7 April 2019, Union road, Surrey Hills, Victoria

In this election season I have been forced to conclude that Clive Palmer’s electoral office are trying to sabotage him.

I mean, look at that poster. Looks like it’s been put together by the year nine work experience kid. Awful Photoshopping, lurid colours, typography that could only be worsened by the addition of WinDings. It’s like the graphic designer hated Palmer’s guts and is playing a gigantic prank on him.

Let’s not forget the slogan. Clearly Clivosaurus wants to be Australia’s Donald Trump, hence the slavish imitation. But in Australia, I don’t think the Cheezel-in-Chief is a sensible role model.

This election may be tragic. It’s already comic.

6 April 2019, Surrey Hills Uniting Church, Victoria

Most churches in Australia give off a strong air of swimming against the tide. The buildings are spic and span, gardens watered and mantels dusted by a committee of keen parishioners. But the demographics are inescapable. There are no young people.

There are twee little poems posted on the bathroom wall about not leaving the lights on. The notice board lists various worthy causes about which the parish should write to the government, with the subtext that what those brown people need is a dose of religion. There is even a magazine extolling the virtues of the church’s youth wing and its members. Yes, they’re exactly the kind of people you’d expect.

Increasingly the church halls are being used for community purposes, just as they always were. But now it’s rehearsal space for the local ballet school, rather than a cake sale or knitting bee. How else to keep the lights on? Money talks.

I wonder whether I’m seeing the last gasp of mass organised Christianity in this country. No doubt many people will still believe. But between child abuse scandals and the even more devastating curse of irrelevance, I suspect that church-going as we know it is fading away, fast.

5 April 2019, Camberwell, Victoria

In these peri-Brexit days, the imperial tide is pretty far from the shore. But you still come across a few pieces of flotsam, washed up and left stranded in an ocean of transnational sameness.

The stern Victorian aesthetic is a bit out of place in a country that prides itself on being egalitarian and easy-going, but the truth isn’t hard to find. The foundry that spawned this cast-iron erection was in Castlemaine, 90 minutes drive away, amongst the eucalypts.

No matter how hard the immigrants try, the echoes of the old country keep rattling round your head. Culture is malleable, but it’s also immortal.

Drinking in hotel bars is to be commended

If it’s old world charm you’re after, or you simply fancy yourself as being a little bit posh, I highly recommend drinking in hotel bars.

To be clear, I’m not referring to the tragically grim bars found in 3-star hotels around the world, filled with dusty bottles of Johnny Walker Red Label. I’m talking about proper ones, the ones where denim is frowned upon, and where the waitstaff wear waistcoats. Think of the bar from Lost in Translation and you’re getting there.

Why so great? The high barrier to entry.

I suppose you could walk in off the street, and indeed I have. But in most cases the people who are drinking in hotels are also staying there. A five star hotel has a five star price tag and a reputation to uphold. Bad behaviour of the kind that alcohol exacerbates is generally not welcome. Women are mostly not leered at by drunken idiots. People are very rarely punched. Standards of dress are subtly enforced and people’s actions tend to follow suit. I got very drunk indeed in a hotel bar in Hong Kong, but because I was well behaved and only staggered a little bit, there was not the slightest problem.

Most importantly hotel bars are quiet. I’ve never liked crowded and noisy places, even as a teenager, so hotel bars are my dream. Everything is comfortable, tables are situated far apart, and shouting to be heard is actively discouraged. This means that you can have a conversation with your companion without wanting to stab everyone around you.

The price tag means that there is also usually a good selection of drinks along with knowledgeable and attentive staff. A barman in Cairns (of all places) once made me a drink with bourbon and dry ice that smoked like a dying bonfire and it was delicious. The drinks don’t come cheap but I think they encourage a healthier drinking culture, because you’re not slamming them down to escape the oppression of too many people and too much noise.

Next time you’re going out for a drink, may I humbly suggest the bar of the biggest, poshest hotel you can find? You may enjoy it rather more than you expect.

Driverless vehicles

The general consensus seems to be that self-driving cars are inevitable, that the barriers are technical rather than epistemologicical. I suspect that the widespread use of self-driving cars may mark the end of an era of post-war culture and society.

A self-driving car that requires no human operators will undoubtedly be safer, more reliable, and therefore much less sexy. When cars become, even more than they are now, just a device to move you from A to B, the mid-century romance associated with them disappears. Can you imagine Chuck Berry writing about a Tesla CommuterMax 9000? Where is heaven, if not the back seat of my Cadillac? This may be the last moment in history that having a driver’s licence in Australia or the USA is near-mandatory. I believe that the rate of licence take-up is declining in American teenagers already.

