A PJ Harvey Concert

It was a Friday night a week ago when we went to the much anticipated PJ Harvey concert, my husband John, his friend Glen and myself.  Midsummer in Sydney it was a warm, inky twilight as we ate a dinner at a Chinatown restaurant and then walked on towards the International Convention Centre near Darling Harbour.  Our tickets on our mobiles were scanned by a bevy of security guards, one of who told me that my innocent steel water bottle had to go to the cloak room for the night.

Seated inside the vast auditorium with its subdued lighting and misty swirling air, we were a just a few of a mighty swarm of bees buzzing with a low, but powerful tone in the rows and rows of seats that slanted upwards from the stage and the crowded mosh pit.  Much of the audience were Gen-Xers in their forties, greying, but still defiantly young, dressed in jeans, moderately radical shirts and tees, tattoos and the women, some in gothic inspired dresses fluttering here and there bearing plastic cups of beer or other alcoholic beverages down the stairs to the concrete floored mosh-pit and back again chatting animatedly amongst themselves and occasionally embracing a friend.

Nick Cave was due to play at the same venue the next night, John remarked.  PJ Harvey and Nick Cave had had an affair.  I wondered how they would work together and here is their beautiful and melancholy duet Henry Lee.  But the affair ended.  PJ said later that she was so upset that she was going to give up making music and become a nurse.  But somehow she went on playing and composing music, the anti-war ‘Let England Shake’ and now the ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’, where hope in mankind’s future seems just about dead on the ground – to judge from the lyrics.

Not that I knew anything about this new album when the lights went dark and the band began to file onto the stage drumming, PJ Harvey amongst them brandishing a saxophone.  John said it was ‘Chain of Keys’.  The ten musicians took their places, PJ fronting the audience with her microphone, dressed in flowing, gauzy black robes, her fine straight hair loose, crowned with a black head-dress.  The rest of the band wore somber, dusty and rumpled looking black jackets and trousers.  At this juncture, John pointed out Mick Harvey, the musician at the keyboard, and said he was really good and had previously worked for some time with Nick Cave.

PJ has a distinctive voice.  On her albums, it is soft, silvery and so fragile it almost appears ready to break.  It is a two-coloured voice, veering from a deeper set of keys to a higher octave and very tunefully at the same time.  But live, at the concert, her voice sounds very powerful and rides above the band’s wave of music with perfect confidence.  Too, she sings with great feeling as she moves in complete accord with the rhythm, her hands delicately drawing and weaving the meanings of her music into a unity of sound, beat, voice and drama.

She moved with grace, like a muse or even a priestess, gliding quietly every now and then to the back of the stage near the drummer to take up a saxophone and play in company with the other saxophonist.  She has said she likes to keep challenging herself with learning how to play new instruments, which illustrates not only her creative energy, but also her respect for the other players in her band.

Much of what she played came from her new album the ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’, with songs such as the opening ‘Chain of Keys’, ‘The Wheel, ‘River Anacostia’, ‘Medicinals’, ‘The Orange Monkey’, ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’ which sounded compelling, emotive and powerful on the stage although she also sang songs from other albums like ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’, one about taking a child home and another about doing black deeds for love.  And I have to marvel at how she seemed to utterly best the comparatively subdued and rehearsed studio performance of her album with the crashing waves of her live act.  It was dynamite.  No danger of having a diva lip-synching here.  This was the real deal.

‘How good was the band!’ Glen exclaimed when the concert ended and the sated swarm of people were moving back out into the city night, twinkling with lights reflecting in the calm, black waters of the harbour.  Throughout the performance, PJ and the band emanated a sense of quiet and harmonious co-operation and camaraderie, she fading in and out to become one of them.  Three-quarters of the way through, PJ had introduced the musicians to the audience to applaud one by one, the drums, electronic keyboard, saxophone, guitars, before they all nonchalantly dipped into the last of the set for the night.  They had a standing ovation and after a while were back with two more great songs before they finally bowed out and filed quietly backstage and the lights went back on.

The lyrics of her new album are dark and pessimistic of human nature, echoing perhaps what she saw on a trip through third world countries, as well as the US she took with a photographer Seamus Murphy between 2011-2014, which appeared in The Guardian (never mind some of the rude reader comments).  Amid such wastelands as Afghanistan and also Washington DC (the US is a wasteland of a different kind), she appears to wonder whether humans have a future at all with lines like:  ‘…hey little children don’t disappear. (Heard it was 28,000)’ and ‘they’ve sprayed graffiti in Arabic/And balanced sticks in human shit’.

The music she sets her lyrics to can be comforting, but only to remind us of what we’ve lost in the scramble for ‘advanced’ civilisation – as in the song ‘Medicinals’.  She juxtaposes the ancient healing herbs that grow wild in America that say ‘we are always here’ against the image of an indigenous woman in a wheelchair at a shopping mall drinking alcohol.  This song suggests that the loss of the natural environment is a loss to humanity, to culture and causes a mental sickness that nothing can cure.

