“The game's afoot: / Follow your spirit, and upon this charge / Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!” (Henry V by Wm Shakespeare, c 1599)
“Old age sure ain’t no place for sissies” - Bette Davis, movie star (1908-1989)
“I'll be glad to leave here. I feel like eating palm trees. I don't like this place. It's for people with arthritis. They come here to play golf and to die” - Ernie Holmes, American football hero (1948-2008)
“We are here to help each other through this thing, whatever it is” – Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)
NOOSA – Well, here we go again: 120 kilometres to Brisbane and the Wesley hospital for more surgery on my spine.
It feels like it may be the denouement of an unfinished 40-year long drama about the steady creep of arthritis.
After six previous encounters with the surgeon’s scalpel yielding results ranging from excellent to all that for nothing I continue to hope.
Which is why a seventh engagement looms. The one before kept me in hospital for three weeks and gave me about three months of joy.
But arthritis is like rust, it is always on the march, never rests; steadily degenerating joint cartilage and underlying bone.
This causes formidable problems especially in hips, knees and thumbs. In my case, it's spine and feet.
Right now, I’m hardly able to walk and, when I do, I struggle through a dense haze of pain.
The trauma and discomfort of surgery has an aftermath. But worth the many months of recovery and recuperation that recover capabilities thought lost.
In my case the arthritis has a co-conspirator - the mysterious neurological illness, ME/CFS, with its constant burden of physical, cognitive and psychological challenge.
In 2001 I was diagnosed with this illness, by Professor Denis Wakefield of St Vincents Clinic in Sydney.
Wakefield, a kindly man and thorough physician, gave a name to the debilitating condition but told me there was no cure.
From 2006 to around 2016, my brain provided partial remission from ME’s worst effects. Not a clear run, but enough relief to free me from all-pervading illness.
This led to something of a golden age in which, after retiring from full-time work, I established PNG Attitude, and along with Phil Fitzpatrick initiated the Crocodile Prize and, with Ingrid, did much travel.
My travel logs can still cheer up my day and I want to share with you a segment of one of my most favourite journeys: titled Travels with my Back for reasons that are evident.
Travels with my Back
Sunday 12 June, 2011. It’s just after 5 in the morning in Cologne. I have awoken refreshed and free of the back pain that’s been bedevilling me, damn it, and full of a fierce determination to begin writing these notes, catch them up with the first 10 days of our journey and keep them going - all in the cause of communicating something of personal worth.
The sky has already been lightening for an hour and it’s apparent that this day will be fine and warm. Through the wide window in front of my desk, the twin spires of Cologne cathedral – perhaps 300 metres away – dominate the city and me.
Immediately to my right are the three drab-green spans of Hohenzollern brűcke, the massive bridge which seems to depart almost from the revolving door of our Hyatt hotel, stretching towards the city proper.
The rail bridge has five tracks that carry 1,300 trains a day - all of which makes RailCorp’s workload and equipment look museum-ready.
Between the city and my window is the Rhine, with its incessant traffic of low, long, wide riverboats – each much lengthier than a football field and carrying the load of 30 semi-trailers (as well as the skipper’s car) as they make the long journey from Holland’s inland sea to the German cities and towns along this great artery.
As for me, after yesterday’s blissfulness, which I will come too, I have spent my first night since leaving home without drugs to ease the pain in my back. Oh happy day.
In Transit (Gloria Mundi), Sydney-London
Thursday 2 June. Thus passes the glory of the world. The statistics have it that Qantas flight QF1 to London usually departs on time and ours is no exception.
Ingrid and I travel business class – partly because it better suits the convenience of a man using a CPAP device to keep him breathing while he sleeps, partly because we can afford it.
My seat on a 747 is always 13A – the sleep apnoeac’s berth – and there have been times when I have had to fight to get it, and even to retain it having got it. It’s a battle with authority I’m always up for but it lends something of an anticipatory stress to every overnight flight.
The first leg to Bangkok is uneventful (all four Rolls Royce engines go the distance) except that my back, so benign and collaborative for nearly a month now, spasms and stalls. My fault entirely. Backs of fragility are meant to stand, sit or lie, not be handling a bag and poised somewhere between one and the other. Anti-inflammatories are immediately invoked. Too late.
Friday 3 June. Was there anyone who ever touched down on English soil having ventured forth from our great south land who did not exclaim, “That’s a bloody long way!”
A day in an aeroplane is always the longest day. And its numbness is rarely leavened by the solidly stoical surliness of Qantas’s female cabin staff. (Do they do special training in Frosty, you think? Why are the males so much more engaging?)
