Island thriller skips to double-Dutch

The Island, by Adrian McKinty, Hachette Australia

Takes a fair leap of faith to convince yourself the premise for this story might reasonably be able to happen. It’s far-fetched and unrealistic but if you think people like Ivan Milat and Bear Grylls can exist then the leap into its treachery, cruelty and heroics isn’t so difficult.

That said, the plot’s a fast-paced affair about an American orthopaedic hotshot, Tom, in Melbourne as a conference keynote speaker. His two kids are badgering him to find some koalas in the wild. They drag him and Heatherm his young second wife – the first died from an unusual fall down the stairs – off to ‘Dutch Island’, out in Westernport Bay just spitting distance from the mainland.

Despite multiple warnings and ominous comments, they insist on driving across the private property in search of the native herbivorous marsupial. But Tom hadn’t been able to get the top-line Porsche Cayenne hire car he’d ordered and he’s sooking in a slightly cheaper Porsche.

So when a deaf cyclist fatally jumps out in front of him as he’s speeding across the island, it’s all the car’s fault. Didn’t have the accident avoidance system he’d ordered. The island’s hillbillies, the dead girl’s in-laws, don’t buy it for a second. But they’re happy to let Tom off the hook for the lazy half million he offers.

And the deal’s going swimmingly, until the dead girl’s husband fronts up and starts shooting. Tom cops it and after a nasty half-strangled incarceration Heather and the two entitled brats manage to hit the track. It’s 100 degrees in the shade, water nowhere to be found, the kids are whinging their precious butts off, the landscape’s rough scrub offering no shelter and a veritable scourge of drunken, shotgun-wielding uber-bogans are hot on their tail.

At this point, we’re moving into spoiler alert territory so clear out if you like but I’ll try not to wreck things wholesale. What you probably want to know, apart from the ending – which I’m not exposing, I’ll leave that little surprise for you – is that this game of cat and mouse turns very nasty. Inventively nasty, too. The atrocities will appeal to those of a horror genre bent.

The guerrilla warfare that Heather and the kids cook up, despite various ridiculous frustrations from a German couple also on the run, is cunning, courageous, lucky and for the main part effective. It drives a thrilling, action-packed narrative that will keep you flicking the pages faster than you really should. There are curious things to learn in the quieter moments.

Mind you, one or two encounters just aren’t right. Up there with the pantomime-level “He’s behind you!” stupidity. Why the editors didn’t rein these in is anyone guess but they’re flaws that undermine an almost, almost, possible story.

There’s also some mile-kilometre, Fahrenheit-Celsius explanations, obviously for dumb Yanks, that just grate. And for Aussies reading about a former prison island at Westernport called Dutch Island, well, that’s equally weird. Why not just call it French Island? No-one’s going to tie you to a bed of red-ants … if you’re lucky.

Back to the future with a fossil-led recovery …

Okay, so what came first, the chicken or the egg?

How about the dinosaur?

Well, so science seems to suggest, and largely the fault of a cute little critter jackhammered out of cliffs near Apollo Bay 30 years back.

This came to mind when I learned an ancient Jan Juc whale is in the running for the Fossil Emblem of Victoria title. The dolphin-sized Janjucetus hunderi lived 25 million years ago and was discovered in bits at Bird Rock and Bells Beach over the last couple of decades. It’s somewhere between a spear-tooth dorudon, whatever that is, and a blue whale.

Eight candidates are vying for the fossil gong, including the dinosaur Leaellynasaura found at Apollo Bay’s Dinosaur Cove and whose big eyes helped rewrite palaeontological thinking. Around 105 million years old, Leaellynasaura amicagraphica was only 30 cm high. Looked a bit like a potoroo, according to Tom Rich, who found and named it after his daughter Leaellyn .

Leaellynasaura’s penetrating orbs enabled her to function in the winter darkness of the Cretaceous southern polar region where Apollo Bay once was. Rich contended if she was active in the dark and the cold, she was warm-blooded – not a cold-blooded reptilian dinosaur. The idea led to talk of dinosaurs being related to birds.

Curious stuff, especially with scientists like Abzhanov and Gorman claiming they’ll build you a dinosaur if you give them enough cash and chickens. I can see a KFC bronto-burger on the horizon already

Dinosaur Cove was an antediluvian menagerie full of velociraptors, pterosaurs, plesiosaurs, oviraptors, ancient crocodiles, turtles and upright relatives of echidnas and platypuses, platypi or whatever the plural is of Ornithorhynchus paradoxus. A veritable Flintstones zoo.

While Leaellyn’s little dinosaur rewrote history, even won celebrity status on the BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs, the jury has since gone out on her. Thinking is now that her large eyes weren’t so much about adapting to low light as simply the over-sized peepers of a juvenile; nature’s cute factor, designed to stop parents throttling their offspring.

But worse. Now, her history’s being re-written again. This competition for the official fossil emblem of Victoria title is usurping an unofficial crown Leaellynasaura already held.