Her occasional traditional tunefulness amidst broken but strong rhythms that veer between blues, reggae and rock and roll form a kind of unique and off-beat chaos that is PJ Harvey.  For instance, ‘The Words that Maketh Murder’ has a compelling rhythm that changes tempo in odd ways and it is this rhythm that underlies the utter gravity of this anti-war song.  Her gentle, fay, but infallible voice rides above her music and in the drumming energy, there is a kind of fatalistic sadness and deep emotion, as in the chorus ‘…and watch them fade out…’ of ‘The Wheel’.

In an interview with the Irish Times, the eponymous man of science Professor Brian Cox wonders whether the human race may destroy itself before it gets any further:  ‘Cox believes it all hinges on “our ability to take global decisions”. Civilisations “get to the point where they can destroy themselves, they will get to the point where they can change the climate by industrialisation – and that requires your civilisation to be global in decision making. In 2016, we’ve gone backwards.”.

Perhaps we ultimately may not be able to reconcile our superior intellect, and complex reasoning and moral faculties with our essentially animal and warlike nature.  Are we doomed?  With the Doomsday Clock ticking another 30 seconds towards midnight, PJ Harvey just goes on making and playing music, underlining injustice, waste and inhumanity in the extraordinary energy of her songs.  There are many who are listening and over the megalomania and war and pollution roiling in the world today, our collective voice of reason may yet prevail.

Back in the 1970s when ‘The Bomb’ was a foreboding term echoing the cadence of the end of the world, I saw a cartoon with the caption:  ‘Man demonstrates his superiority over animals’.  Before an animal, a man with his great brain was in the act of detonating himself with a remarkable piece of technology that he had made.  The great artist and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci saw hundreds of years ago that mankind would one day hold the power of life or death over every living thing on earth.  That day has arrived.


Looking at 60 Years…

Today is the afternoon of a whole day rostered off from work.  Tomorrow and the next day will be the same, already maturing into golden globules of exciting possibilities of things to do.  Today was warm and moist, with the sun shining through big fluffy clouds most of the time and a brief afternoon thunder-shower, which passed as lightly and as pleasantly as it began.

I have decided to leave the career that has caused so much dissatisfaction and frustration, that has wrung so much exhausting patience from me.  Sometimes my forbearance has fortuitously uncovered strengths I did not know of.  At other times, I have cracked under the strain, only to get back up and stagger on again.

In its entirety, for more than 20 years, this career has been like a man I have never loved (not to be confused with my actual partner, whom I do love).  I am sick to the death of counting the hours down to the minutes and watching them slowly erode by, every time I get to work.  ‘That’s my life!’  I have screamed inwardly so many times, and then silently endured this wasting of the hours that could have been spent on doing something more creative.

In two more months, I will be free to focus on going in a different direction.  I have some plans in place.  But still, the enormity of uprooting 20-something years of being in a secure, well-paid job is slapping me with its fear of the unknown, like a wet branch as if I head through a rain-lashed bush-track in the dark to the brink of a steep cliff.  What of failure, of making mistakes, of happiness, of doing the responsible thing?

Then I read Tim Lott’s article in The Guardian, about his reflections on reaching the age of 60.  Tim is measured and sober and mellow.  He sits in a large, discreetly modish, blue plush chair in his lounge room in which brown wood panelling predominates, set off by a glimpse of red persian carpet.  There is a fireplace, a bookcase and a glass show cabinet, some colourful ceramics on the mantelpiece, a nice art-work on the wall and the kind of modern but comfortable-looking upholstered chairs my lean, spare, intellectually- minded grandfather would have felt quite at home in.

Tim is a nondescript and harmless looking man, the chief feature of his visage being a pair of glasses, which he wears like a mole in the sunlight, looking perkily upwards towards the viewer.  Tim wears a brown jacket over a dark mauve shirt and a pair of loose, daggy indigo blue jeans that have shifted with his sitting cross-legged to somewhat above his ankle, revealing stripy though muted socks and one nice, shiny brown brogue.

There were conflicting views from the commenters on those brown brogues:


29 Jan 2016 21:41

Never wear Brown brogues with jeans and take your shoes off inside the house, it’s time you grew up.

mazeltov Ultracrepidarian

29 Jan 2016 21:46
One of few annoying things about being old is the totally insane sartorial advice people feel free to offer you. Brown brogues with jeans are a perfect blend of unfussed informality and traditional style. I wear this combination all the time. As for taking your shoes off inside the house … what do you think shoes are for?


‘Unfussed informality and traditional style’.  Some people like it, some people don’t.  But that seems to describe Tim Lott, or at least his piece of writing.  He has defined himself as a serene and comfortable man on the cusp of old age.  He feels the sum of his life becomes him and he is at peace with that.  He is not afraid of being defined, having long recognised his face in the dressing-room mirror.  He wrote the books he wanted to write, he is happy with his partner, his children, his family and his relatively well-to-do way of life.

‘Sixty, in my mind’  says Lott ‘represents the beginning of the third act of the human drama, what I, as a teacher of fiction, have learned to call “falling action” – after the climax has been reached, the princess has been won or lost, and the quest has succeeded or failed.’