After we spiral down to land at Heathrow, we disembark for the usual 5 km marathon from airbridge to immigration. By now my back monkey has descended through both buttocks and conspired to converge in my left leg.
I know from experience that this is a nerve in my back twanging off some outcrop of bone and screaming for mercy. Merely the smallest weight of a wheeled suitcase causes a nauseating pain. This case, wheeled by a normal-backed man, would be tugged around blithely as a beaker of piss on skids.
We are allowed into Britain and decide to take the non-stop, non-bump Heathrow Express to Paddington and then cab it to the Rembrandt on the border of South Kensington and Knightsbridge, across the road from the V&A – the Victoria and Albert Museum - and a stone’s throw from Harrods.
This is a precinct with which we are familiar and feel an immense comfort in. The rest of the day is spent trying to stay awake for the rest of the day, so tricking the brain into believing there is no such phenomenon as jet lag.
Saturday 4 June. Well this is good. Back responding to medication, London beckoning and time for a good walk. Down Knightbridge Road towards the city, hugging the sunny side of the street (I don’t believe in long pants and long sleeves when on holiday, or at any other time for that matter) veering off towards Buckingham Palace when we hit Pall Mall.
There are police everywhere. Like the current model of NSW copper, these bobbies are no advertisement for Fitness Plus. Nor am I, but I’m not a rozzer.
Something’s on and that something is a rehearsal for next week’s Trooping of the Colour. We wander towards the sound of heavy boots on hard surfaces and find ourselves at the barracks of the Grenadier Guards. And there, in their bright red tunics and black busbies, are five companies of guards preparing to march.
As we watch, there is the soaring sound of a brass band and then another and another, until there are five. Drawn by the commotion, a sizeable crowd has gathered. And the rehearsal begins. Five companies, five bands, a thousand men (some of whom know how to march) and five bandmasters in their cream jockeys’ caps and white aprons, either twirling long batons or beating them on the ground as seems to be their wont. Stylists all.
I always find it remarkable that so often when we travel and are out and about just idling along that we happen upon scenes and events that stir the blood and raise the spirits and make us feel good just being a traveller.
In the evening, Ingrid’s cousins John Epstein and Gitty Kennedy – Czech émigrés like all of Ingrid’s folk - collect us from the Rembrandt in their Jag and we make our way through Saturday’s slow and crowded London streets to Wodka for eastern European tucker and family reminiscing.
Sunday 5 June. Bugger. Yesterday’s walk has strung me right out and the pain in my legs seems to be dragging my whole body towards the floor. It’s time for my ‘fuck travel, I might as well stay at home’ routine which I perform before a reluctant audience of Ingrid.
But then the medication kicks in again, the pain eases and the walking frees up and I’m ambling confidently once more. And so we take the tube to Southwark station, proximate to the Tate Modern and the Miró exhibition for which we are headed.
There are 150 of Joan Miró's paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints – many suffused in an overpowering bleakness. They cover six decades of his often anxious, politically-aware but politically-disengaged career that spanned the Spanish Civil War, World War II and then the lingering extinction of Franco's Spain.
Miró was there for it all and he was unimpressed and his works retain a consequent “dark intensity” (critic’s words endorsed by me). I find some of this very moving and most of it interesting (that deathly word) without being scintillating. But Miró did not set out to scintillate; his métier being the resistance of paintings which shout grimly at your eyes.
My journalist mate Ilya Gridneff (fresh from a couple of years in Papua New Guinea for AAP) is visiting London to see his freelance TV producer girlfriend and we meet up at the French House pub in Soho before heading to a little Japanese number favoured by his girlfriend, a Ms Storm. And we talk about ourselves as good friends do when they meet in far off places.
Monday 6 June. It’s amazing how the world shrinks when your back’s fucked. I nurse the damn thing along Knightbridge’s flat landscape to Harrods, a five minute walk taking 15, where – waiting for the drugs to kick in - I ensconce myself in Waterstone’s bookshop.
I’m in a spending mood and lash out on a Guardian, as I do each day in London and elsewhere if it’s available (which in Europe it mostly is) and then stagger back towards the Rembrandt.
I seek refuge halfway at Costas, the coffee people, another of my London habitats even though the product is only half-decent. By this time, though, I’m beginning to feel more chirpy, so Ingrid and I walk the half-mile to the South Kensington shops and murder a Thai. Then back to the hotel to rest the jill and jack.
