The New Adventures of GORDON URQUHART – The Mug

Note: this series of Gordon Urquhart thoughts, recollections and doings are from the period before a worldwide pandemic (mostly) prevented us from spending leisure time at our holiday houses in Palm Beach and made it really difficult to replenish the Hermitage Paradis cognac when the supply in our cellars got low

In the waning days of my time at university it was suggested to me that doing some tutoring might be a good idea. Some of the bright but less comfortable lads in college – mostly those from the land, whose parents might own a third of Tasmania but lacked disposable cash, such is the way of agrarian life – had already been doing this for some time. In my case tutoring fell under the heading of community service, despite there being a financial aspect to the tutor-tutee relationship, and this meant I could list such work on my application for the Dame Juliette Bangleton Award, which was presented to the final year law student pre-eminent in all aspects of university life. It was nicknamed Julie Banger’s Best & Fairest Mug and winners of this accolade were expected to do great things.

I was only vaguely aware of the award initially. I suppose I didn’t need to be. It was clear that my standing as a beer drinker, political intriguer and artiste of the rugby pitch added up to a certain following from disparate if overlapping social student groups. I also had nothing to prove academically. In fact the professors would ask my opinion on the questions that had nagged away at the backs of their minds for years, and I’d say something like, “I’ll get back to you, Prof. I’ve got to defend the Nude Put-Put World Championship this afternoon.” They would accept this preliminary reply as a helpful if occasionally cryptic answer would come their way whenever the latest hangover had eased: “I’ll just say, imagine this was a tort rather than a contract …” or “… have another look at The Queen v Abercrombie Holdings [1897]” – and they would smile and think about what my clue might mean.  

The Mug changed my young life. Of course I won, but that it isn’t the point of today’s tale. Tutoring opened up a world of expensive, fragrant, not super educationally inclined girls to me. Pretty soon I was talking rugby with men who owned chemical companies and furniture distributors and chocolate bar factories before going upstairs to help their daughters with first year English assignments, in pink bedrooms which always seemed to be something from a fairy tale about princesses and princes and towers and dragons and locking the door and keeping the noise down while we did things that were not on the curriculum. In the end, it was a brief period of fun and superficiality just before the much more lucrative fun of life as a budding legal figure began. I had known Nancy for years and knew her to be a beautiful young woman of intelligence, wit and independence of mind since we were children. She had rebuffed my first declaration of love at an Economics Society keg party in first year: “Mate, you’re a smart arse. Come back when you’ve grown up a bit” – but I would come back and she would see that I was serious, and I would be the luckiest man alive, but that’s another story for another time.

The New Adventures of GORDON URQUHART – Lace and the Law

Note: this series of Gordon Urquhart thoughts, recollections and doings are from the period before a worldwide pandemic (mostly) prevented us from spending leisure time at our holiday houses in Palm Beach and made it really difficult to replenish the Hermitage Paradis cognac when the supply in our cellars got low

In the first week of being articled to Sir Jeremy Stammers KC I was forced to learn what to look for in a bra fitting. On day one the clerk sent me to the lingerie department of a very famous department store (which shall remain nameless) and arranged for me to work there for the rest of the week. The idea was that at the end of my time there as a temporary sales assistant I should know how to expertly select the very best intimate garments as a present for any lady who Sir Jeremy might want to receive something special and a little flattering. This was the first thing I learned and it helped me to build my own formidable practice when I eventually took silk.

It also can’t have been a coincidence that I overheard many things in those days of lingering and listening and making surreptitious notes on the seventh floor, which had a magnificent view over a certain park I would later find contained more indecent exposure artists than any other square mile of the city. Life progresses with surprising rapidity: in a few years many of the gentlemen down there would become clients of mine and their fees would contribute towards the deposit on my first racehorse, Standing Tall, but I digress. You might have noticed it’s a thing I tend to do.

Back to the department store. In those days, the changing rooms on the ladies’ underwear floor of an exclusive department store were frequented by a cross-section of women, who bore just one thing in common: they were rich. It was also true then, and undoubtedly it still is, although I haven’t loitered near a female changing room for several decades, that while trying things on women talk and they gossip and they discuss sensitive matters in a sometimes indiscreet way.

I didn’t understand everything they said, of course, but my detailed notes helped out Sir J with some valuable information. My reports showed him that a big client in a notorious fraud case was about to find himself with one fewer witnesses on his side. The man’s aunt spoke to a friend about co-operating with the Police as they compared deniers on the store’s best Italian pantyhose.

