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Don’t forget the plight of Afghans in Australia

Further to Stuart Rees’ eloquent exposure in Pearls and Irritations of the Prime Minister’s cruelty toward those Afghans already in Australia on temporary visas, below is my letter to the Prime Minister arguing for a more humane and pragmatic asylum seeker policy. Pragmatic because times have changed – the boats are no longer coming – and because among those temporary protection visa holders are talented, resilient and determined young people.

 

I know this from reading the applications of young refugees, many from Afghanistan but also Syria, South Sudan, Iran and elsewhere, for tertiary transition scholarships made available by the Public Education Foundation. Over the last five years the PEF has awarded almost 300 refugee scholarships (both for secondary school students and those going into full-time tertiary study). More than 100 scholars have gone on to university, studying in courses as diverse as engineering, pharmacy and construction management. They’ve been school captains and student council representatives. Many are young women who have spent years away from schooling because they have lived under regimes which do not permit girls’ education. Others have spent years in limbo in UN refugee camps. They face a myriad of difficulties on arrival in Australia, from the legacy of trauma to adjusting to a new language and school system.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these difficulties as students struggle with access to laptops, broadband and even physical spaces to study. Despite this, they remain driven to attain educational success, while also helping their families, for example with English translation and, until lockdown, by working part-time. They even find time to demonstrate their commitment to the broader community by volunteering.

It is not enough to say, as the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have, there are no plans at the moment to return Afghan TPV holders to Australia – what an absurdity. It is time instead urgently to set in train processes to allow them, and other asylum seekers, to apply to become Australian citizens.

The Prime Minister responded to my letter but made no commitment to offering permanent protection to Afghans in Australia, saying ‘please know Afghan temporary visa holders currently in Australia will be
supported by the Australian Government and will not be asked to return to Afghanistan while
the security situation remains dire’. The Opposition spokesperson, Kristina Keneally, told me that: ‘Abolishing Temporary Protection Visas and converting those refugees to permanent visas has been long-term ALP policy and was recently re-adopted at this year’s ALP Conference’.


20 August 2021

Dear Mr Morrison

Re: Afghanistan crisis and Australia’s asylum seeker policy

I join calls from over 300 organisations to urge your government to take more, and more immediate, action to assist the Afghan people, including here at home.

I was appalled to hear your emphatic refusal to reconsider Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers who have arrived here by boat. It was cruel at this time when people who fled Afghanistan (and other war zones) watched the scenes of horror playing out in Kabul. It was also futile, given there is no chance in the foreseeable future that these people will be able to leave Australia.

In other areas of policy, your government has rightly conceded that changed circumstances call for changed policy settings. This is most obvious in the decision in the face of COVID-19 to abandon a goal of achieving surpluses. It is now time to recognise that the policy (of both the Coalition and the ALP – I am copying this letter to Mr Albanese) of ‘turning back the boats’ and not allowing maritime arrivals to receive permanent protection is obsolete. Migration to Australia is all but halted.

That brings me to the new reality: labour shortages across the country, notwithstanding the slight drop in the latest figures caused by lockdown in NSW. Australia has a valuable resource of potential workers among those on temporary visas. I know from assessing applications from young refugees for tertiary transition scholarships what tenacity and hard work these people can harness. For the last three years, the most highly ranked scholars have been on temporary protection visas. A good many of the successful applicants are Afghans. Deliberately to squander such talent and drive is mean, obstinate and against Australia’s interests.

I ask you to reassess Australia’s refugee policy with both humanity and pragmatism.

 

Scomo banks on denial

PM:     Did you do it?

MINISTER 1:     No I did not!

PM:     Atta boy, but there’s room for improvement. Let’s try again.

Do you do it?

MINISTER 1:     I definitely did not.

PM:     Only definitely? Can’t you do better than that?

MINISTER [taking a deep breath]:     I absolutely, categorically deny I had anything to do with it.

PM:     That’s more like it! Take a break and we’ll polish it later.

MINISTER 1:     Um, sorry PM, what was I denying?

PM:     Come on, I explained it all in Cabinet! I want blanket denials from every minister. We’re bound to need them so I’m stockpiling.

MINISTER [smiles broadly]:     You’re a thinker Scotty. That’s why we made you PM.

PM:     Send in the next one, will you?

MINSTER 1:     Sure thing.

PM:     Right. Did you do it?

