ tenure as Foreign Minister, and the dashing of those aspirations under his successor.

For a newish Australian (I arrived in 1977), Darnley’s account of a childhood in Coogee was fascinating; I’ve lived mostly on the north side of the Harbour Bridge, and Coogee is foreign territory for me. Indeed, the biographical thread running through Seen and Unseen is subtly and tenderly handled. While the ‘stories’ follow chronologically, there are gaps, but the reader is given to understand that each story tackles a new stage in the author’s progress through his professional, personal and spiritual life. The middle section of the book is set mostly in south-east Asia, from which I drew two main impressions: One was Darnley’s wonderful work in establishing and running an overseas study centre for Australian students; the other was his extensive knowledge of Indonesia, and especially Bali, based on his years of residence in the region.

But the core of the book – in my view at least – is the section dealing with the author’s voluntary work in the immediate aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombings (for which he was awarded the OAM). The description of those days is the most harrowing and powerful writing I have encountered in a long time. I had the strong impression that Russell Darnley’s life up to that moment in 2002 was a preparation for the awful work that he volunteered to do, including searching body bags for identification evidence. Russell Darnley surely was the right man in the right place.

Ian Burnet author of ‘Where Australia Collides with Asia

Russell Darnley seeks to cover an extensive time span in his book Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific.

I have read it as a memoir written as 29 stories, beginning when he was a boy growing up in Coogee in Sydney, Australia. Here, his stories begin with him exploring the headlands and rock pools around this beachside suburb with his grandfather.  They delve into the early years of the 20th century and then on to descriptions of his childhood, family and friends.

He tells stories of his student days at Sydney University and of his first travels through South East Asia in the 1970’s. I can identify with this period as we would have travelled around the same time to Singapore, Malacca, Kuala Lumpur and Penang.

Years later in 1984, Russell is involved in setting up Asian Field Study Centres for Australian students in Bali. It is here that he first becomes aware of the interplay of the ‘Seen and the Unseen’ and begins to realise that it has always formed part of his life. Here, in Bali, he experiences just how the Balinese are immersed in both a physical and a spiritual world, and some practice ‘black magic’ as well.

In Indonesia in 1999 to deliver workshops for [Indonesian] teachers whose students are studying Australia meant he happened to be in Surabaya and Jakarta during the tremendous outburst of joy and energy of the nation’s youth, after 35 years of suppression under Suharto’s military dictatorship. He is present in the middle of the excited masses and vividly describes the political campaigning for the first democratic elections after this long period.

Russell’s description of his response to the 2002 Bali bombing in the immediate aftermath of this tragedy and his volunteer work in aiding the victims and their families at the Sanglah Hospital, must be highlight of his book (if that is the right word). Personally, I had to pause several times to recover my emotions while reading his descriptions of these traumatic events.

Seen and Unseen concludes where it starts with the now elder Russell in conversation with his long-departed grandfather around the headland of Coogee, while trying to understand his life experiences and the significance of the seen and unseen. The strength of Russell Darnley’s writing is his ability to position himself as an observant outsider. Central to his work is the idea that interactions with people from cultures other than our own, in particular those of Asia, allow us to challenge many of our own assumptions. His engaging memoir will be a ‘must read’ by all those who have an interest in Asia and wish to follow his footsteps.

Posted by: maximos62 | July 16, 2019

Geomorphic reflections

One of the main reasons I’ve moved house was the absolute racket emanating from the building site next to my old place.

At first the disruption was modest preparation, over a month or so. It involved clearing a former parking lot, felling trees, building site huts, planning and constructing site drainage, installing generators, lighting and ground level sound barriers, Once complete cranes and boring equipment were moved on site and the slow task of sinking footing shafts begun.

The building site at Jiak Kim Road

The building site on a bend (once a slip-off slope) in the Singapore River, the heritage godown can be seen in the top left

The site was on what would have once been on a slip-off slope, a bend in the river. Although levelled and the river banks secured with stone walls, beneath the surface depositional layers remained much as they once were.

