A TRIBUTE TO MY GP


History is composed of a series of changes - changes in quick succession, changes over a longer period. When the latter occur it's sometimes called the end of an era. That's what has just happened in St Kilda, where I live.

The era that has ended is the era of Dr R. J. ("Dick") O'Bryan and his surgery in Fitzroy Street. For 38 years he's been in general practice there. His patients have represented the full range of St Kilda residents, from the people who live in large and expensively renovated Victorian and Edwardian houses or smartly modernised 1920s flats to those in seedy rooms. When St Kilda had an Aboriginal community (a city council supposedly committed to "diversity" cleared it out as part of a tidy-up in preparation for that periodic curse of the district, the Grand Prix) Dick was their doctor. Dick has always done his best for all his patients but his compassion for the poor, the unfortunate and the marginalised is legendary in St Kilda. Everyone knows him for it.

Failing health and advancing years have led to the end of this era in St Kilda medical history. Dick, who once said he would never retire, has been forced to do so by the realisation that he may never again be well enough to practise. "His work has been his life," says his wife Julianna who ran the business side of the surgery. "He is very upset at having to stop now."

If Dick is upset it is not too much to say that many of his patients are devastated, and none more so than the poorer ones. "They've been knocked sideways down at the Sacred Heart Mission," says Dick's son Tom. Some of the people there, he says, the ones who have their meals at the mission and sleep in dosshouses, don't know what they're going to do. Dick O'Bryan has been their friend. He has been a doctor who treated them with dignity irrespective of their status in life. For some he has been the only person with whom they could have a reasonable conversation, perhaps the only person who regarded them with respect.

Dick's surgery was often full of such people, some of them old, some not so old but prematurely aged by a burden of life they found too heavy to cope with. Down-and-outs they are sometimes dismissively called by those more successful in their worldly existence. In the finest tradition of medical attention to the whole person Dick did his best to make sure that though they may have been down they were never out. Prescriptions came with the invaluable bonus of a sympathetic ear. If in terms of fashion Dick's surgery had the least best-dressed waiting-room crowd in St Kilda, in terms of the spectrum of human life it must have had the richest and most varied.

Not the least of the distinctive personalities in it was Dick himself. Dick is a big man, physically, intellectually and spiritually. He is tall and smiling with an untidy mass of white hair like a cartoonist's idea of an eccentric musician. In or out of the surgery - especially in the cheap but good restaurants he contrived to find (difficult in Melbourne where the one adjective tends to exclude the other) - he was always ready for a talk, anything from a quick chat to a profound discussion. Dick is a mine of information on all kinds of abstruse subjects. He is a literary man, a published poet. On his desk in the surgery, along with the day's cryptic crossword from the newspaper, there was always a serious book lying open to be taken up between patients. The preferred subjects were history and philosophy. Among the framed certificates on the wall was one testifying to Dick's graduation from a theology course under the auspices of Melbourne University.

This association with theology might be extended to Dick's approach to medicine. As a doctor he has the devotion of a missionary. He gave up a prosperous practice in Camberwell "prescribing Valium to bored housewives" to move to St Kilda and the greater challenge of helping people who hadn't had much of a chance in life. St Kilda when Dick arrived was an even more schizophrenic place than now with a few well-to-do residents in pockets of respectability and a far larger number of the poor and needy. Some lived in appalling conditions in rented rooms that ought to have been condemned. Some slept rough. In addition there was the sleazy life of Grey Street and Acland Street with sex and drugs for sale. No one who needed medical help was turned away from Dick's surgery. No one who needed medical help and couldn't get to the surgery was turned down by Dick, who over the years answered many calls to treat some unfortunate ("often not long for this world") in a grossly sub-standard, filthy rented room.

Dick's children grew up, as Julianna puts it, "with an understanding of the people who visited the surgery". Every year at Christmas and Easter Dick and Julianna made room at their table for at least a couple of Dick's lonely patients. The OAM - Medal of the Order of Australia - could not have had a more deserving recipient than Dick when he received it in 2011 for "his contribution to the community".