MINISTER 2:     I am offended to the core that you could even ask that question. Never in a month of Sundays would I ever contemplate action so vile in spirit and horrendous in application that it would leave decent people everywhere shuddering with revulsion. If you persist with that malicious line of enquiry I will not hesitate to be very upset to the point that I might cry.

PM [laughs]:     You’ve been practicing! Great work, though you might need to look at the word count. A bit long for a 30 second grab.

Send in the next one will you?

MINISTER 2:     You got it, El Scotto Supremo.

PM:     Okay, you know the drill. I explained it before.

MINISTER 3:    Did you now?

PM:     Yes, I did. Oh, bugger, you got me. I answered in the affirmative.

MINISTER 3:     I didn’t mean to embarrass you PM, just to show that we can all slip up.

PM:     I know, I know, a good lesson too. Forgot my own rule: always deny until it’s certain the media are all at the pub.

MINISTER 3:    Or move to hypotheticals. “You have just asked me if I assaulted that woman. I have never responded to hypotheticals and don’t intend to start now.”

PM:     Yeah, that’s a great line. We can thank Christian for that one. He’s the gold standard.

MINISTER 3:    Just one thing though. What will we do about Julie Bishop?

PM:      That flirtatious sow. You saw what she said? That we should actually know the substance of allegations before we deny them. Outrageous, pedantic nonsense. It’ll undermine our whole system of open government.

MINISTER 3:     That’s what happens when you get the wrong lawyers in Parliament.

PM:     Or the wrong women.

 

 

Bundanoon History Group bushfire archive project

Amid the restrictions of COVID-19, the Bundanoon History Group managed to complete phase one of its bushfire project in time for what turned out to be a cool and wet summer. Its messages have been distilled in a poster hanging on the History Shed in the main street and in a short video made for the National Museum of Australia’s Momentous online project.

We live with fire in this beautiful part of the world, so recording its history and is important, as was ensuring that a local perspective on Black Summer was included in the national record. One gap in our archive remains the Indigenous perspective, which the BHG will seek to rectify. Knowing about Aboriginal fire practices is now acknowledged to be an important way to avert some of the disastrous consequences of bushfire.

Wingello is said to be an Aboriginal word meaning ‘place of fire’ or ‘to burn’. It was indeed such a place, not just in 2020. In 1965 – in the month of March – 31 houses were burned down in Wingello. Bundanoon fared better thanks to 1000 firefighters, volunteers, troops and police who fought back the fire, helped by wind changes. In January 1939, Bundanoon escaped the fate of Penrose, which lost nine houses, two stores, a fruit-packing shed, a church and eight farmhouses. Bundanoon’s own Holy Trinity Anglican Church was destroyed by bushfire on New Year’s Eve 1904.

When reading about these previous incidents, the similarities are stark: both the causes − climatic conditions and human error – and the way we cope with them. Writing in the Sun Herald, Max Suich observed that three things would be remembered about the horror of that week in Bundanoon in March 1965: courage, generosity and humour, sentiments familiar to all those who lived through last year’s Black Summer.

Thanks to a grant from Oral History NSW this project will continue in 2021. Contact Francesca Beddie if you wish to know more and can see how our project links with others recording the events and impact of Black Summer.

Will we ever be satisfied with less?

I can’t imagine the old normal returning unaltered after COVID-19 but worry that the rush towards a new normal will entail too much focus on growth and profits and not enough on caring for the vulnerable and the environment. If that happens, we will have squandered an opportunity to reset how we value health, work and leisure.

Anthropologist James Suzman has written a history of work that gives us plenty to consider as we navigate our way out of the pandemic towards that new normal. Here’s my review (which first appeared in The Weekend Australian 19-20 September) of Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, published by Bloomsbury.

Why, in an era of unprecedented abundance, are we preoccupied with scarcity and therefore aspire to more and more growth? Anthropologist Suzman employs the second law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of entropy, to answer this question. His idea is that entropy – the energy not available to do useful work, like the steam that escapes from an engine – ‘unpicks whatever order the universe creates’. Entropy, Suzman argues, has ‘driven humans to direct energy surplus into something purposeful’. This is the book’s leitmotif but repetition does not make the concept easier to grasp. Nevertheless, most of this history of work is accessible and thought-provoking.

To explain contemporary attitudes to work, Suzman traces the convergence of the way humans use energy with our evolutionary and cultural history. After the hunter-gatherers, whom Suzman knows well from his work with the Ju/’hoansi bushmen of eastern Namibia, came mastery of fire. This began a process of capturing energy that has changed the way people live, produce and value time. I found the chapters about early human endeavour the most interesting and enlightening. They lead to the proposition that, after fire, farming (which triggered population growth) and then the exploitation of fossil fuels in the Industrial Revolution have had dramatic effects on work, society and the climate.

