Posted by: dave | February 6, 2015

Conversation at dinner with Anya


Me: How did you get that bruise on your head?
Anya: I was being a ghost.
Me: And you bumped your head.
Anya: Yeah. I bumped into the wall at Jamie and Taylor’s house.
Me: Oh. Were they very scared when you were a ghost?
Anya: No, we were walking all in a line.
Me: Oh…
Anya: Yeah, Jamie was being a witch.
Me: Ah. What about Taylor?
Anya: Taylor was being a serial killer.
Me: …
Anya: Yeah. She killed cereal. And then we ate it.

Posted by: dave | February 1, 2015

At the cafe…


They had these weird, sliiightly creepy dolls for kids to play with. Anya arranged them in a pattern she would describe as “peeping out”.

Here’s Otis, eating:


Posted by: dave | January 21, 2015

Cat with dead people


She did this drawing a couple of days ago. I love love love the cat. The figures round the side are supposedly “dead people” and if you have a look at them this may creep you out a bit at first as they’re, well, pretty creepy. But then I realised we’d just seen the film “The Princess and the Frog”, where the baddies are voodoo spirits who she’s copied from memory.

She wasn’t scared by the film — certainly less so than she was by “Paddington”, which we watched before Christmas and where Nicole Kidman plays a taxidermist who wants to stuff the titular bear. She won’t visit Sydney’s main museum of natural history now because she thinks all taxidermists are evil…

Posted by: dave | January 21, 2015


After several months of occasional steps, Otis got his full walking thing going last week — here’s the evidence:

Posted by: dave | December 16, 2014

Recipe: Tomato consomme

This recipe is a bit of a molecular gastronomy number — it was apparently developed by a professor at the Bremen University of Applied Sciences and first demonstrated at a culinary conference in 2004. So, a warning. You’re going to need the following highly specialised bits of kit: Muslin. Icecube trays. Gelatin.

It’s so easy to make I’m embarassed I took so long to try it out.

1. Chop up and liquidize half a dozen tomatoes. Strain out the juice through the finest sieve you have.
2. Divide the juice in half. Heat one half on the stove till it starts to boil. Add powdered gelatin to the other half for one minute to start activating it; you want about 7 grams of gelatin for each cup of tomato juice.
3. Once the hot tomato juice is just boiling, take it off and stir the two together till the gelatin is fully dissolved. Pour it all into ice-cube trays and freeze it.
4. Once it’s frozen, put the frozen tomato jelly in muslin, in a sieve or colander set over a bowl. I sat a flat-bottomed colander on top of an upturned cup to keep the jelly well above the consomme, which worked fine. Stick it in the fridge for two or three days.
5. After a few days of thawing, you’ll notice a perfectly clear, almost colourless liquid gathering in the bowl. That’s your consomme! Purists would I think let it all drip out, but once the ice was fully thawed I ended up squeezing my muslin a bit as if I was separating cheese curds from whey, which sped the process up a bit.

That’s pretty simple, right? But you may still be wondering why anyone would go to the effort. The answer is in the flavour: it’s like an essence of raw tomato, and quite unlike anything you could imagine appearing in such crystalline form.

This isn’t just surprise-your-senses gimmickry, either: somehow, the intensity of the flavour is heightened because there is nothing but flavour to focus on: none of the texture and physicality of eating a raw tomato, and none of the fats and flavourless elements that dull the taste of the real thing. It’s like a culinary essential oil.

The great thing about this technique is it’s pretty foolproof, you don’t need to cook it, and you can do it with practically anything you can get through a sieve: carrots; cheese sauce; baked potato, according to the link at the top.

There is a recipe for tomato consomme in the grand Larousse tradition, which involves a mirepoix base and simmering for 20 minutes while a floating “raft” of egg whites does its work clarifying the soup. I haven’t tried it, and I’m sure it’s yummy. But I love being able to extract these essences from food without cooking them, because that process changes the flavour so much; some bit of tomato-ness is lost in translation.

Posted by: dave | November 29, 2014

The Aboriginal “Waltzing Matilda”: postscript

The surrender at Dagworth

The surrender at Dagworth

Quite by coincidence after writing the last post I was looking at the wonderful old newspaper archives kept by the National Library of Australia. And I started to look up some of the relevant names, which suggest the links between Dagworth and Queensland’s frontier violence are even closer than I suspected.

The image above is from an 1878 issue of the Illustrated Australian News, captioned “The blacks at Dagworth Station Queensland.” Here’s the text of the article. It describes an event from the previous October where the local Aborigines “came in” to make peace with the pioneers at Dagworth, a Messrs Hunter and Urquhart. You’ll understand a lot about what was said and not said about life on the Australian frontier when you consider that, though the squatters claim to have seen only scattered evidence of Aboriginal people in their 18 months on the station prior to this event, the picture shows the two indigenous leaders waving a makeshift “flag of truce” made out of a stick and some old newspaper. Why would they be signalling their surrender if there was never any conflict in the first place?