In his mind.  Not far off sixty myself, I look back on a terrifyingly long time-line of chaos, of stuff-ups, despair and of things I still want to do.  Some months after beginning this article, I have embarked on my leave from the job I never really loved.  Next week I will hand in notice of my intention to retire with a month’s notice.  So indeed I am conscious of that move being the beginning of the next act of my life.

But where is the ‘falling action’?  Googling the benefits of early retirement, there are hardly any articles that do not talk about money.  Not even health seems as important.  Everybody warns of the dire need to save enough money for retirement.  But notwithstanding the practical considerations of keeping the bills paid, what is enough to quench the soul-deadening desire for absolute certainty?

So I jump.  And in doing so feel a strange sense of exultation and an enormous hunger for books to read, worlds to explore, things to teach myself and give to others.  I know on a physical dimension that this is the beginning of the end, but my mind seems ascendant like an eagle still rising.  I could die in mid-flight, or fall and die a slow, suffering, broken end.  But that doesn’t matter any more.  It reminds me of a poem I wrote some years back…

Twilight II

Twilight softly deepening

slight drizzle

light swish of cars passing

Summer has been cool

Flat is silent

I am alone, wrestling with the inevitable assignment

John & Veronique with Mum & Dad

Mum unable to shake her cold.

Almost for first time realise how frail she is

And how old I am

And how good times do not last

And I am not immortal

Though my eagle of immortal consciousness still swoops

High in the sky

What Sun does shine on me?

If I could gather all knowledge

together to make a realisation

That there is nothing that I have to do

except where I will go

And all my obsessions fall like dusty ruins,

Fall like the false veil of want

Before my eyes

– Megan Payne

Old Age Becomes an Escort

A hard slog of a morning’s shift working at the Airport and I was on a break, confronted with the blare of the large oblong TV screen in the staff room.  On it was a juicy chunk of advert for a TV program sandwiched in between the bland, white, crowd-pleasing bread of the morning breakfast show.

‘Grannies working as escorts!’  the screen screamed ‘They’re topping up their pensions!’.  And there was a frankly old woman in a dressing-gown, hobbling down the stairs with a walking stick.  Apparently she worked part-time as a prostitute.  ‘I like sex!’  she said with a bright, expansive smile as she sat in her kitchen wielding her teapot.  ‘I have no inhibitions.  And men love it!’

Okay.  Right.  On the drive home from work I debated the issue in the royal court of my mind where I am undisputed Queen.  All the way home I was thinking, well if it makes her happy then good luck to her.  It is not illegal to work as a prostitute, so she has every right to her own business.  I think everybody has a right to their own business, because I might be wrong.  There could be a God.

Other people can do as they wish, I decided, but as far as I’m concerned, prostitution is way out of the ballpark for me.  My brush with it as a troubled young woman alone in a strange city was enough to put me off it for life.  It’s a nice fantasy, but I found the reality of it dangerous and degrading.

I am not keen on allowing men I don’t know to eat me up and fill me to annihilation point with the alien beat of their unknown lives and saliva and sweat and dirt and semen.  And then for them to just leave, while I lie staring dirt-caked at the ceiling, wondering exactly when the blazing electric light ends and the shadows begin.

My life has to be simple.  Prostitution is not simple.  A woman has to have a hard head to handle it, especially in frail old age.  Anyway I am not going to work as a prostitute.  I have a loving husband in a marriage of 20 years and am very happy.  So that’s settled then.

Later on my laptop after lunch and my usual two cups of tea, I researched the program.  It was a UK study of three mature aged women who worked as ‘escorts’.  I balk at the disrespectful word ‘granny’, but what intrigued me was that this 85 year old woman absolutely refused to call herself a prostitute.  She had created a mystique.  She worked as an ‘escort’, she said.  She entertained gentlemen and charged them for her time.  She advertised herself on an Internet website, revealing her breasts and inviting men to ‘share forbidden fruits’.

Actually I’m kind of awestruck by the sheer tenacity of this old woman carrying on the way she does.  85 years is as old as I optimistically expect to live.  So many people that age are in a nursing home with all kinds of debilitating afflictions and here she is, nonchalantly ticking over her life by amusing herself with men.

Or maybe the wheels will come off in a sad and undignified way.  Most of her family are not talking to her because they see this diversion of hers as compromising the kind of social obligations expected at her age.  But she has continued to work as an escort.  Sex makes her happy even just thinking about it, she says.

The oldest profession has always drawn censure from mainstream society and probably always will.  It is, by its nature secretive and can therefore be quite risky.  One might ask if prostitution is the best thing that an old woman can do with her time.  But then again near the end of one’s life and still of sound mind and body, would it be only natural to turn to doing the things that make one happy?

For my father, nearing his eightieth year and finding himself ‘still here’, what makes him happy is researching the history of Ancient Rome, collecting sea shells and birdwatching.  No conflict with family there.