For a generation now St Kilda has been changing character. One by one the rooming houses have been demolished or reconstructed as desirable residences for families with gleaming four-wheel-drives and children at private schools. The squalor of the street life has given way - to some extent - to smart restaurants and groovy bars. The haves are replacing the have-nots. The amount of "affordable" accommodation decreases by the month. St Kilda is becoming more like the Camberwell Dick left nearly four decades ago. The kind of people he came to help are thinner on the ground.

There was never a computer on Dick's desk in the surgery. His patients weren't numbers in a system; their medical details were written down on cards. As every schoolteacher knows, writing something out by hand is a certain way of remembering it. Dick always remembered his patients' names and faces: he remembered them as individuals, not simply cases. There is not a name on a card in Dick's "current patients" file who will not miss that friendly surgery with its policy of no appointments (calculating the best time to drop in without encountering a long wait became something of an art form). St Kilda is not the same since that sad day some weeks ago when private misfortune obliged this most civilised and compassionate of doctors to close his door and switch off that familiar red light in Fitzroy Street for the last time.

30 March 2013

POPE VATICAN II


I have so far expressed no opinion on the new Pope Francis I, having in the first place no opinion to express and in the second preferring to leave comments to those who know about these things. But it did occur to me that instead of taking the name Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio might more appropriately have called himself Pope Vatican II - or Vatican III, to maintain the sequence. He is the complete Vatican II man, the apotheosis of Vatican II, and in him "the spirit of Vatican II" will enjoy its swansong. After him, those clergy whose lives were changed by that ill-advised council will be too old to be Pope, or anything else. In his reign all the failed Vatican II pieties about opening windows and embracing the world will get a re-run. Just watch.

The big question, though, is whether in spite of this he will be able to bring charity to the forefront in an organisation not noted for that virtue in its official structures. The new Pope seems a good and compassionate man; will he manage to show that the Church is about love? Not airy-fairy talk of love, but real practical unconditional love, for all those who stumble on the way as we try to make the best of this life we didn't ask to be born into, with abilities in most cases inadequate to the task. Love for the weak, and that of course is all of us. If he can, he will have done everything a Pope need do.

Good Friday, 29 March 2013

LIGHTS OUT FOR THE EARTH


Earth Hour was celebrated with suitable enthusiasm in the inner-city municipality of Burchett Hill last night, and indeed is still being celebrated. The city council, dominated by the Greens Party, has voted to extend the occasion and rename it Earth Week.

"Switching off the power for only an hour smacks of tokenism," said the Mayor, Councillor Les Rhiannon. "We want people to get used to what a rational power policy would be like under a Greens government, a government that would pay our parent Earth the respect due to herm."

Councillor Rhiannon said that council had "democratically removed the voluntary element which had robbed previous Earth Hours of their full potential" and every household and business in the municipality was now obliged to switch off all electric power for a week "under pain of heavy financial sanctions, such as tripling of the rates for offenders." Exemptions, however, had been made for essential use of electricity in public facilities. These included hospitals (with the exception of St John of God Catholic Hospital), schools (with the exception of Burchett Hill C. of E. Grammar, Holy Souls in Purgatory Catholic School and Hallelujah Christian College) and libraries (with the exception of the Burchett Hill-Israel Friendship League Library). There are also exemptions for "special cases with particular needs".

