Women and masks

I fell in love with a woman wearing a mask.

Not once, buy twice.

The first time was with English actress Margaret Lockwood starring in the film The Wicked Lady.(1945) as an aristocrat by day and a highwaywoman by night. She was the most gorgeous creature I had ever seen in all my seven years. The film also had a hanging scene in which hawkers were selling model scaffolds and victims to kids in the crowd. How I longed for one of those scaffolds but none were to be found in my searches through the town’s toyshops. I must have been a horrid little boy.

Which reminds me of another precocious little brat aged about ten who had a hit in the charts in the 1970s. He was even prepared to mask up to win the heart of his woman: “I’ll be your long-haired lover from Liverpool, I’ll do anything you ask. I’ll be your clown, your puppet, your April fool, I’ll even wear a mask”. Maybe the songwriter could not find anything to rhyme with ”ask’.

Long before the present pandemic, women in masks had become commonplace in Western cities. It wasn’t always so. Writing in The Times in 1869, William Russell on a visit to Egypt with the Prince of Wales, typified the idea of exotic, feminine Eastern promise when he wrote: ” If eyes can be an index to the character of the rest of the face, many of the ladies must have been very beautiful”. Then he went and spoiled it by adding ” but some showed the ravages of ophthalmia, which the artifice of blackened eyebrows only made more evident”..

It is ironic to reflect that in many Western countries masks have made the fastest trajectory in history from being illegal (for concealing identity for whatever reason) to becoming compulsory (to protect us and others from infection).

Best mask joke seen so far: “Puppy: ‘Mum,. why are humans wearing muzzles?’ Mother dog: ‘ Because they won’t learn to sit and stay.'”

Who, you may ask, was the second masked woman I fell in love with? She of course is my wife, Helen, though she was not wearing a mask when we first met. That has come much later in response to the current pandemic. Which brings us to Bondi Beach where the ABC TV News made us poster material (without the usual bikini and board shorts) while recently taking a Sunday afternoon stroll along the promenade enjoying the opportunity for permitted outdoor exercise.

In our masks at Bondi on a lockdown Sunday

ROBIN SEN

Sydney, June 2021

Crime and punishment, Oxford-style

OXFORD 1950s

Devotees of the British TV cop show, Inspector Morse and his younger self “Endeavour”, set in mid-last century Oxford, are probably unaware that there was a rival constabulary in that university city.

Oxford University had its own police force but like most things in Oxford in the 1950s, it was imbued with archaic eccentricity. The purpose of the police force was to discipline the student body, particularly the undergraduates.

The chief of police was called the Proctor. There were two of them – a Senior Proctor and a Junior Proctor. They were supported by forty constables of the Oxford University Police called Bulldogs. These were usually local men chosen for their bulky frame and their desire to restrain unruly undergraduates. The Bulldog uniform was a dark suit, complete with collar and tie, and topped off with a bowler hat. They looked less like cops – more like butlers on their day off. The Proctors were also dark-suited, topped with academic gowns and mortar boards.

The Bulldogs had full powers of arrest within the University and within 6 km of any University building. Formed in 1829, they were amongst the oldest police forces in the UK, having been set up in the same year as Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police. They predated Inspector Morse’s Oxford City Police by about thirty years.

Towards midnight (curfew time) the Bulldogs could be seen roaming the city streets on the lookout for curfew breakers. On Guy Fawkes Night ( 5 November) they could be seen helping the local constabulary keep undergrads from storming the Randolph Hotel – an annual tradition.

One morning I entered my college, Wadham, by the gatehouse and looked as usual in my pigeonhole for any mail. This is where post from the outside world was placed, together with invites to clubs, notes from tutors ,etc.

On this occasion I pulled out a plain envelope which, on opening, contained a sheet of paper headed: SUMMONS. It required my attendance to meet the Junior Proctor in his office at a specified time in the Sheldonian Theatre. This is a magnificent neoclassical building designed by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1669. It is used for graduation and other ceremonies.

