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Comedy is hard because wokeism has moved almost beyond satire. This has required me to take seriously Melbourne’s Enterprise Professor Bruce Pascoe, the ABC’s favourite Aborigine. For example, he’s been advocating that we meat-eaters cut planet-wrecking CO2 emissions by gathering roadkill for the table.

My 500th essay went up on Quadrant Online last week, all searchable on my public archive. Years ago I had in mind retiring at the 500th, but doing these things is a nice hobby for an 83-year-old in his lean and slippered pantaloon, so I’ve re-set the target to 1000.

My first QO essay was on January 30, 2012, titled, “Sinking, sinking not: Tuvalu”. Climate lies are so entrenched that in my 501st essay 12 years later, I’m still pointing out that Tuvalu’s area is expanding.[1] Even Russ Skelton’s RMIT/ABC Fact Check has joined me to combat the ‘drowning islanders’ meme. My piece included some mirthy material from the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference:

Ian Fry, Tuvalu’s lead negotiator, told delegates, “I woke up this morning crying, and that’s not easy for a grown man to admit, the fate of my country rests in your hands.” As he said this, his eyes again filled with tears, and mortified delegates applauded him wildly. Later, some nark noticed that he was not from Tuvalu at all, in fact he is a lawyer from Queanbeyan, Canberra’s next-door neighbour. He’s an ex-Greenpeace liaison officer and specialises in island nations…

As for the Maldives, which I also discussed, it’s a low-lying island group and home to low liars. In 2009 its prime minister and cabinet donned scuba gear for a meeting six metres underwater, recorded by waterlogged paparazzi for gullible Western media such as the ABC, which fed the video to its million-plus subscribers. The ministers used waterproof crayons to scrawl their pleas for funding. As Prime Minister Mohamed Nasheed put it,

Well that’s the bottom line isn’t it – under water. That’s where we will end up. In many senses that might be where we will be having our cabinet meetings in the future.

The same Islamic government was into public floggings of women who had extra-marital sex. As I wrote, “An out-of-wedlock birth is sufficient evidence, hence floggings normally involve the new mothers. The fathers are more or less exempt. Flogging appears to be prevalent, judging by a local comment that for 140 women flogged, there would be only a couple of men.” Read that one here.

Somehow the Maldives with its quaint traditions hasn’t drowned. In fact a check on tourist arrivals reveals a 200,000 monthly record last December. Most jetted in to Velana International Airport, feeding out to 13 domestic airports for “a combination of water villas, white sand beaches, adventurous water sports, and a great landscape,” as the travel wholesalers put it. Why not make like Brittany Higgins, who celebrated her $2.4 million payoff from the Labor government by heading there a palm-fringed frolic with swain David Sharaz. A honeymoon package ex-Melbourne can run you around $30,000.

Looking back at the 2009 underwater cabinet, I’d suggest you take 2024’s climate porn with a tablespoon of salt – especially anything from Tim Flannery’s Climate Council.

Enough already about the climate apocalypse. In my early Quadrant days I was happiest writing stories about the Cold War of 1946-89. I grew up in an advanced Communist household. We were certain that the Marx-predicted uprising of the masses was just around the corner in Perth, led by the proletariat of Fremantle.

While still in short pants I helped Joseph Stalin gather his 600 million petitioners for a “Five Power Peace Pact”, and told the tale 63 years later.

Did Mr A.T. Jelly, probably of Nedlands, Perth, play some small role in 1952 in ameliorating Cold War tensions and bringing about a more peaceful world? He was walking along the Stirling Highway footpath near the then State Saw Mills, and I, as an 11-year-old, blocked his way. I presented him with a petition for a Five Power Peace Pact between the US, UK, France, the Soviet Union and China. I explained why it was a good idea, and he became about my tenth signatory that morning.[2]
I was a keen collector of signatures, so keen that I won the prize from the Eureka Youth League and/or its parent the Communist Party of Australia. The big prize! I became the sole delegate from Perth’s Junior Eureka Youth League (JEYL) to Sydney’s Youth Carnival for Peace & Friendship.

