Burying Mei

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Courtesy of Public Domain Pictures, Pixabay

Stepping off the train, the heat instantly punches like a surreal home-coming, searing away years of rebellious absenteeism. I make my way along the open platform into
the roofed area, through the red brick arch into the shabby Victorian interior with its cracked tessellated tile floor, past the ticket office and waiting room, through the cast-iron gate and back out into the sun again: a cruel, oven-hot, bone-dry shimmering presence and memory merges with the present.

Pausing on the step I take a furtive glance around under the cover of my sunglasses. There are a few cars in the parking area but no-one else; there’s no-one waiting. An eddy of hot air fans my skin but it’s not enough to disturb the physical weight of heat pressing down—like resentment.

The walk to Mason’s Funerals helps me adjust to the heat and shake off the black veil of disbelief and emptiness shrouding me since Mei’s death, or at least enough to deal with the day ahead. I’ve been sitting too long and besides, I want to walk down the street, check out what’s changed.

Perverse perhaps in view of the circumstances, especially in heeled sandals and a short sleeve dress with large floral sprays splashed across it. My bag is nearly as large as the skirt, red of course, and heavy. Still, Mei specified colourful dress. Since this final parade is for us both, I lift my chin, unfurl my red-flowered parasol, and saunter defiantly along the pavement: past The Railway Hotel where patrons are relaxing at the tables under its veranda, past a few dowdy looking shops, and up the hill.

Outside the bakery, I see one face I know. “Good afternoon, Mrs Sharp.”
She stares as I pass, and then, “Lillian?”
I turn my head and smile. “Sorry, can’t stop—funeral you know.”

They all know of course. The funeral is invitation only; wear colour, no flowers—the way Mei wanted it.

The hearse is parked under the shaded portico of Mason’s Funerals with two black limos lined up behind it. I keep my gaze averted; I’m not ready to face the coffin. A young woman wearing a grey skirt and white shirt embroidered with ‘MF’ approaches me.   “Hi. Are you with Miss Lim’s funeral party?” she asks in that quiet, rehearsed way that gets on everyone’s tits.

“Yes, close friend dar…” I choke on darling, realising with a pang, Mei’s reply would have been bitingly ingenuous. She looks at me strangely but smiles again and indicates for me to follow her.
“Julie is waiting in the family car.” She stops at the open back door of the first limo. “The other is for Miss Lim’s friends.” She indicates the second car. “We’re almost ready, Julie.” She smiles again then scuttles away. Julie is sitting in the back seat with a girl who looks to be about eleven or twelve. Seeing me, she stares but Julie jumps out and wraps me in a close hug.
“Oh, God! Lily. Thanks for coming.”
I shake my head, trying to swallow the emotions that flood through me so quickly, it hurts to even breathe. She was the only one of her family still talking to Mei after their Dad disowned her. Julie’s small hand rubs my back, soothing my roiling pain and anger. It should be me consoling her. “Where else would I be?” I rasp, after a moment.

I hear the funeral parlour’s glass doors swish, and open my eyes to see another attendant walk out and open the second limo’s doors. Julie pulls back and wipes her cheeks with one hand. “I think they’re coming.”
I give her other hand a reassuring squeeze. “I’ll see you later.”

She nods and I get into the second car; the driver already seated and waiting. There’s a flurry of movement; the glass doors open again, a small group of people appears. I recognise Brian Mason and two other suited men escorting Charlie Lim, Mei’s father to Julie’s limo. I briefly recognise Ray Harvey, Julie’s husband. Then I notice two others standing back near the doors; Michael O’Donnell and a colleague or assistant. Once Mr Lim and the family are settled, Brian takes the passenger seat in the hearse. As my car rolls past I glance at O’Donnell. Not invited. Well of course he’s not. Mei couldn’t stand him—well, none of us could—and following his family’s tradition and getting himself elected as mayor doesn’t carry any more weight now than it did when we were kids. I bet the bastard has come to crawl into Mr Lim’s good books. But Mei’s wishes will hold. Then I recognise the ‘assistant’. Jennifer Anderson the local MP. Bloody hell!

We turn onto the street and I feel us pick up speed. A second car means some of the old gang were expected—besides me. Sebastian, at least. But I’m alone and the huge expanse of cream leather stretches all the way across the benches to the driver’s cabin and the doors of the limo. Feeling self-conscious, I smooth down my skirt and shift my gaze to the street scenes outside my window. It’s busier in the main street, cars pass in the opposite direction and people are out shopping. There are changes: a few extra shops, the supermarket has been painted but the post office still looks the same.

The cortege slows down as we pass The Jade Lantern, Mei’s family restaurant. It looks contemporary and chic. My stomach drops. I was expecting to see the same old, brown shop-front with green lettering in English and red Chinese characters. There are people standing outside and with a jolt, it dawns on me, they have come to pay their respects. Then I notice the flowers, big tubs full of bright colour, placed by the windows and the door. Of course, they are serving refreshments here after the burial. I look past them to the trees at the back; they have grown taller and spread their limbs. I can only see a part of a window of the house behind the restaurant. We spent lots of time there, hanging out or doing homework. I was always at her place because her parents needed help in the restaurant. There’s a small dog in the driveway. I smile, remembering Mei’s dog Yù who weaned her puppies at five weeks of age instead of the usual six or seven. Mei made a ‘mother of the year award’ poster and pinned it to the wall above Yù’s basket.

The main street curves and the Rotary Park slides into view, looking just the same as it did when we were kids. We rarely used it. Others had claimed it and the football ground, where O’Donnell and the other sportos hung out. Kids whose family owned the Chinese restaurant, played the cello or any of their friends, weren’t welcome. The car slows, turns, and we follow the dust trail which is the hearse down a side street, a local short cut. I notice other cars banking up, waiting to turn, mostly black or gunmetal grey SUVs, a Mercedes, and one or two Audis. No doubt they left their garages this morning spotless and gleaming, the occupants cocooned in the luxury of refrigerated air and soft leather. Mei would appreciate that.

We pass by the Anglican Church and rectory. A fence separates the red brick buildings and the board which had the times of service on it has gone. There are cars parked at the side. A garden of native plants edges the path to what appears to be a private residence. We reach the last houses and the town gives way to bush and shadow, slowly we bump and rock across the wooden bridge shaded by the great arching limbs of river red gums. A few moments later we emerge into fierce heat and glare again. The dirt road widens between cleared paddocks. We drive slowly up the long, low hill. The town’s cemetery hunches in between the tree lined creek and paddocks ribboned by the wheel marks of a combine-harvester, the pale oat-straw dotted with reddish, long-legged merinos picking at fallen grain and hogweed. Under the shade of an ancient yellow-box, a horse lifts its head. By the time we reach the cemetery gates, there’s a welcoming committee. The train of cars and dust has coaxed the horse out from its cool leafy retreat and it leans over the fence gazing at the vehicles with open curiosity. Mei would like this.