In 2005, Victorian schoolkids voted for their favourite fossil, from a list nominated by Museum Victoria’s head of sciences, palaeontologist John Long. Her bug-eyes snaffled her 978 votes ahead of nearest rival, a sea urchin Lovenia woodsi, on 590.

No surprises there, maybe, but her halo has mysteriously slipped since. Museum Vic simply says there’s no fossil emblem. We’ll find out who’s who again soon enough, I suppose.

Interesting prospect about all this, to me anyway, is the fact the Surf Coast and Otways host an extraordinary palaeontology footprint that also includes dinosaur burrows at Knowledge Creek, a spine lizard dinosaur and chicken-like therapod also near Cape Otway, dozens of dinosaur footprint fossils – bung them in with the other weird and wonderful drawcards of the southwest and you’d reckon they’d make a fair complement to the region’s Covid-ravaged tourism.

Think the Great Ocean Road, the Surf Coast, Shipwreck Coast, Dinosaur Coast, Whale Nursery Highway, floating islands, Stony Rises, crater lakes, giant ferns, spotted tiger quolls, exquisite waterfalls, subterranean caverns, bunyip bones, tales of sealers and Aborigines, attacks on Aborigines, secret wartime airbases, early discoveries by China and Portugal, UFOs, mysterious disappearances, WW2 German submarines ….

No need to thank me but if that’s not enough to set off a new South by Southwest Tourist Trail I’m not sure what is.

Meanwhile, though, I’m keeping an eye on a bioscience mob called Colossal that’s keen to insert ancient woolly mammoth DNA into elephants and build a hybrid elephant-mammoth. Very Jurassic Park. What could possibly go wrong?

Coco-lossal’s probably more fitting. Who knows what can slip out of a laboratory these days?


The Bismarck Sea: A battle-worn and weary warning …

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea, by Michael Veitch, Hachette

Difficult to think, from 80 years distance, just what a terrifying threat Japan once was to Australia. These days, it’s a nation more renowned for its sophistication, high-tech and extraordinary good manners.

Mind you, it does upset some quarters with its whaling operations. Which might not be flash but it’s a far cry from the horrific catalogue of terror it had under its belt in the years immediately prior to and into World War Two. Think wholesale rape, murder and atrocities visited on the Chinese – thousands of bayonet rapes, killing contests ­– the murder of unarmed prisoners and civilians in Malaya and Rabaul, the execution of nurses, nuns, Dutch and other colonial girls, women and men, abominations on Papuans, prisoners of war, beheadings, tortures, mutilations, starvation, deliberate hunting of Red Cross vessels … evil incarnate stuff.

Humans being what they are, it’s understandable that a seething vengefulness – over and above normal protective urges – might infect those armed forces up against Japan as the Nippon military descended on New Guinea in early 1943 with Australia square in its sights.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea, the one-sided rout by Australian and American air forces of a heavily-escorted Japanese troops and supply convoy heading for Lae, is arguably the most significant engagement in starting the repulsion of Japanese military ambitions on Australia. It was a slaughter the US saw as payback for Pearl Harbour as much as anything else. Australia’s part in the attack was absolutely key. It wouldn’t have happened without Aussie-designed skip bombing.

When it comes to war crimes, which we hear so much of today, it’s intriguing how the deliberate slaughter, next day, of Japanese survivors in the water and in rescue vessels was viewed as a rational and necessary action against aggressors who would otherwise simply return to the field as soon as they were patched up. They undoubtedly would have been so ordered and so ‘Every Japanese killed is an Australian saved’ was basically the Allied catchcry. The slaughter didn’t sit well with some, but not many. Sympathy for the brutal Japanese wasn’t running high.

As Michael Veitch writes in The Battle of the Bismarck Sea, even under overwhelming attack, the Japanese “bizarre cruelty was on full display”.

“Contrary even to the most basic military logic, professional Japanese fighter pilots broke off an attack on an enemy bomber to slaughter men bailing out in parachutes whose fate was almost certainly already sealed,” he writes. “By early 1943, few Allied servicemen still tried to understand their enemy’s motives, or come to grips with the levels of diabolical cruelty to which they seemed to so easily, and quickly, descend. In the absence of understanding, only cold, hard anger was left.”

Veitch’s account is car-crash compelling. You just can’t look away. The cast of players seems almost fictional, and the displays of hubris and ignorance unbelievable yet so familiar, especially in contemporary times. Counter balanced, however, with rebels, genius-like misfits and ridiculously courageous characters, the outcome seems almost fated.

It’s ironic that Australia’s sovereignty today might seem equally or moreso at risk. You only have to glance over commentary by the likes of Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith to get a fair idea. Military build-ups are one thing; for starters, you can easily see them coming. Economic warfare is easily recognisable too, cyber-attacks perhaps not so readily but they’re commonplace and biological assaults seem an inevitability. Nukes in the hands of hostile or terrorist actors is another unnerving thought.

Any combination of these get free reign and the Rape of Nanking – twisted, mediaeval and expansive as it was – could look small potatoes. Then again, when you have monsters like Mao, who killed 60 odd million of his own people, it is small potatoes. Be that as it may, Veitch’s Bismarck is a timely reminder of how easily even those we regard as the good guys can all too easily morph into monsters when in the employ of fear, anger and retribution.