At this distance it is safe to make a confession. I did forge 10-15% of my signature tally, enough to knock my sister, 12, out of the short-list for the prize. My parents, inspecting my petition sheets, immediately queried the authenticity of “Mr Jelly”. Mr Jelly’s signature was authentic. I was righteously indignant. Even today I notice two Jelly families in Perth’s White Pages, possibly Mr A.T. Jelly’s descendants.

Read that one here.

My train ride to the Peace Festival furnished me with another essay How the Truth Went Begging. This was about the Aborigines begging at Nullarbor sidings for food and shillings. They also sold me one of their hot-wired boomerangs, by that I mean with scorched-in designs.

These pitiable families (above), hoisting sickly babies at us and accompanied by starving dogs, were a national and international blot on Australia’s reputation for decades.  But things are not always as they seem, as I discovered through the archival records of Protectors and civil servants[3]. The Aborigines, doing fine on rations, supplies and bush tucker, would strip off their government-issue togs, hang them on trees and change into filthy rags to humbug the train travellers. This had been their modus operandum since the line opened in 1917. The easy spoils even lured Aborigines down from central Australia, notwithstanding their much-remarked attachment to “Country”. By way of contrast, away from the railway line Aborigines “earnt good wages” from farmers and pastoralists. As WA Protector A.O.Neville told the 1937 national conference,

I absolutely deny that the natives along the Western Australian section of the line are living in miserable conditions …. When these natives approach the train, they are received with extraordinary sympathy by the passengers, who give them money, fruit, cake and many other things, and in every way possible encourage them … It seems to me that only two things can be done to remedy this state of affairs. They must be taken away from the line altogether, which would involve the expenditure of considerably more money than Western Australia or South Australia can spare for the purpose, or the passengers must, in some way, be prevented from making gifts to them. 

 I concluded, “Today we can look back and criticise [him], just as – who knows? – we, too, will be criticised from a 2070 perspective.” Read that one here.

THESE essays are also therapeutic, as I use them to relieve my guilty conscience about career stuff-ups. It’s hard to know which were the worst. Failing to cover a key address by General Sir John Winthrop Hackett in Perth in 1963 must make the top three. Sir John was not merely a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath and ex-Commander of NATO’s Northern Army Group (and DSO & Bar and Military Cross), but son of Sir Winthrop Hackett, founder of both The West Australian, where I was a C-grader, and the WA University, where Sir John gave his  oration.

Suffering a surfeit of teen testosterone, I’d ducked off at 10.30pm to canoodle with a girlfriend in my Austin A40, unaware that Sir John was the last-scheduled and climactic speaker. Perth’s high society assumed the perplexing absence of coverage next morning involved policy of The West‘s current owners. Such rumours mystified editor Griff Richards. Who did he assign to solve the mystery-of-the-snub but me, creating an Oedipus Rex dilemma. Read here how I escaped the sack.

Another foul-up was so embarrassing I didn’t resurrect it for 59 years. As a treat, The West had given me a fortnight’s junket to East Timor, then under the dictatorship of Dr Salazar, who ran Portugal for 36 years. The West didn’t expect more from me than stuff about waving palms and picturesque natives, but I set out to give readers the benefit of my advanced politico/military insights. As the Indonesians were keen to invade the place (and did so 12 years later), my inept sleuthing was not appreciated and within five days I found myself Australia-bound in a Fokker Friendship because the authorities “could no longer guarantee my safety”. During the Darwin stopover I wrote and filed the report of my own expulsion. By 2022 I could supplement that story with the actual politics of East Timor in the early 1960s. I drew on some first-class research by Brigadier Ernie Chamberlain that had lain buried in specialist journals. A sample:

When I first hit Dili, the Governor plied me with cake and read with respect my letter of recommendation [from External Affairs Minister Paul Hasluck]. He extolled his island’s peace and progress. He invited me to go anywhere, talk to anyone, and send news to Australian tourists of his happy isle, this precious stone set in the silver sea. Lacking much adult perspective, I took him at his word.

