Guest Notes

Chinese whispers

7 February 2020

10:00 PM

7 February 2020

10:00 PM

Following a good month and a half of often nocturnal motorised flights from active bushfires both at Echo Point in the Blue Mountains and at a refuge we own in the Southern Highlands we returned finally to the house and garden in the former area on which we have lavished so much care. Within days my wife and I even experienced the torrential rain for which we and umpteen others must surely have been praying. The fine grasses in our lawns have taken a bit of a bashing but the coarse ones are certainly back with a vengeance now and most of the special shrubs and trees we love said, almost audibly, ‘thanks mate’. Our sweet-smelling Choisia hedge even sported a few spot blooms whereas just before our first fire arrived in the Blue Mountains a swarm of bees of truly biblical proportions emerged from it early one day heading due east and sounding not unlike a 747 on take-off. Did they intuitively suspect something we didn’t – like the weeks of choking smoke which would shortly arrive? Indeed bees may well be smarter than us – but on recent evidence that should not be too difficult.

Even the outsize library of books and priceless art catalogues which provide a memory of my previous life currently remain intact. Possibly only Hitler has burnt more books previously than our recent, supposedly ‘unavoidable’ Australian bushfires. But here in Australia we do not seem encouraged any more to live among well-tended beauty or safety – that might even be deemed un-Australian. Here we seemingly need to live always in a condition of potential danger. Indeed, within minutes of relaxing at last in our beloved proper home news of insoluble Chinese viruses flooded our screens.

Will these latter provide the next ‘flaw’ in civilisation’s rather dodgy armour perhaps? (I dare not use a more obvious word here which would probably land me in deep trouble in our increasingly humourless world). For sure this is no longer the robust country I came to with such high hopes a quarter of a century ago. A year or so back we experienced a brief invasion by fruit-bats hereabouts which have apparently since left us voluntarily. Indeed, the same has seemingly happened 100 kilometres up the road at appropriately named, bat-ridden Bathurst. Did the bats get the weird idea we were going to eat them or something ? Stranger things seem still to happen in our contemporary world.


A large part of my attitude to life is that I live on the sole planet in the universe which is inhabited by humans. Our six-year-olds may no longer be encouraged to believe this by their teachers. But then I also believe I was born to be a boy so am clearly subject to weird ideas.  Twenty years ago I remember sleeping in far north Queensland under a canopy of stars which appear in infinitely greater number when the ambient lights of civilisation are wisely avoided. At such moments a great feeling of oneness with our world and firmament seem to me difficult to avoid. Indeed, I even find any attempted development of dodgy viruses very hard to imagine under such circumstances. Has the time come at last when we should all make a big effort to live co-operatively together? Could that even be what any possible creator of our universe intended?

I grew up in an especially beautiful and then unspoiled area of England I admit and cannot entirely understand the appallingly untended state of the scrub along our local roads in the Blue Mountains. Is this a misguided attempt to look ‘natural’ or a determination to save council money for other concealed purposes in what is designated today as a world heritage area? In my view, Australian towns and villages should undoubtedly all be surrounded by cleared land and then better still also not by dangerously flammable eucalypts. This for the foreseeable future should be a vital part of Australia’s state and federal policies.

I grew up in a different country rather a long while ago but wonder whether Australian kids – like their British counterparts – ever played a game called Chinese Whispers? Children – or even adults – sat round in a circle. Eight or ten was ideal for the game. The first child whispers a message very quietly indeed into its neighbour’s ear who probably has only an approximate idea of what was truly said. That child then whispers what it has understood to its neighbour who does the same to its neighbour in turn and so on until the circle is finally completed. Often the final message was wonderfully hilarious even though ideally bearing some resemblance to the original whisper. Was this game ever played in Peking? Perhaps they called it English Whispers?

In the sensible cause of self-preservation my wife and I have absorbed every scrap of information we can about the present super-virus and its origins and intent. But are we – or anyone else – any better informed now through our efforts? What is entirely clear to me is that some people know rather more than we do but I have no great expectation they will be letting us know. Having travelled much of the world previously as a journalist, I am not receiving any clear clues yet what to do other than obey national orders. Perhaps we should organise national sweepstakes which will be won by the person offering the most plausible explanation for our current crisis? The Chinese government would, of course, be banned from the competition at present.

Do all ‘developed’ nations try to develop ‘weaponised’ viruses? If so, where does that leave us? My most charitable explanation of our current crisis is that something very simple happened such as a laboratory animal escaping or that top-level procedures were conducted in facilities which were not quite up to scratch. Alternatively – since vast quantities of rain has belatedly arrived – perhaps we should all get back on our knees?

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