No reason for the Summons was given. I was left to speculate on the nature of my crime. I think the Summons was written in mediaeval Latin but maybe my memory is playing tricks.

On the appointed day I turned up at the Sheldonian Theatre (just a stone’s throw from my college), wearing the required sub-fusc ( Lat. Sub Fuscus = Dark Brown).. This involved putting on a dark suit, white shirt, white bow tie and an academic gown. Mine was an anaemic half gown with black ribbons hanging off the side. This told everyone that I was only a Commoner and had not been smart enough to qualify for a college scholarship and proper Scholar’s full gown.

The Junior Proctor was sitting behind a large desk, wearing his Junior Proctor’s rig. He looked very young and I later found out that that Junior Proctors were chosen from amongst the youngest college fellows and accepted the post out of a sense of duty or to help with promotion prospects. The position was for twelve months and involved admin. tasks as well as policing. It was a job, in other words, that nobody willingly wanted. This probably explained why this Junior Proctor looked rather bored as he read out the charge sheet.

I should explain that all undergraduates owning a motor vehicle had to register it with the Proctors and then had to ensure that said vehicle was carrying a green lamp. I had such a green lamp fixed on my Lambretta motor scooter.

My offence was that the Bulldogs had seen my scooter leaving my college at ten minutes after the midnight curfew. Most evenings would pass very quickly talking with a group of friends in the room of someone fortunate enough still to be living in college.. I confessed to having been the driver and said I was on my way to my digs in Cowley, a few km away.

The Proctor then adopted a curious, pained expression and sat looking at me for some time, presumably mulling over an appropriate punishment to fit the crime. Or maybe he was registering his disdain for the whole process. I recall that at my matriculation ceremony a year or so earlier, when I stood in the same Sheldonian Theatre with several hundred other undergrads all clad in sub fusc, a Junior Proctor had initiated the proceedings by declaring: “This farce will be over in a few minutes”.

I nervously stood awaiting my sentence.

Suddenly the Junior Proctor looked up , summoned up his most serious face and said: “I m going to have to admonish you”..

This made me rather nervous as, widely-read as I was, I had never heard the word “admonish”. An embarrassed silence ensued for several minutes. I imagined all sorts of dire punishments from being held in a downstairs dungeon to incurring an unaffordable fine or, worse still, having to memorize a lengthy apologia in Latin, ancient or mediaeval. Or perhaps he was just going to tweak my ears.

Eventually the Junior Proctor said: “I admonish you”.

A further silence ensued while I took in the enormity of my punishment.

I stood there stupidly until eventually the Junior Proctor, with a dismissive wave of his arm, made it clear my punishment was over. I had done my time – it must have lasted all of two minutes.

I walked out a free man.

Postscript: The Bulldogs were disbanded in 2003 after public criticism they were exercising unauthorized authority over the citizenry of Oxford. Apparently they had gone around arresting too many people who were not members of the University. This had also upset the local constabulary, The Thames Valley Police, who had succeeded the upstart Oxford City Police in 1968.

Inspector Morse would surely have been pleased to see the back of the Bulldogs whom he would undoubtedly have written off as a comic but irritating rival force.

ROBIN SEN

Sydney, June 2021.

Bad cop, bad cop

Venezuela 1979

The cop jumped out from behind some bushes and frantically waved us down.

We had just rounded a bend on the Maracaibo-Caracas Highway and the cop was signalling for us to pull over on the soft shoulder which was marked by a white line. It was Good Friday and the highway was very busy. First reaction was to wonder why we had been singled out.

The cop claimed that my colleague, Wilton, a New Zealander, had driven across the white line marking the edge of the highway. We did not think this was correct but our denial made the cop aggressive.

The conversation in Spanish, mine transactional and rudimentary, went something like this:

Cop 1: Crossing the white line is a serious offence

Me; I’m sorry. We are business visitors to your country and we do not know all your traffic regulations. We won’t do it again. Tomorrow we are leaving your country.