Close to the river the bores yielded alluvial deposits and then clay. On higher land and places further from the river it was thinner alluvial material, shale like dry clay and eventually a soft light gray rock. This was a moment of surprise an encounter with the familiar and the primal. 

Tuff, or paras as it’s called in Indonesian, was a stone I’d often seen hewn from Balinese river valleys. There the grey rock is used in carving a pantheon of religious objects, decorative landscaping features and tourist souvenirs. To a geologically trained eye it is instantly recognisable as tuff, a volcanic sandstone. In Bali swift rivers have carved a radial system of ridges and valleys, deep into its layers. Yet now its sighting yielded memories beyond such geomorphic reflections.

CIDH piles

Preparing the CIDH piles for a 36-story twin tower building required a lot of boring. Pile drillers equipped with soil augers were used first, as they bored deeper more robust rock augers were needed. As each load of debris was brought to the surface and the augur lifted from the hole its contents had to be spun off. This wasn’t a smooth rotation but a stop start action. At each jarring stop in the rotation the equipment generated a load percussive noise. With as many as three rigs going at once days were punctuated with this jarring cacophony. Retreating to the local mall was an easy option. 

Tuff is a volcanic sandstone, consolidated ash fall. A soft rock that can sometimes be scored with a fingernail. There it was below, and Krakatau immediately came to mind.



An 1888 lithograph of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. Image published as Plate 1 in The eruption of Krakatoa, and subsequent phenomena. Report of the Krakatoa Committee of the Royal Society (London, Trubner & Co., 1888). Creative Commons lic.

Krakatau’s cataclysmic eruption, in August 1883 blew the cinder cone off its small island in the Sunda Straits. In rushing sea water induced a massive explosion of rocks and superheated steam.  So loud was the explosion that stockmen driving cattle across Western Australia’s Hammersley Range thought it was artillery.

Reverberating from Bangkok to Manila, and from Saigon to Perth, tsunamis were recorded as far away as the West coast of the USA. In the now more connected world of the telegraph and undersea communications cables, reports of the eruption spread rapidly. Dutch authorities estimated the death toll 36,417 but with all such events, there can be no certain figure. Some suggest, more realistically, as many as 120,000 deaths.

Volcanic eruptions in historic times are well documented. Mt St Helens’ 1980 eruption in the Pacific Northwest is considered the most disastrous in US history. Extensively documented, it was a small geological event compared with Krakatua, yielding a mere 1.5 cubic km of tephra.  In comparison Krakatua ejected 18 cubic km. Such catastrophic events have an impacts far beyond their immediate regions. Krakatau produced tsunamis that swept through the Sunda Straits.  Yet none of these compared with the magnitude of the Tambora eruption.


When Tambora erupted in 1815-16 it ejected 150 cubic km of tephra. At first its impact on a wider region was unnoticed but by the northern summer of 1816 Spanish records reveal a summer that never was. In Madrid, temperatures fell below 15ºC from July through to August. Rivers froze and peaks usually snow free bore white mantles. Tambora’s eruption was the largest in recorded history.

Mounds of tuff grew

Mounds of tuff grew beside the boring machines along with the realisation that these events were not likely responsible. One possibility remained shrouded in the uncertainties of prehistory.


Drilling rig beside a pile of what appears to be tuff, spun off the augur

Mount Toba

About 600 kilometres away on the island of Sumatra Mt Toba erupted in these prehistoric times. Somewhere about 75,000 ago it produced 1000 cubic km of tephra in the first nine days of its eruption, and over the course of this eruptive phase ejecting a total of from 2500-3000 km3.

Mapping the three volcanoes

Toba’s eruption

Toba’s eruption had planetary consequences triggering a volcanic winter, the Pleistocene Ice Age, and burying vast areas, along with their emerging megalithic cultures, under hundreds of metres of tephra.  Sea levels fell as much as 150 metres and island hopping through the Indonesian archipelagos enabled human passage first east, and then south to Australia.