Her family are mostly buried down along the creek, the area originally reserved for the Chinese. But Mei’s paternal grandparents were Christian and so her mum and grandparents are buried on the outskirts of the old Christian section, overlooking a wide avenue adjoining the creek flats that grow native grass during the brief winter and spring months. This was our haunt as kids. We were on the edge in lots of ways, rebelling against the confines of small-town culture, family expectations and restrictions, school, the local cultural scene and its focus on sport: netball and footy in the winter, cricket and tennis in the summer.

Excluded from the park and the oval, we’d stock up at the supermarket or local servo if the other was shut—or if we wanted hot chips—then we’d head down to the creek and cut along through the trees to the cemetery. We’d sit on the large empty plot beside Mei’s grandparents to eat and talk. Mei liked it because her dad had bought the plot for the family. She reckoned she had every right to be there. Mei liked to bring incense for her grandma. Other times we’d explore the cemetery, chase rabbits and lie on the graves smoking and drinking, daring each other to tell the scariest ghost stories or to camp out at night. It was quiet and nobody bothered us. Occasionally we were spotted and someone would report us to the local cop but there were too many escape routes from any arbiter of authority, older siblings and parents included, which was another reason why we liked the cemetery. We hung out here more as we grew older—after Sebastian had come.

Cars park under the gnarled Peppercorns at the front of the cemetery as we inch our way down the rough laneway past the granite funerary sculptures of the old section: crosses, an urn half-covered in a shroud, headstones with carved doves, and lilies and wilting roses. Some of the oldest headstones lean drunkenly over rusting or broken, iron work and cracked, sunken slabs where for years the rabbits have burrowed, leaving their droppings everywhere—all that grandeur slowly crumbling away. It’s odd how the town’s fortunes can be mapped by its cemetery, a bit like the railway station I guess.

Near the entrance, the graves are edged with cast iron lacework and other Victorian funerary artwork, finials and fleur de li, polished granite or marble headstones, and large memorial ornaments and statuary. The old part of the cemetery reflects the gold mining days when the town was young and full of hope. As we approach the newer sections there’s only little, mass produced plaques or ugly, squat stones with pictures of the smiling dead set into them. God, I hope they don’t do that to Mei.

The grounds look smaller than I remember them but even coming back here, where I spent some of my happiest times, isn’t enough to shake my apathy or my resentment. The whole fucking thing is so surreal. Not one of us ever pictured us being buried here. And never Mei. I look around, trying to control my anger, trying not to wonder who the hell all these people are and why they are intruding on our pain. On my left, Patrick O’Donnell’s huge polished granite cross rises above the other memorials; the town’s first mayor and rich bastard. I bite my lip, wondering what Michael O’Donnell would think if he knew what Mei and Sebastian had done on his grandfather’s tombstone one summer’s night before we’d left town.

One vehicle, a white SUV, follows us down the hill, pulling up on the open ground on the other side of the grave. I watch it in between pulling out my short boots and exchanging my high strappy sandals for thin cotton socks and sturdy leather. It takes me a minute to recognise Linda in her cheap looking blue shift and sensible shoes. Her hair is short, she bears the marks of having three kids and being married to a farmer: staid, conservative, practical. She reaches the other side of the grave, holds my gaze for a moment before giving me a little smile, her eyes full of warmth and understanding. The same gentle Linda who tagged after me and Mei when things got tough for her at school or at home. A tall wiry man stands beside her, looking uncomfortable in suit pants and a white shirt. I look at him curiously. Mei, Sebastian and I left before Linda and Tom became an item. We didn’t attend their wedding. By then Linda was almost a stranger, someone who’d buckled down to the life we’d been desperate to escape from.

The mourners, twenty or so, are still working their way carefully down the rutted and stony laneway. Men in dark suits, women in navy or black dresses, designer shoes and
shades, patches of colour in their scarves and ties. They all look important—people Mei met after she’d gone off on her own. I recognise a couple of people: an African lady in colourful dress, one guy who I’m sure I’ve seen on TV. Someone behind me whispers ‘ambassadors’. Someone should have warned them to wear boots, unless this is one of Mei’s nasty little jokes. If it had been winter, and the place squelching with wet, slippery clay, I’d be certain.

Out of the air-conditioned limo, cicada song pulses in the air, assaulting my ears with a deafening thrum like blood thumping inside my brain when I’m crippled by migraine.
Maybe I’m feeling a precursor to one. I haven’t noticed before—that heat and glare, flies and dust, affect every part of you except your hearing. My heart rate picks up as everyone settles. I stare over people’s heads—detach myself as much as possible. Everyone is wearing sunglasses so no-one will notice.

The minister is waiting beside a pyramid of dry, yellow clay and rubble spread out over the hard ground. Nearby, Ted Davis stands bow legged in front of a backhoe. I haven’t seen him in years but he looks almost the same. He chased us across the creek once.

My gaze is drawn to the hearse where Brian Mason is directing the pallbearers; Ray, Mei’s brother-in-law and behind him a teenager who looks so like him, I’m guessing he’s Sam, Ray and Julie’s son. Something like gratitude washes through me, lessening the tight grip of anger knotting my stomach. Mei’s parents had been so angry with her when we’d taken off to Melbourne.

Escaped Fate, that’s what we’d done! Influenced by Sebastian of course, we’d escaped from the small country town where our lives were already mapped out for us. Mine
anyway. Mei would have escaped because she was brilliant. That meant leaving her cello behind and any chance at a stellar music career. She had rebelled against her parents’ control for years. Not good for a Chinese girl from a conservative, image conscious family who owned the only restaurant in town. Two daughters. No son to carry on the name and the business. I think her dad had reconciled to her reading law, but at the end of second year she announced she was packing that in too and he disowned her. I remember the rows over the phone. And when she finally took off traveling, gutless me stayed behind.

Now she’s about to be buried alongside her mum, and her brother who drowned two weeks after his fifth birthday.

The minister has his back to us, bending over something resting on the neighbouring grave. He turns around, face red and shining, the sweat staining his collar. He raises his voice against the chorus from the surrounding trees. I imagine Mei’s delight at the absurdity of this little scene and I bite my lip to stop the laugh bubbling in my throat, drop my eyes to the ground to the sight of the open grave and Mei’s coffin resting over it. I focus on legs and shoes, all covered with dust. I feel the knot of resentment ease. Mei’s voice comes into my head, the pithy words she would whisper to me out of the side of her mouth if she were standing beside me, instead of laid out in that box. Serve them right. Watch what the bindiis do to all that soft leather. Mud in winter, bindiis in summer. Always a bitch, was Mei.

Behind the small group of mourners, the black granite cross guarding Patrick O’Donnell’s family plot looms above the hotchpotch of memorial statuary of the other graves, a silent, brooding presence against the blue sky.

Movement and a muffled squeal cuts across the drone of the minister. A woman flaps her hands and turns in jerky circles. Then others follow, flapping and waving their arms.

The swift and silent March flies have flown in from the trees along the creek, drawn to the dark clothing and the smell of warm blood, and the ceremony falters as people flap
and slap at them. It’s followed by loud, angry buzzing, the commotion or the heat and scent rising from sweating flesh, drawing big droning wasps. It’s an airborne attack. I reach into my bag and hand the insect repellent to the person next to me. My gaze is caught by Linda on the other side of the grave, who is holding a roll-on. Rapport flows between us and I feel the years slip away as we reconnect. I try to hide the slant of my
mouth. She smiles at me. Hi, it says. This is secret knowledge—knowledge of our place. There are a few moments of spraying and the flapping hands still. The minister settles everyone down, then continues the eulogy.