Cop 1: (Unimpressed) Crossing the white line is a VERY serious offence

Cop 1 then signalled for us to follow him into a clearing behind some bushes. This made us feel very uncomfortable but, as he had his hand on his pistol holder, we decided to follow. Here we found Cop 2 seated at a picnic table.

Cop 2: You have got two options, either pay an instant fine of $US 50 or go before a judge in the nearby town.

Me: (trying the confused foreigner role) I am sorry. I don’t understand. I don’t speak much Spanish..

Cop 1 (to Cop 2). Esto tipo miente ( Trans: This guy is lying). Habla castellano muy bien como un madrileno (Trans: he speaks Spanish like a toff from Madrid).

Cop2: So (turning to us) $US 50 or the judge

Me: The second option sounds better

Cop2: Good. The judge is on his Easter holidays and will not be back till next Tuesday. Meanwhile we are going to have to lock you up. till then

Wilton (pulling a crisp greenback from his wallet): Here is your $US 50.

The two cops salute smartly, accompany us back to the car and even politely open the doors for us before saying they hope we enjoy the rest of our stay in Venezuela.

Postscript 1: Looking back on this incident after so many years I realise these cops were on the lookout for a hire car driven by a couple of Gringos. They must have had a tip off. That is the only explanation as to why they singled us out from all the heavy traffic.

Postscript 2: Later that evening at dinner with friends in Caracas, we tell them about our adventure.

Idiotas”, they said “The cops would have been satisfied with fifteen dollars!

ROBIN SEN

Sydney, April 2021

Discrimination – strange but true

As a slightly tinted chappie (I am partly Indian), it has been a source of amazement to me that in a long life (now 82) I must confess to never having been overtly discriminated against. Most of those years have been spent in largely white societies, now thankfully a thing of the past as we’ve all become much more multi-hued. Indeed, far from feeling left out, my working life has seen me floating nonchalantly through the upper reaches of the corporate world and the bureaucracy. I have even been given the keys to the executive washroom, not literally but that is code for a range of executive privileges.

Getting so far in a discrimination-free zone, and now finding myself in 2021 the victim of discrimination…..well, it all seems decidedly bizarre…. but more of that later.

Sure, I was once on the receiving end of a racial slur, when at the age of eight in south London I was on the way to school. I passed by a house where in the front garden stood an enormous boy, probably about twelve. As I walked past he called me a nasty word, usually reserved for people of Far-Eastern appearance. As he was much bigger than me, I quickly walked b y and next day chose a different route to school. Oh! I forgot to mention! He was an Afro-Caribbean boy, probably son of a couple who had come over to make sure the Brits were adequately provided with transport and health care. Looking back, I bear no ill will to that boy. Probably in that era on the receiving end of the N word, he had at last found someone he could racially abuse, even if he got the races slightly mixed up.

Apart from my encounter with my (probably) Jamaican friend, I had not really experienced racial insensitivity until I arrived in Australia over forty years ago. Soon after joining my company, I joined colleagues for after-work drinks in a local pub. It was a hot day and one of them said his throat was so parched “it was as dry as a Pommy’s bath towel”. As I was the new chum, recently arrived from the old dart, it was a mortifying experience and I felt I had to do something to restore English pride. So next April 23 I organised an office picnic to celebrate St George’s Day. The notice which went up on all office noticeboards invited all staff of English origin to celebrate our national day. This led to a visit from a very embarrassed guy from Personnel to inform me I was guilty of discrimination, probably illegally.. The happy outcome was that all were made welcome and St George’s Day went on to be an annual excuse for everyone to get out of the office for a long wet lunch lasting several hours.

…..and now to 2021. Recently my wife and I decided to celebrate our wedding anniversary with a week on a part of the NSW South Coast which we had not visited before. We duly booked an apartment with the international hotel booking agency we had used many times before. Twenty four hours before we were due to arrive we were asked to provide a photo ID, which I satisfied with my driving licence which of course contains my date of birth. Not long after I received an email from the booking agency saying the reservation had been cancelled on age grounds as this particular accommodation had an age limit of seventy five.