You’d be naive to think, especially with the US in a humiliating Afghan retreat, the drums of wars aren’t beating loud. Ironic, too, that Australia’s best defences right now might lie in a coalition with, among others, those it annihilated in the Bismarck Sea.

Truganina, Truganini: destiny, disease, disaster …


Touch of irony to the latest Covid outbreak epicentre at Truganina, again, and the sad story of the so-called last full-blood Tasmanian Aboriginal, Truganini.

Always been curious about Truganini because my grandmother grew up in the tiny rural hamlet that Truganina once was, out the back of Werribee half-way to Melton. Her French-born dad, old anti-vaxxer he was, was fined for refusing to inoculate his kids back in the fin de siècle early 1900 days. Not sure just what he was fighting so virulently against. Told the court he had scruples.

Plenty of whooping cough and measles outbreaks back then but concern was fairly widespread also about the new smallpox vaccine supposedly injecting all sorts of other diseases into your carcass. Not so different to today. Fortunately, his scruples haven’t been passed on through the family – well, not to me, anyway.

Rough country out Truganina way. Rocky volcanic terrain, rugged creekbeds, sparse groundcover, few trees and they’re gnarled, twisted things. Bitter westerlies in winter and blistering northerlies in summer. Great grand-pere’s beautiful two-storey bluestone homestead, named Remiremont for his native Alsace digs, burnt down in the 1969 fires that blitzkrieged the place.

Bit of a blitzkrieg at the moment also into the remains of Truganini’s confrere William Lanne, also known as King Billy, who was hacked apart and whisked away by researchers and collectors after he died in 1869. They might have gone to London, possibly elsewhere in Tasmania, some of his skeleton was long thought to be buried in Hobart. One story suggests the remains were destroyed by Nazi bombs in WW2. New evidence suggests they stayed, mainly, in Tassie, but the jury’s still out.

Probably shouldn’t do so but it reminds me of the movie On the Nose with Robbie Coltrane, who you’ll know as Hagrid, along with Dan Aykroyd and Aussie Tony Briggs. It’s probably a bit on the nose these days, PC-wise, as it has Coltrane stalling Briggs from repatriating the head of an Aboriginal leader that’s been preserved for 200 years in glass jar at a Dublin medical college.

Outlandishly, Coltrane discovers the head rotates in the sunlight, so he calibrates numbers around the jar which, as an inveterate gambler, he seizes on to pick winning racehorses depending where the proboscis is pointing. On the nose, get it? Anyway, things get complicated because Coltrane needs to win the Grand National or somesuch to get his kid into Trinity College … all very silly but it picked up an Audience Award at the 2002 Newport Beach Film Festival.

Comedy, non-PC or whatever, it’s interesting for its allusion to repatriation problems if not, more specifically, to some of the brawling over extracting DNA from old bones that might differentiate opposing cultural interests in Tassie. In a nutshell, some people have been arguing they’re more Tasmanian Aboriginal than others. Not especially pretty, the whole thing.

Truganina’s ties to Truganini’s sad story, and that of her Parlevar people, grew in my mind with Robert Drewe’s book The Savage Crows. Later, I learned that by 17 her mother and her husband-to-be were murdered, her uncle shot, her stepmother kidnapped, her sisters abducted and she herself raped by whites.

She came to Victoria at one point with Chief Protector George Robinson but was involved in several raids around the Dandenongs and Westernport. She and four others were charged with the murder of two whalers at Portland Bay – two men were hanged, the three women sent to Flinders Island. Her later husband, warrior Wooraddy, who wasn’t in the Portland Bay affair, died on the return trip.

Not surprisingly, she despised European society. She demanded her body not be desecrated on her death but sure enough it was exhumed by the great minds of  the Royal Society of Tasmania and, later, put on public display from 1904 to 1947 at the Tasmanian Museum. In 1976, a century after her death, her ashes were spread in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel.

Frontier wars were largely responsible for the deaths of some 15,000 Tasmanian indigenous people before the deaths of William Lanne and Truganini. But there was another insidious enemy that killed many very early in the piece – disease. Disease of numerous varieties for which there was no vaccine, no defence and no recourse to compensation, JobKeeper, justice or anything of that nature.

So there’s an irony to Truganina’s latest Covid outbreak. There’s also a pretty clear message: do yourself, and everyone, a favour: Get vaxxed.


Time for mercy … for readers

A TIME FOR MERCY: by John Grisham, Hachette

So your stepdad’s a monster. A drunken, dishonourably-discharged army grunt-turned-cop who regularly bashes your mum, your sister and yourself.

When he belts and kills your mum, Josie, in his latest boozed fury, you figure you know who’s next. But what to do? This has been going on for months but now he’s passed out you grab his gun and pop him one in the skull before he wakes and lurches into another murderous rampage.

Sixteen-year-old Drew is small for his age, tiny in fact. Kiera, his 14-year-old-sister, is far more developed and it hasn’t been overlooked by the stepdad. No-one knows it yet, but she’s pregnant to him.