Now I got excited reading this by the name Urquhart — was Dagworth’s founder the same FC Urquhart who wrote the brutal bush ballad from the Kalkadoon war? It turns out he wasn’t, and they probably weren’t even related. This biographical piece in the Cairns Post from 1938 makes it clear he didn’t even arrive in the district until 1882. But the Queensland frontier was a small world, and this 1921 Cairns Post article makes clear that FC Urquhart did know the Dagworth Macphersons. That’s not surprising, given he was the sub-inspector for the Native Police over a vast area stretching from the Gulf of Carpentaria to Cape York between 1882 and 1889.

This doesn’t prove anything in particular, but it shows how close some of this known frontier violence was to the Dagworth station where “Waltzing Matilda” originated. The same FC Urquhart who brutally fought the Kalkadoons of Cloncurry would almost certainly have known Paterson’s source, Macpherson; riding around Dagworth with his poet-visitor, Macpherson may well have been reminded that another Urquhart had been pivotal in “pacifying” his own property.

Posted by: dave | November 29, 2014

Reading “Waltzing Matilda” in Aboriginal history


Coolabah trees at Combo waterhole

I’m currently reading “Forgotten War”, Henry Reynolds’ harrowing and thought-provoking rebuke to Australia’s collective amnesia about the frontier violence and massacres that European colonists used to drive Aboriginal people from their land. It’s a great piece of history and it’s making me think about this country’s best-known bit of verse, AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s bush ballad “Waltzing Matilda.”

I’m not really much of a Banjo Paterson fan — he comes across as a sort of discount store Rudyard Kipling, and I’ve never really liked his poetry either. But when you skim through his work it jumps out that Waltzing Matilda is a really, really odd poem. And the idea I can’t get out of my head is that it’s not really about a minor skirmish between white pastoralists at all: it’s about this country’s founding conflict between black and white.

We all know the story: an itinerant worker camps by a waterhole, grabs a sheep that’s come to drink there, and is caught by the local landowner; refusing to be arrested, he drowns himself, and ends up haunting the waterhole with his song.

The origins of this poem are pretty well known, down to the location of the drama itself. The swagman was reportedly Samuel “Frenchy” Hoffmeister, a union leader who set fire to woolsheds during an 1894 strike against non-union labour at Dagworth, a sheep station in the Mt Isa region of north-central Queensland. Paterson told later in life of how Dagworth’s squatter Bob Macpherson had taken him on a ride to Combo Waterhole, the billabong where the action takes place, and there related the story of how Hoffmeister shot himself and jumped in to his death.

We have to respect the poet’s own account of his inspiration, but I feel that as an origin myth, this makes very little sense.

Let’s start with the obvious: Frenchy Hoffmeister was no swagman. Indeed, as a militant union leader, he was quite the opposite: he set fire to Macpherson’s sheds precisely to protest the employment of the itinerant, non-union swagmen who spread over rural Australia during the Depression of the 1890s.

Another point: the Australian frontier was a wild place and it’s quite possible that the real Hoffmeister was killed by the real Macpherson (or his cronies) as retaliation for his violent strike action. But the payback that forms the centre of the poem — a human life for a sheep’s life — is not one that white people in 1890s Australia ever had to pay.

Shearers’ strikes weren’t all that was going on around the late-19th century Queensland frontier, though. Squatters like Macpherson didn’t take control of their grazing land with the stroke of a surveyor’s pen in Brisbane, but through a bloody war against Aboriginal people who had no desire to leave their ancestral country.

White pastoralists went everywhere armed, and the contemporary accounts of them shooting Aboriginal people on sight to inspire terror are legion. On top of this, Queensland had the Native Police, a force of Aboriginal troopers employed far from their own homelands to hunt down and kill indigenous landowners with whom they shared no kinship links. The modus operandi of both groups, often working together, was to approach Aboriginal camps at night and indiscriminately shoot those they found; this was known euphemistically as “dispersal”.

Reynolds quotes historian Ray Evans, who scoured the records of the Native Police to estimate that this force alone killed 24,000 Aboriginal people between 1859 and 1897. That’s equivalent to nearly 5 percent of Queensland’s 480,000 population in its 1901 census (indigenous Australians weren’t counted), a larger proportion than were killed in the English Civil War. And remember that “Waltzing Matilda” itself was conceived near the Queensland frontier in 1894, while this was still going on.

In the Cloncurry region, a day’s ride northwest of Dagworth, white pastoralists had engaged in all-out war with the Kalkadoon tribe between 1878 and 1884. Reynolds cites a local historian who estimated as many as 900 Aboriginal deaths from that fighting. He also quotes a bush ballad by FC Urquhart, who led a detachment of Native Police on a killing spree in the region. Here’s Urquhart describing the discovery of a murdered sheep station owner, an incident that sparked a wave of brutal revenge attacks:

…there beneath a low bent tree,
They see a ghastly sight …
And one spake out in deep stern tones
And raised his hand on high,
‘For every one of these poor bones
A Kalkadoon shall die.’

It sounds quite a lot like a more bloodthirsty Paterson.