I immediately contacted the villas and spoke by phone to the owner who remained intransigent to all my pleas. I used all the arguments. “We were in Italy last year and stayed in a place in Sicily where we had to climb five flights of stairs to get to our room”. No effect. “We go to the gym three times a week”. No effect. ” I bushwalk up to ten km at a time”. No effect on the unmoved owner. Finally in desperation I pulled out the big gun. “We play croquet”. To my immense surprise this had no impact whatever on the obstinate owner who said the accommodation (ground floor and stair free) would not be suitable for someone my age. I retired to lick my wounds and find alternative accommodation.

A week later we returned to our croquet club where advance word had got around about our treatment. It must be something about the predominant demographic of our club, but several members were so incensed about our treatment that I thought they were in acute danger of spontaneous combustion.

So I decided to go to war, not just for me but for all those lovely angry people.

My battlefield turned out to be Anti-Discrimination NSW who were on to the case with amazing speed. As an ex-member of the NSW public service myself I must say I had never been aware that its bureaucracy could move so fast. I had to conclude that Anti-Discrimination NSW were either grossly overstaffed and were desperate to find something to do or had been trained in rapid-response by the Riot Squad or the NSW Fire Brigade. Within minutes I was told I had been age-discriminated, that this was illegal and that I should put in a formal complaint which they would deal with.

To cut to the quick. Within a week I had received a written apology from the property owner, an assurance that henceforth there would be no age restriction in the house rules, and a reimbursement of the extra cost of booking elsewhere.

You may like to see the letter I sent to the property owner:

” Dear Madam,

Thank you for your apology and for reimbursing the extra costs of alternative accommodation.

I am glad you are amending your house rules and will no longer be at risk of legal action against you.

Most of my friends , who are over the age of seventy five or soon to be so, were incensed when I told them of your last-minute rejection of my booking.

I too was disappointed not only at having to bear the stress of finding alternative accommodation at little notice, but because your villas looked so comfortable and eminently suitable for seniors.

So you will be pleased to know that at every opportunity I will be recommending your villas to my enormous circle of friends throughout Sydney, most of them well over seventy five and some of them a sprightly ninety.

Get ready to welcome them.”

ROBIN SEN

Sydney , March 2021

A very Australian plague

Most people have heard of locust plagues, cane toad plagues or rabbit plagues. Rural Australia is sometimes overwhelmed with another sort of plague, little known, and rarely experienced first-hand by city folk.

One Easter time a few years ago we arrived late in the evening at a sheep and wheat property in the Central West of NSW. We were tired after a six-hour drive from Sydney. As soon as we had consumed a welcoming nightcap with our hosts, we went to bed. We placed several chocolate Easter eggs on the shelf behind the bed, intending to distribute them to our cousins the next morning.

Almost as soon as we had turned off the bedside lamp we heard a rustling noise behind us and the sound of multiple egg wrappers being torn simultaneously. On turning on the light we caught sight of several disappearing tails and inspected the damaged, nibbled and now written-off chocolate eggs.

We didn’t get lot of sleep that night.

Our arrival had coincided with the advance guard of a great Australian mouse plague.

Over the next couple of days we came to experience the full dimensions of the plague.

Mouse plagues break out in some of the grain growing areas of Australia every few years, usually after a bumper harvest. At the age of two months, a female mouse can give birth typically to five to seven young and go on doing so every three weeks; so in ideal conditions (for mice) their population grows exponentially.

The next morning mice seemed to be everywhere. Open the door of a room and they would scatter in all directions. I recalled that the previous evening, during the last few kms driving towards the property in the rain, I had noticed in the headlights an unusual number of small frogs jumping around in the puddles. I now realized these “frogs” were mice.

During the daytime the family gathered in the large lounge room where our numbers discouraged all but a few mice from seeking our company. It was a different story in the adjacent kitchen. The teenage boys in the family had set a number of traps out there and raced out every time they heard a click. The unfortunate mice were taken outside and fed directly to the waiting farm dogs.

Eventually the dogs lost interest in eating more mice, generally after consuming thirty or forty.