Stu Kofer’s police colleagues at Clanton, Mississippi, are outraged that one of their own is murdered in his bed. His family is bloodthirsty and bent on revenge. Almost everyone in town is appalled and wants young Drew executed.

Lawyer Jack Brigance soon learns Kofer’s been leading a double life: well-regarded, respectable copy by day; mongrel, out-of-control, violent boozer by night. Kofer’s colleagues have somehow failed to report previous reports by Josie.

Author Grisham’s at it again, detailing every iota of a legal journey that slowly but surely reveals the motivations of young Drew. Matters aren’t assisted by the fact Kofer didn’t actually kill Josie, but rather KO’d her when he smashed her jaw to pieces. Kids couldn’t tell the difference.

Brigance, normally highly regarded too, is suddenly on the nose. He finds himself facing assault, obstruction, loss of business and income, and wholesale disdain. But as Drew’s murder trial unfolds, Brigance makes it  clear Kofer was an appalling piece of work.

The more he reveals – cover-ups, bashings, rapes –  the more Kofer’s friends dig their heels in, even on the jury, which can’t come up with any better than a split vote.

Thing here is that Grisham takes 464 pages to relate every miniscule detail he can think of, robbing an otherwise fast-paced story of its momentum. The jury’s selection is mind-numbing.

And given everything that’s painstakingly turned to ordure for Brigance through the course of the tale, it is nothing short of remarkable how Grisham pulls together a happy-ever-after ending in a matter of a few final pages.

Verdict: Contrived and silly. Why would an entire town think a small kid shoots a cop just for kicks when his mother has been smashed and broken by the bloke, when he and his sister are next in line, and when the cops won’t do anything to protect them?

Then again, looking at the kind of rubbish too many people in the failed state of America believe these days, Grisham might be closer to the mark than I’m crediting him.

Grift to the mill at Mar-a-Lago

THE GRIFTERS’ CLUB: By Sarah Blaskey, Nicholas Nehamas, Caitlin Ostroff, Jay Weaver; Hachette

 Good word, grifter. Not really an Australian word, more a Yankee thing but it pretty much lines up with our con artist: a person who engages in petty or small-scale swindling.

Thing about this book is there’s nothing really all that small, petty sure, and cheap but it’s more about some fairly sizeable swindling.

Ground zero is Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in South Florida’s Palm Beach, a swanky to the point of chintzy mansion built a century ago by cereal magnate/philanthropist Marjorie Merriweather Post.

Any vestige of philanthropy it might have has long ago vacated the premises, as Trump’s low-wage largely immigrant staff might attest, if they’re game enough.

Cheap and chiselling is order of the day at Mar-a-Lago, behind its opulence and saccharine swish icing. That’s according to this account by four Miami Herald reporters who go to painstaking efforts to footnote every weird and wonderful account they offer of Trump’s briar patch stomping ground.

This means 50 pages of reference notes for 190 pages of mischief and mayhem. It also means they don’t want to be accused of writing fake news. I suspect it will guarantee it.

Hucksters, sycophants and entrepreneurs seem to be the stock in trade at Mar-a-Lago – what we’d call rip-off merchants, suck-holes and desperate wannabes.

Trump is like a shining beacon to them. They want to bask in his carotene glow, garner some of his success by proximity, borrow on his ubiquitous auriferous brand. And pose for selfies.

It’s the American way. He’s top of the heap. A number one.

Ironically, it’s also what happens when you drain the South Florida swamp, which is just what Hamilton Disston did to The Everglades back in the 1880s. This was smartly followed by miles and miles of new railroad and trainloads of northern holidaymakers.

“ … it’s safe to say Mar-a-Lago became the palace of the swamp creatures quite early,” write authors Blaskey, Ostroff, Nehamas and Weaver. You can almost hear them chortling at that one.

“At her lavish estate, which took a staff of seventy to run, Post entertained politicians, lawyers and businessmen who were crafting the industrial capitalism of the twentieth-century American state.”

Post hosted tycoons, moguls, movie stars, European aristocrats, all sorts of dignitaries, Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey. The old bootlegger Joe Kennedy, father of JFK, lived next door.

After Post’s death in 1973, the property languished. She bequeathed it to the federal government, who found it too expensive to maintain and gave it back to the Post Foundation.

It went up for sale and Trump, sniffing something special, stepped in. He called it an old beat-up, over-grown Rembrandt and before you knew it, the circus was back in town, with all its schmick carnies. The quiet, old-money neighbours weren’t impressed.

Trump didn’t waste time drawing folks to his gilded country club and helping them part with their money. Staff memorised members names and faces and treated them like royalty. Guests knocked the door down for expensive tickets to charity galas, upper-crust balls, flash parties with pretty girls and celebrities.

Loads of nouveau riche stuff, even as Trump’s casinos elsewhere were sliding toward bankruptcy. The neighbours shook their heads, appalled “this man whose parents didn’t come over on the Mayflower took over Mar-a-Lago and was going to get in anybody who could afford it”.