Map of Sunda and Sahul showing lower Pleistocene sea levels with Wallace, Lydekker Line and Weber Lines. Map by Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa). Republished under CC BY-SA 3.0

After the fall in sea level it was likely possible to walk from what is now Merauke to Darwin in about three weeks.  The biophysical continuity is still is obvious, the ancient land connection documented in the cave art of Kakadu.

Toba today

Now the Toba caldera contains a huge lake.  Visiting it some 20 years ago I captured these images.

This view is from the north of the lake looking over the village of Haranggoal, 500 metres below.

The nearby Sipisopiso waterfall tumbles over 300 metres high cliffs comprising tuff from the ancient eruption.

My friend Wayan Cemul

This post is born of research for a short story I’ve just written about my friend I Wayan Cemul.

Cemul with some of his work. Photo by Chris Hazzard. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

No longer with us, he was one of the best teachers and communicators I have ever met. Shortly I’ll post the audio version of the story, on this blog.

The following YouTube video was made while Cemul was still alive. I thank Hans and Fifi for this.


Posted by: maximos62 | July 2, 2019

Moving House

Sitting at the local Zion Riverside Food Centre, my local food hall, there was time for reflection. This was the first opportunity to relax here in about 2 weeks.
Moving apartments seems to get harder as the years pass. So far I’ve only moved 17 times, hardly an example of itinerancy.


Pioneers of itinerancy

Itinerancy is a feature of life for some.
Kazakh yurt, shown on a horse-drawn cart. Wikicommons
The nomadic communities of the Eurasian steppes moved at least twice a year.  These movements generally coincided during the summer and winter. Severe winters made finding shelter for animals essential. In the summer they moved to grassed areas where animals could graze.


Development of languages

While nomads tended to move in the same region over time they also drifted further west. As they moved they made contact with more settled communities, acquiring new languages and participating in a linguistic synthesis that produced what we came to know as the Aryan language group, though the tainting of the term Aryan through its misuse by European Nazis, ensured the more neutral term Proto-Indo-European came into common use.


Linguistic evolution
Another way of looking at it.

The burden of possessions

Modern humans, at least those of us in the First World, are burdened by goods. We’ve long lost the economy of living a frugal life with few possessions and with tools and comfort that were enduring.  This angsting over moves is a First World problem.

One week after the physical move I managed to move our own kitchen one step closer to being functional. I’m still working on my office, though out of the mess I’ve finished a new story.


Exhaustion set in

What was to be a highlight in June, the 10th anniversary of the Acropolis Museum’s opening, came and went. Somehow I managed to cobble together an audio-visual piece to mark the occasion.
The launch of a song by Héllena Micy, The Parthenon Marbles (Bring them back) came and went. I managed to watch its launch, in the British Museum, live. Yet all had an air of unreality about it.


To dry clean or not dry clean

Preparing for the move had taken a while. The end game, the handing over to an agent, came yesterday, but not before they insisted on us dry cleaning some flimsy IKEA curtains. After numerous attempts at negotiating with dry cleaners who wanted outrageous prices and 3-4 day waits, I realised the curtains were marked ‘Do not dry clean’. Next step was to wash, dry and hang them. Easy enough and a great view from the second top rung of a step ladder up against the window on the 19th floor


Stuffing up the optical fibre

So fatigue has been an issue in setting up the new place. At first, I was so tired I stuffed up the fibre internet connection. I had more robust optical fibre on hand, than the length our provider ‘Star Hub’ had supplied. In my fatigue, I reasoned that it might be like a water pipe. My piece was thicker. Maybe this would let more light in, so we’d get faster speeds/more bandwidth. Well, that was the theory. It didn’t work, and since ‘Star Hub’ retained the pin for activating the connection, my new configuration failed. Eventually, they came and reconnected us. Next was the challenge of the smart TV. It should have been a pushover, but in my fatigued state if took far longer than usual.

