Sunday night — and The Newsreader transported so many of us back to 1986 and the epidemic we were living through…

Leaving aside the slightly troubling matter of the ethnicity of some of the characters which may well be a concession to the present rather than a reflection of 1986 — though come to think of it there was a Korean boy in my roll class at Fort Street High in 1981 — Sunday night’s episode of this brilliant series captured exactly the feeling of 1985-86 and the AIDS epidemic, especially the way it was treated in the media.

I have filled Facebook today with material reflecting on those times. First, some posts from my own blogs: Rampant: How a City Stopped a Plague (December 2007); Miscellanea again… 1 (September 2012); Blogging the 2010s — 115 — December 2011.

You can find the documentary Rampant: How a City Stopped a Plague on YouTube in 7 parts. Here is Part 1:

Rampant (2007) is a fascinating documentary about the Australian government response to the AIDS epidemic in the early 80’s.

While most nations condemned already marginalized groups, the Australian government joined forces with gays,prostitutes and drug addicts in the fight against this disease by establishing a unique and controversial precedent that undoubtedly changed the predicted catastrophic outcome into a model response to the world in the fight against AIDS.

Interviews include Australian Health Minister Neil Blewett, the Liberal Party’s wonderful Senator Peter Baume, a very young Bill Bowtell, Dr Alex Wodak, Ita Buttrose and many another hero of those times.

And here is the Oxford Hotel in Darlinghurst on Australia Day 1988. I wasn’t there that day, but I sure was there or nearby on more days than one in 1987, 1988 – and 1989, and 1990… I see a number of faces I know in that shot, which comes from the Facebook page “Lost Gay Sydney”.  One is John Farmilo, whose Bennett Street Surry Hills address was also mine for a good part of 1987.  Not many years on from this John died of AIDS-related illness.

In St Vincents Hospice 2007 — Malcolm, me, Sirdan

In Sunday night’s episode there were so many reflections of what those of us on the scene saw and heard in those days — too many memories almost.

Last night’s episode was co-written by Kim Ho whose brilliant short film made around 2012-3 when he was still at school earned him international plaudits including from Stephen Fry.

On FB I wrote: This is real. I remember this well and much more beside from those years 1985 on, being around the scene as I was. Tonight’s The Newsreader on ABC transported me back. Brilliant TV, absolutely first rate.

The creator of The Newsreader, Michael Lewis, tweeted: “If it seems like we’re over-egging the panic around HIV, check out this eye-popping 85 special, ‘The Truth About AIDS in Australia’. Fred Nile argues that ‘irresponsible carriers’ should be dispatched to Sydney Harbour Heads. Seriously.

Be warned — some of what you will see in that is filthy rotten lies!

Sadly it is not dissimilar to some of the crap floating around social media at the moment about our current pandemic. The lie about US activist Robert Schwab is peddled in this report. There are some OK sections too — including of the clinic where I had my first AIDS test and of the doctor who did it.

On Paul Dexter and his total nonsense see Australian Gay History: Paul Dexter & The Gay Army.

In May 1983 he appeared as ‘the gay community spokesperson’ on a Channel 9 report on AIDS. His credentials were never provided nor was it explained why his views were more important that an organisation like, say, the Gay Counselling Service. Indeed, no one even bothered to ask for evidence that an organisation with the ridiculous name of ‘The Gay Army’ even existed. Nonetheless, he was up there with leading AIDS doctors and commentators like Larry Kramer.

In June 1983 the Sydney Morning Herald – a newspaper that really should have known a lot better – quoted his claim that “left-wing elements” were responsible for the outcry against AIDS publicity. They didn’t even bother to explain just what that ridiculous statement actually meant.

And yet, in spite of the obvious absurdity of this man, his fictitious organisation and his groundless claims, the Herald turned to him again the following year.

Under the headline Gay group slates AIDS statement, Dexter – now “official spokesman for the Gay Army” – declared that AIDS was far more infectious than health experts claimed. “The advertisement suggests that AIDS cannot be spread by sneezing, coughing, breathing or mosquitoes but according to Mr Dexter, medical experts can give no scientific assurance of this.”

Much more positively, consider the heroes of Sydney’s St Vincents Hospital. Do take the time to watch this.