What Suzman admires about the Ju/’hoansi is their satisfaction with just the resources available to nourish them. He appreciates their bewilderment at the notion of scarcity, which now drives the pursuit of growth in modern economies, although he also acknowledges that, for subsistence farming societies, scarcity was often a matter of life and death. His critique is that when ‘hardly any of us now produce our own food, … the sanctification of scarcity still underwrite[s] how we organise our economic life’.

Suzman shifts across centuries as he tells the story of how we spend our time. He illustrates his points with references to individuals, some famous, some anonymous, some like Thadeus, an urban dweller on the outskirts of Windhoek, Namibia. Thadeus’s story illustrates an important development: increased urbanisation, with 2008 a landmark year when more people lived in cities than in the countryside for the first time in human history. But the story of cities goes way back, to the communities built by termites and to ancient Rome where the first guilds were established.

The book is a feat of synthesis: Suzman draws on anthropology, archaeology, economic history and philosophy. He humanises many of the thinkers he quotes, offering snippets about their lives that illuminate or just entertain. For example, he tells us that Sir John Lubbock, the person behind introducing the bank holiday to encourage work-life balance, also tried to teach his poodle, Van, how to read. One person Suzman does not mention, strangely, is Thomas Piketty, the French economist whose work on the concentration of wealth and rising inequality, must have influenced Suzman’s analysis.

When he reaches the recent past and discusses the rise of the consumer society and then the dominance of services, Suzman’s opinions and prejudices rather than scholarly insights come to the fore. He hates management consultants and is scathing about bloated university bureaucracies. In the latter case, his criticism is not accompanied by a discussion about the trend towards demand for higher skills and mass tertiary education. This change in perspective raises the question as to when Suzman’s history of work should have stopped? I suggest in the 1980s when his lived experiences fog up the historical lens.

Most of the contemporary analysis is in Western countries, though Suzman does talk about the Japanese phenomenon of ‘karoshi ’: death by overwork. He also mentions those whose health can be affected by boredom at work, and workaholics. Suzman strikes me as one of these, given the enormous breadth of his canvas and his forensic search for interesting anecdotes. He is, however, ambivalent about ambition as well as affluence. Durkheim’s idea of anomie, a ‘malady of infinite aspiration’, caused by people’s sense of dislocation during the Industrial Revolution, is, Suzman fears, becoming a permanent condition of the modern age.

This has resulted in the blurring of work and leisure, with people finding it more and more difficult to be idle. It is a shame Suzman did not investigate further the consequences of this blurring. But his real omission is inadequate discussion about the individual and social effects of unemployment in modern economies, especially in the time of COVID (which he does mention) when work is proving to be an important psychological as well as economic prop. Indeed, the role of work in building social capital and self-esteem deserved greater attention in this history.

Suzman is now the director of Anthropos Ltd, a think tank that applies anthropological methods to solving contemporary social and economic problems. Work does not provide solutions. We still do not know how to reach the Keynesian dream of valuing ends above means and preferring the good to the useful. Nevertheless, this survey of human endeavour gives us plenty to think about as we navigate the post-COVID fourth industrial revolution and try to make better work for all, with less waste, less carbon and more leisure.

 

Cicada time

People are talking about cicadas, again. That reminded me I’d written  a post about how to pronounce ‘cicade’ in spring 2017:

By the turn of the 21st century, most British references gave “kah” as the primary variant, with “kay” still holding sway across the Atlantic.

More intersting really is the extraordinary lifecylce of these creatures. The carcas I found this morning tells of the adult cracking through the shell of its nymph to fly off and feast on spring’s vegetation and, if male, to serenade us . This article on the ABC RN website explains the cycle and shows the moment of liberation. 

Bundanoon is a favourite place for cicadas. That’s why the local school has been part of a citizen science program, the Great Cicada Blitz. Australia has the richest diversity of cicadas in the world (350 of around 100 have been identified).  This project is asking people to help with understanding the ecological preferences of Australian cicadas, including how they have adapted to urbanisation.  You can send in photos or sound recordings to add to the database. Now there’s a good way to use social media. 

 

 

Higher education reform: use and abuse of Menzies

by Francesca Beddie

 

When Australia was rebuilding after World War II, then Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, recognised the important role of universities in educating Australians to power our economic recovery.

