National Emergency

I should declare something at the start. This short piece is about cricket.

WordPress gives me to understand 364 persons follow my blog, a figure to humble and amaze.

I reckon about one hundred of you three hundred and sixty-four can tolerate cricket. The rest of you wish it out of existence, or at least you wish there were no broadcasts of five-day Test Matches.

I regret this post will alienate 264 friends. I do not write this lightly, however.

Perhaps thirty years ago my wife and I watched a rivetting live performance of ‘Equus’, a play by Peter Schaffer. It tells the story of a youth who attacked a number of horses, blinding them.

Towards the end of the play, a psychiatrist accuses a second character – more in sorrow than in anger – ‘You have done a thing that cannot be forgiven. You have destroyed a person’s worship.’

A memorable line which I was unable to fathom at the time. I can fathom it today. They have destroyed my worship.

Let me declare a few truths:

1. A cricket ball is a sphere, with two parallel ridged lines around its equator.

2. Australians playing cricket for our country don’t cheat. A former Captain of South Africa cheated. A number of subcontinental players have cheated.

3. Some Australian men playing cricket for our country are appalling sports in their disrespectful conduct towards opponents.

4. Our last four national captains have tolerated or fostered or led this behaviour.

5.Steve Smith does not cheat. He has suffered one episode of ‘brain fade’ as national captain that led him into breaching the Laws of the Game. But he does not cheat.

These things I have believed. I believed them long after ‘The Tour’ (of France) rotted in public; long , long after Ben Johnson destroyed my worship of men’s Olympic sprinting; long after East Germany destroyed the worship of women’s Olympic running. I knew we played fair in cricket, that is we played within the Laws. I watched our present Captain bat and bat and bat, I watched him rise and rise, I looked at his baby face:

butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. The worldcupniks – I mean the men at the top – gave us a World Cup in Russia and will give us another in Qatar. Who can enjoy that beautiful game mired in such filth?

Russia under Putin has destroyed worship wholesale. A nation – an entire region – lived to see democracy, lived under Gorbachev, experienced the birth of belief. Putin destroyed the worship that was belief in democracy. His henchmen have destroyed the worship of sport. America has elected a taxcutter who promised to reveal his personal  taxation details – ‘later’, he said. ‘Later’ came and he promised never to reveal them.

Who in that great republic can believe that paying taxes is fair? Straight? Decent?

Overnight in Capetown, where Australia’s cricketers are engaged in a mighty contest, cameras caught a junior-ish Australian player deliberately damaging the cricket ball. The effect of such tampering is to change a perfect sphere

into an irregular object, one which will not obey the same Laws of physics that apply to a sphere. Opposing batsmen, unable to read the ball, would be dismissed easily, unfairly, inequitably. Australia’s Captain and Vice-Captain have admitted they put the younger player up to it. They have been stood down, ‘pending an investigation.’

After his earlier ‘brain fade’ I believed in Steve Smith. It offended me that others, loudest among them India’s Captain, Kohli, accused Smith of cheating. It distressed me that one of Kohli’s venerable predecessors, Sunil Gavaskar, echoed that accusation. Those men did not share my worship.

In a tale that is as famous as it is unreliable, a child fan of the Chicago White Sox confronted his idol, Shoeless Joe Jackson, who had been implicated in throwing matches: O, say it aint so! –  cried the child.

Jackson and seven others were banned from the game for, life. To understand this, know Jackson was, like Steve Smith today, the greatest batter of his era. He was stood down for life. From this day forward, whenever Smith (or Warner) will take the field for Australia we will be a nation in disgrace. Be assured our cricket bosses will see to it these two will serve terms of derisory brevity: they are, after all, our two best batters. We will sit alongside Putin’s Ministry of Sport and the bosses of the World Cup.

I am not alone. A nation has lost its worship.

Woman from Moldova

I received the following email today.

Subject: ‘Hello! How’s life?’

 

From Alena

 

 

Hello dear stranger!

I’d like to find a man for friendship and may be more serious relationships later.

You are the one Id like to know. Just want to say that I am from Moldova. This is between Romania and Ukraine. I live in the city of Tiraspol.

I’m 33 years old and in next month will be 34. I’m looking for a man in your country because my cousin lives there with her husband and I plan go there in the next months.

I chose this country because it is very good and pure soul of the people. It would be fine to meet you in person.