Another lady bragged to the shop assistant about the judgeship her husband was about to receive. When Sir J heard about this he rang around and had a word with a few people. It turns out he knew the bloke from law school days and always thought he was a bit of a turd, so he called in favours and had the job withdrawn before it was formally offered. For the rest of the day Sir J whistled to himself, wherever he went, and this was a man not given to frivolity. He called me into his office that night and presented me with a bottle of 1928 Dom Perignon. There was a note which read: “You’ll go far, my lad. Thank You!”

What I learned over those few days has never left me and still comes in handy. Only the other day Nancy received her regular parcel from Chantal Thomass in Paris and as she was opening her new things I happened to be walking past and said, thinking aloud, “You just don’t get lacework like that anywhere else.” Nancy laughed, but she knows I’m right.

The New Adventures of GORDON URQUHART – Harry Sets an Example

Note: this series of Gordon Urquhart thoughts, recollections and doings are from the period before a worldwide pandemic (mostly) prevented us from spending leisure time at our holiday houses in Palm Beach and made it really difficult to replenish the Hermitage Paradis cognac when the supply in our cellars got low

The Editor felt it was necessary to include the above disclaimer so the NSW Health people might not have their suspicions aroused if they read about your old mate Gordy’s activities. Contact tracers can be tenacious, as my neighbour Stu found when he left the house for the very reasonable and eminently essential task of picking up his new yacht. The series of one-liners he had prepared, in case of questioning, apparently didn’t go down so well. As he feared, those people truly do not have a sense of humour.

Yes, these events all took place before public health orders and closed opera houses, when frequent flyer points were still sending some of us to the Bahamas for a brief sojourn each winter. No, there isn’t really an Editor. I compiled a few Penses, as Blaise Pascal called his thinky word doodles, during a previous “lockdown” as the media seems to need to call tightened restrictions, and it was suggested to me that I might like to share them more widely than their original audience of a few old mates. Apologies to readers who already know these things, but I have been advised that it would be in my interest to issue a clarification on these matters. The Editor is in fact my darling wife Nancy. She seems to like this nickname, although she still gets “wifey” from time to time and doesn’t seem to mind that either.

I am reminded of an afternoon when I was sitting at my desk, in my office, staring out the window at the lawns in our backyard, occasionally spotting a ferry darting between inlets of the Harbour beyond. Nancy had left for the afternoon, to visit her friend Yvonne, and to be honest she had left in somewhat of a huff. I pride myself on being capable of finding and correcting fault in my own person and it may well have been that I was in the wrong for the broken Lalique vase incident, which seemed to coincide with me chipping a few golf balls into a waste paper bin at the other end of the loungeroom while I watched the final round of the British Open. I’m not sure who was responsible, but a big man admits it when he’s wrong and I told Nancy that I was, in all likelihood, the chief suspect.

That’s when she noisily left the house and even more noisily piloted the C-Class Cabriolet up our steep driveway, with a discreet screeching of tyres, and out of my life for a few hours. I gazed at nothing in particular for quite a long time, my eyes deliberately unfocused, almost meditating, I suppose, if descriptions of meditation are anything to go by. A blur of beautiful blues and greens majestically found their way into my lazy field of vision. It was Harry our aging peacock taking his early afternoon constitutional. He bent down to pick up a worm, barely breaking stride, and continued on his way. Harry would never wallow, never feel pity for himself or any other creature, or so I thought watching him process about his domain. I made a quick call to my antique dealer and was comforted with the knowledge that Nancy would be very pleased shortly after the next FedEx service from France arrived in Sydney.           

The New Adventures of GORDON URQUHART – A Cold Morning

It was my grandson Titus’ first rugby match for Frencham School and I was standing on the sideline with the parents watching the Under-10 Gs take on Vaucluse Grammar. The boy’s father was away, this was a couple of years ago, when it still seemed like an eminently sound use of company money to fly a Chief Financial Officer to Monaco for a business meeting, and thus I was there in his stead.

I also wanted to be there. It was important. The boy’s first match, representing the Frenchies at fly half, as his father and grand father had done before him, albeit in a team of far lower standard.

One really oughtn’t to toot one’s own horn, I suppose, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that your old mate Gordy could well have ended up in a team that wears a gold jersey with a name that rhymes with Wallabies. This was in an era when this team was actually good, and could defeat most opponents most of the time.

There was some complexity to the story. A man named Nikolai, who performed various services for the Urquharts at the time, was advising me, gratis and at his own instigation, about how I might handle the challenge from my main rival for the position in the team. The enthusiasm of this family friend had to be tempered as I repeatedly told him that it would be unwise to take certain actions if I wished to be a lawyer one day and he repeatedly countered that there would be nothing to worry about if it were “done clean” (a phrase he used, somewhat sinisterly, from time to time, which always made me a little nervous). The rival was a young man of similar age to mine who had attended Vaucluse Grammar and had been something of a nemesis for years as we encountered each other on school football fields. The position in the team became vacant when the incumbent succumbed to the lure of retirement and traded football boot stud marks in his back for a different kind of trading, in a corner office furnished with a  Chesterfield suite and a good view of where the boat he sailed on Sydney Harbour of a Wednesday was moored. He was twenty-nine and it was time to settle down and earn a proper wage.