It might seem to you already that I have a lot of downtime while travelling and, in one sense, that is true: the sense that I’m not up and at it constantly. But, even when the back is performing the normal function of a back, my left and right toe joints that require surgery sometime soon are only good for about three hours light walking a day. Which leaves a lot of day. To read, indulge my favourite vice of cryptic crosswords and ensure the PNG Attitude blog is not left unattended.
I’m on a promise from Dr Kim Slater of Sydney’s Mater Hospital that, upon my return to Ozwegia, he will fuse both right and left big toe joints. Six weeks plus in the can for each unless I summon up the courage, opt for efficiency and have both done in the same sweep of the knife, so to speak.
Tuesday 7 June. I’d hoped the Eurostar service from St Pancras to Brussels might reward me with a long sequence of splendid vistas of English, French and Belgian countryside. But much of this journey is spent in tunnels and cuttings – although the scenery I do observe pleases me greatly.
The journey gives me time to think about my feet, not a part of my body I have previously devoted much thought to. A couple of months before leaving Sydney my left toe joint packed it in - osteoarthritis. I believe you keep moving a bit even after stopping a bullet; but the collapse of a toe joint stops you stone motherless cold. Kim Slater said he’d try a cortisone shot – “might last two years or not work at all” was the guarantee. It lasted two months and the joint gave up again less than a week before departure leaving me quite despondent.
You’re not supposed to have too many of these shots (three a year max) but it was panic stations. So Kim fitted me up with an early morning appointment, repeated the ‘no guarantee’ warning, mixed what he called his ‘jungle juice’ and worked the metre-long hypodermic around some bony projections to find the interstices of the joint and deliver the payload. Another two months’ grace will do me just fine, I thought. As it will. Fingers and legs crossed.
Hey, the Hotel Metropole in Brussels puts two free bottle of Stella in your bar fridge – and reloads same the next day if the product has been duly consumed. Life’s not all bad.
Wednesday 8 June. What can I say about Brussels without being unkind? It’s a city of something over a million people the casualness of which, like an unpretentious and somewhat dishevelled mate, makes you relax. If all of Sydney was that strip between Town Hall and Central, it would be Brussels.
Belgium has just entered – after Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland – that select group of European countries at sovereign risk. To see Brussels is to understand this. We say Australia has a two-speed economy, well this is a two-speed city.
It is on the one hand the home of the European Parliament, NATO, the European Commission and other global sinecure-providers, crawling with bureaucrats who have handsome disposable incomes and accommodation allowances.
On the other hand, it has a disproportionate number of beggars, pickpockets and suffering poor. Its public places and public spaces are unkempt and, even by Surry Hills standards, disgraceful. But our own hotel is grand … working class may kiss my arse etc.
This morning we take in the city’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts and the adjacent Magritte Museum. Rene Magritte (who flourished in the first half of the 20th C) was an interesting cove. Far and away Belgium’s finest and best known (well I know now) artist.
But the London papers reveal – clearly to coincide with our visit – that he was also a bit of an old fraudster. Skint during and immediately after WWII, he began to copy paintings by some of the greats – and even plagiarised his own work to sell multiple copies as «originals» (don’t ask me how that Euro punctuation got there but I can’t rid it). So Magritte gets away with this forgery in his lifetime. But not now under the searching glare of Wapping (nee Fleet Street).
Thursday 9 June. It’s Ingrid’s birthday in ten days and I’ve been looking out for an appropriate gift. Yesterday in her reconnoitre of Brussels’ retail attractions, my darling wife came upon an establishment called Frey Wille (apparently there’s also a franchise in Sydney) which contains splendid renditions of the artwork of Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000), a Viennese Jew who put one over the Nazis by purporting to be Christian and then joining the Hitler Youth.
Late in life he fell in love with New Zealand and, in fact, died on board the QEII while en route to these very shaky isles for another visit. Amongst other things, Hundertwasser designed a new national flag for the Kiwis based on Maori symbolism. It’s yet to be adopted as I’m sure you’re aware.
Anyway, to cut to the credit card, the man was a superb designer and the bracelet that Ingrid and I agreed would be perfect was duly purchased as a birthday present in advance. Ingrid will show it off if you ask…
Friday 10 June. In the morning a longish walk around bits of the Brussels centre we hadn’t seen, before taxiing to the station to catch the train to Cologne. “The first class toilets in the Thalys are always filthy,” the woman in the seat behind said. “I always use the second class ones.”
