“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





23 October 2009


Flagging Our Tangled Past
Jesus Would Be Disgusted
Dangerous Nationalist Thought

- This was originally published on Australia Day 09 - I publish it again after the ridiculous hoo-haa in the British press upon the record price an old Union Jack has just brought at a British auction, after being flown at the battle of Waterloo and languishing in a drawer in Sydney since the 'sixties.

At Easter, the chalk board outside the little Protestant bookshop in Clare sported a sketch of a cross. “Jesus built a bridge”, it said, “with two planks and three nails”.

Overlooking the fact that the bridge was actually built by the Italians, whose consequent, un-Christlike version of Christianity turned the cross into the world’s most powerful trade mark, I began wondering again about the Australian flag.

It was very strange, hearing people decry the savage hoods of Cronulla for draping themselves in their flag during Sydney’s race riots those short years ago. Even stranger were the subsequent demands that mosques should be flying it. The crescent moon and star on the flags of many Islamic states represent life and peace.

That should do at a mosque. The Australian flag - really the British Blue Ensign with some southern stars on its blue fly - carries five primitive representations of the Roman form of the gallows. Perfect poncho for rioting yobbos.

And that’s just the beginnings of the religio-racial horrors involved in our flag. Some of these are explained in an amazing little book that every Australian should have read: Carol A. Foley’s The Australian Flag, (Federation Press; 1996).

It says something for the musical Welsh that they never insisted on having a cross, a leek, or even a harp, included in the current Union Flag of Great Britain: the Blue Ensign that we disrespectfully call the Union Jack. Maybe they realised that their harp would have to go in the middle of all those crosses, on top of the cross of St. George, which the English would never permit.

The Scots scored with the cross of St. Andrew – a white saltire on a blue ground, a saltire being a diagonal, X-shaped cross, like the tail of the early Christian fish graffito. Roman crucifixions were conducted on saltires, not on the standard vertical cross later popularised by revisionist Christians, who made it their logo, and used its shape as the floorplan of their church buildings. There would be many fewer right angles in modern architecture had the saltire correctly been the model.

Nobody knows exactly why the Scots adopted Andrew as their patron in the eighth century. Foley makes clear that he wasn’t a Scot, and his saltire didn’t begin to appear as a national emblem until about 1290. At least he was crucified, a distinction begrudged Saints George and Patrick. St. Andrew died on his saltire in Greece, at Patras, in 69AD. Three hundred years later another Greek, called Regulus, took some of his preserved bones and a tooth – for good luck - on a journey which ended with him shipwrecked on the coast of Scotland, where he eventually started a Roman church called St. Andrew’s.

St. Patrick was the dissolute son of a Scots monk. He eventually took the cloth and worked his way up to Bishop before heading south to Ireland as a missionary. While there were never any snakes in Ireland, his famous purging the Emerald Isle of them had a lot more to do with him ridding its infant church of its dangerous tendencies to accommodate wisps of Druidic, Moorish, and Coptic theology, not to mention its obsessive confusion of the Virgin Mary with a sort of profligate faery queen, the Mother of Life, whom they celebrated with keystones in the arches of their churches. Other bas reliefs of this woman, squatting on her bottom, her arms about her vertical shins, her hands holding open the labia of a vagina that extended to her grin, were installed decoratively about church walls, like stations of the cross. These stones, called sheilagh na geeks, gave Australia its colloquial term for females. While the pious St. Patrick had them removed from the church walls, thousands of them miraculously survived, and still lie in the basements of the museum in Dublin. But Patrick was never crucified. He died of long life in Armagh in 463AD.

The Irish used the golden harp or the shamrock as their emblem, and we don’t know precisely how the red saltire on the white ground ended up representing them on the Union Flag, although it seems to have been convenient to the graphic artists of the time - its red saltire fitted neatly within the white of saltire of St. Andrew. But it also has to do with the fact that this saltire, finally named after St. Patrick, was in fact the flag of the Fitzgeralds, who’d been sent by the leonine Henry II, father of Richard I, to bash the Irish into submission in 1169.