Among the special cases exempted are:
    The Marie Stopes "Downsize Your Family" Fertility Adjustment Clinic (formerly the Sir Truby King Infant Welfare Centre). "The importance of the surgical interventions carried out there cannot be overstated in an overcrowded world," explained Councillor Rhiannon when issuing the exemption (before, in fact, the clinic had made an application). He added that "in a society where attractive personal presentation is increasingly instrumental in getting ahead in life, it would be a crime to interrupt - even for so urgent a cause as Earth Week - the clinic's indispensable work in saving infants identified by prenatal scans as likely to be born less than satisfactorily presentable from the embarrassment they would encounter in later life."
    The Nitschke Centre for Happy Farewells (on similar grounds of "essential activity").
    The Blue Aegean Fish & Chip Palace, High Street, Burchett Hill (prop. Con Alitosis, brother of Ms Drusilla Alitosis, the Mayor's "partner").
     Private residence, number 34 Ilse Koch Boulevard, Burchett Hill (home of Councillor L. Rhiannon and Ms D. Alitosis).
     Saucy Girl Adult Escort Agency and Entertainment Suites ("sizzling hot chicks the way U like them"), Railway Place, Burchett Hill (exempted on special application of regular client and Platinum Loyalty Cardholder Councillor C. Thomson).
     Dick Dill the Electronics Techxperts, Crass Square Shopping Plaza (environmentalist suppliers of hurricane lamps and candles by appointment to the Mayor and Council of Burchett Hill).
     Get Your Bum on a Seat People's Experimental Theatre (in the basement of the old abattoirs), currently presenting the fourteen-part Soviet Cycle by Eugeny Beria-Molotov (born 1889, shot 1936) in the original Russian. "To suspend a seminal masterpiece that has had such an influence on our Party would be tantamount to blasphemy," said Councillor Rhiannon.
     Burchett Hill Experimental Wind Farm, Town Hall roof (permit for auxiliary motors).
     Aboriginal Tent Embassy of the Tomanjeri People (Ambassador: Ernie Witchetty-Bromberg), Municipal Gardens, Burchett Hill (next to the Floral Clock).
     Dreamland Receptions, Bandt Drive, Burchett Hill (exemption permit for Green Polyamorists Cocktail Party and Dinner-Dance Fundraiser).
     Burchett Hill Mosque and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab Memorial Institute for Studies in Connubial Chastisement (open 24 hours).

 Exemptions refused include:
     Burchett Hill Synagogue (council has instructed the power company to withdraw electricity supply permanently from this address).
     The Uniting Church Day 'n' Night Homeless Drop-in Centre ("nothing going on there that can't be done by candlelight and a primus stove for tea," said the Mayor).
   
Opposition from rank-and-file Greens to an exemption for the Burchett Hill Stock Exchange was overruled by Councillor Rhiannon and other Green councillors as "detrimental" to their personal interests.

Councillor Rhiannon says that apart from "the negative reactions of a few of the usual bourgeois whingers like shopkeepers, business and factory owners and other enemies of the people, Earth Week has been exceptionally well received, so much so, that your council will give serious consideration next time to making it Earth Month. After that," he added, "can Earth Year be far away?"

24 March 2013

There are other news stories from Burchett Hill in Argus here ("Municipal News"), here ("A Feast of Reason"), here ("On the Street Where You Eat"), here ("The One Day of the Year"), here ("The Glorious First of May"), here ("Support for the Arts"), here ("How May I Not Help You?"), here ("Our Very Own Olympics"), here ("Marriage Reform in Action"), here ("A School Story"), here ("A Voice in the World"), here ("A Blow Against Misogyny"), here ("Let Justice be Done") and here  ("An Illustrious Title").

NEVER LET THE TRUTH STAND IN YOUR WAY


I had intended not to write again on the subject of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy and others, but I have just seen some figures that put the matter in perspective.

According to the Children's Bureau of the United States Department of Human Services*, of 903,000 children assessed as victims of maltreatment of various sorts, about 90,000 (10 per cent) were sexually abused. The bureau found that the perpetrators of the abuse were:
    family friends and acquaintances (28 per cent)
    stepfathers and boyfriends of the child's mother (21 per cent)
    uncles and cousins (18 per cent)
    brothers (10 per cent)
    biological fathers (10 per cent)
    grandfathers and stepfathers (7 per cent)
    strangers (4 per cent)
The figures for Catholic priests are not specified. Presumably they are included, along with PE teachers, scoutmasters and what have you, among the uncategorised 2 per cent required to bring the total to 100 per cent, or among strangers. They could of course be among family friends, uncles, cousins and brothers. The point is that on the evidence of this data priests in no way qualify as a major category of abuser. Almost all those who do are part of the wider family circle. (True, these statistics are American, not Australian. Yet it seems unlikely given the similarity of our societies that there would be any great difference here.)