She was damn right too. In fact the whole train was grubby. Bloody French. Then we arrive in Cologne and check into the most magnificent hotel – a Hyatt - just across the Rhine and about five minutes’ walk from the city and its soaring cathedral.
Saturday 11 June. The five tracks of the Hohenzollern rail bridge – mostly fully occupied in a demonstration of the might of German rail – are flanked by pedestrian and bicycle ways. Densely packed along the wire fence that separates the main pedestrian path from the tracks are locks. Tens of thousands of generally small locks each clasped to a small square section of the metre-high mesh; each with a message of love; each with a date.
There are huge locks and tiny ones. Bright brass locks and rusted hulks of locks. Wooden locks and bicycle locks. Locks that are flimsy cheap and locks that are custom-made. There’s even a set of handcuffs. The oldest lock I see dates to the late eighties. There are no keys. I assume these lie on the muddy floor of the Rhine, lobbed over the low fence between the walkway and the water (no suicide prevention here because the authorities here seem to understand that pathological risk aversion is a limitation on personal responsibility – my political comment).
On this day, around the top of the perimeter fence and for the full 300 metre stretch of the bridge someone has coiled a long skein of wool adorned each half metre with small crocheted flowers. Plumb in the bridge centre is a card which reads: “Bomb Cologne with flowers”. It is a message that nearly brings me to tears.
To say that Cologne was bombed in World War II is as fatuous as saying that politicians are mildly addicted to spin. Cologne – “remodelled by the RAF” as one wag put it - was ninety percent flattened. But somehow, like St Paul’s in London, Cologne Cathedral survived. It was severely damaged but the twin spires continued to soar.
The city began rebuilding in 1946 under pre-war mayor Konrad Adenauer (Hitler admired his administrative skills but not his politics - he narrowly survived after being gaoled a number of times). In the 1930s Adenauer had transformed Cologne into a fine city but in 1945 the British military governor who called him to reconstruct and whose name we have forgotten, found him “inefficient and incompetent” and sacked him, so demonstrating the oxymoronic nature of the term ‘military intelligence’.
More likely, though, he found Adenauer a towering presence (‘uppity bloody Kraut’) with a detailed understanding of his own city (‘arrogant bastard’) and a deep sensitivity to the needs of people psychologically scarred from those thousand bomber raids (‘damn political upstart’).
Out of a job, Adenauer went on to found the Christian Democratic Party and, in 1949, in his early seventies, he was elected as the first post-war chancellor of West Germany and proceeded to democratise and stabilise and rebuild a shattered nation.
This being our first full day in Cologne and, after a wonderful breakfast (simplicity can be wonderful: muesli and fresh fruit befits a man whose constant and futile goal is to lose weight), Ingrid and I set out for a detailed examination of the city.
The old town and its wall to wall brauhäuser (you can work that out); the new town with its packed streets and block after block of retail therapy including the best bookshop in the world, replete with every tome and pamphlet on art (and that includes philosophy and politics) you could lust after.
In the street a four-wheeled cart passes. In the centre is a huge cask. On each side is a plain bench. On each bench sit five young men. In their hands are steins of beer. At their feet are pedals. They are pedalling the beer cart on a city tour.
For the first few minutes of this excursion they were possibly delighted but now, pedalling furiously as they drink, they appear sour and despondent. Such can be the outcome of a momentary enthusiasm.
After more than three hours on our saunter, all bodily parts holding together, we lunch at Peter’s Brauhaus in the old town, where the beer is sweet and cheap in the glass and the food plentiful on the plate. The local drop is known as Kölsch and may only be so-called if it meets the criteria of being brewed in Cologne, pale in colour, top-fermented, hop-accented and filtered. You’ve come to an expert.
Thus fed and watered, we stroll back across the bridge of lovelocks – now festooned with lovers and brides and a few new locks – to a relaxed evening overlooking the cathedral, the rail bridge, the trains and the river boats and a light meal of beef carpaccio washed down with a bottle of Macon Villages and a sleep without back pain or medication. O fabrous day.
Sunday 12 June. A day of sobering reminder. The former headquarters of the Gestapo in Cologne is in El-De Haus standing at 23-25 Appellhofplatz. It’s a stern stone four storey building on the corner of an undistinguished street. The Nazis rented it in 1934 for their headquarters. Downstairs, in the basements, they built small cells (which would somehow hold up to 30 people at a time) and torture rooms for forced labourers (French, Russians and Ukrainians being particular favourites) and disparate political enemies, gays, euthanasists, gypsies and the like.