Actually, eight of his less happy breed were arrested only a year earlier for plotting to blow up him and his advisers with hand grenades, as revenge for Portugal’s brutal put-down of a revolt six years earlier…

Just as Waterloo was preceded by Duchess Charlotte’s ball at Brussels, the Timor revolt involved an anniversary ball at the sporting men’s Club Benfica in Dili. Informers – including a jilted girlfriend and the Bishop of Dili – had divulged rebel plans to the authorities months earlier. The Indonesian consul deferred the plot to the December New Year celebrations when fireworks would mask the opening attack. This was for a mixed band of Indonesian refugees and Timorese to seize arms depots in Dili, release prisoners and give them machetes to kill revellers and blockade the town. Outside Dili, local officials would be invited to a New Year party and beheaded…

Read that one here.

I mentioned my attempts at levity. Comedy is hard because wokeism has moved almost beyond satire. This has required me to take seriously Melbourne’s Enterprise Professor Bruce Pascoe, the ABC’s favourite Aborigine. For example, he’s been advocating that we meat-eaters cut planet-wrecking CO2 emissions by gathering roadkill for the table[4]:

There is another avenue of protein collection we might consider. Every morning in East Gippsland the road toll becomes apparent, with carcasses of wallabies, kangaroos, possums and wombats every kilometre or so…We harvest these animals with our cars, so why not use their bounty instead of allowing their carcasses to bloat? If we are going to be meat eaters, and there are good arguments for some meat in our diet, then let us be economical about our harvest … Animals killed like this almost always die suddenly, without the meat-toughening release of adrenaline into their system. 

Why don’t we have patrol vans with people licensed to inspect roadkill and harvest anything left that is fit for human consumption or could be made into dog food? A simple temperature probe is almost all that is required…Stringent health and refrigeration rules could be set in place so that we don’t waste any resources.

I imagined Professor Bruce in chef’s toque preparing lunch at Melbourne University for Vice-Chancellor “Dr Masculine” and Elon Musk. “What’s cooking?” they asked.

Bruce: Wombat back legs! A truck hit it near my farm at Gipsy Point. I scraped it off the Mallacoota-Genoa Road. The head got squashed, but the hindquarters were pristine and the wombat didn’t have time to release any meat-toughening adrenaline. I stuck a simple temperature probe up its arse and it had hardly begun to bloat. I separated the legs with an axe and they’ve been in my car fridge, involving stringent health rules … I intend to sell any of today’s leftovers to chefs in Lygon Street and the Paris end of Collins St.

Enter waiters, exposing the wombat legs under silver salvers. Dr Masculine, Elon Musk and Bruce Pascoe tuck in, using saucers to spit out bits of gravel. Read that one here.

Another I’m fond of dates all the way back to 2012, a traveller’s tale cum marital mishap Fool’s gold on the Rue de la Folie Regnault. However weird the plot, it was all true — give or take some reconstructed dialogue. It begins,

Marg and I lobbed into our latest apartment in Paris, delighted to find it well fitted out. Previous apartments were stocked with items left over from the owners’ attics after all the relatives and local gypsies had picked them over for anything of value. Next morning, I explored the bookcase in the bedroom while Marg washed up, swept the floor and went off to check the local laundromat.

Most books were in French, one of the few languages I have difficulty with. I opened an old paperback called ‘Fontainebleu’ and – oh ciel! — banknotes began to pour out of it like beautiful pressed flowers.

They were Euro (€) notes, which meant they had been hidden there in recent history. As to the amount…a couple of hundreds, a fifty, a fistful of 20s, they just kept coming. Still unbelieving, I counted them out. €380 in total, that is, about $A500. I speculated that some previous traveller hid the funds, departed in a hurry or half-blotto, and for some reason never followed up to reclaim the money, or maybe thought it had been lost to pickpockets on the subway.

None of those speculations about the money was correct. The story rolls on to its astonishing climax, with crime punished and myself getting well-deserved marital counselling. Read of my domestic discomfiture here.