The English cross of St. George, a ‘cross throughout’ in heraldic terms - in this case a vertical red cross on a white ground - came from France. French warriors fought beneath it in their invasion of the Islamic east in the Third Crusade (1189-1192). Their English mates carried a white cross on a red ground. By the Seventh Crusade (1248-1254) the English had adopted the French version and sometime thereabouts also adopted St. George as the patron of England.

There’s a serious move afoot to have St. George’s Day (April 23rd.) made a public holiday in England. In its St. George’s Day Special Issue of 19th. April 2008, The Spectator’s Diary was written by that venerable scholar, Beryl Bainridge, who calls St. George a scroundrel. “Why on Earth [he] was made our patron saint is a mystery”, she wrote.

Born in 303AD, George was a soldier in the time of the Emperor Diocletian. He made a great deal of money selling pig meat to his fellow troops before he was ordained Archbishop of Alexandria, a position from which he gorged his coffers by taxing the bejeesus out of the Christians while he gave everyone else, like the Jews, the horrors, by pillaging their places of worship. Eventually he was imprisoned, but a mob broke into the jail and chopped him into bits which were chucked into the ocean. Call that a matyrdom if you must; he was certainly not crucified. His spirit was believed to have miraculously assisted the English by visitation to battles fought centuries later by the terrible warriors Richard I, Lionheart, (who was tough on Jews, Moslems and the Pope), and Edward I, Longshanks, (who was tough on the Scots, the Welsh and the Moslems). The bit about the dragon was invented by an Italian biographer of saints, Jacobus de Voragine. George killed many pigs, but a dragon? Uh-huh.

Bainbridge recounts asking her grandson whether they’d taught him anything about St. George at school. “No”, he said, he hadn’t, “apart from the fact that George had a friend who was a dragon.”

That accounts for three crosses. The fourth is a phantom: it’s not really there. Then, you could say it was always there. When the first Union Flag, named after Queen Anne, was designed in 1606 to symbolise the union of Scotland and England, the creative types down at heraldry found they had to retain some of the white background of England’s flag in the form of that narrow white border around the red cross of St. George. At the same time, had they not retained its blue background, the white saltire of St. Andrew would have disappeared into the white ground of George’s cross. And the English cross, of course, had to lie atop the Sottish one, lest the Scots dream of dominance. So the fourth cross represents nothing more than the English presumption of superiority.

The fifth cross is even more ethereal. To somehow imagine a group of stars was put there by God to remind us of his son’s crucifixion is well, stretching it. Why didn’t he stand it up the right way? Shouldn’t it be a saltire? Why is there the annoying fifth interloper? Is that the original Crux, the middle star, slipping down to the right?

It’s too late now to ask Augustin Royer, the French astronomer who first named it Crux Australis in 1679. In those days austral meant something grave, sober, harsh, stern, austere, dry, windy, threatening, astringent and tannic in the great southern unknown.

On the 1901 version of the Australian flag, the five stars in the group each had a different number of points, indicating its magnitude of brightness in the heavens. Poor old Epsilon, the stray one, rarely visible these days from our cities, scored only five. Which it still has. For ease of manufacture, the rest had officially settled at seven points by 1908.

The seven was convenient in that the large Federation Star, aka the Commonwealth Star, below the Union Jack, has seven points, indicating the six states and Papua New Guinea. Yep. Papua New Guinea.

If the Gaelic states, Ireland and Wales, had united and colonised Australia, we could have a flag bearing a sheila, playing a harp amongst the shamrocks.

Which reminds me of South Australia’s first official state badge, or cartouche, which showed a helmeted Britannia standing coolly on a beach, surrounded by cliffs like those at Rapid Bay. Her blowing, flowing robe looks as loose and casual as hippy cheesecloth. She has casually put her shield on the sand, resting it against her right hip, and extends her left hand to an aboriginal bloke who’s hardly dressed at all, sitting on a rock, holding his spear. Maybe it’s her spear. They’re obviously having a chat. Might just as well chat about spears.

Just what the Australian flag represents to aboriginal people gives me the horrors. There are many aboriginal words for bits of the Crux Australis; of course many tribes had their version of how those stars got into the sky, or who, or what they are, but they never, of course, saw a cross in it, preceding, as they did, the invention of God and crucifixions by tens of thousands of years.

Pretty hard, too, to imagine what a God-fearing Islamist sees in our flag. Unless, of course, it’s wrapped around the shoulders of the white crusaders of Cronulla, where it makes absolutely perfect sense.