I was ten years younger than that, and so was my rival, who was named Ralph, as I was forced to remind Nikolai when he kept insisting on referring to the bloke as “the Target”. I finally said, “Nik, please leave him alone.” By this time it was clear that mediation was a special talent of mine and that I had better start taking my legal future seriously. I prioritised my studies, joined as many secret societies as were available to a Frencham Old Boy at university, and kept rugby as a fun pastime. Ralph evidently did something similar. He also dropped out of the running in favour of his future architectural career. He’s a good bloke, in fact. Nancy and I have skied with him and his wife at Aspen.

In the absence of Ralph and me a former high school boy from a country town was chosen and he did rather well. With him in the team Australia won a World Cup.

I thought all these things as the cold crept north through the soles of my feet while modest mouthfuls of 30 Year-Old Dalwhinnie were administered from a hipflask – for purely medicinal reasons, of course. To be honest, it was a poor standard of rugby, but I doubt Titus would mind hearing me say such a thing. He has his heart set on being e tech entrepreneur and I’m sure he’ll find a way to achieve his goal.                 

The New Adventures of GORDON URQUHART – Quiet

When I was a lad I was given a very good piece of advice by a wise older family member that I’ve never forgotten. When I say family member, that’s just how I tell the story to younger people today who can’t relate to the presence of a nanny in a child’s life, or to household staff generally. When I say nanny, I mean more of an au pair, who wasn’t really much older than me, which is to say she was a young woman, but a very young woman, if you know what I mean, who became an integral part of the running of the Senator’s household for a brief but intense period when his wife (my mother) spent a year with her relatives in Europe. Fifi was often called away to take dictation in the Senator’s study and as she straightened her seams and swept out of the room she would say in her soft Parisian accent, “Gordy, you must play alone for a while: play upstairs inside that little grey blancmange of yours, in your imagination”.

It was a classier way to say “make your own fun”, and I’ve always thought it was important to never be bored.

On one occasion when I was in pre-school at Miss Beauchamp’s Academy I was punished for some minor infraction of the behavioural code, a document running to twelve pages of rules in small print, which we were expected to memorise and observe to the letter. I believe the ribbon on my boater was fractionally wider than the officially allowed maximum of 1 5/8 inches. As a first offence I was treated with some lenience. Miss Beauchamp made me sit in silence in a classroom overlooking the pre-school manège, where my classmates were perfecting the piaffe on their ponies, and not move until given permission to do so. It was two hours of torture.

However, I walked out of that room with my head held high, and I gained two things as a result of the experience. The first was that I was so still and so quiet that the pre-school had a prize made in my honour. The Gordon Urquhart Cup For Perfect Quietness And Quietude was won by me in the first year of its existence, naturally, and in the decades since it has been won by three future High Court judges, the inventor of an app that calculates to the second when a property investor will be able to retire and live on the interest from their portfolio, and by a notorious petty criminal named Stinky Jim who was eventually gaoled for an extensive criminal history including several hundred indecent exposure offences. How an expert uses their facility with Quietness and Quietude is up to them, I suppose.

The second thing I gained that day in the classroom was time to think, and during that time I was able to consider the features of a theoretical business that would suit me best. It would be a company that specialised in corporate sarcasm training, which is what I dearly would have loved to use on Miss Beauchamp, and I wouldn’t be able to found it until after a number of careers had run their course. I did get around to it, though, and Elite Business Scorn would be floated in time, with my own parcel of shares sold only recently in order to add sparkling varietals to the range of wines produced at my Barossa operation.

The New Adventures of GORDON URQUHART – Strategic Discussions at Bruno’s

At some point in the mid-1980s – and I’m being intentionally vague here, because we all know what Lawyers can be like – I was a partner in a corporate strategy firm. These days it would be called something like Rebel Burger or Valid or Synkthink, as all of these companies seem to have names that sound wacky or are one word which sounds like it encapsulates independence of mind and boldness of action or they are a made up word that is supposed to sound clever. Of course they all try too hard and of course none of these types of names mean anything at all.

We were in a different period and our name suited the times. Hannaford Urquhart Consulting is what we were called. It was a name which didn’t tell you anything about the work we did, because we didn’t want just anyone to know. If you needed to know, you knew.