Dog before and after consuming a banquet of mice. Illustration: Eleni Sen

As to our food, there were only two places safe from the mice – the oven and fridge, fortunately a very large country one.

A couple of older teenage girls in our group had decided to sit on the hearth (it was a warm day and the fire was unlit). Suddenly they leapt up with screams. The boys, no longer able to feed the mice to the dogs, had climbed on the roof with handfuls of mice and dropped them down the chimney. Of course, they had no idea the girls were sitting on the hearth!

Ilustration: Eleni Sen

During the evening I walked up to the machinery shed. This was a large steel building housing tractors, headers, trucks and other machinery. Usually the big concrete floor is pretty clean with just a few bits of grass and the odd pile of waste grain lying about. On turning on the light I was amazed to see that it was carpeted throughout in grey — and that the carpet was moving. There must have been thousands of mice jostling for position and a chance to nibble some wheat grains. Looking at the amazing moving mass, one could almost imagine looking at the surface of the ocean on a dull day.

Having spent my childhood in an old part of south London, I thought I was used to mice……………..but Aussie mice in their batallions were another story.

In fact these plague mice were British immigrants just like bunnies, foxes, cats and people. Native marsupial mice look similar but don’t go rogue.

The first mice would have arrived in 1788 with the First Fleet and then continued to stream in with every ship. Plagues break out somewhere in the grain growing areas on average every four years or so. With up to three thousand mice plaguing a single hectare, they do colossal damage to crops, chew electric cables, wreck farm vehicles, cars and buildings.

While such plagues usually occur in the country, Melbourne is known to have had a mouse plague a few years back.

Eventually mouse plagues seem to work themselves out. Country people claim that the mice quite suddenly disappear. Most plagues end in winter when the weather turns cold with food increasingly scarce. Apparently as food runs short the mice start trying to eat one another, often successfully. This leads to lots of bites and infections, which spread rapidly through the massive populations. I like to imagine that the more successful predator mice grow fatter and fatter on a yummy diet of their fellows, until they die of obesity. More likely the mice die of disease and starvation in their nests under the ground.

Sometimes farmers plough the soil, just to destroy the nests. At other times, normal tilling has the same effect. Now for sound environmental and economic reasons, some farmers are switching to ‘no-till cropping’ , retaining the stubble from a previous crop and planting seeds in the untilled soil. This captures carbon, improves the soil and helps prevent soil loss through wind erosion. Perversely this allows the mice to remain undisturbed in their burrows. Grain growing areas of NSW are once again suffering from a mouse plague brought on by mild weather and an increase in no-till cropping.

According to Wikipedia- so it must be right- Australia and China are the only two places where mouse plagues are known. Maybe by stressing our common mousy heritage we could go some way to repairing the current frosty relations between our two countries. Just so long as we avoid limp jokes about Mao’s plagues.

ROBIN SEN

Sydney, February 2021

A MAGIC CARPET FOR RAVI SHANKAR

“We can’t sit on that” said Ravi Shankar as we looked down on the unvarnished and splintery floor boards on the stage

Alla Rakha on tabla, Prodyut Sen on tamboura and Ravi Shankar on sitar.

My elation at having secured a visit from Ravi Shankar and his group was rapidly evaporating. We were in the Holywell Music Room in Oxford. It was 1958 and Ravi Shankar was already an international star and the leading player of Indian classical music throughout the world. He had composed the music for Satjit Ray’s internationally acclaimed film “Pather Panchali” and was well known for his performances throughout the USA, Europe and India. He was well on the way to super stardom, with performances to come in the 1960s with George Harrison, Yehudi Menuhin and at Woodstock.

I was president of the Oxford Majlis, a University club specialising in Asian politics and culture. I had been somewhat surprised when Ravi Shankar had accepted my invitation and considered it very gracious of him. And now, having dined him and his group at the Oxford Union, we had taken a taxi the short distance to the Holywell Music Room, the oldest custom-built concert hall in Europe, opening in1748.