The Australian flag was best summarised by Seinfeld during his visit to Adelaide. Having spotted the huge bugger flapping in the square outside the Hilton, he said “I love your flag. It’s like England at night.”


As a soldier who has "served under" that flag I do not share the sentiments of so many of those, who in resisting change to a more appropriate bunting, always use the defence that the flag is somehow sacred because so many have "died under it".

From my experience that is a load of codswallop. Certainly, in Vietnam there was no such flag sentiment that I ever noticed. Unit logos, badges and other less formal signs, usually of black humour, dotted the unit lines at Nui Dat. I don't recall seeing too many Australian flags flying although there may have been at Task Force HQ. Vehicles carried stenciled red kangaroo logos to identify us as Australians and there were no Australian flags on our uniforms (I do note that our modern day diggers in Iraq and Afghanistan have Australian flag badges on their uniforms and fly Australian flags on their vehicles but I presume this is because they operate in multi-national forces and they do it to be recognised as Australians). It is always a good idea to ensure that you cannot be mistaken for an American.

I reckon soldiers, particularly those in war zones, are not very flag conscious at all. Not in my day anyway. Everyone was too busy getting the job done and getting home in one piece to be that patriotic - although scratch a digger not very deeply and patriotism will gush forth.

In 1967 if you had asked an Australian digger in Vietnam what the Australian flag should be he probably would have said it should depict a can of VB with two Melbourne Cup winners rampant.


21 October 2009


I have
been delinquent in my blogging lately, for which I apologise.

Apart from what the harder side of me calls emotional indulgence, there are two major reasons for this, the first being the skinny old bloke with the scythe.

On Sunday 12th July, Peta van Rood died, totally unexpectedly, in her sleep. With her beloved, Stephen George, she had spent a week immersed in the Adelaide festival Of Ideas, and after the last of those sessions had dined heartily with friends, returned to the home she shared with Stephen in the Adelaide Hills at their Ashton Hills vineyard, and gone to sleep. When he woke in the morning, Stephen discovered Peta had left him in the night. Returned to the great silence.

I first met Peta in, perhaps, 1973. I think it was winter. I was babysitting with a trippy university mate, looking after some kids that were nearly as old as us. When the parents came home late that night, they were accompanied by a group of exotic-looking – and sounding - people. I would know these beauties for the rest of their lives: Peter van Rood, his wife, Sophie, and their daughter, Peta. What a relief for the young Philip, to discover there was actually some adult bohemia in Adelaide!

In those years I would regularly meet Peta at anti-war demonstrations, rock shows, and parties, events which often seemed inseparable. I was quickly enamoured by the brightness of her intellect and wit, the fierceness of her passion, and the rigour she showed argument and discussion of any sort.

Her parents later had a bone dry vineyard in the Barossa, across the road from where Greenock Creek now thrives. Being another
tireless intellectual hungry for challenge and delight, Peter soon found the rigours and flavours of that almost dead vineyard were not to his liking, and he helped his bonnie daughter and her new partner in establishing a pioneering vineyard at Ashton Hills, near the Piccadilly Valley. While Stephen and Peta slaved away in the vineyard, I remember eating oysters with Peter on the verandah, and hurling the shells amongst the vines to increase the calcium in the soil.

In 1974, with Tom Spender, Sophie opened a famous fashion emporium specialising in her burgeoning collection of clothing and accoutrements from the Victorian era through to the ’sixties, with a lovely list to art deco. She had commenced this collection in 1967. This business was in what had been a banana storage room in Adelaide’s Rundle Street, in the East End fruit and vegetable markets. She named it The Banana Room. As it was a hundred metres from The Exeter Hotel, a favourite thirst emporium for naughty bohos like me, I would frequently see Peta there, too.

After some itinerant years, I discovered her again, as the beloved partner of Stephen George, a highly skilled and sensitive winemaker who had previously made wine at Skillogalee, in Clare, at his father Spencer’s vineyard. Now they were living at Ashton, in a house which, to the uninitiated, seemed a little, well, quite a lot like what Anselm van Rood called Transylvanian, there amongst the moody, misty pines.