Another true-life comedy dating from 2004 involved the Thomas couple’s opera-going, this time to enjoy Richard Divall conducting Puccini’s psycho-drama Turandot in the vast depths of St Kilda’s old Palais.[5] The plan, dreamed up by Dame Primrose Potter, was to inspire an annual $2.3 million out of top-shelf attendees Premier Steve Bracks, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch and Lord Mayor John So for a new “Melbourne Opera” company. The gig’s principals were flown in from Tuscany. They were led by Helden-Soprano Maria “Z” — kindness and the possibility that it was an off night(s) stays my hand from mentioning her name — as the death-dealing Peking princess. She was furthering the traditions of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, she told Melbourne’s arts press. But as Tennyson wrote of the Light Brigade, “someone had blundered.” For the first performance, the Australian’s critic Martin Ball wrote:

“Maria ‘Z’’s singing as Turandot was completely inadequate. She was out of time, out of tune, out of breath – in a word, terrible. What is more, she appeared to be aware of this, and her bravery in going for the high notes was almost poignant but for the fact it was largely in vain. Her curtain call was greeted with muscled boos….”

The Age‘s John Slavin wrote,

She sang flat…One of the greatest soprano roles was reduced to a case for an ear-and-throat specialist.”

A second performance on Thursday was mysteriously cancelled. Marg and I were at the third on Saturday. This time there were no professional critics present, only myself to document the most appalling disaster in the history of Australia’s music theatrics:

In ‘Z’’s first big scene she was wobbly, her voice broke, she tried singing lower, and crumbled on every big note. When singing softly she was thin and feeble, and then she started breaking down altogether. Poor hero Calaf (Antonio Ordonez, from Spain) was trying to sing his part of the passionate duet to a vacuum and getting thrown, with a ‘where am I, what is going on?’ manner.

Midway through the piece, ‘Z’ stopped and clutched her throat. She called across the stage to the conductor in Italian, saying ‘I can’t go on’, and the prompt and the conductor were gee-ing her up to get through the scene.

This short debate continued while the orchestra paused in wonderment. The audience was agog. Divall struck up the band again and mercifully the second act finished soon after.

As lights dimmed again for the third act, Divall strode alone to the front of the stage and said, as near as I can recall:

‘The soprano (he didn’t use her name) is having great difficulty, she is suffering from a serious allergy. During interval I suggested to her that we had several choices. We could stop the performance at the death of (Calaf’s loyal servant) Liu (Rosemary Illing), which often occurs by tradition marking the point where Puccini’s own death cut short his composition of the opera. However, in loyalty to the fellow cast members, the soloists, the chorus, the dancers, the producers… who have worked so hard for the performance, she said they should have the opportunity to take it through to the end.

My wish is to minimise the strain on her. We have other choices including that she sing at times an octave lower, or that I do something I have never done in my career and that is deliberately have the orchestra drown her out. You are attending a wonderful production and you are a very special audience. This whole episode is an event I have never faced before, and I hope you will give the performers your best support.”

The troupe somehow got through Act 3. At curtain call the cast got a good ovation but ‘Z’ didn’t show until the last (we initially thought she was opting out). She got some sympathetic applause and no further boo-ing.

Amazingly, one of the choristers (I never managed to identify her) posted on her social media the backstage version of the disaster. After Maria’s mid-aria crackup, the chorister wrote :

Maria had fled in tears (yeah – you SHOULD cry, you nutsoid soprano) to her dressing room and locked herself in, all so DRAMATIC. Oh the scurryings! The director, the director’s assistant, the other director’s assistant, the stage manager, the repetiteur, the chorusmaster, the producer and finally the conductor. Back and forth, many many tight conversations in Italian and broken English.

Rampant speculation all over backstage: Would she go on for the third act?? Would we continue?? What about Nessun Dorma? if Antonio didn’t sing that we’d get lynched!

More scurryings. More conversations. Finally, Richard Divall (who should get a knighthood or something) went past metaphorically pushing his sleeves up and saying “Right”. Then nothing for a while.

Finally Richard came back. And he leaned over to me and another chorine and said “I should have been a mother.”