I'm sure there are people who'll say the US Children's Bureau is a Vatican front and that the figures have been cooked up. If they want to believe that, well, there's nothing can be done. It's like climate-change enthusiasts who would continue to maintain the world was still heating if the Equator froze over. But if the figures are accurate, why does the media not stop singling out Catholic priests as the world's worst abusers?

It won't, of course. Most of the self-described "quality" media - particularly, in Australia, the ABC and Fairfax - is in the hands of secularists and for secularists sexual abuse is, if one may use the expression, a godsend as a stick to beat the Catholic Church. Secularists may or may not care about abuse per se, notwithstanding the elaborate displays of solidarity with its "victims", but they do care about destroying the moral authority of a Church which, like Britain standing alone against the Nazis in 1940, is the one formidable opponent of abortion, gay marriage and the other products of sexual sybaritism so dear to the secularist heart. To accept the evidence and stop bashing the Church would be to throw away a demonstrably effective weapon.

* Statistics from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data Systems of the US Children's Bureau of the United States Department of Human Services, quoted in Quadrant, January-February 2013.

ABUSE AND THE ROMAN CURIA

I note that many commentators have made a connection between sexual abuse by clergy and the "corruption" of the Vatican's internal government, the Roman Curia. Voices are raised suggesting that as a matter of urgency the new Pope should "reform" the Curia. But even if he succeeds, which he won't, it will make no difference. The Curia is predominantly Italian and is run on the well-known principles of Italian public administration, i.e. loyalty to oneself and one's associates. Reforming it would be like reforming the Mafia - window-dressing.

Besides, even if the Curia should somehow be transformed into a model of transparent purity, how is it imagined that this would impinge on the issue of sacerdotal paedophilia - or more correctly in most cases, ephebophilia? The Curia is the last thing on the mind of some tragic celibate in Pittsburgh or Tipperary or Adelaide as he eyes off a comely thurifer. Clerical sexual transgression, if it does not arise from desires so deeply entrenched in fallen human nature as to be irreformable, can be dealt with only at the level of seminary selection, if then. Or by honesty and sacrifice on the part of those who are tempted.

19 March 2013

HAVE SOME WINE - NO DON'T


"The hidden problem of middle-class drinking" runs a banner headline on the reduced front page of Melbourne's tabloid Age today over a censorious piece of self -generated "news" lamenting that 85 per cent of "professionals" who took part in a survey conducted by the paper drink too much, "causing untold harm to themselves and others".

And who, pray, does more than anyone to promote the consumption of alcohol among the middle classes than the Age with its endless pretentious paeans to the supposed excellence of the Australian wine industry and its subtle but constant identification of sophistication with wine-drinking? In its "Epicure" and weekend supplements there is page after page of nothing but. I've lost count of the number of sneering references I've seen in the Age to Australians in the 1950s eating their chops and allegedly overcooked veg with a nice cup of tea instead of a big bold red from a "boutique winery".

The "respondents" to the survey, we are informed, were mostly Fairfax readers. Perhaps they drink to forget the decline of that company's once respected Age and Sydney Morning Herald into pedlars of nannyish humbug.

16 March 2013

A WINDSWEPT WASTED OPPORTUNITY


Not even among the windswept Marxist wastes of "reconstructed" East Berlin as it was in the 1960s could there have been a more depressingly horrible streetscape than St Kilda Junction. In some ways it is worse than East Berlin was because it is Marxism meets Detroit. There weren't many cars in 1960s East Berlin whereas in St Kilda Junction there is hardly anything but. This intersection of six busy streets is utterly subordinated to motor traffic. Buildings were torn down to make way for the cars. As for pedestrians, it must have been an irritant to the planners not to be able to eliminate such nuisances entirely from their motorists' paradise, though perhaps it was some consolation to be able to direct people wishing to cross the junction on foot into a maze of filthy tunnels full of rubbish, graffiti and the odour of stale urine. So labyrinthine is the configuration of these subways that it takes twice as long to cross the junction through them than it would if it were still possible to cross it above ground.