Think about “Waltzing Matilda” in this light and it takes on quite a different cast. That exchange of a human life for a sheep’s life was precisely what happened to Aboriginal people on the Australian frontier, who regularly found themselves shot for the “theft” of speared livestock.

Look, too, at the number of Aboriginal words in the poem. Paterson’s other ballads are mostly written in a demotic or refined Australian English similar to the language of Kipling’s poetry. There are no indigenous words in “Clancy of the Overflow”, one of his other best-known poems, and “The Man From Snowy River” features only a kurrajong crow and a wombat.

It certainly wasn’t uncommon for Paterson to use native words, especially for flora, fauna and locations; but where else is there such a flood of Aboriginal language as here, especially when there’s serviceable English equivalents? Why “billabong” instead of “waterhole”, “jumbuck” instead of “sheep”? Why must it be a coolabah tree, rather than an Anglicized river red gum? These are words Paterson may have heard as a boy growing up in rural New South Wales: “billabong” is Wiradjuri, while “jumbuck” and “coolabah” are Gamilaraay.

Look too at the characterisation of the swagman as “jolly” in the best-known version of the poem. Swagmen, itinerant workers facing grinding poverty, hunger and thirst, weren’t generally seen as jolly at the time. They were “a restless, homeless class” who “drift from camp to camp”, according to Henry Lawson’s “The Swagman and His Mate”. The protagonist of Paterson’s own “The Swagman’s Rest” lives and dies a “wasted life and hard”. Camping contentedly by a creek and grabbing a windfall sheep for dinner sounds much more like the behaviour of people who regarded the bush as home, rather than as an implacable environment to be traversed on the way to the next shearing job.

Looking at the poem in the light of Queensland’s frontier war even puts a different complexion on the bizarre suicide that ends the poem. This swagman, who is so fiercely, inspiringly jealous of his independence, dies in the presence of armed antagonists by his own hand. What would a coroner make of that testimony?* It sounds rather like the comforting myths which Paterson’s contemporaries spun to repaint their massacres of Aboriginal people as an ineluctable, Darwinian process of natural extinction in which they bore no blame.

These hints of a forgotten war seem so obvious to me now that I find myself doubting whether this reading isn’t a more commonplace one. Maybe it is — hopefully it is! In particular, I’d imagine many indigenous people would have recognized this for decades. But it doesn’t seem to form part of the official critical view — this article from 2005, by one of the more distinguished scholars of the poem, only broaches the subject to point out that Aboriginal people are notable by their absence:

the swagman … needs to be read as a displacement of Aboriginal presence from the story.

Aboriginal presence is displaced from the story, but it seems to me to be absolutely everywhere at the same time. These aren’t general echoes of Aboriginal themes, in my view, but quite specific references to hugely important historical events in the era and location of the poem’s birth.

That hidden presence in itself is appropriate: the conflicts on the expanding borders of white settlement were downplayed, excused and hushed up by Paterson’s contemporaries. But such brutality must have made a profound impression on even the white settlers who drove the war, as well as the pastoralists like Macpherson who benefited from it. I can’t help but think that the ghosts of that violence, like the swagman at his billabong, continue to haunt the poem, and the Australian imagination in which it looms so large.

* There’s a remarkably consistent pattern in Australian history of indigenous people dying in white custody without anyone being found responsible. If you think that stopped in the 1890s, read this.

Posted by: dave | October 22, 2014

Conversation on way to school yesterday


We do like the beach though

Anya: Daddy, I need to tell you something. Did you know the rabbitohs beat ALL THE OTHER ANIMALS?
Me: Oh, really? [it’s the local rugby league team and just won the grand final, for non-Aussie readers]
A: And they beat the bulldogs, and the roosters, and the panthers… [lists other team mascots]
M: Ah, yes…

We are not a sporting household. But with all the intel Anya picks up at daycare, and the general physicality of both kids, we may be yet.

Posted by: dave | October 16, 2014

Speaking coughing!

Anya woke up a bit after 7am, coughing. I was in Otis’ room putting him down to sleep as he’d been awake since some stupid time; I dunno, maybe 5am? But I heard her coughing.

Then she finished coughing and started shrieking. That’s not unusual; she often shrieks about something in the morning before getting out of bed. But what she said was funny.

“When I woke up I was speaking coughing! I wasn’t speaking English!!”

Posted by: dave | September 25, 2014

Otis beats Geoff Boycott



As I may have mentioned, this boy is growing pretty fast. He doesn’t have a fraction of Anya’s muscle strength but he’s probably only 30% smaller than her, in weight and height.

You see where this is coming from at breakfast. His favourite way to start the day is to chomp through two Weet-bix with lashings of baby formula. According to the manufacturer’s website, that’s about 214 calories of Weet-bix.

Having been brought up, like many British kids of my generation, on a series of Shredded Wheat adverts in which implacable Yorkshire sporting stars such as Geoff Boycott and Brian Clough berated the viewer for their inability to eat three of the things, I find this impressive. Three Shredded Wheat is about 245 calories. So no, Geoff, Otis isn’t quite up to your challenge yet. But HE’S A BABY.

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