I’m sincerely interested in knowing more about you. Dating is not just fun for me, I never play games.

I expect that you are also serious. I’m a lonely woman that wants to find someone that will take care and understand me.

Let me tell you more about myself. I assume that I am a strong woman with goals, ideals and ambitions.

I hope that this letter will help us to write the first lines of each other.

I’ll wait for your answer. 

Alena

 

Naturally I was pleased, in fact a little flattered, that someone from a far country, someone quite unknown to me, should seek my thoughts on such a matter: the subject –

How’s Life? – is deeply philosophical, a question that has engaged great minds since ancient times. With considerable deliberation I began to compose my reply. Obviously the question was compellingly important to my correspondent, for Adela had written to me deep in the Moldovan night hours. Philosophic dubiety was depriving the good lady of her sleep.

 

It came to me that I know insufficient of life in Moldova. My new penfriend deserved better than a half-informed reply. So I googled Moldova. I was in luck: the first of very many links led to ‘Women in Moldova’. I clicked and found myself faced with a picture gallery. Instantly I saw that Moldovan women suffer a shortage of clothing – none of the ladies was completely dressed.

A second glance revealed that all were the beneficiaries of augmentary surgery. Now I began to find my bearings – Adela would be a semi-clad philosopher, who was either a surgeon (hence her choice of this medical colleague as her sage) or the survivor of surgery.

 

I clicked on and read the following: ‘Are Moldovan women easy? | Women of Moldova, marriage, dating …

http://www.moldova.ukrnetia.com/are-moldovan-women-easy/

girl from Moldova Moldovan women do not respect themselves. Whom should woman be to stay at 3 am on the intersection under the traffic lights for 15 minutes…’

Seeking more information I clicked to continue this promising discussion and found my software forbade further access. Odd. Apparently my software is not philosophy friendly. Undeterred, I googled Tiraspol and read the following: ‘Tiraspol, the capital of a country that doesn’t exist: Transnistria

 Tiraspol. Did you know that some countries don’t exist? Well, they do exist, but they are not recognized by the United Nations.’ 

 

 

Now I felt I understood poor Adela’s plight: her country does not exist. What is the meaning of her life? She makes clear her serious nature (“I never play games”). I realised Australia will be culturally alien to Adela. In Australia we only play games: our religion is sport. Sport renders philosophy unnecessary, transcending mere speculation on meaning and purpose. This also made clear Adela’s choice of me, of the roughly 23 million Australian’s to be her life guide. She writes: I expect that you are also serious. Indeed. Just so.

 

Modestly Adela revealed her own moral uncertainty. She wrote: I assume that I am a strong woman with goals, ideals and ambitions. ‘I assume’ suggests deep self-doubt. Immediately I thought of a more suitable guide, Ruby, my four-year old granddaughter. That young lady is most certainly a strong woman, positively laden with goals, ambitions and ideals. World domination would be her initial aim. Just this morning, Ruby asked her mother – quite without context or prior discussion – ‘Mummy, why did Mandela go to jail?’

 

 

I decided to hand Adela’s case to Ruby.

After Boston

There is nothing sensible about running a marathon. It is a difficult thing to do. There appears to be a physiological upper limit of tolerance to distance running. At some point around 35 kilometres most runners experience a steep falling away in efficiency. Sports physicians suggest humans were not made to complete a marathon distance, which is a little over 42 kilometres.  
 
People die running marathons. While most do not die, or even suffer serious or lasting harm from the marathon, even a single death is one too many, given that there is no need, no practical purpose, to completing the full distance.
 
Running marathons is not even an efficient means to attaining physical fitness; you can achieve equal fitness with brisk walking as with running, and the risk to life and joints is far lower when you walk.
 
Earlier in my own marathon running ‘career’ (a suggestive term: it isn’t a career in the sense of something I do for a living; something that runs off the rails is said to ‘career’) I had the opportunity to go for a training run with the great Rob De Castella in Boulder, Colorado. Earlier I had discussed with sports doctors my experience – common among marathoners – of slowing radically over the final 7 kms of the race. The physicians had suggested that human beings weren’t meant to run that distance: there was the physiological limit I referred to earlier. De Castella, himself a sports physiologist, was educated by the Jesuits at Xavier College in Melbourne. 
After our run, exquisitely taxing at that altitude, I put the same question to De Castella. It was the Jesuit rather than the physiologist who answered: “If human beings gave up just when something became difficult we wouldn’t achieve very much, would we?”
 