Is it selfish of this twice widowed old woman to pursue happiness in a way that conflicts with her family relationships and perhaps puts her life at risk?  Is she running from confronting what she describes as an acute sense of loneliness?  Or is it that the family is trying to suppress her instinct for sexual freedom?  Near the end of life, should one temper their desires with respect to other people’s wishes and their family duties?  Or is the woman’s predilection simply none of the family’s business?

I can’t decide.  I can’t even decide if I should decide.  What do you think?

Miracles, Alternative Therapies and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy

When you think of the word ‘miracle’, it seems like something to be overjoyed about – something to laugh and dance and sing from the rooftops about.  But when you think of something that modern western medicine has achieved, like eradicating smallpox, there doesn’t seem anything miraculous in the long, iterative, methodical strides it took to that end.  The smallpox vaccination saved lives as a matter of fact and the calm and efficient way medical practitioners went about inoculating people from the once dreaded disease seems positively prosaic.  And yet it was an amazing advance for humankind, allowing untold millions of people to go on living ordinary, everyday lives.

Part of what constitutes scientific thinking is curiosity about phenomena in reality, continually observing and asking questions about events, space, time, objects and living things; exploring and searching for explanations.  There has to be something quite dispassionate about the process and one must be very clear at all times about the difference between what is before the eyes and what is inside the mind.

Of course when you get to the study of the human mind, psychology, looking at this dark enigmatic sun behind the eyes in a dispassionate way becomes a whole lot more problematic.  Mental illness is a shape-shifter: it flies from place to place, it is unseen, the boundaries between reality and imagination porous or tightly intertwined.  We may not know why we feel sad, or where our furious rages come from. We may not even know to what depths of despair that we have fallen, until it is too late.

Today, advances in medication and counselling have vastly improved the lives of many people.  They can work and live relatively normal lives that the spectres of their mental illnesses would otherwise have utterly blighted.

On the other hand, treatments for mental illness have had a long and tortured history and it is not surprising that there is a fear and suspicion of medical personnel in white coats, of incarceration in hospitals and little pills with possible ugly side effects like tardive dyskinesia.

It is these suspicions that at least since the 1970s have spawned a whole lot of alternative therapies purporting to treat conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome and the like.  In Australia, almost anyone can set themselves up as a mountebank therapist with a ‘qualification’ from any old New Age college.  The therapists often use esoteric language heavily borrowed from Eastern religions and philosophies and curiously back their claims with snippets of the kind of scientific concepts they supposedly reject.

Who are the kind of people who think like this, who embrace the green fields and flowers of this alternative ideal?  While idly surfing the Internet one night, I came across two women I knew at school many years ago now.

Ursula was a friend of mine, a cheerful and bouncing bohemian with English rose skin, an untamed mane of brown curly hair and merry, blue-green eyes.  She was always enthusiastically gushing about some place in Europe she’d been to, or something she was into and had wanted to be an archaeologist. But these days, still cheerful and bouncing, she lives in Europe and is a senior practitioner of an alternative therapy called AcuEnergetics.

AcuEnergetics, according to its website, is a healing modality that treats a wide range of physical and mental ailments including frozen shoulder, back and neck pain, fertility problems, migraine, depression, chronic fatigue, thyroid problems, trauma and grief.

How does this all work?

‘…practitioners work with energy centres, pranic fields, meridians and other energetic channels. Using their hands they feel blockages and imbalances in the energetic system and can clear them using various energetic techniques. Most of the techniques are done off the body without even touching the client. Some are done with hands gently touching the client.’

But this sounds a lot like Reiki therapy, which according to Quackwatch is nonsense.

Simone was in the year above me.  She was beautiful, slim with dark shoulder length hair and dark, doe eyes.  She was good at school, popular and a champion swimmer as well.  She had everything and did everything seemingly effortlessly.  Today, she makes a living as a naturopath and also offers alternative psychological therapy.

As a naturopath, Simone espouses the holistic mind/body approach and offers a kind of alternative psychological therapy devised and promoted by an American woman who stares out from her web-page with suicide blonde hair, piercing blue eyes and a ferocious smile.  This is called ‘The Journey’ and the charismatic woman behind it is Brandon Bays.

Brandon Bays, also a naturopath, apparently had cancer but says she healed herself.  She went on to develop a kind of transformational therapy not only for people with depression, fear, anxiety and chronic physical problems but also those of you who are:

‘Passionate about discovering your life’s purpose, your true potential.  Generally happy with your life, but knowing that with a little more energy/technique/application you would be able to live life to the fullest.’

Compare and contrast the language these two therapies employ.  They both liberally use the word ‘healing’, which alternative therapists everywhere use, possibly to indemnify themselves against any suggestion that their treatment is a ‘cure’.  And both claim to treat people with both mental and physical health problems as well as the worried well.

AcuEnergetics goes for a sober and muted tone.  Armed with esoteric quotes from luminaries such as Buddha and Plato to give it an exotic frisson, it calls itself:

‘a modern healing  modality, that integrates Chinese, Judaic, Indian and western healing traditions into an accurate energy medicine’.