The logical next step is the airline industry. Planes are half automatic already, it can’t take too much extra technology to make them fully machine-driven. Besides, we already have drones. It’s been a long time since air travel was glamorous, but automated aircraft will make an Airbus something literal, and equally boring.

I remember visiting London in 2010 and being quite amazed that the Dockands Light Rail didn’t have a human driver. I hadn’t realised that it was driverless until I boarded at the very front carriage and found that instead of a driver’s cabin there was a window onto the track in front. Less than ten years later, this is unremarkable in many cities of the world.

That is only the beginning. The obvious safety and effiency advantages of driverless vehicles mean that no amount of legislation, employee unions, or technical hitches will stop them becoming near-universal. Probably sooner than we think. Right now is probably the last time that choosing to become a transport worker or pilot or is a reasonable career move.

And maybe, if you buy a brand new car now and look after it carefully, it might be the last one you ever drive.

Postcards are to be commended

The coming of the internet age is killing a lot of things – terrestrial TV, record shops, irony. Most are unmourned, replaced by something more accessible or simply better. But I contend that as yet there is no serious replacement for the analogue pleasure of the postcard.

I grew up in an age where international phone calls were expensive and difficult to organise. Email didn’t yet exist, but the golden age of letter-writing was over for everyone except teenage girls. So when friends and family travelled, as mine often did, you occasionally received a postcard.

Every inch of a postcard exudes old world romance. They are the very embodiment of middle-class adventure, from the exotic stamps in the corner, sometimes haphazardly applied so you knew that an actual person had licked them, to the unconventional address systems of non-Anglophone countries. The handwriting on the back from your friend or relative is at once strangely out of context and also deeply familiar, like walking into your favourite coffee shop and meeting your mother dressed as a polar bear.

The content of postcards is also deeply informative. Long before the days of Instagram preening, #blessed and #youdidnotsleepthere, we had a simple piece of paper with a photo on it. The choice of image says a lot about the sender. Are they in Fiji, trying to convey the magical colour of the water, or were they simply showing off? That print of Michelangelo’s David – is it a reflection of the sender’s deep immersion in European art, or is it an excuse to send a picture of a naked man through the post? You can learn a lot about people from the postcards they send.

The back of the postcard is also a perfect size for a written message. Enough room to outline what you’d been doing (or more if you wrote in a very tiny hand), but not enough that you could say anything meaningful or controversial. Indeed, that was kind of the point; to connect with your loved ones in a superficial way and remind them that you still existed. Sadly Facebook has that market cornered now.

Personality came through in the handwriting. Great big loopy writing and stock phrases from the person who clearly has a stack of cards to get through; uneven spacing from the person who hasn’t thought about what they’re going to say; and blow-by-blow accounts of travel purgatory from someone who has misunderstood how to make people jealous.

However the best thing by far about postcards is that they actually came from a real human, located in a place, unmediated by electrons. They are tangible records of a moment in time – scribbled on, stamped and in the case of one postcard I received from my dad, chewed. They’ve been moved from post box to mailroom to truck to aircraft, back to a truck and finally to your front door, accumulating personality along the way.

When they finally make it to your house you read them, smile, and then honour them by sticking them to your fridge with a magnet. Why? Because they’re a little slice of the person who sent them, and if they cared enough to write, you should care enough to keep them.

Postcards are strongly to be recommended, and I mourn their near obsolescence. I wish people still sent them.

Swimming in the sea is to be commended

I am not a water person.

My parents will attest to this: decades of swimming lessons, panic at being forced to jump in the deep end and the humiliation of school swimming sports have all left their scars on my psyche. As an adult I made a deliberate effort to acquire as much swimming skill as was necessary to not drown embarrassingly, but not a stroke more. The smell of pool chlorine still makes me anxious.

But later in life I have discovered something else – swimming in the sea is wonderful. It’s been a revelation for me. It took no small amount of courage to wade out, past groin-pickling depth, into water deep enough to swim in. My first instinct was to get out immediately. But something atavistic rumbled in the depths of my hindbrain which told me that it was safe, indeed that it was right to be shoulder-deep in salty water.

Dunking my head underwater, normally only achieved with great force of will, became perfectly natural. Saltwater in my nose was almost pleasant compared to the acric chemical burn of chlorinated water. Although there was no chance of opening my eyes, the underwater world of the sea felt like a womb, albeit a womb where you are occasionally tickled by passing lifeforms being swept along by the current.

I don’t know what it is about immersion in salty water, but it changes your entire outlook on life. The usual niggling cares recede into the distance and you are left with just the interaction between you and the oceans of the world. Whether you actually go for a swim or not isn’t important, it’s the action of merging with the primal broth which makes the difference. It washes away who you used to be, and you can briefly revert to being a simpler organism.