Funding and enrolment growth for universities increased sustainably under Menzies, and more Australians were given the opportunity to obtain a degree.

Australia harnessed its higher education system to drive its recovery from World War II and make our nation stronger than before the war started.

By harnessing our higher education system once again we can drive our recovery from COVID-19.

Like so many nods to the past deployed by politicians, this reference distorts the historical record. Menzies repeatedly made it clear that the value he saw in higher education went well beyond the economic. Take this extract from his 1942 Forgotten People speech:

Are the universities mere technical schools, or have they as one of their functions the preservation of pure learning, bringing in its train not merely riches for the imagination but a comparative sense for the mind, and leading to what we need so badly — the recognition of values which are other than pecuniary.

David Furse-Roberts presented an excellent account of Menzies’ attitudes and actions on education in an essay published last year in Quadrant called ‘A Rugged Honesty of Mind: Menzies and Education’. It should be compulsory reading for all education ministers wanting to recruit Menzies to their reformist ventures. They would see that Menzies was fully aware his plans to expand universities would cost the federal government an enormous amount of money. Nevertheless, he persisted.

Furse-Roberts does not discuss the Martin review Menzies commissioned in 1961 to ‘consider the pattern of tertiary education in relation to the needs and resources of Australia, and to make recommendations to the Commission on the future development of tertiary education’. But it too deserves consideration by contemporary policy makers, who purport to be striving for an integrated tertiary education sector. The principle underpinning the Martin review, which resulted in the binary system of universities and colleges of advanced education, came from Sir Harold Robbins who was tackling the same questions in the United Kingdom of how to expand tertiary education:

tertiary education should be available to all citizens according to their inclination and capacity.

Most regrettably, Tehan’s proposals ignore that vital ingredient for success in both learning and life: motivation.

Menzies supported the idea of a national university that would focus on researching issues directly relevant to the national interest. But he also championed pure learning and ‘the unfettered search for truth’. He considered that these things contributed to a civilised life, the goal of his education policies.

Today’s proposed reform of humanities education, as well as the government’s lacklustre support for arts and culture and for the ABC, suggest our leaders are retreating from the aim of creating a better Australia to one that can produce good-sounding statistics about jobs and growth. The latter are important but without the fulfilment of talent, the creation of social wellbeing and a celebration of beauty, the numbers add up to a nation in decline.

Historians do, sometimes, point out inconvenient facts: Cook did not circumnavigate Australia; Australia did have slave labour (and arguably still does); Menzies believed in learning for its own sake. That is no reason to send a price signal to students dissuading them to study history, which offers policy makers so much if they choose to overcome the presentism of contemporary debate. Were they to champion the humanities and agree with Menzies that progress means embracing not just the utilitarian and profit but also ideas of tranquillity and leisure, we would be heading towards real prosperity.

Surely, in these weird days of COVID-19 we deserve leaders who share Menzies’ yearning for the company of books and conversation with friends, rather than people who selectively quote or misquote him and focus only on the prosaic and the next poll.

[This post first appeared at https://johnmenadue.com/francesca-beddie-higher-education-reform-use-and-abuse-of-menzies/]

 

Bushfire haiku

Red sun smoky skies
Surely not the new normal
Though it’s been weeks now

Stop checking the app
Blue diamonds are not that close
Can’t just hope for rain

Have a bushfire plan
Know what to take, when to leave
Impossible choice

Life goes on, prepare
Pre-Christmas celebration
Down at the seaside

There too fire invades
Its acrid smell permeates
Nostrils, then psyche

Smoke wakes me at 5
Reach for the phone, Fires Near Me,
No danger here, yet

The sun’s not up but
Turns the sea-mist apricot
An ominous dawn

Whitest sand in world
is grey under smoky sky
The water is still clear

The sea is calm now
An easy swim brings relief
Tiny shells sweep in

Childhood memory
Collecting dozens of shells
Making necklaces

A short-lived respite
Further along the bay it’s
Not shells but embers

Black gum leaf fragments
Mark the pattern of the waves
No escape today

Social media:
Hawaii holiday snaps
ScoMo with Aussies

Cave Beach next morning
Ripples catch the orange light
Burnt leaves fall from sky

Surfing with embers
Finishes the holiday
Pack up, leave early

Hot and dry at home
No more the green oasis
Water gutters, plants

Evening news: fire kills
Two young men, fathers of babes
Where is the PM?