Note the use of the words ‘modern’, ‘accurate’ and ‘effective’.  It also uses scientific terms to give an impression of credibility.  It even claims to be ‘the most clinically effective energetic  healing modality available today‘, although it offers no evidence whatsoever for this claim apart from an array of testimonials.

On the other hand Brandon Bays does not hold back.  According to her, a normal, mentally healthy state of mind is ‘passionate’, ‘amazing’, ‘true realization’, ‘potent’, ‘setting you free’ and ‘leaving you soaring’.  One intensive eight day ‘No Ego’ workshop actually advertises that:

‘you’ll laugh like you’ve never laughed and cry like you’ve never cried.  you’ll undergo life changing process work which will expose the lies, penetrate the traps and burn through the deeply-ingrained core fixation patterns that you’ve mistaken as your real self’.

The healthy state of mind according to Brandon Bays is really quite exhausting.

Yes I’ve heard it all before.  While battling a serious mental illness when I was young, I read about a lot of psychological therapies that promised to make you feel better, to give your life that extra dimension. Nowadays I just manage it by taking medication and seeing a psychiatrist.  If I didn’t, I’d start crying all the time, my inner life would turn into increasingly vivid realities and I would start spiralling downwards and be afraid of people again.  Every hour of the day I would be in rough seas.  Nothing else works.

In contrast to the silliness of the two therapies described, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is a kind of psychotherapy that really is proven in medical trials to be effective for a range of mental disorders and for managing some physical conditions like lower back pain.  But there are no miracles, esoteric utterances or soaring life purposes here.  Only plain, practical, modest goals and exercises that one must endeavour to apply over a period of time.  According to Sane Australia, CBT:

‘helps people discover how their feelings, thoughts and behaviour can get stuck in unhelpful patterns.  They are encouraged to try new, more positive ways of thinking and acting.  Therapy usually includes tasks to try between sessions. CBT is a well-established treatment for depression and most anxiety disorders.  It can also be an effective part of treatment for other conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia’.

And actually, CBT does have some ancient wisdom at its root.  A good book on CBT – ‘Beating the Blues’ by Susan Tanner and Jillian Ball (there’s a copy in a library near you) – quotes the one time Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius:

‘If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs thee but thine own judgement about it…and it is in thy power to wipe out this judgement now’.

The importance of seeking effective treatment for mental illness can be absolutely crucial, as this case of someone suffering from PTSD shows.  The wrong therapy can make the illness worse and easily send a sufferer into a disastrous direction.

And I dispute that any psychotherapy should concern itself with a client’s ‘sense of purpose’.  That puts it into the realm of religious or cult hocus pocus.  People should be free to decide what sense of purpose they want in life for themselves.  For instance I myself know very well the things I would like to do and achieve and that is strictly my own business.  It’s the often negative way I feel and think about myself and what I do that is the problem and CBT could offer much in that regard.

And surely one should feel free to enjoy life and explore personal interests about the external world without having to constantly talk about this thing called ‘living life to the fullest’?  The universe is changing all the time as does your state of mind.  Feeling sad and out of it is just as valid an emotion as feeling happiness.  For better or worse, nothing changes the fact of being alive.

So how did two intelligent, capable and well-meaning women like Ursula and Simone get themselves co-opted into practising and promoting such nonsense?  Both of them could seriously make a much better and more honest living as life coaches.  It might not sound quite so glamorous as Senior Practitioner of AcuEnergetics or Journey Practitioner, but at least they wouldn’t be faced with shunting the odd, disaffected customer out the door and having to pretend to themselves one more time that miracles actually exist.


Reflections on Racist Ranter

A 55 year-old woman cracks and lets fly her dark side one afternoon on a crowded train from Sydney to Newcastle.  After two children refused her rude and agressive demands for a seat, she began to lash out at people around her.  Having sworn horribly at the terrified children, she picked on an Anglo man and an Asian woman who both happened to be sitting nearby and launched a gob-smacking racist tirade at them both.

At the time, the offender had given out her name as Sue Wilkins, but when the police later arrested her for offensive behaviour, she identified as a Karen Bailey.  She had worked as a legal secretary for top legal firms in Sydney and was qualified and experienced enough to land a job as a senior legal secretary.  But the market for legal secretaries is oversupplied, leaving Karen chasing only temporary assignments.

Karen issued a rambling apology to the media, full of excuses for her behaviour.

The excuses were that she had been unsuccessfully looking for a permanent job for a long time, an Internet love interest on a lonely hearts website had scammed her of ‘everything’, she was separated from her husband and had been visiting him in a nursing home and was living with her father.  She had sore, arthritic knees…  She’d had a particularly rotten day, was exhausted and full of pent-up frustration and the fact that there was no seat on the train for the long journey home for her was the trigger that brought her to breaking point.

She described her outburst, which was widely broadcast and condemned over online media, as a ‘brain snap’.  Inexplicably, she said she had unleashed all this dammed up torrent of anger against anyone who happened to be nearby.

