Saturday 7 April 2012


“Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?” - John 11:25, 26
A gem from Bach’s divinely inspired pen on this Easter Saturday. Here is the lovely Adagio from the Easter Oratorio, BWV249 with Alexei Ogrintchouk playing oboe. I hope that everyone celebrating Easter this weekend has a peaceful, blessed and serene time.

Friday 6 April 2012


“Religion is to do right. It is to love, it is to serve, it is to think, it is to be humble.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Today is Good Friday for the Western Churches (Eastern churches celebrate Easter a week later this year). Good Friday is the most solemn and sorrowful day in the Christian calendar.  No work should be done on this day of prayer and reflection when one should mourn for Christ’s death on the cross.  No iron tools should be handled and hammers and nails are to be avoided especially, lest you crucify Christ anew.  If clothes are washed on this day, a member of the family will die. As the clothes hang out to dry they will be spotted with blood.  This belief is from the apocryphal story that relates of a washerwoman mockingly throwing dirty washing water on Christ on his way to Calvary.  Parsley seed can be planted on this day, provided a wooden spade is used.

It is a tradition that Hot Cross Buns should be baked on this day in memory of the kindly woman who gave Christ some bread on His way to Calvary.  It is said that no bread or buns baked on this day will grow mouldy.
            Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs
            With one-a-penny, two-a-penny, Hot Cross Buns
            Whose virtue if you’ll believe what’s said
            They’ll not grow mouldy like ordinary bread.

Not all Hot Cross Buns baked on Good Friday should be consumed, but some kept as they protect sailors from shipwreck and houses from fire. Bread baked on Good Friday should be dried and kept for traditions says that if is soaked in milk and consumed, it will cure all sorts of stomach ailments.  However, it should be noted that Russian tradition and religious observance forbid baking on Good Friday.

Thursday 5 April 2012


“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.” - Mahatma Gandhi

I consider myself very lucky to live in Australia. It is a vast, beautiful, bountiful country with rich resources, a good standard of living, good health care and a social welfare system that looks after citizens. Our economy is in a comparatively healthy state, the unemployment rate is relatively low and most people live their lives with dignity and happiness. In the last few years things have been changing. Unfortunately these changes are not always for the good of the majority of the population. Our system has been moving away from that of a democracy that is socially aware and is committed to the well-being of every Australian, towards a system more aligned to the tenets of capitalism where big business and the rich are favoured, to the detriment of the middle classes and the poor, whose standard of living is becoming eroded.

One of the most useful and socially responsible things that we can be thankful for in Australia is the Government-sponsored and supported programs that involve health screening of the population for common diseases like breast and bowel cancer. These two cancers are not only exceedingly common in Australia, but also can be fully cured if treated at an early stage. This is the reasoning behind the routine screening that is done on ostensibly healthy people and which discovers early curable cancers that have not shown any symptoms.

The Cancer Council launched the “Get Behind Bowel Screening” campaign in June 2009 in response to the Federal Government ignoring its calls to provide a fully implemented bowel cancer screening program. It is 13 years since the Government’s own expert medical body recommended all Australians aged 50 and over, be screened for bowel cancer every two years. The Government is currently only funding a one-off test for 50, 55 and 65 year olds, but with more than 14,000 men and women diagnosed (and more than 4,000 people dying) in Australia every year from bowel cancer, more need be done. Around 90% of bowel cancers are curable if caught early.

Bowel cancer kills 73 Australians every week (the nation’s second-biggest cancer killer, after lung cancer) affecting both men and women. Regular screening is important because someone can have bowel cancer without any noticeable symptoms. It is Australia’s most expensive cancer, costing an estimated $1 billion each year to the health system – mostly in taxpayer-funded pharmaceutical and hospital costs. By expanding the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program the Australian Government could reduce health system expenditure and save lives.

Every Australian should actively become involved in this great campaign by the Cancer Council in order to convince the Government of the necessity of a fully implemented bowel cancer screening program. We should be contacting our members of parliament in order to get them to support this call for action. This can be done at the Cancer Council’s site.

If it is fully implemented, the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program is the most effective measure available to the Australian government for immediately reducing bowel cancer death in Australia. It has the potential to save more than 30 lives a week! This is what our politicians need to understand and act upon…

Wednesday 4 April 2012


“It was the men I deceived the most that I loved the most.” - Marguerite Duras

Marguerite Duras, which is the nom-de-plume of Marguerite Donnadieu was born on April 4th, 1914, in Gia Dinh, Cochinchina, Vietnam. She died on March 3rd 1996, Paris, France. She is a French novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and film director, internationally known for her screenplays of the classic “Hiroshima mon Amour” (1959) and “India Song” (1975). The novel “L’Amant” (1984; The Lover; film, 1992) won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1984.