A Facebook call out
Our local firefighters need
Chapstick, lozenges

I can help out here
Drop off a bag of supplies
Add mince pies as thanks

Family of firies
Deputy captain and son
Battling deadly blaze

Smoke in nostrils, dreams,
In every room: cannot sleep
Start the to-leave list

8am, gym class
Keep up the normal routines
Walk dog, exercise

Festive fun-filled class
Christmas yoga, breathing smoke
Downward dog with flies

Catastrophic day
A waiting game: should we leave?
Nerves fray, we are mute

Inside try to work
39.6 degrees
A new fire, closer

Panic scrapes my throat
Finish packing, spray the house
Check the app, again

Papers in the car
Along with clothes, did I pick well?
Plus some precious things

5pm, 20⁰
The fire 20k away
Down to watch and act

Sky is grey, briefly
Teased that it might bring moisture
Now a sallow glow

Variety show
Yes, life must keep going on
Scrooge, angels, bagpipes

Talent, cheer and hope
Hat goes round for firefighters
It’s time for Christmas

Francesca M. Beddie © December 2019

The Golden Country: review

I follow migration matters closely, so Tim Watt’s survey of the White Australia Policy and subsequent immigration policy was familiar territory. For those who don’t, there is much to recommend in the story he tells and his demonstration of the economic benefits of skilled migration. But his analysis has flaws.

Watts is a Labor MP married to a Chinese Australian. They have two children. This gives him a personal interest in how Asian Australians see their country and its history. In The Golden Country (a reference to Australia’s changing complexion), he takes us back to the 19th century. He uncovers tales of the Chinese on and off the goldfields and on the front during World War One that were absent in the history and myths he learned as a child. This biographical thread runs through the book, which traces the creation of the “Australian Legend”. To understand how a sense of Australianness comes about, Watts draws on anthropologist Benedict Anderson’s idea that nations are shaped by “an imagined political community” with a shared history, culture and values.

Australia’s national identity was forged as explicitly white and Western. The East “was seen to be home to immortality, irrationality and psychological weakness, whereas the West was the home of virtue and rationality, discipline and physical strength”. We are living, Watts says, with the hangover from that dichotomy, which saw a century of nation building defined by the exclusion of Asian Australians. He uses statistics to show how such exclusion still pervades our political institutions, the nation’s boardrooms and top echelons of our public service and universities.

Now that 13 per cent of Australia’s population, over three million people, has Asian heritage – more than the percentage of African Americans living in the United States – this bamboo ceiling must be dismantled. Before suggesting how, Watts says this change in demography is primarily the result of John Howard’s immigration policies. He has evidence to back this up. The emphasis on importing skills during the Howard years doubled the total permanent-migrant intake. Even more significant was the increase in temporary migrants deployed to address skill shortages in a booming economy.

Watts focuses on the contradiction between this policy and Howard’s insistence that Australia was neither an Asian nor a racist country and his refusal to condemn Pauline Hanson’s anti-Asian vitriol. That’s a fair observation, as is Watt’s conclusion that, by allowing the anxieties Hanson stoked to enter the political lexicon, Howard reshaped the electoral strategies of both conservatives and progressives. The latter came to see “race, immigration and national identity as dangerous political terrain”. Nevertheless, as Watts shows, most Australians have not been much influenced by the shrill, offensive “ethno-nationalism” of recent years, with the political debate about migration being fuelled by “unrepresentative conservative political parties”.

This being so, Watts goes too far when he says Howard’s culture wars “hindered our collective ability to talk openly about the implications of the societal shifts he set in train”. That has meant, he asserts, governments haven’t invested in the urban infrastructure needed to cope with more people nor anticipated problems like foreign interference with diaspora communities. He can’t shaft these unresolved matters of public policy home solely to Howard or to one side of politics.

Where Watts stays silent on John Howard is the latter’s decision to take Australia to war in Afghanistan and the Middle East and the ramifications this has had on immigration, namely the influx of refugees from Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and North Africa. This silence has two possible explanations: Watts’ focus on Asian migration; his own party’s shameful record on asylum seekers and offshore detention.

Benedict Anderson’s imagined community turns out to be more than an explanatory tool. The concept shapes Watts’ ideas for today’s multicultural Australia. He wants to reimagine Australia, starting by arguing that racism in Australia is untypical. With a nod to Noel Pearson, he wants a set of contemporary Australian values that include respect for difference and inclusiveness but otherwise embody those in the Australian legend: the fair go, egalitarianism, mateship, pragmatism and irreverence. Watts wants everyone living in the golden country to embrace these values.