But it was a melt-down that likely has heavy consequences for her.  The police have charged her with offensive behaviour and she is due to appear in court later on in the month.  On top of it, videos of her rant have hit the Internet and gone viral, with commentary appearing as far away as The Huffington Post and broadsheets in China.  Her reputation is in tatters and it is quite possible that she is going to find it even harder to get a job than before.

For some reason, I followed this story with intense interest.  I am of a similar age and also understand very well the stresses and frustrations of being at a certain age.  My husband is out of work and I am at present the breadwinner with two part-time jobs and we have a daughter who is doing her HSC.  My mother has Parkinson’s Disease and so has my dear friend, who is now in a nursing home.

There are days when I walk through work and think everybody who is younger is smarter and knows and does things so much better than I do.  My plans for a new career have hit the doldrums.  I spent all this time getting university degrees and working hard only to miss out on interview after interview.  Sometimes I feel a bit like Karen obviously does – old and out of it and destined for the scrap heap.

Another reason for my fascination with the affair seems to be that Karen comes from the same area I grew up in – an Anglo-Australian rural backwater between two cities, bounded by the sea, great lakes, farm paddocks and dense, eucalypt and lush, sub-tropical rainforest.  And I do not remember it with much affection, because of all the bullying I got right through most of my years at school because I was different.

I am Anglo-Australian, but unlike the others from their working class homes and coal-miner fathers, I liked literature and history and classical music.  My knowledge of pop music and culture was sketchy.  My father was an English/History teacher and he and Mum took myself and my two younger sisters off on camping trips to national parks around Australia during the school holidays.  We had a house by the highway and a garden full of riotous native plants.  I was a dreamy, solitary, otherworldly individual and if I wasn’t different enough, being acutely sensitive made things a whole lot worse.

You see I cried every time fellow students picked on me and soon I was easy game for every up and coming bully in the school.  They mimicked my walk, they mocked my appearance, my clothes and my speech.  Groups of bitchy girls would surround me, filling the air with their taunts.  I couldn’t walk past any group of boys without getting insulting comments.

To this day, I still feel the same sense of dread when I approach a group of school-students.  At work I don’t like to leave a group of people in case they start talking about me and when I do, walk away as fast as I can to avoid hearing the negative discussion about me that I feel will inevitably follow.  At times when faced with a demanding customer, I open my mouth and word salad comes out.  It’s mortifying.

Throughout my adult life, a chronic sense of inadequacy and sense of failure has gnawed at me and have walked through life as if in a grey fog.  Before I started counselling and taking anti-depressants, I would burst into tears at work for no reason other than thinking that I was utterly alone and nobody liked me.  On bad days, I walk through a Hell of darkness visible where people at work are all talking about me and saying what a terrible job I am doing.

But I walk and keep on walking and talking myself through it and after a while, as gentle as the day’s long duration, imperceptibly, the fog lifts.

These days I live in a very multi-cultural, metropolitan environment and love being surrounded by all the sights and sounds of cultural diversity.  My daughter has grown up with bi-lingual friends from homes of different cultures – Greek, Chinese, Lebanese.  For some reason, I adore going shopping in nearby suburbs and feeling like I am in another country like China.

I work with Chinese – as immigrants and travellers, every day and often over a steep language barrier.  I largely find them a very polite, hard-working, honest, sunny kind of people and am fascinated by their language, their shops, their stories and their love of bargains, urban luxury, bright colours and cute, kitschy things.

I visit suburbs dominated by an Anglo-Australian demographic and shudder at the sameness and insularity of it all.  I love my own culture – visiting England was a high point in my life – but the idea of living in the same culture I grew up in feels stifling and stagnant.  Too many bad memories.

Often, I find myself thinking the same old things those bullies would make me think – that I am destined for failure, that I’m not any good at social interaction or working in a team.

But really, it’s time to discard all this kind of thinking that keeps me living in a loop and going nowhere.  I have learned of new cognitive behaviour therapy techniques where I recognise such negative, self-critical thinking as just the ghosts of the bullies talking.  So I reason with myself in a more calm and realistic way, to say that that was then and it’s over.  That no-one worthwhile behaves like that.  That there are a lot of good, kind people in the world.

Anyway, to live means to change and change involves not too much thinking either way about uncertainties.  To observe, to plan and to work a way out of any problems is the important thing.

I don’t care about becoming unemployed.  I have another dimension to my life and a home life lush with things to do that don’t involve having a lot of money.

I don’t know anything about Karen Bailey.  She might have gone to the same school as me, she might even have been one of the bullies.  I don’t remember and don’t really want to either.  She is a stranger.

But just for a moment then, this stranger’s head cracked open and all that same intolerance for differences, that malicious, mocking glee, that bloody-minded insistence on uniformity and that same sense of territorial tyranny gushed out to all of the early days of July, 2014.  And for that moment there, she was the outsider.

What the New Age Movement Stole

I came across an SMH article the other day about a young lass called Jessica Ainscough who says she is healing herself from cancer, courtesy of the ‘alternative’ Gerson Therapy Dedicating her life to following and disseminating its principles, this talented writer has settled on the Sunshine Coast making a living as a freelance writer, speaker and blogger.  Criticised as quackery by ‘conventional’ medical practitioners (such as Orac on ScienceBlogs), the whole story about Gerson Therapy has got me deeply concerned about the claims people make about treating deadly diseases such as cancer with ‘alternative treatments’.