Trump’s ancestral family business dealings aren’t much to recommend him but that’s another story. At Mar-a-Lago, he was entertaining the monied multitudes including the likes of Billy Joel, Paul Anka, Tony Bennett, Don King, Simon Cowell, Heidi Klum, Barbara Walters, even a certain Epstein for a while.

Early in the piece, he claimed Princes Charles, Princess Diana and Henry Kissinger were members. They weren’t. Still, the Clintons were, and deposed Greek king Constantine, the Beach Boys, football and basketball stars, models in their hundreds – and  wealthy Jews and African Americans that other Palm Beach snobbish, racist clubs wouldn’t admit.

Trump’s reputation for racism seemed to dissolve where money was involved. “Palm Beach is very much changing for the better,” he said, tongue planted firmly in his cheek.

By the time Trump became US president, his status among the greenback garrison of Palm Beach was bordering on god-like. And he loved them back. To the point of championing their interests well ahead of more traditional constituent interests.

Nepotism, cronyism and corruption in liberal measure are par for the course at Mar-a-Lago, our authors report. Lack of security, poor property maintenance, unhygienic kitchens and food, too. Trump’s a serious cheapskate when it comes to the things you can’t see.

Trump’s rejection of presidential-level security regularly has the Secret Service in conniptions but the idea is to keep the place open for members, and their guests, and access always within at least a theoretical reach.

Trump’s generous with his nods, smiles, light-hearted asides and photo ops – aware of what they mean for Mar-a-Lago’s business and also for his members and their business connections.

He’s selling influence, or purported influence, and it’s a red-hot commodity. So much so, in fact, that rackets have been sprung up with Chinese spielers flogging $20,000 travel packages overseas on the pretext of meeting the great orange at a Mar-a-Lago gala or conference. They charge in the order of $60K for pictures with the Don.

Lobbyists and business networkers have arranged meetings and links through Mar-a-Lago. Trump himself brings overseas leaders to Mar-a-Lago ahead of the White House – China’s Xi Jinping and Japan’s Shinzo Abe, for instance – then sends the taxpayer the bill. Nice little earner, that one.

Fall on the wrong side of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago mates, however, and you can find yourself out of work. Like Veteran Affairs secretary David Shulkin, elevated to his post after meeting Trump and Marvel boss Ike Perlmutter and a Palm Beach doctor, Bruce Moskowitz – then demoted just as smartly when he didn’t play ball as they dictated.

So the White House has effectively been moved south. Political advice comes as much from the barflies at Mar-a-Lago as public servants. Buy a membership, if you can, and you can find yourself in the POTUS club.

It’s all about jobs for the boys, with the best obsequious or cashed-up courtiers whispering in the king’s ear – and receiving a solid hearing. Trump doesn’t read, remember, so it’s really all about what he wants to hear.

Oh yeah, this is a bloke who thinks his head belongs with the Mount Rushmore collection. He must have rocks in it.












Cheroots, spittoons and tickling the old ivories

Not too many places are around these days for quaffing from brandy snifters, chomping on cheroots and expectorating into spittoons. It’s comforting, however, to find such luxuries do still exist, and in some of our finest establishments.

Better still, if you’ve an eye for despatching the ivory orbs over wide expanses of green baize, you can do so while despatching canapes and hazelnut and carrot soup as well. Maybe with a lusty durif or a crisp pinot gris, if you prefer. Rack up a sizeable break and you might mark the occasion with an antediluvian Scotch or cognac.

All of this beneath a soaring, clerestory-lit, timber-braced ceiling not unlike a clever cricket pavilion or a brass-band rotunda. That’s not to mention leather benches, moulded timber chairs, marbled fireplace, heraldry, ensigns, flags, polished timber honour boards, hat stand, trophies, score rollers, cues racked in leather, metal and canvas prophylactics — and, of course, two handsome sprawling 12-foot tables that also create the ambience of this club annex.

“Good God, man, that’s awfully civilised,” I can hear you gasp. And short of a small phalanx of heavily-whiskered gentlemen, ice clinking in their whiskey glasses, cigar smoke permeating the air, you’d be right. Right in the 19th century, that is, in the sprawling billiard room of The Geelong Club behind its pretty, and exclusive, Queen Anne facade on Brougham Street.

Long an enclave of Geelong’s wealthy and privileged, The Geelong Club has a history dating to 1859 when it was populated by pastoralists, lawyers and merchants. The roaring days of the Gold Rush had Geelong fairly buzzing as a port city, and demand for fine dining, claret and champagne, mahogany and cedar, billiards, cards and other diversions — along the British club model — led to the club’s inception.

The first lodgings were in Yarra Street, north of Ryrie, before the club moved to Mack’s Hotel on Brougham and, in 1889, built next door at its present site. Names tied closely to the club’s beginnings fill Geelong’s history books: Strachan, Armytage, Austin, Russell, Bell, Calvert, Murray, Fairbairn, Hope, Whyte, Russell.