I let my gaze wander around. Only Linda from the old days has turned up. I know I’m looking for one face—Sebastian’s.

He will come, if he is in the country. Whether because of the heat or the flies, biting and non-biting, the padre finishes the business quickly. Prayers and eulogy said, the pallbearers step forward and take up the ropes. The shock of what is about to happen sets my heart pounding again.

I feel sick and faint.

And it isn’t funny anymore, none of it—especially when an attendant presses the portable black CD player and Magdalena Kožená sings Zerfliesse, mein Herz from Bach’s St John Passion. The descending notes of the aria, set in B flat minor, echo a haunting lament through the air as the pallbearers lower Mei’s coffin. It’s too much for Julie and her dad. Mr Lim kind of crumples and he looks beaten, a little old man as Julie supports him as best she can. The flute and oboe perform their complicated dance but I hear the cello in the background and I know he hears it too.

I loved listening to Mei practicing the cello in her bedroom while I struggled with my homework, or when she dragged me off to Hamer Hall to hear the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra or one of the visiting chamber orchestras. Bach would always be included in the programme. The soprano or mezzo-soprano sings the Zerflisse mein Herz—dissolve my heart after Jesus dies and Kožená’s voice slices through my flesh as easily as the thick summer air, her rapturous notes convey the piercing, tortured passion of the mourner. And just like that my resentment boils, acid and bitter-rich from my stomach. I don’t understand. She’s dead and still putting it over everyone—always something more to confound and wrong-foot us. There’s a flurry of movement as people open bags, search pockets, pull out tissues or handkerchiefs. I feel tears thick on my lashes, but I won’t cry—not here.

Someone hands me a cardboard box of rose petals to sprinkle onto the coffin. I take a handful and drop them into the grave. Dein Jesus ist tot!—the exquisite, intertwining dance of voice and cello continues—dignified, haunting, magical—madrigal.

I bite the inside of my mouth till I taste blood; take a deep long breath, and push the tears back. There are still three minutes to go. Always a bitch, was Mei.

People begin to move away, climbing slowly up the dirt track in a loose group. Linda and I are left at the grave. Her husband too.

Bach’s Zerflisse is still in my head and I’m actually surprised that my voice works. “Hi, there.”
“Hello, Lily. Long time, no see.” She gives me a hug and pulls back. “You know Tom, of course.”
Tom gives me the Aussie nod as he shakes my hand. “G’day, how ya goin’!”                  Linda’s gaze flicks down and she frowns. “Are you okay? There’s blood…” Her hand lifts to her mouth.

I grab a tissue from my bag and press it to my lips. I thought it might be pink,
but when I look it’s red. Then I notice the metallic taste.
“That last bit was tough,” she says.
“No shit.” I sniff into the crumpled tissue.
There’s a moment of companionable silence before she shakes her head and laughs. “Trust Mei.”
Tears leak onto my cheek.
Drawing a breath she adds, “I thought Sebastian would be here!”
Linda had always been blunt and it warms me inside to recognise the Linda I’d known at school. The years lying between us retreat a bit more.
“Does anyone know where he is?” I ask, shrugging my shoulders as if I’m allowing him some excuse.
“Last I heard he was in Greece,” says Linda.
Sebastian always liked living on the periphery, rejecting our prompts in the occasional Christmas phone call or text to sign up to any social media.
“That was years ago.”
“Yeah, well, Africa then. I hadn’t spoken to Mei for years, just texts you know – at Christmas and stuff.”
I know. Each year seems to get busier and busier. All of us drifting from actually phoning or sending Christmas cards to texting, till that’s too much effort and we make do with social media.

Except Mei.

We phoned, met up when we could. Not that often but it doesn’t matter does it, when you carry someone in your heart when they’ve seared themselves into your DNA?

Except, I hadn’t seen her for five years.

Tom leans towards Linda, “See you at the car, love.” The nod again, a goodbye this time. I return it, making sure it’s briefer than his. We watch Tom retreating to the car. Then it’s just us standing by the grave. Her smile holds genuine sympathy and understanding. “Lily, don’t think too much about it.”

I know what’s coming next.

“Do they know…I mean, do you how much they found—”
“Leave it, Linda.”
Jesus Lily, this is Mei! She wasn’t supposed to die. Not Mei. And not come home…in bits.”
“Don’t Linda.”
“Sorry.” Her eyes search mine. “It’s just—”
“Not Mei?”
She shakes her head.
“I know,” I whisper. “She was the one who was going to do stuff. We all knew it. She sparkled and… She was supposed to knuckle down, finish her law degree and set the corporate world shivering in their collective shoes. Not take a sudden left, midway and go off to some disease-ridden African shithole with some fucker do-good aid group, sticking needles into snotty, half-starved kids.”
I see Linda watching me cautiously. I clamp down hard on my angry tirade, biting the inside of my mouth again. Tasting blood. She nudges at a clod of dirt. We watch it fall, hear the clunk as it hits Mei’s coffin and breaks apart.                                  “No, she wasn’t supposed to get killed, Linda.”                                                                                “What was she doing there? What the hell was all that about, Lily?”
“I don’t know.” I step back, feeling trapped and under fire—all these questions. I massage my temple to ease the sudden pain and the prickling resentment stirring inside me. “She didn’t tell me till that Christmas. Then she was gone.”
“Was it, Sebastian?”
“Of course it was bloody Sebastian.”  I glare at her in disbelief.                                                  “Sorry. I know you and Sebastian were—”
“Look, she didn’t take him from me, Linda. He took Mei. And they were never together…well, not really, but Sebastian was…well, Sebastian.”
“I never understood. Everyone thought they were together you know.”

She sounds like the town gossips I remember and always despised. I look at her, Linda in her cheap blue dress, eyes hungry for any juicy titbit she can glean.
“They weren’t.” I keep my voice flat.
“He changed her.”
“She changed him. Mei had a way of changing everyone.”
“Yeah! Do you remember when he first arrived?” She laughs. “One minute he’s the town’s bad boy and the next he’s off to God knows where.”
Linda looks at me. I can almost see the cogs grinding speculatively. “Are you coming to the restaurant for a drink?”
She wants me to walk into that den of gossip? “God No! Maybe, in a little while. I want to stay here for a moment.”
“Sure, Lily,” she says, sympathy etched over her face. “The focus is always on the family, isn’t it? But often it’s others that need support too. You and Mei were always close.”
Her empathy falls into the space between us; heavy, meaningless.
“I’ll be fine.”
“You’ve got a decent ride back, anyway. Nothing too good for Mei now. Rumour has it the council want to commemorate her in some way. A foundation or something.”
“Why would they do that?” I ask, frowning, trying to keep my features pleasant whilst inside I feel my hackles rising.
“Well, the ultimate sacrifice, and all that. They say she was driving the truck when it was hit.”
Suddenly I’m fighting for composure. All I want to do is yell at her, tell her she’s a stupid bitch for selling out, for getting sucked into all of this, this small town bullshit. I let the silence draw out before I answer.  “Mei helped save lots of lives over the years, before this attack on the camp.”
“Michael O’Donnell, he’s pretty close with Charlie Lim. Charlie’s been more involved with the council, since Ray and Julie took over the restaurant. I always thought if anyone was to be famous it would be Mei. This afternoon is for everyone to come and pay their respects. The town will want to help send off one of its own.”
“One of their own?” I’m just about to let her have it when it suddenly hits me, why O’Donnell and Anderson were at the funeral home. And they’d be at the reception. Mei had her way with her burial, now she’s being claimed by the family she loved and the town she hated.