Needless to say, we’re connected. The speeds are not quite as good as our last place, but still way ahead of Australia.

I almost forgot to mention that in the midst of the process there was a day with a funeral in the morning and a wedding in the afternoon.

This is an audio-visual work I have produced in my role as International Liaison Officer,  and Vice Chair of the International Organising Committee – Australia – for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles (IOCARPM).

The work was completed with assistance from colleagues who form part of the global campaign for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles. Our motivation was to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the opening of the new Acropolis Museum, arguably the world’s best museum.

This piece begins with a contemplative mood built by means of static images yet conveying the impression of movement with pan and zoom techniques.

Revealing dynamic relations between the ancient monuments of Attica [1] and their biophysical environment, the work moves on into the Acropolis Museum. Here it exposes the museum’s creative use of this dynamism.

Cutting to the British Museum, the work becomes more disjointed, the music more discordant.  Then images of protest dominate.

The only voiced segment follows.

Marlen Godwin, Secretary of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles (BCRPM), reads a poem written by Mrs Eyvah T. Dafaranos.

Next, Dame Janet Suzman, Chair of BCRPM reads from an interview with the current Lord Elgin.

The work closes with a simple installation created by a Greek Australian.

Lina Palera’s beautiful music, Seikilos Epitaph With the Lyre of Apollo from the Lyre 20 Project [2], lifts this work blending flawlessly with the images. There is some beautiful lyre music throughout.

[1] See: British Museum Diminishes the meaning of the Parthenon Marbles

[2] Attribution Non-Commercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)


Posted by: maximos62 | May 28, 2019

The Last Rotting Props

The title is somewhat of a misnomer since this post represents the research base I wrote for what was to become a short story.

It was also written as an attempt to describe the political conditions operating around a project my company was undertaking for the Australian Indonesia Institute, a book entitled Geografi Australia. It was to be both a geography and history of Australia, written in Indonesian, and meeting the requirements of the Indonesian junior secondary high school curriculum. It too was published.

In the end I didn’t write a short story titled ‘The Last Rotting Props’, instead, I wrote several short stories that were published in my book Seen and unseen: a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific.

I first wrote Unspoken Realities, then used the research as part of the background for an additional three stories:

Young Partai Demokrasi Perjuangan (Democratic Party of Struggle) supporters about to join a campaign rally during Jakarta’s 1999 presidential election.

I’m moved to publish it now after the recent return of a Liberal National Party Government in Australia, and also the failure of Prabowo Subianto in the recent Indonesian Presidential race.

In that election, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo attracted 55.5% of votes, and Prabowo only 44.5%. Despite this Prabowo has launched a legal challenge against the result.

Here is my original piece

Some Australian’s imagine that we inhabit a land whose national borders confer such a manifest degree of separateness that with a judicious border protection policy in force we need make scant adaptation to the social and cultural realities of our regional neighbours. They see our regional relationships as primarily strategic. Such an outlook is most often grounded firmly in a Eurocentric sense of nationhood and in a tendency to overstate our significance as a global and regional power.

Although we are the land that’s girt by sea, this state of mind is at variance with biophysical and geopolitical realities. At best this sense of separateness expresses itself in an array of quarantine measures designed to protect our agricultural and pastoral base from harmful foreign organisms, at worst it’s a disposition that’s susceptible to fear, a search for security in rich and powerful ‘European’ friends, nationalism and triumphalism.

Eurocentrism and race

1996 was a time of change. A Liberal National Party coalition Government was returned in Australia and John Howard became Prime Minister. There were obvious reservations. These resided in Howard’s inherent Eurocentrism, his relative disinterest in the Asian region and his view that the previous government neglected the US Alliance. Given the propensity for conservative governments to mismanagement foreign policy in the past, there were profound reasons for concern.