The company did a range of things and would have done more if my mate Doug Hannaford hadn’t gone off to work for the Sydney Olympic Games bid. Doug leaving meant the end for HUC as it was only ever he and I, in a spacious office with a view of the Botanic Garden’s on the other side of Macquarie Street. It was a beautiful office, with the sort of Regency door knobs that Nancy gets so excited about on National Trust weekends, but Dougie and I particularly liked it because we were close to the doctors and the lawyers and the politicians, and we were around the corner from Bruno’s, a little Italian place which did a veal scallopini so mouth-watering that it attracted hopeful diners from all over the city to ring up and attempt to book a table for lunch. Most were turned away. Dougie and I never were. It was practically a second office. We arranged to have Bruno’s tax done for him one time and this relieved him of a few financial obligations. It also led to a substantial refund which Bruno put towards a second investment property on the Gold Coast, which certain of his business associates who shared an enthusiasm for riding motorcycles used from time to time. In fact, Bruno told us he had never visited the eight-bedroom apartment at all. Someone called Cleaver told him it would be better not, or so the story went.

We became his accountants after this, officially anyway. It was the least we could do, when Bruno’s food was so good, and his post-lunch Hennessy cognac was served in such capacious vaporous balloons and his Romeo y Julieta cigars could be enjoyed in such ease while the pair of us chatted with clients or just thought hard about strategy. And strategy could be anything from marketing to public relations to legal advice. We didn’t discriminate too much if there was a client willing to pay.   Our business cards were mounted on a name plate and screwed into the wood panelling next to our regular table. Those long, smokey discussions yielded many things, some of which it would not be prudent to share, but if you ever wondered why the Sunnyboy pack was a triangular shape or why so many Australian films of the time could be described as “quirky” or how Christopher Skase became an overnight success, it might be that these things were discussed at Bruno’s before anyone else knew about them.

The New Adventures of GORDON URQUHART – Lockdown Woes

It’s difficult to know how to begin this, so I’ll just say a quick hello and endeavour to explain myself.

Since I last wrote your old friend Gordon has been busily labouring on projects, doing charity work, providing the odd bit of pro bono legal advice, that sort of thing. Those are the activities people say they’ve been doing, don’t they? When they’ve really been racing horses with their mates, skiing in winter and sailing in the summer, and importing cheese from Puglia purely for their own consumption. Huge glasses of Grange won’t swirl themselves, you know. And then someone has to drink them. “Drinking Grange is a vocation, not a job, Gordon,” my mate Remi says. Remi is from Bordeaux and he owns a couple of vineyards there. He was a French paratrooper who did some quite dangerous work in North Africa many years ago, which he is legally not permitted to talk about. We ask him about wine instead.     

It’s been an active and a varied period since I last wrote, and I’m sorry I stopped but it seemed that I had said all there was to say. Also, I must admit to growing a little bored and suspected that a few of you were losing interest too. The hardest thing in life is to avoid growing stale. Maybe the second hardest would be more accurate: getting preselected for a safe Liberal seat in rural Victoria is pretty hard, from what I hear.

In any case, things were going very well. Nancy and I would watch my grandson Titus’ school rugby matches on Saturday mornings and attend opening nights at the Opera House, just across the Harbour from our little place, on Saturday evenings. Those regular trips across to Circular Quay give you a reason to keep the jetty in good working order. As Nancy often says, there’s not much point having a boat house if you don’t use it, and the water taxi does a fine job of getting you and wifey from A to B.

All of this very comfortable normality was shattered, though, when Covid came along. Life became one long lazy Sunday morning, with Nancy and I seemingly wearing our Derek Rose English cashmere dressing gowns at all hours, leisurely reading the newspapers (both of them) which contained no news about anything at all, and generally looking like a couple of actors from those television commercials for health insurance that always feature impossibly good looking grey-haired people, looking physically strong and very athletic, with tanned skin and white teeth and hair that is thick and lustrous. I found myself watching TV in this period, as there was so little to do, which is why I would even know of such commercials. Anyway, that was the two of us. No dinner parties. No travel. It was like house arrest. All there was to do was a bit of shopping. I bought an original John Olsen, and also picked up a couple of Brett Whitely drawings for a very good price, although we had to hang them downstairs in the guest dressing room, for aesthetic reasons, Nancy says. I think she just doesn’t like that they’re both pictures of bums.