The show was going to be a sell-out with all two hundred or so of the tickets already sold. Fortunately we had half an hour to go before the performance was due to start.

I assured Ravi that I would sort something out but I was not sure that he looked all that convinced. I sent one of my committee members to search through the props boxes of the stage and after a few moments he came back triumphantly with an armful of blankets. Blessed relief. The show would go on. However euphoria rapidly turned to despair as we shook out the blankets in a cloud of choking dust and discovered they had been eaten to shreds by rats.

Ravi did not look happy.

I had to do something and assured him I would find a solution and that he and his group would be comfortably seated. I explained that this would take about five minutes.

Ravi looked sceptical.

Fortunately my college, Wadham, was a two minute dash round the corner. I raced in through the gatehouse and entered the first room in the corner of the quadrangle. All doors in those days were unlocked and luckily there was no sign of the undergraduate who resided there. I grabbed all the blankets off the bed plus a small rug off the floor and raced past the porter in the gatehouse, round the corner and into the Music Room, pushing past the audience who were beginning to turn up.

Ravi asked no questions, happily settled down on the pirated blankets and rug and went on to delight the audience with a magnificent sitar recital.

Close to a quarter of a century later I took my son Rodney and his friend Sean to a Ravi Shankar performance in the Sydney Opera House. As I looked at Ravi on the stage and around at the sell-out audience of two thousand or so, I had a moment of quiet satisfaction at knowing I had played a small and totally irrelevant role in his career.

ROBIN SEN

Sydney, January 2021

Santa’s cover blown

A cold Sussex evening in December 1977. A group of us were doing a door knock collecting gifts of food for the poor of the town. We belonged to the East Grinstead Round Table (akin to Australian Apex). We found the most generous people (rushing indoors to contribute Christmas puddings, cakes, tins of fruit, chocolate and lollies, etc) were usually the poor and elderly themselves. The young, I suppose, were going flat strap trying to pay their mortgages in this attractive, highly desirable town about fifty km south of London….. and had little charity to spare.

We had our own Santa – local veterinarian Euan, a quiet-spoken Scot and thoroughly decent fellow, well-known and respected in the town. A few months earlier we had watched his look of horror as a visiting group of French Round Tablers presented the president of our club with a large, white and very French cockerel. They had smuggled it through H.M. Customs at Newhaven after crossing on the ferry from Dieppe and, with Gallic insouciance and the characteristic French shoulder shrug, ignored British biosecurity rules. It is reliably known that later that evening Euan volunteered to take care of the cockerel, after wresting it from the club president who probably had had ideas for Sunday lunch. The bird was not seen again but it is pretty sure that our conscientious vet did the right thing.

Now in December, our evening of collecting had begun well. Santa’s sack was already brimming with reverse Christmas gifts. Local vet Euan, disguised as Santa, was clad in his red robe, with hood drawn close to his face and wearing a long white beard. So far nobody, adults or kids, had recognised him in about twenty or so door knocks.

We came to the door of a little cottage on the outskirts of the town. Santa knocked on the door and a small boy opened it.

“You’re not Santa”, said the boy. “You killed my cat!”

Illustration: Eleni Sen

SEASONS GREETINGS FROM ROBIN SEN, Sydney, December 2020.

PAVED WITH GOLD

Back in the 1940s in wartime London, all kids owned guns – not the fragile plastic things bought today by politically incorrect parents. Most of us owned sturdy, die cast metal Colt 45 Six Shooters. Ours were of course better than the real thing. We were not limited to six shots before re-loading. We could fire up to a hundred shots at a time with our rolls of caps.

Illustration: Eleni Sen

We sometimes played “Cops and Robbers” but mostly it was “Cowboys and Indians” because those were the films we were most likely to see on Saturday mornings at the local flea pit. I suppose we were also politically incorrect by today’s standards, especially when we corralled the imaginary wagons and ordered “Don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes”.

Although there was a grassy park not a mile away, we preferred the car-free streets of our South London neighbourhood as our Wild West prairie.