That is the answer. In that nutshell is the reason that Paris and London will see tens of thousands compete in their respective marathons next weekend. It is for that reason that we love to do what we hate. I have run and hated and loved forty three marathons, in places as diverse as Boston and Alice Springs. I hope to run more.
 
If the marathon runner defies physiology the marathon watcher defies sense. In all weathers she stands outdoors and watches an endless, anonymous train of athletic mediocrities, watches for hours on end, feeding these strangers everything from jelly snakes to orange segments to fried snags. At her side her small child claps everyone who lumbers past. Her teenage daughter holds a placard that reads: YOU ARE ALL KENYANS.
 
My mother knew nothing of sport. Her lack of knowledge stood her in good stead for the marathon, indeed for any sporting event she witnessed. At the time of the Melbourne Olympics Mum took us kids to the fencing. She knew only that the swords were not lethal weapons, that the fencers’ precious eyes were safe. Those facts were enough for Mum. She barracked for the victor, she urged on the vanquished. She loved them both equally and generously.
 
IN 1956 the Olympic marathon course led from Melbourne to Dandenong and back to the MCG. The route followed the Princes Highway, which passed the end of our street. Mum stood and cheered every contestant on the way out and waited for their return. By that stage the runners were jaded and strung out. The leaders too were well separated. As the runners passed our street an American was leading. Coming second or third and looking tragic (in a way I came to recognize in my adult life) was a New Zealander. “Good on you, Kiwi”, were Mum’s words from the empty kerbside, a distance of only a couple of feet from the runner. Mum’s sweet urgings encouraged the runner, who visibly accelerated. Later Mum would say, “I helped him to win.” In fact the Kiwi did not win – Mum was no stickler for small facts – but she put her finger on a larger truth: he was a winner: he finished. He did his best.
 
It is in Boston that the runner and the spectator most truly meet. There the amateur runner is embraced by the uncritical spectator. She too is an amateur. She hasn’t a clue who is favoured to win; she has twenty seven thousand favourites; she loves them all. A literal amateur. Extraordinary statistic: of a population of three million persons in the greater Boston area, one million spectators come out to watch the race. The spectator comes out and she remains there, cheering, clapping, waving placards, uselessly feeding, encouraging every last pathetic struggler, every finisher, every champion. These three, as she well understands, are one and the same.
 
She was there, this ignorant dame, when I sailed past her, full of hope, energy, crowd fever and coffee early in last year’s race. She was there as I struggled up Heartbreak Hill. She was there in Boylston street to see the winners – man, woman, wheelchair champions (both genders) – as they crossed the line. She was there when the first bomb went off. Was it the first bomb or the second that took her life? I do not know. 
 
I know this: she will be there again this year when the race is run again; there in her thousands at the start, in her tens of thousands in the middle, in her weaving, praying throngs through the weary late stages, there among the ecstatic crowds that squeeze joyously at the kerbside as crazed runners find speed for the final gallop along Boylston Street. She’ll be hoarse and weeping as the untalented race along those cobblestones in their ragtag glory, arms pumping, heads high, fists aloft as they cross the line.
 
And what of the runners? We are wiser now. Inevitably, sadder. Running – that senseless frolicking of supposed adults will never be the same.
A record field will contest Boston in 2014. Terror will enjoy its limited success – some attention for a cause, or as seems likely in this case, no clear cause; some increased security, some minor oppression of amenity and civic liberty – but the lovers of Boston will meet and embrace as they always do, at this, their festival.
Running, our ceremony of joy, now sanctified, will always be the same, that familiar pointless folly. 
 

A Run in the Desert

The Alice Springs Marathon takes place on the third Sunday in August. Forgetting how cold the nights are in the desert Melbourne people marvel: ‘Oh, how can you bear to run in that heat?’

The temperature at 0630 this morning is three degrees. I manage that terrible heat rather well. But by the time I finish the day is warm, gloriously warm. Is there a more lustrous town in winter than Alice? The skies are blue – I am searching for an adjective – a blue to banish the blues. In winter, no haze, just light. The Macdonell Ranges dominate every prospect. Rugged, richly red-brown, frequently blanketed heavily in green, the colours mutating with the changing light. From one side colossal heaps of burning honeycomb, from the far side purples mauving to pinks, greens to slake a thirsting soul.