It was during this spree of “investing”, as my accountant calls it, that I began to write again. My old mate Billy Singleton, a lawyer from the old days, was also at home, also bored, also wondering if art purchases could sustain his interest when we weren’t watching our horse Woke Marauder coming fourth in front of no punters on TV. He said, “Urqy, why don’t you write some stories from the old days?” That’s all it took, ladies and gentlemen. I began writing more stories from the long and the more recent past and sent them to a select group of close mates, and now I’ve been given an opportunity to again share them with the rest of you in the pages of Modern Mogul. I hope you enjoy them.

TinyLetter Revival

A very short and not at all exciting announcement that this blog is now affiliated with a TinyLetter account: Occasional Briefings On Brief Occasions. “Affiliated” is intended to make this not sound like I’m just mucking around a bit and decided to revive something I created well over a year ago and had only posted one letter to (until just then). Apparently there are better platforms for publishing a subscription based newsletter – I had to do some Googling to find most of those words – but this is the one I’ve got and so I’ll have a crack at semi-regularly posting little bits about the people who confuse and amuse me on it.

If anyone should be interested by this enticing description, please feel free to subscribe (I think it’s called subscribe) here: tinyletter.com/philipkeenan

Fires Near Me

This essay was written during the Australian summer of 2019/20. It is about the destructive bushfires we experienced then.

I am moved by fancies that are curled

Around these images, and cling:

The notion of some infinitely gentle

Infinitely suffering thing.

– T.S. Eliot, Preludes

Hannam Vale, Friday November 8 – maximum temperature 34.3 degrees Celsius at Taree Airport AWS, 0 mm rainfall at Hannam Vale (Hannam Vale Road)

The photograph was taken at sunset and it showed a wall of red flame at the top of a nearby hill, apparently pausing briefly before deciding what to obliterate next. A mate sent it to the WhatsApp group that a few old school friends use to stay in touch. 

When another mate saw it he expressed the alarm which the rest of us felt: Shouldn’t you get out of there? Apparently the fire wasn’t as close as it looked. Close enough for an awesome photo: not close enough yet to run for your life. The first mate sounded matter of fact, standard for those who live in rural parts of the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, but he revealed that he and his partner and their kids were at a friend’s house – somewhere with a better view of what was going on, somewhere safer. 

Before moving here they lived in the outskirts of Canberra, on a place where leaves and twigs and pieces of bark – perfect for camp fire kindling, when camp fires were still allowed – lay ankle-deep around the timber house, and trees grew densely over the property and the entire district. The location was barely a settlement at all: there was an ACT Rural Fire Service shed, which presumably housed a truck, and this building doubled as a community hall. It made perfect sense when my mate said that their bushfire plan was to quickly pack the car and go. Any notion of defending that house was risible. 

My mate and his partner left the ACT and came to a hamlet with a handful of shops and a tiny yet adequate school and a local woman who comes out to your house and cuts your hair for you, saving a long drive to the nearest barber or salon. They had space and there was again room for a horse or two and all of their other animals.

The lifestyle suited them. He had worked for the Environment Department in Canberra and he had, with several others, become surplus to the requirements of a Prime Minister who remained to be convinced about the impact of human agency upon climate change. He later became a consultant, doing roughly the same work but mostly from home, which meant a rural location could work for him as well as it did for his partner, a lobbyist who needs to be in Canberra at times but can work anywhere if she has access to a phone and a computer.

His mates wonder how he’s going and if he’s happy and it is a treat to see him in Sydney, where we were all raised and went to school together. The most recent time I saw him was at our twenty-five year school reunion, and he was fine, of course, and we talked about cricket, as we always do. There I spoke to a friend I hadn’t seen for well over a decade as we looked out at Sydney’s gorgeous harbour while evening turned to night and the lights of the city shone back at us, and he told me about coming there that afternoon on public transport, a rare experience for someone in insurance, it seems, and he said, “This place is a shit show.” He was right. Sydney is an unutterably attractive yet almost wholly dysfunctional place. It has never really worked properly, and it’s too expensive to live here. My public servant mate found a different life, a way to get out. But in two weeks the fire that would begin surrounding the city would first come for his little farm.

By the Monday morning after the Friday photo message my mate and the family had come to Sydney. They had lost power and it seemed like the safe thing to do with predicted bad weather for the coming week. While they were at his mother’s place in the affluent North Shore the wind changed direction and returning home became an option. The North Shore is often referred to as “leafy” and the volume of trees became a problem when weather conditions put certain suburbs in danger. A journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald was dispatched to look for a story and my mate’s mum was interviewed about the precautions she had taken. But the fires had other plans and the danger passed.

That weekend my mate called me from his second very long car trip of the week, hoping to get back as quickly as possible, hoping the wind wouldn’t change direction again, and carrying the body of their recently deceased family dog over 300km up the Pacific Highway, to be buried where he belonged. One of our dogs had died only a month before and while it was deeply affecting to hear about the death of a beloved family pet there was something beautiful about taking him home.