Entertained on a diet of Western films, we were inclined to hero worship Americans, especially John Wayne and Randolph Scott, but we drew the line at the “Singing Cowboy- Roy Rogers” who we dismissed as “soppy”.

Round about that time, London filled up with American servicemen and, although not many ventured to our suburb of Brixton, we did occasionally see one or two striding around in their smart uniforms and chewing gum. How we longed to do the same! One or two lucky kids had even succeeded in approaching them and been rewarded when asking “Got any gum, chum?” Generally the Yanks welcomed these approaches by kids. Most I suppose were kids of eighteen or nineteen themselves and missing their younger siblings.

We didn’t need to travel far to come across bomb sites and these ruins became our adventure playground. Imagine our delight when one day we discovered among the ruins a number of batteries covered in black, sticky tar. We eagerly picked off blobs of said tar and spent the rest of the day swaggering around masticating our ersatz chewing gum.

Illustration: Eleni Sen

We kids were very superstitious. Whenever we saw an ambulance we had to hold our shirt collars until we saw a dog. If we did not do so, we believed our mothers would drop dead. Sometimes we spent hours wandering the streets looking for a dog – while no doubt our mothers would almost die of anxiety wondering where we were.

On one occasion we wandered into a bombed building and came across a dead cat with swarms of flies buzzing around. One of my friends told us to run off or “we would get THE FEVER”. I like to think that this was a direct link across the generations of kids for three hundred years back to the time of The Great Plague of London, when kids would no doubt have issued similar warnings. Indeed I recently discovered that during the Great Plague of 1665 many people thought that cats were carriers of that year’s pandemic and huge numbers of cats were killed. The true culprits, the rats, were ignored.

Eventually peace came to Europe and my parents celebrated VE Night by taking us up to London to the newly opened Waterloo Bridge. Everywhere huge crowds were out on the street celebrating victory in Europe. I had read in stories that the streets of London were paved with gold and to my delight I found this was true. There were pieces of gold everywhere and I eagerly stuffed them into my trouser pockets. It was only when I got home that I came face to face with the reality that they were crown corks off beer bottles.

ROBIN SEN

Sydney, November 2020

The Blind Beggar

“Do not give alms to the blind beggar” said my Bengali-English phrasebook. I had bought the book in Sydney to brush up on my Bengali prior to a visit to Kolkota (Calcutta) in 2006. It was only when I got home and took a closer look at the publication date did I see that it must have been printed over and over again for the past hundred years. This would account for other odd phrases such as “Order the syce to find out where we can buy fodder for the horses”. Being able to say this in Bengali would have been a valuable linguistic accomplishment for a fresh-faced young subaltern on his first posting with the Raj in 1906. It wasn’t going to be much use to me in one of Asia’s biggest cities in 2006. Still what else could I expect for an outlay of $3.95.

As it turned out, during a couple of weeks in Kolkota, I saw no blind beggars. Indeed, unlike my prior visit in 1959 when beggars, full- or part-limbed, sighted or blind, were abundant, this time I do not recall seeing any – due, said the locals, to the government whisking them away out of sight to who knows where.

However the concept of a blind beggar became imprinted on my subconscious and resurfaced in an unexpected way four years after the visit to Kolkota. My wife and I had been invited to a family wedding in Stuttgart and here I was in Sydney, working out what to wear for the ceremony – a suit of course- I had several in the wardrobe and these days they got worn only for weddings and funerals- sadly, more of the latter than the former. Here was an opportunity – to clear up wardrobe space by getting rid of the oldest suit. Sure, to outward appearances and in the absence of closer inspection, it would suffice for one last appearance at the wedding, but the suit was on a one-way ticket and would not be returning to Australia. On the other hand I could imagine no one in prosperous Germany interested in taking my suit off my hands.

This led to working out where we should go for a holiday after the Stuttgart wedding. We considered a number of sunny options but it was relative GDP that finally swayed the decision. One southern European place was pretty well as good as any other – they all had cathedrals, palaces, ancient ruins, trams, sunshine – and horrid tourist food. However, one candidate stood out. It had to be Portugal – and Lisbon in particular. When last there in 1961 I had noticed it was an impoverished place. This is where I would find lots of beggars and in particular a blind beggar to whom I could – noblesse oblige – donate my old suit.