By which – loud cheers! – I took to mean that we were going ahead. I’d already spotted the orchestra coming back in and they only turn up when there’s a paying gig, so I was confident.

Richard went out and made The Announcement and he was brilliant – in a few short phrases he turned the audience around to cheering for the stupid woman who Had Bravely Decided to Battle On. Berloody Hell! I was fascinated. I thanked him later for doing this and he said “That’s called Showing Leadership”. What is more, it absolutely was.

We zoomed through the third act and got another rousing ovation (the chorus got loud cheers – yay for our claque!). But victory was overlaid by the bitterness of the mismanagement of the whole Maria thing … and the mismanagement by the producers of the situation. No understudy, no backup – how did this blind spot happen??

 Needless to say, Melbourne Opera never got its sought-for $2.3m a year. You might argue that flop was an arts tragedy, not comedy. But in faraway Livorno, Italy, the local newspaper Stampa carried a review of Melbourne’s Turandot, which I have rendered for you (via google-translate) in English. Who wrote it, I wonder?

MELBOURNE. Ten minutes of applause for Turandot in Melbourne before the 2,800 spectators at the Palais Theatre… Many personalities attended this highly anticipated event. The performance ended with a standing ovation and bestowed a special tribute to the soprano Maria ‘Z’…Huge success for the interpretation by soprano Maria ‘Z’…

Read this one here.

AS A FINAL note I’ll answer the question you haven’t asked: Which of the 500 is my favorite essay? It’s one from 2019: Eaten by a tiger? Blame climate change. It began

Oxford associate professor Dr Nayanika Mathur blamed climate change for a person-eating tigress in Maharashtra who devoured 13 villagers. “Tragic tale of a ‘man-eating’ tigress tells us so much about the climate crisis” is how her fevered thoughts are headlined at The Conversation.

Believe it or not, I have a lifetime’s expertise in person-eating tigers and tigresses, starting with that ripping yarn of my teenhood, Man-eaters of Kumaon. tHE Author was white hunter Jim Corbett, nemesis of rogue tigers in the 1920s and 1930s. One was reputed to have killed 436 villagers. Friends persuaded Corbett to do the book while he was recovering from typhus in 1944. By 1980 it had sold more than 4 million copies. Universal Studios adapted it for a movie in 1946. Corbett claimed the best actor was the tiger.

In 2013, on tour from New Delhi, I went on a night-photography Jeep safari in Kumaon, where we near-froze as the temperature dropped. We just might have seen the greenish-blue reflection of one leopard’s eyes, tigers being too rare to expect.

As for climate change, Oxford’s Dr Mathur was also engaged in a book project ‘Crooked Cats: Human-Big Cat Entanglements in the Anthropocene.’ She ran an Oxford course on the “Anthropocene” and was “committed to decolonizing the Academy through my writing and teaching.”

My essay piled up the evidence that you should avoid being eaten by a tiger. But I finished with what literary people call a peroration about my own struggle to take a degree among Oxford’s dreaming spires. This involved competing with Perth’s brightest and most athletic male youths for a Rhodes Scholarship.[6] Read here whether I came out on top. Why must I invite such Schadenfreude?

Tony Thomas’s selected Quadrant essays are collected in five volumes from Connor Court: That’s Debatable (2016), The West – an insider’s tales (2018), Come to think of it (2020), Foot Soldier in the Culture Wars (2021) and Anthem of the Unwoke (2022).

[1] Moreover my QO portrait used in 2012 has never changed, gifting me eternal youth

[2] Strangely, no-one I solicited thought it was all hilarious

[3] Hard copies made accessible on-line through tireless re-keying by Adelaide’s Joe Lane and Alistair Crooks – see also their book Voices from the Past

[4] Country: Future Fire, Future Farming. Chapter 4, “Future Farming – kangaroos and emus” Kindle, p75 of 235.

[5] Very sadly, Richard died in 2017.

[6] In his will, Rhodes wanted to screen out mere “bookworms” and stipulated success in manly outdoor sports. I could only come up with success in Fremantle’s B-grade chess.

republished with permission. 


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