Poignant inscriptions that inmates scratched into the cell walls, have each been carefully translated,. “By tonight I will be hanged – I love you sweetheart”. The building courtyard was the site of 400 executions by pistol and noose, and most in 1944-45 as the war started to turn bad for the Nazis.
The building is officially known as the National Socialist Documentation Centre and won the international Best in Heritage award in 2006. A must-see if you’re in Cologne. But no one visiting that place wants to look you in the eye.
The Museum Ludwig on the Rheine river bank cheered me up. We missed the Australischen Aborigines exhibition but made up for it with the huge collections of Picasso and Warhol.
Monday 13 June. Cologne’s a great city. The local Germans are reputed to be the friendliest in the republic, much to the frustration of many other Germans (especially those on the check-outs in Berlin) who have developed super-surly as an art form. And now we must depart this sweet place and ride a train.
The German ICE does the Cologne-Berlin transit in about five hours and is clean, spacious, offers table service and a neat dining carriage in first class - and hygienic toilets. I find train travel of this quality blissful. I am rarely as relaxed. The countryside races by at 250 kph.
We slow only for the great industrial cities with names remembered from WWII war stories – Dusseldorf, Duesburg, Essen, Dortmund. “The ack ack was fierce over Essen and the tracers lit the sky.” Plenty of trackside activity too. You like trains? I do. High on the hog in the dining car with a Spectator and a half decent chardonnay. Now that’s the life.
Tuesday 14 June. Fuck, back! Mid-afternoon yesterday we arrived in Berlin and checked into our room at the Melia on Friedrichstrasse (Check Point Charlie a couple of clicks up the road) right alongside the Spree (Berliners style it as a river).
Then we set out on a walk of indefinite length but which manages to incorporate the Brandenburg Gate (slightly more diminutive than in the war footage and now with bicycles rather than battalions rolling through it) and the awesome Jewish memorial (a city block of sculptured faux graves to mark a resting place that the six million – including 1½ million kids - never had).
Here and there we encounter bricked lines across our path to show us where the Berlin Wall had bullied its way across the city. I wonder whether everywhere we are to go in Berlin will soberly remind us of that terrible history?
But today … there’s a pattern developing. Long walk one day – free as a bird – fucked back the next morning - then the wait (aided by Prof Voltarin’s best anti-inflammatories) to get mobile again. Still, it provides opportunity to bring this notebook up to the present.
Wednesday 15 June. Back to the Brandenburg and through the Tiergarten which is to Berlin as Central Park is to New York. Originally a domain for Prussian hunters who couldn’t be bothered travelling to the country, it was stripped of all its trees by cold and starving East Berliners in the early days of the Russian occupation post WWII. It is slowly still being rehabilitated into a fine stretch of inner city parkland.
We are on our way to the German Resistance Memorial Centre. As you might expect, most of those Germans who stood up openly against Nazism, or who resisted covertly and were caught, were executed. The lucky ones suicided.
This institution – the former Naval HQ where the generals who tried to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 were done away with – is now a national memorial to those who did not just stand and gawk.
This visit to Germany is of particular import to Ingrid who has long held a sense of some enmity to Germans stemming from a family history strewn with tragedy triggered by Germans. Ingrid's father Henry survived WWII only because his mother was Catholic. His Jewish father, died in Theresienstadt concentration camp north of Prague. The rest of that side of the family suffered similar fates. Henry himself spent time in the dreadful uncertainty of forced labour camps. Although he had been born in the Sudetenland, he was a native German speaker, learning Czech in the pre-war Czech Army).
So now Ingrid is coming to grips with this no-go area called ‘German’ (interestingly she learned German at university, coning in handy here I can tell you). After Henry had escaped the clutches of the Nazis because the war ended just in time – his fellow Czechs then denied him work because of his German heritage. Sometimes a man finds it very hard to win.
Although they had been (and in Ingrid’s mother’s case still is) great travellers, Henry and Libby Lowig never returned to the Czech Republic. And never had any desire to do so. Some things can happen in people’s lives that make their personal history just too odious to contemplate in mind let alone revisit in person.
I think it proves helpful to Ingrid to be confronted both with the enormity of Nazi bastardry and the selfless courage of the many Germans who, despite everything being against them, did what they could do cast off Nazism or, when they failed to do that, seek to subvert it – often at the cost of their lives.
Let us beware of politicians who stereotype. They are positioning themselves at the top of a dangerous and slippery slope. For the Jews, gypsies, gays and others, it all began with labels, moved through scapegoating and ended with annihilation.