Duras spent most of her childhood in French Indochina, but at the age of 17 she moved to France to study at the Sorbonne, from which she received licences in law and politics. From 1935 to 1941 Duras worked as a secrerary at the ministry of colonies. During World War II, she was a member of French Resistance; she had also joined the Communist Party. After the war she condemned its policies and was expelled in 1950 for revisionism. Although Duras had helped writers opposing Nazis during the war, she was also accused of being a member of literary committee controlled by the Germans. She began writing in 1942. “Un Barrage Contre le Pacifique” (1950; The Sea Wall), her third published novel and first success, dealt semi-autobiographically with a poor French family in Indochina. Her next successes, “Le Marin de Gibraltar” (1952; The Sailor from Gibraltar) and the experimental “Moderato Cantabile” (1958), which were more lyrical and complex and more given to dialogue.

Duras’ splendid instinct for dialogue led to the production of the original screenplay for Alain Resnais’ critically acclaimed film “Hiroshima mon Amour”, about a brief love affair in postwar Hiroshima between a Japanese businessman and a French actress. This is now a classic film exploring the themes of war, love, memory and oblivion. She directed as well as wrote the 1975 film adaptation of her play “India Song”, which presents a slow, atmospheric portrayal of the wife of the French ambassador in Calcutta and her several lovers. Some of Duras’ screenplays were adaptations of her own novels and short stories.

Duras turned regularly to a more abstract and synthetic mode, with fewer characters, less plot and narrative, and fewer of the other elements of traditional fiction; her name was even associated with the nouveau roman (“new novel”) movement, though she denied such a connection. The semi-autobiographical story of “L’Amant”, about a French teenage girl’s love affair with a Chinese man 12 years her senior, was revised in the novel “L’Amant de la Chine du Nord” (1991; The North China Lover). Among her other novels were “L’Après-midi de Monsieur Andesmas” (1962; The Afternoon of Monsieur Andesmas), “Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein” (1964; The Ravishing of Lol Stein), “Détruire, dit-elle” (1969; Destroy, She Said), “L’Amour” (1971; “Love”), “L’Été 80” (1980; “Summer 80”), and “La Pluie d’Été” (1990; Summer Rain). Collections of her plays were included in “Théâtre I” (1965), “Théâtre II” (1968), and “Théâtre III” (1984).

Despite her success as a writer, Duras’ adult life was also marked by personal challenges, including a recurring struggle with alcoholism. Duras died of throat cancer in Paris, aged 81. She is buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse.

Tuesday 3 April 2012


“The groundflame of the crocus breaks the mould, Fair Spring slides hither o'er the Southern sea, Wavers on her thin stem the snowdrop cold That trembles not to kisses of the bee: Come Spring, for now from all the dripping eaves The spear of ice has wept itself away, And hour by hour unfolding woodbine leaves O'er his uncertain shadow droops the day.” - Lord Alfred Tennyson
The crocus, Crocus flavus, is the birthday flower for this day and it symbolises the gladness of youth.  The ancient Greeks had a rather more lugubrious tale to tell. Crocus was a beautiful youth who loved Smilax, a nymph.  His love was unrequited and he pined away and died. The gods turned the hapless youth into the flower while the nymph was changed into the yew tree. Another ancient Greek legend has a different story of the metamorphosis of Crocus. This one reates that Crocus was an Arcadian boy who was loved by Hermes. When the god accidentally killed him playing discus, he transformed the boy into a crocus flower.

Crocus flavus (syn. Crocus luteus, Crocus aureus) often called the Dutch Yellow Crocus is a plant of the Crocus genus in the Iridaceae family. It grows wild on the slopes of Greece, former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania and North West Turkey with bright orange-yellow flowers which Tennyson likened to a fire. It is a small crocus (5-6 cm), despite the names of some cultivars, compared to the Giant Dutch crocuses (C. vernus). Its cultivars are used as ornamental plants. It naturalises well, and has been considered a weed.

As Spring is springing in the Northern Hemisphere, the crocus is an apt birthday flower for today, but in the Southern Hemisphere we are enjoying the mild, sunny days of Autumn and the cool nights, which keep on lengthening relentlessly with each passing day. Perhaps a more apt Southern Hemisphere birthday flower for today would be the meadow saffron, Colchicum autumnale.  It speaks the words: “My best days are over” in the language of flowers.  The ancient Greeks believed that the plant sprang from spilt drops of the youth elixir that Medea gave Jason to restore his youth.  Hence the name of this plant as Medea was from Colchis.

