Asia, Australia, environment, geography, history, indigenous, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam

#BookLaunch of ‘Seen & Unseen: a century of stories from #Asia & the #Pacific’


This is a Chitter Media Production, produced and edited by Adrian Metlenko, camera operators Adrian Metlenko and Evan Darnley-Pentes.

Australia, environment, geography, history, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, religion, sociology, travel

The author on “Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from #Asia and the #Pacific”

Common views of Asia and the Pacific, from the outside, often confer undue prominence to such things as typhoons, tsunami, earthquakes, malaria or even magic. While these can be confronting realities in the Asia-Pacific region beyond such differences even more remains unseen and misunderstood. Frequently unacknowledged are the influences Asian and Pacific cultures exert far beyond their borders.


Seen & Unseen: A Century of Stories from Asia & the Pacific is 29 stories inspired by one family’s experience spanning three generations of change. It blends anthropology, botany, ecology, economics, geography, history, politics and spiritual traditions. While each story is cradled in reality and crafted with a careful eye for historical accuracy, frailty of memory, the natural passing of people and the need to protect others has rendered some fictional even when they are not.

Influencing this work is an acceptance that interactions with people from our own culture are generally tangible and familiar, but when beyond our immediate culture things change. Now 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 stories

I begin this journey in 1914 with Sid Thompson and D Company, a tale inspired by the little known ANMEF sent to capture New Guinea from Germany. While easily defeating the enemy unseen forces took an enormous toll. Sid Thompson also appears in Red Poppies and Janur. Several stories address changing Australian views of Japan through the encounters of ordinary people. Joss Sticks and Cracker Night and An Encounter with White Australia reveal Asian influences in Anglo-Australia of the 1950s. First Landfall and The Sublime to the Horrific chronicle my own first bumbling attempts at being in Asia. Some 15 stories are set over an 18-year period in Indonesia from the comfort of urban to life to that of forest people yet to develop the habit of money. These begin with tales about engaging with manifest cultural differences and lead into matters of more global significance. Campaign and The General Election take two Australians and Indonesian friends through a transition to democracy. An Unusual Kind Of Thunder and In The Charnel House deal directly with the Bali Bombings of 2002 while My Second Meeting With Jonathan unfolds in its aftermath. Singapore 43 years On is about returning to Singapore, a city transformed. Vietnam A War Revisited is a story of the anti-war movement and the draft told retrospectively from Hanoi. Finally, Sid Thompson returns in the more metaphysical tale Headland.

The basic and enduring interplay of the seen and the unseen worlds is of great significance to those of us from 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.


You can purchase the book now from Amazon



Australia, environment, geography, history, Personal comment

Unravelling the Mystery of Lake George: the vanishing lake

After a morning of working in the garden it’s a relief to be out of the wind. Right now it’s blowing at 50 km/h and gusting to 59km/h. In the spring wind gusts stir up a lot of fallen flowers and pollens, so all the while I was working outside digging, sweeping and planting I had an irritation in my nose.  It goes with the season.

The view from the Federal Highway, east, across Lake George.

All this strong dry wind heralds an El Nino event and a period of dry conditions which causes me think of drought and the iconic indicator of such events, Lake George.  It’s somewhat of a mystery lake. I can only recall seeing it full for a short period, for the most part it’s dry with a few muddy puddles after rain. This last La Nina period it’s started to fill again, but nowhere near the bank full stage I’ve seen it in the past. It’s a bit of a mystery. The draining of Lake George is always a good sign that were entering an El Nino period of the southern oscillation (ENSO).

A Link with China

Once people suggested that Lake George had a subterranean link with China.  The popular myth asserted that it was conditions in China which determined its water level.  Of course this fanciful notion has long been dismissed.  A useful source on this is Gary Jones ‘Inside Water’ blog. In my experience, tour coach captains, often not renown for their accurate local knowledge, have added to the apparent mystery over the years embroidering layer upon layer of fanciful explanations for the lake’s appearance and disappearance.

Lake George Water Facts

With a catchment of 954 square kilometres, 16% of this occupied by the lake. It’s a small system just 25 kilometres long, 10 kilometres wide, very shallow and, for a lake in eastern Australia, very salty. Unless there’s significant rain in the catchment, it seldom has much water. Just 10 minor tributaries feed the lake, which sits at 1350 metres asl.

While the means annual rainfall in the area is 750mm it does have appreciable amounts of water in La Nina periods, if rain is falling in the catchment.

Lake George, 25 kilometres north-east of Canberra, has a catchment area of 984 square kilometres. Ten minor tributaries feed the lake, which has no surface outflow. The only data I could find for these was for the 25 Km long Turallo Ck which at the time of writing had a depth of 0.62 metres and discharging at a rate of 32.9 ML/day around 80% of it’s bank full flow. The NSW department of Primary Industries Office of Water, provides some real time data on Turallo Creek.