Various lockdown hacks and escapes — 43 — new month, reflecting on age

Being a war baby I am on the home straight….

As are Michael Caton (21 July 1943) and Robert Dessaix (17 February 1944).

“Shirley” Strachan was much younger (2 January 1952) — but he is gone just on twenty years! So a post on Facebook reminded me yesterday. “Twenty years today since the sad passing of Shirl! A good bloke & such an incredible lead singer. Never forgotten. RIP.”

I mentioned in an earlier post that I have been reading Robert Dessaix’s lovely book on growing old, The Time of Our Lives (2020). Really savouring it. See also Letting forth late flowers while ‘ineluctably sagging’: Robert Dessaix on ageing well.

His book takes a meandering path, through the grief and joys of his present septuagenarian living. We join Dessaix in the lush garden of the home where his partner’s mother Rita lies in a white room and recedes from her pronoun. With him, we scale the stupas of Borobudur, appreciatively notice the tight shirts of young waiters, dip into Epicurean philosophy at a gay ballroom dance. And we delight in the free-wheeling, wry and enjoyably forthright series of conversations on ageing with Dessaix’s female friends which pattern the book, in which they talk sex, death, religion and sundry. It is in these lively exchanges that ageing well is played out, and some of the book’s richest meaning resides.

Affirms Dessaix, the book isn’t about how to avoid dementia, or how to become a wise and dignified elder. It “is about how my friends are blooming. There are strelitzias on the cover. That’s your clue.”

It is a refreshing, entertaining and singular read. He wrote it, as he usually does, “imagining I was conversing with a friend of mine, a woman I’ve known for thirty years,” he tells me. “She’s fond of me, but not uncritical (that’s vital)… The reader eavesdrops.”


Michael Caton featured in the latest Australian Story on ABC.

JEREMY SIMS, DIRECTOR: Michael has led a long, incredible, boisterous, complicated life. He’s done everything in his power, I would say, to shorten his life. And he’s still with us.

MICHAEL CATON:  I just really notice that I’m losing memory. Vocabulary. You’ve got to work twice as hard as I used to probably three times as hard as I used to, especially if you get a big page of dialogue.

Helen: Michael’s mother lived till 103.

SEPTIMUS CATON, SON: Dad’s getting to that time in life. where every few weeks another one of his mates is gone. another star has blinked out and I think that’s really left dad with I’m going to make the most of the time I have.

Michael Caton

And as for me, this post has had quite a few visits lately: The air-raid siren of Woodleigh.


NAIDOC Week 2021 — Healing Country — 6

My family on Gweagal land in Dharawal Country 1944-5 — I am front left, next to my sister Jeanette, my mother Jean, and on the right my brother Ian. In the back row are my Aunt Ruth, my Uncle Neil (born 6 July 1924) in RAAF uniform, and my Aunt Beth.

Yes, it is 9 July again. And that means I turn 78. Born far to the south in the same year, 1943, was this man:

What a great man he has become, and what a life he has had! Just this week his story was brought up to date by the TV program “Who Do You Think You Are?” on SBS.

The show is often emotional; delving into the past almost always is. But for an Aboriginal man, and moreover as a member of the Stolen Generations, that was especially true for Charles.

“(I’m feeling) overwrought, and a profound sense of loss. I’m really peeved,” he says. 

“It’s causing me to lose sleep. But that’s par for the course for a member of the Stolen Generation. If I didn’t have such a high profile, I would have never learned this, I would have remained in ignorance, that I was Wiradjuri man on my father’s side.”

Charles’ family story reveals a history of activism and resilience in the face of the brutalities of colonisation. But an unknown connection to the peoples of Tasmania on his mother’s side revealed a truly remarkable, and tragic family history. 

Charles is descended of an august line; his five-times great grandfather, Mannalargenna, was a highly respected Elder of his people, and acted as ambassador and emissary to surrounding clans.

Uncle Jack Charles — “Uncle” is a term of respect for an elder

Now a question I posed on Facebook earlier in the week:

Seems odd to say “way back in 2016” — but five years is five years, and I don’t get any younger. Well, five years ago I published the post linked to this, which in turn went back to five years earlier!

Question: Am I of Aboriginal descent?