In the years since, the Adelaide Hills wine business has boomed. But always in the fore of the quality stakes have been the elegant, determined Ashton Hills wines Steve made there with the assistance of Peta’s astonishing gustatory skills.

Upon Sophie’s death in 1998, Peta took over the management of The Banana Room, which had moved to a larger premises in Melbourne Street, and with her sister Candi, Tom Spender’s partner, curated this incredible collection of eight thousand items, created between 1850 and 1980. After a small but significant bequest to Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, the rest of the collection was catalogued and sold at auction in 2004. This included beautiful, rare, fabulously expensive items from bespoke tailors and the famous fashion houses of Europe, as well as the stuff of very ordinary life. I saw a lot of Peta then, too.

She taught me much about style and the boldness required to deliver it.

Never once was I been bored or less than delighted with the scintillating, challenging company of this incredible woman. When I did a lot of broadcasting on Adelaide radio in the nineties, Peta was the scourge of the talkback. So feisty was she, and hungry to enter the public fray, that the producers grew tired of her insistence, and often refused to let her back on air, suggesting she’d had her fair share of the airwaves. So she’d disguise her voice, give a false name, and get into the wireless anyway. There’d I’d be, sitting, running the show, pretending I didn’t know who she was. She’d be pretending that she didn’t know that I knew who she was. And off she’d go: alarming in her precision and fire, exquisitely armed with solutions to problems so large they remain unsolved to this day. If only more had listened.

Peta’s death, coming after too many significant others, knocked the stuffing out of me. Then I had a bag stolen, which contained all my notebooks from the last six or seven months of my work. Tasting notes, interviews, story outlines, field notes for the Mclaren Vale geological map ... nearly everything. These two events wore enough of me away to see my production slow so much that I could barely manage my weekly newspaper column. Of course there are many whose loss is deeper than this of mine, but I don't want to go any deeper, and Peta would be terribly disappointed.

Finally, I resurrected a little of her bright fire, and I am back.
Please excuse me.

Below are the eulogies Peta’s brother and sister delivered at her wonderful funeral.

Candida Spender-van Rood remembers her sister

Today we are having the biggest Solar Eclipse of the 21st Century.

A few weeks ago I read somewhere that big Spirits are born and die at Eclipse time.

I never dreamt that I’d be standing here at this time in our lives talking about my big sister in the past tense. And the full impact of her sudden and premature death has not fully settled in my being yet.

Peta has been there all my life. But it is only in the last five years or so that I feel like I have got to know her as the remarkable woman she was. Finally we were able to share our stories, our tales of motherhood, sisterhood and womanhood. It was such a blessing after the fraught times of our parents’ death eleven years ago.

One of her most extraordinary qualities and the I’m sure even people who didn’t know her well will miss, was her ability to make everyone feel loved and most of all included. Her great big shining golden heart shone like a beacon in the often drab and bleak, impersonal landscape of everyday social interactions. She was feisty, stubborn and tenacious; qualities which I would not have appreciated or admired much as her little sister when we were children. But qualities which I have grown to learn from and be inspired by, as I’ve negotiated my way into maturity.

She was unconditionally loyal to those in here life, and would passionately and sometimes fiercely protect and nourish them with her love and wisdom. Her courage in dealing with some really big set-backs in her life was enormous. She would still go on giving her listening ear and support to others, even when things were unbearably hard for her.

When I rang people to tell them the terrible news of her death, inevitably there would be a silent moment while the person on the other end of the phone was trying to reckon with what I’d just told them. And then they’d burst into tears.

It is to this extent that Peta touched people’s hearts.

The morning we arrived in Adelaide, the skies had opened with great torrents of tears, it felt truly appropriate, for we have lost one of our most exotic and rare flowers with the death of Peta van Rood.

Anselm van Rood remembers his sister

Peta was born in London in 1946, within a year of my father’s return from POW camp in Germany.

She was our first authentic Baby Boomer.

To the 5-year old Anselm, she looked like the Enemy, a usurper of his position at center-stage of our parents’ love. I don’t remember it but family myth has it that I was so provoked by this that I attempted to flush the unwelcome intruder down the toilet. This was one of the first of the many physical challenges that Life would confront her with.