Every generation has to live with the mistakes of the previous generation's experts. (Look at education, where the legacy of 1970s pedagogical theorists can be seen in students leaving secondary school barely able to read and write their own language.) Road planning experts were a particular blight of the second half of the twentieth century. For them the car was to be the key to the cities of the future and anything that obstructed its passage through the urban landscape had to be removed. The buildings traditionally thought to constitute a city would henceforth have to be fitted into the interstices of roads and freeways wherever there was a square inch of available space. Planners bewitched by the car dismissed the possibility of confronting the growth in urban traffic by investment in public transport. Their view was that public transport had had its day and was not worth wasting money on. Trams on their fixed lines got in the way of the car and, who would want to use a train when he had his own transport waiting in the garage? This level of farsightedness produced the Lonie Report, in which planning experts blithely proposed that Melbourne should shut down most of its suburban rail network. For that inconvenient section of the population too young, too poor or too decrepit to have a car a few buses would be allowed, since they could "move with the traffic". It is safe to say that no planner of the era imagined that the traffic itself would cease to move, coagulated into one solid mass by its ever intensifying volume.

Experts charged with replanning Melbourne for the car were forever trooping overseas at the taxpayer's expense to "study trends". England was a favourite destination with its big Victorian cities even worse adapted than Melbourne to being turned into jungles of highways. Not that difficulty of adaptation was to be allowed to stand in the way of "progress" in places where dedicated futurists were in charge of municipal planning departments. British and European urban road schemes were lapped up by our visiting local planners, eager for inspiration. Particularly inspirational, surely, was the fate of Birmingham, a city not dissimilar in architecture to Melbourne. Here, in their quest to make the city entrusted to their care as car-friendly as they could, the city fathers decided to out-blitz the Germans. They destroyed the heart of Birmingham to make way for a colossal ring roadway, leaving the few buildings of the historic city centre that weren't demolished totally isolated from the surrounding city. The ring road took thirteen years to build - the amount of demolition required was phenomenal - and was finished in 1971, three years after the opening of the "new" St Kilda Junction on the other side of the world.

The confluence of six roads into the junction had been identified as early as the 1950s as a "congestion problem", i.e. a bottleneck. Together with a new freeway along the Yarra it was designated an urgent priority and the traffic planners at the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works rolled up their sleeves and got to work on it. The History of Prahran notes that in 1956 the Victorian government, under Sir Henry Bolte, gave the MMBW wide powers to design and construct new roads, and by extension, to override local councils. MMBW planners were well up there with Birmingham's in their taste for demolition. Whole residential streets were sacrificed to their schemes. An important element in the reconfiguration of the junction was the construction of an underpass to carry traffic between Queens Road and an extended Dandenong Road. Several streets disappeared entirely to make space for this, or lost their houses on one side. Remaining residents would not only have to put up with the noise as the traffic sped through the underpass but were to be, as the History puts it, "hemmed in" by its concrete walls and access ramps. There were a number of protests at the time, which must have been hurtful to the planners at the MMBW who had tried so hard to overcome the problem of traffic congestion by easing the congestion of residential density as well.

The new St Kilda Junction is thus a monument to the old MMBW, a body now dismantled and subsumed among various other public authorities. It is a monument too to the powers of observation of its planners in faithfully recording every destructive detail of the "trends" they travelled far and wide to see.

What was lost in the way of architecture to create the replanned junction? At the corner of Fitzroy Street and Barkly Street there was the appositely named Corner Hotel, a decent late nineteenth century building in a restrained Italianate style. The 1980s office blocks that have replaced it and its neighbours along Fitzroy Street are pure Iron Curtain. To the east of the Corner Hotel on the sharply angular site where Barkly Street joined what was then called High Street stood the Junction Hotel, also Italianate but much more florid, with a handsome corner tower and cupola. This went, along with the whole of the western side of High Street, now renamed and treated as a prolongation of St Kilda Road.