Other familiar names also adorn the boards and cue racks of the billiard room: Fidge, Heath, Douglass, Annois, Vickers-Willis, Roydhouse, McKellar, Chomley, Inglis. If the hallows of Geelong’s early movers and shakers are to be found anywhere it seems the billiard room is a fair place to bring in the ghost busters.

Funny game, though, the old billiards. Likewise snooker, or pool, or Indian pool, pin pool, risk snooker, pyramid, black pyramid, carambole or whatever species of the game you might prefer. Long been associated with ne’er-do-wells and a misspent youth. Gamblers, hustlers, hoods who’d break your thumbs if you got too clever — think Fast Eddie Felsen — and even authorities who changed the rules to beat champions like Walter Lindrum.

Not really what the club’s fathers would have had in mind. But it’s funny, too, how things change. For instance, Lindrum’s Melbourne billiards hall, once a venue of certain angst for this scribbler as a curious young teen, is now a genteel boutique pub on Flinders Street. A classy 12-foot show table has survived but it stands alongside tables laden with Spanish almond cakes and pork cheek croquettes. A couple of boutique beers, too, fortunately but it’s a fair bet the ivory orbs are now phenolic resin.

Geelong’s baize pedigree lies across the city’s pubs, clubs, pool halls such as the Golden Cue, once resident next to the former Regent Theatre on Little Malop and for the past half century with Geelong Snooker ands Billiards Association. Also with figures such as Percy Shand who ran a Malop St saloon the better part of a century ago. Together with TV’s Pot Black they made for a breeding ground for a raft of Eddie Charlton and Hurricane Higgins hopefuls.   

The good folks at The Geelong Club tell me they’re dabbling with the idea of opening their inner sanctum to men’s events (cough) with a leaning to cigars, brandies and snooker/billiards/pool contests. Yeah, nothing it seems is as predictable as change but, hey, I’m in! Might I suggest a few celebrity exhibition matches, too, as Lindrum and his brother Fred did here back in the day at Percy’s.

Just one thing, please don’t change The Geelong Club’s exquisitely-tiled gents’ ablutions block and its XXL WC cubicles. They knew how to build thrones back in 1889. That was a Mr O.D. Figgis, by the way. Made them big enough to open and read a broadsheet newspaper. I can hear you again: “Good God, man, that’s awfully civilised.”

Yep, awfully.

This article first appeared in The Weekly Review, 26 May 2016

As Your Worship Pleases …

Dispensing justice in a place like 1970s Rhodesia requires a mix of talent and accoutrement.

First thing you need is a gun. More than a few unsavoury characters about, and some menacing political rebels too.

A cool disposition toward stifling heat and professional scrutiny is handy. A cast-iron stomach, and a liking for the odd whisky or vodka, as well. No matter it might be illegal.

With a cast of witch-doctors, terrorists, fortune-tellers and crims to deal with, not to mention mandatory canings and clueless sentencing, your constitution better be pretty damn robust.

Magistrate Michael Neal does his level best to steady the reins across his bailiwick while fencing deftly with reckless and nasty colleagues, a haughty overseer and sensitive but ambitious juniors.

Author Terence FitzSimons is in his own briar patch, regaling the reader with horror stories of standover cops intimidating families with the severed limbs of their children. With moonshine drinking sessions over-proofed with the crushed and distilled mash of an aborted human foetus. With skin-crawling accounts of brutal canings and crooks with fevered dreams of setting him to rights.

Think women speaking in tongues, con artists, porn exhibitions, bloody knifings, prisoner dagga plant deals, assaults with bricks, boozy prayer meetings, gut-churning autopsies, illegal game hunters, naked door-knockers, klepto teachers …

It takes all types to keep a court running in the Rhodesian Midlands town of Gwelo but Michael Neal’s your man.

FitzSimons, with a clutch of historic tomes under his belt – and his clever Anglican priest Fr Michael Gale’s foray into war-torn Rhodesia in Nkosi as well keeps a steady hand on the tiller throughout this entertaining judicial romp.

 As Your Worship Pleases: Tales from a Magistrates’ Court in Africa. By Terence FitzSimons, Mirador.

Limbo: Jungle bars, volcanic interruptions

Volcano watch wasn’t exactly what I’d planned. Things were meant to be more of an exploration mission. A search for faces, places, swimming pools, sort of stuff you do in the Bali tropics.

Ideally, it was going to be a search for jungle bars.

Something in the treetops, or nestled into a river gorge cliff face, maybe on the edge of python-riddled rice terrace. Bit of lazy exploring. There was a hippy Geelong expat I hoped to track down in one.

Things went sideways, predictably enough. The expat had gone to God, hanged himself in bankruptcy, I sadly learned. One bar I tracked down was riddled with sculptures of 200 rampant monkeys, and I mean rampant. Some artisan presumably had an awkward time explaining to the missus what he’s been doing at work. “Making LGBTI anthropoids for the tourists, darling.” Hmmm.

pH levels in the first swimming pool bar left me tingling at antihistamine level. Eyes red and skin itching for days. First mates I made in a bar, sideways on margeritas — and I’m guessing lithium, too — were great fun but also looking for a political argument, no matter how many times I agreed with them. Others were paranoid.