You look up and up, the walls of colour so close, so steep above you; you feel like singing praises; you shake your head at these ridges that dominate a town. Such immensity, such liberality, so close!
We runners set off in the last of the dark. The rock still black and near-blacks that will kaleidoscope and explode as we run.
As ever, on marathon eve, I made plans, plotted strategy, devised tactics. I wrote of these to John, my illustrious runner-in-law in New York: ‘This time I’m not running for survival, not running passively, aiming merely to finish. I’ll attack the marathon. I’ll run for a time: after my worsening Personal Worsts of Boston (five hours and nine minutes) and Traralgon (5.14), I want to beat five hours.’ I laid out my plans: dividing the 42.2 kilometres into four quarters, I would run as follows: first 11 kms in 70 minutes; second 11 km in 70 minutes; the next 10 kms in 75 minutes; and the final ten in 80 minutes. I concluded my letter to John with the words, ‘Man tracht, Gott lacht’ – ‘Man plans, God laughs.’
As in all my forty-six previous marathons I gave God a good chuckle today. He might have smiled as early as 2.48 AM, when sleep died and, with an excitable bladder, I arose early for early, and my day began.

IMG_0842
***
My younger daughter Naomi invariably issues two instructions on the eve of my marathons: ‘Have a good run Dad, and don’t come back dead.’ This year she adds, ‘Know with every step how I love you.’ Her anxiety peeps out and shows itself as I age.

I knew I’d have to harden myself against pain and fatigue. I would remind myself, whenever the going got hard, ‘It’s meant to be hard. That’s why we do marathons.’
As usual the field was rich in tattered and scarred males, blokes weathered and tempered by marathons run all over the country; and young women, girls really, all looking too tender to be serious. Yet I knew from experience these girls from Alice, outwardly delicate, are inwardly wrought of gristle and gut; I knew of old how they’d whip me. And today the Army turned out. A contingent of soldiers entered the race.

***
Last year I was injured. In my absence from the race they changed the course. Too deaf to follow this morning’s briefing, I know I’ll be in trouble if I find myself leading. Prudently I avoid that pitfall. After the Race Director finishes whispering his instructions, he raises his pistol. Bang! I’m not too deaf to hear that and I set off near the tail of the bunch to attack the Alice Springs Marathon.
After only two hundred metres, my breaths come fast and hard. I recall my mantra: ‘It’s supposed to be hard. It’s a marathon.’ One after another, runners pass me, as they should. My place is at the tail of the field. But I keep up my attack. In the course of my first two ‘quarters’ it will not be my watch that guides me but my breathing. I resolve to run hard enough to remain always short of breath.

And so I do.
Have I mentioned the beauty of this place? After only six winding kilometres we have left behind the town of Alice and run through Emily’s Gap. Like Honeymoon Gap, the name sounds rude, but the rich deep chocolate rocks grab my spirit and I have no thought for anatomy, none even for respiration; it is glory that transports me.

australianphotography.com

australianphotography.com

Past the ten km mark, I search for the end of my first ‘quarter’. I say to myself – I conduct lots of self-conversations during a marathon – ‘That’s a quarter of the distance done.’ But I reckon I’ve spent much more than that fraction of my strength. I find no comfort in these calculations.
Around the 20 km mark a blur approaches at speed from the opposite direction. Is this a duststorm? A willy-willy? No it’s my midget colleague and new friend Roxi, motoring fast on the homeward leg. This kid can run. She completed the famed Comrades run in South Africa while pregnant. Now lactating, she carries her biology lightly.

Continue reading

An Outbreak of Bibliophilia

Children, like humans, thirst endlessly for stories. My own seven grandchildren, who range in age from twelve-year old Jesse to two-year old Ruby, love stories. They thirst for story as we elders hunger to give story.

‘My son,’ remarked Rabbi Joshua to Rabbi Samuel (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin), ‘More than the calf yearns to suck the cow longs to give suck.’ How do I know this maxim? That story dates back to the commencement of the academic year in March, 1965, when I purchased the latest edition of Samson Wright’s textbook of physiology. I opened the great tome and found at the foot of an otherwise blank second page the above quotation. The sole yarmulke wearer in the class, I was the only one of 120 students likely to have knowledge of the Talmud. But the passage was new to me. And I was astonished to read the quotation and its attribution in this secular text.