Where High Street met Wellington Street there were shops, and right on the corner R. T. Taylor Pty Ltd, licensed grocer, whose claim to fame was that on the verandah roof on the Wellington Street side of his shop perched a diminutive signal box, with a tramways official inside, to control the movement of trams in and out of the junction. The box always looked precarious, as though the verandah would give way under it, but it survived to be taken down by the wrecker. Between Wellington Street and the foot of Punt Road were two of what would now be called Melbourne icons: Hamburger Max, dispensing hamburgers late into the night for the truck drivers passing through the junction, and the Taiping, Melbourne's most prominently sited Chinese restaurant, which though now closed somehow managed to linger on in its grim Edwardian building into the first decade of this century. It and the building next door where Hamburger Max was are all that's left of the original buildings in the junction.

The most noticeable sight in the old junction was at the angle of Punt Road and St Kilda Road. This was another garage, in Spanish Mission style, straight out of Beverley Hills in the 1920s. High above it was a huge neon sign advertising Atlantic Ethyl petrol. Ethyl was represented as a female head with her hair streaming out behind her, the golden tresses, when the sign was lit up, moving rhythmically as in the wind. The hairstyle itself, frozen in time, was in the manner of Jean Harlow, Hollywood's big star at the time the service station was built. When you consider the fuss made in the 1990s about the Skipping Girl sign in North Richmond, it is a shame that the heritage lobby had not got into its stride in time to order the preservation of this even more spectacular ensemble.

To deplore the ugliness of St Kilda Junction and a thousand places like it is not to deplore the car. Few of us could live the same life without a car. No one but Green cranks would want to disinvent it and even they are ambivalent, in practice if not in utterance. But like fire the car is a good friend but a bad enemy. It is an enemy of civilised urban life if planners are allowed to subordinate the city to a means of transport which is meant for moving within it. The car ought to be at the service of urban life, not the other way round. The mistake of those 1960s and 1970s planners was in seeing the dismantling of the city as the only way to create space for cars. Yet there are at least two other ways. One is to limit the number of cars in the streets. Everyone wants to drive a car for convenience but it has been shown time and again in cities once choked by cars - and is now becoming evident in Melbourne where it was reported this week that trams are fuller than at any time since the 1950s - that if public transport is made a genuinely practicable alternative people will use it. Enforced restriction on the use of cars is undesirable in a democratic society, and though as part of the price of belonging to such a society we all have to accept some degree of limitation on our right to act with absolute freedom, it is better if people can be persuaded to reduce their car use because public transport is the easier alternative. It is a hopeful sign that that is the new orthodoxy among planners.

The other way the planners might have chosen would have been to put principal highways underground. At St Kilda Junction it should have been the cars in the tunnels, not hapless pedestrians. If this had been objected to on grounds of cost, tolls would have had to be considered. Current experience shows that people determined to go by car will go by car and pay the toll; for those who won't the toll can be a further disincentive to taking the car out, as long as the public-transport alternative is a real one.

It might be remarked in passing that there is no reason why traffic schemes should go hand in hand with ugliness, though admittedly there is not much existing evidence to demonstrate this. Gifted designers are needed of the kind who in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries made much railway infrastructure aesthetically pleasing. The nearest we have got to that with roads are the "spaghetti junctions" in Britain, the United States and elsewhere, which have a certain geometric beauty, though they are no places for pedestrians.

It is probably fair to say that St Kilda Junction was a missed opportunity. With cars underground it could have been a pleasant and unusual public space, something like Melbourne's own Place de l'Etoile. There is nothing to see there now, unless you have a taste for the idiot graffiti - correction, urban art - in the underground passages, all tediously repetitious jagged shapes and lurid colours (though you need a peg on your nose if you wish to linger and admire). Above ground it is dusty, noisy and ugly. And in spite of all that has been sacrificed to make way for the car, it can still be a bottleneck.

9 March 2013