The Lake’s Murray Cod Industry

In the 19th century there was actually a fishing industry on the lake.  Well, perhaps industry is somewhat of a misnomer. Murray Cod were translocated from the Molonglo River to the Lake George area in 1848.  This stimulated a fishing industry, but this must have been in a La Nina period. The population that developed in Lake George was used as a source to stock the Wollondilly and Cox’s Rivers and Mulwarree Ponds near Goulburn in the Nepean Catchment .  For the reference on this see Species Summaries: An Analysis and Summary of Historical Information on Native Fish.

A new capital for a new nation

Reporting in the Canberra Times on March 12 this year, Ian Warden made an inspired contribution to the lake George saga.  He reminds us that “Mystical Lake George, once upon a time one of Canberra’s rivals as the chosen spot for the federal capital city”.  Reading this piece reminded me that I’ve actually seen the plans for the proposed national capital site at Bungendore.

Plan shewing proposed Federal Capital site in the locality of Lake George.

An expedition to Lake George

On Tuesday I head off to the lake. My son and I will attempt to paddle our kayaks on what water there is. This could be a once in a lifetime opportunity, something he can tell his grandchildren about. Hopefully I’ll be able to join the conversation as well.

Whether or not we succeed is problematic.  The lake seems fullest at its eastern edge, but this area is surrounded by private land holdings and I don’t know whether we’ll gain entry.  Still there’s a good chance we will, since this shoreline, rather the low line of hills above it is the site of a major wind farm.

Wind Farms

I took photograph at the top of this page from a bus moving at around 100km/h back in late July. I appreciate the hues but I’m also rather taken by the wind farm in the background.  Wind farms appeal to me.  Perhaps it’s just from a childhood fascination with those Southern Cross wind pumps that dotted Australia’s arid landscape.  There were always displays of at agricultural shows in Sydney, the Royal Easter Show to be precise.

Wind farms are a controversial topic, but I really enjoy them.  There’s a small wind generator not far from where I live.  More about this in my next post.

history, Parthenon Marbles

An analysis of the legality of Elgin’s removal of the #Parthenon Marbles

It’s not often I have the privilege to read matters analysed from a legal perspective. Certainly, subjecting Elgin’s appropriation of the Parthenon Marbles to detailed analysis is of a more than passing interest for me. So, it was with great pleasure that I read Theodore Theodorou’s reassessment of Elgin’s activities through the lens of a letter from Robert Adair, British Ambassador to Constantinople for the period 1809 to 1811. Adair’s posting covered the latter part of the period, 1801 to 1812 during which Elgin’s agents were removing sculptures from the Parthenon.

My concern, since first listening to George Bizos on the matter, has been whether any of the Firman issued were actually genuine documents at all. This concern is prompted by the simple fact that no originals have ever been produced by Elgin, the British Parliament or the British Museum.

Theodore Theodorou presents an extremely well argued analysis of the basic legal position surrounding Elgin’s acquisition. He sheds a completely new light on the matter, for me.

His contribution heightens my resolve to keep working for the restitution of the Marbles. I urge all readers to visit Theodore’s website.

A footnote

There are some other beautiful elements of Theodore’s website, in particular the several images of 17th to 18th century embroidery and some miscellaneous historical objects, forming part of the Theodorou collection.

Australia, history, Parthenon Marbles, Personal comment

The #ParthenonMarblesAustralia Website is Now Live

Last night the new website of the International Organising Committee – Australia – For The Restitution Of The Parthenon Marbles, was launched at the Athenian Restaurant, Sydney.   Designed by Dennis Tritaris from Orama Communications, I believe it represents a new standard in website design.  Dennis has created a website that has the potential to make full use of Web2.0 tools to mobilise the truly global nature of this issue, connecting those of us who care about restitution without regard for national borders.  The new website is an expression of the international focus of the Australian committee.

The restoration of the Parthenon

Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles is probably the world’s most well-known cultural property dispute.

Legal Opinion

A significant body of legal opinion acknowledges the illegality of Britain’s retention of the largest part of the Parthenon Marbles. George Bizos,  Professor Vassilis Dimitriadis, Professor David RudenstineChristopher Hitchens, and Michael J Reppas, just to mention a few, note the illegality.

Professor Vassilis Dimitriadis’ opinion is summarised at the Elginism website in a report by ARTINFO, published: August 29, 2008 which reads:

A professor from the University of Crete has called into question the sole document that the British Museum has found in recent years to support its legal ownership of the Elgin Marbles, reports the Times of London.