Answer: Possibly, even probably. And no, I have not had a DNA test. But the story is in a way simple. I have (as you do) eight great-grandparents. I can account for all but one of them. In the case of my grandmother’s parentage — and a fine woman but troubled she was by all accounts — the father is unknown. That is, my father’s mother’s father.

The story — which I heard from my father and mother themselves — is that this grandmother was the daughter of an Aboriginal man, probably Dharawal (or maybe Yuin). We know nothing much about him.

But it is enough to make me look at Merrigong from my window with different eyes. The story was enough for Aboriginal actress Kristina Nehm, knowing the story, to always introduce me to Aboriginal people thus: “This is Neil. He is family.”

This is apart from the story of my brother’s wife, who is a descendant of the family of Bennilong.

Here is my story.

My grandmother, Henrietta Bursill.

And let’s finish with something we can all benefit from, speaking of healing — #NAIDOC 20121’s theme after all:


This effectively ends this series, having brought NAIDOC Week back home to my own life and family. Remember, the matter of our national truth and the absolute need seriously to consider the Uluru Statement from the Heart are matters for every week in this country.

Yes, we have learned, and are learning, much — but there are “miles to go before we sleep.”

Radio Daze…

Old bastards like me instantly know these faces — all three of them!

Top (he’d like that!) is Jack Davey (1907-1959) and below are Bob Dyer (1909-1984) with Pick-a-Box contestant extraordinaire Barry Jones (1932-), who later went on to become one of the most respected Australian politicians ever and a serious writer/historian.

Giants of radio in the 1950s, Davey and Dyer went on the TV after 1956, Dyer much more successfully. Davey by then was a sick man. I thought of them after reading a Facebook post by Warren Fahey: “Happy birthday BOB DYER. ‘Pick a Box’ Bob Dyer was born this day in 1909. He was great radio and as a kid I waited breathlessly for the quiz answers and, of course, a crack at ‘the secret sound’. I also liked Bob’s hillbilly singing and banjo uke playing….”

As for 10-12 years-old me in Vermont Street Sutherland, I was glued to Radio 2BL every afternoon from 5pm…

So it is ten years ago almost exactly that I first read Grace Karskens. Here is what I said, and one more…

From my archives.

This may well be the best Australian history book I have EVER read!

Posted on  by Neil


It deservedly won the PM’s  Prize in 2010. “Grace Karskens’ The Colony: A History of Early Sydney (Allen & Unwin, 2009) has won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for nonfiction.  The Colony provides a rich new interpretation of the early life of Sydney.  Supported by a fertile diversity of sources, it is a rich history of a dynamic colony and a rounded account of the lives of the people who lived there.” I have been savouring it from February – it went to hospital with me — until right now, thanks to Wollongong Library’s generous loan periods.

The first great thing to note is that it does not see early Sydney as consisting merely of Macquarie Street and Circular Quay with a few afterthoughts – and Parramatta of course. This ranges the Cumberland Plain, as it should, because I find on reflecting on my own family history that seems to be how they experienced the colony. My family arrived just at the end of the period this book chronicles – 1822.


Second is that stereotypes and half-truths come tumbling down right and left as you read on, but all done in the most polite and professional manner – and done most convincingly. Thus we learn there probably was no orgy during the thunder storm soon after the First Fleet arrived. This is first heard of in Manning Clark’s Short History of Australia in 1963 and has been embellished ever since. It makes an appearance in Ashley Hay’s brilliant new novel The Body in the Clouds (2010) – more on that in another entry. The lurid version of our past popularised so successfully in Robert Hughes The Fatal Shore (1987) is left resembling historical fantasy rather than sober reality. The reality turns out to be far more believable and far more interesting.

Karskens also restores the First Australians to their rightful place in the story, but this is no tub-thump on the lines of Pilger’s Secret Country. Again the reality proves more interesting and far more complex. I was fascinated to learn that the body of a victim of the 18th century smallpox catastrophe was found in recent years in Gymea in Sutherland Shire. That whole event, as so much else in this book, is handled judiciously and brilliantly.

I was pleased to see my nephew gets a mention too in the discussion of Bungaree.

It turns out the fate of the Cumberland Plain Aboriginal groups is much more complex than we may have believed in the past. That much survived is a fact not acknowledge so often in the past.