Tamworth, Tuesday November 12 – maximum temperature 34.8 degrees Celsius, 0 mm rainfall at Taree Airport AWS

Another mate was on the road for work, seeing clients in Armidale and Tamworth, and he sent a photo and a video to the same WhatsApp group. In the photo trucks were stopped at a police roadblock, with immense plumes of smoke hovering over a ridge in the background. The video showed him following a truck driver attempting to skirt the fire and escape the area.

On the video you could hear ABC local radio inside his car and I remember thinking that some of the commentators he likes to watch on Sky News After Dark question the importance of the ABC and believe it should be privatised. This illustrated one of the reasons why it is an important institution – you don’t get local natural disaster updates of this sort anywhere else. 

He does a job I don’t fully understand, working for a company which provides a computer program financial advisers can use to help invest their clients’ superannuation more profitably. Apparently he’s very good at the work and the need to sometimes see financial advisers in person allows him to indulge a love of driving on country roads.

During the recent federal election political discussion on our little WhatsApp group lost its humour and took on a tinge of spite. This mate felt that the prospect of older people losing their franking credits was a terrible, almost unconscionable, thing to contemplate. Others had differing views, some more strident than the rest. Dividend imputation had to be explained to me, and even after it was I couldn’t honestly say I understood it, although it sounded a bit like a reward for already having money. 

And other electoral issues were discussed, in the sneering tone which the group adopted, but not all enjoyed.  Once a non-political mate wrote: Can we not talk about politics again please! The election came and went, calm was restored, and important things endured, as they do in this country. 

It must have occurred to someone, as this mate was trapped by bushfires, to suggest he rethink his objection to the concept of climate change, a process contributing to his present predicament. But nobody wrote that. We just wanted him safe and home again soon. The last time my racing industry mate could spare a rare few days to come to Sydney from his Asian base we sat in a restaurant with wives and partners and children and the closeness and amity of decades was felt immediately, as ever when we get together. Public servant mate made the point that we were sitting in a sort of political alignment along the restaurant table, with finance mate at the far right end and him at the far left. I wondered if there was enough distance between them and suggested that maybe we needed a longer table. We laughed about it and told the stories we always tell.       

There has been pain in finance mate’s life and his family are still dealing with that pain. He’s a bit of a smartarse and always amusing company and very thoughtful whenever you take the trouble to talk to him about any of life’s big questions. And he’s also a very talented photographer, as we learned when we saw the photos he sent back from the extended overseas sabbatical he took following the death of his brother eighteen months ago.

By late afternoon this Tuesday, and having followed the truck he was tailing back to Tamworth, he accepted defeat and knew he wouldn’t be able to drive to Sydney until the next day. He seemed pleased with himself even. He wrote: Just smashed a massive schnitty. I imagined him sitting in one of the capacious, very comfortable pubs in that part of the world with a schnitzel draped over his plate and the satisfied smile which comes from making the best of a bad situation.    

Darling Harbour, Tuesday December 10 – maximum temperatures 30.1 degrees Celsius, 0 mm rainfall at Sydney (Observatory Hill)

The event was at the National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour and it was one of those off-site staff days that public servants attend to refresh and recharge and energise and to focus on what’s important. There were guest speakers and performances and the staff, who all work on making New South Wales more environmentally sustainable, were thanked for a successful year and encouraged to renew their efforts. My wife was among them.

Inside the conference facility members of the senior management team sang “Carbon Give it Up” to the tune of the KC and The Sunshine Band song, a performance featuring some rather impressive falsetto and a fair bit of daggy dancing. Outside the facility there was so much smoke you couldn’t see from one side of Darling Harbour to the other. 

The public servants all had an opportunity to marvel at this fact when they were forced to go outside because the smoky air caused fire alarms to go off. One woman was overcome by the conditions and had to be sent home.

A mate of mine was forced to leave the government building in Parramatta where he works when the smoke alarms went off there too. 

Elsewhere in Sydney, Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave a press conference about changes to his religious freedom bill, and had very little to say about the weather and the fires and the fact that it smelled like someone was about to start cooking on an old-fashioned barbecue all the time, wherever you went, these days. The sun looked red and the air had a yellow tint to it and nobody had seen blue sky for weeks, but the prime minister didn’t say anything about these things either. 