According to the museum, the 1801 document is an Italian translation of an Ottoman firman, or license, in which the Sultan’s grand vizier was authorized to permit the Earl of Elgin to take the sculptures. Elgin took the marbles between 1801 and 1805, and Britain’s argument has long been that the move was legal, because he asked for permission from the Turks, whose empire ruled Greece at the time. They also say that he saved the sculptures from likely damage and deterioration during the Greek-Turk conflict.

But Professor Vassilis Dimitriadis, a specialist in Ottoman law, now says that the original firman, on which the translation is based, could not have been legal, because it is missing the Sultan’s emblem and signature, and an invocation to God. Dimitriadis claims that, by law, only the Sultan could issue a valid firman.

Another examination of the legal issues and developments in international law can be found in a paper ‘Cultural Property and the Shortcomings of International Law: A Case Study on the Looting of the Parthenon‘ by Michael J Reppas Esq.

There’s not time to cover the entire range of legal opinion on this blog, but in essence many lawyers point to the absence of any legitimate documentation sanctioning Elgin’s removal of the Marbles from the Parthenon.

Far deeper than legalities

Of course the matter is far deeper than legalities.  My friend Emanuel J Comino AM often reminds me of the significance of the Parthenon as the pinnacle of artistic achievement in the city-state of Athens, birth place of democracy.  This is really the heart of the matter.  All would do well to consider the gravity of the Elgin’s act which in cultural terms is an affront to the city-state that gave us the very notion of democracy.  This temple of Athena was the centre of a state that developed the very foundations of a political system that so many of us take for granted and that our Greek friends are privileged to hold as a centre in their cultural tradition.  The inner strength afforded by such a noble history is constantly revealed in Hellenic character and traditions.  Such strength can be observed in the ability to retain a cultural focus despite Τουρκοκρατία (Turkish rule) from the 15th century until the declaration of Greek independence in 1821.

The removal of the Parthenon Marbles is an affront to these traditions and an affront to democracy.  In case we are in any doubt about the nature and character of that democracy, I leave the last word to Pericles.  In his funeral oration for those who fell defending Attica from the Spartans he wrote:

“For our system of government does not copy the systems of our neighbours; we are a model to them, not they to us. Our constitution is called a democracy,because power rests in the hands not of the few but of the many. Our laws guarantee equal justice for all in their private disputes;

and as for the election of public officials, we welcome talent to every arena of achievement, nor do we make out choices on the grounds of class but on the grounds of excellence alone. And as we give free play to all in our public life, so we carry the same spirit into our daily relations with one another. We acknowledge the restraint of reverence;

we are obedient to those in authority and to the laws, especially to those that give protection to the oppressed and those unwritten laws of the heart whose transgression brings admitted shame.”

“We are lovers of beauty without extravagance, and lovers of wisdom without effeminacy.

We differ from other states in regarding the man who keeps aloof from public life not as “private” but as useless; we decide or debate, carefully and in person, all matters of policy, and we hold, not that words and deeds go ill together, but that acts are foredoomed to failure when undertaken undiscussed.”

In a word, I say our city as a whole is an education to Greece, and that our citizens yield to none, man by man, for independence of spirit, many-sidedness of attainment, and complete self-reliance in limbs and brain.

Men of the future will wonder at us, as all men do today. We need no Homer or other man of words to praise us”.

“For you now, it remains to rival what they have done and, knowing that the secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom a brave heart, not idly to stand aside from the enemy’s onslaught”.

Australia, DER, education, history

Digital archives transforming the study of history

Beginning the study of Modern History at the University of Sydney, years ago, I was abruptly made aware of the radical difference between what was then taught in NSW secondary schools as history, and the reality of contemporary historical scholarship. School history, in those days, was taught from the text book. Any sense of differences in historical perspectives or opportunities for students to come into contact with primary sources was limited to the point of almost complete absence. Eventually things changed.

University of Sydney Medical School before 1891, from Records NSW

This photo is from the State Records NSW photostream.

Now a statutory body, the NSW Board of Studies (BOS), mandates the use of sources and even primary sources in the teaching of history in this state.  Text book writers have adapted to changes in the regulatory framework and developments in printng, the invention of the CDs, DVDs and the opportunity for a web based presence associated with individual textbooks are common place, but for how much longer?

The challenge for text book publishers
Publishers of textbooks seem to be scrambling to catch up with the research and data processing power of the 1:1 computer enabled student.  A quick search of Australian educational publishers reveals the current state of developments.  One publisher is offering an electronic textbook with complementary targeted digital resources through its website. As well as this they offer a ‘research management system’ that includes media such as interactive games, templates, videos and weblinks. My concern about this approach is that while it provides a convenient shell and minimises teacher workloads it offers students a somewhat ‘gated community’.