I still don’t enjoy swimming in pools, even ones treated with salt water. I find them artificial and uncomfortable, as if I were required to perform in some way. But put me in the sea any day. I don’t care if it’s cold, I just won’t stay as long. But I can never get enough. At the end of a day at the beach, gritty, hypothermic and tired, I still watch the waves washing up on the shore wishing I was back out there.

Churches are to be commended

There’s a lot to like about churches.

By that I mean the buildings, not the ethically compromised trans-national bureaucracy of men with funny hats. I’d also further clarify by saying that I’m referring to churches with a bit of age on them, the ones that refer back to mediaeval times, even if they’re not quite that old. As far as I’m concerned modern churches with “creative” architecture are universally sterile and dull.

I rarely, if ever, set foot in religious buildings but yesterday was an exception. I visited a giant Catholic cathedral for work, and it was like a breath of fresh air. Not only was it cool and refreshing after the 42 degree nuclear blast of the weather outside. I could smell incense, candle wax and old stone.

They’re magical places, even if one doesn’t subscribe to that particular variety of magic. Over the millennia they’ve evolved to evoke very specific feelings – awe, peace, majesty, separation from the mundane world. This is still of value in this post-religious age, because it fills a basic human need. We all need to step outside ourselves from time to time.

Perhaps of interest to architects and town planners is the idea of architectural evolution. Churches do their jobs very well due to an awful lot of iterations, each a slight embellishment on the last. Styles of religious architecture have cross pollinated, each finding different ways to achieve the same aim.

Perhaps we could pay attention to this – often the best solutions are extrapolated from past solutions, rather than revolutionary change ex nihilo. I suspect that this is as true of architecture as it is of politics and other manifestations of human nature

Medicine = flow

Ultimately, a lot of medicine is about understanding flow. Blood through vessels, air through bronchioles, water across membranes, electrolytes through cellular gates, neurotransmitters across the synaptic cleft. If you can understand the flow, especially if you can gain an instinctive feel for it, a lot of things start to make sense.

Public Holidays

Public holidays in Victoria are a confusing mess. They give people an extra day off (which is nice), but strange and contradictory dates have accreted over the years. While no-one would suggest that we have fewer holidays, perhaps we should reorganise them a bit to make them more reflective of contemporary life in this State. Certainly some of the justifications for a holiday are a bit on the nose – we should address that.


New Year’s Day – Retain. The first day of the year is a good time for a holiday.

Australia Day – Move to a different day. Celebrating the arrival of the First Fleet is understandably offensive to indigenous Australians, for whom the First Fleet was a catastrophe. The culture of Australia day is now one of alcoholism and is a flashpoint for the worst racist tendencies of some Australians. We can probably do better.

Labour Day – Retain. Work is important, and it’s worth celebrating by… not working.

Easter – Retain. The religious side of the holiday is less and less relevant, but it’s a beautiful time of year for a long weekend. And we should make an effort to remember the spirit of the great chocolate bilby that laid eggs for our sins, or something.

ANZAC Day – Retain. Even though the “ANZAC Spirit” is probably overblown as a cultural touchstone, this is a tangible connection to the way Australia was in the formative first half of the 20th century.

Queen’s Birthday – move and rename. She’s the Queen of the Great Britain, and it’s not even her actual birthday. Although I bear her no ill-will this is a pretty silly excuse for a holiday. I suggest we move it to the middle of August when everyone is really depressed by the weather, and celebrate staying indoors with a mug of tea and some biscuits.

Grand Final Eve – Retain. A controversial addition to the roster from a few years ago, Grand Final Eve celebrates the most inclusive and widely-practiced religion in Victoria – AFL Football. Of all the holidays, this one is probably the most in keeping with people’s actual beliefs.

Melbourne Cup Day, AKA Horse Day – Rename. Horse racing is increasingly frowned upon from an animal welfare point of view, and frankly the idea of taking a holiday for it strikes me as very silly. The celebration of Cup Day seems to mostly revolve around dressing up in order to get plastered, lose money gambling, and then fall over in the mud and ruining your nice frock. Oh, and you also either get hypothermia or sunburn. Sometimes both.

Possible substitutes could be Summer’s Back Day in October when people get briefly excited about the return of warm weather, or possibly Daylight Savings Recovery, where we get a holiday after the clocks go forward so that we’re not sleep deprived and confused for days afterwards.

Christmas Day – Retain. It’s Christmas.

Boxing Day – Retain, but rename as “Cleaning Up Day”. Let’s be honest, that’s what we do. That, and sigh with relief that Christmas is over again for a year.