Linda puts her hand out, squeezes my arm for a moment and turns away. She looks faded, like time or her old man has leached all the vitality from her. Or maybe having a family and living here all her life has done it to her. So different to Mei who’d always had boundless energy. And I savour the vindictive spurt of pleasure coursing through me. I’m glad. Serve her right. I watch Linda get into the car and give a final wave as Tom drives back up the hill. Only my limo remains, the driver waiting expectantly. But I can’t move yet.

I realise I’m not going to the restaurant and I won’t see Linda again. It’s the end now. Mei was the glue that held our group together. The odd one out in her family, we were her teenage rebellion; the cemetery a place of peace and solitude during her arguments with her family. Mei fulfilled her destiny on the world stage after all. For a brief time she escaped, but she is home now, and there’s nothing left for me but memories and what I keep of her in my heart.

I sense he’s there before I turn around, a dark shadow standing in the shade of the gums amongst the Chinese headstones down by the creek. Sebastian, leaning against a tree, black pants, and light coloured shirt with the sleeves pushed up and a jacket slung over his shoulder, looking much the same as when I’d met him all those years ago. The
vicar’s son.
“You didn’t come.”
He walks to me and lifts one hand and hands me a beer, beads of cold water trickling down one side. “I’m here now.”
“Now that Mei’s gone?”
He smiles, but his face is taut, the tension lines around his eyes are deeper than I remember them. His hand slides around the back of my neck, drawing me to him. “Don’t be silly, Lily,” he sighs against my cheek. “Mei told me that if anything
happened to her I had to look after you.”
I huff in disbelief but raise the bottle to my mouth, relishing the explosion of cold liquid and bubbles sluicing down the back of my throat and the bitter aftertaste of hops in my
mouth.

Behind me, the engine and warning beep of the backhoe start up. I hear the scrape of metal against stone as the scoop picks up a load of clay and rubble to tip into Mei’s grave. She’s gone and I can’t sense her anymore. Now I want shake off the anger and the perpetual dark numbness and dislocation. I want to feel again.
Together we walk slowly back to the car. The shadows are lengthening and the cicadas clamour in the heat-charged air. As we drive out of the cemetery gates and turn into the road, my gaze is drawn past Sebastian and beyond the window to where Patrick O’Donnell’s cross stands etched against the sky.

(Burying Mei, original version published in Painted Words 2016)

© 2017 J Bayliss

 

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Questionable Intelligence

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Ravindra Panwar “Automation” courtesy of Pixabay Free Images

Recently, the extraordinary developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, have received worldwide coverage in news and current affairs programs.

With the rapid advancements in AI and robotics, the world now faces a new age of technological revolution, one which experts say will profoundly alter the nature of work and leisure, alter the structure of our economies and societies, and challenge human ethics and values. If that were not enough we also face some serious ethical issues including: the question of the management and ownership of data, the development of autonomous weapons and the use of such weapons by the military, rogue states, and terrorists.

Yet talking to friends and acquaintances I’ve been shocked by the general lack of knowledge of these changes and developments. Others who are aware of the issues are naturally anxious about their futures. People are too easily dubbed as pessimists, despite the fact that such rapid and widespread change will lead to mass unemployment, which could domino into a polarisation of the social order of the very poor and financially elite classes. These changes may also herald the breakdown of the world’s market-based economies.

So, are we ready for this new age? Can ordinary humans as well as business and governments cope with the predicted scale of these changes? How do we readjust our lives from work to increased leisure, and who will pay for this? And how much technology is too much? Are we pushing boundaries too far in creating autonomous robots and computers that learn from each other exponentially? Are we creating a future which will threaten the very existence of the human species or is this a natural response to the threat of the unknown? How do we measure, apply standards and ethics, and set controls to these technological changes?

According to experts, all areas of employment will be affected, as the new wave of technological advancement impacts not just low skilled work, but higher skilled work as well. Those impacted the most will be jobs which still entail repetitive tasks. Experts agree that tens of thousands of jobs will disappear.

This is nothing new, of course. Throughout human history, advances in technology have delivered huge benefits and improved the lives of individuals and communities alike, freeing humans from most menial, time consuming, and physical tasks. From our earliest tool-making beginnings, humankind has improved and adapted tools and developed new technologies. And through these developments, we have transformed our cultures, our environments, the nature of work and leisure, and even our ways of thinking. Humans have always asked questions, experimented and pushed boundaries.

By and large, technologies served humankind, but with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution machines began replacing human beings. Even with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, technological change occurred at a much slower rate allowing people to adapt and new jobs to be created. Now however, computers and AI are escalating this rate of change. Tech companies around the world are developing AI and robots promoting this with the promise they will make our lives easier. Companies like Amazon, Costco and the supermarket chains already use automated warehouses. Robot assisted surgery has been featured in news stories. Drones are used in many areas including: leisure, science, military and civilian security, surveillance and rescue. AI assistants such as Siri, Alexa, and Google Home are reducing human involvement in the home.

How will the business sector integrate these new technologies? Australia’s retail businesses including Myer, Harvey Norman, Coles, Woolworths and the independent supermarkets are preparing for the widely published arrival of Amazon in 2018. The impact of this is certain to be significant.

For many businesses, the human resource component (their workers) is one of the biggest costs. Consequently, any opportunity to reduce human input and therefore costs in a business is highly attractive. Technology related changes implemented in the latter half of the twentieth century and into the twenty first century have reduced human input within many industries. These industries continue to take advantage of technological advancements. They include: agriculture, mining and transport as well as automotive and other manufacturing areas where robots have replaced humans on the assembly line.

Revolutions have occurred in the business sector too, with changes to payroll handling, the replacement of typing pools by computers, and electronic transfer systems such as email. We have transitioned from cash to credit cards, purchase goods and services online, and stream entertainment and news online.

But what does all this mean from a human perspective? What does this mean for employment and the nature of work which is connected so closely to our ideas of identity and value both as individuals and as societies? Does this threaten the core fabric of such values?

In the recent ABC program, The AI Race, scientists sat down with a group of young people to explain how the development of autonomous robots would impact their jobs. The level of anxiety was apparent from the beginning when a young para-legal, Christine Maibom, realised her job was under threat with the development of Ailira, a super-fast AI computer taxation program app which reduces the legal case and precedent research time from hours to minutes. Much of the film explored the impact of rapid change on the nature of work including the issue of massive unemployment.