I’ve always been an ardent supported of discovery learning. When an owner and director of Asian Field Study Centres I was careful to develop a variety of in field strategies allowing students opportunities for their own original discoveries through field work. We called these elements of the field study program, Self Directed Activities. All involved some element of primary research, data gathering, analysis and reporting back and evaluation.

Opportunities for discovery learning and for working with original materials are now such, in 1:1 class rooms, that there is little apparent need for text books whatever their current iteration.

My Year 9 Australian History class has not used a text book this year. This hasn’t been a distinct objective but it has been a logical outcome of 1:1 laptop use. The DER Laptop program has had a major impact on my pedagogy.  This hasn’t meant that I could simply adopt a lazy approach to teaching either, it hasn’t been a matter of merely pointing students at the Internet and saying “Now you go and find the answers”.

Teaching without a text book
Using the NSW Board of Studies history syllabus and the HSIE faculty’s program as my ‘road map’ I’ve set out to build my own resources for the development of a PBL approach.  Critical in this process has been the Laptop Wrap template from the NSW Department of Education and Communities Curriculum and Learning Innovation Centre. This basic digital scaffold has been extended and stretched about as far as it can be. Other essential elements have been the valuable stock of Le@rning Federation learning objects available through TALE and the remarkable resources of the National Library of Australia. It is about this last resource that I’d like to concentrate the balance of this post.

The National Library of Australia provides an abundance of online materials and links to a diverse range of information on Australian history resources as well as providing links to other useful sites. Perhaps the ‘jewel in the crown’ of this collection for the middle school history teacher is Trove. This excellent tool has allowed me to incorporate more opportunities for students to research basic issues in Australian history using primary sources. Trove provides rapid access to an extensive collection of digitised of Australian records. At the time of writing Trove provides access to 247,815,237 online resources covering books, images, historic newspapers, maps, music, archives and more.

As a first step I introduced Trove using a projector and interactive whiteboard. As a class we examined some basic data about Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith.

Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, Queensland, 1930

Once we’d explored some of Trove’s possibilities, I embedded a selection of documents about Kingsford-Smith in a Laptop Wrap “Australia between the wars”. These were downloaded and placed in an Adobe Portfolio document. In the next Laptop Wrap on “Australia in World War 2” I’ll provide some resources from Trove using the same technique but then leave students the task of locating, evaluating and using others that they find with their own Trove searches.

This process is in it’s early stages, but it’s becoming clearer by the day that the study of school history is being dramatically transformed by the access to digital archives made possible by the roll-out of 1:1 laptops.

Australia, history

Remnants of Sydney’s Once Great Tramway

Trams Passing the Queen Victoria Building

State Records, NSW.  Some Rights Reserved.

A chance encounter
Cycling along Johnston Creek Annandale yesterday, now a concrete  encased storm water drain marking the border between Leichhardt and the City of Sydney,  I noticed that the doors to the old tramway sheds lying between the creek and Maxwell St, Glebe, were open.  While there’s a gate barring the way into the sheds, it’s one of those Claytons gates with a good 750mm of clearance below, so almost anyone is capable of ducking underneath.  Neighbourhood youth have been doing this for years.

Chatting with some of my students last year I learned that there are several old trams still inside these neglected structures.  With a small amount of  Googling, I actually came across the images of the old trams on a Sydney City Council website, later the Sydney Morning Herald carried a short piece on the trams. Reading this I learned of their sad fate.

Quickly I parked my bike, rolled under the gate and made my way, iPhone in hand, to the open doors.  The first shed was empty save for the the accumulated detritus of another era, but certainly nothing of value.  Skirting around the edge of the shed on an eleveated walkway, I noticed a young woman.  She was standing in an opening that seemed to lead to another large room. Making a little noise to mark my approach, so as not to startle her with a sudden appearance, she seemed completely disinterested, her attention drawn to something in the next room. Stepping past her I looked for the first time at the tram graveyard, then groups of people milling around in various parts of a vast and junk strewn space.  Everything was wildly decorated in graffiti. The old corridor trams no exception.

Neglected trams at Sydney's Harold Park

This was a sad encounter.  Little functional remains.  The trams are mere shells, their window glass missing their surfaces thickly veneered with graffiti.

Suddenly a couple of robust young when in dark clothes, heads covered with black beanies, crept into view.  Both were brandishing automatic revolvers.  Before I could react another young man appeared. He wore a T Shirt sporting the words ‘The Peoples Republic of Coogee’.

“Don’t be disturbed, we’re shooting a film and you might see people carrying guns”.

He seemed singularly disinterested in my preoccupation with the trams.

“I used to ride in those, all the way to Coogee”, I said.

“Really?”, he replied.


For some interesting links to remaning elements of Sydney’s once vast tramway network visit