Warning signs were clear. Domestically Howard had long played the race card. It dominated his political ideology. He challenged the very notion of multiculturalism. He was against those supporting economic sanctions against South African apartheid and ‘dog whistled’ up the pressure to reduce Asian immigration. (Colter, Dr. D. & Bolger, D. John Howard and the Race Question. Australian Political Studies Association Conference 6 – 9 July 2008 Hilton Hotel, Brisbane, Australia)

A precarious relationship

The relationship with Indonesia was precarious. Suharto’s New Order Regime was beginning to mire in increasing scandals and corruption. One of the latest was the exclusive licence granted to Tommy Suharto to produce a new car that went by the curious name of the Timor. Indonesians have a great love of acronyms and the standing joke around Jakarta was that Timor stood for Tommy itu memang orang rakus or put simply ‘That Tommy sure is greedy.’

Indonesians with any sort of aspiration for the development of a rational economic system spoke openly about KKN or Korupsi, Kolusi dan Nepotism as major breaks on development.

Anti-Chinese violence

Beginning in Thailand, the Asian economic crisis of 1997 dislodged the last rotting props supporting the Suharto regime. In the midst of the economic chaos that was quickly manifest, I was conducting a tour for a ‘university of the third age’ group through Java and Bali, while the company was also managing a three-week field placement in Yogyakarta, for MLC Melbourne. All ran as smoothly as it could but by 1998 violent scenes, not witnessed since the anti-Communist purges of 1965, erupted across Indonesia. Irregular units, akin the militia, that were so favoured as a political tool later in East Timor, rampaged through major centres. In their wake followed sustained outbreaks of looting, firebombing, and stoning of Chinese businesses along with the rape and murder of Chinese Indonesians.

Shops looted and goods burned on the streets in Jakarta, 14 May 1998

Large tracts of North and West Jakarta resembled a bombed-out war zone after the worst of this violence. Even sedate Solo failed to remain untouched with a substantial part of its commercial district destroyed.

Back in Sydney,  Geografi Australia complete, but my Indonesia based field study business in tatters, and teaching Geography at SCECGS Redlands, I felt a strong sense of connection with events in Indonesia. This was not merely because of a familiarity with the locations where so much violence was now erupting, but also because there was a large group of Chinese Indonesian students at Redlands that year. As students from wealthy urban middle-class families they were on the technological cutting edge. All had mobile phones, Internet connections and email accounts. Then at night I was often on the phone to Margaret Hulbert, a relative, who was still living in Jakarta, as well as my close friend Henky Kurniawan. By day I’d often compare notes with my Chinese Indonesian students. Events in Indonesia unfolded in real time, for all of us.

Henky, my old travelling companion, was from a Padang Buddhist family that had converted to Roman Catholicism. A Chinese Indonesian, one of just 3% of the Indonesian population, he ran a graphic design and photography business and did a lot of work for the Catholic Church and UNICEF. Henky was also Rukun Tetangga (RT) in his north eastern Jakarta neighbourhood. I rang him almost every day through the worst of the violence.

Each day the story was the same:

Aman, kami semua aman (Safe, we’re all safe.)

Then one night I rang, and the reply was simply:

Hancur! (Destruction!)

I could elicit nothing more.

Later I discovered that a team of thugs, perhaps Prabowo Subianto’s irregular forces, or so we thought, had burned the supermarket complex, at the back of Henky’s house, on the other side of a drainage canal.

Henky spent 24 hours standing guard outside his house with a baseball bat. He’d already warned me that this could happen. Now I encouraged him to migrate to Australia, but he said there was little point as he would have to start again, and English wasn’t his strength.

On another evening I spoke with Margaret, as she sat without electricity in a darkened house illuminated by the red glow of the nearby shopping centre, now in flames.

The Habibie interlude

Under Suharto’s successor and former Vice President, Habbie, there were some notable changes. Free elections were scheduled, and political prisoners were freed, including Xanna Gusmao.

It was difficult to know whether Habbie was trying to put as much distance between himself and the corruption and injustices of the Suharto years, or whether he had always been waiting his turn to make an impact. In this environment, he seemed far from the arrogant technocrat that I’d heard speaking at the Regent Hotel in Sydney some years before.

