From under the linoleum
Old newspapers show Mussolini's imperialism looked a lot like today's

I sat on the floor and picked through the tragedy of the country we now call Ethiopia laid out on the yellowing pages. It was eerily reminiscent of the current Iraq adventure.

A tale for our times
The December 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov

Seventy years on, the killing of Sergei Kirov casts an eerie light on the events of 11 September 2001, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the “war on Terror” and the state-sponsored hysteria surrounding the shadowy figures of Osama bin Ladin and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Ninety-three years of bombing the Arabs
It was the Italians, hell-bent on acquiring an African empire, who got the ball rolling. In 1911 the Libyan Arab tribes opposed an Italian invasion. Their civilians were the first people in the world to be bombed from the air.

Dispossessed all over again
After spending nearly two months in the West Bank the pull towards my village was growing stronger, especially after being detained twice and threatened with deportation … an Australian Palestinian returns to her ancestral home.

The tragic inevitability of a forlorn hope
Australia slides further into the Iraq quagmire
Cabinet documents recently released under the 50-year rule show that, in 1954, Liberal (conservative) Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, and key figures in his Cabinet were extremely gloomy about the prospects for success in an American war against nationalists in Indochina. But eventually they went to the Vietnam War anyway.

Bombing King David
One man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist

Some historians date the beginning of modern terrorism from the 1946 bombing by Zionist terrorists of the British military HQ in Jerusalem.

Don’t loiter near the exit
Military debacle and economic decline haunt the Bush regime

When I was just a young possum in the school cadet corps there was a hoary old war story that we all knew. It was almost certainly apocryphal, but it ruefully expressed a nasty historic truth about the US role in the demise of the British Empire.


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The fig of the forbidden tree

6 May 1999

"Working on any interesting cases?" Old Possum asked.

"Well, yes, without going into details -- which would be unprofessional -- I've been retained by a fourth party to do some snooping around on the Bob Ellis paternity allegations. It's likely to be a nice little earner", I replied.

"What simple pleasure is brought to our lives by these little imbroglios of the great and famous", he chuckled. "Alan Jones being arrested in the London public toilet, Malcolm Fraser losing his pants in a Memphis Hotel, Rupert Murdoch's new woman, Gina versus Rose Handcock, Billy Snedden dying on the job ..."

"Well, and then there was Alan Jones getting the shove from the Sun Herald. You remember, some anonymous person sent him the text of a 'secret KGB document' from a Frederick Forsyth potboiler and he thought it was genuine and ran it in his column."

"With any luck these things end up in the courts where the lawyers manage to siphon off bucketloads of money and redistribute it downwards."

We were strolling down to the park with a magnificent Sydney Sunday spread out before us. Brilliant sunlight fell all around. A tall blue sky, washed clean by days of rain, arched overhead. Majestic rain clouds boiling up, luminous cream and white on top, deep greys underneath, falling to a far horizon. And it was all free.

We sat on the seat under the old Moreton Bay fig -- a huge, spreading tree with deep buttress roots and massive branches. It must have been planted well over a hundred years ago.

I'm sure the city fathers who planted them valued them just for their grandness. They couldn't have known how important they would become for the wild things that share the city with people. That was just an accident of aesthetics, a crumb from the human banquet table.

They support little colonies of fig birds and at night grey-headed flying foxes swarm through them, feasting on ripe figs and gibbering at each other in their weird electronic voices.

If you carefully break open a fig you will see that it is not really a fruit: it's an invaginated inflorescence -- a flower head with hundreds of little flowers. It's rather like a daisy turned in on itself and almost tied off at the top. If you look hard you'll often see the tiny, tiny, wasps that pollinate the flowers crawling around inside the fig. The seeds themselves are like little flecks of sawdust and the survival of each species of fig depends on just one species of little pollinating wasp ensuring that the seeds are viable.

"A wonderful metaphor, really" Old Possum remarked, "Such a big impressive thing depending on such a small, seemingly insignificant one. It makes me think of the whole monetary system".

"That's a pretty big call", I said. "You'd better explain it slowly".

"Well if the wasps died out, figs wouldn't disappear immediately. They'd die off one by one and it would be only decades later, maybe, that somebody would notice that no new figs were germinating.

"Think of the seeds as currency -- little round bits of intrinsically valuable metal -- gold or silver. Our whole monetary system began like that. Everybody wanted those metals and everybody would accept them in exchange for something. Monarchs issued them in fixed weights with their likeness and some impressive words stamped on the face.

"But it was dangerous to carry such valuable stuff around with you, so merchants started to keep it safe in their vaults and they issued notes to each other to keep a track on who owed what to whom.

"It was a short step from that to paper currency, which was just a promise by a bank, on a fancy piece of paper, to pay the bearer so much in gold or silver, if they presented it to the bank. Since it was clear that not everybody would want to exchange their bank notes for gold at the same time, you could issue a greater value in paper than you held as gold in the bank. On that basis the money supply expanded rapidly and economies got bigger and bigger.

"Then, in August 1971, Richard Nixon took the US dollar off the gold standard, and other countries followed suit rapidly. Nothing much happened because times were good and everybody continued to have faith in the value of the paper ..."

"Which is, intrinsically, worth not a fig", I said".

"Exactly, but released from the material reality of gold, there is only the fantasy value of paper and electronic signals representing paper that doesn't even exist, and there's faith in the fantasy.

"The tree lives on and even gets bigger, and it still bears figs, and the figs have seeds, but nobody seems to notice that none of them are viable ... and sooner or later the tree will die."

"Great Mother of Darwin, you're right", I said, "It's the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I won't tell them if you don't".

• • •

INCLUDED in Whispers from the mean streets -- Best of 1999

FREE downloadable PDF booklet.