What have the lactation urges of the cow to do with human physiology? Everything, it happens: that interrelation of forces, that feedback loop, that mutual energising is the very stuff of homeostasis, which operates also in markets, in the climate and in the biological relationships between humans. The sage Rabbi Joshua nailed a great truth. But I fear I wander.

The entire purpose of children is to satisfy the need of humans to regale them with stories. The reason children don’t run away is their reciprocal story hunger. The reason we don’t chuck teenagers out is the promise they’ll one day employ their disturbing sexual organs to create grandchildren for us so we can resume storytelling. And that’s what happened: my adult children used their sexual organs for the pleasure of their parents, creating seven grandkids.

All seven served their grandparents well, occupying yearning arms and longing laps, snuggling in and subsiding to the song of the story. Then they learned to walk. Two of seven, both of them boys, took to their heels and never stopped running. In time, although those two learned to read, they never took it to heart; it is in motion that they find themselves, one in organised sports, the other in disorganised sport. (Readers of this blog will recall this boy and the rescue of his fingers when trapped in a bathplug.)

Their bookish grandfather gazes upon the boys and sighs. He calls them to the couch for a story but the call of their balls is louder. Off they run, to soccer, to cricket, to mayhem.

What will become of them? What will become of grandfather?

Later the ball-players have returned home. Grandfather wanders to the toilet. Before him, on the floor, lies a cornucopia of books; the disorganised sportsman comes to a stop in this place. And in this sanctum he reads.

Farewell, Farewell

I used to run six days a week. No longer. I used to run marathons. No longer. Farewell, farewell, a long farewell to all that.

I ran before work; sometimes I ran to work. I ran every day but Saturday, the Sabbath. I ran because I could, I ran because I needed to. I ran up the hills of Wattle Glen, up the endless alps of Kangaroo Ground, and along the river at Warrandyte and Kew.

I ran marathons in Traralgon, on the Gold Coast and in Alice Springs. I ran in the New York Marathon (thrice – never won it – home town decisions, obviously) and four times in the world’s oldest modern marathon, in Boston. The 2013 Boston was my last. I never crossed the finish line, turned back by the police at the 41 kilometre mark. At 67 years I was too old, too slow to be harmed by the bombers.

I ran in the World Veterans’ Games Marathon, and I was a Spartan at Melbourne. About 8 years ago at Traralgon, I became the Victorian Country Marathon Champion (Over Sixty, Male). There was one other sixty year old bloke – a patient of mine. He ran with an injury that I had fortunately not cured. I entered my title – Vic Country Marathon Champ – on my resume.

I ran in Havana and Amsterdam, in London and in Oxford, and on the golden stones and basalt cobbles of Jerusalem. I ran up and down Masada and in Galilee. I ran in Buenos Aires and in Capilla del Monte.

In fifty Aboriginal communities I ran to feel country, running fast to keep ahead of mobs of hungry dogs.

Through all this running I discovered strengths I never dreamed of and weakness I’d always feared. I extended my being, I joined in the joyous commonwealth of comrades that is a marathon.

I ran and I wrote what was a metaphor for my life – a passage, undistinguished, through space and through time, made rich by those I ran with and those I ran for. And always I ran with a doctor’s calibrated sense of risk. I ran with my younger daughter’s instruction ringing prayer and warning: Have a good run, Dad, and don’t come back dead.

I ran carefully, knowing if I did die I would leave wife, children, and latterly, grandchildren, grieving and aggrieved.

I ran and I gave thanks that my body held up for so long. I knew joy and pain and the joy of pain transmuted. I knew my lands and the lands of others intimately, physically. And in the stiffness and the glad soreness that followed a hard run, I knew pride, I knew joy.