So, if the impact promises to be so widespread how will humans cope with reduced work opportunities?

During the screening of The AI Race, Toby Walsh, research group leader at NICTA and Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of NSW, Sydney, proposed that he could see a future where everyone was paid a nominal wage to survive. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, have also expressed this view. It sounds very much like a welfare payment. Once again, little more than the statement was explored in the film. How can such a proposal be considered as a viable alternative, and more importantly, how would such a solution be sustained economically? For many, this would be a band-aid measure to shore up global economies. Logically speaking, huge job losses would mean less government revenue. But with each country facing the same challenges in terms of mass unemployment and revenue loss, how would these economies fund such huge welfare budgets?

In 2016 the Australian Federal Government announced a crackdown on welfare. Since then, reviews have been rolled out for people on Disability Pensions. Changes to the Aged Pension assets test have also occurred. Politicians tell us constantly that Australia cannot support its ageing population without changes to the welfare system. The pension age requirement has been raised, as has the retirement age. People are being asked to work beyond their sixties and into their seventies. This appears totally at odds with the utopian predictions of less work and more leisure.

If all these pressures are coming to bear now, how will governments afford a basic welfare payment for increased numbers of the population who are not working and not paying income tax? How can any model of this type be considered a rational solution?

For the majority of us, work for pay dominates our lives, and is connected to identity and value as citizens who contribute in a positive and meaningful way to our societies. But a loss of work, and subsequent existence on a welfare payout, may only be the beginning.

What does this mean for work, superannuation, home ownership, the affordability of basic utilities, healthcare and lifestyles for the majority of people? What does this mean for economies in general if people can no longer afford to buy anything more than basic goods? Automated cars might be safer, they might be cool, but who will be able to afford these goods? Who, on a basic universal wage, will be able to afford other discretionary goods, or take holidays?

And what are the future solutions for such massive social and economic upheavals? Will they include the axing of publicly funded schools? And since most tertiary education is privatised, will education become a luxury, or restricted to those deemed worthy of the investment? If all these new technologies change not only how we work but significantly reduce the number of people who do work, how will people cope psychologically?

At present, these are questions that are not being answered, even as government officials, scientists and other experts assure us that jobs will be created, particularly in creative thinking areas.

Another point of concern discussed during the ABC’s program, The AI Race, is that data is now the key to the future. Around the collection, storage, and use of such data looms another very important debate; one of ethics.

Large companies collect huge amounts of data from various sources and use it to target customers. Cookies, phones, everything connected to the internet can track a person’s whereabouts. Data collected from your internet browsing identifies your interests and determines the advertisements displayed on your Facebook page.

A recent article by journalist Harry Guiness, explained how Facebook’s algorithms work. Published in February 2017 it’s already outdated. Since then, Facebook has again updated and refined how their algorithms determine what content we see. My concerns are, how these algorithms affect our lives, directing us to not only the news and entertainment content we watch, and whether manipulating the content we view influences or alters our opinions? Are we being conditioned? What are the implications for freedom?

Dr Cathy O’Neil, is a mathematician turned campaigner, and author of, Weapons of Math Destruction. O’Neil raises awareness of the ways in which data and algorithms are being used. As an author, she provides compelling evidence that algorithms are being used as weapons through the authority of the inscrutable and that this poses a danger to democracy. As O’Neil points out, democracy functions because everyone understands the rules, and there are points of accountability set into the system. But data collection, analysis, and the writing of algorithms have no transparency, nor are there checks on authority. These algorithms are, according to O’Neil, being used for social control. Facebook is one example of this social control. As Harry Guiness explains in his article on Facebook’s algorithms:

Facebook has a ton of information on it, and Facebook doesn’t want to show you stories that don’t interest you. So every time you open Facebook, the algorithm looks at all the possible stories you could be shown. Everything that your friends and the pages you follow have posted since you last logged in is included. Each story is assessed individually and given a Relevancy Score; a measure of how likely Facebook thinks you are to spend time viewing it, like it, comment on it, or share it. This score is unique to you.

 

Other examples of these algorithms include education and accountability modelling and micro-targeting used by politicians to understand voter sentiment.

One point which is very clear is that data is king. To be more specific the collection and ownership of data equals power.  As Professor Mary-Anne Williams, Director of the Innovation and Enterprise Research Laboratory at UTS, suggests, those who own the data rules the world. So how did we get from internet surfing to social manipulation and control over the masses?

At this point, it is helpful to reflect on the early days of the internet and the communal values it assumed. As Jean-Noel Jeanenney pointed out in his book, Google and The Myth of Universal Knowledge, “with the introduction of the Internet there was an intrinsic libertarian spirit amongst users, particularly academics.” I myself, remember the enthusiasm for knowledge sharing from my university library induction in 2005. This attitude has largely retracted as business interests dominate the internet space and data collection has become a tool of power.

But perhaps the most disturbing questions facing the world today are the ethics associated with the military applications of AI. On Monday 21st August 2017, technology entrepreneur and Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, together with 116 specialists, called on the UN to ban autonomous weapons. These autonomous weapons are able to “operate on their own without human intervention.” The open letter, reported on by news broadcasters across the world, also seeks a ban on the weapons race currently underway. The Guardian quoted one warning in an earlier letter to the UN from the founders of AI and Robotics companies: “We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.” In my opinion, we are already too late.

World War II is still within living memory of our elder citizens, and the development of photography and film enabled governments and journalists to document events as they unfolded. The Cold War was dominated by the fear of nuclear war between the two great powers of the time, America and the USSR. During the Gulf War and subsequent conflicts, the world watched footage of battles waged with weapons designed for surgical strikes guided by GPS.

Since then, many conflicts have occurred, and with them, the world has witnessed several regimes perpetrate atrocities against its civilians. Despite our knowledge and understanding of the consequences of such advanced weaponry, including nuclear weapons, the race continues with the added threat of AI, or autonomous weapon robots.

The ongoing wars against religious extremism and associated terrorist attacks around the world already make use of the AI technologies available. One example of this was in 2001 when planes were used as weapons in the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, in New York. The internet has made it possible for information to spread rapidly. An internet search will quickly identify articles and video of AI and robotic developments, including some which have obvious potential for military purposes. It is foolish, and even dangerous, to assume that terrorist groups or paranoid regimes such as North Korea won’t attempt to harness AI and autonomous robots in their ideological wars.

Professor Williams, interviewed in the ABC’s, The AI Race, has described autonomous weapons as potentially being like velociraptors—agile and swift moving, “able to hunt humans with high precision sensors augmented with information from computer networks.” Surely, this scenario is chilling enough to raise serious ethical questions among the most optimistic of tech fans. It could prompt a natural response by terrorist organisations to acquire advanced robotic technology. Even airing such opinions and possible futures through the media and in film (easily accessible through social media platforms such as YouTube and Facebook) is reckless and dangerous. Films are visually powerful tools, which can easily be manipulated. Furthermore, the calls for universal bans assume some sort of shared moral system of values and ethics—that once banned, every government, regime, and group, will cease all autonomous weapons programs. Simply banning the use of autonomous weapons or killer robots as Elon Musk and others propose, won’t prevent terrorist groups or rogue states from pursuing technological advances in this field.