One major factor that Habbie couldn’t easily address was the dual function – dwifungsi – of the military. It had socio-political role that guaranteed military seats with within legislature. Another area beyond his effective control were the separatist movements in East Timor, Aceh, and Irian Jaya.

The Acehenese struggle was a long one that dated from the time of Dutch colonialism, the East Timorese struggle was a remarkable and enduring resistance to Indonesian annexation, while the OPM continued to call for unification with PNG. Both Falintil in East Timor and the GAM (Garisan Aceh Merdeka – the Free Aceh Movement), were anti-colonial movements, fighting for national liberation and self-determination. The OPM seemed to have less focus but the opposition of the West Papuans to rule from Jakarta and the ill ease of many transmigrants with the human rights situation was obvious to anyone visiting the area.

Howard Government returned

Against this background of dramatic political changes in Indonesia, the Howard government was returned to power again in October 1998. Under Howard’s leadership, the government began to shift its foreign policy mix. Much of this change in settings seemed to be for Australian domestic consumption, but its impacts in the Asia Pacific region were clear enough.

Malaysia’s Deputy Home Minister Azmi Khalid acknowledged the validity of Australia’s peacekeeping mission in East Timor he argued that this role must not apply more widely. He said: ‘

We are actually fed up with their stance – that they are sitting in a white chair and supervising the colored chairs.

The Malaysian Democratic Action Party (DAP) leader described the Howard Doctrine as outmoded asserting that:

Asia does not want, nor has it recognized, the US as the policeman of the world, what’s more, one needing a deputy. Howard has drawn the wrong conclusion from Australia’s peacekeeping role in East Timor, which is a decision of the United Nations Security Council and not the arbitrary decision of the US.

Malaysia’s Sun daily, editorialised on Howard’s role in Asia in these terms:

We think it is folly. Indeed, it is more likely to create fissures in Asean-Australia ties than to ‘cement Australia’s place in the region’ as Howard claims it will.

A book launch

Now the book was ready to launch, but not before a teachers’ development conference program had been developed. These were exciting times. Australia was finally heading for a referendum on the monarchy and our company was finally ready to launch a publication, Geografi Australia, that had begun in 1994, survived three changes of President and an education minister there as well as a change of government in Australia.

If the postcolonial administrations had given Indonesia anything it was a bureaucracy. Departments were said to be wet or dry. This was nothing to do with their financial rectitude, as it could be interpreted from the standpoint of the increasingly deregulated market economies of the West, rather it related to how much they leaked funds. Fortunately, the Indonesian Department of Education and Culture (DEPDIKBUD) was relatively dry but like a lot of education departments, it had a well-developed hierarchy. So, we worked feverishly on the conference content, knowing that in this bureaucratised Indonesian way of doing things it would be necessary to leave lots of time up front for speeches.

The move towards democracy in Indonesia was far from smooth. Political violence and terrorism were increasing these strategies were not new. Bombings had long been a feature of the political landscape; it was the frequency and the intent that was at issue. Some attributed the recurrent bombings to military involvement, an attempt to frighten the Indonesian populace into resisting attempts to curb the military’s power in the face of a clear and imminent threat.

The greater prominence of some Islamic fringe groups such as Laskar Jihad and then Jemaah Islamiyah led others to conclude that it was these groups that were principally responsible for the bombings. Whatever the actual situation, there was confusion and uncertainty. In such a context the Howard Doctrine was at best unhelpful and at worst something that could be used by extremist groups as an example Western pressure that warranted strong measures in response.

Posted by: maximos62 | May 9, 2019

Otters on the Singapore River

My posts are usually more serious than this one, but I’m enchanted by the otters that live along the Singapore River. Of course, they are wild animals despite their successful adaptation to urban life.