Another book which shows continuities which the old people – two generations or more before me – knew about but shut up about is Rivers and Resilience: Aboriginal People on Sydney’s Georges River by Heather Goodall and Alison Cadzow (UNSW 2009). What is revealed there again resonates with so much else half-remembered about my own family.

It was fascinating too to have shared my hospital time with a direct descendant of James Ruse, “Australia’s first farmer”. What I could glean in the short time I spent with Rocky – the descendant – revealed yet again the complex web of interactions between colonists and colonised over the past 200+ years.

Further reading

Holistic history of early Sydney

The Colony: A History Of Early Sydney

‘The Colony’ by Grace Karskens

…Karskens nails her colours to the mast: she is writing as an historian, and participating in a historical conversation with other historians:

This book has its roots deep in a great mountain of existing research, thinking and histories.  Historians work collectively, within a wider community of scholars.  So history writing is less an individualist pursuit than a collective quest, and an ongoing process.  This is one reason references are so important: they rightly acknowledge the work of past scholars, as well as guiding future readers and scholars into the literature.  In the notes and bibliography of this book you will find, besides original manuscripts and archival records, maps and pictures, an extraordinary and diverse body of scholarship about early Sydney, works mainly by historians, but also archaeologists, economists, anthropologists, art and architectual historians, ecologists, geologists, museuologists, geographers, biographers and local and community historians.  (p. xii)

She is true to her word.  There’s a heavy debt to Inga Clendinnen here, not only in content but in writing style, and likewise to Alan Atkinson– two historians I deeply admire whose writing turns an event around and looks at it from different angles, giving us the gift of coming to the familiar with new eyes.   There’s also a connection with James Boyce whose recent book Van Diemen’s Land is almost a pigeon-pair with this book in its re-visioning of the penal colony as a new environment with new opportunities.  Unlike Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, this book joins other histories- John Hirst’s work springs to mind-  written with  a determination to look beyond Hughes’ gulag and horror: it looks to the agency, optimismism and opportunism of ordinary people in a new environment instead of just the dregs of the old world.

The history itself is a thing of beauty too.  It breaks free of many straitjackets: more than perhaps any other history of Australia that I have read it interweaves Aboriginal history, archaeology, women and environmental history throughout the book.  Not content with the almost obligatory “before” chapter dealing and then dispensing with “the aborigines”, she asserts that Sydney remained an Eora town- that Eora people continued to live within Sydney on their own terms, with their own geography and in resistance to christianizing impulses, into the 1830s and 40s. Indeed, they have never left…

To watch

Dr Grace Karskens: The heritage of Aboriginal Sydney: Placing lost histories:

US Historian Erik Wright commented on this post: “Thank you for this review. As a professional historian now taking on Australian history I am striving to learn all I can. I also noticed your shirt and must say I am a bit jealous…the Bounty story is one of my favorites in all of history!”

And a second post, unrelated except that I posted it the next day, but let me first add in another lovely return to that magical year 1975 and an aspect of Australian life that does endure….

Living in the Seventies

Posted on  by Neil

Oh yes! With apologies to my cousin Pat and her husband Les that’s when we dressed up in flares and body shirts!


And that’s the conservative look.

I started a [school] magazine in 1972. so spent quite a bit of time with printers and such and became smitten with the whole process, especially given that was the tail end of hot metal presses and REAL fonts and typesetting!

Mind you the Illawarra Grammar School magazine was no Cleo, though like Cleo it may well still be going.

I shared Jim Belshaw’s delight with the two-parter just shown on ABC: Paper Giants : The Birth of Cleo | Sunday, 17 April and Monday, 18 April at 8.30pm, ABC1.

My problem is that I still find it hard to regard the 70s as capital-H History! Surely not. I’m not OLD am I?

Well, consider:


There I am in 2000 at SBHS looking uncomfortably like Billy McMahon. (Oh noes!) 

Next to me is the person also known as Mister Rabbit, who was born ten years after Cleo started but is now an English teacher here in Wollongong and the same age, give or take a year, that I was when Ita was hatching her revolution. Oh my!

Jim will be pleased to know I had a New England visa in those days…


The picture is Armidale.