***

An Australian boy knows it is in the sporting arena that his worth is measured. Excellence at sports trumps beauty and wealth. Brains lag last, far behind all. As a little boy I was timid, both physically and spiritually. A large brain served me only to imagine fearsome possibility; it was no asset in sports. Introduced to both cricket and football, in which I overcame fear sufficiently to try bravely, I achieved and sustained a modest mediocrity. I might have achieved more but for two discoveries: the hard cricket ball, travelling fast, hurt the fumbling fingers; and the elusive football, fiercely contested by other boys bigger and less timid than I, led me only to painful and fruitless collisions.20130411-184933.jpg

By virtue of very little, I rose to captain the Second Eighteen in footy and captain of the Second Eleven in cricket. My highly academic Jewish school quickly won fame for academic excellence, while earning only a reputation for awkward strangeness in inter-school sports. Generations of Jewish history had equipped Jewish boys well for debating, mathematics and playing the violin. Our ancestors in Europe learned to run only from fire or pogrom. So the best teams this post-Holocaust Jewish school produced were try-hard failures. And I was never good enough for the Firsts. Captain of the Seconds at Mount Scopus was the ultimate backhanded compliment in sports.

But at the age of fifteen came the discovery of distance running. The annual cross-country run over three miles of hilly scrubland sorted the tortoises from the hares. At the gun all the glamour boys leaped into the lead and quickly disappeared between bushes at the first bend in the course. I chased as hard as I could, my breath burning my throat, my chest aching. In a failure of the imagination I never thought of stopping or slowing. I kept going. Abrupt hills, uneven terrain, a finish line that was nowhere in sight, all conspired to daunt and defeat our gazelles of the track, our hares of the field. But I kept running. I don’t think I slowed at all. Eventually the astonishing sight of my idols bent double, gasping at the trackside, unable to respond to greeting or commiseration told me I was among the swiftest of the tortoises. I finished in the top ten that first year, improving to fourth, and eventually to third place, in the years that followed.

The barren years of sporting opportunity after school saw me gain a medical degree (summa sine laude), a wife and a bunch of little kids. And about five kilograms in weight. I was now a sedentary family man, short in stature, with a small pot belly. Then a schoolteacher friend took me running on the hills of Diamond Valley. He tired me out and he puffed me up, saying, “You have a nice running style, Howard.” One day we ran ten kilometers together. Breathless with achievement I looked at the distance – nearly a quarter of a marathon! – and with fine naivette I said to myself: I can run a marathon. And I did.

***

Seven months ago I drove for six days to and from an outback locum. My left thigh ached and it still does. Two months ago I fell onto my left knee from my bike. It screams with pain whenever I run a single step. The MRI of my spine resembles a bombed railway track – you can recognise the pattern of the original structure but you wouldn’t want to travel on it.

I used to run. Now it’s over.

Two Flies on a Wall and Darky Harris

fliesWhen I was a boy I came across cultural truisms like, “Aussies will bet on anything; they’ll bet on two flies walking up a wall.” What I heard was something to celebrate, a playfulness in the Australian spirit. When I inherited from a great uncle a curious little plank with two identical circular depressions, someone had to explain this relic of “two-up”, a national pastime. It spoke to me of the irrepressible Aussies of  “Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”. As a more than commonly sentimental bloke myself, I was not disposed to judge or diagnose any malady.

In 1972 I met Darkie Harris. I was the new GP in an ethnically homogenous semi-rural community, an oddity in a skullcap. Somehow the community embraced and included me while excluding the pig-raising Maltese and my only co-religionists ‘the Jews on the hill’.
Darkie Harris differed from everyone and in ways solely his own. Unprepossessing, short, stocky, swarthy, with a face marked by scars and improved by large purpling lips and a vocal tone that ranged from a growl to a bark, he looked older than his fifty-four years and fiercer than anyone so old (I was then exactly half his age) had a right to look.
Darkie distinguished himself by a sort of verbal pugilism. By word and facial expression, and yes, by facial complexion, Darkie dared everyone he encountered to fight him.

What was it that Darkie wanted to fight against? One thing, one thing only. Racism: I don’t care if you’re a chinaman or an abo or a white man. If I cut you, you’re blood’s the same colour as mine.* Darkie was the only person in the town who saw this Jewcomer doctor as undifferent. In equal parts alarmed and charmed, I found I liked him. To most in town I seemed exotic, to some a too shiny exception (‘you’re not like the others’), to some an emblem of a nobility I never earned.