Our community, he thinks, is already there (although he does concede there are significant differences between multicultural urban areas like the one he represents in Melbourne and the bush). It’s the national political imaginings that must catch up. This needs leadership but can also happen by injecting new Aussie stories, for example about Chinese Anzacs and Indian traders, into mainstream history and by elevating Asian-Australian talent into the top echelons of Australian political, business and cultural circles. Watts should also have made mention of voices from other corners of the world.

When it comes to his policy prescriptions, Watts changes his analytical hat for one full of nostalgia for Anzac, with an Asian twist. And he doesn’t do enough to link his desire to see skilled immigration continue apace for the sake of productivity with other pressing domestic problems. These include environmental sustainability, inter-generational disadvantage among Indigenous Australians and the long-term unemployed, persistently poor innovation and management in Australian enterprises.

Nor does Watts properly factor in the impact of changing patterns of labour mobility. His justified concerns about current problems in immigration – the exploitation of lower skilled temporary migrants and underfunded settlement programs – prevent him from imagining a new global citizenry who embrace not one nation’s values but who thrive by being connected across the planet.

[This review first appeared in The Weekend Australian.]

Capturing Antarctica

Nowhere but in Antarctica is the light such a shade of lemon

Some people say a visit to Antarctica changed their life. I don’t but months after my trip the other-worldly beauty of the seventh continent is still with me and I am still grappling with how to put the experience into words. Someone who managed to capture the spirit of the place, long before the I-phone and cruise ships made it easy to photograph penguins and icebergs, was Frank Hurley.

Hurley’s photographic genius has been recorded by Alisdair McGregor. Here’s an extract from my review of the biography:

Hurley could be lyrical in conveying the personality of Antarctica. Of ice floes he wrote:

Newly born ice spotless and lily-like, larger adult masses in the pride of their beauty and gnarled decaying fragments in the senility of old age … Time will disintegrate all.

Little would Hurley have imagined how much more quickly the ice shelves are melting a century on from his first encounter with their majesty.

Frank Hurley: A Photographer’s Life, by Alasdair McGregor. NLA Publishing, 460pp

See also:
https://www.nla.gov.au/selected-library-collections/hurley-collection

Cross cultural non-communication

‘We will always choose perfection over politeness.’ That, a German friend explained, is why a stranger sitting at the next table outside on a glorious spring afternoon got up, came over to me, took my cutlery and started to demonstrate how to deal with a Weißwurst. The skin must not be eaten. It must be surgically removed. The man assumed I spoke no German, though I was asking him, in German, why I could not eat the skin. He did not answer. His first incision was ragged; the skin did not peel away. The second was more successful. Satisfied, he had conveyed the lesson, he returned my knife and fork and resumed his seat.

Not knowing that I should only order these white minced pork and veal sausages, with sweet mustard and a pretzel before midday, I had done so at two in the afternoon: a light meal to keep me going after the long flight from Australia. I had started cutting the first of my sausages into pieces, offering a morsel to my companion to taste. Neither of us suffered from this first mouthful of white sausage eaten after midday with the skin on. Modern sanitation practices should have rendered the rule that no Weißwust hear the noon chime of the church bells obsolete. But traditions remain strong in Germany: there is a right and wrong way to do many things.

While the big guy from Bavaria – when he went to the bathroom his wife, in trademark German socks and sandals, sort of apologised for her husband’s intrusion and told me they came from Bavaria – felt no compunction instructing me in the art of sausage eating, it’s more usual for Germans to keep their distance. That we soon discovered when we, two Antipodeans, joined eleven domestic tourists in Leipzig. We were to be together for three days, discovering the city of Wagner’s youth in the day and attending his Ring Cycle in the evening.

Standing outside the designated building for our first encounter, I blundered in. A roly-poly, happy man from Frankfurt approached us, thinking we may be part of the Ring group. Yes, I said, proffered our names and asked for his. Roland was the only person to tell us his name. We spent the rest of the trip on no-name terms with our fellow Wagner fans. An architect from Berlin with a shiny bald pate and hip round-rimmed glasses – he had at least two pairs, one with bold red frames, the other tortoiseshell – exchanged a few jokes with us and showed us dozens of pictures of his house. His wife sported very shiny Egyptian-blue hair, short at the back with shaved zig-zags patterns. She wore only black and white clothes, usually with something polka-dotted. Avant-garde in appearance perhaps but both were as German as they come. When our guide — he didn’t introduce himself either – arrived, the first think Mr Goggles did was point out to the guide that his shoelace was undone. Perfection not politeness.