Responsibility for advances in technology used for conflict and mass destruction such as nuclear weapons and now AI, lies within the purview of those who develop them, as well as the businesses, institutions, and governments who fund this research and development. Abdicating responsibility, by claiming that the uses to which these technologies are put is not the responsibility of the developers, is nonsense and unacceptable. This condition is known as habitus or in layman’s terms, “ivory tower” mentality. In this instance, the notion of “ivory tower” thinking refers to the isolation or a remoteness of attitude of academics or scientists who have become removed from the real problems and consequences of everyday life. The more complex condition, habitus, incorporates culture as a contributing factor to the dislocation from reality.

One study of this was discussed at the 2004 conference on Science and Technology in the Twentieth Century: Cultures of Innovation in Germany and the United States, in the session on the culture of science and attitudes of scientists in Germany. At this session, Dr Ulrike Kissmann discussed ‘Bourdieu’s notion of “habitus.”’ She concluded that the nuclear scientists were dissociating themselves from society. Kissmann claims that these scientists abrogated any responsibility related to their research. ‘They constructed the affiliation with their own professional community by projecting the military potential and its risks onto “the others.” Thus, they expressed the historically grown habitus of scientists as working in a societal vacuum.’

The question of habitus, or ivory tower mentality, should be put to those in the science community who extol the benefits of proposed changes, dismissing the concerns of the general population, while knowing their own jobs are secure. The natural anxiety that the public expresses is easily criticised and dismissed, by those who have vested interests in the continuation of such research and development.

The advances in AI raise legitimate concerns for all citizens of this planet. At the same science and technology conference, Dominique Pestre, ascribed changing attitudes to science in the 1970s ‘to the growing privatization of knowledge on a global scale’, where science had moved from benefitting society ‘to a system in which a financial and market-oriented appropriation of scientific knowledge is now in the ascendant.’

Considered in the context of O’Neil’s concerns about secrecy, bias, and lack of accountability in data collection and algorithm applications, this adds weight to concerns for the future direction of democracy and the freedom and rights of citizens who value it.

As Elon Musk pointed out in the open letter to the UN, the world is already engaged in an AI race. And in some quarters the old justification of, ‘if we don’t develop it someone else will’ still dominates. The ethics of developing such technologies may be questioned from time to time but universities and tech companies are still funded, to my knowledge, rarely account to the public about their research pathways. Thus, questions of moral and ethical responsibility are too easily pushed aside or subverted.

Finally, the rapid technological advancement in terms of AI and robotics raises questions which as yet, are not, being answered by so-called experts. It’s not the anxiety of change or change per se which is concerning but the foreseeable disruption to societies, the profound ramifications of AI advancements, and the uses to which these advanced technologies will be put which are the real issues.

Technology is wonderful when it enhances our lives, not when it replaces human input to the extent that is being predicted. Surely it is time for the general public to fully engage with the discussions around AI advancements and ethics, and more importantly, for governments, institutions, and scientists to accept responsibility for the applications of technological advancements, and be accountable to the people of the world.

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Tekelua “Robot” courtesy of Pixabay Free Images

 

Sources used in the research for this opinion piece:  

Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2017, The AI Race – Documentary ABC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, viewed 21st August 2017, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLeuCj0ZFo4>

Brynjolfsonn, E & McAfee, A 2014, The Dawn of the Age of Artificial Intelligence: Reasons to Cheer the Rise of the Machines, The Atlantic Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly Group, 2017, viewed, 8th August 2017, <https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/02/the-dawn-of-the-age-of-artificial-intelligence/283730/>

Collins, English Dictionary, viewed 13th September 2017, <https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/ivory-tower>

Creighton, A Maher, S 2016, One in Two Voters is Reliant on Public Purse, News Corp, The Weekend Australian, online, viewed 13th September 2017, <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/one-in-two-voters-is-fully-reliant-on-public-welfare/news-story/d0e4af64354d9e9d6fe81b99ef59cf9b>

C S Canada, 2017, Habitus, Harvard Online Journals, 2010, viewed 14th September 2017, <http://cscanada.org/web/> and, <http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.670.9485&rep=rep1&type=pdf>

Cüneyt, D 2015, World Conference on Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship

The Impacts of Robotics, Artificial Intelligence On Business and Economics, Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences V 195 July 3rd 2015, pp. 564 – 573, Elseviere Science Direct, open access, 2017, viewed 21st August  2017, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.06.134  <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042815036137>

Eckert, M & Trischler, H 2005, Science and Technology in the Twentieth Century: Cultures of Innovation in Germany and The United States, GHI BULLETIN No. 36 (Spring 2005) pp. 130-134 online, viewed 13th September 2017, <https://www.ghi-dc.org/fileadmin/user_upload/GHI_Washington/Publications/Bulletin36/36.130.pdf>

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017, The History of Technology, p. 5, viewed 8th August 2017, <https://www.britannica.com/technology/history-of-technology/Perceptions-of-technology#toc14917>

Gault, Montgomery, Muller, O’Gorman, Resser, Roland, Winefield, 2000, The Psychology of Work and Unemployment in Australia Today, The Australian Psychological Society Ltd, viewed 13th September 2017, <https://www.psychology.org.au/Assets/Files/work_position_paper.pdf>

Greenwald, T 2015, Does Artificial Intelligence Pose a Threat?, Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Company, News Corp 2017, viewed 8th August 2017,

<https://www.wsj.com/articles/does-artificial-intelligence-pose-a-threat-1431109025>

Guiness, H 2017, How Facebook’s News Feed Sorting Algorithm Works, How-to Geek Pro, LLG, Blogpost, February 28th 2017, viewed Monday 21st August 2017, <https://www.howtogeek.com/290919/how-facebooks-news-feed-sorting-algorithm-works/>

Heymann, J Stein, MA Moreno, G 2014, Disability & Equity at Work, Oxford University Press, NY, online version, viewed 13th September 2017, <https://books.google.com.au/books?id=_6JNAgAAQBAJ&pg=PT63&lpg=PT63&dq=the+role+work+plays+in+an+individual%27s+contribution+to+society+and+notions+of+wellbeing&source=bl&ots=ToT-MbBa0G&sig=1AoD_M1xhR34QQ4-1aNHKR3Ef3M&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj9l6vH96HWAhUJzbwKHU8pDD4Q6AEIXjAJ#v=onepage&q=the%20role%20work%20plays%20in%20an%20individual’s%20contribution%20to%20society%20and%20notions%20of%20wellbeing&f=false>

Jeanenney, J N 2007, Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge, University of Chicago Press, London & Chicago.