Darkie was retired by the time I met him. He’d take up his position on a bench outside the Chinese café and the fish and chip shop run by a pair of Maltese brothers. He’d sit and glower, softening into a winning chivalry towards women (a sweep of the hat, a flash of gaptoothed smile, “Good morning, Ladies”) and to engage toddlers in amiable conversation while uncertain mothers tried to hide their nervousness and drag their children away.
Darkie sat on his bench and kept vigil. He was waiting for the unguarded comment, any reference he could take exception to, any sneer at the immigrants he championed.
Young hoons and would-be thugs about town learned to shy away from Darkie. As he informed me on a number of occasions, I’d sooner have a fight than a feed. Darkie was referring to his younger self in the Depression days when he was a runner for an illegal bookie, a risky position in a volatile industry. But in 1972 his interlocutor would take Darkie at his word as he’d rise and stride, frothing, barking menacingly to confront the casual bigot.

Darkie never gambled. Those were not the risks he’d take. He described his working life as an honest buccaneer. He served his boss – some degree of criminal – honourably. He’d take the blows and deliver his own and he’d return home and hand his earnings to Joyce, his leathery wife, who subsisted in a cloud of tobacco. Before Joyce Darkie would humble himself, confess his escapades and worship.

The stories of Darkie and flies on a wall and two-up created the sketchy image I had of gambling in Australia. We must have had gambling addiction but I never knowingly met one. I knew dimly of the ancient rabbinic edict that disqualified a gambler as a witness in court proceedings because an addict could neither trust himself or be trusted by others.

In 1976 I went for an early morning run in Launceston, pausing to poke a curious nose into the local casino, a gruesome cellar where women in curlers and moccasins sat mechanically before fruit machines from six in the morning.
Shaken, I ran away.
For some years in the late nineties my younger daughter, a psychologist, worked as a therapist at Gambler’s Help. Her stories of human wreckage at our dinner table opened my eyes. In 2000 I met Alan, a shining youth who became my patient. He starred at hockey, graduated from his elite school, studied business, was recruited by a leading financial institution that trained him as a currency dealer. Two years ago Alan married his golden girl Helen, a primary teacher. They bought a house together in the regional city were she grew up. Neither Alan nor Helen yet realised the bank Alan worked for had trained him as one of their corps of gamblers.
A year ago doctors in the city’s ICU worked on Alan through a Saturday night and all the next day and night. At 27 years of age, Alan’s life seemed at its end, his blood pressure unrecordable, his breathing and heartbeat negligible. It must have been his hockey that saved Alan, his underlying fitness, that brought him back from where his overdose had taken him. After gambling away the contents of the joint bank account, Alan punted on the marital home and lost it. On a weekend when Helen was out of town for a friend’s hen’s night, Alan wrote a note and swallowed the tablets that were to end his self-loathing and his shame. Only Helen’s dog, locked out of the house all Friday night and Saturday, raised the ire of neighbours with her barking.

The marriage died and was buried in a divorce. In the settlement there was little to apportion: Helen took her dog, Alan his shame. His need, his comfort, his fateful hoping – I mean his urge to gamble – survives. It is a daily battle which Alan does not always win.

I turn on the TV to watch sport. Sport still has the power to inspire me, to express nobility, to create wonder, to delight, to unite and uplift. Before and after and between plays, the gambling industry shouts its messages of slim hope, seducing, reducing the game to mere exchange. It is not possible for a child to watch sport on TV without seeing gambling ads. I turn off and prowl my bitter old mind and think of Alan.

In these wrinkled years the past glows, the present moulders, the future threatens. We need someone to blame. That’s why we elect governments – there are some things you just can’t blame on your wife. In the matter of our gambling pandemic I blame governments. Governments bankrupt of funds fall hard for the revenue that streams from gambling. Soon the treasury is addicted to gambling. A few budgets later, we have a government bankrupt of judgement and ultimately of morality. In their lonely amorality, our representatives fall into bad company, the Gambling Lobby. Governments collude with the industry to prevent and foil the simplest attempts to ameliorate our national malaise.

Over two decades I have witnessed the card games in remote Aboriginal communities. Large numbers, women usually outnumbering men, sit on the ground beneath huge trees and gamble from first light to nightfall. Darkness falls and the players shift to the bitumen and sit on the roadway and play through the night.
In Arnhem Land once a nurse and I battled through a long day to save an underweight, undersized infant with life-threatening pneumonia, the child starved because his mother had no money for food. After the necessities – I mean cigarettes and Coca Cola – the young mother consumed the family income at the card games.

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