And then volcano ash grounded all the planes in and out of Bali.

Struck me the book I was reading, a biog of explorer Hamilton Hume, who ventured into Geelong back in 1825, with his arch-nemesis William Hovell, was a good pairing. Things didn’t go quite as planned for them, either.

Thought they were at Westernport Bay. Hovell wasn’t the greatest navigator, of course; sunk one ship and ran another aground while working as a sea captain. How he got the exploring gig’s a good question.

Not that this intrepid pairing made it to the extensive volcanic areas immediately west of Geelong.

It was up to subsequent pioneers to discover the dormant volcanoes Mount Duneed, Mount Moriac and Mount Pollock right next door. Over time, the count expanded to some 400 volcanoes on an explosive arsenal across western Victoria.

About a dozen have blown their stack in the last 20,000 years or so, a minor blip in geological terms. Thing is, according to experts like Melbourne Uni’s professor Bernie Joyce, a fresh volcanic blast could erupt any time. In blip terms, we’re overdue for one.

Bernie nominates Anakie as a likely site. Yikes. Moreover, he says disaster services aren’t prepared for it – nor, I suspect, are tourism operators who might find visitors to the Great Ocean Road kept at bay by volcanic ash.

Volcano limbo is a curious thing, you know. Distracted as I was from my boozy-exploring terms of reference, I found myself tripping over all sorts of unexpected things.

People mainly. Frenzied taxidrivers, Hindu temple pilgrims, a sitar-playing prog-rocker, a failed businessman hiding out, kids in rockstar apartments, parachutists and BASE jumpers, lonely Eat Pray Love devotees, mad Aussie footy fans.

Not a one of them cared a bugger-me for the volcanic ash flight crisis. Stay there, go home, all the same to them. Nothing they could do.

Go figure. Looking for a rainforest bar and you find some nonchalant breed of couldn’t-care-less fatalism instead. Worry you die, don’t worry you still die.

Sounds like the law of the jungle. Instructional maybe. You could get eaten tomorrow. If you don’t get atomised when some mountain god cracks the sads, of course.

A Nod’s as good as a wink to a blind horse ….

The swaggie was out of sorts, no doubt about it. Just released from Geelong Goal, the old bluestone

gaol, where he’d been sequestered for a few days over unpaid fines, he came bellowing into the

office demanding a reporter. And roundly cursing the long arm of the law.

The plods had rejected his offer to have them drive him home to his bush hideaway in the Great

Otways National Park behind Apollo Bay. Told him to catch a bus.

“You’d think I was a criminal or something,” he groused. “You can’t just throw someone out of jail

on to the streets.”

But that wasn’t Noddy Hill’s only gripe. He was filthy on the food he’d been fed while behind

bars. Pure stodge, terrible for the bowels, and he was in pain as a result of the injustice, he moaned.

“It’s the constipation. You put that in your paper! The prison system is constipating innocent people.

It’s not right. It’s just not right!” he railed.

And, yes, there should be a law against it. And the cops should give you a lift home, in case you

didn’t get that the first time. And what’s the world coming to? Just not good enough …

You get the drift.

Old Noddy was about 45 back then, three decades ago. Looked for all the world like a latter-day

swaggy. Wild hair, wild eyes, wild demeanour. In fact, he was a hermit who lived deep in the forest

with a wild independence that rejected society and civilisation, and a head full of ideas that

reflected a powerful but eccentric intellect. An alternative lifestyle, if you like. Undiagnosed, by

other assessments. 

The Otways harbour all manner of unusual tales. Noddy’s hardly on his own. Panthers, carnivorous

snails, Tasmanian tigers, UFOs, German wartime submarines, shipwrecks, dinosaurs, quolls, giant

ferns and yowies are just scratching the surface.

Cut across the southwest hinterland and you’ll trip over rain-gauge crater lakes, megafauna trails,

volcanoes, large open maar craters, caves, scoria cones,  mystery ships, bunyip bones, early

Australian discoveries by Portugal and China, floating islands, exquisite waterfalls — all manner of

weird and wonderful, of believe it or not. Fascinating place. National Geographic would go silly for


But for all the area’s extraordinary otherness — and the fact a few of these have problems of their

own, too — Noddy’s tough to eclipse.

For years a local identity quietly celebrated for his differentness, he was considered a harmless,

amusing and, generally speaking, acceptable outsider. A hermit. A swaggie. An oddity, a bit out

there but okay.

However, beneath the innocuous eccentricity, a darker side to Noddy Hill was brooding. Scheming

and plotting nefarious plans no-one thought him capable of hatching. And his plans were rather


No one doubts his lot wasn’t helped by drugs — hallucinogens like LSD, mescaline and magic

mushrooms. Mix them with an evangelistic obsession, multiple internments in mental institutions —

and gaol — and an autodidact’s love for biochemistry, microbiology, endocrinology and toxicology

and, well, you’re on the road to somewhere.