On the way back to work after my lunchtime stroll I saw cars stopped at traffic lights a block away and the look of the air strongly resembled an early July morning in the Southern Highlands, where the fog is thick and the atmosphere is fresh and you know that the dogs you are walking will appreciate going back to the little holiday cabin and warming up again in front of the wood fire. Yet this was the middle of the day, and early summer, and I thought of all the people who suffer with asthma and other respiratory ailments, my wife among them, and how much harder it is to get through the day when the air outside isn’t safe to breathe. On this Tuesday the Air Quality Index, updated hourly on the NSW Department of Planning, Industry & Environment website, registered twelve times higher than the Hazardous level of 200 Units.

You could smell the smoke under ground in Sydney Metro stations, a form of driverless public transport we were all supposed to be excited about, but which rapidly lost its novelty and became like the others – subject to official exaggeration about efficiency, no faster than alternatives, and likely to experience problems which just shouldn’t happen (in one Metro station an escalator stopped while I was travelling on it on two separate occasions, and another escalator broke down, unusable for months). Beside these commuting innovations there had been a few things to get used to since being forced to move to Macquarie Park after a company merger early in the year. For starters, there’s the heavy vehicle traffic and constant construction noise and the absurd time it takes to cross Lane Cove Road. Even before smoke from the fires this was one of the most polluted places in Australia. The state government is encouraging businesses to move to the area and we must hope that one day it will become a pleasant place to work.

Point Clare, Sunday December 15 – maximum temperature 28.9 degrees Celsius, 0 mm rainfall at Gosford AWS 

Friends visited briefly to see the foster cat we had decided to keep who had originally been part of a family of strays roaming their suburb. He’s a lovely ginger boy and they were happy to see him so well and grown so big. My wife and I were decorating gingerbread bells and angels and Christmas trees with icing when they arrived. 

Talk quickly moved to the weather and the fires and a historical perspective for our New Zealand friends. Almost my entire life has been lived in this city and bushfire smoke is something which does happen, but it is uncommon and lasts for a day or so, not for a month with no sign of abating. My wife recalled fires in early 1990s when she was on a jazz camp in the school holidays and they stood in the low surf in the Northern Beaches and could see dark masses of dirty grey on the horizon to the west. But this example lingered in the memory because it was unusual.

The man said his sister in Auckland told him that our smoke could be smelled there too. He was becoming frustrated with the sense of apathy in the city: the keep calm and carry on mentality when people should be shouting and screaming and demanding that something be done. At the recent rally organised by Extinction Rebellion and others, called ‘NSW is Burning, Sydney is Choking’, which marched from Town Hall to Hyde Park a few days before, he said it felt empowering to finally be around people who wanted to actually do something about what was happening.

And then my mobile phone rang and I was called away to talk to a male relative. He completely overwhelmed my attention, which is often the case when he calls unexpectedly, and his rare calls always seem unexpected. 

I stood in the least dilapidated room of our rented house, recently transformed into the Christmas room – with a closed door to keep our five cats away from the tree and the tinsel and the lights, preventing damage to decorations and injury to curious felines – and spoke to him. In his gruff and guttural way he opened with a challenge: 

“I got your Christmas card.”

“Oh, good. I’m glad,” I said.

“Yeah, I don’t send them. I’m a bit more like ‘Bah! Humbug!’ with Christmas.” 

I said that was fine, but he got a card like everyone else on the list, and even if it wasn’t an important occasion for him we still wished him a Happy Christmas. I think he said “Bah! Humbug!” again at this point. He certainly said it a few more times before the conversation was over. 

When I asked how he was he said things were pretty bad. I recalled that his joints tend to ache in the colder months and hoped the pain was reduced in summer. He said his main difficulty now was in his head, and I thought about the loss of his partner, a woman he had loved very deeply for so long in his undemonstrative way and had grieved for very hard when she died two years ago. 

But we talked about the fires. I said I had looked for Point Clare on the Fires Near Me app and realised that there was nothing very close to him on the Central Coast. 

Again there was a challenge: “Just how close do you think is close, Phil?” 

In response I took cover and only emerged with extreme caution when the coast was clear. I made a joke – “Well, it’s not burning right outside your back door” – and admitted that he was right and what I said was a collection of ill-chosen words.

 Ours has always been a strange relationship. Despite attending a fairly fancy school and graduating from uni with a fairly pointless degree he has never rejected me as soft and girly. 

The truth is that we are very different types of men. Facial hair and adventure sports and having almost any practical skills at all are foreign to me. My male relative can build things and used to go diving and still pulls heavy things on a trailer through mud and shallow streams with his 4WD. We’ve bonded over footy and drinking, in his case with a little more theatre and much more capacity than mine.

If the fires got closer he said there may be nowhere to run. His part of the world would be cut off. He suggested that the huge trees in his area which grow among the houses should be replaced with more manageable and fast growing trees that only reach a couple of metres high, as the truly fine specimens, trees he loves, are just too dangerous if there’s a fire or a storm, when they come down and cause harm to people and property. This seemed sensible. It also seemed sensible to put electrical and phone cables underground and take away the telegraph poles which are also potentially dangerous. 