In 1947 our father got a job with Shell Oil in Venezuela and the three of us, Peta, Sophie and I duly followed him there. We lived in a variety of small oil-drilling encampments: Bachaquero, La Concepcion, Lagunillas and Bucaramanga. Peta responded enthusiastically to this expansive tropical environment and although we moved home and school pretty much annually, the swimming pool was a constant in our extra-curricular life. I remember Peta as a little golden-skinned Sprite, her white-blonde hair tinted emerald by the chlorine.

While this nomadic life-style did very little for our academic education, it
made us very adaptable as well as fluent in Spanish.

In 1951 our sister Candida was born and Peta got to act out reciprocally all those acts of terrorism that had been inflicted on her by her elder brother.

Peta was a natural athlete from an early age and much to my annoyance, frequently won prizes for being the fastest, most agile or most courageous. It is her courage that seems to me to be one of her most enduring and admirable traits. As a child it made her daring, reckless and sometimes foolhardy. She was pushed off diving boards, got nearly electrocuted by trying to mow the lawn and, in the process of becoming an outstanding equestrian, frequently fell off her horses. She remained undaunted however and those of you who knew her in later life will recall how she never backed off from confronting an issue, whether it was social, political or personal.

In 1964 while I was studying in London, our father quit Shell and the family decided to move to Adelaide. Sophie’s sister Pat and her family were already well established here. For the
first time in their lives they were able to buy a house of their own. Peter and Sophie lived in number 19 Walkerville Terrace for the remainder of their lives. During their first dozen or so years here, I was living and working in London and so my contact with my parents and sisters became attenuated.

When I next saw Peta, she was already a mother as well as a property owner. I first visited them in the early Seventies when she and her son Sam were living in a house in Kent Town. Their lives seemed freewheeling and expansive and Peta was enthusiastically involved with the reformist politics of that Dunstan era, as well as with a rich cultural and social life. I liked this woman I was getting to know enormously, with her mane of dark blonde curls and her Bohemian dress sense and for the first time in our lives we became friends as well as just siblings. In particular I remember lavish Asian-influenced meals that would include not only friends and family but also passing travellers and strangers encountered in her meanderings around Adelaide.

Peta had an enviable knack of turning apparent misfortune into advantage. For example that leafy two-storey house in Kent Town was bought with the proceedings of the insurance from a motor-scooter accident. Her next house in Semaphore was bought from the profits she made from the sale of the Kent Town house and she was able to trade up again when she and Stephen bought the dark old farmhouse here in Ashton Hills. At the time I could never understand why they wanted to live in what looked to me a dark and unattractive place and it is only comparatively recently that I have come to see how beautiful this place is, with its breezy pine-scented airs and its wonderful bird life.

Over the past few decades I took on the self appointed role of Peta’s artistic conscience and would often try to encourage her to draw and paint as well as making her pottery. She clearly had talent and ability in those areas, particularly in her beautiful and original ceramics. But I have only recently come to realize that she was more interested in the living. I see now that her real creative fulfillment came from the abundant social life she cultivated with Steven and the slow organic development of their property here in the Adelaide Hills.

This creativity included not only living people but also her ever-changing menagerie of birds and animals, as well as the flowers, plants and trees that surrounded her house. It seems to me too that her relationship with Stephen, which started as a friendship, has grown over the years to be a rare blossoming of mature Love which, I know, has demanded from them both an ongoing commitment and creativity.

She could overwhelm me with her spontaneous generosity. For example, I was idling around the Banana Room one time in those days after Sophie’s death, when Peta had taken over the running of it, when I spied an interesting-looking tweed suit on the rack.

“Look at this” I said, “ I didn’t know you had stuff like this here…”

“Try it on” she urged, “ see if it fits you”.

“No” I replied,” I never wear suits and I don’t like them anyway”

“Go on” she said,” just try it!”

So, I allowed her to persuade me and I was amazed when it fitted me perfectly. We both admired it and then she insisted that I should have it: “It’s yours! Go on, just take it!.” It is this very suit that I am wearing today in her honour and now I have two other suits too.

When I think of my beautiful sister now, what first comes to mind is her Heartfulness: her smile and the embracing warmth of her voice. Nobody has supported me as an artist more than she; her loyalty and belief in me have been unwavering and unstinting.

I love you Peta and I know your memory will be with me until the end of my days.