Morris, D Z 2017, Elon Musk and AI Experts Call for Total Ban on Robotic Weapons, Fortune Magazine, (online), 20th August 2017, viewed 21st August 2017, <http://fortune.com/2017/08/20/elon-musk-robotic-weapons/>

Morton R, 2016, Crackdown Throws Thousands Off Disability Pension, News Corp, The Weekend Australian, 13th July 2016, viewed 13th September 2017, <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/policy/crackdown-throws-thousands-off-disability-support-pension/news-story/c0097c07716302ada36f06a865e047db >

Nott, G 2017, Can Autonomous Killer Robots be Stopped?, Computerworld, 2017, 25th August 2017, viewed 29th August 2017, <https://www.computerworld.com.au/article/626460/can-autonomous-killer-robots-stopped/>

O’Neill, M 2017, ABC’s Lateline, Explainer: What is Artificial Intelligence, viewed 8th August, 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-07/explainer-what-is-artificial-intelligence/8771632

Price, R 2016, Stephen Hawking: This Will be the Impact of Automation and AI on Jobs, World Economic Forum, article published in collaboration with Business Insider, 6th December 2016, viewed 18th September 2017, <https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/12/stephen-hawking-this-will-be-the-impact-of-automation-and-ai-on-jobs>

Slade, M 2010, Mental Illness and Well-being: The Central Importance of Positive Psychology and Recovery Approaches, BMC Health Service Res., PMC, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, published online 26th January 2010, doi:  10.1186/1472-6963-10-26 viewed 13th September 2017, <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2835700/>

Stanford University, 2016, Artificial Intelligence and Life in 2030:

One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence, Report of the 2015 Study Panel, pdf pp. 1-27, viewed 8th September 2017,

<https://ai100.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/ai_100_report_0831fnl.pdf>

Tegmark, M, 2016, Benefits & Risks of Artificial Intelligence, Blogpost, Future of Life Institute, viewed 8th August 2017, <https://futureoflife.org/background/benefits-risks-of-artificial-intelligence/>

The Economist, 2017, Automation and Anxiety: Will Smarter Machines Cause Mass Unemployment? Special report, 25th June 2016, viewed 18th September 2017, <https://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21700758-will-smarter-machines-cause-mass-unemployment-automation-and-anxiety>

The Guardian, 2017, Elon Musk Leads 116 Experts Calling for Outright Ban on Killer Robots, viewed 21st August 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/aug/20/elon-musk-killer-robots-experts-outright-ban-lethal-autonomous-weapons-war>

United Nations, 2017, Will Robots Cause Mass Unemployment? Not necessarily but they do brig other threats, News item published online, 13th September 2017, viewed 13th September 2017, <https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/policy/will-robots-and-ai-cause-mass-unemployment-not-necessarily-but-they-do-bring-other-threats.html>

Williams-Grut, O 2016, Business Insider Australia, Robots are Coming: How AI Could Increase Unemployment and Inequality around the World, viewed, 8th August, 2017, <https://www.businessinsider.com.au/robots-will-steal-your-job-citi-ai-increase-unemployment-inequality-2016-2>

Yudkowsky, E 2008, Artificial Intelligence as a Positive and Negative Factor in Global Risk, Global Catastrophic Risks, edited by Nick Bostrom and Milan M Ćirković, pp. 308–345, New York: Oxford University Press. Online PDF version, viewed 8th August, 2017, <https://intelligence.org/files/AIPosNegFactor.pdf&gt;

 

Milton Park

 

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The sweeping driveway at Milton Park, Bowral.

Sweeping up the curve of Milton Park’s driveway and through the parkland doesn’t prepare first-time visitors for the grandeur of the Federation mansion and its English style gardens.

It is quite simply, huge. However, the grand style is certainly not overwhelming. In fact Milton Park nestles comfortably amongst its extensive collection of mature trees, something that only time provides. Perhaps it’s the scale of the house. Being so large you don’t see the whole of it and therefore at ground level the protruding porches and large windows beckon you to follow, step around the corner and discover what is beyond. The garden nooks and little stone paths bordering the house beckon in the same way. And like the escarpment, photos don’t give a true indication of the scale of Milton Park. You have to experience the place, not just the house but the gardens where everything surrounds you and you are embedded in the landscape. The grand urns and lawn, the soaring trees, affect the play of light and shade, while the vistas and garden rooms draw your feet hither, and all is juxtaposed against the expanse of winter sky and the minutiae; little wrens flitting through the bare branches, a shrivelled leaf, the blue of forget-me-nots, and the narcissus bulbs pushing through the garden beds.

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Milton Park: The Federation style house from the front lawn.

 

Inside is another matter. The house is imposing and you feel the grandeur of scale in the width of the hallways, the rambling rooms with their huge windows and soaring ceilings. The rooms are punctuated rather than overwhelmed with antiques, comfortable chairs and sofas. There are some original artworks (mostly realist) although I was disappointed to find a lack of artist signatures on the ones I looked at. The pervading atmosphere of the hotel is elite and expensive noticeable through the quiet, pleasant, discreet service. You get the impression that no-one at Milton Park would ever raise their voices.

The style of the house is predominantly Federation with some eclectic with influences from earlier French and Villa styles evident in the numerous classical pillars, marble fireplaces and marble balustrades around the porches.

We arrived late morning and booked a table for lunch at Horderns Restaurant. With time to wander through the gardens and the public areas of the house before the restaurant opened. Deciding to tackle the garden after lunch we chose to relax in one of the smaller lounges with views through the huge windows into the garden and sundrenched porch.

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The porch and marble balustrade to the right of Milton Park’s main entrance entices the visitor to explore.

 

Dining is not a rushed affair at Milton.

The ethos of the hotel is relaxation after all.

Allow two hours to enjoy the experience. We began with scallops and charcuterie selection. I ordered a glass of NV Moet & Chandon which wasn’t available so was offered the NV Veuve Clicquot instead which was lovely. My brother and his wife chose the craft beer and daughter Sheridan doesn’t drink so chose water. For our main course Sandie and I shared the charcuterie for two and Rohan had the scallops. For mains he and Sandie ordered the angel hair pasta with seafood, Sheridan the venison and mushroom pie with beet salad, and I chose the pot au feu chicken and we shared a side of greens which included zucchini, broccolini, and asparagus.

We chose the 2016 Far Ago Hills Pinot Gris to accompany our main course. This pinot gris, is gorgeous with lovely colour and perfume and it suited the chicken and pasta beautifully. Thumbs up for the seafood pasta which Rohan and Sandie said was nicely sauced but light which was a lovely change as most seafood pasta sauces they’ve tasted tended to be too heavy. Sheridan thought the pie very nice except for the pastry pie filling ratio (too much pastry for the amount of filling). She thought the baby beet salad was nicely cooked, combining some lovely textures and flavours.

For dessert both Sandie and I chose the tonka bean pannacotta with strawberry sherbet. The sherbet was a dusting over the plate so I didn’t pick up the sherbet fizz which I’d been expecting. However, the panna cotta was beautifully silky and soft and the strawberry sorbet was full of strawberry flavour that cleansed and brightened the palate with an additional little sharp sour note that makes the insides of your cheeks zing.

Sheridan ordered the café au lait crème brule with homemade chocolate sorbet and biscotti. Rohan had the French banana tart with homemade vanilla ice-cream, strawberries and toffee caramel sauce which won his verdict of the best banana dessert he’d ever tasted. The after-lunch coffee was rich, strong and smooth without any bitterness; definitely something you wanted more of. A thoroughly delightful meal, beautifully cooked and presented, served by attentive but unobtrusive, pleasant and quietly-spoken staff.