These days they’re experts at navigating the maze of drains and conduits developed here to help manage the equatorial downpours. They’re also quite territorial and will drive off other groups if they find their hunting areas infringed

I hope you enjoy this short video. The first part was shot on an iPhone 8 and the second part with a Sony Handycam (HDR-XR260).


It’s important to note that the otters haven’t shown this resilience all by themselves. There has been a concerted effort in Singapore to clean up the river.

When I first visited Singapore in 1972, the river was in a dreadful state, it had deteriorated since this image was taken in 1900.

A childhood remembered

In his post, The cleaning up of Singapore River and Kallang Basin (1977-1987), Singapore blogger Jerome Lim, describes the river of his childhood in these terms:

The Singapore River was a typically and sadly abused river, a dumping ground from the time people settled along its banks. The growth of modern Singapore amplified that pollution to such an extent that the river was pitch black in many parts. My ecology class always hears about this during the aquatic biomes lecture when I talk about nutrition states of water bodies because the memory of the filthy state of the river still haunts me!

Safe to drink

Now through commitment and a concerted clean-up, the water, with a little filtering and treatment, is fit to drink.  I’ve been drinking it for five years now.


For more on Singapore’s otters, check out the Facebook site Otter Watch

Posted by: maximos62 | May 3, 2019

The Colourful Parthenon Frieze

For some 17 years now I’ve been engaged in the campaign for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.

In that time I’ve often visited the British Museum and the outstanding new Acropolis Museum, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.  On my most recent visit, I encounter an audiovisual display exploring some of the unique features of the Parthenon Frieze.

I wasted no time in capturing a few moments of the display on my iPhone. Apologies for the poor quality images

Posted by: maximos62 | April 26, 2019

In the land where the crow flies backwards

S.S. Nile on the bed of the Darling River south of Bourke, NSW, during a drought. The image was taken by the journalist C. E. W. Bean for the Sydney Morning Herald, circa 1909, (Australian National Maritime Museum on The Commons, object no. 00017014).

This isn’t a long post just a footnote about the Darling River, it picks up on my post about the Darling River in March 2018.

I’m prompted to revisit this issue by a well-researched article, Shipwrecked at Brewarrina: Drought reveals historic Wandering Jew paddle steamer, from Jessie Davies.

Jessie’s article is about the Barwon River at Brewarrina and the remains of an important feature of European river history

For urban readers, the Murray Darling Basin Authority says this about the Barwon-Darling River system:

The Barwon–Darling river system is in north-western New South Wales. It takes in the Barwon River, from upstream of Mungindi at the confluence of the Macintyre and Weir rivers, to where the Barwon meets the Culgoa River. At this point the river channel becomes the Darling River and the Barwon–Darling system extends downstream to the Menindee Lakes.

In her article, Davies only makes brief reference to Indigenous occupance along the river system, yet this is an ancient presence. She observes, in reference to the wreck of the Wandering Jew, “Now, its rusted iron body lies for all to see in the river’s muddy waters just above the town’s iconic Aboriginal fish traps.”

Indigenous Occupance

Davies’ passing reference reminds me that the story of Indigenous settlement along the inland rivers is quite a remarkable one.  Paul Dutton, whom I follow on twitter, also drew attention to the antiquity and success of Indigenous settlement along Australia’s inland rivers, in a recent Tweet.

People learned to live with the irregularities of the continent’s climate and didn’t only survive but prospered. The Brewarrina region of NSW is home to Ngemba, Ualarai, Murrawarri and Wailwan people. Today they are custodians of an intricate series of stone fish traps across the Barwon River.

Fish traps at Brewarrina

This complex array of linked weirs and ponds extends for 500 metres along the river. There is flexibility in the design allowing people to adapt the system to varying levels of river flow. People use their extensive knowledge of different fish species and the variations in flow to ensure suitable catches.

This is just one story of sustainable environmental adaptation and management that was such a feature of Indigenous occupance.

Bill Gammage, in his book The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, provides numerous examples of Indigenous settlement along the inland rivers of Australia. I won’t cite many but just draw attention to the book. I consider this work essential reading for every non-Indigenous Australian.