Why, you ask, a blind beggar? The answer should be pretty obvious. A sighted beggar would doubtless ooze with Iberian pride and spot that my suit was a bit tatty and haughtily reject my munificence. The suit would probably be thrown back in my face. Yes it would have to be a blind beggar who would no doubt joyfully welcome the gift with a sincere obregado.

And so we flew to Lisbon. First impressions were highly favourable – the airport was crowded, grubby, old and decrepit. If I had any doubts, my spirits were lifted. This just had to be the place to part company with the suit.

Sadly Portugal had prospered in the preceding fifty years and, try as I might, during three tedious days of wandering the streets of Lisbon, I never encountered a blind beggar, nor regretfully any beggars. Later I discovered that the Portuguese had done wonderful things with their economy and their social welfare network: and beggars had become obsolete. As a trained economist, I suppose I should have known, but we all have our blind spots.

So one morning I crept out of our hotel, just before the garbos came round, and deposited my suit in the nearest green bin.

Illustration by Eleni Sen

It had been a humbling experience and one more of life’s hard-earned lessons. I reflect with shame at my arrogance in not reckoning that even if I had found a blind beggar, his compensating superior tactile skills would have soon discovered the frayed cuffs and the torn lining – and the suit would doubtless have been thrown back in where he thought was my face.

ROBIN SEN

Sydney 2020

Letter to an Anti-Vaxxer

I FELT SAD as I stood by the German Cemetery in Bamenda, high on a hill in West Africa. Row upon row of gravestones commemorating young soldiers, eighteen and nineteen years old – boys really- who had not died in battle but who had succumbed to yellow fever or one of the other tropical diseases rife in these parts around 1900. At twenty one I was little older than these German lads. They did not have the benefit of the vaccinations which in 1960 would ensure my safe return home.

I FELT SAD when a few months ago I learned of the measles epidemic in Vanuatu, in which hundreds of children suffered and sixty died because, through their parents’ ignorance or through unavailability, they had not been vaccinated. Such an avoidable tragedy.

I FELT SAD for my mother who lost four of her sisters in infancy through various childhood illnesses which are now preventable by vaccinations.

I FELT SAD for the health workers murdered recently by the Pakistan Taliban because they were administering polio vaccines in the villages.

I FEEL GLAD that I and my family are fortunate to live in an era when we have been able, through vaccination, to avoid the disaster of all manner of diseases including typhoid fever, polio, TB, measles, rubella, diptheria, smallpox, yellow fever and many others.

I FEEL GLAD that BILLIONS of children and adults over the past century or so have avoided these horrific diseases through participating in government- and n.g.o.- sponsored vaccination programs.

I FEEL SAD at the lack of judgement displayed by opponents of vaccination, at their rejection of science, at their ignorance and misuse of statistics, at their misleading claims, at their naive willingness to be duped by unscrupulous purveyors of mistruths.

I FEEL SAD that the opponents of vaccination do not seem to understand that, accepting there may be slight risks in vaccination, these are outweighed hugely by its benefits to the great majority of people.

I FEEL SAD that those who actively promote anti-vaccination (for instance by sharing social media posts) do not seem to understand they are not just expressing an opinion, but, to the extent that they are able to convince others, are contributing to human misery, sickness and death.

I HOPE that the vaccination-sceptics will fail miserably in their cruel and deceptive scaremongering.

I HOPE the irony eventually hits home to at least some anti-vaxxers that they themselves might never have come into existence had they not had the good fortune to have been born into communities where most people, including perhaps their forbears, had been vaccinated.

I FEEL HOPEFUL that, due to the knowledge, hard work and dedication of thousands of scientists and health workers, Covid will end up like so many other evils – kept at bay with a friendly little jab.

ROBIN SEN

Sydney, October 2020