Colchicum autumnale, commonly known as autumn crocus, meadow saffron or naked lady, is a flower that resembles the true crocuses, but flowers in autumn. This is not a reliable distinction, however, since there are many true crocuses that flower in autumn. The name “naked lady” comes from the fact that the pinkish/magenta flowers emerge from the ground long after the leaves have died back. The species is commonly cultivated in temperate areas. 

Colchicine is a medication used for gout. It is a toxic natural product and secondary metabolite, originally extracted from plants of the genus Colchicum. It was used originally to treat rheumatic complaints, especially gout, and still finds use for these purposes today despite dosing issues concerning its toxicity. It was also prescribed for its cathartic and emetic effects. Colchicine's present medicinal use is in the treatment of gout, familial Mediterranean fever, pericarditis and Behçet’s disease. It is also being investigated for its use as an anticancer drug.

Monday 2 April 2012


“Conservation means the wise use of the earth and its resources for the lasting good of men.” - Gifford Pinchot

We watched a slow, brooding but nevertheless quite engaging Australian film at the weekend. It was the 2011 Daniel Nettheim film “The Hunter” starring Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Frances O’Connor and Morgana Davies. The film was based on the novel by Julia Leigh, with a screenplay by Alice Addison and Wain Fimeri. The film is set in Tasmania and the gorgeous scenic beauty of this Australian island is captured wonderfully by the cinematographer Robert Humphreys. The film has a central theme that is very much a controversial one in Tasmania – that of environmental concerns competing with security of jobs and the livelihood of many a local, who depend on logging to make a living.

Firstly a bit of background information, as central to the movie’s plot is an extinct Australian animal known as the Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus). This animal was the largest known carnivorous marsupial of modern times. It is known as a “tiger” because of its striped back. Native to continental Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea, it is thought to have become extinct in the first half of the 20th century. It was the last extant member of its family, Thylacinidae, although several related species have been found in the fossil record dating back to the early Miocene. The Tasmanian Tiger had become extremely rare or extinct on the Australian mainland before European settlement of the continent, but it survived on the island of Tasmania along with several other endemic species, including the Tasmanian devil (still common).

Intensive hunting of the Tasmanian Tiger encouraged by bounties is generally blamed for its extinction, but other contributing factors may have been disease, the introduction of dogs, and human encroachment into its habitat. Despite its official classification as extinct, sightings are still reported, though none are proven. Like the tigers and wolves of the Northern Hemisphere, the thylacine was an apex predator. Its closest living relative is thought to be either the Tasmanian devil or the numbat. The thylacine was one of only two marsupials to have a pouch in both sexes (the other being the water opossum). The male thylacine had a pouch that acted as a protective sheath, covering the male’s external reproductive organs while he ran through thick brush. It has been described as a formidable predator because of its ability to survive and hunt prey in extremely sparsely populated areas.

In the movie, Willem Dafoe plays Martin David, an elite hunter who is secretly hired to locate the last Tasmanian Tiger (in this film, recently sighted in the wilds of Tasmania). He is under instructions to obtain genetic samples for a military biopharmaceutical company and then destroy all traces of this last surviving member of the species. The object is for the company to be the only producer of a potent biological toxin that the tiger is reputed to produce and which will be used in biological warfare. When he arrives in Tasmania, Martin discovers his lodgings are rather basic and not quite what he had expected (the lack of electricity especially and the dirty bathroom cause him a great deal of annoyance). He is to board at the home of a widow, Lucy Armstrong (Frances O’Connor), whose husband, Jarrah, an outspoken environmentalist with many enemies, went missing a few months before. Lucy has sunken into depression aided by liberally administered medication and when Martin arrives, the only signs of life are Lucy’s two inquisitive kids, Sass (Morgana Davies) and Bike (Finn Woodlock) who take an immediate liking to Martin. The hunter soon runs into serious problems, kicked off by a confrontation with loggers who view him as “greenie”, seeing how his alias identity is that of University professor researching Tasmanian devils.