What made me really sad was the death of Jessica’s mother Sharyn Ainscough of breast cancer while practising the Gerson Therapy and believing it was working right to the end.  Orac points out in his post that describing worsening symptoms as Jessica does: ‘flare-ups’ is typical of the language of denial that quacks use.  But as horrible as it was to read how Sharyn was actually developing satellite lesions in addition to her main breast tumour all couched in the language of false hope, rationalisation and denial, it was even worse to read some of the comments.  Several of them are hauntingly mirroring Sharyn’s terrible ordeal, like this one:

Well Jess as you know I’ve had a rough week – and it’s still going! I guess that is the bit that scares me the most, the time that this flareup is lasting. I have had a constant stream of flareups but this is by far the worst – I am week 23. I can visually see my breast tumour, which was roughly 8 cm, breaking down in front of my eyes. This last week the dent is getting bigger and bigger, so I’m guessing my body is having a hard time keeping up with the whole process. I’m currently going from the lounge to the juicer and struggling to eat (rare for me I’m always hungry) Every joint aches in my body intensely, my shoulders I couldn’t move much for a few days, I feel like I’ve been poisoned, I am having welcoming fevers on and off, night sweats (so much washing), very depressed at times, and now today my rib cage on the opposite side of my tumour is so tender. If I didn’t have that big dent I would be very worried though. I am so glad I have fellow Gerson friends like you and Sharyn to vent with. So for any of you Gerson patients out there going through a similiar thing I hope that my openness helps you a little too. Keep the faith!! Jess thanks for always sharing. And I must say Charlotte, thanks for always caring! xx

And this one:

Dear Jess,

U and your mum are such an inspiration! I have a 3 year old son with leukemia(ALL) .He was diagnosed in late 2009 and currently in the maintenance phase of treatment. I did purchase and read on The Gerson Theraphy book. I have not been able to follow 100% of the requirements, as my son is still a little boy.
My prayers are with u and your mum

And this:

I have been going through the same stuff as your mom for about two weeks. I feel as well that there is a strand of pearls going through my boob that has the breast cancer. Not only that I have an awful rash that I use to have when I was pregnant with my third child and it covers from my waist down. I’ve been on the Gerson diet for a little over a year. I really enjoy it but I do get a bit scared and discouraged sometimes due to these healing reactions that I wasn’t sure that they were healing reactions. I’m happy that I found your blog. I found it very comforting Thank you

It’s worse to think of the influence that Jessica Ainscough’s espousal of this fraudulent Gerson Therapy is having on others and the heavy responsibility she must bear in leading people to quietly hideous deaths, often as Orac points out, without the comfort of modern palliative care.

Ainscough’s  blog is all sweetness and light, full of the kind of beautiful, idyllic seaside scenes I knew on the North NSW coast as a child.  Fabulous pictures of organic food feasts abound and it is followed and liked by hordes of beautiful people, smiling and wearing garlands of flowers and all sending each other rays of love sunshine.

It’s Orac’s opinion that sadly, Jessica Ainscough will probably die of the cancer.  That statistically for her kind of cancer and without surgery she very likely has at most a few more years.  She could have chosen Western medicine at the outset, had her arm amputated and gone on to do something worthwhile.  Now she lives a pretense of a life urging others to make believe as well, a practice which has deadly consequences.

While it’s clearly unethical to be promoting quack treatment to people suffering from cancer, she seems to really believe that the Gerson therapy can effectively treat cancer.  On the other hand, how much in the face of all the facts should she have accepted rather than preferred to believe otherwise?

As a teenager, I embraced the cause of the hippie movement that originated in the 1960s.  I loved their casual, carefree approach to life and their love of all things natural.  Many of them became farmers and these days the organic/biodynamic food industry is big business.  The north-east coast of Australia, where I grew up, has since become a mecca for this post-hippie or alternative lifestyle movement.  The weather there is mild all the year around, the landscape is beautiful and green and lush and a pristine beach is always nearby.

But there is a dark side to the alternative lifestyle movement, an embrace of a tribal/quasi-religious mentality, an abandonment of a rational way of thinking and a deep distrust of science and particularly Western ‘conventional’ medicine.  It’s no coincidence that the highest numbers of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children live in these richly salubrious surrounds where the living is so easy it is hard to imagine that there can be any terror, pain or death in it like whooping cough or my grandmother’s especial fear, diptheria.

But I believe that our human relationship with the earth is much more complex.  Western science and medicine has given us a standard of health and living that people have come to expect as a given.  It’s a given that most infants don’t die in childbirth and that most are likely to survive to old age.  It’s a given that people in this country won’t sicken and die of smallpox or leprosy.