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The large ornate urn on the central lawn draws the eye to the horizon and the beautiful trees at Milton Park.

After lunch we ventured into the garden. As it was July the deciduous trees and shrubs had shed their leaves but any gardener worthy of the name won’t be put off by this. Winter is an opportunity to marvel at the beauty of bark, limb, and lacework of twig set against the pale blue of the winter sky, to admire rock walls and stone paths, the bare bones of a garden with moss and hidden little gems pushing bravely through the carpet of leaves. I was reminded of Edna Walling’s gardens and those of the English Landscape School. Milton Park’s history page states that the garden is in fact, the only surviving example of this style in Australia.

Of course, Milton Park’s gardens have a great deal to offer, Bowral’s tulip festival, Tulip Time being one of the garden’s long standing calendar events. The hotel provides visitors with a booklet outlining the history and includes a map of the walks and garden rooms. Green grass, the soaring majesty of mature trees, urns, stone walls, bulbs, parterres, reflected water, and birds provide their own charms to a winter garden. I was drawn to the various maples and the beautiful way they’d been pruned to reveal the contorted branches.

Finally, we thoroughly enjoyed our day, and all I can do is repeat myself and affirm that Milton Park Country House Hotel & Spa is something you just want more of.

Hmm! Now let’s take a look at their special package deals.

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Narcisuss and forget-me-nots in a garden bed at Milton Park

magpies

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By jjron, (edited by Noodle snacks) (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

As all Australians know, magpies can be vicious during the nesting season. However, we have never had an attack. I suppose because they know we are part of the landscape. Nesting season has now finished but the magpies are busy raising their chicks. I hear them in the surrounding bushland. Today one adult is warbling softly, sitting on a dead limb across the drive.

Suddenly, I realise it is warbling to me.

I’ve warbled to magpies since my teenage years when my brother raised injured youngsters and they would become honorary  family members until they were ready to leave us. I know I have a distinct and unmelodic call, petering out somewhat at the end. It took me years to realise that the large home-group of magpies who live in the surrounding bush, (and the garden), have actually adapted their song when they call to me. They use this call when they want my attention.

One day my daughter and I were outside enjoying a tea-break when they began warbling. There were four or five magpies walking across the grass hunting for grubs and worms. My daughter poked her head from around her notebook screen.

‘They’re calling to you, you know that?’

Feeling pleased with myself, I answered their call.

‘Rank amateur,’ she said, emerging once more from behind the screen and grinning.

I stuck my nose in the air. ‘They understand me!’

Apparently, they did. One large bird answered my call exactly – using all my imperfections and intonations. They also mimic my call when they want to talk to me. It’s become a bit of a family joke now.

The magpies sing at several different times during the day. Predictably they sing at dawn and evening. They will warble lazily during the day and most annoyingly at around two in the afternoon on a summer’s day. Of course, there’s a special spot for that – just outside my bedroom window. And yes, I am fond of an afternoon nap in the summer, what with late nights and very early rising. They warble at night during the week of the full moon. This can be frustrating in summer with the combination of heat and moonlight and broken sleep.

They also get together in a large group, usually on the north side of my house where the laneway is. They gather a few times every year to sing and squawk with raised wings and hunched backs as if they are sorting out their differences in a magpie council.

writings from the patio – mid-spring

It’s late morning in early October, almost mid-way through spring, and I am sitting outside on the patio with a cup of tea and my laptop computer. Before I begin writing, I take the time to look about me. The sun is riding high in a blue sky. After a cold and very prolonged winter, the heat is building quickly. A shift of air brings a waft of coolness to the patio. Dragonflies are darting through the garden, their wings flashing in the sunshine.

I have two dogs, Chloe and Craig. As usual, Chloe is sleeping close by. She doesn’t like vehicles and eyes me suspiciously whenever I walk towards the car. She suffers from motion sickness, which is probably why she avoids moving as much as possible. Craig, my other dog, is hunting for little brown lizards in the sunny parts of the garden. There are bees, both European and native bees working busily on the flowers. There are also hover-flies who also seek nectar from the flowers. An occasional fly buzzes lazily by. In the background I can hear the chatter of parrots in the bush and in one of the large eucalyptus trees, a magpie is warbling softly.

The patio is partially enclosed by potted citrus trees and other plants, including flowers and bulbs and herbs; thyme, lemon thyme, oreganos, lavender, sage, mint and rosemary. Now that spring has finally arrived the patio has become my favourite place to write.

As I finish my tea and settle to the task of writing a light breeze a light breeze springs up; I watch the tops of the trees moving and then my gaze shifts. The long grasses, running now to seed are moving to and fro in slow, rolling waves. The perfumed ruffle of a breeze caresses my skin. It carries the scent of nemesia, the ornamental cherry Mt Fuji, and the warm, earthy scent of green grass; all redolent of spring.

Nemesia brings a burst of colour to the patio. Copyright J Bayliss 2015

Nemesia brings a burst of colour to the patio. Copyright J Bayliss 2015

The potted herbs are beginning to put forth new shoots but the mint which was well protected from frost damage throughout the long winter months is now bounding ahead. Each morning it appears to have grown two or three centimetres overnight. Now the warmer weather is here, the lush green shoots remind me of a simple potato salad made with chat potatoes and chopped mint.

Simple Potato Salad

12 new season chat potatoes or other potatoes of your choice.

Pinch of salt for seasoning the water

1 spring onion

1 tbsp good quantity egg mayonnaise

1 tbsp Greek yoghurt (light if you wish)

2 rashers of bacon or four short pieces if you don’t like bacon fat

3-4 sprigs of mint – chopped very fine.

I use home-grown mint, and usually only pick the tips. If the shoots are soft, take some of the mature leaves as well. It all depends on your own taste, but I don’t like course mint leaves.

Cut potatoes into the size you want. I favour larger pieces and I generally leave the skin on. Boil in salted water until they are cooked through; just when they lose that firmness but before soft and mushy. Stop the cooking process if necessary by putting them into cold water.

When the potatoes have cooled, add finely chopped spring onions, and chopped mint leaves. The common garden mint is spearmint. You can add crisped bacon pieces if you want to, I often do, but this recipe is for a simple potato salad. The emphasis is on the potatoes and the mint. I generally use a good quality egg mayonnaise with greek yoghurt or sour cream added. I experiment with dressings but I like a hint of mustard or lemon, so they are usually a given. You decide what the star of the dish is.

A riot of spearmint.

A riot of spearmint.

writings from the patio – journeys through landscape and life

Introduction:

Journeys occur in many different forms; the most important of course being that of life itself – our own, and the lives of our loved ones and friends.

Writing from the patio is an ongoing project of stories and memoir vignettes of significant journeys in my life, physical, emotional and psychological. They are entwined within a loose seasonal diary posts and musings of the garden, which has provided me with inspiration for learning, creating, healing and personal development. Along the way, I will also share poems, art, wisdom and, every now and then, a recipe.