The movie has gorgeous cinematography of some really beautiful countryside; that alone is worth seeing the film for. Dafoe at the core of the action gives a great performance acting with his facial expressions and gestures for the greater part of the film when he is tracking the Tiger all alone in the wilderness. He was very well supported by the remainder of the cast, with Sam Neill playing a duplicitous local and Sullivan Stapleton an aggressive logger. However top honours go to the two young kids who carry the film together with Dafoe. The young girl, Sass, played by Morgana Davies is quite endearing and amazing in her acting, while the silent, psychologically disturbed young boy, Bike, played by Finn Woodlock almost counterpoints Martin’s character, explaining their mutual sympathy.

The film has a lot of plot holes and there are serious issues with the science behind it. Some of the characters are a little shallow and not well developed, but most of these problems with the film surface in retrospect. While one is watching the movie, one is drawn in and despite its slow pace, it does build up to a great climax. It is a dark and brooding movie that makes an environmental statement and examines the role of humans in the natural world. It is quite entertaining also, so they are good enough reasons to watch it, weaknesses notwithstanding…

Sunday 1 April 2012


“I dream of painting and then I paint my dream.” - Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh was born near Brabant in Southern Holland on March 30, 1853. He was the oldest son of a Dutch minister, and his father had high hopes for him, which were disappointed when his son finally found his life’s work in art. Van Gogh grew to become one of the most well-known and influential artists of the 19th century, but unfortunately not in his lifetime. Van Gogh tried his hand at several different vocations including working for Goupil & Co., an art dealer, at the age of 16 with his younger brother Theo, teaching as an assistant in Ramsgate, and acting as a layman preacher in a poor coal mining district in Belgium, before finally deciding to become an artist at the age of twenty-seven. His early works are dark portraying poor city dwellers as well as Dutch peasants hard at work.

Van Gogh’s good relationship with his four-year younger brother, Theo, is well documented in the vast number of letters they sent each other. Van Gogh’s letters to his brother and to other artists provide a rare insight into the life and thoughts of this painter and make for fascinating reding. In 1886, Van Gogh moved to Paris where he lived with his brother, now the manager of Goupil’s. Theo financially supported Vincent for nearly all of his life, necessary as Van Gogh hardly sold any paintings during his life. In Paris Van Gogh became familiar with the work of the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists.  He befriended Pissarro, Monet and Gauguin. Van Gogh began to lighten his color palette and experimented with different shorter brushstrokes.  His works changed from peasant workers to images of Paris, portraits, self-portraits, and images of flowers.

In 1888, at the age of 35, Van Gogh moved from Paris to Arles where he had dreams of starting a community of artists.  Theo continued to support him financially and tried to sell his artwork, albeit unsuccessfully. Fellow artist Paul Gauguin joined him for a short time in Arles, however, the two soon fell out. Van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a razor and ended up cutting off a portion of his own ear, forcing Gauguin to flee Alrles. Struggling with fits of madness Van Gogh spent time in an asylum in Arles and then in Saint Remy.

Van Gogh spent much time in the asylum at Saint Remy though it was later believed that he suffered from epilepsy. In Saint Remy he painted some 150 paintings. Upon his release in 1890 he went to Auvers-sur-Oise where he was under the care of physician and painter, Dr. Paul Gachet (an excellent portrait of whom by Vincent exists). In two months Van Gogh was averaging a painting a day. At the age of 37, Van Gogh attempted suicide, while in a wheat field he shot himself in the chest.  He died two days later with his brother at his side.  Six months later Theo died as well and was buried next to his brother in the small church at Auvers-sur-Oise.

The painting above is The Red Vineyard, painted in 1888, and which is believed to be the only painting van Gogh sold during his lifetime. The painting was exhibited for the first time at the annual exhibition of Les XX, 1890 in Brussels, and sold for 400 Francs (equal to about $1,000-1,050 today) to Anna Boch, an impressionist painter, member of Les XX and art collector from Belgium; Anna was the sister of Eugène Boch, another impressionist painter and a friend of Van Gogh, too, who had painted Boch’s portrait (Le Peintre aux Étoiles) in Arles, in autumn 1888. Like The Night Café, it was subsequently acquired by the famous Russian collector Sergei Shchukin, was then nationalised by the Bolsheviks with the rest of his collection and eventually passed to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, where it is currently exhibited.

The painting is a fine scene of the travails of the rural worker during the vintage months of Autumn. Van Gogh has chosen sunset to give the russet leaves of the vines a stunning colour. The workers are busy gathering the grapes, while the sun beams down as it goes towards the West, peripheral in the canvas but central to the composition and a magnet for the eyes. The sun’s reflection in the water leads the eyes into the vineyard where figures provide pivotal points for the exploration of this wonderful canvas. The yellows and reds are balanced by the blacks, greys, violets and browns, providing for a visual feast.