But that road struck out into no-man’s land when Noddy decided to posted an image of a bomb on

the internet — what he called ‘bushfire bomb mark 3. Police were staggered by the detail he knows

of explosive devices and feared his mental health status might lead to terrorist attacks and

holocaust-type bushfires through the Otways.

Coming on top of emails comparing himself with mass murderers Julian Knight and Martin Bryant,

and with Jesus Christ, on top of suicide threats and references to Bali bombing, World War III,

holocausts, doomsday and nirvana, it’s fair to say they were a bit concerned. The swaggy seemed

pretty deranged.

Noddy had managed to email stalk some 600 people or agencies, including Premier Daniel

Andrews, in his mission and police saw his so-called ‘Placebo Park’ hideout with its dozen huts

and satellite dish as more terrorist bunker than bush retreat.

Eventually, after seven months in jail and a court case, and in a frail state of health, he was

transferred to a nursing home where the judge was happy to see him stay. 

So in the end, with his menace muted, his mental status noted, Noddy Hill found the care and

warmth he’d been missing since the 1970s when he went off the rails after two deckhands on his

abalone boat died near Portland.

Better late than never, I suppose. It’s funny but it makes me think of the old story of the

unexpected warmth nature has provided in another of the great southwest’s many anomalies, Mount

Leura near Camperdown.

Odd thing is that a holocaust might well have been in the wind there, too. For all we know, it could

still be so today. Vulcan mischief is commonplace across the southwest, as recent as maybe 4500

years ago. Hence the  Dead Sea-like salty crater lakes — great for a lazy Saturday afternoon’s beer-

drinking — the spooky Stony Rises, igneous outcrops, strange subterranean gurglings and more

you’ll find there.

Indigenous folk have it invested in their oral tradition. When volcanic bombs from the scoria of

Mount Leura’s cone were shown to one Aboriginal bloke, he said they were like stones his

forefathers claimed were thrown from the hill by the action of fire.

Back up a little to 1911 and you might get my Noddy-nature-nurture drift. That’s when

Geelong’s News of the Week paper reported “a strange occurrence’’ at the Curdies River:

“All the water became quite white, with froth upon it, which afterwards turned to green slime,’’ it

said. “Large numbers of fish in the stream died. The water gave out a peculiar odour and cattle

refused to drink it.’’

It wasn’t the first time the locals had witnessed such peculiarities. Same thing happened 20 years

earlier; all supposedly the result of a volcanic disturbance in Lake Purrumbete, not far from  Mount


“It is said that divers were sent down into the lake on the previous occasion to investigate, but the

water was so hot that they could not stay in it,’’ the News of the Week reported.


The paper also reports that blokes humping their waggas through the district took advantage of the

heat around Mount Leura, reporting: “Swagmen frequently camped in such places to obtain


No doubt our Noddy, with his liking for self-sufficiency, would appreciate the fact. But a bloke like

him would also appreciate the many other mysteries and curiosities of the Otways and the


In the early days of white invasion, it seemed a wild place. It landscape was bizarre, queer, crawling

with the unknown and the dangerous, with Aborigines and with unfamiliar wildlife. It drew only the

toughest of pioneers and even they battled to stave off the superstitions of bunyips and pookahs in

the region’s splendid isolation.

Yet artists such as Nicholas Chevalier were alert to that splendour early in the piece, capturing the

likes of Red Rock’s crater lakes in the 1860s with a dreamy pale green and blue vista. Similarly,

photographer Fred Kruger preserved Mount Leura to an 1880s moment in history with its lightly

timbered slopes high over the wide verandas of Camperdown. Artist Eugene von Guerard exercised

his draughting excellence to capture the flora and fauna of Koroit’s Tower Hill, outside

Warrnambool, presumably dodging its curious resident emus in the process.

A powerful sense of place and wonder lives on in the works of Otways laureate Gregory Day,

whose exquisite studies of life, love and environment along the Great Ocean Road are some of the

best documents we have.

Some time ago, Geelong Art Gallery exhibited the powerful work of several artists in a charming

essay on Lake Gnotuk.

Drawing on history, geology and indigenous stories, their combined opus was as exhilarating and

captivating as it was outworldly: bottles plugged with cork, stones, sand and water from the lake;

photos of tiny ostrocods; draughtsmen images from the 1850s; russet rock, soil, stone and granule

textures; sepia takes of the crater welded to ochre impressions; prehistoric fish bones; fossilised

shell necklaces, magnetic swirlings of rock and soil reflecting the lava tubs and underground

vortexes of the antediluvian landscapes.

Science meets art, environment meets art, palaeontology meets art; I don’t think it would have been

lost on someone like Noddy. I’m sure he’d wonder at the idea of clear hyper-saline water covering

the stumps of 2000-year-old trees. Maybe he’d think, too, that such volcanic dreaming of the

southwest is just an opening foray into a broader church of natural science, history, mystery and


Maybe, just maybe, had his mental health issues been identified and acted on earlier — had he been

closer to the society he shunned — he’d have contributed differently to that oeuvre than becoming

the rather sad piece of folklore he is now.

Pity, really, that we’re all still a bit constipated that way towards such people.


Portfolio Items