Rules of Indigenous management

Gammage explains that three rules directed all management of Australia before 1788:

  • Ensure that all life flourishes
  • Make plants and animals abundant, convenient and predictable
  • Think universal, act local

The fish traps at Brewarrina are just one example of the principle that applied to the whole continent.

Brewarrina fish traps

The fish traps are known as Baiame’s Ngunnhu [pronounced By-ah-mee’s noon-oo]by the Ngemba people. These are arguably the oldest known human constructions. Apparently constructed on a large riffle, they were first described by a European in 1848 by William Colburn Mayne, the Commissioner of Crown Lands. Gammage references Mayne’s description:

In a broad but shallow part of . . . where there are numerous rocks, the Aborigines have formed several enclosures or Pens, if I may use the word, into which the fish are carried, or as it were decoyed by the current, are there retained. To form these must have been a work of no trifling labour, and no slight degree of ingenuity and skill must have been exercised in their construction, as I was informed by men who have passed several years in the vicinity, that not even the heaviest floods displace the stones forming these enclosures. The Aborigines catch immense quantities of fish in these and are also enabled to destroy great numbers of fishing Birds of various kinds that are attracted to them by their prey thus imprisoned; and from these two sources the Tribes in that locality derive a considerable portion of their subsistence.

Gammage also reports from another source which explains that in addition to the major stone traps, “Several hundred successively smaller traps caught dray loads of fish.”

Chris Graham the publisher and editor of New Matilda, and former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine, wrote further in this for his February 2019 article, OUTBACK TOUR: Australia Has One Of The Oldest Human-Made Structures On Earth. Meh?

He observes that:

Despite Aboriginal people being banished from Brewarrina, and shuffled multiple times between missions in western and far western NSW, the custodians of Baiame’s Ngunnhu stubbornly continued to tend to their fish traps, and preserve them for future generations.

This continued into the 1970s, when the NSW Government decided to dam the Barwon with a weir, to provide water for irrigation for the few dozen farmers in the region. They built it right at the head of the fish traps, creating a pool upstream that sometimes stretches, in wetter times, for over 100 kilometres.

Now a National Heritage Place.

The Baiame’s Ngunnhu are now registered as a National Heritage Place. In the citation, the Australian Government acknowledges that:

The Ngemba people of Brewarrina used their advanced knowledge of river hydrology and fish ecology to trap and catch large numbers of freshwater fish. The unusual and innovative fish traps, known as Ngunnhu, are still visible in the Darling River, and have strong social, cultural and spiritual association for Aboriginal people with connections to the area.

The National Heritage listing goes on to explain that, the Ngemba people are custodians of the fishery, but maintenance and use of the traps were shared nations in the area, including the Morowari, Paarkinji, Weilwan, Barabinja, Ualarai, and Kamilaroi.

Baiame allocated particular traps to each family group and made them responsible for their use and maintenance. Neighbouring tribes were invited to the fish traps to join corroborees, initiation ceremonies, and meetings for trade and barter.

Lessons for contemporary Australia

Intensive irrigation farming, particularly cotton, is wildly out of accord with the environmental limits and with the practices adopted by Indigenous Australians. Their approaches were not merely sustainable, but they delivered certainty and abundance. We have a lot of learning to do.

I’m reminded of the line in the song, ‘The Land Where the Crow Flies Backwards’. Though the version I first heard was recorded by the late Gary Shearston, it was written by Dougie. I’m pleased I’ve found the original from Dougie Young.

The White Man took this country from me, he’s been fighting for it ever since.

Douglas Gary Young (1933-1991), was Aboriginal songwriter and singer, was born on 30 August 1933 at East Mitchell, Queensland, he was the sixth child of Queensland-born parents Frank Young, white labourer, and his wife Olive Kathleen, née McCarthy, a Gurnu woman. Read more about Dougie here in Indigenous Australia

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