He said that of course the fires were linked with climate change and he couldn’t believe it was possible for politicians to fail to recognise the connection and do something about it. He said that his mate, who works in forestry, had been fighting bushfires continually since September, while the fire season is not supposed to start until late December.  

He told me about the insurance on his home, a little place which would now be out of financial reach to us, as all houses seem to be. In the event of fire, he would need to replace everything, as he backs onto a National Park and the entire structure would go. Also, it would only be possible to rebuild with more expensive, fire retardant materials, including double glazing. We agreed that we hated insurers and banks and the words “extortion” and “thieves” and “bastards” were used. News reports we both saw showed people saying they would not have enough insurance money to rebuild their incinerated houses. 

And he told me that he had seen a psychologist and I said that I saw one in 2017 and 2018. It became a supportive conversation, the kind we want more men to have: listening and sharing without judgement. As he left his first session the psychologist wished him a happy Christmas. 

“Bah! Humbug!” he said.

“I like your sense of humour,” she replied, and when he told me this I felt like there was a good chance therapy would help him. 

Bundanoon, Thursday December 19 – maximum temperature 37.1 degrees at Moss Vale AWS, 0 mm rainfall at Fitzroy Falls (Red Hills)      

The plan was to take our friend to see the glow worms at Bundanoon in the Southern Highlands just before the week of Christmas. Hopefully this would mean avoiding traffic and it would be a leisurely afternoon, with a pub dinner in the evening, glow worms after sundown and home at night a couple of hours later. 

In the afternoon we began to focus on the Balmoral fire, also in the Southern Highlands, one of the fires NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons spoke about at the press conferences he held during the day. Our friend had worked with Shane and said he was a lovely person as well as being a very competent commissioner. He had been good to her when her mum died. She had no doubt that the powers conferred by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian in declaring a state of emergency would be very wisely used by her old boss. 

We made the only sensible decision, not to go. Those fighting the fires would need road access and their job could only be more difficult with added people who didn’t need to be there. Locals were already clogging roads in and out of the area, trying to get home or to leave.

So we didn’t see the glow worms, which aren’t really worms at all. They are larvae of fungus gnats from the genus Arachnocampa, which are only found in Australia and New Zealand. They dangle silken threads, which capture insect prey like spider webs, and attract that prey with blue-green bioluminescence, seen at night, produced by a reaction between an enzyme and a pigment in the larval body and oxygen in the air. The effect is magical. Glow worms require constant moisture and there are now only a handful of colonies in Australia as habitats become too dry to support them.  

Our plan for the day had to change. What to us was an inconvenience was to others a very real and rapidly unfolding tragedy. Two Rural Fire Service volunteers were killed that night.

We could see the glow worms at another time, we thought, when peoples’ lives weren’t combusting only a few kilometres away. In the month since, fires have twice threatened the town of Bundanoon, causing it to be evacuated, and the danger is not over yet.

Sydney Harbour, Tuesday 31 December – maximum temperature 36.6 degrees Celsius, 0 mm rainfall at Sydney (Observatory Hill Comparison)

On New Year’s Eve it was hot and we had forgotten to get sparklers and so didn’t go outside and perform our little midnight ritual. We didn’t make figures of eight and spirals and write our names in glowing flame while the oblivious neighbourhood sleeps on, undisturbed by sporadic backyard fireworks detonating until dawn.

Instead we went to bed, too tired to see the New Year in. We didn’t watch the $5.8 million Sydney Harbour fireworks on TV which 284,000 petition signatures had sought to cancel. We didn’t see the display, which generates $130 million for the state economy, and which only went ahead because the Rural Fire Service exempted it from total fire bans imposed on much of New South Wales that day. Apparently it was very fine, as usual, and over $2 million was raised for bushfire relief.

The next day we learned that smoke from Australian fires had reached New Zealand, blanketing the south island and reducing visibility to 10km. Glaciers had turned brown and the peaks around Queenstown, where our friends had visited their families for Christmas, were covered in haze.  And so 2020 begins. At the time of writing in mid-January this summer’s Australian bushfire death toll is twenty-nine and climbing, with countless losses to property and biodiversity, and no prospect of the situation improving until we have proper rain, maybe in April. It is a sad and scary thing to be ringed by fires in this luminous city which we have never been able to make work and which nature is showing us we don’t deserve. But sadness should be for the fire victims on the outskirts of our little suburban lives. We are no longer immune from their concerns – indeed we never were, but some of us are starting to realise that now.