It’s so ironic that a generation steeped in the unprecedented knowledge, medical and technological advances of our time can still produce so many people who willfully refuse to accept that they were given any advantages.  And it’s so easy to believe that eating organic fruit and vegetables actually heals illnesses like cancer when courtesy of modern medicine, you were born whole.

An old school friend of mine has immersed herself deep into New Age woo.  She originally wanted to be an archeologist, but at our reunion 30 years later she told me that her and her boyfriend were working at some kind of naturopathic institution that included fertility therapy.  These days, she makes enough of a living as a reiki astrologer to be regularly trotting off to places like the south of France, while I struggle to find the positives in a relentless slog of a job in a government department.

But I couldn’t bring myself to live life so lightly like my friend.  There is something about the stern, dark, serious side of life I do not want to let go of.  I am concerned for instance about the environment, because the majority of scientists concur that global warming was caused by man and has dire and impending consequences and want to do something that really does help others.

The New Age movement has taken over the green, undulating lands of my early childhood, where our family climbed Mount Warning and spent so many days exploring the lush forests of coachwood, figs, palms, liana vines and black bean trees, where the whip-bird calls in the cool green shadows and the explorer’s feet treads soft over moist dark mulch.  Now I want to take that beauty and mystery back, with science and good old rational thinking.

In my urban exile, I don’t want to only think only of the good things in life, because I seek a balance between the serious and the light.  Thus the city becomes my quarry just like we used to search the old quarry with its deep, green pool and tumble of dark rocks for ancient forms of life to think and reflect on.

To Dr Geoffrey McKellar – Oral Surgeon

I was visiting my periodontist Dr Bannon today, a man of my age in his early fifties well versed in matters dental and who takes good care of me.  The appointment was a routine maintenance and inspection one to keep the periodontal inflammation of my gums at bay.  During the course of my visit, I was telling him about the oral surgery I had had nearly 30 years ago on my jaw to correct a dento-facial deformity.

‘Who did the operation?’  Dr Bannon asked, checking over my x-rays.

‘Dr Mackellar’ I told him

‘Dr Geoffrey McKellar, from Westmead Hospital?’


‘He passed away not long ago, it was very sad’

I sat back in the dental chair, stunned.  Dr McKellar was a well-known and very reputable oral surgeon who had only been in his sixties.  I knew that because as a Customs Officer I had processed him a couple of years ago as he was going overseas to a conference and I had seen his passport.  That was so young and he’d seemed so healthy, an early 1960s movie-star handsome dark-haired man with a square jaw and a serious gaze, in the days before everybody went mad dancing around in cheesecloth with flowers in their hair and singing about love.  I can’t remember whether his eyes were light or dark, but that busy afternoon he had looked fine, dapper and conservatively dressed and not much changed over the decades before.

I asked Dr Bannon for more details, but there were few:  that he had died unexpectedly, that he had a daughter, that he was deeply mourned by his colleagues.  The work of a surgeon was very stressful, Dr Bannon opined, oral surgery particularly so for some reason.  He had heard of the loss of another oral surgeon in similar circumstances.

I had reason to be very grateful to Dr McKellar.  Back in 1988 I was back from the brink of a serious mental illness, but this good fortune was tempered with the difficulties of finding accommodation, getting my life back on track with education and training, getting into the workforce and off welfare and of learning to manage my medical condition.

Back then my jaw was giving me hell.  My bite for some reason had worsened considerably as my 20s progressed and so my jaw was painful, the sockets clomping and clicking every time I ate.  Often I would wake up with my jaw locked and stiff and it would take some time for it to work again.  The lower jaw was wandering, unable to find a place to rest and I was told that without an operation to correct the dento-facial deformity I would have severe arthritis in my jaw by the time I was 40.

Dr McKellar fixed all that in a major operation where he aligned my jaws to the correct position, drawing the lower jaw forward.  The recovery process was slow and painful, especially since my jaws were wired together for six months.  But throughout he was no-nonsense, supremely professional and competent and took care of my every need.

As a result, I felt comfortable at last and eating was no longer an issue.  I can’t express how much of a difference that made.  A year later I finished my TAFE courses and armed with these, got my first full-time job.  There were still problems, but I could manage them and muddle through.  I no longer felt like a freak with a painful, restless jaw.  A happy, productive life as an adult had begun.

Governments in this country pay scant regard to the necessity of resources for oral and dental health.  Good dental health is crucially important for the heart and the brain.  If they don’t want masses of people clogging up the health system and adding to costs, they would do well to make dental and oral health services refundable on Medicare.  But all we have is costly private health cover or a run-down public health system staffed with brilliant, kind but over-stressed professionals.  This needs to change.

And above it all, the silent, lightning strike of death in the midst of life shocks, frightens and bewilders just the same way the artist Hans Holbein depicted The Dance of Death more than four hundred years ago.  Now the old, old Death steps implacably into the 21st century and takes a surgeon working on the operating table.

I had sent him a letter thanking him and telling him how well I was doing after our chance encounter at the airport not that long ago.  He wrote back saying that was wonderful news.  So I mourn Dr McKellar’s tragic, untimely death and will remember his  great gift to me for the rest of my life.